Below: the story behind Xbox One’s biggest little indie game

In the early 1980s, two computer science students Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman released a program on to the University of California’s Unix mainframe that would eventually inspire the most important genre in independent video game development. Named Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom, Toy and Wichman’s project was a fantasy adventure, in which players crept through a series of visually sparse underground locations, battling monsters and collecting loot. The unique aspect was that these dungeons were procedurally generated, meaning that every time the player loaded up the program, the layout was different. It was like playing a new game every time.

Over three decades later and the roguelike genre has become a staple of the indie scene. The basic elements – exploration, looting, procedurally generated environments and the concept of permadeath (ie no lives: once you’re dead, the game is over) – can be found informing hundreds of titles, from Spelunky to Nuclear Throne to Don’t Starve.

Four years ago, however, roguelike games were something of a forgotten relic, an idiosyncratic offshoot of the role-playing game genre that would flourish with more forgiving, visually rich titles like Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda. But it was a style of game that still intrigued a handful of designers, one of whom was Kris Piotrowski, creative director at Capybara Games, the Toronto studio responsible for gently subversive RPG Sword and Sworcery. Heavily inspired by the cult roguelike Dwarf Fortress, he saw the potential for a new, more visually complete take on the conventions.

Dwarf Fortress: with its basic visuals and complex, open systems the game typified the roguelike feel. Photograph: Bay 12

“I was really into what was then a forgotten genre,” he says. “I felt like there was a whole missing type of roguelike which didn’t look like ASCII or basic art. Roguelikes are generally focused on system design as opposed to aesthetics; I wanted to make something that had roguelike gameplay but was also pleasing to the eye. When we started the game, rogue-likes weren’t that popular – it was a super original idea.”

The resulting project was Below, a roguelike set on a mysterious island riddled with tunnels, caverns and, of course, monsters. With minimal narrative intervention, the player comes ashore from a boat and starts to explore; while the surface geography is always the same, the subterranean areas are procedurally generated to be slightly different each time you begin. Your character carries a backpack to store useful items, and can collect various plants and foodstuffs to create soups – the game’s version of classic RPG potions, providing a variety of health and strength bonuses.

But what first hits you about the game is its visual style. The painterly environments use brush-like washes of muted colour, so that it feels like you’re exploring an acrylic artwork. Importantly, the camera is zoomed right out, so your character is a tiny spec amid a dark, desolate landscape.

Below draws the camera way out so that the character is almost a speck on the landscape, symbolising your vulnerability in the world Photograph: Capy Games

“I was really interested in the idea of exploring small-scale aesthetics,” says Piotrowski. “I was a big fan of the Pixel Junk series – games like Pixel Junk Eden used the capacity of the new HD TVs but in a very different way, not to show off high detail, high res 3D graphics, but to create these whole worlds that you were a tiny part of.

“Modern HD televisions could capture all these beautiful little details, and I saw the potential for a game with a nice overhead dungeon-crawling perspective but with the camera zoomed out quite a bit further, so the full level you’re exploring is a single screen. That was the main idea with Below: we wanted to make a single-screen roguelike. Right now, when you zoom out to 100%, each area fits right into a screen – that’s how the game is broken up. It’s classic Zelda, in that you explore screen by screen. We just want to make something beautiful.”

Adding to this visual style is the use of tilt shift photography techniques – the screen even blurs a little at the edges, simulating a sort of peripheral vision effect. “We’re using a genuine tilt shift,” says Piotrowski. “It’s two planes and the focal plane shifts with the character. When I was researching what the game should look like, I thought tilt shift photography was just the neatest looking thing. When you apply it to a game, it makes you feel like you’re staring at a tiny model world, it felt really natural. Also from a gameplay perspective, it does focus the player a bit; it also makes you explore the space. You have to come close to things to have them come into focus.”

Along with exploration, combat is a key element. The player encounters a range of weird beasts throughout the game, and there’s crafting system that lets you build new weapons – but the emphasis is on keeping these intrinsic systems delicate and straightforward.

“We’re taking a minimal approach, we’re trying to do as little as we can with it,” says Piotrowski. “You can find and use materials to create helpful things like arrows, bandages and torches, but it’s a supportive system: the interface is very small and the combinations are simple. I hope it just becomes part of the ebb and flow of the game: you explore, fight a couple of creatures, find some things, take off your backpack, play this little crafting game … and in between, you find fires, which are the only places you can cook soup. That’s how the game is bookmarked. You can craft tools anywhere, through your backpack, but you need to find a fire so you can sit down and prepare your food.”

What the game feels like then, is a quiet, almost mournful take on Don’t Starve, with elements of Dark Souls, especially in its use of restorative spaces where players can sit and contemplate the adventure. It looks cute and playful, but just below the surface, with its player crafting and procedural dungeons, it has all the clockwork systems of the genre.

“I think the philosophy behind roguelikes is very interesting to explore – and there’s still a lot more to draw out,” says Piotrowski. “They’re the most gamey of games. They’re really about meat-and-potatoes system exploration, and I think that’s fascinating. Roguelikes started out as things that were just about the mechanics, the bare minimum of visual representation and everything else lives in your imagination. With Dwarf Fortress, there’s so much functionality in that game, so many interesting things that can happen, and the reason is the aesthetics are completely pared down so you can focus entirely on system design.”

According to Piotrowski, Journey was a key influence on the look and feel of the game Photograph: Capybara Games

Although Below adds visual beauty to the blueprint, it retains a key element: narrative scarcity. Like Rogue, like Dark Souls, there is little in the way of plot or story – players have to figure a lot out for themselves, and much of this will come from reading the scenery. “There’s no narrative per se, it’s more of a history,” says Piotrowski. “It’s about figuring out what the island is, what it’s purpose is. It’s a very solitary experience, it’s about exploring the world and finding secrets. I hope players leave the game filled with interesting questions rather than expecting to find the end of a narrative arc. I hope they find cool areas, or see this strange device and ask themselves what’s happening here, what’s it about? The procedurally generated areas are sort of the river of the game; the flow changes but there will be these ‘rocks’ that are always in the same spot and once you know where things are you can navigate through the randomness to the areas you’re looking for. Discovering those little hidden pockets will tell you bits of the story and the history of the world.

“I personally love games that are about exploration – I hope this comes through in Below. I hope people think, I just saw this weird rock with something written on it, I have to go back and find that. It’s like the classic Zelda games, the Dark Souls series: I love this kind of stuff. That’s why I’m so pumped about No Mans Sky. I don’t care about anything else in that game, I just want a spaceship and planets.”

What’s interesting about Below is that it’s this kind of beautiful, insular little experience which is being projected onto a much larger stage. The game was unveiled as part of Microsoft’s Xbox One press conference at the 2013 E3 event, focusing mass attention on the project. Capy has been around for a while, working on critically acclaimed experimental titles like Sword Sworcery and Super Time Force, but this was a whole new level of attention.

Piotrowski and his team aren’t perturbed. “With Below, it’s a little bit easier for us to think about the core audience because there are some very traditional things about it, even though they’re being approached in a vague, mysterious convoluted way. The foundation of it is something that most gamers should be able to appreciate – you still have a sword and a shield and the combat is inspired by Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that you can bring your vocabulary and knowledge to, which will help you. The game audience is much more intelligent and mature than most marketing folks give them credit for.”

The thing is, we’re living in an era where digital distribution and the easy availability of tools have led to a huge increase in the number of game releases. To Piotrowski, part of game development right now is accepting the idea of appealing to a niche audience. Which is why Below can be beautiful and lonely and difficult, and not cede to more conventional demands. “Something we talk a lot about in the studio is the idea of making games for smaller audiences,” he says, “games that aren’t for everybody – that won’t find a mass market but are perfect for the people who love them. You just need to accept the fact that if you’re making a strange game and you’re experimenting with mechanics or aesthetics – well, that it’s OK.

“It is liberating when you allow yourself to just work on a project knowing that it may not be for everyone. For the people who get it, it can be really special.”

  • Below is released on Xbox One and PC later this summer

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