Making the stunningly-unique THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER

"My favorite parts of games involve exploration, so I wanted that to be the way the art gets delivered. Exploring is a lot like dreaming," says Taylor Swietanski, developer of THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER.

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

THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER, which was nominated for this year's Independent Games Festival's Excellence in Design and the Nuovo Award, takes the player to contemplative places, exploring a world of constant motion and vibrant color. 

Taylor Swietanski, the game's developer, spoke with Gamasutra about the dreams and moments that shaped the experience, the use of movement to make spaces feel alive, and having players find their own meanings from the empathic exploration.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER?

Hi! My name is Taylor Swietanski. I'm the mother of THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER (SBBR). I designed it, nurtured it with pretty shaders and music, and birthed it out back in November 2020.

For my background in games, I went the academic route, studying game design at Drexel University. My education was sort of preparing me for a role in AAA or a bigger indie studio, but that didn't necessarily feel right for me. I wanted to take a more deconstructivist approach to games - to try to break them down and make games that felt different - so I decided to venture out on my own post-grad. I started taking part-time jobs and doing contract work to stay afloat. That way, I could focus most of my attention on my own work.

I spent months working on shaders to develop my own art style, eventually refining a look that seemed ready for an actual production. I released my first solo game, caged bird don't fly caught in a wire sing like a good canary when called in 2019, and started working on THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER right after that.

How did you come up with the concept for THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER?

After I released caged bird, I just wanted to create a longer experience. When I design a game, I think less about what you "do", and more about the feeling of playing the game. I start with sort of an emotional beat sheet, laying out how I want the player to feel at each point in the experience, and then find gameplay that fits each of those moments.

From a design perspective, I knew that SBBR should be non-linear and provide essentially no explanation to the player, so the game's structure was built around that. There's a hub world that contains entrances to three skits, and when a skit is finished, you're thrown back into the hub. The cyclical design of this worked really well, because it gave a grounding element to players that might be missing from similar abstract experiences. After I had that structure in place it was all about creating emotions and locations.

The events are like a mixture of painful real-life experiences and dreams I've had, with each area representing the feelings or energies I have surrounding them. Alongside that, there are difficult experiences that people close to me have had, acting like a practice in empathy for me to feel what they're going through. I feel the message of the game is more optimistic, about breaking through bad cycles. I thought, ultimately, if I can be kind in viewing others' hard experiences, I can be kinder with myself.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Well, I'm pretty broke, so I almost exclusively use free software. SBBR was made in Unity, and I made all the 3D art inside of Unity using Probuilder. It almost feels like I'm playing Minecraft, because I model in playmode, walking around the space to see if it feels right, and then pray that I remember to save a prefab before I hit stop.

The shaders and color palette system I wrote does most of the heavy lifting after that. That process is pretty much the same, with me tweaking colors on the fly as I'm building a space. For things like textures and UI, I just used Photoshop. Since there's a lot of music and sound that needs to be interactive and synced up with the space, I used FMOD. This was the first time I'd personally used it on a project, and it was really fun experimenting with the ways code could drive sound.

I wrote all the music in LMMS, which I've been using for years since it's so straightforward and free. I used Audacity to edit recordings and sfx that are in the game, again, because it's free. I worked with what I had since the game had no budget, so the tools were pretty limited.

The visual style of the game makes its locales feel like they're in a constant, almost-alarming flux. What drew you to this style? How did it serve the themes you wanted to explore?

I think movement is an underrated part of visual design, especially in something interactive. In my experience, a lot of 3D spaces feel dead or sterile because they're built like dioramas. If you throw a bunch of realistic models into a space with no movement, it might be accurate or detailed, but it won't feel engaging or immersive. I think games have tried to remedy this with things like water shaders and wind simulations, but that's still strongly representational. I was inspired by games like 0°N 0°W, whose abstract art and use of movement showed me how a game can convey emotions that figurative art can't.

The visual style I used in SBBR let me focus on the ways color, texture, and movement could affect tone. I wanted it to have this very digital but very organic look, almost the way neon signs or old arcade cabinets feel? Movement was so important for adding that natural element. It can make things feel flowy, abrasive, hypnotic, rhythmic, ect., which breathes life into it.

The music, when taken with the visuals, is eerily calming. What drew you to this music style?

For me, I guess the music just fits the vibe of the game? They definitely share a lot of similarities in my eyes, like the visuals are repetitive in a loud way, and the music is repetitive in a quiet way. Together they felt surreal or trance-like, which I felt sets a space for the game to be reflective.

I wanted the game to feel purgatory-esque, like the Beetlejuice afterlife waiting room. I always enjoy how Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin move through spaces in that movie. Everything feels so quiet and creepy and surreal, but it's never that *scary*, which I think is similar to the atmosphere in SBBR. I also really like lo-fi emo music, and I think there are a lot of influences in that for the soundtrack. Honestly I don't know why the music is the way it is. I just know it fits how the spaces feel to me.

What appealed to you in creating this feeling of exploring and stumbling across striking places?

My favorite parts of games involve exploration, so I wanted that to be the way the art gets delivered. Exploring is a lot like dreaming, I guess. I don't always remember what a space looks when I wake up, but I remember how it felt to move through the space, and how I felt. The sense of discovery also feels like it fits the optimism of the game, like you just need to push past this and keep moving forward.

While stunning, these places are arguably ordinary rooms and roads like we would see every day. What were you hoping to evoke by infusing the mundane with so much visual energy?

Don't mundane things carry a lot of emotional energy for all of us? Especially when they're distilled down to their symbols, I think everyday objects and spaces have so many associations and memories attached to them. That gives everyone who plays the game something to connect to, so they can put a piece of themselves into the experience. Everyone gets to have their own meaning and interpretation of the game.

What do you want the player to feel as they explore your work? What emotions and questions do you hope to draw out of them?

I want players to feel reflective, for sure. In SBBR, there's a sense of grieving and anxiety that I hope players can identify with. Hopefully it fosters solidarity, to show you're not alone in whatever's going on in your life. And even if that's not what someone gets out of the game, I think they'll still come away with a surreal, visually-interesting experience. People should be able to get whatever they want out of it.

You start off the game on its store page with poetry, and I can't help but feel that there is a kind of wordless digital poetry to the meanings of THAT NIGHT, STEEPED BY BLOOD RIVER. What thoughts went into bringing a kind of digital poetry - capturing vast meanings and feelings with carefully crafted moments, words, and actions - with your work?

Making the game was a cathartic and emotionally laborious act for me, and it would feel in-authentic for me to use anything but poetry to portray it. I don't think the formula of "[Insert Game Name] is a first-person exploration action/adventure/whatever game set in [insert setting or aesthetic]" used on store pages to represent most games works here. Telling someone what a game is like is totally different from what a game tells you by playing it. I didn't want to set SBBR up for failure by saying it was something it wasn't.

There's poetry to the game because that's what it's like for me developing it. Like I'm sitting here, crafting visuals, writing songs, writing poetry and journaling, and it's all SUPER personal to me. Then all that gets mixed together in the game, because in my mind, they're all entwined. Using poetry also keeps the meaning ambiguous, and lets players have the experience they want to have. If I tell them what my games are about, it takes away from their interpretation and personal meaning. Some people have described the game as a horror game, which I don't know, does that say more about me or them?

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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