In a glassy, psychedelic arena in the deepest reaches of space, a war is waging. Up to four narwhals enter a no-holds-barred deathmatch, but only one emerges. To survive, the strongest, nimblest narwhal must use his tusk to pierce the exposed hearts of his opponents while protecting his own vulnerable organ as techno music plays and low gravity flings the finned fighters against the ceiling, walls, and each other. This is STARWHAL: Just the Tip.
The absurdity and simplicity of STARWHAL merge to create a breathlessly fun “multiplayer space narwhal combat simulator,” as developer Breakfall describes it. Floppy, QWOP-like controls make for unpredictable, unexpected, and hilarious results. Direct tusk-hits and near-misses are accentuated by bullet time slow motion that zooms in on the colorful, blobbish narwhal battlers. Players fight their own fingers as much as each other, despite using only three keys for control.
This simplicity is indicative of STARWHAL‘s start as a 48-hour Global Game Jam entry, but since its conception in January, the Breakfall team has continued refining and iterating on the narwhal fighter. They’re now planning to bring the joy of an expanded STARWHAL to as many platforms as possible, including PC, Wii U, PlayStation 4, and possibly Ouya and Xbox One. Enhancements to be made to the current single-stage, local-only demo include additional arenas, costumes for your narwhal, taunt functionality, and multiplayer modes like Team Battle, King of the Zones, and the tag-like Heart Throb.
To make these and other upgrades, Breakfall has turned to Kickstarter for their final funding push. We caught up with Breakfall Artists Angele Desjardins and Andrew Jobin, Programmer Jason Nuyens, Designer Jan Kozlowski, and Music and Sound Designer Mike Keogh for their insight on all things STARWHAL.
STARWHAL started off as an entry in the Global Game Jam 2013, whose theme was a beating heart. How did the Breakfall team get from “heart” to dueling narwhals facing off in space? Obviously the hearts remain an important feature, but that is a crazy—and awesome—leap.
Angele Desjardins: We brainstormed for a couple of hours on ideas with the heart theme as a starting point but then we threw out the theme and tried to think of something just fun and silly. When we had found an idea we liked, we tied it back together with the theme.
Andrew Jobin: Unlike years before, we eventually decided on making a game we wanted to play without heavily focusing on the theme. This way we were able to create something without artificial restrictions and opened the playing field to whatever we wanted. The original idea was to have jousting unicorns but quickly changed to narwhals due to potential complications in having to deal many joint in such a short timeframe. The heart theme neatly fell into place when we needed a target for the narwhals to hit.
Is there a backstory plot to STARWHAL? Are these narwhals being trained for zero-gravity military operations, or part of some strange alien race of narwhal gladiators? As a floppy space narwhal, what is a player’s motivation?
AD: We haven’t settled on an official backstory but I definitely have one in my head involving some sort of dystopian future where narwhals have overthrown the human race and have expanded across the galaxy, taking over worlds as they go. Like a future space cetacean Roman Empire.
Do you anticipate STARWHAL might be picked up by the competitive fighting game scene? With the popularity of Divekick, it seems like there’s a thirst for fun, alternative entries in the genre. Could we be seeing STARWHAL tournaments in the near future?
Jan Kozlowski: We hope so! The fighting game community is a dedicated group who play games at a much higher level than most, and we’d absolutely consider it a badge of honor if STARWHAL were well received by them. Divekick is great, and to me it proves the point that you don’t need lots of buttons and combos to have an intense match in a fighting game. Even with the simplified control schemes in STARWHAL and Divekick, defeating your opponent comes down to predicting their strategies and making the right call on some split-second decisions. As for tournaments, we’ve seen some smaller ones, but it’s definitely a dream of ours to be in EVO!
The main gameplay for STARWHAL is definitely reminiscent of Flash hits QWOP/CLOP, while many of the multiplayer arenas are similar to modes often found in first-person shooters, all tied together in a fighting game. How did this unique combination of genres/features come about? Were there any specific inspirations the team drew from?
AJ: I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I definitely didn’t look at STARWHAL and pigeonhole it into any certain genre. We wanted to create an accessible but competitive game that could be mastered and stay satisfying. In terms of inspiration I’d have to say that there were two main driving forces, games with simple mechanics but deceivingly deep gameplay and local multiplayer games that have a hint of friendly competitiveness to them. To name a few games: Joust, Nidhogg, Get on Top, Divekick, Super Smash Bros, Nintendoland, and Mario Kart. Being able to play off each other by being in the same room is something we really enjoy.
STARWHAL’s frantic, electric heart-piercing is something of a foil to your last game, Marvin’s Mittens, which is very quiet, reflective, and calm. What encouraged this significant change of pace? Was there anything you learned while developing Marvin’s Mittens that has influenced your work on STARWHAL?
Jason Nuyens: To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision to create something on the other side of the “spectrum” of games. We really enjoy working on anything that inspires us. It just so happened we loved the idea of making a very competitive yet easy to pick up game and it’s completely the opposite of a lovable, relaxing title like Marvin’s Mittens!
Having said that, we do love creating works we feel are important to the game industry. And sometimes we like to say something with our work from even a game development perspective—for STARWHAL we’re trying to show people they can concentrate on a small, fun experience first and then build the larger experience around that.
Do you expect players to feel as immersed in the life of a space narwhal as they did in Marvin’s world?
Mike Keogh: Immersion was definitely not a concern with STARWHAL on the same level as it was with Marvin’s Mittens. We wanted something fast, furious and immediately accessible. With Marvin we really tried to push a crafted experience that was in some ways an anti-game. For STARWHAL we just wanted to focus on the mechanics and add as much silly fun to reinforce that as possible.
We’re definitely curious about single-player—any info you can share before the next Kickstarter update? Will there be a series of battles against increasingly difficult Narwhals? Boss battles? Endearing narwhal backstories?
JN: Yeah, like you said, we’ll have some updates on single player soon! The gist of it is we’re looking to have endlessly replayable challenges where you can compete for top times. There will be leaderboards and different medals you can strive for based on your performance. It won’t be an “adventure” mode per-se, but something closer to Super Monkey Ball single player mode with increasingly challenging obstacles to conquer.
Still on single-player: it seems like programming ragdoll fighting AI to be competent but not invincible would be a serious challenge. Have you found a way to successfully balance opponents in this mode?
JN: Right now the computer-controlled opponents are designed to have some basic behaviors like defending their heart and attacking others. We’re doing our best to make it feel like you are in a chaotic arena with other opponents. Of course, it’s a technical challenge for us to make it all work consistently but we’re taking it head-on!
MK: That’s a great observation. Really chaotic opponents in a game like this can be very difficult to overcome. These issues with AI-controlled STARWHALs have made us revisit the basic controls and ask how to tweak them to make skill a more important factor. We’ve made a lot of little adjustments that compensate for button mashing, like greater control in slow motion.
In the current demo version, players use three keys for movement and nothing else. Will the finished product maintain this simplicity or do you plan on more buttons/moves being added in?
JK: We’ve always felt that the simplicity of the controls is one of the strongest features of the game, and a lot of our players feel really strongly about it, too! There’s something great about being able to put a controller into a new player’s hands and seeing them have fun immediately. You can see their progression from random flopping to controlled dodges and strikes over the course of a few play sessions. It’s really important to us to keep that same core in the final product, and we don’t plan on changing it!