In the new trailer for indie game Old Man’s Journey, the elderly protagonist gingerly makes his way up a small hill, with a huge bag on his back and a tall walking stick at his side. Magically, a hill in the background lowers to his level — controlled by a player on the other side of the screen — allowing the man to make his way further into what appears to be a quaint and colorful Mediterranean village.
The teaser hints at a game that conceals its mysteries in richly drawn backgrounds that would be static in other video games. Old Man’s Journey is charming, like a hand-drawn New Yorker cover brought to life. The style has earned the game a nomination for “excellence in visual arts” at this year’s Independent Games Festival, and it’s what developer Broken Rules hopes will set the game apart amidst 2017’s flood of new releases.
Though it’s a 2D game, the world of Old Man’s Journey features layers of depth, ones that can be manipulated by the player. As the old man moves through spaces, you can alter hills and mountains in the background to help him reach new areas. Raising a small hill could create a bridge to cross a rushing waterfall, while lowering another may reveal an entirely new area. The locations are more than just illustrated eye candy, they’re toys you can poke and prod.
Old Man’s Journey will be the fourth release from Vienna-based Broken Rules, which made its debut with And Yet it Moves in 2009, a puzzle platform game that takes place in a world made of paper. The studio followed that with soaring 2D adventures Chasing Aurora and Secrets of Raetikon. But while the studio’s debut proved to be a hit, its follow -ups weren’t financial successes, and the Broken Rules team found itself tackling work-for-hire projects to keep the lights on. In 2014 a mobile game publisher approached the studio to make a premium smartphone game, so the team pitched an early version of what would become Old Man’s Journey. “They didn’t take it,” says lead designer Felix Bohatsch says. “But we liked it so much that we decided to try to get funding ourselves.”
The game went through a protracted conceptual phase as the team searched for investment. Given the commercial disappointment of Broken Rules’ previous two releases, they didn’t want to jump into an uncertain original project without money already in place. Bohatsch notes that the extra time “was good, because we fleshed out a lot of decisions before starting production.” Eventually the studio secured a deal with Indie Fund, a funding organization helmed by some of the bigger names in the indie game scene, including The Witness creator Jonathan Blow and Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail. Bohatsch describes the deal as like getting a “seal of approval” that also served as proof that the Old Man’s Journey concept was worth pursuing. Additionally, Broken Rules managed to secure an arts grant from the city of Vienna to help complete the game.
Like the studio’s past releases, Old Man’s Journey is a 2D game. But part of its genesis stemmed from a desire to add more depth to a two-dimensional world. Bohatsch had an idea of a 2D game with multiple layers that players could somehow switch between in order to explore further. But at the time it was just a vague concept. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when he was visiting a friend, that he spotted what he describes as a “kitschy” photograph of hills and mountains receding into a foggy distance. “When I saw it, it somehow clicked,” he says. He came up with the idea to have players manipulate those hills with a touchscreen, allowing the main character to switch between layers at specific waypoints.
The image also inspired more than just how the game plays — it also had a big influence on its story. “This photo had a strong sense of wanderlust,” Bohatsch says. When the team first started working on Old Man’s Journey, they were in a very different place from when they created their debut And Yet it Moves. Six years had passed, and several team members had become parents. Bohatsch had three children during that span. It was no longer a studio full of young kids with few responsibilities. “Family and children were a big topic in our lives,” says Bohatsch, noting the new challenge of “balancing family life and your own passion.”
The old man at the heart of the game, he says, has similar issues in his life. “His motivation to travel is to reconcile with his family,” Bohatsch explains. At the outset you know very little about the mysterious protagonist, but as you help him explore you’ll uncover the story of his past. Broken Rules chose an older character as the game’s lead specifically so that he would have a rich, long history to discover. “He has this weight with him, and you as the player want to find out what it is,” says Bohatsch.
Old Man’s Journey’s narrative isn’t as explicit as big studio games. It features no text at all, and no writers worked on the game. Broken Rules even partnered with design studio Salon Alpin to focus on fleshing out what it describes as “visual narrative.” The goal was to use other elements of the experience — most notably gameplay and visuals — to tell the story in an organic way.
For Bohatsch, Old Man’s Journey’s combination of personal storytelling and striking visuals is exactly the kind of experience that he’s passionate about creating. And at this point in his life, with a few games under his belt and a family to take care of, the risk of making an unproven indie game is only worth it if his heart is in it. “We only wanted to do it if it was something valuable to us,” he says. “And it’s only valuable to us if we make it an emotional, meaningful experience for players.”
Old Man’s Journey is launching sometime in 2017. Platforms are currently unannounced.