We Were Here Forever turns brave adventurers into voices in the dark

By Ben Kuchera, Contributor
We Were Here Forever asks a lot from potential players. It requires two people who each have a copy of the game, constant voice communication, and a dedication to avoid “cheating” by sharing screenshots or third-party voice chat programs. But that investment pays off with one of the most inventive puzzle games on the market.

I recently had a chance to speak with game design director Thijs Schipper about the challenges of designing and testing a game where players are battling the environment—not monsters—and you and a friend have to tackle the challenges alone, but also together.

The only way you’re going to make it is if you start talking, and get very, very good at it. But first, I had to figure out why playing the way the developers intended was such an important part of the experience.

Communication is everything

We Were Here Forever provides an elegant tutorial in its opening moments. One of the two characters sees the words “we are the sum” written on the wall. The other player sees “...of our parts” written on the wall they can see. You’ll only figure out the full phrase once you’ve shared what you see on your screen with your partner, and vice versa.

The answers to each puzzle are hidden somewhere in each level, but each player will only be given part of the solution, and it may be hard to even understand what you may be looking at. To figure out what’s going on, you’ll need to share details about what you see, what you’re doing, and what you think it all means.
We Were Here Forever Turns Brave Adventurers Into Voices In The Dark Castle
That basic idea—that you have to verbally share what you see or experience and figure out what it means to move ahead—drives the entire game. We Were Here Forever asks players to use an in-universe walkie-talkie system where only one person can talk at a time. If both players try to talk at once, no one will be able to hear the other. If you want to communicate effectively, you’ll have to learn how to take turns speaking, and how to listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Only by combining what you both know will you be able to get anywhere.

For example, imagine one player is in a room with a variety of different keys and locks, and the other player is in a room with a chess set where the pieces are arranged in a curious way. You’ll both have to work out what you must do, and then share what happens next. One player will never have all the information they need without sharing ideas with the other, and both players often end up sounding unhinged as they describe odd sounds or random shapes to the other to try to figure out what’s important and what's mere decoration.

One of the team’s earliest challenges was having to convince players to enjoy the game as intended. The tension is broken if one player can see the other player’s screen, since the puzzles rely on both players sharing information only they can see, hear, or experience firsthand.

But that tension can be defeated if players decide to “cheat” by sharing their screens or using another way to chat where both players can talk at once. This is one of those weird situations where the cheat code for a game might just be using Discord, in other words.

“We absolutely struggle with it a bit because of how ubiquitous very good voice chat systems like Discord or just voice calls have become,” Schipper explained. “A lot of people that play this are already friends, they are already on some sort of voice medium, so they might not even use the in-game walkie-talkies, right? It's like the one core mechanic we have and a significant part of the player base doesn't use it, which does affect balance in a lot of cases.”

Some of the challenge was just learning to let it go; you can’t control how someone will play a game. Those fans may miss out on the core experience, however.

“It’s fine if you want to play like that, but really it’s best if you play it as intended. We really think about each puzzle and ask ourselves ‘what will this make you explain?’ or ‘what type of communication will this elicit?’” he continued. “That’s sort of what we design around and how we test everything. For us, it’s about just stumbling into a place and having to figure out what the heck is going on. In a lot of games, that’s sort of bad puzzle design, but for us it’s half the fun!”

So when you're playing We Were Here Forever, don’t worry if you’re lost and don’t know what to do, even if you’ve explored every bit of the current level. You’ll want to experiment and learn what kinds of details might be important, and how best to share those thoughts with your partner. This is why the game pits you against the environment itself and leaves the direct attacks from monsters and enemies to other games. This also helps with accessibility: The challenge is in figuring out what you have to do with your partner, not being the fastest person with a controller.

“Like maybe you know what you have to do, but you didn't press the button fast enough, so now you failed,” Schipper said. “There's a sort of friction between this action gameplay and the communication-based gameplay. We always try to find more creative ways of killing one of the players without there being a monster or an enemy.”

Now that one of the developers had explained the best way to play, it was time for me to go back to the game. It turns out I had been doing it all wrong.

A voice from the dark

I had been playing the game with my son, who was playing on his laptop while I played on my gaming PC connected to my TV. That meant that if my kid wanted to see my screen, all he had to do was look up. Which is still playing the game as intended, right? If it was too hard to explain, he could just take a peek, and since the game comes with voice chat, it wasn’t like we were breaking the rules by just speaking to each other directly. I wasn’t cheating at all! Or so I thought.
We Were Here Forever Turns Brave Adventurers Into Voices In The Dark Jester
But everything changed when I forced him to play from the living room, so there was no way for us to see each other’s screens or to talk without using the in-game walkie talkies. If he wanted to hear me, he would have to be quiet while I was talking. If I wanted to hear him, I had to make sure he was finished speaking before I tried to add my thoughts. If we couldn’t figure out a good way to share information, that information just didn’t get shared, and we’d get stuck.

It was terrifying!

Suddenly, communication wasn’t just a mechanic, it was a vital part of the game. Figuring out shorthand for explaining certain shapes was funny, but when we got to a puzzle where one of us had to recreate the sounds we were hearing to the other, we both got caught up in the giggles. This is the way to play it: by going slowly, by paying attention, and by speaking carefully. Patience, creativity, and the ability to laugh at yourself are vital to move ahead.

It wasn’t just me that had to force myself to play as intended at first. The development team itself found out during production that they have to test it the same way it’s played, with no shortcuts.

“This is something we really have to be mindful of, because we're side-by-side when we're developing as well, so it's very tempting for us to just hop on Discord or just test something with two players,” Schipper said. “Sometimes we have to force ourselves to have the same restrictions as the players so that we really see if it works.”

So when is the mechanic a challenge, and when is it too frustrating? “That's a very fine line sometimes!” Schipper admitted, laughing. But if a puzzle isn’t quite where they needed it to be, the team would playtest it with members of the community during development, making sure it’s refined as much as possible before launch.

As I continued to play, hearing my son’s voice coming through the walkie talkie in the dark, trying to figure out what we needed to do, I was continually struck by the ingenuity of the challenges. I was especially impressed when a brand new wrinkle was introduced that one of us would have to find a way to share with the other.

“In a lot of ways we kind of play game development on hard mode,” Schipper said. “Every puzzle is unique, every level has its own mechanic that you develop just for those 40 minutes, and we can’t use a lot of conventions or standard systems because of the formula.”

The good news is that all that time and effort paid off. While I can see the influence of other puzzle games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes and the tone of horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, We Were Here Forever stands alone on the strength of its ideas and execution. “We hope it creates really fresh experiences!” Schipper told me. “It’s worth the extra effort!”

We Were Here Forever is now available on the Epic Games Store.