Call of the Sea features a beautiful, unconventional take on the Lovecraft formula
February 3, 2021
Tatiana Delgado worked as a game designer and level designer for more than 17 years with companies such as Rebel Act Studios, Enigma Software Productions, Zinkia, Tequila Works, Gameloft, and King. She developed games for PC, Xbox, Wii, DS, and mobile platforms. In 2017, she founded the VR-oriented studio Vertical Robot, where she took charge of game design and narrative design for two titles: Daedalus and Red Matter. Recently, she co-founded Out of the Blue, a studio devoted to narrative-driven puzzle games, where they recently released Call of the Sea.
Developed by roughly a dozen people from new Spanish studio Out of the Blue, Call of the Sea is a puzzle-adventure game set in the 1930s. It features a twist on the popular H.P. Lovecraft formula in that there are no horror elements. Instead, Call of the Sea focuses on the subgenre’s sense of surrealism while telling a mysterious journey of discovery and acceptance. In its review, IGN stated, “If a fun, but emotionally affecting adventure is what you’re searching for, then Call of the Sea most definitely answers that call.”
In the game, you’ll explore a stunning tropical island with visuals that have been optimized for Xbox Series X. To gain further insight into how Out of the Blue developed Call of the Sea, we interviewed studio co-founder Tatiana Delgado. She shares the team’s approach to level design, crafting challenging puzzles, and more.
Reviewers have compared elements of Call of the Sea to Myst, Firewatch, The Shape of Water, and more. Did the team have any specific inspirations coming into the project?
I’m glad that you are mentioning those games and movies because they were references from the very beginning.
Visually, we wanted to make a game that stood out among the next-gen catalog. Being a small indie studio, we needed to have a distinct aesthetic personality that catches the eye of the player. Firewatch and its use of colors were among those influences.
On the other hand, we grew up playing games like Myst and Riven, and those games had a big impact on us. In Riven, you can find the puzzles deeply integrated into the world, and you needed to explore and gather as much information as possible to understand how the world and the mechanisms that you found work. Also, those games have beautiful and mesmerizing environments that make you want to get lost and spend hours playing in a slow and relaxing way.
The game features an unconventional love story that takes place in the 1930s within a fictitious Polynesian island. Why was this setting right for Call of the Sea?
We chose the 1930s to set Call of the Sea in because it is a good era for Lovecraftian stories and also because one of our main inspirations was the adventures of Indiana Jones. The lure of discovering old secrets and mysterious ruins with a hint of the occult just seems to fit perfectly in this decade.
Although our game was, to an extent, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, this is not a horror game but an adventure title. You will not find jump scares, but instead a mystery and secrets to uncover.
Call of the Sea is a beautiful-looking game with diverse, lush, and stylized environments that are filled with assets seemingly crafted with love. Can you speak to how you achieved the game's overall look?
We used color as a way to convey the character’s emotion and evolution inside the game. During pre-production, we worked hard to create a color script to set this emotional journey, so once we were in production, we knew which direction we needed to go.
Also, being a narrative puzzle game where puzzles are based on exploration and interpretation of the scenes we crafted, we rely heavily on environmental storytelling. That is why every object in the levels had to have a meaning, making you think that a character must have placed it there. So, we put a lot of care into creating all the different assets players would be able to interact with.
With vibrant god rays and the bioluminescent glow of sea creatures, the lighting in the game looks fantastic. Can you share how you lit the game?
We have a fantastic concept artist, José Leote, that sets the illumination for each level, working closely with the design team and the art director to set the mood of the level according to the story. There was a lot of communication between all departments to make sure art, design, and narrative elements worked hand in hand.
Our environment artist, Guillermo Moreno, had a deep knowledge of the lighting tools available in Unreal Engine 4, using them to enhance levels, point players in the right directions, and set a magical mood.
It was a challenge because we have different environments with unique atmospheres, and all of them load in real-time, but Unreal Engine 4 helped us overcome this challenge a lot. Guillermo used a mix of baked and dynamic lighting, combined with emissive materials, lightings materials, LUTs, and volumetric fog.
Call of the Sea features impressive stylized water with reflections that shine off of canyon walls. Can you elaborate on how you nailed that aesthetic?
We wanted to go for a stylized look with hand-painted textures and saturated colors while making use of PBR realistic materials and illumination, translucence, and reflections. We believe that this combination is what creates this magical atmosphere because the world is not flat. This mix creates a beautiful, immersive world that makes you want to get lost in it.
Considering Call of the Sea uses Lovecraftian themes without any of the typical horror elements associated with it, was this challenging to pull off?
We wanted to keep the essence of the classic H.P. Lovecraft stories while at the same time giving it a different approach. Not a pulp one, like the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, but not cosmic horror either. So, instead of having a passive subject that is drawn into madness by circumstances that he or she cannot control, our purpose is to tell a story of a resolute woman involved in a mystery and a journey of discovery and acceptance. While most Lovecraft stories feature a descent into madness, Call of the Sea is a rise to sanity.
We think Lovecraft stories are much more than tentacles and Cthulhu, and we wanted to explore that. We are also avid tabletop RPG players, mostly of “investigation” games, and we wanted to bring the spirit of one of those stories to our game.
The studio has previously stated that it aimed to craft puzzles that felt satisfying and walked the line between being too easy and overly difficult. How did you approach that balance for Call of the Sea?
When we design puzzles, we draw from our personal experience as game designers and set what we believe is the difficulty we want. We decided to go for puzzles that were slightly less difficult than the ones you find in Myst games to try and appeal to a wider audience while still keeping it challenging.
We think the only way to properly balance the difficulty of the puzzles is to playtest with players as soon as possible. Whenever you have a prototype that is playable, you should bring players to test it. See how they understand it, how they approach it, and then iterate and tune it as much as possible.
The game offers elegant level design that allows plays to explore without feeling like they constantly need to backtrack. Can you talk about how you approached designing the game's levels?
In Call of the Sea, exploration is key to understanding and solving the puzzles, so we wanted to give players the chance to open backtracking paths once they have gathered all the information they need.
We start with a paper design and then move to blocking as soon as we have something that feels like it might work. At this point, we already have the narrative and puzzle design too, because, in a game like ours, it is very important that all of them are designed having the others in mind.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
The team was familiar with Unreal and knew how powerful it was for the kind of visuals we wanted to create. Being a next-gen game, we wanted to rely on an engine that could meet our expectations and help us get the most out of the Xbox Series X in an easy way. Also, the design team loves how Blueprints enables them to prototype and iterate quickly.
How big is the development team, and how long did the game take to make?
The core team was 10 people, growing up to 12 at certain moments on the production with freelancers. It took us around a year and a half to complete the game once we started pre-production.
Considering this is Out of the Blue Games’ first title as a new studio, what can you tell us about the company?
Out of the Blue Games is a games company based in Madrid, Spain. We are a group of veteran developers who want to live doing what we love the most: gaming. After working together across several companies, we decided to start a new adventure where we can develop our own ideas.
Our purpose is to make games with quality and attention to detail. We like to create coherent and lively stories, environments, and worlds that resonate with players. We want them to have fun, to feel, to experience those stories. We also want to collectively feel proud of our work.
What makes Out of the Blue interesting is that the studio was designed to have all of its team members work remotely from home, even before COVID. Do you have any tips for how other teams might be able to optimize their workflow here?
First, constant communication. We have a Discord server to communicate and to be able to feel connected to the team. We jump on calls whenever we feel we need to talk to someone.
Second, we work in a goal-oriented way and set objectives for each week or two weeks. We decide together what everyone is going to achieve in a sprint, and then the team is free to distribute the workload as they want.
Have you learned anything about yourselves as a studio from shipping your first game that might be beneficial for other indie developers to learn?
We think that something that helped us a lot along the production was having a long pre-production period that allows you to solve all the unknown issues and questions, and provides a clear path ahead. On this end, Unreal made it very easy for us to prototype and iterate quickly.
It’s important to prepare an achievable plan according to the results of the pre-production and then stick to it as much as you can. It is tempting to listen to siren calls during production, but it is better not to deviate from your original plan and leave these ideas for future projects.
Considering Call of the Sea has been optimized for Xbox Series X, how does it feel to be one of the first developers to release a game on a next-gen console?
It is exciting to be part of the first games of a new generation. Leading the way and showcasing the beautiful graphics achievable with the new consoles has been a great opportunity for us.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Call of the Sea?