Roxlou Games’ Joe Houston and Lee Vanwallene Discuss Unwritten: That Which Happened

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January 29, 2013 by khrisgolder

Unwritten That Which HappenedUnwritten: That Which Happened is a turn-based strategy game, and the first game developed by indie developer Roxlou Games. The game boasts completely randomized quests and offers a different experience each time it is played. Here to discuss the game’s history and art direction are Roxlou Games’ Owner Joe Houston and Artist Lee Vanwallene.

Khris Golder: Why did you decide to make Unwritten: That Which Happened a turnbased game?

Joe Houston: A number of reasons, but the biggest was that we wanted to make “Civilization meets Oregon Trail” (if it were as hardcore as possible).

KG: That sounds like an epic combo!

Joe Houston: Those games are all about critical, meaningful decisions which perfectly informs our theme of storytelling. We want the player to think carefully about each choice. We want them to feel that what happens comes directly from the decision they made and not because they don’t have twitch reflexes.

KG: So it’s completely random?

Joe Houston: It’s a randomly generated game, but it has a story. Interestingly, specific random events trigger pieces of the story mode, which means there’s still a cohesive plot available no matter the play through.

KG: Going out of your way to program the story in this fashion must mean you believe in the importance of storyline, right?

Joe Houston: Yes, I believe in story in games, although it’s hard to pin down what is story and what isn’t in a game. Many would argue that simply the way teacups are placed on a table in an FPS would be story, and I would absolutely agree with them. I do think that there is a tendency for developers to go “all or nothing” on the argument. Many commit completely to the idea that the only meaningful story is told with the environment, while others feel that we need to engage the player in more and more linear cinematic experiences. I think we need both, but that we need to think outside the box more.

KG: I think that’s something everyone can agree on.

Joe Houston: Unwritten is an experiment with that idea, since it has randomly generated story tableaus with text like a story book. Unwritten That Which Happened_3Joe (Continued): We had to figure out how to write text that could be told out of order, combined with any number of ideas, and still feel meaningful and directed. A big win there was when I started reading The Secret History of the Mongolian Empire, one of the first written works by the Mongolian people. It has this cool way of expressing ideas where disjointed thoughts still fit together in beautiful ways, and was a big inspiration for our unique style.

KG: How many unique plot changing or party changing moments are there in Unwritten: That Which Happened? In other words, based on the game’s critical decisions, how many substantially different end results can there be?

Joe Houston: This one is a little tricky because Unwritten isn’t like other games, because the story choices you make literally turn into items that you use to survive. The game has permanent death (once you’re dead you have to start over and try again) and you’ll be facing limited resources, meaning that every gameplay decision is really important. In that sense, every single choice will directly change your outcome.

KG: Sounds challenging, but I guess I won’t have to rage quit if my character gets killed.

Joe Houston: That said, the game also has an easy to understand structure. You are traveling across a harsh environment to reach “God Mountain”. If you make it there the god of the mountain will judge you. No matter what you do, you will eventually be judged (as long as you survive). However, the god in the mountain will look at every decision you made before measuring you, so even here each decision makes an impact.

KG: I love when games focus on the accumulation of smaller things. That brings me to my next question. This one is for the artist! Lee, what inspired the ‘shadow puppet’ presentation during certain sequences?

Lee VanWallene: I saw Bendito Machine IV at Fantastic Fest here in Austin and really dug the look and its potential for use in a game.

Unwritten That Which Happened_2Lee (Continued): Joe was incorporating many storytelling techniques into the concept and when mentioning the shadow puppets to Julian, he brought up that it was in fact a Balinese form of storytelling, so we ran with it. The shadow puppets are great… we can mix and match heads, arms and backgrounds to truly give a unique experience every time the game is played.

KG: Is this game going to support voice acting, or is it storyboard cinematics only?

Joe Houston: Our funding goal on Kickstarter doesn’t have room to hire voice actors. However, one stretch goal I’d love to have is voice acting in an invented language for the people of tundra. Of course, this is all dependent on the interest the fans show in backing the project.

KG: Unwritten: That Which Happened is a turnbased strategy game, but what about your future plans for Roxlou Games. Do you think you’ll want to stick with turnbased strategies or will we see a range of genres come out of Roxlou Games?

Joe Houston: I’ve never been tied to a single genre or format, either as a fan or a developer. A turn based strategy game makes sense right now, but we’ll tackle anything that excites us. Provided we get the faith of the fans we promise to respect that trust by remaining inventive and daring. I see this is as the main value a fan should demand from an indie game developer.

KG: Agreed! Thank you both for stopping by and can’t wait to see the final product when it’s finished.

Take a look at Unwritten: That Which Happened on Kickstarter now!

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