Imagine an open world Sonic game, but Sonic has his own controllable personal gravity machine. Or imagine Marble Madness inside No Man’s Sky. Or think of Tiny Wings, but with found footage and a space tragedy. Somewhere in the middle of all these imaginings you might get an idea of Exo One, a beautiful, gravity-bending movement game about a tiny spacecraft trying to undo a terrible event.
Exo One is a recent Xbox Game Pass launch title where you move a little orb by increasing and then releasing its personal gravity to speed it up down hills, launch it off slopes, and then glide it through the skies, seas, and atmospheres of a series of gorgeous, uninhabited worlds. Wordlessly, Exo One nudges the player to certain destinations on each planet via obvious glowing pillars of light, occasionally interrupted by haunting images and voices broken up with static telling the story of a space expedition gone wrong. It’s a strange, unsettling experience, but often a deeply beautiful and satisfying one, as you launch your little orb into a sea of clouds overlooking an ocean expanse with an enormous otherworldly pillar stretching out of the world ahead, waiting for you.
Jay Weston, its creator, has worked on a number of projects over the years as well as run his own business photographing specialized sky hemispheres for film, games, and architectures – which maybe explains how he honed his eye for striking celestial portraits. Exo One, he tells me, was inspired by Tiny Wings and WaveSpark, and began as a short “3D Tiny Wings” of sorts called Unknown Orbit that was small and score-based.
As Weston adapted his vision, he was aware that his prototypes were growing increasingly complex and less instantly, obviously fun. Then, one day, he threw a metallic shader on a “ball” he’d been playing around with in Unity, threw down some cubes and pillars to roll around on, and realized he had the fun he’d been looking for.
“Perhaps more than anything with games, I love to play very unique things I've never experienced before, possibly to the extreme where I'll not play as many games as I should,” Weston says. “So I mostly wanted to craft something that was unique in as many ways as possible. Having spent a year prior on Unknown Orbit, I felt a bit hollow from forcing the game into a rigid ‘standard game that most gamers will like with all the usual features like scoring.’ It was formulaic, and something I'd possibly never play, and I wasn't really even a mobile gamer.
“So along with that inspiration I received from Journey, I decided I wanted to make a PC game, and something personal and creative that could really elicit a strong reaction from players. For me that meant space, science fiction, a meaningful story and bags of melancholy atmosphere.”
Weston mostly made Exo One as a one-man team, with his friend Rhys Lindsay doing the music and later with the help of David Kazi coding and Future Friends for publishing. Exo One was also part of the [email protected] program, which Weston says “takes a lot of pressure off” since he was guaranteed a payout on the game before it had even launched, and had the benefit of visibility on Xbox stores and Xbox marketing.
Even so, though, Exo One’s vision and journey was shaped at least somewhat by Weston’s small team size and low budget. Exo One took five years to make, Weston says, in part because he didn’t even know how to code when he first started out – he just had basic 3D modeling and texturing ability. And as he added story and cutscenes, he says he “tripled or quadrupled the number of skills required.”
Weston started out with the idea of being a ball on a hilly planet, and from there began adding in complexities like the craft’s different abilities and ways of movement. He says that Unity ensured the physics worked fine, but what was more complex was getting everything to work and look right when the craft reached incredibly high speeds and heights. “Most game engines are more designed for a 3rd person shooter or something like that, at head height,” he says. “Meanwhile in Exo you're kilometers in the air going 100s of miles per hour, pushing the terrain generation to its limits the whole way, and making it very hard to get everything looking nice at all altitudes.”
Then there’s Exo One’s story, which Weston says is inspired by games that had emotionally impacted him during development like Journey and Dear Esther, similar experiences like Abzu, Proteus, and Flower, and the films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact.
“I rewrote the story countless times though, I'd say it was the hardest part of the whole game to get right, and a fair number of people would argue I got it wrong! It's probably among the most varied feedback I've gotten, some love it, some are fine with it and are glad it's a light touch, others wish it wasn't there.”
He also looked at real space missions, like the Challenger and Columbia disasters a bit, though he doesn’t feel there’s a lot of similarity to the stories. “I remember being struck at how unfair it was that those crews had worked their entire lives to be the best in their fields only to suffer their fate,” he adds.
With Exo One out in the world at last, Weston is feeling quite satisfied. He says it’s been successful for him, with positive reception and enough financial success that he can keep making games for some time to come. And he’s especially proud to have released his own fiction/sci-fi/space universe into the world with a story, art, sound effects, and gameplay that’s all his own work and vision.
“I wanted to make a unique game, and there are no other space games where you control gravity with a spherical spacecraft that can transform into a glider and ride thermals in clouds. It's a very singular vision, so when people tell me it got them in the feels or they loved the game, it's an amazing feeling.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.