Currently, GYLT is one of the few exclusives available on Google’s Stadia gaming service. It was a launch title and has since been included in the list of games available for free for Pro subscribers. We played GYLT and enjoyed our experience, so we reached out to the developer, Tequila Works, to learn more about the game. Kindly, Tequila Works granted us time to interview the game director behind GYLT, David Canela. We talked about the making of GYLT, it’s themes and messages, and the advantages of launching on Stadia.
Note: this feature contains spoilers for GYLT.
GYLT has players assume the role of Sally, a young girl who stumbles into an alternate and dark perversion of her mining hometown. Sally explores the school grounds in search of Emily, her cousin who had gone missing weeks earlier. The theme of GYLT is bullying. Emily is a victim of bullying, and the game is full of related imagery, such as mannequins posing in a bullying manner, hateful graffiti, and grotesque artwork.
At any time, players can pause the game to pull up a map of the school, but what is not available is a minimap in the corner of the screen, as many other games choose to feature, and we were curious why. “We discarded it,” Mr. Canela said. “We didn’t want people to be focusing on the map continuously. Something that happens with minimaps is that if you have it in the corner guiding . . . people tend to look more at the minimap than just the game itself, and I don’t think that would be this kind of game.”
In this alternate reality that Sally finds herself in, grim beings now roam the school hallways, and Sally must avoid or combat them in her search for her cousin. The game takes place entirely at night, and one of the tools available to players is a flashlight. Players may shine their flashlight to illuminate their path, of course. But additionally, the flashlight has combative properties.
Players can sneak up behind enemies and take them out quietly, or they can focus the light on weak points on the enemies’ bodies, or they can “flash” their light, stunning nearby enemies and allowing players to escape if they’re being pursued. All of these combat actions consume battery power, and players may restore their power with batteries scattered about the school. Simply shining their flashlight, though, is free.
We asked Mr. Canela if there was ever a point in development where shining the flashlight at all consumed battery. He begins, “It’s something that we talked about a lot. And I think we did several tests; and I think at some point we tried it, but we decided to remove it because the target audience for GYLT was not that hardcore, and we didn’t want people to be aware of switching it off and on continuously because it’s running out of batteries. But we wanted them to make the choice: if I want to confront enemies, I need to use batteries. Else, I won’t.” The team considered having the flashlight drain battery very slowly, simply to adhere to reality, but Mr. Canela was against. “As a designer, I am a bit against reality” he said, “– it’s not necessary — so we decided to remove it and just go with that.”
As mentioned, Sally can combat enemies with her flashlight, and we asked Mr. Canela about designing all of the different options available to players. “We wanted Sally to be able to defend herself, but we didn’t want her to be able to do it with things that look like a weapon.” He continued, “Stealth is not for everyone. Probably if we had only kept the options for stealth and not being seen, I’m not sure that people would have enjoyed the game that much. And also one of the pillars of stealth, in general, is that once you screw it, once they have seen you, it is very difficult to escape, and it’s a complicated balance. And if you play Metal Gear Solid, and somebody sees you, lots of enemies appear, and you need to wait like 60 seconds or 90 seconds depending on the game for all of them to go away. And we wanted to avoid that. That’s one of the reasons players have the possibility to fight with the flashlight if they want. We gave them the flash attack.”
Mr. Canela expands upon his comments about the game’s combat options, saying that, initially, the team believed that the stealth attack with the flashlight didn’t fit Sally’s character, but, Mr. Canela said, ”we didn’t see Sally as a weak character. In fact, we see her as a strong character, that she’s able to confront whatever bullying she is seeing. But also in gameplay terms,” he continued, “we thought it was important because at first we didn’t have the stealth attack, and the gameplay was corrupted; our intention was corrupted. Nobody wanted to go in stealth because it was not rewarding. If they have a flashlight and they can fight the monsters with it, why go in stealth? It has no benefit. After the stealth attack was added, the balance between risk and benefit was more balanced.”
The flashlight also works thematically. Mr. Canela explains: “In Finland, they did some social tests for bullying, for fighting bullying. What they tried to tell the kids was ‘when you see bullying, just tell somebody, tell the guy who’s been bullied that that’s not right. If you see somebody bullying another kid, tell the bully that hey what you are doing is not right.’ And they saw a pretty big descent of the bullying cases in the schools. And that’s the idea of the flashlight: it’s a way of adding light to the situations. That’s why using the flashlight to defeat the monsters worked, in those conceptual terms.”
Towards the end of the game, players lose the flashlight and their fire extinguisher, a tool players use to solve puzzles. We asked Mr. Canela his motivation for taking these tools away from the player. He said, “the monsters in the game represent different feelings and situations with bullying. You can see two moments in the game [where we take away the player’s tools]: one when you are going through the arcade; another one is in the art gallery. That one is the feeling of being helpless. The name we gave it in development was helplessness. So we decided to show it two times during the game because it gives that feeling of suffering bullying. That feeling of helplessness is around, and it starts growing as the situation gets worse and worse. And that’s what we wanted to make you feel at the end of the game: being helpless.”
GYLT features a number of puzzles that players must solve to progress. We asked Mr. Canela if there were basic tenets of puzzle design the team tried to follow, and he responded, that he was not sure if they follow it 100%, “but the idea is to first show the objective clearly, and then have the player to look for the solution.” We mentioned a specific puzzle towards the end of the game involving a mine cart and track, and of course Mr. Canela knew the puzzle we were referring to: “I remember there was an exit to the left,” he said “and you have to throw some lever up, but the path was blocked. . .The puzzle itself was not complicated in itself, we didn’t want to make complicated puzzles in general, but we wanted just to be a pace breaker, let’s say. In that one, we wanted to do, I mean the solution is pretty easy, you just need to push some button, lining the rails, I wouldn’t call that a complicated puzzle, but we wanted to add the complexity of having an enemy around for that puzzle. . . . As I told you, that final part has to do with helplessness, and we wanted to add that situation that we didn’t have in other areas of the game that was having a small puzzle but with the pressure of having an enemy you can dispose of. So that was our approach for that puzzle in particular.”
We asked Mr. Canela what lessons he learned from GYLT that he will apply to other projects moving forward. He said that “ one of the things that I was really happy with was that we were able to build a very rough first pass of a white box of the whole game. Let’s say that game is not a very long game, but . . . before even adding all of the logic or all of the puzzles we had a very rough first pass of the whole game, from beginning to end, and that allowed us to see, well it allowed us in general to see the length of the game. Because measuring the length of a game is pretty difficult, I have to say, and having that first pass and first view allowed us to be able to have better production, in terms of when we needed to cut something and we knew exactly what we had and what we needed to cut. And so it was like from the beginning it was motivating because it was like ok it’s just maybe corridors that you can walk through and there are no enemies and no puzzles or whatever, but this is our game, and it is complete, and we did it pretty soon in our development cycle. And that’s something that we have adopted for other projects. Projects themselves are quite different. But of course they have some things in common. . . . We have the stealth that we didn’t have in the previous games. We had this dark ambience and we learned to work with light and colors and how to guide the player better, so we really learned a lot that could be applied really to any game.”
Bullying is a heavy subject, and we were curious what type of response Tequila Works has received from children or teens, or even former victims of bullying. Mr. Canela responded with a specific story. He said, “One of the reviewers we had was a guy who had suffered bullying and he felt he that we were pretty respectful of the theme. . . but I’m pretty glad that nobody has given us the feeling that I’ve been bullied and you are treating this in a bad way. In general, the response from people who have told us that they were bullied in younger ages was pretty good, I have to say. From the people who have told us I was bullied, they say ‘thank you for making this game.’ It’s good that people get to think about this and how easy it is to be part of the bullying. That was really the idea that we wanted to tell, that it’s not saying that bullying is good or bad. . . we didn’t want to tell people who have been bullied how to solve their problems, but we need to tell them how easy it is to be a part of this without directly hitting or insulting somebody.”
Here, Mr. Canela is referring to the plot of the game, where towards the end it’s revealed that Sally was complicit in allowing Emily to be bullied, after denying her involvement for most of the game. It’s a heart wrenching realization, and we asked Mr. Canela to expand upon the decision. He said, “At the beginning of the game, we talked a lot about this and how to present a story about bullying, and what I was talking about before, the idea of not telling somebody how to fix the problem, but saying how easy it was to be part of it without noticing it. When we were at the beginning of the project, we were having some meetings to discuss all of this and we were researching about bullying and talking with some professionals and psychologists, and one of the things that came up was that at some point, people will start saying ‘I was never aware that at some point in my life I had bullied someone, intentionally.’ Somebody said, ‘well there was a guy who was bullying another kid in my class . . . and one day I said to him ‘you have a big nose’, and everybody started saying that to the guy he was bullying before, and he stopped bullying. And we were talking about it and saying ‘wow so without really noticing and it was just to protect the guy who was bullying, you started bullying the other guy.’ It’s pretty easy to do that and to be part of that without having the intention to be doing it. And in fact that’s what happened to Sally. She has a group of friends and some of them mock Emily, and at the end [of the game] she said Sally was not helping her at all, ‘leave me alone’, and that was when Emily was more broken, and . . . she [Sally] was really not a bad girl, it was just her response that started this, that made all this the worst.”
Finally, we wanted to ask Mr. Canela about Stadia, GYLT being an exclusive launch title. We knew that Stadia can provide statistics and data on gameplay. In an interview with GameIndustry.biz, Tequila Works CEO Paul Rubio said that Stadia can provide statistics on where users get stuck in the game, for example. We wanted to follow up on this with Mr. Canela. “One of the things that Stadia has,” Mr. Canela said, “and it’s one of the things we implemented, we added small flags to the game: when a puzzle was started, when a puzzle was finished, when a puzzle is abandoned, let’s say. Or when a fight is started, when a fight has ended, when the player has killed an enemy, when a player has been spotted. So with all of this data, we could balance the game if we needed to in terms of if we see that there is a hotspot where everybody dies, or a puzzle that everybody abandons, we were able to track that, and if we need to tweak it with a patch, we can do it.” When asked if they’ve patched the game based on the data from these flags, Mr. Canela says only for very specific moments.
With that, our interview concluded. We want to thank Mr. Canela for his time.