Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Niles Sankey (Creative Director and Designer), Eric Raab (Writer) and Adam Burd (Sound Designer), the three amigos from the relatively newly-formed Nilo Studios about their debut game, Asemblance. Despite it being an indie studio, this is not your average indie three-piece. The team at Nilo Studios have a wealth of experience spanning more than fifteen years in the video game industry, including working with developers such as Bungie and Visceral on blockbuster IPs such as Halo, Destiny and Dead Space.
I praised the first-person psychological thriller in my review for its intriguing and addictive premise along with its emotive soundtrack. As such, I was keen to sit down with the minds behind it and see how the game came about and how they felt about its reception.
DYEGB: Nilo Studios is made up of a very small team, all with a wealth of experience in the video game industry. Tell us a bit about the studio’s founding.
Niles: I had been working at Bungie from Halo 3 through the early stages of pre-production of Destiny 2. While my time there was amazing, I didn’t quite feel like the studio’s growth and my own career were heading in the same direction, so I walked away. I initially collaborated with other developers in Seattle, like Tom Doyle at Endeavor One, and we released the VR game, Jump, but ultimately I decided to head my own projects. Using UE4, I started making Asemblance, sharing the spaces and visions with local music and sound designer Adam Burd, and bouncing around ideas for the story experience with Eric Raab, who I met at Bungie.
Adam: Niles and I have been collaborating for a long time; typically on music and video projects. We talked a lot about making games together, but he was at Bungie and I work as a sound engineer and we were just too busy to do it. After he left Bungie and I bought a house right around the corner from his, we started messing around with Asemblance, first making a trailer and then starting to layer in the ideas he and Eric were cooking up.
Eric: While I was at Bungie, I got to work with so many talented folks, but Niles and I just spoke the same language, had very similar inspirations and senses of humour, and I tried my best to work exclusively with him to bring some innovations to Destiny, but the studio was too big to take the kinds of narrative risks we were most interested in. We became friends, wallowing in our despair and desire to challenge the ways narrative can work in games. When he walked away and started telling me about this “Holoroom” concept he was making in UE4, I got excited and just started spitting ideas to deepen his premise at him. I left Bungie as a full-time employee a few months after that.
Niles: The inception of Nilo couldn’t have happened anywhere but Seattle. We had help from local sound artists, like Johnny Goss and Joey Butler (Kid Smpl), as well as all our friends, who are full-time developers at others studios. Whether it was simply play-testing, or offering a bit of technical or art help, Asemblance is the result of so much local talent, and it would be wrong of me to not admit that all there help and advice was essential to Nilo’s inception.
DYEGB: Asemblance is the debut game from Nilo Studios and is quite a departure from previous titles that members of the studio have worked on. What was the inspiration for Asemblance? Was the idea around before the coming together of Nilo Studios in 2015?
Niles: Yeah, Nilo was basically born during the development of Asemblance. The initial inspiration for Asemblance was derived from conceptually combining an old episode of the 90s Twilight Zone, called Dreams for Sale (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeJgK0PTGp4 and this Unreal engine art piece. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6PQ19BEE24). Basically the idea was that you find yourself in this beautiful house. You walk around with a feeling of nostalgic calm. Suddenly your view becomes glitched and distorted. The world around you degrades and collapses. You now find yourself in a futuristic dystopian reality, where the beautiful house was simply a virtual memory of your past. What does it all mean? And after I was pretty blown away by PT(The Silent Hills Playable Teaser), how something so simple could be so engrossing (not to mention community forming), I started thinking of a big idea I could hang this concept on, and still change the landscape and emotional states of the player and came up with the holoroom idea. From there it was a bunch of things, Eric gave me his copy of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, I pointed him to Stephen King’s The Jaunt and an episode of Star Trek: TNG called Ship in a Bottle. We wanted to make sure we added some levity and Adam’s brilliant voice acting is definitely a nod to Hal in 2001 and the narrator of The Stanley Parable. And the narrative puzzles and sound design is wholly inspired by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I could go on, but I think that sums it up ok.
The twilight zone?
DYEGB: Is the story of Asemblance continuous over the episodes? Or is each episode a self-contained story?
Eric: There will be some continuity to draw from between episodes, but each episode will stand on its own. Part of the fun will be seeing how they connect, for us and the players, but we want it to be anthology-based, like the Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, but you might start seeing episodes talking to each other, like the X-Files brilliantly did over time.
DYEGB: How many episodes will Asemblance eventually be comprised of?
Niles: As many as players will let us make. We are self-funded so as long people want them and are willing to pay for them, we’ll make them.
DYEGB: Will we see a physical release bundling all the episodes once they’re released (a la Life is Strange)?
Niles: Possibly, never thought of that. We’ll see where we are after a few releases.
DYEGB: Are there plans to bring Asemblance to Xbox?
Niles: We are currently looking into it. Being a small studio it’s hard enough to develop for two platforms, since I handle all the engine work and porting. Adding a third would have pushed the release farther back then we were comfortable with, and we were anxious to get the game out and see how people reacted.
DYEGB: What about VR compatibility?
Eric: Yes. We just kicked off that exploration last week. However, exploration is one thing. Actually getting it done is another.
Asemblance’s immersive atmosphere could make it a top-notch VR experience
I think the first-person aspect offers some really unique narrative opportunities that we are just starting to touch on. I love creating milieus and mysteries for players to engage in, and identity and motivation are things some games struggle to bring in the FP experience – Eric Raab
DYEGB: Episode One is made up of only a few locations and minimal gameplay mechanics. How hard is it to strike a balance that ensures the experience isn’t humdrum?
Niles: It’s very challenging. And I don’t think we got it right just yet. For a handful of players, it’s fun to sift through the subtle changes of these spaces, but we are alienating a larger group who don’t have the patience or desire to dig that deep. That is something we’ll definitely focus on in future episodes.
Adam: By changing the soundtrack in each location we were able to add layers of differentiation that helped to affect change to the player’s mental state, so we tweaked that ever so slightly to make sure we could use the spaces repeatedly and each time they were slightly different.
DYEGB: At the beginning of the game a message is displayed informing players that your choices matter. I played the game through twice, trying to do things differently where I could. Ultimately my path ended up at the same destination. Can you explain the depth of this butterfly effect system?
Niles: The idea we really wanted to hit here is the psychological state of the player character, who is trying to revisit past decisions, cannot escape them, no matter what science, reasoning, or technological developments they make. A lot of people choose to give up, others re-enter and are hopefully rewarded by their experience. We also want it to serve as a mission statement for the series of Asemblance. We want to make choice more of a part of the gameplay experiences and hopefully satisfy exactly what you were looking for, since we failed to do so this time around.
DYEGB: One of my favourite facets of Asemblance was the soundtrack’s ability to highlight the game’s poignant tone, despite the player’s limited knowledge of the events that led to the main character’s plight. How important is it for games like Asemblance to let the game’s atmosphere or world do the talking as much as the narrative?
Adam: I think it’s definitely the most rewarding experiences I have in games and what we were going for in this particular episode and Asemblance in general. We are going to continue to play around and see how far we can push those kinds of narrative experiences.
Eric: I think the first-person aspect offers some really unique narrative opportunities that we are just starting to touch on. I love creating milieus and mysteries for players to engage in, and identity and motivation are things some games struggle to bring in the FP experience. We certainly had that problem on Destiny, so we thought, why not lean hard into it and make it part of the narrative experience? Ends up that’s very alienating to some players and very exciting to others. But I am not giving up. It’s a frontier worth exploring.
The game’s soundtrack helps sell its poignant atmosphere
DYEGB: Asemblance features multiple endings, some of which are much harder to achieve than others. Are you surprised at the amount of effort some people have put in to solve the elusive White Shift ending? I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to get that ending without Google. You must be proud that your game has driven fans to such lengths. How important is it to balance the difficulty and make sure players have enough tools to be able to solve the game’s puzzles?
Niles: Finding that balance is definitely a focus for future episodes, but we wanted to see how far players would go, and more important, we wanted to get players working together. It was so rewarding to watch Twitch streams lead by ImTheBlueRanger, lulusoccer and Bumbleworth, but we hope to lower the on-ramp a bit more in the future. We are learning really valuable lessons as we go, and that’s part of why it’s still fun to make.
DYEGB: You’ve encountered a few hiccups with the release of Episode One in a couple regions. As a self-publishing outfit what is the most important lesson you’ve learnt from the launch of Episode One?
Niles: We are still learning them. We definitely didn’t realize how much logistics go into each and every region: Translations, PEGI ratings, timing of announcements and releases, review copies and PR in general, all these are a lot more involved than we anticipated.
DYEGB: Asemblance and games of similar ilk have been dubbed ‘walking simulators’. What’s your take on games being given this label?
Niles: I suppose labels are a necessary evil. There are far too many people making stuff to avoid categories. I just hope people start to understand that it’s not something that wholly defines what is being offered.
DYEGB: Do you have a release window for Episode Two that you can share with us?
Eric: We don’t have a release window yet for Episode 2, but we are hoping to have it out it some time in the first half of 2017.
DYEGB: The PS4 is lacking in quality dynamic themes. With your game’s excellent soundtrack, have you considered creating one for Asemblance? I suggest using the music from the Woodland Ridge. I’d get around that.
Adam: You should check out Kid Smpl’s Skylight album. That’s where that track originated from. And Johnny Goss’s Dandelion Gold website. We talked about a soundtrack. Maybe once we have a few episodes out there so it’s more dynamic itself.
DYEGB: Lastly, can you explain the reasoning behind the singular S in the game’s title? Our editors are dying to know.
Niles: It’s a single word made up of two words. “A semblance” of truth. Some press outlets thought the name was a type-o..but it’s not. Or maybe it is. Guess it depends on your perspective.
A big thank you must go to Niles, Eric and Adam from Nilo Studios for answering all of our questions.
Asemblance is available now on both the Steam and PSN stores. If you wish to know more about Nilo Studios or Asemblance, check out the official sites for Nilo Studios and Asemblance. Otherwise check out the release trailer for Episode One below: