Depth means a lot of things in game design. It sometimes alludes to how intricate a system of combat or movement is under the surface. It could also focus on how many layers of character development a story features. Depth is a concept that most developers try to tackle at some point while designing their game.
‘Stela’, a cinematic platformer developed by Vancouver-based SkyBox Labs, focuses on depth as a concept. The developers want its level design and aesthetic to create a visual style that makes the world feel deep. The horizon stretches into the background and distant trees and collapsing building give off a desolate feeling from a civilization long abandoned.
“Typically, cinematic platformers have younger characters with smaller frames, so we wanted our character to have an adult frame so we could pull the camera back a little bit,” SkyBox Labs producer Aubrey Tennant tells Variety. “Then we could make our puzzles grander and see more of the environment. We could show more of the world.”
Like other cinematic platforms, ‘Stela’ felt floaty and slow to me when I played it at the ID@Xbox event at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. That’s not a bad thing though, as it lets you admire the expansive scale of levels and take time to solve puzzles through interacting with the environment (instead of combat or evasive platforming). Bug enemies, for example, will swarm towards you at certain points and you’ll need to find ways of cutting them off before they get to you since you can’t outrun them.
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“She’s not a superhero or anything like that, she’s an everyday type of protagonist,” said SkyBox Labs co-founder Shyang Kong. “She’s not Lara Croft. She’s doing these amazing things at the same time though– fighting giant creatures and navigating this world.”
The demo featured huge rhino-sized beetles, submerged creatures that plow through ice and snow, and swarms of small insects all trying to kill you at every opportunity. Most puzzles involved avoiding those enemies by blocking doors with crates, pulling down doors, and climbing towers to scare them off with a giant gong.
Inside and Braid, two notable cinematic puzzle platformers, do feature smaller protagonists that draw the camera in for more intimate angles. ‘Stela’, which comes to Xbox One and PC later this year, focuses on a mysterious, fully grown woman who emerges in an abandoned, decrepit world– her size allows the camera to pull back to capture a larger view of the skyline. It gives the impression that there is so much more to explore.
“We draw a lot of inspiration from classic films like Lawrence of Arabia for example,” Kong said. “It’s well known for having these beautiful wide-angle shots that create these historic moments. We definitely brought that into this.”
SkyBox Labs, who’s also a co-developer for Halo Infinite and Minecraft on the Nintendo Switch, is known for developing larger games with other studios. They took this opportunity to try and build a deeper, more intimate experience. Almost everything I witnessed when playing ‘Stela” was shrouded in mystery. I didn’t know who the woman was, why the monsters were attacking her, or why the world around her was so big. There wasn’t much context available.
“There is a lot of room for interpretation, but we wanted to maintain the mystery above all else. We chose not to show too much,” Kong said. “This is a game about a young woman who’s witnessing the end of this world. You’ll be able to piece together parts of the story through artifacts and your surroundings– including what you do see and what you don’t.”