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Yes, you can solo Nightingale; no, it isn’t a steampunk MMO

Far from it, say the BioWare alumni who started Inflexion Games

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In Nightingale, players take flight by opening an umbrella. Developers at Inflexion Games, the Edmonton, Alberta-based studio founded in 2018 by BioWare alumni, added this to the unusual fantasy only recently, Neil Thompson, the studio’s art director, told Polygon.

But it may yet become something of a badge, or other marker, helping curious gamers identify or understand something that has a touch of high concept to it. Nightingale, shown in a two-minute trailer during The Game Awards 2022 on Thursday, is taken from the Victorian era, but it’s definitely not steampunk; and it’s a “shared-world survival crafting” role-playing game, but it’s not a massively multiplayer online game.

“We’ve made Dragon Age as a dark, medieval fantasy game, and we’ve made Mass Effect as a high science-fiction game,” said Aaryn Flynn, Inflexion’s chief executive and BioWare’s former general manager. (He also has developer credits on Jade Empire and Dragon Age: Origins.) “But we started off wanting to build this kind of Victorian-era contemporary fantasy, with magic, [that] kind of a setting. And then we saw it, [and] we navigated our way toward the right gameplay for that.”

A screenshot from Nightingale, showing a character wearing a bowler, jacket, and carrying a rifle, striding toward a strange portal radiating mysterious energy
Realmwalkers are humans who explore ‘The Fae Lands’ through the use of portals, seen here.
Image: Inflexion Games

In Nightingale, first revealed at last year’s Game Awards, players will create a human character from the year 1889 in an alternate history, where humans have learned and developed magic alongside technology of the day. In this timeline, adventurers called “Realmwalkers” have journeyed from Earth to the “Lands of Fae,” a magical plane of existence, and are returning to report on their exploits.

But a cataclysmic event collapses the portals between the two worlds, scattering humanity and trapping its remnants in the Lands. They must survive, become skilled Realmwalkers themselves, and reach the city of Nightingale, founded by their forebears as a human outpost for the study of magic.

If all of that sounds like the premise for an MMO, you are not alone; the developers for a long time looked at this game as just that, said Leah Summers, Inflexion’s director of production. The systems they were working with, however, weren’t a good fit for a studio their size (Nightingale’s team comprises about 100 developers). But the crafting and survival gameplay that Summers’ team had worked up was too intriguing to throw out in a wholesale change of direction to a more traditional narrative RPG.

“The biggest conversation we’ve had when it comes to our survival players is the idea of accessibility,” Summers said. “You have Valheim coming out, where, it’s not really that hardcore survival; it’s quite accessible, and so some of the bigger conversations we have are, What kind of challenge do we want in our game? How do we want to challenge our players? In an MMO, how you think about combat, or hordes, are a little bit different than the solo experience. We want to build in a lot more opportunity for players to solve these challenges with our survival crafting.”

So for those wondering, Can I solo it? the answer is a plain yes. Nightingale, launching in early access on Windows PC sometime in the first half of 2023, is designed to be a single-player game, with some PvE elements for invited collaborators. The core loop is to explore, discover, harvest, and craft, with combat and action figuring in throughout the journey.

To ensure a uniform experience while still tuning a game to a player’s strengths (or away from their weaknesses), Inflexion is introducing a modifier called “Realm Cards,” which are an opportunity for players to draw and set broad parameters for what they are about to encounter. “It’s the biome, it’s the kind of creatures and structures you’ll find in there,” Flynn told media during Monday’s presentation. “So you can buff your character up going in there, you can debuff what’s on the other side, you can give yourself unique attributes and unique benefits [by] playing certain realm cards.”

Thompson, the art director, said Realm Cards emerged early in Nightingale’s development. “I think we all instantly felt that it would be a big differentiator, if we could make it work,” he said. Rather than setting variable difficulty levels (and balancing all of them), Realm Cards would give players a leg up on the next chapter of their encounter, or at least give them peace of mind that a particularly nettlesome adversary probably won’t appear.

“The thing that surprised us is how flexible [Realm Cards] are getting for us,” Flynn said, pointing to the closed alpha tests that Summers has administered since October. “How many different combinations and things players get to do to create that meta, so that players can find interesting ways to solve problems for themselves, in the instance, and from there comes the survival crafting strategies and tactics.”

At first blush, Nightingale would compare well to Fallout 76, another large-scale, survive-and-craft role-playing game whose creators also rejected the MMO label. However, Flynn said the game will feature encounters that are balanced for two or three players (against AI enemies), but not quite raid-level. “We want to make sure that the vast majority of our content is enjoyable to the single player,” Flynn said. Groups of players will be able to combine their Realm Cards to create an instance of greater difficulty, if they find themselves up for it. Obviously, this will lead to better rewards.

The heroes of Nightingale are all custom, drawing from all ethnicities, identities, and representations, Flynn said. This of course means customizations galore in the costuming, especially when people are taking their morning constitutional across The Fae Lands in a waistcoat and top hat, or a bonnet and bustle. Or the umbrella/glider; Summers said alpha players are already asking if they can have a special umbrella skin noting their participation in the game’s early development.

“I think we’ve always been quite clear and committed to, This is what Nightingale is, with its ‘gaslamp’ fantasy,” she recalled. “I think when we started to think about more of the survival aspect, we had conversations like, Well, you’re gonna look pretty fancy surviving.”

Nightingale so far is only planned for Windows PC. Inflexion Games imagines an early access period of roughly a year, Flynn said, before a full launch. Console versions will be considered later.