Interview: Joris Dormans details the gameplay and story of “Unexplored 2”

Unexplored 2

When it launched in 2017, Unexplored had much to set it apart from other roguelikes and roguelites on the market. It hewed fairly close to Rogue, the groundbreaking 1980 title that defined the genre, and it had a unique procedural cyclic generation process under the hood to create levels that felt more organic than other games of its type. The game was created and developed by Ludomotion, the one-person studio of Dutch game designer Joris Dormans, who built the game mostly by himself (the audio design and text were handled by one person each).

Now, nearly four years later, Dormans is back with Unexplored 2: The Wayfarer’s Legacy, a much larger – in scope and gameplay – experience that was announced last year and is currently available in Early Access on the Epic Games Store. The game is being published by Big Sugar and is currently only available on PC, but ports to other systems are also likely after the full release. We spoke to Dormans on June 4 via Zoom about the game, its gameplay and what fans of the original Unexplored can expect from its sequel.

Ryan Gibbs, music editor (TYF): When did work begin on Unexplored 2 and why was it decided to make a sequel to Unexplored?

Joris Dormans, studio founder of Ludomotion and game director of Unexplored: We started working on Unexplored 2 more than half a year after the first game came out, but we were also doing stuff for the first game. We we’re still running some of the DLCs at the time. A year after the first game was released, we actually shifted completely to development of the second game. 

TYF: What are the biggest differences in gameplay from the original Unexplored that are in Unexplored 2?

Dormans: Unexplored 2 is a much bigger, ambitious game. For Unexplored 1, I stuck to very simple tropes of dungeoneering. I didn’t really try to be very original design-wise but I did have some design goals where I wanted to create something that’s a little bit more adventurous than your typical roguelike or roguelite that’s normally filled to the brim with combat.

For Unexplored 2, we’re actually doubling down on that. Unexplored 2 is much more of an RPG, much more of an adventure game. You’ll be doing different things. There’s this system we have to handle dialogue in an interesting way, but the same system can be used to do climbing tests, do diplomacy, do a variety of things and decipher ancient texts. So the palette or the vocabulary of what the game can handle is much wider. It becomes much more of an adventure story. Combat is still part of the game, but it’s not the only part. You can actually make a character build, if you want to, that’s actually very good at using wits to avoid combat. It gives you more options in that respect.

TYF: Likewise, what will people who have played the first Unexplored find familiar about Unexplored 2?


Dormans: There’s a lot of things that actually carried over. The basic system of combat is still similar. In Unexplored 1, the combat was that you had two hands, basically, and you could equip an item in both hands and then the mouse or shoulder buttons of your controller would map to using that item.

For Unexplored 2 that’s similar. It’s also two hands, but there’s some small changes there. For example, now all the items also have a power attack. If you hold down the button for a little while, you get a different attack that wasn’t there in the first game. But on the other hand, in the first you had a passive attack; If you had a pointy weapon and you ran into something, it would already do damage. That’s actually been changed out for most weapons that have sort of a passive parry. So a sword, you can’t walk into somebody and stick them with a sword, but if you hold the sword in the right direction facing your enemies, it will automatically parry and attack if it’s not in cooldown. Otherwise, it’s very similar. It’s still about positioning yourself, making sure that you face your opponents quickly so you can actually block attacks and that you time your attacks well. The cooldown system is quite similar as it was in Unexplored 1.

TYF: How does the procedural generation work in Unexplored 2? Is it similar to the cyclic dungeon generation in the first game?

Dormans: Yes, it’s based on the same thing. We’re doing everything that we did for Unexplored 1 but the big difference is that where Unexplored 1 is this huge dungeon crawler in one big dungeon, now we’re actually creating a world. Inside that world, you travel from node to node and you go from place to place. Each individual adventure site?) 6:04, as well call them, they are smaller. They are not a 20 level dungeon. There can be a simple ruin, or a ruin with one or two levels of caverns below it. The site is a little more concentrated but it’s still the same technology that we’re using.


TYF: What were the biggest influences on Unexplored 2

Dormans: From a story perspective, there’s many. The main mission to destroy the Staff of Yendor is obviously quite similar to the premise of The Lord of the Rings, and a lot of the more adventurous scenes in Lord of the Rings were things that we tried to put in. One of my favorite scenes in Lord of the Rings, especially in the books, is when they’re trying to cross the mountains and they fail. It’s always been some sort of personal objective to be able to recreate a scene like that and make it work in a game, because it’s actually quite difficult. So there’s a lot of inspiration from that.

Another is the whole tradition of roguelikes is still very important to us, so there is basically everything that builds up to Unexplored 1, from Brogue to Rogue itself to Nethack and all the influences that they carry over. There is also an important influence for Unexplored 1 is all the Zelda-type games where you have more action-adventure-type gameplay with lock and key mechanisms. Personally, one of my favorite games of all time are the Ultima series, especially Ultima 6 and 7. People might recognize a few references to those games as well.

TYF: Why was it decided to bring Unexplored 2 outdoors as opposed to the dungeon-based Rogue/Nethack levels of the first game?


Dormans: Because it was more ambitious towards creating a real adventure story. From a narrative perspective, a dungeon is actually a pretty weird thing. They work well in a gameplay perspective, so if you don’t really want to think about it, it’s nice. The premise of Unexplored 1 is very simple. You’re in this dungeon, nobody asks why. It’s completely beside the point, and that’s fine. But if you want to tell a more cohesive story about the world and how it evolves as we do in this one, then it really doesn’t make any more sense.

For that game, we tried to create a living, breathing world first and foremost and have the story based on how that world evolves. And then all of a sudden, as the world is being explored, a dungeon doesn’t really make sense anymore.

Image courtesy of Matt Cundy from Big Sugar

TYF: In the original Unexplored, you can either roll a random dungeon or keep the same one you just died in. Is that still the case with the new game, even though it’s outdoors players are dealing with instead of dungeons this time?

Dormans: It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that. What happens if you start a new world, you have to play through the prologue. If you finish the prologue and you die afterwards, the world stays the same by default, except that it evolves. Time passes, and things change a little bit. The evil empire is spreading, slowly, across the map and taking over the entire world, putting some pressure of time on what you’re trying to do. You can revisit that world, up until a certain point. If you make a lot of wrong decisions during a run, they have the tendency to carry over to the next runs. You might actually get the world in a state where it becomes very difficult to keep carrying on. Basically, abandoning the world is an option. At one point you might decide this world is unwinnable and I’m going to start all over again. That might also be forced upon you.

There’s two thresholds you can cross. One of them is if you go into the final region, then you’re all in: Either you win that game or the world will be lost. Also, if you take too much time at one point, because the empire is taking over the world, you will be notified at the beginning of the run saying “This is the final run, you are the final Wayfarer,” and if you fail, this world will also be lost.

TYF: What is the storyline of Unexplored 2?

Dormans: The story is actually pretty simple. In Unexplored 1, the ending is [that] you have to get the Amulet of Yendor because there’s a prophecy of doom if it leaves the dungeon. That’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek, funny ending to what’s otherwise a pretty quick game. But that’s basically what happens.

That’s the backstory of Unexplored 2. Someone took the Amulet of Yendor out of the dungeon and that person became the evil empress. The amulet actually transforms into a staff and the staff is a very powerful, potent magic item that is out there to destroy the world. That’s basically the backstory. When you play, you play as the Wayfarer, and the Wayfarer is a sort of hero appointed by a town that is trying to prevent this from happening. They have actually managed to grab hold of the staff, and it’s your task to destroy it. To destroy it, you need to carry it and take it to a very specific place.

TYF: What is the legacy system in Unexplored 2 like and how do the choices you make in one run affect the others?

Dormans: There’s a few aspects to it. The most obvious and simple aspect of this is that certain items that you can find are marked as legacy items, and if you die and you’re carrying those items, they actually show up back at the starting location. You can’t really lose those. There’s also other systems in play. For example, there are other factions in the world and if you set up relations with them and become allies, they actually start resisting the advance of the empire better, and they also unlock new character backgrounds for you. You get to play as a character from that clan with all the perks and advantages that they might have.

There are encounters and things that might be happening in the world that you need to deal with, or might have some consequences if you fail or deal with it in the wrong way. For example, there’s a quest where you can steal treasure from a double dragon that’s slumbering somewhere in the world. If you do, that will actually make the dragon angry, and in the next runs, he becomes active. When he becomes active, that’s actually causing a lot of strife in the world and that’s actually sort of harmful for the world in the long run. There are more of these opportunities where you can do something for an immediate gain, but it might have some negative consequences for the long run.

There are also some good things. One of the first trailers we put out shows the flow elemental, that’s a large statue lying on the water and you can wake it. If you do, you actually revive certain magical aspects of the world and that generally has a good effect. There’s also character backgrounds and special skills that you can have in that world during character creation, and it might activate certain features in the world for good, bad or both.

TYF: Are there shops and quests in this game, beyond the elf shops and bosses that were in the first Unexplored?

Dormans: Definitely. There’s a whole trading system, although we’re making an RPG without gold, so there’s no currency. The whole trading system is based on barter. You have items, some are valuable, and you have to trade them for other goods or services in the game. You can go to a village, and there’s probably a trader or a smith, and you can trade goods with those characters. If you encounter friendly traders on the road, you get an opportunity to make a trade outside of a village. 

There are also quests. Certain factions, such as the leaders of villages, might ask you to do something for them and doing so will help their cause. It will make them stronger or more resistant to the advance of the empire. There’s also some immediate gain for yourself. Some people will point out that you can go to a particular location to retrieve a magic item that might be useful. There is also the main quest itself, so first of all, you need a way to enter the first valley and that path is very likely to be blocked in some way. You need to figure out what sort of tools or keys you’d need to actually be able to cross from there, but also what sort of dangers you might encounter while you journey through the first valley and how you might prepare for those. There’s a lot of quests.

We launched in Early Access almost two weeks now [from this interview], and what I see from the community on the Discord and the gameplay metrics, a lot of people actually forget about the main quest right now and they just roam the land and look for things and enjoying all the other content that is currently in the game.

Image courtesy of Matt Cundy from Big Sugar

TYF: What is magic like in this game, and are there potions and scrolls like in the original game, where they were a big mechanic?

Dormans: Yes, although up to right now, there’s no such thing as an unidentified potion. There will be something with unidentified qualities of items, and they might be bad or good. One part of magic we inherited from the first game is the idea of sigils. You can find sigils and you can use them to boost a magic item. You can craft your own magic items in that way. And you have the staff, and the staff is a very potent magic item in itself, but it’s contextual. How that works is that you might find a particular feature in a level, for example a snaproot tree, which is a dangerous tree but it is also magical. If you equip the staff, you can tap into its power and use a very powerful root attack spell on your enemies. But that’s always contextual. So you need to be able to find those sources and make use of them effectively.

TYF: What is the loot system like in this game? Is it similar to how weapons and gear were dropped in the original game?

Dormans: Not quite. One thing that we tried to stay away from a little bit is the endless inventory management, so we tried to make loot less important.

We have two classes of items: One of them are the small items such as potions, trinkets and sigils. Most of the quest items are small items and you can carry an infinite amount of these items with you. You also have the bigger equipment: Your sword and your armor, and they’re actually quite rare to find on the road. It’s more likely you’ll go to a hub or a village, trade some of these things to get the outfit that you need. Your possibility to carry this gear is much more limited. You probably have to make some choices: Which weapons do I carry? What armor do I go for? What other adventure gear do I require that can actually help me get through the hazard of the road and the hardships that I might face? You can become a very tough fighter and stack up on a main weapon, side arm, shield and heavy armor, but that leaves you very little room to carry other supplies. It probably means you can’t really stock up on cold weather gear or repair kits or other things you might need.

You can also go the other way. You can say I’m going to be a ranger-type guy and I’m going to be very good at survival, and I’ll make sure I have sturdy boots, rope, climbing gear and all these things to overcome these other types of hazards. That’s also a viable build, but then that means that you probably need to plan not to encounter as many enemies as when you were a fighter.

TYF: Can you tell me a bit about the music and sound design of this game, and will it be adaptive and dynamic to the level as in the first game? 

Dormans: It’s the same guy who did the sound design for Unexplored 1, Matthijs Dierckx. It’s going to be adaptive as well. The way that works is that there’s different layers. There is one soundtrack we play for special occasions, for instance if you go into a certain village, that will have a fixed soundtrack that fits the theme of that village. If you’re wandering around in the world, there is a bass layer for the music. If things get dangerous, some percussion gets added to the mix. If you’re doing well, some triumphant strings will get added to the mix. In that way, we can really quickly change the mood for that theme that’s playing to match the things that are actually going on in the game.

TYF: How long does a run in Unexplored 2 last on average?

Dormans: Right now I can only tell what we hope it will be. It should be around two hours. That’s what we’re shooting for. Based on your play preference and play style, you can stretch that out much longer if you’re very good. If you’re learning the game for the first time, you should expect the life expectancy of your character to be only 30 minutes. Also, [it depends] on how much risk you’re taking. If you want to enjoy a good evening of gaming, then two hours seems to be a very nice time period just to play.

Image courtesy of Matt Cundy from Big Sugar

TYF: Did you take any feedback from fans of the original Unexplored and bring it into this game?

Dormans: Yes, we are always listening to the community. When we were working on Unexplored 1, there were a lot of ideas that came up from the community that actually made it into the game. We also had some contests where people could propose content. One of the things we learned from that is people seem to enjoy the carryover to the sequel. For the sequel, we started a Fig campaign with a couple hundred back more than a year ago now. They’ve been playing the game and adding feedback. We actually had some contests there, and some of the content you see in the game currently had actually been proposed by our backers. Now that we’re in Early Access, we take listening to the community and the things they are saying very seriously. 

TYF: When does the game launch as a full release?

Dormans: The current plan is to launch next year. We’ll launch on Steam and several consoles at the same time.

TYF: What do you hope that people who play Unexplored 2, both fans of the original game and newcomers who have only played this new game, take away from playing it?

Dormans: My objective has always been to really make a good adventure game. Being able to take control of your destiny, that’s really what I want you to do. Sometimes, it can be a little disappointing with games because you’re always told what to do. You’re always the errand boy doing all these things for other people. What I really want people to take away from this game is you’re actually in the driver’s seat. The metaphor that we often use is you’re on the Council of Elrond. You’re deciding what are the worthy objectives and gambits that you’re going to take. That makes for a very big difference. It’s going to be your adventure. Because everything is always going to be new in accommodation of wonder and real stakes, for me that really equates, that sense of adventure. Stories like Lord of the Rings have that in spades, and if we can have a tenth of that in the game, as a game experience, I’m quite happy.

Unexplored 2 is currently in Early Access and is available for purchase on Epic Games Store


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