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Interview: Aragami designer talks light/shadow game systems and pure stealth gameplay

Lince Works co-founder David León expounds on the interplay between light and shadow, how the game's protagonist embodies that dynamic, and more.

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Stealth games have gone the way of the dinosaur. Many of the genre's biggest names have abandoned true-blue stealth mechanics in favor of run-and-gun action.

Enter Aragami, a pure hide-and-sneak title made by the Barcelona-based Lince Works indie studio. Their game casts you as a shadow creature able to teleport through dark patches and put down enemies in a single hit. The rub is that you're just as vulnerable to their light-based attacks, and skulking outside of shadows drains your energy meter, preventing you from fighting back.

I reviewed Aragami and quite enjoyed it, and followed up with co-founder David Leon to learn more about the design decisions that went into crafting the game.


What led to your interest in making games?

David León, co-founder of Lince Works: As many other developers before me, I grew up playing videogames. I've always had a PC at home, and I remember playing Prince of Persia and Prehistorik on MS-DOS long before I got my first console, a Game Gear. In any case, I didn't do anything related to game development until college. During my first year at college I learned some programming, got an Android phone, and started working with a friend on a platforming game named Hyperactive Ninja. I guess I've always had fixation with ninjas.

How did you meet your fellow Lince Works co-founders, and what projects set the stage for Aragami?

León: Besides that first little game on Android, I created the first Minecraft guide on Android—which probably paid almost all my college tuition; thanks, Notch!—and after a while I entered a Master's Degree in Game Creation. That's where I met my two partners at Lince Works and created Path of Shadows, a student prototype which would become Aragami around three years later.

I met Álvaro Muñoz and Eduard Soler [while working on] my computer science degree. We weren't close or anything, but we had time to know each other a bit better. We found out that we worked quite well together, had the same ambitions and the passion to go on and fund a new company.

Did all three of you like the idea of creating a stealth game?

León: Not at the beginning. The objective of our Masters Degree was to make a full game—or at least a vertical slice—in less than a year. We played around with different ideas, like an adventure game taking place on an island, a dungeon building strategy game and other stuff, but I kept looking for something more catchy, a killer feature that could be sold just by spelling it out. That's when the idea of an assassin that uses shadows to kill came to us.

Although you list many inspirations for Aragami, you've pointed to Tenchu as a major influence. The series has lain dormant for many years. What about Tenchu motivated you to create a sort of spiritual successor?

León: I think that I liked more the idea of Tenchu than the game itself. I played Tenchu 1 and 2 on my PlayStation when I was a kid, and I remember enjoying the feeling of being powerful, a predator sneaking on top of the roofs, jumping down to kill a guy and then vanishing to the shadows again. If I play Tenchu again that nostalgia doesn't hold together (the game hasn't aged too well) but in my mind those sensations persist.

Tenchu, in my mind, was all about being stealthy but lethal, vulnerable but also powerful. It was about moving fast to kill some poor guys and then throw your grappling hook to the nearest rooftop to watch the other enemies go nuts. Aragami, with its [grappling hook], stylized stealth kills and one hit deaths, Aragami is the closest thing to the idea of Tenchu I could come up with my team's current resources. 

What did you want Aragami to do that modern stealth games do not?

León: If you’ve played the latest self-defined stealth games like Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, or even Dishonored, you may have noticed that the game doesn’t punish you for not being stealthy. You get spotted and you can go guns blazing, kill everybody with your amazing swordsman skills, parries, counters, powers, etc.

We wanted to create a stealth game in which stealth was not an option, but a necessity to advance. Yes, you may be a powerful assassin with supernatural powers, but you’ll never feel comfortable surrounded by enemies, and every encounter will be marked with tension. I think that's one thing that differentiates Aragami from other stealth games.

I normally don't pay much attention to stories in stealth games, but Aragami's interests me. How much history did you draw from when designing the game's narrative?

León: We spent too much time writing about the world of Aragami. We've got a document, the Aragami Bible, probably 100 or so pages only with stories and details about the world. In the end, I'm a bit sad that we couldn't flesh out the main characters a bit more, but you can read a lot about the game's world by locating the different hidden scrolls in the game and checking out the Scrolls Menu, where you can find more than 70 small stories about the world of Aragami.

What interested you about designing game mechanics around the interplay between light and darkness?

León: We had to discard different game mechanics for the sake of fun factor. In earlier versions, you could hide bodies just by creating shadows on top of them. We discarded that as it made the game too easy, and instead we added an ability that had you spent a few precious seconds hiding the body.

Another discarded mechanic was stealing keys from guards to open locked doors. We replaced that with the Light Orbs, Generators, and Barriers systems, which made much more sense inside the game's universe.

One last example, much more directly related to your question, was the archer's arrows. When an archer shoots an arrow, it illuminates an area, negating the player's ability to hide there and destroying any shadow the player could have used to traverse the scenario. Those are just some examples of how we had to adapt our game design to the lights/shadows concepts.

I like that the Aragami character itself serves as the personification of those mechanics. It ties the story and gameplay themes together very well.

León: Aragami, as a character, is the materialization of the 'Shadow Assassin', a spirit made of shadows itself, whose method of delivering death is also its most flagrant vulnerability. As Aragami, shadows empower you, while light drains all your energy and even kills you. We wanted players to embrace stealth by making hiding in the shadows not just a cool concept, but the basis of the character's biology.

I'm glad you brought up Aragami's delicate balance between killing and being killed. I felt powerful, especially as I unlocked abilities, but always felt vulnerable no matter how strong I became.

León: Totally. Aragami is a game where one mistake can mean having to repeat a full section again. It was certainly difficult to balance Aragami, as you've got this overpowered character with plenty of tools at his disposal, but with some clever placement of enemy patrols and enemies that can kill you in one shot from level 1, I feel that the tension never leaves the player no matter how powerful he becomes.

Room layout is critical to stealth games. Two different players with the exact same tools at their disposal might look at the same room, and come up with two wildly different ways of clearing out enemies. What thought process goes into elements of layout, such as where to play enemies, where to place lights and shadows, etc.?

León: When I design a level I usually create first a direct path from point A to B, with an interesting element in the way like a bridge, a bunker or a cave. That main path will probably be the hardest path. I then start adding little detours, hidden paths, secrets and alternatives that might appeal more to different kind of players.

For example, you may find a secret tunnel to the bunker, but it's guarded by an archer and it will take a while to infiltrate; or here's a hidden patch, but requires to be quick with your teleport skill if you want to go there without being seen. In the end, every level contains a set of 'playgrounds', which at the same time contain paths, branches and situations for every kind of player and where different power or approaches will fit better.

Aragami's art style is beautiful. What made cel-shading the right visual choice?

León: Looking at our team we knew we had some big limitations. We couldn't create an hyper-realistic game without more resources, and our concept artist's specialty was a more traditional style of art. We also knew that we needed a recognizable art style that would stand out among the overwhelming amount of indie games releasing these days.

In the end, what started as a toon art style, similar to Zelda Wind Waker, evolved with the team's capabilities to something more akin to Overwatch. That blend of cel shading with realistic details would become Aragami's signature style.

What do you hope players get out of Aragami?

León: At its core, I just want players to have fun with Aragami, and play a game that they'll remember fondly for (hopefully) years to come. A want them to acknowledge that an unforgiving stealth game can also be fun, and that there's plenty of space in the indie space to create new, polished, stealth experiences.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at davidlcraddock.com and @davidlcraddock.

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