Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is the dystopian Bob Ross of city building

By John Walker, Contributor

One of the advantages of being a solo developer, among the myriad struggles such an endeavor entails, is that you don’t need a complete plan. A team of any size that’s working together needs to be on the same page and strive toward one coherent goal. But as desolate city builder Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles developer Tomas Sala observes, when it’s just you, there can be a very different approach that can lead to something very special.

“I usually don’t really think of goals when designing my games,” Sala tells us. “Generally I start off with an idea or ‘vibe,’ and then explore as I create.” This is something that really shines through in Bulwark, a barren city building game that strips away almost everything that makes that genre feel familiar, creating the sensation of being at the whim of the wild, oceanic world on which you’re building. “Ultimately,” explains Sala, “the goal is to create an experience for the player that is very close to that organic creative process I go through myself.”

In Bulwark, you begin with a small tower on a rocky outcrop. From this, you can place new towers and connect walkways between them, or build upon the existing tower by clicking to add to its foundations, external embellishments, and most of all, height. By erecting new towers on other rocks, you can begin the process of creating a town, while repeatedly clicking on the same spot causes you to rebuild a building or pathway to a higher standard. For this, you’ll need new resources—although not in any way you might expect.
01 BulwarkBulwark makes me think of what would happen if you crossed a resource management RTS with a city builder and then left in the dark on its own for too long. Resources like wood, stone, and metal are gathered by placing harvesting buildings on them, then connecting them to the rest of your city—but there’s no intricacy here. You’ll never track numbers or worry about timber yards; instead, you only need to notice how many towers and walkways away a resource is. Your workers will carry what’s needed a certain distance, and that’s it. Because instead of worrying about graphs or figures, the focus here is on the art of the build. It’s about freeform experimentation, finding out what happens when you do something new, and enjoying the process of growing your peculiar, dystopian town.

“I've jokingly said that I want the players to connect to their inner Bob Ross,” says Sala, “but that is not far from the mark.” He talks about how Ross’s encouragement of his viewers to enjoy happy accidents “and offering that to the player became one of the main goals.” The result is something that feels like a city builder on some levels, but one you’re remembering from a dream. “The more I got into that energy of making creativity the focus of the game,” Sala said, “the more I also found myself re-entering the fantasy of builder games; that sweet spot at the start of the game… as opposed to the later stages of most games where everything is in service of winning.”

As a result, Sala hopes that Bulwark will encourage players to relinquish the desire to win and instead “[offer] a space where they can remain within the fantasy, never having to achieve or win.”

It’s a hard habit to shake. As the game progresses, unaffiliated groups might be discovered in small, distant towns who can join your faction when connected via harbors, while ships may sail nearby with crews who are willing to aid in said shipping lanes. At the same time, rival factions from an unknown previous time could threaten the safety of your supply lines, or you could even end up in war with a neighboring city. All of this fires up my need to progress up some imagined scoreboard—to be the bigger, more successful city—and yet it’s all misdirection. Combat occurs, but mostly despite your interaction rather than because of it. If you’ve recruited armed vessels, then they’ll absolutely battle against such intruders, but you won’t be able to direct the battlefield. Wins and losses happen, but you quickly realize they aren’t pivotal to your experience.

If you’re reading this and thinking that it might sound oddly detached, isolating, or even alienating, then as far as its developer is concerned, he’s succeeding. “On top of… creativity,” Sala says, “is anxiety and fear and lack of confidence. Those things are fundamental to the creative process, so I’ve learned that I enjoy injecting that fundamental angst into my games. They are thick with melancholy and loneliness. There are no happy dwarves or ethereal elves. The people of my worlds must work to survive, struggle, and your attempts to help them are always fraught and dangerous.”

Relying on players to accept such an approach while also leaving them to experiment to discover what complexities Bulwark has within seems enormously risky. “It’s incredibly dangerous,” says Sala. “There’s a trade in my games. The journey is unique, the place I can take you unlike any other, the mechanics and ideas wholly original, but by the same measure I cannot hold your hand the same way a major studio can. That said, creativity is exploration and failure…I have no idea what I’m doing half the time, just inklings and intuition, and you run with it when it works. The rewards are magical because of the effort required.”
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Something else that feels magical is how the game builds its towers and bridges. The landscapes on which you build are rough, rugged, and replete with cliffs and drops. Watching as astonishingly detailed wooden bridges grow from this terrain is incredible, not least when you then click on them again and see them rebuild themselves in an entirely new way. 

“In its simplest incarnation,” Sala explains when asked about what must have been the most horrendous QA nightmare, “it checks the height at fixed intervals and selects something based on whether it needs to go up or down, and by how much.” Which makes sense. “But halfway through making those very systemic changes,” he continues, “I started diverging from the system and adding stairs and objects that are diverging scales, and basically escaped the very fixed system. This caused a lot of problems, but made me accept that I wanted a system that wasn’t fixed but rather ‘fuzzy’…Part of the design challenge was creating a visual style that was chaotic and messy so that mistakes became part of the look.”

These intricate “mistakes” go a lot deeper than many players will ever notice. “For instance,” says Sala, “if you set up a trade connection with another NPC settlement, the faction architecture of that trading partner will start to ‘invade’ your settlement. First at the connecting harbor, and then spreading outward in a wave of little pirate houses or grand imperial villas, as if their cultural influence is a virus.”
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The result is a beguiling creation, albeit one that’s deliberately alienating at first. For players expecting charts and graphs and visual representations of its systems, it’ll be a crutch that’s hard to learn to walk without (although pressing Tab will show the flow of resources between your buildings, letting you see where a particular resource cannot reach). For those wanting specific win conditions or a checklist of goals to complete, there will be an initial period of feeling lost and undirected. But as difficult as it can be to release such shackles, it's a fascinating experience.

“I feel like our industry has gotten really good at making perfect time wasters based on the problem-solving reward loop,” says Sala when asked about the motivation behind creating a game so free from overt goals. “I really don’t want to make games that put you in that mindset too much. A little grind is always nice, but it’s never a little grind, is it? So in Bulwark, I only want you to live in the fantasy, in that creative flow, that’s its only reward. But for that to be rewarding, you need to know that danger and diplomacy and exploration exist, otherwise it becomes meaningless.”

It’s an incredibly bold approach. Sala explains that where most games might “dial that up to the max,” regarding those external elements designed to give purpose, “in Bulwark I’ve dialed it all the way down. The achievement you will find is in your own creative output, and the fruits of exploration or conquest are there to enhance that, not to be their own rewards."