Approximately 30 seconds after picking up a controller to try Capybara’s Below, I was ready to call it quits. Don’t get me wrong – Below was the absolute best thing I saw at PAX, and I doubt that anyone on the XBLA Fans PAX East team would disagree. But a game built on the twin foundations of exploration and discovery is a game that should be played, as Capy president and co-founder Nathan Vella eloquently put it, “on my couch at home with the lights off.”
Into the unknown
It’s not just that the deafening, stroboscopic show floor at PAX East isn’t the best venue at which to play Capy’s latest effort. Below is a journey that players should approach with as little prior knowledge as possible, and figuring out how to play is meant to be almost as much of an adventure as the game itself.
“We have no text. There are no tutorials. There are no waypoints or directors or very little UI of any type,” says Vella. “You explore the island, eventually find your way into the depths, but you’re also exploring: what are the controls? How nimble am I? Why am I so small? Why am I weak? That exploration really feeds every element of the game.”
As for the story, Capy’s keeping quiet. Players take the role of a lone wanderer arriving at a mysterious island with nothing but a sword and a shield, and that’s about all the developers are willing to admit. “The second it goes out into the world people will start talking about it, but then it’s players talking about it, not the developer from on high sitting on their throne telling people, ‘This is what you should be feeling.'”
Once Below releases, if players are only interested in the mechanics of the game – finding the next weapon, beating down the monsters, exploring the procedurally generated dungeons – that’s perfectly fine. If they want to get to the root of why the wanderer is heading down into a seemingly random cave on a seemingly random island, they’re going to have to take the time to piece it together.
“We have answers to all of those questions, and the answers are in the game, but to us it’s all about asking the player the questions and letting them answer it,” reveals Vella. If different players come to different conclusions about the story? That’s fine by them too. “Hopefully, as a bigger goal, it’ll be about people answering it for themselves and then comparing their answers maybe to someone else… seeing how they experienced it.”
Worth fighting for
From the first moment of Below, the procedurally generated dungeon crawler is all about aesthetics – the wanderer cuts a tiny figure against the giant, haunting backdrops of the game, and the red eyes of enemies glare out of the darkness in a menacing indication of strength. The unique art design features a deceptively intricate look highlighted by layers of detail and impressive lighting over an almost construction paper-ish base.
The gameplay is similarly deceptive: while you start with only a sword, shield and relatively few attack options, the sphere of possibilities expands rapidly. For one thing, there are a variety of two-handed weapons such as a bow-and-arrow and spear hiding throughout the game, each bringing their own set of attacks to the table. There are also a smattering of potions, plants and other items lying around with no explanation of effects. Learning to utilize both effectively will be the only way to survive.
Death comes quickly, with even the smallest creatures and most innocuous of traps capable of causing the wanderer to slowly bleed out. Dying isn’t the end, however; for although each new life begins with arriving at the island anew, any actions taken in your previous adventurer’s life will carry over, and any items they bore at the time of death can be found at the location of their demise. Unfortunately for any cartographers out there, since the game is procedurally generated with each new beginning, no two journeys will be exactly the same.
The true genius of Below lies in said procedurally generated levels. While the technique isn’t new to the world of video games – titles such as Diablo, Minecraft and, of course, Rogue have been doing it for years now – for some reason Below seems somehow less random than its peers. Part of the reason may be its aesthetic, which lends the game an artsy look that makes it appear as though every object were deliberately placed.
Not all of the rooms in Below exist by the will of the random number gods alone – some have been designed and set down in specific areas to act as hubs or to further the story. The rooms that are generated on the fly blend in nicely, although Capy has thrown in a few special seed values meant to produce some interesting results here and there. One of the rooms we came upon was filled to the brim with snakes, immediately spawning a slew of Indiana Jones jokes. Another room bristled with spikes, forcing us to carefully snake our way through to safety.
Between a solid engine capable of making random dungeons seem deliberate, carefully curated set pieces scattered throughout the game, and a dash of snake-filled whimsy to fill in the gaps, Below appears set to be an eminently replayable affair.
Of course, it’d be impossible to talk about Below without mentioning the game’s composer, indie rocker Jim Guthrie. When the opportunity arose to team up with the man best known in the industry for his work on the Indie Game: The Movie soundtrack and previous Capy collaboration Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, the studio jumped at the chance. According to Vella, working with a musician of Guthrie’s caliber makes things easier. “Basically, when you get someone like Jim, the best thing you can do is sit down, play the game, talk about the game, and just ask him to do what he does.”
What he does, it turns out, is more than just make music – he also influences the direction of the game. Oftentimes Guthrie will send over tracks that don’t necessarily fit anywhere into the current game but that he thinks might be of interest to the team. “Kris [Piotrowski], our creative director, will be like, ‘Oh man, what if we build this area that was kind of like this and then something happens and that music kicks in right at that moment,'” Vella explains, recounting a typical reaction in the studio upon receiving a new set of tracks. “So it’s this kind of ebb and flow of him scoring to the game and the game being built to the music.”
When not lending inspiration to the development team, Guthrie is still hard at work on making dark, beautiful music to go with Capy’s dark, beautiful world. “It’s much more about tone and atmosphere and conveying scale and scope and different types of emotions,” says Vella. “Sometimes there’s actually very little music, but it’s there very subtlely. And then sometimes it’s like big, in your face, Jim [flippin’] Guthrie.”
Can’t hardly wait
Below doesn’t yet have a release date, and it doesn’t seem like one is anywhere on the near horizon. The game was already incredibly fun, but with an experience as intricate as this one there is always plenty of room for polish and mechanic-tweaking. Based on our impressions from PAX East, Below is a game you’re going to want to be watching closely over the coming months. Please, though: if you hear anything – no spoilers.