Bringing Back Life: Interview With Farewell North Developer Kyle Banks

Tribulations and successes from the indie game development journey with Kyle Banks

Bringing Back Life: Interview With Farewell North Developer Kyle Banks
Source: Kyle Banks.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Indie developer Kyle Banks to dialogue about his impending title: Farewell North. This upcoming game, which Banks is developing primarily on his own, puts you in the shoes (paws?) of a border collie named Chesley who works alongside his human companion through a heartfelt journey in a stylized world.

Farewell North looks set to be a remarkably refreshing game that shares a deeply emotional story with the player as they progress through the campaign. Game mechanics will consist of exploring various isles, solving puzzles, and avoiding dangers thrown your way all in an effort to restore the color to nature and the wildlife that exists on each island.

This is a comfortable game, one that invites players to relax on the couch while they play along. This has been a passion project for Banks that, as you will read, has evolved from humble beginnings.

SUPERJUMP: Can you introduce yourself and give us a little backstory on your gaming life?

Kyle Banks:
Hey! I'm Kyle, a game developer from Canada living in Edinburgh, Scotland with my wife and our two dogs, Beans and Barney! I grew up playing games, ever since my Grandpa bought me a Sega Genesis as a kid I was immediately hooked. Some of my fondest early gaming memories are playing split-screen Goldeneye with my cousins, Wrestlemania 2000 with my childhood buddy Matt, later Halo LAN parties and Halo 2 on Xbox Live (sorry for all the cursing, mom) when online gaming first became a thing, and World of Warcraft in college... I feel like every era of my life has had some key games that really stand out.

SJ: Can you give a quick summary of Farewell North for those who may be unfamiliar with the game?

KB: Farewell North is an emotional and atmospheric adventure game where you play as a border collie traveling through a chain of Scottish islands with your human, on a journey to restore color to her world!

Source: Steam.

SJ: What is the 'origin story' of creating Farewell North?

I had this idea for a game about restoring color to the world in 2014 called Voiden. It was a 2D platformer for mobile, and I actually just about finished it but never released it because I wasn't happy with the level of polish. In 2020 we were in lockdown during COVID and I was working on another project that just wasn't clicking, so I took a weekend to make a silly little game about a Chihuahua trying to find the comfiest seat in the house, called Comfy Boy. Somehow that weekend project sparked something (scope creep), and I had this idea to bring the old color restoration mechanic back and mix it with a game about the relationship between a woman and her dog, and bring in some inspiration from my recent move to Scotland.

SJ: What games did you take inspiration from when designing/developing the game?

KB: Farewell North is heavily inspired by three games, but they're never the ones people assume. Most people think I was inspired by other color or canine games, and those comparisons have some obvious surface-level similarities but they're not really where I found inspiration. My earliest pitch deck for the game actually described it as "a blend between the mood and atmosphere of Journey and the puzzles, environment, and themes of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice", and I still think those core ideas are found throughout the entirety of Farewell North. The third game is the 2018 God of War, namely the cinematic nature of the game with no camera cuts (Farewell North similarly plays from beginning to end without cut) and the way it presented the relationship between the player and non-player secondary character.

There are a million other games that have influenced Farewell North, but for a game without combat, my largest sources of inspiration seem to have been two very violent games somehow! Plus Journey, which is just a classic.

SJ: Your game seems refreshingly unique in a few ways, can you talk about the core game mechanics and systems you have designed?

KB: So you play as the dog in this human/dog duo, and I really wanted Farewell North to focus on the effect our pets have our on mental and emotional well-being. So the game opens just after the human character has gone through a rather difficult time, and as the dog your job is to bring color back to her world. The game is set in a chain of islands so you'll canoe from island to island but otherwise, you're playing as the dog, a supporting character really, as your main-character human goes about remembering the events that led her there.

Mechanically the game is quite approachable. There are some light puzzles that tend to focus on your human's mental health, whether it's perspective-based puzzles or interacting with nature in a way that brings a spark of joy to your human. You're playing as a border collie (named Chesley) and he's a working dog, so you'll have to work together with your human to herd sheep and other animals on your journey, and there are some darker areas with some light stealth gameplay with some monsters that want to hold you back. So I would say there's a good breadth of gameplay but it's definitely meant to be quite casual, something you can curl up on the couch to enjoy on a lazy Sunday and just get wrapped up in the atmosphere.

Chesley herding a group of sheep. Source: Kyle Banks.

SJ: What are the most challenging issues you faced over the course of development so far?

KB: In terms of development, the most time has probably gone into the human character AI. Everyone knows those frustrating NPCs that you need to guide somewhere and they just keep breaking, so I definitely wanted to avoid that. I'm also an awful animator, and I think there have been a few ideas that had to be scrapped just because I wouldn't be able to pull off the animations.

Aside from development itself, marketing is an ongoing challenge. It's not enough to just make a game, you need to get the word out and get people excited about it (cough don't forget to wishlist Farewell North on Steam cough), so that's something that requires focus every day and as an introvert, it's not always easy to put yourself out there.

SJ: Can you tell us your favorite component of the gameplay experience?

KB: I really love atmosphere and visuals, and there are a few specific sequences in the game that I'm really proud of, even if they're just super simple things like walking along a steep cliff over the ocean where the lighting is just right... maybe not the most exciting, but I love it! Mechanically though, I'm currently working on a puzzle to do with lights and perspective, and the way it ties into the story of the game is pretty interesting I think, so that's probably my favorite mechanic right now.

SJ: Watching your devlogs, it is clear you come from a technical background. You seem to always consider optimization and performance; can you describe how that shaped the approach toward designing the game?

KB: Yea, I'm definitely an engineer at heart. I'm a "tech lead/delivery architect" in my day job so I spend a lot of time writing code and designing systems, and when it comes to game development I just find performance optimisation to be almost meditative, it's pretty much what I default to when I don't know what else to work on or I'm not feeling particularly inspired. I know for a lot of people it's frustrating or boring, but to me shaving off a few fractions of a millisecond here or there is just the best.

A cutscene after completion of a puzzle. Source: Kyle Banks.

I do find that I fall into a bit of a trap though with prematurely optimising when a feature or mechanic or level or whatever just isn't quite there yet from a gameplay perspective. It doesn't matter how many blades of grass you can squeeze into a frame if that frame is boring or unintuitive gameplay, so I tend to have to force myself to focus on gameplay first and let the technical details wait.

SJ: The art style is incredibly well done, how did you make the decision on the visual direction of the game?

KB: Thank you so much! That really means a lot. I try to stick to a few key ideas for the visuals, and above all make sure the visuals serve the story just as much as the mechanics and dialogue, and any other part of the game really. For instance, the whole color mechanic represents your human's emotional state, and she has a deep love of nature, so animals and vegetation are more stylized and almost idealized as though someone who lives in the city and longs for nature might imagine it, whereas man-made structures are a bit grittier and have more noise and texture to them. Each island has its own theme and ideas to explore, so the visuals also tie into supporting those themes.

A lot of it is trial and error though, I'm definitely not a natural artist but going back to that technical background I've really leaned into tech art as a way to overcome my limitations. I may not be able to produce the highest quality meshes and textures, but through code, I can take my more basic modeling skills and still produce something that looks visually striking (at least in my opinion.) Lighting, shaders, and particles are all things I spend a lot of time on because I find I can get the most value for my effort in those.

Developing in the open has been a huge help as people on YouTube and Tiktok will definitely let you know when there's room for improvement on the visuals!

SJ: How many people are working on Farewell North?

KB: On a daily basis, just me, but it would be wrong of me to claim it's a solo project. John Konsolakis is composing the game and the audio regularly gets some of the highest praise of any aspect of the game, so he's really brought the game up a notch with the score. Jo Ross is voicing the main (human) character, and Mooneye Indies is publishing the game and gave some hands-on development support by redoing some of the core animations. They also developed Lost Ember which is another canine game, and I have to say making a game where you play as a quadruped character brings a whole host of problems, so they've been a great resource to ask questions. And I know it's cliche but Farewell North truly wouldn't be what it is without all the support and feedback on Discord, YouTube, Tiktok and elsewhere, especially thanks to the beta testers on Discord who have given so many hours helping me fix bugs and find ways to improve the game.

Chesley restoring color with the help of some local birds. Source: Kyle Banks.

SJ: A comment I see frequently in your community is that you are a source of inspiration for aspiring game developers, can you provide some insight on lessons learned over the course of development?

KB: Those comments seriously make my day any time I see them. There are so many developers that I look up to, and it's pretty incredible to think that anything I've done has helped inspire someone else.

There are two lessons I think any aspiring developer should know. Actually, they're pretty general so even if you're not a game developer I think they're pretty solid.

One is to "learn how to learn" because game development is a tremendously broad subject and you'll never know it all, but that's okay! That's actually what makes it exciting and interesting. You just have to get comfortable with not knowing everything, but by learning how to learn (meaning you figure out what learning style works for you and how to overcome situations where you don't know all the answers) you'll never be blocked and you can take one step closer to your goals every day.

The second thing is the importance of discipline over motivation. Probably the most common question I get from aspiring devs is how to stay motivated and the answer really is that I'm definitely not always motivated. I'm three years into Farewell North development and I can tell you, not every single day is going to be fun. Sometimes you have to work on things that aren't super exciting but just need to get done anyways, and I think that's where a lot of indie projects get abandoned. The early days of a project are super exciting because you're seeing massive progress every day, but eventually it's much more incremental and that endorphin rush of seeing your ideas spring to life just doesn't come when you're working on something like controller rebindings or tweaking font sizes, at least for me.

There are two lessons I think any aspiring developer should know... One is "learn how to learn" because game development is a tremendously broad subject and you'll never know it all, but that's okay!

There's a fantastic GDC talk by David Wehle where he talks about having no "zero-percent days", meaning every day you make some progress, even if it's just for 5 minutes. I don't necessarily recommend it because it can definitely lead to burnout, but for me personally, it's something I've followed for three years now and it's worked wonders. But again, it's definitely not for everyone! Really it's just about cultivating discipline for the days when motivation has left you. Powerlifting also taught me a lot about discipline, but that's a whole other discussion.

SJ: You recently visited a few different events to show off your demo and get it out to the broader public. Can you describe what that was like and how much the feedback shapes the development work moving forward?

KB: Yea! So I used to really struggle watching people play the game. Making a solo project, especially one about emotional and mental health, ends up being pretty personal as you put a lot of yourself into the game, so watching someone play was super uncomfortable for me. I had already done a lot of playtesting through Discord, and watching videos of playtesters or streamers is really valuable but again I had a really hard time actually sitting down and watching, so I mostly relied on written feedback.

When we took the game to the Indie Arena Booth at Gamescom it was almost like there was no escaping it. For the first time, I just had to stand by and watch people play for hours every day, and it was one of the most valuable experiences I've had. I wouldn't say I'm entirely over it, but I can watch people play the game now at least!

It's pretty important too because watching someone play is tremendously valuable because their body language and actions say way more than they can write up afterward, not to mention that not every player knew the creator was standing right there so you overhear a lot of feedback that was pretty... raw.

Source: Steam.

But mostly, when someone gets stuck on a puzzle it's difficult (if not impossible) for them to fully verbalise the thought process, but when you can watch them try things live then you really get a sense of what's working and what's not, so every night after Gamescom I was going back to the hotel and making tweaks based on what I was seeing.

SJ: What are the best resources for staying up to date on the game?

KB: The Farewell North Discord is probably best as I link to everything else from there, but if Discord isn't your thing then you can find devlogs on YouTube at "Kyle Banks // Farewell North" where I go in-depth into the thought process behind everything I'm doing, and TikTok @kylewbanks where I post more regular and digestible updates as the game progresses.

SJ: Any closing thoughts or final words to share?

KB: Thanks so much for having me! If you're interested in Farewell North or just want to chat about games then come hang out on the Discord or message me on Twitter.


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