All Walls Must Fall is a tactical, musical game set in a fictional 2089 Berlin where the Cold War never ended, and time travel is a powerful tool. With a nuclear attack imminent, agents have been dispatched across time to stymie each others’ efforts, finding and preventing the attack.
Set in a series of nightclubs, players will face off against foes and other agents, using time travelling abilities to pause and rewind time, constantly re-adjusting their actions to the tune of the beats in each club. Should they succeed, they will see their every move carried out to throbbing tracks.
Siliconera spoke with Jan David Hassel, former member of Yager Development (Spec Ops: the Line) and designer of All Walls Must Fall to learn more about the challenges of letting players control time in a tactical game, as well as the difficulties they met in marrying actions to the beat of the music.
What drew you to create a tactical game to the beat of music? Why this mixture of song and strategy?
Jan David Hassel, designer of All Walls Must Fall – We knew that we wanted to do something with music, and the idea of having a tactical game in a club setting seemed enticing. Games like REZ or Crypt of the Necrodancer, but also movies like John Wick, were a big inspiration to try and put action combat choreographies on the beat of the music.
We tried out a few different ways to do that, trying to figure out how time and space would work in the game. In the end, what we came up with is a tile-based tactics game in which all actions happen on the beat of the music. Each beat of the music acts like a very short turn that gets resolved simultaneously by all actors. There’s also smaller increments of time. There are half or quarter beats for quick actions, and longer actions may also take multiple beats to complete.
During a planning phase we call the breakdown, players lay out their actions and use time travel abilities to undo actions and manipulate time in other ways. Then, after you complete the combat, we replay the scenario in real time as it appeared for people around, with all actions happening on the beat and crank the music up to 11. Just because we think it’s cool.
What challenges do you face in marrying actions to music? How do you take something the player controls and put it to the tune of the beat?
A big question for us was how action-oriented the game was supposed to be. We wanted the action to feel nice, but also incorporate all these other additional elements. When we started out, our first prototypes had a Hotline Miami-like top-down perspective, which works great for a pure action setup. But then, together with pausing time, came the issue that players would start doing these little micro steps around corners to just barely reveal the next enemy instead of really playing the game. Then, when you added the ability to undo, the problem got worse because that micro management didn’t feel meaningful anymore.
We wanted to make each action the player makes have enough of an impact. So, we structured the game space into tiles to segment movement into meaningful-feeling chunks. Then, we divided movement action time into beats of the music go along with that. We already had shots be executed on the beat of the music before like in REZ, but now, things started to really click together.
Underneath it all, All Walls Must Fall is still a fluid action game, but the way you control it is by giving commands to your agent, who then executes those actions on the beat of the music. So you’re not the agent here. You’re their commander.
How do you manage to do all this while procedurally creating the tactical situations the player finds themselves in?
We have a system we call the Disco Generator. The Disco Generator fills the different club shells we have with rooms, walls, and connections (like doors). We then also apply the Mission Goal structure of what the player needs to do to complete the mission. So, we add any specific room and scripting needs that are required for that. The Disco Generator then procedurally recombines rooms from a collection of hand-made rooms in a ‘greedy algorithm’.
Essentially, it’s solving a packing problem to fill all the space we have available in the club in a Tetris-like automated puzzle. It also abides to club rules of what needs to be placed where and connected to what. Then, on the level of the rooms, we spawn NPCs and objects, adjust the layouts of the rooms and so forth. Out of that, and how the systems interact, the tactical situations the players need to solve arise. We give you a sandbox, a goal, obstacles, complications, and the tools to interact with those in several different ways. What decisions you then make to reach your goal is up to you as a player.
What thoughts go into the creation of procedurally-generated tactical battles? How do you ensure they are interesting and challenging when you aren’t choosing all the setpieces you put into them, piece by piece?
We focus the fighting on a few bottlenecks like the lobbies, the entrances, and backrooms right now. Combat also happens elsewhere, but due to how the rooms are connected and where the enemies spawn, a fair amount of fights will happen in these areas.
Those rooms are still individual levels inside the Unreal Engine Editor that we can manually adjust and design. Inside of those, we have another cluster system that can replace and rotate groups of objects occupying what we call room cells. These object clusters then make up cover objects, open fields of view, block and allow paths. So, the rooms again get procedurally recombined from hand made-pieces that allow for interesting individual configurations of space.
On top of that, we throw in different groups of enemy types that all have their individual behaviors and work as a group. The spawning of those enemies also dramatically scales up as you go through the campaign and missions to match your increasing arsenal of weapons, abilities, and expertise with the game’s mechanics.
How did the time travelling concept lead into the pause-able real-time stealth action of All Walls Must Fall?
Actually, the tactical planning aspect of the game gave birth to time travelling as a concept. So, that really came from the core gameplay, and then went up all the way again to the narrative concept of the game, tying it all together.
We initially thought of the planning phase as some kind of simulation or prediction only. But then, we realized that the ability to undo and jump back and forth in time was essentially time travel. So, we went all out with that approach. Time travel can also be used inside the dialogues of the game as you go back and forth through conversations, finding out more about your conversation partner.
You can also use time travel to manipulate the overall flow of the mission. Using abilities like rewind, which only rewinds the world around you but not yourself, you can essentially teleport. So, for everyone else it can wind up looking like you arrived at the club door, teleported in, completed the objective and teleported out before anyone even noticed you were there. But for you, subjectively, you still go through the whole club, have combats and conversations that nobody else ever knew happened.
With the player able to manipulate time and rewind to take better courses of action, how do you create challenge? What difficulties do you face?
The ability to manipulate time is not limitless. You have to use time resource to do this, which is also tied into your overall economy for unlocking new weapons and abilities. You can actually die very, very quickly in the game. As long as you have time resource to fix those mistakes, it’s all well and good, but once you run out of juice it’s Game Over and the mission is failed.
You can then still try to give the mission another go with your newfound knowledge of how things will play out. So, the main obstacles you face are time, space, and enemies standing between you and your mission objectives. We will extend on those concepts as we add more missions, obstacles, complications, content, and features to the game.
How do you intend to expand on these powers with other playable agents? How do you create new abilities that fit in with the game’s world, themes, story, and mechanics?
Our first agent, Kai, who we already have in the game, is themed around the past. He is a war veteran. He has lost one arm and replaced it with a cybernetic prosthetic a long time ago. He is bald, has a big beard, and a belly. He has seen and done it all.
All his time abilities are about travelling backwards in time. He can use an ‘Undo’ ability to make his actions, and all their consequences, not have taken place. He can also use a ‘Rewind’ ability to just rewind the world around him while leaving himself untouched. Last, but not least, he can use a ‘Trace Back’ ability to return himself to a previous state and location. Through, these abilities you can effectively teleport, instantly reload your weapons, make enemy projectiles fly backwards, move enemies around, heal yourself, repair damage to the environment, and a host of other things just by manipulating time.
Our additional player agents will come with their own theme, abilities, and environment. So, they will really shape the whole of their part of the game, which we call acts. Alev, our next agent to be added, will be themed around the present. She’s a hacker that can topple systems in a split-second. She’ll be able to ‘Freeze’ time, allowing her to move and act while everyone else stays still. She will also be able to use a ‘Split’ ability to split up into multiple potential versions of herself all acting at the same time in different places. We look forward to implement those abilities and discovering what new possibilities this will open up.
Our last agent to be added will be Glenn. They are from the future so we don’t talk about them much for now.
Players don’t necessarily have to fight in All Walls Must Fall. What are the benefits of avoiding combat? What effects will this have on the story, gameplay, etc.
Avoiding combat allows you to get past obstacles without having to shoot a bunch of people! That’s good, right? You can talk to them, and even draw them on your side so they’ll fight for you. We will still add more mission evaluation mechanics to reward, point out, and validate different approaches to completing your missions and giving yourself interesting challenges to reach for.
Our story structure is pretty basic at the moment, as we’re mostly looking into getting our basic mechanics and systems to work correctly and be fun to interact with. So, more detail and choices will come in here as we add more content to the game. Ultimately we envision that the game will have different possible outcomes for missions, but also for the overall campaign, that depend on what decisions you have made.