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When you enter the exhibitor hall at PAX Australia it can be pretty overwhelming knowing where to start. There is so much going on and so many flashing lights that it requires a skilled individual to be able to use laser-like focus in their quest to play more games. It was in this attempt to focus that I fortunately stumbled across what would end up being one of my favourite games of the entire convention – The Eyes of Ara, designed by indie game developer Ben Droste of 100 Stones Interactive.

Alone on a remote island stands an ancient weathered castle, steeped in legend, shrouded in mystery. For years it has remained quiet and undisturbed, and yet still the townspeople recall old stories of restless dreams, violent storms, and the eerie glow of ghostly lights dancing in the mist.

Recently a mysterious radio signal has begun broadcasting from somewhere within the ancient walls. Something inside the castle has awoken, and someone needs to venture inside to uncover the truth….

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Intriguing right?! From the moment I put the headphones on I was so excited to play this game all the way through, completely driven by the great story line and visuals.

I managed to catch up with Ben after PAX and he graciously accepted my request for an interview to talk about the game. I was curious to get to know this one-man show better, and understand how on earth he managed to make such a gorgeous game on his own.

The first thing I noticed when I sat down to play The Eyes of Ara was how gorgeous the environment was. We briefly chatted at PAX about how the game was developed, can you tell us a little more about how you accomplished it?

My background is in 3D environment art, something I have been doing for nearly 13 years now, so I have a lot of experience in that area, and when it came to building The Eyes of Ara I knew I wanted to make a game in which I could do what I like doing most and make it look as pretty as possible. Even so, the whole production process took about three years and about half of that was creating the art, so it was no small task but I’m really happy with the result.

There seems to be a revival of point and click games happening, what led you to use this style as a platform for the story?

I wanted to make a game about environments. That’s my speciality and it’s what I like building, but I didn’t just want to make a walking simulator, I wanted something with a lot of gameplay depth as well. So an Adventure-Puzzle of this sort seemed like the perfect fit. I was able to make a game in which the environment was the central character, where the gameplay is all about exploring and manipulating the environment, and the story is told through exploration of the environment.

At the same time, I wanted to incorporate some new ideas into the genre and put my own spin on it. Games have come a long way in the past twenty years or so since the forerunners of the genre, and in that time point-and-click and Adventure-puzzle games have become a niche. So it seems to me that there is a lot of opportunity to play around in this genre and experiment with new and different ideas.

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Puzzles increase in difficulty as you progress through each level. How on earth did you create so many puzzles?!

It certainly wasn’t easy, but I wanted the game to feel like there was a new puzzle around every corner, so that as soon as you finish one puzzle you immediately have new set of challenges. It was a lot of work to design, test, and balance them all along the difficulty curve. Having a lot of dedicated play-testers certainly helped with that!

When it came to designing them, I approached them in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I would layout a room and then design puzzles specifically for it, other times I would come up with a puzzle and then find a spot that felt right for it. Sometimes playtesting would reveal the need for a new puzzle within the level flow and I would either design one from scratch or use one I had not yet found a spot for.

Most puzzles began with me sketching down ideas on paper, then implementing a basic version of them in game made from simple shapes (known as grey-boxing), then refining the puzzle through playtesting and final art. Sometimes while working on a puzzle you have ideas for how to tweak it in new and interesting ways, so the puzzle can evolve as you work on it… or you can spin it off into a variation of the puzzle. This latter approach was a lot of fun, as it allows people to play something that feels familiar, but at the same time is new and interesting in its own way.

I really loved listening to the music while I was playing at PAX Australia. What was the process behind finding the right music and sound for the gameplay?

After I ran the Kickstarter for The Eyes of Ara I was approached by a lot of composers seeking to work on the game. There are a lot of great artists out there and narrowing it down to a single composer took a long time. In the end, Matt Caradus, a New Zealand based composer provided a demo track that I felt best captured the feeling I was after.

Once he was on board I sent him the story brief and an outline for what I was after thematically for each area, and then pretty much let him develop the rest himself. He has said that the art in the game was a great source of inspiration for his music, but the reverse is also true. When I started to get the first tracks back from him I really liked what I heard, and it inspired me to try to capture the mood even better in the art.

The sound design requires a different approach. Unlike the music, the sound effects needed to be more subdued and blend into the background more. Good sound effects are the sort of thing that shouldn’t draw attention to themselves, but you’ll miss them if they’re not there. Then there are the key effects for specific things that really need to stand out and sound interesting. The sound in The Eyes of Ara was done by a Perth based artist named Mat Dwyer working for The Otherworld Agency, he really went above and beyond what was required of him and the results are great.

Indie games did not look like this when PAX Australia opened 4 years ago. What do you think has changed in the local industry that has enabled so many fun and original ideas to emerge from our indie scene?

The Australian games industry more-or-less collapsed during the GFC a few years back and many of the larger studios were forced to either shutdown or downsize considerably. A lot of the talent from those studios sought work overseas, but a lot of them also stayed in Australia and formed their own indie studios. I think we are now starting to see the result of that. Add to that the increased availability and usability of toolsets like Unity and Unreal, and indie-friendly self publishing systems on Steam and the major consoles, and the market is now ripe for small, experienced teams to make their mark. Something that was a lot more difficult just a few years ago, and almost impossible not long before that.

I have no doubt that things are only going to get even more impressive in the future.

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What has been your happiest moment so far with The Eyes of Ara?

Launching the game was a pretty big and exciting moment, as you might expect, but it was also a really nerve wracking experience. So for pure enjoyment I would have to go with exhibiting at PAX. It was the first convention I had shown at since launch, and by far the biggest. By this stage The Eyes of Ara had been out for a few months, it had gotten a lot of really great reviews, won some competitions, and even been nominated for an award. I was awarded an Indie Showcase booth at PAX, which was an awesome recognition to receive, and based on experience from previous conventions I was feeling really prepared and confident for the show.

So to me PAX was something of a launch party for the game. I wasn’t there trying to build up hype for something on the horizon, rather I was just excited to be showing the result of three years of hard work that a lot of people were already playing and enjoying. It was wonderful to see so many people sit down to play the demo, then come up and talk excitedly about it with me afterwards. I even spoke to a few people who already owned the game and just wanted to come by the booth a talk about it. It was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience.

The game is out on Steam for people to download and play. What’s next on the cards for you?

That’s an open question at this stage! I still have a lot more work I’m doing on The Eyes of Ara – I have at least one more patch planed to add in a few feature requests, and there’s the localisation which is going to be a fair bit of work. I’m also looking at ports to other platforms next year, and I still have several Kickstarter rewards to fulfil for my backers who have been waiting ever so patiently since the game launched in July.

So there’s quite a bit of work still to go before I can start on the next project! What that will be I can’t even say yet, I’ve got some ideas floating around my head, and I’m looking forward to prototyping some of them up and seeing what feels the most fun!

Big thanks to Ben for being so generous with his time and insights.

You can buy The Eyes of Ara on steam here!

The Eyes of Ara was one of the lucky winners of the 2016 PAX Aus Australian Indie Showcase. You can follow Ben for more updates from 100 Stones Interactive on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Jessica Hutchinson
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