A robot-armed time-travelling spy-cum-assassin has been sent back in time to infiltrate the East Berlin club scene and avert a nuclear disaster. Explore procedurally-generated nightclubs for targets to kill, goods to steal, contacts to make, and occasionally hide from guards by holding down the “dance” button to throw some disco shapes. Or just blam them in the face with your shotgun. Developed by inbetweengames, All Walls Must Fall is a cybernoir high-speed turn-based time-meddling stealth game set in the sleazy club scene of 2080s Berlin, in a world where the Cold War never ended, and it looks and sounds gorgeous.

I played an alpha build, and the gameplay isn’t there yet. The different systems have been roughed in – gunplay, movement, conversation, very basic hacking and the ability to rewind time and erase past mistakes – all of which feed from a central economy of time-units, with all actions and time-rewinds draining this limited resource until you’re stuck in a dead-end scenario facing down five bullets and nothing left to do but walk into the line of fire. It’s not much fun yet, not because the system is fundamentally misconceived, but because the AI and the balancing of the economy aren’t sufficiently developed to generate interesting challenges out of this toolkit. It’s something that inbetweengames can certainly fix, but if you buy in now, you’re buying into the promise that they will. As with all Kickstarters, caveat emptor.

But incomplete as it is, inbetweengames have already created a game that bleeds style. After you emerge bloodied from a fight, perhaps one you edited several times using your time-travel powers, you’re rewarded with a replay of your single perfect shootout in the style of Superhot. It’s a sexy little feature that will be lots more enjoyable once those gunfights have more substance to them.

Aesthetically All Walls Must Fall is remarkably coherent. Set in a cyberpunk-inflected Berlin club scene in a perpetual winter, the game environments are procedurally-generated angular, rectilinear nightclubs that evoke Cold War bunkers and architectural models, illuminated with Blade Runner neon and strobing dancefloors. It recalls fellow strategy stablemates Invisible, Inc., Volume and Frozen Synapse, but there’s a sense that the abstracted environment is a reflection of a slightly abstracted and inhuman reality. The soundtrack is (of course) banging club tunes, with tracks from Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne composer Jukio ‘Kuabee’ Kallio, FTL and Into the Breach composer Ben Prunty, and more. The plot, delivered in conversations between your avatar and their handler, is evocative (if a little vague) and supports this aesthetic with notions of repetition, iteration, the present imposing itself on the past, social division, and of course the shadow of war. It’s very, very interesting.

I spoke to developer Jan David Hassel and was going to intersperse his comments throughout a hot take of the alpha – but everything he said was so interesting I’ve decided to put it up here on its own.

Outermode: One of the main systems underpinning the game is your procedural nightclubs. I’m really interested by the aesthetic you’ve created there: brutalist, bleak, lots of angular lines (even in the way the clubbers are proportioned) and of course lots of black and neon. How did that design come together? Are you drawing from the Berlin club scene, Cold War architecture, classic cyberpunk?

Jan David Hassel: First we went on research trips in Berlin nightclubs to see how they actually look. It’s a lot of rough concrete there, dark corners, with strong lighting accents in some spots. I suppose they look a bit different than elsewhere maybe. Another big inspiration are classic games like XCOM and Syndicate as well as noir movies and their modern descendants. That includes neo-noir, tech-noir and cyberpunk movies.

“The only way to see what’s going on is to go there yourself.”

But most of it just really is how Berlin looks. There is a lot of brutalist and industrial architecture here. Berlin clubs always seek out those abandoned architecture ruins, hollow them out and give them new meaning. This club culture really got started that way after the wall went down and there were all these unused buildings suddenly available. This continues today so that’s what we wanted to portray as well – even if in our Berlin the wall still stands.

OM: Research trips in Berlin nightclubs sounds like a very fun tax deductible.

JDH: It’s worth noting that in those clubs pictures are usually forbidden. So the only way to see what’s going on is to go there yourself.

OM: Do you have any anecdotes of things that made you think, ‘We have to find a way to put this in the game’?

JDH: Mostly we wanted to represent all the architecture and art in those places. Also the group behavior of people in the club itself. It’s easy to miss but we have hundreds of simulated crowd agents in the game each with their own needs and desires. They currently cycle between dancing, chilling and bar behaviors, as you do yourself when you’re in a club, based on their internal needs. We saw a lot of group and communication behavior in clubs that we want to replicate but since it is mostly a ‘nice to have’ feature that’s easy to miss for players we haven’t really gotten around to the full extent of it. One thing we do have though is a dialogue that happens on the dance floor in one of our missions which doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. It’s just way too loud there so people communicate through their body language mostly. This was fun to be able to put into the game since our dialogues also work based on emotions, so they still somewhat function without any spoken word.

“If we included fetishwear representing Berlin we would have to really turn it up a notch in that regard. We still might.”

OM: There’s a slight fetishwear vibe to your clubbers’ clothing in the current build. Is that a reflection on Berlin club culture or is it part of the larger narrative and themes of the game?

JDH: Really that’s just what goes for normal attire in clubs around here. After our research trips we defined the color palette of clubber clothing we saw as “white, black, and naked” so that’s pretty much what we went with for the first pass. If we included fetishwear representing Berlin we would have to really turn it up a notch in that regard. We still might.

OM: The current build for the conversation system is limited but it includes flirtation, and one mission is themed around a seduction – and it wouldn’t be much of a club if there wasn’t sex in the background. How central do you want to make sex to the themes and gameplay?

JDH: It’s not something that’s currently directly represented in the game. Many games allude to sexual themes without directly showing anything. So I don’t think that part is particularly unusual even if the represented relationships maybe still are. But the tension between freedom and oppression is something that is very central to the theme of the game. People are allowed to be free but only within the walls of those clubs. We are free to display this but only as long as we don’t show it directly. I hope that these themes of contradictions between freedom and order will be something that we will continue to explore. It would be odd to choose this setting and not do that. We have a lot of ideas for this but will only really talk about them when they become possible for us to execute since we don’t want to spoil anything.

OM: The sci-fi is quite low-key at the moment – the setting you’ve created is really timeless (it’s kind of retro, and contemporary, and futuristic all at once). But then there’s the time-travel, which is a mechanic and a theme and a narrative in the game – there’s a sense of iterating on a timeline, and approaching events from all the wrong angles. I don’t really have a question here – I’d just love to hear you talk about what’s motivating that strand in the design.

“The future is weird.”

JDH: All the visual identity of the game is the work of Rafal Fedro, our artist. Since he was raised in communist Poland I think his designs are pretty grounded and believable. The future often turns out not being a complete conversion of everything we see but rather gradual updates in certain odd corners. We still don’t have flying cars yet but everyone is carrying around a mobile internet connected computer in their pocket now. The future is weird like that. Overall our future version of East Berlin is a blend between what Berlin used to be, what it is now and what it might be in the future if all of these things existed in the same time and space.

In terms of the narration and theme I think that every game is a child of the process that creates it. I hope that with All Walls Must Fall we will be able to iterate on the game together with our community. So a looping structure that allows for enough deviation to make it viable to come back every time we add something new seemed like a good idea to us.

OM: How do you think the game relates to Ostalgie (nostalgia for the Cold War era)? Are you challenging it, responding to it, or was the retro future setting just cool?

JDH: We think the retro future setting is cool, but yeah, at the same time it also has aspects of digital archaeology or memorials maybe. At the very least we are exposing people to themes and objects from a time and place they otherwise might not have on their radar right now. We think that the history of the Berlin Wall is something worth keeping in mind about now. We still have the west of our divided Berlin to cover and maybe once we see both halves of the divided heart the contrasts between them will become more clear as well.

“Our game is a love letter to the city we live in and a reminder of the history that made it what it is today.”

OM: Living in the UK I’m ignorant as to how much of an issue Cold War nostalgia is in Berlin, but in the UK we’re suffering from our own backwards-looking social movement.

JDH: It certainly seems like there is a bit of a struggle right now between what yesteryear is remembered as and the uncertainties that the future might hold. At least in Europe and the US that seems to be a topic. We live in a city that wouldn’t exist in the culture-rich, pluralistic, vibrant and lively way it does now if the struggles of the Cold War hadn’t been overcome. Our game is a love letter to the city we live in and a reminder of the history that made it what it is today. There are also wider more philosophical considerations in there about what our own role is in all of it. It will be interesting to see whether we succeed in that ambition and what people will think of it once it is done. We will find out eventually. In the end, All Walls Must Fall.

If any of that lovely chat tweaked your teabag, or if you’re an aficionado of the (suddenly a thing) isometric turn-based stealth genre, the Kickstarter for All Walls Must Fall is still open (and deep into its stretch goals), which will get you access to the alpha version of the game.

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Timothy Franklin is a secret zone in that game you used to love for that system you don't own anymore. It's all on Youtube now, anyway.

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