This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Nothing in sight It is an exploration of the overwhelming mental cost that emerged from the trench warfare during World War I, asking players to worry about the welfare of four French soldiers in Ypres.
The team behind this title nominated for the 2020 IGF Award for Best Student Game met with Newsdio to discuss the reasons why they wanted to explore this moment in history, their desire to tell a more true and realistic side of the war, and the investigation they did to really capture the horrors that these soldiers had to face.
Nothing in sight (NiS) It is our graduation project for Supinfogame Rubika, a French game development school. The project came first from Thibault's mind, and the team formed for six months to finally reach seven members.
Thibault Moitel, Lead & Enviro / Tech Artist: Hello everyone, I came up with the initial concept of the game. During the production, I worked as a lead artist, making sure that everyone in the art team worked in the same direction, but also as a technical and environmental artist. During my studies in Rubika, I had the opportunity to work in several countries, such as Singapore, to do a quarter in New York. Just before the start of the production of NiS, I had an internship at Larian Studios working on Baldur Gate 3. To validate the diploma, my last internship was in Ubisoft Bordeaux as Technical Assistant of Artist in Beyond Good and Evil
two. I am currently looking for new opportunities.
Guillaume Faguet, producer, game designer and narrative: Hears! I was in charge of Nothing in sightThe production, which participated in the entire design process, and was also in charge of the narrative direction of the game. I worked a lot on historical research and character writing to create something credible for the players. I had the opportunity to work at Ubisoft Montpellier for 6 months in a triple A game, and currently I am also looking for opportunities.
Lucas Devillers, technical game designer: I worked mainly on the game, the system and the narrative designs, and was responsible for the balance of the game. In addition to this work, I also kept the internal documentation we wrote for the project (a wiki-like structure) and helped developers here and there when necessary. I currently occupy a position of game and level designer at Eko Softwares, in Paris.
Clémence Descharles, UI Artist: I was responsible for the entire game interface (where we started working very early) from prototypes to final art. I also participated in most of the UX design, since the game is based on its interface for each interaction. Now I am in Barcelona working at King as a junior artist of IU in casual games for mobile devices.
Eric Escher, Shader and gameplay programmer: Hi! I am one of the programmers behind Nothing in sight. I also helped design teams for some elements of game management and prototypes. I focused a lot on the comments of the game.
Felix Pinchon, programmer of tools and gameplay: Hi everyone! I was programming the game together with Eric. I was more focused on the main systems (character movements, tasks, camera, daily schedules), and I also developed some really useful tools so that our designers could quickly iterate over the game's content. I am currently working on AAA titles in Virtuos in Paris.
Aditya Joy, 3D generalist: I was working on many accessories in the environment and helped with the game's characters, as well as establishing the overall visual mood of the game. I am currently working at Ubisoft in India.
Outside the central team, Christophe Lie Gosset, a good friend of ours, is the artist behind the portraits of our characters, and Héctor Bonte is the composer of the soundtrack. Several people also helped us with writing and other aspects of the game.
Moitel: During high school, with 2 friends, we use one of our lessons to make games instead of the classic IT program. I was responsible for the pixel art of the games (it was bad) and it was a lot of fun! After this first interaction with the creation of video games, I decided to do my job!
Faguet: I started very young with role-playing games with paper and pencil that I wrote and played with my father. I also loved creating maps and content for sandbox games or map editors (like Warcraft 3 Y Era of empires) I discovered game engines after high school and had a lot of fun in Rubika doing lots of games with friends. Ah, also: I love games!
Devillers: I started playing with the creation of high school games by participating in a LARP association. We conceive real action games for various events and hold game-oriented conventions. I mainly come from a board game creation fund / rpg.
Discard them: Since I can remember, I have always loved art in general and was also an avid player. The idea of creating those worlds that I enjoyed so much grew within me every year. I decided to enter Supinfogame Rubika, and that's where I discovered that I really enjoyed doing the user interface for the games I worked on, which is now my field of work.
Escher: I discovered the creation of video games in a summer camp when I was 13 years old. I spent a lot of time learning RPG Maker; It was really the moment when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in videogame development. After high school, I studied computer science and programming, and finally video game programming in Rubika.
Joy: I participated in some college games that ranged from pixel art games to store management games. In October, I moved to France during the last months to work with the team on our graduation project.
Moitel: The first concept of Nothing is seen was called Sous le Cagna and was inspired by two animated short films by Les Gobelins (a French animation school): Coil Y Hors Champ. The idea was to create a game that would not glorify the people involved in the war. In the trenches, the soldiers did not consider themselves heroes, but cannon fodder.
We wanted to deviate from the common narrative scheme that involves a unique super soldier who achieves incredible feats during his trip to war. We think it would also be interesting to avoid the usual representation of war in video games. We wanted to talk about it without directly showing the battles: the patriotic demonstrations of power and the unrealistic bravery of all these soldiers running to death in no man's land.
At some point, the idea also emerged that the player was an element in the chain of command. We wanted them to make important decisions regarding the soldiers below them while receiving strict orders from above. As more people joined the team, the design slowly shifted to a more narrative-centric experience. We decided to drop the "sergeant into the trench" mechanics to allow the player to explore each soldier's narrative for himself. We also gave the characters more space by reducing their number several times during development (from seven soldiers to four).
Moitel: When we started working on Nothing in sight, we weren't exactly sure what would come out. First we decided to use Unity Engine, as it was easier for us to create a prototype and modify it to meet our needs compared to UE4 (the second option offered by our school). It was also an engine that our developers and designers were familiar with, which allowed us to get to work quickly.
Our development team designed several customized tools that we use to design levels. Git was the VCS we chose for its speed and ease of use (almost all team members knew the basics). It was important for us to work fast since the game was a graduation project. They gave us 9 months with consistent and strict deadlines to achieve our vision. As for art, Houdini was used during development to quickly create the terrain and easily iterate in the level design.
We follow a standard modeling pipe using 3DS Max, Substance Suite and sometimes Marvelous Designer. The user interface and user experience were designed with Adobe XD to be able to test them before we could run the game and then created with Illustrator and Photoshop. Video editing was done through Adobe Premiere and After Effects, sound design through Audacity & FL Studio and music with Ableton. The project management was supervised with Jira and custom Excel spreadsheets that allowed us to learn the software for our future practices.
The main idea was to take the opposite view of the usual war-oriented games and follow in the footsteps of independent titles such as This war of mine Y Frostpunk (both from 11 Bit Studios). We also quickly declared that our game would not involve battles. The reason behind this is that we think that including war actions would immediately put the player in a mental state detrimental to our message. This is not a "war game." The player is not there to fight, let alone to win. The soldiers just want to survive.
In addition, the first concept was born the centennial year of the end of the First World War. Thibault wanted to revive the testimonies of this war, since the living conditions of the soldiers in a trench are still unknown today. It was also an interesting way to bring to light the mental health of these soldiers, especially what they feared and worried. After laying those bases, we began investigating everything we could find in the "Poilus" (French infantry nickname during World War I), the soldiers who lived in trenches during World War I. And the more we found, the more we wanted to show in the game.
We spent almost two months investigating what life was like in the trenches. Most of it was on the web, watching documentaries, reading scans of old newspapers, newspapers, mails … We also looked at what we could find in our families. Since most of the group is from France, we all had ancestors who participated in the conflict (great grandfather, great grandfather) and their belongings were generally well preserved. We were lucky that Guillaume still had one of his great-great-grandfather's diaries and military papers in very good shape.
Those first-hand testimonials were the best source of information, since almost all newspapers and emails were hit by censorship during the war. What we most wanted were small anecdotes that most history classes do not cover.
As for some of our findings, did you know that soldiers were sometimes pushed to suicide exploration missions by superiors? In fact, the soldiers were asked to find specific information about the enemy in exchange for a few days of leave or an increase in their salary. Most of the soldiers who accepted that kind of mission would take off to the opposite line at night in secret. They wanted to prevent other soldiers from accomplishing the mission before them and get the reward instead. As a consequence, many of the soldiers who managed to go to the opposite trench were shot dead by their comrades when they returned during the night, thinking that the enemy was invading.
We wanted to try to make a management game with a strong narrative component. As we moved towards this goal, it quickly became clear that our characters would serve the game as a means for history and as the main resource in management mechanics. It was a real headache for us to balance those two aspects of the game without favoring one to the detriment of the other. We also wanted to make the soldiers a centerpiece in the game, so each mechanic had to interact in some way with them.
For each characteristic, we began to evaluate which aspect of the game (management or narration) was advancing, and then we tried to modify this characteristic with an element of the other aspect. For example, we started with a management mechanic that allowed the player to give small benefits to individual soldiers to allow them to preserve the ones they preferred. Then we tried to link this mechanic to a more narrative element and it became the journalistic system. Each soldier has his own preferences regarding the news and his political opinions. The player must take the time to learn them and be able to find which holder each soldier will prefer.
Other mechanics were created purely for historical and humorous reasons. For example, the one that allows the player to read and choose to give or throw the mail of each soldier comes from the desire to include censorship in the game.
We wanted our game to show how hard life was in the trenches and how this life affected the mentality of the soldiers. The main aspects that made survival in the trenches difficult were food rationing, weather, vermin and constant anxiety induced by the possibility of bombing and attacks at every hour of the night and day. All these elements gave the soldier a huge amount of daily stress, which some could not bear.
The lack of clean water, ways of cleaning, taking a break, etc., were also factors that led soldiers to madness, depression and anxiety attacks. What we decided to show in our particular game was the struggle to get food daily without being shot in the process, the randomness with which the soldiers were killed (not necessarily by bombs and bullets) and the constant work that had to be done to maintain a ditch in a state suitable for survival.
Creating interesting characters for the game was one of the most difficult tasks we had to go through. Other students at our school helped us and gave us character sheets (as well as D&D) to write brief character summaries. This helped us choose four different characters: the cynical father figure (Milo), the young impetuous aristocrat (Sylvain), the naive innocent (Léon) and the big mustache (Francis). Those four were the ones we thought would give us the most interesting interactions.
For the player to feel the characters, we use several means: dialogues, notifications, letters and missions. Each of these mechanics attracts different types of players, from those least involved in the narrative aspect of the game.
The character that did not feel "alive" was a recurring constructive criticism that we received during production and was an aspect of the game in which we really took the time to think and tried different solutions (such as random attributes in each game or more frequent dialogues ). One of the solutions we apply to these characters is the fact that they are balanced. Each has qualities and defects that make them credible. Another was to transmit game information through the exclamations of the soldiers.
We show this game in our jury and during several independent events in Paris. We had the opportunity to see the reactions of professionals and players live while playing. The game is also available online for free, so we receive comments that way. We received many comments about people who "want to know more" or who "learned something" while playing. It was one of the best things we could hear from someone who really played the game.
Obviously, video games have been inspired by history for a long time, but market saturation makes players turn to more alternative ways to learn about these famous periods. The serious game against the standard opposition is no longer relevant. Dark spots in history have always been extremely fascinating. The games that take place during such events really force the player to think about how they would react in this situation and how other humans have really experienced these situations in real life.