There is no denying that one of the underlying reasons for the existence of most video games is to serve as a piece of entertainment, to engage the user and perhaps transport him away from the world that surrounds them. Life can be tremendously difficult and riddled with uncertainties, so it is understandable that many see games-complete with their many offerings of power fantasy-as a form of escapism. However, as the medium grows and game creators are beginning to pour more of themselves into their projects, and as a result the creations that they spawn often carry a piece of themselves.
The upcoming game, Road Not Taken by developer Spry Fox, is a game that not only reflects slivers of its designer; but very well may owe its entire genesis to his life-long journey. A game that challenges player’s expectations at every turn, the premise is emblematic of Chief Creative Officer Daniel Cook’s bewildering pursuit of the supposed “perfect life”. Many of us share some sort of long-term goal, but it is difficult to anticipate all that we will encounter our journey to reach it; and impossible to know if when we do reach the destination; if it is truly what we want at all. I recently spoke to Daniel about how the game, and how his personal discovery shaped its existence.
Brian Sharon: After a history of success on both PC and Mobile, Road Not Taken marks the first time that a Spry Fox game will find a release within the PlayStation ecosystem. With the game set to release later this year on both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, what does it mean to you as developers to work on a game that will fall under the PlayStation umbrella?
Daniel Cook: Sony has been very welcoming. The birth of a new platform is a great time for indie developers to release inventive new games like Road Not Taken. Historically, the first year of a console generation has been a period where players (and publishers) really open up to new experiences, so I see this as rare opportunity.
Road Not Taken is a rogue-like puzzler and I don’t know of anything else out there like it. There’s a lot of secrets to explore and a bit of a story to tease out.
Being a rogue-like, you’ll die a lot but the game rewards cleverness. My favorite thing about Sony consoles is that they’ve got players that appreciate smart games like Journey or some PixelJunk titles. It seems like there might be a good fit with Road Not Taken.
Road Not Taken is shaping up to be the highest profile release in Spry Fox’s history, and yet despite this fact it looks to be thematically-sculpted from the most personal of experiences. Given your lengthy strive for “a perfect life”, how did a life-long lesson ultimately transform into the premise for the game?
DC: Something I try to look for when I prototype a game is a theme lurking in the mechanics. As we built Road Not Taken, this theme of rescuing children kept reappearing, which was ironic since I don’t have kids myself. Perhaps it was subconscious but family and my lack of offspring have been on my mind for many years. What’s the right path in life? I’m not on it and almost no one I talk to is living the exact life they imagined growing up. It seemed like a natural fit to combine the game and my musings in one place.
Not all games need to be personal, but there’s a lot to be said for putting some of yourself into a game. Games are ultimately made by people, not soulless corporations, so why not celebrate that? No doubt, we could all stand a little more honesty and authenticity in the media we consume.
Drawing on personal influence seems to permeate Road Not Taken as the gorgeous visuals, created by lead artist and industry veteran Brent Kobayashi, have been heavily influenced by imagery that he directly connected with. How has this more intimate approach benefited the project?
DC: I grew up in Maine and Brent is living up in Canada. The weather and seasons of the place you grow up in sinks into your bones. I’m visiting my parents right now for the holidays. It got down to around -20F and the power went out for 4 days straight. So we kept warm by sticking close to the wood stove and chatting by lamp-light. That sense of winter, both as a cold, gray place and as a wonderland really comes across as you wander through the forests of the game. Yes, winter is brutal, but also magical…I can easily imagine watchers lurking in the ice-blue shadows of creaking trees. I’m not sure we could have captured that feeling if we only knew winter from movies or books.
“Games are ultimately made by people, not soulless corporations, so why not celebrate that?”
Underneath the existential themes of the game, it also manages to fall under the banner of a “roguelike puzzle game”; genre’s defined by their mechanics and design. Having previously likened Road Not Taken’s gameplay to jazz, what makes it stand apart from its contemporaries?
DC: In a typical puzzle game, there is one solution. You execute the solution (maybe by looking it up in a walkthrough), watch some cutscenes and then move on. I want players to improvise and come up with their own solutions. Unlike the stereotypical rogue-like, the mechanics are more about manipulating the world instead of killing things, so you are much more clever, adaptive hero than some level 99 bruiser.
Road Not Taken isn’t an action game. You do get to think about your moves, but I’ve found that most people play it at a pretty rapid pace. They get into the groove of spotting little micro solutions like crafting a new potion or using a stone to push a spiky block out of the way. It is all improv, and you start to feel quite clever after a while.
Failure has become a sort of buzzword within the indie-game community, and while you’ve used it to describe your game, it could be read with a sense of melancholy. Aside from a greater knowledge of the game’s mechanics and level-design, what are you hoping that players take away from their inevitable misfortunes?
DC: An idea that has helped me come to terms with my path in life is that all the seemingly bad experiences end up shaping who I am today. The other word used in the same breath as failure is ‘mastery’. When you face a difficult time and struggle to get through, you end up learning more about yourself. Every skill I have, be it making games, painting or working with others, comes from trying a fresh idea after a hundred (a thousand?) failures.
At the same time, failure hurts. You just hope the learning is worth the pain. Some of that is attitude. And one thing I like about rogue-likes is they naturally encourage a learning attitude. Of course you are going to fail so you might as well accept that and get on with improving your skills.
Many times artists experience a sort of therapy or self-understanding through their work. In channeling your life’s journey into digital-form, have you learned something about yourself along the way?
DC: I tend to live in the future; future plans, future games, big projects that take years to develop. However, the future payoff hasn’t been as meaningful as I might hope. Tens of millions of people have played the games I’ve designed. And that is great and exactly what I hoped for when I started making games. But it feels a bit empty. Big numbers and hitting release dates have little meaning when my brain immediately switches all my effort onto the next big future thing.
Instead I’ve started to learn to savor the little everyday moments. On a recent beta project, someone told us that playing the game helped restore his faith that humans were essentially good. Just today, one of the fellows I work with, Pat Kemp, put together a beautiful interface mock-up. It is gorgeous…I felt super thankful to work with such a talented friend. Those moments are just the day-to-day process of making games and getting feedback. Maybe they are as worthy as the always out of reach future.
Despite the project still being in development, Spry Fox has been rather consistent with updating fans with a steady stream about the game; whether it be thematic or regarding its design. Apart from everything we know now, what is something fans would be surprised to know about the game?
DC: This is a secret hidden in plain sight that I really shouldn’t be telling anyone. Luckily, I’ve got no PR department. In Road Not Taken, you’ll run across little spirits in the woods. Most players just ignore them or toss them out of the way. But the reality is that they are part of an extensive crafting system. Put them together and you can summon all sorts of questionable objects. Greedy crows, strange potions that make objects move on their own; I’m still balancing things, so we’ll see where it all ends up. The fun part is that the forest is hostile, but you have more tools at your disposal than might be first imagined.
For more on Road Not Taken head onto Spry Fox’s Official Website.