At long last, Salt and Sanctuary is coming to Xbox One! Our 2D souls-like of deadly monsters, labyrinthine dungeons, and shattered heroes may be our studio’s fourth big game, but it’s our first title to grace Xbox One.
Over a decade ago, when the studio was just me, I was lucky enough to get my big break when I was awarded a publishing contract to bring The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai to Xbox Live Arcade. Since then, Ska Studios has doubled in size! Over the next 6 years, we’d release The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, Charlie Murder, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT!!!1, ZP2KX, and who knows what else on Xbox 360; sometimes on XBLA, sometimes on XBLIG.
And today, the great folks at Blitworks have done a fine job of bringing the game in all its gloomy glory to Xbox One. But now that we’ve returned at last to Xbox, I thought I’d share a tale of the game Salt and Sanctuary might have been.
I started writing what would become Salt and Sanctuary as far back as 2012, while finishing up Charlie Murder, which we would launch on Xbox 360 in 2013. At some point I envisioned it as a procedurally generated roguelike, and as I look at my codebase now, I see the game still has some commented-out code and some excluded classes to enable that functionality (no one’s ever accused me of being a tidy programmer). One idea that I was considering was for the game’s protagonists to be drawn from a procedurally generated shipwrecked crew of a Nordic-style viking longship exploring the procedurally generated world. Your crew might have 2 mages, 3 archers, 1 fighter, and so on; how would you tackle the world?
I ended up totally walking away from procedural generation. The expression I like to talk myself out of the appeal of limitless procedural generation is, “when everything is random, nothing is.” We’re pattern recognizing mammals, and without realizing it, we’re probably as good at cataloguing procedural generation algorithms as we are at remembering the layout of a fixed map. And the procedural crew idea was problematic: does the crew replenish, or is it a fixed pool to keep the tension high? Would it be overly frustrating to arrive at the end with only the “worst” crew available? How do you solve the narrative problem of sending out the crew one by one like a horror movie trope?
This was around when our Dark Souls obsession flew into full swing. I had been a huge fan of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but like many gamers, I had begun to notice a trend in the ensuing years toward tutorials, checkpoints, objective markers; form over function, all of it focus tested into palatable mush. And when Dark Souls came out, I’ll admit I didn’t “get it” initially. But it clicked in time: the solitude, the agency, the layers of depth concealed by obscurity, the relentless difficulty — these were things once integral to games, driven away by years of simplification in the name of minimizing frustration. Minimizing frustration is a good thing! But at some point, it became doctrine. Dark Souls bucked the trend, and gamers rejoiced.
I hadn’t been won over by the procedural prototype yet, and I had begun to wonder, “would a Dark Souls style game work in 2D?” And thus, the procedural stuff was scrapped, and a big new experiment commenced! The combat took after The Dishwasher (no one ever comments on this!), but with a more deliberate pace. The loot system from Charlie Murder was heavily adapted. Some more ambitious systems were scrapped, like a weapon upgrade system that would unlock super moves at higher tiers. The sanctuary system was probably more ambitious than its final form, but I’m still really happy with it: I like populating my cozy little hubs!
I know it’s a cliché way to close out, but I really did have a blast making Salt and Sanctuary. If this is your first time playing it, I only hope enjoy it half as much as I did making it. The Salt that Nearly Was may have been relegated to the recycling bin of game development history, but if you’d like to turn my Viking longship idea into reality, go for it!