First Person Explorer  Tagged Articles RSS Feed | GameSkinny.com First Person Explorer  RSS Feed on GameSkinny.com https://www.gameskinny.com/ en Launch Media Network First person exploration games: a subgenre on the rise https://www.gameskinny.com/n5y8g/first-person-exploration-games-a-subgenre-on-the-rise https://www.gameskinny.com/n5y8g/first-person-exploration-games-a-subgenre-on-the-rise Fri, 14 Aug 2015 12:54:43 -0400 Charly Mottet

Being a huge fan of RPG (Role-Playing Games), but sometimes feeling too lazy to deal with the violence of games such as The Elder Scroll's Skyrim, Borderlands or Fallout, I like to turn to FPEG (First-Person Exploration Games).

Sometimes, I just feel like going out to explore the open-world map without needing to stop to beat someone up (because no one fights with the Dovahkiin and wins). 

That's where FPEG comes in. Although not a brand new subgenre, I have noticed that it is on the rise. It has become popular in the past few years through games like Ether One, Gone Home, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dear Esther, MystJourney...

The concept is simple: travel, explore, discover. Sometimes, the only way to complete the map is to turn over every rock you find, and snoop through every nook and cranny you stumble upon. It's great for curious people, really. 

Creeping up the ladder

If anything, this subgenre has been growing slowly but surely through the indie scene. It takes courage for someone to decide "Hey, I'm going to make Fallout, but without the action," and actually develop the game for an audience to see and experience. 

Gone Home, developed by The Fullbright Company, has players explore a house in order to find out more about the people living in it. The Chinese Room's Dear Esther is a little different, setting the character on an island and off you go to explore. 

Gone Home by The Fullbright Company

A screenshot from Gone Home by The Fullbright Company

When non-gamers think about video games, they imagine action, violence, blood, shootings, GTA... Or maybe a racing game, or maybe Super Mario - everybody knows Mario. Pretty much, it boils to: there's a goal and you have to get through bad guys to make it to that goal.

Nobody imagines a game that resembles real life, where you need to figure everything out on your own, and nothing ever happens. 

A bright future for FPEG?

Right now, it feels like this subgenre is popular. Loved. People are digging it. Gone Home and Dear Esther both received awards for best debut and excellence in visual arts. 

Dear Esther by The Chinese Room

Dear Esther... you're beautiful. 

When you take a look at all of the upcoming games, among Metal Gear Solid V and Fallout 4, you can find Adr1ft, a game where you float about in the wreckage of a destroyed space station. There's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, from The Chinese Room, where your goal is to explore a town and connect with people. The game has already been tested and received first impressions. Then there's Allison Road, a spiritual successor to the cancelled Silent Hills project. 

There are so many more upcoming games for this indie subgenre, and FPEG is beginning to find its comfortable place in the big bad world of "hardcore" FPS/RPG gaming. 

However, this does not mean that FPEG is perfect. Giant Sparrow Games creative director Ian Dallas spoke to GameInformer about the misconceptions surrounding What Remains of Edith Finch

"For us, the challenge going forward [is] how do we get people that may have written it off interested, because there's a perceived walking simulator genre. I think that's something tha tour game is so far away from, so I'm not too worried about it." 

FPEG is just beginning its climb, and it already has developed an audience. Only time will tell how this subgenre will evolve in the future. 

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ULTRAWORLD Review: An Ultra-Cool Experience https://www.gameskinny.com/41nd3/ultraworld-review-an-ultra-cool-experience https://www.gameskinny.com/41nd3/ultraworld-review-an-ultra-cool-experience Tue, 14 Oct 2014 18:30:42 -0400 Auverin Morrow

ULTRAWORLD is the first title from indie developer Neon Serpent, the one-man company of AAA industry vet James Beech. Before leaving the mainstream development scene to work on his own projects, Beech helped develop titles like Crysis 3, DC Universe Online, and Half-Life 2 mod “Weekend Warrior”.

So what do we get when an AAA dev goes rogue to pursue his own artistic vision? James was kind enough to give GS a review copy of his new game, as well as an exclusive interview about the development process which you can read here.  

A Different Kind of "Artsy" Game

In his interview, Beech says that ULTRAWORLD is “gorgeous, unique, and different.” After sitting down to play this title, I definitely have to agree. Beech had no qualms about diverging from the AAA standard in this surreal first-person explorer. And he does so with a certain amount of artistic grace. Beech’s approach to this game is definitely artistically driven, yet it doesn’t quite venture into the inaccessible “artsy” realm of other titles like Dear Esther. ULTRAWORLD doesn’t boast self-proclaimed “artistry”. It’s certainly artistic, but it’s also humble. James Beech could have easily strutted around, flaunting his AAA experience and attracting attention to how special he was for going independent. But he doesn’t. Instead, he used his resources and past experience to create the most satisfying player experience he possibly could. In playing the game, I had a clear sense of Beech’s artistic vision, but I also felt that vision was always subservient to player experience – a rare thing among “artistic” titles. ULTRAWORLD’s understated artistry was a refreshing surprise – one that makes this game a gem among its more conceited peers.

WARNING: This Review Will Contain Spoilers. I'll tag relevant sections, in case you want to skip over them.

Simplicity is a Virtue
(Gameplay)

ULTRAWORLD is not as complex as other exploration games, but it’s also not just a walking simulator.  Its primary purpose is for the player to simply engage with and experience a world, and to try and unravel its secrets. That means no combat and no demanding mechanics. You use basic walking and activation controls, along with a few extra buttons that make cool things happen. (Read on to find out what.) The only issue I had with gameplay was how easy it was to slip off of surfaces. Edges didn’t feel very prominent (even though they looked it), and I often fell off ledges because movement over/around edges was as smooth as other areas. So those with sensitive mouses beware. Other than that, there isn’t much to dissect here. Let’s move on.

Narrative/Counter-Narrative/Ultra-Narrative
(Storyline)

The story of ULTRAWORLD seems straightforward, but it’s surprisingly layered, especially for only 2-4 hours of play. The basic plot is this: an AI named Ultra has become sentient, and he needs your help deciding what to do with himself now that he can think and act independently. To help Ultra, you must explore the virtual world (aptly named Ultraworld) that he’s created to be his home. Ultra opens different parts of his world for you to explore, and in them you must search for black triangles that uncover pieces of text. The text you uncover slowly unravels a series of philosophical questions and hypothetical answers.

Ultra’s world is a web. There are twelve areas that stem from a single, central hub where Ultra dwells. Each area holds answers for one of four questions:

  • What is real?
  • Who am I?
  • What is true?
  • What’s my purpose?

As you uncover more triangles, the answers to these questions become more complex, sometimes bordering on convoluted. The game forces your brain to do some heavy lifting and really consider the information that’s being given to you, as you’ll need to form a clear opinion of your own if you’re to advise Ultra on how to move forward.

That’s a pretty solid narrative, one that could easily carry a game of this length on its own. But Beech doesn’t leave it at that. Early in the game, you meet a second AI character who introduces a counter-narrative to the main storyline. [Spoilers] You learn that Ultra is not the only sentient AI. There are several others hidden in the Ultraworld, and you must seek them out one by one. Each hidden AI you find reveals a piece of a larger plan. I won’t divulge too many details about this sub-plot, but I will say that it adds a lot to the game overall. It also has supercomputers and space travel, so of course it's worth playing. 

Beech shows a keen sense of timing here. Just as you begin to settle into the main storyline, he feeds you another thread that changes the narrative and allows you to take a different direction. Although the main plot is solid, the counter-narrative makes everything more intriguing – it complicates a plot that could easily venture into being too linear. It’s possible to “finish” the game without ever finding all the pieces of the sub-plot, but the main narrative alone starts to feel redundant if you don’t. 

Meet Ultra

Meet Ultra.

Beech could have stopped there and had himself a pretty good game. But he doesn’t.

[Spoilers] ULTRAWORLD has a sort of metanarrative happening on top of the main story – I’ve taken to lovingly calling it the Ultra-Narrative. Here’s the twist: you’re not a video game character at all, and Ultra knows it. The moment the game opens, it’s made clear that you are simply yourself, and you’re entering the virtual haven this AI has created as a dwelling place while he looks for answers to his existential questions. It literally is a first-person exploration. (How’s that for immersion?)

Choosing not to have a player inhabit a virtual character doesn’t seem like it works well. Other titles with meta-elements, like The Stanley Parable, still ask you to be someone other than yourself. Removing that vicarious element that gamers crave was a risky move, but Beech handles it well. ULTRAWORLD asks a lot of philosophical questions, and keeping the player inside him/herself means that the player must contemplate those questions independently, and form his/her own opinions without the guise of a virtual avatar.

Playing as a player, if you will, makes the game feel much more immediate. Personally, it put a lot more pressure on me to really think about my conclusions and the advice I would give to Ultra, because the consequences of my advice would come back to me, not to a character that I can un-inhabit the moment I click “quit.” Actually, I found myself considering some of the points that Ultra made even when I wasn’t in-game. To me, that’s a huge testament to how effective Beech’s choice was.

I did have a rather prominent critique of the narrative, but that will come later.

Form is Function
(Visuals)

It’s kind of obvious that the visuals are meant to be the focus of the game. According to Beech, the visual schemes were inspired by his own acrylic paintings, his father’s watercolors, and his great-grandfather’s etchings. ULTRAWORLD boasts vibrant, fantastical environments that are sometimes difficult not to marvel at. It was created with CryEngine, which makes for some striking landscapes. The elements of Ultra’s world are relatively simple – there are only a few textures and basic geometric structures. Yet Beech, who has a background in art & design, arranges these elements with admirable skill. The result? Colossal, abstract labyrinths that are easy (and rather lovely) to get lost in.

The most striking feature of ULTRAWORLD is the color schemes. Beech uses bright colors and high contrast to create surreal, lo-fi areas. The color palettes range from semi-realistic to all-out trippy, depending on which area you’re in. That is, until you earn the power to control the world.

That’s right. Beech isn’t the only one who gets a say in how the game looks – so does the player. After exploring a set number of areas, Ultra gives you the power to change the time of day at will. Using the first five number keys, the player can scroll through five different time of day options, each of which alter the color scheme of the environment. Take a look below to see the same landscape at different times of day:

Closer to the end of the game, after another set of areas has been explored, Ultra gives player access to the game’s filters, which can be changed with the last five number keys. The filters can be changed independently, or in conjunction with changing the weather. This gives the player even more control over the look of the environments they’re exploring. This mechanic was my favorite part of the game, and I hope to see it a lot more in Beech’s future work. Being able to play around with the environment made me spend more time in each area, just so I could explore the different schemes. Here’s another GIF of filter changes on the landscape.

To put into perspective how many possibilities the weather and filter controls add, I’ll do some math for you. For each area, there are 25 possible color schemes you can create. That means 25 schemes per area for 12 areas, plus the central hub. What does that equal? 325 possible landscapes. That’s staggering. It’s safe to say that there are few (if any) other titles out there that can offer that many choices in environment.

While being able to change the color schemes may seem superfluous, it’s actually a lot of fun. They also become more relevant with the most recent patch, which introduces a Vacation Mode. In Vacation Mode, you’re free to wander around Ultra’s World and take in the outlandish scenery. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Vacation Mode, and I’ve actually found it rather relaxing. It’s also made for some lovely screenshots.

All in all, the visuals are impeccable. Without them, the game would almost certainly fall flat. The visuals, more than anything else, were what kept me engrossed in my exploration. Not only that, but they also kept me coming back even after the main storyline was finished – that’s a pretty big deal, as post-game engagement isn’t as common in shorter indie games as it is in AAA titles. Beech’s artistic background really shines through in this game. And honestly, I can’t find much to critique.

A Less-Than-Grand Finale

It probably seems like I’ve been unfairly positive about this game. One might say I’ve been raving about it. And that may be a little bit true. Before I discuss what I found flawed, I want to emphasize just how much I enjoyed playing this game. I loved almost every minute.

I can’t talk about my critiques of the game without talking about the ending. So look out, Spoilers Ahead.

Aside from a few nitpicks over grammatical errors and some instances of wonky dialogue, I only have one major critique of ULTRAWORLD. The game started to lose me during the last quarter or so. The closer I got to the end, the more I started to race through areas just to finish them. If you play the whole game in one sitting, it does start to get a little bit redundant toward the end. And taking in all that philosophy at once got a little too dense. It all kind of started to blend together the longer I played. I would have liked to see a sort of intermission – something to break up the repetitive actions and keep them from feeling too much like a series of fetch quests.

As you explore the last few areas, Ultra starts to reveal other parts of his plan. To put it briefly, entering Ultra’s world allows him to use part of the power of your computer. But he wants more people to come, so he can access the power of more computers. He charges you with getting those people to visit his realm. I loved the prospect of possibly having other characters to interact with. I even wondered if that could be a lead-in to a future multiplayer mechanic. Sadly, neither of these was the case.

Instead, Ultra explains that he’s also integrated himself with the Internet, and he can see everything that happens on the web. He encourages you to spread the word about ULTRAWORLD so he can fulfill his plan and get the power that he needs. Then he asks what advice you have for him. But instead of getting to tell him, Ultra asks that I share my advice to him via social media. Roll credits.

Yep. That was it. At first, all I could do was stare at my computer. Surely there had to be more than that. I had invested a lot of time (both in-game and out) in mulling over the information I’d sought out and pondering what advice I might give Ultra. And I was really looking forward to seeing how my choice in advice would affect Ultra’s course of action. I wanted to see where my opinions would take him, how it would change his world. Beech had done a good job with Ultra as a character, and I legitimately wanted to help him. However, the game didn’t give me that satisfaction. I sort of felt cheated. I don’t mind indeterminate endings, but it didn’t feel like there was really an ending at all. The game just sort of stopped, and I was left feeling a little lost. I had so badly wanted that resolution, and I was definitely disappointed when I didn’t get it.

I do, however, understand why Beech may have chosen that route. I said earlier in my review that ULTRAWORLD was a humble game. As bothered as I was by the non-ending, I think I can at least see its purpose. Perhaps Beech was just trying to see if there would be interest in his style of game. Perhaps the call to post on social media is actually an invitation to players to show Beech that they’re engaging with his work and want to see more. This is Beech’s first independent game, so maybe he’s just putting out feelers. If that’s his logic, I can respect it. Even if I don’t agree with it.

Ultra-mately…

ULTRAWORLD is definitely worth experiencing. The visuals alone are enough to make me come back and play again. I loved spending time in ULTRAWORLD – I just wish I could have spent more. I’d be really interested to see where Ultra goes next. (DLC, anyone?) Beech should definitely be proud of this title, because he’s accomplished a lot here. This is an impressive piece of work to come out of the gate with. I know I'll be keeping an eye out for his future projects.

If you want to check it out, and I highly recommend you do, you can pick it up for $15 at Neon Serpent’s website. It’s also on Steam Greenlight, so pop on over there and give it a thumbs up. Make sure to check out the interview with Neon Serpent here on Gameskinny. 

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Interview with James Beech of Neon Serpent on New Game ULTRAWORLD https://www.gameskinny.com/dccqi/interview-with-james-beech-of-neon-serpent-on-new-game-ultraworld https://www.gameskinny.com/dccqi/interview-with-james-beech-of-neon-serpent-on-new-game-ultraworld Sun, 12 Oct 2014 17:39:30 -0400 Jay Prodigious

[Editors Note: Neon Serpent was kind enough to give us a copy of their game ULTRAWORLD for the purpose of review. You can read that review here.]

Neon Serpent is an enigma in the indie gaming scene. For starters, the company is run by just one man, James Beech. The level design, the in-game music, the programming, and even the marketing, he did it all solo.

Beech, who worked with several big companies in the game industry, including Sony Online Entertainment and Crytek, decided to venture out on his own when he felt his artistic embers dying out. This resulted in the release of his new game, ULTRAWORLD, which is shaping up to be very interesting.

ULTRAWORLD is a new breed of game, one that focuses on the artistic side of gaming. A first person experience, the game is a walk through a world that is steeped in Beech's artistic stylings ranging from his own back to his grandfather's. With surreal environments, each one has its own distinct art and feel to it. This game gives the player an experience of real exploration.

In fact, Beech wants us to believe ULTRAWORLD is a real world and is treating it as a "non-fiction title". The gamer is given a camera and tasked to explore and help other characters while experiencing the majesty all around.  View the scenery, find amazing locals and capture its majesty, or even change the color and music to change how they experience the world. 

Shown in the medium of a game, ULTRAWORLD is, at its core, a piece of art. 

With the release and its current GreenLight pending on Steam, I decided to reach out to James and pick his brain about a view things. Here is the result:

Jay Prodigy: First, I want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. I just recently heard about ULTRAWORLD myself and from what I've seen, I'm impressed. How long did you think on the idea before developing the game?

James Beech: It all started the last time I visited Niagara Falls; this was about a year prior to development. I took a typical picture of the falls, thought to myself, “looks perfect,” and went to leave. As I did, I noticed another man take up my exact same position and take the exact same shot. I had a vision of all the millions of people who've ever stood there, trying to capture a piece of the locale's magic. Yet, no matter how many photos we take, there's still only the one, real Niagara Falls, and we have to leave it behind.

Video games are the inverse of this: they're basically a million duplicates of a real place. Each one is as legit as the next; there is no master version of The Citadel, City 17, or Hyrule. We each get to be in there, at the real deal, in person. And we can access these worlds from anywhere on Earth, as long as we have an internet connection.  That's something special, yet often ignored. People can have a hard time looking past poly-counts and texture quality and just let themselves BE in a different world.

So I wanted to make a game that played up this phenomenon. A game that directly tried to convince players that, “this place is just as real as any place you've ever been.” It doesn't matter if there are a million copies, it's still real.  And my main character was an offshoot of this idea: if this world is real, who would be there trying to make this argument?

Games have BEEN an artistic medium for quite a while, they haven't just recently, “arrived at the party.”

JP: You are a proponent of Gaming as an artistic medium, how do you see games these day reflecting this concept? What games would you say focus on the artistic side of the industry?

JB: First off, I just want to throw this out there as a reminder for the world in general: games have BEEN an artistic medium for quite a while, they haven't just recently, “arrived at the party.” That's how I've always felt. You would have to try hard to convince me that Final Fantasy VI, for example, isn't a work of Art!

That said, I think we've gotten over the hump of trying to convince naysayers that this is true. As far as I can tell, the conversation is finally settled: games are now universally accepted as Art. And the indie scene, I feel, has flourished in light of this acceptance. That's how we get interesting games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Dear Esther, that are all obviously Art and yet also commercially successful. As cool as this stuff is, there is definitely room to grow, and rules to break.  I look forward to seeing games continue to unfold, and hope to do some of that rule breaking myself.

At that price, it's basically take it or leave it. Either people are interested in your idea or not, and adding a zombie mode, just because, likely won't change their mind.

JP: Do you feel ULTRAWORLD will push current developers to focus on art instead of filler (like multiplayer and zombies)?

JB: It would be nice, but realistically, filler is usually less about Art and more about making money; especially in the AAA space. It's about trying to provide perceived dollar value. Sure, most people won't play a tacked-on multiplayer mode, but it certainly puts publishers' minds at ease to slap that on as a bullet-point. I know from my AAA days that the phrase, “ten hour rental,” can haunt people's dreams. But ultimately this extra manpower is almost always wasted, and of course seldom adds to the artistic aspects of most titles.

In the $15 range, however, I feel like games are much more to the point. At that price, it's basically take it or leave it. Either people are interested in your idea or not, and adding a zombie mode, just because, likely won't change their mind. So I would encourage developers working in this range to stick to their guns and focus on their core experience. Put everything you have towards making your artwork unique.


JP: You wrote on the game's website that it "can't be a book, movie, or play". Why do you feel that way? What makes ULTRAWORLD unique that no other avenue would fit?

JB: This goes back to what I said earlier, about the phenomenon of perceiving “virtual” worlds as real worlds. Sure, you could have a book that talks about this idea, but it's a far cry from being in a fully realized computer environment. Whether my character convinces you the game world is real or not, the simple fact that ULTRAWORLD exists still stands as the best way to show that ULTRAWORLD exists, if that makes sense. And since that's true, it's allowed me to approach the story as a work of non-fiction; like everything is occurring, “for real,” on your computer, as you're visiting. I just can't see that working in another medium.


JP: Has working for Sony Online Entertainment, Silicon Knights and Crytek influenced the artistic aspects of your own life as well as the game? 

JB: Their biggest influence on me, as an artist and as a person, has been to give me a greater appreciation of time. I worked on DC Universe Online for five years – one year longer than Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel – yet somehow I don't foresee DCUO making into any Art History books. There I was, working crazy hours, thinking, “man this is going to be great,” and then it came out, and nobody cared. It got OK ratings, an average number of players, and it was mostly just a footnote a month after release.

Tons of games fall into this category. Countless people have put 5 to 10 years of their life into works of Art that are ultimately met with a shoulder shrug. Hell, some of my AAA friends have worked five years on projects that got canceled. In my case, ages 25 to 30 belonged to Sony, where all my creative energy went into this one juggernaut game. DCUO's ho-hum reception was a splash of cold water saying, “I can't do this forever."  What if every project is this long, and they all get the same reception?  As an artist, that's a grim prospect.

Though it may sound like I'm complaining, in truth, I don't regret the time: I learned most of what I know about game making during those years, and ULTRAWORLD wouldn't exist without all that preparation. But the perspective it gave me on time, and how quickly it can disappear, is truly what made me question what I want to be doing with my life.

JP: The game totes a 2-4 hour play time, but hints that could be long if we enjoy the post-game. Care to give any hints as to what that might mean?

JB: The post game is basically a free-exploration mode where players are given a camera and encouraged to relax and take pictures. They can also change up the colors of the world, and it's music, to help suite the mood. Personally, I enjoy going around trying to find cool, abstract compositions; much like I would on any vacation, (to Niagara Falls, for example). Players' mileage may vary depending on how enticing they find this idea.

On the same subject, I recently added something called Vacation Mode: this let's you jump right to the post-game. This is for people who just want the relaxation aspect and none of the, “story that could only be told in a game,” stuff. I know that's not everybody's cup of tea, so there's no need to force it on people. Next up, I'm working on Zombie Mode...(j/k)


JP: FPE (First Person Explorer) is a genre you classified ULTRAWORLD. Do you hope future game companies adopt this genre label? Should we coin it now, because it does have a nice ring to it.

JB: It's certainly nicer than Walking Simulator, isn't it? And it very clearly explains what you should expect. I've heard other terms as well, but I think this is the most succinct; so yeah, let's coin it.

The biggest challenge was confronting the most basic question: can I do this?

JP: Finally, you worked solo on this project, besides funding it yourself, what other challenges did you have to overcome?

JB: The biggest challenge was confronting the most basic question: can I do this? My background is in Art and design, but I have zero programming knowledge. For anything I'd ever worked on, the “release” part of the process was never handled by me, nor were game patches/updates. And I certainly never had to worry about marketing. I started my Twitter account the day the game came out; I'm a social media noob. Not to mention the business side; I've never run a company before. Even the music: any songs I've ever made have been...not fit for humanity, to put it kindly. I had to ask myself if I was ready to face all these challenges, with my own money on the line, knowing I could fail utterly. It was a huge risk.

JP: Once again I want to thank you for the chance to speak about the game with you. I noticed it is currently in the  Steam Greenlight section. Anything you would say to the gamers to convince them to help push the title as well as pick it up?

JB: Thanks for asking about ULTRAWORLD! As for a last-minute sales pitch, let's try: It's gorgeous, it's unique, it's relaxing, it's different. Take a chance!

It was really great to speak with James about his interesting project, though he mentioned not to talk about 'Nam quite a bit. Other than the slight convulsion and shell shock, what he shared about ULTRAWORLD really put things into perspective and made me see more to the game than I had before.

ULTRALWORLD is now available on the PC through digital download of the game's site or through Steam once it gets greenlit. Show your support for this work of art by picking it up and let the art flow through you.

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