Capybara's Below is a fairy tale among video games. It strips away artifice to deliver an archetype, free from flourish. It says, "this is what it's like to be small and frightened, alone in the dark woods, surrounded by malevolence."
Pitched as a roguelike and due out this year, it's an RPG in which the character explores, solves problems and fights monsters. Progression comes through the power endowed by collectibles. All of this is normal for the genre. But Below's style is unusually stark for a console game. Below is a world of black and white and gray, with the occasional flash of light and splash of red.
Fairy tales teach children lessons about the evils of the world. The also reach into children's hearts because the characters are almost always vulnerable or naive. Below creates a similar effect through three devices.
First, its overhead camera sits a long way above the action, meaning that the main character is a very small part of the world it inhabits. This is in direct contrast to most modern, big budget RPGs in which the character takes up a significant proportion of the screen.
Second, it offers no clues as to how the character ought to progress. The player begins the game on a beach, alone. There are no signals about where to go, or what powers are available to you. Everything must be learned by experience.
You wander through the world and you encounter stuff and, although the game might give you broad clues about its intention (this is food, that is a trap) you are mostly expected to make mistakes and to pay the price. Certainly in the early part of the game, this makes the player feel extremely vulnerable and weak.
Third, if you die, you die and you return to the beginning. We call these games "Roguelikes" after 1980 dungeon-crawler Rogue. But the concept of insta-death has been the norm in fiction since time began, while save points and saved characters are modern video game conventions.
Below strips away artifice to deliver an archetype, free from flourish.
Video game RPGs took their lead from D&D-type games, which derived from high fantasy, which itself is an evolutionary branch of the fairy tale. Fairy tales are fantasy adventures, but their function is to mirror real life. They teach valuable lessons about the value of being wary and wise. Below is going back to the genre's roots.
Below does not merely allow players to wander around at will, fighting their way through levels. They must sustain themselves with food. In fact, right from the start of the game, this is an absolute imperative, though the unwary player, like the lazy squirrel, will only find this out when it's altogether much too late.
In Below the player collects stuff and either it has some ready-made function, or it can be crafted into something new. Some players may be alarmed to find that catching a fish and eating it raw gives only trifling health. They must learn that cooking the same fish with mushrooms and water makes a life-sustaining soup.
"Roguelikes are the most lifelike games," says Creative Director Kris Piotrowski, "Every time you start a Roguelike, you're jumping in at the deep end. You're always one mistake away from death. Every time you play a game, you think, 'Is this potion going to kill me? Am I going to try it?'"
Potions and scrolls and magical items are just one analog that connects fairy tales and Roguelikes. In most role-playing games, potions are named and marked for their properties. So, this purple one gives magical boosts and this green one restores health but don't drink the red one.
In Roguelikes, the fun is not knowing what you are drinking. The player who is close to death will find a potion and will often indulge in belief that the lottery is worth a spin, and will take the potion, often with unpleasant results.
Below is very much about being alone, underground.
Compare this with fairy tales in which items often promise some alluring outcome — like the porridge pot that keeps on giving — only to end in disaster. The juicy red apple looks tasty, but in fact it leads to instant death. (Actually, not death for Snow White, but a restart, after a significant cooling down period.)
Death in Below is a blow, but there is some relief. Players discover shortcuts back to the starting point, so they can re-enter at convenient points. The bodies and leavings of your previous corpses add to the variety of things that can be plundered.
Below is a game that demands that you work stuff out. "There's something nice about approaching a game and being able to butt up against it and figure it out as you go." says Piotrowski. "We've seen a lot of hand-holding design in triple-A design. Now there's a hunger for games that let you just get into the game world and figure it out on your own."
In fairy tales, central characters are often alone. Red Riding Hood does not set out into the woods accompanied by a party comprising a mage, a healer and a tank. When there are parties, they are often comprised of fools, and quickly trimmed, as in the Three Little Pigs. Below is very much about being alone, underground and far from help.
"I love games that let me be alone in a place," says Piotrowski. "Below is really about that kind of feeling. You're a tiny little character in a big mysterious world. It feels like a very solitary journey."
Combat in Below is about being smart and avoiding danger. The player wades into battle and swings a sword and finds that each and every hit received brings serious damage. Enemies are not so-much bested with brute force, as with measured timing and guile. But the player can become stronger.
"You're super fragile at first," says Piotrowski. "Whenever you take damage, it's always a big deal. And so part of the game is about preparing for that and getting familiar with all the little flora and fauna in the world, so you can get yourself ready for the inevitable moment where you do take a hit."
Fairy tales deliver simple pieces of information to millions of people across thousands of years. It's interesting that Below has been designed with meme-like info exchanges in mind. Players who just can't survive in this world won't be able to turn on an "easy mode" but they will be able to find a helping hand elsewhere, by turning to the warm nuzzle of the internet in order to live happily ever after.
"When I get into a game, I love being able to chat with friends about it," says Piotrowski. "'Where did you find this? What's that?' I love jumping on the forums and learning all this stuff that other players have figured out and put in places to help other people.
"I hope that happens with Below. That's what we're trying to create, a game that you get to lose yourself in, but also where the community can unravel it the way communities do. They tear games to pieces and figure out every little thing that's initially completely hidden."