Alek Wasilewski Interview (Tsioque)

Tsioque
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Princesses have been around in video games for almost as long as the medium has existed, but unfortunately they (and sadly many other female game characters) are still to this day often relegated to the tired old damsel in distress role. It’s refreshing then to get to play as a princess who actually gets to do the adventuring for a change.

Tsioque (pronounced /tsIɒk/) is the upcoming point and click adventure game from OhNoo Studio & animator Alek Wasilewski; the game places you into the small triangular brown shoes of the eponymous princess as she navigates her way through an imp-infested castle to thwart the plans of an evil wizard (who incidentally rocks a fantastic combusting coiffure I might add) who has usurped her mother’s throne. It’s already successfully been accepted onto the Steam Greenlight program, and the team are currently midway through an ongoing Kickstarter campaign to get the project crowdfunded, so if you want to help a virtual princess out, then you know where to go.

Having particularly loved OhNoo’s previous work, Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, I was only too keen to check out their new project and see what it’s all about. I got the chance to talk with Alek, the game’s writer, director and animator, about his career in animation and filmmaking, what his early video game influences were and how collaborating with OhNoo has allowed him to make the ultimate game that he’s always wanted to make. So, just what exactly makes Tsioque tick…or should that be tick Tsioque? Let’s find out.

What made you want to be an animator, and what were your early inspirations as a filmmaker?

Oh man, a big question to start with. I guess it started very early. Like every kid out there, I was left in front of cartoons by parents who wanted a moment of peace. Disney, Hanna-Barbera, obscure Polish cartoons, whatever was currently on. I guess what made the difference in my case was that as I grew up I didn’t dismiss ‘cartoons’ as an inferior art form to, say, film or literature, which then helped me to seriously consider the dream of becoming an animation filmmaker.

I consider myself a storyteller – I’ve been making stuff up and drawing comics since I was four – and I still feel the same joy that comes from telling stories in my adult life. I chose animation because I thought that of all mediums film works the strongest and most directly, and while I didn’t have professional film equipment and trucks full of actors and crew, I had a computer and could draw more or less.

You’ve worked as an animator for twelve years – what made you want to make Tsioque as a game rather than a film? What was important about making the project an interactive experience?

In addition to all mediums I’ve already mentioned – film, animation, books, comics – another one which ranked very high on my inspiration list was games. Next to animation, it’s another previously dismissed art that only now seems to be getting more credit, mostly thanks to people who grew up playing them and recognized their true potential as a means of expression and an art form.

I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing videogames, and by no means I’d call that time wasted – I had a great time, and some experiences were truly unforgettable. It was only natural I wanted to try to make a game myself someday, so as a kid I messed around with modding tools and made a couple of maps for Quake and Half-Life. Then, as time passed and various life choices were made, I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance to make my own game anymore. Until now.

Having already worked on Tsioque for two years previously to launching the Kickstarter, how did you come across OhNoo Studio, and what made you want to collaborate with them?

OhNoo Studio contacted me with some minor Flash-related issue, as both of us frequently work in Flash. They seemed like okay guys, both professional and with the right mindset, I offhandedly suggested making a game together and they said “Okay”. It was only then that I got to work on Tsioque. I had a story in mind that I thought could work for a game, but I would never have started to really work on it if I hadn’t talked with OhNoo first. I already wear too many hats in filmmaking and to put on yet another and try to program the whole game myself would be suicide! They’ve made games, I haven’t, so I trusted their experience. The two years following this talk I spent working on the game mostly solo, occasionally dragging OhNoo away from Tormentum, the project they were doing at the same time.

What prompted the shift to go from independent solo project to a crowdfunding collaboration?

The idea to crowdfund the game came hesitantly, as we initially tried to finish Tsioque on our own. It was only after I kept animating day and night with hardly any sleep, even with help from part-time assistant animators later on, and work still wasn’t going fast enough, that we decided we would need help if we wanted to finish the game anytime this decade.

Your Kickstarter places great emphasis on the fact that the hand-drawn animation required for the game is a huge part of the project, and that this is the area where the majority of the funding will go. Can you go into what sort of creative challenges animating a project on this scale actually entails?

It’s a pure matter of workload. 2D, frame-by-frame animation is a tedious, time-consuming task; it’s well justified why gaming doesn’t take this direction anymore. There are new, cheaper and more streamlined processes that don’t require so many skilful hands to do the job. Still, the effect just isn’t the same, and there is simply nothing like watching hand-drawn characters move – they have real soul.

The creative challenge will be to keep the scale within its realistic limits – high enough to deliver the aforementioned soulful feel of quality animation, and low enough for it to still be within budget. I find it a more managerial task if you ask me, the line is blurry. A lot of it will most likely require me still doing most of the animation work myself.

Caught

The cute art style of Tsioque is a big aesthetic departure from OhNoo’s previous game, Tormentum. Can you talk about how Tsioque‘s look came about, and was it a challenge to find an artistic middle ground between OhNoo’s style, Michał Urbański’s and your own?

OhNoo’s Piotr Ruszkowski was responsible for all art in Tormentum, whereas in Tsioque it’s me who looks after the art and general integrity of the vision. I find it quite funny that the art style in Tsioque is regarded as ‘cute’. My work has usually been called the exact opposite – dark, disturbing maybe, but not cute. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition next to the hyperdark metal Beksinski-esque art of Tormentum that makes Tsioque’s art look sweet and well-behaved, but I don’t mind. I actually find it a relief because I did have some concerns if Tsioque’s art style still isn’t a bit dark after all… totally unjustified, great!

Making artistic sense out of unifying many talents in not easy, but my experience from filmmaking makes me think I have it under control. I’m not sure if it’s about finding a middle ground, I find it more about projecting your vision to other people so they can get as close to it as possible… which later they don’t really do, but very often it leads to explorations so interesting they actually enhance the vision rather than diminish it.

In describing the game’s art direction, you point out that you’re not going for a ‘pseudo-retro pixel art’ look.

Games of old went out of their way to overcome the technological limitations of the era they were made in – often in great, innovative ways. It was a challenge to tackle. Resolution and color palette no longer limit us – but many developers still choose to make pixel-styled games. It’s an artistic choice, a reference, pining back to the good old days. Sometimes the results are great and you get awesome stuff like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Shovel Knight. Other times, however, it just seems like a cheap shot at nostalgia. While, admittedly, we also take a lot from nostalgia, our artistic choice was not to purposely limit ourselves with false barriers. We’re making our game like the old games were made – using available resources and technology the best way we can.

Day of the Tentacle, Heart of Darkness and King’s Quest are listed as some of the key game design influences behind Tsioque – what is it about those classic adventure games that influenced you as both a player and a designer?

The influences of those games were mostly unconscious for me as I grew up playing them! I’ll never forget the thrill of watching the awesome animations that I’d get in reward for solving complex puzzles in Day of the Tentacle, the glistening disc of my first ever CD-ROM game King’s Quest V… I never got very far in the latter but it wasn’t important. It was magic. It wasn’t so much about recreating that same magic feeling, but more about using what I learnt from playing these games to tell my own story, and to be able to evoke in other people the similar emotions I felt when playing these classic adventure games as a kid.

From a game design perspective, what felt important to achieve was that extra care in animation rewarding you for your progress, smooth, well-paced gameplay, and the possibility of death. There was a reason why point and clicks stopped including fail states in games, and it was the same reason why I never got very far in King’s Quest V. It was frustrating having to restart all the way to your last save point just for just trying something, where trying anything to work with anything is (unfortunately) pretty much the epitome of the whole genre.

Still, years passed, the games started to be thoroughly tested, both the players and developers learned a lot. I thought it was possible to re-introduce the death/failure mechanism in a way that doesn’t punish you that much and allows for more immersion – you’re a prisoner in a monster-infested castle; if you’re careless something can happen to you! In fact, a good failure animation can be rewarding as well – I dream of making Tsioque complex enough to have people try to do wrong things on purpose just to see the mess it causes. This requires a certain stretch goal to be achieved, however, and for the moment chances of reaching that goal seem distant. Having said all that, all of the above would of course mean nothing without a proper story.

Castle

You suggest that Tsioque’s gameplay will occasionally feature moments that will “break the classic point and click mould”. What exactly do you mean by that rather intriguing statement, and what sorts of changes from the point and click norms should gamers expect to encounter?

If I was to put it down to one thing, it would be removing that reassuring feeling of always being safe. Still, this sentence is a bit of a tease since the ‘mould-breaking’ aspects in our game – the action elements, minigames, the possibility of death – are widely present in classic point-and-clicks. Take a game like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for example, where you can fist-fight, run from guards and failure at every other puzzle results in your death. These sort of elements are just forgotten, and not regarded as part of the classic point-and-click formula anymore. Well, with Tsioque we’re bringing it back, but in a lighter, more forgiving manner, better adapted to the modern player.

Elle Kharitou and Edward Harrison are both on soundtrack duty for Tsioque. What is it about their musical stylings that made them the right fit for the game’s audio direction?

I knew Ed from our previous collaborations on animated shorts. He did a fantastic soundtrack for my short film Lucky Day Forever, as well as for a Splinter Cell short I did for Ubisoft. He’s a frighteningly talented musician with a growing track record of game and film soundtracks, and at the same time simply a nice guy to work with. He was my first choice for Tsioque’s soundtrack and I’m delighted he said yes. Elle came to the project through Ed’s personal recommendation. I didn’t know her work before, but I have total confidence in her talents and everything I heard from her so far seems to prove I was right to invite her to the project.

The music – as heard in the demo and the reveal trailer – works just the way I wanted it to, and beyond. The dynamic music system we’ve developed for Tsioque brings the experience to the whole new level that could never be achieved in a non-interactive medium, and I’m thrilled to watch it work. It really lets you sink deep into the narrative, where every little action you can possibly do has its own tightly fitting soundtrack. It not just compliments the rich in-game animation, it’s one of the key elements that make this special feeling of being inside an animated film truly work.

You’ve revealed that the game has an unexpected twist of sorts – are you not worried that announcing said twist beforehand might encourage players to approach the game with a mindset to concentrate on working out what the twist is, rather than just enjoying the game?

Good question. As a creator, I’d find it much more comfortable if I just shut up about it and have people experience and discover everything for themselves, without a clue what’s going to happen. As a self-marketer however, I have to at least suggest something is going to happen, because it’s one of the things that makes our game different, and we have to talk about what makes our product special or else nobody is going buy it. I hate this, as much as I hate soliciting my own work and having to convince people that what I do is really great. I’d rather they just find out themselves… but it’d need a finished game first. And I can’t finish it if I don’t convince everyone it’s going to be great. It’s a vicious circle.

I appreciate the fact that you want to tell a full, complete story, and not break it down into separate piecemeal parts to sell through a season pass. Do you think the episodic model of releasing games is starting to feel a bit tired by this point?

Long, episodic narratives for games are not a bad idea on their own; I couldn’t wait for the new season of The Walking Dead Game as much as I couldn’t wait for the new season of the TV series. That being said, it requires a lot of discipline, commitment and respect for the players on the part of the developer to not abuse this model, to not drag a story out forever and keep milking it with no end in sight. With Tsioque, we chose to be completely transparent and offer a clear deal – one complete game from start to finish, no more, no less. An experience you don’t have to wait 2 years from first pressing start and paying $60 to find out what happens in the end.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank everyone who lasted long enough to read to this point! Whether Tsioque gets made or not is now up to you.

Tower

The Tsioque demo is available to play now on PC and Mac and can be downloaded via the team’s Kickstarter page. At the time of writing the Kickstarter campaign is entering it’s final few days, so if like me you also really want to see the game get finished, then consider dropping by to back it and maybe even pick yourself up an imp plushie (or five). I for one definitely want to see and play more of Tsioque, so here’s to hoping the game makes its funding goals. Now what to do with all these plushies…

Jaime Cross Interview – Team Junkfish (Monstrum)

Brute Attack
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If for some tragic reason you’ve been locked in Davy Jones’ sub-aquatic locker for the past two years, then you might not be aware of Monstrum, the brilliant and brutally addictive horror game from Dundee-based Team Junkfish. Let me fill you in on the details while you splutter up all of that rancid seawater.

In development since 2013 and approved for Steam Greenlight program in March 2014, Monstrum has proven popular with horror fans since the game left Early Access in May of this year. The game is essentially a massive nautical nightmare; you find yourself trapped on a decrepit 1970s cargo ship, with the rest of the crew nowhere to be found. Well, sort of – it depends on what exactly you classify as ‘the crew’. Unfortunately, it soon transpires that you’re actually stuck on board with a monster who is only too happy to make your acquaintance…before it mercilessly crushes/eats/twists your head off, naturally.

Your goal then is pretty simple; repair one of the three escape vessels by collecting the necessary tools and get the hell out of dodge. So far, so Slender, you might say – but wait, there’s a twist. What sets Monstrum apart from the majority of its creepy collectathon rivals is the fact that it’s a roguelike with extensive procedurally-generated systems in place. Every time you fire the game up, you have no idea what the interior structure of the ship will be, no idea where the specific items you need are located and, perhaps most importantly of all, no idea which of three different monsters is currently hunting you. With no one layout to memorise or a single strategy to master, the pressure can quickly ratchet up to ridiculously high levels as you desperately try to make your daring escape. In the words of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy, “Zoinks Scoob!”

Monstrum is a harsh, demanding but incredibly rewarding game of hide and seek on the high seas, and one that’s had me gripped (like a monster slowly crushing the life out of a frightened, isolated sailor perhaps) since release. Keen to learn more about the game and its dastardly delightful design, I reached out to Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish’s Director and Audio Designer to talk about monsters, audio design and the exciting multicultural future of the horror genre.

How did Team Junkfish originally form as a studio, and what’s the story behind the cool name?

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University. In the third year we had to do a big group project – they have a lot of big briefs from Microsoft, Sony, Disney etc., but students also have the opportunity to form their own team and present their own idea. They can pitch it to the lecturers and if it’s good they’re given the go-ahead. Back then, there were currently nine members of what would become Team Junkfish, and they wanted to do this big idea but they were told they were probably not going to be able to do it unless they got a sound guy. So they pitched for a sound person in front of the entire year, and I just said “I’ll do it, aye!” and that was kind of it. There’s been ten of us ever since, and it’s coming up on four years now in total that we’ve been working together. It’s scary when you think about games companies and the way they can come and go, but yeah we’ve been doing this for four years and we officially became a company two years ago now. The Team Junkfish name came from when we did our first big prototype, and it was basically a giant flying mechanical whale, and we just went “Yeah, let’s call it Junkfish!”

Your previous projects FooFoo and DinerSaur were aimed more at children and younger audiences. What prompted the shift to darker, more adult material, or was it just a natural evolution of the team’s creative urges?

Originally the FooFoo game was part of the Samsung Student Developer Challenge, so we put it together mainly for that competition. We did quite well – we got a lot of press out of it, which was very cool. DinerSaur was made for the Dare to be Digital competition a couple of years ago, it was a cool augmented reality arcade shooter. The game itself was technically made just by six members of the team (then known as Prehistoric Spatula) over a period of nine weeks. That included three programmers, two of the artists and me doing the audio. We had thousands of people come by and play it, and after that we sort of decided “So what do we actually want to do now?” Everybody pitched in with ideas, and the one that we thought seemed the most interesting and doable was Monstrum. It was more of a diplomatic way of moving forward rather than an impulsive choice of “Let’s just do horror games”.

Where did the original idea for Monstrum come from, and what were the main influences throughout the game’s development?

The original pitch was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jumpscare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis that we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.

What was the reason for situating Monstrum in the 1970s? What is it about that time period and aesthetic that was crucial to the look and feel of the game?

With regard to the game’s setting, the designer decided that with landlocked locations – such as the usual horror game tropes of hospitals and asylums – not only are these environments overused, but theoretically you could also just break a window, escape and you off they go. However, if you’re stuck on an abandoned ship out at sea then you have to escape in a more specific way, because otherwise you’re probably just not going to meet a great fate otherwise! (Laughs) As far as the ’70s aesthetic went, it was down to a mixture of things. In the original concept for the game, the player was supposed to be exploring an old ship but one that’s set in the current time period. It’s since shifted from that obviously, but generally we just thought that it was an interesting aesthetic that hasn’t really been done all that much. We thought it would be something that would make the game stand out that little bit more.

Hunter StairsYou’ve previously described the Monstrum experience as ‘Alien on a boat’ but interestingly you suggest that the player’s experience is more closely aligned with the character of Captain Dallas rather than Ripley. Can you elaborate a bit more about this distinction?

It was one of those weird things where we thought yeah, ‘Alien on a boat’, that’s a really great way to describe the game. Then Alien: Isolation got announced and we were just like “Fuck!” It kind of put a bit of a dampener on us all; we thought we were screwed. This new game is coming out, it’s going to look amazing – we’re done. However we gradually started to pick ourselves up after that and reminded ourselves that actually no, Monstrum is probably going to be quite different from Isolation – we’re aiming at different markets, let’s just keep going. We were at EGX Rezzed in 2014 and Creative Assembly were also there with a big Alien: Isolation booth set up with VR headsets, so we got a good chance to compare the two games there. That was quite reaffirming, as it showed us that they were different enough.

The focal point of the Ripley/Dallas character comparison was based around that sense of impending doom that surrounds your character in Monstrum. Namely that Ripley survives her alien encounter and makes it through the film as a survivor, whereas Dallas doesn’t! We wanted to apply those feelings to the players; that you’re not Ripley, that you’re probably not going to make it out of this. You’re just going to have to get out of there as best you can and try. I think that was the basis for comparing the two characters.

I understand that you prototyped Monstrum as a board game first before moving ahead with the bulk of production. How was that as a testing experience, and did it highlight any issues about the game that you hadn’t previously considered up to that point?

It was very, very loosely tied into the game and really strange, but it did give us a feel for how the real game would eventually play out. Essentially it was a singleplayer board game where you had to move through the randomly placed corridor pieces and rooms to find the random items potentially hidden in them. We had all these different systems going on, but some of them didn’t carry across all that well because they were based on dice rolls and stuff like that, but in terms of generally planning out whether all this would work as an actual game, it really helped us look at different issues we might not have properly considered before. How should things be placed? What speed should this monster travel at? How easily should it be able to find you, or chase after you? Little concerns like that eventually become much bigger things once you actually start to develop the game and are really important, so having that sort of stuff trickle down into the final thing was pretty useful. It’s stuff that we’re doing again now as we’re prototyping new ideas – paper prototypes are still very important.

Did you ever have any ideas about including randomised sea conditions in with all the other procedurally-generated elements of the game, or would that have been just a technical nightmare or simply not fun for the player?

Yes we did speak about having different environmental conditions as part of the experience. Things such as large-scale environmental fires – you can manually set small fires in the game with the fuel cans, but we wondered what if they could break out around the ship itself? Or what if you had some decks which were flooded and now underwater? We even talked about small things such as whether to have the ship rock back and forth, but ultimately it was one of those things where in the end we decided that it would be a nice idea, but it really wasn’t that important and far too much work for the little return it might give. They were all good ideas, but ones we couldn’t really make viable. Also, on the topic of having choppier seas, because we started Oculus Rift integration very early on, that was one of the big things that made us think having a rocking ship wouldn’t work well and potentially might just make people feel even more sick! (Laughs)

Notes

Speaking of Oculus, how is the VR integration coming along? With the game already out at this point, how do you plan on making VR functionality feel like an integral part of the experience rather than just a bolted-on extra?

We’ve been working on the VR integration right from the beginning of the project, developing for Oculus Rift alongside the game since we started in September 2013. It’s not like we finished the game and just decided to stick the Oculus stuff on it and then start again from scratch. So in that sense it’s been really good, we’ve been aware of any issues that we need to address, and we’ve been going back to fix them as we’ve been moving along.

Our programmer Stephanie has been getting all the VR stuff sorted; there’s a lot of weird things that you might not consider when designing for VR, such as user interfaces and post-processing effects. Elements like that don’t really work the same way in the Oculus because of the stereoscopic screen. Getting that sort of stuff working has been quite difficult, so she’s done a lot of iteration on the UI systems and solved some weird clipping and animation issues. It’s all these little weird problems that you might not consider all that much until you run into a wall and you can suddenly see through the entire ship – that is a bit of a problem!

The concepts of player agency and responsibility are particularly well implemented in Monstrum – how did you manage to balance the game’s difficulty so that it works well for both brand new players as well as expert ones?

A lot of this stuff came about from simply doing lots of playtests to see if people wanted another shot – yes or no? If players came from a background of having already played roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and knowing how those sort of games work, then they could quickly adapt, learn and experiment through dying. The main issue came from people coming in from the opposite end of things who hadn’t played a roguelike before. They would go “What do I do? I don’t know what to do with this thing! Nothing is telling me anything!” We didn’t want things to be hand-holdy; Monstrum is very much a difficult game, and we say up front that it is hard and you will die quite a lot. So we iterated quite a lot on the initial tutorial room which basically just says “Here’s some stuff, this is what you use it for, press these buttons for interactions”, but beyond that you’re on your own. You have to explore, you have to check your journal to see “How do I solve this situation? Ah, I need to need to find X, Y and Z to escape – okay, got it.” The main thing that we were looking to build into the game was that as long as the player learns something from each death, it doesn’t feel like a complete failure on their part. It’s stuff like that where if you’re new to the game and run into a new monster, you don’t know what it’s going to do so it’s about picking up on its behaviours. On your next run, if you get the same monster again, you’ll then have a better idea of how to deal with it. Picking up important information like that is very cool, and interesting to see how different people do it.

Hunter Attack

Have you been surprised by the ways in which players go about tackling the various monsters and escape routes? Have there ever been instances where you’ve seen players do something totally unexpected?

Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of those instances just because of the way the game is built. The procedural generation is one thing, but the monsters are all AI-driven, so there’s no real pre-set things or scripted things that happen as a result. There have been a few instances where I’ve seen players carefully following a plan, and then suddenly BANG! A door suddenly just flies through the corridor and you see them freak out! This also goes on in the Team Junkfish office itself, especially with the Oculus Rift testing. You just see people go jumping right out of their chairs! It happens at trade shows as well, so it’s been fun to see how people take to that and all the different instances that can happen. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody have the same exact runthrough, which has been our main thing, our overall objective. It’s a very emergent experience; we hear people telling their own stories about how they would be trying to find a particular item, and then out of nowhere this intense chain of other events kick off. I think that’s an interesting thing in games in general. Being able to give people that opportunity to have their own version of the same game is pretty cool.

Brute Grab

The way you have designed the monsters according to various forms of fear is a really interesting concept; the animalistic rage of The Brute, the claustrophobic paranoia of The Hunter and the cruel psychological mirth of The Fiend all come across really effectively in their designs. Can you talk about the inspirations behind each monster and what went into designing their unique AI behaviours?

In terms of the monster designs, we’ve always had those three basic archetypes in mind. The Brute is big and chunky, triggering your primal fear response when it’s chasing after you. Then you’ve got The Hunter which is the thing lurking in the dark making creepy noises, and then The Fiend which is the sadistic psychological one. Even when we didn’t know exactly what the monsters were going to look like originally, we’ve always had these design concepts in mind; we basically thought about what each one’s going to do, and then expanded out from that. The Brute was the first one we built because technically he’s the simplest. We built a lot of the backend AI work around him, and then adapted it for the other monsters to make sure that it worked for each of their unique behaviours. It was interesting to see it change up, especially when it came to stuff like The Hunter, because he’s completely different from the other two monsters in that he’s not really available on the ship and instead he pops out at you from the vents. It was interesting to get those systems all working together, especially from the audio perspective, to make sure that they all tied into the ship and the environmental sounds. You might hear a rumble and be able to identify it as the monster, or you might not and think “Oh no what was that? What do I do now?”

The Fiend

On that topic of encountering a new monster, you ingeniously put The Fiend into the game disguised as part of a routine lighting update. I’m guessing you must have heard some crazy horror stories of people encountering it for the first time?

We snuck it in just to basically beta-test it and see what we thought. Then we saw people on forums just going “Why are the lights going weird? What the hell is this thing?” and all that sort of stuff. We saw videos where people were just freaking about this strange new thing that had just killed them, and calling us sneaky bastards – we were just like “Yes, yes we are!” So yeah, it was pretty cool and it gave us a decent opportunity in Early Access to see how people took to it and tighten it up a bit more before release.

The in-game notes dotted around the ship allude to a spawning ground from which the monsters were presumably collected – is there a possibility that we’ll get to see this area in a future game?

We’ve talked about future stuff, and even if we’re not necessarily doing a direct sequel, it’s something that we’d like to keep continuity wise. It’ll be interesting to go back to it in a future game, even if it’s not the next one. We’ve created this little world, now how can we expand on it? We’ll see.

Sparky

Any chance we’ll get to go up against the original test monster Sparky?

I’m not sure! It’ll be interesting to see if we can polish and change him up a bit more, and see what else he can bring to the table. I’ll mention that to the team – “Hey we’ve got a half-finished monster here!” (Laughs)

You’ve been using Ableton as your primary digital audio workstation throughout the project. What is it about that program in particular that appeals to you over Cubase/Logic/Pro Tools etc. and what VSTs and plugins do you tend to favour when working?

Ableton was one of the things that I was taught when I was at college alongside Pro Tools. I was mainly using Pro Tools going into university but it just kept crashing too much, so I decided “No, go away I’m using Ableton!” That was basically it, there was no big overarching decision to it and since then I’ve been using Ableton for the past four years nearly exclusively. As far as VSTs and everything goes, for a lot of the sound design in both the music and the game itself, I basically used a lot of Ableton stock stuff. Their granular delay is really cool – I’ve used it quite a lot on various different things, and it’s just a really weird sounding delay which stretches the sounds out – it’s weird to describe without letting you hear it, but it was one of the ones I’d always go back to. It was just basically a lot of the standard Ableton tools that I used, nothing super fancy or expensive. I’ve got some Waves stuff that I’m sometimes using in newer projects, but when it comes to stuff like EQs or compressors, I’m still find myself going back to Ableton because I know their tools so well. I know exactly how they affect sounds so I can get them to work really quickly. I suppose that’s me being lazy and not learning new tools to a degree, but it’s also down to familiarity of speed. There’s a trade-off there I guess.

The game’s soundtrack is an interesting blend of atonal textures layered with creatively melodic noises and effects. How did you approach the composition process for Monstrum?

A lot of the music wasn’t necessarily instrumentation as much, but rather a lot of sound design and manipulating samples. All the monster themes were built around that idea.

For example, with The Brute’s theme, I really wanted to focus on it being driving and pulsing because he’s this big physical thing charging after you. That’s a lot of percussive elements with a strong drumming pulse going on, which also ties into the creature’s fire elements too. There’s actually an engine loop playing on the track which I basically warped out of time, then pitch stretched it in Ableton to make it into a constant triplet rhythm. So you’ve got these two pulsing rhythms running through the track which give it this chaotic chase feeling. Then there’s other sounds like steam screeches and stuff like that going off in the background which are basically samples where I was pitch shifting them to have them sound melodically in tune.

Another VST I made use of was Camel Audio’s Alchemy. That one was really cool, but unfortunately it doesn’t really exist anymore. It allowed you to sweep through various presets, and it had the two XY pads which are similar to Ableton as well so it meant you could do really quick automations and stuff like that. It was very handy, especially for The Hunter’s themes where I used it quite a lot.

For The Fiend’s themes I ended up using one of the Max for Live plugins called Granulator. It’s an interesting granular synth that reads little bits of a WAV file which you can then stretch out and control how many times they’re repeated. Once I’d composed the Wander theme I simply dragged it into that synth to use it as an instrument. I ended up using the Wander and Chase theme as three separate instances, so that was interesting.

You’ve mentioned before that Silent Hill‘s composer Akira Yamaoka was a big inspiration for the soundtrack. What is it about Yamaoka’s music and compositional style that appeals to you?

There are a few different things which come to mind. Looking just at his music on its own, it’s the way he uses sound and samples to create that signature feeling of his. Like with the original Silent Hill soundtrack, it’s dark, gritty and very industrialised, whereas the later ones sort of become slightly more melodic. You can sort of see a different musical feel in the other games from that point on, but he still keeps that familiar really oppressive feeling across the whole series. When you’re hearing his music in the context of the game, it just works so well with all the stuff that’s going on. One of my favourite Silent Hill moments is the final Pyramid Head encounter from Silent Hill 2. There’s those big screeches and crunching sounds playing which mirror the movements of his knife and helmet, but then you’ve got this eerie choir coming in behind all that which gives the scene this sort of otherworldly, god-like feeling. It’s moments like that where he uses those sounds and contrasts really well together which I find pretty cool.

When designing the diegetic sound effects, did the procedurally-generated room reverb systems make your mixing process easier or more complicated?

It was a mixture of both really. Some things we made quite dry, such as footsteps, but because of the way our system worked, in some cases we had to pre-bake the reverb onto specific effects. The reverb in the game engine is mainly for spatialisation – making an effect sound like it’s actually in that area and space you’re currently in. There were some sounds which didn’t play well with our in-game reverb system, such as the environmental rumbles I mentioned earlier for example, so in those cases we had to pre-bake all of the reverbs onto those sounds and give them all different distances and drop-offs and things like that. Sometimes you just have to do one or the other really! (Laughs)

I particularly enjoy the small changes you make to the music as the game progresses, such as the way the main Wandering Alone on a Ship at Night theme will irrevocably change once you’ve encountered the monster for the first time.

It’s one of those things where I didn’t think it felt right for the music to sound the same after the player experiences the monster for the first time in a game. The way you’re now perceiving the game world is different, and so the music should reflect that change. It was one of those things where musically you’re almost starting from a blank slate, but then after the first monster encounter it should change and morph into something else. You know what you’re up against now, and you want to carry that feeling across in the music even when it’s not there onscreen. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with changing up the wandering themes.

You wrote a really interesting blog post which explores the fallacy of the ‘game audio as 50% of the experience’ adage. Why do you think that audio design is overlooked in a lot of games design, and what can be done to better integrate the process with the other design disciplines?

I have this personal philosophy about world building when it comes to games. I think everybody should work together to make a cohesive role as opposed to everybody doing their own little thing separately and hoping it’ll all come together and work somehow. In other words, there needs to be plenty of back and forth on everything – conversations like “What’s the monster design in terms of the art team’s perspective? What does it do design-wise?” I see what I can take from those discussions and make music from them basically. Rob Bridgett talks a lot about this design approach in his book, Game Audio Culture, which is definitely worth reading. He writes about this sort of stuff and how we should improve game audio workflow, and just game workflow in general. It’s a really interesting concept and I really hope it carries forward.

It’s one of those things where people will have a lot of appreciation and nostalgia for things like game music, but they might not necessarily understand how it actually works in the context of a game. A lot of the time, other members of the team might just say we need a sound effect for a specific thing, but it’s very much a black box situation. They’ll tell the audio designer what they need, but not talk about what they’re doing, and the audio designer will just make the effect and say “Here you go, does it work?” Again, communication is the big issue, and it’s essential in order to have programmers, artists and designers understand audio designers workflows and vice versa. It’s about seeing how you can come in from the audio side of things and how you can influence your fellow designers, how they can influence you, and making sure that when you’re trying to explain stuff to them, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying and not get confused with really weird technical jargon. I think that’s where a lot of the issues lie. With artists and programmers and designers, they have this shared lexicon where they can probably speak to each other roughly but they might not know the technical nuances of everything. However if I started speaking about things like parametric EQs, they’d all just be like “What is that? What does muddy mean? I have no idea what you’ve said…but okay!” (Laughs)

Yeah I suppose it’s hard to express some of those sonic qualities accurately from a linguistic perspective. It’s similar to trying to describe the minutiae of a particular part of the colour spectrum to another person; what might appear as a bright red to my eyes might look more like a reddy-brown to yours.

Yeah, it’s all about understanding the implementation process. When it comes to getting the right ‘feel’, a lot of people will say they really want an element to feel a certain way, but getting it to that point is not necessarily down to just making the right sound effect. You can make the effect so that it sounds good on its own, but when played in the game, it might jar with everything else that’s going on. Things are getting a bit easier with middleware programs like FMOD and Wwise, which are opening things up a bit more. We actually didn’t end up using anything like that in Monstrum for the final game, but we did use it for prototyping early ideas, which made it a lot easier for me to explain the various systems to programmers. I just had to set up all the logic and explain that this is how it works; these are all the music things, if you trigger this element, then this will happen. Even using it for non-traditional methods like that, it’s still really handy, and learning those tools is really useful for anybody who wants to do game audio and game music.

How do you see the future of Monstrum going forward? You’ve successfully released the game through Steam Greenlight and it’s now out there in players’ hands – do you consider the game to be a completed project now that you’ve left Steam Early Access, or as more of a platform you can go back and add new content to over time?

Well we did say we’d get the Oculus stuff out, so once that releases then the game’s technically ‘finished’, but it’s one of those things that’s never really finished as such. There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add in, or maybe even things we could go back to and patch up, but it’s just a case of having limited time and resources to actually do these things. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation which has kept us from just going “Yeah let’s keep working on this and adding loads of extra monsters” and stuff like that. It’s a shame really, but we’ve got other projects that we’re trying to do as well, and I suppose we have to make sure that we can keep roofs over our heads!

As far as future plans go, I’m not entirely sure right now. We’d like to add more stuff, even if it’s just smaller things, but we’re just sort of seeing how things pan out. We’ve got a few bits and pieces of work that we’re doing just now to keep us ticking over while we’re sorting out new prototypes and all that sort of stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but we’d like to anyway.

Any thoughts about porting Monstrum to PS4 and Xbox One?

We’d really like to, but it’s another question of resources, and figuring out all the necessary backend stuff. If we speak to somebody at Microsoft for example, it’s working out whether they actually want the game on their platform and all those sorts of other hurdles. Hopefully though – it’s one of those things where if we got the greenlight to do it we probably would, but getting there is still quite a lot of work. Maybe!

Nightmare BonnieWith the rise of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, do you see traditional horror games becoming something of a rarity in the future? In other words, do you see traditional solo horror experiences giving way to more community-based spectator sport experiences?

I’m not too sure. An interesting game to watch out for, especially in that regard, would be SOMA. I’m hoping it does really well and it does still prove a point that you can make these horror games that are primarily singleplayer experiences that you’ll want to really immerse yourself in and go through by yourself. At the same time though, I don’t think group/spectator-orientated horror games are necessarily bad. Things like Five Nights at Freddy’s have done really well, and every time I’ve seen [creator] Scott Cawthon speak about the games he’s basically said look, this is my work – if my games don’t appeal to you, they will to someone else. A lot of people complain about the rate at which he’s producing his games, but from a game developer perspective I think it’s really clever, because he’s got all this extra stuff that he adds in with each new game. It’s not just another churned out sequel with the same content, there’s more things going on in each new one; he might need to develop extra systems and stuff like that, but a lot of the same signature backbone is there every time. In that respect, I think he’s done really, really well off the back of it, and the way he’s kept the continuity across all four games is impressive as well. Reading all he’s posted about the series, he comes across as very humbled by it all and grateful for his fans – a genuinely nice guy. People are obviously engaging with that series and really enjoying his games, so there’s room enough for all types of horror games to co-exist. So Five Nights at Freddy’s might be a great horror game for one audience, whereas Silent Hill, Amnesia, or say something like Clock Tower might be more to the tastes of another. They’re all different horror games but they’re all horror games in their own right.

I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive categories are they really – like you say, horror is now such a broad genre that there’s now games available for pretty much every particular niche.

I think the more interesting thing to look at is the different types of horror that will come in to the genre from other cultures. Japanese horror games are obviously quite big and they’re based on their own culture’s thoughts and considerations of what horror is, and the same goes for their films too. When films like Ring and Ju-on get remade as for American audiences, they didn’t really have the same sense of horror to them. They still work as basic horror films, but not in the same way; there’s this feeling that some crucial part was lost along the way. It might just be people insisting the Japanese versions are better because they were the originals, but other people might say that there’s slight translation issues and influences that aren’t as apparent culturally to western horror audiences as they would be to Japanese ones. That’s why those films might be way much more terrifying for Japanese audiences than western ones. In that respect, I’m sure there are horror things things we have in British culture which aren’t necessarily applicable to America or anywhere else in the world.

Dreadout

Seeing new horror games exploring different cultures of horror will be really interesting, especially with the advent of major game engines like Unity now going for free. This democratisation of game engines allows smaller teams or even individuals to make their own games – Digital Happiness, the Indonesian developers who made DreadOut are a good example, and seeing titles like that coming out of countries you might not expect is very exciting. There might already be a really thriving scene there, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s going to be really cool to see all these different aspects of horror, or even brand new genres coming out of these different cultural elements. A lot of people moan that this means we’re just going to get a load of random people flooding Steam trying to sell a load of random crap. While it’s kind of true on one hand, on the other it enables people who might never have had the opportunity to make their own games now have the means to get stuck in. Instead of just rushing something half-baked out, they could take years working on their magnum opus before finally releasing it; it might be this really good game. Look at people like Tom Happ with Axiom Verge for example. He was doing everything himself on that game, and when it came out people just thought it was absolutely amazing. People always seem to look at the negatives rather than the positives when it comes to things like an abundance of Unity games appearing. We used Unity for Monstrum, and other companies much bigger than us have also used Unity to great effect, it’s a powerful engine. Lots of people don’t seem to consider that however, instead just writing off anything on the engine as just another random Unity game. It’s a shame. I guess it’s one of those things – if you don’t like these games, then don’t play them – but people like complaining I guess!

What’s next for Team Junkfish then? Any plans to revisit Into the Sky perhaps?

Right now, we’re prototyping two different projects. One of them is completely different to Monstrum, while the other one has a couple of similarities, but is still quite a bit different. I’m not entirely sure which one we’ll be pushing ahead with, but hopefully we’ll have that sorted out in the next month or two. Into the Sky would be interesting to go back to, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to start from scratch again and look at the core idea and ask ourselves can we rebuild it. If these prototypes pan out then we’ll hopefully announce something next year. One of them is very similar to Monstrum, so hopefully we can capitalise on our success as well as learn from our mistakes.

Hunter Sub Escape

Are you looking at going through the Steam Greenlight process again for these projects, or have you considered crowdfunding it through Kickstarter etc.?

Greenlight is a weird thing, in that Valve have been saying for a long time that they’re planning to get rid of it, so we’re not really sure what the deal with that would be. It might be a case of having to go through the Greenlight process with new projects anyway, or it might already be gone by that point – we just don’t know. It’s the same with Kickstarter – we don’t know if we need to do a Kickstarter, and if we did that then there’s so much planning that needs to go into that. Now that’s a scary thought! (Laughs)

Fiend Attack

Monstrum is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.

Killer Instinct Season 3: Rash Beginner’s Guide

Rash Intro Pose
Standard

There were myriad announcements to come out of Microsoft’s Gamescom conference last week, but  the one that put the biggest smile on my face was the official confirmation that Killer Instinct would indeed be getting a third season. I believe the exact words that came out of my angelic mouth were “Oh fuck yes!”, to be precise.

Officially announced as coming in March 2016, KI Season 3 will release in a fashion more closely following Season 1’s distribution model; rather than rolling out new fighters on a monthly basis, a selection of several characters will be available at launch, with a choice few extras released down the line as DLC.

Additionally, the other juicy nugget of info that dropped during the conference was that Season 3 will be featuring guest characters (presumably because there aren’t many original Killer Instinct characters left to draw upon at this point, let’s face it), one of which was revealed to be Rash from Battletoads – how todally awesome (sorry) is that? As a bit of an amphibian aperitif to next year’s third serving, Rash has been released right now to anyone who’s bought Rare Replay or those who have previously purchased content for Killer Instinct. Kowabun-oh wait, sorry, wrong franchise.

The addition of a giant anthropomorphic toadman into KI is an absolutely perfect first choice of guest character in my opinion. I know a lot of fighting game enthusiasts are generally very much against cross-pollination of their franchises, but come on! Look at him – this warty warrior could not be a better fit for Killer Instinct if he tried. Placed amongst a motley crew of cyborgs, werewolves, dinosaurs and ninjas, Rash surprisingly blends into the standard Killer Instinct character roster extremely well. If you didn’t know he’s actually from a 1991 NES game (and very likely about to star in an as yet unannounced Xbox One franchise reboot), Rash could quite easily pass off as one of the regular characters just because of how utterly ridiculous he is.

However, all this frog-based frivolity does come with a slight caveat; Rash is only temporarily available until the 8th September (presumably so he can go back to starring in that aforementioned potential Battletoads reboot in the meantime, isn’t that right Phil Spencer?). This means that although Rash will make a fully-fledged return when March rolls around next year, the KI community currently only has a month to get to jump aboard the Battletoads bandwagon and clamour over this new fighter’s command list like a writhing, sweaty knot of real life toads. Kinky.

So, in the interest of time, I decided to try something different with this guide. Unlike the more detailed guides I’ve previously put together for the Season 2 fighters, I thought I’d just give a quick whistle-stop tour of Rash’s whacky command list. Without further ado then, here are a few tips that should help separate the frogspawn from the tadpoles when it comes to playing Rash in Killer Instinct – let’s go!

Rekking Ball

Wrecking Ball

Goodness gracious, great balls of…oh, toad.

Miley Cyrus is a dab hand at wrangling with wrecking balls these days, and thankfully, so is Rash. However, while his twerking skills could probably benefit from some more practice, Rash’s ability to morph into a giant green wrecking ball certainly gives him a significant advantage over MTV’s favourite destruction machine jockey. Inputting Quarter-circle Back + Kick performs Wrecking Ball, which sends Rash hurtling towards his opponent as the aforementioned warty weight. What’s particularly useful about the move is that Wrecking Ball has one hit of armour, making it a great way of pressuring your opponent or getting around the stage quickly. It can also be used to create some useful cross-up opportunities when used in the air – just watch out for your opponent anticipating it and anti-airing if you spam the move over and over.

Tongue Twister

Rash Tongue

Poor Thunder – milliseconds away from the most traumatic ‘wet willy’ of his life.

Just as Miley has a penchant for constantly sticking out her tongue for the camera at pretty much every given opportunity, so too does Rash. Unlike Miley’s human tongue however, Rash’s tongue can be used to latch onto the environment and his enemies as an oral zip line. Handily, it also allows him to gobble up incoming enemy projectiles to add to his Shadow Meter. Known as Wicked Tongue, you throw out the tongue by hitting All Punches + Any Direction; this move can be performed whether you’re on the ground or in mid-air. In fact, it helps to think of it a bit like a one-shot version of Cinder’s Trailblazer move, only with a lot less fire and lot more saliva and a ridiculously long reach. If shot out in a direct line forward, Rash’s tongue will pretty much go the full length of the screen. If it makes contact with your opponent or a stage boundary, then it will latch on and reel you in to where the tongue hit. This means you can use Wicked Tongue from afar to suddenly get in close for close-up rushdown pressure, or if mid-way across the screen, launching Wicked Tongue to the screen wall behind Rash will let you zip to a safe distance with much greater speed and range to his standard backdash. The key to using Wicked Tongue is to be aware of just how close the camera is zoomed in to the action at all times. As you get closer to your opponent, the camera will zoom in with a tighter focus, and Wicked Tongue will carry you over a shorter distance. Wicked Tongue does have a slight start-up delay to account for as well, so make sure it’s safe to start licking the screen or you might just end up eating a knuckle sandwich instead.

Autopilot Pugilism

Battlemaniac Combo

Rash’s Battlemaniac combos are easy to pull off, but also easy to break – use them in moderation.

Hitting Light Punch or Light Kick repeatedly will make Rash perform a basic auto-combo – or as the game likes to more descriptively put it, a Battlemaniac Beat ‘Em Up Combo. I presume Miley Cyrus has the ability to do this as well, but I’m sadly not too hip with her fisticuff finesse. These Light auto-combos will also recapture an airborne opponent, which makes them very useful pressure and punishing tools in Rash’s arsenal. For example, when used after successfully connecting an anti-air attack, these auto-combos are a great way to transition from defensive to offensive tactics quickly and smoothly. The fourth hit in the combo will also automatically trigger a Shadow Linker (proving there’s enough Shadow Meter in the tank of course). Just bear in mind that these autos are very easy for your opponent to combo break if they work out you’re using them. For this reason, I’d suggest using the Battlemaniac combos rather sparingly in your attacks as a means of adding variety to your game plan, rather than leaning on them too heavily as your primary method of attack.

Baa Ram Ewe

Battering Ram

Rash has no qualms locking horns with Season 2’s deadliest fighters.

Like a select few members of the Killer Instinct cast, Rash can run (or ‘RUN!’ as the move is listed in his command list) by hitting Forward twice in quick succession. When running, hitting Heavy Punch will cancel RUN! into Battering Ram – this move makes Rash instantly grow a set of ram’s horns and lunge at his opponent…because videogames! As a side note, I can in fact confirm that Miley Cyrus also has the ability to run, but as to what button inputs are required to initiate the running action or make her grow ram’s horns, sadly I have no idea. Battering Ram (alternatively performed with Quarter-circle Back + Punch) can be extended into a full combo if successful on hit, making it a good rushdown tool. When executing a combo, it’s worth noting that Battering Ram and Shadow Battering Ram are Rash’s only linkers (aside from the Battlemaniac auto-combos), so you’ve really got to be on point with regularly varying the strength of your attacks to prevent being combo-broken.

Das Boot

Big Bad Boot

Ouch. Just ouch.

Of course, Rash’s famous Big Bad Boot smash hit move had to make the cross over to Killer Instinct. Performed with Quarter-circle Forward + Kick, Big Bad Boot makes Rash’s foot morph into a giant spiked boot. While I’m sure that Miley Cyrus owns a plethora of boots and other such fancy footware, I’m pretty confident that she doesn’t have the ability to spontaneously morph her feet to giant proportions…yet. Okay, back to Rash – Big Bad Boot functions as an excellent decent anti-air when used on its own, and as his Damage Ender when used in a combo. As the move isn’t linkable, it can feel a bit cumbersome to work Big Bad Boot into your combos at first, but with a bit of experimentation you can utilise it in some neat ways. One of my favourites is to whack my opponent straight up into the air by inputting the Heavy Kick version of the move, and then recapturing your plummeting combatant by repeatedly hitting Light Kick to launch into a Battlemaniac combo – give it a try, it’s really fun (not to mention painful).

Biker Toads From Mars

Speeder Bike

Rash always had trouble remembering the correct stopping distances.

Activating Rash’s Instinct mode, Turbo Tunnel, gives his body cool glowing wire model highlights. More importantly though, it also allows him to summon his trusty Speeder Bike into the fray as a rideable projectile attack. Unfortunately though, it looks like Rash took his Speeder Bike driving test at the same test centre as Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, as he’s a pretty terrible driver. If Miley Cyrus does actually own a futuristic hoverbike of sorts, I’m pretty confident that she at least knows how to pilot it better than Rash anyway. Mechanically, the Speeder Bike functions in a similar manner to Orchid’s Instinct Firecat projectiles; they careen in from whichever side of the screen Rash is currently occupying. While they aren’t particularly fast, they do have some interesting properties to be aware of. Rash can jump on a passing bike by pressing Up as it trundles past, and slow it down once aboard by holding Back, which allows you to juke your opponent. Once the bike explodes or goes off-screen, hitting the Instinct input (Heavy Punch + Heavy Kick) again while Turbo Tunnel is still active will call in another one. Just be aware that there is a slight delay between the destruction of the old bike and the generation of a new one to prevent you just filling the screen with hovering traffic, so be ready to hold your opponent off in the post-explosion cooldown.

Rash in the Rain

B-b-b-bad to the bone. ‘Bad’ as in pretty damn cool, of course.

When Rash stomps back onto the KI scene next year, it’s very likely that his command list will have undergone some major changes, so pretty much all of this information will be irrelevant when Season 3 drops. Hopefully this very brief look at Rash’s repertoire has given you a few key pointers to help ribbeat up the competition in the meantime. Time to crank up the Battletoads’ pause music and get thumping…or, you know, Miley Cyrus’ back catalogue if that’s more your thing.