Indie Interviews: Aethernaut (Gamescom)

Our Gamescom-themed exploration of upcoming indie games led us to Kevin Giguère the sole developer of Dragon Slumber’s Aethernaut based out of Montreal, Canada. A first person puzzle game that combines familiar elements into something new, we asked him about the game and what players can expect. You can also check out a demo for the game on its Steam page.

How did Aethernaut start out?

I started Aethernaut thinking about how cool it would be to make a first person puzzle game about light, since it’s so rare to see these in games. Over time that evolved into a game about moving light sources around. Once I decided to add different properties to the light, I knew that I had something really interesting and special.

I played a lot of different first person puzzle games for research, with Talos Principle being at the top of the list of my favorites because of how you manipulate objects and the openness of the environments. A lot of the other titles were more linear in nature, but for me the ability to explore and freely discover the world was something I really wanted to bring in.

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What makes Aethernaut different from other puzzle games?

For me, the most important part of a puzzle game is the puzzles themselves. I was looking to create a small array of pieces, which I could then reuse in a clever way. Rather than having the player constantly learn new features, they need to rethink how they approach the different puzzles according to the elements available.

The game revolves around the three aether cubes, light, shadow and time, which when placed in a light projector provide their unique properties to the light. The time cube freezes anything within its light in time for instance. I also have portal generators which require two cubes of different types, which change the properties of the portals themselves.

The puzzles are set up so that they’re easy to execute upon once you’ve figured out the solution. I didn’t want the players to waste their time if they know how to do it, so it’s easy to run around, climb on different platforms and just put everything in place, solve and move on to the next challenge.

How did you develop the visual/art style behind the game?

It took several months before I settled on the style I have. Early on, the game was meant to be minimalist in nature, with the walls having thin light lines reminiscent of Tron. It quickly became apparent that what I was producing looked cheap however so I decided to scrap it and learn to do 3d assets myself with Blender.

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I went with the Steampunk aesthetic because it’s still not something that’s been overly done. A lot of first person puzzle games end up with a very clean looking aesthetic, everything feels a bit flat, but I wanted my world to feel worn in, a place where people actually lived and not necessarily in a futuristic way. Those small details end up feeling more interesting.

And Aethernaut is a solo project?

I am the sole developer for Aethernaut, which is my fourth commercial title since I started Dragon Slumber in 2013. I’ve been a programmer for over 20 years, and on the games I also take the roles of producer and designer, along with doing a lot of artistic work on some of the games. Due to the more ambitious scope of this project, I’ve had to learn a lot of new skills like 3d art, and you can also hear my voice as the different characters of the demo.

What have been some of the more interesting challenges during the development process?

My previous project Tech Support: Error Unknown was fairly simple in terms of performance, because it was all menu driven and didn’t require a lot of clever tricks to make things work. For Aethernaut however, I had to rethink how I manage the different locations, how I load and unload rooms. It gets technical but basically computers are less powerful than people imagine so we need to use a lot of tricks behind the scenes for the games to work properly. I’m still in the midst of it as I type this in fact and I expect to be working on it for a while still.

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Does a global pandemic affect solo game development?

By virtue of being a solo developer and since I only started development on Aethernaut in November 2019, my development was less affected by the chaos of 2020 as many other devs. I didn’t have an office to not go to, I didn’t have conventions that needed cancelling, so I’m pretty grateful that I didn’t have to worry about that stuff on top of everything else.

That being said, there’s still a lot to do on this game so I’m not ready to announce a release date quite yet. I have foundations solid enough for a demo, but I promise the final version will put whatever you see in the demo to shame.

When the game releases, what do you hope people will take away from the experience?

As the developer of the game, I feel my role is to provide the best sandbox for people to enjoy themselves in. I have my personal preference of how I play games, but I don’t want to tell people how to have fun, which is why I try to provide as many options as I realistically can. As long as people buy the game, I consider that they should get to have the experience that they want.

A friend of mine has often talked about how he enjoys hacking into different games, modifying stuff from the inside and just playing around. And frankly since Aethernaut is a single player experience, I have no problem with that. I’ll provide a solid story, some great puzzles, but people can choose what to do from there and I don’t intend to stop them.

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