Image courtesy of Elsewhere Experience

Psychological thriller Broken Pieces had a big problem, here’s how Epic MegaGrants helped solve it

Brian Crecente
Mael Vignaux is the technical, audio, and general director of the Elseware Experience studio. First, a physicist by training, he later turned to video games, which was his original passion. Awarded for his work on sound design in animated short films as well as for video games, he has also worked as a programmer on numerous projects. In 2020, he co-founded Elseware Experience alongside Benoit Dereau in order to carry out the creation of the game Broken Pieces. A long-standing collaboration that began by making mods in 2006.
Elsewhere Everywhere got its start as a mod creator for the likes of Half-Life and Left 4 Dead, soon broadening its creations to include architectural visualization, level design, and virtual reality. But it took the duo behind the studio ten years before they were ready to create their own game: Broken Pieces.

In the upcoming psychological thriller, players wander a French coastal village stuck in time, attempting to put the pieces of the story behind the enigmatic place back together and restart the flow of time.

We chatted with Mael Vignaux, the technical, audio, and general director of Elseware Experience, about the birth of the studio, the inspiration behind protagonist Elise and her journey through Saint Exil, and how Unreal Engine and an Epic MegaGrant helped the studio realize its dreams.

How was Elseware Experience formed, and how did it get to the point of creating its first indie game?

Mael Vignaux, managing director at Elseware Experience:
The idea behind Elseware Experience originated more than 10 years ago when Benoit and I (Mael) started creating mods for the Source engine. After two publicly acclaimed mods, one for the Half-Life 2 franchise and the second for Left 4 Dead, we decided it was time to scale up and have our own productions. From there, it took us a bit of time as I wanted to complete my physics PhD and Benoit even started to work on big productions. He joined Arkane Studio as a level architect to work on the first Dishonored.
Making your first game is not easy and in order to gather experience and some financial stability, once we decided, we started working on multiple serious games as well as architectural vizualizations.

We started making our first game, Broken Pieces, 10 years after our first mod was released and it took us another two years before we found a publisher and started to really get into production.

Considering your early work was creating mods on the Source Engine, why did you decide to transition over to Unreal Engine for Broken Pieces?

We have worked with multiple game engines in the past and Unreal Engine became the obvious choice for us when we started to aim for high-end results that required very realistic lighting setups. The options offered by the engine (even light baking!) are very wide and it allows a small team such as ours to really obtain a top-tier result.

When we first released Unreal Paris, which was a showcase of what you could do in a real-time environment for an archiviz demonstration, the public reaction was overwhelming and gave us a very distinctive answer: We needed to follow through with the engine.
How has that transition been, and how has it influenced your work process?

Coming from diverse backgrounds, the transition wasn’t very difficult. It was easy to find our bearings since many standards are well integrated into the engine. The Blueprints system helped us a lot in the prototyping phases, which must be fast, and we quickly obtained satisfactory results in terms of lighting. Compared to the Source Engine, being able to directly observe the result in real time was a huge productivity gain and the whole thing smoothed out our pipeline. A transition in the other direction would be much more complicated!

Your previous works have included creations that included some stunning architectural visualization work and some VR games. How did that lead you to creating a more traditional indie game?

It has always been our primary desire to provide a complete standalone gaming experience. By learning to tame the engine over lots of different projects, it made the process all the easier. I believe that when you are a lover of the art of video games, if the barriers to learning are lifted, you can't resist the urge to get started.
Where did the idea for Broken Pieces come from?

One of the ideas behind Broken Pieces (I promise I won't spoil the game) is the arrival of the main character (Elise) to a new life closer to nature and, above all, further from the stress of the city. It's a bit like the path I followed after my studies. When we decided to physically set up the studio somewhere, the decision for us was whether we would choose the city and its opportunities (easy access to new recruits, more contacts and events) or the place where Benoit lived at the time: Ocean Side. So that meant depriving ourselves of easier recruitment and links with other companies, in exchange for a better quality of life and a more welcoming place for people who would like to join us.

As you can imagine when reading this, we chose the seaside... So I packed my bags and left town.

The plot of Broken Pieces begins here, Elise arrives in this new village, but for her (which was not my case), things do not turn out as she would have imagined.
What sorts of movies, books, and video games have inspired your work on Broken Pieces?

It would be very difficult to be exhaustive here but I believe that our work is very inspired by the cinematographic culture. We really wanted to create this atmosphere of a thriller (filled with strangeness and questions) that we can feel in many films and series. The attraction through misunderstanding leads the player to catch up with the protagonist of the game and comes to us from series such as Lost or The Leftovers.
In terms of video games, we have quite a few references such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil for the fixed camera aspect. But we didn't want to make a horror game and so we also turned to more adventure-oriented games such as Alone in the Dark and Syberia for example.

We are also obviously huge fans of Half-Life and Bioshock. Games are just big medleys aren't they?

What are you hoping to achieve with Broken Pieces?

I think that, in the first place, we really wanted to make a game that looks like us and that we would enjoy playing. A game that would be hard to find if we didn't make it ourselves. During its creation, I never got the impression that it was easily comparable to another game and I believe that in the end, that was what we really wanted to achieve. It is also a game that has a rich backstory and therefore allows us to consider many branches for several other games in the future.

How would you describe Broken Pieces, both in terms of its story but also the sort of gameplay that best defines it?

Broken Pieces is a narrative thriller featuring static cameras, puzzles, and combat. That's a lot of words, we know.

You grab your tape player, and go on exploring a strange French town that hides things from you. I am afraid to spoil too much so I am gonna leave it to that small description.
Broken Pieces is designed to deliver striking ambiance in a visually stunning and rich game world. How did Unreal Engine help you achieve that goal?

That's fairly easy: The lighting! Unreal is particularly great at lighting things in a natural way and, when you are making a semi-realistic game, you can't ask for more. Of course, that's the tip of the iceberg, but that's also the first thing players notice, so it's very important. The whole system is pretty robust and once you combine all the elements the engine offers (including post-processing, anti-aliasing, and the tonemapper) you get a pretty strong start. It helps keep the creativity up.

How did you make use of Quixel Megascans in the game?

We did use some Quixel assets when we needed high details that would attract the player's eyes in the scene. Or for really big meshes. Considering the game has to run on the 2013 generation of consoles, we needed to be cautious and to reuse some of them multiple times. They work quite well in that scenario too.

Can you explain how the game’s combat system works and what sets it apart from the combat in other games?

Combat systems are a really difficult feature to integrate within a game. One of the major roadblocks when you decide to choose a static camera for your game is that you can't rely on the ability of the player to aim. Because of the changing angles and the sometimes-twisted perspectives, it would become counter intuitive and frustrating to rely on player's proficiency to correctly target a bad guy. We really wanted to compensate for this lack of agility skill requirement and base the challenge on the ability to position your character on the battlefield. In order to do so, we built many tools to push enemies around and dodge attacks. It makes the system look a bit more like a dance that would rely on your decision making capacities, which seemed more adapted for the kind of game we are making.

But we made sure to limit the challenge and offer different difficulty options for players that want to focus on a more tranquil experience.
The game’s weather effects and how they can change the region sounds intriguing. How does that work and what sort of impact will weather have on gameplay?

Giving players the sense of agency in the game world was one of our priorities. And what's more exciting than changing the weather?

More winds means moving elements and working windmills. Snowy weather means frozen water and thick, blinding fog. It gives us the opportunity to create unique puzzles and renew how the environment is perceived by the player.

And you can trigger both of these anytime you are outside.

Elseware Experience received an Epic MegaGrant for Broken Pieces. How did that impact the studio and the game’s development?

Well, that's an interesting story. As most indies out there, we engaged a lot of our own funds to cover for the creation of a demo that would help us sign with a publisher. But even though, because of the nature of the game (semi-realistic), the animations were a real issue and we couldn't afford better ones. A massive problem that is as visible as the nose in the middle of the face. We thought that, for a contemplative game, the lack of animation and the use of placeholder ones was really putting the overall quality down. The MegaGrant came at a very difficult time for the studio and allowed us to have a motion capture session that then resulted in having way better movements within the game as well as a few cinematics. You can imagine how that would change the perception of someone playing it. We signed our publishing deal two months later.
Looking forward, what do you find most impressive about Unreal Engine 5 and how it might impact game design in the future?

I think the lighting system is the thing that strikes first. Global illumination is so difficult to get right, and in a realtime fashion. What UE5 provides here is a real game changer. It looks like baked lighting, but you can see the result instantly!
Regarding more practical things, the team is really looking forward to the new collaborative features. It might sound underwhelming, but the source compilation at runtime for header files and the versioning of each individual asset within the engine is making us blush.

Clearly these two additions make it easier to share work and prototype faster. Which means better games in the end!

Thank you for taking the time to chat about Broken Pieces. Where can people find out more about the game and Elseware Experience?

Thank you for asking us all these questions and for making life easier for us devs thanks to Epic’s amazing engine and the Epic MegaGrant!

Don't hesitate to follow us on Twitter, Discord, or your favorite social network and wishlist Broken Pieces on Steam.

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