Following on from one of my interviews I conducted this month, I thought I would finally write up a first impressions article about a game that has done exceptionally well to catch my attention in recent weeks. Down Ward, under development at Fisholith Studios based in Costa Mesa, California, is an 8-BIT 2D sidescroller with a heavy focus on combat, unique mechanics, and exploration. It follows the story of an owl named Gable, who must traverse the remnants of a forgotten civilization in order to rekindle its dormant relics. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the currently free-to-play game is set to be significantly improved upon by the developers with the backing it has received, which bodes extremely well for this already well-received title. You can play the current build from the game’s Steam, Page via the link below:
But in addition, I have also decided to write a first impressions article about what I think of the game in its current form and to get a better idea of what kind of a game it’ll be like when it does get further developed upon. So here’s what I thought about Down Ward in its present state:
The game makes use of 8-BIT monochromatic visuals similar to several Game Boy classics such as Duck Tales, Super Mario Land, Tetris, and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. The color of the visuals is also interchangeable and can be modified by the player at any time, similar to how the Super Game Boy add-on worked for the Super Nintendo back in the day. But what is most striking about this game is its conceptual design. The use of pixelated art is outstanding and handled with great detail. This was to be expected, as the lead programmer Fi is an artist himself, but I’d only gotten half the idea prior to playing the demo. When looked at more closely, only then does the player get the true feeling of how excellent this game actually looks.
The gameplay is also very wonderfully varied, which to a certain extent, the visuals themselves assist with. The objective of the standard model is to collect feathers, combat enemies and accomplish one or two side quests within each stage by finding secrets hidden throughout. There is also a speedrun mode for the many aficionados of that particular game mode on Twitch and YouTube, similar to Axiom Verge. The developers have billed this game as challenging, and it’s not hard to see why. Although thankfully, the level of challenge is not to the point of the game being completely inaccessible. The challenge involved lies in being able to identify certain obstacles or traps the player can fall for, or watching out for enemies, as they blend in well with the scenery in most instances. But as well as it is challenging, it’s above all, a very fun game to play even in its current build, so it makes me quite excited about what kind of a game it will be following the modifications to be made.
The control scheme is also particularly unique for a 2D platformer with having to run and jump in order to fly across stages and explore higher areas. The game fully supports controller functionality at this point, which is preferable to playing a game like this with a keyboard and mouse. Curiously, the combat system reminded me somewhat of the Ori games, so it’d be interesting if the developers decide to build on that aspect of the game even further as well, and whether or not, a small RPG element could possibly be introduced in the form of a leveling up system or different means of attacking enemies, etc.
Potentially, this game could be made to last a significantly long time. It would depend on just how far the developer is willing to go in terms of modifying the game they already have, and what more could possibly be added in order for it to warrant lasting a considerable amount of time more than what it already does last. According to my interview with Fi, the team is looking to expand on the game mechanics vigorously. If true, this game can certainly be made to last many hours.
The story of the owl Gable is, in-game anyway, secondary to gameplay, as is the way it should be in my opinion. So even at this early stage, if the developers were to neglect the progression of the story in place of modifying the gameplay as much as possible, I don’t think I would feel particularly bothered by that. It would be nice to have a more in-depth narrative to complement the greater depth in gameplay (for example, there could be a story implemented similar to that of Ori & The Blind Forest or Dust: An Elysian Tail, but even if the level of depth in the story stays the way it is, then so be it; it will probably still turn out to be an exceptional game.
Out of all the retroactive gaming experiences I’ve indulged in since the start of the eighth generation, Down Ward is set to be one of the more standout of the lot of them. Again, it would all depend on what kind of modifications the developers are looking to bring in terms of gameplay, and whether or not they will be implemented well enough to make it as separate as possible from the plethora of games made of the same ilk to come before it. With the unique mechanics and gameplay premise, I wouldn’t see why they couldn’t do that, but time will tell in that regard.
Overall, playing the demo of Down Ward has made me further realize how much potential the game has to break new ground within the indie community. It’s set to be a standout title with an excellent implemented visual style and hopefully plenty to do throughout.
After once again scouting Kickstarter for new video game developers looking for crowdfunding, I came across a stunning-looking 8-BIT title already available on Steam, but in the process of undergoing major changes. Down Ward is an 8-BIT 2D platformer telling the story of an owl named Gable, who sets out on a journey to rekindle dormant relics of a land long forgotten and abandoned, similar in concept to games like RiME and Journey. Not only does the game make use of 8-BIT visuals, but it also makes use of a monochromatic visual style very reminiscent of Game Boy classics such as Super Mario Land and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Wanting to know about what changes this project is currently undergoing and the challenges that came with implementing such drastic improvements, I got in touch with the game’s lead designer, simply known as Fisholith operating out of Costa Mesa in California. It turned out that the influences and thought process behind this game was even more intricate than I’d realized at first glance, and Fi’s answers certainly provided a lot of clarity on where he hopes to go with this game following its successful backing on Kickstarter. So, here’s what Fisholith had to say about Down Ward:
What were the influences behind Down Ward?
This might not be too surprising but … birds. I got into photographing birds quite a while ago, and I gradually became more and more interested in learning about them. I think that has definitely carried over into a lot of the creative stuff I’m working on. In terms of gameplay there are probably a lot of subtle influences, but certainly among them is Descent (1995) with its zero-gravity flight, exploration, and intrinsic verticality. Likewise, another influence has been some of the design philosophy that Shigeru Miyamoto described as how he approaches making games fun.
What led to the decision to implement the numerous monochromatic visuals styles in Down Ward?
I’m the kind of idiot that will find the color customization options for a text editor and make a “water level” for it, and then start working on lava and ice.
I’d say there are two reasons for the multitude of palettes. Firstly, the visuals in Down Ward only ever use four colors on-screen at a time. I decided early on that I wanted to try giving the game a sort of painterly look, and so I wouldn’t be using any outlines to visually separate the foreground objects from the background. Instead, I was going to try to rely on techniques found in traditional painting, like lighting and shadows, brightness, contrast, and texture.
So instead of having the four colors represent abstract things, like outlines, dominant color, secondary color, and accent color, I arranged the four colors to simply represent a range of brightnesses: dark, dim, light, bright. I had essentially a grayscale game, with a palette based only on lighting, and this is what opened up the possibility to have so many palette variations. An interesting concept from traditional painting is that the dominant readability of a scene comes from light and shadow first. So if a scene reads well in grayscale, then you can colorize those light and dark areas with whatever colors you want, and the scene will pretty much always read well.
This meant that I could dream up as many color palette variations as I wanted, and as long as they roughly followed that relative dark-to-light brightness scale, the scene would always be just as readable as the grayscale version. Secondly, I like colors… Specifically, I really like designing with colors, and in particular, how changing just the colors of a scene can dramatically change the mood and atmosphere.
What has the developmental process been like?
The most heartening part of it all has been creating something that I love and seeing others fall in love with it too. Over the last year, I’ve gotten several messages from people, telling me that they appreciate the game, or the art of Gable, or some bit of respite they’ve found in my project, amid the unusual circumstances we’re all in. I think some of that may just be due to the pretty stressful year 2020 has been. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to be a positive source of creativity in the maelstrom of this year’s strangeness. It’s such a different place to have ended up than I expected going in.
How close are we to seeing the finished product?
Close in some aspects, and semi-distant in others. There’s quite a bit I want to do to expand on Down Ward visually. There are gameplay mechanics I would like to add. I don’t want to get too ambitious though, as it’s my first major game, and it’s easy to get mired in feature creep. As with any creative project, when you’re the creator, your vision of cool things you’d love to do will always extend beyond whatever you create. Whatever interesting hill you reach the top of, you’re always rewarded with a sprawling vista of more intriguing distant hills.
What has been the most exciting aspect of developing Down Ward?
I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends, and I’ve gotten to meet and talk with some incredible people who created some of my favorite games that I grew up with. At the same time, getting to see the little world I’ve created for Down Ward grow and take shape has been a joy.
What has been the most challenging aspect of developing Down Ward?
Trying to learn the outreach and social media side of game development, and build up everything needed to make a Kickstarter work, while also trying to keep momentum working on the game itself. I love learning it all, and I love talking with people, but I don’t feel like I’m especially good at the outreach side of things yet. I’m trying to learn though. I have a lot of respect for the amount of work that publicists must do.
How well has the game been received so far?
Early on, I was worried that not many people would be interested in a four-color monochrome game, but it has been received very well, much better than I’d have expected. Even outside of the game, people seem to really like Gable. It’s also nice that all of the constructive critiques I’ve gotten on the game have been very helpful.
In what ways are you looking to expand on the current game?
I have a lot of ideas, and I’m sure as I go I’ll gradually realize which I want to focus on. Outside of the things I’ve specifically promised in the Kickstarter, nothing is set in stone yet. Broadly speaking, I’d like to expand on the mechanics, hazards, enemies, and puzzles. I would like to expand on the graphics and style of the game a bit, with distinct environments, as well as music composed to fit each. In fact, at the moment, I’m working on a piece of music based on an in-world folklore song.
What platforms are you looking to bring the game to?
PC, Mac, and Linux. A lot of people have asked me about Switch, and while I’d love to try that, there’s a whole world of feature and design compliance requirements totally separate from just porting the code. I’ve researched it but I’ve never done it, and I want to limit my promises to things I’ve done before and know I can do since it’s my first game.
Have there been any ideas at this stage of development that has since been scrapped or reworked?
While touch screen controls have never been a planned feature, I have done some work on creating a flexible touch interface. It allows you to unlock the touch UI, move the buttons wherever you want, create unlimited copies of any buttons, and scale the buttons for larger devices. Though not scrapped, it has been put on a distant back burner for the time being.
Given how passionate you clearly are about art, did you find working with monochromatic visuals among one of your biggest challenges?
Not necessarily one of the biggest, but there are a lot of interesting and unintuitive challenges that emerge from 4 color graphics that I wasn’t expecting, going in. Some of that challenge came from the no-outlines style I decided to go with. For instance, still, screenshots can look nice, but the game has much more visual clarity when you see it in motion. Early on, I started making seamless looping gif animations of gameplay, as an alternative to screenshots, as I think the gifs do a much better job of presenting Down Ward’s look and feel. They definitely take longer to create than a screenshot, and evolving the workflow for creating them has certainly been a challenge.
Another tricky aspect is how to represent objects that are darker colors. For instance, a snowy white owl on a black background is not too hard, but if I wanted to add a crow, it would be a bit of a design challenge to figure out how exactly to make that work.
How instrumental has player feedback in terms of shaping the course of the project been?
In terms of refining the difficulty, solving level design ambiguities, and improving the introduction of mechanics, player feedback has definitely been instrumental. Even just watching gameplay videos from players is very enlightening.
I’m constantly trying to think through what I design from the perspective of a first-time player, but as the developer, my familiarity with what I’ve created works against me. I know what’s around every corner, and what’s just off-screen. So it’s easy to accidentally create something that makes sense to me, without realizing that a new player will encounter it with a different expectation that makes a lot more sense if you’ve never seen it before. Player feedback is like a kind of x-ray vision. You get to see the holes in your own perception. You get to “look” at your own blind spot. It’s pretty cool.
If you had the opportunity to develop a game with any company or for any franchise, which would it be, and why?
This is an interesting question. On the one hand, there are quite a few companies that I think would be really interesting to work with, and on the other hand, I actually really like the creative freedom that comes from being a solo developer. Two companies come to mind though, Revival Productions and Stonemaier Games.
Revival Productions is the company behind Overload, the recent spiritual successor to Descent. It was founded by Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog, creators of the original Descent franchise. They, and the Revival team, seem like a really cool group of people, who genuinely care about the player community that came together around the genre that they established. If I was going to work with a company on a six-degrees-of-freedom FPS game, that would be the company to work with.
The other is Stonemaier Games, created by Jamey Stegmaier, a tabletop game designer. I love tabletop games, I’ve created a few for fun, and for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the similarities and differences between tabletop games and digital games. I also really just love the design puzzle of making rules elegant enough to create interesting gameplay, while running on the notoriously slow and unstable People-at-a-Table operating system. Jamey of Stonemaier has spent a lot of time creating articles and videos sharing his thoughts, and what he’s learned in the course of designing and publishing tabletop games. He seems like a really creative and really nice guy, who grants a lot of creative freedom to the designers that work with him. So I think that would also be a pretty fun company to develop a game with.
Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?
I’m certainly not an expert, but I can share what has helped me. I think there are two different goals I could give advice about. Game development, and game crowdfunding.
The most concise bit of advice I can give that benefits both of those is, “Do game jams.”
To get better at game development you need to experiment quickly, release publicly, and plan around simple deadlines, and it helps if it’s a relaxed environment. To improve your prospects in crowdfunding, you need to begin building an audience and get comfortable interacting with people about your work.
Game jams will gift-wrap much of what you need to learn in both domains and present it to you in a fun, short, and bite-sized package. Even better is that there are lots of jams with all sorts of different creative limitations, timeframes, and skill ranges. So you can almost adventure your way through them, like different little island worlds, gaining experience as you go.
In the not too distant future, I’ll also be creating a website. There are a lot of subjects I’m interested in, and while I wouldn’t call myself an expert in them, I’d love to start creating tutorials and articles to share some of the stuff I’ve learned so far.
Do you have anything else to add?
I began my prior Kickstarter for Down Ward, a little over a year ago, and without any advanced press coverage, and a much smaller audience, it didn’t make it to the funding goal. Rather than cancel it, I ran it to the end and thanked everyone. I explained in my thank you message, that I planned to relaunch in the future, and should my future campaign succeed, I would like to let this campaign stand as one more example, for anyone discouraged by a campaign that fell short, that you can always take what you’ve learned and try again. Perhaps the most important lesson that I’ve learned from games. 🙂
As always. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Fi for taking the time out of development to talk more about what players can come to expect of the final version of Down Ward compared to how the game currently plays out now. If you’d like to check out the game as it is, you can do so by visiting the Steam Page where it can be currently downloaded for free:
But in the meantime, I hope you guys enjoyed learning more about this title as much as I certainly did. As soon as I laid eyes on Down Ward, I had to learn more, and it turns out I got even more than what I bargained for with this one, and I was pleasantly surprised. I hope you guys were too.