Shifting Tides creates a stunning world for puzzle game The Sojourn
Created with Unreal Engine 4, The Sojourn drops players into a dazzling, ethereal world that’s so much more than just its striking landscapes. Progressing through the game door by door, players are met with increasingly complex puzzles that cleverly build upon mechanics learned in previous stages. And just like a carrot dangling on the end of a stick, the cryptic yet fascinating story pushes the player forward with an innate need to unravel the mystery remaining ever-so-slightly out of reach.
Speaking with Shifting Tides’ Team Lead Aria Esrafilian, he fills us in on all the inspiration behind The Sojourn. Touching on the creative process for creating interesting puzzles, he also delves into several Unreal Engine 4 tools and discusses how mastering those tools gave the team the ability to breathe life into a truly magical world. Shifting Tides is a brand new UK-based studio. What was the driving force in striking out as an indie developer?
Shifting Tides Team Lead Aria Esrafilian: It’s an obvious answer, but we simply love making games! The big question we asked ourselves when we started Shifting Tides was, “Is there a project that maximizes all of our knowledge and capabilities and eliminates what we know we can’t do?” We all love puzzle games, and we felt the genre offered ample opportunity to do something different that audiences would really enjoy. Our game designer started working on his ideas and after testing some puzzles, we believed they had the potential we were looking for. It wasn’t that simple, of course. It’s taken us four years to get here and along the way we’ve reiterated and revised almost every element including the art style, the gameplay, and the narrative.
The Sojourn is a first-person puzzle game that’s about the parallel worlds of light and dark. Tell us how you applied that mechanic into the gameplay.
Esrafilian: From a mechanical perspective, The Sojourn is all about this relationship between the dark and the light. How that relationship changes and evolves is pivotal to our puzzle designs. At the start of the game, the dark world can be very helpful — it creates bridges and activates different powers — but later it also can create walls and be an obstacle in and of itself. As you progress, the way you enter and exit this world changes and gets combined with other mechanics, and all of that feeds back into our narrative.
Where did your inspirations lie for The Sojourn? Were there any other games or experiences that helped influence the game's direction?
Esrafilian: We really admire what Portal 2 did, and that’s what we wanted — a game where gameplay, visuals, and story are all in harmony. Not many projects achieve this, especially in the puzzle genre. One that does is The Talos Principle, which combined simple mechanics to solve complex and evolving situations. We were also pretty much in love with Journey and how its atmosphere conveyed various feelings in different stages of the game.
The world you've created for The Sojourn is stunning. What was the most valuable tool in Unreal Engine 4 for bringing it to life?
Esrafilian: We can’t name only one. The whole engine was essential. Everything inside Unreal Engine 4 is connected together perfectly and we were able to have control over everything we wanted with minimal effort. For The Sojourn, our focus was on the art and atmosphere of the game: visual effects and environmental animations. For these, we utilized the Material Editor, post-processing system, Sequencer, particle system, audio system, and many others. The most amazing part is how we’re able to control and connect all of these using Blueprints. Even some basic features like Material Collection Parameters saved us many hours!
What about The Sojourn freshens up the first-person puzzle genre?
Esrafilian: The idea we always came back to on The Sojourn is harmony, and it was really important to us that this feeling echoed across everything in the game. All the individual elements needed to work with each other and support everything else. We tried to give every feature of the game a symbolic meaning — one that could be understood on an emotional level, even if a player didn’t notice or understand it literally.
The challenges and the puzzles are not just mechanical, we want them to be about our ideas and lived experiences. We tried to do a lot of metaphorical and non-verbal communication with the player, which alludes to a philosophical perspective or concept we want people to think about.
It feels like The Sojourn is a natural choice for a port into the world of VR. Is that something that you considered at any point? Do you feel Unreal could aid in that task?
Esrafilian: Absolutely! We actually tested the game on an Oculus Rift dev kit and a while after on an HTC Vive, and thanks to VR integration in Unreal Engine 4, it was pretty plug-and-play. If the audience is there, a VR port of The Sojourn would be a wonderful thing to make, but we’re not committing to anything concrete at this time.
Did anyone on the team have previous experience with UE4? If so, how did that previous experience aid in the development of The Sojourn?
Esrafilian: Our whole team has used Unreal technology ever since the Unreal Development Kit was first made available. When Unreal Engine 4 was released, we immediately checked it out and we were blown away by all the new features. To be honest, moving from UDK to UE4 was one of the highlights of our career because it gave us the shiniest new toy to play with.
Can you tell us about the creative process behind the puzzles in the game? How did you go about designing them?
Esrafilian: Designing mechanics and puzzles in The Sojourn was a long and bumpy roller-coaster ride! Our game designer, Nima, took some of the initial designs and started bringing them to life on the whiteboard. He then solved some puzzles and let us handle the rest. Everyone was involved, as we all enjoy playing with new mechanics and exploring their possibilities. He then started to prototype some puzzles in Unreal using Blueprints to evaluate his initial ideas. He started the game design with extensive, complex mechanics with many possibilities and combinations.
The next step was to strip the features to the point where it had perfect balance and complexity. Nima realized taking this route was way harder, but it yielded more unique and interesting results that better fit the design philosophy of The Sojourn.
What advice would you offer to someone jumping into Unreal Engine for the first time?
Esrafilian: Don’t be put off by its complexity. Unreal Engine 4 is massive. There are loads of parts and editors, enough for even huge AAA teams to become overwhelmed. The UX is phenomenal, however. You can find all sorts of tutorials and starter content to learn from. On the Marketplace, you can jump right in and start playing with different parts to see and learn how they work. The prototyping in Unreal is unbelievably fast. There is no need to write a single line of code thanks to Blueprints. With The Sojourn’s development, we worked a lot with Blueprints. It gave us the equivalent freedom and power compared to big-budget teams so we could focus on our ideas first.
Where are all the places fans can go to keep up with Iceberg Interactive, Shifting Tides, and The Sojourn?
Esrafilian: You can follow The Sojourn on Twitter, along with our team at Shifting Tides and Iceberg Interactive. The Sojourn and Iceberg Interactive are also on Facebook and Iceberg are on Discord too!