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Developer Diary: Tone

The Ara: History Untold key art, featuring three leaders made up of different eras of history standing side by side.

Hi everybody! 

Another important facet of the game we wanted to nail early was the overall tone and emotional backdrop of the title, kinda like doing mood paintings in art but for design. We knew we didn’t want the game to be grim-dark, self-serious, self-important, or overly pedantic and fussy.  So where to go from there? 

It’s Your World Now 

Try on this clunker for size: 

“Optimism is the driving force. The player expects the experience to be fair and winnable; they are never cheated by the systems or AI, and does not feel the need to quit a game mid-way through.  There’s always a possible solution to a problem and they are never given an unwinnable task. They may be challenged, but within the realms of expected difficulty. The player is never belittled, insulted, or made to feel unwelcome.” 

While perhaps not the most beautiful piece of prose I’ve ever constructed, the sentiment behind it stands. (That paragraph is now almost six years old now, and ugh, reading your old writing is like reading your old code. Blarghghghghghgh.)  

Optimism is the one word that permeates the design, the music, the artwork through and through (and perhaps even in the code, at least, in some of the comments I’ve read).  This is not a game where players should expect to just give up and lose. Ok, well, maybe if you play at the highest difficulty on your first go out, that might not be a greatest plan ever constructed. But in general, challenges and conflicts are meant to be solvable, winnable. Risks exist, but with potential reward.  

Base Charisma 18 

We’ve all played apocalyptic games, post-apocalyptic games, and just ones in which there is always this underlying sense of dread and destruction.  I get it. It very easily then leads to a sense of foreboding and helps with pacing, keeping the stakes high, and giving a sense of urgency to the choices.  

But therein lies a problem -when everything is doom and gloom, nothing is. There’s no contrast. For something to be appropriately dark or consequential or weighty, there needs to be accompanying lightness. We knew we’d have to grapple with some heavy topics from history during the game, and employing that contrasting tone in a respectful and deliberate manner was important to us in order to highlight just how ghastly some of these other facets of history are.  

We’ve attempted to employ light humor, where appropriate, and created opportunities in the living world for the player, you, to be Charmed, our second key word.  We want the physical world the game creates to be intrinsically inviting to explore. This extends to the internal messaging the game uses as well, from your Advisers’ suggestions to your populations’ musings. 

The Debate and Role of Realism 

This then ties into our next key tone of being Immersed. This started with a deep-dive into scale explorations, leading to what we call a believable, consistent scale – not notably –  a realistic one. We’ve stretch and pulled some dimensions in order to make things fit nicely, but in the end, it all works together across the entire game, regardless of what era you’re playing in or what system you’re interacting with.  

Believable, of all things, turned out to be a bit of a contentious thing in early discussions. There was an early debate between the use of the word believable verses another close contender: authenticity. A lot of people feel very strongly about being authentic, experiences being authentic, and to some extent it makes sense. With a game based in historical accounts at its core, there is a level of due diligence and fact checking that has to be adhered to. However, in the end, we’re not creating a dutiful simulation of what actually happened through recorded history.  Rather, it’s a believable simulation that you drive, and can change, at will.  Want your Mayans to discover Metallurgy in the early Iron Age and train up the most ferocious army of knights the world has never seen? Sure, go for it. Is this authentic to history? Nope. But is it believable in within the bounds of the world set in place? Sure thing. 


As a strategy title, it’s imperative that the game gives the player opportunities to feel and be Clever, our next tone point. I have no interest in making a game where the internal team flaunts its own cleverness at the expense of the player. Rather, the player’s, own intelligence, your intelligence, needs to be respected, and they should be afforded opportunities to show that off. No optimal paths. Create openings for creative thinking and emergent behavior to develop.  

No one wants to play a game where they’re made to feel dumb or not smart enough to play.  Granted, is Ara complicated? Sure you bet. Will anyone be able to learn all of it in one single go? Not likely, but please, rise to the challenge. However complicated and large it is though, all the systems strive to be presented in a way that they are learnable, they are masterable, and you can bend them to your will in the end. It’s complicated, but approachable. 

Personal Empowerment 

The last point one is the feeling of being Empowered. To some extent there is some overlap here with being Clever, but it goes a bit beyond that too. We want the player to feel empowered to make choices, good choices, throughout the game.  

Another aspect of that personal empowerment is representation and expression. I will happily own up to that I am one of those players that likes to pick avatars and characters that resonate more with me personally, and not just pick things for pure stats awesomeness. I sometimes struggle to identify with old dead white guys. I am that person that gets irrationally mad at character creators when they don’t have curly hair options. Why can I only make my character taller and not shorter? You know the drill. 

Along with respecting the player’s intelligence, we’re also trying to respect the rest of you.  We’ve strived to create content that is representative of as wide a range as possible, with the idea that anyone regardless of who they are can find something to identify with. Can see something and say, “yes, this is me.”   

Despite the game being ginormous as all heck, we still had to make decisions along the way on what to include vs not, and we can always do better here.  

See you next time! 

— Michelle Menard Design Director – Oxide Games


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