Road Not Taken looks like it could be a mobile game. The gameplay itself takes place on a series of grids, in cold, fantastical forests, where players must combine objects to clear paths and rescue children lost in the woods. It looks as if you could tap, tap, tap a tablet screen to move your little hooded character around the map.
The deeper layers reveal a game rich with narrative, consequence, crafting and death. Road Not Taken recalls Don't Starve in its surprisingly complex world. You're able to fall in love and marry NPCs; you have a house that fills with trinkets; the townsfolk have unique personalities and talk to you, and some may die if you don't act in the right way; a mysterious ghost girl follows you around the woods, haunting your rescue attempts; children perish in the forests if you don't have enough energy to save them. There's a crafting system, and animals that attack you and the children you're saving, plus a lineup of intricate puzzles called "setpieces" that challenge your puzzle and survival skills even more.
The main character has a pre-determined number of years to live: 15. Each time you take on a quest and enter the forest, one year passes, regardless of how many children you save. After 15 years, that avatar dies and a new one takes its place, though it retains a few skills you've earned along the way, Spry Fox Chief Creative Officer Daniel Cook and CEO David Edery tell me at GDC.
"It's really interesting when you start breaking away from the 'kill the evil enemy' – there's almost no 'kill the evil enemy' in this at all," Cook says. "As a player, you're almost entirely non-violent. Other things are violent toward you, but a lot of it is about finding children, rescuing children, putting parents together with children, which is a very different theme."
Edery chimes in: "Almost all of the stress comes from, 'Here's a kid that seems out of my reach; is there anything that I can do to save him?'"
"There's a really horrible moment when you're low on energy and you just can't do it," Cook says.
Road Not Taken is a mix of roguelike, puzzle and narrative-driven games. It begins with a story: Your character rows into the bay of a snowy town and must immediately search for a weeping mother's missing child. The tutorial follows – on keyboard, the avatar moves with the arrow keys, and he can levitate, carry and throw objects with the spacebar.
Much of the early game involves removing obstacles by combining objects. Throw one tree into another, any place on the map, to clear away the boulders blocking your path (no, it doesn't make physical sense, but your character has a magical staff, so it works). Similarly, find a child shivering in the cold and chuck her at her mother to reunite the family.
The mechanics of grabbing, carrying and throwing objects is challenging, but fun: Carrying objects quickly drains energy and ultimately kills you, and you can only throw things in the direction you're facing when you pick them up. If a flower, rock or other object is in your way, the object will hit it and stop there, and you'll have to maneuver to find a different angle, at times forcing you to carry things and drain your health.
That's the puzzle aspect of Road Not Taken, in a bare-minimum sense. Add in wandering bears, attacking hawks, spiky bushes and floating spirits, along with crafting moments, and the strategy becomes more difficult, and ultimately more satisfying. Unless you die.
I died once during my playthrough, in the tutorial section, because I carried a tree too far. I could have easily thrown it, rather than lugging it around and draining my health, and I learned that lesson quickly. Edery said most people die there – but death is a big part of the game, too.
Spry Fox is still playing with what "death" means, whether players will respawn at the house or start with a new character in true roguelike fashion. There will be a separate, harder difficulty level that may incorporate some of the more unforgiving ideas.
The main game begins in the town square, in a cobblestone courtyard littered with NPCs. One wears an old-timey, creepy doctor's mask with a long, narrow nose piece. He is, of course, the village doctor, and you're able to purchase medicine from him. Other characters offer friendship, and all NPCs except for the doctor will have health-style bars above their heads, each with little hearts at the end. Talk to one character over a long-enough time period and you might fall in love and marry that person – but watch out for jealous friends and almost-lovers. Really, watch out – you talk to people by bumping into them.
The ghost girl is an intriguing mystery – she appeared once in a level, on my grid, hovering in almost-invisible white. She moaned and disappeared. When I postulated what she might represent – a former love or a child I couldn't save? – Edery and Cook smiled and kept quiet.
After completing the first mission, you get a house in the village, and as you run into new objects on the grids, the items populate your shelves. Players are able to ban certain objects and customize their games, but getting rid of some things – such as spiky bushes that hurt you when you move them – limits your crafting abilities in the future. Every rose has its thorn, and all that.
And the vases in the house? You can totally "go Zelda on them," as Edery put it. They're destructible, and busting them open can give you new furniture to decorate your house.
Cook and Edery want Road Not Taken to be a game with a slow burn, one that grabs fans and keeps them around for a long time. If that happens, they plan on consistently updating with new objects, and adding mod options so players can create their own puzzles and levels.
Currently, Spry Fox is afloat financially because of Triple Town, a game that the team still updates three years on.
"We're just making stuff that's weird and different, which I'm happy that we can continue to do," Edery says. "As long as Triple Town keeps magically paying the bills, we can keep doing weird stuff and not worry."
Road Not Taken is due out on Steam, PS4 and Vita simultaneously, and Spry Fox is aiming for a launch this summer.