Yesterday we met Derek Bradley and Aurora44, the New Zealand-based indie team working on Ashen, a Microsoft-exclusive post-apocalyptic ARPG set in a dark landscape lit by volcanic eruptions.
Now, we’ll uncover more of what makes Ashen unique – from its stylised visuals, to its large shared world.
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“The core of Ashen is very much about forging relationships,” says Derek Bradely, developer at Aurora44. “It is an action-RPG, and we all know what those are about; we’ve all seen the Zelda games and things like Dark Souls or Darksiders. It fits into that vein, but the thing that’s interesting about it is that the only way that you meet the vast majority of the NPCs is through multiplayer.”
Put the pitchfork down. OSP haven’t forsaken you. Ashen takes a novel approach to passive multiplayer that Aurora hope will make their world feel more organic and intriguing, without compromising on immersion or player experience.
“You’ll go out into the world and someone else’ll run past you, and you’ll decide if you want to journey with them or if you want to bring them back to your town,” Bradley says. “When you do bring them back, they’ll become an NPC in your town.
“The world’s quite dangerous, and even making it back to your town together will be a bit of an arduous task, so surviving that journey together will always build a new story with that NPC. That is very much the core that everything sits around in Ashen.”
At this point, the thinking behind it is that together, players can create stories that no designer could ever come up with – removing the dead-eyed roboticism of some AI companions, in favour of more natural cooperation. Communication is limited however; there’s nothing immersive about bonding with xx-elitekwikscopes-xx.
“It’s quite interesting, because this is something that we’re still iterating a lot on,” explains Bradley. “It’s something that’s really important for us to get right, the channels of communication. Say after work you want to sit down and get immersed in a game, you don’t necessarily want to see someone’s gamertag pop up above their head and it’s something that you really don’t like for some reason; I’m sure we’ve all seen them.
“We don’t want people to be abusive in chat, even if they’re not abusive, just out of character in chat. So a lot of our communication is down to gestures we’re putting in, you can wave, you can point. But you can’t necessarily type to each other. The only way that you get to know each other is through actions, which is important; it’s the old saying actions speak louder than words. If someone proves themselves to you out there, then you might want to bring them back to your town.”
He continues: “The bond that you have with a player still persists in the town, you can send people things. So if you find someone that’s good, you want them in your town. If they’re not such a good person, they’re probably not going provide you much. You’ll get the base uses of the NPC, some extra crafting thing or something, but you’re not going to have them send you a weapon or anything else special.
“It’s something we’re constantly iterating on and improving, so it could always change. But as it stands, it’s more like Journey than Destiny, in that people just run past you. You’ll be connecting and disconnecting with other people on the fly all the time. No lobbies, no UI involved with it. We’re hoping to make it as unobtrusive as possible.
“Someone could lone wolf it. We’ll make sure there’s AI in place that if you don’t want to play with other people for some reason, your internet isn’t working, or anything like that, it’ll still be playable.”
Ashen’s overarching narrative centres around the return of light to a previously dark and mysterious world.
“I won’t say too much about it, because I think it would spoil the experience for anyone playing the game,” says Bradley.
“It’s a land that’s been dark for as long as anyone can remember, and suddenly there’s light in the world. So this is a new hope for humans who’re in the world that’re pretty much dying out. A lot of the narrative centres on you fostering your town in this light and trying to keep the light alive, doing what you can to flourish.
“The apocalyptic event is actually the most positive thing. Everything was completely dark, then this volcanic eruption, which sends ash up into the sky, which is why it’s called Ashen, holds a bit of energy to it, in that the fallout that sits in the atmosphere and the constant eruption lights the world. From that point of view, it is a giant explosion and something that’s quite startling and scary for the people who need the light, but at the end of the day, it’s salvation.”
While drawing inspiration from great RPGs and ARPGs, Ashen tries to strike out on its own and do something different.
“I remember playing the original Fallout games when I was younger,” Bradley says. “I think with those in particular I really liked their levelling up, S.P.E.C.I.A.L, system because each of the perks you chose had a bit of a story behind them. We do take a little bit from that, because we very much focus on the story behind everything in Ashen, as well as, not so much stats, but what things feel like. In terms of the broader spectrum of stuff that’s influenced us, I’d say visuals from Capy[bara] games like Sword and Sworcery. Stuff like Shadow of the Colossus is amazing. The scale of things, how stuff can tower over you, or the connection that you make with your horse. Things like Dark Souls are great, just the really snappy controls, mixed with a lot of weight in the weapons. There’s a lot of anticipation that makes the game feel very visceral or gritty.
“At the same time, we’re trying to do our own thing and depart from the stuff that we’ve seen too.”
Ashen incorporates traditional RPG elements, but Aurora are choosing to emphasise personal preference and taste over stats and abilities.
“You still level up in Ashen and all that kind of stuff,” says Bradley. “I think the main thing is that we’re not going to be too overt about the stats that’re underlying what’s happening. When you pick up a weapon, we want you to use it because you enjoy the feel of that weapon, like the status effects that it induces, maybe it makes enemies bleed and you like the pacing of the combat with that. We don’t particularly want people to throw that weapon away because they’ve found another one that does an extra one DPS. We want people to find their favourite weapon and go that way, and that philosophy bleeds into everything else that we do.”
That ethos plays into the fact that Ashen is the player’s story. You’re not put into the shoes of a character with their own thoughts and feelings, but a representation of yourself in this world. Ashen will let you make your own decisions, and won’t wait around for you to make up your mind.
“The player’s very much just you, whatever you bring to it,” Bradley explains. “That’s something that people have touched on a lot with that fact that there are no faces on our characters. That’s an important aspect for us, we’re not really enforcing much on what you need to be or what you need to do. Every single quest that you do, you don’t necessarily need to do it. You can choose to leave it.
“The world will move on without you. If you don’t do a quest, say someone needs you to feed their pig or something really simple like that, if you just don’t do it and come back the next day, maybe the pig’s died, because you didn’t feed it. You absolutely aren’t shoehorned into anything, as much as we possibly can while moving the story along.”
“As far as who the protagonist is, I think that’s ultimately decided by your actions,” he adds.
Aurora are trying to make it so these decisions are meaningful, and have a real and lasting effect on gameplay.
“We aren’t particularly going roguelite on this one,” says Bradley. “You have the same character and you can start a new character and it’ll be different. No two games will be the same because the NPCs that you happen to find out in the world are going to provide really different things and make it a different experience, no matter what.
“The other thing is that if you choose not to do a quest, or favour one side over another, then it’ll intrinsically change you game. It’ll be absolutely different. We simply hope to make sure that no two play-throughs are the same and that no two characters are the same.”
Ashen’s visual style is striking, combining cartoony, almost polygonal characters with deep, atmospheric lighting.
“The look of Ashen has gone through a lot of iterations,” Bradley says. “It’s been so long now that I can’t even remember the original spark that led the charge. We’ve worked on it for so long that it’s just become its own thing. It was a design decision to have the faceless people in the game so that you’re not judging people because of what they look like.
“Finding something that’s stylised and appealing has been important to us. People look at the characters, but we actually started more on the environments and the characters flowed on from there as things that fit into the world and feel natural.”
Aurora44 are building Ashen’s world piece-by-piece, rather than generating it procedurally. They hope that this will make everything feel cohesive, rather than thrown together by an algorithm.
“It’s all very much hand-crafted,” says Bradley. “There isn’t too much of a procedural element to the way that we’ve been building things. There’ll be a little bit of that, stuff like grass placement if you get down to the nitty-gritty of game development, but I don’t think that’s so important. But with the way that the land’s laid out, everything’s modelled by hand, designed, and it’s all got a story about it. It’s about planting secrets into the world and making a place interesting. You’ll come across things that seem more like societies, rather than randomly generated environments.”
The gameplay in Ashen focusses on scouring the landscape for treasure and resources, finding new NPCs and building up your home camp. Meeting new people and crafting new items are fundamental parts of character progression.
“The core loop is, pretty much, centred around exploring the world, going to complete quests and returning to bolster your town and make it stronger,” Bradley explains. “Anything you do to your town will ultimately make you stronger. A lot of the character progression we’re building into the game is very much linked to the NPCs that you’ve collected, what they provide you and how that works. It’ll be very hard to venture out when you first start, but as you get stronger you’ll be developing skills or acquiring tools that’ll make easier to move further out into the darkness.
“We’re not particularly going right down to the base level of harvesting minerals, but you can certainly find, say, an axe head out in the world, then some wood, bring it back to the town and get an axe crafted. You can do things like get the Ash Smith to upgrade weapons even further.”
Enemies in Ashen range from otherworldly creatures, to evil monsters and blood-thirsty outlaws – all of which the player stumble upon during their travels.
“If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have seen the giant sky whales,” says Bradley. “You can come across giants, you can come across twisted creatures of the dark that’ll be very dangerous. You can come across simpler creatures, I’m really a big fan of the rock buffalo things, you can see a glimpse of them in the trailer at the start. There’ll be herds of animals moving across plains.
“Desperate humans, bandits, cannibals, things like that. Stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily want to come across you can find too.”
Aurora are putting a lot of work into Ashen’s sense of scale. Just because the player shares a world with these creatures doesn’t mean they’re easy game. Humans aren’t at the top of the food chain in Ashen, and if the odds seem insurmountable, they just might be.
“I feel like in real life, it’d be almost impossible for a person with an axe to take down a sky whale,” Bradley explains. “In the trailer we show off this skeleton plant creature that crawls out of a chasm. That guy would be a perfect example of a boss. I think the really huge giants in the world, you might be able to do something with them, and you might be able to kill them. But one key aspect of Ashen is that we don’t want the player to feel like this world was crafted around them. It’s more like you’re getting put into this big, dark dangerous world. There are some things that just way too big for you.
“It’d be like an ant trying to take on a human. They can bug you, steal some of your dead skin or something, but there’s not a lot that they can do. We want players to meet things that aren’t meant for them to dominate. Just like a whale in real life. You couldn’t row out on a dingy and have a go at a whale.”
He continues: “Combat very much takes off from the standards of the action-RPG genre. Things like [The Legend of Zelda:] Wind Waker or Dark Souls, would be a good reference for what we’re doing. Of course, we’ve changed it a lot, but it’s kind of hard to explain without giving you a controller and letting you have a go at it.
“The combat has a skill-based aspect to it. I’d say it’s much more about what you do, rather than what your stats are or what weapon you’ve chosen.”
WHALES ALL ACROSS THE SKY
Ashen’s volcanic landscape will be big enough the easily accommodate its largest inhabitants, and will have an extensive network of tunnels and dungeons to explore.
“It’s going to be fairly big, because it’s open and we’re putting huge giants in it,” says Bradley. “It’s hard to speak of the ground size, because a lot of it’s underground; there’re multiple levels of things happening. But it’s a big open world that’ll take you a while to run through.”
Aurora44 are fully committed to making a great experience for players, and hope that comes across in Ashen.
“As a developer working on this game, we have a lot of fun making it, and I hope that seeps through to the experience players have,” Bradley adds. “It’s a very personal game, and it’s something that every single team member is here because they enjoy it. We hope players will enjoy it too.”