[Interview] Talking Eclipse: Edge of Light with Jonathan Hawkins

Written by Abram Buehner

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan Hawkins, the Creative Director behind Eclipse: Edge of Light, the newest game from Los Angeles-based White Elk Studios. We chatted about virtual reality, where he derives inspiration from, the game itself, and much more. Please enjoy our full discussion right here.

Alright so I’ve got a few questions here for you, I want to talk a little about White Elk’s History and then about the game itself, if that’s alright.

Yeah, sure. Have you gotten a chance to play it yet?

Yeah, I played through it the day I got the code. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I’d actually like to go back and play it in VR now that I’ve experienced it because I think it’s a game that works better in VR, and I was reading a lot of the praise for it when you guys released it on Google Daydream. I could absolutely see why it would work so well. Did you guys bring it to [PlayStation VR]?

Yep, we brought it to PSVR and PlayStation 4 so you can play it on the TV as well.

Great! Yeah, I’ll definitely check out the VR version because I’ve been getting into PSVR a bit more, and I’m someone who believes quite a bit in VR—whether it’s going to be the future of the industry I’m not sure, but from White Elk’s titles, you have a great focus in virtual reality, what draws you to develop virtual reality games specifically?

So, for me, VR really allows you to “be there,” right? […When] I was a little kid and I played DOOM 2, the game that made me want to make video games, [I thought], ‘Oh my gosh’ this is a 3D world, a 3D world I can be inside of and explore, that I can feel like I can lose myself inside of, and I think that VR becomes the next level of that, and really allows players to immerse themselves in these worlds and allows them to get lost in them in a completely new way.

I totally agree, and I see the industry in a lot of ways embrace this, but we’re seeing Nintendo dig their heels in a little bit, even though they dipped their toe in very peripherally with Labo VR. When you were developing the Switch port of Eclipse did you ever consider integrating Labo VR, and you even see a future where the Switch is a viable platform for VR?

Well, I don’t know if it could even work on Labo, I’m not sure that is something they’re even exposing. I’m not really up to date on that, as I haven’t seen anything else besides Nintendo’s own products being developed for it, so I think they’re really just experimenting with [Labo]. From a technical standpoint, yes. [The Switch is] a great machine that can run great games, so I think it could work. But I really think it’s up to them to decide which path, and Labo VR may just be their test, them dipping a toe into the water.

Yeah, absolutely. So, when you guys were bringing Eclipse to Switch, did you run into any interesting design conundrums when you were translating the game out of VR for a more traditional gameplay system?

Yeah, so developing a game on [Google] Daydream,  [we worked with] a very simplistic controller, so we had to do some work on retuning the walk speed, returning how the look cameras work, [adding] sensitivity options, to really make sure that despite being originally developed for VR, it still plays well on a television or the Switch. We’re a small team so we tried to do the best job that we could, and I just hope that more people get to experience the world and the story that we created—the music, the vibe of the game. So that’s why we were looking to bring it to as many platforms as possible.

Speaking specifically about the game itself now, when I was playing through it, as you were just speaking about the atmosphere of Eclipse, I found it to be very evocative of titles such as Metroid Prime in the way that it focuses heavily on environmental storytelling and there’s even a similar scanning mechanic. When you guys were developing this game and conceptualizing it, where did you look for inspiration, whether that was in games or just in media as a whole?

I’ve always thought of it as Prometheus meets Myst—sorry the Myst from way back in the day, I don’t know if you know that game, the one on CD-ROM. That was kind of the vibe of [Eclipse]. And so, I wanted to create this planet that was sentient, that was alive and bringing travelers in to help it figure out this conundrum, and sorry I won’t spoil anything. And I really wanted to create a world that told its story through its exploration and through its music, its feeling and tone. And finding that inspiration originally came from the song by Jóhan Jóhannsson called,“How We Left Fordlândia.” It’s this beautiful song from the late composer, and it just has this beautiful, mystical vibe. And Fordlândia was a city concept that Henry Ford was trying to develop inside of Brazil for the rubber factories so he could develop more tires for his cars. This was supposed to be [a] kind of utopia, and his utopia ended up failing.

So, the more I read about it, and the more I listened to that song—I don’t know how to explain creativity—but it just kind of [came] to me. I see these visions and the tone and the feeling, and then I work with the team to create scenarios, art, music, sound, and design that can all keep that tone. And as a Creative Director, I think your goal is to drive tone, to drive the team to understand that tone, and to really push them toward that vision, and I feel like in the end we were able to encapsulate that [tone in Eclipse], and it sounds like you kind of felt it [too].

Yeah, I absolutely did. There was one sequence in particular when I was playing through the game that really exemplified this for me. It’s when you’re in the boat and you’re floating down the polluted river. I found myself really drawn to the way there were themes of environmentalism evoked, and I found myself working particularly to throw my artifact at the machines on the riverbeds [to destroy them], even though it wasn’t materially doing anything, I found myself so enraptured with the emotion in this scene that I wanted to, in some vain attempt, combat the pollution. Can you talk for a minute about that sequence, and how video games just a whole should interface with these more real-world issues?

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot going on in the story and I’m really happy to hear you picked up on some of those undertones. [In this scene,] I was just trying to show […] man’s lust for power and creation of these machines, and you know, all the crazy politics that we have and people fighting for power and [how] in a lot of ways we’re destroying ourselves—destroying the world. And I’m not a super environmentalist or anything, but I just care about our future and this world, right? And so, what I wanted to provide [with] the story was like demonstrating what can happen if things go awry, and that we have to check ourselves and we have to work together as a humanity to make sure we’re being conscientious about what we’re doing. And so that scene there that you went over, when the Black Smoke Creature comes in and kills the birds and is kind of like looking for you and you’ve got the oil rigs pumping and dumping into the river that was once crystal-clear and beautiful, is now turned into this black sludge, rainbow-ish color—I think that’s a kind of beautiful moment.

You’re just like, ‘wow, look at that Zion-esque canyon that man has built these statues and machines in here […].’ So Andrew Prahlow, our composer, created this [scene’s] track and I just love how it builds up and takes you on this little river ride. That whole thing came to me in a dream, actually. So, I had this weird dream where I was floating down this river in a boat, and so I just thought it was so cool that it kind of had the undertones of [Eclipse’s] overall narrative that [we] were looking to tell. So, I’m really happy to hear that you felt the same kind of vibes and the same understanding of the story. Even though they’re not overt, there are messages there.

Yeah, I think it’s a game that really rewards the player for thinking about what it’s trying to say. It’s not a very overt game in terms of what it says, but I think that if you really get wrapped up in its world then there’s a lot to take out of it and personally that’s what I’m going to be talking about and what I’m going to be conveying through the review. But that’s my perspective, if you have just thirty seconds to make a case for why Nintendo Switch owners and its audience should pick up a copy of Eclipse, what would you say?

I think that Eclipse is a beautiful world to explore. It’s not even a super hard game, right? It’s this thing, it’s this experience—this tone, right? […] I think that if you can get lost in [Eclipse] and you can actually take the time to explore and think about the messages, to think about what the Prophet had done, to think about what the people were going through, then you can start to really understand more of the game and really enjoy it. I’m sure there are people who are going to, at surface level, go ‘oh, it’s so simple, it’s not hard, it’s not like Dark Souls or something, where I’m dying a thousand times.’ But I don’t think that games always have to be like that, right. They don’t always have to be so gamey.

They can still be experiences, a feeling that players can still understand without being so challenged. I wanted to make the game open enough that a lot of people can play. We’ve gotten reviewers and people who you’d ever even think play games [saying] ‘oh wow, I had such a great time,’ from all sorts of different demographics. And so, I think I was trying to create something that was a little bit more open, something that was a little bit more accessible. […] I think the soundtrack really helps to exemplify [this goal]. It has a lot of different peaks and valleys. It’s dark, it’s moody, it’s beautiful, it’s weird, and I think it really helps to bring out those tones. Working with Andrew [Prahlow] was awesome, he also did the music on Outer Wilds and got a lot of acclaim last year. When we met, you know, we loved that track from Jóhansson, so we created a strong bond and friendship over that, and he understood that tone and [told] it in his own voice [through Eclipse’s soundtrack]. Then, we worked together to script the music and to get it to feel correct at the right moments so that it brings out those emotions in the player.

Thank you once again to Jonathan Hawkins for his time. For more on Eclipse: Edge of Light, watch for the full Nintendad review right here. If you’re so inclined, the game is available through the Nintendo eShop for $14.99 or £11.29, depending on your region. Keep an eye out here at Nintendad for even more exclusive developer interviews in the months to come.

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