Today in our series of chats with (almost) all the PC and Mac-based finalists at this year's Independent Games Festival, it's indie collective CoCo&Co's fascinating, dialogue-free co-op puzzle-platformer WAY. The game is nominated for the Nuovo award, and was also a winner at this year's IGF Student Showcase. Here, the team talk about their impressive games industry origins, the concept of playing games with an anonymous partner, how games can form emotional connections with their players, breaking down the barriers that so often separate gamers who don't speak the same language, and their answer to the most important question of all.
RPS: Firstly, an introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?
We are Chris Bell, Walt Destler, Cynthia Jiang, Katherine Rubenstein, Hugo Shih, and Paulwei Wang. Aside from our independent games, we also have jobs at thatgamecompany, EA, Disney, Wemo Media, and Carnegie Mellon University.
The WAY team began at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, a graduate program for video game and theme-park design. It’s quite the playful place. Kyle Gabler (World of Goo), Kyle Gray (Henry Hatsworth), and Neil Druckmann (Uncharted 2, The Last of Us) got their start here, to name a few.
We each entered the ETC with different goals, but came together when we saw an opportunity to make a new kind of game. Something global in scope and purpose. Despite the reach of the internet, few games encourage strong emotional connections with players around the world—with players in different countries and cultures. It’s a common problem often attributed to barriers in communication. People shy away from those they can’t communicate with, whether it’s in a virtual world or our physical one. WAY is designed to change that.
Games can empower players to have experiences of their own and to share these experiences with others. You cannot help but care when you’re responsible for another human being. Shared personal choice is an immediate portal to empathy. These are the stories that inspire us, and the ones that players so often walk away remembering.
In some sense, we’re “indie” because we aren’t backed by a publishing partner. If someone were to publish us (and we *are* currently looking for funding) that doesn’t change anything so long as we can make the game we believe is worth people’s time. We seek games that break the mould. Games that expand people’s perceptions of what a game can be or make you feel. Indie games are where so many of the conventions are being challenged and where more and more audiences are finding fulfilment.
RPS: Tell us about your game. What were its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?
So, despite the humbling IGF nominations or “Developer’s Choice Award” at IndieCade, WAY is still very much a prototype.
We were inspired after sharing a number of intimate, unspoken moments with players online. Often these moments would come unexpected and unintended...nestled deep within games that don’t pay them much mind.
Imagine venturing to a remote, untraveled corner of an MMO only to find a player sitting and watching the digital sunrise. Now imagine you don’t speak the same language as that player, and yet you sit because you too enjoy the sunrise. You’ve said nothing, and yet you both understand each other. How many games are designed so you communicate and collaborate closely with these players? Our guess is very few.
Consider Final Fantasy XI: Online. American and Japanese players inhabit the same world, and yet the population segregated because players could not communicate well enough to succeed together. It’s not that they don’t want to play together. Of course they do! It’s that the combat system demands solid communication, and so it was far too risky to pair with players who spoke a different language. And so you’d see requests like “English Only!” when searching for partners. It was unfortunate and likely avoidable.
The problem stems from non-universal communication design—the inability to play effectively with people who speak other languages. But see, games already have a language! “Play” is something we all know and love. Even animals play. And so it makes sense to envision “play” as the language—use “play” as the means to bring us together.
In WAY, players communicate through puppetry—no voice chat, no typing. Imagine Sackboy from Little Big Planet, but with far more expressive controls. Cover your eyes, tilt your head, wave your arms...there’s a whole range of gestures and each one is entirely player created. Your gestures are as personal as they are primal.
Together, you and an anonymous player venture toward each other from opposite ends of the world, overcoming the obstacles between you. At times, one player will have information the other does not (like the location of an invisible platform or danger) and so you need to communicate this information to each other to progress. Waving your arms could easily mean “Run!” or “Jump!”, so figuring out how to tell the other person what you mean, or deciphering what it is they mean, is part of the puzzle. It’s a magical moment when you realize exactly what your partner is saying and you haven’t even spoken a word.
So far, we’re pleased our players have reacted so favourably. The game has only about 12 weeks of development time in total and we’ve already received many heartfelt stories. They’re incredibly touching and deeply personal. We couldn’t be happier.
Regarding what we would change... Well, right now it can be difficult to find someone to connect with— a result of the game’s early release and the small, finite number of puzzles. Still, we’re optimistic the IGF exposure will bring more players to the game even at this early stage.
You can also expect an announcement for players who cannot attend GDC. These players will be able to play online and pair with people at the IGF pavilion.
RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?
We’re as humbled as we are honoured. The IGF is a loving celebration of games and their makers, and the quality bar represented therein continues to rise and rise. It’s clear developers are becoming wonderfully self-aware. We’re witnessing the birth of a medium’s Renaissance. The world should be excited. This only happens once in forever. Forever!
Speaking of the Nuovo nominees specifically, we’re in great company. Each developer is pushing the medium forward in new, unconventional ways. This is an extremely collaborative and supportive community and we’re happy to share the nomination with creators we also call friends.
As for overlooked games, we would have liked to see Santa Ragione’s “Fotonica” represented. The game is incredibly reductionist while providing one of the most kinetic, atmospheric, and synesthetic experiences we’ve played in recent memory. Approach it casually and the game has whispers of “Flower”. Go for record scores and you’ll unravel a complex puzzle of pinpoint accuracy. At the finale of one particular level, three ascending steps rise into black infinity. Only players who master the level may climb the steps and leap from their peak. How beautiful!
And though the judges can’t possibly overlook a game not submitted to begin with, we do wonder what has become of “The Stanley Parable”...
RPS: Which game would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?
The finalists for this year’s Grand Prize are quite diverse, and each deserving in their own right.
We regrettably haven’t given the time to play *all* the games to a judgable degree, so it would be inappropriate to vote for a particular winner.
That said, Johann Sebastian Joust makes for one hell of a family Christmas party.
RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?
The indie scene is thriving, yet we still have ways to go. Personally, we’d like to continue to see indies reaching outside of games for their inspirations, audiences, and collaborators. It’s these outside influences that will bring new answers for how to approach game-making.
We’d also like to see more indies consider how their games are affecting the world at large, and how to shape and improve these effects by design.
RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?
The future of WAY will depend on whether or not we find a suitable funding partner to turn it into the commercial, polished, global game we know it can become. We don’t need much. So we’re considering everything that comes our way.
In parallel, fans can also expect a Kickstarter campaign in the days leading up to GDC (with some pretty neat rewards!) to help us get there.
RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?
We’d probably have them explain Hell’s absurd physics... We’re shooting straight ahead, and yet we’ve somehow killed Fireball Guy on the ledge above! That, and there’s no law of physics that can explain how John Romero’s hair stays that shape.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
A free alpha version of WAY is out now; updated versions will follow at a later date.