Earlier this year, I played through the highly underrated indie game To Leave. I recently had the opportunity to ask its creative director Estefano Palacios a few questions about his approach to game development so I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Warning: heavy spoilers for To Leave are ahead so please keep this in mind before reading any further.
[Tyler] Tell us about yourselves at Freaky Creations. How big is the team?
[Estefano] We're a team of 12 developers with two additional artists who helped us toward the end of production. At Freaky Creations, our goal has always been to create digital, interactive "talismans" that empower players to experience enlightening gameplay through our games.
[Tyler] I found the story of To Leave to be relatively open to interpretation with every player gleaning something different from it. Is that what you were going for? Is there anything in particular that you hope every player takes away from the story?
[Estefano] I believe that art can only exist when the medium's message lends itself to interpretation. So, yes: one of our main goals for To Leave was to create a game that would be unique for each player but we didn't want to get to this uniqueness by making an open-ended or non-linear game (although those are wonderful ways to deliver fresh experiences). We wanted To Leave to be unique to each player due to how the relations between the game's elements force players to interpret the experience in a personal way.
To make this happen, it was very important for us to have players realize that they're perceiving the game's unfolding events through Harm whose perception is fractured by his underlying mental illness. In this case, the most befitting label for his illness would be a psychosis-ridden, unmedicated (or rather, self-medicated) manic depression. Once players acknowledge this, they can begin to question Harm's motivations for doing what he's doing; that is, activating the Origin Gate to send the souls of the Spiraling Stars to the Origin.
Harm's mental state heavily affects how he perceives the world and as players embark on the quest to activate the Harvesting Temples, they see the world through Harm's eyes. Have people in this world truly become cubes or is that merely Harm's perception? Or could it be something in between? Furthermore, if we assume for argument's sake that the people from the Stars have actually become cubes, are Harm's actions justified? Is this world really impossible to save? Is Harm sending people to heaven or is he effectively killing everyone? The journals themselves reveal that Harm is aware that this could in fact be a consequence of his actions. If this is the case, should the player continue to play the game? For those who have interpreted the game in this light (that is, that activating the Origin Gate will kill all of the Spiraling Stars), the game provides an option for players to feed Harm to a so-called "Collector" - an action that effectively kills Harm, removes all progress in the game, and forces players to start again.
Of course, the player knows nothing of this when the game begins. Our goal was for all of these interpretations to become progressively more clear for players as they read the previous journal entries. By the time everything's ready for the Origin Gate to be activated, the player (as Harm) can choose to abort everything by letting the Collector feed itself through Harm.
[Tyler] That explains a lot. What inspired you to use a magical flying door as the mode of transportation for Harm?
[Estefano] One of the most important symbols in To Leave is the idea of the "gateway". Harm uses drugs and indulges in fantasies of Fay, the Origin Gate, and his Door to accomplish his goal of avoiding the present moment which for him is painful and chaotic. He needs an escape and the Flying Door represents this. However, there are several more interpretations of the Door, especially if you analyze the Prologue and Part I.
[Tyler] To Leave is a difficult game, especially when compared to other games that focus on narrative. What made you decide to ramp up the challenge?
[Estefano] Harm doesn't have an easy time navigating this world. The difficulty is there to show the antagonism between Harm and the world he inhabits. We wanted to show that every time Harm exits his room, he's rejected by the world. In fact, everything is out to get him and his Door. We wanted the player to be enraged by this world. We wanted the player to feel the same rage that Harm feels. We wanted those players who have read the journals and are having second thoughts about activating the Origin Gate to feel the compulsion to go through with it just because the world was so enraging.
[Tyler] The Daimonion Level almost drove me to the point of insanity. Is it the level that players find the most challenging?
[Estefano] Daimonion is by far the toughest level for players; so much so that we're considering toning it down a little bit. We're planning on rebalancing it so that it's more fair and we'll eliminate a couple of "golden paths" that were discovered by players. Of course, we'll also fix some bugs while we're at it! You'll hear more about the patch soon.
[Tyler] I'm looking forward to it! To Leave recently released on Steam after debuting earlier this year on PlayStation 4. What made you choose PS4 as the first platform to release on and do you plan to release To Leave on other platforms?
[Estefano] Sony and PlayStation have been huge supporters of the game. To Leave was borne out of PlayStation's LATAM Incubation Program where Sony Interactive Entertainment sought out developers to take under their wing. Freaky Creations got on board with ESPOL and CTI, the university and research facility we all worked for. As resources dwindled, we had to make a tough choice and cut down the number of platforms to one and focus on that to finish the game. We chose PlayStation because they had been long-time backers of To Leave. Also, we were certain that the game would do much better on a curated platform like the PlayStation Store.
[Tyler] Speaking of which, the indie gaming scene has completely blown up over the years with a dozen or more indies currently releasing every week. Has To Leave been successful for you in this extremely competitive market?
[Estefano] Not yet, no. The game is selling poorly but we're always looking for ways to reach a wider audience and just as importantly, the right audience. However, I personally believe that anybody could enjoy this game.
[Tyler] Agreed. Have you played any other indie or AAA games recently that you've enjoyed? If so, which ones?
[Estefano] I actually don't get to play games for pleasure all that much. Here are the titles I've played in the past 4 years: Braid, LIMBO, INSIDE, Journey, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Gears of War 4, Halo 5: Guardians, Hotline Miami, Papers Please, Antichamber, Mass Effect 3, Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, Fallout 4, Super Meat Boy, Cuphead, Super Hexagon, Resident Evil 1 Remastered, Papo & Yo, Pillars of Eternity, and Undertale.
[Tyler] Finally, what does the future of Freaky Creations hold? Are you currently working on any new projects?
[Estefano] Personally, I've already come up with some early ideas for a new project.
To Leave is one unique game and Estefano Palacios certainly has a strong vision of how to craft thought-provoking experiences. I'm looking forward to his next project but in the meantime, you should definitely give To Leave a try.