Sometimes an indie game comes along that captures a moment in culture effectively. The Sun Also Rises is one of those games, with its sensitive exploration of war and its consequences seems both timely and important.
We were curious about how the developer, Horse Volume, approached such a difficult subject, so we emailed lead designer Ty Underwood for a talk about terror, storytelling, and what it means to be indie.
BitPulse: What prompted the idea of making a game about the War on Terror?
Underwood: It was a combination of things. Primarily, there’s a space for a new kind of storytelling in games. Games give us the unique ability to empathize by playing out characters’ lives and experiences, and when dealing with war in particular there haven’t been very many games that use the strengths of storytelling and systems design to tell stories about war that aren’t about combat. With this concept, I interviewed veterans and active duty soldiers, and formed the idea of the game that you see today. I am continuing to work with academics and interviewing more people like civilians in Afghanistan to tell many perspectives and flesh out a deep and compelling narrative.
In what way to the visuals, which are very richly colored and stylized, inform the narrative?
A big inspiration for the visual style is traditional painting and textile art from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditional art uses geometric patterns and vibrant pigments. In addition to this we want a visually clean style that focuses on color and composition more than gritty details. I think this makes the game more accessible to more people who don’t normally play games, and allows us to create a juxtaposition that shows more sides to war than just violence.
Can you give me a specific example of how the cloud choice saving system will inform the narrative for another player?
A good example of this is how you might be playing as a soldier and you’re speaking to an Afghan woman who may or may not be friendly and cooperative based on how previous players have treated that same character. The “memories” of other players in that same position will inform that woman’s opinion of all soldiers, as that happens in real life.
Another good example would be more about the chain of command. A decision about troop movements that you would make as the CIA Analyst would trickle down to tasks you have to carry out as a soldier. Neither character knows about the other’s life just as neither player knows about each other. We’re implementing this system because you will have to weigh your decisions on how they might affect real people, just as you might if you had one of these jobs.
Language barriers aren’t something we see addressed often in video games. How will that be explored?
A lot of my background is in UI/UX design and so it’s an incredible opportunity for me and the team to explore ways to simulate language barriers, either total or partial. There are many more options for dialogue in games than just four choices that move the story in a few different directions. We are creating scenarios where the player controls hand gestures and posture in addition to language. This can solve problems or it can create some pretty big ones. During the early occupation of Iraq, US Soldiers didn’t know that the “universal” sign for STOP (a hand held up flat) is just a friendly wave to Iraqis. When soldiers tried to instruct people to stop at checkpoints the message wasn’t conveyed and often lead to confusion or shooting. Nowadays, soldiers are far better trained to deal with signals and differences like that, but there are still many opportunities to explore miscommunication with language and gesture.
This is a game that’s juggling a huge amount of issues, including sexism, racism, and not to mention politics. How do you keep them all balanced and still make a game that’s engaging?
Our first step is to work with academics who know about the subject matter, as well as sexual assault counselors, veteran therapists, and many interview subjects who have dealt with these things first hand. A lot of that legwork has been done already, and the people who have volunteered to help are incredible. A lot of the time, there’s this idea that for a game to be engaging it has to keep the subject matter light or not take things seriously to be engrossing. With this game, we’re designing the game mechanics, story and gameplay to be engrossing exactly because of the subject matter, not despite it. We’re looking to not just be somber, but capture the whole tapestry of emotions that a person feels from many different vantage points in war. Giving player decisions real meaning through passive multiplayer and focusing on moment-to-moment experiences that enhance the situation the player is in will really let us nail what we’re going for.
What’s been your biggest challenge in development so far? How has the team’s past experience helped with the project?
Since the game is dealing with very current issues that are difficult and polarizing for a lot of people, and because we’re using new kinds of game mechanics to support our idea, a lot of people don’t immediately understand what the game is about or they’re not interested. I think it’s okay for our game to not have as big of a mass market appeal, but it’s hard work to make sure that we have the funding to bring the game to life. The team and I know that this is a really important game, and we’re doing the research and working with the right people to make sure that we make a really amazing game that treats the subject matter and the people with respect and dignity.
Do you think indie games have a responsibility to be more daring in their choice of subject matter, seeing as they can more often take a gamble on risky projects? On your site, you say that Horse Volume wants to explore games as an art form. What does that mean, practically?
Maybe it’s time for games to grow out of the term ‘Indie’. I know that idea came from economic necessity a few years ago, but it’s a different world than it was even two years ago when ‘Indie Game: The Movie’ came out. I’m a big fan of the film but if it came out today I wouldn’t be the first person to ask why it’s only about white guys with financial means. I also wouldn’t be the only one to wonder why it’s about three platforming games that have similar focuses on platforming and nostalgia. They’re all incredible games and incredible designers, but the scene has gotten so much broader in the last year or two I can’t help but feel elated. I personally know designers in AAA that are pushing harder against their publishers marketing decisions and hiring decisions, and I know so many folks like us who are taking a big risk on something that might not be a guaranteed seller. Things are going to keep getting better in the game art movement moving forward.
On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises is polarizing and a big risk and it’s scary. This isn’t our only idea for a game but it’s the one that we think is the right one to make, and it’s the right time to make it. It embodies what we mean when we say we want to explore games as an art form, we want to include more people who are outside the games scene and bring in their ideas. We want to challenge what people perceive to be a game, or even modern ideas of indie and art-games. Finally we want to explore new processes of making games by not just making games about things we intuitively like and know about. Like filmmakers and writers, we can use games and fiction to bring real people’s stories to life and communicate them in the special way only games can.