Personal details: A closer look at upcoming adventure games NAIAD and PiAwk

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

In picturesque Murcia, south-east Spain, indie developer Elwin Gorman has spent the past five years quietly making visually inventive, highly personal games. After a few false starts, he embarked on PiAwk in 2017 – an adventure-puzzler about a bird-like creature exploring a devastated 2D landscape. Two years later, during a bit of downtime, Gorman came up with the initial prototype for what would become NAIAD: the story of a water nymph and her journey up a lush river. According to Gorman, the two projects then “grew up in parallel”, with work on one occasionally giving way to the other. “Every day I think about PiAwk and NAIAD,” he tells us, “about how I’m going to solve a certain mechanic, how to tell a certain story, or want to create a certain emotion.”

With its monochrome visuals and side-on perspective, PiAwk might look like the more straightforward of the two, but there’s real complexity lying beneath the surface: its world is non-linear, while its physics-based puzzles can be solved in a multitude of ways.

“In PiAwk, the character is a puzzle in itself,” says Gorman. “The player can decide to advance through a simpler game experience, or go deeper by discovering certain skills, interactions, and more complex paths.”

PiAwk’s hidden depths are neatly summed up in a short video, uploaded to Twitter back in 2018; it shows the player constructing a tiny raft from pieces of flotsam before sailing away across a hazy grey ocean. Gorman evidently relishes the process of coming up with all these different interactions.

“You can place all kinds of small objects on his head, on his back, carry them in his beak, look in eight directions,” he says of his avian protagonist. “PiAwk can sing different notes, drag or push large objects, jump, glide, and more. One of the most curious actions the character can perform is ‘thinking’ or ‘concentrating’. For example, if we ‘think,’ while carrying a flower, PiAwk will be able to perceive its smell.”

Shape of water

NAIAD, meanwhile, is a more linear experience: a kind of three-hour meditation on the journey of life and humanity’s relationship with nature. As the water nymph makes her way down the river, she interacts with wildlife and experiences the pollution wrought by humans. “Naiad is a personification of the river itself, so we’re travelling our own life’s path,” Gorman says. “It’s an allusion to nature, to the life cycle, the water cycle… along the river, Naiad will mature and discover that she doesn’t completely control her own destiny. We move forward at our own pace, finding small corners where we can stop for a moment to rest, where we can interact with animals or simply swim with the leaves floating in the water, discovering secrets.”

In contrast to PiAwk’s white space and bold, black lines, NAIAD has the vibrant, shimmering quality of a moving oil painting. It’s a look that has required the writing of shaders and a custom render pipeline, plus a lot of experimentation. “I invested a lot of time in modifying the lighting,” Gorman says. “I experimented, broke a lot of things, and in the process, I found some results that surprised me. I’m still iterating the details, even today – yes, this close to release…”

While PiAwk and NAIAD are quite different games, they do have traits in common: both, Gorman says, share humour as well as hints of tragedy, and both are “full of symbolism, metaphors and mysteries to be discovered”. Another connection, we’d argue, is the creative glee that goes into their design – it’s easy to sense Gorman’s excitement when he talks about the expeditions he’s gone on to record the sounds of real birds and water on a riverbank, or how carefully he labours over the specific placement of details like rocks and trees.

Gorman appears to enjoy the process of creation to such a degree, in fact, that he says the greatest challenge is knowing when to stop. “They’re like a living part of myself, so it’s a hard decision,” he admits. “Finishing them means to stop experimenting and ‘playing’, and moving on to fixing and closing things. It’s about turning them into something that players can understand and enjoy.”

Thankfully, NAIAD is nearing completion, with a release on PC and consoles due later this year. After that, it’s back onto PiAwk. “Finishing NAIAD has helped me to define even better what I’m going to offer in PiAwk,” Gorman says. “I’m really excited about sharing both projects with the world.”

Trust the process

For Gorman, having the freedom to experiment is key to his approach to development. It means that ideas often fall by the wayside, but it also allows him to come up with new concepts that aren’t simple retreads of those seen in existing games. “Creating something unique, rare, experimental, involves taking a risk. It’s a lonely road because very few people are willing to believe the vision and jump into the void. But it is also a path where every step is exciting… It’s a risky formula that seems to work for me, and with which I feel comfortable. I think the key is to start from scratch, avoid looking at what works for others, try crazy ideas, and validate the results in each case. I think I’ve done the opposite of what successful experts usually recommend. But I don’t care – I want to create something beautiful and crazy.”

Genre Adventure | Format PC / Mac | Developer HiWarp | Publisher HiWarp | Release TBC | Social @HiWarp

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