This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Nothing in Sight is an exploration of the crushing mental cost that came from trench warfare during WWI, asking players to care for the well-being of four French soldiers in Ypres.
The team behind this IGF 2020 Best Student Game Award-nominated title sat down with Gamasutra to talk about the reasons they wanted to explore this moment in history, their desire to tell a more truthful and realistic side to warfare, and the research they did to truly capture the horrors these soldiers had to face.
Nothing in Sight (NiS) is our graduation project for Supinfogame Rubika, a French Game Dev school. The project first came from the mind of Thibault, and the team was then formed over the span of six months to finally reach seven members.
Thibault Moitel, Lead & Enviro/Tech Artist: Hello everyone, I came up with the initial concept of the game. During the production, I worked as lead artist, making sure that everyone on the art team was working in the same direction, but also as Environment and Technical artist. During my studies at Rubika, I had the chance to work in several countries, such as Singapore to do a trimester at NYP. Just before the beginning of the production of NiS, I had an internship at Larian Studios working on Baldur’s Gate 3. To validate the diploma, my last internship was at Ubisoft Bordeaux as a Technical Artist Assistant on Beyond Good and Evil
2. I am currently looking for new opportunities.
Guillaume Faguet, Producer, Game & Narrative Designer: Hey! I was in charge of Nothing in Sight’s production, taking part in the whole design process, and was also in charge of the game’s narrative direction. I worked a lot on historical research and character writing to create something credible for players. I had the opportunity to work at Ubisoft Montpellier for 6 months on a triple-A game, and I am also currently looking for opportunities.
Lucas Devillers, Technical Game Designer: I worked mainly on the game, system, and narrative designs, and was responsible for the game’s balancing. In addition to this work, I also maintained the internal documentation we wrote for the project (a wiki-like structure) and helped the developers here and there when needed. I currently occupy a Game and Level Designer position at Eko Softwares, in Paris.
Clémence Descharles, UI Artist: I was responsible for the whole game interface (on which we started working very early) from prototypes to final art. I also took part in most of the UX Design, as the game relies on its interface for every interaction. Now, I am in Barcelona working at King as Junior UI artist on casual mobile games.
Eric Escher, Shader & Gameplay Programmer: Hi! I am one of the programmers behind Nothing in Sight. I also helped the design teams for some management elements of the game and prototyped them. I focused heavily on the feedback of the game.
Félix Pinchon, Tools & Gameplay Programmer: Hi y’all! I was programming the game along with Eric. I was more focused on the main systems (character movement, tasks, camera, daily schedules), and also developed some really useful tools so our designers could quickly iterate on the content of the game. I’m currently working on AAA titles at Virtuos in Paris.
Aditya Joy, 3D Generalist: I was working on a lot of the environment props and helped with the characters in the game as well as setting the overall visual mood of the game. I am currently working at Ubisoft in India.
Outside the core team, Christophe Lie Gosset, a good friend of ours, is the artist behind our characters’ portraits, and Hector Bonte is the soundtrack composer. Several people also helped us with the writing and other aspects of the game.
Moitel: During high school, with 2 friends, we used one of our lessons to make games instead of the classic IT program. I was responsible for the pixel art of the games (it was bad) and it was a lot of fun! After this first interaction with the creation of video games, I decided to make it my job!
Faguet: I started very young with pen-and-paper role-playing games I wrote and played with my father. I also loved creating maps and content for sandbox games or map editors (like Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires). I discovered game engines after high school and had a lot of fun at Rubika making lots of games with friends. Oh, also: I love game jams!
Devillers: I started to tinker with game-making in secondary school taking part in a LARP association. We conceived live-action games for diverse events and held game-oriented conventions. I mostly come from a board game/rpg creation background.
Descharles: As long as I can remember, I have always loved art in general and I was also an avid player. The idea to be creating those worlds I enjoyed so much grew inside of me each year. I decided to enter Supinfogame Rubika, and that’s where I discovered that I really enjoyed making the UI for the games I worked on, which is now my field of work.
Escher: I discovered video game creation in a summer camp when I was 13. I spent a lot of time learning RPG Maker; it really was the time I knew I wanted to pursue a career in video game dev. After high school, I studied IT and programming, and finally video game programming at Rubika.
Joy: I participated in a few game jams at college which ranged from pixel art games to shop management games. In October, I moved to France during the past few months to work with the team on our graduation project.
Realistic warfare and soldiers
Moitel: The first concept of Nothing is Sight was called Sous le Cagna and was inspired by two animated short films from Les Gobelins (a French animation school): Coil and Hors Champ. The idea was to create a game that did not glorify the people involved in the war. In the trenches, the soldiers did not think of themselves as heroes, but as cannon fodder.
We wanted to deviate from the common narrative scheme involving a unique super-soldier accomplishing incredible feats throughout his journey into the war. We thought it would also be interesting to avoid the usual representation of war itself in video games. We wanted to talk about it without directly showing the battles - the patriotic demonstrations of power and the unrealistic bravery of all these soldiers running to their deaths in No Man’s Land.
At some point, there was also the idea that the player was an element in the chain of command. We wanted them to take important decisions regarding the soldiers below them while receiving strict orders from above. As more people joined the team, the design slowly drifted toward a more narrative-focused experience. We decided to drop the “sergeant inside the trench” mechanic to allow the player to explore the narrative of each soldier by themselves. We also gave the characters more space by reducing their numbers several times during development (from seven soldiers down to four).
Important tool choices
Moitel: When we began to work on Nothing in Sight, we weren’t exactly sure of what would come out. We first decided to use Unity Engine as we found it easier to prototype on and to modify to suit our needs compared to UE4 (the second choice offered by our school). It was also an engine our developers and designers were familiar with, allowing us to quickly get to work.
Our dev team crafted us several custom tools we used for the level design. Git was the VCS we chose for its speed and ease of use (almost all the team members knew the basics). It was important for us to be able to work fast as the game was a graduation project. We were given 9 months with consistent and strict deadlines to achieve our vision. Art wise, Houdini was used during development to quickly create the terrain and iterate easily on the level design.
We followed a standard modeling pipeline using 3DS Max, Substance Suite and sometimes Marvelous Designer. The UI and UX were drafted with Adobe XD to be able to test them before we could run the game and then created with Illustrator and Photoshop. Video editing was done via Adobe Premiere & After Effects, sound design via Audacity & FL Studio, and music with Ableton. The project management was monitored with Jira and custom Excel spreadsheets which allowed us to learn the software for our soon-to-come internships.
Bringing the mental health of WWI soldiers to light
The main idea was to take the opposite view to the usual War-oriented games and follow the footsteps of indie titles like This War of Mine and Frostpunk (both from 11 Bit Studios ). We also quickly stated that our game would not involve battles. The reason behind this is that we thought including war action would immediately put the player in a state of mind detrimental to our message. This isn’t a “war game”. The player isn’t there to fight, even less to win. The soldiers just want to survive.
Moreover, the first concept came to life the centenary year of the end of WWI. Thibault wanted to bring testimonies from this war back to life as the living conditions of soldiers in a trench are still largely unknown today. It was also an interesting way to bring the mental health of these soldiers to light - especially what they feared and worried about. After those foundations had been placed, we started researching everything we could find on the “Poilus” (nickname of French infantry during WW1), the soldiers who lived in trenches during WWI. And the more we found, the more we wanted to show in the game.
We spent nearly two months doing research on what life was like in the trenches. Most of it was on the web, watching documentaries, reading scans of old newspapers, diaries, mail…We also looked at what we could find in our families. As most of the group is from France, we all had ancestors taking part in the conflict (great grandfather, great-great-grandfather) and their belongings were usually well kept. We were lucky that Guillaume still had one of his great-great grandfather’s diaries and military papers in pretty good shape.
Those first-hand testimonies were the best source of information, as nearly all newspapers and mail were hit by the censure during the war. What we mostly sought were small anecdotes that most of the history classes don’t cover.
As for some of our findings, did you know that soldiers were sometimes pushed into suicidal scouting missions by superiors? Indeed, soldiers were asked to find specific information on the enemy in exchange for some days on leave or raise in their pay. Most of the soldiers who accepted that kind of mission would take off for the opposite line at night in secret. They wanted to prevent other soldiers from achieving the mission before them and getting the reward in their place. As a consequence, a lot of soldiers who managed to go to the opposite trench were shot to death by their comrades when coming back during the night, thinking the enemy was invading.
Tying management & narrative together
We wanted to try to make a management game with a strong narrative component. As we progressed toward this goal, it quickly became obvious that our characters would serve the game both as a medium for the story and as the main resource in the management mechanics. It was a real headache for us to balance those two aspects of the game without favoring one in detriment of the other. We also wanted to make the soldiers a central piece in the game, so each mechanic had to interact in a way with them.
For each feature, we started to evaluate which aspect of the game (management or narration) was pushing forward, and then tried to modify this feature with an element from the other aspect. For example, we started with a management mechanic that allowed the player to give small buffs to individual soldiers to allow them to preserve those they preferred. We then tried to tie this mechanic to a more narrative element and it became the newspaper system. Each soldier has its own preferences regarding news and his political views. The player must take time to learn them and be able to find which headline will be preferred by each soldier.
Other mechanics were created purely for historical and mood reasons. For example, the one allowing the player to read and choose to give or toss the mail of each soldier came from the desire to include censorship into the game.
Capturing trench warfare
We wanted our game to show how harsh life inside the trenches was, and how this life affected the mentality of the soldiers. The main aspects that made surviving in the trenches hard were the food rationing, the weather, the vermin, and the constant anxiety induced by the possibility of shelling and attacks at every hour of night and day. All these elements gave the soldier an enormous amount of stress daily, which some could not take.
The lack of clean water, of ways to clean themselves, to take a break, etc. were also factors that lead soldiers to madness, depression, and anxiety attacks. What we decided to show in our game in particular was the struggle to get food daily without getting shot in the process, the randomness with which soldiers were killed (not necessarily by bombs and bullets), and the constant work that had to be done to maintain a trench in a suitable state for survival.
Making believable soldiers
Creating interesting characters for the game was one of the most challenging tasks we had to go through. We were helped by other students from our school who were given character sheets (just like the D&D ones) to write small character briefs. This helped us pick four different characters: the cynical father figure (Milo), the impetuous young aristocrat (Sylvain), the naive innocent (Léon), and the big moustache guy (Francis). Those four were the ones we thought would give us the most interesting interactions.
To make the player feel for the characters, we use several means: dialogues, notifications, letters, and quests. Each of these mechanics appeals to different kinds of players, from the least to the most implicated in the narrative aspect of the game.
The character not feeling “alive” was a recurrent constructive criticism we received during the production and was an aspect of the game we really took the time to think about and tried different solutions (such as random attributes in each game, or more frequent dialogues). One of the solutions we applied to these characters is the fact that they are balanced. They each have qualities and flaws which make them credible. Another one was to convey gameplay information through the soldiers’ exclamations.
Creating curiosity for history through games
We showcased this game at our jury and during several indie events in Paris. We had the chance to look at professionals' and players' reactions live while they were playing the game. The game is also available for free online, so we received feedback that way. We got a lot of comments about people “wanting to know more” or that they “learned something” while playing the game. It was one of the best things we could hear from someone who actually played the game.
Obviously, video games have drawn inspiration from history for a long time, but the saturation of the market makes players turn to more alternative ways to learn about these famous periods. The serious game versus standard game opposition is no longer relevant. Dark points in history have always been extremely fascinating. Games taking place during such events really force the player to think about how they would react in this situation, and how other humans have actually experienced these situations in real life.