"Unless you ask for help, we’re not going to offer any. We’re curious to see how you’ll do," Dave Edery, the co-founder of Spry Fox tells me as I sit down to try Road Not Taken, the team’s latest game, coming to the PlayStation 4, Vita, and Steam this summer.
It’s a grid-based puzzle title with rogue-like elements, but the music and art style are bright and welcoming, almost whimsical. I die quickly.
"Just so you know, 90 percent of people die in the tutorial," I’m told. "Including PhDs and fellow game designers. The game is meant to be very hard."
The gulf between the game’s cheery aesthetics and its tough-as-nails difficulty can be hard to cross, but once I started to understand the movement and throwing actions I began to make my way through the game, saving the children of the townsfolk and getting to the game proper.
Learning how to play the game is only part of the struggle, however. You’ll never be able to do everything in your first attempt, or even if your first dozen. You get a single life in the game, and how you handle that life determines your ending. Your goal is to save as many children as possibly, but that's just the beginning of what you can accomplish.
You'll die no matter what, however. Life is finite. It's all about what you do with the time you're given.
We all get the same thing: One life
The game itself is simple: You move next to an object to pick it up, and you can then throw the object in that direction. Moving with an object uses energy, and you’ll die if you use all your energy. That’s all you have to understand to fulfill the minimum requirements of the campaign.
"That mechanic drives the entirety of the game," Edery said. "There's tremendous depth that interaction enables over time, but it's literally that simple."
You begin to pick up some strategies. Moving with items uses energy, but throwing them does not. So throw things where you want them to go instead of hand-delivering them. Some items needs to be bunched together, and items interact with each other in interesting ways when grouped together, or when grouped next to a "catalyst" object. There is, in fact, a robust crafting system, although no one seems to be in a rush to explain it to me.
"This is latent, there are all sorts of little mysteries," Daniel Cook, co-founder of Spry Fox, said. "We'd love there to be a large amount that's discoverable by the Internet community to talk about or share."
This is something they're still struggling with, in fact. How much of the game do you keep secret, and how do you make sure the players know there are secrets to be found?
"Just so you know, 90 percent of people die in the tutorial"
"A lot of it will be secret, but we need to avoid the situation where it's so secret that you have no idea unless you go online that there's a crafting system at all," Edery explained. "We'll likely end up teasing the existence of the crafting system in some way, without giving everything in it away." The later missions will be both long and difficult, and it will be impossible to get the optimal ending without understanding how the system works and how to bend each item to your will.
Of course, that process takes time.
Before they put you in the ground
The goal is to go on missions to save children while learning about the game’s latent systems, but each mission equals a year of game time. You get 15 years in each game, and then it’s over. A gravestone is added to the game when you die, complete with an epitaph. It’s a cycle, and you’ll learn how to get closer to the optimal ending with each attempt.
And the game's systems run deep. Most items can be used two or three ways. Some items can be used four or five ways. There are items that make your throwing arm stronger or more effective, and other items act differently when thrown. The challenge is finding out how everything interacts, and that’s not an easy task. I tried my hand at crafting and created a Doom Spirit. It didn’t end well for me.
You can also use items to level up your relationships with NPCs, which could cause them to give you more items, or you could get married. "It’s almost like a little dating sim built into the game," Cook said. Your spouse can also get upset about your actions, fall sick and require medicine or ultimately die.
I tried my hand at crafting and created a Doom Spirit
"The game is an excuse to create this sort of micro-simulation of a life. To say 'hey look, not all lives turn out as we expect,' so we do things in the game to say that everyone in the village is on this standard path," Cook explained. "They have their kids, and they're living this life and then you try to live the normal life as well, and it doesn't always work out that way. That's the overall theme of the game."
You get a house, complete with a cat, and you’ll slowly fill that house up with trophies and objects from the game, allowing you further interactions with the world. You can even "ban" certain objects from the game to make your life easier, although that action could have unintended consequences.
You might be tempted to remove a plant that is frequently causing your death, but then you'll miss what happens when that plant interacts with a new item. A screen filled with a certain object may cause you to curse until you understand everything that object can do, in which case it becomes a welcomed sight. Your reaction to the game’s world, and the items within it, evolves along with your understanding of the game's systems.
Each player begins in the same place, and will ultimately end in the same place. It’s what happens in the middle that counts. You have your mission, but you also have a life outside of your role as a hero. "How do I, in my 15-year career, save as many kids as I possibly can?" Edery asked. The fun part is finding out the answer.