Navigating the final days of the apocalypse
Fix your eyes at middle distance, that’s where most of Stela — but far from all of it — takes place. This mysterious and eerie trek through the apocalyptic final days of an ancient world makes the most of its scenery by constantly playing with the foreground and background. There’s a cinematic bent to the way depth is manipulated.
The descriptor “cinematic” is fitting, which is fortunate, because it’s entirely what developer SkyBox Labs was aiming for. Citing the likes of Lord of the Rings‘ majestic pulled-out establishing shots of the Fellowship crossing a mountain range, producer Aubrey Tennant tells Destructoid “We really like when platformers have a deeper world and more scale. At points, we pull the camera back so the character looks a little smaller so we can try to bring out the world.”
(As an aside: If SkyBox Labs sounds familiar, it’s probably because the studio is primarily focused on one of the most-anticipated upcoming games. SkyBox Labs is a support studio on Halo Infinite. Tennant says that of the company’s 200-ish employees, approximately 15 of them are dedicated to making Stela.)
Depth and scale are two elements that Stela constantly tinkers with to great effect. “One of the things we’ve seen with a lot of cinematic platformers is that the camera is very close to the character to kind of make you feel like you’re there with them. It’s sort of claustrophobic,” explains design director Joel Stack. Instead, Stela wrestles emphasis away from the protagonist, turning the world into more of a focal point. Stack continues “We can look at ways for the world to interact with that depth. Even though the character is in a side-scroller, the world itself isn’t constrained to that same axis.”
During the short demo we played, we were treated to many examples of how this all coalesces. Stela‘s chilling, gangly, biped-but-also-sometimes-quadruped monsters dashed from the background to the foreground, right past us as we cowered behind a tree. Other times, the camera pans way out to accentuate how dire all this is.
Because it deals with apocalyptic events, Stela tackles the subject of death head-on. Stack lists its themes as “death, dying, what might come after death.” He adds “We kind of look at death as it might not always be a bad thing. It’s a natural part of a cycle.”
As a puzzle platformer, Stela seems competent in all the familiar ways you’d expect. There’s a lot of hiding from monsters until the opportune moment to flee. There’s pushing and pulling, jumping and grabbing. It’s a lot of toying with your surroundings to thwart or escape an imminent threat.
There’s a standard-bearer when it comes to cinematic puzzle platformers, and that’s Danish developer Playdead. One look at Stela and it immediately invites comparisons to Inside. “We’re definitely flattered. We love Inside. It’s a fantastic game,” Stack says. “But we think there are a lot of different stories you can tell in this space.”
It won’t be long before Stela‘s haunting and enigmatic world is thrust upon us. SkyBox Labs just revealed that Stela‘s releasing on Apple Arcade “in the upcoming weeks,” and the Xbox One version is firmly set for October 17. Later, it’ll launch on PC in early 2020.