Unsighted is an upcoming action game about the end of a war between humans and robots, where the remaining robots may soon run out of the secret energy that provides them consciousness. It looks beautiful, with strong Hyper Light Drifter vibes, and like many modern action games, appears taxing on the fingers. Being hard was part of the pitch, and while it remains part of the pitch, COVID-19 has fundamentally altered its design:
Originally, Unsighted was meant to be a straightforward mashup of action and puzzles, from start to finish. As the endless anxiety of 2020 unfolded, however, the developers started looking at what they were making, contrasted with relaxing games like Animal Crossing, which proved extremely popular during the year, specifically because they let folks unwind.
But it wasn't just the wider audience feeling this way, it was the developers at Studio Pixel Punk, too. It was a combination of COVID-19's existential threat, a lack of socialization with family and friends, and an increasingly volatile political climate. (Studio Pixel Punk is located in Brazil, where, among other things, they're dealing with Trump-like leader Jair Bolsonaro.)
"I was really into tough games when the development of Unsighted began, but in 2020 I couldn't get into them anymore," said Unsighted coder and artist Tiana Pixel. "There was already so much stress in the real world. I started to get into old favorites of mine, such as Harvest Moon, and [my coworker] showed me Animal Crossing."
COVID-19 has impacted the world of games in huge ways, most notably delays for highly anticipated releases and massive teams being forced to work from home for months on end. Less understood has been the ways such large changes would manifest within game design.
"I also always loved the tougher games, and I still do," said coder and composer Fernanda Dias, "but I’ve also grown to really cherish and appreciate some more easygoing experiences, and thought, why can’t Unsighted provide some of that too, for those who prefer it?"
Part of the trick, though, is that stress is core to the design of Unsighted. The moment you start playing, you have 25 hours to beat the game. There's actually a real-time clock in the corner! But now, there are ways in the game to stop that clock—temporarily, anyway.
You can also go fishing, hunt treasure, play mini-games, and raise pets. It's all optional.
"We realized that those also help to better pace the game, since the game is so hectic all the time, those moments really stand out," said the game's developers in a joint answer. "And having them in makes the more intense parts have more weight too, that contrast really makes it so they’re larger than the sum of their parts."
The team described their development philosophy as "letting the player play the way they want to," and part of that means respecting players might be in the mood for different things. Maybe they like running around the world of Unsighted, but they don't want stressful combat.
"As long as you don't force these things," said the developers, "we think it's good to have the options for different experiences inside one game for the players to reach out to, if they want or need."
This revelation prompted the developers to examine the game's accessibility options, too. If you're accommodating what mood a player might be in, isn't a natural extension of that to accommodate someone who might like to play the game but has trouble with the combat?
Thus, "exploration mode," which lets players slow—or even stop—the stressful timer, or modify the combat to make it easier. The word "exploration" was chosen very carefully, too.
"We also try to be very careful with the wording we choose, to not judge the players that are looking for these experiences," the team said.
The experiences of the creatives, whether it's a big budget world like Assassin's Creed Valhalla or a more intimate action game like Unsighted, inform the games they're making. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years, no matter how quickly a vaccine arrives.
In this case, the COVID-19 effect was opening up a challenging game to more people.
"Video games are an interactive art," said the developers, "and we think that allowing the player to have input over how they want to play the game is part of that, instead of relying solely on a single vision."