interview

Creating Storyseeker

Storyseeker is a minimalist, experimental game in which you explore a mysterious landscape filled with stories to discover. Pixel Primers spoke with the game’s designer Miles Äijälä to learn more...

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Pixel Primers: You've described Storyseeker as a 'narrative experiment'. What was it that you were wanting to experiment with by making the game? 

Miles Äijälä: Well, when I started the game I actually didn’t have much in mind. I just wanted to build a world using a semiabstract art style that would leave a lot to the imagination. You know how old low-poly 3D art and pixel art have that charming quality of often being a little bit vague due to their limitations? Thus the player has to fill in some of the blanks in what the designs actually represent, or what the details might be, and it's almost like joining in on the creative process. My goal was to create that kind of feeling.

I don’t know how much I really ended up doing that with the art (although you can see some abstraction ideas in the earliest areas, like the forest paths that turn into snakes) but as the game got along, the general concept of having the player be a collaborator in the storytelling process became a central thing. But not in the usual games-as-an-interactive-medium way, but rather that the world of the game has a story, but it’s up to the player to tell that story. The player can wander around and take in all the oversimplified drawings and vague bits of dialogue, but if they want to make sense of what the narrative might be, they have to come up with it themselves based on what they’ve seen.

 

And people really do come up with different interpretations! It seems to depend a lot on the route they take — and that is different for every single player. What they see, what they miss, in what order, whether they look more at the big picture or are more interested in smaller fragmented vignettes… I wonder, what stories did you tell?


But in all honesty though, I mostly call the game a ’narrative experiment' so people would have some warning that they’re getting into an artsy-fartsy walking sim with little traditional gameplay mechanics or points or anything.

I think the story for me was one about people and creatures trying to keep on living their lives in the face of calamities beyond their understanding. Where many games would give you the goal of ‘fixing’ the calamity though, it’s interesting that Storyseeker doesn’t. How do you think it changes a game when the player is left to find their own goals?

I’ve never really considered Storyseeker to be one of those “find your own goals” types of games… I thought that’d be more like, open-ended crafting games or sims, where there’s plenty to do and it’s up to the player to build what they wish. In Storyseeker, all you really can do is explore, there isn’t much choice in that. You can’t fix the calamity. Really, you can’t interact with almost anything. The biggest effect you can have is to pet a single dog, maybe. I have noticed a lot of people finding it jarring that it’s completely missing the usual video game power fantasy of being able to have an effect on the world, beyond a few fading footsteps in the sand. It might even be thought-provoking for some to realise how much the ability to personally affect our surroundings in games is tied to their escapist value. Maybe sometimes we play games just to feel like we have some form of control over our environment, or to see that we’ve made an impact, no matter how fictional.

I don’t mind offering a game that gives the opposite experience. A reminder that sometimes we can reach an interesting state of mind by simply observing, not by doing or by having power over things. I often think that in Storyseeker, you play a historian, not a hero; we already have so many games about heroes, it’s more interesting to have a few about other roles a person can have.

Nevertheless, in this absence of being able to do things, it’s interesting to see what people find themselves wishing they could do. The commenters’ anguish over wanting to heal the world of Storyseeker has given me inspiration for one of my next game projects, in which you do in fact get to fix the calamity. Enough with the existentialism, sometimes I just want to give people their power fantasies!

But coming back to your question about letting the player find their own goals, I am definitely fond of games that aren’t too overt in how they get the player to do stuff. Storyseeker's mainly driven by the assumption that the player is a curious being who doesn’t necessarily need any gamification elements in order to start exploring. It’s different for different people, of course, but personally I'm the kind of player who is mostly motivated to play for narrative reasons, or simply to spend time soaking in the atmosphere of that particular game, so that’s the kind of gamer I design for.

 

The main way that approach affects design is that I find it beneficial to be quite subtle, quite respectful towards the player. A game might have a goal in mind, but if it can make it happen that it never directly tells that goal to the player, but rather the player chooses that to be their goal on their own, then the player will truly live through the narrative, instead of it being pushed on them. There are a lot of tricks to encourage a player to play a game the way it’s designed, and not all of them are direct commands or tutorials.

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You mentioned that you design with the curious player in mind, and I think the game does a great job of encouraging the player to continually ask questions about the world they’re exploring. How did you design the game and its world to encourage curiosity? 

 

On a the level of moment-to-moment gameplay, I try to be aware of what the player will be able to physically see in front of them. Even though the player is completely free to roam around in any direction they wish, and there are few walls stopping movement, I still think it’s a fair assumption that most of the time they will choose that direction based on something interesting they see and want to go check out. So I tried to lay down a bunch of potential routes. Seeing a road, or a set of footprints, or characters travelling, they all pose the question: where did they come from? Where do they lead? I needed to make sure there were interesting answers to those questions at both ends, so no matter where the player would go, they’d find answers and more questions.

 

The environment design was very free-form but it had one golden rule: At any given time, the player should be able to see something at the edge of the screen to move towards next. The macro level world design is build around those trails looping and branching and joining together into a nice flow that never leaves the player in a dead end. A lot of vague maps with multicoloured arrows crisscrossing around were drawn!

 

And of course, any trail the player might follow needs to have an in-universe reason to be there, and thus following the physical trails simultaneously makes the player logically follow the narrative of what had happened. People are curious about the reasons for things. If cause and consequence simply exist, it should naturally instill curiosity without the developer having to do anything special.

 

Storyseeker’s worldbuilding was incredibly freeform. When creating the art assets I was discovering the world very much in the same way the player might. Like the giant footprints, originally I just drew them because they looked cool, but I needed to draw what came of the giant that made them, and where they came from. Did someone build the giant? How? Why? To answer these questions, I needed more drawings, and all those drawings would create more questions, branching out indefinitely. I found coming up with answers to be infinitely entertaining, so that’s the process I wanted to share with the player.

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Curiosity is also something that happens in the absence of duty, I think. People who are busy or stressed are less likely to have the time to be curious about things, at least for their own sake instead of some utilitarian reason. Games with the best sense of exploration need to give the player enough breathing room from other game mechanics. That’s why Storyseeker is so deliberately bare-bones; I wanted to test whether keeping the experience pure would leave more room for all those questions.
 

That lack of duty of course means that the player is also free to leave the game whenever they wish, since there’s nothing they must ‘complete'. It’s a trade-off of that freedom that the player will likely not see everything the developer put in the game; but I think it’s good to make peace with that.

 

Sometimes curiosity works in the way that people do wish to see everything there is to see; that’s why I added a map at the end of the game to show where the player had been, and an obelisk in each area to indicate the approximate number of different landscapes. That way the players could gain a sense of the scope of the world, to see how much there still might be left unseen, in case that might affect their decision to quit or to continue.

 

Moreover, is there an object in the world that instills more curiosity than an incomplete map?

Storyseeker is available to play here