Microsoft, dogged by bad press and with a self-publishing initiative to promote, might have liked you to know a bit more about Below by now. You sense the Xbox One maker could have done with Capybara Games being more vocal about its mysterious new adventure, which has been confined almost entirely to the shadows since it was unveiled on Microsoft’s stage at E3 2013. This shroud of secrecy suits the game’s theme, but it has other, more practical advantages, as Capy co-founder and president Nathan Vella explains.
“It’s given us the chance to focus directly on the game,” he says, “to not have to spend tons of time building it up for demos, for promotion, then paring it down immediately [and] starting all over again. Promotion, marketing, PR: they take a lot of time away from actually making the game. So having these last nine months or so to really work on the game has meant that it’s come a long way since we first showed anything.”
The intriguing concept shown at E3 has become a complex web of interlocking systems. Perhaps most complex of all is a procedural algorithm that will generate single-screen environments packed with flora, fauna, enemies and traps. The entire game isn’t procedurally generated – there will be a story of sorts, and Capy-designed hubs – but all of the game’s systems depend on that algorithm being just right.
“Below is definitely the biggest, and I guess conceptually hardest, videogame that we’ve made,” creative director Kris Piotrowski says. “The procedural element does have an aspect to it where, the moment you lock that stuff down, all of a sudden a gigantic chunk of the game just works. We’ve been working primarily on that, making sure that every single level that’s generated is interesting to explore, and has a variety of different things to think about.”
Demanding a thoughtful approach is a conceit around which all of Below’s systems have been designed. While your adventurer is a nimble thing – with a dash, a dodge, a one-button melee moveset tweaked with the left analogue stick, a bow and shield aimed with the right stick, and a two-handed weapon on your back – combat is slow paced. Stamina is limited, health doesn’t recharge, and enemies hit so hard that you’re rarely more than one mistake from death. It’s all very Dark Souls, a game whose combat system Piotrowski admits the team has looked at closely, and whose predecessor, Demon’s Souls, “bummed me out for about two months” when he realised someone else had made the game he’d been designing in his head.
As if to compensate for that, Capy is adding another punishing layer to Below’s combat: a survival system. Get hit and you begin to bleed, and can only patch yourself up by getting to safety and using items you’ve found out in the world. Take multiple hits and you’ll bleed out even faster. “That’s kind of the ebb and flow of the game,” Piotrowski says. “You enter into a combat situation, you do your best to navigate through it, and if you get nicked on the way, you have to retreat and dip into the survival system. Part of the game flow is preparing yourself for harder areas.” The result is a game in which even the smallest creatures demand your respect. Mercifully, not all the wildlife in Below’s ecosystem will set upon you on sight, but the procedural system is likely to throw up the odd surprise even in a screenful of placid creatures, such as a poison-spitting snake hidden in the tall grass.
And if you fall to your death, you’re gone for good. You’ll respawn, but as a different person, and while you can pick up your old adventurer’s backpack, there’s no guarantee it will be full by the time you arrive. Some items will be perishable, and Capy is experimenting with a system that will see bodies turn to dust over time. Any progress made in the world is persistent – an unlocked door stays that way, for instance – but if you die while holding a quest item, you’ll have to make it back to your predecessor’s corpse to retrieve it.
This makes item management all the more crucial: your backpack can only hold so much gear, and you’ll need to carefully select its contents to ensure you’re prepared for the journey ahead. You’ll start with a sword and shield, but when you find more gear, you’re presented with a stark choice: you can only pick it up if you drop what’s in your hand.
“It drastically changes your approach to combat, that single choice,” Vella says. “With the Diablos and the Torchlights, I can decide halfway through a battle that I want to change my entire equipment setup. In Below, you’re going to have to decide what style of play you want, and if you decide to drop one item for another, it’s going to have a ginormous impact on how you play the game.”
If there’s a concern, it’s how a combat system of such intricacy is going to work at Capy’s chosen scale. Your character is a tiny presence onscreen, after all, and the camera never zooms in. The artistic benefits are obvious, reinforcing the sense of being a lone adventurer in a vast, hostile world, and meaning that huge, procedurally generated environments can fit on a single screen. But can you really design the sort of combat system normally experienced from over a shoulder to be viewed from so far away?
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges as far as combat goes,” Piotrowski admits. “It’s one of the main things we consider when we’re working on new monsters, wildlife or traps – it’s always about clarity from sitting on a couch. A lot of it has to do with treating the enemies in an almost iconic sort of way, rather than focusing on creature details. It’s more about the flow of the animation, the silhouettes. Everything the creatures do is telegraphed pretty clearly.”
Below is a project with plenty of challenges – no surprise, given Capy seems to set out to do something totally different with each new game. Yet what might seem to be the biggest of all, working with Microsoft, has been anything but. Indeed, the platform holder sanctioned Below’s shift from Microsoft Game Studios to the ID@Xbox initiative, letting Capy not only self-publish the game but also freeing the studio up to bring it to other platforms, such as Steam. Vella thinks it says much about Microsoft’s attitude.
“Microsoft catches a lot of shit – some of it deserved, some not – but they understand our goals,” he says. “They understand the goals of the game and of the company, instead of trying to shove us in a direction that would benefit them a little more and us a little less. [This is] the best-case scenario for both the project and the studio. It represents a positive shift in big publishers [and] companies understanding the way that independent developers develop games.”