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Time, Money, and The Troubles Facing Ambitious Sci-Fi Adventure Tether

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Tether

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, is available here.

More details about team are available on its official website, while any further announcements about Tether and future projects will be available via Gregory’s and the studio’s Twitter feeds.

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

Exclusive Interviews

The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More

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The Occupation promo

After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.

In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.

OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?

Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.

The Occupation

OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?

Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.

OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?

Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.

OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?

Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.

Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.

The Occupation screenshot 3

OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?

Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.

OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?

Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.

OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?

Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.

The Occupation screenshot 2

OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?

Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.

OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?

Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.

OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?

Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).

The Occupation screenshot 1

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?

Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.


The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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