Majora’s Skies: looking ahead to A Place for the Unwilling

“We’d never say A Place for the Unwilling is on par with them, they’re both timeless classics, but we do aspire to craft an experience that feels as unique as playing those two felt to us.”

It’s a fair point from AlPixel Games, speaking about its upcoming narrative adventure, but when you’re using both The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Sunless Skies as reference points for your game, there are going to be some understandably raised expectations.

“When we use Majora’s Mask and Sunless Sea to talk about our game, it’s mostly because we’ve always struggled to describe the experience to others,” the studio tells us, pointing out that A Place for the Unwilling’s closest analogue is actually something like Ice-Pick Lodge’s 2004 psychological horror title, Pathologic. “When you pitch the project in a show and mention the word adventure they ask if it’s a point-and-click game, then you have to explain that it’s an open world and there are no puzzles. A few minutes later, somebody else asks if it’s a visual novel and you show them it’s actually a game where you’re free to explore a big city. Then another person watches you trading goods and thinks it’s a trading game. See where this is going?”

Time passes in this gorgeous diorama, regardless of your actions.

But it’s the story that’s core to Unwilling’s experience. Set in a dying city’s final 21 days, the game follows a branching narrative path for the player, who takes on the role of a trader living in the city. What do they do? Well, whatever the player wants, really. Time passes, however you choose to spend it, and people go about their days – you might just walk around the park, or trade some goods, or maybe visit an old friend to pass the time before the end.

Whatever you do, it’s all your choice and – importantly – it’s all your story. “We have many different story arcs, and there are plenty of breadcrumbs around,” AlPixel explains. “But players are free to set their own goals in the city. That’s the core of the game, creating a story that is different from the rest. When you talk about your experience with a friend it won’t just be about if they killed that one guy or spared him.”

A Place for the Unwilling is being made using Unity along with Ink, Inkle’s narrative scripting language, most recently seen in the excellent Heaven’s Vault. “(Using Ink) is key in a tiny team such as ours, where you can’t just nag the only programmer in the room for every new detail you want to change in a dialogue,” AlPixel says. “Not every game out there needs Ink, but it’s the most powerful and elegant narrative engine open to everyone. They released it a few months after our development began and it changed everything. A Place for the Unwilling would be very different without it. It has enabled us to do all sorts of things that are almost impossible for a small studio.”

Using Ink means the story – and dialogue – is branching.

Being a small studio made up of relative newcomers to the industry, AlPixel has also used A Place for the Unwilling as a solid learning experience, admitting it has made mistakes along the way – but acknowledging this has all been for the best, ultimately. “One of the most meaningful decisions we’ve taken during development has been paying more attention to healthy working conditions,” the studio says. “It’s not like we crunched a lot before, but we’d do things like going to a show on the weekend, spend two full days taking care of the booth, get home completely exhausted, and then go back to the office on Monday morning. We understand everyone gives their very best when they feel well, and it’s important to pursue that. At one point, we started focusing even more on this. Asking others how they are doing, reminding them to take a break if they’re working late, being more careful with deadlines, trying to be flexible with specific cases, and so on.

“Above all the things that we’ve learned during development, that still is the most important one. We all want to make great games, but we don’t want to destroy the people that build them in the process.”

It might not be specifically aiming to be the new Majora’s Mask or Sunless Skies, but A Place for the Unwilling has been getting people excited. It could be great. If it is, it’ll hopefully be a big success for the small studio in Spain. But how to prepare for launch? “’Prepare for the worst, expect the best, take what comes’,” AlPixel suggests as a motto for the team. “Everyone at the studio is in a stable position, we are paying bills, and have some savings. There’s not much else we can say – it’s mostly a matter of working as hard as possible until release and hoping we took enough right decisions. We are proud of what we’ve built and can’t wait for people to explore the world we’ve spent so much time creating.”

There’s a hint of eighties isometric adventures on the Speccy here.

Kickstarting chaos

A Place for the Unwilling was part-funded via a Kickstarter campaign, but the game’s original publisher ran into some problems and – long story short – AlPixel has had to do a lot of work picking up the pieces. “We still intend to keep our promises and we post messages everywhere, encouraging backers to get in touch with us,” the studio says. “It’s a time-consuming task for a team that is already overwhelmed, but we are going to send the rewards to every person that gets in touch with us. We always try to be open and accessible on social media, email, and Discord. Most backers have already talked to us and will receive their rewards soon. We will continue trying to reach the others.”

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