The National Film and Television School (NFTS) is one of the top film, television and new media schools in the world. I had the pleasure of getting know Tony Evans, the NFTS Games Coordinator, after taking an interest in a game being made by a graduate of their MA Games Design and Development course several years ago; and we now seem to bump into each other at video game events where the students showcase their work.
Tony usually steers me towards the title he thinks I’ll like the most (we both seem to favour those with strong narratives) and over the years I’ve had the pleasure of playing some interesting games coming out of NFTS. They all tend to be a little ‘rough around the edges’, which is in no way a criticism and completely understandable when you consider these are projects being made by students who are just starting out on their career.
That explains why Falling Sky was a bit of a surprise when I came across it while at EGX at the end of September. Under development by Jonathan Nielssen and a small team, this cinematic narrative title is the product of eight months’ hard work and the demo I played was extremely remarkable: it was perhaps the most technically- and visually-impressive NFTS project I’ve ever the opportunity to experience.
Falling Sky sees Daniel returning from college to his home in a nondescript American suburb. His mother has disappeared and his younger brother Tommy has been left to fend for himself; and when questioned, the boy seems paranoid about a ‘set of rules’ and scared by the mysterious ‘Star Man’. Cryptic answerphone messages, along with bizarre encounters with Officer Maloney and Daniel’s school crush Rachel, lead the oblivious brothers on a dangerous journey while searching for the truth.
Nielssen gives Heavy Rain as an inspiration and this was evident within the demo. The experience was very cinematic with camera angles shifting as the player moves Daniel around the room, and motion capture adding realism to the characters. Twin Peaks is also stated as an influence for the developer; but for me, the atmosphere and visuals remind me more of the much-admired Life is Strange and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
The small section I played set the scene for the rest of the title, which I’ve read is due to span across five episodes. Daniel attempts to calm his younger brother after finding him hiding in a makeshift fort but then, being unable to get any sensible information out of him, the brothers head to the local diner to feed Tommy after not eating for a few days. At this point the game switches to a top-down view with a ‘Google Maps’ feature that helps you navigate your way to town.
Later Levels (@LaterLevels) September 21, 2017
I experienced a few glitches here whereby the car flipped itself over and juddered along the road upside down but, overlooking these issues, Falling Sky could be something very special. The music and voice-acting were wonderful – the former composed by Seymour Milton, and voices courtesy of industry veterans Stephane Cornicard and Christy Meyer – and far superior to what you’d expect from an early student creation.
After I played the demo, I had the opportunity to chat to Tony and Zsofia Szemeredy (in charge of PR and marketing for the game). Tony revealed that the majority of NFTS creations are never released as full titles available to the public: many of their students go on to secure employment with established developers and then don’t have the time to continue with their own projects.
As much as I wish the best for Nielssen and his future, I really hope that doesn’t happen in this case because Falling Sky shows so much promise! The Guardian thinks so too as they named the game as one of their favourites on display at EGX. If there’s a Kickstarter campaign for this game at some point in the future, the team have got themselves a backer.