Land & Sea spins the folklore of fictional worlds
Harry Nesbitt and Jair McBain define "folk games," and explain why and how their new studio of Team Alto veterans is making them
You've heard of folk songs, folk tales, and folklore -- but what about a folk game?
That's the kind of game Harry Nesbitt and Jair McBain want to make with their new studio, Land & Sea, alongside composer Todd Baker, designer Joe Grainger, and narrative designer Jenna Jovi.
The group is made up of veterans from Team Alto -- which is the name Nesbitt and his colleagues came up with to describe their collaboration with Snowman on the endless runner games Alto's Adventure and Alto's Odyssey. Though they successfully worked together on both games, Team Alto was never officially a studio proper. So with Odyssey complete and well-received, Nesbitt tells GamesIndustry.biz that he was ready to start exploring his creative options a bit more independently.
"It's something that connects people and their history and the landscape around them, and the stories that get passed down by word of mouth, and this earthy, honest feeling that comes from that"Harry Nesbitt
"After Odyssey launched, it felt like the time was right to focus on how we can put some of these ideas down and begin figuring out what this next step is, as a studio," he says. "What's our identity? What's our ethos, our philosophy? What kind of things do we really care about and want to explore? On one side this is the studio identity, but it's also exploring prototypes and kinds of gameplay that intrigue us. It's been a fairly slow process, and obviously we're still continuing to support the Alto series, but we've gradually got to this place where we're ready to start building the team a bit."
Which brings him back to "folk games." Land & Sea is currently working on one, and though the team isn't giving any detail yet, Nesbitt describes the idea of a folk game as a "shared sensibility" through the things the team is drawn to, or games that have a kind of "earthy quality."
"It's this idea of something that connects people and their history and the landscape around them," he explains. "And the stories that get passed down by word of mouth, and this earthy, honest feeling that comes from that. For myself, I've grown up in Britain, and I think we just naturally are surrounded by a lot of history and a lot of folk tales or myths and legends and that sort of thing. It's just embedded in the landscape here. That's always had a strong effect on me. And when I want to tell a story, I want to tap into some of those themes, and pull from that wealth of history and knowledge and humanity that is still just as relevant today.
"I'm trying to avoid being too specific. We're not ready to sort of reveal detail about the projects we're working on. But to tie it back to the Alto games, it's this idea of a game being about a very specific place and time, feeling like you can almost step into the game, into a world, and get lost in it. We've been amazed by how people are really connected to the characters in particular, and they imagined what their lives are like on the mountain and the village. Even though we weren't able to go into a lot of detail with that, it's very much on the periphery of those games. It's an implied narrative."
"Folk games" isn't a common genre term, but Nesbitt and McBain don't think that means they've invented something entirely new. Nesbitt cites games like Ico and Journey as inspirations for the team's past and future work, and both note that the Alto games had that folk quality as well.
"The idea of leaving space for people to imprint their own identities onto [a story] is very important, and I think 'folk' is a great word for that"Jair McBain
"I don't think [folk games are] under-explored," McBain says. "But I think putting the name to it and honing in on this specific kind of feeling is unique. And maybe there's some niche to explore there. But really, it isn't a metric. It's something everyone really has an affinity for. Just the way we grew up in the history that we grew up in and the stories we were told, but I think to put a name to it and to say these are the themes we're going to focus on and stories we're going to tell -- stories of human nature and cultural inspiration and family and the way our environment shapes us -- that is all quite unique.
"The idea of leaving space for people to imprint their own identities onto [a story] is very important, and I think 'folk' is a great word for that, because it doesn't necessarily have a specific culture or specific identity. It just says, 'Here's a space that feels like there's a history to it, the stories have existed before you, and you're just a guest to explore these, and you can identify with it in whichever way you like.'"
Aside from sharing a folk quality, another theme from the Alto games that the team wants to embrace is the idea of a minimalistic, relaxing game. Nesbitt says that Team Alto originally made Alto's Adventure with the intent of doing something "peaceful" and "restrained". While the game took inspiration from other mobile endless runners, the team didn't want it to be "as big and bright and exciting" as many other games in the genre. Instead, they aimed to make something smaller, broader, and more peaceful.
"The less detail you show to players, the more that imagination can fill in gaps," Nesbitt says. "It also happens to be easier for a smaller team to make a game that is more minimalistic, and it's certainly one of the reasons why I'm drawn to that art style. It's much more manageable and it's easier to think about the bigger picture, the broadest strokes, and not get too carried away with the details. And it allows it to work on mobile and a wide range of devices as well."
"The less detail you show to players, the more that imagination can fill in gaps"Harry Nesbitt
Both Alto titles have a "Zen mode" where players can simply ski down mountains, do flips, and not have to worry about being penalized for hitting obstacles. This mode was not an original implementation, but rather came in response to feedback from players saying they used the games as a way to meditate or relax and would like a way to do so without pressure. Conveniently, that fit in with the team's mission, and it's a feeling they hope to continue to capture in their work to come.
"Zen is something I've been chasing for a long time in games," McBain says. "I never wanted to add more noise to the world. I've been spending years working on prototypes that really hone in on this. And more recently, I worked on Mini Metro and Mini Motorways around the same time that Harry was making Alto's Adventure, and explored the idea of mechanical zen and the zen of audio and systems that allow people to get that kinesthetic focus on something that takes their mind away from all the noise and allows them to relax. For me, that massively drew me to Land & Sea, and I'm really interested in making sure that lives in our games going forward."
The team is heads-down for now working on its folk game, and while it may need to staff up somewhat to fulfill its objectives, Nesbitt says he wants Land & Sea to remain a small, remote crew that's flexible, well-rounded, and driven by the same interests and inspirations.
"Ultimately, what's important to us is that we are enjoying our work and getting satisfied and that we can actually finish and ship these projects," he says. "We can go on to do bigger and better things in the future, but we certainly don't have plans to become a big team. I think we've always talked about how the sweet spot where the development team size seems to be around eight people, where everyone can take a lead on certain aspects of the project, but they can also dip into other elements as well.
"They talk about these T-shaped people -- people who have one strong discipline and then two supporting skill sets that help them work autonomously and contribute to the main body of work without needing everything to be signed off. We are looking for people who can touch every aspect of the project and look at it holistically."