5Horsemen Studios’ Short Tale Illustrates the Delicate Balance Between Man and Nature
This article is a transcript of a video originally published on 4/26/17. Edits have been made.
More Than Just a Sidekick
Some of the most memorable faces in gaming aren’t necessarily those controlled by the player. Supporting characters like Bioshock Infinite’s interdimensional traveler Elizabeth or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s relentlessly bothersome fairy Navi are examples of those who have cemented their place within the annals of gaming’s history. Characters like these succeed at eliciting an emotional response from the player in ways that go above and beyond their roles on paper.
To be so evocative so as to be remembered for years to come can be the result of who they were or what their relevance was to how their game played. When the topic of indelible supporting characters arises I always lean towards Elizabeth, wonderfully brought to life by actress Courtnee Draper. Elizabeth is an example of of the former, of a character I remember because of who they were. The combination of Ms. Draper’s performance and impressive motion capture was strong enough to reserve a special spot in my memory and has held it ever since I finished the game in 2013.
Navi on the other hand is a character who lives on not only due to her overeager and oft annoying curiosity, but to her impact on game play. Z-targeting revolutionized the way developers approach real time 3D melee combat and its association with Navi ensured her place within the hearts and minds of gamers everwhere. We remember to listen because she taught us to kick ass.
Elizabeth and Navi are examples of partnerships with the player that just worked, absolutely nailing the most important aspect of their roles which is to be a benefit not a detriment. Their success in this could rest on something as major as providing integral plot points or as seemingly minor as just being a friend in a lonely world.
The best partnerships however, the ones that are the most true, are the ones where one cannot go on without the other.
Needles in the Haystack, Diamonds in the Rough, Hidden Gems…….You get the Point
Itch.io is a platform I feel often gets overlooked. As an open market it’s susceptible to hundreds of half-assed video games that get added on a daily basis (no doubt prompting the recent announcment of Itch.io Selects) so naturally it’s going to earn some criticism. Itch.io’s greatest strength however is providing an open market where developers can debut a new idea or demo to an audience of testers at absolutely no cost to anyone involved. Because of this the platform acts as a sort of hybrid mix of an online storefront and independent research center. Embracing itself as an open market designed for experimentation is what, in my mind, gives Itch.io a pass over other storefronts like Steam. In the end you can choose to write Itch off as a dumping ground for garbage or you can remember that a diamond is only as valuable as it is because of the rough it’s buried in.
5Horsemen Games’ Unspokin is decidedly not a diamond. It’s more like quartz; a bit rough on the outside but absolutely beautiful on the inside. It tells the story of a small girl who befriends a very large animal and though far from “finished” in both story and game play, there’s enough here that could help it become as memorable a game about love and friendship as any other before it.
Unspokin takes place in the world of Arden: a series of floating islands suspended by great metal chains that disappear into misty clouds, obscuring their anchors from the people below. The land is lush and beautiful but in danger. Deforestation caused by mass industrialization has rendered much of Arden inhospitable. The localized cutting down and burning of its forests has made the air toxic with carbon monoxide unfortunately causing irreperable brain damage to a small girl, Cairenn, rendering her aphasic (unable to understand or expresss speech).
Despite her disability, Cairenn decides to do something and attempt to restore life to her homeland utilizing her unique connection to the environment. This eventually brings her to Killian, a blind bear with an unusual scar on his face. From here the game is about the symbiotic relationship that forms out of their inherent need for one another as a result of their shared trauma.
Getting Lost in a Fairy Tale
The game’s story possseses the same sort of heart I’d expect from something out of Studio Ghibli which was actually what initially attracted me to the project. Hayao Miyazaki’s films always possess powerful examples of friendship and love within the fantasy worlds he creates, with those relationships falling under strain by those who exist “outside” of the emotional connections that are felt between his characters. The parallels to Unspokin and its man vs nature narrative were easy to draw.
The game is only about an hour or so in length so you meet Killian right from the get go. As Unspokin is more of a proof of concept than a full game in the strongest sense of the term, the mechanical aspects of the relationship between you two are explored on a fairly rudimentary level. You whistle and Killian will heed your call. He can knock over heavy objects and weigh down pressure plates while you can free him from bear traps should he need it and platform around a tight area in order to activate a far off lever. The game won’t ever ask much more from you than that.
The core of the game’s message is the bond between Cairenn and Killian and maintaining the trust between them. To illustrate this there are scripted moments in game where he might lose faith in Cairenn perhaps because he stepped in a trap or because he was lead through a thorn bush. Restoring his trust requires feeding him fish that are scattered seemingly arbitrarily around the area. There’s no meter by which to gauge Killian’s confidence in you. His appreciation for the fish and stroking of his fur (which appears to only be a bit of contextual role play) is displayed via audio and visual cues.
This system of maintaining trust unfortunately feels too gamey to me and I would’ve rather seen game play that more naturally capitalized on what would surely be an inherently dangerous relationship between man and animal. I think of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi in which a shipwrecked teenager must slowly build trust between himself and a full grown Bengal tiger in the middle of the ocean. Much of the film is the poor boy trying not to be eaten as he attempts to establish dominance and I’d love to see a similar back and forth play out in games like Unspokin where man and creature exist in an uneasy mutual dependency.
The debate as to whether or not it’s best for your game to simulate all aspects of an animal’s behavioral personality is an interesting one, most recently brought up with the release of Team Ico’s The Last Guardian. That game received criticism due to the star beasty Trico not necessarily always obeying the player’s commands, resulting in a bit of a random element in the game’s puzzles. Personally I place more value on an experience with an animal companion who demonstrates the same sort of behavorial complexity as a real world counterpart than I do on an experience where they always do what I intstruct without question. It results in a stronger bond if occasionally I get pissed off at the cantankery of my animal companion.
Granted, Trico has no real world counterpart but hey.
It’s a question of what you want players to remember about your game: the relationship between your characters and the world they inhabit or your game play? Both are important of course and there are rare times when they’re on equal ground but more often than not I find that one side merely compliments the other. Again I’ll reference Bioshock Infinite as a title I remember fondly not because of its game play (which was great yet arguably the weakest of the franchise thus far) but for the absolutely stunning city of Columbia and the relationship between Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth. The gun play served as a vehicle for the story to move forward and it was the powerful performances of its leads that lead me to clap alone in my room as the credits rolled.
That’s what I found most interesting about Unspokin: its world. The islands of Arden are beautiful and witnessing the great chains that suspend them come into view as I crossed a long expanse made me reminisce about similar moments I experienced in Santa Monica Studios’ epic God of War 2. Where are those chains anchored? Who is cutting down the forests and operating the machinery? Where have all the other displaced inhabitants of Arden gone? What is the nature of Cairenn’s power? Who or what blinded Killian and scarred his face?
5Horsemen Games offers a plethora of questions whose answers could be found in a more fleshed out offering. As this was just a taste of (hopefully) things to come, I’m excited to think about the possibilities. Unspokin is a fine start to what could become an emotionally engaging tale of a delicate partnership between a girl and a wild animal that mirrors the equally delicate balance between man and nature existing all around them and I hope 5horsemen Games continues to develop and expand upon those narratives.
You can play the game for yourself right here.