For a long time, video games as a medium has been seen as young in comparison to its older siblings in movies and television. Regularly I hear pundits describe games as a medium still figuring out what it wants to be. Going through growing pains even (a term I like to use when the industry hits a bump from time to time). But I believe we are starting to see a time where video games are plateauing. Which I see as a good thing.
Jumps in technological advancements and the ability to make games more realistic are becoming fewer and further between and developers are starting to flex their muscles and spread their wings more so artistically, rather than technologically.
Not just regurgitating the same genres, but fusing them together to make hybrids and create something new. It doesn’t have to necessarily be groundbreaking or genre defining, but twisting what we already know. Not just from an immediate gameplay point of view either, but from a deeper psychological view. Making players feel something different in familiar environments. To me, Absolver looks to be one of these games.
The Want To Experiment
The flagship title from Parisian developers SloClap, Absolver is an online multiplayer ‘combat’ RPG, in which you play as a Prospect. Aiming to become worthy enough to join the elite ranks of the Absolvers.
After getting hands on with it at RTX Sydney earlier this year, what immediately stood out to me was its beautiful artstyle and intriguing, explorable world. However, what had me hooked was the fast, satisfying gameplay, featuring moves and techniques from various forms of martial arts from around the world.
More importantly though, I got a small glimpse into the systems in place which are geared towards collaboration, rather than necessarily competitiveness in mind. Martial arts generally are a place for teaching and learning, rather than foucsing on winning and losing. Absolver wants to emulate this culture but in an online, multiplayer fighter, strategy game, with RPG elements littered throughout.
Sloclap have a clear goal in mind. To create a game which is attempting to inspire friendship through combat. A premise, which although can come naturally in some multiplayer experiences, is a theme the french developers are tackling head on.
When creating a game though, there a many working parts which contribute towards a theme and a generally feeling for a player. One of these elements is the music and SloClap didn’t want the score to feel like any old standard type of Triple A soundtrack. They wanted someone who was willing to experiment and who would take the game to a new level. Not only through their expertise, but through their passion and commitment too. This is where Austin Wintory came in.
A Grammy nominated composer, Austin has scored for dozens of movies and games in the past decade. Including the Banner Saga Series, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Abzu and of course the incredible Journey from ‘That Game Company’. For which he was nominated the Grammy for.
A renowned composer in modern video games, Austin is as passionate as he is talented, so it was no surprise to me SloClap sought him out early in production. Another thing which didn’t surprise me when I talked to Austin recently about his work on Absolver, was his sheer involvement in the project. How dedicated he is and how much time he has spent on it. It’s a damn lot.
“I inevitably carve out a huge amount of time to actually play test the games I work on. Since to me, writing music in a vacuum without a sense of how it behaves in the game, is doing a huge disservice to what I think the job actually is. So it is always important to me to log quite a few hours. It really helps when the game is really great! (laughs) And really enjoyable.
There are some games that I look at my play time clock and it’s like holy hell, I’ve play tested like 95 hours of this (laughs)”, Austin exclaimed. Although he is doing much more than just playing the game, he is taking the role of a traditional Q&A Tester. Trying to break his own music in the game.
“It is not the same as sitting there to play it for the sake of playing it obviously, as one of my goals is to explicitly try to find bugs which will break the music. I’ll try do things at musically awkward moments. Where I’ll time my attacks to the music, which is something no player will normally ever do.
They aren’t to going to be listening to the music as the forefront of their experience, they are obviously going to be focused on the gameplay. But I’ll try to do that in order to create the most awkward possible transitions to things like that, just to see how they behave. And then inevitably when I hate them and they drive me crazy, it gives me my shopping list of things to fix about the score too.
So in a long and roundabout way of saying it, you know at any point you call me and ask me what I am playing, the dominant answer is going to be essentially whatever I am working on at the time”.
This has meant Austin misses out on quite of few of the major releases, but has put some time aside to play through Mass Effect Andromeda recently, being a huge fan of the series. But as Austin mentioned, when he is working on a project and game which he likes and is passionate about, it makes it all the easier to put so many hours into testing and playing a game. And Austin really likes what SloClap are aiming to do.
Whenever, Austin is looking at a new project, his first priority is whether he’ll be able to form a kinship with the collaborator/team, and secondly, what type of game is it? Is it something which excites him and gives him the opportunity to try things musically he has never tried? Absolver hit all the nails on the head in this case.
“This game (Absolver), hit across all those really beautifully. I got a bit spoiled after working on games such as Journey and the Banner Saga. Games which had such striking visual vocabulary and were just so gorgeous. And so I was immediately struck by the unique look of this, I thought they are not going for a standard look and that intrigued me as someone who keeps visual artists close in life.
Once I talked with them (SloClap) and play tested the early prototypes, it occurred to me they were not trying to make this button smasher fighting game, like a modernised Street Fighter or something like that. There is a whole new kind of approach. It’s almost like a strategy game approach to melee combat, which I thought was really interesting and as a gamer, I was immediately fascinated by how they were going about this. So the elements were just immediately there and it was all very apparent straight away, that this was something that I’d love to be a part of.”
This approach is true not only for the core gameplay, but an intrinsic part of the experience, including the music in Absolver. “They said ‘Let’s really, make this an occasion to explore and try things basically. Try new ideas and experiment’. And so that has been an incredible joy, that lures me in like a moth to the flame! When anybody says they want to try to buck the trend or do something a little unusual, I love the opportunity to do that and they were strongly in favour of it.”
The True Nature Of Absolver’s Core Gameplay
But what drew Austin in most, beyond the artstyle and freedom with the score, was the main aim behind Absolver from SloClap. The idea of an online experience where learning from others and building strong bonds with people through adversity, is at the core of the game. Comradery could really be put as a dot point on the back of the box.
This is a theme which Austin believes his previous work on Journey shares a commonality with and one he appreciates fondly.
“Ultimately, my job is to enhance the player’s experience and so no matter what that is, my job remains the same. But, there has always been one thing that has sort of been a guiding light, which is in a way is a thing the game shares in common with Journey, ironically. Is that there is meant to be a kind of, not in every moment of the game, but there is a comradery, that the games aspires to.
I’ll never forgot, in one of the first meetings with Piere (creative lead on Absolver and who originally contacted Austin about working on the game), referred to the game as attempting to inspire friendship through combat. And I always think of that great scene at the end of Rocky 2, or was it Rocky 3? (It was Rocky 2). Where they go into the ring. Apollo and Rocky go in there as friendly combatants, they go in there as brothers in arms and we freeze frame on that first hit. And I always loved that so much because it is a statement of that, this is how we bond and there is an undertone to that in this game.”
In Absolver, you’ll encounter other players along your journey to becoming an Absolver. But every fight is not just another encounter like in a traditional RPG, to gain some experience points or quick loot. Absolver is geared towards the player learning new combat styles and attacks through encounters.
But there is more than just the opportunity to learn, but to have unique experiences every time you play too. Through seamless integration you will come across other players in your world, but how you interact with them is up to you. You could fight them, trade with them, or even befriend them. But as SloClap have described it, it is a leap of faith.
These ideas of choice and ability to learn from random players, makes friends, enemies or even find mentors or disciples has impacted how Austin has developed the score. As he has attempted to add further empathy in the music.
“When you realise you are actually playing against other people, but the game is trying not make it feel like other players are the devil. Like in Counter Strike which is just like ‘Killed or be killed!’, it actually does impact the writing a bit. To think how do I inject a smidge of empathy, so it doesn’t feel like we are trying to encourage blood lust, while still we aren’t trying to make a statement.
It is definitely meant to be fun, it is meant to be very engaging from a gameplay standpoint, that’s exactly what you would expect. But there is that kind of empathetic undertone to it that I find really interesting and finding ways to tease that out while not doing a disservice to the visceral quality has been great. A unique challenge. It is something I am still zeroing in on, but I really like that about that though.”
Emulating The Best Of Online Gaming Experiences
There are numerous instances where players have experienced this type of comradery in games before, including myself. Even recently in ARMS, due to the smart design of the lobbies, I found myself forming bonds with my opponents through adversity as we fought numerous epic duels. I learnt techniques and strategies through fighting them over and over and eventually even fought alongside some, which was a sensational feeling. To fight with someone who I had fought so many times before and learnt to respect was a truly gratifying experience. Without ever speaking a word to one another.
During my time with Absolver back in February, I didn’t have the time to experience this to its full extent. But this is the core experience and feeling SloClap and Austin are aiming to recreate through providing a platform in Absolver’s online shared worlds. Giving players the option and rewarding collaboration.
“I think, you play differently, when the goal is framed that way, your emotional take away is different. To me the idea that we will fight each other, and both be better because of it, as opposed to I am going to rise above you. To me, that is the heart of what real competition is.
When competition is framed in this harsh Darwinistic way, of survival of the fittest, it ignores the fact that, when you think in terms of biology, the kinds of evolutionary arms races between competitive species leads to both being stronger. Both developing advantages which perpetuate their survival because they have to. The mutual competition means to survive they have to be constantly exploiting new advantages that they can get and that they both end up the better for it.
And I know that is going into a very broad philosophical place, I think that is kinda part of the heart of the game, and it’s what I like. It is not about the kind of viciousness, that if we lump it in with fighting games, which is not a perfect marriage because it is very different from like Killer Instinct or any game you might liken it too (in the fighting game genre). There is almost an RPG quality to it in certain ways. It has it’s own blend of component parts, but if you liken it to that genre, those games are all about the visceral impact, and this one (Absolver) makes it about that, in addition to a lot of deeper and emotional ideas which I really like.”
Having started development in May 2015 and now launching in just the next few months, it may seem like a quick turnaround. Especially considering the polish already evident in preview builds. But after talking to Austin, it is obvious a lot of time and effort has gone into every element, including choosing who to be involved in the game.
Whether it will live up to being able to create these unique and dynamic experiences between players, we won’t really know until players are online fighting against and learning from each other. But I’m keen to find out and listen to what is likely to be one of Austin’s most thoughtful and unique scores to date. One thing is for sure though, SloClap loves their claps.