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‘If you have the will, now there’s definitely a way’ – Aurora44 on Ashen, and how game design is growing up

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road set the standard for our current film fetish for post-apocalyptic desolation. Ashen, the first game from Wellington-based Aurora44, looks to do the same thing with games. Don Rowe speaks to CEO Derek Bradley and Animation Director Simon Dasan about the maturation of game design.

You might expect that a game developed in Avalon Studios, birthplace of Sir Peter Jackson’s gorefest Braindead, to be a little grim. But Ashen, the first production from New Zealand studio Aurora44, is bleak on a more subtle level.

The world is engulfed by ash. Not a source of natural light remains. Nothing lasts except perpetual night. Sounds like a bloody good time, particularly to the almost 300,000 people who have watched the game’s trailer on YouTube. So too for me, as a self-admitted sucker for a bit of desolate, lonely, end-of-an-ancient-world bleakness.

Despite having no official release date, or even a gameplay trailer to speak of, the hype for Ashen is building – even Microsoft has jumped on board, investing in the project in return for exclusivity on the Xbox platform.

The pressure is on. But CEO Derek Bradley has been involved in big productions before, as has animation director Simon Dasan. I spoke to the pair about influence, maturity and managing expectations ahead of their first solo independent project.

The Spinoff: You clearly take inspiration from The Road, but there’s also a Shadow of the Colossus, Ico feel to Ashen. Was your intention always to create such a grim brew?

Simon Dasan: Something that we thought was missing initially in games was a bit of a mature approach, and so bringing in influences from other media like movies – particularly hard hitting movies like The Road – was something that we really wanted to do. We didn’t want to pander towards the more childish side of games, we wanted to try and approach it as more of an ‘interactive experience’, if you will. Obviously it’s still a game so there are the hallmarks of the things that keep you playing and keep people interested, but thematically it was about taking that fresh approach, and looking at more serious stuff. Games like Shadow of the Colossus would have done that too I think.

It’s interesting because, like Shadow of the Colossus, Ashen emotes some really melancholy, heavy vibes, without being photo-realistic. 

SD: I think that’s something that comes through even in fine art; you get people tackling quite heavy subjects with paintings that aren’t necessarily realistic. As games continue to mature it’s something we’ll see more and more of. Film by it’s very nature has been something that’s grown out of actually filming people, whereas games have to tackle all these technical hurdles that effectively mean you’re a painter, but you’re painting an experience. We have to fabricate these things from the ground up, and I think using stylised stuff is just one of the tools we can choose to deploy, but it can work in any subject matter.

At it’s core, Ashen is a game about how nothing lasts in life. Why do you believe that’s a particularly relevant and pertinent theme right now?

SD: In all honesty the game wasn’t really predicated on current events. Four or five years ago we were watching things like The Road, listening to things from the musicians we have on board now, and it just gave us that feel. We were really trying to tackle this trend where games essentially always pose you as the hero of the story. Developers make the hero first, and then they write the story around the hero, and they make the world around the story, so you’re really the centre of the universe. We wanted to do something that goes along with a more mature, more in-depth kind of experience. We wanted to make a world that will challenge everyone, and that will be more realistic in an emotional sense. You’re not the hero of the world. You might be the hero of your own story, but there will be things that tower above you, things that are smaller than you, and you’re not necessarily that important.

For that reason, stuff can slip through your fingers. We design a lot of things that we grapple with ourselves. We put things in and we start worrying ‘what if the player misses this thing, what if they don’t see it?’ Then we realise that that’s the whole point of it: They’re meant to miss a bunch of stuff, they’re meant to lose a bunch of stuff, because if you don’t lose things when you get them, when you achieve something, when you succeed, it’s kind of meaningless. You need loss in there to balance the scales and to create contrast.

That demonstrates a lot of faith in your audience, trusting that they can handle having things taken from them without throwing their toys. Game designers can pander sometimes, making things a little easy and straight forward.

SD: That lines up a little with Hollywood and the way that movies are made. There are big budget productions with AAA-celebrities and they’ve got to do something completely straight down the line. People have certain expectations – they don’t want to watch Tom Cruise get impaled. But at the same time, where we’re coming from, we’re doing something a little more edgy and niche on purpose because it’s a high quality experience, but at the same time it’s important for our survival to do something that is a counterpoint to those things. When people play Ashen they’ll be looking for a new experience. They’ll be looking for stuff they haven’t seen before, or to be challenged. As I say, it lines up with Hollywood, where some movies are going to give you a whole bunch of explosions whereas other films are going to challenge you, and by their nature they’re generally small budget teams who are trying to challenge themselves.

This is your first game – where does the thematic maturity and the drive to do more than Call of Duty 25 come from?

Derek Bradley: The guys in the studio have come from all over the industry, so we’re all veterans. We’ve been around the block, and worked on anything from the Hobbit to the Battlefield games. We’ve been a part of all of those productions, and so we’ve had time for our ideas to mature. In all honesty, when we went out to make this game, we didn’t look at it financially, in terms of what’s going to make the most money, or we would have made a mobile game with microtransactions. Instead we looked at what we would like to play, and in the most genuine way we just looked for something that would fulfill our needs. Being a little bit older the stuff that we tended to gravitate towards were movies that we watched and things that we hadn’t seen in games. It was about looking at the catalogue of what’s available now, and not necessarily feeling fulfilled by that, imagining what we’d like to play, and stepping out on a limb.

In this day and age we’re in the golden age of being able to do this kind of thing. We have the engines coming out that allow us to really do this stuff where ten years ago a thing like this would have been incredibly hard to get off the ground in any capacity. Now, if you have the will, there’s definitely a way.

SD: Games are going through the same revolution film did. Cameras used to be things you needed to put on the back of a truck to being things you could put on your shoulder, and all of a sudden Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski and all these guys were coming out making these amazing movies. The same thing is happening in games now, where things like Unreal Engine are available. Go back 15 years and you would have had to build your own engine which would cost millions and you wouldn’t see anything that resembled a game for the first three years, or you’d have to go and license something like Unreal Engine which would also cost millions. There’s been an absolute shift to where people making games in their basement as a one man band can turn over millions of dollars. It’s very interesting.

The Aurora44 team, with their faces photo-manipulated to resemble Ashen characters

Another effect of that is that not only are the cameras now on your shoulder, but they’re also in New Zealand. You’ve worked on these international productions offshore, what are the benefits to operating in New Zealand?

SD: We have quite a few people who have overseas experience, as well as people coming in from overseas. Bringing that talent back to New Zealand and putting it to work in the New Zealand games industry has been awesome. Artistically speaking, there’s quite a bit of New Zealand influence in the world of Ashen, so being able to look out your window and see that stuff going on is really awe inspiring.

We’ve had people who are working on Ashen from overseas arrive in New Zealand and see our studio, go on a couple hikes, go tramping, and they’re like ‘Now I get it, now I understand.’ They feel much more of a connection to Ashen once they’ve been in New Zealand, and that’s a sign of how strong a connection the game has to this country. Even just the fact that we have crazy wind in Wellington, and the way the landscape is so green and we have four seasons in a day and all that sorts of stuff resonates with them.

That draws another analogy to film – it’s the same reason this was such a perfect place to make The Lord of the Rings, it’s just such a primordial place.

It does seem to have this very strange allure for a lot of people. It may not even be so ‘in your face’ but there is definitely something there I think. And on the flipside, looking at our local market, luckily for us games is just one of those industries which is perfect for creating anywhere in the world in that it’s an absolutely global market. You can’t make games for a local market unless you’re maybe in China or Russia, the only places big enough to do such things. There are really no barriers to doing that, and every games company they set up is set up to make a game for the entire world.

You say there’s this allure for foreign work to come to New Zealand – what about with Microsoft? You guys were the first New Zealand studio to get direct investment from Microsoft. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?

DB: We put out one tweet a long time ago, I think there were only three of us working on the game and we’d only been working on it for a few months, and we essentially just put out a tweet with a gif of a guy standing looking out over some fog basically, and one of the guys on the independent games development branch at Xbox emailed us. It was an interesting thing because we hadn’t planned to do any kind of push to get funding at that point, or do anything like that, but they just contacted us out of the blue and they liked what we were doing. I suppose it’s a testament to how global the whole thing is – they don’t really care where you’ve come from, they more just care whether you’re producing quality content. If you’re producing something they haven’t seen before, they want to know about you. We’ve found them to be extremely supportive, and the only thing that they necessarily want from us is to have Ashen come to Xbox and become part of their ecosystem, part of their family. It’s worked out really well.

That desire for exclusivity is really a vote of confidence, right? They want the title on their platform. 

SD: Absolutely. It’s probably the same thing that happens when a lot of indies really go out and do something different. What we find is that the guys we’ve met who are in the same situations as us are quite few and far between, because there’s quite a bit of sacrifice involved. You put your life on hold an go all-in on a risky venture.

Has the involvement of Xbox upped the pressure? Do you feel any need to compr0mise on your vision in order to make a viable product? Surely they’re looking for a return of some sort.

SD: If anything we’re the ones who push ourselves the hardest. I think what we’ve got from people like Microsoft is that they’ve given us the tools to achieve our full vision, they’ve given us exactly what we’ve needed in order to do what we planned to from the start. In terms of practicalities, you can’t make a game like this without significant investment. We shot for the stars and there were a few people who wanted to join us on that ride.


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