Don’t be fooled by Exposure’s sleek geometric look and minimalist soundtrack. It’s a tense game about hiding from predators, scurrying from one safe space to another, and changing colors for camouflage. It’s the first commercial work from the two-person team The Sheep’s Meow, an indie game studio based in New York. In early 2018, it will be available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux, as well as on the Xbox One.
When I played an early build of Exposure, I found it to be both meditative and stressful. Though I could collect little tokens, the main goal was to survive. I could switch colors to blend in with patches of light and dark, hiding from the sharp-angled predators. The screen continually drifted to the right, forcing me to move from one hiding spot to another. Every time I left myself out in the open, everything began to turn a sinister red.
The beauty and brutality of the natural world inspired the gameplay, particularly one story about the peppered moth, which came in both light and dark. Though at first the light-colored moths flourished by camouflaging themselves on birch trees, after the Industrial Revolution darkened the landscape with soot, the dark-colored moths became the predominant breed. The Sheep’s Meow incorporated this idea of adaptation and environmental change into the game with its color-switching mechanic.
“The camouflage bit, where you as a player can’t see where you are, that immediately brings on a sense of discomfort,” said cofounder GJ Lee in a phone call with GamesBeat. “From then on we wanted to exercise that a bit – the shapes move in a certain way, or the shapes grow and shrink, how that affects the player.”
“For sure, the discomfort is a really big part of it,” added cofounder Brian S. Chung. “That was the very first thing we made, the part where you can’t see yourself when you’re playing and how uncomfortable that is for everyone. You have to relearn things a bit.”
Chung says that the idea of vulnerability was something that they wanted to explore, particularly since many video games offer players an arsenal of high-powered weapons and ships. At one point, the player will actually get the ability to fight back against their enemies. Chung says that during playtesting, a lot of players were actually disturbed by suddenly having the capability for violence.
“Around the halfway point, after all this hiding and running away, it evolves into something that can take on a more aggressive form,” said Chung. “It’s spoiling the story a little bit, but it’s also a very uncomfortable thing that should make the player kind of question that. You turn into, basically, something that’s like one of the predators that’s been chasing you around.”
“You’re going after the creatures that look just like you,” added Lee. “There’s something grotesque about that. We take a lot of that from nature, the kind of contradictions in nature that we like to draw from.”
The team says that there’s an opportunity for video games to create a personal experience, to make players perform an action and then reflect on it. From a gameplay perspective, there’s also an element of putting players in a zone where they feel like they’re being challenged.
“Getting right in that zone where you’re being challenged to the limits of your ability, but it’s not overwhelming or underwhelming,” said Chung. “I think people like being there. It’s always a very powerful experience in games that we play, but also in other sorts of activity, other creative or artistic activities.”
To get a good balance on the difficulty of the levels, the studio has demoed at a number of events. Recently, it showed Exposure at the Game Devs of Color Expo and the Smithsonian American Art Museum Arcade.
“It’s really important that we bring it out and have it played by a lot of people, a diverse group of people, not just people who are really familiar with games,” said Lee. “It’s interesting when people who don’t identify as gamers approach the game. You always find out something new. That’s really important for us.”
In order to make the game appealing to folks who may not self-identify as gamers, The Sheep’s Meow created a custom controller to use during demos.
“It’s very inviting, because it only has the joystick and the button. It’s very approachable. It’s almost like a toy,” said Lee. “People get curious when they see it. And because the game is so simple, it reflects that simplicity of the controls in the game. People pick it up and try it.”