For some games, the hook gradually emerges during development. For others, the hook is what inspires the development in the first place. Aporia is an example of the latter, beginning life as a student project at Aalborg University Copenhagen, where Sebastian Bevensee was researching environmental storytelling with colleagues Kasper Boison and Mikael Olsen.
"We thought there were some unexplored fields within interactive storytelling, which particularly lay in the environment," Bevensee told GamesIndustry.biz. "We thought the environment was interesting as a catalyst for storytelling so we looked at different projects like Dear Esther, Journey, and the old Myst puzzle games. We felt that in the storytelling schemes like Dear Esther, something was missing. It was a nice story and atmosphere, but the lack of interaction was too clear. We really wanted to bring the old puzzle feel from the '90s into the new storytelling field, so we thought about how we could tell the story only with the environment. And that turned into different ways to explore the environment and how to tell stories with no text or dialogue, which is what we do with Aporia."
After a year of working on the project, the trio attracted the interest of Investigate North, a Copenhagen-based multimedia production company with a background in feature films. Chairman Ole Søndberg executive produced the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, while co-founder Vibeke Windeløv produced Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and co-produced All That Matters is Lost with fellow co-founder Stinna Lassen. Investigate North CEO and creative director Niels Wetterberg said the company picked up the project "because we thought it was a brilliant idea, an interesting concept, and most of all a beautiful world."
He added, "When you're growing up and you start discovering history and reading about ancient civilizations, one of the things that's really fascinating is when you go to your first ancient site and you try to imagine what that culture was and how those people lived. That feeling when you're little and your imagination is taking off is a brilliant moment. It's something to really treasure... It's sort of being a tourist in an ancient world."
Despite Investigate North's pedigree in film, Bevensee was reluctant to turn to that medium for guidance.
"There's so much to explore in gaming, and trying to not always be super-inspired by how everyone else is doing it or the movie industry is doing it is a very valuable thing"
"For a large part of movie history, for the first 40 years, there was no dialogue," he said. "So we're sort of doing the opposite, trying to explore what storytelling can do when you don't use all the natural, vulgar tricks that have been introduced by the movie industry over the last 50 or 60 years. It's a journey, sort of feeling like a Klondike of storytelling. There's so much to explore in gaming, and trying to not always be super-inspired by how everyone else is doing it or the movie industry is doing it is a very valuable thing."
If there was inspiration for Bevensee to take from film, it was in the way early filmmakers used the form to do things that weren't really possible in pre-existing media, like cross-cutting between stories or providing different views of the same scene.
"In some ways, there's a similar lesson to be learned in computer games," Bevensee said. "We shouldn't always think the way films have figured out storytelling is just the way to do it. Theater didn't have the answer for the movies. We're in the 1940s in terms of exploring what games can do in storytelling, and there's another 60 or 70 years to explore with games until it's where film is now. It's just a really interesting space and we want to be part of that."
So just how is Investigate North telling the story of Aporia without words? There are three primary techniques they're using to convey the heart of the story to players. Some of the plot points will be conveyed through 2D animations that appear in the game as projections, some are found in cave paintings, and some can be inferred by witnessing ghostly flashbacks of people within the game's environments. Despite those constraints, the developers are hoping to tell a very specific narrative.
"I think there's a little cowardice when you don't want to tell a specific story and leave everything to the audience. It feels a little bit like you don't actually have the answer"
"I think there's a little cowardice when you don't want to tell a specific story and leave everything to the audience," Wetterberg said. "It feels a little bit like you don't actually have the answer. I think it's been a long journey and a really difficult journey to try to tell a specific story and not compromise. I think we had a lot of moments along the way where we almost caved in and said, 'Why don't we just say something?' Even just solving small practical issues, like when you get to the ending, or having a choice and getting people to understand what choices you can make. Luckily, we stuck to the vision. It's been really tough, but I hope we succeeded."
Getting people to understand that they're making a choice was a particularly difficult task at first. Bevensee said the initial concept for the game relied more on static paintings to tell the story, but found that having the story passively hanging around an environment where people were more focused on puzzle-solving as a moment-to-moment gameplay activity undermined their attempts at narrative. With devices like the projections and flashbacks, it's clear that players are activating a part of the narrative and intended to spend a moment digesting it rather than fiddling with a puzzle.
And just in case the whole "no dialogue" constraint wasn't confining enough in the game, Investigate North has also extended it to the marketing. Apart from the name of the game, the release date, and some partner logos, the game's story teaser video (embedded above) is entirely free of words.
"In some ways, it seems like it's working out," Wetterberg said of the intentionally muted marketing plan. "And I guess that all goes back to the idea that if you're a little bold and don't try to put your brand or idea in the middle of people's faces, they actually get slightly intrigued as to what it is you're doing."
The whole approach to Aporia is a drastic departure from Investigate North's previous narrative effort, 2014's Cloud Chamber. Billed as a massively multiplayer story game, Cloud Chamber was a sci-fi thriller where the audience unraveled a conspiracy by sifting through a variety of video clips and journals and then jumping into chat rooms with each other to hash out what everything really meant. The amount of text and dialogue wasn't the only difference between Cloud Chamber and Aporia, though. Wetterberg said the prior game's core story was tremendously open to interpretation, and the project suffered as a result.
"You can't have a story with no catharsis. People need to walk away from an experience and feel fully satisfied"
"What I learned was sort of the same lesson that Damon Lindeloff learned with Lost," Wetterberg said. "You can't have a story with no catharsis. People need to walk away from an experience and feel fully satisfied. What we tried to do with this project is to tell a specific story with specific characters and a specific mystery that can be solved. We tested the game a lot, and what we saw is a lot of people end up playing the game and they say they completely understand the story and felt very satisfied, but just below that they could answer how they understood the story. And even though they understand the main line, there were a hundred different ways of interpreting everything. That to me is a great success, and it's a success we didn't have with Cloud Chamber, which was more open-ended, with less catharsis, and sort of no answer at all."
If nothing else, Aporia has given Investigate North a better appreciation of when and how to use dialogue in games.
"[In film], you're always told 'Show it, don't tell it.' Getting to know what that actually means and how to use that in an effective way is quite difficult," Wetterberg said. "It's an easy saying, but it's really difficult to create tension in scenes. And the way we've explored how to not use dialogue in Aporia is similar to creating a scene where no one says anything. And I think that's definitely prepared us to make the mystery bigger in the games that are coming, not [resorting] to vulgar exposition or things like that."
Aporia is set for release on PC July 19.