Courtesy of Embers 2023

Why a team of nine switched to Unreal Engine to deliver visually stunning action game Strayed Lights

Brian Crecente |
July 12, 2023
Maxime Philipp, co-founder of Embers and Game Director, has been in the video game industry for almost 10 years now, working on educational games, mobile games, and now bigger games like Strayed Lights. He started as a programmer (and did some programming on Strayed Lights, amongst other tasks). As time passed, he broadened his abilities in game design then management.
Created by a team of nine, Strayed Lights thrusts you into the glowing, colorful world of a newborn flame as it faces its inner demons on the journey to restore its light.

It’s an evocative tale told without any words and absolutely steeped in colorful combat; combat that relies much more heavily on parries and ripostes then it does outright attacks. Noisy Pixel wrote in its review of the game, “Strayed Lights is exceptional for a debut outing, and I’m eager to see what Embers works on in the future.”

At the heart of the game’s clever design and otherworldly appearance is a tight-knit team that worked early on to define a clear focus for the title, and a path forward with the help of an Epic MegaGrant and use of Unreal Engine.

We chatted with game director and Embers studio co-founder Maxime Philipp about how the team and the game came together, how the small group managed to deliver such an oversized title, and the advice they’d give to other indies looking to craft an artistically-driven, high-fidelity game.
 

It looks like many of the team came from mobile game developer Voodoo.Io before forming Embers. How did that come about and what inspired you to create a new studio making game?

Maxime Philipp, co-founder of Embers and Game Director:
The four founders of Embers have always been passionate about video games, some of us already developed games as freelancers before entering Voodoo, others as hobbies in their free time.

Damien, CEO of Embers, also co-founded Voodoo years before along with two other people, and that’s where the other three of us met each other when the company was still a small startup. After some years creating dozens of mobile games together, the company had grown to 200 people. We felt it was the right moment for us to fly on our own, to create games that appeal to us more as gamers and in a company that keeps a human-size.

That’s how we founded Embers, and our goal is to make games that are memorable–like a piece of art–and that convey a message, produced by a rather small team of passionate people.

What was the initial idea for Strayed Lights and how did it come about?

Philipp:
The idea of Strayed Lights came from two main focuses: 
  • The gameplay: We wanted to create gameplay that feels satisfying, innovative yet familiar and not too difficult to apprehend. We thought about games that we felt were satisfying in their gameplay and then imagined some ways to twist them into brand new systems. That’s how we quickly started prototyping on a parry-based game that uses a color switching mechanic and that we kept in the final game.
  • The story and the message: We wanted to create a story players can relate to, and that leaves space for interpretation even if we give them the main pieces of the puzzle. Quickly–and with the gameplay we were creating–came the idea of making a game that is an ode to resilience, about overcoming the challenges one has to face throughout their life. That’s how the writing began and how the characters of Strayed Lights came to life.
What other games or creative works inspired the look and direction of Strayed Lights?

Philipp:
In terms of general feeling, we took inspiration from games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus. They have this sense of mystery and the aesthetics yet the soberness that we love.

In terms of gameplay, we took inspiration from Sekiro for the parry mechanic and from Ikaruga for the color matching mechanic. The idea was to mix together these two into an adventure game in which you fight others by absorbing their attacks.

What made you decide to create a game with no spoken words?

Philipp:
As said previously, we love games that immerse the player in a mysterious world in which the pieces of information are not given on a silver platter. We wanted to create a game in which we give the players the pieces of the puzzle, but they’ll have to put them together themselves and use their own imagination to interpret the missing parts that have been hidden. We felt that it was interesting for this game to rely only on immersion, animations, and the music to convey the story and the overall feelings at each stage of the game.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
What challenges did you face when trying to create a story without using spoken words and how did you overcome them?

Philipp:
We needed to rely on every other tool at our disposal to make sure players would understand the hero story as well as the emotions impersonated by the bosses. However, we wanted to give players the overall keys to the understanding then let them open to their own interpretation. So we’ve been using the music, the characters animations, the cinematics, and the environmental narration to convey those pieces of information.

In development, we had some animated painted narrative sequences to provide lore information but it wasn’t of much importance and was a mess in terms of production costs so we eventually decided to drop those.
 
To confirm that we were heading in the right direction and to know if we needed to revamp some parts we did a lot of playtesting sessions throughout the whole game development for each zone and story beat. We would ask players what they understood of the story and the emotions they were facing and then adapt what needed to be.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
What made you decide to use Unreal Engine for your new studio’s first game?

Philipp:
We’ve previously worked with Unity for mobile games so we had experience with this engine. However for Strayed Lights (and the next games we plan to make) we needed to create some complex animation systems, VFX, and shaders that not only developers can use but also our team of artists. Unreal Engine is the leading engine for the scope of projects we’re making so we decided to give it a go, and it fulfilled pretty much all our needs. UE also provides a lot of flexibility for teams to create their own custom tools that will help their specific processes.

The game’s visuals are absolutely stunning, both in the pure graphical sense, but also in how otherworldly and different they are. Can you walk us through how you came up with this particular aesthetic and how you used Unreal Engine to bring it to life?

Philipp:
We knew that gameplay and its visual readability had to take precedence on the screen; and we looked to universes such as Team ICO’s games or Soul Reaver as references, which manage to have strong identities with a certain minimalism. UE, in particular, facilitated the production of our environments by allowing us to quickly block out the scenery by painting masses like on a canvas, but this time by duplicating assets, while maintaining good performance.
Were there any particular elements of Unreal Engine that helped you deliver the game’s look?

Philipp:
In my opinion, there are mainly three elements of Unreal Engine that helped us making Strayed Lights look the way we wanted:
  • The materials editor empowered us to create complex shaders that give Strayed Lights characters that unique look we had in the first concept arts.
  • The Niagara particle systems that we used a lot on the characters themselves, the gameplay feedbacks, and to add some more juiciness in all your character main actions.
  • The animation Blueprint system that helped us create some complex animation graphs with smooth blendings making the gameplay feel fluid.

The game’s story seems to lean heavily on dealing with emotions. How did that become the game’s theme and how were you able to explore that through gameplay mechanics?

Philipp:
Early in development, we had the idea of creating a journey that reflects the challenges one can encounter throughout his life and we felt that creating bosses that impersonate emotions we can feel at different stages of our life was a good approach.

As the storytelling is entirely made without words, we had to make sure players would feel these emotions using the other tools we had in hand: the music, the attitude and animations, and the gameplay mechanics. For the latest, we had a few weeks of heavy prototyping for each boss and a lot of playtesting to keep only the ones that were the most suited for each character yet fun to play at the same time.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
Why did you decide to focus a bulk of the game’s combat mechanics on defense rather than offense?

Philipp:
We had the idea right from the start to have a parry mechanic in the game as it feels very satisfying to pull that off in other games. The only drawback in many of those games (Souls-like games mainly) is that it is an advanced mechanic, hard to learn and to master. For Strayed Lights, we wanted to make it more accessible so even less hardcore gamers would be able to experience this feeling of flow within combat so that’s what we did.

And as you’re facing creatures that are much bigger than your character in the game, it really made more sense to us to absorb your opponent's strength with parries to turn it back against them instead of attacking their little toe with your tiny arms until they reach their last HPs and finally die.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
You have a relatively small team of nine. How did Unreal Engine empower your team to hit above its weight to deliver such a well-designed title?

Philipp:
In such a small team, everyone has to be polyvalent and autonomous. Unreal Engine helped us by removing the intermediate “integration people,” the artists could integrate their work on their own and tweak everything the way they felt was the best. Programmers were able to easily integrate their logic on top of it and have it working remarkably fast using the available tools and a set of custom made ones.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
What impact did receiving an Epic MegaGrant have on the game and the studio?

Philipp:
The MegaGrant helped us to spend some time on our ambiance tool and some animation tools as well. In Strayed Lights, each zone of the game has its own color palette and overall ambiance that we handle with light colors, the exponential height fog, the objects materials, some effects activation and deactivation, etc. We made a system that made the artists able to create their own ambiance, then they could create a “snapshot” of that ambiance that saves all of these objects properties, then the system would be able to blend between snapshots in a smart and optimized way.

What Unreal Engine 5 features are you most looking forward to using on your next game and why?

Philipp:
There’s a lot of new stuff in Unreal Engine 5 that’ll help our team make even better games in the future!
What advice would you give an indie studio about delivering an artistically-driven, high-fidelity game with a small team?

Philipp:
The most important thing for me is to keep focus on the essence of your game. It’s sometimes easy to get lost in secondary systems and little details that don’t bring a lot of value to your game, and you’re better off using this time to focus on the very best that makes your game stand out and enjoyable. When you want to experience some new ideas for your games, prototype them as quickly as possible, find the limits of them and throw them away if they don’t have enough potential for your game. Don’t be afraid of throwing lots of stuff away because that’s how you’ll only keep the best ideas that serve your game essence.

This is correct for each game project in my opinion, and even more for small teams like us that have a limited production capacity.
Courtesy of Embers 2023
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What’s the best way people can find out more about Strayed Lights and Embers?

Philipp:
To find more information about Strayed Lights and Embers please check out our website and follow us on social media to be sure not to miss any piece of news!

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool.
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event
    February 13

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024
    Event

    Join us online or in person at GDC 2024

    Tune in to the State of Unreal for the latest announcements from Epic and our partners, dive deep with our tech talks, and get inspired and informed with our sessions and learning theater.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News
    February 15

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products
    News

    February Marketplace sale: get 50% off over 2,000 products

    Retro cafes, rustic interiors, low-poly towns, customizable NPC characters…February’s Marketplace sale has something for everyone. Act now to get this month’s selection of goodies at half price.
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News
    February 6

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!
    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024
    News

    Featured free Unreal Marketplace content—February 2024

    Fantasy interiors, stylized crystal mines, a trip back to the 90s, and more—February’s free 3D assets from the Unreal Engine Marketplace have landed!