After a year that proved to be so volatile for most people around the world, it comforting to know that things could always be worse in an alternate timeline. inbetweengames, a company formed from three veterans of YAGER Studios (Spec Ops: The Line , Dead Island 2 [departed]), envision a reality where the Cold War had never ended, and the wall kept the East and West divided in boundary and culture. An omniscient third-person tactics game, ALL WALLS MUST FALL pits its protagonists in the luminescent and futuristic nightclub world of a divided Berlin, where a plot is unfolding to bring the war to an end and to bring a normalcy that previously existed as a far-off dream. Truly a “parable that reflects on free will, moral ambiguity and the meaning of freedom,” the inbetweengames trio have set forth a story that could be held to the same esteem as a dystopian novel or film with the added bonus of absolute immersion.
As development thunders on, I had a chance to e-mail the team to get some answers regarding the company’s history, the game itself, and some hopes for the future. Jan David Hassel, the lead designer of the game, offered some very useful information.
That’s Not Current: As a company formed from members of an existing studio/company, what did your experience on previous titles for YAGER Studio teach your team about game making?
Jan David Hassel: Basically everything I’ve learned about game development I’ve learned at YAGER. I started out as a QA Tester, then was a Build Engineer, Technical Artist, Technical Designer, then Game Designer. I’ve worked in a lot of different fields and roles over the eight years at that company.
Both Isaac and Rafal previously also worked at other studios before joining YAGER and we worked together there for a few years before going indie. I think the most important thing we’ve learned there is how to function well as a team, take responsibility and have a realistic outlook over the whole course of development of a project based on our previous experiences. Game development is a very complicated process but it goes through different phases and the same problems and solutions tend to reappear. So having experience from AAA development of multiple projects, especially failed ones, really helps.
Now independent from YAGER, what is different about the games made under inbetweengames?
David: The whole process is a lot more condensed. You don’t deal with a big team of 150 people, more if you count external parts of the team scattered all over the world. You work with two other guys. Everyone’s opinions, strengths, and quirks matter a lot more. There is no room to evade any interpersonal problems, you need to talk through them. That can be pretty intense. I really feel that the two other guys are my partners much to the same extent that my actual life partner is. You spent about as much time with them. They never leave your head at any point. It’s a big commitment.
I think that personal influence shows in the games we make when you know where to look. The Mammoth: A Cave Painting was something we made when we were all very much in the same place emotionally. We all just lost our project of more than two years, lost our jobs to go with that as well as our team, a lot of our friends. That sucked for us. But it was good for that game to be able to capture that feeling of loss.
The second jam game we made was OSHIYA! PUSH! At that point we were I think struggling a bit with what our emotional tone should be. We wanted to try and make something silly, something out of our comfort zone in a way. Honestly it didn’t turn out that great but we learned a lot from it.
Our current big game All Walls Must Fall is I think an amalgam of all of us, our backgrounds, the games we made before, the games that made us want to make games in the first place, as well as the city and the times we live in. I hope we’ll be able to capture a spirit of something meaningful again, but only time will tell.
Let’s talk about your first project; The Mammoth: A Cave Painting. How did people’s reception to the game influence your opinion on the company, its direction, and its future?
David: The Mammoth is a game about the inescapability of loss. That’s something we wanted to express with it and when we put it out we hoped for the best and that people would connect to that. But you never know how these things pan out. We were really just happy having made it. But then it made a huge impression on us how people reacted as well. First our fellow Ludum Dare jammers, then the press that was kind enough to write about our little jam game and the story behind it and then the people that learned about it from there. But also our former co-workers at YAGER who all very much knew and understood what we tried to express with that game. I think they were also happy that the story got told in a way.
That really gave us the confidence that we might be able to do something meaningful with a small team and convinced us to take the risk of going indie full time. If it weren’t for that game we wouldn’t have done that. That’s also why we put the little mammoth in our logo. It’s the game that made inbetweengames.
What did you learn from The Mammoth: A Cave Painting?
David: First off I think we learned that making a game jam game is really the same like shipping a big project. Everything just kind of happens in fast forward over the course of three days rather than say three years. But it has all the phases, the same processes and problems when you try to make something much bigger as well. You just have a lot less time to screw around which is both nice and kind of terrifying.
When we started to work on the Mammoth we didn’t really know whether we would be able to make a game with only a few people. We worked in big teams before, so we didn’t know whether we would be able to make up for all the extra specialists that we were used to have around and be able to rely upon. So we were actually pretty happy with just finishing something. That was a big need that we had at that time after getting cancelled with Dead Island 2. To just finish something and be able to put it out there without anyone being able to stop us. We needed to know that this was something we were able to do.
When creating ALL WALLS MUST FALL, what element of the game (story, gameplay, etc.) did you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?
David: What’s the most challenging element really changes all the time to be honest. For a small team like us it’s a pretty big game. It’s ambitious. So at any given moment there is something that kind of lacks behind the other parts of the game the most and then it becomes our focus for a while to get that up to par. Then we switch back onto the next thing that seems to need the most attention right now and so forth.
The most rewarding thing is I feel when we have other people play our prototype and point out some things to us that they liked which we already had kind of forgotten about. Because they’re not our focus right now. Because they work. So we just wind up taking them for granted in a way as we worry about all the things that are broken or should be better all the time.
So having other people play your game and enjoy it is really the best thing ever and the reason why we do all of this to be honest.
On the press kit, your last bullet point invokes “diversity” of the characters involved in the game. Explain why diversity is important to the company/the game itself.
David: We live in Berlin and it is a very diverse city. Our friends and families come from all over the world really. There’s no interest, identity or orientation too obscure not to be found here. We think that’s awesome. We want to reflect that in the game. We want to expose people to that, so it becomes normal to them. So they can look at someone that is very different to themselves and still feel some form of common connection. I’m not sure whether we will succeed with that in whatever small way at all or fail horribly. But we want to try.
Because when you work in those big AAA teams most of them want to do that too but they’re not allowed to do it to the same extent. It’s not thought of as mass market compatible enough by the money people because it hasn’t been proven yet. That’s a very slow process. When you work with the right partner it can be good and even help. But most of the time instead you have to battle inane ideas handed down the chain about what they think people would want. Those ideas are usually not very flattering for anyone. So we’re happy not to be bound by that anymore and we intend to run with it. Because we can do that now and we couldn’t before.
Is your location in Berlin particularly influential in your choice for the story? How does the history of your city reflect on this alternate universe? What sort of research did you have to do?
David: When we started out and tried to decide what our first ‘big’ game should be we just gathered a ton of ideas. Then a much smaller set of that, maybe half a dozen or so, got fleshed out a little more. In the end there were two favorite game concepts which we had to decide between. One of them was what would become All Walls Must Fall. The other one was something based on a background much more removed from us. We decided to go with what we knew better mostly because we felt that we would be able to deliver a more authentic game about that. Because we know what we are talking about.
The history of Berlin for us is an inspiration. We don’t feel bound to historical accuracy but there are a lot of interesting things to chose from here. The division of the city is the biggest theme but the local techno and club culture which really only thrived after the wall came down is another one. We are extrapolating the history of Berlin and what the city is now into the future. It’s a parable upon our current times as much as anything. We went into clubs here in Berlin as research trips as well as local museums, historical sites and got a whole new appreciation of the architecture of the city in all of its characteristic ugliness. Personal stories of people that lived through the division and reunification of the city are another big source for us that you won’t find anywhere else but by talking to people here.
What media (television, movies, video games) or literature influenced the look, dialogue, and story of the game?
David: Listing it all would probably go beyond the scope we have here! Noir movies and their adaptation into tech-noir movies like Blade Runner are a big one. Then there is the whole field of time travel and mind fuck movies like Source Code, Memento, Pi, Twelve Monkeys, La Jetée, Looper, Terminator, etc. Literature wise ‘Vurt’ is something that inspires us. Then there’s comics like Sin City and The Coldest City as well, which also has an upcoming movie adaptation. Our whole combat design is very much inspired by movies like Collateral and John Wick with its continuous action choreographies almost on a beat and in clubs by way of premonition like in Sherlock Holmes, Next or Run Lola Run. Games wise the original Syndicate guides our mood and tactics games like XCOM much of our isometric setup and wall destruction, while RPGs like Fallout, Planescape and Oblivion influence our dialogues and choices. Our prototypes for synaesthesia and actions on the beat were influenced by REZ and Parappa the Rapper, while indie games like Braid and Crypt of the Necrodancer also showed us ways to integrate time travel and synesthesia. It’s a very long list to be honest and I already left out a lot here but maybe that gives some idea of the kind of media we’re drawing from mostly.
The game is described as “tech-noir.” Are you the first company to use the term?
David: The term was actually coined by James Cameron for the original Terminator movie. It’s also the name of the club were Sarah Connor first is confronted by the Terminator if you remember that scene. When we started consolidating all the different ideas we had for All Walls Must Fall and tried to make sense of it all we gradually realized that it really was a sci-fi noir story. At the same time electronic dance music or techno plays a big role in both the setting and the mechanics. Everything happens on the beat of the music. Oh and there’s time travel. So when we stumbled over that genre term of tech-noir it was the perfect summary of the setting in a way. So now ‘A Tech-Noir Tactics Game’ as is the a subtitle of the game. Much in the same way that the first Fallout was ‘A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game’ which is another little nod to one of the major influences for us. The whole game concept is one big remix in a way.
When the game is released, what are your hopes for the game’s future (support/DLC/expansions/sequels?)
David: We’re currently preparing the release of a first alpha version of the game which we then hope to further develop hopefully for quite some time together with our community during an open development process. Right now kicking that off is what we’re mostly working on and we hope that we’ll get the response and support from players to go through with it to the extend we want to. As always we’re hoping for the best while trying to be prepared for the worst. It will be a very interesting year for us. I can’t really see beyond that at this point but we’re doing PC first. If that goes very well we might look at other platforms later. Since we’re working with Unreal Engine 4 and have worked on consoles before, console versions are something that we’re capable of, but we don’t know whether we will get that far yet.
Can you give us any hints as to whether the game has multiple endings?
David: The game will be divided into three acts, each coming with their own main protagonist. We’re basically at a point where we can somehow finish and wrap up the first act for sure no matter what happens. Maybe not in the way we want to but we’ll ship something. Again that’s basically the most important thing for us and why we’re doing all of this to begin with. But if we get enough support from the game’s community we’ll just keep developing together with them and add variation, scope and replayability to the game, also by way to the partly procedurally generated levels and campaign until we’ve put together all three acts in a way that we think of as complete. If we get to the end of it all there will be multiple endings for sure. Maybe even before that. If all goes well it’s going to be quite a ride. Knock on wood!
To conclude the e-mail, Jan David Hassel wrote, “in the end, ALL WALLS MUST FALL,” a prophecy I hope to fulfill upon the game’s release. For more information regarding the game, be sure to subscribe to their newsletter, and show them some love on Twitter and Facebook.
inbetweengames is an indie development team in Berlin founded by 3 former YAGER veterans. After their previous project Dead Island 2 at YAGER was cancelled in 2015 they participated in the Ludum Dare game jam to make a small game about mammoths and the feeling of loss. After that they decided to go full time indie and have worked on ALL WALLS MUST FALL: A Tech-Noir Tactics Game since then.