The making of Burly Men at Sea

Riding a resurgence in the genre, Burly Men at Sea is a relaxing point-and-click adventure. It’s about three bearded sailors who must navigate an ocean of strange and mythical beings to fill out a peculiar map. Developed by Brain&Brain, the husband-and-wife partnership of David and Brooke Condolora, the game makes distinctive use of a cappella sounds, gorgeous art, and Scandinavian folklore to tell its story.

In the game, you perform actions  by swiping the screen either left or right and by clicking on areas of interest. The course of your adventure, however, depends entirely on how you interact with the surroundings and the characters that you come across.

Burly Men at Sea began life as an odd title suggestion between David and Brooke, though they initially struggled to expand upon the concept. It wasn’t until after they completed their first game, a small adventure title named Doggins that features a time-traveling terrier, that Brooke came up with the idea of drawing from European folklore.

“Our story isn’t based on any specific folktales, but the creatures in it are primarily drawn from Scandinavian folklore,” says Brooke. “I had completely forgotten how much I loved folklore as a kid, but it all started to come back as I researched. I think it was this familiarity that really helped shape the tone and structure of our narrative.”

Across the game’s branching paths, the world is populated with magical creatures and situations, including mermaids, nymphs, and rock trolls (to name just a few). To learn more about these myths, Brooke and David used a range of sources to track down information.

She explains, “I used books like Benjamin Thorpe’s 19th-century Northern Mythology for reference, listing and researching any mythical sea creatures I came across. But to fill out our branching narrative, we needed so many different creatures (or mystical encounters) that a couple of scenes had to take place on land, and one even comes from the folklore of a different region.” She adds, “On top of that, we had to connect those encounters in a way that made sense and bring the characters back home at the end of every adventure. It was a good challenge!”

Funding was another problem. To overcome this, the couple made the bold decision to move out of the San Francisco Bay Area and become nomads. This meant they could stretch their budget even further, though it came with its own disadvantages.

“Our initial plan was to work part-time on farms around the country while we finished the game, which we did for a month. We loved that balance of spending half days away from our screens but eventually came to realize that the remaining time just wasn’t enough to make solid progress on the game. While we were considering our next step, we were fortunate to receive funding that allowed us to return to full-time work on the game. And since vacation rentals were still cheaper than our Bay Area rent, we kept going.”

The two benefitted more than they had anticipated from the move. Traveling provided a deeper personal connection to the material and also gave them the motivation needed to finish the project.

“I’m not sure I really understood how deep that impact was until recently, while looking through old notes,” she confesses. “Back before we had any notion of moving out, I had been struggling with the story’s theme and couldn’t form a clear idea of what I wanted to say. We were making a game about adventure, but our life at that moment was pretty ordinary. It wasn’t that I felt like a fraud, but I worried that my restlessness was getting in the way of the story. I didn’t want to write about adventure wistfully: I wanted to celebrate it!”

Brooke continues, “When things did change and we set out on our own adventure, I had forgotten that moment of frustration. My writing began to feel more natural, and I finally found that elusive theme within the story itself. It’s only now that I understand how closely it was tied to our own.”

Burly Men at Sea‘s soundtrack mixes traditional folk instruments with a cappella vocals to create something really unique. The composers, Matt Joynt and Nate Sandberg, produced most of the sound effects in the game entirely with their own voices, replicating the sound of spraying water and thunder with whispers and groans.

“They were members of our favorite band in college who had since become composers, so we contacted them early in the project to see if they’d be interested in scoring the game,” says Brooke. “We had an idea that the sound and experimental nature of their earlier work would be a great fit for Burly Men at Sea, and they totally delivered. Later, we also asked them to do our sound design entirely with vocals, inspired by that of Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Wind Rises. They loved the idea, and what they delivered meshes perfectly with the organic quality of their music. Their work is really what made the game come to life.”

So far the reaction to the game has been largely positive, with critics praising its exceptional sound design and charming story.  It also received nominations for Best 2D Visuals at the Unity Awards 2016 and for Gamer’s Voice Single Player Award at SXSW. Both David and Brooke believe that this is vindication for all of the risks they took.

“We’ve been really grateful for all of it,” says Brooke. “There have been big moments that stand out, but hearing from so many people who genuinely enjoy our game has honestly been the most rewarding part. We made something that felt risky, poured ourselves into it, and hoped it would also mean something to our audience. It was a huge relief to find that it did.”

Burly Men at Sea is available for PC, Mac, and smartphones. You can check out the official soundtrack on Bandcamp.