The inkle blog

The Call of the Wild!

Concept art with character walking across highlands

Every narrative project has to start somewhere - with something you're trying to hit. The highland game's different than most of our previous games because we're trying to hit a feeling. (You'll know it when you see it, I think.) So the narrative part of the game has a different job than it might sometimes: get out of the way quickly, then hold the game up high.

This is a game about going out into the wilds, and not knowing if you're coming back. Which sounds super dark and scary: but this isn't a scary game. You aren't going to get eaten by wolves. (You're more likely to turn into one yourself, perhaps. We'll see.)

So - who are you, and why are you doing it?

We tried some ideas that were adventure stories. After Hitchcock and the 39 Steps, you're a spy, crossing the hills to avoid escape. (Joe pointed out it could almost be called "Over the Highlands" at that point. It's a fair cop.)

Over the alps screenshot

Something more grounded then. You're a teenager and you're running away from home. That's almost this game. But if you're running away from something it's not quite the same as running towards something, is it? With every step away from something the tension recedes and only regret or "oh God it's chasing me" can step in. With running towards something, you can anticipate. You can wonder what you'll find. And - in classic inkle style - you can worry about being late.

So what's across the Highlands that's worth running towards? And who runs? And while you're running, what do you find?

I've done a lot of hill-walking - not in Scotland, as it happens, but in the Borders. For me, the thing I always loved is seeing a peak and striking out for it, getting there somehow or other. The stories of a place are there to help you arrive, and help you set out for the next hill.

What's in the Highlands waiting to be found? And will it pull you off your journey, or push you further along?

Ah, now that sounds like the makings of a tale.

Trees and stone skimming

Here's a quick snapshot of what some of the team has been up to this week!

Annie has been starting to paint lots of scenery! We're going to need loads of rocks and trees in the game to make it feel lush, with lots of unique features, hopefully without too much repetition! Here's a few of them:

She's also started creating some tree kit parts that can be combined in different combinations and then animated so that they can sway in the wind:

Meanwhile, Tom has been working on a delightful stone-skimming mechanic. We're experimenting with several activities that feel thematically relevant for the world, and may at first appear to be satisfying but inconsequential toys. However, they will turn out to have genuine impacts will be relevant to the narrative or to the wider gameplay arc.

He has also been working on some level design experiments, and we've been thinking deeply about the platforming aspects of the game. This game isn't like Celeste - it's not intended to create fun out of immense hand-eye coordination challenges. But the risk is, if there's no challenge, then the game could end up feeling a bit hollow and lifeless - without risk, there is no reward. Let us know if there's a game that you think we should try that gets a really good balance here!

Of course, there's a lot more to the game than just platforming - so we don't have to rely on this on its own to keep the player's interest. The other primary ingredients in the mix are the narrative and the strategic planning, a bit like in 80 Days.

And finally, after our call for animators last week we've had lots of fantastic submissions, it's been a pleasure to look through so many beautiful portfolios. We can't wait to see our character come to life in game!

Calling hand-drawn animators!

At the end of last year we experimented with using Spine to animate our main protagonist. Our animator friend and colleague Martin (who's been working on his own incredibly-named Schrodinger's Cat Burglar) gave us a helping hand, and started producing idle and run cycle animations to help us prototype the concept with our latest character design.

But as we experimented with Spine and 2d rigged animation, we increasingly realised it was perhaps the wrong direction to be pushing in. Although 2d rigged animation can give you very smooth results, it's also quite limited - for example you can't easily turn your sideways-facing character to look forwards at the camera. The advantages are that once you have a rigged character, it's relatively straightforward to create animations since it's equivalent to manipulating a shadow puppet.

By comparison, hand-drawn animation requires you to... well, hand-draw every single animation from scratch. But in return, the results can look incredible - have a play of Spiritfarer (character art below) if you don't believe me! Hand-drawn animation can add a huge amount of charm and character.

Spiritfarer characters concept art

They also seem like the perfect fit for our environment art, which has a painterly aeshetic - we think they will sit together wonderfully.

We have one big problem though - we don't know any traditional hand drawn animators! Annie is our in-house artist and illustrator, and produces beautiful work, but we could do with some help producing pencil test frames that she could do the finishing work on.

Work with us!

UPDATE: We have now found our animator, thanks to everyone who applied!

So, here's the plan: if you're a freelancer and you think you'd like to work on our highland game (or know someone who'd be a good fit), please get in contact. Here's how we'd like to run it:

  • We strongly encourage women, BAME and other minority background candidates to apply.
  • A timezone closer to the UK is preferable. The work will always be remote.
  • Send an email to [email protected] with "Highland Animation" in the subject line, and a link to a portfolio or sample animation work.
  • If you seem like a good fit for the project, we'll ask you for a fully paid art test (we're likely to ask for a few of these from different people, assuming we get enough responses).
  • We make a beautiful game together.

Happy New Year everyone; may this one be better than the last!

Character Concepting - Part 2

[ TV ANNOUNCER VOICE: Previously on Character Concepting! ]

For year we'd been really happy with our character design sketch:

But when our art director Paul came on board, we started to revisit the character design so that she would fit better into the overall art direction. This design was a bit overly cartoonish and didn't fit with the more realistic background art so well.

She was also not entirely fitting with the narrative that Jon was starting to weave. We decided we needed a character who was a bit more grounded. She exists in a world that can be beautiful but also unforgiving; she has a difficult journey to make.

We loved this new direction. And so we started to narrow down the design:

But those were a bit too young. We felt like our protagonist was more like a 14-15 year old.

A pair of socks and some hair experimentation later, and we were all really happy with the design. We've also being going back and forth on whether the art should have (possibly sketchy) outlines, or be clean.

Here's a version with thin outlines. What do you think?

The art of the highlands

It's really important to us that our game strongly conveys the unique feeling of the highlands. There's a strong distinction that you feel being in the Scottish mountains compared to say, the European alps or Yosemite National Park. Scottish mountains aren't the highest, the jagged-est or the pointiest. But they have a darkness and weight to them that's only really shared with places like Iceland or perhaps parts of Scandinavia. They can be very lonely too - the further North you go, the further from civilisation you'll find yourself.

Our players don't all need to be fans of the Scottish highlands of course, even if we are! The point is to create a unique and strong aesthetic that's not just "generic green hills and rocks".

Part of capturing that aesthetic has been about finding an art style that can reflect it with authenticity. We wouldn't want to go with anything too bright or cartoony, so we think a level of stylised realism could do the trick.

The reason we approached Paul first about helping us out with art direction was that his work is both painterly yet has a sense of effortless realism; he's one of those concept artists who can convey a lot with a few important brush strokes.

We think his concept art above is a fantastic example of this! He's also produced an animated version of it that demonstrates parallax, and we'll share that in a future update.

When Paul first joined the team, he started off with a few loose studies to get a sense of the environment: the different times of day, weather and the textures in the foreground. These are a bit looser than our final intended art style, but the looseness is a good demonstration of how much can be achieved with so little!

Finding an art director

In all of our past games the art direction has been primarily my (Joe’s) responsibility. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none, and although I love art and I have artistic opinions, I’ve often been stretched a bit thin, especially on Heaven’s Vault.

One thing we decided very early on is that our highland game has to be absolutely gorgeous, so on this project, it was time to find some outside help - someone who could help us define a beautiful, consistent look for the game.

We were keen on a painterly aesthetic, to give the sense that you’re playing inside a rich, lush landscape painting.

Our first choice was Paul Scott Canavan. He’s an exceptionally talented illustrator and art director. Oh, and he's Scottish.

Just take a look at some of the gorgeous work from his website:

So, we dropped him an email. Just a few minutes later, and we had an enthusiastic yes! He loved the concept and was really eager to work with us to make it a reality.

Paul isn't just a brilliant illustrator; he's been doing a great job of deconstructing the game's art style, breaking it down so that we can work together to build it back up in-game out of the fundamental pieces.

By the way, the key art at the top of this page is his - and it’s the overall look we’re aiming for on this project. We can't wait to show more of what we've been working on together!

Character Concepting - Part 1

We started designing the look of our protagonist back in the summer of 2019, while working on Pendragon.

Here are some of Annie's lovely early sketches:

For a long time, we had settled with the following design. In fact, we've had her in-game for a while, with some early prototype animations:

We've been doing some new work on the character design since then. Watch this space for Part 2!

Update: Part 2 is now here

The story so far

Welcome to this brand new little update blog for our as yet untitled game that's set in the Scottish Highlands. (Okay, we have a proper name for it, we're just not ready to say what it is yet!)

First, let's get up to speed. What kind of game is it that we're making?

In some ways it's very similar to our previous games - it's about travel, it's replayable, and has a strong branching narrative.

In other ways, it's very different. This game has a side-on perspective and has 2d platforming elements, which is very much uncharted territory for us!

Something else that's very different: we're planning to be more open with the development process than we ever have in the past. We're going to try and post regular updates. So please hold us to account if we haven't posted in a while!

That's it for now! Watch this space for more...

The Pendragon Tales!

Two weeks ago, we announced a writing competition for our upcoming narrative strategy game, Pendragon. As you gather the knights of the Round Table to cross England, they will sit beside the campfire and tell stories.

We opened a call for submissions of tales - courtly romances, ghost stories, adventures. We hoped we'd get some good ones - and we received over four hundred, amazing tales.

We've read them all. Several of them we've read twice. And now we're very happy to announce our selection - 23 tales from 23 writers (plus a couple by us). Some are professional game writers for Fallen London, Choice Of Games, Zombies, Run! and Over the Alps; one was a writer on Deus Ex; some have written independent games before; some are journalists; and for some this is their first writing sale.

We have an engineer, an archaeologist, a biochemist, a theatrical set-dresser and a theatre director. The oldest writer is sixty-two, the youngest is seventeen. One story is by a group of professional storytellers, Troubadour Tales, who regularly perform at heritage sites in the UK.

We have contributions from all around the world: Israel, Romania and Argentina, as well as Canada, the US and the UK. One submission was written by a non-English speaker using translation software.

Each on the list wasn't just good, but excellent. Each left us with more than we started with. Some are genuinely startling. Some are scary, some silly, and some are more profound than you might expect. We loved them all (and ended up with more than twice we intended.)

The Stories!

Here's the full list:

  • Death and the King, by Adrian Bourceanu
  • Avethorpe Grove, by Robin Todd
  • The Bramble, by Carl Muckenhoupt
  • Bitter Fruit, by Chris Kerr
  • The Shoemaker and the Thief, by Callico Harrison
  • Woe, by Christopher Pitt
  • The Town by the Lake, by Emma Kate Campbell
  • Three Jealous Daughters, by Enkei, Owner-of-all-Hearts
  • Playing The Maiden Fair, by Florence Smith Nicholls
  • To Be A Dragon, by George Lockett
  • Rust in Peace, by Harry Tuffs
  • The Dame Ragnelle, by ila
  • The Merchant's Tale, by Jasmine Osler
  • Sir Baudwin and the Chalice, by David E. Sky
  • Wilfred and the Serpent, by Mary Goodden
  • The King's Advisor, by Maya Hecht and Udi Becker
  • The Man Who Couldn't Fart, by Michael Kelly
  • The Faerie King's Bride, by OD Jones
  • The Parchment, by Peter Dudasko
  • The Spear Rhongomiant, by Rebecca Zahabi
  • About Names, by Rodrigo Agosta
  • Bethan and Sir Thew, by Samuel Partridge
  • The Waymaker's Grave, by Shelly Jones
  • The Knight of Pies, by Thomas Martin
  • The Lost Soul, by Troubadour Tales

A dying king cheats Death, and yet Death wins. A knight defends his name well beyond the bitter end. A tale of a bloodthirsty hound goes wrong. A giant's plan to save his soul is befouled.

There are tales of ghosts, fairies and shaggy dogs, mixed with cautionary tales, Celtic and Arthurian retellings, and a song.

When you play Pendragon, the stories you encounter will depend on who's in your party to do the telling, and other things - where have they camped? How is the journey faring? A cheerful tale might follow a victory; a sad tale might follow a defeat.

Some will no doubt be harder to find than others... but we can't wait for you to discover them all, when Pendragon launches later this year.

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