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“The Most Personal Game Ever Made”: ‘Waking’ Developer Talks Memory, Mortality, and ID@Xbox

We spoke with the developer of Waking about near-death experiences, facing your personal demons, and getting picked by ID@Xbox.



Discussing Waking with Developer Jason Oda

What is the relationship between a game’s main character and its player? In some games, the protagonist is a fully developed, independent character; in others, they are simply an empty vessel for players to control as they will. Waking, a surreal upcoming adventure game from solo developer Jason Oda, blurs the line between these relationships: it is purely about you, the player.

“In Waking, you play as yourself in a coma,” Oda says. “The game takes place in a dream within your psyche. Your only weapons against the forces of death are your most treasured memories and the people you love. The game guides you through aspects of your desires, your struggles, your fears, and your personal experiences.”

“My goal with Waking was to make the most personal game ever made,” Oda continues. “I wanted to create an experience that went beyond just telling a story and having people empathize or learn from the characters. I want players to go within themselves and uncover the memories and the feelings that they see as treasures. I hope that the game puts people in a place where they reflect on their lives and celebrate the particulars of the story.”

Fittingly enough for the game’s bold ambitions, Waking was born out of Oda’s own near-death experiences. At the same time, Oda uses this personal history to make Waking a universal reflection of the shared life experience of coming to terms with mortality.

“I’ve never been in a coma, but like many people I’ve had small brushes with mortality and spent time in hospital rooms and graveyards with loved ones. These glimpses into my own impermanence motivated me to try to make something that was a celebration of the dumb little lives we all live.”

“What questions can you ask and what words do you use to really take people back in time?”

Waking’s gameplay is just about as ambitious as its thematic aspirations. Waking features ethereal 3D environments to explore, populated by massive, otherworldly enemies to face in action combat. On the surface, this creates an apparent dissonance—as meditative as the game can be at some points, this can be soon broken up by encounters with nightmarish opponents. According to Oda, however, these two aspects of the game thematically complement one another.

“The struggle against the forces of death manifests itself in action-based gameplay. At the end of quests, you typically meet an angel that asks you to close your eyes. She recites a guided meditation that takes you back into a memory from your life. You then open your eyes and answer a series of questions pertaining to that memory. The way you answer shapes the weapons you have at your disposal. Examples of this are a pet from childhood as a combat companion, a handful of dirt from your hometown as a projectile, or a favorite stuffed animal to give you strength when you are weak. All of these bear the name specific to what you input into the game.”

Such usage of sentimentality and memory is exactly how Oda strives to deeply connect with players. Despite a host of technical issues that naturally come with creating such an expansive title—which included “having to port the game twice and struggling with creating fluid character movement”—creating this intimate connection was one of Oda’s greatest challenges in developing Waking.

“[T]here is a significant challenge in getting people into a place where they genuinely turn inward and feel their memories,” Oda says, “What questions can you ask and what words do you use to really take people back in time? I remember sitting around campfires with friends going through questions and seeing whether their reactions seemed to evoke some nostalgic feeling. An example of a question people seemed to respond to was: Where did you go when you were a kid when you wanted to be alone? Perhaps all of us throughout our lives have had sacred places we escaped to when we wanted to think or blow off steam or escape life at home. Drawing these memories out of people was a really interesting challenge.”

Even the game’s graphics contribute to this dreamlike feeling. “I’m really proud of the way a lot of the color pallets for the outdoor areas turned out. I did a lot of painting in my former days as an artist and I really feel that a lot of the vistas you traverse in the world are really beautiful. It is the dream I imagined running through when I first conceptualized the game.”

“I wanted to create an experience that went beyond just telling a story and having people empathize or learn from the characters.”

Oda may be Waking’s sole developer, but he isn’t going it completely alone. In addition to publisher tinyBuild, he has also received assistance from none other than ID@Xbox, Xbox’s indie support program. The game joins ID’s diverse portfolio of independent games, which naturally begs the question—what brought this collaboration about?

“I had been hired to make a game for Skrillex called Skrillex Quest,” Oda says. “It got some decent attention and some people at ID saw it. I basically got a phone call out of the blue one day from some people there asking me to pitch Xbox a game. They said it was a one in a million chance it would get picked up, but I put together a pitch, flew out to GDC and presented it. It went off really well and after doing the pitch a dozen or more times over the course of a year, they decided to give me a decent amount of funding to create the game. It was kind of a total fluke and as far as I know, it’s not something that has really happened since (at least on such a small scale). ID@Xbox gave me a lot of freedom and space to get the project done. I’m eternally grateful for this amazing opportunity.”

Thanks to this support, Oda has been able to make Waking a playable dream of memory and mortality. Ultimately, Oda hopes that this emotional experience will be one that resonates with players. “Waking is the greatest technical and artistic struggle I’ve ever taken on. It took 5 years of endless hours and struggle to build. I just really hope you like it.”

Waking releases June 18 on PC and Xbox One as a console exclusive.

Campbell divides his time between editing Goomba Stomp’s indie games coverage and obsessing over dusty old English literature. Drawn to storytelling from a young age, there are few things he loves as much as interviewing indie developers and sharing their stories.