What makes a hot developer want to scale down and go from a triple-A hit to a personal indie game? We talked with Different Tales’ Artur Ganszyniec, the Lead Story Designer on the first The Witcher game, who, along with Jacek Brzezinski (The Witcher, Dead Island Riptide, Dying Light, Hitman), is leading Wanderlust Travel Stories.
We also had a chance to play Wanderlust and it’s not your typical game. It’s not about rushing to a goal or overcoming obstacles. It’s about traveling the world and trying to find your place in it. A combination of interactive novel and adventure game, Wanderlust is a title we weren’t expecting from the people who kicked Geralt into stardom and helped to create the most meaty zombie games around.
Kinguin: From The Witcher to a humble, personal indie game about travels. To many it might seem like huge downscaling. Why go smaller?
Artur Ganszyniec, Different Tales: I went smaller a few years ago, after the initial phase of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was completed. Since then I’ve been creating mobile games with ATGames, making a prototype of a new game for 11bit studios [known for Frostpunk and This War of Mine – ed. note] and now I’m working with Jacek again on Wanderlust Travel Stories.
Big budget projects are usually a high stress environment with high pressure, long hours, and for a while it was what I needed. But then it wasn’t. Now I prefer smaller projects, with smaller, close-knit teams, where everyone has more impact on the final product. It is easier to cross genre boundaries, test risky and exciting ideas, and while the indie scene has its risks business-wise, shorter production cycles mean that I can learn faster. Wanderlust was made in slightly over a year, compared to three to five year cycles we observe in the big budget games part of the market.
Did crafting stories for Wanderlust feel significantly different than the process for The Witcher?
There were some noticeable differences. In Wanderlust we communicate with the player using mainly text—there are photographs and maps that add to the scene but, ultimately, how the characters feel, what they see, what options they have is conveyed by text alone. Without a 3D world for the characters to explore, we couldn’t show but had to describe. But text can bring up memories and images in players’ heads that are much more vivid than any computer-generated graphics. We could also share with players intimate thoughts and feelings of the characters, something that was hard if not impossible in a game like The Witcher.
Big budget projects are usually a high stress environment with high pressure, long hours, and for a while it was what I needed. But then it wasn’t.
On the other hand, every story has a start, a decision in the midpoint, and a resolution, so looking at the structure, stories in Wanderlust and The Witcher are quite similar. I see one more similarity—in The Witcher the stories were inspired by existing material (i.e. Sapkowski’s books) and in Wanderlust we wrote stories inspired by real experiences, travelogues, books, articles, and interviews.
Are both equally complex? Would you compare the amount of available choices in Wanderlust’s scenarios to what players can see in AAA RPGs?
It’s a hard one. The chapter set in Thailand is a kind of text-based open world sandbox story about gathering experiences, while other stories are more focused and streamlined.
I’d say that the main focus in Wanderlust is not the number of branches but the extent in which the story adapts to your choices. Everything you do influences the character’s mood and the mood feeds back to the text, changing how the world is described to fit the emotions of the protagonist. That, combined with the more obvious choices creates a lot possible stories. And the choices the game presents are different than those from AAA RPGs—we don’t ask “which faction to choose?”, “who’s right and who’s wrong?”, “are you good or bad?”. We ask “how this experience changed you?”, “what do you think about what you saw?”, “how do you feel about it?”
Gaming is about rewarding the player… in many ways. In Wanderlust, there’s no loot, there’s no level progression. How do you reward the player?
I believe that the best reward for playing a game should be the game itself. What that means, depends on the type of the game. It’s like with any other activity. When I play soccer I feel rewarded when I show my skill, when my team wins etc. But when I’m going for a long walk, the reward is the walk itself, the time I spend with myself, the views I see.
Wanderlust is more like a long walk than a spectator sport. The rewards we have for the players are new sights and places, moments of reflection, the chance to guide the characters through their changes, the music, the sounds, the feeling of leaving one place and being—for a moment—somewhere else.
Your game is about traveling, but not from the player’s perspective; I don’t create my character. I embody predefined characters. Weren’t you afraid that this would limit the experience you were going for, only allowing to see travels through other people’s eyes?
Wanderlust is a collection of stories, and every story needs a character. We invite the players to accompany our protagonists in their life journeys. If I step into someone’s shoes, it is easier for me to try and do things I wouldn’t normally do, to step outside my comfort zone. I can also confront my world view with that of my character, which makes choices more interesting. At the same time, the stories are written in first person and from an intimate point of view, and they suck you in, giving a chance to be someone else for a while.
We don’t ask “which faction to choose?”. We ask “how this experience changed you?”, “how do you feel about it?”.
You once said you had many outside inspirations for this game. The Beach, Dark Star Safari, The Masque of Africa, Lost in Translation. But were there any gaming inspirations?
Wanderlust Travel Stories is quite a unique product so one of the difficulties we had was a lack of benchmarks on the market. But we discussed a lot of other games during the production: how 80 Days depicts travel, how Bury Me My Love merges journalism and gameplay, how Florence handles emotions.
But you had to work out the visual style on your own? Your game doesn’t look like anything in recent memory.
Wanderlust’s unique look was created by our art director, Piotr Niklas. At the beginning of our cooperation he said “I find most video games visually boring, let’s do something else.” So we looked for inspiration in books, magazines, websites, posters—media that work with typography and 2D graphics, and we used what we learned in Wanderlust.
There were many iterations. We went from hand-drawn illustrations, cartoony graphics, abstract shapes, blurred desaturated pictures, to the journalistic photographs we have in the final game. Most of the pictures were taken by us or people we know, and some of them specially for the production. We joked that we would like to look like the National Geographic magazine would look if it was a game, and I think we hit close to that mark.
What do you think about the direction gaming is going in general? I’m asking because you seem to take a sharp turn in another direction.
I think that mainstream, high budget, high octane games are safe, it that’s what you ask. The turn for slower games we took with Wanderlust is a personal one, as we were getting older, we started to look for games that are not toys but tales of common human experience. We found such games, but not many. And we hope that there are enough people out there, who also need games telling more grounded stories and evoking a wider range of emotions.
Wanderlust Travel Stories is slated for release on August 28. You can follow Different Tales here.