This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
A few minutes isn't a lot of time to accept and come to terms with your imminent demise, but that's all Orchids to Dusk gives you. An alien has crash landed on an unknown planet with a limited air supply, and all you can do is wander, or sit, or just take in the sights. Made by Pol Clarissou with help from KO_OP, it's as much about the mystery of the experience as the brevity of it.
Nominated for both the Nouvo award and the Best Student prize at this year's IGF, Orchids to Dusk has been a critical success for Clarissou, who is still at a university studying game development. It's currently available through itch.io on a pay what you want model on PC.
With the IGF awards just around the corner, Gamasutra caught up with Clarissou to find out how Orchids to Dusk came to be, and what his intent was in developing the game.
What's your background making games?
I'm currently in a game development school - it's my 5th (and last) year, so it's been a while. I actually started making games in high school after a friend of mine taught me to program, at the time in Flash AS2. She was in the same school as I am right now, and had me participate in some projects she worked on, which sparked my own interest for games at a time where I only did drawings, comics and animation. Over time though, I've grown less and less interested in graphics and more in interaction and "design" - whatever that means.
My school's training is really shallow, so I didn't specialize in a role or develop technical skills - but instead I try to play around with the tools at hand and learn them on the fly, embracing their quirks and potential on the way rather than learning them the industry's way. I'm interested in exploring game development tools as a medium and a substrate for creative experiments, so I don't really care about mastership for its own sake.
What development tools did you use to build Orchids to Dusk?
The game was made in Unity, with some procedural generation involved for creating forests.
How much time was spent working on the game?
It took four months of full time work in Montréal with KO_OP, then an additional three months of polish and fixes on my free time (when I was back to school).
How did you come up with the concept?
I've been thinking about action (and lack thereof) in games for a while now. It was already a thing I'd explored a year ago in Even the Stars, another of my games.
I've been thinking about how most games try to give the player stuff to do to at all times, how you get told that it is a bad thing if the player waits or doesn't know what to do -- which can definitely be bad for the game! But like all things, it has its own value and can be explored in the right context.
Another thing I wanted to challenge was the player's status within the game. Where a lot of games give as much agency as possible to the player and build the game around them, I wanted to make something where your interaction with the game wasn't one where everything revolves around you. My thinking about these matters was heavily influenced by Merritt Kopas' Soft Chambers.
Orchids to Dusk is basically about learning to accept that you can't do/see everything, that you can enjoy idleness and contemplation in what's already there. You can adopt a contemplative/passive stance on the world around you rather than spend your time trying to get it all/be the best/reach 100% completion.
There's also something to say about respect, about observing the boundaries of a world you just stepped in as a stranger. You can sit and watch, be careful not to hurt anything, and connect with that world in a somewhat intimate way, and that's more meaningful than butchering your way through it without taking the time to appreciate it nor letting it leave its imprint on you.
In a lot of games your goal is to make your way through the environment untouched and unmarked, all the while forcing your own presence on it. There is no dialogue, no space for reflection or transformation, and I wanted to challenge that.
The multiplayer component emphasizes the whole thing: you can't actually interact with other players in a way that implies skill or power, but you can silently take part in the environment and create new places for other people to see. Besides, the game being online and persistent makes it reach beyond the self-contained space of a standalone game. The experience is not limited to a program that runs on a singular computer and exists only within that span, instead it lives on its own and lets players visit it. Maybe I'm being corny here, but I feel like it's important in that it changes the nature and structure of the game as an entity, and not just its rules?
What were the advantages and disadvantages of opting for time based restriction on player movement rather than physical or geographical limitations?
The time restriction was necessary to convey the game's intent. Orchids to Dusk is a game about accepting that you are not all-powerful, that you can't see everything. And it's about knowing to appreciate the moment rather than the perspective of an achievement.
The time limit sets a kind of 'bad ending' to the game where, having refused to accept your fate on the planet, you die in a quite anticlimatic way that has no impact (neither for yourself nor for others). A nice side-effect of this is that movement in the game, which can be tedious, becomes an important part of the experience: you might want to go check out that thing far away, but you have to move all the way there, and only have a limited amount of oxygen...
In a lot of games, I feel like movement is treated as a convention and does not partake to the experience. It is neither interesting in itself nor interlaced with the rest of the game in a meaningful way. Here though, it becomes an important part of the experience. There is also a stress meter in the game that goes red when you walk, which emphasizes the main point of the game - an opposition between movement and idleness, being active or being passive.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I've had a hard time keeping up with games recently, so haven't played any of this year's IGF games for more than a few minutes. Since I've spent the summer working on Orchids to Dusk at the KO_OP office, I'm quite excited about GNOG. Otherwise, I haven't found the time to play Panoramical nor Her Story yet, but they're both at the top of my to-play list, because it really feels like they approach games as a medium in a unique way.
Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.