We recently had a chat with Over the Moon's John Warner about the sequel to the point-and-click metroidvania hybrid that is The Fall ahead of its official announcement.
Give us the quick pitch. What is The Fall 2?
The Fall Part 2: Unbound is of course a sequel to The Fall which is a, sort of like a marriage of point and click adventure with, you know, puzzle platforming action, basically, and the game follows an artificial intelligence named ARID, or Armoured Robotics Interface Device who's on board this kind of futuristic combat suit. The dude inside the suit is injured and unconscious and it's ARID's job to kind of take control of the suit and drag his lifeless body towards help. The Fall ended with some pretty wacky stuff happening to ARID, she went through some really interesting personal development basically and had some kind of difficult times, and then Part 2 it picks up with where we left off in Part 1 and continues her bizarre journey and opens up the world a little bit.
It's an interesting thing to do with like a narrative game that have games that draw a couple of years apart. How do you tackle that challenge of inviting new people in while sort of keeping the interest of those who played the first one?
The way that we do it, basically, is to try and just make Part 2 as accessible as humanly possible. So there's a common thing with sequel games or certainly episodic games where the story's designed to not conclude with each instalment so there's a cliffhanger, basically, right, and if you want to see the plot finish you've got to get Part 2 basically. So we're picking a different model - our plots, we kind of view them more like sequels. Like Mass Effect, for example - there was a plot in Mass Effect 1, the plot concludes, it actually finishes, the story resolves itself, there's more tension like "Oh the reapers are coming, right, what are we going to do about that?". So The Fall is no different, we're hoping to give players an accessible story that's made with an opening bit that says "Hey last time on The Fall here's this character and here's what she's been through". You know, they can pick it up and have a great time and have it make sense and then have the story conclude as well. Obviously it'll be better if you've played Part 1 [Laughs] and there's no way for us to ultimately fix that but, you know, hopefully players who have played it will have a better experience as a result, so it's a toss-up.
That is interesting, because unlike a lot of games the narrative is at the core here. What will you say is the main challenge of designing a game where the narrative is sort of core to it, the most important thing?
It's hard to say. In my opinion narrative really comes down to meaning, so when you have a plot you've got a character facing some challenge, they change, if they don't change, you know, whatever it is. You make your decisions in a story hopefully because it implies some thematic purpose or meaning to story structure. So with games in my opinion it's no different, it's just you've got this added dimensionality of interactivity so, you know, if I've got a game about peace-making and I'm running around shooting people, it doesn't make sense and it's not going to work. Whereas like a classic example, if anybody's played Spec Ops: The Line, is, so, have you ever played that one, just out of curiosity?
Right, so that's so fantastic because it's so like, you know, you're going and shooting people and the story, it seems to me, is kind of about hey when you enter in this complex situation and think you can just start blasting guns and solve it, it turns out maybe you really didn't understand it like you thought you were, it's more complex and all you're doing is causing a mess and the game just gets worse and worse and worse the more you engage with it, which I think is brilliant. So there's a challenge in that and structuring the puzzles in a way that actually communicates our higher level themes which is a challenge but it's a lot of fun. We actually spent the vast majority of time developing Part 2 actually in pre-production just making all those pieces fit from all our different ideas that we had, you know, changing and like we had good ideas that we really liked but they just didn't work with everything else and you know they communicated something different so we had to cut them loose and figure out something else that fit better.
Another thing that can be a challenge is pacing, how do you go about that? Because the structure of the game is one that typically takes people very different amounts of time to sort of solve puzzles, that sort of thing. Is that something you're sort of keeping hands off of or are you implementing mechanics to have some sort of control of the pacing.
Well, I think a lot of that comes under play testing. I mean, we try and do a thing where, you know, there's the optimal experience which is we give a hint, the player takes the hint, you know, they think for a little bit, they've got to make the connection themselves, they've got to like jump over this mental gap, and then they solve the puzzle and then they get, you know, the reward of "hey I did it" and whatever, and we basically [inaudible] of that and what we find is if you look at that through line, you know, the design, you'll have a moment where every different person kind of veers off, you know, they took a different assumption that they needed to go this way because something we didn't think of or you know there's some problem where they encountered a bug maybe or whatever. And basically the development is play testing and then closing all of those things so there's subtle roadblocks everywhere so that players maybe don't notice it on a conscious level but they're just kind of like slowly directed to something. So, you know, for example in Part 1 we had a thing where they needed to go down this elevator shaft and a lot of players didn't figure out that they could go down there so we started putting stuff down underneath the elevator and then we started like adding things like we added like a little rat character that scurries down, so just more hints until the majority of people get it, and hopefully without making it watered down or way too easy for everyone, that would be tragic obviously.
Some narrative games have gone in that direction, taking away challenge and sort of stripping it down to a pure narrative experience.
Exactly, and the shame there is when you take away challenge you don't actually have a narrative experience at all either because narrative is about conflict and it's about struggle and it's about challenge and the protagonist in a video game is the player so if you don't create a meaningful challenge for somebody for somebody to have and overcome. In The Fall the theory is that we create a challenge, you have to struggle over that challenge with a certain type of thinking and then the narrative comes in and says "hey, about that type of thinking, here's all this junk that you might want to think about" or whatever, or not if you don't want to. So yeah if you remove the challenge then nobody's going to have that experience. But as far as how to do that I mean...
Another interesting thing about this is that this is the middle act, as far as I can understand it, of the trilogy, that you must have thought up, even before the first game came out. What's it like, sort of embarking on such a long journey with a game, or a trilogy of games, as this, being mid-way, somewhere in the middle now?
It's a little maddening but what we do is we just try and keep it open. So we had an idea of what we wanted to do for Part 2 but we also gave ourselves a lot of leeway to simplify and condense it and make it basically so that... oh, sorry, not simplify and condense, it's early and my brain isn't working [Laughs]... we find a way to do the opposite of that basically. We leave it open and we kind of play ball, you know. If... for example, at the end of Part 1 we knew where we wanted to go but for some reason I really wanted to explore these other characters and introduce a few other characters into the world and we just went in that direction and it turned out that when we started going in that direction there's a self-discovery process of like "why am I interested in these different perspectives?" and we actually find out that that fits perfectly with the plan that we had which is kind of bizarre experience, but I think that the only way to really do it, maintain sanity, is just to leave room for yourself to express...
And of course there's outside influence as well, player feedback etc. How would you say that has influenced the sequel?
That has been a huge influence. I mean if somebody has a hard time consistently with a puzzle then, you know... okay for example in Part 1 there's this thing where you've got, you know, in fact you've got to activate these mushrooms and then there's something that feeds on the mushrooms and they like, you know, there's this big like multiple step thing where you've got to do this and got to do that but you won't know what's going on here and there's a hint over here that you got to do and connect over here and that'll, you know, come in or whatever, and basically to a person everybody had a hard time with that particular puzzle - it was just too complex. So we're learning where our boundaries are - we don't want to frustrate anybody [Laughs].
That's one perspective on it, the games that are coming out, but how's the studio involved during this time, from the first game up till now?
The studio's pretty simple actually. Well obviously we were broke when we started the first one, made a little bit of money from the sales so I had the capital to hire concept artists, for example. You know, I know what I want in a given room for example in terms of items and layout but actually laying out a dresser here, dresser here, and a lamp over there or whatever, there's a lot of just brainwork involved in that which takes a lot of time so I outsource that so I've hired a few people to do that sort of stuff that really makes a difference, but other than that we haven't scaled much, like my writer's more involved from the beginning now, whereas basically in the first part I had to run into roadblocks where I was like "I can't write worth a damn", so he's involved from the beginning but, yeah, other than that not much has changed.
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