The recent resurgence of pixel art has brought forth a slew of wonderful new games, from more artistic pieces like Fez or Hyper Light Drifter to frantic arcade titles like Broforce or Luftrausers, today’s modern technologies have breathed fresh life into a once dying art style.
Hoping to plant his own flag atop the mountain of modern pixel games is developer Nick Barr with his new title Ara of the Wanderers. I had a chance recently to talk to Nick about the process of getting Ara from his head and onto his screen.
“I’ve been working on this for two years, and really even a bit longer,” said Nick. “I was working on another game called Pequod that ended up being the proof of concept for Ara. Pequod was the first game I had ever finished. It took a year to complete, but even as I was developing it I had this idea in my head of a bigger game that I really wanted to do.”
As is often the case when I talk to developers, I was interested in hearing about Nick’s own history in the world of videogame development.
“I was 16 I think when I first tried programming,” said Nick. “At the time I found it to be a bit too daunting, so I figured it wasn’t a thing I’d pursue professionally. Instead I went into design and advertising.
“I guess the first real game I made was when I designed a physical card game. I found out during that process that finding places to print your card game and provide it to a customer at a very, very low cost is a hard thing to do. Apparently that’s why card games are sometimes $50 or $60. I knew I wanted this card game to be like $30, but I couldn’t find anywhere that would’ve printed it at a reasonable price. It ended up not being a viable project because the printing was too expensive.
“During that time though I had begun learning programing on the side. It was all self taught kind of stuff, but one day I realized I could actually program. Until then programming had been the one thing that was really holding me back from doing these things I really wanted to do. I knew I could do art, I could do music, and I could do the design work; but programming had always stumped me until that one day when it just kind of clicked.
“I’m still not a high level programmer or anything, but what I had figured out really motivated me to do Pequod. Working on that game I found I’m kind of weird in that I actually like to work on really long projects. I know I see a lot of developers who make these small games in six months or something and then they move on to something else, but I was definitely more into the idea of just kind of doing these giant projects that take two to five years, especially because I wanted to have all these really immersive components in my games.”
TAKING THE SCENIC ROUTE
Moving on from Pequod was a simple step for Nick, but a time consuming one.
“My main focus recently has only been on this. I’ve got a day job that I work for twenty or so hours a week, but working on Ara has basically become a full time job. Forty hours a week I’ve been working on Ara and an ongoing part of that process had been trying to find other people who are really passionate about games to help with the workload. For the most part that’s been a lot of failure. I’ve talk to a number of people who initially seem to be really excited about it, but then they’ll go and tell me we could make a lot of money off of it or we could monetize it in this way or that way.
“I understand there has to be a bottom line, but I’m doing making Ara because I have to – no matter what. Even if I knew it wasn’t going to make money I’ve got to do it. So for a while I had definitely been more or less doing this all by myself – though I have found some really good people along the way. For the past two years Kim Piper, my girlfriend, has been consistently doing all Ara’s animations. – and that’s obviously been a really successful partnership. TECHTAX is doing the sound design for Ara and totally brings to the table the same passion and excitement for the project that I have. Otherwise it’s been me designing, programming, and doing all the art.”
On social media Nick has branded Ara as “an immersive adventure game about consequences and acceptance”. Lots of games over the past decade have dabbled with the idea of choice, but I hadn’t recalled often hearing games explicitly talk about dealing with consequence. Nick and I talked more about why he chose to market the game this way.
“That idea of having a consequence based game actually came about because that’s what I wanted to see in games,” said Nick. “I see a lot of games that are based on choice, but I wanted to make a game that’s at its heart about the consequences of those choices. It’s probably hard to really identify the difference there, but I really really think there’s a lot of meaning to be explored down a thread about consequences. With choice-based games you usually have more knowledge about what’s going on, but I want to get the player to do things where they don’t know what’s going to happen and they have to kind of roll with changes. It won’t be too extreme – you won’t just die or get ‘game over’ – it just means you’ll go down a different avenue.
“Even though the story is still kind of a work in progress there’s one thing I know will be in the game that drives Ara to do what she does, and it will be something that horrifies her. She’ll regret her actions, but the rest of the game will be her dealing with the consequences of that event. She ends up being followed by these people because of what she did. So she’s being followed by these people, but she also has to deal with the psychological effects of what happened. I wanted that to have some weight.
“I noticed that sometimes players are obsessed with playing the way they want to play, so I wanted to have a narrative where there’s some key moments they don’t have control over that they’ll just have to react to.
“Some other big inspirations within the game are movies like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, some Quentin Tarantino stuff as well. Thematically the story will feel a lot like a Western even though the world will feel very Japanese inspired.”
A WORLD FROM THE GROUND UP
The world of Ara of the Wanderers is being built by Nick from the ground up. Beyond the humanesque characteristics of the protagonist and a smattering of civilians, Nick is working to make everything else is his game something no one has ever seen before. Ara’s plants, animals, gizmos, and gadgets will all be created to specifically live with the world of Ara of the Wanderers. Nick wants Ara to be as immersive to the player as possible, and creating a coherent world was step one.
“The biggest inspirations for the game are Fez – I can’t hide that – and then a lot of Miyazaki films,” said Nick. “Those kind of lush, green environments I see those in Miyazaki films just kill me every time I look at them; and I wanted my world to create that same kind of feeling for the player.
“I’ve been creating and building this world for five plus years, and I have a whole mess of creatures and races and people – and it’s not Earth – it’s totally an original place that I’ve been building for a long time that I wanted to see come to life. So you won’t see cats in it or anything like that. Instead there will always be some weird animal or some weird person. I’ve tried to make everything as unique as I possibly can. Worlds like that are the ones that really draw you in. The Hyper Light Drifter, Fez type worlds – I’m so drawn to that. I just really want thoughtful art and worldbuilding. That’s what pulls me in.
“So we’re calling it an ‘immersive adventure game’. I’ve always been interested in these kinds of games where you have some choices about what to do, but beyond that I’ve always been interested in games where the physics in the world allow you to interact with everything at a more realistic level. I saw a lot of those kinds of elements in Breath of the Wild, and I thought that was awesome; but I knew wanted to do these things in a 2D setting in an adventure game. I figured if Zelda was getting on board with that kind of gameplay, why aren’t more people doing any 2D games with these elements?
We talked it bit about how Nick intended to go about incorporating some of these more grounded physical mechanics, and he told me that in large part it would be through the game’s puzzles.
“Lots of the immersion in Ara comes from world, but some of it comes from the world’s puzzles and how you go about interacting with them,” said Nick. “I decided early on that I wanted to get rid of a lot of UI. I just want Ara to interact with things in the game, I don’t want thing to pop up and say ‘hey now you’re picking a lock’. I’m trying to find all these ways to visibly show the things she can do and the things she can interact with without putting any extra UI in the game. Kind of like how Fez does it or Journey does it, where they don’t push you into some UI, you just kind of organically manipulate these objects or puzzles. I think that’s way more immersive.
“A lot of the puzzles are what I’m calling ‘isolated puzzles’, meaning you can just go up to them and interact with it without needing any special item or milestone or anything to trigger that event. To use the example of a locked door, there are a lot of different ways you could get in: I know there will be bombs – which, I know is pretty nondescript, lots of games have bombs – and maybe one of those can blast through the door; maybe you can bribe somebody to help you get in; or maybe there’s a back door. There’re a lot of different ways to solve some of these problems. There’s some physics I’m working on where you can push things around and solve some puzzles that way.
“There’ll be lots of different items you can accumulate over the course of the game. I have plans for water based bombs that will help grow things or trigger things that will help solve puzzles, fire based bombs to help light torches and stuff like that, and energy cells for powering up old technology – lots of things that will help you interact with the world if there are obstacles in your way. It’s not a Metroidvania though where once you have an item you have it for the rest of the game, you actually have to collect these and use them up.
“In general it’ll be a slower adventure game, it will be a lot of walking, and not so much action per se. You’ll control the character using a controller – it won’t be point and click. And it’s not an open world game in the traditional sense, but it’s not necessarily a linear game. There’s a lot of branching paths that you’ll be able to go down that I hope will get people to play the game multiple times – kind of like with newer games like Deus Ex, Dishonored, those kind of titles where you can play the game in different ways many times.
“And there will be a ton of secrets. I want to put lots of stuff in the game that you can talk to your friends about say, ‘Oh I went down this area’ and maybe your friend never found that when they played through it.”
My final question for Nick was about an hourglass symbol present in the title graphics for Ara of the Wanderers and whether or not there was any hidden meaning therein. He was pretty tight lipped about it, but he did confirm that in addition to the idea of consequences, time will be a very important motif of the game. His exact words were, “ I can’t get too into it right now, but I will say this: Ara only has so much time”. Do with that what you will.