Roadwarden is a “graphical text adventure” set in a dark fantasy world. I had the audacity to share my previous analysis post with Aureus, the game’s creator, and he offered to answer any questions I might have.
I don’t think he knew what he was signing up for! But he was incredibly generous with his time, and I asked if I could share his answers here on the blog so other aspiring creators can learn as well. So here’s an interview with Aureus, creator and developer of Roadwarden!
(Mild spoilers within!)
In this era of AAA and free-to-play games, did you have any worries about publishing a text-based game?
Absolutely. My previous two attempts at developing a video game were not only poorly received, the games themselves were bad. I had no reason to assume I would hit a bullseye a third time around - to me, it was more probable I’m simply talentless and delusional.
It definitely seems to have found an audience (over 1,300 “overwhelmingly positive” Steam reviews)! Were you hoping for this level of success when you published Roadwarden?
I was “hoping”, but not “expecting”. I was preparing myself to abandon the industry as I assumed it would be a massive flop.
What, if anything, did you do to promote the game?
I tried to spread posts for about 2,5 years, but posting never sparked much curiosity for Roadwarden, or the previous games of mine. But my publisher was extremely helpful with setting up a nice Steam page, gathering wishlists, picking the day of launch, and producing a very good launch day trailer. Reviews in mainstream sites that gave Roadwarden a chance as an artistic curiosity helped a lot, I think.
Did publishing a demo factor into the game’s success?
It was an essential step, I believe. In 2019 Jay Castello wrote a short note for Rock-Paper-Shotgun about my earliest prototype and I suddenly woke up to my socials growing by 20% or so. I’ve no doubt I wouldn’t get a deal with the game’s composer, or the publisher, without this recognition.
I’ve read through your devlogs a bit; it looks like parts of the design evolved while you were working on the game.
Definitely, but it’s partly because I tried many different things, looking for the right approach to various challenges, and I was embracing the creative chaos of discovery-while-developing. It was a terrible mistake, I won’t ever do that again. Next time, I’ll spend months designing things in concept, making sure everything works as intended.
What parts of the final product did you have planned from the beginning?
Quite a few! Many of the main story threads, though all of them were evolving with the passage of time. Asterion’s story remained mostly intact and his actual fate was with me from the very start, but still, the actual place where he can be found was conceptualized maybe in 2021.
My main goals for the game - making an RPG-like experience that keeps only the things I love about the genre, skipping what tends to wear on me, like grind, or the pointless violence - was guiding me throughout the entire development. Some of the broader themes transformed, others stuck to the end.
It’s hard to list all the details. In general, the heart of the game was its foundation. I tried to put the stories in the center, portraying as many parts of the picture as connected with each other, sustaining the player’s agency.
What was added after you had already started work?
Tons of things, as I kept considering how to flesh out various themes, systems, and how to avoid completely detached content. So while, for example, the three character classes and all the character goals were in the game from early 2019, their ultimate forms, win states, fail states, skills, and so on weren’t set for good until mid 2021.
Was there anything you had to scrap?
Oh yeah. Some items, like the one-time ropes, some uninspired monster encounters, various quests, one village, additional skills for mages… Also, the rainfalls were meant to occur during daytime, but not only I had no way to depict them visually, the whole idea was extremely unfair - a player would reach a new spot, then suddenly learn that some interactions there would be unavailable because “it’s raining”. That’s bullshit.
Damn, when I was playing with a game design document in 2018 I was considering making a stealth game that would be all about helping villages by stealing loot / saving people from monster caves without getting spotted. There was even a very early Diablo-like prototype presenting mouse-based controls in empty fields.
Does Roadwarden have an intentional “core gameplay loop”?
I think so! Right now it’s something along the lines “reach a new village, do some quests for the locals by traveling somewhere else, gain their friendship, unlock new interactions, use these interactions to progress other stories”.
And the day-night cycle with traveling surely helps build a sense of a rhythm.
Did you have that planned from the beginning, or did that evolve during development?
I hate gameplay loops lmao. I want RPGs to surprise me, when I want comfort food I play other games. The original idea for a loop was “the player rests at points of light and then explores dangerous areas”. [laugh] Like in old school tabletop campaigns!
Should an average player be able to complete all the quests in Standard mode (40-day limit), or was it your intent that some quests would have to be completed on a second playthrough?
AFAIK it’s possible mainly for people who save scum and/or are taking really precise notes.
I assumed most people would feel satisfied with the 40 day experience of having some stories and mysteries unsolved and would then drop the game for a year or two. I didn’t expect how many people would actually replay the game right away.
What were your intentions with the time limits?
Various artistic goals, and the overall aspiration to make a game where most players would experience some states of narrative failures while reaching a satisfying conclusion. The theme of acceptance of one’s limitations, of failure, of facing the world that’s too large and complex to figure it out… I was kind of obsessed with the idea of a labyrinth of human relationships, and making a game that can be simply “solved” wasn’t interesting to me.
I saw people who went into 60+, 80+ days on a single save, just resting whenever they lost vitality, grinding for coins with mundane jobs and fishing, and so on. I think the time limit is crucial to make the game challenging - having no time constraints provides the player with unlimited resources, too.
Is it even possible to complete everything in Restrictive mode (with a 30-day limit)?
Not without knowing the game very well, especially without loading saves on death / unlucky, risky failures. But it can be 100%ed in 25-28 days.
Story and Interactions
If the Journal menu had simply automatically recorded every fact a player encountered about a person or place, I could imagine walking into a village, “talking” to everyone without reading the dialogue, and then just consulting the automatically-generated Journal entry to find the “right” answer when a dialogue choice came up. In other words, really boring. [laugh]
How did you decide what to automatically record in the Journal, and what to leave out?
That’s a cool question. I think I had the feeling that requiring the player to memorize some of the most minuscule things is unfair, but at the same time I don’t expect any writer to design the content with the assumption that the reader/player skips parts of the text, or reads/plays with weeks-long breaks, or whatever. So I mainly focused on the most essential, “gamified” info: which attitudes to select when talking to others, what non-obvious connections are there between various people/groups, where to do what and in what order.
It was also important to gather many names for places and characters in one spot so that the player could ask the innkeepers about them.
At the same time I enjoy presenting all sorts of clues, ideas, threats, descriptions and so on and making the player feel overwhelmed by them. Very fitting for the game’s narrative. And I think some of the game’s more vague story threads, or just hints that help you learn more about the world and its characters, are only going to get spotted by the most careful players.
I wish I knew, for example, how many players managed to redeem the bandit leader. It’s super difficult to accomplish it, requires a very careful approach and making many things “just right”. But it’s Possible.
Was it your intention that players take their own notes while playing?
No. I assumed most people would rather take a less-than-perfect playthrough than aiming at 100%ing the game while putting extra effort into it.
How did you manage the stories for individual characters?
I don’t know. [laugh]
When I was working on the game, it just all made sense. Every now and then I forgot a thing or two, but I was usually able to get things right after scanning through the names of variables, or looking at the journal entries.
Like, let’s take some relatively-minor characters like Efren and Elah from Creeks. Did you write up a story for them separately, then stitch them into the main narrative later? Is the same true for a central character like Mayor Thais?
I don’t really think I was ever trying to force a story to fit the game better. I won’t pretend I knew from day 1, or even day 365, that there are going to be ones Efren and Elah, and that they would have exactly this and this to do with other quests. But the village of Creeks, on the other hand, was from the start meant to be this counterpoint for cold, untrusting Gale Rocks, and to have a very different vibe than the other tribes. The brothers were designed to fit this intent - Efren is playful, in his weird way heroic and honorable, quirky, yet serious and loyal. Elah is hopeful, with grand plans and a strong, yet not toxic sense of purpose (unlike, let’s say, Thais).
Without Creeks, the game would feel very one-note and tiring. But I can see writing Creeks while having different characters, or features, or lore for the place, while maintaining its purpose.
Also, it’s better to actually plan everything out ahead. Don’t copy my approach.
The writing is sublime (as so many reviewers have noted). Amazing imagery, fascinating locations and characters. What did you draw on for inspiration?
Novels: hard to say. I used to be an avid reader, though I’m no longer. I used to read either fantasy novels, or “the cannon” for my university studies, and most of my favorite novels were nothing like Roadwarden, yet inspired me greatly. Mid-development I’ve read The Books of Jacob by Tokarczuk and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (it’s actually this book, not covid pandemic, that started the “plague” story in Roadwarden). Both of those had a huge influence on my game.
Movies: I love 1971 Fiddler on The Roof and I in general quite enjoy movies about small communities, like 1999 Simon Magus by Ben Hopkins. Or movies focused entirely on having lengthy conversations, like 1981 My Dinner with Andre.
Big thanks to Aureus for taking the time to answer all these questions! Roadwarden was created by Moral Anxiety Studio. It’s available on Steam and GOG.