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Revitalizing A Genre In Anew: The Distant Light - A TLS Interview - Two Left Sticks
ANEW

Revitalizing A Genre In Anew: The Distant Light – A TLS Interview

At times every game has an uphill battle it needs to contend with. Despite whatever talent or originality it has, players compare it to other titles. This is particularly true of games in certain genres, such as the beloved Metroidvania sub-genre.

While this may discourage a developer from tackling such a beloved genre and the expectations that go with it, Resonator Games hopes to tackle the challenge head on. Recently formed, Resonator is kicking things off with their new sci-fi adventure game ANEW: The Distant Light, a Metroidvania the team hopes will honor and evolve the genre.

COMING TOGETHER

Resonator may be a new studio, but the pair behind it are industry veterans of studios such as Electronic Arts, Bioware, and 2K Games.

Coming from different studios, the Resonator team didn’t know each other before setting out to create ANEW. Instead, it was a bit of luck that the gears started to churn and their careers began anew.

“Steve [Copeland] and I had both left AAA development around the same time, and we were introduced to each other through a mutual friend (Tom Happ – “Axiom Verge”),” said ANEW Art Director/Sound Designer Jeff Spoonhower. “Steve and I hit it off, we collaborated on the themes and story of the game, and then got to work on an initial gameplay and art prototype to see if the seed for the game would work out. After a few months, we felt we had something good, and went into full production”

STARTING ANEW

It may seem crazy for a developer to leave a studio such as Electronic Arts and venture out on their own, but for Jeff and Steve, it was a logical step amidst the constant churn of AAA game development.

“I had great experiences working at the studios, making big games, and collaborating with some amazing people. Those jobs were tough, and required a lot of long hours,” Jeff said. “Working on our indie game has been liberating. We have been able to define every aspect of our game – the look and feel, music, gameplay – everything. With that freedom comes a tremendous amount of responsibility. Steve and I each “wear the hats” of 5-10 people in a typical studio production. It’s rewarding, and also an incredible amount of work. We’ve had to sacrifice a lot in our personal lives to make the game happen.”

CREATING THE ESSENCE

When it came to creating ANEW, Resonator had to take a step back and examine the genre as a whole. Should they do a direct ode to Metroid, or do a hybrid of sorts indicative of the market today like Forma.8?

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“The high concept was to try to capture everything we love about the genre,” said Steve Copeland, ANEW’s Game Director. “Build fluid movement and combat with deep mechanics, and be different where we can get away with it–either by taking some risks or by borrowing proven mechanics from other genres.”

RISKS WITHIN REASON

Resonator isn’t seeking to reinvent the wheel with ANEW, but rather present a different take on it that still works, and that people can appreciate.

“We are paying close homage to what, in our opinion, makes the genre special,” Steve said. “We want to satisfy the core audience and meet their expectations. That said, we also want players to find many things special and fresh with Anew: The Distant Light.”

To help build the unique atmosphere of ANEW, both Jeff and Steve are making sure not to follow the mistakes others have made. This includes bucking the traditional design conventions the Metroidvania genre sometimes has, and doing something unexpected.

“Some of the games that I love, though, perhaps could have had a bit deeper combat or less linear progressions,” said Steve. “Maybe somebody advised them to simplify things. But I don’t think a game needs to be complicated to have deep gameplay or to nail the classic high points of the genre. It can be great fun to revisit a location you’ve already explored if it plays completely different due to the equipment you’ve acquired.”

Jeff chimed in by saying, “I agree with Steve on making our game much less linear, and more open. We like that style of gameplay. But it also makes the design of the game (layout and flow of levels, locations of item pickups, etc) more challenging to design. I suspect that’s why other games in the genre may fall back on more linear level design techniques.”

A LARGE AND BEAUTIFUL WORLD

With a desire to make an open, less linear game, ANEW’s world is quite large. But rather than creating a vast space with not much to see or do, Resonator is making sure the world feel both alive and important.

“Our game world is quite large, but not arbitrarily so,” Steve said of the game world. “There’s a reason for every place to exist. Backtracking can be fun if an area has more secrets to be discovered and you’re equipped to discover more with each pass through.”

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“We’re going to great lengths to make sure each area in our game world looks, feels, and plays uniquely,” said Jeff. “When there is some backtracking, we want the experience to be fun! I also try to make each area in the world as beautiful and mysterious as possible, so it will never feel old when you pass through it multiple times.

“It’s been my goal to make the world feel organic, and real in the sense that it feels cohesive and immersive,” he continued. “it doesn’t look photorealistic, but I hope that the visual rules I’ve set up apply to everything in the world, from the environmental textures to the lighting, character designs, etc. It’s a very personal vision.”

EXOTIC CHANGES

Further helping the world of ANEW feel alive and exotic is a design emphasis on variety. Players will not only encounter new locations in the game but contend with new elements that change how scenarios such as combat.

“For a different environment to feel exotic, it has to change how the player moves, open up new threats and options in combat or puzzle solving,” said Steve. “The player will need to reevaluate their entire stack of equipment. Usually, you need to start with a basis of familiarity and expectation and then see how far you can push it.”

COMBAT DEPTH

One such way the team is injecting a fresh flavor is in the combat. While titles — such as Metroid — featured stunning combat for its time, it has aged. Despite this, not many other games in the genre have sought out to reinvent combat, either by will or perhaps by the minor restrictions the format presents. Though the mistakes made by others in the past aren’t stopping Resonator from offering combat in ANEW built on depth and satisfaction.

“Combat mechanics are rather deeper than some games in this genre and we’re designing for a high player skill cap. We’ve got a variety of unusual mobility options and some zone designs that are rarely seen. Crazy drivable vehicles, an expansive upgradable home ship, and a day/night cycle that affects gameplay are a few other twists that we don’t see too often in this genre,” stated Steve.

ANEW will also feature more pro-active weapons that suit what the player is encountering. This is a differentiating factor compared to titles that dole out weapons with incremental power. Of the weapons, Steve said, “Anew has diverse player weapons with minimal redundancy. They each have a variety of general and circumstantial benefits to combat and utility. So, expect to be changing weapons on the fly somewhat frequently, even mid-combat, if you want to play the best.”

A VARIED EXPERIENCE

Players can expect to utilize the weapons of ANEW in scenarios that will constantly evolve. Rather than stick with one formula, Resonator is injecting various elements. These range from vehicles, pure platforming, and even puzzles to create a tone fitting of exploring an alien world.

“A lot of the time it’s ‘build something cool’ and then find a place for it later,” said Steve. “It’s a long process of adding things that would be fun and iterating like mad. Sometimes an area can be packed with fun stuff but there’s not enough variety, which is important.”

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“It’s good to vary the kinds of skills or how the player moves, change up the intensity or difficulty. It’s okay to have a section where the player has a chance to appreciate the view or feel claustrophobia from crawling through a tight cave.”

Jeff and Steve’s differing tastes help create the design variety in ANEW. Of their collaboration, Jeff said, “Steve and I have different tastes in games – the types of games we enjoy playing. This is a great thing when it comes to designing our game world. We try to balance each other out and give the player lots of variety in the types of combat, puzzles, and platforming they will encounter.”

Continuing Jeff said, “One area may be combat heavy. Then after that, the player may pass through a very open, lonely visual space that helps to sell the “weird” alien world. And then after that, they may need to platform across a bunch of crazy moving platforms. It’s all about keeping the experience varied, fresh, and fun.”

VISUAL NARRATIVE

A common thread among most Metroidvania games is the lack of emphasis on story. It’s either that or the game comes to a screeching halt to present text heavy narrative sections. To avoid these pitfalls, Resonator is delivering the narrative of ANEW in an unexpected way.

“One of my high-level goals for ANEW is to tell a mysterious story through the use of visuals, sound, and music alone,” Jeff said. “This is a pretty unusual delivery technique for the genre we’re working in. So that will make our game feel even more unique.”

This direction stems not only from a desire to be different but because they want a format fitting of the weird world. Speaking more, Jeff stated, “I’m not a fan of reading long-winded blocks of expository text in games. I enjoy visual storytelling. Our narrative will be told through strange, almost surreal, playable spaces embedded in the world. A tease of this can be seen at the end of our current trailer when the player enters an infant’s bedroom.”

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STRIKING A CHORD

The previous expertise of the Resonator team is shown and is paying off within ANEW. Rather than try to mimic the success of another, the game is creating its own personality that’s fitting for the genre as well as making it feel modern. With this direction, ANEW will surely strike a chord among players once it’s finally released.

ANEW is currently targeting a mid-2018 release on PC, with a PS4/Xbox One port to follow shortly after. If you enjoy what you’ve seen of ANEW: The Distant Light, then feel free to lend your support to the on-going Kickstarter campaign.

Ian Fisher
A Chicago native, I'm a six year veteran of the game press industry with a deep passion for smaller indie games and all things Sony.

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