Aria Esrafilian thinks “puzzle games are inherently boring,” but he and his Shifting Tides co-founder Nima Memari make one anyway.
Shifting Tides is effectively made up of four co-founders, with a few contractors offering support. When the band first formed, the four were working on different projects at the same time while working together. But nearly four years ago, the team honed in on the idea that evolved into The Sojourn.
The game was born out of a series of experiments and ideas that revolved around co-founder Esrafilian’s skills in visual effects and lighting. They tried everything from more intense gameplay to forward-looking simulator ideas, one day Memari drew a puzzle on the group’s whiteboard and asked the team to solve it. This idea turned into a prototype, which turned into a game.
Although The Sojourn is better classified as a puzzle game, Esrafilian is a bit cynical about the genre in general, casually dropping our discussion of the game’s visual orientation which he thinks puzzle games are almost all about. boring.
Memari intervenes quickly.
“We don’t think other puzzle games are boring,” he says, before adding. “It’s just that the genre tends to get boring. The best puzzle games try to address that by adding story or trying to come up with so many different puzzle approaches and ideas so you don’t think you Solve one thing again and again.After maybe top ten puzzle games, they tend to get boring.
“Puzzle games in general aren’t really a type of game that everyone can enjoy. Most people I know enjoy killing stuff, doing action stuff, and when you give someone Portal 2, which is (let’s say) the best puzzle game out there, they have to solve this and then solve that over and over again, and they don’t really get the big picture.
“Speaking of being boring, we wanted to make a walking simulator before that. Our whole team wanted to make a story-based game, so we focused on that genre. so good. It’s hard to go out and be the best walking simulator. We wanted to have really good gameplay in addition to walking and living the story, and that’s how we ended up with a puzzle game .
Since Memari is now designing puzzles for a game in this boring genre, I ask them how they plan to avoid pitfalls and create a puzzle game that can hold its audience’s attention.
“I think it’s really important to have different ideas and different approaches,” he says. “Players shouldn’t feel like they’re seeing the same idea. They should [figure one puzzle out]feel smart, and the next one is something else, something different, it’s not just the evolved version of the last one.
“In the design of puzzle games, it is important to create [connection] between puzzles and mechanics. The game’s art style, story, and narrative should be something the player can feel when solving puzzles – it shouldn’t be so detached. I love The Witness. It’s a brilliant game. But I’ve seen designers who hate the game so much. They say, ‘It’s just connecting a few dots! He has no connection with the world. And I understand. If you want to make a game more appealing to more people, you need to create [the narrative] more connected to the gameplay.”
I saw The Sojourn at GDC earlier this year and spoke with Memari and Esrafilian afterwards. The game has since appeared at a number of different events, both in showcases and as a playable demo. Memari says that, for indie developers like Shifting Tides, it helps to have a strong “first hit” to stand out. But even more important is having enough unique elements beyond that initial draw to ensure that a potential audience will remember your title.
For The Sojourn in particular, Memari says it takes the form of a “philosophical” game that allows the player to interpret its story as they see fit. At a basic level, The Sojourn is about the chapters of life, with the first area centering around childhood, curiosity, and learning new things. But Memari and Esrafilian tell me that it took a bit of experimentation to find what was really interesting about these ideas.
“We [were planning to have] voice narration, but we removed it,” says Memari. “We spoke to many people who played the whole game, and it was fun to see how they interpreted the game’s story. Our story isn’t mysterious; it’s a philosophical approach, and it wants you to think about it. It’s not something you have to find out, like a mystery. But our storytelling was spoiling those thoughts. When you heard this narration, you said, “That’s it, I get it.” You wouldn’t want to think any deeper.
“When you heard the narration, you wouldn’t want to think any deeper”
“After pulling it out and testing it, there were so many different approaches and people loved it even more. The game allowed people to think about things instead of giving them information. We spent a tremendous amount of time to tell the story – storytelling was not our main focus [of doing this.] The environment, the music, there’s a lot of different details or things going on even in the mechanics that tell the story. After removing the voice, we realized that was more than enough.”
When I saw The Sojourn at GDC, it was part of the Xbox indie showcase. That presence was facilitated by publisher Iceberg Interactive in a move that Esrafilian says was a dream the team had from the very beginning.
“Xbox has been very active over the past two years with indie games,” says Memari. “It wasn’t like this five years ago. They weren’t as active or supportive, but they’re really good right now. They support a lot of developers, and the fact that you really see them in your game , that’s a big boost.”
Esrafilian adds, “Hopefully that will happen for Sony as well. They’re really interested in the game, they’re evaluating the game, so we’re really looking forward to seeing if they’ll come back to us with an offer or something.”
The Sojourn’s most recent appearance was at the PC Gaming Show at E3, where it was revealed to be joining the Epic Games store – although it’s worth noting that it doesn’t appear to be exclusive to the storefront on PC and it still has a Steam page up. My conversation with Esrafilian and Memari took place before this announcement, but both clearly had the showcase on their minds.
“I believe [Epic] adds more players to the market with Fortnite, and now they’re directing that community and population to other games.”
“Generally speaking, I appreciate the expanding market in the industry,” says Esrafilian. “I believe they are adding more players to the market with Fortnite, and now they are directing that community and population to other games. Some of their players are really new to the market. We have to wait and see how this will be in the near future, but this visibility is amazing for us. Hopefully this contest will eventually get better for the developers.”
Memari adds, “Yeah, I think Epic isn’t really a big fan of exclusivity. They have Fortnite on all platforms; they’re the ones who started this. They would like to have games on all platforms so that everyone can play it, and even when you say Epic store exclusive, it’s just the store, not the platform. In the end, I don’t think their approach will hurt the [PC] Platform. I hope this competition will be good for the platform so that we can have two very good stores competing.”
Esrafilian concludes: “It is also appreciated that they invest the money they earn from games like Fortnite in the community and grow the community. They regularly update the engine, and thanks to Fortnite, many interesting features are added to the engine of this project, for example, when they decided to bring the game to more platforms, we saw a very big update for mobile optimization [in Unreal].”
The Sojourn does not yet have a specific release date. The team takes their time to make sure they can convey the ideas they want to convey in a way that makes sense. At the game’s launch, Memari and Esrafilian aren’t so much concerned with audiences understanding the exact intent behind every moment of the game, but rather with players walking away with a particular feeling or experience.
“It’s really hard when you want everything to make sense,” Memari says. “I’m going to design something, and when I present it to the team, they ask me, ‘This mechanic, what does he represent?’ And I say, ‘He’s a mechanic, does that have to mean anything?’ “Yes, yes!” There must be some meaning behind it, and it doesn’t matter if 99% of people don’t understand. If a few people understand that a mechanic reminds them of something in their life, then that’s fine.
Esrafilian finishes: “I believe that if there aren’t a lot of players who understand something, they will get the whole feeling and atmosphere of the game if you put that much thought and design into it. It will show. This is the exact approach we wanted to take.”