XBLIG Spotlight: Developer interview with The Working Parts, makers of They Breathe

When I reviewed the XBLIG They Breathe a while back I was kind of blown away. The game was simple, yet amazing. Subtle but in a certain way obvious. To say the least I wanted to know a bit more about how the game came to be and the minds behind it.  Recently the talented group of individuals that make up The Working Parts took some time out of their busy scheduling developing their new game Residue to answer some of my questions.  Check out the interview below, and of course a big ‘Thank you!’ to The Working Parts for their time.

Firstly, I’d like to know a little bit about The Working Parts. How many people are on The Working Parts’ staff, and where are you located?

Half of us are based in rainy Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast, and the other half in the indie metropolis Skövde a bit further inland. All in all we’re six developers plus a few recurring “Working Partners” such as our magical sound designer Kristian.

What is your staff’s history as a game developer? Why did you all decide to make games?

We assembled as a studio in 2009 while we were studying game development in Skövde or computer science in Gothenburg, but most of us actually knew each other far earlier. Our designer Hugo, programmer Johan, CEO John, and artists Magnus and Viktor had been involved in the same gaming culture since 2002, so we’re pretty much childhood friends who all decided to go into game development. There’s really only one of the Parts, our programmer Ulf, who was still unknown to us back when we spent our nights researching how much purple blood could be extracted from a single grunt enemy in Halo. We all make games for very different reasons, but somehow we ended up drawn to the same project in 2009, and it’s been working out well for us so far.

Why did you choose “The Working Parts” as a developer name? What’s the story behind it?

We’re a group of quite different people, and as such we’ve always felt as a a collection of individuals, rather than a homogeneous team. So we wanted something with the flavor of a band name. The “the” was important. And since we’re so different, there was only really one thing in the world that we could all agree we liked enough to name our company after. So we nicked a recurring term from the second album of the amazing dystopian Mega Man rock musical The Protomen, and have never looked back. The full line is “If you replace the Working Parts you get a Different Machine”, or alternately “If you destroy the Working Parts what you get is a Broken Machine”. We found it fitting.

They Breathe is, to my knowledge, a pretty unique experience. Where there any direct influences on the game?

Other games? Not really. Hugo always envisioned it as a shoot’emup without shooting, and it still is that on the most fundamental level. It’s about positioning yourself. But during development it started to focus a lot more on the ecology of the drowned forest and about the players seeing patterns – not only the kind that lets them defeat their enemies, but the kind that helps them understand what the game really is about. That became the core idea.

The Alien movies were a big inspiration, since they’re also about uncovering the morphology of a truly alien creature, bit by bit. Maybe that makes us slightly related to the Metroid franchise.

How long did you spend in development? Could you walk me through the timeline for the game, all the way from the conception of the idea to the final marketing of the game a few months ago? What software and tools did you use?

They Breathe has essentially been developed three times. The first time it was a large-scale school project in Skövde, headed by (among others) Hugo and Viktor who would later form the Working Parts. It never reached its potential creepiness back then, but the concept was essentially the same, based around the same basic gameplay, the same twists. The moment of conception is difficult to describe without spoiling the game, but after you beat it you get a link to a place where you can read about it.

The second time, it was a warmup project for what would become The Working Parts. We’d just formed as a team and were preparing our large-scale Aral Sea adventure Residue, and the programmers made a simple remake of They Breathe while the rest of us were in preproduction. This was pretty much a straight port of the school project to XNA.

The third time began in november 2010, when Residue was nearly finished and we’d decided to keep going together as The Working Parts. We desperately needed a break from our overly ambitious epic, so Hugo tried to talk the other Parts into doing an actual remake of They Breathe; still a simple half-hour game, but with all the bizarre details and horror game atmosphere that never made it from the original design document. It was by no means an easy decision, but it’s what we ended up doing, and so we spent the spring and summer of 2011 rebuilding the game from absolute scratch.

The old design relied a lot on scripted background events to convey how the game’s ecosystem worked, but this time we decided to actually show it with game logic, and so the helpless frogs were born. They give the player something to save (or just bully if they’re that kind of player), and they reveal through their interactions with enemies exactly what it is that’s really going on in the forest. This made the game a lot more dynamic, and less like watching a movie.

All of the graphics were remade, and we made a significant switch from atmospheric music to the ambient soundscapes that Kristian does so well.

The game came out in december 2011 on Xbox Live Indie Games, and quickly started to gather attention in the media, especially for a small indie game by an unknown studio. Unfortunately we’ve had a very weak presence on Windows, which has lead to underwhelming sales. We will rectify this soon!

They Breathe has a soundtrack that does a lot for setting the mood of the game. What challenges arrive in making the soundtrack so important to the vibe of a game, and is the sound ultimately what you wanted it to be?

Artistically, the biggest challenge was how to keep the soundtrack varied and give it a progression that makes the player feel like they’re going somewhere, while at the same time keeping the soundtrack in the background.

Technically, XNA (or rather, the sound engine XACT) gave Kristian some headaches at times with things not working as he expected them to (sometimes, not at all!). But all in all, we’re quite satisfied with the sound in They Breathe, especially the background noises.

Of course, as with any project, there are a number of features and ideas that never saw the light of day. For example, Kristian had this crazy idea about turning the sound into something completely disconnected from what was being seen in the game, in an effort to create a metaphor for some kind of daily struggle or trauma in the life of a human. Would’ve been an interesting experiment (but perhaps too confusing as well)!

If there was one thing you could improve on, or simply do differently in development what would it be?

You always want to polish and test things more. Some of the things that we weren’t happy with, we actually managed to patch in during the first month on XBLIG, so the final stages of the game are a lot more fair now, among some other things. Given more time, we wouldn’t have added more content exactly, but we’d like to give everything more detail and nuance. Rather than add more enemy types, it would’ve been cool if every single element in the game had a unique and relevant reaction to every other, enabling even more patterns for the player to discover and more story clues. Small things like the poison bubbles healing jellies, things that might help explain some small part of their morphology – there could be so much more stuff like that.

How did you ultimately decide on They Breathe as the name of the game? Were there any initial suggested titles that got scrapped?

Originally conceived as “Grodan & Älgen” (The Frog & The Moose), the original team wanted a new name as the game started to take on darker themes. That time, “They Breathe” is what came out on top, and it’s stayed there through all three production cycles. It’s a name with many layers. First of all, breathing is the objective of the game. But it also raises uncomfortable questions, that we try to answer in the game. Who breathes? And why would it be noteworthy that they do? And we love to couple a horror title like that with the imagery of a cartoon frog – it helps players understand already in the beginning that there is more beneath the surface. Of course, “Beneath the Surface”, was another top contender, and we ultimately used it for our online “behind the scenes” gallery.

You desribe the artwork for They Breathe as looking down into the abyss (to paraphrase), how important was it to get this feeling across in the artwork? How did you decide upon it, and who designed it? Was there any specific story or inspiration behind the creation process?

It was very important. With Residue, having been developed “around” They Breathe (that is to say, before, and after, but not at the same time), we aimed at a semi-realistic, comic book-style (kinda like Tintin) that would give the player the feel of a “painted real world” environment. With They Breathe, we aimed for a darker and more classic style, heavily inspired by artwork from Swedish folklore, but also by children’s books and cartoons (the mix between the two, nice and creepy, was important for the “you’re safe, you’re safe, and now it’s getting creepy, creepier, now you’re not sure what’s going on, what’s this game doing to meee~~”-feel). We wanted you to feel safe at first, and then gradually increase the creepiness and the feeling of unease, much like when you’re a kid at the surface and looking down into an (seemingly) endless ocean… full of sharks and other scary stuff.

There was a lot of stuff “behind this”, a lot of things we had to respect, work with, and work around to get They Breathe to work the way it’s supposed to do, and we think we actually nailed it quite well in the end. But to tell you about what we had to respect and work with graphics-wise would be a spoiler, since it’s connected to the game’s main twist and we don’t wanna ruin that for you guys. As mentioned above we sincerely recommend all of you to check out the Behind the Scenes feature “Beneath the Surface” that you gain access to once you complete the game!

They Breathe is not a typical game, offering a rather unique experience (that is also very rewarding to those paying attention). How did you ultimately come to make such an atypical game design, and how has the feedback compared to what you had expected?

We all knew that there is a significant random element to how our game plays out – some people will see certain patterns earlier, the emergent gameplay may or may not lead up to certain events playing out and so on – so we were surprised to see that regardless of what kind of experience they had, most people seemed to understand our vision really well, which is nice considering we ourselves can have a hard time putting it into words.

I know a couple of people who would love to get their feet into game developing, do you have any advice or tips for people to make the jump from gamer to game maker?

There are probably a few things that are essential to bear in mind: playing games is not that same as making them, just as is the case with films, books, music, etc; and to just keep making games. While you’ll learn what may work and may not by playing lots and lots of games, actually sitting down and dealing hands-on with them affords you, and requires, a much more intimate understanding.

The XBLIG market has had mixed results so far in its existence. What do you believe could make it better? What do you believe could improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?

The main problem with the XBLIG market is that it’s grown into a niche, focused primarily on games containing zombies, Minecraft, avatars, breasts, or a combination thereof. This means that people who aren’t interested in the niche won’t go there to look, and those that are interested won’t look there for much outside the niche. Which is a a shame because there is some genuinely good content there, and it’s really the only way available for upstart indies to publish to home consoles at the moment.

They Breathe has both an XBLIG and a PC release, how have the two compared? Has one format really stood out from the other? Which do you think you would be most likely to develop for again based on the results of They Breathe?

It was great to have the game released on XBLIG, mostly because, you know, growing up playing console games on a TV it’s kind of a full circle to have our own game just like them. However, the PC has so much more potential for reaching people; especially since They Breathe, like you said, doesn’t really cater to the typical hardcore gaming audience; meaning that a lot of the people who would probably enjoy it the most are those that don’t actually have an Xbox.

In all it mostly depends on the game. And how cool you’ll feel playing the game on a TV, in a couch, with a game pad.

What are you working on now, and when and where can fans expect to find them?

Earlier we mentioned Residue, the project that brought us together. That’s what we’re finally piecing together now, three years after we first set out on this adventure. It’s an absolutely content-packed, story-driven platform adventure somewhere between Another World and Metroid Fusion, set in the remains of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Player control will jump between three very different characters who need to both help and oppose each other in different parts of their adventure. It’s a much bigger production than They Breathe, one of those rare indie behemoths that actually make it into finished games, so we’re thrilled to actually see it across the finish line this summer.

Screen from the upcoming title, “Residue.”

Anything else you would like to say?

We’d like to thank you for a lot of interesting questions, some of which are entirely new and got us thinking. We’re also thrilled that you liked They Breathe so much and we’re looking forward to seeing your reaction on Residue, once it’s completed later this year!

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