A look behind the scenes at Asthree Works and their gorgeous stealthy puzzle platformer Paradise Lost: First Contact
Located in Gijon, Asturias, on the north coast of Spain, inside a 100 year-old building with parched, cracking floors and high ceilings, sits the tiny indie development studio Asthree Works. The new digs are certainly an upgrade: “We were in an office during 2014, but the place was dark, smelly and very depressing, so we moved to my apartment,” says designer, artist and animator Enol Martínez. The team’s dynamic is different, he says, in large part because the workplace is better. “Now that we work at my house, I can feel how things have changed.”
Indeed, the trio of developers has set up shop inside Martínez’ home, smack in the middle of his living room. “It’s a pretty wide place, well-lit and flooded with the smell of homemade food and laughs,” says Martínez. “It sounds good, and it is, except for the fact that working at home doesn’t allow you to disconnect from the project.” In order to help separate work and life, the team starts its day at 8 am and aims to stop at 3 pm (but, it should be noted, rarely does).
Asthree is hard at work on its glorious 2D pixel art game, Paradise Lost: First Contact, which puts players in control of an alien plant that has long been hidden away inside a secret bioengineering facility. It goes something like this: A security breach in the system allows the plant to escape from imprisonment and discover the secret purposes of the research organization that locked it away in the first place, and the game becomes a mysterious and beautiful 2D adventure. It takes inspiration from classics like Metal Gear, Metroid, Castlevania and the Oddworld series, focusing on hybrid action/stealth gameplay with some platforming and puzzle-solving elements. “Many of the mechanics that we designed for Paradise Lost are inspirired by these incredible sagas,” says Martínez.
Influences come from all manner of media. “When we have some time for ourselves, we watch lots of movies and shows of all kinds, but at the top of them I love to read comics,” says Martínez. “I’m always surrounded by art, and I think is great to be in touch with the things you like and take inspiration from them.” Terry Cavanaugh’s game, Maverick Bird and Rocket League had their time as the office distraction, respectively, but now the team finds little time to game at work.
The core of the team’s idea was based on a feeling: specifically, that of losing everything and then ultimately finding the road home. “It evolved into the story of an alien that comes from far away, and was captured at the moment it arrives on Earth,” says Martínez. From that point, the connection was made with Milton’s literary classic of the same name. “We developed the full concept of the alien plant, searching for an original alien look, and also took inspiration from Milton’s poem Paradise Lost.”
As its name might (subtly) imply, the Asthree Works team is three strong. Enol Martínez working on design, art and animation; Sigrid Chánobas, working on design and story; and Fran Blanco, who is doing all of the game’s programming. (A fourth member who works part time, Pablo J. Garmón, is composing the game’s music and creating its visual effects.) “We started in 2012 making some game concepts and alphas for iOS as a hobby after work. We conceived about five or six alphas, but they were discarded for lack of time or because they didn't motivate us. We eventually wanted to work on a big project, and, well, here we are,” says Blanco.
As anyone who has seen the game’s Kickstarter trailer can surely attest, Paradise Lost has already achieved a rather remarkable yet familiar visual style, deft and striking but existing in a time-honored tradition. “In the making of the graphics, we tried to create a different art style—one that allows us to mix simplicity with fluid animations and recognizable faces and characters,” says Chánobas.
“Taking the first steps designing things was very fast,” recalls Martínez of the game’s early development period. “The first day we had tons of concepts of the designs and the overall look for the game. The backgrounds took a little more, because we had to think and visualize the gameplay options and scales for everything.”
“Our workflow is very peculiar,” Martínez continues. “Each of us has a set of tasks assigned, and we try to reach the main goals on time but, more often than I’d like to admit, we tend to polish isolated parts of the game and spend more time outside the original milestones.” If something needs to be improved and the team doesn’t feel comfortable with how it works or looks, that becomes its main focus. “We’re a bunch of perfectionists, and sometimes is really difficult not to lose perspective on the development process—but that is how we are.”
Creating the game has demanded its share of sheer determination, and the production has already had its share of hills and valleys. “Our main problem was timing,” says Blanco. “We had lot of problems with keeping to the schedule, and we failed a few times on get things done when they needed to be.” Money also became an issue, even after pulling in a solid Kickstarter haul. “We quit our jobs to do this, so now we have to save as many as we can until the game will be completed. And as we’re just three people, we can't do everything ourselves...so we have to hire some people to do some things.” Still, he says, the major workflow kinks have been massaged out, and the game is coming along much more speedily.
Martínez says there have been plenty of bizarre and unexpected technical twists during development. He recalls the time he attempted to use his body to perform motion capture for the game’s bulbous, heaving alien plants. “I made some strange moves trying to animate the plant tentacles,” he says. “Sigrid and Fran actually laughed out loud when they see me doing bizarre stuff and ridiculous auto-motion capture.” It was worth it in the end, though; Martínez says that while it was an incredible amount of time, the results feel special. “So far the thing that takes the most time was the animations,” he says. “I put all the details I could into every model sheet, and I have plans to continue improving some them even more. The other two guys are going to kill me when they read this, by the way.”
The game shows a great deal of promise. It’s a deft mix of point-and-click adventuring, extremely evocative visuals and a fantastic sci-fi narrative. There’s even an RPG component: During the course of the game, players will choose how to evolve their the alien plant, adapting it to their playing style with different skills that are uncovered as the game progresses. The game is currently slated for release on PC in 2016, with Mac, Linux, and Wii-U versions (as well as other potential platforms) set to follow.
As for the title? “Our game takes references from Milton's poem ‘Paradise Lost’, of course, but the name also has to do with some events from the main history,” says Martínez, grinning. “But we can't say more about that just yet.” Find out for yourself when Paradise Lost: First Contact launches next year.