Why 2016 is the perfect time for a noir thriller about the Berlin Wall

All Walls Must Fall is the brainchild of four developers behind 2012’s celebrated action game Spec Ops: The Line. Set in an alternate-history Berlin where the wall never fell, players deploy a series of time travel mechanics to thwart totalitarianism, as one does.

We had the pleasure recently of speaking with All Walls Must Fall lead designer Jan David Hassel to learn a bit more about the game and the ideas behind it. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

ZAM: What appeals to you, personally, about the setting? Why a game centered on the Berlin Wall in 2016?

Jan David Hassel: We in the team all have different backgrounds and perspectives on the historic period of the Berlin Wall. [Art director] Rafal [Fedro] grew up in a separated village right on the border between Eastern Germany and Poland.  A miniature village version of divided Berlin in a way. [Lead programmer] Isaac [Ashdown] is from the UK. I grew up in Western Germany. For me the fall of the wall was an early and unexpected New Years party on the TV with my partial namesake David Hasselhoff singing in a lit-up leather vest. It was all virtual to me but I could still sense its significance.

There is this rich tapestry of history and different backgrounds that make up the city [of Berlin] and its people. We don’t think that this has really been represented in videogames in any accurate form.

Since then all of us have moved to Berlin and come to love the city for what it is today. There is this rich tapestry of history and different backgrounds that make up the city and its people. We don’t think that this has really been represented in videogames in any accurate form so far. So that’s what we want to attempt to do.

If you look around the globe today there are still a lot of walls dividing people and new ones are being built as well. Europe is struggling to shut itself off and transform into some kind of fortress. There is the wall between Israel and Palestine. In the U.S. there is talk of building a wall on the southern border. North and South Korea are still divided. Crimea was recently annexed by Russia.

These attempts at separation conflict with the ongoing trend of globalization. There is tension there. Intense pressure. High stakes. At the same time mass surveillance, big data analysis and drone warfare have moved out of the realm of science fiction and have become a reality. So we think a spy thriller set in an alternative future version of a divided Berlin can be a very relevant reflection on the world we live in today. That’s the world we want to create for our players, to see where all of this might lead and to give them the opportunity to make up their own mind about it.

I understand several of your early concepts were focused on matching player actions to rhythm, but you wanted to avoid making a rhythm game. Where is that boundary line drawn, in your opinion?

I think there is a fundamental difference in whether your inputs as a player have to conform to the beat of the music or whether the feedback that comes back from the game is rhythmic or musical. Some Mario games also feature a lot of effects and animations that are synced to the music which really adds to the experience but people hardly think of Mario as a rhythm game.

With the added complexity of a tactics game we felt that confining players actions to the beat of the music would have ultimately deducted from the experience. So instead we chose the route of synaesthesia and so far it is looking pretty promising.

What did you look to for inspiration?

Rez to me really is the biggest inspiration for the kind of synaesthetic experience that we want to create. Both Rez and All Walls Must Fall are inspired by electronic dance music and the surrounding club culture as well as traditional 2D art. Besides that, club fighting sequences in movies like John Wick, Collateral and The Terminator were also big inspirations for us.

We looked at a lot of different music and rhythm games when we started out with the project. Crypt of the Necrodancer and Hotline Miami are both great in how they create synaesthesia between the music, the players’ actions and the visuals of the game. And as weird as it might sound PaRappa the Rapper actually influenced our current prototype [user interface] quite a bit.

Combat and movement in Crypt of the Necrodancer (above) must synchronize with the beat of the music.

Combat and movement in Crypt of the Necrodancer (above) must synchronize with the beat of the music.

Can you explain in further detail how the time travel game mechanics work? The “undo” function is just one of several tools the player has, correct?

The undo mechanic is our starting setup to prove the technical viability of time manipulation in [our game design engine] Unreal Engine 4 and to convey the basic idea. We have plans for a couple of different time manipulation abilities for each of the different agents that players will be able to command in the game.

The first agent we are starting with is Kai. He has been around for a very long time and all of his time manipulation abilities are themed around the past. Besides the global undo he will also be able to only partially rewind parts of the world or travel back in time to meet people years ago in the past. So he’s the kind of guy that seems to know everyone from way back when because even if he doesn’t he just makes it have happened.

The other two agents are themed around the present and the future and therefore will have different time manipulation abilities and play very differently. We’re really looking forward to exploring these different ideas, see them combine with each other and the other systems in our game and what players will come up with to do with them to fulfill their missions.

Between the music-based design and the ability to reverse and undo actions, how do you avoid making repeated actions or sounds annoying for the player?

For the undo it’s important to know that even randomized elements of the game are completely deterministic. So if you just undo an action and do the same thing again, the exact same thing will happen. Therefore there’s no point in banging your head against a wall until it finally breaks down. So when you undo to travel back in time you will have to try a different approach to see what would be possible then, while taking all the knowledge from the future of what will happen otherwise back with you. This way you can actually explore different timelines of possibility even in combat.

In a way, players will write their own songs when they play the game.

Besides that, rythmic repetition is actually part of what we’re going for. In the electronic dance music that they play in nightclubs like our game’s setting, the repeating rhythm is a defining feature. So that’s what we want to emulate with the sounds of combat as well. The idea is that since all actions happen on the beat of the music they themselves become part of the music. In a way, players will write their own songs when they play the game. Of course this also means that we need to pay a lot more attention to make sure the sounds and actions harmonize with the music. So that’s a big part of what we’re currently working on.

We already had a few very early attempts that were going overboard on the repetition. While they looked and sounded great they actually weren’t that fun to play. For example, we had a version in which one bar, so a couple of seconds, of the combat would be constantly looping. While this was aesthetically pleasing it was really hard to play. So now we’re trying something a little more conservative and hopefully will be able to show that off very soon.

Is there a concern, at any point of the design process, of your message getting lost among your game’s mechanics? What some critics call “ludonarrative dissonance”? (I’m personally not a fan of the term, just going with something most would recognize.)

Both dissonance and resonance between narrative and mechanics are interesting because they create strong reactions in players. I can only hope that we will be able to use both of them to create a more meaningful experience. In the end players will have to be the judge of that.

It will be a while until the game is really complete and that final verdict can be made. But on the way to that point we will try to collect as much feedback as we possibly can process. That is one of the things that we are really excited about, actually. Because we are not working under strict [non-disclosure agreements] anymore, we can open up the process as much and as early as we want in order to get meaningful feedback as early as possible. We weren’t ever allowed to do that before [at YAGER], so this is really exciting for us.

Concept art calling back to Dimitry Vrubel's famous 1990 mural of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (here it appears to depict Vladimir Putin).

Concept art calling back to Dimitry Vrubel’s famous 1990 mural of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (here it appears to depict Vladimir Putin).

Your website mentions the game features “an inclusive representation of the people of Berlin including their diverse cultural, sexual and gender identities,” which is great of course, but can you give us a better sense of how will we see that expressed through the game, beyond crowds of dancing NPCs?

On one hand, you have the agents that you will be commanding in the field. Kai represents the past so he’s your archetypical male action hero from the 80s and 90s. Alev represents the present and is the kind of strong female character we see more often now. Glenn is from the future and is different from both of them.

On the other hand, you have the people in the world that your agents interact with. The last couple of weeks we have also been working on our generative dialogues. In those dialogues who your agent is and who they are talking to as well as what they know and feel about each other plays a big role.

Concept art of the three protagonists: Kai, Alev and Glenn.

Concept art of the three protagonists: Kai, Alev and Glenn.

Last but not least, nightclubs have their own walls, sectors and check points. In that way they serve as a mirror to the kind of discrimination and divide that also happens on a bigger scale. Some people will have an easier time getting in and out of certain places and as a player you will have to deal with that. So you’ll be doing a lot more than just watching people dance or have shootouts with them. I think the series The Americans is a good reference for the spectrum of things our agents might have to do to complete their missions.

While All Walls Must Fall currently has no release date, you can keep up with the game’s development through the studio’s blog.