Why 'Below' Kept Its Creators up at Night

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Capybara Games

Kris Piotrowski looks tired. We're meeting in a fishbowl of a room inside a PR office in NYC, a sleek setup with a big glass wall, a couch, a TV and an Xbox One. I'm here to see Below, the latest from Capybara Games. The Creative Director for Capy, he's here to demo the game and give me an interview. Not just me though: I'm one of a string of reporters he has to see today before he gets on a plane to Minnesota, then San Francisco, then back home to Toronto. He's got a large coffee, a big glass bottle of Perrier and a Naked Juice on the table to get him through this gauntlet. His backpack is crumpled in the corner, when we finish talking later Piotrowski will rummage through it for a bar of deodorant, reapplying before making a beeline to the bathroom.

"This project has been incredibly difficult. It's been atrocious, the end of it. Anything that could have resisted me making this game happened. So at the tail end of it, I feel pretty terrified," he says. "Major anxiety, I'm waking up. Pre-launch jitters get amplified when you're on a long project that took a lot out of you. There's a lot of me in this game, and for that reason alone it's also completely terrifying."

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Capybara Games

Below is one of those rare projects that inadvertently captures a moment in time. The developers saw their own struggles making the game reflected in its themes, as well as the struggles facing the world right now. For Piotrowski, Below asks a question shared by anyone with a sense of decency and a cable news subscription: where is the bottom?

"You can look at the world at large and think the trajectory goes down this way. The world we live in now has made me more of a bummer," he said. "I have a hard time separating how I feel and what I'm working on. So the game taking a long time, the world going fucking straight into the toilet in the course of this project, it made me feel pretty bad about stuff. And I made a game about it."

Below is meant to feel overwhelming. Aesthetically, the game sets the camera angle far, far back so the player's sword-swinging character is miniscule compared to vast, often dark, environments. The goal is to explore a seemingly endless series of caves on a desert island, complete with monsters, booby traps and ancient relics. It's a moody game; there is no text or spoken dialogue. Things just get increasingly dark, increasingly difficult and increasingly complex.

"The scale made your character and your association with your character different than other games. It feels more fragile and alone. The game isn't about getting new wicked armor or becoming some monster killing machine," he says.

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Capybara Games

As he demos the game, Piotrowski is quick to describe the many features and mechanics Capybara labored on for the last five years. Underneath the gloomy vibe are a complex hack-and-slash combat system and intuitive crafting mechanics he says were a nightmare to balance. It's meant to be approachable, and without any text or tutorials it needs to be. Below requires a bit more patience than most games these days. There's no hand-holding or guideposts and plenty of long, thoughtful moments.

"Because everybody's on their phone, games are very much designed to be clearly gamified in a specific way, with certain cycles working under the hood to keep you excited and happy and all that stuff," he says. "It's OK to confidently do things that are a little bit slower. Right now, we're living in a time when everyone's attention span is totally fucked, so why should I even give a shit if you can't handle 15 seconds? If you design a space in a certain way it's nice for nothing to happen sometimes. That's not necessarily action-packed gameplay, but it's something games don't take advantage of enough. Taking their time to show something."

What precisely Capybara Games wants to show with Below will be the subject of some debate. Without experiencing the systems myself and seeing how they play out in real time, I could only watch Piotrowski go through areas at a breakneck pace. The influence of his cited inspirations - Wind Waker, Dark Souls, Journey - are clear. A pleasant gameplay loop invites players to discover, fight, camp, craft, repeat. It is a roguelike, and death can be swift and arbitrary. But it is far from twitchy, if anything, Below is designed to be contemplative.

"It's certainly a game I would recommend playing in the middle of the night between 12 and 4 a.m., when you're feeling at your worst. That's what the game is for. Alone, lights off, headphones on, hit a huge bong rip and start the game," says Piotrowski.

There were no bong rips in the office (unfortunately) but Piotrowski demoed a fair portion of the game and, as of the time of this writing, I've played a few hours in the intervening days. Not enough to make a final assessment, but all of Piotrowski's claims that this is a tougher, slower, darker game than the average rings true. Below is incredibly difficult but offers enough panache that design decisions feel like artistic choices and not flaws. Still, it will prove divisive because it is so challenging, both in terms of actual difficulty and in what it asks of players. Perhaps that's why Piotrowski is especially anxious. Capybara Games has worked hard on something that is courting one kind of audience.

"It's very important for there to be some people who make something very specific. And maybe you're not going to like this. But somebody else will fucking love it," he says.