Broken Pieces haunts its virtual coast with eerie specificity – GDC hands-on impressions

In Broken Pieces, a team of five players must escape the ghostly presence that haunts their town by collecting and reassembling scattered pieces. It’s not just about mazes anymore; it’s also about how we play games with each other.

grace in the machine” is a game that takes place on an island. It’s a first-person, narrative-driven experience that uses the player’s own device to create its haunted world. The developers spoke about their inspiration for the game and how they used Unreal Engine 4 to create “broken pieces.”

Elise is on her own. Broken Pieces, the game in which she appears, is a lonely experience. Elise is equipped only with a revolver, a mystical puzzle-solving bracelet, and any materials she can find as she explores the abandoned French beach town of Saint-Exil. She is, nevertheless, not an outsider. Elise lives here, perhaps the lone survivor of this tragic catastrophe. The game is set to arrive later in 2022, but during GDC, I got to play approximately an hour of an early chunk of the game and virtually interview primary creator Mael Vignaux.

Broken Pieces isn’t that frightening, at least in the demo I played. It is, nonetheless, eerily beautiful. It doesn’t have the misty ambiguity of Silent Hill, but instead depends on a frightening precision. Saint-Exil is neither an amalgamation of Americana or a ruined universe, but a typical French community where things have lately gone horribly wrong. The streets are vacant, and adversaries emerge, yet it seems that an usual morning may begin at any moment, and that if Elise stepped into a Café, she would discover people muttering and be able to get a coffee and a croissant.

What you know should be rendered.

Elise stands before a large shine of an angel. Sentimental pictures and protest signs surround the shrine.Image courtesy of Elsewhere Experience.

The developer gained this impression of almost-life from his experiences in French beach communities. Vignaux lives in a town that is quite similar to Saint-Exil. It’s not so much that the game is set in the creators’ hometown; rather, they wanted to play in a comparable environment with “the same types of structures.” My view on “accuracy” is irrelevant since I’ve never lived in rural France. Nonetheless, the impression is one of a doppelganger. Saint-Exil has a distinct personality, with gleaming cobblestone streets, blocky and tiny European vehicles, and plaque-laden historical landmarks. The team’s modding experience, in my opinion, prepared them for this asset reorganization. They work with the texture of a real-world location rather than re-contextualized parts from a prior game. As Vignaux put it, “we had the spots before we had the game.”

The camera system, not the locales it would represent, came first, according to Vignaux. The camera, in fact, is crucial to the game’s eerie atmosphere, since it establishes the distance between Elise and the player. Even in the demo, it’s clear that Elise is more knowledgeable than the player. She often alludes to incidents that occur beyond the scope of the story. She ruminates on recollections from her prior life with a familiarity that the player lacks. While controlling Elise, the player also feels detached from her. It seems like reading the feeds of security cameras to be able to flip between camera perspectives with a push of a button. Surveillance has been a theme in previous survival horror games, but this minor agency over sight emphasizes the similarity.

phantoms from the past

Elise walks through a dark, pipe ridden hallway with her gun raised.Image courtesy of Elsewhere Experience.

The camera system also represents a rewriting of the genre’s conventions in general. The goal was to modernize the survival horror language for a more modern mode, avoiding cuts and player confusion. The issue is that survival horror isn’t something that has to be updated. Resident Evil is not simply a timeless masterpiece, but it also stands the test of time. It might be perplexing, but most of the time the perplexity is intentional. It’s a frightening thrill to slowly come to terms with its shattered house. Broken Pieces, on the other hand, is blatantly obvious. The game sometimes substitutes clean but uninspired compositions for RE’s vivid, spectacular graphics.

Similarly, the battle suffers. Outside of silhouetted gas masks and firearms, Elise battles the shades. The game includes explicit hit detection signs rather than relying on the uncertainty of sight. Elise can also dodge, which makes it simple to position her around danger. Part of the reason for the combat’s failure is that it is significantly smoother than its inspirations. Because it is difficult to move and aim in both Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the games have a frenzied pace. The simplifying of these systems by Broken Pieces offers them clarity, but it also takes away the intensity of their inspirations.

The sound of the waves, the click of a tape player

The interface for interacting with Elise's Image courtesy of Elsewhere Experience.

Despite its flaws, Broken Pieces manages to seem worn in and unsettling, because to the aforementioned attention to detail, which extends beyond the game’s visual simulations. Although the crew is small enough that everyone shares responsibilities, Vignaux created the bulk of the game’s sound design, relying heavily on the surroundings. Because he “[doesn’t] want people to identify the sound,” he records a lot of his own work. Even if the sound isn’t as good, it’s more distinctive.” As a result, Vignaux is able to generate distinct moods and give each location in the game its unique audio.

The game’s verbs reflect the concentration on details. You’ll discover cassettes strewn around, some from Elisé herself, as in any good little post-apocalypse. The game displays what’s written on the tape and a mock-up of a Walkman-like gadget when you access the menu to listen to them. When you push the play button, it hisses when the tape starts playing and the device clicks in. Broken Pieces has the tangible weight it needs to sink into unsettling realism thanks to the sound design.

Given the Broken Pieces’ focus on environmental calamity, this reality seems even creepier. “I don’t want to reveal anything, but absolutely,” Vignaux answered when I asked whether climate change had a part in the game’s plot. Even at this early stage of the game, that aim is clear. A gigantic pillar of water protruding out of the ocean is one of the game’s sublimely strange sights. That pillar is only visible out of the corner of the frame at first. It’s a looming menace, a symbol of what’s going on, but it hasn’t lasted. In addition, infrastructure is already being prioritized. Elisé is tasked with reactivating the nearby lighthouse’s hydropower. Apart from the wholesale departure of Saint-residents, Exil’s there is a feeling that this town’s needs have been forgotten, and that the vestiges of government control serve their own ends. It’s difficult to ignore the shadow of global warming, even if it’s far away and abstract.

“I’m hesitant to admit the game is not entertaining,” Vignaux humbly confessed toward the conclusion of our conversation while discussing general development intentions. The publisher’s representative quickly clarified that the game was enjoyable, but in a different manner than, example, Mario. This, on the other hand, strikes me as a fantastic vote of confidence. Broken Pieces is a game with significant themes on its mind, with aesthetic aspirations beyond the apparent and catchy, whether it succeeds or not. It only truly falters when it tries to match the slickness of recent releases. It may not be “fun,” but it’s very darn intriguing in this constrained form.

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