As I loped across Ashen’s bleak landscape, a figure came charging out of the mist. I stopped short and readied my club. Unlike the thugs I’d bludgeoned some yards back near a campfire, this NPC approached at a steady clip and weaved drunkenly over terrain. As he came closer, I saw that he was indeed a he—humanoid, outfitted in plain garb similar to mine, and clutching a spear.
Suddenly he turned and saw me. His zigzagging ceased and he came at me directly. I clicked R3 on my Xbox One controller to lock on. Nothing happened. Out of options and not just a stone’s throw away from my would-be opponent, I mashed R1 to unload a series of light attacks. My club passed through my assailant’s form as if he were made of the same mist from which he’d materialized. The stranger stopped right in front of me, jumped straight up as if I were a drill sergeant barking commands, then ran threaded around me and ran on his way, toward a rock wall with two handhelds that stumped me earlier.
As I watched his form grow smaller, realization dawned. That was no enemy, nor was he an assailant. I had been the aggressor, and in so doing, scared off a potential ally.
“We don't have voice chat because we believe that it gives a certain flavor to the experience that some people don't like,” explained Leighton Milne, art director at ID@Xbox developer Aurora 44. “Voice chat does help, but we're trying to see what we can get away with in terms of gestures. So, something like waving, ‘come here,’ whistling—stuff like that, just to see if actions can carry the game.”
From the stamina bar positioned underneath your HP bar and familiar button mappings such as light and heavy attacks on the R1 and R2 triggers, respectively, to its emphasis on nonverbal communication, Ashen’s influence is clear.
“Dark Souls is one of our favorite games. We've all been inspired by it,” said Milne. “The combat itself is very similar, so you have to really think before you do your action because you could get into a tricky situation and get in over your head. Skill-based was the main influence from Dark Souls on us.”
My demo, which took place at Microsoft’s E3 showcase, began with me controlling a premade avatar and a few weapons. Armaments must be scavenged from corpses and caches planted throughout Ashen’s world. As I rotated the camera to get a better look at my avatar, I observed one unnerving contrast between Aurora 44’s game and Souls. In Dark Souls and most RPGs, players spend hours customizing their appearance with all sorts of sliders and meters that change minutia such as eye position. Characters in Ashen have smooth, blank visages, like the wooden mannequins that artists pose to strive for lifelike drawings.
“When we were first developing this [art] style, trying something new, we played with the idea of them not having a face,” Milne said. “A person's face has so many characteristics to it. You can determine a lot of [meaning and emotion]. So, we said, ‘Let's just take the faces off and let their actions explain who they are.’ That was the first spark, and it really tied into our core idea of meeting a stranger, working with them, completing a goal, and letting actions explain who you are.”
Like Dark Souls, Ashen starts out as a solo adventure. I explored tentatively, as Souls fans do, drawing enemies away from cohorts one at a time and combing each new area for supplies. That’s when I ran into my new friend, another member of the games media playing at a station beside me. Or perhaps across from me, or behind me. I didn’t know, nor did I need to. “Once you've actually found someone, it is a one-on-one experience,” said Milne. “We wanted to have that kind of personal touch. The idea is that because the [multiplayer connection] is seamless, you can find someone, and then drift apart, and find someone else later. It's very organic. When you find someone, depending on what your goals are in the game, if they line up, you can complete them together, or decide, ‘He's going left, I'm going right,’ and you guys can just separate.”
I tracked the mystery player to the wall I’d come to earlier, a sheer face with two sets of holes designed to fit two pairs of hands. Running in circles to get my prospective partner’s attention—Ashen had no way to emote or gesture that I could find—the other player got the hint. Each of us faced the wall and gripped our handhelds. Working in sync did the trick. The stone parted, revealing an opening leading down into darkness.
Gestures, light, and dark comprise the core conceits of Ashen. Look up while surveying the game world and you won’t spot a sun in the sky. Light comes from a monolithic structure that spews ash, which in turn illuminates the game world. “Where the demo is situated is right at the base of that area, so it's quite bright,” explained Milne. “The further away you journey from it, the darker [the world] gets, so the idea of light and dark is really strong.”
Enter an interior area such as a cavern or dungeon, and you’re charged with providing your own light source, usually a lantern you’ll find through comprehensive exploration. “The lantern is something you have to use when you're in the dungeon, and there's no [natural source of] ash and light in there,” Milne continued. “The game sort of changes a little bit, where you have to make sure you can see what you're doing and make sure you can attack what's in there and not fall down a hole.”
Once inside, we stuck together—at first. My ally and I flanked spiders that crawled up from holes in the rock, one of us playing decoy while the other beat its head to a pulp. We ventured through the cave until we reached a gaping hole. Creeping up close, I observed that the drop was deep. I took a step closer, then stepped away, and went still. My partner eased up to the edge, then had a change of heart and ran off down a murky corridor. I felt a momentary pang of the sort Dark Souls players experience when a summoned companion, especially one who fought side by side against a level’s denizens and boss, fades away, likely never to be seen or heard from again.
“Journey was a huge inspiration on the game,” Milne added. “Just the idea of: you're playing a game, someone enters your game for a brief moment of time, they exit, and your game is changed forever because of that. It's a little bit deep, but it's interesting to see people play the game for the first time.”
Undaunted by my abrupt solitude and with only a smidgeon of health remaining, I took the plunge. Below, my character took a moment to rise to his feet. I squinted through shadows and found myself in a cave. A moment later, a life meter formed at the bottom of the screen. That, too, should be familiar to Dark Souls fans: A boss had entered the area. Sure enough, a dark form crawled out of the earth and sprinted at me. I fled, gobbling a mushroom to replenish health and trying to get my bearings. Every time the boss got close, my screen would flicker, growing dark. As if its proximity smothered the feeble light cast by my lantern.
Alone and out of healing items, I fell quickly. Despite my defeat, I came away from Ashen energized. The game was announced at E3 2014, three years that Aurora 44 has spent toiling at its Dark-Souls-meets-Journey mashup. Although the game isn’t due to hit Windows 10 and Xbox One until early 2018, the end result appears to be what Souls fans are constantly on the lookout for: A Souls-like with clear connections to FromSoftware’s masterpiece that puts a creative twist on a time-tested formula.
“There's no barrier of entry into the multiplayer,” said Milne, “and we want those little experience, those one-offs—if you have a nice experience with someone, you can kind of remember that. It's a little bit more memorable.”
This preview was based on a pre-release demo of the game at an event where refreshments were provided by Microsoft.