Game ReviewsInterview

Aloft Studio: Get the right gameplay for those fancy pixels!


If you are on twitter and you like video games, it is not difficult to keep informed of new projects that are taking shape thanks to the passion and effort of its developers. If you follow #indiedev (that’s for Indie Development) related accounts, it’s not difficult to find your timeline full of beautiful gameplay gifs.

This is how I learned about Hazelnut Bastille. I was seduced immediately by the beauty of its pixel art and its undeniable resemblance with Zelda: Link to the past’s gameplay. 

I contacted the studio through the same social network to interview them. The emails I exchanged with Aloft Studio immediately transmitted to me closeness, but also professionalism.

Behind this brand, there is a couple of developers in its thirties. Mark Harbaugh is focused on the programming structures and gameplay scripting, as well as some of the gameplay design. Dennis Varvaro is focused on art production and foley sound, gameplay mechanics and level design, and community interaction.

And so we are, ready to hear what they want to tell us about this good-looking project.

VIC: Hi Mark, Dennis, and thanks for your time. The first question that intrigues me (and by extension, I think other people will also formulate it), how much is Zelda heritage and how much is original in the game?

ALOFT STUDIO: There is definitely a fair deal of influence from games in the Zelda franchise, mainly Legend of Zelda, Link’s Awakening, and A Link to the Past.

The Zelda games are in part famous for their dungeon perspective view, which is a mixture of the common ¾ perspective that games like Startropics have, and the device of treating the sides and bottom of the rooms in the same perspective but rotated. This perspective is useful, in that it treats every wall in a non-biased way, letting them all participate in the mechanics of your game, but it also presents a lot of perspective challenges as well, as the artificial perspectives of the walls will clash with the ¾ perspective of objects on the floor in a disturbing way, unless you are very careful in how you place those objects in the space. You get the added challenge that not only gameplay design but also avoiding these visual disturbances dictates your level design!

When we were deciding on a perspective, we spent a fair bit of time investigating the consequences of any choice. When we decided on this current perspective, we began to find something surprising: in a complex space built around this perspective, the visual solutions that A Link to the Past (LTTP) created were not only good solutions, but they were the optimal ones, or some cases the only viable ones even! We attribute this to the fact that LTTP spent a huge time (for that era) in pre-production, and their artists had time to meet all of the same problems as us, and try out a host of different graphical devices to solve them.

The way in which LTTP handles door design (vanishing point perspective that shows the inside door jambs and walls) is a necessary device; it may not be needed on the top and bottom walls, but it is necessary on the sides, since a character will in most cases be too tall to walk through the sideways doors without it, and would clip their head on the side of the wall unless the door was very wide!

Another example is the way which LTTP handles railings; they are very short generally, and have rounded tops. We found this is partially an observed solution to the problem of having objects in ¾ perspective close to the bottom wall, which has a reverse ¾ perspective. Unless objects are very short, reversing the perspective in a small distance is very jarring. The rounded shape is a way of giving them form while coping with the need to have them be short.

There is a surprising number of these devices in LTTP, and we soon found that by adopting this form of perspective, we had to accept that their solutions for many situations were the best ones for any game seeking to use a similar perspective.


Art-wise, our environment design and characters are inspired by a number of other classic sources as well, including the Startropics games, The Secret of Mana, Blaster Master, Metroid and Super Metroid, and many others.

Many people might be surprised to hear that Legend of Zelda is recognized as the first “Metroidvania”- a genre-spanning concept about the way certain games progress. Metroidvanias feature a character which grows in may ways over the course of the game experience; they gain more health, more armor / resistances, they obtain items and abilities which allow them to explore new areas and unlock many kinds of “doors”, and they often involve a massive open world in which the player must revisit old places when their abilities allow them to accomplish new things in those places.

We are very much embracing this identity as well, and our world design is built around the level design theories that are recognized to promote rewarding gameplay as a metroidvania as well.

VIC: Well, that was not only an answer but a brief history class and a short hint on game developing! Thanks a lot! Now that the concept of Hazelnut Bastille is a little more clear in our minds, my next question is: Why a game of this style?

16×16 art has a lot of virtues… it was the tiling size that was by far most common during the NES and SNES days.

ALOFT STUDIO: This question sort of has two angles: art direction and holistic game-design.

Art-wise, our game is composed of 16×16 tiles which represent about a square meter of area each, seen through a 288×216 viewport, and characters and objects in scale to such spaces. 16×16 art has a lot of virtues… it was the tiling size that was by far most common during the NES and SNES days. It is a format where you can show a fair amount of detail, but where you must also heavily stylize that detail, often in charming ways. It is a great format for creating fairly attractive art somewhat quickly.

This is very important to us, because we feel that a lot of the recent indie culture has been focused on providing superior art experiences, but has been light in its treatment of holistic game-design and level-design. Having an art-style that is relatively fast to implement allows us to spend much more time focused on the mechanics and iterations of game-design… the “greyboxing” land where the real player experience is realized.

We feel that a lot of the recent indie culture has been focused on providing superior art experiences, but it has been light in its treatment of holistic game-design and level-design.

Our viewport size was chosen with a few concerns in mind: a lot of the feel of classic NES and SNES games derived from two places: their aspect ratio, and their scale. There is a certain amount of action and space on screen in most of these games, that dictates what sort of situations are appropriate for the level designer. Also, we wanted “Pixel Perfect” display that looked good across all monitor resolutions.

The SNES and NES work internally at 8:7 aspect ratio of pixels, then stretch it to fit 8:6 aspect ratio TVs (common 4:3, in other words). We are working at 4:3 from the get-go, and displaying it the same way.

We also needed to be sure that each pixel in the viewport corresponds to a discrete multiple of pixels on your monitor. That means 3×3, or 4×4, or 5×5, etc. This is important for avoiding a kind of ugly warping which happens as animations and motion move art across the screen, where it appears to flicker. So 288×216 was an extremely conscious choice that allowed us to solve all of these problems at once.

So that covers art and technical display, but what about general design? Why did we choose the format of an overworld with a sequence of dungeons, for instance? Why do we use cellular design for dungeon layouts, etc?

When a format has existed for a while, and has been explored by many talented designers, discoveries are made about practices and techniques which promote a strong user experience. The work of the previous designers improves the work of those to come.

Well the game industry is one that is obsessive about innovation. There is this idea that a game gains a lot of its value from being new, and having new mechanics. But there is sort of this scope / depth question at work too. Innovative games are increasing the scope of the sphere of games to new ideas. But mechanics innovation is also extremely work intensive, and that work almost always comes at the cost of weak investment in depth. When a format has existed for a while, and has been explored by many talented designers, discoveries are made about practices and techniques which promote a strong user experience. The work of the previous designers improves the work of those to come, and there is growth toward an increasingly rich gameplay experience.

So by choosing a format that is well known, we are choosing to focus on the depth side of the equation rather than the scope side. We are creating a very precedent-driven design- one which learns from the experience of past designers in this format, in order to provide a very refined take on the mechanics in play. There is also another concept at work- the idea that constraints breed creativity. This is counter-intuitive, since you would think creativity comes from not having limits, but the opposite seems to be true!

Consider two teams that were asked to design a robot that could travel across a room, pick up an object, manipulate that object, then place it somewhere else. One team is allowed to build a robot with any features at all; the other team is told the robot can’t fly, can’t use wheels, can’t use legs, and can’t use tank treads to move. I think you will see that the team which has to struggle in unusual ways to meet those demanding constraints would produce a phenomenally more novel and interesting robot!

So too with choosing a format with well-defined constraints. Our design limitations are defined to us from the outside, but they also lead to creativity in how we choose to approach various problems within them!

To me, pixel art is primarily understanding these universal rules of painting, and then combining them with the techniques which are common.

VIC: Allow me to share this beautiful title screen, one of the most impressive pixel art paintings I have ever seen. How long did it take you to develop such a good style?

ALOFT STUDIO: While I have a great love for pixel art, I came to it late. I have been painting for about 15 years at this point, in various media. There are a lot of techniques and rules that are common across all of these media, and transcend any of them really, like the techniques of using powerful value contrasts to compose depth into your frame. To me, pixel art is primarily understanding these universal rules of painting, and then combining them with the techniques which are common to the successful pixel art created at any given resolution and scale. The rules of what works and looks good at 16×16 are very different from what works at 64×64, or even at 24×24, for that matter.

I think modern artists have 16×16 very well figured out. At this scale, you see a dramatic amount of stylization… sort of charming abstractions. You also tend to see very oversized massings… things tend to look very chunky. This is partially because pixel art wants to have large areas of continuous pixels in its masses… use too many single isolated pixels, and the composition just starts to get noisy and confusing. The reading of strong edges is also a challenge to the eye at this resolution, so 16×16 is also known for generally having an especially strong emphasis on contours.

So I would say… the process was more understanding the universal principles of painting, and then adapting them to the techniques and constraints which artists of this tradition have developed over the last 30-40 years or so.

VIC: How did this concept come about?

ALOFT STUDIO: The Hazelnut Bastille project resulted from our long term, independent plans being combined into one production concept. Mark’s idea was to take a long stretch of time he had opening up to create a prototype of a top-down adventure in a 2.5D art style- it would feature 3D models, but with an orthographic top-down camera. It turns out, I had also had plans for one day working on a top-down adventure- the logic being, it was a format where the assets could be quickly created, thus allowing a much larger proportion of the development time to focus on gameplay design. We discussed Mark’s original plans, and decided that it would be more time-conscious to produce a sprite-based game in the 16×16 tile resolution, with the 2.5D concept being a project for later days. While Mark had envisioned the project as originally only being a 3-month prototype, it sort of snowballed quickly into being the full-fledged game we are now targeting.

Hazelnut Bastille is sort of a “trouble in paradise” situation

VIC: Titles are important and yours is quite enigmatic. How did you choose the name Hazelnut Bastille?

ALOFT STUDIO: The title actually came to us quickly. It is simple, yet effective, we feel! The two words which make it up have a strong internal tension between them, which sort of begs to be explained over the course of the game.

This tension springs from the incongruities and contradictions which are present in our world and the characters that inhabit it. It is sort of a “trouble in paradise” situation! We present an idyllic world, which should be a place far removed from cares and worries, but we meet this place at its worst hour. Et in Arcadia, Ego! Even in Arcadia I (Death) am there!

The loose reference to the French Bastille as a general fortress is reading one of the term, but there also happens to be a strong reference to the historical event surrounding this place present in the story!

VIC: On which platforms is the game going to be released?

ALOFT STUDIO: Currently, we are only concerned with a simple Windows PC build. The project is guaranteed to release for PC. We expect to also release an Apple and a Linux build as well. Consoles are possible, but not currently planned, and partially contingent on what happens with the initial builds and release.

VIC: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, guys. You dropped here some good wisdom that I hope game developers will appreciate. Finally, one last question, and I guess you will like this one: where can we find out more about you and the game?

ALOFT STUDIO: We post regular updates about our development and content on our running TIGsource development log at:

 You can also follow us on twitter at:

Expect a cinematic and gameplay Trailer late this Winter, along with a playable production-quality Demo! We thank you all for your interest and support, and look forward to bringing you a continuous stream of new information as it becomes available!

Here is our website:





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Vic White

Bearded man and retweet hero. Solo #indiedev of @nolonger_earth. Reviewing games and writing stuff for @lndieWatch.

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