In late 2016, a UK outfit known as Freesphere Entertainment announced what would be its first game: Tether, a first-person narrative adventure following a 45-year-old mother aboard a space station bound for Mars. With its stripped-back mechanics, lonely atmosphere, and narrative focus, comparisons between Tether and the likes of Gone Home and SOMA were almost inevitable, putting it among some of the finest company of recent years.
Only a few months later, the development team went back to the drawing board, directing its efforts towards a new prototype that put more of a premium on mechanical complexity and gameplay depth. According to the project’s creative director Mark Gregory, the first public showing of this second prototype at MAGFest in February 2018 was met with considerable excitement. “You can see photos on our social media channels with about 20 people crowding around the screen watching it in action, and there were also people walking away saying, ‘You need to check out this game. You need to play it.’”
According to Gregory, this uplifting reception provided the team with a renewed sense of confidence in what it was creating. However, just six months after that event, the project was put on indefinite hiatus.
OnlySP recently spoke to Gregory to find out more about the ideas that Tether was set to explore and how it reached its current impasse.
In the game, players would step into the role of Lesleigh Hayes, a mother separated from her family by her job as a physicist; users would join her aboard the UEF Sonne, a space shuttle she shared with a malevolent entity. However, this adversary would not be the driving force of the game. Instead, the title was set to explore a topic nearer to the hearts and minds of many users: the struggle of attaining of a sustainable work-life balance.
Gregory says this choice of subject was inspired by personal experience, though Tether would take it to an extreme, emphasising the idea of not having enough time. As such, time manipulation mechanics would feature heavily, lending the title considerably more depth than the average ‘walking simulator.’
“You could pause and rewind time,” says Gregory, “and we were exploring what it was possible to do with those ideas.”
This marriage of hard science fiction, time-bending gameplay, and narrative is liable to evoke Fullbright’s excellent 2017 adventure Tacoma, but the intersection of elements would not be as “mechanical” as it was in that title: “We had it so that you would solve puzzles to unlock events that would play through and give you more pieces of the story.”
With the storytelling therefore being rather traditional, complexity was set to emerge from other avenues, one of which was the presence of a “reactive AI” adversary. Gregory’s description of this enemy makes it sound akin to Alien: Isolation’s Xenomorph, an entity whose presence in the gameworld is dynamic, but attuned to the actions of the player; footsteps and other noises would attract it, while hiding would allow players to avoid it for a time.
Another source of gameplay depth would be the sheer number of objects the protagonist could interact with. Every cupboard and drawer was set to be accessible. Doors could be locked. Fire alarms could be triggered. Hacking minigames would be present. This ability to engage with the world in such a granular manner was a hallmark of the second prototype of Tether, and it proved to be something of a double-edged blade, failing to attract the investment the project needed after almost two years of self-funding.
Inspired by “immersive sims,” including Deus Ex and the original Thief games, player agency was at the centre of Tether. However, in trying to sell this vision, Gregory says the Freesphere team “learned there’s a reason in Dishonored, for example, that you’re only able to open certain drawers and cupboards, and that’s because it becomes too over stimulating for the player; sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. People start wondering about what the narrative draw is to pull them forward through the game.”
This trait was particularly problematic given that Tether was being pitched to prospective investors as a story-based project. The large number of gameplay options confused the message that the developer was trying to send.
“It was more immersive and had all of these additional features, and that was great. It really expanded on the game, but it meant that we lost sight a bit of that narrative core.”
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire situation is that the redesign was inspired, at least in part, by feedback received on the original. Nonetheless, Gregory refuses to simply pass the blame for the failure on to external influences, saying the team wanted to push what it was capable of, and he remains upbeat about the experience as a whole, viewing it as a learning opportunity rather than wasted time and effort: “We learned from that. The team is much stronger now in terms of design and programming and all of that.”
Interested players will soon have the opportunity to test out a completed portion of the game when Freesphere launches the current build on itch.io, but, with such a strong conceptual foundation and a playable demo ready in the near future, the question of why the developer chose not to explore alternative funding models is almost inevitable.
“We contacted Fig,” says Gregory, “and, despite them saying on their website that they will respond to all queries, they just never got back to us.”
Meanwhile, Kickstarter seemed too troublesome a proposition to follow given the dire straits of the studio. Tether was in production for almost two years and fully self-funded during that time. Most of the team members contributed to the project without pay during that period, and Gregory estimates that “between us, we would have sunk in probably into the five figures.”
His duty of care to these people means that he did not want to keep them working with vague promises to power them forward. Preparing for a Kickstarter campaign can take more than six weeks, after which comes the funding period—most commonly set to one month. As such, the process could have taken up to three months, with success still being far from guaranteed.
“Besides that, if you look at the kind of games that are getting funding, it’s not really the immersive sims like what we are aiming to do with Tether,” says Gregory.
With the game on hold, the Freesphere team is looking to find its feet before taking another swing at development. The studio is engaging in corporate work for the time being, with Gregory recently sharing that he has been able to issue the first ever paycheque to his team as a result, which he rightly sees as a moment of pride. Meanwhile, the studio is continuing to consider smaller games projects, as well as issuing an open invitation for other teams in need of outsourced design work to get in touch.
Nevertheless, Tether is not dead, but it may still be some time away from seeing the light of day:
“It’s not cancelled. It’s on hiatus. If we can get it back to a point where we can fund it, we’ll definitely come back to it, but maybe with something more like the original vision.”
The second part of OnlySP’s interview with Mark Gregory, delving into some of the personal and structural problems faced by independent developers, will be available tomorrow.