Everdeep Aurora keeps drilling its way into our hearts - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team toured the entirety of the Ysbryd Games booth, starting with Everdeep Aurora, a nonviolent exploration game developed by Nautilus Games, a game dev duo based in Madrid, Spain. Following a short hands-on demo, we talked with Ysbryd Games Founder Brian Kwek.
Everdeep Aurora has been a bit of a popular commodity at VGG. Since it was first revealed during this year's Wholesome Direct, there's been a mysterious quality to the game that has continually pulled us in. The drilling gameplay. The commitment to nonviolence. An intriguing list of unexpected inspirations. It all contributes to one of the most fascinating new indie projects we've run into in quite a while — in other words, the kind of game we cleared our schedule for to make sure we played at PAX West.
Hands-on impressions with Everdeep Aurora
Developer: Nautilus Games
Genre: 2D adventure platformer, nonviolent Metroidvania
Platform(s): PC, Nintendo Switch
Everdeep Aurora's demo opens with a small cat in a cloak waking up on a bench under the night sky. A behemoth blood-red moon with a chunk taken out of it looms ominously overhead. Our adorable cat hero, named Shell, awakens to find her mother missing. All she's got to work with is a vague note, a drill acquired from a friendly frog named Ribbert, and the shifting mineshafts of the Everdeep underfoot. So you get to drilling your way down, mining resources, meeting and helping new friends, and doing all you can to find Shell's mother.
Everdeep Aurora is immediately eye-catching for one obvious reason: Its unique screen layout. All of the game's action takes place in a 4:3 square in the middle of the screen, with the margins displaying all the things that usually overlay the game or exist on separate menus. Your drill's charge level, inventory, map, and even a box for dialogue and item descriptions are all arranged around the edges of the screen, constantly in view and easy to access. There's no interrupting the gameplay switching between menus, which brings an extra level of flow and immersion.
It's strangely reminiscent of what I loved most about the Wii U in the ways it uses unique design decisions to do everything possible to keep you in the game world. Being able to just peer over to the side of the screen to see where the nearest ore is rather than pull out a map? Perfection. Being able to scroll through my items while digging down through layers of hardened rock? So good.
The core action of Everdeep is drilling. It takes just a few hits to break through basic rocks. You've got to keep an eye on your drill's fuel, which requires regular stops back at a recharging station, and of course, you can upgrade it over time as well. While I can't say much about how extensive all of that is, I can say it already nails that satisfying Minecraft-like feeling of zoning out and breaking through brick after brick. It all kind of reminds me of Mr. Driller with a much chiller vibe and a deeper narrative focus.
In my short demo time, I managed to run into a few NPCs. Each of them clearly had some need that Shell could fulfill. It reminded me lightly of the fetch quests I'd loved in games like Link's Awakening and the Oracle of Ages/Seasons, but I didn't get to fulfill any requests before the end of my demo. Most of my time was spent just getting a feel for Shell and exploring the Everdeep.
Shell is a surprisingly agile little character with all the fun tricks you'd hope for out of a feline protagonist: great dexterity in movement, some enjoyable wall jumping, and a general fluidity in her animations. Digging my way into a rough spot never felt too bad because I always felt capable of bouncing my way out.
Outside of the general resource gathering I was able to mess with in the Everdeep, there are even a few special rooms that Shell can encounter on her path with fun little puzzles and platforming challenges hidden within. My demo actually came to a close after I'd finally solved one of these rooms and came across a strange drawing of a "monster" that suspiciously shared Shell's silhouette...
It's clear that there are a ton of mysteries waiting in the Everdeep and I can't wait to uncover them all.
Everdeep Aurora was yet another PAX West demo that bummed me out simply for the fact that I really wanted to sit there for a good few hours and sink into the experience. I only felt like I had drilled through the first layer of the game in my short time with it, so I was excited to head directly into a conversation with Ysbryd Games Founder Brian Kwek to learn more about Everdeep Aurora and why his team believes so strongly in it.
Brian Kwek on Everdeep Aurora's nonviolent dilemmas, nostalgic intent, and surprising litigation
VGG: Everdeep Aurora immediately caught our eyes, but it was afterward, when I read the press release listing a few unexpected inspirations, that it really sparked. Something like Lost (a personal favorite)... it's not a show that you'd often hear touted as a game inspiration.
Kwek: Certainly not games that look like this. [He laughs.]
VGG: Exactly! I'm curious, how exactly does that Lost inspiration manifest — and more broadly, how do the game's other interesting inspirations affect Everdeep's DNA?
Kwek: Everdeep Aurora is an amalgamation of a lot of the creative influences that had a strong impact on the two developers from Spain that make up Nautilus Games. Their inspirations include the likes of Lost, The Goonies, Castlevania, and Undertale.
We talked about Castlevania for the aesthetic, Undertale for the heart, The Goonies for the humor, and of course, Lost for that complex layering... you think you know it, but you don't.
[As far as the overall DNA of the game,] we want Everdeep Aurora to be a generally stress-free experience. There's no combat in the game, so it's really about having you as Shell with the drill goal around exploring and talking to people. We want players to focus on how they feel as they're tunneling through the depths and how to deal with the strange denizens of the Everdeep. That's the sort of journey we want people on. Not just the functional gameplay one, but emotionally too.
VGG: We're seeing a lot more nonviolent games these days, but people still expect to hop into a game, kill enemies, and do those kinds of things. Can you talk about the difficulties of designing with nonviolence in mind?
Kwek: As I touched on a little, there is something to be said about emotional conflict and how you present that to players. Dilemmas and choices.
Sid Meier says all games are basically about the interesting choices that you make in the game. Games nowadays format this in terms of combat. Like playing Armored Core 6: "How am I supposed to armor up for combat? My AC's setup sucks." So I make the choice to ditch it and make a new build, right?
In Everdeep, obviously, there are no such options. The concept is trying to make people feel those interesting choices through story. That's the philosophy for what Nautilus Games is going for here. And I think it's very much what we as a publisher also try to push forward in terms of all the other stories that we're curating.
VGG: I love that. Even in the short demo, I felt like I saw that manifest already, having to make these decisions about who to trust or not based on how they're speaking and coming across.
[You can see a clip of that moment below!]
VGG: Can you talk to us about the aesthetic design decisions here, with the square 4x3 play space and the limited color palettes that bring to mind the Game Boy Color era of gaming?
Kwek: The best way I would describe it is sort of like recreating that beloved memory of a bygone era. I actually struggle to say it's 8-bit or 16-bit, because, you know, the game blends design concepts. The color palettes are pulled from the 8-bit era, the game's fluidity and animations are pulled from the 16-bit era or even beyond.
I'd say the aesthetic desired by Nautilus is whatever helps breathe more life into the game, into how the world feels, how the characters feel — without making it seem like a messy mishmash.
VGG: So, evoking that era but taking advantage of modern tech to capture animation fluidity and things like that?
Kwek: Yeah, you want to tap into that nostalgic feeling, the satisfaction of what you experienced in that nostalgic era, without all the encumberments that come with that specific technology. I know there are probably some people who say "this is not authentic." But I don't know, is authentic necessarily always a positive buzzword?
VGG: I hear that a lot. People wanting genuine recreations of some bygone era of gaming and it's just like... do you really want to go back to some of these things? Are you sure?
Kwek: Yeah. I feel like there are people now who are arguing for the same level of difficulty that Battletoads gave us back in the day and... no one wants that.
I think relatability really hits much harder for modern audiences compared to authenticity to an era. Ysbryd and Nautilus, we kind of see it as going where the greatest impact is.
VGG: And there's room for both, right?
Kwek: Absolutely. We have those games for those who love it. They've got an audience. But for us, I don't think that's the intention.
VGG: Especially for something that is so character-driven, story-driven, you know. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but that's probably the hardest thing to have pulled off in that era. I know that's a big focus for this game too: the characters. Can you talk us through some of them?
Kwek: To start, Everdeep Aurora, I guess I can broadly say, has three acts. As you progress through each act, through each biome, it's kind of like an onion. You peel it layer by layer, and the Everdeep's inhabitants reveal more of themselves. Some will start friendly, some will seem very benign, but there are little hints all throughout that some of these folks aren't being... upfront about what they're doing.
VGG: As we wrap up, we inevitably circle back to Lost. One of the reasons we loved that show was its characters, its amazing cast, and the relationships they had on the island. I think that show did a similar thing where there weren't a lot of characters that had the clearest intentions. And I think that is an interesting setup, especially with a character who's got such a singular goal of just getting to her mom, but then you have all these distractions.
Kwek: I can at least say this. Shell did nothing wrong. Can't say that for everyone, not for everyone she meets. But Shell is innocent.
VGG: In general, the story seems to have this innocence, a lightness and sense of humor. But then it does seem like, similar to Undertale, there's some room for an interesting exploration of darkness.
Kwek: I can briefly mention, reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, there's a scene in court. And when it happens all you can think is like, how did I go from the Everdeep to a court? I'm just going to drop that little tease.
And with that tease, we say goodbye to Everdeep Aurora... for now. If you want to show your support for the game, you can wishlist Everdeep Aurora on Steam! If you want to keep up with the dev team's nonviolent adventures, follow Nautilus Games on Twitter. And if you like the sound of what Ysbryd Games is doing with their publishing arm, follow them too.
Want to see more like this? Check out all of our PAX West 2023 coverage.