The Emotional Outlet of Extraterrestrial Travel: Developer Lucas Govatos on Epitasis, Puzzles, and the Inspiration of Music
It seems like crowdfunded video games are a dime a dozen nowadays, but sometimes a game breaks out from the pack and catches my attention. This time around the game was Epitasis and the developer was Lucas Govatos. Vibrant landscapes and futuristic puzzles litter the trailer for Epitasis, all underscored by the rich synth stylings of Los Angeles based composer Pejman Roozbeh (working under the pseudonym Funk Fiction). Between the art style and the music I was hooked on Epitasis, so I was quite pleased to be able to sit down and talk to Govatos about the road to Epitasis’ freshly successful Kickstarter campaign and his future plans for the game.
But firstly I wanted to get to know the developer himself. Art never occurs in a vacuum, so I’m always interested in learning what roads led developers to their current projects.
“I got into the world of game development when I was in middle school by modding video games,” recalls Govatos. “I had just gotten my first laptop and I was obsessed with Halo. There was a Halo Custom Edition that I began modding for about 10 years straight. Within that time I went just making simple map mods to a full fledged campaign called ‘Project Lumoria’ that had four hours worth of gameplay with custom dialogue and everything. So that’s where I really began, and from there I started working on a lot of other stuff.
“I went to local community college, got a Game Art & Design degree in 2015, and went to at Bethesda Softworks for about a year after that. While I was working at there I was working on a lot of side projects. I made the decision to leave after that first year and I actually went back to school for Computer Science. I was in a local art gallery at the school and I randomly had this vision of a big green field with an orange planet in the background. That’s what really made me want to start working on this a little more seriously. That’s when I started working on Epitasis.
“I’ve always been pretty interested in the artistic side of things – graphic design, 3D modeling, concepting – that kind of stuff has been a big in my mind. Before Epitasis I had been working on a horror game as a kind of side project, but I was very disenchanted with how grey and dull a lot of those kind of games were. I wanted to make something extremely colorful, but not so colorful to where it wasn’t nice to look at – colorful in a pleasing way. I wanted people to like looking at it and get lost in the game and enjoy exploring it. I didn’t completely toss out that horror project though. A lot of that code from that game ended up translating into Epitasis.”
ORGANIC PUZZLES AND MELODIC WORLDS
When designing the world and mechanics of Epitasis, Govatos really wanted their to be an emphasis on a fluid mesh of environment and puzzles; but he always wants to give the player a remarkable amount of agency.
“Epitasis is a very nonlinear game. The story is that you get transported to these worlds, and once you’re there you’re free to go wherever you want,” says Govatos. “You’re just kind of left to do whatever you want, to any area you want to go.
“Obviously there’s a lot of inspiration from puzzles games. Myst is a big one, and definitely The Talos Principle. Those are great games on the whole, but I definitely found myself inspired by the puzzle elements in those games. I especially liked how lasers were used in The Talos Principle, so I wanted to incorporate that kind of thing into Epitasis.
“I played The Witness a couple months ago and there are definitely things I took away from that and worked into my own game. Kario is also this very minimalist puzzle game that I played about a year ago, and while it’s not in the same style as Epitasis the puzzles were definitely interesting. Kario didn’t give you a lot of context for the events of the game either, much like Myst, and I liked that. If you play the demo for Epitasis, it doesn’t give you much context either.
“Because I’ve made this game in this non-linear fashion, it was important that the puzzles have a gradual shift in their difficulty. I knew the puzzles had to kind of build up in each section – because since the game is kind of split up into a bunch of sections I didn’t want the player to accidently come across the hardest puzzle first because it’s in the area they happened to walk into. So each section kind of builds up its own difficulty gradually.
“I tried to make the puzzles themselves different enough from things like The Witness or The Talos Principle, because one thing I didn’t like about those puzzles specifically was that they felt very arcade-like in style. You go into an area and you think ‘Oh, this is a puzzle section’. Especially in The Witness if you walk up to a panel, it’s a puzzle. In The Talos Principle you get transported to a section of the game and it literally points in the direction of the next puzzle. So I wanted to make the puzzles in Epitasis a little more connected with the world overall, kind of like Myst. That’s definitely where the exploration component comes in. Epitasis is a puzzle game and and exploration game, so I wanted all these parts to be connected with each other and not just separated by different portions of the game. You’ll explore and solve puzzles at the same time.”
One of the things I immediately noticed about Epitasis was its artistic similarities to another sci-fi exploration game, though one I was a little hesitant to voice because of the stigma attached to the game’s title. The colorful landscapes and looming planets immediately reminded me of 2016’s No Man’s Sky, but luckily for me Govatos was gracious and accepted the comparison as a compliment as it was intended.
“A lot of people have made the aesthetic connection between this and No Man’s Sky and I mean I’d be lying to say it wasn’t an influence,” admitted Govatos. “Personally I really did like No Man’s Sky, and I think being compared to it artistically is not a bad thing at all. No Man’s Sky is a very beautiful game, and I was definitely inspired by that; but there’s also artistic influence in Epitasis going back to my time working on Halo Custom Edition. A lot of the structures in Epitasis are Forerunner in style. I worked in that world for so long it definitely rubbed off a bit.
“That Halo feeling also ended up in the exploration elements of the game. Exploring ancient ruins can feel very lonely. You’re exploring these huge structures and civilizations have just been left behind and forgotten, and there’s a very lonely feeling to that, which was something I took away from exploring big areas like that in Halo: Combat Evolved.”
As I mentioned earlier, the music presented in Epitasis‘ Kickstarter video grooved way more than I expected from a seemingly serene puzzler like Epitasis. Govatos credited this to the developmental collaboration between Govatos and Funk Fiction.
“The music is undoubtedly a very important part of the game. Music has always been one of the biggest inspirations. It’s almost always the first thing I go to when concepting literally anything I’ve come up with. Obviously a lot of my inspirations for Epitasis are game related, but a lot of inspiration comes from electronic music like Tycho and Boards of Canada. They both have this lo-fi, high kinetic energy feeling to them, and it’s definitely rubbed off on me quite a lot – not only in the visual style but also the feeling I want to put into the game.
“Pejman’s work on the music has been a huge help to me during development. We’re working on a lot of different and dynamic ways the music and the game will mesh. The music will gradually change with the pace of game. If you’re exploring in the day the music will be different than at night. There’s a whole time-of-day system that the music and certain other elements will fit into.
“I want people to have a really cool experience with Epitasis. I wanted to make something where I could express all the emotions I’ve been feeling the past year and hopefully in some way transfer that to the player. Epitasis is my way of speaking directly to the player. I want a game people can get lost in with these very imaginative worlds, and maybe make them think about things that may be out there. Now the game is pretty story minimal, but there is some pretty cool stuff I don’t want to talk too much about now. There will definitely be some big, ‘Oh wow’ moments from the players as they experience the game.”
FINDING FRESH FOOTING WITH FANS
Like many indie developers before him, Govatos turned to crowd funding to help move his development cycle closer to the finish line; and fortunately for him the crowd responded. Raising $13,677 of a $11,650 goal, Govatos’ Epitasis garnered much deserved financial support and praise from the online gaming community. At the time of our interview, Epitasis‘ Kickstarter campaign had just ended, and as such I wanted to have a little bit of a Kickstarter postmortem to talk about what Govatos learned as a first time crowdfunding organizer.
“It was a big learning experience, there was stuff I thought I knew but realized I didn’t really,” admitted Govatos. “I underestimated how ridiculously busy running a Kickstarter would be. It’s a was exciting, but it was also very stressful to balance managing the Kickstarter, developing the game, and working my day job all at once. But in the end we got a little over $2000 what we wanted. The last four days were crazy.
“Kickstarter was pretty helpful over all. I think we did a good job building a community – we had a community before we launched the Kickstarter but I feel like we’ve definitely built onto it. Now there’s more people dedicated to Epitasis. Before we launched on Kickstarter most of the Epitasis community were also game developers themselves. I feel like I’ve definitely been able to get more of my target demographic through Kickstarter, which is good. All the marketing we did and getting the game at events really helped as well. Stuff like that was really nice.”
One of these gaming events was the SAAM Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. At the August event, Govatos had the opportunity to display Epitasis in front of 10,000+ guests from all over the world.
“From what I heard, almost 200 people applied from all over the world but only 40 were selected. It took about three months to get confirmation, but it was really nice to find out we were selected. And the event itself was a lot of fun. I think this was the third year they did it, and each year its been getting bigger and bigger.
“It was an interesting crowd, lots of families – and not all them them strictly gamers. Obviously it’s a working museum so some people kind of wandered in and didn’t even realize a game event was happening. It’s in the middle of DC so lots of kind of random people came through. It was really fun though.”
Earlier this year Govatos also had the opportunity to showcase Epitasis at Artscape in Baltimore.
“If the Kickstarter hadn’t worked out, I would’ve kept working on it regardless,” said Govatos. “I’ve been working on Epitasis over a year now on my own, and the main reason I wanted to raise the money was obviously to continue funding the game; but I also hoped I could outsource some of the work and get some additional hands on the project to make it a little better. The funding will just help speed up development and makes it easier to get in front of more people. I mean, this has always been a passion project for me, so I’d get it done one way or another.”
YOU JUST GOT FUNDED ON KICKSTARTER, NOW WHAT?
In the final hours of their Kickstarter Epitasis not only reached it’s funding threshold but also its first stretch goal: Epitasis in VR. Govatos and I talked briefly about this new prospect for Epitasis‘ development, as well as some other new gameplay ideas he’s been toying with.
“VR will be developed alongside the game but probably won’t come out until a couple months following desktop release,” said Govatos. “The console editions will come out later as well. We just want to finish the game and make sure we have all the bugs worked out before we dive into VR.”
In a tweet around the time of the August North American solar eclipse, Govatos talked about wanting to possibly include those kind of celestial events in the final build of Epitasis.
“There’s definitely opportunities now to play with some new features I’ve been working on. Not anything I’ve had a chance to finish, but stuff I’d like to try. There’s definitely stuff that I want to try incorporating after seeing how people have reacted to the game at events. People on our Kickstarter had good feedback, but I was really inspired by seeing how people reacted in person.”
“I’ve got a whole map out on my wall outlining the rest of the development cycle. There’s still a bulk of Epitasis that isn’t formally done, but it’s mapped out so now it’s the process of creating all of it. For a while I’m just going one area of the game at a time and knocking things out that way. There’s a lot to do, but it’s definitely doable in a year.
“Right now we’re self publishing, through previously we had been talking to some big publishers. But with the success of the Kickstarter I think we’ll just go for it ourselves. That’ll give us a little more freedom to kind of handle things they way we want them handled. It’ll be a little more work but ultimately it’ll be worth it.”