In the game, players become the Hunter, a master of archery who travels to a mystical island to dispel a curse of darkness. Along the way they will forge a connection with an eagle companion as they hunt corrupted spirits, explore misty forests full of secrets, solve puzzles in ancient ruins, and test their skill in epic battles with beautifully-crafted bosses. When we recently visited the team in Santa Monica, the small company’s commitment to creating atmospheric and immersive experiences was clear. In fact, Giant Squid Creative Director, Cofounder, and President Matt Nava stated that creating an emotional connection with its players is a differentiating factor for the studio.
“As an indie developer you have to find a niche, something that people aren’t doing,” said Nava - whose industry credits include his prior role as Art Director at thatgamecompany where he produced the iconic visuals of the critically-acclaimed Journey. “(We) try to make games that are atmospheric and take you somewhere that’s really immersive and beautiful, but gives you something to think about at the end.”
Along with the goal of creating a memorable conclusion in The Pathless, the developers aim to provide players with plenty to think about during the adventure itself, which is why accessible controls are at the core of the experience. “The Pathless is about the relationship between a hunter and eagle as they explore a forest full of cursed beasts,” said Nava. “For us, it's a game that extends our philosophy from ABZÛ forward, but incorporates more traditional gameplay elements.”
So how exactly is Giant Squid looking to expand on its previous effort? Simply put, they want the player to experience an increased sense of interaction as they explore and engage with the lush, vibrant world around them. “The controls are not a barrier for expressing yourself the way you want to as the character in the game,” stated Lead Gameplay Programmer Cosmo Fumo. “So, in ABZÛ, it meant you could swim around freely, you could flip and turn upside down, and you never felt like you couldn’t perform the behaviors you wanted to perform. In The Pathless, it’s a similar thing, except the character now, instead of being a diver, is an archer and the hunter doesn’t have to think about aiming because she’s an expert. So, we don’t want the player to have to think about aiming because we want them to feel like an expert. We want them to think about what they are shooting at and why they are shooting it.”
On a fundamental level, Giant Squid itself is aiming to create experiences that spawn a close connection between the content and the player - something they admit isn’t easily achieved. “The emotional connection with the characters, with other players, or with the world, is something that’s very difficult to do and is difficult to articulate how to do it,” said Nava. “One of the most surprising and rewarding elements of creating ABZÛ was that we received a lot fan mail telling us that this game had given (the player) an experience that moved them in a way that they weren’t expecting. When The Pathless ships, we hope that we’ll create another experience that brings that quality to players.”
While the studio has been focused on crafting this connection and providing increased playability in its follow-up to ABZÛ, Giant Squid didn’t shy away from reflecting on the foundation that’s already been laid for the company, the challenges associated with indie game development, and the importance of choosing the necessary tools required to achieve their goals.
“When we started Giant Squid, it was just me sitting in a room full of desks and I had to figure out how to get a game up and running by myself,” said Nava. “I’m a visual person, I know a little bit of math, but I’m not a programmer. Our focus is on visuals as a first step to get that sense of atmosphere established very quickly and doing that in Unreal Engine was straightforward.”
“One of the things that makes Unreal really cool is that you can rapidly prototype,” said Fumo. “So, you can use Blueprints to get something working quickly without having to dig into the nitty gritty of how it’s implemented. And then, beyond that, you can take those prototypes and then make native code. Because Unreal provides full access to the source code, you can easily make it functional, performant, and fast.”
The decision to use Unreal Engine was a big one for the team - something that Nava notes when discussing what can often be the “make-or-break” nature of indie game development. “[With] every single task that we think about, we have to think, ‘is this going to be worth the cost of creating it? What tools do we use? What engine do we use?’ These are all things that a small indie studio really has to think about a lot, because if you make the wrong choice, you might be done. Unreal Engine has been a great choice for us because it allows us to focus on developing our game, rather than spending a lot of time trying to build an engine to make the game.”
The Pathless is heading to the Epic Games store and PlayStation 4 this year.