This week, we were fortunate enough to get in touch with Aurora44 CEO Derek Bradley, whose team of passionate New Zealand developers gave the world a taste of Ashen, their first title, at E3 2015. In this interview, he reveals his reactions to E3 exposure, some of the rationale behind the design choices and hints at the possibilities of Ashen’s uniquely crafted world.
Road to E3
Matt Amenda: First off, it says on the Ashen homepage that this is Aurora44’s first game. And now it’s one of the featured indie titles of E3 2015. How did that happen? How was your game chosen to be featured?
Derek Bradley: Early on in development we posted an image on Screenshot Saturday. The guys at ID@Xbox reached out to us. Since then they have been supporters of the game. They believe in our vision, and so the relationship grew from there. By the time E3 came around we got the opportunity to do a trailer, the rest is history.
MA: How has being featured at E3 affected the studio? Are things more chaotic now?
DB: Being at E3 was a huge buzz for the team, being able to show Ashen on stage and also interact with all the other talented developers was a great experience. The positive attention and feedback has been a great morale boost for the team.
Now that we are back in the office its business as usual.
MA: A lot of your studio, yourself included, came from Weta Digital. That’s a lot of VFX experience! With those kind of high-budget graphical chops, what made you decide on the low-poly art style?
DB: For us, being from an art background, the style of the game was one of our main focuses. We wanted to find something iconic. That fact alone pushed us to explore non realistic art styles. Through time and many iterations we arrived at the current style. I would describe it as a gloomy/dark low-poly style, clean geometric shapes with a layer of dirt to make the world feel believable and lived in.
Characters and Story
MA: Now, in most of the promo images and gifs we see what looks like a brown-haired male with a wooden shield doing everything. But in the E3 video we saw him get a spear in the guts and left to die, ending with a different character kneeling on a hill. Does this mean that there is no single protagonist?
DB: The idea behind the story of the E3 trailer was more to show that there are many different journeys which happen inside of the world of Ashen. Each player crafts his own story. At times they will meet up with others and affect other players stories, even if just briefly. Sometimes the story is blessed with hope and success, other times a grim reality check.
In the case of the trailer, two players meet up and explore ancient ruins together, one of them dies and the other just barely escapes with her life.
MA: I’m curious about how the story works. You describe the game as all about building relationships and exploring huge, iconic environments, and featuring “passive multiplayer” with other players you meet in the world. Is all of that part of a single story with an ending? Or is it ongoing like an MMO?
DB: There very much is a main story thread for the player to push forward on with an eventual ending. We want the progression in Ashen to feel very organic and non linear. Player choice is a big part of the game and we want players to have the freedom to explore. Simply meeting different characters out in the world and bringing them back to your town will change the player’s story.
Building a an Iconic World
MA: You describe the world as “hand crafted environments as far as the eye can see,” and you also describe it as “a world that moves on without you.” What does that mean? Do the environments change even if you’re not playing?
DB: We want the world in Ashen to feel natural but also directed, and so each section of the world is placed by hand, no procedural generation. The world moves on without you is simply the world will not wait for the player to arrive at the scene to start an event. Choosing to do one task might mean another task is resolved without your interaction.
MA: Can you tell us how big the world is?
DB: The world is a very vast place. There are many caves and underground areas to explore as well as areas which require the player to push beyond their limits to reach the outer regions.
MA: Can you give us a rough release window on the game?
DB: We don’t have a release yet, but we will be sure to let you know as soon as we do!
Understandably, Mr. Bradley is keeping the details of the story under wraps for now. But after showing off one of the most artistically distinctive indie games of E3, Aurora44 seems well on their way to creating something “iconic.”