INFRA is not another Dear Esther
In for a structural collapse
Ever since Dear Esther gained community acceptance and industry recognition in 2012, it ushered in a series of original experiences bent on interactive storytelling — among them, recent specimen Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. With its non-aggressive approach and an unordinary story told through a first-person perspective, there’s reason to think that INFRA wants to fit in with the same crowd.
The new release by Loiste Interactive has players taking on the role of a structural analyst, whose sense of justice rises to the surface as he’s exposed to unsafe working conditions that are in fact symptomatic of a larger issue. Realism, rather than the ethereal, drives both the game design and narrative, and it’s for that reason that INFRA is a self-proclaimed "gun-free" experience. This should not be interpreted to mean that the game only consists of passive interactions. As GameZone learned in discussions with Loiste Interactive founder Oskari Samiola, INFRA’s guiding philosophy and fundamental design principles place it on a different plane than those aforementioned experiments.
INFRA is a game where setting heavily influences mechanics and atmosphere. Rather than this being an overlay for an all-encompassing horror approach, this emphasis on the game world and its finer makeup serves as a binding agent for the threads that follow in their creative process.
"We adopted [a] world/function-first approach for the level design," Samiola shared. "We wanted every place we created in-game to have realistic function in and for the city." Achieving that sense of realism meant digging into real-world applications and seeing how these could then be replicated or perhaps readapted for Stalburg, the fictional city where the game's events transpire. "I studied how [a] real steel factory functions and designed the level's layout after that, and then invented puzzles after the machinery of the steel factory." This seamless melding of form and function, where gameplay interactions are derived from environmental aspects, is seen throughout INFRA: power plant generators, complex piping in water treatment facilities, as well as foundries with huge ladle mechanisms. "Following pipes [and] cables, looking for control rooms and reading instructions" — these are some of the guidance systems the team has put in place in support of a puzzle focus.
Interestingly, even after the developers ironed out the process they envisioned for the game’s creative direction, it wasn’t a conscious choice to induce in players a state of fear. "Our plan wasn’t to create the ‘most scary, non-scary game’ from the start," Samiola said. "I would say it was just natural side effect of creating abandoned and crumbling facilities." Still, this inherent pressure sensed in the game’s locations is furthered, even awakened, by deliberate design choices.
Stemming from a desire to add dimension to game-world conditions, the team used "newspapers and graffiti" suggesting urban myths to give Stalburg some historical and cultural context, and, in turn, add to the eeriness of the whole affair — though only by a "small fraction" by Samiola's evaluation. In a larger sense, much of the atmospheric effect (beyond a base level) is left to the soundtrack to draw out, which Samiola proudly says does a "very good job" of relaying "the feel and history of the locations" and involving the player’s senses at key moments, like when new discoveries are made.
Samiola wasn’t shy about referring to INFRA as experimental, just as they weren’t shy to acknowledge INFRA’s shared qualities with Dear Esther — specifically, its atmospheric delivery and slower-paced tone. "But," Samiola said definitively, "I wouldn’t count INFRA in the same category." Above all else, INFRA’s puzzle focus, investigative gameplay style and occasionally fast-paced events make it a "'puzzleventure' game." And when asked what message the team hopes INFRA will ultimately send, Samiola concluded with the answer: "That you can make games...from real issues."