There’s an indie revolution occurring in the adventure gaming scene, and The Journey Down: Episode 1 may just be one of the best examples of the creativity and ingenuity that’s giving this worn-out genre a second golden age.
You follow the misadventures of Bwana and Kito, two brothers down on their luck ever since the disappearance of their father, Captain Kaonandodo. Their lives get turned upside-down with when a beautiful stranger appears looking for help and passage into the mysterious Underland. Painted in shades of noir and comedy, The Journey Down never fails to surprise at every turn.
Maybe it’s the look of the characters or the slow Jamaican sway of the sound track, but The Journey Down is the kind of game that stands out immediately from the very beginning. The game’s aesthetics blend this sort of gritty city feel with a slow African beat as the character’s over-sized tiki faces seem to express as much as the words rolling off their tongues. Even in the darkest moments, there’s still a playful edge that keeps you moving and looking for that next item.
As with most adventure games, there’s a reasoning to figure out behind each of the puzzles. With colorful characters and plenty of items around, the game constantly feeds the player new information to keep the flow moving from one puzzle to the next. You might not remember picking up the shirt or paintbrush, but you often figure out what you need to do once the puzzle is presented to you. The game even nudges you towards the right direction once you’ve clicked on the same item a couple of times.
The team over at SkyGoblin has a lot to live up to after releasing The Journey Down: Episode 1 into the wild. But after winning several awards for the game and garnering rave reviews already, it looks as though they hit this one out of the park. Instead of taking a well-deserved break, however, the team dropped the price in half over at Desura and just released the soundtrack over at bandcamp. If that wasn’t enough to persuade you to open your wallet, The Journey Down along with nine other titles can be yours for the low price of six bucks at the Indie Royale Summer Bundle.
Theo Waern, one of the masterminds over at SkyGoblin, took some time out from working on the next episode to talk about adventure gaming, life as an indie, and the journey behind The Journey Down.
There's a lot of love for the adventure gaming genre in The Journey Down. What do you think makes for a great adventure game?
Pinpointing one specific aspect that's more important than the rest for a great adventure game is in my opinion quite frankly impossible. You can create an amazing adventure with crap graphics, but have an immersive plot that still gives the player a five star experience. Likewise, the game could have a crap plot, but you could save the whole thing by, say, great puzzle design, or thick ambiance and good looks. Honestly, who even remembers what the story in Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck's Revenge was? I don't - I have no idea, I just remember goofing around on a bunch of islands and then winding up at some weird carnival. I truly have no idea what that game's plot was all about. I still love the game though, and would easily give it 5/5 because it does everything else so incredibly well.
Needless to say it is the synergy between all these elements that create a truly memorable experience, and there's never just one of these aspects that makes all the difference.
If I were forced to pinpoint what I truly believe are critical elements though, I'd chose flow and ambiance. As long as the game flows naturally, and keeps feeding the player with new exciting puzzles, characters and locations that all blend and create an intriguing setting that the player wants to explore - you can't go wrong.
Having played the game, I know that The Journey Down is a great title, but what about it do you think makes it a great game?
I'm specifically proud of two things, fortunately they align beautifully with my previous answer. I'm proud of the flow and the ambiance. The good flow in the game is simply the result of incredibly large amounts of testing on a very large group of people. We built it, tested it on a bunch of people, implemented their feedback, re-tested it, re-built it, re-tested it, re-built it, and so on and so forth. As with all types of games, the magic lies in the testing. That's where you find out what REALLY works, and not just what works in your head.
As for the ambiance - That's why I got into making TJD in the first place. I wanted to breathe more life into my pictures, and truly make them live. What better way than to embed them into an interactive story? I'm a sucker for the magic that happens when you put the right art together with the right music. Top that off with the right dialog coming from the right voice actor, and blam! - You've got a game oozing with ambiance.
What inspired the look of The Journey Down?
The character design comes from African masks, a theme I've long wanted to explore, and I had the perfect opportunity when I started working on TJD. I wanted a look that was unique, but also something that was relatively easy to work with, animation-wise, much like the Calaveras of Grim Fandango. Since you don't expect a lifelike face, you forgive the wooden animation. To me there aren't many things as off-putting as stuff that's supposed to be lifelike, but isn't. This trick worked in Grim Fandango, and it turned out to work in TJD too, just as I had hoped.
As for the rest of the look, I'd say it's a blend of different styles I've looked up to and been inspired by during my years of painting. There are a lot of Disney-esque things going on with the backdrops, but you'll also find some anime strokes in there. My long running fetish for city skylines, for instance, is probably partially the result of watching Ghost in the Shell too many times.
How do you think being episodic changes the way you put together the story?
We've got the major story arc all figured out, and actually have most locations and major characters for the entire plot down on paper as well. Story-wise I'd say the only way we're being affected by being episodic is that we're required to make sure every release feels like its own little story as to not leave players unsatisfied when they finish a chapter.
The tricky part is leaving them with a feeling of accomplishment, but also a feeling of desperately wanting to play the next part. It is not entirely an easy task balancing and combining these two. I'm however happy to say that chapter two does an even better job at this than chapter one. We are learning.
What are some of the perks and challenges of working as a small development group?
One of the biggest perks is that you get to be such a large part of the production and truly get to make a difference. If I worked at your typical AAA studio, I'd proudly be pointing at a rusty car in a back alley of some lame shooter game and I'd say, "This was my contribution to the game, look how I made the corner all extra rusty because it's close to this drainpipe. That's some good rusty rust, I did there." While now, I can point at any major scene in our game and say, "I painted this backdrop. And animated it, and yeah I wrote the dialog and puzzles too, and directed the voice actor you're hearing. Oh and now I remember I'm also the producer of the game." That's more fun.
One of the main challenges is in fact the exact same thing: doing everything. Learning and tackling all these things takes up a lot of time. Also, in a small team you wind up doing all sorts of weird things that don't even relate to game development. An entire day can pass where all I do is handle business contacts and support emails, pay bills, grumble over accounting, clean the office, water the plants... etc. It forces you to multitask like crazy. You don't find yourself with a lot of time to focus on one single detail, so you really need to be efficient with your time. Also, everything needs to get done first, as you may be aware of.
What one lesson have you learned while making The Journey Down that you wish you knew going into it?
Considering we have published the game all on our own, with virtually no prior marketing experience, I think we've done a pretty good job at reaching out with it. I do however believe that if we from the start had known what we know now about marketing, we would definitely have made a larger impact upon release. Never underestimate the amount of work that lies behind getting media coverage.