Ashwalkers is an open-ended survival simulator set 200 years after a massive volcanic disaster has ravaged the planet, leaving it barren and blanketed in blizzards of gray dust. On a journey to the Dome of Domes, a post-apocalyptic utopia at the edge of the world, players manage a party of four explorers: Petra, the fearless leader; Sinh, a skilled fighter; Kali, a young scholar; and Nadir, the ever-observant scout.
Ashwalkers features crafting, resource management, survival systems, and a plethora of interpersonal and moral judgement calls, all of this leading to one of 34 possible endings. Player choice is the game’s core mechanic.
“It's more a laboratory for us than a dystopian story, actually,” Ashwalkers creative director Matteo Gaulmier said.
If that’s true, Ashwalkers is the grimiest lab this side of the apocalypse. The game is covered in clouds of ash, constantly swirling and layered on the screen like an old film reel. Crisp black outlines and red splatters of blood highlight an otherwise desaturated environment, a nod to graphic novels Sin City and Le Rapport de Brodeck, a French series depicting the horrors of xenophobia from the perspective of a remote German village at the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the Ashwalkers soundtrack builds slowly on itself in electronic waves, eventually trapping players in a heavy audio atmosphere inspired by Disasterpeace’s work in Hyper Light Drifter.
“When we started the game, we had a more classic apocalypse like nuclear winter, and slowly we changed the theme to something more original, less seen,” Gaulmier said. “We found the ashen apocalypse. That was not much exploited, so we went for it and slowly the game started to go almost naturally from black-and-white to shades of gray. That was referring directly to the ashes, of course, gray ashes, and the theme of death.”
The independent studio building Ashwalkers, Nameless XIII, is based in Toulouse, France, and Gaulmier himself is a recent graduate of the ETPA school of photography and game design. The CEO of Nameless XIII is Herve Bonin, a co-founder of Dontnod and co-creator of the iconic choose-your-own-adventure series Life is Strange. Bonin chose to help Gaulmier and his student team build out Ashwalkers after realizing they had shared philosophies in regards to interactive narratives.
“His way of stating story, asking themselves questions on how to do a compelling story, what are the choices, and being the player in a huge universe,” Bonin said. “It's not the same game as Life is Strange, for sure, but the same kind of detail, same kind of reflection behind it, and the same methodology that the students have already learned. I recognize talent, and when I see talent, only one thing to do is to support that. Matteo and his young team, they are doing amazing things.”
With 34 disparate endings, some playthroughs of Ashwalkers will be short and contained to a single area, while others will be longer and cover more ground. Ashwalkers doesn’t judge players or offer karma trees for “good” and “evil” decisions. It allows players to mess around with the boundaries of morality and survival, and what it means to be human in extreme -- and everyday -- circumstances.
“We do not want to judge our players,” Gaulmier said. “We wanted to give them the tools to judge themselves.”
Ashwalkers is heading to PC in April, and it’s available to wishlist on Steam now.