[one_third]Exploring places between places and the art of the dark Arabian night with the beta build of top-down stealth title Qasir Al-Wasat: A Night In-Between.[/one_third]
Otherworldly silence drapes over the sandstone walls and parapets. Shadows quietly guard grand courtyards that are hauntingly absent of all life. In 12th Century Syria, the fortress Qasir Al-Wasat hangs between the planes of existence, protected on all sides from the physical world and the spiritual. However, the sheer cliffs of unreality have opened to allow a single being through. Simply known as The Subtle One, this creature from another world has been set loose in the palace to fulfil a contract: the death of three men in a lone night. The rewards are infinite, but the penalties of failure are eternal.
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Qasir Al-Wasat is a work in progress stealth game with puzzles, riddles, exploration and an X-ray camera that stalks The Subtle One’s every movement. This is very much a classic stealth concoction: anything less than perfection results in a cleaved corpse.
As The Subtle One, you are “an invisible and frail creature” summoned to perform these three killings. Input is simple: Move, interact, investigate and “stealth mode”. While interaction covers things like doors and levels, you can also interact with the life-filled body of a palace servant to produce a lifeless cadaver. Since you are permanently invisible, the foremost telltale of your presence is the noise you create. Holding the stealth button means you tip-toe around the marble hallways a la Hitman: The Interpretive Dance. However, sound will not be your only foe. Guards will know where you are by any objects you might be holding in your claws (“Why is that key floating in mid-air?!”) and also by any object that might be swathed or sprayed over you, like coloured dyes… or, more commonly, blood. Fortunately for you, the architecture comes to your rescue with pools of water so that you may wash yourself of any incriminating stains.
Though getting wet is a safe harbour for your character, the stealth gameplay itself is rather dry. Most rooms feel too small for any complex AI behaviour to occur. There exists very little opportunity to do more than skirt around their patrol paths. This is a puzzle game with stealth elements, rather than a stealth game with puzzle elements. Don’t expect an adrenaline rush after working hard to master the foundations of the game’s mechanics and then pushing them to gain success through unconventional means. We did, however, manage to push a key through a wall, past some guards that were not expecting a visitation from a phantasmal key that night, then we proceeded to the other side of the partition for an easy escape.
Rather curious is the voice given to The Subtle One. It’s a viewpoint only slightly less detached from the world than our own pathological internal monologues. The Subtle One actually shares many philosophical ideals and mannerisms with Garrett. Both detached and cynical, these two, if put in a room together, would simply stare at each other with mutual distrust and indifference. Garrett might try and pick The Subtle One’s pockets, who might attempt to claw the thief’s face in respite. However, The Subtle One’s voice only seems there to reiterate the plot, but often does so a step or two behind the player. Yet intelligence and somewhat anachronistic colloquialisms reinforce his status as an outsider, in a place that is itself outside normal places.
The Subtle One actually shares many philosophical ideals and mannerisms with Garrett.
What did grip us was the aesthetics of Qasir Al-Wasat’s world, one of foreign lands and untold myth. Its script is somewhat alien, its structures bizarre; in short, it’s downright weird. You’ll want to explore every dark corner. Aduge said it best when asked why it chose these unique aesthetics: “Why not?” For more, we spoke to the game’s art director, Mauricio Perin Maperns.
The Art of Qasir Al-Wasat
Mauricio Perin Maperns: “I found the original look of the characters and backgrounds and well, pretty much every thing in that early build didn’t had much of Arab or Islamic itself. I then decided the game needed and overall visual rebuild, and I started up searching for something that was visually striking and inherently Islamic to draw inspiration from. After some research, and here I have to admit that I’m a bit of a history obsessed illustrator, I decided to stick with Persian Miniatures. They are absolutely beautiful, extremely rich in details and just perfect for a 2D top down.”
“What happened next, during last November and on, was a festival of experimentations and remakes! What previously were painstakingly frame-by-frame animated characters with some bland designs developed into finely and much-more-fluid animated miniature characters. New ones were also introduced, a dancer girl, and a female guard, mora agile than our usual guard.”
“As for the backgrounds, I’ve decided to use that amazing golden texture you can see on the margin of the first miniature…”
“…all over the game! Now every empty space around every room of the game is golden. And, reinforcing the idea of miniatures, the walls now have borders similar to those on the miniatures. With this the overall effect is much more rich and deep, I believe this, with the beautiful literature that our writer Ingrid Skåre is doing, will make the game feel and breath very much authentic and folkloric.”
“Along with this I’ve also done some heavy research over architecture, furniture and artefacts, seeking for those fine details that make the visual look believable and dense.”
“Initially, as you remember, we’ve set the game on 12th Century Syria, but the development of story and art direction driven it to a more supernatural place, lost in-between worlds, and not locked in any specific timeframe. The idea is somewhere Middle-Eastern, sometime medieval. Playing the game, you’ll understand better this concept, but the fact is Qasir Al-Wasat is a palace with doors that open to many, many places. Having this new freedom of location and time allowed the focus on those Persian miniatures and a vast array of visual references for architectural and decorative new assets, which led to much more pleasant results!”
“Last but absolutely not least I’d like to present to you, before of all other human beings outside of Aduge, the last character remaining to be implemented in the game: our Djiin. Actually, it is of a somewhat darker nature, a bit more of an outsider than you expected. Here is where I believe the influence of those Persian illustrations was most dramatic, as I’ve based Alahamna G’am Yundel (that’s his lovely name) heavily in the depiction those made of the djiin. Some tweaks to bring it a bit closer of the expectations of the public of what a genie should look like, and the final concept of him was done, and from it, with a few adjusts, work started on the final asset!”
Thanks, Mauricio. For more on the game’s ethereal soundscape, we spoke to Aduge’s Sound Designer, Marcel Pace.
The Sound of Qasir Al-Wasat
Marcel Pace: “The concept behind Qasir’s soundscape came mainly from the perception of it’s protagonist. It is not from this realm, and thus have a tenuous distancing that brings a layered perception based on what it considers more or less. This is based on a scale of ‘things of its realm are more realistic than our objects that are more than our animals that are more than humans.’ (Unfortunately, animals had to wait due to scope limiting and they are planned to show up only in a Qasir sequel). Everything that appears in the game is put somewhere in such scale of meaning before producing it.
“Objects have a blend of normal and reverse sounds, animals would be reversed with a strong filter, and humans are so abstract that the they completely lose their point of reference. Every sound emitted by them is heard as a musical note. (Thanks to Prokofiev and the first animation sound designers). But it is not music itself, as it lacks several attributes. One that it doesn’t lack is that every note is under a specific scale, strongly referenced to the Arabic Maqam, an ethnical melody mode from traditional Arabic music based on improvisation. Also, each distinct kind of enemy has its own instrument, all of them chosen to better represent the feel of the ambience of the game.”
We wanted to create an eerie atmosphere and work with the solitude of the protagonist in a not so comfortable zone
“One of the biggest issue we had during the audio development of the game is that everything was… empty. We wanted to create an eerie atmosphere and work with the solitude of the protagonist in a not so comfortable zone, but… it got too dull. Fortunately, two masterpieces got into my hand (or.. ear). One was the indie game Limbo and the other was the Tarkovski movie Stalker. Both of them has a very similar approach to soundtrack, as they don’t really work with music in the common sense. But they create great ambience with sound only, and we adapted several aspects according to what we have learned with them.”
Thanks, Marcel. A deeper insight into the development process can be found in the forbidden corridor’s of Aduge’s blog. Qasir Al-Wasat: A Night In-Between will be out later this year. The demo is available at the official website, while the game can be pre-ordered at Indievania, Desura and Fast Spring. We’ll have a full stealth review when the final game emerges from the place between places.