I could hear the developers and public relations pros from OtherSide Entertainment and 505 Games discussing my strategy just over my shoulder. In a conference room just beyond the confines of the PAX East convention, I was working through one of the first puzzles of OtherSide’s upcoming systems-driven role-playing adventure, Underworld: Ascendant. Even after I did my best to pay attention to director Joe Fielder as he explained the basics, I found myself in the familiar embrace of murky confusion as I failed to get my character’s wand to repair a gap in a staircase so I could progress. With my appointment schedule working against me, I started finding boxes around the room that I could stack on top of one another to create a new step to fill in the gap.
It was a struggle, but I was able to get to the top of the stairs. I also remembered something about myself: I don’t like immersive sims.
These are games like Thief, Prey (2017), and Dishonored 2 that put hurdles in your way and give you a range of tools to overcome those obstacles. Underworld: Ascendant is a spiritual successor to the Ultima Underworld series and the immersive-sim genre as a whole. OtherSide lead designer Tim Stellmach, who worked on the Ultima games, defined Underworld in terms of that lineage.
“In the same situation, there’s often a wide variety of solutions to a problem,” Stellmach explained after my hands-on demo. “That becomes something that you can explore.”
Otherside marketing boss Walter Somol pointed to my own experience as an example.
“You’re [idea of] stacking crates to go over that gap,” he said. “You’re the first person we’ve seen try to do that here. You own that solution now. It’s your solution.”
But that’s also my problem. I get that “my solution” worked because the systems enabled me to use objects that way, but I can’t help but feel like I missed out on some opportunity to show how clever I am by using the game’s systems closer to what the developer intended.
That was true in Prey and Dishonored as well. A chasm exists between my simple, grounded solutions to a puzzle and all of the fun possibilities that designers plan for me. And I know this is something of a personal failing. I’m not patient or creative enough to maximize the potential of these systems, so I don’t feel ownership over anything I do. But I also know that is not the typical reaction.
“Back when printed strategy guides were more of a thing, we had to do one for Thief,” Stellmach said. “This was done out of house, and it came back to us before it was published. Everything in the strategy guide was presented as: ‘This is how you do the thing. This is the walkthrough.’ But my experience reading that was, ‘Oh, it’s interesting how they solved that problem. Is that how you do that?'”
OtherSide was going through something similar watching people play Underworld at PAX East.
“Every time we have new people play, they have solutions we’ve never seen before,” said Fielder. “When we first starting pitching the game, we said that we wanted you to come up with solutions that we’d never thought of. That was a little hyperbolic at the time, but the first time we had anyone external playing it — it’s just become an integral part of the game.”
Immersive sims still fascinate me, and I’m always looking for the game that will act as my breakthrough experience. The problem isn’t systems. I’ve done some wild things with game systems in multiplayer sandboxes. I think the key for something like Underworld: Ascendant is to build a world around the systems, and it sounds like that is what the studio is doing.
“It’s mainly systems first,” said Stellmach. “There’s always some back and forth. You see some things in context that suggest new possibilities about how you can change the systems. Obviously when you’re first starting designing the systems, it’s in a context of the kinds of challenges you see in dungeon RPGs and such. There’s definitely some back and forth, but in terms of the starting point, for me anyway — this might just be my process – I tend to start with basic game systems and figuring out the channels they use to interact with each other. I’m thinking about what kinds of possibilities those interactions produce. Then that suggests the kinds of scenarios that are available.”
Maybe that could get me over the hump, but I won’t hold it against Underworld: Ascendant if it cannot.
You can read the full transcript of my interview with OtherSide Entertainment below:
GamesBeat: Do you have any advantages making an immersive sim as a small team?
Tim Stellmach: Well, it’s a very different approach, right? If you think of a game like Skyrim or Fallout, they’re going for a lot of value in tourism, content to explore. We’re instead—because, with a smaller team, you wouldn’t take on that kind of content, we’re going more into depth of systems. That’s more where the exploration is right now, what the possibilities are with the physics and the damage system. I could go on about this, how these behaviors emerge from the interplay of systems. But it’s more about that kind of depth and replayability, and less about content and tourism. It’s a very different approach that you take with a smaller team.
Joe Fielder: Instead of doing the standard modern RPG thing of making hundreds of miles of environments that then become static after a certain amount of time, we’re focusing on a smaller footprint that’s infinitely replayable. When you return to areas, there are different challenges, different opportunities, different creatures, everything.
Tim Stellmach: Or even in the same situation, there’s often a wide variety of solutions to a problem. That becomes something that you can explore.
Walter Somol: For example, you’re stacking crates to go over that gap. You’re the first person we’ve seen try to do that here. You own that solution now. It’s your solution.
GamesBeat: It definitely felt that way, too. This probably isn’t working right, but I’ll make this work. Do you design the problems first, or the systems first?
Tim Stellmach: It’s mainly systems first. There’s always some back and forth. You see some things in context and that suggests possibilities about how you can change the systems. Obviously when you’re first starting designing the systems, it’s in a context of the kinds of challenges you see in dungeon RPGs and such. There’s definitely some back and forth, but in terms of the starting point, for me anyway — this might just be my process – I tend to start with basic game systems and figuring out the channels they use to interact with each other. I’m thinking about what kinds of possibilities those interactions produce. Then that suggests the kinds of scenarios that are available.
Joe Fielder: One of the fantastic things for us in having new people come in and play is that every time we have new people play, they have solutions we’ve never seen before. We said that early on during the game, when we first starting pitching the game, that we wanted you to come up with solutions that we’d never thought of. That was a little hyperbolic at the time, but the first time we had anyone external playing it—it’s just become an integral part of the game, and also inspiring people to come up with those solutions. Why don’t I let you tell the story about the Thief strategy guide?
Tim Stellmach: Right. Back when printed strategy guides were more of a thing, we had to do one for Thief. And so this was done out of house and came back for us to see before it was published. Everything in the strategy guide was presented as, this is how you do the thing. This is the walkthrough. But my experience reading that was, oh, it’s interesting how they solved that problem. Is that how you do that?
Joe Fielder: That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to do, is really inspire people to come up with the crazy interesting weird solutions and have fun. The sort of messy magic of an immersive sim.
Tim Stellmach: Another similar experience, way back on Ultima Underworld 2, I was designing a wizard’s academy themed kind of space, and I set up this whole series of puzzles that were designed so that the only solutions I could think of required you to cast spells. And so Kevin, one of our playtesters, takes that as a challenge. He’s going to go through this whole thing without casting a single spell. And he did. He thought of other solutions to all of those problems.
GamesBeat: You talk about the depth of systems to enable that. How deep do you end up going? Do you end up thinking about it on a chemistry level, an elemental level?
Tim Stellmach: The level I tend to think of it—there are some things you think of because they’re kind of the natural affordances of a particular system. When you work with physics systems and puzzles designed around them, you think in terms of, okay, if we’re going to make everything have relatively realistic, relatable masses and other physical characteristics – elasticity, how much things bounce, all of this – how does that then influence things like, if I throw an object how much sound does it make? That should depend on how energetic the collision was.
That’s going to influence how much AI responds to it, because if it’s louder they’ll hear it farther away. Now you have this channel of interaction between physics and AI. A lot of it is just, what are the naturalistic terms in which to think of individual systems? And then what you get out of that is, ideally, because these things are taking this simulationist point of view, hopefully players’ intuition about how objects work in the real world carries over into an intuition about how they can use objects in the game to solve problems.
Joe Fielder: Which is totally crucial for experimenting. Having people understand, okay, there’s a series of logical systems that work. Like I mentioned earlier, we have to show people who things actually do work from logic, unlike in a lot of games. [Laughs]
Tim Stellmach: Even in this level, there’s several of these levers, right? A lot of games would approach those as just animations, where it’s an animation that flips them and then you get the animation to play when you click on it. In our case it’s completely coming from the other direction. No, the physical position of the lever is the thing that’s going to activate its effects, and any physics forces that cause the lever to flip will work. All that clicking on it does is it kicks a force on to it. That means you can drag a skeleton across the thing and it’ll flip the lever, or you can throw an object at the lever. Or if there’s an explosion nearby the lever might flip. That’ll probably be interesting.
Joe Fielder: Oh, I accidentally let this creature out because I set off an explosion over there. It leads to chaos.
Tim Stellmach: The skeleton was shooting at me and missed, but the arrow hit a lever.
GamesBeat: Is there anything that you feel is important that you want to talk about?
Joe Fielder: We’re really excited to see all the crazy solutions that people come up with. The example of the strategy guide—when the original Looking Glass games came out, there were fewer opportunities for people to share their experiences. Now there’s streaming. There’s YouTube. There’s so much. We can’t wait to see what people can do.