Interview

How the Inferiority of Humanity in Pine Informs Every Aspect of Gameplay — An Interview With Developer Twirlbound

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In development since 2016, Pine had a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter before securing further support from publishers. Inspired by Darwinian theory, the team behind the game has tried to create a living environment that will change in response to how the game is played.

As the other species in the world are as advanced as humanity, with their own cultures and societies, players have to carefully plan out their approach to survive. This is even more important as NPCs will adapt to individual combat styles. A stylized colorful look and mysterious story mean that Pine promises to be a unique experience.

In just a few weeks time, fans will be able to finally get stuck into the world of Albamare. With developer Twirlbound announcing that Pine will launch on October 10, creative director Matthijs van de Laar spoke to OnlySP about what players can expect from the game.


OnlySP: You’ve mentioned several times that the Legend of Zelda series has been a big influence. What specific parts of Pine have been inspired by those games?

van de Laar: As Zelda fans ourselves, we started making Pine with the idea to make a cross-platform, colorful, open-world action adventure game. We thought, and still think, that there aren’t enough games like that on PC. If the Zelda series taught us anything, it’s how to make a lovable, mechanic-driven action-adventure game that has heart and depth, and with Breath of the Wild they added a plethora of amazing open world design to that. For Pine, other action-adventure series and RPGs like Fable, The Witcher, and Horizon: Zero Dawn have been as much of an influence in terms of world and system design, but Zelda brings that special something to people, something that non-Nintendo platforms could use a bit of too.

OnlySP: Your Kickstarter mentions Bloodborne as something that has similar combat mechanics to Pine. Does that mean players can expect a difficult or unforgiving game like those typically made by FromSoftware?

van de Laar: While we don’t want to give such a tough and unforgiving experience to players, the dynamics of the combat—it being physical and more thoughtful—have definitely inspired us. The Kickstarter has been a while ago and the combat has evolved a lot ever since, but our vision was to try and avoid hack-and-slash and thoughtless combat, in favor of promoting the species as intelligent and more capable than the human player character. It’s a bit dance-like, as we always say, and that’s a vision that held up quite well!

OnlySP: We know that Pine is coming to PC and Switch later this year. Are there any plans to bring the game to other consoles? If not, can you explain why you’ve chosen to focus on those two platforms?

van de Laar: We definitely think Pine fits all the consoles really well. While our first focus is PC and Switch, we can see a PS4 and Xbox One version happen later down the line. In fact, Switch is a harder platform to develop for, so anything in between—in terms of performance and capabilities—will be easier to do for us.

OnlySP: What gameplay possibilities have been opened up by having the human character inferior to the other species?

van de Laar: That little piece of story context has laid the groundwork for a lot of what the game is doing. The main drive is your dependency on these species—you, as a human, don’t step into the world as a classic act of heroism, but out of desperation. You need to find a new home for the humans—not an easy task, and so, you’ll need help with that from anyone who wants to listen.

So, right after entering the open-world, you’ll notice that that’s not easy—species will be hostile, as well as some of the critters roaming the world. You’re not carrying much, so you’re basically at the mercy of others—only by donating to villages and helping them, you will find more and more help in return, which gets you further towards your goals. This has been a really fun core pillar to explore, in terms of how we could make the world feel hostile but fair, and how we could make the player start out powerless but feel strong and determined to get the job done.

Another large theme that emerges from this is that of knowledge and learning—the story is very much about Hue trying to learn from all these alien species and experiences, as well as the history of the island and the place of the humans within it.

The context of inferiority is pushed through in all other mechanics, too. The whole world being continuous and simulated without the player’s involvement means that the player is, by definition, only capable of making changes through indirect actions. You’re not a hero or a god in this world—you’re merely a human, and will have to figure out how to make ripples in this simulation with your human hands.

OnlySP: Pine is an ambitious project for such a small team. What have been the biggest challenges developing a game with such a large scope?

van de Laar: The small team size has always been the most important theme in our production. We started doing this project right out of school, simply because it’s a dream game to make and we knew how to do it. We also knew it was a bit crazy—an open world action adventure game is not an easy task. But we created the opportunity to do it, and went all-in.

In retrospect, the most challenging aspect has been building the “normal” stuff. While we started out with the unique and experimental mechanics, we then had to build all the open world technology from scratch, as well as a good combat system, puzzling system, exploration system, and crafting system. To top it all off, we had to build a unique questing system that would serve as an umbrella over all other systems—one that would take into account that the player might need to go to a chief, but that chief might not exist, or it’s not the species we need at that time, because the simulation made it so. Making all these systems solid took most of the development time, while still having to allow ourselves enough time for the more undefined and experimental features—such as the simulation.

OnlySP: One of the most interesting things about Pine is the evolutionary system. Is this limited to AI learning your own playstyle or is it more intricate than that?

van de Laar: It definitely grew much more intricate than that indeed. In fact, the ‘simple’ evolutionary systems that we talked about around our Kickstarter campaign have become a much smaller focus for us over the course of the project. The systemic design of the simulation proved to be so much more interesting—so instead of organisms evolving and trying to work with patterns and defined playstyles, it was even cooler to see the world change, evolve and adapt to how you approached situations.

As the game grew out bigger, this ‘sandbox’-like experience became our main priority, with the theme of evolution and adaptation worked throughout all these designs.

OnlySP: How do you expect players to respond to a world that is constantly adapting to how they are playing?

van de Laar: We think it’s important that the player does not know everything, but at least has the chance to observe and learn everything. As they play more and more, they’ll understand more and more of the intricacies of the simulation and everything that comes with it.

The best parts of the game are when unexpected stuff happens, and to then see how players react to it. We figured out early enough that if we try to communicate everything that’s happening in the game to extreme detail, it’s going to wear the player out, and it doesn’t matter for the end experience.

A good example is village trading: if two villages trade with each other, and the player sees this trade happen, it’s not important to show if the trade worked and what items were exchanged. Instead, the player can see the village inventory before and after the trade, and might become curious as to what the trader brought new into the village.

OnlySP: Developers often take inspiration from other series but have to be careful so that they don’t become derivative. What have you done to ensure that the different elements of Pine are distinctive and help set the game apart from its influences?

van de Laar: Our game does a lot of very unique things, with the systemic simulation being at the core of every mechanic and story beat. We look at the best RPGs, open-world games, and action-adventure games to see what makes those tick, and we think we’ve combined many interesting ideas from all of the well-known ones into a unique mix.

Most of that distinction comes from the unique setting that they set out to make. Almost automatically through building and designing our world, certain smaller mechanics make larger systems more unique. For example, we wanted to make sure that the player could eat food to heal during combat, but we didn’t think it was fair to the other species that you could do that from the safety of the menu. From that emerged a pinning system where you can pin and eat food in-game, but also the mechanic that species will eat their own food while in combat. This changed the dynamic of fights very much, as you’re not just fighting an enemy, but a creature that wants to survive too.

OnlySP: Are there any aspects of Pine that you are particularly excited to see players get to grips with?

van de Laar: We’re super excited to see how people will solve the simulation-related problems that the main quest gives you. For example, one of the earlier quests is about appealing to a larger village by helping them upgrade, in order to get rid of a fence in front of a place you need to go in to. But some players already figured out that they might as well remove the fence by force.

These sandbox-like scenarios are so much fun to see, because that’s where all the work in the systemic designs really pays off.

OnlySP: Pine was funded with the help of a successful Kickstarter. What made you go down this route rather than a more traditional publishing model?

van de Laar: We actually did go down the publishing route—we knew and announced before the Kickstarter already that it would be exactly that, a kickstart. It’s very hard to fund a team of seven for this long on just a crowdfunding, so we mainly got the second year of development out of it and an awesome loyal community. After that we partnered up with Kongregate, who’s been helping us get to the finish line ever since!

Starting with crowdfunding was very good for us. It allowed us to gauge interest in the concept, get funding, and also that great Kickstarter community and a bit of an online presence.

Twirlbound Pine

OnlySP: The Kickstarter campaign makes reference to past civilizations and the vaults scattered throughout the in-game world would suggest there was some kind of ancient race that came before the other species. Does Pine develop this backstory to give a richer history of the world?

van de Laar: For sure—in fact, most of the main quest is about this history. A lot has happened on the island, and for a long time the humans have not been around and Hue must figure out what happened, as he’ll learn that that’s his best shot at finding a new place to live.

We also give a lot of background for the species. All of them have a pretty big quest dedicated to them, their personalities and history. Other than that, there are also some ancient forgotten species that have left their marks on the island, and there are some side characters that we try to explain a bit of backstory of too. We think there’s plenty to discover!

OnlySP: How long do you think it will take most players to complete the main story and will there be extra content or gameplay incentives to convince players to keep coming back?

van de Laar: It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but so far the game seems to be between 15 and 20 hours. Some of the Kickstarter backers who have been playing the beta have been playing a lot longer for that, and that only includes the first third of the game. There’s a lot of things to explore and discover—for example, if you want to get all the outfits in the game, you’ll easily spend double those numbers.

Pine

OnlySP: You’ve been in development for more than three years now, how does it feel to finally be nearing the end? Do you currently have any plans for what you’ll do afterwards?

van de Laar: It’s very crazy! Internally we started on Pine a bit over four years ago, and the first experiments (without the Pine label back then) were done even four and a half years ago. It’s been such a crazy ride—from working at home to getting an office, from crowdfunding, to publisher. We’ve learned so much in all this time and we’re particularly grateful for how well the team has stuck together and how well we can work together.

After Pine is a bit unsure—the game definitely will have to do well enough for us to continue. If that’s the case, there are dozens of ideas we can continue with, of which a few are very good candidates. But we also think that if Pine does well enough, there’s plenty of room for some DLC.

OnlySP: Finally, do you have anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

van de Laar: Not really—only that we hope everyone will enjoy Pine when it’s out and that everyone can get as immersed in the world of Albamare as we have been!


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

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