• Aaron Main

Unto The End's Stephen Danton Interview

Unto The End launched late last year to pretty great reviews. The game's minimalistic approach allowed gamers the opportunity to explore a beautifully rendered 2D world of mountains and caves; while mastering a unique fighting style to take on the monsters and goblins in a fight to the finish. We had a chance to ask 2 Ton Studios' Game Designer Stephen Danton a few questions about Unto The End's vibrant and expansive gameplay mechanics and where the studio came up with all these interesting ideas.

Early on, when spinning around game ideas in your head, what were some of the original concepts or ideas that were first floated around but may not have made it into Unto The End?

We had so many ideas in the beginning. We thought about making the character an old frail man, allowing you to have a wolf as a companion, making the world more open ended, stuff like that. We also thought about different playable characters and the stories we could tell with them. How they would behave and the situations they would find themselves in… maybe for a future game :).

Unto The End’s approach to gameplay has been described as "Read/React," where you literally watch your enemy's movements, then counter based on their actions. How did this formula come about, and were you and your team happy with the final outcome?

Yes, we’re really happy with how Unto turned out. Sara and I set out to make something distinct for a certain gamer… those that are thoughtful and observant seem to get the most out of Unto and we’re very proud of that.

Reading and reacting is something you do in nearly every action game, so taken generally that isn’t something new. But our approach differs in that each opponent you face matters and every action you take is important. For instance, there are no bosses or peons in Unto, each opponent is a challenge and can be seen as a “boss”. Defeating any opponent is about staying calm in the moment, reading their actions and then reacting. Like you would in a real fight.

Unto is also pretty unique in that it’s specifically designed around a side-on view. Its challenges are focused around left-right positioning, high-low reads, and seeing behind you. We have an entire set of moves and tactics for group fights that differ from how you fight in 1v1 duels. In addition, every creature you face is unique, and as a result has specific moves which offer a distinct challenge.

What was the thought process behind implementing absolute darkness in a good percentage of Unto The End? Even with the torch it can still be quite challenging to find your way around; was this intentional?

Yes, very intentional. For us, games are all about an experience. We wanted the player to be cautious, observant, and at times unsure. Not only for mood and atmosphere, but because those are the skills you need to succeed at combat. If you attack wildly and roll all over the place you’ll die quickly. If you strike and move deliberately, and look for opportunities, things get much easier.

The inspiration for the indoor areas came from walking through unlit, pitch black lava tubes in Hawaii. They are very dark (even with decent flashlights) and your mind quickly starts playing tricks on you. We imagined walking through those lava tubes with a simple torch, and then used that as a point of reference for the lighting, and overall mood and tone.

What was the idea behind dropping or losing items upon getting hit or falling too far? As you know this can greatly hinder the player's approach when facing enemies.

Dropping things might at first seem harsh or difficult, but it’s really there in service of the experience, and to calibrate player expectations and teach game mechanics. Unto is not 2D Dark Souls or an action hack and slash. We tell you that with a message right at the start, but we also weave it into every action you take and challenge you face.

In fact, one of the first things you do in the game is drop your sword and then have to pick it up. Same with the first barrier you face, most players hack away at it. By doing so they learn that there are different types of attacks, that attacking drops your torch, and that you have to pick up your torch afterwards.

It might seem like a simple thing, but there are lots of layers to it. Dropping your torch is all about encouraging a deliberate approach to gameplay. It’s woven into combat positioning, encourages blocking, discourages over-rolling, rewards gathering and managing your supplies, encourages thoughtful approaches to encounters, and so on.

From my playthrough I noticed that there were a few extremely light, almost puzzle-like challenges scattered in the first third of the game, such as dodging rising platforms covered in spikes, or rolling under swinging traps. But later on they all but go away, and left the game more about exploring and fighting. Were these challenges originally supposed to be more integrated into the game than they ended up being?

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by integrating them into the game, but if you mean repeated throughout the game in a formulaic way, then no, that’s not something we wanted to do :).

One side note is that each fight in Unto is more of a puzzle than a brawl - so in a way it makes the whole game a series of puzzles. Every opponent can be defeated quickly or overcome without fighting at all, given the right preparation and observations. For instance, the hardest fight in the game can be won in just four moves.

More generally, we wanted the world of Unto to feel like it would exist with or without the father. The player is dropped into this world and is an intruder moving through the homes of these creatures. When we add a trap or puzzle it has to make sense in the world, regardless of the father. It needs to be built by nearby creatures for use against other nearby creatures, using materials they could find in the surrounding area.

As the player moves through the game they enter the aftermath of battles, wartorn camps, ancient archives, and religious sites... adding traps into these areas didn’t make sense. Instead the story telling is done by showing the dead after a fight, what they were fighting over, creatures in need of help, or fleeing animals. Everything is there to serve the story and overall experience we want the player to have.

A lot of Unto The End relies on abstract storytelling and actually trying to figure out what you need to do based on its minimalistic approach. Were there discussions on this early on about if the players would fully comprehend what needs to be done in order to advance in the game?

The goal was to deliver a story through the player’s experience, rather than relying on techniques from film or literature. Games are really unique in that they allow for an interactive form of storytelling. We embrace that whenever we can. We knew some players would take the time to understand, while others would just charge in. And for that reason, there isn’t a right way to get home.

Every encounter has multiple hints as to what creatures want, and ways around them. You can offer supplies, use items, run, steal, befriend, ignore, and so on. The gestures the creatures make, the way they look, nearby objects, items you find and their descriptions, all give clues as to how to approach each encounter.

Were there any elements you had to leave out because of time constraint or other limits?

I think you’re always working against time constraints no matter how big or small your team is, and it was no different for Sara and me. Anything we cut or set aside ultimately made the game tighter and more focused. We wanted something you could pick up and play in an afternoon as well as replay multiple times, and I think we delivered that.

Being an indie studio, what challenges or advantages does 2 Ton Studios face when going about creating a game like Unto The End? Are there limits, or do you design around your own set limits?

It’s like anything, when you’re small you’re more agile, but have less capacity, so it’s important to pick your battles. Sara and I focused on novel gameplay more than anything. I think that’s still the area in which a small team has the biggest advantage.

Is there any planned post-launch support for Unto The End, such as DLC?

We’ve been updating the Steam and GOG versions regularly. And our publisher has a console update planned for February.

We’ve got tons of ideas and lots of things we’d like to do, but we’ll have to see.

How was your approach to having Unto The End onto Xbox's Game Pass? How did the conversation with Microsoft go, were they helpful?

Microsoft has been great and very helpful. Having Unto on Game Pass has been exciting.

Is there anything you'd like to add or would want those interested in Unto The End to know before me go?

Unto The End is a defense-first combat experience. It has unique systems for attacking, defending, damage, and vulnerability.

You play an average warrior trying to get back home. You're less powerful than every creature you meet. You can drop your sword, run out of supplies and bleed to death. Fighting is demanding and deliberate, but not your only option. Success is about being observant and staying calm.

Thank you for your time.

Read our review of Unto the End here: Unto The End Review