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Designing for meaningful consequences in Unsighted

Road to the IGF: "All those people that survived to the end, they did it because you, the player, not the character, overcame challenges and became more skilled. We think that is a very powerful feeling, that catharsis."

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

Unsighted asks you to save yourself and your friends, but unfortunately, you're on a strict time limit. Without advance knowledge of what to do, you're going to lose some people along the way. However, you can go back and play through the game again, using what you've learned to find new shortcuts, tools, and secrets that you couldn't know before, hopefully letting you save everyone this time.

Game Developer spoke with Studio Pixel Punk, the developers behind the IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize nominee Unsighted, to learn more about designing an action game around meaningful choices, the appeal of creating a game where the player can't save everyone on the first try, and why it was so important to make the game accessible even if it meant breaking what is arguably the game's core mechanic.

Game Developer: Who are you, and what was your role in developing Unsighted

Fernanda Dias: I'm Fernanda Dias and I am a designer, programmer, writer, sound designer and composer for Unsighted.

Tiani Pixel: I’m Tiani Pixel. I'm a programmer, level designer, and pixel artist in Unsighted.

What's your background in making games?

Dias: Before Unsighted, I participated in some game jams, made some smaller unreleased projects, and I also have a Bachelor of Music degree. During my studies for it, I also worked on a couple of game related activities.

Pixel: I started very early on when I was a kid, playing around with RPG Maker. I was always more interested in creating games than playing them. Over time, I started learning more complex engines and programming languages, and it stopped being just a hobby. After some experience working with mobile games on other studios, I decided to create my own games.

How did you come up with the concept for Unsighted?

Pixel: We grew up playing games like Zelda and Metroid, and thus those are big inspirations for us. We love games like those and we wanted to try our hand at making something that is a little bit like them, but with our own spin on it, bringing many other ideas and iterating upon those formulas. We love when games have choices and that's also a main theme of Unsighted. We tried to make a game that gives a lot of freedom to players, but also has many consequences to those choices in a way that makes them feel meaningful.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Pixel: We used Unity as our engine, along with FMOD as an audio middleware. For sprite work, we used Adobe Photoshop and for music and sound effects, we used Ableton Live.

In Unsighted, it's highly unlikely that players can save everyone on the first try. What feelings did you want to draw out of the player by having a game where they can't save everyone? Where they can't save everyone, but they could have if they'd made better decisions?

Dias: There are two main feelings we were after with the way we designed those systems: sorrow and catharsis. We wanted most players to care about the game's characters and try their best to save them, but that is notably very hard to do without some amount of game knowledge. And that is the knowledge players will naturally acquire throughout their first run through the game, so at the the end of that run, we wanted a feeling of "I'm very sad that I let so many people die, but I'm so much better at the game now, and if I try again I'll have a much better chance to save everyone". 

And if they choose to play the game for a second run, on New Game+, New Game Extra, or just a fresh file, depending on their own confidence, they can finally feel the catharsis of "owning" the game—of going straight to the shortcuts, skipping massive parts of the game, and blowing up enemies with their refined strategies and better gear. 

And all those people that survived to the end, they did it because you, the player, not the character, overcame those challenges and became more skilled. We think that is a very powerful feeling, that catharsis, and as such, we wanted to bring it to our game and to its players. 

So many times in our lives we feel so helpless, and like there is nothing we can do, but not in Unsighted. In it there is always something you can do differently, or better, and it will reward you.

Pixel: On the gameplay side, this also adds to the idea of playing the game multiple times, which is something we focused a lot on in the level design, not just the story. Every area has multiple entrances, and there are multiple ways of dealing with obstacles (lava, water, rocks in the way, etc). Not all of this is clear for a player in a first run, but it’s cool to learn these things when you replay the game.

In a sense, the game was designed to be perceived as a “Zelda-like” (with more or less linear dungeons and progression) on a first playthrough, and a very open-ended Metroidvania once you start learning tricks on your next playthroughs (in which you realize that you can completely ignore the areas order/structure, find items in unusual places, etc.). Hopefully this can shed some light on the endless debates players have over the game’s genre [laughs].

What interested you about exploring meaningful consequences as a theme? The theme of doing your best with the little time you have?

Dias: As we said, we were mainly concerned with the power fantasy that, because your choices actually matter, some of those choices will bring real, tangible, visible good to the world.

Your world and its characters feature a compelling sci-fi design. Can you tell us about the process of capturing just the right look you wanted for this world and its characters?

Pixel: We have many inspirations in games we love, but also many that we have taken from movies, TV shows, books, and comics we love. The world of Unsighted is a mash of those, along with some real world inspirations too, especially within the characters.

We wanted to represent a wide range of body types, for example, which is something sometimes lacking in games. Especially action games, although hopefully things are somewhat getting better in that front. Our goal was to make some people that normally don't see themselves in video game characters relate to our characters. We feel that also makes the characters seem more alive, not being just the ones you see in sci-fi movies and triple-A games.

Despite the in-game timer being such a vital part of the game's themes, you made the option available for players to turn it off? What made you make that decision?

Dias: There are several reasons for the existence of Explorer Mode, and it is a vital part of our design. We have put much thought into it from very early on in development. One of the reasons, and the one that I think jumps to most people at first, is we know that the timer is a very much an anxiety-inducing mechanic, and as such we didn't want to exclude people from enjoying the game with a psychological barrier. And we have made the game to hold up and be the best experience possible if you play either with the timer enabled or disabled (or with the other Explorer Mode options turned on, such as the more forgiving combat, the greater stamina, or even the invincibility). 

But another very important part of that feature is the ability to learn the game in a lower-pressure environment. Our game is all about mastery, and it is very hard to achieve mastery if you're still stumbling on more basic elements, or if you're fighting with elements that won't help you achieve it in the moment. 

That is actually why it is called Explorer Mode; because it lets you explore the game, the world, the mechanics, the items, the weapons, and the characters on your own terms. So that if you want to learn and eventually master the game, it is easier to do so, even if you're a more experienced player. It lowers the barrier for entry to the game, but also encourages mastery, both of which are really aligned with everything the game is about.

Pixel: Adding to this, we also don’t believe there’s a “single way” to experience any game. A lot of people talk about “developer’s intention/vision” but we don’t think it should be a single, exclusionary thing. If a game can only be playable one way to be enjoyable, it’s probably not a good game. Our vision for Unsighted exists with or without this mechanic, and we believe that in any game, the player is also the author and has the ability to transform the experience. With or without accessibility options like these, the player will always have their own unique experience, and it’s futile for developers to try to force a single way to play the game.

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).

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