Francis Ruffiange first completed film studies in 2016, but later refocused his career towards the video game industry by studying game theory and design. He is now a technical game designer working at Unreliable Narrators since 2021, contributing mainly to the narrative design and level design of Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina).
Laurène Betard has been working as the Brand Manager for the game Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) at Unreliable Narrators since April 2022. She holds a Master's degree in marketing from HEC Montreal, which she completed in 2020. Her expertise primarily lies in web marketing strategies, brand management, and user experience within the video game industry.
When two cultures meet, an interesting tale flourishes. Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) is an adventure that takes place in the Canadian wilderness of the 17th century. It tells the tale of newly-shipwrecked French settlers meeting the Indigenous people of the region. French immigrant Jeanne and an Innu hunter Maïkan find their experiences and stories intertwining.
The team at Unreliable Narrators is developing a narrative that highlights the competing perspectives between the two protagonists. To craft that narrative, the studio collaborated with a number of authentic sources, including a council of First Nations elders, composer Eadsé, and the Indigenous 3D artists at Awastoki. Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) also chooses to present its world through both perspectives, with the art style and sound design changing depending on which character you’re playing.
The studio is working hard to prepare Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) for the third quarter release on Steam in 2023. We spoke with a few members of the development team about what inspired the game’s creation, why the team decided to utilize Unreal Engine 5, and how an Epic MegaGrant helped them realize their vision.
Can you explain what Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) is about?
Laurène Betard, Brand Manager: Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) is a first-person single-player, narrative-driven experience that presents contrasting perspectives on French and Indigenous first encounters. In the game, you explore the 17th-century Canadian wilderness through a curated linear story and experience the intertwining journeys of Jeanne, a French king's daughter stranded far from the French colonies, and Maïkan, a young Innu hunter trying to uncover what is disturbing his native forest, the land of his ancestors.
Francis Ruffiange, Game Designer: Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) is about experiencing a coming-of-age story through the biased lenses of two unique protagonists. While you explore this unfamiliar setting, you will experience strong emotions, meet rich characters, and witness differing perspectives on the same events. It’s a game that is not afraid to ask questions and challenge the idea of “historical truth.”
What does the title mean?
Betard: When it comes to naming a game, it can be a tedious process. Should it be short or long? Should it be straightforward or funky? After several iterations, including names such as "Kanata'' and "Wendigo," our lead designer Samuel came up with the idea to play on the word "fall." The title "Two Falls'' could be interpreted as having two journeys during the season that precedes winter, and also expresses the way our two main characters undergo massive changes that shatter their worldview. To add further precision, we included "Nishu Takuatshina," which means "Two Falls'' (the season) in Maïkan's native language, Innu.
Ruffiange: I think what is great about the title is the fact that it’s up to interpretation! Even within the team, we have different meanings for it. But to me, the title is really about how our two protagonists go through this common tumultuous period or change, while also living unique experiences linked to their very different cultural heritages.
Courtesy of Unreliable Narrators
What other games, shows, or films inspired the creation of Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina)?
Betard: One of our biggest inspirations was Firewatch (2016), which directly influenced the semi-stylized art style of Two Falls and validated that a game with rich conversations could still be interesting to players. Many of our design concepts began with Firewatch and evolved from there.
Another major inspiration for us was The Mysterious Cities of Gold, an 80’s cartoon that follows the adventures of a young orphan named Esteban, who sets out to find his explorer father in the New World while encountering various Indigenous peoples of Latin America along the way. The series influenced us in its portrayal of Indigenous cultures and had a big impact on the creation of Two Falls.
Ruffiange: The masterful What Remains of Edith Finch was a great inspiration in designing our exploration segments in the game, but also in creating some meaningful player-driven animations. Without revealing too much, there is a great moment in our game that really emotionally connects the player to the events through animation. You’ll have to play it to understand what I mean!
Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) tells the story of French settlers meeting the Indigenous people of 17th century Canada. Why was this the right game for the team at Unreliable Narrators?
Betard: We wanted to tell the story of an under-represented viewpoint. Our goal was to give a voice to communities that do not necessarily have the chance to do so and to highlight characters that are poorly represented in the video game world. We recognized that very few games have told the stories of Indigenous people, and even fewer have collaborated directly with First Nations communities to create a game that accurately depicts their culture. This is why Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) was the right game for us.
Ruffiange: Our heritage as a French Canadian Studio definitely made Two Falls the right story to tell for us. Many of us grew up here and learned in school about the fascinating stories of the first settlers arriving in Canada, with coureurs des bois—fur traders—surviving long and arduous journeys in the wilderness. But we also learned, in much less detail unfortunately, about the tragedy of colonization and religious conversion. This is why we felt that, with the proper team and partners, we could tell a more nuanced story that explored this tumultuous period of time from the point of view of both Indigenous people and arriving Europeans.
Courtesy of Unreliable Narrators
Can you tell us a bit about your studio?
Betard: Unreliable Narrators is an independent Quebec video game studio that creates narrative games to give a voice to underrepresented communities. We aim to tell the untold side of history through our games and introduce unusual heroes, such as Maïkan, the young Innu, who was created in consultation with Indigenous partners. The studio collaborates with an Elder Council and other Indigenous partners to ensure we respect the Innu culture, their traditions, and their legends. In this first project, part of the team—including the composer and sound designer, art director, actors, and story writer—is Indigenous.
Ruffiange: We are a new team of developers with a common passion for narrative games. Another one of our goals with the games we make is democratization. Everyone can enjoy a great story, yet in games these stories are often made inaccessible for some audiences by being locked behind challenges and fail states. We believe that the games we make can bridge the gap with new players through accessibility, while also providing an alternative, but enjoyable, experience for adept gamers.
Players step into the shoes of Jeanne, a shipwrecked French settler, and Maïkan, a young Innu hunter. Why was it important for the team to show both viewpoints for this story?
Betard: The team at Unreliable Narrators believes that showing both the Innu and French perspectives is crucial to telling the story of their encounter in 17th century Canada. Our game offers two different universes with two artistic directions and two sound directions to highlight the opposing viewpoints of Jeanne and Maïkan. We want to provide an immersive experience that allows players to see the same events through different pairs of eyes, similar to how Game of Thrones or Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos showed the same story from different perspectives. By building our game on different viewpoints, we aim to demonstrate that every story can have multiple angles and interpretations, and that pure good or evil doesn't really exist in real life.
Ruffiange: As mentioned earlier, the contents of history books and classes often provide a limited perspective based on the biases of the people that write them. For obvious reasons, this gap of knowledge is especially accentuated when it comes to Indigenous people. But Indigenous culture also remains pretty unknown to the general public because it mostly relies on oral traditions to transmit history. With our partners, we had the chance to dig deeper into this oral history in order to inspire our characters and the setting of our game, and we hopefully wish to make these beautiful but lesser-known cultures more visible through the experience of playing Two Falls.
Courtesy of Unreliable Narrators
Can you talk about the creation of both characters and what you hope to achieve with their stories?
Ruffiange: I think the concept behind both characters and their stories is to illustrate contrast and similarity. They obviously have drastically different backgrounds; where Jeanne decides to travel to Nouvelle-France of her own volition to find a new life, Maïkan’s well-established life and homeland is shaken by events outside of his control. But the fact that they are both young adults going through troubling times in their lives illustrates similarity. The nature of their troubles, how they deal with them and mature from them, illustrates contrast. With these two opposing concepts, we hope to show that despite our differences, we can cultivate empathy towards each other, connect through our shared human experiences, and make an effort to understand one another.
The art direction and presentation of the environments changes depending on which character you’re playing. For Jeanne, the wilderness is more foreboding, while Maïkan sees the bright forests he grew up in. Can you explain why you went in this direction?
Ruffiange: To us, it was clear from the start that the idea of storytelling through perspectives could go much further than character dialog. By shaping the environments to represent their unique views of the wilderness, we believe that players can more easily embody these characters and connect with their emotions. You don’t need Jeanne to say that the forest is scary for her when you actually see and feel that the forest is terrifying when playing as her!
Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) offers a choice-driven narrative. How do player choices affect the two characters and the story being told?
Ruffiange: In Two Falls, we offer choices that will develop your characters’ personalities and beliefs. As the game progresses, you will start to see growth in Maïkan and Jeanne’s dialog according to the player’s input on complex topics, such as traditionalism, embracing change, religion and so on. We felt that games that advertise “meaningful choices that impact the story” rarely deliver on that promise in the end. Instead, what we offer is a highly-curated linear story, but with characters that will grow according to the player’s own opinions. You could even say that the players are themselves… unreliable narrators!
Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) is a collaboration between your studio and Indigenous creatives like the 3D artists at Awastoki and composer Eadsé. How did these collaborations change and enhance the experience you were creating?
Ruffiange: We obviously wanted the cultural depictions in Two Falls’ to be as authentic as possible, but we also wanted to put First Nation creators’ artistic visions at the forefront of the experience. It was clear from the beginning of the project that we wanted this for the game’s art direction and music, and we learned a lot by collaborating with Awastoki and Eadsé. They were true creative partners on the project and their work and their input directly fed into how the game was designed.
Can you talk about the process of iterating on Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina), while collaborating with these sources outside of your team?
Ruffiange: Awastoki helped us gradually build the vision of the game over time… but they also helped build our production pipelines! Their team of highly experienced and talented artists was a really great match for our young studio. As for Eadsé, a great example of the influence of her work is when we received the first sample music for the game’s soundtrack. We were all gathered in the studio’s living room to listen to the tracks, and we immediately understood what the tone and emotion of some of Maïkan’s scenes would be. We then went back to those scenes and iterated on the design accordingly!
What did the team learn in the process of developing the game?
Ruffiange: I am inclined to say “everything.” We built a studio around this game! Throughout the years, we definitely learned how to work better together as a team, and also get the best out of everyone. The team was initially put together by a game designer, so our production processes naturally gravitated towards a “design centric” approach. As development progressed, we adapted how we work to get input from all departments at earlier stages of conception and feed from everyone’s creative visions, which in turn resulted in better and richer scenes for our story.
What did it mean for Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina) to receive an Epic MegaGrant?
Ruffiange: To us, what is really important is the validation this grant provides us, and the fact that a big player such as Epic Games is behind it. As this is our first game, we’re never really sure how our work will be perceived, or even if people will see it at all. The Epic MegaGrant actually helped confirm that we’re going in the right direction and that this project has potential.
Courtesy of Unreliable Narrators
Why was Unreal Engine 5 the right fit for Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina)?
Ruffiange: As I’m not within the art department, I’m allowed to say that our game is absolutely gorgeous! Using the latest versions of Unreal Engine—and the great visual tools it provides—really made the work of our Art Director, Tara Miller, and all the artists at Awastoki shine. In a 3D game where the richness and subtleties in our environments are so important to the story, it only made sense to use Unreal. Apart from the visuals, since this is our studio’s first game, using Unreal’s proven built-in tools also really accelerated our development time and reduced risks on the technical side.
Were there any Unreal Engine tools that were helpful in developing the world of Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina)?
Ruffiange: Lumen is definitely an amazing tool for our artists. It obviously achieves beautiful and natural lighting much easier than traditional methods, but it also makes it very accessible to the entire team. In the art direction department, we first started with traditional methods of assembling references, creating concept art and passing those to the lighting artist. But once we started getting the first iterations of our environments, we could easily create lighting concepts directly in-engine, greatly accelerating our pipeline by giving both a concept and a foundation for our lighting artist.
The other tool that was a game changer for us was the use of Blueprints visual scripting. Our programmers created a set of tools and Blueprint nodes that could then be used by designers with minimal technical backgrounds to stage the vast majority of our scenes’ narrative and gameplay events.
Courtesy of Unreliable Narrators
What tips do you have for other indie developers or aspiring game developers?
Betard: Don't underestimate everything else you need to know outside of making games whether it’s accounting, administration, pitches to obtain financing, marketing to make the game known... and all of this in a context where the market is very competitive. Make sure to have (in the core team) someone who will embrace the Business/Admin role as much as the developer role.
Ruffiange: Your team and its processes are as important as the game you are making. Assembling the right team is obviously key, but the strengths and affinities of your team members should help shape the type of game you are trying to make and how you will make it. It’s okay to take steps into the unknown, but as young and/or less experienced developers, taking tiny bites at new concepts while relying on your strengths to create your foundation will really help ship that first game.
Thanks for your time, where can people learn more about Two Falls (Nishu Takuatshina)?
If you want to learn more about the game or the studio, there are a variety of options below!