Why Capy’s long-awaited adventure is going dark for a while longer
PC, Xbox One
As president of Capybara Games,
Nathan Vella has had his share of minor crises to manage. In February of this year, one hit rather closer to home. “My basement got destroyed in a flood,” he explains, matter-of-factly; several months on, it’s yet to be fixed. “We started peeling back the layers of how bad it was, and it got worse.” He seems remarkably calm about it, but then he currently has another delicate situation to deal with. “We always knew it was going to take us a while; we were just really poor at estimating how long it would take to get what we wanted done.” This time he’s talking about renovations of a different kind. Capy’s subterranean adventure Below had already suffered several delays when Vella confirmed at E3 that development was almost over, and the game was set for a late-summer launch. That’s no longer the case; we speak to him, finding ourselves in the unusual position of having played a build that has the poise and focus of a game nearing release, knowing that its creator is about to postpone it again.
Vella is, quite understandably, even more reluctant now to set a date and possibly miss another deadline. There is quite a lengthy explanation for why Below won’t be coming out for a little while yet, but it can be summed up fairly succinctly. “The whole reason why we’re delaying things is because…” Vella begins and then sighs. “We see what the game can be, and we don’t feel yet that it’s that.” In the 11 years since its debut release, he tells us, Capy has never launched a game that wasn’t up to the high standards it has set itself. Which isn’t to say that this is belowpar, by any means, but given the length of time it’s been in development, it would be a betrayal of everyone’s hard work not to take the opportunity to push it further. “It’s a hard choice to make,” he continues. “It’s not fun to sit down and say, ‘Fuck this thing that we’ve been working on for years, and that we’ve told people three different times was coming out at this time’. It makes us feel pretty shitty. But at the same time, all of us would rather eat those feelings and give everybody something that is actually worthwhile than hustle something out.”
Was that initial 2013 teaser too soon to reveal the game, given hindsight? “We definitely announced it too early,” Vella concedes. “We were very ambitious. There was something really rad there already, and we were very excited by it. And we really believed that we could get it done by the beginning of 2015. That was the original goal.” The thinking behind an early announcement was, in part, inspired by discussions around that time within the independent game community about the benefits of showing games early. Vlambeer was one developer to capitalise, opening up to its fanbase and allowing
Nuclear Throne to evolve in public. Yet after several hours probing Below’s depths, it’s clear such an approach would have been entirely incompatible here. This is a game that quite consciously withholds information, and gains much of its power from how little it’s prepared to give away. It presents an incomplete picture and invites the player to fill in the gaps by exploring. That has, in turn, informed the way Capy has talked about the game. “We were really interested in making a game where demos or trailers or screenshots are almost all teases,” Vella nods. “There is no purely informational piece of it that we’ve shown, because the game is really about seeing how far we can go without information being given to the player – or even to viewers.” The appeal of building a mystery around Below was influenced by Capy’s work on
Sword & Sworcery, its collaboration with Toronto artist Superbrothers and musician Jim Guthrie – whose tenebrous score adds much to Below’s unsettling ambience. “We took a lot of strength from that,” Vella says. “We never really told anybody what
Sworcery was about; we only let people play a little bit of a demo that was kind of different to the actual game.” Conversely, for a man who likes to talk about what his studio is up to, it’s evidently exasperating not to be able to say much more. “Below is the game that
“We definitely announced it too early. We believed we could get it done by 2015”
I can’t blabber about!” he laughs. “Because in a lot of ways it would ruin the work that the team has been doing.”
Writing about Below, then, requires you to tread almost as carefully as you have to when playing it. It begins with a tiny adventurer waking up next to a tethered boat on a grey, rainswept shore. We scale a cliff face and bear right, making our way up two flights of stone steps towards the island’s peak, where a rocky path leads towards an opening: tall, narrow, and impenetrably black. We stride into the darkness, taking our first steps on a journey that only ever leads downward.
We quickly locate three items that can be crafted into a torch, letting us dim our handheld lantern for a while. After a few failed experiments with other items we’ve foraged, a chiming note confirms another successful recipe: a bandage. We fill an empty water bottle and pick up a spear near the corpse of a fallen adventurer, descending into a larger room in which blurry red lights shift around in the darkness at the edges of the screen. Illuminated by the flickering light of the flaming torch in our right hand, these shapes form jagged and obviously deadly points, attached to shadowy creatures. The smallest slither towards you, pausing before lunging forward; larger ones scuttle away from your sword slashes. Others are larger still, advancing behind a protective claw and inviting you to raise your shield, or dodge back as they prepare to swipe.
Combat was, Vella says, one of the first pieces to slot into place. In terms of feel and rhythm, it lies somewhere between the topdown Zelda games and Dark Souls. To a point, you can mash the attack button to slash away at smaller opponents, and in the early game at least you’ll rarely be punished for doing so. But since the gems they spit out upon death will often be swept out of reach if you keep swinging, you’re encouraged to strike with greater care and precision.
Our two-handed spear proves more efficient in that respect, albeit less so when we aggro enough critters to end up surrounded. A hasty retreat sees us back up into a spike trap, and we’re sent all the way back to the fire we lit just inside the entrance. Next time we’ll have to head back into the gloom without the contents of our rucksack and, more crucially, our lantern. After all, once your torch burns out, there’s not much else to keep the darkness – and what lies within – at bay.
Light factors into exploration in a number of ways. It is involved in the creation of temporary checkpoints, which mean you’ve less far to travel upon death, though it comes at a cost that will have you weighing up its value. There is, too, a secret hub, not unlike Hunter’s Dream in Bloodborne, where items persist: you can store valuables you don’t want to risk losing as you head deeper, or help ensure the beginning of your next trip goes smoother by deliberately leaving behind a few of the basics. “Everything in the game is about building on a single life so that multiple lives can benefit from it,” Vella explains.
The idea of one life benefitting others is, we venture, reminiscent of Capy’s previous major release, Super Time Force. Vella suddenly sounds relieved. “I’m glad you noticed that,” he says. “That makes me feel awesome. Because those games couldn’t be farther apart, right? But they are both about thinking about death as [something other than] pure punishment. We’re not giving the middle finger to the player and saying, ‘You failed – get better’. It’s more like, ‘Use this temporary failure for long-term gain’.”
That’s the kind of motivation Below’s 13-strong team may well draw upon in the coming months. This latest setback is undoubtedly frustrating, both for Capy and for those hoping to be playing Below as the nights start to draw in. But it’s clearly a necessary evil, and will be to the game’s ultimate advantage. “When you’ve put so much of your time in,” Vella says, “and you’ve asked your employees to put so much of their time into something, you don’t want to put it out before you think it’s really there, because then what was the point of those last four or five years?”
The patience Capy is now asking of its players will surely serve them well when they finally get the opportunity to experience the engulfing embrace of Below’s inky depths.
Nathan Vella, president of Capybara Games
Your lantern produces light within a small radius, but its beam can be focused and manually aimed to reveal traps or enemies. It may even have an additional purpose…