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Valleys Between is a peaceful game about interacting with nature and solving puzzles. Inspired by the New Zealand landscape outside developer Little Lost Fox‘s windows, it’s awash in rich colors and filled with sweeping mountains and lush forests. It’s the four-person team’s debut, and it’s slated for a mid-2018 release for iOS.
Little Lost Fox producer and game designer Niamh Fitzgerald says the team worked on Valleys Between part-time throughout 2017. Then around December, it officially set up the studio so it could develop the title full-time. At its inception, the game was called Grow because of its core mechanic — changing the environment by pulling up and down on tiles of land.
“At the time, we wanted to try to explore how to engage people to think about environmental issues. We decided to try creating this feeling of ownership of a world, by someone crafting it from a small seed, and then introducing threats that they need to remedy,” said Fitzgerald in a phone call with GamesBeat. “Our goal wasn’t to create a realistic, educational kind of game. We wanted a more relaxing experience that was full of discovery and individuality, that had these environmental challenges they needed to try to overcome.”
Though creating an experience that might make people think about environmental issues is important to Little Lost Fox, Fitzgerald says that ultimately what it wants to create is relaxing games that folks can pick up for small periods of time. The players’ goal is simple: Grow the world as much as they can. In order to do so, they’ll have to solve puzzles, such as balancing different features that pop up on the land or observing how different tiles interact with each other.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me about yourself and what you do at Little Lost Fox?
Niamh Fitzgerald: I’m a producer and game designer at Little Lost Fox. We’re a small indie studio, and we craft small, delightful games, based in Wellington, New Zealand. We try to take a lot of inspiration from the small interactions that make up life. That’s a particular focus for us in our current game, Valleys Between, which was formerly known as Grow.
GamesBeat: So this is the first game, the reason the studio came together?
Fitzgerald: Yes. It really came together back in 2017. We submitted an early concept of Grow to the Play by Play international festival. We didn’t have any expectations when we submitted. We wanted to get Grow out there and see what people thought about it. It was a good experience for us to watch people play the game and understand it.
But what ended up happening was, we were absolutely floored. We won four of the awards, including the audience choice and the overall grand prize. That was quite a pivotal moment for us. It not only confirmed that the game had the potential that we thought it had. It created a lot of opportunities for us. We started receiving a lot of local and international industry support.
The studio kind of formed around Valleys Between. Setting up the studio, Little Lost Fox, was only made possible because of the support of two amazing New Zealand indie studios, which were Dinosaur Polo Club, who made Mini Metro, and Dry Cactus, who made Poly Bridge. They’ve been incredibly supportive since we set up the company. Their mentorship has been really invaluable in getting us going full time, getting us to where we are now.
GamesBeat: By support, do you mean, were they pointing you toward grants, or offering financial support? What kind of support was that?
Fitzgerald: There was financial support, as well as business mentorship and individual skill mentorships. We’re actually working in the Dinosaur Polo Club office at the moment, which is really amazing, to be working alongside another studio that’s come from small roots and has done a really great job and had a very successful game. It’s been the whole package with them, really.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that you want to take a look at these little interactions and moments in life. Can you tell me about the inspiration for the game and how it all started?
Fitzgerald: As I mentioned, Valleys Between started as a one-week prototype called Grow. That was based around the idea of environmental awareness. At the time, we wanted to try to explore how to engage people to think about environmental issues. We decided to try creating this feeling of ownership of a world, by someone crafting it from a small seed, and then introducing threats that they need to remedy.
Our goal wasn’t to create a realistic, educational kind of game. We wanted a more relaxing experience that was full of discovery and individuality, that had these environmental challenges they needed to try to overcome. With the original concept of Grow and where we’ve taken it now to Valleys Between, it’s really around life in the game, and it’s the small things you do that have big changes. It’s very–based in the real world is probably the wrong way to phrase it? But it’s that very natural sort of feeling.
GamesBeat: Are environmental issues important to you and the team? Or was that just an idea you thought you should explore?
Fitzgerald: Both. We were trying to push ourselves in different ways, looking at different things. A lot of the games we’ve been working on so far, they’re very small, beautiful experiences, and that’s something the team as a whole really enjoy creating, these sort of quality small games that feel really good to play and are really beautiful and are very relaxing for the player. But we wanted to add in some extra challenges, some extra conflict and stuff.
Being based in New Zealand, we’re very lucky. We have a very beautiful landscape around us. Obviously environmental issues are something that comes up very frequently in the news. We just thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition between this beautiful, relaxing game around growing and building and creation, and then what happens—there being more depth to that than just creating something and saying, “This is great, I’ve made a thing.” It’s about balancing the changes you’ve made and dealing with obstacles as they come up.
GamesBeat: As a game designer, is it challenging to try to preserve that kind of relaxing experience, but still have enough mechanics in there, where it feels like as a player you’re doing something to the environment and interacting with the world? How do you balance that?
Fitzgerald: It’s tricky. [Laughs] What we’ve found with focusing on the really small concept of Grow at the beginning, we wanted to really focus down on two things. One was creating a feeling of ownership, and it being a very relaxing kind of experience.
One of the challenges we faced with that was obviously that it is relaxing until things start going a bit wrong. And so while we’ve been taking the game from the original concept to the full game, one of the things we’ve been aware of is that a lot of people loved Grow, and we didn’t want to lose that spark of the game that kept people coming back and was relaxing, that had that extra—the beautifulness of playing the game.
But at the same time we knew there were things we needed to change when we decided to make it into the full game of Valleys Between. We’ve had to be very aware of that throughout the game, to introduce new depth to the game, so that players have a lot of creativity and a lot of control, and they can create something that’s uniquely theirs, but still has that relaxing kind of feeling and rhythm to the game. While still managing some of the challenges.
There’s a lot of different types of relaxing kinds of games. There are very Zen games, that are quite passive a lot of the time. We wanted Valleys Between to be a game where a player takes control over their world and makes what they want and deals with that. It’s a challenging thing to balance, but I hope we’ve made it.