A game about finding balance
“If you’re trying to make a really accessible game,” Joni Kittaka laughs, “then action platformer with walljumping is really not what you should do.”
Despite its genre, Even the Ocean, a new game from Anodyne developers Kittaka and Sean HTCH, sets its sights on being enjoyable to a wide range of players. The game follows Aliph, a technician in Whiteforge City, as she travels across a strange, varied landscape investigating a series of power plant failures. In order to navigate this world, the player must balance a two-color energy bar. One end of the spectrum provides higher jumps and slower speed, while the other grants faster speed and lower jumps. Finding the balance between these two poles undergirds both the game’s narrative and its design choices.
“[Finding balance] creates a feeling of constantly reading the geometry of the room, reading the objects, and thinking ‘How should I change my energy?’” HTCH explains. “The effect of the energy becomes more pronounced when you’re at the high end—moon jumps or Sonic speeds—but the elements the game is built of are focused around being interesting even at the extremes of the motion.”
“If you fill up your energy bar by hitting one type of color too much, you die,” Kittaka elaborates. “But we also want to explore the idea that being in the direct center of balance is not the only way. Through the game, you’re gradually gaining this intuition of your body and how it’s reacting to this energy. You don’t have to be at any particular energy to do anything in the game—you can do [anything] with any energy, but you’ll have to change [your approach] a little. You’re gradually learning how to tweak your motion without thinking about it constantly.”
This flexibility allows for a wide range of playstyles. Kittaka says, “I imagine a few different types of players: for instance, someone who wants to be the safest, so they always stay in the center. I can see someone else trying to strategize, and I could see someone else just using the energy system very haphazardly and just blowing through everything. If you know a lot about the systems or have a lot of dexterity, you can play very aggressively.”
Allowing for various player approaches also influenced the narrative ethos of the game. With Anodyne, the developers noticed that some players were deeply invested in the game’s narrative while others were not. For Even the Ocean, most of the main story takes place in the hub world of Whiteforge City, while the surrounding areas feature side narratives full of characters going about their own lives. Each of these areas is unique, with its own distinct themes and visual design.
One area, for instance, is a beach resort, with sand dunes and islands expressing narrative themes of work, laziness, and relaxation. The characters the player encounters and their interactions with the player are tangential to the main plot, but they nevertheless serve to emphasize the themes of the game as a whole.
HTCH says, “Rather than a realistic geological world, we created all these areas that have thematic threads running through them, exploring different things we wanted to talk about. They all have these different natural themes that look diverse and feel diverse to move through. Each area has its own physical feel to it, and each area has its own power plant, and those are a different style of gameplay and level design.”
Kittaka adds, “We wanted to make a story that spoke to our experience in this modern world. There are a lot of things in the way that humans interact with the rest of nature and the rest of the world that are really complicated and not always healthy. So we’re trying to explore that with the idea of balance that happens in this micro scale, with the player themselves being affected by energy.”
In service of these different approaches, the developers have added a range of difficulty options, as well as a unique difficulty curve. Even the Ocean eschews traditional RPG puzzles, inventory, levelling, and even combat, instead relying on new uses of the same basic controls. HTCH explains, “The progression isn’t like Super Meat Boy, you know, just adding more spikes. Interesting ideas that require more dexterity come at the end, but each level can be beaten at any extreme of energy.”
There are also unusual difficulty settings—one makes it impossible for the player to die, while another adds blocks to aid the player’s navigation. This was done to make the game playable and enjoyable for as many people as possible. HTCH says, “I have a lot of friends and family who don’t really play videogames but are interested in what I’m doing, and I knew that if we didn’t really add anything they’d probably get stuck on the first level.”
Joni adds, “We want it to be where people who are only interested in the story will always have a way to go through it. We’re trying to make the best of that so it can be interesting and playable by a wide range of people.”
Even the Ocean currently has no set release date, but those interested in following the game’s development can sign up for the mailing list.
Riley MacLeod spends a lot of time thinking about stealth games and the serial comma. You can follow him on Twitter at @rcmacleod.