Upcoming Xbox one and PC title, Shape of the World, is one of the most breathtaking games we’ve ever laid eyes on.
Developed by Hollow Tree Games, a small team working out of Canada, Shape of the World is a first person exploration title that invites players to lose themselves in a vibrant, mysterious realm full of secrets. With the game currently looking for funding on Kickstarter, we caught up with team leader Stu Maxwell to learn more about his brave new world, and the inspirations behind it.
Side One: Where did you find the inspiration for such a weirdly magnificent title?
Stuart: Well, there are lots of thing that’ve inspired me, but here’s the main thing: I have this childhood memory from when my parents took me to the Bath Springs Hotel, which is this massive hotel in the Rocky Mountains. That was when I learned it’s fun to get lost. It’s this enormous hotel, and they let me roam around while they went to a corporate Christmas party.
I would get completely lost. I’d just be running through the halls trying to figure out where I was, and then finally I’d come across a place I’d seen before and feel relief. Then, of course, I just ran straight back off through all the doors to go and lose myself again. I realised that, these days, you can’t get lost. You get to know your city and your town really well, and if you are travelling you just pull up Google Maps.
It’s the same in video games. You’re always given a map, or there’s always an arrow telling you where to go.
Yeah, you’re right. People are so familiar with video games now, they must almost find it impossible to get lost. The HUDs are all so similar, and the navigation systems, such as waypoints and map markers seem to be replicated in every open world game out there. They’re there for a reason, but it definitely makes it difficult to actually lose yourself.
Exactly. There are so many different UI solutions, and even in-world solutions, to make sure you don’t get lost. We’ve forgotten that it’s actually a good experience.
That’s why I’m making this disorienting open world game that grows and re-grows around you. It’s always changing and you’re going to get lost, but that’s the point.
One of the things that caught our imagination is that Shape of the World seems to be a pure, sensory experience. There are so many sights and sounds assaulting the player, how did you go about creating such an intense, atmospheric world?
Thanks. I’m an effects artist, so right from the beginning it was easy for me to make things that are spectacle orientated. I’ve been doing art, well, since art school, so everything is just a culmination of those sights and sounds. I really enjoyed doing sculpture, creating sculptural experiences, and I always liked bringing in audio or temperature or smells: anything really to enhance the experience.
I appreciate that, so I want to push it and make it feel trippy and sensual.
That’s the thing. It does feel incredibly trippy, but at the same time I feel right at home. It’s alien, but so strangely natural. Was if difficult to strike the right balance?
I think because the game is based on my real life experiences of going through parks and west coast trails, it was always going to be grounded in that reality. I’ve spent a lot of time cycling through Stanley Park, beside downtown Vancouver, and that’s somewhere you can get lost – although I have memorised it now, so I need to find another park.
It’s this natural forest environment that feels really comfortable, especially when you present the feeling that there’s no death and no harm. In the beginning it’s definitely relaxing, and the creatures that are there are passive, like fish. Later on I might bring in something more sinister, but they won’t actually kill you.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Shape of the World is inspired by games like Journey, Flower, and Proteus, and I think the Proteus influence in particular is very obvious, but what exactly did you pull from those titles?
When I played Proteus it blew my mind that something so simple and reductive could have so many surprises-per-minute. I remember walking down the path and seeing a bush hop away from me, with this really abrasive, tonal noise. There was always something to see.
What about Journey and Flower?
Back when I first played Flower, it was the game that, when I had company over, people could actually play and enjoy. People who weren’t really comfortable with the tropes of video games, and who don’t really have much experience with the controller, could actually enjoy the game because it was just about beauty.
I had a realisation that if you don’t focus on the core gamer and try and introduce someone from outside of that circle, they’re going to have an epiphany.
Would you be able to shed some light on the gameplay itself? While the trailers look stunning, it’s difficult to glean from them what players will actually be doing, beyond exploring the world. Is there a final goal, or some sort of narrative?
I’m working on balancing that at the moment, but what we’ve got right now are a series of prototypes that’re ready to make the transition from pre-production into production.
There’s actually a video on Polygon that gives you a sense of what the gameplay would be like, but the way a level may be designed is that the player would be able to see a far away goal, but to get there they’ll have to go on a journey. While they’re on the way, there are lots of secrets to unearth and cool things to find.
Ultimately, players will know they have a destination, but the game will encourage them to explore while they’re on the way.
Are you aiming to make Shape of the World a shorter experience, much like Journey?
Yeah, I think Journey was a nice length. Proteus was perhaps a little too short.
Okay, so talking about sound in the game. How important is sound in Shape of the World. The visuals are spectacular to behold, but do you think sound is just as important when you’re attempting to create a real, tangible world?
Yeah, they’re equally important. In my spare time for years I’ve been making these little music videos, where I’ll string together some of the best music I’ve found with travel footage, or something I’ve filmed from around the house. The idea of creating a marriage of video and music is really important to me.
I’m working with a friend, Brent, who I’ve known since high school, and working with him is great because we’re on the same page. We have similar tastes and we work together really well, so I think we’ll be able to create something really special.
With the lines between game audio and soundtracks becoming increasingly blurred, how are you differentiating between those two concepts?
I think we’re trying to build them simultaneously. So we’ll definitely have a complete soundtrack, but the way you experience it will be more dynamic. It’ll be played at more strategic times.
You also mention on Kickstarter that the soundtrack is inspired by the “drone of classical South Asian soundscapes and the brightness of modern electronic beats”, but were you inspired by any artists in particular, or was it more about just creating an ambience?
There are a couple of artists, and I’ve got a huge playlist of inspirations. There’s one thing in particular though. You see, my sister travels the world professionally as she works for the Indian government, and she constantly finds herself in exotic places around the globe.
Her husband plays Tabla, so I was in the recording studio yesterday recording him playing that. Tablas are Indian percussion instruments with a really unique sound. We were experimenting because it’s a really enchanting drum sound, so we have those sort of influences, and we’re going for a drone, but one that’s really synth driven.
Finally, I’m sure the Kickstarter will go well, and hopefully Shape of the World does get funded, but if it doesn’t what’s your contingency plan? Can those looking forward to the game still expect a release?
What happens is that I’ll start looking for funding from different sources. There are dev grants, and there’s always the possibility that a company will pick it up. Regardless, I’m still going to poke away at it, and I’m sure my core team will do the same because they’re passionate about it. They see the potential.
We’ll get there, but Kickstarter could really help speed up the project. Even if the Kickstarter does fall through, we’re still going to be working towards a 2016 release. I don’t think you can let ideas fester. I think you’ve got to build it. You can’t work on something for years and years, because when you start spreading trailers around it gets absorbed into the public psyche, and people will start making similar art, consciously or not.
Eventually there could be another Shape of the World out there, so we need to be the first.
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