Unto the End is a hand-crafted tale of a Father’s struggle to reunite with his family in the harsh wilderness. Each landscape was inspired by real-world environments ranging from Scottish highlands, the wild terrains of Iceland, to Chilean Patagonia. Difficult combat scenarios, intelligent AI, and environmental dangers all combine to provide players with thought-provoking challenges to be overcome with skills and wit. 2 Ton Studios aims to make players the hero of the story, trusting them to decide the best approach to deal with these situations. Every decision forms the story that is unique to each player.
2 Ton Studios comprises a husband and wife development team—Stephen Danton and Sara Kitamura. Both left their careers in 2015 to pursue their love and passion for developing concepts and games whilst living and travelling abroad.
In an exclusive interview with OnlySP, Unto the End’s co-developer Stephen Danton discusses gaming influences, 2D minimalism art design, hand-crafted nuanced combat system—and much more.
OnlySP: Can you tell me about how 2 Ton Studios was formed and what inspired you both to develop games?
Danton: It really started as an art project/experiment and felt a bit like going back to university. We’d left our jobs (dream jobs by almost any measure), sold our condo and decided to travel while working on game ideas. At first it was just about the ideas and challenging ourselves. Did we have anything unique to say in the space of games? Are the games we liked to build interesting to other players? We continued like that for a few years, building out concepts showing them to friends, then starting again. Each time we got a bit better. Had something new to say.
OnlySP: Can you tell me a bit about what games and life experiences influenced you to create Unto the End?
Danton: We took bits of inspiration from Another World and INSIDE, as well as old school Punch-Out!! and some of the mood and tone from Dark Souls, but mostly Unto is inspired by a feeling of adventure. That tingle at the back of your neck when you’re doing something new and daring, something you aren’t totally sure is safe but you move forward regardless.
OnlySP: North was the original concept idea that eventually led to Unto the End, and the protagonist and art design in the concept images looks very similar to your upcoming game. Why did you stop development of North? Did you learn anything significant from North that helped you with Unto the End?
Danton: We’re big believers in trying out lots of ideas. North was one of them. It taught us a ton about how to build a game with lots of environmental scale, cinematic scene framing, deliberate character movement, thoughtful gameplay and so on. Setting it aside and starting fresh gave us the space necessary to internalize those lessons and more expertly apply them to Unto The End.
OnlySP: The game’s 2D character and environmental artwork seems to be inspired by minimalism, as the landscapes feature simple geometric shapes and human characters do not have facial features. Why did you choose to adopt minimalism and how do you feel the 2D graphics and art style add to the player’s experience?
Danton: We believe that games should be about the player’s experience, not the player watching the hero’s experience. A minimalist style helps with that. We’re sure some people will see it as simple or basic, but we worked extremely hard on landing a style that was just detailed enough, something that immersed players but also leaves room for their own interpretations and emotions to be the star of the experience.
OnlySP: The gameplay features a unique handcrafted “read-react” combat system focusing on player skills and tactical decisions against intelligent, tough enemies similar to Souls-like combat. Was it challenging to create a deeply nuanced combat system using 2D graphics? Were there any specific challenges that you had to overcome to develop the combat system?
Danton: From the very beginning we set the goal of not making another 2D Dark Souls, metroidvania, or procedurally generated rogue-like/lite. We wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and challenged players in distinct ways.
Most importantly we wanted to capture the feeling of being in a fight and give it the respect it deserves. To us that meant getting the right balance between skillful inputs and great looking action.
We didn’t want it to be a sword fighting simulator—to us controllers just aren’t good enough analogs for the human body. We also didn’t want it to require elaborate input strings or supernatural finger dexterity. A popular approach is to focus on making a fight look great, at the cost of feel. Which often means watching beautiful quicktime events while pressing the odd button. But that makes the hero not the player the star.
We wanted combat to be about you. Your measure of risk and reward, moment to moment decisions, keeping cool under pressure, staying aware of your surroundings while focusing on the threat right in front of you.
The more we looked at it, the more we realised that a side-on view is just better for capturing the feel we wanted. Specifically, being able to effectively read and react to high vs low attacks, judge left-right distance and see behind you. In addition, the side-on view makes it much easier to evaluate the world around you. It allows the player to leverage (or be pressured by) terrain – a wall, cliff, etc, becomes a strategic consideration, rather than just set dressing. We can also do things like friendly fire, ambushes, pursuits, and so on, that make sense to players and most importantly, feel fair.
To come up with a unique experience amidst 20+ years of action-combat precedence was a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work. We spent nearly a full year just prototyping ideas around the feel of the main character and combat. A Miyamoto-style walled garden, just focused on combat. The biggest challenge being people not understanding what the heck we were hoping to achieve until it was mostly fleshed out. People kept on trying to steer us back to something they’d already played. That didn’t make any sense to us. It takes a lot of self belief to stand up against that doubt and do something different. We’re very proud of what we’ve come up with and hope others agree.
OnlySP: Campfires are an intriguing mechanism enabling players to craft new weapons and armour. Sleeping at a campfire will also trigger a flashback dream sequence allowing the protagonist to practice combat skills at home with his family. How do these flashback dreams add to the narrative design?
Danton: We like games that tell a story through the player’s interactions with the world and its creatures. INSIDE most recently did this very well.
Dreams are spaces which allow the player to experience the main character’s past interactively—they are fully playable experiences, not cutscenes. They focus around fond memories or fears about what might be happening to your family. Acting as reprives from the cold darkness of your journey home, with specific goals, lore, backstory and challenges for you to discover and overcome.
OnlySP: The story narrative revolves around a father’s lonely, desperate, and heroic journey to reunite with his wife and daughter. Whilst the main objective will be to return home, can you reveal whether the campaign can have different endings?
Danton: We go back and forth on this. On one hand we love alternate endings, but they can sometimes feel like a forced interpretation of events and actions, which we don’t like. We’ve built the game so different endings can be added, but we’ll have to see what feels right.
OnlySP: On your website, you say that 2 Ton Studios is inspired by travel and you transfer that inspiration into your games. How has travel influenced the environments and any other aspects of Unto the End’s design and gameplay?
Danton: A lot of Unto The End is inspired from the landscapes of Northern Scotland, Iceland and Chilean Patagonia. More importantly, it’s the feeling we had when exploring these locations (as well as others) that we try to capture through gameplay. That feeling you have on a great hike when you go off the trail. Being unsure if you should do it, but trusting your wits to get you through, is when we have the most fun. It’s the kind of fun we think translates well to games and hope others agree.
OnlySP: Unto the End has unforgiving terrain from cavernous underground ruins to harsh mountain peaks. In addition, players will need to conquer environmental challenges and deadly traps, will these challenges serve as gameplay puzzles, and will there be multiple ways to overcome these challenges?
Danton: Combat encounters and the combat system in general is designed to be very emergent, allowing for various solutions. Traps and more traditional puzzles have a single solution.
We actually think of the entire adventure as a stream of puzzles for the player to unwind. There are some INSIDE style environmental puzzles and traps, but Unto is not a puzzle platformer. The majority of “puzzles” come in the form of combat encounters. Situations which at first might feel impossible, but given more thought allow for “ah ha!” moments where a solution becomes obvious. Sometimes that is how you approach the fight, what skills you use, at other times it’s about not fighting or finding ways to befriend an opponent.
Any challenge we put in the game, combat or otherwise, is there for a reason. If there’s a trap it’s because some creature built it and put it there. If there’s a puzzle to overcome it’s because of some event that shifted the landscape. The way you overcome these challenges IS the story, one created by your unique decisions and actions.
OnlySP: 2 Ton Studios worked with music composer Johnny Knittle who mostly used a beaten-up piano, percussion instruments, and a heavy stapler to produce the ‘Cave Exit’ piece which sounds raw and almost perfectly ‘out of tune.’ What was it like to work with him and see your characters come to life with music?
Danton: Johnny has been fantastic to work with, as has our sound designer Francesco Ameglio. So much of the feel of the game comes from the sonic experience. It conveys the overall mood of a space as well as the current state and emotions of the main character as well as the creatures he encounters.
Like everything else in Unto The End, it was important for the music to capture unique feel. An old beat up piano along with some creative instruments delivered the right balance between hope, fear and loneliness that we felt suited the father and his journey. When Johnny pitched the idea to us we were super excited. When he sent over the first roughs of the music we knew we had something special.
We’re very lucky to work with two great artists in Johnny and Francesco. Sara and I felt it was our job to give them a rough direction and then let their creative talents take care of the rest. The results have been fantastic and we can’t wait for players to experience it first hand.
OnlySP: When you showcased Unto the End at EGX 2019, what kind of reception did you get? Has player feedback influenced you to change anything about the game or fine tune an existing gameplay feature?
Danton: With all possible humility, players and press seemed to really love it. Of course it’s a game that breaks a lot of rules. It trusts your intelligence and doesn’t hold your hand, so it’s not for everyone. We’re okay with that. In fact those are the kinds of games we want to play and more importantly make. Something that delivers a unique experience with a unique perspective.
There isn’t anything specific we’re going to change. It’s more that seeing such positive reactions gives us the confidence to focus on finishing things in the right way while still ensuring we get Unto The End into players hands as soon as we can.
Overall we’re extremely grateful. Huge thanks to everyone that stopped by at EGX, and then took the time to share their experiences with others, it really meant the world to us.
OnlySP: Can you reveal any details regarding the length of the campaign?
Danton: We’re aiming for something around the same length as INSIDE or LIMBO. We’ve focused on deep meaningful encounters and challenges that deliver a distinct experience. Every opponent you face is unique, every environment is hand crafted. Nothing is there for padding or just because.
OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Danton: Just thanks for taking the time to learn more about Unto The End. It’s a hand crafted game made by a husband and wife team, with the help of a brilliant musician and outrageously talented sound designer. We don’t have a big marketing budget. We’ll succeed only if people talk about the game and share it with their friends. And we really want to succeed because there are so many other ideas and experiences we want to realise.
At every turn we’ve challenged convention and pushed against expectation, not to be different or make a statement, but because we felt it resulted in a better experience. We hope you feel the same!
If you like what you see please help us spread the word, tell a few friends about Unto The End, wishlist it on Steam, follow us on Twitter. Every bit makes a huge difference.
Thanks so much!