In Burly Men at Sea, you control the three intrepid Beard Brothers. Kind of.
After you notice the game’s instantly recognizable and entirely wonderful minimalist visuals, the next thing you’re likely to notice is that the game is entirely without twitch interactions, and really, light on interactions of any kind. People who call themselves gamers hate this stuff, throwing around not-a-game accusations and not-gameplay faux-formalism. But there’s a clear purpose to the distance the technique creates.
Indeed, here that mode of light-touch interaction is absolutely key to what the game is trying to say—and I had the chance to have a quick chat with Brooke Condolora, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind the game, about the how Burly Men at Sea’s aesthetics and its semiotics come together.
Drew M-M: If I had to summarize the themes of the game, the first would probably be the telling of folktales. The game essentially lets you tell the continuing story of these three folk heroes, with repeating motifs but also playful variations. Is it fair to say that Burly Men At Sea wants you to feel like a storyteller at least as much as an actor within the story?
Brooke Condolora: Even more so, as we designed the game so that the player’s role is storyteller. Folktales tend to keep the reader at arm’s length, so we wanted our gameplay to match that tone.
In Burly Men at Sea, the player has no direct control of the protagonists and instead directs their attention by interacting with the environment or other characters. The men may then react in a way that moves the story forward. In this way, the player character is like one of the folkloric creatures in the game: an unseen being with limited influence.
DMM: You’ve said that the game is “a quiet adventure,” and it’s quiet in multiple ways. The heroes are staid and stoic, for example, and their perils is always more about incident than about risk or potential failure. Was this tone part of the game from the beginning, or did you come to it gradually?
BC: It was always there. Quiet stories are what David [Condolora] and I are drawn to, and they’re what we find ourselves creating. With that said, “quiet” doesn’t necessarily mean small. I do love a good fantasy epic, and I’d love to write one of my own someday. I think, for us, “quiet” is just simple and unpretentious, letting the story tell itself.
DMM: Building on that, I’d say that another theme of the game is minimalism. The visuals do a lot with relatively few shapes and relatively little motion, the color palette is extremely deliberate, and the interactions are as low on GUI and twitch demands as possible. Would you say that this helps build the sense of storytelling and improvisation, or is it more about making the game as accessible as possible—or are those even necessarily two different goals?
BC: Accessibility wasn’t a goal for us so much as clarity. We focused on telling a good story with cohesive gameplay, and if the game is accessible as a result, then we did it right.
But creating that sense of storytelling did play an important design role. It shaped the game’s mechanics, narrative sequences, and interaction possibilities for each scene. Even the visuals are designed to feel as if they exist inside an illustrated storybook. The minimalism of the game as a whole is largely due to this storybook influence.