Incredipede: The Indelible Journey
This past October, husband-and-wife game-making team Colin and Sarah Northway finally released their first game together. Nearly four years in the making, the puzzle game Incredipede finds a curious creature named Quozzle on a journey to rescue her sisters. Playing the game, you get the sense that it was a labor of love; it’s been expertly constructed with a clear focus on every last detail.
More importantly, Incredipede feels like the game that Colin and Sarah Northway were destined to make, and it stands to resonate with players in ways that few games do. For in its zen-like pacing, crafty design, and serene environments, players can get to know the game’s creators.
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Colin Northway’s first big success was 2008’s Fantastic Contraption, a flash-enabled, physics-based puzzle game that eventually got sold to inXile Entertainment, who went on to make iOS versions of Fantastic Contraption and its sequel. Free of obligation to that title, Northway began working on ideas and prototypes for the game that would become Incredipede.
As with most artists and creators, inspiration was to be found in many things, but the most unlikely source was a woman few know by name: Berthe Hoola van Nooten.
As any well-studied Biology student would know, Van Nooten was a Dutch botanical artist who, in the mid-1800s, became famous for her illustrations of tropical plants. Her work depicts flowers indigenous to the Indonesian island of Java, and it’s those drawings and their color palette that helped influence the look of Incredipede. With the help of artist Thomas Shahan, the game’s wood-cut aesthetic took shape and soon evolved into something the couple considered extraordinary.
“Thomas did an amazing, amazing job,” says Colin Northway. “We worked very closely to make that happen; it was a constant back-and-forth trying to figure out how to do it.”
Sarah Northway, who began helping with Incredipede after finishing her own game, Rebuild, adds, “Yeah, Thomas’ art looks better than I could have imagined in the game. It’s like a moving painting.”
Puzzles in Incredipede are solved by adding limbs and muscles to Quozzle, figuring out which configuration will allow her to progress through the level. Sometimes the players just needs to make a simple set of legs to move her, other times, elaborate swinging limbs that act as hooks. The systems used seem to work effortlessly, but they are the result of a tireless degree of attention to the game’s inner workings.
For example, the user interface feels refined and intuitive, but it took several iterations to get exactly right. Colin Northway says, “The user interface in general was a huge challenge. It started off as a kind of x-ray view with a bunch of different overlays, each for a different editing tool.”
“You used to have to hold the mouse down on Quozzle’s head for a whole second to create a new limb, “ Sarah Northway adds. “Colin liked the sense of effort it took Quozzle to grow a new leg.”
Another problem early in development was a tendency for Quozzle’s limbs to drift as the player created them. A creature that looks like a horse, for example, would have different forces acting on each of its legs. “I had to make a system where legs would speed up or slow down if they got out of sync with the rest of the creature,” says Colin Northway. “Without this system, the game doesn’t work at all.”
Speaking to this problem (and others), he adds, “That’s what good design is – it’s taking a horrible problem and making it invisible.”
“We started traveling in 2006 before we made games,” says Colin Northway. “We saved up some money and spent a year traveling in Thailand and Japan. That gave us ‘the traveling bug,’ and when it started to look like we could make games full-time, the obvious thing to do was sell off all of our stuff and live the life permanently.”
Permanently. That implies something that would strike fear into the hearts of many, but Colin Northway sees it as more of an opportunity. “I feel some kinship with these people caught up in strange places at the edge of the world,” he says. “Experiencing new cultures and climates is inspiring in all sorts of ways.”
“I feel some kinship with these people caught up in strange places at the edge of the world.”
Having travelled to (and lived in) dozens of countries, the couple typically spends two to three months in any given location before packing up and moving on, returning every summer to British Columbia, Canada, where they are originally from. Expectedly so, stories about Incredipede’s development are frequently peppered with anecdotes about these travels and experiences. Many of these experiences have surreptitiously found their way into the game, lending it a unique identity and extraordinary personality.
“We’re both fascinated by language and nature, and we often put our travel experiences into our games,” says Colin Northway.
After casually referencing the colonization of Central America, Colin Northway asks, “Did you know that sting rays burst out of the water, straight into the air, and then land flat on the water with a ‘slap’ to try to dislodge parasites? I found that out when they started doing it right next to my surfboard in Costa Rica. Now there’s a level where you can do that in Incredipede.”
Almost an afterthought, he adds, “Having a rich trove of personal experiences and crazy ideas is very important to creativity.”
Incredipede is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. As you discover Quozzle’s abilities, the landscapes and environments open up, giving players a sense of exploration. It’s that feeling that puts the player, in some small way, in touch with the experiences of the game’s creators.
That feeling – and that transparency – is why Incredipede matters. Through years of travelling and now making games together, Colin and Sarah Northway have brought something intensely personal to Incredipede. While it may sound hackneyed, what differentiates Colin and Sarah Northway from other development teams is their relationship.
Taken individually, marriage and travelling can be panic-inducing. Together? Well, it can’t be all sunshine and puppy dogs every day. So what happens when you’re married, living in a foreign country, and effectively stuck together?
For the Northways, the answer lies where most things seem to – with each other.
“We love spending time together,” says Sarah Northway. “Our favorite thing is to just go for a walk and talk about games. We’ve got so much in common, and it’s like we’re one person. It’s great. Sometimes, we make people sick, I think.
“Sick with jealousy.”
Work, no matter how much you enjoy it, can be stressful. For them, that stress is compounded by the fact that they are constantly living in different places; it’s difficult to storm out of the house and retreat to your favorite haunt if you’ve only lived somewhere a week and don’t have a car.
“Sometimes one of us gets super stressed about something and kind of freaks out,” Sarah Northway explains. “When that happens, the other one will be strangely chill and calm. It’s some kind of yin-yang thing.”
Elaborating, Colin Northway adds, “It’s like you subconsciously realize you can’t both afford to freak out.”
On an alarmingly regular basis, we’re begged to forgive developers for debt and delays, and we’re asked to pledge money for projects that don’t even exist yet. We read story after story about developers in states of crisis, and we’re left to wonder how much longer they can go on – nay, survive.
Then there’s Incredipede, a beautiful game born out of one couple’s adoration of culture, travel, and each other. Here, even if it’s just this once, without drama or agenda, we get the chance to celebrate a game, its creation, and its creators.
Colin and Sarah Northway are currently living with Aztez creators Ben Ruiz and Matthew Wegner in a small surf town near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “We’ve got a swank little three-bedroom casa with a two-minute walk down a dirt road to la playa, and the food is cheap and bueno,” says Sarah Northway.
Without boasting too much, she adds, “Also, we’re learning Spanish.”