Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Tobi Harper and David Wright, the two-man team behind the upcoming dungeon crawler Eitr.
In the past few years, boutique game publisher Devolver Digital has established a fun new tradition at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (casually referred to as E3) in Los Angeles. Instead of showing off their games in a booth on the show floor, they rent out a parking lot across the street from the LA Convention Center and park airstream trailers there for their developers to present what they have.
It was in one of these trailers that I was introduced to Eitr for the first time. And it was in that trailer where I met its creators, Tobi Harper and David Wright, a pair of black men from London. This was, to put it mildly, a surprising thing — the game industry is widely known for its lack of diversity, and that lack is heightened at E3. It’s unusual that anyone other than white men will demonstrate a game for press at the show, and almost unheard of to encounter a black man or woman presenting their own game. In the madness of E3, the largest showcase for gaming every year, indies very often get lost in the shuffle, but this momentous occasion was a near guarantee that wouldn’t happen this year.
What made that an absolute sure thing was Eitr itself (for I would not be writing this were the game not something I enjoyed). Often billed as an isometric Dark Souls drawn in detailed pixel art, Eitr is at first glance a dungeon crawler of the old style. The key is a lack of your usual daunting video game complexity; it’s intended to be difficult to play but not to understand. Playing as a woman known as the Shield Maiden in an epic inspired by Norse mythology, you wander down corridors fighting monsters in a real-time game of rock, paper, scissors — you can attack, dodge, block and parry, and knowing when to do which is the difference between success and failure.
You won’t get bogged down with ability wheels or a deluge of other options that are known to bog down games of this type. It’s all about the rhythm of play, and understanding how it works. Players can customize their experiencing to an extent by choosing what weapon to use or magical ability to wield, but the core play experience does not involve learning a new typically convoluted control scheme. Eitr being a visually familiar experience also contributes to that sense of comfort.
The story of how Eitr came to be — indeed, how it continues to do so, as it won’t be released until next year — is, however, largely typical for a game developed outside the industry. Harper and Wright are not disgruntled industry folk who went indie for the sake of autonomy nor are they making Eitr on their own because they attempted to break into the industry but were unable to. Eitr rather is serving as their breakout game even now, with Devolver set to publish and Sony promoting the game at their extravagant E3 press conference prior to the show. They’re no longer moonlight as hobbyist developers; this is what they do now for a living.
Wright and Harper had been dabbling in game development for years on the side, working on a number of quick-and-easy projects either just to dick around with or to chase a viral trend in what Harper referred to as a “get rich quick scheme.”
“If you’re not pouring your heart and soul into these things, it just isn’t going to work,” Wright told ANIMAL a couple weeks after he and Harper showed me the game. “Because you just don’t feel like doing it.”
So they began work on what would eventually become Eitr, but it definitely was not Eitr at first. Wright described it as a 2D, sidescrolling beat-em up like Streets of Rage and its late ‘80s/early ‘90s ilk. They evolved that into a different sort of top-view isometric action game, and they also got hooked on the TV show Vikings which Harper said in turn led him to delve into the history of Norse mythology. And thus Eitr slowly morphed into what I played and saw at E3.
Navigating the video game ecosystem is complicated because the issues with diversity I mentioned above are naturally rooted in issues with racism and misogyny and a general reflexive fear of outsiders. Wright and Harper, being black, do not physically look like the colloquial “one of us.”I asked them whether they’ve gotten any pushback because of that as they’ve emerged onto the scene (albeit in a relatively small way, being indies), and they said it hasn’t been an issue thus far. Harper said I was the first member of the press to talk about it, even. That wasn’t too surprising to me, because the flip side is because those issues are well known those who don’t are opposed to that racism and misogyny will often tiptoe around those issues for fear of coming off as one of the perpetrators.
“It’s fine. We are black. We know we’re black,” Harper said. “We want people to look at the game, rather than us. We want the game to be more important than us. Because to us, the game is more important.”
That is an oft-uttered sentiment, echoing the industry’s common tactic of minimizing focus on individual creators. But whereas big publishers do that to essentially keep the serfs in their place as anonymous cogs in a corporate machine, Harper and Wright I think have no problem with being known, period; they just would prefer to be known for making a good game rather than for being placed on a social justice pedestal. And now that they are officially full-time game developers, there is real urgency to that, with Eitr functioning as their big shot.
“If this doesn’t work,” Harper said, “then making the next game is going to be more difficult. We just want to carry on making games. That is all.” So far, so good with Eitr, which has largely been met with raves from those who played it at E3. We’ll find out for sure how well it holds its own in 2016.
Eitr will be available on PC and PlayStation 4, and possibly also PlayStation Vita, sometime in 2016.