Failure hits with a resounding thud. Clinging to the edge of a fragile wooden door, a young man named Harm tries to fly his way out of the depths of Candice, a city that suffocates its inhabitants and refuses to let them leave. Harm and his door bob up and down in the air through passages narrow and wide that are littered with obstacles. The slightest bump causes Harm to come crashing down, more often than not sending him right back to where he started.
Harm fails often. He falls often. To Leave is not an easy game. It was never designed to be. Developed by independent Ecuadorian studio Freaky Creations, To Leave is inspired by all things difficult — difficult choices, difficult situations and the challenge of climbing your way out from difficult places. The studio itself was established in a country that has little in the form of a game development community. Its developers left behind stable careers to work on the game. The game aims to capture the spirit of those challenges.
"Everyone on the team, when they left their old life to come work on the game, it was really hard for them..."
"In our experience, what we wanted to share is the idea that leaving and building yourself anew is not easy," said Freaky Creations' Estefano Palacios, who left college so he could help build the studio and work on To Leave. "Everyone has made sacrifices to make this game. One of our artists left a very decent art job — which is very hard to get in Ecuador — so he could develop the game. All these different stories about how we sacrificed and the things everyone had to do to make this happen — they kind of fuel To Leave."
According to Palacios, Freaky Creations' developers have always been fascinated with the idea of making games that delve into difficult issues. He tells Polygon that he and the studio's producer have been making video games since they were 14. Even back then, Palacios recalls the two of them wanting to make games that explored the challenges of being a teenager in high school.
When they were in college, Sony gave their university PlayStation 3 development kits so it could create a game development lab. It was there that Palacios cobbled together a team of artists, designers and programmers to form Freaky Creations.
The team consists of mostly self-taught developers. "We read a lot of books," Palacios said. "We bought books from Amazon — they only ship books to Ecuador — and we bought a ton of books on game development, game design, audio design and we taught ourselves." The team would go to college, spend a week reading up on their craft, get together and work on its demos.
Many different experiences came together to form the foundation of To Leave. For Palacios, the day after graduating from high school was one of them. He remembers feeling in limbo. He lay in bed, unable to get up. It was as though a strange cloud hung over him — a girl he'd liked had told him she was going to marry someone else, his school life had finally come to an end, and it was unlikely he'd see many of his friends again. "I could not get a hold of my mind," he said. "I spent the whole day buried in bed." He recalls how hard it was to force himself to get up and leave the house, and how tempting it was to crawl back into bed.
Harm begins the game in a similar way. Lying on top of his bedsheets, sweating in his sweltering room, he feels awful. He wants to leave, but it's just too hard. And when he finally decides to, it's far easier to fall back to where he started than to move forward. This, Palacios explains, is why To Leave is so unforgiving in its design. The game tries to capture how hard it is to leave a job, to leave school, to leave the comfort and familiarity of a situation or place and to venture out because you know there's something better out there.
"Everyone on the team, when they left their old life to come work on the game, it was really hard for them," Palacios said. "It's like your old life is pulling you back, and it's so easy to go back, but it's not the way you want to be."
Frequent failures are inevitable in To Leave. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that players will get further and further every time. As players fly through the air, they will have to collect little blue orbs of light called "Drive." Every door has a Drive timer, and the more Drive a player has, the longer they can fly, allowing them to get further in each level. When a player runs out of Drive, they will be thrown back to where they started.
"The first part is always the hardest. There's so much friction to everything you do."
It took us at least ten tries to make it through the first stage. The game allowed no room for error. Every time our door bumped into an obstacle, it fell apart and Harm was sent tumbling back into his bedroom. These early levels were frustrating, but we were never far from clearing them. According to Palacios, that's the whole point. The experience is meant to be challenging and, like in real life, players are meant to feel like they're fighting an uphill battle. But when they've finally navigated Harm out of Candice — his hands clinging to the flying door for dear life — the sense of reward and satisfaction is greater than any thud of failure. "Suddenly, you've broken free, and that's where the next part of the game begins," he said. "The first part is always the hardest. There's so much friction to everything you do."
In this next part, the pace changes. It's not about fighting your way out of an oppressive city any more. Players will be able to breathe. "The game is called To Leave," Palacios said. "But the theme is To Leave and To Begin Anew."