Styled with Simplicity: A Talk with Unto The End Developer 2Ton Studios
Under the right conditions, a picture can look more like a painting: enormous green fields, fresh water as blue as blueberries, rocky mountains spanning the horizon line, quagmires and quicksands. It is an indescribable experience to look out at a scene so enthralling, so effortlessly magical, that it manages to confuse the mind.
In Unto the End, the team at 2Ton Studios intend to evoke this intangible mood. In the game, the mountains you encounter may be reminiscent of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the water may reflect light like Patagonia’s iridescent pools. In its simplistic style, Unto The End hopes to capture the natural beauty of places like these, uncluttered by words, symbols, or thoughts. In this way, nature―both in its picturesque beauty and in its simplicity―is something that informs the game in every way.
IN THE WILDERNESS
While 2Ton Studios developers (and married couple) Sara Kitamura and Stephen Danton had been playing around with several prototypes before Unto The End, it was their foreign travels that finally grounded their vision.
“Sara and I had been doing some traveling in Europe,” Stephen mentioned, “and we really fell in love with two places in particular: Iceland and Northern Scotland. My mother is from Scotland, actually – grew up in Edinburgh – and I heard all these fantastic things about it growing up, but I never had a chance to visit. So, when we finally got out there, we spent time hiking and adventuring around those areas, and that’s really where the inspiration for Unto The End came – that feeling of adventure. The setting is really inspired by those hikes, those long treks.”
Just as Unto The End’s premise had taken them by surprise, their journey towards game development was never something that had been calculated. “We left our jobs,” Stephen revealed. “I was in the corporate world. Sara had done various jobs in design in a small business capacity. And I think we thought initially we’d just go out and, boom, we’d just make a game. And we realized – not that we were naive, you know; we’d done other games in the past as hobby kind of things for mobile – but there’s this interesting challenge as artists that we need to get our skills to a level that approaches our imagination.”
Stephen pauses, “Of course, that takes a lot of practice. It almost feels like going back to school a little bit.”
Being such a small studio, these struggles were amplified. While they excelled in certain areas, the two alone could not cover every base. It became hard to address their own shortcomings as artists and developers when there were not enough people on their team to compensate for their weaknesses.
“At the beginning, there was just the two of us,” Sara explained, “so a lot of time our ideas were a lot bigger than what we could achieve on our own.”
Stephen laughed, agreeing, “Absolutely. I remember when we were in Scotland, we had a ton of butcher paper just littered with huge level illustrations, worlds, and stuff like that. We quickly realized how untenable that was.”
While the pair have always loved games, leaving everything behind to pursue game development was an entirely new frontier. 2Ton began, as Stephen puts it, as a moonlighting gig, a hobby project. For Stephen, the idea for it originated when he was still at Microsoft. While Google had become famous for giving its employees one day a week to focus on their own projects, Microsoft had yet to implement something similar. Pressured by its employees, Microsoft eventually gave in, instituting a policy that would allow its employees to work on their own hobby projects.
The studio was originally formed by Stephen and his brother, Greg, the lead concept artist on the most recent Gears of War. They began their work in mobile on a game called Flying Heads.
“It was kind of like Fruit Ninja, but instead of slicing fruit, you had to juggle these zombie heads,” Stephen explained.
After one of their games, Ninja Boy, peaked at number 2 on the Windows Phone, they decided that was once a hobby may have finally broken free of its infancy. With Sara soon on board as a permanent part of the team, 2Ton Studios was born.
“Greg had decided to focus on triple A games, so Sara and I started to do more and more games together, ” said Stephen. “We did like eight different prototypes or something. This is our first time taking on a game of this scale, but we’ve definitely been out there dabbling for a while.”
Even with their new found confidence and drive, forging a game with such a small team has not been easy. As Stephen recounts, the industry has gone through many motions when it comes to its attitude towards indie development. While doors have opened more recently with the amount of free tools available, development is still difficult and deadlines loom.
“It’s getting harder and harder for a team of three people to compete. For example, I was reading something recently about Cuphead. You know, that was started by two brothers. They worked super hard, ended up mortgaging both their houses,” mentioned Stephen. “But now they have like twenty people on their team. That shows, you know, that just to make a game that you would think is quote unquote indie takes an order of magnitude more people to accomplish.
“So it’s a tough thing to ratchet our limitations. Sara is very good at that. She makes sure we don’t dream too crazy. At the same time, we wanna do what we wanna do. It’s entirely financed by us, you know. We have a little help from our publisher, but mainly we’re just living off our savings. I think having a larger team would help, honestly, with having them to help drive you. When one of us is down, it can be tough. Plus, we’re married. We have business, then we have our personal lives.”
Sarah laughed, interjecting, “Who knows how it’ll all end.”
FIGHTING FOR A CAUSE
Outside of its enchanting mood, another big focus of Unto the End is, of course, its immersive gameplay. “[Unto The End] encapsulates a lot of the things that I’ve wanted to see in games for a while,” Stephen emphasized. “I’m a big fan of interaction in games between the player and the game world. We knew very early on that we wanted to have that strong sense of interaction, and we wanted to do it through combat.
“For both of us, we grew up in the golden age of video games: the time when game designers had to focus on gameplay, and didn’t have the luxury of focusing on graphics. So that’s what we’ve ultimately always strived to do is capture that player challenge, that player element. The player driving the story. The player driving the narrative. The player driving the interaction with the game world. Less than, you know, how some games are trying to capture the feel of cinema. Those are great games, of course, but for us it’s always been about the gameplay, about putting player skill front and center.”
For 2Ton, a lot about Unto The End is about retreating to gaming’s roots. Stephen wants to reignite that feeling of back-and-forth, of playing both defensively and offensively. Specifically, he explains that the game’s style of combat is actually inspired by Punch-Out!!, released initially in ‘87 for the NES.
“I know taking that as an inspiration might seem bizarre,” he said, “since that’s an over the shoulder, third person-y 3D kind of game. The influence we take from it is its accessibility. That, you know, Punch-Out is the type of game that about anybody could pick up. Anyone can beat Glass Joe, and go up through the ranks. And they can do that because Punch-Out has a very small set off moves. The enemies have very strong tells, you know, very easily readable. But those moves, when you combine them, and break them down, actually result in a very rich system.
“That said, we always wanted to leverage the juicy bits of 2D. Growing up in that golden age of gaming, we are very fond of 2D, so there’s some nostalgic elements there, but we also feel that 2D does things that 3D can’t do. And those two things – at a very basic level – are that it allows you to judge distance to an object, and it allows you to judge the height of something. You can judge if an attack is high, if it’s coming from above, or is it from below me. So we try to leverage those two things, and make everything in the game about those two things.
“Our game is about those little judgements. How can I encroach upon a guy, or create distance from a guy? How can I get two guys who are boxing me in to injure each other? Those are the nuts and bolts of our combat. It’s simple, when you come down to it. It’s just about reading and reacting to those two dimensions, the distance and the height, but when you combine it together, it’s approachable, but it has richness. Well, hopefully.”
A game already dripping with artistic influence and dramatic style, 2Ton is not afraid to push the idea of minimalistic, player-generated storytelling to maximum effect. One of the game’s most eye-catching features (or, perhaps, the complete opposite) is its complete lack of UI.
Stephen explained, “It’s interesting – if you put a health bar on the top left hand corner and then you have the focus of the combat around the character than as a human, you now have to split your attention between two areas. You have to kinda sometimes look at the health bar and kinda sometimes look at the character. So, from a gameplay perspective, that just didn’t make sense.
“Instead, when the character’s tired, he breathes heavy. The controller has a little bit of rumble. There’s a sound effect, different postures. When he’s injured, he bleeds, and has different stages of being bloody. We thought the art style, in its minimal illustrative form, would allow us to get away with that. In other games it wouldn’t necessarily work.”
Above all, Unto The End sets out to capture a feeling: the unhindered, uninhibited freedom of traversing Scotland’s Isle of Skye or exploring the Chilean Patagonia. It wants you to feel as rugged as its protagonist, making every step count, every movement of the blade, upwards or downwards, backwards or forwards. In its immersivity, it hopes that it may transport you there, in the mountains or in the caves without flashy gimmicks.