This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. Every month, we profile the recipient of an Unreal Dev Grant. While Epic puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.
The year is 2089. The place, Berlin. The wall never fell. And now, something terrible is going to happen because of it. Only you, a time travelling secret agent, can stop it. By clubbing.
That may sound strange, but Inbetweengames is no stranger to teasing out heavy themes from seemingly surprising places, if their examination of loss in their first game, The Mammoth: A Cave Painting, is any gauge. Where Mammoth is a study in inevitability, All Walls Must Fall is about the need for and power of dramatic change. Here, inevitability and time are the enemies.
An isometric tactics game with a tech-noir vibe, All Walls Must Fall invokes games like XCOM, Braid, Rez and Syndicate in looks and mechanics. But in terms of its message, the game is wholly the offspring of the Berlin techno scene.
Designer Jan David Hassel was kind enough to discuss his game and its complicated look at sex, violence and politics.
What made you want to make a tactical game? Why the isometric view?
When we sat down to decide what our first big game should be, it all started with the games that inspired us to get into game development in the first place. For us, those are classic 90s PC games like XCOM, Syndicate and Fallout.
The isometric view again is a nod to these classic games but, also, every time we changed the camera, from the top down action like view, to a tilted camera, then isometric, it looked a lot more interesting to us visually. That’s also why we went with it.
The setting and art are a bit grim and oppressive. Yet, for all the grit, having a dedicated dance button is surprisingly light hearted. Can you talk about your decisions in that regard? How important is that contrast?
The nightclubs that serve as the setting of the game are islands of freedom within an oppressive and grim world. Yet the clubs themselves also perpetuate parts of that negativity by excluding people. There are walls everywhere but, as it says in the title of the game, All Walls Must Fall. That struggle between oppression and freedom, between despair and hope, is central to the conflict of the game.
Time travel is integral to both the story and the mechanics. Can you explain your philosophy in creating the time-based mechanics?
In the beginning, we knew we wanted to make a game that used the setting of Berlin nightclubs and incorporated that into the gameplay. We tried out different ways to make the game synaesthetic, executing actions on the beat of the music without becoming a rhythm game. What we decided on in the end, basically, uses the beats of the music as very short, simultaneously resolved turns. We also added time travel first as a convenience feature to be able to undo turns. We have since extended it to more abilities and it has become a central part of the narration as well. In that way, our core gameplay has influenced the whole makeup of the game back up to the high concept.
Setting a game in a divided Germany is a politically loaded decision at the best of times, but nowadays walls and Russia seem to be in the news all the time. How has the current political climate worked into the game?
When we started out, we felt like these topics would become more relevant again, just based on the refugee crisis and the general pushback to globalization. We honestly did not foresee what would happen in the year to come but, obviously, it has made us more certain that this something that is on everybody’s mind right now and deserved some playful attention.
In general, we want to provoke and encourage players’ own reflection and discourse.
While we will allude to a lot of things that are happening right now through the theme, setting and narration of the game, we want the players to make up their own mind about it. We’re just here to ask questions and give a means of reflection on these topics. It’s also still early days for the game, so we’re paying close attention to the reactions we get from its small player base through the Kickstarter, as well as on social media, to make sure we strike the right balance here. We’ll see how it goes.
Once I got into the game, I was so fixated on the obvious politics of the Berlin Wall, I was surprised at its gay themes and its bear protagonist. Can you talk about your decision to make this a focus of the game?
We just went on research tours in some of Berlin’s most famous clubs and, at that point, it was obvious for us that this was not something that we could omit if we wanted to portray the city. So right now, all the characters in the game are male, but also very gay. That seemed like a good way to deal with the fact that we needed to focus on one aspect of subcultures first, without just going for the heteronormative standard either. We still intend to diversify the cast and characters of the game, a lot of which will come in future updates of the game, including new player characters.
Did nightlife or LGBTQ culture contribute to the fall of the real world Berlin Wall? How much did the Fraternal Kiss inspire All Walls Must Fall?
Much of the club culture that we are incorporating in All Walls Must Fall only started blooming after the wall fell. Suddenly, there was a lot of access to all these derelict industrial ruins and the Berlin techno scene just made that their own. It’s the birthing time of Berlin club culture as we know it today. We’re taking some liberties here in incorporating that in our version of a future Berlin, since the Wall still stands here. Our Berlin is an amalgam of what the city used to be, what it is now and what it might become in a dystopian dark future.
The Fraternal Kiss is an interesting piece of historical artwork at this point and with everything going on, we just couldn’t pass up the chance to try and reinvent it for our game. We first started with a version showing Obama and Putin kissing in that pose. Rafal, our artist, payed careful attention to making them seem even in that relationship. In the original image, it was very much apparent that one party held dominion over the other. We thought our version might have been part of some diplomatic gesture trying to ease tensions between the two powers of the Cold War in our alternative timeline for the game. Nobody really minded at that point.
Later, when we switched out Obama for Trump, suddenly there were all of these other connotations to it. We got a lot of both positive and negative feedback after that one. It was interesting. It’s also noteworthy that even the original image plays, I think, with homophobic themes to vilify what it is portraying. Going back to that with today’s perspective was also revealing that in a way. Overall, it has been a great concept artwork for us that has inspired a lot of discussion and reflection in our players without taking a definitive side, which is exactly what we intend to do. We were happy with that one, also, because it helped us see things in a different light based on people’s feedback both positive and negative.
I admit, once I realized my missions were taking place in gay dance clubs, I was a bit uncomfortable in light of the Pulse dance club shooting last year. Can you talk about the perception of gay clubs as sanctuaries and your decision to introduce violence into them?
We also felt very uncomfortable with this. For us, that reflection already started after the Bataclan shooting in Paris. We had friends and family in Paris at that point. We were out here in Berlin partying ourselves that night. It hit us pretty hard. At that point, we asked ourselves whether we wanted to do a game like this at all. We got pretty close to cancelling the game, which was ironic, since that [sort of knee jerk reaction] was largely what we wanted to get away from by going indie in the first place.
There has been a constant stream of terror attacks like this in Istanbul, Orlando, London and elsewhere targeting different groups of people. We all care most about those instances that are closest to us, but it happens all over. I don’t think that we are the ones introducing violence here anymore. We just wanted to make a stupid action tactics game in nightclubs, because nightclubs are cool and it goes well with the action. But since then, it seems more like we might be reflecting on what is on people’s minds already. Somewhat like a nightmare.
We still have drawn some definitive lines for ourselves of what we don’t want to enable. None of the clubbers in the game can be targeted by players or enemies directly. It still is more of an action movie, like John Wick, where by some kind of gentleman’s agreement all the civilians are off limits, even in the crossfire. You can also circumvent combats through dialogues and time travel. But that relationship to real world events is still there and, hopefully, we will be able to do something meaningful with it and question what the dynamics at play here really are. Ultimately, that’s why we decided to keep going with it. Only time will tell whether we will succeed, but we feel obligated to try.
What do you hope to accomplish with All Walls Must Fall? How do you hope audiences will react?
What we hope to make is a game that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to create. We started out doing this from being unemployed with next to no savings. We were very lucky to get the support from the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, Epic Games and our Kickstarter backers that have been keeping us going so far. We hope that players will see what we’re trying to do and continue to support us as we go through the journey of making this game and, in that, become a part of it themselves. We also hope that we will see more constructive discussion between players about the themes of the game and that we can help broaden some horizons based on the example of dystopian future Berlin nightclubs. That would be grand.
How does Unreal Engine help in developing a game like All Walls Must Fall? Are there any unexpected benefits or challenges?
For us the Unreal Engine was the obvious choice since we had been working with it for years already. We could hit the ground running from our first prototypes and knew how decisions early on would impact us further down the line during development based on our past experience. That’s both on the tech side, but also in regards to art workflows like materials and shaders, or level design which we have tackled with a ‘Disco Generator’ procedurally recombining handmade rooms. One of the maybe more obvious examples is that we use Unreal’s ability to make any 3D mesh destructible in order to make all of our walls destructible.
As it says in the title: All Walls Must Fall.
Has the Dev Grant allowed you to do anything you otherwise would not have been able to?
The Dev Grant helped us keep the lights on when we were reaching the end of our previous funding and ultimately allowed us to make the jump to a Kickstarter campaign, which will now lead us to Early Access. Since we are doing this as full time indie’s without major funding or other sources of income, we’re taking it one stepping-stone at a time and removing any of those would probably mean failure. We could have just thrown our earlier prototype on Early Access already, but honestly, I think we needed that extra time to get to a point where it’s playable and hopefully fun. If that all works out and we get to a positive result where we can keep developing the game through Early Access, then that’s very much thanks to the support from the Epic as well. Hopefully there will be more indies coming from bigger studios that have worked with Unreal before that will consider taking that same step we did.
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All Walls Must Fall is currently in closed alpha for Kickstarter backers and will soon be on Steam Early Access. Add the game to your wishlist on Steam so you’ll know when it’s available!