Telling a great road trip tale without words in Far: Lone Sails

�The vehicle came first," says Far: Lone Sails creative lead Dan Schmocker in this in-depth chat about how the striking 2D game tells a story without words. "Everything else followed."

Far: Lone Sails is a game of curiosity and exploration. 

It's also a 2D game chiefly concerned with moving from the left side of the screen to the right, which means the Lone Sails devs had to get creative in order to spark the player's curiosity.

Released earlier this year by Okomotive, Far sets the player free in a dried-out world with a huge mechanical vehicle they can use to traverse it from left to right. To give players a sense of worlds to be explored and stories waiting to be told, Okomotive had to do what the best it could with what was available: the look and feel of the wastelands that players traverse.

“The unknown areas which lie ahead create a lot of curiosity for the player and with that the motivation to keep driving," says Okomotive creative lead Don Schmocker. "You can’t see much of what’s coming up. It’s like opening a wrapped present, and it was very important for us to build up excitement and to deliver a surprise without disappointing the player,”

Not that all exploration is outside of the vehicle on the drive, though. Like taking a road trip in a stranger’s car, a part of that sense of learning about a place comes within the ride itself.

Side-scrolling exploration

“There are two forms of exploration in Far: Lone Sails. One of them is the exploration of the world passing by in the background. The player can’t interact with it, but the environment gives hints as to what happened in the past. These hints have a certain continuity throughout the game," says Schmocker. "The other form of exploration is happening on the layer where the player is active. Due to the 2D restrictions the room for exploration is obviously limited and consists mainly of driving to the right and finding out what’s ahead of you,”

"[Exploring the unknown is] like opening a wrapped present, and it was very important for us to build up excitement and to deliver a surprise without disappointing the player."

Left to right movement in a 2D world doesn’t leave as many places to wander as a 3D plane might. There’s no nooks and crannies to hide things in, and no ability to turn the screen and find yourself looking at some mysterious structure in the distance. That doesn’t mean you still can’t hint at that intriguing place, though, using a distant background to project where the player will go next.

“What certainly helps is that some objects in the background are visible from a great distance. It takes a while to see them fully and from different angles, while driving forward," adds Schmocker. "It was important to reward the player with information and a beautiful or impressive view, which most of the time will be announced before the player gets there. For example, you see a billboard with the picture of a village and some moments later you drive and progress through this village,”

Here, Okomotive turned the weak point of a strict left-to-right 2D plane into a strength: rather than just hope players discover things that are narratively important or interesting, Schmocker could precisely time when these discoveries would appear because he knew exactly when the player would reach them.

“You have greater control over the general composition of the visible area and the timing of certain objects appearing,” says Schmocker. “With this, it’s easier to create emotional moments for the player.”

And so, despite not having much (or really any) spoken dialogue or written narrative, Lone Sails is capable of conveying a very specific story with narrative arcs by guiding players past something as weighty as a broken-down city or as seemingly innocuous as a road sign that teases a future location. The player sees it at the exact moment the developer wants them to, which means Okomotive could carefully tweak the resonance of a moment rather than leave it in to be stumbled across it at some point of the player’s accidental choosing.

“We use a few methods to create these leads," Schmocker continues. "Usually there is a notable transition from one area to another, like an increasing amount of houses to announce a settlement. Another tool was the use of pipelines, railways and roads. It’s intuitive to expect that they are leading somewhere [important] and in the game they do in all cases. Designing a linear hand-crafted experience like Far has the inherent advantage of rarely having to use the same hints twice. So, the chances of the player learning what to expect are slim."

A key, if easily overlooked, element of Lone Sails' environmental storytelling is its dynamic camera system, which is yoked to the main character.

“In comparison to similar games like Inside, Far: Lone Sails has a dynamic camera distance. This distance depends on the speed of the vehicle, whether the character is inside or outside the vehicle, and how far apart from the vehicle the character is,” says Schmocker. “We wanted to have the character, the vehicle, and all the interactive objects, on the same visual layer. That means, everything on that layer had to be traversable, movable or destructible. Every building had to be built with enough room for the giant vehicle to pass through or small enough to destroy it.

"However, this perspective made it more difficult to see what’s further ahead on the road," Schmocker adds. "To solve this, the camera zooms out and moves slightly to the right when you are driving."

This change in perspective also seems to flow from that road trip mentality – the moment when something so captivating causes you to stop the car and look at some striking vista or oddity alongside the road.

The two perspectives, which are useful from a play perspective in order to keep the player from having too limited or too broad a viewpoint between the huge vehicle and their tiny avatar, also lets players take further or closer looks based on where they’re standing. It also encourages the player to ‘pull over’ and take a look at something, to stop moving as well as see it from a different, closer perspective.

Not that this didn’t result in some troubles to be worked out, as players can hop in and out of the vehicle at any time, forcing a bit of extra work on Okomotive's part to make all viewpoints viable at all times.

“This creates some very nice compositions and helps the player to navigate the game world, but at the same time it reduces the control over the viewport," says Schmocker. "As a consequence, we had to design every area with both minimum and maximum camera distance in mind."

Vehicle exploration

Another key part of evoking Lone Sails' atmosphere of exploration and curiosity is the strange, almost Goldberg-ian machine that players must learn to pilot and maintain if they want to survive.

"The vehicle came first and everything else followed."

“We wanted to let the player discover and explore a functioning vehicle without them knowing how it works beforehand,” says Schmocker.

The huge vehicle players drive throughout Far: Lone Sails is a complex machine, with many odd mechanisms required to keep it moving -- mechanisms which were challenging for Schmocker to design in a way players could master over time.

“It was very risky to have something potentially overwhelming so early in the game and it was a long road to balance the difficulty,” says Schmocker. “We play-tested it a lot from very early on and went through many iterations to make the mechanics more self-explanatory. Also, having the vehicle gradually expand its functionality over the course of the game certainly helped in making it not too overwhelming right from the start.”

Thus, both the outside world and the inner workings of the vehicle give players room to explore and learn. To keep their landship moving forward, Lone Sails players have to explore its guts and play around with them, finding marvels in their own forward motion. To this end, Okomotive tweaked the vehicle’s design to draw the eye, or hint at some functionality the player might not immediately expect. 

“The player has to figure out how to refuel and start the engine," says Schmocker, who previously told Gamasutra that Okomotive almost didn't put any written words in the game's world, but eventually posted some written signs near gauges for things like speed and fuel for players' benefit. 

"But there are additional functions and mechanics that are accessible from the start, like using the steam boost, a water hose or a winch," he continues. "Therefore, it was important to communicate clearly which objects and buttons the player can interact with and to show the effect of each action. We also used the crates to guide the player. The visual design of the vehicle and the decoration also contain some small hints about the world and the past of the character."

This ties the vehicle into the game’s narrative and world, which connects exploring it to exploring the world outside of it as well. It makes the most of its limited viewpoint by wasting nothing, including the mechanics of motion.

“The journey and narrative were important to give the mechanics more meaning, but it works both ways. From the start, the driving mechanic of the vehicle was the core mechanic of the game. We wanted to create a flowing loop with room for the player to find their own style of driving – be it fast, fuel-efficient or more relaxed – but also create situations where the player is potentially forced to change it up a bit,” says Schmocker.

“While it seems like a lot to handle at first, there really isn’t that much to it to make the wheels turn. Some would even argue there’s not enough going on. But that would be a different game. The idea was that the world around the vehicle would motivate the player to figure out how to get going, to keep driving onwards and on this journey form a bond with their sometimes bullheaded but ultimately reliable wheeled companion,” he continues.

This level of vehicular complexity was part of what necessitated the viewpoint shifts and 2D view to begin with, as well. “The player spends most of their time in the vehicle. The character movement had to be fast and simple to navigate efficiently inside the vehicle,” says Schmocker. “This was one reason to choose 2D instead of 3D.”

This worked well with the distant view that Schmocker sought to use for his visual narrative, using the elements previously discussed to make the player curious through perspective. “Another reason was the screen composition I wanted to achieve from the very beginning of the development: the vehicle in the center and a wide open space to watch the background. Later on, this open space was important to create the environmental storytelling for the game,” says Schmocker.

Players are free to discover what will make their vehicle move forward, again allowing for a kind of mechanic exploration within the ship alongside the regular curiosity about how to make it move. Within its visual design, players can also see hints of the game’s story and the world’s history as well. How they move is as much a part of building curiosity as the world outside and what they see within it. It all connects, building up a game where exploration infuses every aspect, hiding narrative secrets and interesting elements everywhere, making so much of the 2D space.

“The vehicle came first and everything else followed. The setting of the dried-out sea was chosen to enable a more or less flat surface with room for surprises and fantastic scenery. The industrial feel of the buildings and structures create a connection to the mechanical parts of the vehicle. This makes it easier for the player to understand the mechanics of the obstacles throughout the game’s world.” says Schmocker.

“The vehicle embodies much of how this world changed before the beginning of the game and how its inhabitants tried to adapt to that change. This can be seen through the many different vehicle versions scattered across the landscape and also the numerous hints towards their creators. The player vehicle represents the last desperate attempt to cope with the changing environment,” he continues.

It all connects. An interesting thing seen in the distance. The varying viewpoints based on the player being in or out of the vehicle. The giant machine itself. They all come together to draw up an interest in the world – a sense of curiosity that keeps drawing the player deeper into the story, making their own discoveries about play and narrative within a 2D world.

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