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Director Nic Tringali admits that yes, in retrospect that brief “does sound a bit boring” but in the 18 months it’s taken to complete the game, Arcsmith has been transformed into what’s shaping up to be one of the most interesting VR Puzzle games around.
That desk is now a workbench on a space station, orbiting an alien planet with an extra-terrestrial radio playing the biggest in intergalactic tunes in the background. “We love Sci-fi, plus it makes it easier to break the laws of physics,” Tringali tells me via Zoom.
The player takes on the role of an apprentice “dumped into the lap of this master Arcsmith. He doesn’t really want to teach you anything, but you start working there anyway,” giving you an authentic entry-level job experience.
Your new role? Creating various gadgets to fulfil the requirements of the customers on the planet below, be it something to stabilise anti-matter or an intergalactic drone. An early puzzle sees you building a terrarium. You get the basic glass box but you need to add a source of heat and light, and make sure you’re creating the right amount of each. There’s a vast library of parts but it’s up to the player what they use. “How it looks, how you assemble it, it’s all up to you” explains Tringali. “There’s a real freedom of expression aspect to achieving the goals”.
Tringali’s favourite puzzle games are ones that go beyond a firm right or wrong answer. “Expression is a big part of Arcsmith. We wanted to give players the freedom to be goofy and fun, or if they want everything to look sleek and symmetrical, that’s good too. Those choices just give games more flavour to me.”
More than a series of puzzles, Arcsmith also has a story that unfolds over the course of its six-hour playtime. The standoffish master Arcsmith has a past he’s reluctant to share. “He’s very down on himself but that gets unpacked over the course of the game,” shares Tringali. If that “unique tale of friendship and redemption” wasn’t captivating enough, the player also gets caught up in intergalactic drama as your space station becomes “the focal point of an intergalactic power struggle that could determine the future of the universe.”
Those narrative elements are a “huge part” of Arcsmith. “It’s a puzzle and story game first, that takes place in VR.” Tringali likes it when VR Games are clearly made for the platform and Arcsmith uses the tech because it lent itself to the gameplay of picking up different items, assembling them and pulling them apart again. “It felt right to make it VR”.
While most Virtual Reality games see the player moving around a big space or dropped in an expansive environment, Arcsmith sees you “hanging out in a space. You can see the planet outside, cycling between day and night and I won’t say it’s relaxing because the game can be tough, but the environment is meant to be cosy.”
In the background is a soundtrack created by Dan Le Sac and Sophie Williams White, playing through an alien radio. “It’s really strange but in the best way possible. There are times where I have no idea what I’m listening to but it adds so much flavour to the world,” says Tringali.
“There’s definitely an appeal to exploration but I think there’s an equally strong appeal to a game that introduces you to a new environment, and you’re allowed the time to really understand it. I suppose it’s a different sort of exploration and, as the different elements of the game progress, you get more comfortable in that space.”
Founded after the success of the BAFTA Award-Winning Thomas Was Alone, Bithell Games has made a name for itself with consistently brilliant games. Stealth puzzle game Volume came in 2015 followed by point-and-bounce VR title Earthshape in 2016. They’ve also worked on John Wick Hex and text-based adventure series Subsurface Circular.
The secret to the quality, according to Tringali, “is that we’re fans, first and we always want to be better.” After every game, there’s a period of post-mortems and self-reflection as they look at what worked, what could be improved. “We also chase what is interesting. That excitement translates, because people can feel that we’re excited by whatever it is we’re working on.
There’s no company ethos written down but “everyone feels strongly about doing something interesting. We want to keep ourselves interested.” They also put a lot of importance on telling tales. “I think of games as a way to tell stories in a different way. Players can create their own stories, using the game as a tool.”
Arcsmith is not only the first time the studio have used VR since Earthshape but it’s also the first game founder Mike Bithell hasn’t directed, with Tringali (who’s been part of the team since Volume) stepping up to the plate. “Everyone’s been really supportive. And we have a great, great team, obviously. It’s been great and I’m looking forward to directing more games.” So no pressure?
Apparently no, which still surprises Tringali. “The environment we have is one where we want to keep making games. If that’s the goal, it would be self-defeating to say that any particular one has to achieve X or Y. If you put pressure on a single title, it undermines the overall goal which is to be excited by what we’re doing. “
Tringali was inspired to become a game developer after playing Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic. “They both felt new and unlike anything else I’d played at the time. I’ve always been interested in games but they were the ones that made me ask ‘okay, how do you make them?’, which is a much vaguer question that it sounds.”
That wanting to know how it works still drives him today. Sure, the development of Arcsmith has meant he hasn’t had much time for other games but Outer Wilds is the one title that’s been exciting him lately. “It’s a very different kind of puzzle game and I don’t think I could make it. I really admire that,” he says.
As for what comes next, Tringali isn’t sure. “I need to not think about it for a little while before I want to do it again,” he says of his desire to make more VR games. “I’ve been in virtual reality a lot, in the past 18 months” but he’s quick to add that “that doesn’t mean we’ll never make another one. If Mike or I have a strong idea for a VR game, of course.” Arcsmith isn’t an experiment or a one-off for the studio, it’s just a game that leant itself to the platform.
Tringali has a lot of ideas about what he wants to create next and the next few months will be spent on internal pitches, chatting with the rest of the team and finding that excitement. As it stands, Arcsmith is complete and there are no plans to extend the story but that could always change. “We all have ideas and we’re talking at the moment but we’re nine days out from release so I haven’t thought much past the end of the month, to be honest.”
Bithell Games have a habit of announcing games, then releasing them soon after. “The short production schedule has a big impact on that,” explains Tringali. For example, six months ago Arcsmith wasn’t in a presentable state, he had no idea how long the playtime was and things were constantly changing. Announcing it at the start of the month meant they knew exactly what Arcsmith was. “Plus, it’s fun.” He adds with a grin.
As for where VR goes next, “there are so many different experiences being made possible right now. Traditional genres are being imported, new genres are being created. We’re only just scratching the surface of what VR can do, I think.”
Arcsmith will release on July 29.