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We all went to a magic wood with Nightingale boss Aaryn Flynn

Jeremy, Edders, Edwin, Kiera and Ollie join Inflexion's CEO for a co-op playthrough

A group of players carrying umbrellas in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Twas brillig, and the RPS editors did gyre and gimble in the wabe: all mimsy were the studio executives, and the guides writers outgrabe. If you’re still reading, congratulations, you’ve either got a dangerously high tolerance for bad literary jokes or you’re really eager to hear about Nightingale, the new survival sim from Inflexion, which launches into early access on 20th February. A quick recap on Nightingale, in case you missed our early access preview today: it's a strongly British-influenced "gaslamp fantasy" experience in which players travel alone or in groups between procedurally generated fairy realms using magic portals. You can build bases in each Realm, go on story quests and hunt the wildlife for crafting materials.

Last week, RPS adventurers Edders, Kiera, Jeremy, Ollie and myself had a chance to play co-op with Aaryn Flynn, Inflexion’s CEO and former general manager at BioWare, while chatting to him about the game over Discord. The resulting, not entirely planned group interview lasted two hours and consisted mostly of people yelling at each other about ice ammo and tree monsters, but we did find time for some proper Q&A. Please find below an abbreviated transcript.

Cover image for YouTube videoNightingale: Releasing Earlier!

After some initial merriment in which Aaryn mocked Jeremy’s in-game eyebrows and I failed to install a patch correctly, we were summoned into a forest Realm prepared by Aaryn. Jeremy and Kiera also brought a couple of recruitable NPCs from their own home Realms, a decision that would have dire consequences. On the way through the woods to Aaryn's private estate, there was time for some idle banter.

Ollie: Is there friendly fire?

Aaryn: There's not, no. Maybe one day, I think it'd be a lot of fun to have duels and stuff like that, but we turned it off for this.

Ollie: That’s probably a good idea.

Aaryn: Yeah, keep the confusion to a minimum. Okay, so you're making good time. And I think – oh, there’s a boar there. Let’s leave that guy.

Edders: I found some horrible guys wearing horn masks? They seem manageable though.

Kiera: That's some nice Tudor thatch going on there.

Aaryn: Yeah, we built that with our player-facing systems. So that's all the tilesets you can earn over the course of the first part of launch. And we have a lot of ambitions to get more of those out to players, let them explore and expand their palate.

Having reached Aaryn’s little preview session home-away-from-home, we were handed some tasty high level equipment, including the latest and most fashionable top hats and ballgowns, together with hammers that cast group heals, shotguns loaded with electricity and ice ammo, and the very finest red armour-plated umbrellas in all of London town, guvnor. We looked like a bunch of concussed theatre-goers. But by the gods, we were a force to reckon with, as Aaryn demonstrated by taking us through a portal to a desert Realm for some monster hunting.

During the journey between Realms – what those ignorant of the mystical arts refer to as a "loading break" – I asked Aaryn what he thought set Nightingale apart from the currently fierce survival game competition.

Aaryn: I think one thing that's that's really cool about survival gaming right now is there's no set template, right? There's no kind of definitive survival crafting game, that all survival crafted games now must follow, other than that you start off - and there's the portal open! Let’s jump through – other than that you start off with nothing or nearly nothing, and then build your way up. Everything else is, you know, unique IPs, unique mechanics. So I think that's really cool, and hopefully players gravitate towards the one that they like. If you like a Victorian gaslamp fantasy setting, you're going to pick Nightingale. If you like, you know, capturing and automating Pokemon, you're gonna go to Palworld. That's a cool thing about the genre right now.

A sandy desert temple in Nightingale
A player building a campsite in Nightingale
A player recruiting a companion in Nightingale
A player flying over swamplands in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

So we focused very much on world building as our thing, creating a hopefully compelling universe. The setting and the aesthetic hopefully stand apart, and then we have to deliver great mechanics on top of that.

We arrived in the desert Realm. Edders immediately picked a fight with some kind of robot.

Aaryn: OK, so leave it to Rock Paper Shotgun to get right into things. We are going to that tower over there, which is actually super-close today. We can go to the tower super quick. Oh, geez. That automaton is no joke.

Edwin: I just got shoved back through the portal by the robot exploding. So good job whoever picked a fight with the giant robot, good job.

After I’d travelled through the portal for a second time, Aaryn took us to the aforesaid Fae tower to talk us through the mechanics of playing Realm cards to modify the world you’re standing in. A practised tour guide, he kept up a gentle bombardment of smaller insights about Nightingale. For instance: cut down a creature with a unique pattern, and you can craft equipment with that pattern. Unwanted equipment, meanwhile, can be reduced to essences that can be traded with shopkeepers. Tower dungeons aren’t the same each time.

Aaryn: These towers are procedurally assembled and so what that means is there's a template, and then you never know what you're gonna get past the first floor. So we have more Bound enemies here, so this is another fight. Sometimes you get music puzzles, sometimes you get phases...

Ollie: Is there a headshot multiplier with the ranged weapons there?

Aaryn: Yeah, you can get a headshot. Every creature or the vast majority them has a weak spot you can hit.

A group of players battling enemies on a tower in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

At the top of the tower – and once we’d dispatched a defending Swordsman - Aaryn introduced us to a Synchronous Lotus, a fancy Fae Mcdoodle that powers your Portals, and can be used to play the aforesaid Realm cards, though I have to say, I’m murky on the details here. Kiera offered some praise for the game’s elusive masked narrator Puck, who materialises when you complete a quest objective.

Kiera: There's a lot of love for Puck in our Slack channel - I love the way that he kind of twirls around when he leaves.

Aaryn: I'm glad you like Puck - Marc Warren who voices him is a Brit. But we've definitely had people where English is not their first language, who will come to us and say I have no idea what he just said to me. It’s probably something that you’ve got to get used to. And I think we took that for granted, being also in the Commonwealth here in Canada.

Aaryn showed us the basics of playing Realm cards in Fae towers to alter the setting. A Bloodmoon card, for example, lowers your health but increases the odds of rare item drops. A Tempest card makes it rain, which will water your crops. Thin Veil reduces the gravity, which came in handy shortly afterwards when we used our umbrellas to glide back down to the desert. I asked where the idea for the umbrellas came from.

A group of Nightingale players gliding over a desert using their umbrellas
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Aaryn: So we obviously wanted some sort of gliding mechanic in there - Leah, our director of production, says it was a joke. Someone said in a sarcastic manner ‘we should put it on the umbrella like Mary Poppins’, and sure enough, there we are. I think once we saw it in-game, it had so much character that we just kept it right – oh, you died.

Kiera: I don’t know what happened there.

Edwin: You just face-planted right in front of me.

Kiera: I was just jumping up and down.

Edwin: It’s really lovely that the umbrellas came out of a joke. To be honest, I had not made the Mary Poppins connection, even though it's screamingly obvious.

Aaryn: Yeah. I don't know how popular Mary Poppins was in the UK, it was extremely popular here in North America. I imagined it was probably something of – to see a part of your culture portrayed that way might have been appreciated might have been annoying. I don't know. I know when I see Canadians in movies every now and then it's usually hit or miss. They tend to exaggerate things right?

The next objective, once Kiera had respawned and rejoined the party: murdering some kind of giant beetle with one of the aforementioned unique patterns. Aaryn wanted to give us some backstory on this legendary creature, but then Ollie jumped on the beetle and it got angry, much to its cost.

Aaryn: So he has a name. Strog -

Ollie: Not any more, he doesn’t.

Kiera: That was brutal.

Aaryn: Behold the mighty Strog, champion of these realms since time immemorial – dead. Well done Rock Paper Shotgun. What stories he had, we will never know.

Having slaughtered the mighty Strog, and after absent-mindedly killing a passing elephant, we set off through another portal to a swamp realm to fight a Humbaba – an “apex” monster, seemingly inspired by the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. Along the way, Kiera and I asked Aaryn about the game’s biomes. Which did Inflexion come up with first?

Aaryn: The forest was the first one. It’s sort of, I guess, the canonical one that most survival games try to embrace. I can tell you, for us, it was because there were so many free or cheap assets on the Unreal store, which kind of made it a natural thing to experiment with. Maybe that's the way for other teams. But that's what we tried it was like, yeah, this works well. And then we used those initial forest assets plus the ones we made to work on the procedural assembly stuff.

A group of players carrying umbrellas in Nightingale
A dead elephant in a desert area in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Kiera: Do you plan to add many more biomes after release?

Aaryn: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think biomes are sort of the bread and butter of these games. They're so foundational to the kind of experience that players want. So yeah, we've got lots of plans for new exciting biomes that give you new pressures and new challenges.

Kiera: It would be great to have a winter state or something, as well.

Aaryn: Oh yeah. With minor Realm cards, we're feeling pretty good about how crazy you can make them and the rules you can bend and stuff. The more we can do that, I think the better - people are really responding to those, they like the fun you can have there.

Edwin: It feels very appropriate that you'd start with the woods in the sense you're presenting the procedural generation in the game as kind of fiddling with the occult, and in UK literature there's this whole idea of the wild woods - you step in and the paths don’t go where you think, and I really like the idea of this having a wild wood at its heart, and then expanding into other biomes.

Aaryn: Yeah, it's funny. The original – oh, there's the portal open. So now if we jump through here, we'll go to the swamp. So the original inspiration for the portals was The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. And this idea that there are these, like, innocuous things that you open up, and there are dimensions beyond them that are so vast and so compelling, and so full of adventure. The original idea we liked was finding something like that, and it’s a portal. In our game portals can be anything, the Fae can imbue anything with a portal, it just needs to be an arch with kind of three sides. I like the idea of [adding] more portals in the future.

Upon entering the swamp, there was time to pitch camp, rest up on sleeping rolls and have a bite to eat before setting off through the poisoned water to confront the terrible Humbaba. The game indicates the path to some objectives with a trail of glowing wisps. At one point during the session, the path of wisps snagged on a tree and produced a massive hoop. Aaryn was alarmed by this, but I’m pretty sure we all found it charming. Along the way we ran into some larger fauna -

Ollie: There are a couple of... giants, I'm going to say? Cool.

Aaryn: Swamp giants? Okay, we could take them out or we could avoid them. I mean, with this gear they would go down pretty quick but up to you. They tunnel through the ground - oh, somebody shot one.

Kiera: Ollie.

Ollie: That wasn’t me.

Jeremy: That was me, sorry.

While Ollie and Jeremy were away being mean to giants, I asked Flynn about the game’s Arachnophobia mode. How does one go about making giant spiders in games safe for arachnophobes?

Aaryn: We took our inspiration from Grounded, because they had referenced some research that they'd done, where it turned out the thing that seems to really set people off with the arachnophobia is the legs. And so what they did in Grounded was they just removed the legs. And that seemingly was incredibly effective at reducing the sensation of you know, fear and disgust. OK, where’s the Humbaba. Is she over here? There's some other creatures here, a Bandersnatch…

Edwin: Ooh, do you have a Jabberwocky?

Aaryn: Funny you bring that up. I would say there's a very good chance the Jabberwocky comes in a future update.

Jeremy: Will there be a vorpal sword?

Aaryn: So I can confess to you that I'm a huge fan of Arthurian legends and stuff. And I would love to see us bring, you know, Merlin and those kinds of things, those kind of characters in the future.

After a gruelling interval during which many more unsuspecting swamp monsters were set upon and bludgeoned to death, we tracked down the Humbaba. It was our toughest battle yet, mostly because the huge, batlike creature kept vomiting poison gas everywhere, but we still had a massive power advantage and enough ice ammo to flash-freeze a tidal wave. Within moments, the noble Humbaba had followed the mighty Strog into oblivion.

A dead monster in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Kiera: For these types of monsters, do you need a team with you? Or is it possible to do it alone?

Aaryn: It's really like a Dark Souls game. We don't balance it for one player, but God knows that there are incredibly skilled players who will eventually figure it out.

Aaryn was concerned we hadn't seen enough of the Humbaba to understand its workings, so he used cheats to respawn the creature again with boosted stats. This didn't go so well.

Aaryn: Okay, what did I just do here? Oh. Okay, so I just spawned two of them. I clicked too fast.

Edders: Oh my god.

Edwin: I’m going to stand on this rock over here. You take care of it.

A massive monster in Nightingale fighting in a swamp
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Again the ice ammo prevailed over the forces of supernature. During the firefight, Jeremy and Ollie pressed Aaryn on the subject of equipment level caps.

Aaryn: I think at early access, it probably caps out at somewhere in the two hundreds, depending on how much you invest. We have tier three gear right now, and there's a tier four above this.

After we’d defeated the second and third Humbabas, Aaryn tried to take us to another Realm. But then he accidentally spawned a fourth Humbaba.

Aaryn: OK, let me crank this thing up. So if I do a hard hunt forest, that's going to increase the realm power from 100 to 160, so it'll be about 60% harder than this, and we can go – oh shit, it broke my portal!

The ice shotguns rang out for the fourth and final time, Aaryn built another portal, and we were off to the aforesaid Forest realm.

Ollie: Are all creatures in a single realm the same level that you set the realm at?

Aaryn: Yeah, exactly. There's a bit of variability in there, so you're gonna find harder creatures and you're gonna find some easier ones. Like some of the monsters that were bothering us in the swamp, they're the same level as the Humbaba but they're easier to kill, obviously.

Jeremy: I like the effects that you have in the sky. Very nice backdrops.

Aaryn: Thanks! Yeah, our team spent a lot of time on the skyboxes, they wanted to really make sure you felt like you were in a true fantastical place, right? And that's why as you go further into the realms and discover new realms, the colours get pushed into the extreme, because we did not want it to feel like you're just going to you know, endless forest after endless forest.

Our mission in the new forest Realm was to bring down or make peace with an Elder Eoten – essentially a huge, sentient tree that eats meat. The problem was that we couldn’t find the right tree.

Aaryn: Here we go. Okay, so who wants to who wants to try to start the Eoten fight? I think it's this big oak tree in the middle here. My guess, just give it a swing here. See if that's it. Oh, I don't think that's him. Is it this guy? No? Which one is he? I think he’s here. I hope he’s here. Let me just cast this spell again. Maybe it’s the wrong spell.

Kiera: What if we cut down all the trees.

We cut down all the nearby trees.

Aaryn: They usually have a, what’s the word, an “offering” thing. I don't see the offering thing here. So I'm wondering if I if it didn't work, and I wonder if we're just - oh, it’s still going. I think it’s got [an objective area] around it, and we're still out of range. Okay, that explains that. So we chopped those poor trees down for nothing.

We proceeded deeper into the woods in search of the Eoten.

A dark forest in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Aaryn: Oh, there’s a little village over here! Someone built this little – oh there’s a giant bear. Is that a fabled bear? Oh I thought the bear’s name was Norman, but no, it’s just a trader.

Kiera: Norman is a fabulous name for a bear.

We killed the bear. Its actual name was Philisto The Wronged, or something to that effect. Philisto certainly did get Wronged. Then came a moment of absolute treachery: somebody’s NPC buddy hacked a tree down and flattened me with it.

Kiera: Aww, that might have been my Joe.

Aaryn: Did he at least resurrect you afterwards?

Edwin: I did get resurrected, yes. He was considerate like that. But I’ve lost track of everybody else now. Oh, it’s that blue icon on the radar.

Aaryn: It's so tough, right? Because obviously, that's a bug we don't want. We don't want your NPC going off and dropping trees on you randomly, but by the same token, everyone loves it when that happens. So it's a tough balance to strike, because there's going to be some person who spent hours and hours trying to get ready for something, and their NPCs ruin it for them.

Then, at last, we found the Elder Eoten, a conspicuously gnarled and unpleasant tree perched on a crag, surrounded by valuable blue crystals. Aaryn gave us the chance of offering the Eoten something via its altar, at the risk of offending the titan and triggering a battle. Kiera rose to the challenge.

Kiera: I gave it some Humbaba meat.

Aaryn: Oh, very good guess! The Elder Eotens love meat, so he should have given you Elder Eoten wood back.

A group of Nightingale players standing near a giant monster tree
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

Ollie: Great job Kiera.

Kiera: Oh I’m sorry. I’m a keeper of the trees. I’m all about that peace.

Aaryn: So there you go. You decided not to take out the giant tree, and instead you offered it something and oh, someone shot it.

Kiera: I want everyone to know that I tried to resolve this peacefully.

A battle with a giant tree monster in Nightingale
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Inflexion Games

As our play session came to an end in a cascade of Elder Eoten giblets and inhumanity, I asked Flynn one final question about Nightingale’s procedural generation. I personally love it when procgen worlds are bizarre to the point of becoming impossible to traverse – a good example is Dream Cycle, a project led by original Tomb Raider developer Toby Gard, in which you can spelunk across worlds made up of impassable gaps and bizarrely meshed interiors. But I can see how that kind of architectural insanity could ruin a survival game, whose core resourcing, building and crafting systems require some degree of predictability.

Aaryn: Yeah, you've hit the nail on the head. You know, players need rules to understand, things the can build into their understanding, and then progress from there. What I have found, though, and we tried to set Nightingale up this way, is that the Realms get more fantastical as you go further and further.

We started off with a pretty tame forest with pretty standard creatures in it, wolves and bears and stuff like that. But then you get more and more exotic and strange places, and you earn more and more powerful Minor Realm cards that do more and more fantastical things. And I think we've only scratched the surface of that. I want to push that further as we do the live service, but you have to give people something. I think you have to ground people so they can say ‘okay, I get what's going to happen here’ and then you can push and push and push from there.

You can read my slightly more collected thoughts on Inflexion's latest over in our Nightingale early access preview.

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Edwin Evans-Thirlwell avatar

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

News Editor

Clapped-out Soul Reaver enthusiast with dubious academic backstory who obsesses over dropped diary pages in horror games. Games journalist since 2008. From Yorkshire originally but sounds like he's from Rivendell.