Dan from PressA2Join.com recently had the chance to chat with Tristan Moore, Co-Founder of Broken Window Studios about his game Reflections.
Welcome back to PressA2Join Tristan, could you start by telling us a little about Reflections.
Tristan: So Reflections started out as a small experiment I did at the end of my senior year in college in 2012. I’d been thinking a bunch about where my life was going and I had just gotten a degree in game art and animation, so it seemed logical to explore those feelings in a game. In short, Reflections is a game where you get to explore the impact your actions have on your future. The game is a dynamically changing narrative, that starts you out right as you’re about to head off to college. The game takes place during 3 days that are decades apart.
Dan: Ok I was curious, when did you begin creating the game?
Tristan: The game was basically done as an initial prototype but I was learning programming at the time and I wasn’t able to give it the art treatment before I got hired to work at THQ. At the time, Steam Greenlight wasn’t a thing and I decided to just shelve it. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Yeah, my first full on industry job was doing Audio QA for WWE, So obviously this game is a bit different.
Dan: Ok wow, I didn’t know you’d worked for THQ, which titles did you work on? I think I only ever played Smackdown Vs Raw 2007 on the 360
Tristan: I worked on WWE’13 before THQ went bankrupt, sadly. I was actually happy it happened though, I got my first design job at Redacted Studios shortly after that and spent a year working from junior up to senior design at that company. I did some work on the upcoming Afro Samurai 2, doing mostly combat systems design and project management.
So yeah, in 2014 we did our Kickstarter for Grave and started working as full time indies. Grave has been growing substantially but it needs a little more time to mature, which is actually a really good thing. The original concept of the game was to make it a small “feeling” piece about procedural horror, but we’ve started writing a really great story for it and we were looking for a way to keep things going without having to compromise. We had always planned on going back to Reflections at some point, but we took inventory of what we had and it actually felt like Reflections was already in really good shape. So we decided to dedicate some resources to it in our spare time to improve it a bit and redo the art.
We did a Steam Greenlight campaign for it and got Greenlit in 7 days, which was really shocking and amazing. I think the game really connected with people. So we’re going to be releasing it at the end of April and the proceeds are going to fund the further development of Grave, so we can make it the game we want it to be instead of having to compromise. So it’s kind of a win-win for us. We get to stay independent and Reflections is a space to get some really cool ideas out there that we can feed back into our work on Grave.
Dan: It must have been a great feeling to see Reflections break into the Steam Greenlight 100 and then become very successful.
Tristan: Yeah absolutely, I felt like Reflections was my weird baby that only I could love. I honestly thought it would never really have a place anywhere, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive
Dan:I visited the Steam Greenlight page for Reflections and noticed over 200 comments, a lot of people are interested in the game.
Tristan: I think people are interested in more grounded experiences about real life. I also think they are eager to see a game where the story can be heavily impacted by what you do. We’ve had people ask us “So you say the game lets you affect the story, but does it REALLY?” And I must say unambiguously that yes, it does. The story is more experiential than a lot of other games so it’s subtler in tone. But the whole system of the game is this branching narrative, and everything we’re doing with the game is designed to enforce that.
Dan: So how does the story work?
Tristan: Reflections uses an interesting “Storyteller” system that basically profiles the player rather than creating story branches. So the story is a dynamic mix of a bunch of player actions taken throughout the game. We track everything you do and decide what type of player you are based on that insight. Then we jump ahead in time and show you where your story ended up.
Dan: I was curious, these choices that you make throughout the game. How heavy an impact will they have on the character as the game moves forward and will you have the ability to go back and change the things you have done?
Tristan: So the changes are part of a spectrum of possibilities. We profile your play so it’s never an explicit choice, it’s the stuff you subconsciously say about your priorities by what you choose to interact with, how you treat characters or where you go. The game is on a fixed time schedule so you only have time to do some things in each “Act” of the game. When you move on to the next act, we jump forward in time and change a bunch of things to correspond with what the Storyteller knows about you.
The whole play session is between 60-90 minutes for one playthrough, and you can have some pretty drastic changes to your narrative. For example, if you focused on work you might find that you’re in an office in Act 2. If you were really diligent, you might actually be the boss at the office instead of just working there.
Dan: That’s pretty incredible
Tristan: If you went out exploring your Act 2 will be in a completely different region, such as showing you a day trip into the mountains exploring. Then there are other layers that interact with that, such as relationships, specifics about actions you have taken, and so on. If you cultivate a relationship with your girlfriend/boyfriend they will follow you into the next part of your story, if you don’t then you might be alone.
Dan: Sounds like Reflections has a lot of depth to it. You can fully alter your life depending on the actions you choose in each act.
Tristan: Yeah, we’re focusing on depth instead of breadth. The game has some large core choices about life that split off into different places, then we layer on smaller details that read back to you specific actions you’ve taken so if you packed a picture in Act 1 that was of you and your family, that picture will be on the desk at your office or in your home later on. If you listened to one record especially you might hear that record later on in a way that reminds you of where you were when you listened in Act 1
Dan: Do you feel that Reflections adds a lot more story wise than the other choice based games around today? Say for example the TellTale games.
Tristan: I think it fills out a different end of the spectrum. Telltale Games or something like The Stanley Parable are primarily about branches. Stanley Parable does a good job with that but it’s hard to scale into something bigger. It’s basically a “choose your own adventure” where every authored branch is a separate chunk of the level or experience. Games like The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Life is Strange, etc., tend to have to limit the actions that can have meaningful consequences.
It’s just way too difficult to write a story branch for every action in a 5-10 hour game experience, let alone a 100 hour one.
Dan: We noticed when playing back through The Walking Dead Season 1 that even though we made different choices the outcome tended to be exactly the same, the game didn’t really alter the way we had hoped.
Tristan: Exactly, those games really can’t have too many choices or the production would explode. I think for us at Broken Window Studios, we want to have that meaningful change. We’re starting it out with something like Reflections which has a very limited scope, a 90 minute play experience that would probably be about 5-6 hours if laid out in a linear progression. But because it’s a smaller experience we can really go deep and make those large variations, and because we are building the story based on the player’s profile we can read back to them a better set of outcomes that is more representative than “what did you pick for choice a, b and c”
I’ve joked before that while The Stanley Parable is a “Choose your own Adventure,” Reflections is like an online personality quiz.
Dan: Do you think that gamers nowadays are more happier having choices to make in games, rather than a game that’s scripted out for you and no option to change certain outcomes, i.e combat games?
Tristan: I think that’s a huge desire that’s not being fulfilled in many games. I look back at the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle and that to me was a situation that got completely misinterpreted.
Dan: Ok, how so?
Tristan: People weren’t upset about the actual fiction of the ending, they were upset that it didn’t take into account the previous choices and actions that had spanned 3 games. Ultimately, everyone who plays ME3 gets the same ending choice no matter what they did leading up to it. But if that universe were more like reality, actions taken early on would probably have a big effect, one that’s hard to identify, and would lead you down a path that would vary hugely. So a Shepard that had been behaving like a Paragon would probably end up in a different situation than one that was a Renegade. But in that game, the ending didn’t take into account what players did leading up to it, there was just a final choice that everyone got regardless of the journey they took.
I think when the industry heard the outcry, everyone generally thought it was content. Like, they thought the ending wasn’t well written enough. However, I think the real reason is that the game wasn’t listening enough. It wasn’t providing enough feedback. I think players want to feel like the game is watching what they do and giving a result. That’s why Reflections is the way it is. We’re telling a simple story that has a lot of room for interpretation, but what’s totally unambiguous is that the story you experience is one that is crafted for you.
Dan: I agree that having choices should mean something.
Tristan: Yeah, it’s an interactive medium. I think we worry too much about writing and not enough about agency. The more the audience feels like they are participating, the more value the experience has in my opinion. From the response we’ve gotten so far, I think that’s the main value Reflections has to people. The good thing is that this game is just the first one like this for us. Assuming that we get to keep making games and people like our stuff, this is a foundation for our studio.
Dan: It sounds like the kind of game people are really going to enjoy.
Tristan: Thank you! I appreciate it. I hope people see in it what we do. I’ve often referred to the concept of the Butterfly Effect in discussing the game. In a way, that’s what it is; a playable interaction with unforeseen consequences.
Dan: I really do like the idea of how doing certain things in the moments you have left in each act, affect how you move on through the game.
Tristan: Yeah I think there’s something philosophical about it in a funny way.
Dan: Again it’s the attention to detail, the smaller things that people may not deem too significant can actually sculpt the outcome of your life.
Tristan: We’re trying to leave a lot of room for interpretation so the experience can feel the way you feel about it. And yeah, I think that’s how life is in a lot of ways. It’s not that big choice you make that defines you, it’s the tiny day to day decisions about how you spend your time
Dan: So are there any objectives throughout each act or are you simply just making the most of the remaining time in each act, playing it out the way you want?
Tristan: That’s part of why there aren’t any explicit “choices” in the game. I always feel like there is a discordance between play and choice. Most people play the way they actually “are” and then choose arbitrarily based on what they think the outcome will be. We’re trying to train the player to take choice seriously and play. As far as objectives go you really don’t have to do anything. you can actually sit in place and the game will progress without you. You won’t get a very satisfying experience but you can do it. The more rigorous you are as a player the more structured your outcomes will likely be though.
For example, someone who is working at an office will have expectations of them in that setting, so you’ll be given tasks the way anyone would in that setting you still don’t have to do it, but there are more obvious consequences. The idea of the game is not to be judgemental of your choices. If you just go off exploring we want to give you a life choice that reflects that
Dan: So you’re not just limited to office work, what other areas can you find yourself working in?
Tristan: Similarly we don’t want to close you off from alternative options or thoughts of what might have been. If you’re working in the office you can still find things that reflect a desire to break free, if maybe that wasn’t the right choice. There’s a few possibilities but I am going to leave some of them mysterious for now.A lot of the game is about finding those outcomes so I don’t want to reveal too much.
Dan: It certainly sounds like the kind of game that would be very appealing to a lot of gamers.
Tristan: Sweet! that’s really good. I’m glad that I can inspire people to be interested in a game about living a normal life. My hope of hopes is that we can somewhat bridge the gap between people who loved and people who hated games like Gone Home. I think that those types of experiences are great, the ones more grounded in reality. I’m hoping that Reflections can give players enough impact over the world and the story that they feel like it’s really giving them a unique experience, even if they’re more traditional gamers who want structure or rules.
Dan: I think gamers will love the experience of playing the game and seeing where the choices lead.
Tristan: Yeah I think it has a lot of replay value. Unlike other games where you have to fail and restart, Reflections just changes with each variation of the play experience. I think it rewards investment which is something I’d like to see more games do.
Dan: Does the game start out in modern day or is it set in a specific era?
Tristan: It’s pretty non-specific but it’s modern day. We want you to feel like it could be you, or you in a few years, or you a few years ago depending on what stage of your life you’re in.
Dan: Are there any plans to take the game further in the future or is it just a one off game?
Tristan: I think it’s a framework for more things that we can do, but it’s intended to be a one-off. I want players to feel like they got the story that was meant for them, and if we were to say build an expansion that created more branches that would be unfair to the early players. The game’s acts take you through 3 stages of your life though. Act 1 is right before college, Act 2 is about 10-15 years later, and Act 3 is at the very end of your life. So you get to play one day in each of those eras.
Dan: So minus childhood Reflections pretty much spans your entire life. So when you begin the game can you decide which gender you wish to play as or is it just one set character for everyone and go from there?
Tristan: Actually that’s a bit interesting. We’re not gendering the player at all. Your gender is your gender and we are leaving the environment impressionistic enough that it’s not important that you are male or female however, you will be able to pick the gender of the people you are in romantic relationships with, so you can explore that story the way that best reflects you. If you’re gay, straight, male or female, you can experience a story that is representative and isn’t implying a specific requirement.
Dan: So do you never actually see yourself in the game, the whole game is set in first person?
Tristan: Yeah exactly. In that way you’re defined entirely by your actions and choices you don’t have a name because you’re “you” basically and we’re telling a story that is likely not identical to your own but you should be able to easily end up in that character’s shoes. Yeah it’s a big priority for us to be inclusive and open, so you aren’t “Gordon Freeman,” you’re the player, and the story is yours.
Dan: So does the game have a release date for Steam? I know it’s available to pre order, also is there any news on an Xbox One release date?
Tristan: So the dates aren’t exact. We’re going to be releasing end of April on Steam. Xbox One will likely be in June/July, basically we’re getting the game final on PC, then doing all the API integration and attempting certification
Dan: Ok, not too far away then for the Xbox One.
Tristan: Once we pass cert we can launch anytime. I’m giving Certification about 8 weeks to be safe so that should be pretty reasonable as a guess. ideally anyway, i know a lot of indie seem to take like years for console versions haha, but i think we have a good handle on it
Dan: That’s good to hear, I started out today not really knowing too much about Reflections other than what I had read and I’m completely sold on the idea. It’s a game that I’m positive people will love. Since this interview the game has reached early access status on Steam. It is available now.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Tristan.