PC, PS4, Xbox One
Good game design is often more about subtraction than addition. The accessibility of modern creative tools has allowed artists the opportunity to realise their visions more fully than ever before. But while the removal of technological barriers is obviously a net positive, there’s much to be said for imposing boundaries. In its early stages of development, Lost Ember had environmental puzzles and rudimentary combat systems. But Mooneye Studios quickly realised these more conventional ideas were unnecessary. “We all played Journey and really loved the relaxing and atmospheric gameplay, and we were trying to do something similar,” the studio’s CEO and programmer,
Tobias Graff, explains. “When we played games like that – or, more recently, Firewatch – we reduced these classical elements because we felt they were standing in the way of what we were trying to do.”
It’s not as if the developer didn’t already have plenty on its plate. The alpha build of
Lost Ember we play naturally has a few rough edges, but the startling ambition of its creator is abundantly clear. At first, we’re funnelled down a winding, enclosed pathway, but after a minute or two we emerge into a huge open field, with tall grass and swaying flowers that all but demand you run through them. We squeeze the right trigger and our vulpine protagonist breaks into a gallop. There’s no chance of getting lost here – an echoing howl summons a spirit guide to show you the way forward, but there’s only one narrow exit in the distance – yet it captures a similar sensation of freedom to first stepping out of the sewers in Bethesda’s Oblivion, and something of the sweeping majesty of Gaur Plain in Xenoblade Chronicles.
Herein lies one of the tensions at the heart of Lost Ember. It’s a game designed to tell a linear story while offering room to explore the world – and from multiple perspectives, at that. Soon after we’re done romping around in the grass, we head onwards, only to find an obstacle the wolf can’t pass. A company of inquisitive moles sits nearby, and we find ourselves possessing one of them, the camera descending to a rather unflattering view of its hind quarters as it ambles forward before tunnelling beneath the obstruction. Later, we reach a cliff with an overhanging branch, upon which a group of parrots sits. A brief but exhilarating flight follows, as we plunge into a canyon amid the rest of our feathered kin.
How, we wonder, do you construct a world that needs to accommodate these very different creatures with their distinct methods of locomotion? “We build the rough environments first and then we add the animals,” Graff tells us. “You can’t always plan how it feels to fly through the environments with the parrot, for example, so we have to keep testing it. Because you’re so fast with the bird, you often have to adjust the environment itself. So maybe you make a canyon a little longer or something, but it still has to be playable as a mole who’s really small and slow. It’s definitely a lot of work!”
There is, it turns out, another piece of design trickery involved. You can only stray a certain distance from animals of the same type, and you’ll automatically revert back to the wolf when that happens. We discover this when we diverge from the assumed flight path and find ourselves plummeting earthward – albeit only after repeatedly ignoring an onscreen warning. To a point, freedom is illusory, then, though Graff insists you’ll still be able to wander off and find secret areas and side stories that aren’t part of the main narrative and navigate areas in multiple forms.
Incredibly, all of this is the work of just a handful of people. “There are five of us here in Hamburg and then two audio guys in Scotland, so seven in total,” Graff says. But even after more than doubling its crowdfunding targets, the studio’s plans haven’t changed. “We don’t want to blow everything up and then not be able to actually finish it,” Graff explains. “We’re still doing the same game and trying to not put too many new features in it just because we have some time now.” A smart decision for a game that clearly demonstrates the value of limitations.
It captures a similar sensation of freedom to first stepping out of the sewers in Oblivion
“The wolf was one of the first things we decided on,” says Mooneye Studios CEO Tobias Graff. “Everyone just loved the idea of being in the forest and playing this majestic creature”
CEO and programmer Tobias Graff