There aren’t enough toy-based games. There are loads, of course, but it always feels like there aren’t enough – after all, what’s a better setting for video games than to bring to life the toys of our childhoods? Nothing is better. Probably. Anyway, Tin Hearts sees you guiding a troop of tiny (tinny) soldiers through levels riddled with puzzles in a modern-day Lemmings by way of Toy Story. But likely with not as much taking pleasure in the death of our wee charges.
“Back in 2016 when Rogue Sun was forming,” explains Kostas Zarifis, the studio’s creative director, “as one of various micro studios to spring to life out of the ashes of Lionhead, one of the items on the agenda was, of course, what our first game should be. Whatever we did, there were certain criteria we wanted it to fulfil. We wanted it to be unique and really push the medium of gaming in some form. And even though we’re only a small team, we wanted to try to have strong production values. Because we were a small team, though, and because we wouldn’t be operating in an environment that had the resources of Microsoft to support it, we also wanted to do something relatively small in scope.”
VR was landed on as the optimal format – Tin Hearts is set for release on Oculus and PSVR, along with non-VR formats – and plenty of design decisions were taken based on the immersive headset format. No locomotion means no motion sickness. ‘Bringing the world to the player’, like in Job Simulator or Beat Saber, would aid in immersion. Bringing in an idea prompted by one of Valve’s VR-promoting programs – the player towering over little characters in the game, basically – tied it all together, and with all of this combined, the studio had the core mechanic of what would become Tin Hearts.
“As we developed that and also started adding the theme of toys and toy-making, a narrative also started to emerge,” Zarifis says. “I guess it’s testament to our love for telling stories that the narrative component soon became just as fully fleshed out as our ideas for what the mechanics should be, and soon enough, these two components started working together to form the complete package that is Tin Hearts today.”
Making a puzzle game is, fittingly, a puzzle in itself. Managing the balance between challenge and accessibility is a delicate tightrope to walk – being sure players know what’s expected of them, but also that they’re still pushed to think in order to get through what’s in front of them is difficult. “I think most of us can recognise this mastery when we see it in puzzle games that we’ve played, loved, and will never forget,” Zarifis says. “To replicate that is an intense challenge. Of course, it’s the sort of challenge that gets me out of bed with a big smile on my face every morning, and the same is true for my team. I suppose whether we’ve done it right, only our players will tell. The game was in Early Access for a brief period of time, and at least judging by that experience, people did seem to like what we were doing, which was extremely encouraging.”
But it’s not just the puzzles – and the visuals – doing the heavy lifting in Tin Hearts: as Zarifis pointed out, there’s also its story, described as ‘a powerful tale of love and compromise’. “I think gameplay drives the immersion and engagement with an experience and, therefore, it’s of paramount importance,” Zarifis says. “That said, a memorable, impactful story is often what stays with us after the experience and what gets us wanting to talk to others about the game. I think for us, it’s not that much of a choice as storytelling is sort of in our DNA, and like I said, we didn’t necessarily set out to tell a deep, heartfelt, and at some levels personal story, but somehow, one such story made it in there.”
That DNA is, of course, from the Lionhead days – so how much does the studio behind Fable factor into what Rogue Sun is making today? “Lionhead was a place that attracted a very special kind of developer,” Zarifis says. “It was a place full of very bright and talented people who took huge pride in their work – and frankly, a place where my impostor syndrome was through the roof every day. I like to think Rogue Sun carries that spirit and that this shows in the work we do on Tin Hearts and other, less public projects.”
While there are thoughts percolating away behind the scenes – both of potential future titles and upgrades for Tin Hearts – Zarifis is focused for now on the immediate future.
“Tin Hearts will be our first release as a new studio,” he says. “It’s been quite a few years in the making and a true labour of love by a small number of passionate people. So we really hope it will resonate. Right now, as we push through the final months of production, that’s all I can think of, to be honest!”