In the Valley of Gods

by Campo Santo
The studio
Choosing their own adventure

It’s not surprising that storytelling sits at the core of Campo Santo. The team, which includes alums from Telltale, Irrational, Double Fine, and Lionhead (among others), lives at the crossroads where place, people, and stories meet. “One of the things that drives us is our fascination with how transportive games can be,” says Campo Santo co-founder Jake Rodkin. “It’s not just about telling a story, it’s about making the person playing it feel a real connection to the character and story being told.”

Indeed, one of Campo Santo’s main design philosophies is making sure players comfortably settle into the skin of the main character. Ideas like body awareness and intricate animations for hands help make that connection between player and game, allowing them to get lost and adopt the character’s perspective as their own.

The self-described “scrappy” Campo Santo team in San Francisco

The self-described “scrappy” Campo Santo team in San Francisco

Campo Santo learned a lot developing their first title – the award-winning narrative adventure Firewatch – making them confident embarking on the even more ambitious In the Valley of Gods, where they’re introducing an AI-controlled actor who has many adventures. And while their focus is currently on how the story unfolds, Campo Santo is taking steps to ensure it’s truly compelling with plenty of meaningful character interactions.

The project
Out of the trees and into the desert

In the Valley of Gods tells the story about the challenges of friendship, placing players in the boots of Rashida, a documentary filmmaker in the 1920s who is trying to get her career out of a slump. Though her boots are covered in Egyptian sand rather than the dirt of Firewatch’s mountainous Wyoming forests, the character still brings all of the rich and complicated history and baggage you’d expect to find in a real person’s life story.

As with Firewatch, character development is central to In the Valley of Gods

As with Firewatch, character development is central to In the Valley of Gods

With this, their sophomore effort, Campo Santo is hoping to refine and improve the techniques developed in Firewatch to connect players directly to Rashida, while introducing even more complexity via Rashida’s companion character Zora, a former friend whom Rashida had vowed never to work with again.

The revived relationship progresses as players interact with Zora, who responds based on player choices. “In Firewatch, Henry’s relationship with Delilah was really great and fun, but having a disembodied voice along with you for yet another story could wear thin. There are probably only so many times you can get away with that,” remarks Rodkin. “We knew the next big step was introducing a fully animated, emoting NPC that reacts to player actions. Zora isn’t just there to staunch the feeling of loneliness, but to offer a more impactful way to express the story and the characters’ relationship.”

Watch In the Valley of Gods' trailer
The reveal
The luxury of planning

With In the Valley of Gods, Campo Santo has spent the majority of the game’s early development in preproduction: Fleshing out the story and characters, building out visual style, and developing the unique tools they need to deliver on their aspirations, which you can see in the trailer released during the 2017 Game Awards.

This is different than the approach they took on Firewatch, where all phases of development happened more or less at the same time. Once production got underway, most of the gameplay and level design was built side by side with story and dialogue. “Though that was partly just a necessity. A big reason we developed Firewatch that way was because the simpler design of that game allowed us to.” For In the Valley of Gods, the team has aimed its sights at achieving lofty goals, which tend to require meticulous planning.

“The development of the scenes for the trailer was a way for the people working on art, tech, and rendering to figure out how to take the concept paintings and make them a reality in-engine, and they really ‘knocked it out of the park.’ Now we’re busy taking all of those learnings and improving on everything even more. We’re working with Unity fairly closely on much of this, with the hope that what we’re doing will make its way back into the community, and hopefully Unity itself – if not our literal code then at least our discoveries.”

Research leading to better options

Most of what we’re looking at in the trailer, while already running in real-time in Unity at a high frame rate, is merely a first pass that allowed the team to work on the look of the game and explore new technologies and shaders.

The companion character Zora was particularly eye-catching. Not only for her smooth animation and memorable silhouette, but also for facial animation and her dramatic hair, which looked as though it had real volume thanks to some custom shaders and interesting baking techniques to get the rim light to look exactly right (you can read about it here).

A backlighting test for Zora’s hair

And while the hair was hand-animated for the trailer, if you look closely, you can also see a preview of the simple physics spring system in Zora’s earrings, which will eventually provide a more realistic and dynamic bounce to those beautiful locks.

Even sequences eventually cut from the final trailer were beneficial to levels planned for the final game, including one that had the two characters wading through waist-high, fully simulated water in a flooded underground tomb. “It was one of the most technical pieces of the trailer but it didn’t really fit with the story we wanted to tell at the time so it was cut,” says Rodkin. “It’s something we’re very excited to evolve as we go farther down the development road.”

Sometimes it’s the simple things

High-end ambitious visuals are nice: Pretty places, detailed people, and lighting and shadows so realistic they make players want to melt into the environment. But much of the time, success lies in the smaller, less sexy tech features. Such is the case with Campo Santo’s beautiful character animation. They’ve transitioned from the giant animation state machine they used for Henry in Firewatch to localized state machines, single animations, and timelines, based on the Playables API, which was slowly rolled out through 2017.

“With Henry in Firewatch, our animator really wanted the full body experience all the time, which meant when you looked down in first person you’d see a whole person walking around, climbing a rope, picking up objects, etc.,” explains Rodkin. “Firewatch was one big contiguous space – there aren’t load screens or opportunities to flush parts of the game just because you’ve walked across the world. And at the time, this meant a giant bird’s nest of a Mecanim state machine to account for every interaction that could happen at any point in the game, which was hard to read and harder to manipulate.”

 Like Zora, the team has its eyes on the horizon

Like Zora, the team has its eyes on the horizon

The Playables API, for the uninitiated, provides a way to organize and share data sources across multiple functions. Gameplay scripts, animation and sound can all be visualized via a graph to keep things organized between functions.

“The way things work now, it means characters can carry around much less data. It means world organization is easier. It means objects can share data quickly and efficiently. Animations can still all be blended together but that data can now be tied to specific objects.

“For example, if you want to sit down in that chair, the chair animation blend can be shared as the character interacts with the object itself. Thankfully, this means much smaller animation state machines instead of a giant tangled web where the threads are hard to follow. We’re still working on organizing the details of our pipeline, but early exploration is very promising!” concludes Rodkin.

It’s a long road

The development journey of In the Valley of Gods has only just begun. Keep your eyes on this page for details as the game progresses, and we’ll also share how Campo Santo is using Unity’s new features to make this already stunningly beautiful adventure come to life in 2019.

Campo Santo uses a wide range of Unity features to bring the characters of Rashida and Zora to life.

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