Billy Basso on creating mysterious and mind-blowing Animal Well - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
Updated: Sep 18
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team went hands-on with Animal Well, the extremely mysterious platformer revealed in spectacular fashion in 2022 with an ARG, which promised puzzles that could potentially take years to solve and secrets deeply buried within. After our demo, we talked with solo developer Billy Basso about the game and his experiences building this project over the last six years.
All it takes is one glance at Animal Well's key art, one peek at any screenshot of the game, or a few seconds of watching its trailers to immediately fill you with a fascinating emotional conflict. You get an ominous feeling that even the most familiar-looking friends in this dark world may harm you... tied to an unstoppable urge to plow forward into the darkness to explore. A feeling like you understand what it's going for when you see its platforming, coupled with confusion when you see the game's blob protagonist wander into a room full of levers and various other mechanical doohickeys.
Animal Well thrives within those conflicts, looking to deliver an experience that constantly has you wondering what you may have left behind on any given screen while constantly beckoning you forward through its mysterious world.
Through our quick 10-minute hands-on demo and a much more extensive conversation with Animal Well's creator, Billy Basso, we came away hungry to devour the game's dense mysteries.
Hands-on impressions with Animal Well
Developer: Shared Memory
Genre: 2D platformer, Metroidvania, puzzle
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Switch
It's hard to write about Animal Well, because as Billy Basso told us to start: "The less you know going into it, the better." It's a platforming puzzler with mystery upon mystery layered into the experience. It's a game Billy says is primarily about "exploring and discovering things," about interacting with the world's animals who may or may not help you and items with mysterious (and often multiple) purposes to solve the puzzles you stumble into. It's a game full of purposeful obscurity, one that never tells you what to do but invites you to just... try.
Animal Well starts with the game's protagonist, a tiny little blob of a hero, emerging from a flower into a large subterranean world. The well. You take your first steps into the world hidden within the well and pretty quickly meet some of its animals. A squirrel that invites you to chase after it. A dog that seems friendly enough when you approach... until he uses you as a chew toy.
That constant uncertainty about what you might run into makes each new screen its own mystery. And then you find a secret path hidden behind a bush that reveals something hiding in the negative space of the world's design and nothing can be trusted from that point forward. As someone who tests the limits of a level's boundaries even when it doesn't promise secrets hidden in the world's design... Animal Well is a dream. In my short time with the demo, I wandered into secret paths, I found areas that seemingly had no purpose that I just KNEW were hiding things.
I ran into a few puzzles, fought a few shadow beasts off with firecrackers, and managed to climb up into a brand-new sector of the well. I stumbled upon a giant dog statue that held a frisbee in its mouth. Upon pulling out the disc, a dog ghost materialized and floated menacingly toward me. Literally screaming out loud, I darted off-screen, hoping to be free from him. Sure enough, a second scream emerged when the ghost slid into the next screen to give chase.
This moment revealed a second layer to the experience that truly intrigues me for whatever Animal Well holds in its full release. Solving the puzzles and wandering through screens before this was weirdly zen. I could figure things out at my own pace. I could enjoy the environment how I wanted. Once this ghost entered the fray, everything changed. I was still having to examine the space in the same ways. Still having to solve puzzles and consider things carefully as I wandered... but I had a ghost on my tail.
While the ghost eventually caught me and sent me to a place that meant I couldn't quite make it back before my demo ended, I imagined a scenario that had me absolutely yearning for more time in Animal Well: one where I'd scout the area out first, logging the puzzles and platforming tricks I'd need to pull off next... before returning to grab that frisbee and executing the perfect path to glory from there. It was thrilling in the moment and it'd be thrilling afterward.
When the demo eventually ended, I was mainly spending my time jumping around and poking at the dark corners of the map. It's a weighty platformer that doesn't seem to emulate the more zippy stylings of other indie platformers out nowadays. And I like that, especially for what it's trying to accomplish. That being said... who knows what items and secrets may evolve those systems in the full game.
Animal Well clearly inspired a major interest for us and we can't wait to talk about it more when it releases. But until then, learn even more about it in our fascinating interview with the game's solo developer Billy Basso!
Billy Basso on confusing players the right way, working with BIGMODE, and the challenges of a solo developer
VGG: Mystery, in all its forms, has definitely seemed to be a big focus for this project. With the reveal, there was an ARG attached to it. What it is about that meta approach to mystery and going beyond the game that pulls you in, and how far does that all go in the game itself?
Basso: The game is all about that. I want to be able to have that sense of the player thinking they understand something like it's like their own house, they feel like they've mapped it out, but then still find a new surprise there. I want to create that feeling of "oh my god, this was here the whole time?!"
I want you to have that feeling right away. But then even after playing it for a while, I still want you to continue to have that feeling. It's almost like there are games within games that I'm having to make. At the base, there's an approachable puzzle-platformer Metroidvania-style thing. But under that, there's just a lot of optional stuff that you will go back and discover that will recontextualize everything.
There's definitely some stuff that I've put in there that I don't know if people will ever find. And that's okay! They don't need to even know that it exists. Preserving that sense of mystery and keeping that curiosity about the world is an important part of what we're trying to do.
VGG: Is the mystery all contained in the game, or are there things that dive back into the ARG of it all that players will need to leave the game to solve?
Basso: When it comes to our marketing, I decided at one point that we should have the marketing reflect what the game's about. We should bring some of the game design into the marketing. So doing the ARG was just there to communicate, kind of, what playing the game would be like.
You can watch the trailer for the game or read about it, but the ARG communicated that feeling of "there's something else here."
I will say, everything in the game stays within the game. I don't want it to be dependent on anything [like external sources for an ARG]. If someone has a copy of this game 30 years from now, I want them to be able to still have the same experience. I want people to still be able to talk and theorize about things years down the line.
VGG: So the dream would be, 10 or 15 years from now, to see headlines that say: "Puzzle finally uncovered in Animal Well!"
Basso: Yeah, that would be super cool. I'm doing a lot of stuff to make that a possibility.
I get so excited anytime something like that happens. Like, multiplayer was discovered in Super Punch-Out just last year. It was a brand-new thing. It's just very exciting to know that something like that was there the whole time and it wasn't added in an update. If you own a game like that, you have all these secrets inside that just need to be discovered.
I think it's a kind of magic.
VGG: In terms of Animal Well's puzzling and mystery, what were some of your key inspirations there?
Basso: A big inspiration was Fez, with some of the unsolved puzzles that are still in that game. Even if people have reverse-engineered or brute forced their way into those secrets, they're still left unsolved.
And then I'm also inspired by survival horror games. By some of the mechanics and the feelings those games make you feel. Like getting chased or just the constant foreshadowing sense of dread. But I wanted to separate that from the aesthetics that are always a part of those experiences and pair it with something more approachable and inviting.
VGG: I certainly felt that with the dog spirit chase in the demo! There are some moments of intensity and adrenaline. How would you define the actual platforming in this game? If there was an analog for what the platforming is like in Animal Well or an inspiration you could point to, what would that be?
Basso: I'm taking a lot of inspiration from older Nintendo games. Super Mario 2 and 3, for example. Sometimes those games have these scary moments that you wouldn't expect in an otherwise bright and colorful game. Some specific examples are the Phanto masks that chase you in Mario 2 or the sun that comes to life and swoops down to try and attack you in the desert in Mario 3.
I'm trying to emulate the tight, responsive controls that a lot of those classic platformers have, but constantly subvert those genre expectations too.
VGG: You talked about the "layers" of the experience — having something inviting and approachable, then peel back a layer for the completionists digging a little deeper under the surface, and once more for those deep, long-standing mysteries that it could take years to uncover. How did that affect your design? Were you thinking of each audience as you design these rooms, or was it more like starting with that approachable design as a base and then seeding secret things in after?
Basso: It's a very fluid experience, but a lot of the time, the first priority is probably just making something that feels good and fun.
Say I design a new item in the game. I want anybody to just be able to pick it up and be able to play with it. There's an inherent playfulness to the design in that way. But then from there, it'll take some extra time to think about how these things can be reinterpreted for use in more difficult puzzles. Maybe that item can interact with something in the background, maybe it's got some sort of secret ability you can stumble into.
It's almost like I'm designing the game three times over, where I make something and find myself finding ways to tie these unconnected things together. It's a very tricky experience where it feels like putting a puzzle together.
VGG: You can certainly see the six long years of hard work that come into this with the sheer density in the world and each item and the thought put into everything.
Basso: [Emphatically] Yes. Yes.
VGG: During the game's reveal at Day of the Devs in 2022, you talked about wanting to stick to the pixel art aesthetic while bringing in more modern design and effects tech. Can you talk about those artistic choices? How much more difficult is it than the average person might assume?
Basso: I knew I wanted to make this game by myself and I didn't want to form a team or hire anyone. So early on, I made some very definitive design decisions about what the game would be. That involved picking the resolution for the game and the fact that it was going to be pixel art.
It started at 320x180 [pixels], and that was to sort of limit the scope. I knew I could draw pixel art, or that I could at least learn it, and I didn't want to get 3D modeling involved. I wanted to keep the art style something that I could manage. Even the size of the world, I limited it to be just a 16x16 grid of those screens.
Even as it has grown, that focus on scope is still propped up, but in a more interesting way. It's kind of grown around those early boundaries and made for a more dense world.
More generally though, all the lighting techniques and graphics effects that have been applied to the pixel art are a way to add extra polish to the game. I wasn't trying to emulate a specific console or be really faithful to the Super NES or something. I am trying to see what's possible when you are unrestrained in what graphical effects you can apply to a game while keeping the look cohesive. You end up with something brand-new when you do that.
VGG: Having played the demo now, what comes to mind is "no wasted space." When you navigate through the world, you occasionally find yourself looking out at a screen that is full of this inky black negative space, and immediately your thought is "Okay, how do I get in there? What's in there?" And we just love that sense of mystery in exploration.
You've said you come more from the programming side. And every solo developer has their own focus points and specialties. Is there one aspect of making Animal Well that you’ve found most difficult?
Basso: I think... just finishing the game? The engineering stuff, I really enjoy that, so I've been happy to do the console ports that give me a lot of documentation to read and something new to learn.
But I think the hardest thing is just getting people to learn about the game and maintaining the motivation over the long six years that I've been working on it. And that involves just doing things and working in a way that I enjoy — even if it might not always be the most practical way, it's a way that maintains my interest. Developing a habit to keep working on it every day, pretty much. Even if it's just for 10 or 20 minutes, I'm making progress. Sometimes I go on autopilot and walk to my desk every morning, make my coffee, and just work on it. I don't really have to make a conscious decision each day that I want to make progress on it. It just sort of happens. But now I am trying to wrap it up... that is hard.
I'm mostly very excited and I don't want to let people down. I want to make it the best game I can possibly make.
VGG: Well, making the best game you can possibly make sometimes needs good partnerships. And I'm sure you've been asked about it a lot, but kind of famously, you are BIGMODE Games' first published title. Tell me what that relationship is like and what some of the unexpected benefits have been from working with BIGMODE and Videogamedunkey.
Basso: It's been amazing. We weren't really looking for a publisher before signing with them.
I was working with Dan Adelman, who has been helping with all that [publisher-type stuff].
And we're doing pretty well with getting press, getting attention on the game, and working with the various consoles and stuff. But then, Dunkey made a video covering Summer Games Fest last summer and gave a bit of a shoutout to Animal Well. We got a big wishlist bump just from that five-second mention.
I was already a fan, I'd been subscribed to his channel for many years, and then we were at Tokyo Game Show three months later, and we got to take a selfie with Shuhei Yoshida. He posted it on Twitter, and then Leah — BIGMODE's cofounder and Dunkey's (aka Jason's) wife — started following my business partner Dan.
One thing led to another and we learned that they were starting BIGMODE and that they'd love to talk to us to get to know more about the game. We had a few meetings with them but were still concerned that maybe a publisher would want creative control of the game or would be kind of pushy with what direction it should go in. But that wasn't the case at all. We both had pretty much the same vision for what the game could be, and so it just seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
We knew their audience was extremely dedicated, and we had most of our bases covered, but we knew they could get people really excited about the project. They've just been so nice to work with and just so easygoing. It feels like a great privilege to be in the position where the timing works out and we get to work with them.
The best way you can show support for Basso, Animal Well, and BIGMODE Games is to go and wishlist the game on Steam right now. Wishlisting is key to indie success, as it tells Steam that the game is important enough to spotlight moving forward!
You never know what kinds of mysteries you might be exposed to by following these channels in the lead up to release...
Want to see more like this? Check out all of our PAX West 2023 coverage.