Stranger in a strange land
You’re floating in space. Not the recognizable expanse of Milky Way planets and stars, but another region, populated by gently rounded masses that pulse with a neon glow. It’s abstract but also familiar, with invitingly warm colors and caves just begging to be explored. The surface of these masses appear soft, clay-like, and tactile; if you could reach out, they would mold around your hand like a foam mattress.
You can reach out. You have a long, tentacle tether that snakes easily towards the landscape before you, latching on almost magnetically. This is all you have. The tether connects you to the terrain, allowing you to casually rope-swing around the pulsating colors, keeping you from floating into the black emptiness beyond. You can weave through the caves, but there’s nothing to find. You’re alone, save the ever-present electronic beat and the sense that something big is about to happen.
That something is Nowhere, the in-development open world adventure visible in alpha snippets like the one just described. While the current version is minimalistic and focused on sharing the sense of movement in thegame’s gravity-free space, the ideas behind Nowhere and its long-term goals are much larger than even its vast environment demonstrates. We spoke with Leonard Ritter, one-half of the husband-and-wife development team Duangle, about where Nowhere is headed.
Although the current version of Nowhere appears empty, it actually features the beginnings of an NPC culture that will be critical to the experience. Those large land masses players tether onto are adult versions of the game’s alien creatures, known only as “Nowherians.” Nowherians are born tiny, smaller than an egg, and eventually grow to the size of a house—or even a whole city. In their personal bubble within the universe, these variously-sized aliens live not on planets, but on each other. This idea “was born mostly out of the necessity of the setting. The creatures are all polymorphs,” Ritter told Gamezebo. “It seemed weird that an all-eating shapeshifter would have need for ‘dead’ material for housing or tools. And then it became apparent that they might simply house each other. Gameplay-wise this idea opened so many interesting possibilities, it was impossible to let go.”
Players will take on the role of a Nowherian, guiding it from birth into adulthood. The Nowherian culture is constantly evolving, with opposing tribes, shifting politics, and all the mainstays of a vibrant, living civilization. “NPCs are the bread and butter of Nowhere,” Ritter said. “So, this is less a ‘creative,’ ‘survival,’ or ‘combat’ game (although elements of each are present to give social existence meaning and context) and more a game of negotiating your way through an alien society, hopefully in a way that has a strong emotional impact and builds miniature ‘life stories’ with changes on each of the three personal, interpersonal, and social levels. A kind of ‘wisdom engine.'”
This engine will utilize a number of impressive features that are not yet in the playable alpha, such as a visual language exclusive to the creatures of Nowhere. “Nowherians speak a hieroglyphic pidgin language of 27 words that you will also pick up word-by-word as you grow up in the game. The grammar and basic meaning of the words never changes, but every tribe has its own ‘dialect’ of differently shaped glyphs. The language serves to facilitate social activities such as bonding (following, leading, protecting, mating), trading, basic inquiry, and deferring tasks (commanding).” In the open world environment, using this language to communicate with other Nowherians is technically optional, but helpful in carving the life path for your creature. “We construct a social ecosystem that could do very well without the player’s presence, favoring truth over indulgence. If the player desires to be a hero, the game does not just hand it to him,” Ritter said. “He must find a problem of the clan and solve it. Many things come naturally but the greatest challenge is preserving peace.”
Actually interacting with those Nowherians, exploring the space, and resolving (or causing) conflicts will take place through both first- and third-person perspectives. “Nowhere makes use of both modes, for two distinct situations: first-person is the way you interact with the world around you. In the next alpha, you’re able to zoom out of your own body and then interact with your own surface,” Ritter said. “At this point it’s all about managing yourself, your population, your configuration, vaguely akin to a Molyneux’ian god game, or a real-time strategy game, or a gardening game—there are elements of each.”
This strange mix of housing other Nowherians while living on larger Nowherians yourself is only the first part of Nowhere’s extensive meta-life experience. Over the course of a full “game,” players will inhabit the role of four separate Nowherians who may live in different time periods, affected by the actions of previous player decisions. Ritter told us “The time travelling is mostly a device intended to put you in the shoes of someone else who might have been affected by your decisions. It has its limits, but we think it may aid in building feelings of understanding and regret.” This means that a war-torn world caused by one playthrough could create extra conflict in the next, or one Nowherian you raised to maturity might be the landmass the next one inhabits.
While this crisscrossing of lives and playthroughs may make Nowhere seem ripe for multiplayer, Duangle wants the focus to be on freedom and choices within a single-player experience, and stories shared outside of the game itself. “With multiplayer games, there’s the problem that players don’t accept other players ‘ruining’ their game, while they’re much more forgiving when having a ‘programmed’ enemy destroy their life or property. In such an environment, they can also no longer take on full responsibility for the course of history, and they judge other players morally, even beyond the game,” Ritter said. “We want players to be able to make bad ethical choices in the game ‘to see what happens,’ without repercussions in the real world. The game will do its best to respond realistically so the story checks out (e.g. Nowherians remember what you did to them), but what happens in Nowhere stays in Nowhere.” Of course, as an open source, indie developer, Duangle will allow modding and admit multiplayer may make its way in if the community wills it.
Nowhere is currently nearing 100 weeks of development time, and Duangle has recently begun seeking funding to keep progress flowing. They’ve launched their own crowdfunding initiative via the Humble Store. “Both Kickstarter and Indiegogo felt a little impersonal, and the option of seeing the funding fail was out of the question,” Ritter said. “We wanted and still want this game to happen, in exactly the way we’re imagining it.”
The way they’re imagining it is both ambitious and inspirational. With each alpha release, the world of Nowhere becomes a little clearer, a little closer to the vision Ritter has shared with us. We can’t wait to get there.
Nowhere is estimated to release in Winter 2015 for PC, Mac, and Linux, with Oculus Rift support. Access to the Nowhere alpha is available immediately by contributing to the crowdfunding campaign. Vote for Nowhere on Steam Greenlight.