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Backfirewall by Naraven Games reveals the secret life of apps in our phones

In Backfirewall players deal with a sassy self-aware smartphone operating system that faces replacement by a superior and far better optimized successor. It’s a tragicomic adventure that really makes you feel for programs that have their code erased and replaced on a regular basis, all in the name of technological progress. 

The game is the debut of Swiss indie game studio Naraven Games. A core team of four people worked on it for two and a half years, growing to seven plus a couple of freelancers during peak times in production. Co founder and writer Julia Jean found inspiration for the game in her fascination for the ordinary. “I just always have so many tales I want to tell about the secret life of everyday objects”, she says. Going with the secret life of apps and programs inside our phones during an update was just one of those – and we felt that it could be relatable to everyone nowadays.”

Compelling puzzles

And so the team built the game around the story. “Absolutely! Even a bit too much, maybe”, says Jean. “The gameplay mechanics and puzzles all came from the question ‘what fun things could we mess with inside a phone’. We ended up kind of struggling to really create a sense of progression and compelling puzzles.” 

Backfirewall depicts the torment of programs whose code is regularly erased and replaced in the cause of technological progress.

“We work in a very chaotic way!”, says Jean laughing. “But that’s just perfect for us. The creative process of the writing and narrative design was mainly back and forths between Lucie Robert (Lead Design) and myself. I would throw some ideas for plot points or events on paper and Lucie would draft 3D environments in Unity. Then I walk around in it and have many more ideas that I’d draft on paper. Lucie then added them.” 

Rubber duck

“The puzzles and game design flowed naturally from narrative ideas like ‘we should be able to delete everything!’. Or ‘we need something that helps us when we’re stuck in puzzles, but what? Oh! A rubber duck!’. The characters, I’ve done it a bit backwards by having Taychin Dunn (Lead Art) make the characters’ design first. We casted the actors and then wrote the characters’ dialogues and personalities based on it afterwards.” 

Taking on the role of the Update Assistant inside the smartphone’s inner workings, players will explore the tech setting, brimming with life, telltale conversations, and quirky characters.

The team of Naraven Games is a very international bunch (including freelancers) spread out over three continents. And with Backfirewall developed during covid that meant working mostly remote. Julia Jean: “It takes years to build a strong team and find the right people. Sometimes it doesn’t work out with someone and you have to accept that’s okay. But working from home for two and a half years, although fun for a while, is paradoxically exhausting.” And so work became quite hard towards the end. “Health damage, both mental and general, from crunches is real”, says Jean. “Even when you don’t see it coming at all. It takes as long to recover as the time it takes to get damaged.” 

A bit surreal

Now Backfirewall is released, the team at Naraven Games looks ahead. Obviously they hope to recoup its investment and for commercial success, but Jean also has other ways of measuring success. “All I need to know is that a handful of people are enjoying the adventure and that is already awesome. We already have a tiny but super strong community of fans and it feels a bit surreal. Reading that some players cried at the end of the game or loved the characters is the best outcome possible for me.” 

Backfirewall_ is now available on PC, PlayStation and Xbox, with Switch following later this year.

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.
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