Pneuma: Breath of Life is not your run-of-the-mill first-person shooter. In Deco Digital and Bevel Studios’ upcoming title, players “progress through a narrated story of self-discovery, exploring the fundamental nature of being,” experiencing the world through the eyes of a god. In other words: There is no shotgun.
“Games often shy away from talking about philosophy and religion because it’s such a personal subject, but that’s also what makes it such an interesting subject that games as a medium should explore,” said Deco Digital’s Joe Brammer. That said, don’t think of the game as promoting a specifically religious agenda. “We have different beliefs on the team, and that has always been a key point during development; we would never want to make any player or group feel like the game wasn’t for them,” Brammer continues. “It’s certainly designed to be played by everyone. We approach the story in a way that, by the end of the game, we’d like the player to walk away and think about their experience playing Pneuma and possibly think further than the game itself.” He says that the hints at religion are used more as a platform for story, and to make the world of Pneuma more interesting.
The classic adventure title Myst is perhaps the first title that gamers of a certain age will think of upon seeing Pneuma for the first time – if, for no other reason, than its similarly mysterious tone and visual approach. Surprisingly, however, Myst wasn’t the developers’ primary influence: “Myst was actually a game that was released before most of us on the team were even born, so we didn’t really know anything about the game until players came up to us at conferences telling us how much they liked its familiarity,” said Brammer.
Rather, the game’s writer and designer David Jones has said that Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite had a large influence, particularly with regard to creating a deep and meaningful game based on philosophy. “We wanted Pneuma to have a focus on storytelling that really spoke to players, and would leave them creating their own theories about the game’s ending,” Brammer explained. “I guess you could say BioShock Infinite inspired us to want to create a story like that.” The team tried to steer away from other sorts of popular influences, in an attempt to create something that was more dependent on lateral thinking than having solutions handed over on a plate.
To bring its game to life, the team turned to Unreal Engine 4. “Our programmers found the software easy to adjust to, and our artists love the physically based rendering work flow for 3D work,” said Brammer. “It feels great to be the first Unreal Engine 4 game on Xbox One, and we can’t wait to see how far we can push the engine in the future.” Still, with such a small team size for this ambitious title, there were plenty of limitations to consider. “At the start of development, we found ourselves wanting to add higher and higher detail with larger texture resolutions, but we quickly found out the reality that – even with new hardware – there needs to be a limit on how much you can throw at a system,” Brammer said. “Finding out these limits early really helped us plan effectively, and work around any constraints so that we could finish the game within our time frame, and still look like no other game within the Xbox indie market.”
Ultimately, however, the most challenging aspect of development was the pure lack of sleep the team worked with to get its game ready for final release. “We’ve all been working unpaid 9-5, and then most of the team had to leave and go to work [other jobs],” said Brammer. “It was tough, but that’s what you have to do when you’re starting out as an indie developer. Seeing the final product come together has been amazing, though – and we wouldn’t have changed the experience one bit.”
While the developer doesn’t expect that every player will find deep meaning from Pneuma‘s story, the hope is that players who finish the game will have their own unique take on the experience, and be able to create their own theories about Pneuma’s world. As for the team members’ favorite moment? “I’m pretty sure everyone on the team loves the ending,” Brammer smirked. “It’s something that can only be experienced through the medium of video games, and I can’t wait to share that with players.”