Up until this year, Tequila Works was just the little known studio in Madrid, Spain that developed Deadlight, a side-scrolling Xbox Live Arcade title from 2012 with a dystopian atmosphere. Like a beautiful butterfly waiting for its chance to emerge from a cocoon, Tequila Works sprouted its wings in 2017 with not just one but three well-received games: Rime, The Invisible Hours and The Sexy Brutale.
In fact, if you average out the reviews from all four games the developer has made so far, it comes to around 80 - and not a single one of them could be considered a dud. Tequila Works may not be a household name just yet, but if it keeps up this track record of quality craftsmanship, it'll clearly be considered amongst the upper echelon of developers in the business. Perhaps this isn't so surprising, given that its veteran team comes from the likes of Blizzard, Sony Computer Entertainment and Weta Digital.
[Warning: slight spoilers for Rime follow below]
As much as any studio enjoys the limelight, when you talk with Tequila Works creative director and CEO Raul Rubio it's instantly apparent that he and his team are driven by creative passion, and by a desire to make interactive entertainment that is truly meaningful. There is no better example of this than Rime, which drew comparisons to Nintendo's Zelda on the surface, but ultimately proved to be a title that confronts the player with the human condition.
It's a game about loss and grief, delicate topics that every single person on this planet must deal with at some point during their lives. Without any spoken dialogue, Rime offers players a unique chance to interpret what these things mean on a very personal level.
For Rubio, the game's narrative, which details the connection between a father and a boy who drowns, is as personal as it gets. Rubio nearly drowned as a boy in the Mediterranean, a memory that he had repressed throughout a portion of his life.
"While I was drowning, I accepted my own demise quite easily and quickly to be honest," he tells me. "But most of my thoughts were dedicated to what I left behind: no words, just images of my parents and their incoming grief, how this event would affect them, how I'd never marry my then girlfriend... How much I longed for offspring of my own, how I felt guilty and mad for all that suffering to come, and how they didn't deserve that grief in their lives.
"And I was sad I could do nothing to relieve them, to tell them it was OK, that it was just natural to accept death and I wished them to carry on. But there were no words and I couldn't feel the burn[ing] in my lungs anymore and the salt water felt so sweet."
Rubio confesses that he ended up in the water because he couldn't say no to his girlfriend at the time, a professional swimmer. He was so embarrassed and traumatized by the whole event that his brain effectively hid the memory from his consciousness.
"It was so silly and embarrassing that as soon as they rescued me I forgot it for years, let it sink at the bottom of my mind, pretending it didn't happen; I wouldn't tell my own mother until many years later," he continues. "Rime is a fable in the sense that on the surface its story must be universal; it must be understood by everyone. But the message must feel personal no matter who you are, your background or your beliefs. Words felt superfluous, the soundtrack and mood in Rime adapts to your actions as a player. But otherwise it's just you in the island.
"So we decided to create a narrative structure that relied on symbols (the red cape, the storm, the king, the tower, the fox, etc.) and subtle visual language (the use of colors, the brilliant atmosphere and music by David García, and simple icons - i.e. a sun that transforms into a moon when you cast a shadow over it)."
By using symbols and dream-like situations, Rime is open to a variety of interpretations, but Rubio says it's primarily about how we all process grief.
"We created Rime to be something personal and special, something small and intimate - not for everybody. But we never envisioned it to be a tool for good that could help [others] to find peace"
"This world, the island and the ominous tower, the fox are the real characters, physically transformed, evolving through the five stages of grief," he says. "They don't speak with words but the island reacts with joy, anger or sadness as you progress up to the tower. It's about emotions and moods expressed with colors, tones, the breeze, wildlife, reacting to the players' actions.
"Personally, my interpretation of Rime is hopeful. Realizing life's fragility should not be depressing. It is part of the process, it is what it is and you can deny it, you can fight it, you can try to avoid it, you can fall deep in sorrow... But in the end, one way or another, you must accept it. Not because someone is telling you to, but because you feel it."
Rubio's frightful experience in the Mediterranean wasn't the only driving force or emotion at play in the creation of Rime. As a father, Rubio has become ever more mindful of how delicate children can be.
"I fearfully see the world as a place full of dangers, both real and imaginary, threatening this new life," he tells me. "In a sense, I feel like I'm not living my present anymore; I'm living my son's past. Being aware of that is somehow liberating."
Childhood innocence and curiosity is another theme present throughout Rime. "The original inception behind what became Rime was by Jose Luis, the art director," Rubio adds. "He wanted to translate his childhood memories at the shores of the Mediterranean into an evocative experience; the kind of feeling akin to classic adventure such as Jason and the Argonauts."
Because Tequila Works managed to create a game that speaks so eloquently to the roles that death and love play in everyone's lives, it sparked deep reactions from countless people (myself included). And isn't that what any artist aims to achieve? Rubio takes pride in the fact that his studio could touch people in very meaningful ways and help them through their own grief.
"People shared their intimate memories with us because they felt touched inside their heart; they felt it was a story told specifically for them. That's by far our biggest achievement with Rime: we managed to create a structure that supports your life experiences to feel something personal. It's not a tale about Enu, the little Kid, or Nana the fox, or Manu the sailor. It's about you. When you look inside yourself, you are surprised [by] what you find. Some are sad, some are mad, some are skeptical, and some are relieved and thankful because of their own burdens that Rime somewhat helped them to get rid of.
"The stories from people falling into depression because of grief and how they could let go thanks to reaching the top of the tower were so powerful, sometimes devastating on a personal level. People who lost loved ones; people who were about to leave loved ones in grief; people who desperately needed a rational explanation, unable to digest their own inner thoughts and demanded either a happy ending or proof for what they wanted to hear, not what they really feared."
He adds, "We created Rime to be something personal and special, something small and intimate - not for everybody. But we never envisioned it to be a tool for good that could help [others] to find peace."
Of course, Rime isn't the only game in recent memory to address the human condition. Rubio points to fellow developers who created titles like Journey, Papers, Please, Gods Will Be Watching, Sunset, The Novelist, That Dragon, Cancer and The Last Day of June. "All these games are not afraid of dealing in different ways with life and the human condition," he says.
And he's happy to be a part of the indie movement that's offering more meaningful experiences that typically don't exist in AAA territory: "You can't ask a billion-dollar AAA to deal properly with some topics and themes, in the same way you can't expect a popcorn movie or a best-selling book to go some places, or step out of a proven formula to be taken seriously while making a huge profit and selling you merchandise and all kinds of tie-in branded products. Business and creativity complement each other, and the bigger one side gets, the smaller the other becomes."
As if tackling a game about life and death wasn't enough, Tequila Works also did its part in 2017 to invent a novel way of experience narrative within the burgeoning VR space - an area that's still not lucrative for many developers. The Invisible Hours is a murder mystery in which players can experience a story that's unfolding in real-time; and on top of that they can reverse or fast-forward while exploring a mansion where all the events are happening simultaneously. Tequila Works has dubbed the whole system "spherical narrative." It was a risky experiment for the studio, and it ultimately worked wonders.
"Unlike movies, there's no director editing the truth for you: you are the camera, you can be anywhere, anytime. Unlike games the story is not scripted for you"
"Spherical narrative is a new narrative structure that Rob [Yescombe] and I built to tell stories in VR," says Rubio. "Not just The Invisible Hours; any story, any genre. In essence, we take this window into another world that is the HMD and make it a very up-close and personal way of voyeurism. [It] allows us to replicate how narrative works in the real physical world, in real-time, essentially like virtual immersive theatre.
"So, unlike movies, there's no director editing the truth for you: you are the camera, you can be anywhere, anytime. Unlike games the story is not scripted for you: in games nothing will happen until I turn the corner, there will be no monster behind me until I turn my head.
"Our first step was immersion, and The Invisible Hours is all about that: you are an almighty invisible witness. Even if the play is one hour in real-time, we have condensed eight hours of narrative in this world, so the universe to explore is packed with multiple storylines [that are] interconnected.
"Let me give you an example: two characters are in a room discussing the murder, one goes to the attic, the other to the cellar. What do I do? Do I follow the first one? The other one? Do I stay in the room to discover a secret passage that only opens when no one is in the room? Do I decide to decipher the environmental narrative to find hidden clues and connect the dots? Do I explore other places on my own? Since I can't be everywhere all the time, my perception is going to define my truth. And that truth is going to define my experience - to the point that the genre of the story itself can differ from one witness to another."
With VR, immersion is key, and the new medium enables even deeper levels of connectivity, especially when paired with riveting acting performances. Tequila Works knew performance capture and professional actors would go a long way in boosting immersion.
"We spent months rehearsing because even more important [than] what they say or what they do is what they don't say or do," Rubio explains. "Body language, interpreting facial feature reactions... No matter the story, we are dealing with humans and that brings a whole new world of possibilities. Because you can get up-close and personal, because you can see how they act in front of others, and how they really are when they think nobody's watching. Because you can build stories about what makes us human that would never work in a video game, or a movie."
For Rubio and Tequila Works, it's evident that VR's storytelling potential greatly excites the team.
"Right now we rely on directed acting to achieve that immersion, but the next step is interaction," he continues. "If the player is a disruptive element, what does it mean in spherical narrative? What if all the characters are performance actors driven by an AI, acting their lines but reacting to the witness, now an actor in the story? What if I'm a bad actor, what if I don't follow my role? How does the universe try to realign itself?"
Whether it's VR development or traditional game making, Tequila Works has shown a special capability to think outside-the-box. Tequila Works' motto is "creating with gusto." It's fair to say that the team has done that and then some in 2017.
"Every creator feels the urge to express themselves and share with the world what lies inside their souls, what obsesses them, what consumes them," Rubio says. "As we mature and grow up, these questions are less visceral and somewhat deeper: the meaning and purpose of what we create, why we make games in the first place, the nature itself of our medium.
"It's not simply about fun or entertainment anymore. It's about the message you want to transmit, the emotions you experience and the aftertaste or mark it leaves on you. That is reflected in our works. Explosions and fireworks are fun and all that, but sometimes you want to question everything that is taken for granted."