FanZine: Ever Forward

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All artwork in this article belongs to PatheaGames

The young girl surveys the landscape before her. It somehow seems both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic. How did she get here? She can’t remember anything.

She walks along the coastline, wondering why it seems so familiar and yet so – what’s the word? Alien.

It feels as though she has put on her favourite pair of old socks, but the socks (for some reason) contain a handful of sand – what should feel like a comforting experience instead feels somehow wrong and mildly abrasive.

She wonders why that’s the example she thought of.

She rarely wears socks, because she rarely wears shoes, because Mother doesn’t like to let her play outside. That is, of course, in the rare times that Mother is at home. Mother is usually at the laboratory.

Mother…

Why can’t the young girl remember her mother clearly? Why can’t she remember anything clearly?

She feels something emanate from behind her, some distance away. There’s a feeling attached, and it’s hard to describe. Danger? Jealousy? Fear?

She turns around and tries to find the source of the discomfort.

As she visually searches the placid ruins of the landscape she’s apparently now stuck in, a strong note of crimson red draws her attention.

A strange black-and-red structure has appeared in the landscape, as if by magic. Given the oxymoronic nature of the landscape in which the young girl finds herself, it seems apt that the new structure looks as though someone had either begun building a room – or as though someone had just finished destroying one.

The structure is starkly lit in contrast to the idyllic coastal area around it.

The girl turns to her companion – a small cuboid floating robot-like entity. It doesn’t appear to have any reaction to the new structure.

The girl decides to examine the structure. Her companion floats faithfully alongside her.

Getting quite close to the structure, she can see that the structure contains one single item: A tree in a planting pot.

Although she doesn’t know why, the tree affects her emotionally. The associated emotion is hard to pin down: Nervousness? Longing? Hope?

As she moves even closer, her head begins to hurt a little. She can also feel memories reform at the edge of her consciousness. Mother. A sentry-like robot model named Roundybot. And as for the girl herself?

She remembers that her name is Maya, and that she is 12 years old.

Although the pain increases as Maya approaches the tree, she is determined to find answers. Her vision begins to blur, and the world begins to spin all around her…

The Development of Ever Forward: A Tale of Determination and Adaptability

Ever Forward is the latest game from Pathea Games, makers of the popular open-world craft-em-up My Time At Portia.

Work on Ever Forward has taken over three years so far, and the game is due to be released in August 2020. In the meantime, the Demo/Prologue is currently available on Steam here.

Similar to the original Doom games, the Demo for Ever Forward is actually a fairly large chunk of the full game: Anyone who completes the Ever Forward Prologue will find that their savefile proudly displays ‘25% complete’.

The savefiles from the Prologue itself may then be used in the full game upon release.

Well, that’s the plan at least.

Perhaps some digital gremlins will appear, as can often happen when launching a game. That probably won’t worry PatheaGames, as they’ve shown the ability to change their approach when required.

Take Ever Forward itself, for instance – it’s gone through many changes during development. This is because they wanted the game to be designed from the ground up to have ludonarrative consistency.

In order to better understand the design choices made by PatheaGames, the phrase ‘ludonarrative consistency‘ must be explored.

Ever Forward: Ludonarratively Consistent

The word ‘ludonarrative‘ is a portmanteau (a ‘word mashup’) of the words ludology (the study of games in general, including video games) and narrative (the story and its elements).

Therefore, the word ‘ludonarrative‘ means ‘the gameplay as it relates to the story of the game‘.

Let’s look at two examples.

1. Imagine you’re playing a musician in a game and you use a musical instrument as your main weapon/tool.

That’s ludonarratively consistent, because the gameplay matches the story. Sure, it’s unrealistic – because most serious musicians won’t use their instrument as a weapon – but it still has ludonarrative consistency.

2. Now imagine you’re playing a musician in a game and you cannot pick up musical instruments at all – and there isn’t a good reason for it, storywise.

That’s called ludonarrative dissonance, because the gameplay doesn’t follow the story. However, if the story revolves around a musician who has quit performing in public, then the inability to pick up instruments becomes ludonarratively consistent again.

To recap: The word ‘ludonarrative‘ simply means ‘the gameplay as it relates to the story‘. Therefore, ‘ludonarrative consistency‘ means ‘the gameplay always matches the story‘.

Games such as The Stanley Parable or Press X To Die play with ludonarrative factors. Those two games are essentially satirical comedy games, but there’s one game that managed to achieve ludonarrative perfection and maintain a serious – if quirky – tone throughout: Valve’s popular first-person puzzle game, Portal.

According to the first Ever Forward Steam Developer Log (Steam DevLog), Portal was the main inspiration for Ever Forward.

In the first Steam DevLog, PatheaGames mention a few games that they feel have had a major impact on the design elements of modern puzzle games: Journey, The Witness, What Remains of Edith Finch.

Here’s what they say directly after that:

‘These games, among others, represent a vast evolution of game design philosophy, and we didn’t want to be left out. A few things we took away from the success of all these games were: a good single-player game has its story woven directly into the gameplay, separating the two was unacceptable, and a simple, linear experience with no world-building wouldn’t be tolerated either.’

There’s a very old proverb that you don’t hear much anymore: There’s many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip. It means that adaptability is just as important as being able to define your goals. This axiom perfectly defines the trials (including at least one project restart) faced by PatheaGames during the development of Ever Forward.

Ever Forward: Humble Beginnings

Ever Forward began life as a Portal-inspired puzzle game named Protoform, the gameplay of which took place in a lab. Presumably, it was scrapped because they eventually felt stifled by the restrictions they’d placed on themselves.

In their own words:

‘We committed some of the very sins we noted & promised to avoid at the beginning of the development process: our puzzle gameplay felt completely disconnected from the story. Looking [at] all of our puzzles in a Portal-like lab interior was confining and boring. Overcoming technical problems, design issues, graphical issues, we now think of Protoform, and the metal laboratory in which it was set, as the cocoon from which Ever [F]orward emerged.’

Note PatheaGames’ emphasis on ludonarrative details even at this early stage of development – they’d strayed from their original creative vision, so they started again.

Their next attempt would produce something more recognisable to future Ever Forward players: ‘A clean and tidy island with soft white sand, and black buildings holding unsolved puzzles.‘ This was much closer in line with their original vision: The crisp whiteness of the explorable island versus the stark technological aesthetic of not just the puzzle entrypoints, but also the puzzles themselves.

The clouds, the green grass waving in the wind, the shimmering ocean – these things conjure feelings of safety and of comfort.

Black structures accented with bright red stripes, however, imply danger – or at the very least, discomfort.

To see both, side by side?

It’s jarring. It makes you feel that something is wrong. Before the player has even moved Maya, they know what they need to do: Examine the new area.

Some players may choose to ignore the danger, to examine and explore the island around them. But, just like in Portal, they know what they should be doing.

This is the advantage of ludonarrative consistency.

No tutorial has popped up saying something outdated and inane such as ‘Examine the new building’. No annoying NPC has pestered the player to direct them to where the developer wants them to go. No invisible walls are herding the player, cutting off exploration options until the player is in a specific place in the gameworld.

The puzzles themselves, however, are the polar opposite of the open-world feel of the overworld landscape – there’s very little room to maneuvre, which comes as a welcome shock to the player when they first encounter one.

Ever Forward: The Puzzle Game

The puzzles in Ever Forward are started by interacting with a black-and-red area. The first puzzle in the game, for instance, is accessed by interacting with the black-and-red area containing a potted tree.

After interacting with a puzzle entrypoint, the screen whirls you into a cyberspace void. It’s empty, apart from tall white blocks and some black-and-red blocks – as well as what appears to be a floating tree (also black-and-red) far off in the distance.

Each puzzle world is different, and some even have multiple puzzles in them.

One (or more) of the black-and-red blocks will have a red beam of light shooting up vertically from the topmost face of it. This beam of light signifies the starting point of the puzzle(s) proper.

Maya may use her robotic companion (whose name/designation is CPQ) to fly around the void. She does this by hanging onto CPQ’s ‘legs’, which only appear when Maya needs to hold on to them for her improvised flight. Two small ‘wings’ then pop out from CPQ and occasionally flap, casually implying that the puzzles don’t take place in the real world.

When she walks (or lands) on a block with a vertical beam of light, the puzzle process begins. CPQ folds itself up and inserts itself into the space from where the beam of light originates, the beam of light disappears, and the puzzle becomes active.

Maya is now on her own, apart from the player. The player and Maya watch as the area around them transforms into the puzzle.

To solve the puzzle, Maya must simply find and carry a block to the next black-and-red area, which is always the end of the current puzzle.

It’s that simple.

However, Maya is a normal 12-year-old girl. She’s not a cyborg, she’s not an alien, and she’s not a space marine. She doesn’t have advanced tech, or strange powers, or guns.

Maya can walk, run, and jump. She can mantle ledges, and carry and throw objects. And that’s it – that’s her list of abilities (in the Prologue at least – apparently she’ll be able to climb vines in the full game).

The hazards in the puzzle, however, are quite varied – and unforgivingly lethal.

Take the Roundybot, for instance. Roundybots are (usually immobile) sentry turrets which face toward a specific point in the map/puzzle. They alone present a major challenge, and provide ample punishment for every single action that Maya can take.

– If she walks too close to a Roundybot, it will derez (digitally kill) her.
– She cannot run at all if she is too close to a Roundybot.
– If she jumps too close to a Roundybot, it will derez her.
– If she climbs too close to a Roundybot, it will derez her.
– If she throws an object too close to a Roundybot, it will derez her.

Of course, there aren’t just Roundybots to worry about. There are all manner of hazards, some of which may also be involved in the puzzle solution: Moving platforms, electrified grids on the floor, and laser barriers – to name a few.

The solutions to these puzzle land just this side of cruel.

One puzzle is literally just two Roundybots staring directly at each other, with the puzzle exit on the other side of them. Were this some other game, the solutions could be numerous: Do a running jump off the wall near one of the Roundybots, or mantle down a ledge and shimmy underneath their line of sight, or simply shoot the Roundybots with your gigantic gun.

And this is where the genius behind Ever Forward becomes evident: There are multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, but none of them are obvious and most of them will require you to understand how Ever Forward works (as opposed to grinding your levels until you can get the right equipment).

This is one of the many ways in which Ever Foward pays homage to the game that inspired it: Portal also didn’t care how good you were at action games. And just like Portal, Ever Forward puzzle solutions are more reliant on creative thinking and player timing than grind or player speed.

Ever Forward is similar to Portal in another way as well: Solving puzzles gives the player more of the story. In this case it takes place in short (and skippable) cutscenes

Ever Forward: Living up to the name

Many games forget they’re games and proceed to waste the players time. Perhaps the games are too impressed with themselves, or the developers aren’t gamers themselves, or many other possibilities.

Fortunately, PatheaGames have chosen against that, possibly as part of their bid for ludonarrative consistency.

Saving and loading are part of the game. While this is true of most games, Ever Forward implements it seamlessly – you’ll find no loading screens here (ingame at least).

Here is how most games deal with death/reloading:

– Player dies/loses
– Player presses the ‘Try Again’ button, or maybe goes to the loading screen
– Player waits while the game reloads

Here is how Ever Forward deals with death/reloading:

– Player dies/loses
– Player instantaneously appears at the point of their previous ‘save’.

While most gamers will recognise that as ‘how quicksaves work’, it has a different feel in Ever Forward. The player knows they’re quicksaving the game, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like they’re placing a respawn marker in a digital landscape, because that’s what the game does visually.

Again: This is the advantage of ludonarrative consistency.

I don’t want to try the puzzle again in 30 seconds, I want to try it again right now – and Ever Forward lets me.

Ever Forward.

Even the name fits the ludonarrative consistency aimed for by PatheaGames.

That’s beautiful.

EPILOGUE

Let’s just say that Maya has a destination that she feels compelled to arrive at; the puzzles and all the machinations and moving parts within them, they seem to want to stop her, but they will only serve to slow her down.‘ – Bing Yan, Producer of Ever Forward (in his interview for the website NoisyPixel)

Maya has solved many puzzles now, each bringing her closer to her forgotten memories.

She knows why she felt so strongly about the tree. She remembers how Roundybots were created. She remembers eavesdropping on Mother and barely understanding what she heard.

But she still can’t remember much about Mother herself.

So, although it makes her feel nauseous every time she enters new puzzles, she still pushes on.

Because that’s the only way to get the answers she seeks: To push through the discomfort and never turn back.

Never back.

Ever forward.

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