Behind the Design: Endling
June 5, 2023
Endling is all about survival in a changed world — and it’s a powerful mix of medium and message.
The game is a gorgeous adventure in which you play as a fox navigating a land charred by environmental disaster and human impact. Endling is not subtle — particularly when the fox starts defending its tiny offspring from an ever-increasing array of man-made dangers. Still, it draws players in with beautiful visuals, lush animations, a moody soundtrack, and brilliantly intuitive gameplay.
“It’s a survival game, but a simplified one that focuses more on telling a story,” says Philipp Nägelsbach, game designer and producer at HandyGames.
When creating such a game, balance is paramount. “You need to have cute scenes with the foxes safe in their lair, learning and growing,” says Nägelsbach. “And you have to have dramatic scenes to illustrate the real dangers.”
After an onboarding process that drops players into the heat of the action, the game becomes an open-world adventure that rewards exploration. That wasn’t always the case; Nägelsbach notes that the game’s earliest versions had a more linear structure. “It didn’t suit the message as well,” he says. “It’s much easier to show the ecological impact humans have when you visit the same spot several times and see a river that’s full of trash or a forest that’s been cut down.”
To control the fox, players operate a simple one-thumb control on the lower-left corner of the screen. The game gradually introduces additional interactions, like the ability to climb or jump over an obstacle. “That’s the moment people realize this isn’t entirely a side-scroller,” says Nägelsbach.
And then there’s the fox itself. Endling casts players as the animal in distress to create an instant sense of empathy — and their choice of animal was well-considered. "Foxes are some of the most adaptable animals in the world,” says Nägelsbach. “They’re not the biggest or smallest; they’re in the middle of the food chain. But if they’re close to extinction, things are really bad.”
It’s a survival game, but a simplified one that focuses more on telling a story.
Philipp Nägelsbach, game designer and producer at HandyGames
Doing so required numerous design considerations. The fox needed to be adorable enough to engage with, realistic enough to feel authentic, and believable enough to navigate the apocalyptic landscape. The fox doesn’t realize what’s happening to the environment; only the player recognizes the meaning of factories, careening trucks, and men in hazmat suits. “And the fox can only do things real foxes can do,” says Naegelsbach. “We couldn’t have the fox pushing buttons or solving complex puzzles.”
Extra attention was paid to the fox’s kits, who grow and develop unique personalities as the game goes on. Each kit represents a player’s life and has an instrument attached to it; when players lose kits, the game feels quieter and more lonely.
Nägelsbach says the teams did make adjustments to ensure the game wasn’t too severe, including the ability to replay parts of the story after a loss instead of starting over. The kits have only one owl enemy; they can’t be directly hurt by humans or dogs. And the fox’s cute bark is a mix of several different animal sounds. “In the real world, foxes aren’t very pleasant to listen to,” says Nägelsbach, “and you shouldn’t be annoyed by your protagonist.”
Endling ultimately delivers a message that sticks around long after gameplay ends. "The message is harsh,” says QA lead and producer Jan Pytlik, “but the game didn’t need to be harsh too. We worked and fine-tuned and I think we hit the mark.”
Behind the Design is a series that explores design practices and philosophies from each of the winners of the Apple Design Awards. In each story, we go behind the screens with the developers and designers of these award-winning apps and games to discover how they brought their remarkable creations to life.