Lost Em­ber

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - DISPATCHES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Moon­eye Stu­dios For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Ori­gin Ger­many Re­lease 2018

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

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