Nightingale certainly isn't the sort of game I was expecting from a former BioWare developer, but I'm well excited to give it a go. Announced at The Game Awards 2021, Nightingale is a survival craft 'em up set in a fantastical, alt-history world. It's being made by Inflexion Games, a studio lead by Aaryn Flynn, former programmer and general manager at the Dragon Age and Mass Effect developers.
But don't go in expecting the sort of huge, arcing plotlines of BioWare's recent games. While Nightingale will have an over-arching narrative, it's being designed to offer up adventures that let you make your own stories. I spoke to Flynn at the end of last year to find out a little bit more about what that entails.
"Our goal here is to put players in these magical spaces with lots of opportunity to interact with the world, let them build communities and let them discover things through the course of their gameplay, and their adventuring, together," he tells me.
"At BioWare we focused on high fantasy with Dragon Age and sci-fi with Mass Effect, and then something a little more science-fantasy with Anthem. But with Nightingale, we're giving people a more relatable setting, something they can look at and understand how the world works because it's an alternate history."
That alternate history is rooted in Victorian times where magic has existed for hundreds of years, and people have built a network of portals connecting cities to various fantastical realms. You'll play as a Realmwalker who gets stuck in one of this magical kingdoms after the portal network collapses. The idea is that you'll start with pretty much nothing, like most survival games, and will eventually need to find a way back to Nightingale City, which Flynn describes as the centre of magical study and investigation.
Inflexion wanted to try something different to what they'd worked on previously, and a couple of the developers fell in love with Susanna Clarke's 2004 award-winning novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, inspiring the leap into Victorian fantasy.
"It's real world, you see characters that you know, or you've heard of," Flynn says. "But at the same time, magic is rare but blossoming, and starting to take on new meaning after being rediscovered. We thought that was really cool storytelling - could we ever build a game like that?"
As it turns out, yes, you can. Much like Clarke's book, Nightingale will also feature real-world people you'll recognise from history, thrusted into this "gaslamp" fantasy. That's about all they have to share on the story elements for now, though I am intrigued who we might see. Charles Darwin? Charles Dickens? Is it too on-the-nose to speculate that the city might be named after Florence Nightingale?
Now, real people are all very well and good, but I'm also interested in the fantastical folks we'll meet. The realms are populated by Fae, fantastical folks that gave humans access to magic in the first place. Flynn tells me that, as Realmwalkers, we'll be the protagonists, and at first the Fae are our antagonists. I'm curious if it'll stay that way. There's usually some sort of tension between humans and any magical species they meet in most games, but from the sounds of things, the Fae won't always need to be our enemies.
"I wouldn't want to let it stay that black and white over the course of the game," Flynn says. "We wanna set up a spectrum. We wanna introduce characters who have complex motivations who don't necessarily fit a mould, so that'll all hopefully come out through our early access storytelling periods."
So then, why put all of this into a survival crafting game? Personally, I'm not complaining at all. I often lose interest in survival games like Minecraft or Valheim when there's nothing story-wise to draw me in, but Flynn tells me Nightingale will be a real mixture of following their story and making your own, which sounds delightful.
"It's not a narrative-driven game like a classic BioWare or other RPG, it's first and foremost a survival crafting game, and we want to infuse some world-building and storytelling in there to give you additional reasons to go off and try something new," he says. "It's probably fair to say the story will be icing on that cake, if we do our jobs right. If players like it and they want more of that, then we'll find ways to give it to them."
Flynn tells me the team wanted to make a survival game because the devs wanted to make something where players can properly interact with the world. You'll have to collect resources, fend off threats, and explore to get the most out of your experience, as well as build a home for yourself and your friends. You can catch a glimpse of that building in the trailer, and it looks impressive. The devs filmed a time-lapse of them creating a little town-like area, and it seems like a lovely place to set up shop. Flynn mentions that you won't be able to build stuff quite like that at first, but it also won't have Minecraft-level mud huts.
"We didn't wanna show people the basics, we wanted to show them the vision," he says. "So you'll start off pretty modest, but hopefully you find yourself not stuck with that modest thing for too long. You've gotta start somewhere, right?"
Inflexion are really focussing on making sure players have opportunities to play together, and building is just one part of that. You will be able to play the game solo, but they also want to encourage more cooperative play and strike a good balance between the two, which is something early access will help with.
"The goal is to let players cooperate and solve challenges together, so if you're in a particular realm and you've got some unique things there you can decide to build a community there," Flynn says. "So, you divide the work up, and ultimately achieve more than you could as an individual. We really wanna reward that cooperation as much as possible, without limiting the things you can do solo. There are some very determined people out there who'll do amazing things on their own, and we wanna celebrate that too."
As far as the technical stuff goes with the multiplayer, it sounds as though Nightingale will work similarly to Valheim, where you can have a realm up and running with one group of friends, but will be able to take your character and visit other realms. Flynn says there will be limitations on how many players can exist in a realm, but one of their mantras is that they always want to keep the community united.
"Unlike some survival crafting games where you end up on an isolated server, we always wanna have the ability for our players to join and go to other realms with other people they may meet, or get invited to," he tells me. "So as much as possible, we wanna keep that opportunity available so that shared world really does mean shared. If there's another Realmwalker you wanna visit, there's a way to go do that. We want our players to feel like a community of Realmwalkers."
"I think it's fair to say, [players] don't just consume the content you're making, they help to add to it."
Those budding communities are something Flynn is particularly excited to see when the game launches in early access later this year, and I'm right there with him. Whenever a game like this comes out, it's always a delight scrolling through forums and social media to see what weird and wonderful groups have formed, and see what awesome things they've built.
"We've already seen stuff in our playtests, the building system has gotten more and more robust, and some of our playtesters have constructed some of these amazing things," Flynn says. "It's really cool to put a game out there that players get to invest their time into in that way, we'll get to watch them collaborate and create things that I can't even imagine. I think it's fair to say, they don't just consume the content you're making, they help to add to it."
To that end, Flynn and the team will be holding playtests in early 2022 if you want to try Nightingale yourself (which you can potentially be a part of by signing up to their mailing list here). They're going into early access predominantly to get feedback from players, and build the game alongside them.
"We're gonna try to put our best foot forward and make sure there's enough game there that's worth players' time," Flynn tells me. "But we want to set expectations - this is a journey, not a destination. We wanna offer lots of updates, it keeps everything more manageable for us that way, so we don't spend our time building a game in isolation, we get it out there with our players and begin to build that community and collaborate."