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How Afterlight Combines a Meaningful Story and Mesmerising Visuals — Exclusive Interview

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Afterlight

Afterlight landed on Kickstarter earlier this month, offering a sci-fi story of mental illness, backed up with moody, evocative visuals.

As the astronaut Xin, scarred by trauma after a catastrophic landing on Saturn’s moon Titan, players set out on an adventure to repair both an AI and Xin’s fractured mind in the puzzle-platformer format so powerfully realised in the likes of Inside and Black: The Fall. To learn more about this entrancing project, OnlySP reached out to Vic Franco, designer at developer Silent Road Games.

OnlySP: You’ve mentioned that the protagonist Xin suffers from trauma and what seems to be delusional disorder. How much of her mental illness is based on contemporary science, and what sort of specialists have you consulted with to ensure that your portrayal is both honest and respectful?

Franco: Xin has dissociative personality disorder based on the post-traumatic stress disorder after having seen her partners die—and other physiological and emotional conditions given by the long travel’s lack of habitability. To sum it up: if you do a long travel in a context where science hasn’t advanced enough to make hyper-light-travel or hyper-cryogenic-sleep possible, and you are forced to live together on a tiny space with people from very different cultures… There are a lot of problems and emotional issues that could prompt. If you look at the Mars 500 simulations, some astronauts just get depressed because they cannot get enough involved with people from different cultures on the simulation, that in long term, caused isolation -and, finally, depression. On that given scenario, just make the ship crash on landing. Survivors’ mental stability is impacted almost immediately.

We want to talk about the emotional side of the mental disorders—how those kinds of conditions contrive reality and twist the emotions. That is a very rare approach, more intimate, and, in the end, real. To do that, we count with a psychologist from ESA and NASA whose career is focused on emotional and behavioral features in the astronautical industry. Also, some other experts in psychology and medicine have been consulted, as well as senior game designers who have worked with such themes before.

OnlySP: Afterlight is a puzzle-based adventure game, right? How will you be adapting that core gameplay to fit the themes that you’re discussing?

Franco: In Afterlight, those themes are embodied by the relationship with the C.O.G.—Xin’s drone. I mean, you have to trust in its command to go on in the mission, but do you really have an alternative? Why does the C.O.G. always take you to places you must forget or avoid—and by being exposed to them, you get sick and, literally, make you hallucinate? Is it part of the therapy or is it a way to make you feel more suggestible, and therefore, more likely to be manipulated? We want to work on the “emotional agency,” in which your actions and decisions have more impact on what you feel.

OnlySP: Beyond the adventure gameplay, the Kickstarter page indicates that Xin will be accompanied by a kind of therapy robot called C.O.G. I’m wondering if your interactions with that assistant will be entirely linear or if there will be dialogue options based on Xin’s frame of mind?

Franco: Due to budget limitations, the non-linear features were cut very early in pre-production. The original draft of the game design document had some of those mechanics, but we thought that since Afterlight is our first game as a team, by doing this kind of non-linear story, there would be a lot more things that could possibly go wrong. So by that, we limit the interactions with the C.O.G. to be more linear. However, their communication will change depending on Xin’s mental state—as how the story is being developed in that given moment.

OnlySP: Beyond the interactions with C.O.G. and the gameplay, how else will those discussions of mental illness manifest throughout the game?

Franco: We are working in game design terms to adopt some elements from mental disorder. Those elements will be shown by Xin’s cognitive experience as well. As you can see, in the “silhouette” scene, she is having an hallucination as a flashback triggered by seeing one of her partners’ corpse on the ground.

OnlySP: Setting aside the theme, the other thing to really catch my eye was that gorgeous art style you have. You mention Lebbeus Woods and Andrei Tarkovsky as inspirations. Can you maybe talk to me about how the works of those creators speak to you and how you’re implementing that into the game?

Franco: Lebbeus’s works talk about the matter of struggle and the scars and marks the conflict leave on things. To us it’s about how humankind is obsessed to spread the species along the cosmos—and by doing that, how we pollute and transform everything in our reach. In Afterlight, we want to represent humans like the aliens on a planet. And Lebbeus’s philosophy talks about it almost directly. We are “earth forming” Titan in a way; we are “conquering”; and we are “leaving our mark” in there on the struggle with nature itself.

From Tarkovsky we are taking his pictorial approach for the emotional dimension of characters. We love how he works with natural lighting and how he composes the frame in order to get a precise representation of the emotional state of the characters. Also, he uses a lot the most superficial aspect of texture, to catch your eye on a particular element or to compose—the same kind of techniques are done in Inside.

OnlySP: You also mention Journey and Inside as artistic inspirations, but in the overall atmosphere, I also feel echoes of Firewatch and Shadow of the Colossus, and that’s got me wondering about what else you’ve drawn from?

Franco: We refer a lot those games—such as Inside and Journey. But also we’ve lot of inspiration from Hyper Light Drifter—the companion is inspired by theirs—and GRIS for the cinematic elements and the care on the emotional aspects of mental conditions.

You point at Fumito [Ueda]’s work, but we are highly influenced by his inspiration, the Greek painter Giorgio de Chirico.

OnlySP: You also mention that you’re using symbolism to incorporate narrative and theme into the environment. Could you maybe give me a quick example of that in action?

Franco: An example could be the mythological elements that confine allegorical meaning into characters or core elements of the story like Prometheus, Argus, Demiurge, etc. In the environmental staging, we will introduce more graphic representations for symbolism as well.

OnlySP: Another thing that has me intrigued is the puzzle design. You’ve mentioned that they will be based on physics and logic. Does that mean that you’re consciously avoiding the obtuse puzzle designs that you sometimes find in these kinds of games?

Franco: Yes, we are completely avoiding the “meta-puzzle” stuff. We want to do a game in which everything is diegetic and based on the core elements we offer to the player.

OnlySP: Also, how varied will those puzzles be? You mention pushing and pulling on objects and interacting with devices. Is that the full extent of player agency within the game world?

Franco: We want to give as many “Eureka moments” as we can. We are designing Afterlight in a way in which common genre mechanics turns into “wow” moments by hiding their superficial aspects in order to change its function. For example, Inside turns a pig—a threat—into a box—a tool—after a simple interaction. We are working on that kind of stuff.

That way we can talk about agency in terms that interactivity sometimes will bring changes on the nature of the elements we introduce in the game in particular moments.

OnlySP: Let’s talk a bit more about that world. How dense exactly is the gamespace that you’re currently envisioning? You mention roughly four hours of gameplay without including secrets, but what would you estimate is the uppermost limit for players to see everything Afterlight has to offer?

Franco: We want to make the players explore the “Kraken Mare” landscape. But due to our budget, the secret areas and stuff are currently depending on our Kickstarter performance. We have a lot to show, a lot to tell. Luckily, we are working on the environmental narrative in order to tell more with fewer words. But there is going to be a lot of lore unseen if we don’t reach some stretch goals.

OnlySP: From a creative standpoint, why have you chosen Titan as the setting? What does the far-flung sci-fi world offer that a more ‘grounded’ premise doesn’t?

Franco: Titan is way less used in sci-fi than Mars or the Moon. At first we set our astronaut’s story on Mars, but we wanted to make it more dramatic and in a balance between hard sci-fi and a more creative scenario.

The sci-fi aesthetic is because we love how this kind of story can bring some special conditions to use symbols and relationships. Think about Moon from Duncan Jones or Solaris from Tarkovsky. Another reason could be that in videogames, this aesthetic tends to be more attractive—and by that, profitable.

OnlySP: The description seems to promise a rather considerable background to this world. How much of that will be embedded in the game? How much will players learn about this universe just from exploring it?

Franco: We are working to let the players know about how Xin and her drone ended in those particular conditions. And I’m talking about the game’s lore and the previous story that make Xin lose her mind. I mean, we are going to introduce dialogues, flashbacks, and hallucinations, as well as other narrative elements—like environment. We have crafted a whole and solid story, and we are still working on how to communicate properly to the players.

OnlySP: How long have you been working on Afterlight, and what previous experience is the team bringing to the table?

Franco: Our creative and pre-production phases started in February 2018, but we didn’t start coding and prototyping until August.

Most of the team has already shipped some games—at least tiny games for Mobile and publicity campaigns. Others had work on the audio-visual industry as producers for years.

This is our first game as a team in Silent Road Games, but everyone has some kind of expertise in their field.

OnlySP: Given the track record of crowdfunded games, I have to ask about how confident you are that you’ll be able to meet your Q3 2020 release target. Do you have plans in place to ensure you do? Will you still aim for that same window if this crowdfunding campaign comes up short?

Franco: Our roadmap has been designed to ensure that. But we are also kind of concerned about the porting aspect—if we hit the stretch goals.

We think we can deliver the game in time, but sometimes a publisher can come into the equation, and you have to change all your plans—mostly for the better. I’m talking about other cases for games from Kickstarter, to make it clear.

In the end, there are many variables, but nowadays and sticking to the plan, we are achieving our milestones. Therefore, we have reasons to trust in our calculations.

OnlySP: If you end up needing more time, will you communicate that openly to fans? One of the biggest complaints I see isn’t necessarily that people are upset at delays, but rather at being kept out of the loop.

Franco: Absolutely. Our philosophy is to be in touch with community, because they are trusting in us from the very beginning. Although, if we think we need more time to make the game better, they are going to be the very first to know.

OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers about the game, your team, the campaign or anything else at all?

Franco: I want to thank you all for all the caring comments and enthusiasm you are bringing to us. But also I have to make a call to action in order to spread the word.

Afterlight needs funding, and we are true believers of the crowdfunding spirit—that Kickstarter packs creators and players in a unique way into the development. Definitely, allowing all of us to be part of the emotion of creation.

We have been active backers to other campaigns for years, and we think that the true power remains in the community, and I mean all of you. By working together, we are going to build a bigger, stronger, and better Afterlight!

Thank you very much!


Afterlight is currently targeting a late 2020 release date. At the time of publication, the game had attracted more than half of its Kickstarter funding goal with 17 days remaining.

For all the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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E3 2019

How Final Fantasy XV’s Lead Game Designer is Making a Rhythm Game — An Interview With No Straight Roads Developer Metronomik

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No Straight Roads game art 5

Wan Hazmer’s journey is an interesting one. Having worked at Square Enix on games such as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XV, Hazmer left the studio in 2017 to start his own development studio, Metronomik. The studio’s first game, No Straight Roads, is a music-based action-adventure game where players must fight the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) empire as an independent rock band.

OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Hazmer about the game’s inspiration, gameplay, and art design.

OnlySP: What inspired you to make No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I am a big rhythm gamer. I used to be really good since Beatmania 1 so that’s more than 15 years of experience playing rhythm games. I used to go to the arcades every week and spend like $50 just to play music games. (Laughs) Whenever I invited my friends to play rhythm games with me, they always said “I’ll just watch you play.” It baffles me because everyone loves music; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love music. I think the problem is the way [music] participates in gameplay. Music is only used in two ways in games: soundtrack or rhythm games. I think everyone has rhythm sense. If I were to give you a guitar, and you didn’t know how to play the guitar, of course you’d admit you’d have no rhythm sense.

I feel like, when you listen to a song maybe five times, then you’ll know when the chorus is supposed to come even before it comes. I want everyone to use that musical instinct to play the game and that’s why we have the enemies follow the music. The input, the participation that you have in the game isn’t a pure action game. Other inspirations also include other rhythm games. Rhythm games’ stories are something I like as well, like Space Channel 5, Guitaroo Man and even games that put a lot of emphasis on music. I think you noticed that the outer stars remind me of Jet Set Radio. The word ‘radio’ is in Jet Set Radio despite it not being a rhythm game. [Jet Set Radio] was such an influence and I still have the soundtrack.

No Straight Roads game art 2

OnlySP: How would you say your experience on other games contributed to No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: Back when I was working on Final Fantasy XV, one of the biggest things about the game was that we had to make sure that Final Fantasy becomes relevant again. [Part of that] falls into how you travel in the world so we thought “What is one of the most current way of travelling romantically?” and we thought “road trip” and it’s the core experience in Final Fantasy XV. We spent a lot of cost and effort into making sure that that core UX does its job. We had to photograph an AI, Prompto, and that was actually very difficult to pull off. Can you imagine an AI taking a photograph of you? He’s a very bad photographer at first, but he gets better and better. The user experience is an emotional connection to the game.

I also wanted to make sure that [No Straight Roads] has a UX that everyone can adhere to and that’s something that is very relevant. With relevance, we talk about rock vs EDM. It’s a classic tale of “my taste is better than yours.” And another is “your music can change the world” is our big core UX. We have the transformation of the props into weapons. We also have three channels of music: backing, melody, and rhythm. We multiply that by that by three genres of music rock, EDM, and a boss specific genre [for the demo, it was disco]. Depending on the situation, depending on the story, depending on how you perform, we actually switch one of the channels to EDM, one channel to bass, and one channel to rock. There’s a lot of music going on in the game and we only do it if we know that it is going to sell something for the UX. That’s something I got from my Final Fantasy XV experience.

OnlySP: How was it like creating the music and implementing it in the game?

Hazmer: I am very lucky to have four composers who are very talented. One of them is Falk [Au Yeong]; he’s the music director. He actually used to work with me on Final Fantasy XV where he was a mixing engineer for the music. When you travel to Hammerhead, for example, a gas station in Final Fantasy XV, when you enter a diner the music starts changing a bit. We were discussing dynamic music for a long time. We also have James Landino who is working on the EDM tracks—he [worked on] Cytus [2], Kingdom Hearts, and Final Fantasy as well. We have Pejman [Roozbeh] who is more of a funk/disco kind of guy, and Andy [Tunstall] who worked on rock.

What I love about working with these four composers is that they know the technicalities involved with implementing music in games. What we do is we come up with the concept for the boss first. We have a DJ who thinks he’s the center of the universe and he’s going to spin some planets. After that, we pass it to the musicians. They compose really great music and they pass it back to us and they understand that there are three channels and the programming involved. There are a lot of times when you make a video game, you outsource the music in the last minute. I really wanted the musicians to be involved from very early on so they are actually involved in the game design process as well.

OnlySP: In the demo, I noticed I got to play as two characters. Are there only going to be those two characters?

Hazmer: Yes. The concept seems like there could fit another person here. (Laughs) You can only control two characters, but there’ll be a bunch of bosses. You can actually play couch co-op as well, so one person can be Mayday and the other Zuke.

OnlySP: About how long would you say the game would be?

Hazmer: 10–15 hours. When you defeat a boss, although there are some RPG elements in it (like giving buffs to your weapons), but I don’t want to go with the New Game Plus route, so I’m [following] more of a Sonic or racing game [style] where once you complete a particular level, you can actually challenge the level again in a different difficulty. So there will be difficulties where you’ll have to parry almost everything in order to survive. For example, when you’re playing the game you only hear rock when you’re almost defeating a boss, you can play an entire boss fight in rock.

No Straight Roads gameplay screenshot 1

OnlySP: How did you go about selecting the genres of music for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: First of all, we came up with interesting bosses in the game. My co-founder, Daim [Dziauddin], he’s really big into storytelling and he always wonders why people play music. We didn’t want this game to be a game about a bunch of bosses, who are awesome and big and that’s about it. Every single one of these artists has a reason to play music. From there, we see what kind of genre fits them very well. For example, we came up with a DJ who is egocentric and he thinks that he’s the center of the universe and, bam, the sub theme is space. From there, we figured we can do some disco and some Flash Gordon kind of things, and that’s how the genres came about.

OnlySP: Are there any plans to add in some post launch content?

Hazmer: Definitely. This is still all in talks, so it is not confirmed at all. I would love to collaborate with other games or different artists so that we can get their branding into the game [such as a being a boss in the game]. That’s one of the dreams for this game. Once we finish the game, I really want to collaborate, organically, with many different musicians.

OnlySP: Of the genres of music that are not in the game, what would you say would be the first one you’d want to put in post launch?

Hazmer: Oh wow. That’s quite difficult. I kind of like jazz in a way so jazz would be nice. Jazz and EDM would be really cool. (Laughs) I really like jazz, so I think a jazz boss would be really cool.

No Straight Roads game art 3

OnlySP: What influenced the art style for No Straight Roads?

Hazmer: I made a lot of realistic games and wanted to run away from realism. We thought that the characters in the game [don’t] have to be a human skin color. So we were looking at a lot of American cartoons like Steven Universe. The other thing is the funky art style of games that don’t take themselves too seriously like Tim Schafer games like Psychonauts. Sometimes ugliness is beautiful and beauty is ugly. In terms of the poses for the characters, we love ourselves some Jojo. (Laughs) Poses for us are very very important.


For all the latest from No Straight Roads and more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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