The nameless, voiceless protagonist of Capybara's top-down Xbox One and PC action-RPG, Below, shares a few traits with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's own similarly tight-lipped Link. His two main items are a sword and a shield. Holding down a button lets you walk around with your shield raised, blocking incoming attacks. You can even dash into a powerful overhead leaping strike. "We're definitely inspired by Wind Waker's combat," says Nathan Vella, Capy's co-founder and president. "That's one of our favourite combat models in a videogame ever."
Unlike Link, Below's protagonist will start to bleed after being hit once. "Even from the smallest enemy, the smallest little poke, you'll bleeding," Vella elaborates. "Bigger enemies will hit you harder, and you'll bleed faster."
Bleeding creates an immediate problem you must deal with. Standing still is the worst thing you can do--you'll just see your blood start to pool at your feet. Instead, you need to move. Do you have time to run away and heal with a potion before you bleed out? Do you finish off the enemies in the room first, because opening your backpack to drink that potion doesn't pause time? Do you find a fire pit, which you can stick your sword into, heat it up, and use it to cauterise the wound?
Do you find a fire pit, which you can stick your sword into, heat it up, and use it to cauterise the wound?
"We don't tell you any of this," says Vella, with a hint of glee in his voice. "The game is entirely without text, without tutorials, without descriptions. There are no arrows pointing that say 'Go, go, go.'"
This is where the thematic and level structure of Below begins to diverge from that of The Wind Waker. Though you'll still be exploring the ruins of a buried civilisation, Below's dungeons are structured closer to those of a roguelike. You primarily find yourself descending through randomly-generated levels, but you occasionally have the opportunity to move laterally, or have reason to ascend back through previous floors. "We spent a tonne of time making sure the procedural generation didn't look like procedural generation; that it looked organic and fit with the aesthetic of the game," Vella adds. He's not wrong--in my time playing Below, I had no idea the levels were procedurally generated until he mentioned it.
Though the only dungeon I saw resembled a natural cave formation, Vella hints that more "man-made" structures lie deep down: "The way that we liken it is, the world, or the depths, is like this flowing river. The water that flows and changes--that's the randomly generated stuff. But out of the water are these islands, and their shapes are always the same, their placement is always the same. So if you figure out how to find them, you can always find them the same way. Those are all the pre-set areas that will maybe make you ask some questions--'Why is there a beach with a ship?' Basically, they're little discoveries that will prompt you to start piecing together some of the backstory, some of the narrative, some of the reason for you being there."
Capy intends to inspire such curiosity through a deliberately zoomed out camera. Your character on the screen is tiny, but this means entire areas can be shown on-screen at once. This imbued me with an immediate sense of awe and wonder, as the cavernous depths of the island's interior, in contrast to my protagonist, seemed to stretch on forever. This camera position also plays back into the combat, as it makes you feel weak and small. "You know how much space there is around you," Vella adds. "And you can be one hit from death."
If you do perish, you don't respawn. True to its roguelike inspirations, Below features a permadeath mechanic that confines your corpse, and all of its items, to the floor of the dungeon that you died on. Your next character is an entirely new person, who arrives at the island well after your last character has died. The dungeon layouts themselves will have shifted, but key features of the world--such as the fact that you may unlock a new area--will remain persistent. "And if you go ten layers down you can actually find the spear that was left on your corpse," says Vella. "You are always building upon the work that you put in the last life."
It ruins what we're trying to do if we tell people for example to 'Go over there' and 'Press that button.'"
With the nature of Below's environments, and your characters' reasons for being there, shrouded in ambiguity, Vella believes thoughtful players will find it gratifying to come up with their own narrative threads. "We're trying to ask questions, more than give players answers," he continues. "We're trying to trust them to figure out and explore--even the controls. Even the menus. Even the inventory. But also, explore the entire world. It ruins what we're trying to do if we tell people for example to 'Go over there' and 'Press that button.'" It's an approach that Vella says is only possible due to the studio's self-funded nature. Beneath that ambiguity, however, is a clear purpose--along with an actual end to the narrative. Vella concludes, with a twinkle in his eye: "I'll put a bracket around an 's' and a question mark--so maybe there are 'end(s)?'"