Be­low

Why Capy’s long-awaited ad­ven­ture is go­ing dark for a while longer

EDGE - - GAMES -

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.

Devel­oper Pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Capy­bara Games Mi­crosoft Stu­dios PC, Xbox One Canada TBA

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…

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