Playing with emotion
An insight into Old Man’s Journey, with Felix Bohatsch
Text by Ingrid Mengdehl
Old Man’s Journey has only been out since May, but has already made quite an impression. Featured in the Apple store and gaining industry-wide recognition for its stunning art, the newest addition to the Broken Rules collection is fun to play and extremely engaging from an emotional point of view. I had the chance to chat with Felix Bohatsch, the game director, who walked me through the conception of Old Man’s Journey, but also what it means to be an independent games studio today.
Broken Rules, based in Vienna, was founded in 2009 by Felix, Jan Hackl and Peter Vorlaufer, just fresh out of university. They released their first game And Yet It Moves a year later, and were joined by Martin Pilchmair and Clemens Scott. It’s with the latter that Felix conceived Old Man’s Journey, the fourth game of the studio.
But really, what is Old Man’s Journey?
Essentially, a gorgeous, slow-paced game relying on simple mechanics, where we follow our hero, an old man, through a very personal quest. Memories of his life bubble up to the surface, helping pace the gameplay and engage the player. It’s the story of a man who has always been conflicted between his duty to family and his passion, the sea.
A conflict that resonates deeply with the creators of the game. Felix jokes that in 6 years, Broken Rules has made four games and eight children.
“The topic of balancing family life and your own passion project has always been a big priority for us all. Each one of us wants to fulfil their creative individuality, but conceiving games is almost like having another baby. It’s something to be mindful of.”
But Old Man’s Journey didn’t start with its eponymous wandering character. Instead, it was a simple photograph that Felix saw at a party that sparked the original idea. “I saw this picture of rolling hills fading into the distance, disappearing in fog. I really liked it. It gave away a strong sense of wanderlust, which I wanted to preserve. I could already see how nice it would be to shape those hills on a touch display.” The touch element was important, because at that point, Felix and Clemens were already pitching the idea of a premium touch-based mobile game to Japanese publisher DeNA. “We have always made 2D games, which I personally really like, but this time, we wanted to play with depth and layers.”
From there, they developed the core mechanics – manipulating the shape of the hills to allow the character to journey through the landscape – and the story, and were soon enough in a position to start pitching the idea to investors, but also apply for a grant in Vienna.
They had set some cornerstones for Old Man’s Journey, which Felix describes as being similar to the ones used in Monument Valley. “We wanted to make it a premium game that could stand out in the mobile market and that would look so good that stores would want to feature it. Our design goal was to always be interesting but never frustrating, the puzzles more about the experience than about the challenge. We planned for it to be 90 minutes in length and not longer, which was what seemed achievable with our small team.” They got funding, and in November 2015, production started.
“Creating games takes a lot of effort,” Felix warns, and as he runs me through the production process, I can only agree. The conception of Old Man’s Journey was made even more difficult because of their desire to make every level unique. Since most of the game is based on its landscape and space, introducing variety is essential. Very early in the process, they introduced one of the main tools they would use throughout the production phase: the emotional progression curve. “Basically, it’s a curve that shows what you want the players to feel in each level of the game. And since it is based on the story of the old man, it’s really what the old man feels while re-living his memories and contemplating on his life choices.”
This curve helped the Broken Rules team to flesh out the game, deciding which puzzle should go in which level, what the general atmosphere should be and informing decisions on the soundtrack, composed by the talented Andrew Rohrmann.
But the game wouldn’t be what it is without the memories conceived by Salon Alpin. Animated stills, they appear at the end of each level, providing us with glimpses into the Old Man’s past. They allow the player to emotionally connect with the story and the characters, and as Felix explains it, Salon Alpin helped flesh the story out even more: “The marine theme came from them. The idea of the sea calling for you is such a stereotype that you don’t need to explain it.” But just like the puzzles and the gameplay, the memories needed to be tested. Felix and Clemens showed the stills to strangers, gathering their thoughts. An interesting trend developed, revealing what age their target audience should be. While younger people didn’t take too kindly to the Old Man’s life choices, people aged 25 and over felt more empathy towards him, having gained enough life experience to realise that not every decision is black or white.
From there, things accelerated, with the production of hand-painted assets, the assembly of all the elements in Unity and repeated testing phases to make sure the game was running smoothly. They also ran their own PR, attending conferences and festivals, creating curiosity by showing glimpses of the game.
“Independent games take effort and passion,” concludes Felix. “But it is doable.” There’s currently a certain fatigue about the genre, and finding funding is not easy, but he praises Apple for their editorial curation. “They are actually looking for high-quality games. We wouldn’t be able to reach the same kind of audience without them.”
Here’s to hoping we will see more games as emotionally engaging as Old Man’s Journey in the future.