You’re holding a Nintendo Switch, staring quietly at the screen. You haven’t touched a button in minutes. Every once in a while, you sigh, or grunt, or make some other noise of gentle dissatisfaction. You’re chewing on a fingernail and your face has contorted into a shape somewhere between agony and madness. Your girlfriend, boyfriend, roommate, whoever walks into the room and sees you motionless, holding a device built for entertainment, yet looking distraught. They can’t see the thunderstorm of a million different scenarios rolling through your mind as the minutes tick by.
“What are you doing?” They ask, in a concerned tone.
“I’m playing into Into the Breach.” You reply. You don’t look up.
“Is it fun? It doesn’t look like you’re having fun.”
You don’t know the answer to that question, and yet you can stop.
Within minutes, a round of Into the Breach can go from awe-inspiring to devastating, but no matter which way it goes, you always start the next one. How can something that causes so much pain keep you coming back incessantly?
What Is Into the Breach?
Into the Breach is the second game by Matthew Davis and Justin Ma of Subset Games, made with support from some outsiders. Their first game, FTL, has garnered great critical acclaim since its release, and Into the Breach looks to follow suit. The team spent six years working on the game, and that time commitment shows.
When you hear the elevator pitch for Into the Breach, it sounds like a cakewalk. It’s a turn-based strategy game wherein you command a team of mechs to defeat invading kaiju called Vek. You must utilize punches, missiles, and tactical positioning to stop the Vek before they destroy the buildings around you. The catch is that at the start of each turn, the Vek clearly telegraph their next attacks before they happen. You must defend the buildings by preventing these attacks, and if you fail, you have to start all over again. But if you already know your opponent’s next move, where’s the challenge?
The answer is game design tweaked so delicately that it could balance on a pinhead. The margin between the distribution of resources and the possibility of failure is so razor thin that one small miscalculation can cause a butterfly effect of devastation that rings out through the rest of your turns. Combine that with tiered objectives, quick rounds, and tonal flourishes and you get a game that is as addictive as it is maddening.
During each turn of Into the Breach, you’ll experience a constant tension between the resources available to you. The list of tools and game mechanics seem generous at first, but as you look deeper, you find that each trick has a consequence.
Let’s call this “yeah, but” game design. Here’s an example. Yeah, your artillery mech can fire across the entire map, and when it deals damage, it also pushes everything in the four surrounding squares back a square. This works even of your missile lands in an empty square. You can use it to move the Vek so their attacks miss, or you can use it to slam Vek into each other. You can break up a whole Vek crowd in one shot. But, you can only shoot missiles in straight lines across the grid in four directions. Sometimes the mech you need to hit is just out of reach. Also, the push back happens every time, no matter what. This can cause an otherwise good shot to smash a Vek into a building and destroy it, push one of your other mechs into harm’s way, or push a mech out of a good strategy.
Into the Breach’s designers didn’t invent “yeah, but” game design, but they have wielded it so gracefully that if you miss-judge one miniature calculation, it can lead to a soul-crushing domino effect that will surge through your entire round. Knowing this, if your plan works the way you intend, you’ll feel like a mastermind strategist, and you’ll carry that confidence forward.
You can see the veins of this delicate design style reach every tendril of the game’s strategic systems. Take, for example, the upgrade system. You’ll never be able to completely upgrade all of your mechs during one play-through. In fact, you’ll probably only end up using one or two of the upgrade options on each. Yet there are so many options that if you fail and have to restart, you have tons of tiny adjustments you can make that will cascade out to possible success options in the next game.
There are thousands of tiny examples that illustrate how the push and pull of resource management keeps you at the edge of comfort, but as you pull apart Into the Breach, you find that this design style touches the whole game.
Into the Breach’s objective system constantly forces you to adjust your expectations of a win condition at both the round level and at the overall game level. The designers did this through the same “yeah, but” style of game design which they achieved by building all of the games objectives on tiers.
Overall, your objective is to keep the power grid operational. A meter sits at the top of the game screen at all times to represent the grid. Each time you lose a building, you lose a bit of power. Once you lose all of the power, the full forces of the Vek emerge, and you lose.
Each level also provides secondary objectives that reward upgrade points and additional grid power. For example, you might have to protect a pair of rockets or a train. As you start a new level, you’ll delicately plan your moves around achieving every objective. But once you make a wrong move or two, you’ll realize that you can’t save everything. Instead of giving up, you’ll start to feel the creep of that “yeah, but” design philosophy. “Yeah, I’ll lose the rockets, but at least I’lll hold on to my grid power.”
It’s never an easy decision to make, but letting go of an objective doesn’t mean an automatic loss. You can come back from failed additional objectives if you preserve grip power and still win the game. This push and pull of objective management adds stakes to every decision without making you feel like it would be easier to restart. Plus, even if you do succeed in the end, you now have a new set of goals for your next play-through.
Tone and Narrative Framing
Into the Breach wouldn’t work without creating emotional stakes for the player. The designers build up those stake through some light but clever narrative framing.
Throughout the game you rescue pilots by way of infrequent drops at the start of some rounds. Once you rescue one, they join your crew, and during the course of the game, you will learn their personalities as they make comments on your performance. But when you lose a mech, its pilot dies. The mech returns for the next round, but the former pilot gets replaced with a nameless android that offers no bonus or commentary. There’s a tonal shift when you don’t have your pilots making comments, and that creates an emotional attachment to them that incentivizes you to do everything you can to keep them alive, even though you continue progression if they die.
Each island in the game also has a commander. This commander will comment on your performance. If you pass all of the objectives, they will compliment you on a job well-done. But if you fail even one, they will take on a more somber tone at the end of the round and they will address that failure directly.
Finally, at the start and end of each round, text boxes appear near each of the buildings that imply the people in them are rooting for your arrival or your victory. It would have been easy to leave this out and the game would still function the same way. But seeing them cheer you on puts the burden of their hope on your shoulders. When you lose a building, it will tell you the number of casualties. With the added emotional weight of hearing that real hope vocalized at the beginning, those casualties mean a lot more than if they were merely a statistic.
These narrative choices add an emotional level to the “yeah, but” design. There is a heaviness to your actions that creates a layer of stress for failing an objective. However, the whole game is framed in a time travel narrative. When you fail, you can reset the timeline, bring these people back, and try to save them all over again. In this way, the narrative framing serves as a game mechanic that punishes you at the micro level while at the same time incentivizing you at the macro level to jump back in and do better.
Trying Again is Easy
Strangely, overall failure is the least stressful aspect of Into the Breach. By the time you’ve lost all grid power and must reset, you’ve probably anticipated the loss for a couple of turns. When the time finally comes, you’ve considered what you could have done better, and you’re ready to retry. This promotes that “one more game” mentality.
On the success side, the designers knew the player would have to play through the game multiple times, so they built the win conditions on a tiered system. You can take on the final boss after completing two, three, or four islands; and the difficulty scales depending on how far you’ve played. Winning after island two instills a feeling of victory that encourages you to continue on to the more difficult challenge of making it past islands three or four. They also added each completion level as achievements which makes choosing to fight the final boss after just two islands feel like a win.
Rounds are quick, games are short, losses come swiftly, and consequences for total failure are relatively light. These things work together to make the player feel like failure is part of the game. The designers also added additional unlockable mech groups with new power combinations that incentivize playing again - even on a win. Tack on the additional island goals. and you create a system that brings players back.
If you push on any individual element of Into the Breach, it topples. If Subset Games missed the delicate balance in any way, the player would have either felt frustrated or unchallenged and become uncompelled to go on. But because they nailed that “yeah, but” design on a razor’s edge, Into the Breach strikes such a perfect balance that the overall package constantly tiptoes the line between stress and compulsion