Hidden amongst all the endless running, shooting, jumping, driving chaos of the noticeably-bigger-than-last-year PAX AUS Indie Rising selection of games was a game about being a tree. Not an Ent, not any kind of magical, mobile, talking tree – just a normal tree. That being said, Evergreen looks to be an awesome and very promising looking game about being a tree. At PAX I had the chance to play the game in its current alpha build and chat to Micheal Muirden from Siege Sloth Games about how this refreshing title came into being.
Amelia Laughlan: The first thing that I noticed about the game is that it’s got a very Zen feel, similar to that of Studio Ghibli films, like My Neighbour Totoro or Laputa: Castle in the Sky. They always seem possess a deep appreciation of nature. I feel like Evergreen shares this sentiment?
Michael Muirden: Yes, so Miyazaki was certainly part of our inspiration artistically. We few a through different art styles originally, we thought about making the game realistic, but eventually ended up with this kind of look. So yes, we were certainly inspired by Nausicaa and that sort of thing – those sorts of films kind of inspired the gameplay as well.
AL: And were there any other significant inspirations for the game?
MM: I don’t know about the rest of the team, but for me, there was a big bushfire in Canberra (where Siege Sloth is based) in 2008 and just seeing everything grow slowly back again (after all the destruction) has given me a new appreciation of nature – how you can’t win against it, it’s never dead, it sort of always springs back. That was a big inspiration for the game.
AL: That’s a lovely sentiment. I’ve been to Canberra a few times and noticed all the lovely bushland and hiking trails. Was that part of the inspiration as well?
MM: Yeah, our office has a big window which overlooks a park with trees and everything, so every day we watch as the trees progress from being dead to coming back over the last couple of months.
AL: Why a tree? You could have made the game about the sun or the sky or the ocean, why did you choose a tree?
MM: To begin with the game was very much a resource management game – that’s what it looked like at the very first prototype. You had to have enough water and sunlight and you were sort of this tree trying to grow in a post-apocalyptic world. And people just liked the creativity part and being able to grow whatever they wanted, so we sort of just stuck with the tree. It’s been there the whole time, but there’s no particular reason, we were just looking for something new and different and we think trees are kind of cool. They’re pretty core to humanity, if you look at charities like Trees For Life and things like that, which teach people how to live with trees and how we have this kind of symbiotic relationship where the trees give us shade and food and things, but we also look after nature.
AL: So it’s about the tree sort of joining all that together?
MM: Yeah, it acts as a good symbol for nature and the natural world.
AL: So how much time do you guys actually have to work on the game? Are you still students?
MM: We all graduated from AIE a few years back, and they have a graduate program called ‘Incubator’ and that program sort of teaches people the business side of making games. You form teams and you sort of make a game and learn how to do all the tax stuff and all the boring stuff.
AL: So you’ve actually had a lot of support – that’s really cool.
MM: Yeah, so the support is excellent, they give you some office space and things. So we (Siege Sloth) did that last year and that’s when we started making Evergreen. And this year we’ve sort of branched out and through that support we’ve managed to get some grants and things because we have the business side of things down. Indie games don’t usually have that kind of solid foundation that allows them to go to a grant agency and prove to them that your project is as legitimate as a movie or a short film or another artistic enterprise, but with the good planning and all the documents in order we’ve managed to get some money and be able to fund the project full time this year.
AL: That’s so great! You can really tell that you’ve put a lot of effort into making it look great, like, it’s gone beyond its stage as a student project and it looks like it belongs on the market.
MM: Thank you!
AL: My next question is a bit long winded, but basically it boils down to something Crossy Road designer Matthew Hall says about making games. Hall says that rather than trying to manufacture game everyone will like, he chooses to focus on just one person and strives to make a game that they will like. In this vein, is there anyone you feel you are making Evergreen for?
MM: We’ve got a few people in mind. One kind of person is gamers. We want to make something for people who are already gamers but who want something a bit different, a bit novel, a bit weird. That’s part of our audience. The bigger audience we are hoping to get to are the people who don’t normally play games. People who look at games and see car racers and shooting and games and go “that’s not for me, I’m fine with not playing games”. There’s this flower festival that happens in Canberra called Floriade and we actually demoed the game there last year and we had a whole bunch of especially older people playing the game and saying “this is nice, I like it, I’ve never really seen a game like this.”
AL: Yeah, I think that’s really admirable, to try and make something that breaks the mould.
MM: So yeah, we’re trying to make all the controls easy enough that somebody who has never played games before could pick it up and play it, but still including options to use ‘WASD’ and things for people who are used to playing games, so there’s sort of options for both groups.
AL: What’s your favourite part of the game?
MM: I like growing a beautiful tree. That’s probably my favourite part. We’ve got some pretty cool events – not in this particular demo but later on we have things like lightning strikes which can cause your tree to catch fire, encountering primitive man for the first time – I think that’s a really cool moment in the game. Later on we have, you know, the famous Apple on Newton’s head – we’re making a tree game, so we sort of had to do it.
I’ve learnt a lot making this game as well, about the time-scale of life. A lot people assume that we went straight from fish in the water to dinosaurs and then humans and that’s it. But we’ve included a lot of stages that are in between those big things, so we’re hoping to educate people on the time-scale and the fact that it took so long for underwater life to evolve into something like a dinosaur, so there’s this whole evolutionary process happening between those big events. Like, you know, mammals were around then but they weren’t anything like what we think of today.
AL: That’s awesome. Sounds like the game has made you think a lot as well as, hopefully, the people who are playing it.
MM: Yeah, definitely.
AL: In terms of gameplay, if something happens to your tree, is that it? Or do you start a tree? Is there any ‘game over’ concept?
MM: No, so there’s no fail state at all. So there are things like your entire tree can fall over if you forget to grow roots but then you can just grow back again – it sort of comes back to that whole nature-bushfire concept; nature always finds a way to come back. So yeah, it’s meant to be Zen creative and we didn’t want to reinforce the negative, we wanted to make it a really positive experience where you could experiment and if things don’t work in your experiments then that’s fine – just try again.
AL: That’s awesome that you’re aiming to reward the creativity of trying as opposed to reinforcing the negative. You mentioned earlier that the game includes ‘discoverables’, and you mentioned that there are plans for the game to include ‘events’ during regular gameplay? Can you talk a bit about what kind of challenge is offered in the gameplay?
MM: So you’ve got the discoverables and they tend to lead up to one or two bigger events per level. Things like man discovering fire are the kind of events which allow the game to progress. And there is a whole bunch of stuff around doing that which we added because we thought they’d be cool.
AL: Yeah, even when I was playing the demo here at PAX today I noticed some smoke coming from somewhere nearby and discovered that my tree was near a volcano. That really sparked my curiosity and it seems like this is something the game encourages.
MM: Yeah, so we want you to kind of explore each level, figure out your surroundings and hopefully if you’re doing that, you’re learning a little bit about history and what things were like at the time.
Evergreen is planned to launch at the end of Q1, 2016.
If you’re interested in following the growth of this title, head over to the Evergreen website, where you’ll find links to all their social media fronts.