This is the English version of our Q&A. The Russian version can be found here.

Shape of the World is the newest game that asks you to sit back and relax. Take it easy, breath in the wonderful chaos of the unknown world and enjoy. Its creator Stu Maxwell from Hollow Tree Games has been working on it tirelessly for a couple of years. With rich experience of working on triple A titles, Stu knows how to make dazzling games with memorable art. decided to talk with Stu.

NN: Shape of the World looks like an atmospheric game for those who feel tired and want to relax after a hard day at work. What prompted you to create a title in that genre?

SM: The game has been a passion project I’ve been spending all my spare time on for the past 4 years – rewarding, yes, but not relaxing. By day, I’m a VFX artist working on AAA games, currently Gears 5. Before that, I went to art school and practiced graphic design, video and sculpture. So in my own time, as balance, I’ve been developing something very relaxing, something I want to play after a long day at work. I live in Vancouver, Canada – a beautiful city surrounded by water and mountains.

It’s while exploring Vancouver’s Stanley Park and the surrounding Pacific Northwest that I came up with the desire to create a relaxing game of exploration. Stanley park is a huge, old-growth forest right next to downtown, full of maze-like paths that I flew down on my bike with great music playing through my headphones. I loved the flow of sailing through the forest with electronic music driving the emotion, but I also learned to love getting lost. You can get pleasantly lost when you don’t know where you are but you know you’ll find your way if you just keep going. That’s the feeling I wanted to create in a game.

NN: We all know the dreaded “walking simulator” label. Are you against it, or did you embrace this “genre”? Do you feel that the “walking simulator” stamp does a disservice to many a multilayered game?

SM: What are your favourite games of the similar genres? Maybe some that inspired you? Personally, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture resonated with me.  There were several games which influenced Shape of the World, and you could call some or all of them walking simulators, depending on how strict your definition is. Flower was a game which I would always show visitors who hadn’t played many console games. They were always shocked by how simple, non-violent and beautiful it was – I loved opening players’ minds to what’s actually possible with a video game. I then discovered Proteus, which showed me that one person can make a short but very satisfying experience. Again, there were no enemies or ticking clocks – instead, a chill experience. Journey, obviously, blew my mind. Before the game came out, I was pleased to see an outstanding example of chill exploration in the beautiful Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was inspiring to see the design executed so thoughtfully, and it motivated me to put some finishing touches on the player’s movement – for example, instead of adding a run button, I allowed the player to destroy trees to launch themselves briefly forward.

NN: What platform do you think suits Shape of the World best? Switch is an obvious candidate since it allows us to relax and play even while laying down. Do you think this is a factor?

SM: The game plays really well on all 4 platforms so honestly I think it’s a total subjective opinion and I don’t want to influence you with mine. Switch is a funny one because some people blister at the thought of playing such a visually dramatic game on the portable screen, but others feel that an intimate spot like a bed or cozy corner is the best place to relax and explore.

NN: What do you play in your spare time? Maybe something on Switch?

SM: As a developer, I feel it’s my duty to play at least a little bit of a huge variety of games. And yet, I find myself usually playing only a few: Planet Coaster, The Sims 4, and Gears of War 4. I play a bunch of linear games, too, and the one that stood out to me most was Inside, which has possibly the best art in any game yet made.

NN: What can you say to competitive people who are opposed to games like Shape of the World, which they dismiss as being not challenging enough? 

SM: Fair enough! I support expanding the breadth of gamed, and I’m happy that there’s such a wide spectrum between my game and Dark Souls. Personally, I find super hard games really aggravating, and while I’ve gotten through a few levels of Cuphead, I don’t feel the desire to punish myself any longer, but I’m SO happy i can watch others play on YouTube!

NN: What’s more important to you: the unique features (like the detachable Joy-Cons or a separate screen) or raw power? Do you agree with Roman Uhlig (the creator of 12 orbits) that portability is more important than high-end graphics?

SM: I gotta say, it’s unbelievable that this is possible: I can play on my big screen, I can play with friends, and I can take my game to any comfy spot I want. Ultimately that’s more important than “high-end graphics”, but the greatest thing of all is that people don’t really respond to “graphics”, they respond to art. It’s the artistic direction that gives you feels.

While I’m here, I also wanted to mention the outstanding soundtrack which was authored by my good friend Brent Silk. The game’s sound design and music gets a lot of praise, which touches me because we’ve long been great friends and I didn’t know with certainty that working with him wouldn’t put stress on our friendship. He put more effort into the soundtrack of Shape of the World than he’s ever put into anything else in his life. I think he did this because we both wanted the music to be just as important as the visuals. I wanted the player to consider the experience both a game and an album, but an album that progresses as you explore.

I pointed him toward several references – textural electronic music that was beautiful and relaxing but innovating and interesting, but not at all like generic spa music – and had him create a large number of short, unpolished musical sketches, and we went from there. When the game progressed enough, he started turning his music into stages that could be sequenced and blended in real-time based on what the player was accomplishing. He started matching the mood of the game to the mood of the music, until it felt like one seamless experience. Like I wanted from the beginning, it felt like you were playing a music video, but for an entire album. Then, from the game, he composed a complete album, which is awesome and you can find it basically anywhere.

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