Gamereactor recently travelled to Aalborug Universty in Denmark to see Aporia: Beyond the Valley, a new puzzle-driven adventure game by Investigate North. During our time there lead director Sebastian Bevensee explained that the game's primary inspiration was the indie hit Dear Esther, and how one might tell an engaging story through music and visuals alone. It's an interesting and exciting premise, albeit a risky one, but the team assures us that the final game will deliver on this promise.
As the demo kicked off, we were initially impressed with what the team had produced with CryEngine. It all looks extremely polished, the visual style has a unique flair to it, and it's difficult to believe that the development team only consists of eight people. The demo began at the very start of the game as a means to showcase all of the different elements early on, and accordingly, the player wakes up in a forgotten ruin and has to piece together what put them there in the first place.
There aren't any cutscenes here, but instead there are interactive Egyptian- and Mayan-inspired real-time paintings. The aesthetic expression and form really shines through in these scenes and seems like an exciting way to tell a grander tale, and if they can manage to keep it coherent and varied all the way through to the end, Investigate North might have created a unique way of telling a narrative. Players have to constantly analyse the hidden meanings in order to follow the plot, which is very interesting indeed.
Notably, in regards to the narrative, we had to ask whether a coherent story existed, or whether it was up to the individual players to create their own understanding of events, and the answer was a cryptic "yes and no", since a carefully written story does exist, yet the goal is to let the player have his/her own individual perception of the story and see if it's in accordance with the one intended by Investigate North.
In order to keep away from using any sort of linguistics, there's no text used for the tutorials, instead there are minimalistic drawings, which works surprisingly well. Bevensee told us how they had used an extravagant amount of time working out an easily understandable system, and it's clear that a strong creative vision definitely exists in terms of looking at the final product.
At the centre of Aporia is an array of puzzles the player will encounter during the five-hour playthrough. We experienced a few of the mechanics during our time with the game, and although we didn't get to experience them all, we did see a magical glow stick which had to be filled with liquid regularly. This was used to open secret passage ways by applying it to old forgotten ruins and thereby restoring spiritual power, often unlocking a new piece of the story. It could also be used to create hologram-esque pictures to point at different objects, thus being able to enter new areas. How it varies going forward is definetly interesting.
The developers were very confident in this aspect of the game and to avoid repetition, an essential part of the puzzle design is based around relating them to the narrative. This way of thinking makes the player more inclined to solve them, since they're tied to our understanding of the story, and we're looking forward to seeing exactly how this will play out in the final version.
Through the puzzle design, Bevensee believes Aporia can distinguish itself from other puzzle games like The Witness, as the puzzles aren't just there for an arbitrary reason. We mention The Witness here as, in the case of Aporia, it will inevitably invite a lot of comparisons, even though the visual styles are miles apart.
Aporia started as a student project but was quickly picked up by the movie producer Ole Søndberg, who played a pivotal role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Headhunters. As such we had to ask him what caught his attention, and he said the narrative possibilities are unlike anything a film can produce. There's also another pivotal element which caught his attention, and that is how it could be expanded across different media platforms.
After having spent the better part of an afternoon with Aporia and Investigate North, we left the team with a feeling of optimism. The overall ambition and premise of the game have definitely caught our attention, as it's a gorgeous world with an interesting narrative approach, however, we still need to try more of the puzzles to determine whether the team has struck gold. We'll find out one way or another as the game is due to launch on PC on July 19th.