Road to the IGF: Tobias Zarges' Close

IGF finalist Tobias Zarges talks about opportunities for introspection in his game Close, as well as what draws the player into open places filled with moments of quiet thought.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Close casts the player out into the snowy wilderness. A fox is also out there on its own journey. The player can choose to follow the fox, or set out on their own travels through the shining white woods, possibly meeting the fox by accident or never seeing it again.

Tobias Zarges sought to capture a sense of the player creating their own narratives within the game's world - to be themselves in a space that let them experiment with thoughts and deeds. It's about being alone, but also having someone to travel with. Someone you affect and are affected by, whether you wish to be or not.

This freedom to tell the player's story - to let the player be themselves in a whole new world - intrigued Zarges, who sought to capture that special aspect of games that made them stand out from all other mediums. His work with Close earned him a nomination for the Nuovo Award from the Independent Games Festival.

Gamasutra reached out to Zarges to talk about what brought him to create this world and its opportunities for introspection, as well as what draws the player into these open places filled with moments of quiet thought.

What‘s your background in making games?

The two of us don‘t actually have a particular background in making games. Moritz Eberl is a software developer and I‘m a visual artist and musician. Moritz has always been interested in programming a game with a rather sophisticated mechanic. 

I created several other small games before and with Close, I wanted to explore how a game can express something other art forms can not.

How did you come up with the concept? 

It’s a very personal project with a long history. It’s actually based on a story I wrote about a lone character exploring a forest and meeting a fox. They are connected in a mysterious way, but they don’t know how - it’s what they have to find out. 

This was the basis of my first game design ideas and the narrative. From the beginning, Close was about exploring and experimenting with what makes a game unique in means of expression. So, the music, the visuals, the texts, and the gameplay all blend into one another to create an audiovisual experience. 

After three years of initial concepting and designing, Moritz joined the project. We share a common interest in what is possible with the medium of games. Since then, this has been an interesting collaboration. With his insights and ideas about AI development and game design, the concept went in a great direction. 

What development tools were used to build your game?

A lot of notebooks and pencils, a field recorder and a sampler for the score, Unity3d, extensive walks through nature, and a lot of trial and error. The AI of the fox is based on the Linked Data Library Trinity.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

It's hard to put a finger on a starting point. The projects i’m working on tend to merge into another. The initial story is from 2011. In 2012, I started sketching out game design ideas. From 2014 on, Moritz and I worked together on the prototype. 

The process was rather slow, though, because it‘s only the two of us and we both had to learn a bunch of new things. Moritz had to learn AI development and Unity3D, and I, for the first time, got into modeling, animation, and programming. Also, our jobs and other projects often kept us from working on it regularly. I’m amazed how far we‘ve gotten together.

What emotions did you wish to explore with your journey about following a fox? What did you want players to feel while playing Close?

Close is about the complexity of a relationship. It‘s about the other one, but it‘s also about yourself. It‘s about the limits of communication and mutual understanding. About shared experiences and collective memory. About being affected by someone else and affecting someone even if you don‘t want to. It‘s about the self and the other and the fleetingness of everything. It‘s tragic, romantic and very personal.

What thoughts went into creating the world of Close? In creating the place the player can explore on their own, or follow the fox through?

Close is breaking up the classic structure of a game. The fox is playing the game by itself. As a player, you can be a part of his journey, but you don’t need to. You are no longer the protagonist, so you‘re free to explore the world as you please. You don’t have to achieve anything particular - there‘s no winning or losing. This freedom is important because with it the players become authors. They create their own experience. 

A world this open gives the player a lot of time for introspection, both upon themselves in the world and of our work. What did you want the player to think upon as they wandered this vast world? As they follow an animal through the wilderness? 

If you think of players as authors, they should be able create their own narrative and make sense of it while playing. They have to match up their own feelings and wishes in relation to the game. And that‘s the quest of the game, because what the game wants from the player and what the player wants from the game is a different thing. 

Close is offering a space to reflect and interpret different themes and motives. Players have to explore the game on their own to find out what it is about and what role they are playing. It‘s a different kind of quest. It‘s not about solving a quest, but about playing the game and finding out what the quest is.

Why do we seek to explore in game worlds? What draws players into the vast, snowy world of a game like Close

It‘s about the exploration itself. You enter an unknown place with a new atmosphere and mood, that exists on its own, and you can explore this game world and you can explore yourself. That’s important and different to any other medium. You can explore this world as yourself. You can act like you always do and you can act like you would never do and the game world reflect your actions. In other media you may watch someone else, but never be someone else. With games, you can explore and experiment with yourself. But when we enter a game world, we also enter a relationship. We overcome loneliness. We begin to care for the game itself. 

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you‘ve particularly enjoyed?

I don’t get to play many games recently. I tried do play more during development, but sadly no, I haven’t played any of the other finalists yet. I’m looking forward to do so though!

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today? 

To not let the market influence you.

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