Some games are better described as audiovisual experiences. Distortions is the debut title of Brazilian indie studio Among Giants, started as a labor of love by a group of friends. It was in development for nine years prior to release in March 2018. Creative Director Thiago Girello talked about the development process and the challenge to keep it fresh for all these years.
It's interesting to point out that we didn't change the core concept from day one. [...] We knew what the ending of the game would be, and what we wanted to express as a team. So we set down some key points of development, but we didn't make an instant connection between these points. We didn't want the game to get old, and we didn't want to see ourselves trapped in a project that was already too old for us and didn't represent us anymore. [...] The development process felt fresh throughout these nine years because we were always connecting and reconnecting those key points of development, and it mirrored our lives during the process. [...] It's cool to see how all that we thought about the theme, distorted memories of broken relationships, has evolved throughout these nine years.
Distortions does feel highly unusual in its structure, with unannounced transitions between levels. One of the main influences on the game, according to Girello, were the films of David Lynch. There is an obvious strain of that kind of cinematic surrealism in the game. Some of the narrative includes a bunch of scattered pages of a journal that seemingly belongs to the protagonist. The game story itself is nonlinear, unexplained, bizarre even. Narrative Designer Ricardo de Brito talked about the challenges of writing this kind of narrative.
I wanted to include this feeling of doubt and fright on the player, and adding this to the vision of loneliness and surrealism in the game. I think it matched wonderfully. Some people may be bothered by its weirdness. Some won't quite understand what's going or would like the story to be showed in a quicker, more streamlined way. That' the risk of surrealism, and we wanted to take that risk.
A mainstream gaming audience will no doubt feel alienated by this kind of game. That’s not something that bothers Girello, who expressed his distaste for immature games. With Distortions, Among Giants seeks to emulate the dreamlike worlds of Fumito Ueda, especially Shadow of the Colossus. Other influences include Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Journey. Distortions doesn’t quite reach those heights, but there is still something peculiar about its grand and colorful vistas. Girello also made a point of incorporating several perspectives, though the game is in third-person perspective for the most part.
Just as film directors use comedy, horror, drama, suspense to build a good rapport with the audience, we tried to do the same through gameplay. So based on what we wanted the player to feel we change the gameplay style like first-person perspective, side-scrolling, third-person open world, and so on. We also put a lot of effort to remain consistent and maintain a unity of our vision.This constant shifting of perspective and camera can be jarring, and some players will like it more than others. Sometimes it feels like you’re constantly losing control of the character as she walks away to transition to another level. This seems intentional, but it's not a seamless design, and it sometimes feels intrusive. It does match the simple QTE music gameplay where the protagonist plays the violin. Sadly, there's also a feeling like both the direction and the writing are constantly trying to revert to film or literature, instead of tackling the gaming medium as something unique in itself. Brito said he tried to combine literature and narrative design, but it proved difficult to reconcile.
I recognize it's very hard to do that in an effective or creative manner. I see both as different narrative "frames" to show to the player. For me, the objective of any writing is to entice some reaction from the reader or player, and since games are an image-focused medium with motion, you can do that in many ways you can't in a book. The great challenge I had writing Distortions was to know when and how exactly I should drop a literary writing approach for a game design solution, and this was made worse in the beginning when I had very little say on the game design of the project.
Somehow Distortions managed to become this odd mix of modes and perspectives. As mentioned earlier, it feels more like an audiovisual experience with some gameplay rather than a game. The soundtrack by a post-rock Brazilian band called Labirinto is excellent on its own, but it complements the atmosphere very well. This is definitely something you want to experience on a large display with a controller. While Distortions might be disappointing for those looking for a mainstream game, it stands out as a conjunction of peculiar artistic visions and influences, full of outlandish dreamscapes.
TechRaptor covered Distortions on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.