DrinkBox is quite a prolific video game developer.
Since 2008, the Toronto-based indie studio has tackled three distinct genres: the side-scrolling platformer in two Tales from Space games, the ‘Metroidvania’ with the Guacamelee! and retro dungeon crawlers in Severed.
And now, the company is pivoting to the realm of action-RPGs in its latest game, Nobody Saves the World.
“The team really likes to try and stretch our creative muscles, especially after working on [our last game], Guacamelee! 2. And we worked on that for like two years, so it really felt like we wanted to do something completely different,” says DrinkBox co-founder and producer Graham Smith.
“One of the goals that we always try and set for ourselves is that we don’t want to just be similar to anything else that’s out there; we do want to try and push things in a little bit of a different direction. And I think when you see Nobody Saves the World, you’ll see what we were going for there.”
Playing with conventions
At face value, the game has the same kind of premise that one might expect from an RPG. When a threat known as the ‘Calamity’ begins spreading monsters everywhere, the wizard hero Nostramagus is nowhere to be found. This forces a “baby-thing” named Nobody to step up, “borrow” one of the sorcerer’s wands and venture out to save the world.
But there’s a lot more to Nobody Saves the World than that, says Smith. Most notably, the game tackles the sometimes-frustrating concept of “grinding” — performing repetitive tasks over and over, often to level up or acquire a useful item — by doing away with traditional character levelling systems entirely.
“That’s one of my biggest complaints about RPGs. In general, those games can be almost 80 hours long, and for me, I don’t play them very often because at a certain point, it starts to lose the fun when you’re just kind of doing the same thing over and over,” says Smith.
“You find something that works and you kind of stick with it, and often, it’s like, ‘oh, okay, these enemies are too hard for me, I’m gonna go back to this area and just kill things for a while, level up, go back and do it again.’ So we were trying to try to figure out ways to get away from that.”
The team’s solution? Tying progression to rather unique riffs on RPG classes — known as “Forms” in Nobody Saves the World — with their own individual quest lines. Essentially, Nobody can use Nostramagus’ wand to change into a variety of Forms, which can range from the more traditional like a sword-wielding Knight and bow-equipped Ranger to more whimsical roles like a Robot and Mermaid.
“When we were in the exploratory phase and doing a deep dive into our ideas, our concept lead, Augusto [Quijano], made a really cool image of the ‘Form tree,’ and he was just making things up — like really silly things — combined with more standard fantasy genre classes and sci-fi genre classes to ‘games don’t have these’ kinds of classes.”
One of these unorthodox classes is, rather amusingly, an egg whose quests revolve around “trying to find things to sit on you in the world.” This could be a bird whose nest you jump into that, once it lays on you, ranks up your Egg Form and teaches you a new healing ability called ‘Incubate.’ From there, you can use your new curative powers with all other Forms, not just the Egg.
The matchups don’t stop there, though. Over time, you can have a Knight that uses the Horse Form’s ability to gallop around, a Knight with a poisonous bite lifted from the Rat Form or a Horse with the Ranger’s bow, among other combinations.
“You can make custom builds and you start to discover that abilities from one Form synergize really well with the abilities from another Form,” says Smith. “So you’re starting to make these really powerful builds by customizing your Forms and using that to progress through the increasingly difficult dungeons that you have in the overworld.”
But while the team is striving for all of the Forms to feel unique and intertwined, Smith admits that the ‘magician’ is his favourite. “He’s like a birthday party magician who isn’t very good,” he explains with a laugh.
Outside of basic melee attacks using a deck of cards, the magician can summon rabbits from a hat to fight for him and, after enough quests can be completed, throw firecracker-like “confetti bombs.” But both of these abilities have a “randomness” element to them, says Smith. Instead of a rabbit, you might call forth the much more powerful tiger, but on the flip side, your confetti bomb might actually be a real bomb that can harm both you and your summoned animals.
“I really like the unpredictability of that form, the silliness of it.”
An ever-changing world is your playground
Beyond shaking up gameplay through the quirky Forms, Smith says DrinkBox is also looking to ensure that Nobody Saves the World features dynamic and engaging environments.
The main way it’s doing this is through procedurally generated dungeons to offer different areas each time you play. In keeping with the design philosophy of the classes, this can result in more familiar fantasy-type areas like castles or caves, on top of more outlandish locales like a crashed UFO or a giant rotting pumpkin. All the while, Smith promises that the world will be filled with “silly NPCs [non-player characters]” and “the weird DrinkBox humour” that fans expect from the studio’s games.
But Smith says DrinkBox is also leveraging the unique Form system to make sure your interactions within the world are constantly different.
“Eventually, once you’ve gotten past the basic set of [quests] that trained you, then new quests start to show up that you can’t do with just the base abilities for that Form. So you have to start mixing and matching different things, and they give you flexibility.”
“And finishing the quests doesn’t feel like grinding, really, because at any time, if you ever feel like, ‘Oh, I’m bored of playing as the slug, then you can switch over to the Zombie and the Zombie’s completely different [with] different quests.”
For example, he notes that there’s a Knights Guild that has quests which “often have you using constructive creative combinations of abilities from different forms” to be able to solve them.
In one of these quests, you have to race a speedy witch. To keep up with it, you’ll need to use the horse Form, but the gallop ability uses mana, which depletes quickly. “So in order to win this race, you need to come up with creative ways to keep your mana to last longer so that you can gallop for longer,” says Smith. “That’s the kind of thing that you have to do in the game: creative thinking.”
Overall, he says this will keep everything feeling fresh.
“And finishing the quests doesn’t feel like grinding, really, because at any time, if you ever feel like, ‘Oh, I’m bored of playing as the slug, then you can switch over to the Zombie and the Zombie’s completely different [with] different quests. The gameplay completely switches up.”
This interview has been edited for language and clarity.
Nobody Saves the World will launch on Xbox Series X/S (with 4K support on the former console), Xbox One and Windows 10 PC. The game will also be available on Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service when it launches.