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Surviving a dying alien world in The Eternal Cylinder

Road to the IGF 2022: 'The Eternal Cylinder asks you to guide a herd of strange animals across a dying world, working together as a massive, crushing object slowly destroys their homeworld behind them.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

The Eternal Cylinder asks you to guide a herd of strange animals across a dying world, working together as a massive, crushing object slowly destroys their homeworld behind them. If players can get the creatures to work together and shape their abilities in helpful ways, they may stand a chance of finally getting out of this path of devastation.

Game Developer spoke with ACE Team co-founder Carlos Bordeu, who helped develop the IGF Excellence in Visual Art and Seumas McNally Grand Prize-nominated title. He talked about how the team chose the mutation abilities for their nomadic tribe of creatures and the gameplay challenge that solved, how surreal artwork helped shape their vision for the game, and how they designed their alien creatures to draw the player into their plight.

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What's your background in making games?

Carlos Bordeu (ACE Team co-founder and game director for The Eternal Cylinder): I started working on mods and total conversions in the 90s. With my brothers, we started working on a Batman-themed mod total conversion for Doom, and then moved on to other projects before actually attempting to make a full game of our own. Our first success came with Zeno Clash, the surreal first-person brawler that put ACE Team on the map.

How did you come up with the concept for The Eternal Cylinder?

Bordeu: For most of our titles, we have usually looked at a lot of surreal paintings of all sorts, and many of them usually play around a lot with giant "primitives" (3d shapes) that are either present in the image or are formed by other elements. Cubes, pyramids, cones, spheres... they are often seen in surrealism. You can see this sort of thing in paintings of Dali (the melting clocks posed on a giant cube, for example). 

When I thought about how a Cylinder would integrate into the visuals of a surreal landscape, I immediately had a "click" in my head, as the gameplay implications of what would happen if it started rolling were fascinating. That was the very beginning of how the idea was born.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Bordeu: The Eternal Cylinder was built with Unreal Engine 4. Our 3D Modeling software of preference continues to be 3D Studio Max.

the_eternal_cylinder_2.jpg

The Eternal Cylinder is filled with a massive array of alien creatures (most of which are trying to eat you). What thoughts went into creating so many different alien creatures?

Bordeu: I'd say we already had a lot of experience creating unique alien creatures in previous games (Zeno Clash 1 and 2), and for this title, we wanted to go wild with the designs of the creatures. 

A big part of the game's experience comes from suddenly seeing human things in a completely alien world. That had to be a moment of shock for players—our world had to be so obviously foreign that the inclusion of terrestrial elements would feel totally alien to an alien world. So, this required us to be very careful with our creature designs.

What challenges came from animating so many different, varied types of creatures? Came from giving them behaviors, attacks, etc.? How did you overcome them?

Bordeu: This was a massive challenge for the whole team. For the entire game, we had one dedicated programmer for the implementation of AI creatures, and considering the diversity of designs, this was a bit too much for one person. With all the variety of designs, we needed both our lead programmer and engine programmer to assist with some unique creature implementations. I think the programmers are wizards...The creatures alone required a ton of work. We used Skookum Script to help with this process.

I'm really proud, because if you look at the original design document, we only failed to implement two creatures. We managed to get all of the rest of them in the game. The art team deserves equal praise. They had to work on so many unorthodox creature designs.

The world is as varied and surprising as the creatures that inhabit it. What ideas go into creating a world that is varied, yet feels connected?

Bordeu: From the start, we knew we had to limit the game to four main biomes. The game is built on a "tile" system, which allows for the "blending" of different biomes once they are adjacent to each other. We knew we had to have distinct environments that had unique visuals and dangers, so choosing the proper types of environments was critical. 

Even though some may seem like obvious choices (a frozen land or a desert), we made sure that the visual component was very distinct from the equivalent biomes in our world. A good example is how the red, bridge-like structures of the frozen tundra set it apart from any other "snow world" you'd see in a video game.

the_eternal_cylinder_3.jpg

The Trebhums have a striking, playful, and vulnerable look to them. Can you tell us about the process that lead you to their current design? What did you want to evoke in the player from their design?

Bordeu: From the start, I wanted to make a game about cute and helpless little creatures born into a world that was dying—crushed by this monstrous cylinder. It was important for me that players would have a lot of empathy for their little alien avatars—that they would feel stressed about them being crushed (that is one of the reasons we allow players to name the Trebhum). So, it was essential to make them very lovable/adorable. 

If the player would have controlled some sort of "hero" (or strong character), I don't think the idea would have worked very well. The game is a sad story, but one filled with hope, and that is something that comes from putting players in the shoes of these vulnerable little creatures... which...don't really have shoes.

Banding together is key to surviving throughout The Eternal Cylinder. How did that affect the design of what the Trebhums could do? How did that affect what the player could do with them?

Bordeu: The theme of family is strong in the game. Mutations came as the essential way in which we would solve two main issues: (1) Progression and (2) Puzzle solving. We knew we couldn't make a game where the Trebhum crafted stuff that stayed (like making a base), as the design of the cylinder meant nothing could ever stay behind. This meant the Trebhum had to be a nomadic herd and that their character progression had to be something that they would get to keep with them. 

Given that they are little animals, we couldn't really allow them to craft equipment (like in a traditional survival game where you might craft pants or armor and take it with you). So, mutations were the design solution for this dilemma. This also allowed us to give players a long-term objective: To not only grow their family, but also to make it as diverse as possible.

Real-time world destruction can make for some surprising developments as players explore your world. What made you include this element? What do you feel it added to the experience?

Bordeu: This was likely one of the hardest technical challenges of the entire game. The fact a giant cylinder would be crushing everything meant we were forced to make everything destructible. 

I think it greatly adds to the believability of the fictional setting we are presenting. However, it is a bit sad that a lot of the destruction is often happening behind the player (as they run away from the Cylinder). But it is very rewarding to look back at the world being consumed once you get to a Trebhum tower and can admire all the destruction from a safe place.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

Game Developer and GDC are sibling organizations under Informa Tech.

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