Aria Esrafilian thinks that "puzzle games are boring by nature," but he and fellow Shifting Tides co-founder Nima Memari are making one anyway.
Shifting Tides is effectively made up of four co-founders, with a couple of contractors offering support. When the group first formed, the four were working on different projects at the same time while still working together. But nearly four years ago, the team turned its focus to the idea that evolved into The Sojourn.
The game was born of a series of experiments and ideas that revolved around co-founder Esrafilian's skills in visual effects and lighting. They tried everything from more intense gameplay to walking simulator ideas before, one day, Memari drew a puzzle on the group's whiteboard and asked the team to solve it. That idea turned into a prototype, which turned into the game.
Though The Sojourn is best classified as a puzzle game, Esrafilian is a bit cynical about the genre in general, casually dropping as an aside to our discussion of the game's visual focus that he thinks puzzle games are almost all boring.
Memari quickly steps in.
"We don't think other puzzle games are boring," he says, but then adds. "It's just that the genre tends to get boring. The best puzzle games try to fix this problem by adding story or trying to make many, many different puzzle approaches and ideas so you won't think you're solving one thing over and over again. After maybe the top ten puzzle games out there, they tend to get boring.
"Puzzle games in general are not really a type of game that everyone can enjoy. Most people I know enjoy killing stuff, doing action things, and when you give someone Portal 2, which is (let's say) the best puzzle game out there, they have to solve this, then solve that again and again, and they don't really get the whole picture of it.
"Talking about being boring, we wanted to make a walking simulator before that. Our whole team wanted to make a story-driven game, so we fixated on that genre. After, we realized its market isn't doing that well. It's hard to get out there and be the best walking simulator. We wanted to have really good gameplay besides walking and experiencing the story, and that's how we ended up with a puzzle game."
Since Memari is now designing puzzles for a game in said boring genre, I ask them how they plan to avoid the pitfalls and make a puzzle game that can keep its audience's attention.
"I think it's really important to have different ideas and approaches," he says. "Players shouldn't feel like they're seeing the same idea. They should [figure one puzzle out], feel smart, and the next one is something else, something different, it's not just the evolved version of the last one.
"In the game design of puzzles, it's important to create [connection] between puzzles and mechanics. The art style, story, and narration of the game should be something the player can feel as they're solving puzzles -- it shouldn't be so detached. I love The Witness. It's a brilliant game. But I have seen some designers that hate the game so much. They say, 'It's just connecting some dots! It has no connection with the world.' And I get it. If you want to make a game more appealing to more people, you should make [the narrative] more connected to the gameplay."
I saw The Sojourn at GDC earlier this year, and spoke with Memari and Esrafilian after the fact. The game has since appeared at a number of different events, both in showcases and as a playable demo. Memari says that, for indie developers like Shifting Tides, it helps to have a strong "first strike" in order to stand out. But even more important is having enough unique elements beyond that initial draw to ensure a potential audience remembers your title.
For The Sojourn specifically, Memari says this takes the form of a "philosophical" game that lets the player interpret its story however they like. At a basic level, The Sojourn is about the chapters of life, with the first area centered around childhood, curiosity, and learning new things. But Memari and Esrafilian tell me that it took a bit of experimentation before they found what was really interesting about those ideas.
"We [were planning to have] voiced narration, but we removed that," Memari says. "We talked to many people who played the whole game, and it was fun to see how they interpreted the story of the game. Our story is not mysterious; it's a philosophical approach, and it wants you to think. It's not something you have to find out, like a mystery. But our narration was spoiling those thoughts. When you heard that narration, you'd say, 'That's it, I get it." You wouldn't want to think deeper.
"When you heard the narration, you wouldn't want to think deeper"
"After removing it and testing it, there were so many different approaches and people liked it even more. The game was allowing people to think about stuff instead of feeding them information. We spent a huge amount of time telling the story -- the narration was not our main element [of doing this.] The environment, music, there are many different details or things going on even in the mechanics that are telling the story. After removing the voice, we realized these were more than enough."
When I saw The Sojourn at GDC, it was part of the Xbox indie showcase. That presence was facilitated by publisher Iceberg Interactive in a move that Esrafilian says was a dream the team had from the very beginning.
"Xbox has been really active the last couple of years with indie games," Memari says. "It wasn't like this five years ago. They weren't this active or encouraging, but they're really good right now. They're supporting many developers, and the fact that you see them really into your game, it's a big push."
Esrafilian adds: "I hope this happens for Sony as well. They're really interested in the game, they're evaluating the game, so we are super eager to see if they're going to get back to us with an offer or something."
The Sojourn's most recent appearance was at the PC Gaming Show at E3, where it was revealed to be joining the Epic Games store -- though it's worth noting that it doesn't seem to be exclusive to the storefront on PC and still has a Steam page up. My conversation with Esrafilian and Memari occurred prior to this announcement, but the two clearly had the storefront in mind.
"I believe [Epic] is adding more players into the market with Fortnite, and now they're directing this community and population to other games"
"Generally speaking, I appreciate expanding the market in the industry," Esrafilian says. "I believe they are adding more players into the market with Fortnite, and now they're directing this community and population to other games. A portion of its players are really new to the market. We need to wait and see how it will be in the near future, but this visibility is amazing for us. I hope this competition will end up with everything getting better for developers."
Memari adds: "Yeah, I think Epic is not really a big fan of exclusivity. They have Fortnite on all platforms; they're the ones who started that. They'd love to have games on all platforms so everyone can play them, and even when you say an exclusive on the Epic store, it's just the store, not the platform. In the end, I don't think their approach will damage the [PC] platform. I hope this competition can be good for the platform so we can have two really good stores in competition."
Esrafilian concludes: "It's also appreciated that they're investing the money they make from games like Fortnite into the community and making the community bigger. They're regularly updating the engine, and thanks to Fortnite, many great features are added to the engine from that project. For instance, when they decided to bring the game onto more platforms, we saw a very huge update for mobile optimization [in Unreal]."
The Sojourn doesn't yet have a specific release date. The team is taking its time to make sure they can convey the ideas they want to convey in a way that makes sense. When the game launches, Memari and Esrafilian aren't so much concerned that the audience understands the exact intention behind every single moment in the game, but rather that players come away with a particular feeling or experience.
"It's really hard when you want everything to have meaning," Memari says. "I'll design something, and when I present it to the team they ask, 'This mechanic, what does it stand for?' And I say, 'It's a mechanic, does it have to stand for something?' 'Yes, yes it does!' It has to have meaning behind it, and it doesn't matter if 99% of people don't get it. If a few people understand that a mechanic reminds them of something in their life, then that's good."
Esrafilian finishes: "I believe if there are not many players getting the point behind something, they'll get the whole feeling and whole atmosphere of the game if you put that amount of thought and design into it. It'll show itself. That is the exact approach we wanted to take."