When We Made… Bonfire Peaks: "In my opinion, storytelling is not really a strength of the medium of games, or what excites me most about…

Corey Martin, developer

Bonfire Peaks, from developer Corey Martin, is a game that manages to be simultaneously meditative and yet immensely taxing.

The games narrative, such as it is, follows the adventures of a solitary man climbing a mountain, burning all of his worldly possessions as he goes. Theres no dialogue, no exposition, no context. Just put everything you own into a box and watch it burn.

It turns out that our protagonist, prior to whatever emotional breakdown prompted him to seek refuge in the flames, was something of a materialist. Any player wanting to finish all of Bonfire Peaks puzzles (of which there are over 200) will have to do a lot of burning.

Theyll have to be quite a bit brighter than I am too Each of the games hundreds of puzzles tasks you with burning a single box of your own possessions, and theyre increasingly unforgiving as the game goes on. Most puzzles can theoretically be finished in under a minute, though in reality I spent much of my time staring at Bonfire Peaks gorgeous Voxel graphics, overburdened with possessions that I couldnt quite figure out how to get rid of. Throwing them into the sea in frustration isnt a valid solution, it turns out.

SACRIFICES MUST BE MADE

The games hands-off approach to its own narrative eases the pressure off a little. A player may get stuck trying to navigate their possessions through implausibly narrow spaces, but they certainly wont be turned away by a dense, impenetrable story. Bonfire Peaks is more evocative of a particular emotion or an idea, rather than a specific story about a specific character.

Bonfire Peaks started as part of the Ludum Dare game jam, Corey Martin explains to us, the theme was Sacrifices Must Be Made. I had gotten used to making these character-based 3D puzzle games, and wanted to make one focused on climbing. The theme then inspired carrying something for the sake of sacrificing it, and I got a few solid puzzles out of it. From there, it took a while for it to really start taking shape.

That theme of sacrifice goes some way to explaining the artistic intention behind Bonfire Peaks. While its lack of a traditional narrative may upset the more obsessive lore nerds among us, its a game that leaves itself open to interpretation meaning any number of different things to different people.

The short answer [behind the limited narrative] is just to limit scope, explains Martin. You can only make so many games in one lifetime, and should probably only spend so much time on a weird puzzle game about burning stuff.

For me, cutting a traditional narrative is an easy choice, its not even a compromise. In my opinion, storytelling is not really a strength of the medium of games, or what excites me most about it. I like the ambiguity of communicating through mood and imagery, and letting every players interpretation be valid. Ive heard a lot of diverse and contradictory opinions and guesses of what the game is about, and I love that.

Following the initial game jam in November 2018, Martin worked away at Bonfire Peaks for three years with the help of voxel artists Mari K and Zach Soares, as well as Alan Hazelden (of Draknek & Friends) who helped to effectively double the games level count.

PUZZLE PLANS

While the game was certainly a group effort (with too many names to list here), Bonfire Peaks core design philosophy speaks to Martins approach to puzzle game design, which he lays out for us.

First, you should earn and maintain the players trust (in you as a designer, that solutions will be intuitive, that you arent wasting their time, etc). Second, theres elegance in minimalism, dont make things bigger or more complicated than they need to be.

Third, build a system that leads to emergent puzzles. When youve made a rich system, it feels like youre finding puzzles rather than creating them and thats way easier. You should also aim for a ratio of as few elements as possible : as much depth as possible.

Finally, verbalize the idea for each puzzle, literally put it into words. If its hard to talk about, it probably isnt a very focused idea. I dont think theres one correct way to approach this stuff, but thats more or less how I do it.

Martins puzzles-first approach means that while Bonfire Peaks is certainly challenging, theres always another puzzle to play should you ever get stuck. It stands out as an effective way to ensure players arent turned away by the games steep difficulty. That or Im dumb, whos to say?

Youre not dumb, its supposed to be hard! says Martin, totally unprompted. A lot of people that play and struggle will feel Im bad at this game, but youre supposed to get stuck, thats the intended experience. The hope is that youll feel the puzzle solutions are charming enough to warrant the difficulty.

I think the most significant thing we did to ease frustration is to avoid bottlenecking progress on a single puzzle. Theres always a handful of puzzles available at any point, and you only need to beat a portion of them to move forward, so I think that freedom to curate your experience at least relieves some of the aggravation.

SAUSAGE ROLL

Bonfire Peaks pulls inspiration from all sorts of places Some more surprising than others, as Martin explains:

From a game design perspective, many people have rightly identified the game Stephens Sausage Roll as a direct influence. Also the games of Draknek & Friends had a huge impact on me, above all A Good Snowman is Hard to Build and A Monsters Expedition. I was playtesting AME throughout Bonfire Peaks development and it was really inspiring in a bunch of ways.

Outside of games, Ari Asters movies were on my mind a lot, especially Midsommar. I was listening to a lot of the Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick and Carole King, among others. Those are the first things that come to mind.

In Bonfire Peaks, you may stay for the puzzles, but what first grabbed your attention is likely the games beautiful use of the voxel art style. Its a style that, until recently, has been more closely associated with more cutesy affairs rather than the quiet, sombre aesthetic of Bonfire Peaks.

Yeah! I think thats slowly changing, with games like Teardown and Cloudpunk. I hope therell be more and more mature voxel art games in the coming years. Theres such a broad range of moods and styles within pixel art, and I feel theres the same potential for voxel art. Im excited to see where it goes.

While Martin had help at various stages of the project, the development team is largely just Martin working alone in his apartment, alongside his regular day job. Very indie stuff, he explains. No matter how good the game (and Bonfire Peaks is certainly an exceptional accomplishment), that kind of work over three years can take a toll.

Honestly, the latter half of development was kind of a slog, Martin notes. I think because I was lying to myself the whole time about how much further I had left to go, so it basically felt like I was finishing the game for half of its development. There were still some joyful moments in there, but a lot of anxiety and exhaustion as well.

The game released in September this year to a warm critical reception, with particular praise heaped on Bonfire Peaks contemplative tone. Which is a pretty big achievement for a game most commonly compared to Stephens Sausage Roll, a game about rolling sausages (though it is, admittedly, also exceptional). But how has this matched up with Martins expectations for the game?

Sales have been very modest, but its a super niche game, so that mostly aligned with my expectations notes Martin. The press coverage and player feedback definitely exceeded my expectations. After working on this for so long (by my standards, at least), it really feels great to see people enjoying and connecting with the game.

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When We Made... Bonfire Peaks: "In my opinion, storytelling is not really a strength of the medium of games, or what excites me most about...

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