Five years on From its reveal, Capybara Games Finally has a release window in sight For below. Join us as we dive into the depths of development hell with Creative lead Kris piotrowski and attempt to shine a light on why this ambitious adventure has spent
Robbed of any context, the passage of time can seem somewhat inconsequential. Take Below, a game that has been in production for close to seven years. As a statement, one devoid of any real context, it’s relatively hollow. And that, largely speaking, is because it works to mask a painful truth.
To all of us, Below may well have been on the periphery of conversation since the dawn of this console generation, though the truth is that time wasted waiting for a videogame is hardly any time spent at all. Games get delayed all of the time, our lives move on. There’s always something new on the near horizon to arrest the attention; that’s the nature of the untameable beast known as the videogame industry. For
Kris Piotrowski, that horizon has been shrouded in uncertainty for some time. He cannot simply ‘move on’ because Below has become an inseparable part of who he has become.
The creative director of Capybara Games was 32 years old when he began prototyping Below, the game that was to follow 2011’s subversive masterpiece Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP – scheduled to arrive as a launch title for the Xbox One. It was back then that he first began to envision it, a solemn adventure that cast a fragile hero in contention with the hidden forces of a daunting peninsula; concealed behind the mouth of a mountain was to be a cascade of catacombs suffocated by a darkness so dense that we would barely be able to conceive what lay hidden within them.
Piotrowski is 39 now. Below has been the focus of his creative energy for the better part of a decade. He’s conflicted by the thought of it finally reaching the hands of players, torn between abject anticipation and a taunting trepidation. “On the one hand, I’m super relieved. I just can’t wait to get this out of my system so that I can think about something else,” he tells us, releasing a hearty chuckle that seems to instinctively dissipate into a deep, revealing exhale. “It does weigh heavily on you, when you work on something for this long; it can begin to play tricks with your brain. In a lot of ways, Below was a tough game for us to make, but there’s this anticipation… this expectation that comes with this kind of development cycle; the players are expecting a great game. So, yeah,” he tells us, blankly, “It’s a little scary.”
Not that any of this is necessarily a new feeling for Piotrowski. He may have been doing this job for most of his adult life, but that doesn’t make the creative process any easier to bear.
“It is scary to release any game at any point in time. Sword & Sworcery only took us a year and a half to make, but when it was coming out I was shitting my fucking pants. I didn’t know if anybody was going to like it. I didn’t know what to expect from it, and I remember losing my mind,” he tells us, laughing. “I remember losing my mind when Super Time Force was coming out too. So for me, this is nothing new, there’s just a couple of extra years worth of baggage on my shoulders for this one.”
“But…” he pauses, pained, collecting his thoughts for a fleeting second before that infectious smile of his re-emerges. “I don’t know, man. Below is the neatest little videogame that I’ve ever made. So I’m kind of excited too.”
Caught between fear and excitement. We’re certain that this wasn’t a conscious creative decision on Piotrowski’s part, but that war inside his head also happens to best describe the feelings that we experienced as we took our first steps into Below’s taunting labyrinth.
“We just set out to make this beautiful little roguelike; this solitary journey through the haunted depths of a forbidden isle,” laughs Piotrowski as he reflects on Capy’s original intentions for the project and of the development hell that was to follow. “You know, sometimes games are complicated beasts for a hundred different reasons. Below was one of those for us; it turns out that the game was very difficult to make.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The development, we mean. Below’s protracted creative process may well have been more difficult than Capy had ever anticipated, but the game itself – its core vision and key pillars – remain relatively unmoved by time. Broadly speaking, Below is today as it was back in
2013: a procedural, persistent terrarium full of life, mystery and death. To explore its depths is to discover its secrets and in discovering its secrets you may just survive its dangers. It really is, as Piotrowski told us, this beautiful little roguelike.
The thing is, Below may not have changed much over the years, but the environment around it certainly has. “At this point, it seems like every game is partially a roguelike,” he admits, only too aware of how the landscape of the industry has shifted in the seven years.
The genre has transformed from a forgotten relic of the Eighties – spearheaded by influential titles such as Rogue, Angband and Nethack
– to something of a staple of the independent games scene. “I think a lot of [developers] were being influenced at that time by the baseline mechanics that were presented in those roguelike-type games,” he says, noting a particularly memorable turning point. “Spelunky came along and revitalised the whole thing, and people got to see all of these mechanics find their way to different kinds of games.”
The proliferation of the roguelike’s starring mechanics throughout so many corners of the industry hasn’t put Piotrowski off of Below, if anything it has only strengthened his resolve. He still believes Capy can shape the modern roguelike – the studio’s unique spin on the form born from a unique approach to features that once helped define the genre.
The basic flavour of a roguelike is made up of a handful of key ingredients. The spectre of permanent death, procedurally generated environments, intuition-driven exploration and the procurement of mission critical items as you make slow progression towards an inevitable conclusion. Combined, it just works. The roguelike is an experience driven by absolute mechanical implementation, uninterested in superfluous elements of game design that have built up alongside the rapid advancements in technology that have helped shape the modern face of the industry. Whatever way you cut it, they are about as pure of a videogame experience as you are likely to find. It’s as Piotrowski says, “There’s something really nice about the setup for a roguelike. They have this beautiful replayability; the tension is a little bit higher than in regular games, because the stakes are usually raised when you’re playing them.”
It’s the allure of permadeath – something he describes as being part of Below’s DNA from the very beginning – and procedural generation elements of the traditional roguelike that really piqued Piotrowski’s interest. But will it be enough to set Below apart from Spelunky, Nuclear Throne, The Binding Of Isaac, and the hundreds of other roguelike-inspired games now available on the market? “The difference with our game is that the game world itself is persistent. The main idea behind Below is that you are playing a little, fragile character – this little fleeting life – but the island itself is sort of this big, ominous and mysterious space.”
“Any little progress that you do end up making, the next character will be able to take advantage of
it,” he says, going on to detail the concept as we pique an eyebrow inquisitively. “If a player manages to run down a few levels and open a special door, for example, and they croak the moment they walk through it, then at the very least the next character will be able to take advantage of it. It means their path ahead is gonna be just a little bit easier.”
“Below is full of other little ideas like that,” Piotrowski continues, eager to explain elements of the game’s design that it has kept secret for years. “You’re not really able to build up your actual character, but the game world itself is something that you can make little bits of progress through and then eventually build upon.”
Below is unequivocally a roguelike. It can be brutal and unforgiving, a challenge that seems to take pleasure in tripping you up when you least expect or desire it. Your tiny wanderer has but a limited pool of attack and defensive manoeuvres to draw from; you can poke at darting enemies with your sword, there’s a jump attack and you can even block with your shield, should you get the timing down. But there’s also more to it than that alone. When Below is all said and done, the studio wants to not only have delivered a powerful experience, but one that can tear down some of the walls that have been erected around the genre – it wants to make the roguelike less inaccessible – and, in spite of the game’s inherently punishing nature, it’s certainly on track to achieve that goal. “Below is a mixture of that kind of hardcore, permadeath concept from [classic] roguelikes with something that, to me, feels more like a classic adventure game,” nods Piotrowski, who invokes The Legend Of Zelda series as a point of comparison. “You are unlocking things, taking down creatures, finding loot, and then making a subsequent life feel a little bit easier or a little bit more strategic.”
In Below, you fight tooth and nail for incremental progression. Death will come quickly, but it doesn’t necessarily signify the end of your journey – it’s simply the beginning of another. Once a lone wanderer falls prey to the relentless monsters that roam the darkened caverns, or to the nasty traps that lay hidden in its shadows, another is soon sent in their place.
Why do adventurers keep venturing to this island – we pondered – when they are fully aware that they are heading to a place that no one has ever returned? On that note, Piotrowski is eager to keep his mouth shut – not that he can; he’s too excited to talk openly about Below after years of self-imposed exile. “That’s the question of the game,” he smiles. “I mean, the website is called ‘What Lies Below’, right? I would have to reveal… okay, so, the game doesn’t have a narrative in the traditional sense. It’s not a game with cutscenes or dialogue; you’re not gonna pick up little snippets of letters or audio logs or whatever. But there is still a narrative. There is something that the wanderers are there to do,” Piotrowski teases, adding,
“and there is a villain in the game. It… waits below,” he says erupting into laughter. “Okay, it’s Lovecraftian; I’ll say it.”
Every time you die you will respawn as a new randomly generated lone wanderer, arriving above ground some time later, run ashore by the violent ocean that protects the island. You’ll become intimately familiar with the sights and sounds of that initial beach landing, the flickering light of a nearby bonfire and of the slow climb up an imposing mountain façade to begin retracing your steps back below. This is the loop at the heart of Below, though it is designed to shift and expand subtly over time. “That’s how the player is able to initially enter into the game world. At first you do arrive on the beach every single time. But as you play the game you do find little
physical shortcuts from there deeper into the world. In fact, you can find a little shortcut right from that first little area…”
The shortcut he is referring to is one we stumbled upon by complete accident. Hidden, far from the open passageway that beckons every wanderer below to the first level of depth, was a locked door that resembled a monolith carved into the mountain. That, as we would later discover, could be prised open should you stumble upon a the correct cavern with the necessary tool in hand – in this instance we found it by moving through a hidden crawlspace near a small stream we were using to hunt for fish, though who knows where it might have been on a different run. “As you get deeper and deeper into the world, you’re also constantly poking holes back up to the surface. Eventually, as you get further into the game, the surface of the island becomes this kind of multi-path hub… it means you’ll still be able to get yourself back, and further in, to the world as long as you’ve unlocked those shortcuts. There’s also another hidden actual travel mechanic in the game,” he says, teasing, “but that’s going into secrets.” We’ve got some ideas about those, but that is to come later.
For now, we want to linger a little longer here on the beach, on this key aspect to Below that will, we’re sure, ultimately ensure that it feels fresh and unique when it does finally land later this year. Capy has found a comfortable, combative neutral ground between persistent and procedural design. While the architecture of the surface area of the island will always remain the same, the subterranean levels are forever shifting.
As you venture deeper and deeper through Below’s twisting tunnels and caverns you’ll have the opportunity to gather resources and open up shortcuts back up to the surface, though death will ultimately change the shape of the environment for your inevitable return – as if time itself has eroded away the spaces, warping them beyond immediate recognition. Walls and pools of water will shift and the shape of rock formations will have reshaped, but somewhere down there, inside and below, will be the rotting corpse of your predecessor, all of their items right there for the taking.
“There’s a pretty big world down there.
It is a combination of randomly generated dungeons, caves and other kinds of environments, mixed with an actual nonprocedural element too,” he continues. “Below has a much more realised adventure gamestyle world that’s permeated with randomly generated passages.” This is, in part at least, the reason for the lengthy development process. Capy’s procedural generation system has had at least four full iterations over the seven years, with the studio’s programmers constantly scrapping and reengineering how the system builds out the single-screen areas that make up the subterranean depths. It’s been a labour of love, to say the least. “The core has never really changed; those core ideas that we landed on right at the beginning have been part of the project since day one, but we’ve been iterating on every single aspect of it. The game world, its structure – like the actual environments you pass through – is something that I’ve been refining and working on for a while,” Piotrowski tells us, though he doesn’t quite reveal the true extent of the struggle.
The designer was eager to ensure that some elements of Below’s geography never changed, no matter how many times you died. The core mechanics and systems that Capy identified so many years ago – the desire for it to be a minimalistic experience with little in the way of a UI, tutorials or explanation, for example – is all still present and accounted for. One thing that has changed, however, was the reliance on procedural generation to build out the entire world.
Capy wanted Below’s areas to resemble natural spaces, but the results of the system were too grid like and too predictable for Capy’s liking. And so it set about bringing a personal touch to every one of the levels, excavating the shape of the game by hand as it went. “For the most part, it hasn’t been about ripping something out and trying something completely different,” Piotrowski admits. “A lot of it has just been trying to take every little piece of it and arrive at the most ‘Below-y’ version of it, right? It just hasn’t been, like, flip the tables and start over. It’s been highly iterative; allowing us to focus on taking each individual thing and trying to drill into it as much as we can.”
We’ll say it if he won’t, it sounds like it has been a hell of a lot of work. But it hasn’t been in vein, because it has ensured that every space features visual touchstones to aid in navigation and exploration, a vital component to a game otherwise shrouded in death and mystery. Every level of depth that you enter into will be comprised of a procedurally generated passageway – a safe(ish) space where you can lament on your journey, craft precious items to aid in survival, and prepare for the next trial ahead – and then a larger main area that will blur the line between hand-crafted content and procedurally generated spaces. So while some elements may stay the same – the placement of a river, some recognisable chasms, that sort of stuff – the location of traps, the volume and ferocity of enemies, or any other number of dangers out there lurking in the shadows could (and probably will) change. You need to be on guard at all times.
How many layers deep does this gargantuan effort run? Piotrowski is keen to hold onto that information, but he would confirm that Below is “by far the biggest game that we’ve ever made.” He will later estimate that the game could run for 20-plus hours, comparing
it to Diablo in his stride. Though, ultimately, the length of the game will largely depend on how eager you are to explore, how expertly you make use of the various shortcuts, and how quickly you become acquainted with the fast travel systems put into place to aid progression and exploration. That is an element of the game that we are yet to cover.
Early on in your adventure you’ll encounter something that doesn’t quite fit with the naturalistic setting encountered above ground. Stumbled upon among the howling winds, the thundering rain and the lightning slicing through the night sky, a strange obelisk with a question mark hanging above it will reveal itself; as you approach it a blue glow will begin to emanate from the ground, circling it, taunting you closer. There’s a lantern of some kind and, after tentatively picking it up, with it you are able to momentarily project a bright beam of light in front of you, controlled with twin-stick shooter degrees of precision.
But the lantern isn’t just used to project light on Below’s darkest corners, it is in fact the tool in which the entire adventure is pinned around.
“I knew you’d ask about that,” laughs Piotrowski. “Okay, so the lantern is sort of our Ocarina of Time. The game is very much built around this magical object and there’s only one in the whole game. So, if a character takes it down into the world and dies, it’s like they dropped the little baton for the next character to come and pick up,” he continues, before giving the smallest hint towards the wider story – something he swore he wouldn’t do earlier in our conversation. “You’re trying to get this lantern deeper and deeper into the game world.”
It’s funny. Despite being in development for seven years, there is just so much of Below that was never revealed to the public. The studio is eager to keep much of it a secret, in particular the larger creatures and more startling set pieces players can expect to encounter the further they push through the game. But there are some elements that we were able to get a taste of, largely by virtue of the fact that we have sharp eyes and inquisitive minds… okay, it’s because we died so many times that we were able to pour over the finer detail of the first few levels, are you happy now?
“There is a currency system, yes,” Piotrowski says, pausing, as we begin to question the little shining white crystals dropping from enemies as we hack, slash and desperately attempt to dodge through as many of the levels as we could in the span of an hour. “If you find
enough of the little gems, the little crystals, they power your little lantern in the game.”
The light of this lantern can be used to open the doors that provide shortcuts back to the surface – one instance of which we detailed earlier – though it also has other more practical uses. It provides light in the darkest of areas, for one, giving you forewarning of any pitfalls or death-inducing traps, though (and perhaps more importantly) it also powers one of the two fast travel systems in the game.
While the amount of gems it costs to power the lantern is currently in flux (it costs
25 in the build we played, though Piotrowski notes that it may be reduced to 10 ahead of launch), essentially you use gems to imbue the lantern with a magical energy that can then be thrown into an open fire, turning it blue and creating an opportunity for fast travel in your most desperate hour of need. “If you’ve created a blue fire then, from any other fire [in the game], you can teleport back to that one. So as you go through the game world you’re kind of setting these new checkpoints for yourself. However, they’re not permanent. You can only use them once – it’s essentially your one shot to get back to your corpse.”
It’s little elements like this that demonstrate Capy’s commitment to making the roguelike more accessible. Piotrowski tells us that the ideal run for Below would see you moving down a level, setting the bonfire blue in an open passageway before then attempting to push on, clearing the room of its threats and desperately searching for 25 more crystals to reset the cycle. If you die in pursuit of them, you are given a single do-over – leaping back to your position from that bonfire on the beach. Fail that time too and, well, you’ll have a lot of running to do to get back to the all-important lantern. “Your corpse drops with the lantern and all of its inventory, whether you found gear, or weapons, or created tools or stuff like that. Then you could, right from the beach, teleport back there and you have one shot to get back to that corpse. If you fail at that point, then you go back to the beach as a new character, and the bonfires are just reset.”
In truth, Below isn’t the game we had expected it to be. It’s so much more. Capy has created a haunting and unsettling environment for us to traverse, imbuing it with some truly wonderful mechanics to encourage players to spend more time within its claustrophobic caverns. It’s a taunting nightmare, a challenge that won’t easily be conquered, but it doesn’t feel unfair – quite the opposite, it feels perfectly measured. We can hardly believe it, but after seven years the wait for Below is almost over, and we couldn’t be more excited to spend more time uncovering its mysteries.
Kris Piotrowski can hardly believe that this journey has almost come to an end either. Despite consuming seven years of his life, he’s
happy with the way the community has stuck with Capybara and Below. It is, in fact, a part of what has kept them going strong through its darkest of hours. “I’ve had my head down so much working on the game, because I’m generally overly-stressed about how people are perceiving Below, how long it’s taking and all that stuff,” he tells us as we question whether it’s difficult to remain motivated on production. “I’m sort of always feeling the flames underneath me. But I will say that, yeah, from our perspective, the community that we have around Capy has been very supportive and very positive. All of a sudden any time I get a chance to talk to press about it, I’m surprised to see it has maintained this intrigue and mystery.”
“It’s got this little thing to it…” he says, getting lost in his own head. ‘Like an aura?’ we suggest. “Yeah, exactly, and it’s kind of just been there from the beginning; it hasn’t gone away for one reason or another. I’m sort of pleasantly surprised about that… it’s had this kind of longevity. We’ve always talked about Below as something that was important to the studio – something that we want to get right – and I think people just have put a little bit of faith in our work and given us the time to let it become what it is. That makes me very happy.
So what’s next for Kris Piotrowski? He won’t commit to setting a release date in stone – that one has burnt him one too many times over the years. But the end is certainly in sight, Below will be with us by the end of 2018, though there is still work to be completed. “I will say that I’m not done yet. But this year has felt like we’re moving towards it, towards release. I’m working on the final cut scenes; it’s all in front of me now.”
“It’s a little terrifying but, yeah, hopefully it will be cathartic… I’m definitely looking forward to thinking about something different,” he tells us, adding with a smile: “Like Below 2…” erupting into laughter as he says it, waving his hands out in front of him: “no, no! I’m joking,