Saying that you want to break new ground in storytelling, to innovate and push the medium on from where it currently is and explore new ways of communicating a story and a message, is bold to say the least. Yet that is what Investigate North tell us, and it is the studio’s raison d’être, collaborating with Danish film makers such as executive producer Ole Søndberg, who is best known for producing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The key to the narrative exploration in the upcoming Aporia: Beyond The Valley is that the story will be relayed to you without a single spoken line of dialogue or written text. I hate to break it to Niels Wetterberg, JOB and Sebastian Bevensee, JOB, as we play and chat about the game, but this is something that’s been done before. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, Rime told a beautiful and poignant story of loss and depression without a spoken word. What is it, I ask them, that makes Aporia stand out from those that have trodden this path previously?
“Let’s compare it to Journey,” Sebastien ambitiously replied, “because that’s a great comparison I think in terms of storytelling. Journey has a general message they want to convey, or an atmosphere, a sort of theme. We’re trying to tell something a bit more specific, and the idea is that you should get the main point in the game, but you should have very different interpretations of who the characters are, what the relations between them are and what they are.”
Neils added, “It’s more of a specific story that’s open to interpretation, rather than being a feeling of why the story is there. It’s also really interesting, because we did quite a bit of testing and we could have people answer if they understood the entire story and most people said that yes, they clearly understood. Then below that you can answer what the story was about, and there were a hundred differences of answer.
“We did something similar with our previous game, where it was found footage and you would have to interpret your story for yourself, but actually the community would have to interpret it together. What was disappointing about that was you didn’t get the full catharsis because nobody knew exactly what the story was about.”
Waking up in a tomb of sorts, climbing out of one of a ring of sarcophagi, you have little idea of the world that you’re about to encounter. Grabbing the vial filled with a glowing orange liquid is an obvious step, and fitting it into various pedestals and slots can trigger all manner of things. Within this chamber, it’s a glowing vision of theatre, with flat characters simplistically animated through the environment to convey the story. It’s distinctly reminiscent of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of many influences that Sebastian and Neils note.
“It has taken a lot of time to reach that style and animation,” Sebastian said “So much iteration, so much testing, so many different theories on how we can convey something specific. We actually started with images, as you saw with the symbols there, to have story pieces that you could project onto the story to replace pieces. We decided that we needed some sort of animation.”
It doesn’t take long before you open the tomb’s vast doors, with the glowing orange vial feeding energy into the mechanisms to open it. What lies beyond is the verdant wilderness of the valley, with the decaying ruins of the dead Ez’rat Qin civilisation gradually being reclaimed by nature. In this opening area, you’re encouraged to explore out of necessity, as you try to find more of the orange liquid to top up your vial. Though I’m pointed in the direction of a weakened wall that I can break through to find some, it’s just one of several in the area, any of which would have allowed me to progress.
Coming to the first major puzzle in the game, and I’m spinning wheels on a projector of sorts, matching images together and deciphering how they’re connected thematically. It’s rather simplistic at this early stage in the game, and I quickly manage to match the correct symbols together while simply discovering what they actually are, but I also understand their connection. It’s simple to put together the setting sun and the man lying down, the Sun high in the sky and the man labouring, matching the times of day together with the activity.
There’s many different types of environmental puzzles in the game, and with Myst as a clear point of inspiration, Sebastian said, “The major puzzles are inspired by the old puzzle games, but without being way too much of a brain twister.”
Niels continued, “There’s a balance of wanting you to make progress in the game to get the story, and also in making it difficult for people to progress. I think one thing that I specifically like is that in some puzzle games I play, it seems a little disconnected why you’re doing that specific puzzle, and that it was only put there to be in your way. What we’ve tried to do is to connect the puzzle to the story so you know why you’re playing. Even though it might be difficult, you might be getting hints through the story, so it doesn’t feel so disconnected.”
Through the animated theatre designed to deliver the key story moments and the iconography of the puzzles, there’s something familiar about the visual design of this. Yes, there’s the western and northern European influnces, but they go further to encompass ancient Egypt and beyond. That breadth has been a key part of the game’s design, as Neils revealed a surprising connection, saying, “We tried to build a universe that was inspired by many, many different civilisations, so there’s a lot of South American connotations.”
“We’re generally really interested in Eschatology and the fall of civilizations. We looked at all the civilisations that had fallen through time, and we got inspired by them, all the ones we probably read about as children and were fascinated by. So the feeling of going to an ancient place and thinking how the world was back then, of going to Stonehenge and trying to think back. We tried to put that feel into the game.”
Stonehenge actually ties into the game at times, with the ancient monument having been carefully created to line up precisely with the rising midsummer sun and with the midwinter sunset. Some puzzles in the game have you taking part of a light symbol or shape and trying to match it up with other segments of light within the environment. There was event this element within the moment of theatre, though Neils said they soon discovered it detracted from the storytelling.
What’s fascinating about Investigate North’s desire to tell this story, however, is that after the fairly linear first hour of the game, it will open up and become broader, letting you venture forth and explore in different directions. That might actually turn out to be their best trick in fulfilling their aforementioned desires, as beyond trying to obscure the story in vagueness, it’s through letting people come to each puzzle, each moment with a slightly different experience that they can then form their own interpretation of events.
Who were the Ez’rat Qin? How did their civilisation come to an end? Who are you? What is your purpose? There are, after all, a lot of questions to answer along the way, and if people can answer all of those questions just that little bit differently, Investigate North will have done what they set out to achieve.