Tim Newsome-Ward & Darren Flowers Interview (Desktop Daydreams)

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

Around this time last year, I happened across a rather interesting indie horror game called The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead. Developed by Bradford-based indie studio Desktop Daydreams, it’s a 3D first-person horror game coming to PC and Xbox One, and, if I may say so myself, I think it looks pretty damn cool.

You haven’t heard of it? Allow me to bring you up to speed. The game places you in the shoes of Ri Anderson, a Custodian (think a neurological Sherlock Holmes mixed with equal parts Judge Dredd and Inception‘s Dom Cobb and you’re on the right lines) who has to enter the mind of a suspected murderer and navigate through their various memories to get to the truth of a (probably rather grisly) murder case. This process of entering minds and poking about with their memories is facilitated with the use of a special program called The Corridor (think The Matrix‘s VR program, only with less gun-blasting lobby scenes and designer sunglasses and more creepy monsters and mind-bending madness). As the name might suggest, the program displays the suspect’s mind to the Custodian as a virtual corridor, which acts as a hub area from which the player accesses the various scattered memories of the subject. I say scattered, because the order in which they are accessed is randomised each playthrough. The player has to navigate their way through mysterious mental echoes to find important clues, avoid creatures and gradually build up a case of evidence in order to make a final judgement on the suspect at the climax of the game.

Sounds neat right? Intrigued by the game and its curious cognitive concepts, I previously spoke to the game’s Designer, Tim Newsome-Ward, on the eve of the game’s August 2014 Kickstarter campaign to find out more. Although the game generated positive media coverage, was selected for Steam Greenlight and picked up plenty of new fans along the way, in the end the project sadly didn’t reach its minimum funding goal. Since then we haven’t heard much from the Desktop Daydreamers, and to an outsider, it looked like the lights might have ultimately been switched off on The Corridor for good.

Thankfully, I can tell you right now that this is definitely not the case. I once again met with Tim and his colleague Darren Flowers, Desktop Daydream’s Creative Director, to talk about what’s new with The Corridor, and it sounds like things are very much full scream (sorry) ahead.

Pig Head

“It’s a been a tough road,” laughs Tim good-naturedly as he nurses a hot cup of coffee, “We’re still going strong even though we’ve had a rollercoaster ride at the beginning of this year.” It’s a bright sunny Bradford morning when I meet Tim and Darren, and in contrast to their pleasant and cheery company, the nice weather and the plush furnishings of Waterstones’ cafe, I’m about to learn just how dark and tough this rollercoaster ride through the harsh reality of indie development has been for the tiny two-person studio. I kick things off with a rather unsophisticated opening question; what happened next after the Kickstarter failed?

“We had to think positively,” Tim recalls. “Steam have given us the okay, so we thought look, let’s keep working on the game keep pushing as far as we can.” Their resolve to keep going in the face of adversity is even more impressive when it’s revealed that the team’s programmer left the project at the end of last year. “We got to Christmas, and then our coder Chris left, so we lost our technical side. As a designer I’m part technical and part arty, and Daz is full art on the creative side of things, so we just thought oh shit!” he laughs. “We’ve known Chris since university, and we mean no disrespect to him; he had other things to do and his own financial concerns to deal with. He had to move on. We still talk to him and he’s still interested in working with us at some point, but basically he couldn’t dedicate the time that we needed and that’s fair enough.”

Chris’ departure inexorably forced the team into the unenviable position of having to find a new programmer – fast. “Everything we’d done up to that point was just a prototype, there were no solid or fixed frameworks; everything was hashed together to get a playable idea down. What we really needed was someone who could come in and tackle the engineering side of things. Someone to come in, take the reins and tell us what we need to do from a tech standpoint. We were humming and hawing for ages, but eventually we just turned to the community to see if there was anyone who liked the idea. We set up a post on the Unity forums at the beginning of this year which contained a few screenshots and the basic premise of the game.”

Little did they know however, that their programming soulmate was just around the digital corner. “We got tons of replies from coders, so it took a while to sift through all these applications. Eventually, we contacted Tony Li from Pixel Crushers in the States – he’s been fantastic as he bought into the whole idea and just gets what we’re going for completely. There was just something about Tony that made you know he was going to deliver; he was very much to the point and he came across with a lot of confidence. He was really good because he just knew what we needed and was totally professional. We sent Tony the GDD (Game Design Document) and he read through it and said what would work and what wouldn’t. We actually ended up ripping out more or less everything we’d started with and started again from scratch.”

On top of the personnel setbacks, another big concern from a technical standpoint was the game’s engine. Up to this point, The Corridor had been developed using Unity 4, but the release of the shiny new Unity 5 engine in March 2015 posed an enticing, but costly temptation for Desktop Daydreams. “Unity 5 had just launched and we thought wow, that looks nice! We’d already built a lot of the game in Unity 4 by this point – we had about five or six full levels finished and looking nice with the physically based shading kit, so we set these up in another test project and started converting them over to Unity 5.”

The decision to move things over to the newly announced Unity 5 was a particularly agonising choice for Darren. “I went kicking and screaming into Unity 5!” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do it at all, because there’s only two of us tackling this side of the game, so to completely changeover from Unity 4 to 5 would be a lot of work. We’d both put so much time into the game already, but were at a point with Unity 4 where I think we’d pushed it to its limits.”

Nevertheless, as Darren explains to me their visual aims for the game, it certainly sounds like all the extra work that went into migrating the project over to Unity 5 was well worth the trouble. “The main thing we had to be sure of was that it would be visually acceptable. We’ve set ourselves quite a high mantle – we’re not skimping anywhere, and if there’s something that doesn’t look right then we do it again. At first, when opening what we’d already made in Unity 4 in the new engine, it didn’t quite have that ‘wow’ factor, despite all the new shaders, lighting and textures in there. Now though, there’s nothing of the original game left – we’ve rebuilt everything, and it all just looks totally different and so much better now. We’ve worked on levels where we’ve completed everything, and then decided it’s not good enough, so we scrap everything and start again. It can be quite tearful binning something that you’ve spent the past six months working on, but we’ve had to do it because we want the game to look and feel the best that it possibly can.”

Basically, we started the whole game again, and reassessed everything,” Tim adds.With the new lighting, everything has this new realistic look to it because of the new physically based shaders and stuff, it works really well. It feels a lot more in line with other games that are already out there, but it’s going to take more time yet. We’re getting to a point where in the next few days we’ll be at the Alpha stage, all the in-game systems and mechanics are present and working. We’ve still got to do a lot of work in terms of getting levels and memories working, and getting the actual gameplay of those levels up to scratch, but because all the base frameworks are in place that will be a lot easier now. Looking back, we’ve done the right thing moving to Unity 5 because we think that we’ve got a much better game now as a result.”

With a new programmer in place, and the migration from Unity 4 to 5 well underway, Desktop Daydreams’ next move was to seek out potential publishers. Tim and Darren reached out to Microsoft, specifically their ID@Xbox program, who were quick to help step in and support the game. “We thought about what we needed to do next and decided to approach Xbox One and the ID@Xbox team. Having been Greenlit on Steam gave us a bit of leverage, and Xbox shipped us through the ID@Xbox onboarding process really quickly. We’ve got the XDKs, they sent the kit out really fast. It was really surprising and nice because they wanted to see a bit of the game, some screenshots and what figures we’d got from Steam. They were really good and supportive – it was like wow, we’ve got some kit from Xbox, even though we haven’t really got anything solid to show yet! I think they just saw the idea, thought that it was good and decided to get us onboard.”

Understandably in light of the tumultuous events, the game’s release window has now been delayed to Spring 2016. “Originally, we were aiming to have the game out by Christmas of this year, but with all the setbacks with losing staff and upgrading to Unity 5, it’s pushed us over into next year. I think towards the first quarter of next year, around April-ish hopefully. It’s going to be another few months before we get to Beta, but once we’ve signed off on the Alpha and we’re happy with everything, the Beta will progress pretty quickly as it’ll just be a case of building levels, building the gameplay in those levels, getting the story working and then testing it all. Testing is a big phase though, so we’re thinking of trying a closed Beta. We would like to do an open Beta, but with the game being so story-focused, we don’t want the narrative to get out there and onto YouTube before the finished thing is actually out and ruin it for people. We might release some specific playthrough videos or small slices of trailer footage, but it’s tricky because of course we want people to play it, but we also don’t want to give away the story. When you’ve only really got two people working full-time on a game and you’re going for top quality on all parts of it, then it does take time. It’s all part of the cycle of development; it’s been hard work, but we’re getting there.”

“We’ve been working on this for so long, and we’ve had such a knockback with the changeover to Unity 5 – all those events have put us back at least six months or so at least – that we don’t want all the people who helped us get through Steam Greenlight to forget that we’re still bringing this game out,” Darren earnestly attests. “Hopefully the game will have matured a lot, and it’s now just about giving us the time to get the finished thing out. But hey, these things happen when you’re making your own game with basically just two people and no budget!”

Without a central office for the team to work out of, there’s also a pressing need to keep morale levels up amongst everyone on the team. As well as Tony, Tim and Darren also regularly collaborate with animator Andreea Lintaru, but due to both geographic and chronological concerns, it’s hard to find time when everybody is free to touch base. “I think for a team to successfully work virtually without an office, everyone needs to be self-disciplined and have that drive to get up and do what you need to do,” says Tim. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose motivation and it’s just not going to work. Thankfully though, the DIY attitude of indie development certainly seems to have focused the team’s ongoing efforts, and kept them a close-knit group. “We’ve been working on the game for over two years now. We’re such a small team for a project of this scope and we’ve got to do everything ourselves. It’s an exciting process, but in terms of finance we’re running on fumes really. It can be a strain at times, but that’s also part of the fun of it all; you can only rely on yourself to get everything done. Daz tackles the creative side of things and I do the design, Tony writes the code and Andy animates. It’s how it is, you’ve got to learn what you need to do and just get things done.”

Spider Man

With the main pieces of Desktop Daydreams’ story over the last year in place, our conversation moves onto more specific details about the state of The Corridor itself. As a story-heavy singleplayer horror game with a mixture of linear and non-linear parts, I’m keen to hear how they still plan to get these potentially conflicting narrative elements working together cohesively. “We want it to be different to your typical linear video game story even though you’ll play it linearly with junction points where you’ll be able to choose your path,” Tim tells me.

“We had an idea first that when the player moves through these memory booths, you’d end up in a completely random level, but we decided that to get it right it just wouldn’t be a practical thing for a team of our size to do. So instead we decided to come up with a set amount of levels and really, really polish them.”

Interestingly, Tim explains how they have looked to real world brain psychology for inspiration when designing the structure of these in-game memories. “How would you access the memories in somebody else’s mind? Would you randomly access these memories, or would they come to you in some sort of structure? Could you travel back through that mind again and go to a different memory? Thinking in terms of the science behind real life memory engrams, we don’t really know how they work or how they are stored in the brain, so we built that idea into the in-game science and lore of The Corridor. The game might give you two hatches to go through, each taking you different ways – so that concept plays into how this virtual mental corridor is structured. We came up with the idea to have these branching points where you have to make a choice, and then once you’ve played through a memory, you’ll go back to the main path.”

“As you choose your own path through the game, you might do or see something in a memory that might influence how you perceive the story, and your decision process might be completely different if you went another way. You are going into these different memories at various branching points, and although it might feel disjointed along the way, when you get to the end you’ll be able to look back and piece it all together.”

While we’re on the topic of jumping into people’s minds and rooting through their memories and whatnot, I ask how the process of integrating Oculus Rift support is going. Unfortunately, although the whole premise of The Corridor makes it an ideal fit for VR, sadly it sounds like things are still at an early stage here. We haven’t got any of the Oculus kits at the moment,” admits Tim, “but we’ve also not really been at the stage where we felt like we needed one just yet. It’s still something we really want to do though, because I think it adds to that feeling of immersion we want. We’ve been building the levels with a 60fps target in mind, so things have already been optimised a lot for VR. It’s a time consuming process, but we’re getting there.”

Aside from the general narrative concerns, another big challenge for the two developers is designing a horror game around the personal and mutable tastes of its players. “We’re trying to scare people – that’s our main aim really, but it’s such a subjective thing. What do you do exactly?” Darren muses.

“Creating a universal fear is a very hard thing to achieve,” adds Tim. “We’ve done a lot of research into different types of horror, and ultimately fear is a relative thing to each person. People take their own personal fears and experiences into the games they play. Jumpscares are probably going to be a scary factor for some people, but we don’t want to overuse them as a mechanic.”

“A lot of games rely purely on jumpscares, but I find that once I’ve had one or two thrown at me then I just quickly get used to them,” interjects Darren. “It’s about keeping that fear in the player throughout the game. We’re almost trying to get people frightened of themselves. They might walk into a room and see something and make a decision based on what they’ve seen. Later on, it might turn out that they made completely the wrong decision, and we might try to make that realisation a bit upsetting. We want people to be aware of what they’re doing within the game’s environments all the time. Getting that idea to work within a horror framework is quite hard.”

“That’s why a lot of horror games don’t work, because they probably don’t have that level of fear to them.” Tim reasons. “It’s all about getting that uneasy feeling of being somewhere you don’t ever really feel comfortable. Some horror games are largely about the combat and the blood etc., but for us I think the important word isn’t so much horror, but fear. One of our main points of reference which we always go back to is Silent Hill. That first game had that feeling of constant dread, you never really knew what was coming, you never felt safe at any time – that’s the atmosphere we’re aiming for. It’s not necessarily about being anxious of dying, but rather capturing that feeling of tension and discomfort and sustaining it throughout an entire game.”

Darren suggests that a crucial factor in effectively creating and sustaining anxiety in the player is the aesthetic design of the world. “A lot of that goes back to the environment design. For example, one of my favourite bits from the first Resident Evil is the part where you move the bookcase in the Dormitory and go down into this flooded chamber just before you reach Neptune’s Aqua Ring. The creepy music playing in the room before you get to the flooded lab was so effective and it just sent shivers up and down my spine. It’s about creating that sense of fear and eeriness and having it pervade throughout the game continuously; We’re trying to create similar moments and memories in The Corridor that will hopefully stick with players for a similarly long time.”

“I think above all, you’ve got to capture that feeling of the unknown, so we want the environments to be as diverse as possible. They might throw unexpected things your way, so it’s not just about what you’re seeing and what you feel, but also questioning the nature of the spaces that you’re in as well. Am I actually in this environment or is it something else? One minute you might be outside, one minute you might be in something very cartoony, but they’ve all got that element of horror running through them, that similar atmosphere of fear that we’re after. Silent Hill did it with the radio static; if you were near to a creature you’d get the static crackling through on the portable radio. You might not even be able to see what you were close to, but it still sent that shiver down your spine.”

Silent Hill has not only inspired the team artistically, but also in regard to what elements aren’t necessary for The Corridor – such as a combat system.

“The only thing I didn’t really gel with in the game was the combat. You’d find a creature and have to batter it to death with a dodgy stick! It just felt like it was taking something away from the mood for me,” Darren reasons.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to put combat in The Corridor,” Tim affirms. “A full combat is not in the game because we’re trying to keep things true to the story of the game. The player’s character is attached to a machine that connects them to another person’s mind, and you’re entering their thoughts and walking through a virtually constructed representation of their memories to see what they’ve done and to find evidence of a potential crime. Would you really be there to fight things? Would you be there to shoot and kill? Your character is more of an observer, but would you still have to defend yourself from this other mind? We’ve gone through all these questions so many times! Thinking along those lines, we’ve come up with a scenario where you might come across a gun or weapon, but it might not be necessarily for shooting something or someone. If you fire off the gun, then you might actually just ruin the puzzle it was the solution to.”

Having said that, the team has experimented with the idea of a combat system to see how it could function. “We’ve temporarily got guns in the current game at the minute actually,” Tim reveals. “You can run round and shoot at stuff as part of a test mode we’ve built, and it is quite cool to have those weapons in there to see what combat in the game would be like. But we’ve got to be realistic and remember that to build an entire combat system with such a small team and to suitably balance the levels to accommodate combat would be a real strain on our already limited resources. It’s also a question of whether the game actually needs all this stuff?”

Darren jumps in right away to answer. “I don’t think it does. I remember playing Doom 3 for the first time and I was petrified. There was a time where I walked through a dark room and I could hear something breathing next to me, and when I got a tiny bit of light in there I could just see this bloke stood next to me! He didn’t do anything, but still, that moment was very creepy! The moment the combat started though I just lost interest in the game as it was not really what I wanted anymore. I really liked that emphasis on the fear element, I liked the uncomfortable feeling that you got from the characters and the environment.”

Angel Statue

I get a particularly insightful look into Tim and Darren’s different design philosophies when the topic of Konami’s cancelled P.T. comes up in our chat. Specifically, it’s talk of P.T.‘s metagame puzzles which sparks up an ongoing debate the two developers are still currently working through for their own game about how much help should be offered to the player in a game via the user interface. Darren wants to create a totally immersive experience in The Corridor, one that doesn’t overtly direct or influence the player by highlighting items or displaying textual hints whatsoever.

I like that feeling of total immersion where there’s just the barest minimum of UI elements present to guide the player. I like to know what I’m doing in a game without being explicitly told what I’m supposed to be doing. For example, if you see an item such as a book, if it’s part of the game you might be able to interact with it, if it’s not, you can’t. I don’t like it when you walk into a room and you’ve got two or three objects that you’re obviously supposed to interact with and they’re all shining brightly. Personally, I’d rather have those items not so directly indicated to the player,” he says.

On the other hand, Tim would prefer the UI to subtly call out important items and offer additional information to the player when necessary. “It’s about finding that balance. A lot of games will highlight important items in the game world, and we’re trying to work out what the best method is of calling out important items to the player. Do you highlight or put a glow around an item, do you change the cursor to a hand icon when it’s hovering over it? Do you put important items in more light, do you design that room in such a way that the items stand out? Do you make them aesthetically pleasing, or do you put a little red carpet running right up to each thing? There are good examples of this in games like Bioshock, where important primary narrative items had that golden glow to them, where secondary pickups like ammo and audio diaries had more of a subtle silvery shimmer. If you’re going for a totally immersive experience though, where the idea is to put the player into the game as if they were actually there, then you don’t want to have those sort of effects present. It’s a hard thing to get right!”

Darren suggests that a careful ‘less is more’ approach to the level and item design is vital for such a stripped down UI to work. “Basically it means that you’ve got to put less clutter in a room. If you put too many things in one area and people are searching absolutely everywhere, they will likely get bored, so the trick is to put less items into the environments but make them more meaningful and clear.

It’s fascinating to see how the two guys go back and forth on this tricky issue. Ultimately, they tell me that they’ve decided to go with a traditional UI and hint system, and give the players who want a hands-off experience the option to turn all UI hints off. “In The Corridor, we’re going to put the option in of being able to turn off visual hints in the user interface, so if you want you can play through without any overt visual feedback to guide you through the game,” elaborates Tim. “It’s been a point of contention, but some players will want that sort of fully immersive experience, while others will want more direction.”

“At the same time, we don’t want people to get totally stuck, to the point where it becomes frustrating. If the player has been working around for five hours and just can’t find the solution to a puzzle then you can just turn the hints back on again. I remember playing games like the original Tomb Raider, where I’d be looking for a missing cog puzzle piece for about four or five days! By that point I just didn’t want to play anymore, but then once I finally found the missing cog it was simply the best thing ever!” he laughs.

As we finish our coffees and our conversation draws to a close, Darren speaks about reconciling the contradictory schools of thought around what constitutes good indie game design. “I was reading something the other day on Facebook from Ga-Ma-Yo where one lad was giving some advice, which was basically when you make a game you need to make it for yourself. Then somebody else said no, that’s totally wrong, you need to make it for everybody! I think we’ve done a bit of both; we’ve made a game that we’d like to play but we’ve also tried to do a game that other people would really want to play as well.

Tim echoes his sentiment. “We have to be realistic. It’s bad to say it, but we’re running a business, we’re trying to make a living doing this, and you’ve got to consider the market. You’ve got to make something people want to play, something that people will want to pay money for. When you’re an indie developer, you’ve got to do something a little bit different to put yourself out there, and people will pay for quality. The good thing is that now we’ve got all the core mechanics working, it’s more a case of just building assets now and getting them all working correctly. The end product will hopefully be something that gamers will absolutely love to play.”

At the end of the day,” Darren laughs “we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love gaming. It’d be great to get a game out there that we were involved in that people enjoy. But loads and loads of money would also be alright as well, I’ve got a wife and two small children to feed!”

Here’s hoping 2016 goes plain sailing for Desktop Daydreams. You can follow Tim and Darren’s progress over @desktopdaydream on Twitter, and keep an eye glued to their website and Steam Greenlight page for the latest updates.

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.

Piotr Ruszkowski (OhNoo Studio) Interview

Wall Demon Art
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I recently played through an awesome 2D point and click horror adventure game called Tormentum: Dark Sorrow and, to cut a long story short, I really enjoyed it. Successfully funded through Indiegogo in August 2014 and launched on Steam in March 2015, OhNoo Studio’s game is a dark and surreal journey through a nightmarish land, complete with disturbing demons, forlorn figures and bioorganic backgrounds. Curious as to what exactly inspired all this grotesque horror and melancholy, I reached out to Piotr Ruszkowski, Tormentum‘s artist and co-designer, to ask him a few questions about his career, the creation of OhNoo and Tormentum, and what monstrous muses lay behind his haunting but beautiful creations.

How did you first get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?

Well, all of OhNoo’s crew previously met at an educational company and our job was to create educational software including games. The games were rather simplistic and aimed only for local distribution, but they were the means for us to learn to work together as a team. This helped us a lot later on when we tried to do our own little project for tablets. This wasn’t a game in the true sense of the word, but rather just an app, but it was a small step to larger ideas for the next projects like Tormentum. So I like to say that we have come a long way in our evolution. During that process, we have been inspired by many successful independent developers out there like Amanita Design and their Machniarium and Botanicula games. They proved to us that it’s possible to make something beautiful using limited resources. We knew at that time that we wanted to make an adventure game because we weren’t able to do anything else gameplay wise, so we focused on making story driven games.

Tormentum Team

How did you meet Łukasz and Grzegorz, and how did OhNoo come together as a development studio? Also, where did the name come from?

I’ve known Łukasz for many years, we’ve been friends since highschool. We went to different universities but we met again in the same job in the educational company. Grzegorz joined the office to work as a programmer later on, and we all worked in the same room for five years. When the company started a reduction process and fired many workers, we decided to stay together and make our own projects. The name ‘OhNoo’ was the result of a joke we shared during an annual event integration of the past company. We liked the simplicity of that name and decided for it to be the official name of our team.

Door Creature

What was the initial inspiration behind Tormentum, and what made you decide to make a 2D point & click adventure game specifically?

I was creating the Tormentum world almost two years before the actual development of the game took place. Back then, I wanted to make a dark collection of works for my personal portfolio (I had only 15 works at the time) but then I realized that it would be much cooler to have a whole game in such a style. So it was a starting point for us to clarify more details about what genre it should be or how to build an interface etc. The point and click genre was perfect for images to be exposed. Of course I had to prepare them for the parallax effect which needed foregrounds to be cut out from backgrounds etc. but the motion effect was totally worth the effort. The end result was 75 game backgrounds and hundreds of zoom-in screens.

Desert Statues

You’ve listed the painters H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński as main influences on the game’s visual style. What is it about their surrealistic art that appeals to you as a creator and artist, and why do you think it still resonates strongly with people today?

In my opinion Beksiński and Geiger were focused on showing fear, death and suffering in their paintings. That is what I wanted to share with the audience as well in Tormentum, so I was strongly inspired by these artists. The aspect of metaphysic is somehow present in Beksiński’s works which also strongly resonates with me. I think that people appreciate their art for similar qualities.

Embracing Skeletons

The game’s world draws from an eclectic visual mix of sci-fi, high fantasy, steampunk and body horror – genres that traditionally don’t always fit well together, yet somehow you’ve successfully managed it with Tormentum; the game has this unique feel and identity to it as a result. How did you go about incorporating all these various styles and blending them together so cohesively

First of all the world of Tormentum is very dreamlike, so I could go crazy and put whatever I wanted in there. Of course I had to stick to a decayed sense of style, in order to kept it coherent. I was guided by my personal rule that the player must be entertained and not be bored, so I was thinking about how to surprise the gamer to keep her/him motivated and rewarded once she/he finds new locations. So I focused on creating stuff that was both cool and interesting for myself, but also hoping that it would also be interesting for the players as well.

Mine Creature

In the process of designing the levels and backdrops, did you have to make any compromises from your original artistic vision? For example, did you have to simplify any areas to make levels easier for a player to navigate, or make areas more complicated to better serve a tricky puzzle design?

Of course! It’s a natural part of the designing process. Sometimes we would have a puzzle ready first and then I’d have to create a background for it, other times it would vice versa. Sometimes I had to add something to support a riddle, but I must say that we didn’t do any drastic changes or throw away any of prepared graphics simply because we cannot afford to. I remember some stages that needed tweaking a lot to serve as a cool puzzle chamber such as the weight puzzle with the guard in the background or the mine level with wagons. There were a ton of changes.

Castle Chamber

Did the game’s dark story come about as a result of the art style, or did it evolve separately to the visuals?

The world and the whole setup came first and the story was thought out later on. When we were designing the game we had some core ideas for the story, but the finer details had to be hammered out later on. I was loosely inspired by movies like What Dreams May Come and others – especially those about underworlds. At one point we had a dedicated writer who was responsible for the script but he was just not reliable and didn’t deliver his work on time so Łukasz and I had to take care of the story and dialogue ourselves. It was a tough task because we aren’t trained writers.

Grey IcariTormentum reminded me of Silent Hill 2 in the sense that the various creatures and characters you encounter are all visibly suffering and pitiful in their own way. What challenges did you face in designing the creatures and characters in such a way as to get the player to sympathise with them rather than feel revolted?

I didn’t particularly wonder about how the players would receive the characters in the game when I was creating them – it was too early for that. Rather I was focused more on making something interesting, and that was the most important factor for me at that point. Later on, I sat down with Łukasz and thought about how to shape an interesting character with their dialogue. Sometimes it cast a whole new light on them. I think we did a good job with some characters – like the Rat for example. He was the most developed personality from the entire cast of our characters in my opinion, because he was quite an important NPC in the story.

Tower Beast

Having read that you’re a fan of From Software’s Demon’s Souls, I was quite nervous when first playing Tormentum as to whether clicking on the various creatures would cause a death or fail state. While I’m glad the game doesn’t punish the player’s curiosity in this way, was there ever any talk of including a similar cruel but fair trial and death mechanic in the game?

No. The From Software inspiration in Tormentum comes only from a visual aspect of their games. We thought about raising the difficulty of the puzzles during the development process, but in the end we didn’t want to frustrate the players; I wanted to make more of a streamlined and smooth adventure game with awesome 2D graphics. The punishing methods in Dark Souls are great, but in adventure games it could be a pain in the ass! We were looking more at modern adventure games in the Telltale Games’ style for gameplay inspirations.

Eye Socket Puzzle

Personally, I thought you struck a great balance between accessibility and difficulty with the design of Tormentum‘s puzzles. Was this a challenging thing to achieve or did it just come about naturally as part of the design process?

Early in the development stage we had several harder puzzles in the game, but we discovered that they were just frustrating and weren’t fun. We didn’t want to create stupidly hard ones that needed external assistance. We always questioned ourselves – is it fun? Is it enjoyable? If we found a puzzle to be too difficult then we put some helpful hints in, because we wanted players to be able to finish the game without having to break off to check YouTube walkthroughs etc. As for the item puzzles, we always kept in mind the idea to stay as logical as possible. We tried to avoid the usual adventure game tropes of MacGyver-like item mixing and strange illogical item usage. I hope we did it quite well. The main goal in creating this game was to make a sweet and short game that everyone could finish and enjoy.

Cage Puzzle Notebook

I thought the game’s user interface was very considerate to the player in a way that a lot of puzzle games just aren’t. Did the idea to include a virtual notebook for the player come about from your own experiences of playing adventure games?

User Interfaces should be as easy and minimalistic as possible. Notice our game’s inventory placement and its functionality. We have seen many modern adventure games with huge inventories just pop up in the centre of the screen when you click on them. In my opinion, it’s just a terrible design choice because when it happens, I don’t have any room to see where I can match my items on the backgrounds. That is why we chose to move the player’s inventory to the right and make all the items you are holding visible without interrupting the game backgrounds. As for the notebook, we discovered that some of the puzzles might need a pen and paper to solve, so we didn’t want to force people to physically make diagrams on paper in front their computers.

Statue Close-up

The music in Tormentum complimented the melancholic atmosphere and dark visuals incredibly well. I know you’ve already released the game’s artbook, but do you have any intention of releasing the soundtrack?

Unfortunately no, because all the tracks are licensed. Łukasz did a fantastic job of selecting all the tracks to match the atmosphere of each of the locations, and it wasn’t an easy task to do! So yeah I’m afraid we don’t have rights to release a soundtrack.

Your IndieGoGo campaign for Tormentum was a big success – were you pleasantly surprised by the positive response to the game right off the bat?

Yes we didn’t expect anything frankly speaking. It was just a test for us in such crowdfunding methods. The response was positive and very motivational, but I have to mention that the biggest feedback we got was after we released the demo of the game because not everyone treated us too seriously based on just a few images and GIFs.

Is the crowdfunding process something that you’d want to try again with future projects?

Of course! I can hint that very soon we will be back with another project but this time on Kickstarter. It will be a drastic change from Tormentum, so stay tuned. For us, the crowdfunding approach is a great opportunity from a marketing standpoint to let people know about our projects before their release. It is a very important thing in today’s world where it’s hard to be noticed.

TsioqueFinally, what’s next for OhNoo? Can you talk a bit about Tsioque, Snot & Muff and Sky Islands?

Tsioque is a point and click game with cartoony graphics so it’s quite a drastic departure from Tormentum. The main feature of this game is the handmade animation. If you appreciate such craft you will enjoy this game. We were inspired by old classic games like Dragon’s Lair or Heart of Darkness in aspects of their animation and design. We hope it will be an enjoyable point and click game! As for Snot & Muff I can only say it’s cooking away right now. It’s not so much a game but rather a simple storybook as Amelia and Terror of the Night was. It’s just a side project for us. The rest of the projects are secret for now until we’re ready to announce them.

Tormentum: Dark Sorrow – Review

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Eldritch Excellence

Well, it’s safe to say that Polish developers OhNoo Studio certainly know how to subtitle their games. When I first laid eyes upon Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it was pretty clear that the game was going to be dark and disturbing, but quite frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared for the range of emotions it would make me feel. Revulsion, disgust and grotesquery of the highest order yes, but sadness? Regret? Despair? Surely not.

Thankfully though, OhNoo Studio completely blindsided me with their melancholic masterpiece. Upon reaching the end credits, I felt depressed, drained, but also deeply moved in ways I just completely wasn’t expecting. Tormentum is easily one of the finest point ‘n’ click adventure games that I’ve played, and one that I just can’t stop thinking about long after the credits rolled. Though it’s a fairly traditional take on the genre, the game is nonetheless a wonderfully crafted sombre and poignant gothic tale, woven together with incredible care and attention to detail throughout. Its puzzles won’t perplex you for long and the majority of its morality mechanics are predictable and formulaic, but Tormentum delivers with such confidence, style and finesse that it manages to feel both surprisingly refreshing and hauntingly original.

Zeppelin

Take a look at that picture and tell me that’s not a fantastic opening scene. Bravo OhNoo!

Starting with quite possibly one of the most instantly intriguing main menu screens I’ve ever seen, Tormentum immediately beckons you into its strange and twisted world by enveloping you in the tattered, musty robes of its mysterious hooded protagonist. Awakening from an amnestic dream, you find yourself suspended in a cage from the skeletal underbelly of a rather disturbing flesh-covered zeppelin alongside a fellow prisoner (a rather peculiar rat/weasel hybrid fellow to be precise), with no memories whatsoever of your past, or how quite how exactly you managed to end up in this rather worrying scenario. Yes, that tired old storytelling chestnut I hear you sigh, but trust me and stick with it, as from this well-worn opening cliché, Tormentum crafts a gloomy and intriguing story.

Knight

The friendly knight is only too happy to help you settle in.

Initially imprisoned, our cloaked character feels compelled to escape the gloomy castle he finds himself trapped in after receiving threats of torture-induced penitence, (completely understandable under the circumstances) and embark upon a perilous pilgrimage to a mysterious stone statue out in the wastes. However, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange and perilous land…

Tormentum is a concise nightmarish journey through a dark and distorted landscape, but not one without depth and heart. For a start, the game’s art direction is absolutely stunning. Heavily inspired by the works of H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński, the game has a beautiful yet horrific painterly style, incorporating all sorts of hideous body horror elements, hellish landscapes and cruel creatures into its palette.

Desert Statues

From start to finish you’re surrounded by suffering; torture, misery, death and pain permeate each and every screen, and the effect is like journeying through a gruesome gauntlet of Bosch paintings, each one more disturbing and demented than the last. Sepulchral towers of flesh and bone wrench their gnarled towers and screaming buttresses toward the dark stormy skies as if writhing in eternal agony. Grotesque beasts and withered beings cloister in dark recesses, some acting as direct demonic deterrents, others as ominous omniscient observers. Hell, even the relatively humanoid characters you encounter aren’t reassuring in the slightest; often hissing, snarling and sneering at you, or just coldly indifferent to your presence.

Everything feels hostile, desolate and utterly alien, and there’s that familiar sickly combination of loneliness and fevered paranoia in the air that you get when playing games like Dark Souls or Silent Hill 2. At times it can feel like you’re playing an interactive Bergman film; your hooded character roams through dark catacombs, barren wastelands and decrepit mausoleums on an existential Kantian quest for answers in a hopeless, rotting world. In other words, it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

Wall Demon

Strangely though, despite the game’s oppressive atmosphere and visuals, Tormentum surprisingly never slips over into gratuitousness or farce. I found that the heavy mood actually instilled in me a mood of quietly morbid fascination rather than shocked disgust or unpalatable revulsion. The game’s world feels vast, oppressive and completely devoid of warmth, yet somehow it remains fascinating and dangerously exciting to explore. In fact, the closest parallel I can draw to Tormentum in terms of mood and atmosphere is possibly something like the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; not in terms of outright horror or psychological frights per se, but that it evoked a similar cocktail of deeply uncomfortable foreboding, tinged with the morbid thrill of discovery.

Mirror Angel

Speaking of morbidity, like a lot of the best horror experiences, Tormentum has that exhilaratingly tense juxtaposition of temerity and trepidation clashing together at all times to drive you deeper into its mysterious world. Interestingly, I found that a lot of this tension came not just from the creepy art direction, but also directly from the puzzles themselves. In particular, the game does a fantastic job of forcing you into making some absolutely gut-wrenching moral choices with the various characters you encounter on your journey. Although a great deal of these choices are largely the sort of typical well-telegraphed binary good/bad nature you find in countless games (i.e. do you kill a certain character or decide to spare their life), their presentation in the context of the game’s heavy atmosphere makes them feel gripping and compelling rather than hackneyed. As the whole world is twisted and strange, it’s never quite clear whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, good or evil, caring or cruel.

Tree

As Tormentum progresses however, there’s a handful of more nuanced interactions which aren’t so transparently labelled as a clear-cut right or wrong, good or evil choices, but rather lie in much more juicy and ethically ambiguous territory – several of which left me extensively agonising over which was the right decision to make for quite some time, let me tell you. It’s here where the game excels, requiring you to make decisions that, at times, felt comparable to Telltale Games’ usual modus operandi. What’s important though is the fact that regardless of how you decide to act in the strange world of Tormentum, the fact that you can sympathise with each and every one of these wretched creatures and sorry souls you encounter, no matter how repugnantly vile, is testament to the game’s minimal yet powerful narrative.

The minimalist ambient soundtrack is also a key part of the experience, subtly contributing a great deal to the game’s atmosphere and mood. Eerie drones, dissonant horns, ominous synths and booming timpani swirl around with rustic guitars, weeping theremins, ghostly vocals and sombre strings to create a warped yet delicately melodic score. It interweaves incredibly well with the visuals, and it’s also cleverly used as a sneaky red herring in a couple of scenarios to completely deceive the player. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the audio design demonstrates an astute and admirably devious intelligence lurking below the soft harmonic surface.

Skeletons Embracing

Tormentum’s rich visual tapestries subtly use clever and deep symbolism throughout. Clever and creepy.

Whilst the game may look like a Dante-esque nightmare you can’t escape, it actually plays more like a lovely dream you enjoy spending time in. At first, on my first playthrough of the game, I often never knew whether I was safe like in prototypical point ‘n’ clicks, or one wrong click away from a grisly death at any time. Luckily for me then, OhNoo Studio wisely focussed on immersive storytelling over implementing punishing trial and error mechanics and the result is a game that relishes and rewards both your company and your curiosity. You’re never punished for exploring; rather, Tormentum encourages the player’s interest, and rewards those who take the time to really poke around in the gorgeously disturbing environments. The level of detail in each disturbingly picturesque scene is incredible, and more often than not you’ll be startled by some small thing you might have missed on your initial observations, or find a helpful detail which might shed some much needed light on your current predicament.

Cube

ITV’s gothic reboot of The Cube certainly had Phillip Schofield a little anxious.

The game’s puzzles aren’t particularly taxing, but neither are they insufficiently challenging, striking a nice equilibrium between intrigue and potential frustration. With the exception of a rather devious musical notation conundrum towards the end, you’ll rarely be held up for long, and you can comfortably complete the game in one sitting. While I can appreciate that this might well be a negative for players who really like to wrestle with a challenging set of fiendish puzzles, I personally I think that OhNoo have managed to get a nice middle ground here that makes sense for the type of game they wanted to make. The emphasis is clearly first and foremost on immersing the player in this strange world and the mysterious characters that inhabit it. Obviously, puzzle difficulty and player immersion aren’t mutually exclusive, but as the game world itself already feels hostile and uninviting, I could see that including some seriously hardcore riddles could easily put players off the game for good. Either that, or I’m probably just an idiot.

If you do happen to get stuck on a troublesome puzzle however, the game does a great job of helping you out without crossing the line into patronising hand-holding. An often overlooked part of any game is the user interface – fortunately, Tormentum has a brilliant one; it’s simple, clear and most importantly, a joy to use – the best part of which is the protagonist’s notebook. Upon discovering any important puzzle clues, your character will jot down the relevant information in its yellowed pages, which can then be later referred to at any time during puzzles etc. This saves you having to tediously traipse back and forth between a puzzle and it’s corresponding solution whilst trying to desperately remember absolutely minute visual detail, or having to write down notes yourself. While I do love that old school DIY aspect of having to keep a pen and paper handy (or perhaps ink, quill and suspiciously-fleshy parchment if you feel inclined to roleplay) when playing a good adventure game, it’s undeniably helpful to have the game provide you with persistent digital equivalents.

Cave Painting

Unfortunately, Tormentum does suffer some pacing issues in the third act, and ultimately the conclusion felt a bit heavy-handed in contrast to the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the rest of the experience. Compared to the nebulous opening, the ending feels more like a contrived deus ex machina; admittedly, although this does sit well with some crucial themes of the game, personally it just felt really at odds with the delightfully indefinite nature of the majority of the experience.

Regardless, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and upon completing your pilgrimage across the wastes, you’ll have experienced quite the (disturbing) adventure you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. This a big month in the gaming calendar for Poland and the Polish dev scene – thanks to a little game called Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but if you’re more of a point ‘n’ clicker than a hack ‘n’ slasher, then I highly recommend Tormentum. Just remember, as Tolkien wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”

Statue

Project Spark Tutorial – Making Your First Game

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Of Sparks and Squirrels

Have you ever wanted to build your very own game? Well, if you’ve got an Xbox One or PC, then a great place to start taking those first few adventurous steps into the game creation process is Project Spark. Developed by Team Dakota, Project Spark is essentially the Microsoft equivalent of Sony’s Little Big Planet series, with a healthy splash of Halo‘s Forge mode thrown in for good measure. In other words, the game is a free-form games builder that provides players with a simple palette of tools from which they can craft a surprisingly large variety of games and worlds to play in.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a game that mixes elements from both a futuristic sci-fi FPS’s multiplayer editing suite, and the wackiness and carefree creative abandon of a cute but world building game would be a total disaster. However, that’s not the case; Project Spark is one of the hidden gems on the Xbox One, and well worth a look if you’ve got some creative virtual muscles to flex. Whether you want to recreate your all-time favourite platformer in minute detail, indulge in some creative landscaping or create your very own gaming masterpiece from scratch, Project Spark is a great place for budding games developers to start tinkering away. You can even upload your creations so others can play through them, and likewise download other players’ content and remix it to your heart’s content.

The game originally launched in December of 2013 as an open beta on PC, but started to gain more momentum in March 2014 when it launched on Xbox One. At the time, Minecraft had yet to make the generational leap from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One, so Project Spark found itself in the rather fortuitous position of being the only major world-creation game on Microsoft’s new console.

Conker Project Spark

Since Minecraft’s release however, things have been rather quiet on the Project Spark front…so just why is it exactly that I’m writing about it over a year later? Well, the first part of Conker’s Big Reunion just released yesterday, that’s why. A sequel game of sorts to the N64’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Big Reunion is an episodic adventure set within Project Spark (as paid DLC) which stars everyone’s favourite boozy squirrel in a quest to pay off a rather hefty bar tab he’s steadily accrued.

While I have to say that, personally, I would have much preferred to get a complete brand new stand-alone Conker game, I’m just pleased that we’re getting more Conker content at all, even if it is delivered in a bit of a fiddly piecemeal fashion. Bad Fur Day was a much-loved game during the twilight years of the N64 (later re-released as Conker: Live & Reloaded on the original Xbox), so a continuation of the franchise will hopefully give fans a further incentive to go back to Spark if they’ve been away, or try it out for the first time.

What’s interesting about this IP crossover is that once you’ve finished romping around in the main Big Reunion content, you have the option to have a pop at making your own Conker game…well, at a price anyway. You see, Project Spark functions as a free-to-play title, albeit one that is rather heavy on microtransactions – you can download and start playing the game with the main creation toolset, but you’ll find that certain cosmetic items and features are locked behind pay walls. Yes, this does mean that unless you start shelling out cold hard cash for items other than the basic starting props, everything you make does tend to look a bit Fable-esque (whether you want it to or not), but the good news is that all the important features of the game are free. Besides, with some clever design and imagination, players have even found clever ways to turn the default cutesy artstyle and bright colour palettes into effective vehicles for horror games – check out the faithful recreation of P.T. by user SpawnN8NE for a good (and spooky) example.

So, if you wanting to specifically make your own particular nuanced recreation of The Great Mighty Poo boss battle from Bad Fur Day, then you’re going to have to pick up Conker DLC assests, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get your hands dirty. If, however, you’re just wanting to get stuck in to Project Spark and have a pop at making your own game, then I might just be able to help you out.

The following guide will show you how to make a very basic game in Project Spark on the Xbox One without spending a penny on extra aesthetics. We’re going to go through step-by-step how to make a simple 3D platforming game, with coins to collect and enemies to beat along the way to the goal. Okay, so let’s get started. To the main menu…and beyond!

A Whole New World

Once you’ve started the game up, and the flashy introduction sequence has finished, you should be faced with a menu that looks like this (Figure 1):

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Figure 1: The main menu screen.

Use the d-pad/left stick over the Create option and press A to select it. One thing to note here is that if this is your first time playing Project Spark, the menu items and your onscreen cursor may be faintly outlined and look like the display shown in Figure 2 below:

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Figure 2: Some of the icons can be quite faint and translucent at first, but once selected they become solid and opaque like in Figure 1 above.

Don’t worry; this just means that you haven’t ‘activated’ each option yet (the game’s way of awarding XP or experience points, which you can use to unlock new things). All you have to do is move your (unhelpfully faint) cursor to your desired choice press the A button to activate it; the selected choice will change to a bright green colour and a short verbal prompt from the in-game narrator will play. So if you can’t see where your cursor bracket is at first, don’t panic; press A and you’ll be able to see it turn green on whichever options it’s currently over.

Okay, so to recap, with the Create option highlighted, press the A button and you should now be whisked away to a screen that looks like this:

Figure 3: Select the far left option, Empty World and press the A button.

Figure 3: Select the far left option, Empty World and press the A button.

Move the cursor to the far left option, Empty World, and press A. This will generate a new world template for you to customise to your heart’s content. You should now see a screen that looks like this, complete with a small chap in a yellow shirt – this will be our playable character in the game, but before we get to him, let’s run through the basic cursor and camera controls, and two of the main creation tools. He’ll still be there waiting patiently for us, so there’s no rush, take your time!

Lights, Camera, Cursor

Figure 4: The yellow circular ball you see is the cursor - in this case, it is currently set on the Paint tool.

Figure 4: The yellow sphere you can see is the cursor – in this case, it is currently set on the PAINT tool.

The game will give you a quick tutorial on how to move and control the cursor and camera; the cursor is the big yellow sphere that’s currently around the character and is controlled with the left stick. The camera can be rotated using the right stick, or ‘orbited’ as the game likes to fancily put it, around your cursor so you can see what’s around your cursor at different angles. You can also zoom in and out with the camera by clicking in the right stick – there’s a close, medium and far setting, and you cycle through them in that order with each click. I’d recommend leaving the camera zoomed in close for the time being so you can clearly see what you’re doing, but go with whatever zoom setting works best for you.

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Figure 5: The right stick controls the camera angles and zoom level.

You can also control the height of the cursor by pressing X to make it go down, and alternatively you can press Y to make it go up. Nice and simple!

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Figure 6: The X and Y buttons control the height of the cursor; X goes down, Y goes up.

Have a go now at practising with the cursor and camera controls. Once you’re feeling ready and you’ve got these basic controls under your belt, we can start our game by making a nice big area of land to build it on.

At The Mountains Of Madness

Okay, so we can move the cursor around using the left stick, look at it from different angles using the right stick, and control its in-game height by using X to go lower and Y to go higher. Let’s use our newly acquired giant yellow cursor ball skills to make some mountains.

Press the A button – this will extend the PAINT tool side bar on the left hand side of the screen, to show that it is the currently selected choice. We will do some painting soon, don’t worry, but first we’re going to make some land to put our paint on. Press down on the d-pad/left stick once to highlight the SCULPT toolset, and press the A button on Expand option (the first option in the SCULPT menu).

Figure 7: Press the A button to extend the PAINT option from the left hand side of the screen...

Figure 7: Press the A button to extend the PAINT option from the left hand side of the screen…

Figure 8: ...and press down on the d-pad/left stick once to get to the SCULPT options - Expand will be the first highlighted choice.

Figure 8: …and press down on the d-pad/left stick once to get to the SCULPT options – Expand will be the first highlighted choice.

The cursor will now change to a clear circle with an orange outline, to show that we’re currently in the SCULPT toolset. Expand lets us use the cursor to raise the terrain within the reach of the cursor by holding the right trigger, and lower it using the left trigger. Holding the left bumper brings up the Expand edit menu, and you’ll see that you have a few more variables with which to tweak the Expand tool. Scale changes the size of the cursor’s area, Shape changes the shape of the cursor (you can choose a square shape or cylinder as different cursor shapes) and Intensity controls how subtle or extreme you want the change in terrain to be. You can move between these variables by continuing to keep the left bumper held and moving the d-pad/left stick right and left, and you can change the numerical value of each variable by keeping the left bumper held and moving the right stick up or down. Phew, that’s a lot of directions and button presses to learn, but here comes the fun part, trust me.

Press the right trigger to create a raised area of land; we want a fairly large area to use for our game, so I’d recommend tweaking the Expand tool’s edit menu settings to about 40% Scale and 80% Intensity. Don’t worry about our character in the yellow shirt, he’s a tough little fellow and will be fine if you move terrain around and under his feet. Pressing the left trigger lowers the land with the same settings that we set for Scale, Intensity etc. so you can create varying landscapes of your choice – mountains, valleys, canyons, you name it. Don’t forget you can click in the right stick to cycle through the three zoom modes so you can get a good look at your landscape at different distances to get a sense of its size and scale.

Keep on using Expand by pressing the right trigger until you have something that looks roughly like the picture below – for simplicity’s sake, let’s make a basic long strip of land on which to build our game. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be exactly like the picture below so feel free to use your imagination if you want to design a different landscape.

Figure 9: Make a nice big long strip of land - quite clearly the most mind-blowing shape ever conceived by professional landscapers.

Figure 9: Make a nice big long strip of land – quite clearly the most mind-blowing shape ever conceived by professional landscapers.

Also, don’t worry too much about mistakes – Project Spark allows you to quickly go back and undo any errors you’ve made by pressing the View button so you can quickly undo a wrong move. Whenever you make an action, a coloured bar will appear at the bottom of the screen to signify that you are taking an action. The colour of the bar signifies the type of actions you’re making; Orange signifies actions performed in SCULPT or PAINT, green represents actions made in BIOME (the topmost toolset, used for putting vegetation onto your created landscapes) and actions taken in the PROP toolset (used for putting items into your game world) appear as blue on the bar. We’re currently using the Expand tool which is part of the SCULPT toolset menu, so the bar is orange to match the orange SCULPT colour scheme.

You can keep pressing the View button each time you want to go back and undo your steps in reverse order, or can also hold the View button and move the right stick left and right to scrub backwards and forwards along the orange bar to edit out your mistakes instead. Once you’re happy with your newly created chunk of land, it’s time to get your paintbrushes ready as we’re going back to the PAINT tool next.

Painting & Decorating

Right then, we’ve got a nice big slab of land on our screens, now it’s time to slap a nice coat of paint on it…and by paint I mean a coat of lush green vegetation, not your regular tin of Dulux.

Press the A button and then press up on the d-pad/left stick to go back to the PAINT tool, and then press A again to select it. This will bring up the PAINT palette menu at the bottom of the screen, directly above the orange undo bar, and your screen should now look a little something like this.

Figure 10: The PAINT tool palette menu - note the middle box in Free Slots (the left most category) is selected as the current paint.

Figure 10: The PAINT tool palette menu – note the middle box in Free Slots (the left most category) is selected as the current paint.

Press right and left on the d-pad to select what sort of foliage-themed ‘paint’ you’d like using the little glowing white cursor in the paint menu, located just above the orange undo menu. For our example, let’s go with the nice grassy looking second paint choice in Free Slots, as indicated in Figure 10 above.

Like with the Expand tool, hold the right trigger and move the left stick to paint your strip of land a nice leafy green with the cursor. You can also bring up the edit menu for the PAINT tool by holding down the left bumper and tweaking the variables for the tool in the same way we did for Expand; with left bumper held down, move between the options by using left and right on the d-pad/ left stick, and increase/decrease the value of the selected option by pressing up or down on the right stick. Pressing left trigger will ‘unpaint’ an area, so you can revert any areas you aren’t happy with back to the default blue colour if you want.

You should now be the proud owner of a lovely green strip of land like the one in Figure 11 below. Again, not to worry if yours is slightly different; as Bob Ross often said, we don’t make mistakes, just happy accidents.

Figure 11: Note the paint selected for the path is the fourth choice in Temperate Woodland section of the PAINT palette.

Figure 11: Note the paint selected for the path is the fourth choice in Temperate Woodland section of the PAINT palette.

Before we move on, let’s paint a path from one end of the island to the other for our hero to travel on. Let’s select the fourth paint in Temperate Woodland as a nice rural-looking choice of path.

Your grassy island, complete with a weather-beaten path, should look something like Figure 12 below; again albeit with your own personal little quirks and artistic flourishes of course.

Figure 12: Your very own island, complete with grass and path.

Figure 12: Your very own island, complete with grass and path.

Prop Goes The Weasel

So, we’ve done some painting, let’s crack on with decorating the island with some props – items and objects that we can put in our game. Press A to bring up the side menu bar, and move down to the PROP toolset option, and select the first highlighted choice, Add & Edit Props, by pressing the A button. This will bring up the PROP tool’s palette menu, which will take the place of the PAINT palette menu at the bottom of the screen.

Figure 13: The Add & Edit Props tool allows you to... you guessed it, add & edit props!

Figure 13: The Add & Edit Props tool allows you to…you guessed it, add & edit props!

The Add & Edit Props tool allows you to add and tweak the props and items you want to place in your game, and it’s where you can start to customise the look and feel of your game. Before we move on, let’s move our character to the start of our path so he’ll be ready to set off on his quest. To do this, having selected Add & Edit Props with the A button, hover the cursor (now a small blue crosshair-like circle) over him, and press the right trigger. Now, moving the left stick, you can move your character to your desired placement spot – let’s stick him at the far left of our path; we’ll put some more items at the right end of the path, along with our goal.

Figure 14: Placing the character on the path. Note how the preview window at the top of the screen changes when you press B to place your character. This gives you an idea of how the game will immediately look to players from their perspective when they start playing.

Figure 14: Placing the player character on the path. Note how the preview window at the top of the screen changes when you press B to place your character. This gives you an idea of how the game will immediately look to players from their perspective when they start playing.

Once you’re happy with your character’s placement, first press the left trigger to snap your character to your freshly painted ground – this means that your hero won’t end up stuck in the ground when you start to play, which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be an awful lot of fun. Snapping your character to a surface, or any other object or prop, is just an easy way of getting the game to automatically attach the item you want to the desired surface you’re wanting them to stand on, in a single neat button press.

Once you’ve pressed left trigger to snap your character, press the B button to set the new position and drop your character into place. You’ll notice in Figure 14 above that when you press B to set your character’s position, the character preview window at the top of the screen will change to show the new starting position of the player when you play the game.

So our character is in place ready to start the game, let’s add in a nice big tree at the other end of our island as some pleasant scenery. We’re still in the Add & Edit Props tool, so simply press up on the d-pad to open up the prop gallery. The prop palette just displays a small selection of the most commonly used props here, not the full catalogue of goodies on offer in the gallery, so I’ll show you how to search in the full prop gallery screen (see Figure 15 below).

Figure 15: The Add & Edit Props gallery selection screen. Note that the top left green highlighted box shows that we're currently looking at a selection of props in the objects category.

Figure 15: The Add & Edit Props gallery selection screen. Note that the top left green highlighted box shows that we’re currently looking at a selection of props in the objects category.

Here, we can select objects, characters, effects and lots of other fascinating things to put in our game. All the props are divided up into different categories – you’ll see each category is highlighted in the top left corner with a symbol and matching text. To cycle through the different categories of props, first press up on the d-pad/left stick to move the cursor to the symbols at the top left of the screen, and then press left and right on the d-pad/left stick to move through them, using the A button to select the category you want.

We want a tree, which is in the object section, so as it’s the default category that loads up, you can just simply scroll through all the choices by pressing/holding right on the d-pad/left stick. However, as there’s quite a lot of objects to choose from, that would take quite a lot of time, so let’s do something quicker! Move the d-pad/left stick to the right and then up, so that the green cursor is over the search bar, the small blue rectangular box at the top right of the screen displaying the text Begin typing to search. Press the A button, and then use the virtual keyboard to enter the word ‘tree’ before pressing the Menu button to begin the search.

Figure 16: The search bar is a handy way to search for a specific prop.

Figure 16: The search bar is a handy way to search for a specific prop.

This will bring up all the objects that have been tagged as trees by the game. Let’s go with the majestic Woodland Tree – Old B as the tree of choice for our game, which can be seen below in Figure 17. Move the cursor over the tree and select it by pressing the A button.

Figure 17: We'll use this tree, 'Woodland Tree - Old B' as a prop in our game.

Figure 17: We’ll use the Woodland Tree – Old B as a prop in our game.

You’ll now see a massive blue outline of the tree in the game. Looks like we’ve picked a particularly epic tree! Using the left stick, move the tree to where you want to place it in the game – for our example, let’s put it at the far right of your island. We place the tree in a very similar manner to the way we placed our character – once you’re happy with its position, press the left trigger to snap the tree to the ground (the roots will disappear and be below the ground, but much like with trees in real life, that’s normal), but this time, press right trigger to put the tree into the game instead of the B button. The reason for this is that pressing the right trigger creates a new object from the selected prop, for example the tree we’ve just placed, from scratch. When we placed our character on the path, he already was in the game to start with, so rather than making another character by pressing right trigger, we pressed the B button to just set his new position instead.

Figure 18: Move the tree to where you want it to go...

Figure 18: Move the tree to where you want it to go…

Figure 19: ...press L to snap it to the ground...

Figure 19: …press L to snap it to the ground…

Figure 20: ...and press right trigger to place it in the game. Voila! You've just planted your first tree!

Figure 20: …and press right trigger to place it in the game. Voila! You’ve just planted your first tree!

Okay, so we’ve got a nice leafy tree in our game. Let’s add a few more things to the game and then we can play it – we’re nearly there now!

Money, Money, Money

All the classic video game characters were usually obsessed with a single thing back in the early 1990s – money. Mario has always been obsessed about grabbing as many coins as possible while stomping on Koopa Troopas, and Sonic was always on the hunt for golden rings (presumably to send off to Cash 4 Gold for a nice hefty sum, the cheeky swine), so we’ll go with the same age-old video game goal – collect the coins and get to the goal! First let’s put in some nice shiny golden coins for our character to collect.

Open up the Add & Edit Props tool’s gallery menu screen again by pressing up on the d-pad. This time, let’s go to the search bar and search for ‘coin’.

Once the search results have loaded, you should just have two choices of coin props available – a Coin and a Coin Pile. Let’s resist the urge to go for the Coin Pile (as tempting as it is) and press the A button to select the Coin.

Figure 21: Try your best to resist the coin pile...it's difficult I know.

Figure 21: Try your best to resist the Coin Pile…it’s difficult, I know.

Using the same steps we used to put the tree on our island, place a line of coins along the path up to the base of the tree for our hero to collect. Use left trigger to snap the coins to the ground, and press right trigger to place a coin on the current spot the cursor is on. If you hold left bumper, like we saw with EXPAND and PAINT earlier, you can bring up the edit menu for the current prop you’re holding. We can change size of the coins if we wish using Scale, and there are options to rotate them so you can choose which direction they face. Don’t worry too much about their direction though; like any good video game coin worth it’s money (sorry, had to get that one in there), they rotate on the spot so you can just focus on where you want to place them. If you make a mistake and place a coin in the wrong spot, don’t forget you can either undo it by pressing the view button, or you can hover the cursor over the offending coin, hold the left bumper and press the X button to delete it.

Figure 22: This looks just like the tale of Hansel and Gretel, only with cold hard cash instead of breadcrumbs.

Figure 22: This looks just like the story of Hansel and Gretel – only with cold hard cash instead of breadcrumbs.

Hoblin’ Goblins

We’re nearly ready to test our game, but first, let’s make things a bit more difficult for our character; we’ll give him some goblins to fight off along the way! These goblins will not be best pleased that the player will be trying to collect the coins we’ve just put down and will attack when the player gets too close!

Once you’re happy with your trail of coins, open up the Add & Edit Props gallery screen again by pressing up on the d-pad. The screen will still be displaying results for our earlier coin search, so first we need to go to the search bar again, press the A button to bring up the keyboard, and this time delete the word coin by pressing the X button, followed by the Menu button. This will clear the search results and let us search the full catalogue of props again. Move your cursor to the top left of the screen, and over the character tab (indicated by the silhouette of a head), pressing the A button to select it.

The character tab contains, surprise, surprise, a selection of characters you can put into your game. From here, you can choose characters both to play as, and also put other characters into your game for you to fight against/interact with. We’re going to be controlling the man with the yellow shirt already standing on our island, so let’s pick the green Shrek-like Goblin Bruiser as our enemy template by moving the green cursor over him and pressing the A button.

Figure 23: Meet the Goblin Bruiser; lover of coins, hater of adventurers in yellow shirts

Figure 23: Meet the Goblin Bruiser; lover of coins, hater of adventurers in yellow shirts.

You’ll now have the blue outline of the goblin as your cursor, just like when we placed the tree and the coins. Let’s place 3 goblins in the grass along our path; spread them out a bit so they don’t all bother you at once! I recommend putting one at the start near your character, one somewhere in the middle, and another at the far end near the tree. You’ll also want your goblins to be facing your character; we have to give the goblins a fighting chance after all. Move your first goblin to where you want it to go, and before you place it, hold down left bumper to bring up the edit menu for the goblin, move the cursor over Rotate Y (short for Y-axis) using the d-pad/left stick and then rotate the right stick so the green directional symbol that appears on the ground is facing your character.

Figure 24: Although the green symbol is a bit vague, if you line it up with the rough direction of your character it'll make the goblin face towards him.

Figure 24: Although the green symbol is a bit vague, if you line it up with the rough direction of your character it’ll make the goblin face towards him.

Remember once you’ve got your goblin in it’s desired spot and it’s facing the right way, do the usual routine of pressing left trigger to snap it to the ground, followed by right trigger to place it. Repeat this process for as many goblins as you want, and like I said earlier, three is probably a good number.

Figure 25: The goblins are ready and in position, time to test the game out!

Figure 25: The goblins are ready and in position – time to test the game out!

Once you’ve got your three goblins in place in the grass guarding their trail of coins on the path, let’s test out our game so far! Press the Menu button to bring up the pause screen. Here, you can see options to save your game, get in-game tutorials and, perhaps most importantly of all, test your game. Move the cursor over the Test option and press the A Button.

Figure 26: Test let's you leap straight into your game and test out how it's coming along.

Figure 26: Test lets you leap straight into your game and test out how it’s coming along.

Now you’re able to play and test out your very own game. Run along the path, collect the coins and get the goblins! The default pre-set controls for our yellow-clad hero are:

Button Function
A Jump
B Forward roll dodge
X Melee attack
Y Fireball attack (projectile)
Left Stick Move character
Right Stick Move Camera
Figure 27: Use the X button to perform a close-range melee attack. Take that!

Figure 27: Use the X button to perform a close-range melee attack. Take that!

As you move down the path collecting coins, and you start to get close to each goblin, they will come towards you to attack – which is why it’s a good idea to spread them out a bit, you don’t want all three angry goblins wandering over to hit you at once! Having said that, if you keep an eye on the red health meter in the top left of the screen, you’ll see that they don’t do very much damage, and if you mash the X button on each one you should be able to take them down very easily.

Figure 28: Pressing the Y button launches a fireball attack you can hit goblins with from afar. Endokuken!

Figure 28: Pressing the Y button launches a fireball attack you can hit goblins with from afar. Endokuken!

See how you feel about the placement of your coins and goblins – I had to test my map out a number of times as I had trouble placing the coins in a straight line (pretty basic I know, I settled for a gentle curve instead), and some of my goblins were a bit too far away from the path for my liking (those pesky creatures) so don’t worry if things aren’t how you like them at first – you can press start and then select Edit at any time to go back to the create screen, which is the screen we’ve been doing all of our, yep, yeah you guessed it, creating and editing in so far. Keep going back and forth between Test and Edit until you are happy with the layout of your game so far.

 Kode Talker

Figure 29: Goblins, coins and a tree, for as far as the eye can see.

Figure 29: Goblins, coins and a tree, for as far as the eye can see.

Let’s recap. We’ve made an island, we’ve painted it with grass and a path and we’ve planted a big tree for decoration. We’ve added coins to collect, goblins to bash and we’ve tried out our game using the Test function in the pause menu and gone back to tweak it using the Edit function in the pause menu. All that’s left to add for our 3D platformer masterpiece is a goal – an endpoint that marks the end of the game.

Once again, let’s look back to some of those original classic games from the NES and Megadrive era to guide our inspirations. What did Mario always find at the end of his levels? Aside from the disappointment of being greeted by yet another Toad and the news that the princess was in another castle, Mario would find a flagpole, so we’ll take a leaf (albeit not a super leaf from Super Mario Bros. 3 that would turn us into racoons) out of his book and use a flag as our end of level goal too!

Figure 30: Choose the village flag - it's basic, but free.

Figure 30: Choose the Village Flag – it’s basic, but free.

First of all, let’s put a flag of our own into the game. Again, to quickly recap, you can do this by pressing the A button to open the side menu, scrolling your cursor down using the d-pad/left stick to the PROP option and pressing the A button again to select the Add & Edit Props tool. Then, scroll your cursor up to the search bar and type in ‘flag’. We’ll use the Village Flag for our goal. Place the flag at the far end of the path, in front of the tree, like in Figure 31 below. Don’t forget the usual routine of snapping the flag using left trigger and placing it using right trigger.

Figure 31: X marks the spot...well, no actually, the flag does. My bad.

Figure 31: X marks the spot…well, no actually, the flag does. My bad.

Okay, so we have a flag to use as a goal, but what next? We have to open up the flag’s brain – yes, really! Don’t worry, it’s not a gooey pink brain I’m talking about; every object in Project Spark has an AI brain which can be programmed to do different things. In our case, we want to program our game to end once we touch the flag. Move your cursor over the flag, hold left bumper and press the Y button to bring up the Brain editor.

Figure 32: Time to open up this flag's brain for surgery...STAT!

Figure 32: Time to open up this flag’s brain for surgery…STAT!

If your blood turned to ice when you read the word program, don’t worry! Project Spark uses a system called ‘Koding’ (woah, the crazy spelling must mean it’s cool, or extremely violent) which lets you program without having to know how to write and read code. You just have to learn how to read Kode instead, but as you’ll see, it’s quite straightforward. All the Kode programing works like an ‘if-then’ statement – once you open the brain of a flag, you’ll see two boxes, a blue WHEN box, and a green DO box. The WHEN box is the the equivalent of if, and the DO is the equivalent of then:

WHEN these criteria are met, DO this action.

All of this sounds quite complicated I know, but in practice it becomes quite easy. First of all, we need to tell the flag when the player reaches it. Press the A button on the + symbol to the right of the WHEN box.

Figure 33: The brain editor screen, displaying the blank first page of the flag's brain. Let's fill it up with Kode.

Figure 33: The Brain editor screen, displaying the blank first page of the flag’s brain. Let’s fill it up with Kode.

Then go to Sensors  bump.

Figure 34: This first bit of Kode tells the flag to recognise when an object touches it.

Figure 34: This first bit of Kode tells the flag to recognise when an object touches it.

You’ll see that the bump criteria we’ve just been coding has appeared in the blue WHEN box. Next, click on the same blue + symbol again and this time go to ObjectsPlayer.

Figure 35: This new bit of Kode we've added means that the flag will now recognise when specifically the player touches it.

Figure 35: This new bit of Kode we’ve added means that the flag will now recognise when specifically the player touches it.

This line of Kode now means that when the player touches the flag, something happens. We want that something to be for the player to have won the game and for it to finish.

Now move across to the green + symbol on the DO box and press the A button.

Figure 36: Move the cursor across to the right and select the green DO + sign with the A button to start programing the DO response.

Figure 36: Move the cursor across to the right and select the green DO + sign with the A button to start programing the DO response.

Then, press right bumper to display the second page of brain options. Select Brainsswitch page.

Figure 37: The switch page instruction is the first step in telling the flag's brain what to do next.

Figure 37: The switch page instruction is the first step in telling the flag’s brain what to do next.

This means the game will stop running instructions on one page and will move to another once the player reaches the flag – in our case, the instructions for finishing the game. An object’s brain can only run one set of instructions at once – as Project Spark says itself in one of the tutorials:

“Switching Pages is like changing states; like going from being asleep to being awake. You can’t be both at once”.

Once we’ve finished contemplating Project Spark‘s philosophical musings on the finer technicalities of human sleep, we need to again press the A button on the green DO + symbol to tell the game which next page of Kode to switch to.

Press right bumper, select Brains, and then next page. Your first brain page of Kode should look now like this:

Figure 38: The next page instruction combined with the previous switch page command tells the flag's brain to move to a new brain page to start the game over sequence.

Figure 38: The next page instruction combined with the previous switch page command tells the flag’s brain to move to a new brain page to start the game over sequence.

From this screen, press right bumper to switch to the new brain page. You can see which page you’re currently on by looking at the numbers at the top of the screen just above and to the left of the blue search bar. On this new brain page, we’re going to tell the game what to do once the player reaches the flag.

This time, instead of editing the blue WHEN side first, scroll the cursor right to the green DO + symbol and press the A button to select it. We’re going to get the game to display a victory message when the player reaches the flag. Select AppearanceDisplaydisplay.

Figure 39: This first Kode instruction will tell the game to display something - but what?

Figure 39: This first Kode instruction will tell the game to display something – but what?

Selecting the green DO+ symbol again, go to Values Textnew text, and enter what text you want the player to see once they reach the flag – let’s go with ‘Congratulations!’ for our example. Press the Menu button once you’re happy with your text.

Figure 40: Enter your message and press Menu.

Figure 40: Enter your message and press Menu.

Your screen will now look like this:

Figure 41: This means the game will display our message - but where?

Figure 41: This means that the game will display our message – but where?

Now we need to tell the game where to display our text when the player touches the flag. Once again, on the same line, press the A button on the green DO + symbol and then select ModifersPositioning Screen Locationscreen centre (the button onscreen actually reads screen center, but I refuse to bow to the American spelling). Your screen will now look like this:

Figure 42: This line now means the game will display the text in the centre of the screen, but we're not quite done with it yet.

Figure 42: This line now means the game will display the text in the centre of the screen, but we’re not quite done with it yet.

We have one more modifier to add to this line of code, and that’s to tell the game what size font we want the game to display our victory message in. We want the text to be nice and big, so it’s a fitting testament to the player’s skill at successfully navigating the deadly goblin-infested path they’ve just battled their way along.

That’s right, once again select the green DO + symbol by pressing A and then go to Modifiers Font Sizex-large font. You will now have a screen that looks like this:

Figure 43: Ta-da! The full line of Kode now means that the game will display the text in the centre of the screen in extra-large font. That's this line done and dusted!

Figure 43: Ta-da! The full line of Kode now means that the game will display the text in the centre of the screen in extra-large font. That’s this line done and dusted!

That’s the first line of Kode completed on the second brain page for the flag – together with our flag’s first brain page, the game will now understand to display the victory message once the player touches the flag. We’re not done yet though, we’ve still got a few lines of Kode to put into this brain to get a nice flashy ending sequence working, but we’re close to our finished game.

Move the d-pad/left stick down to the second line of Kode and press the A button on the second DO + symbol to select it. You can easily keep track of which line of Kode you’re currently on by looking at which line the horizontal blue cursor is on.

Figure 44: Move your cursor down to the second green DO + and select it with the A button to start inputting the second line of Kode. Nearly there!

Figure 44: Move your cursor down to the second green DO + and select it with the A button to start inputting the second line of Kode. Nearly there!

Then select AppearanceDisplayfade.

Figure 45: This first Kode instruction in the second line tells the game screen to fade to black.

Figure 45: This first Kode instruction in the second line tells the game screen to fade to black.

Next, select the DO + symbol on the second line again, and this time go to Modifers Transition Time.

Figure 46: This second Kode instruction tells the game to perform the fade out gradually rather than instantly, but on it's own it won't work; we still need to tell the game how long this will take in seconds.

Figure 46: This second Kode instruction tells the game to perform the fade out gradually rather than instantly, but on it’s own it won’t work; we still need to tell the game how long this will take in seconds.

After that, select the DO + symbol once more for this line and go to Values Numbernew number. Now we need to enter a time value (in seconds) for the length of time we want the screen fade to take. Let’s enter a value of ‘3’ and then press the Menu button.

Figure 47: Type in how long you want the fade to black transition to be. 3 seconds is a good amount, not too long, not too short - the goldilocks number!

Figure 47: Type in how long you want the fade to black transition to be. 3 seconds is a good amount, not too long, not too short – the goldilocks number!

Your completed second line of Kode will now look like this:

Figure 48: These two completed lines of Kode tell the game to display our victory text in the centre of the screen, and at the same time gradually fade to black over the course of 3 seconds once the player reaches the flag. It's nearly done!

Figure 48: These two completed lines of Kode tell the game to display our victory text in the centre of the screen, and at the same time gradually fade to black over the course of 3 seconds once the player reaches the flag. It’s nearly done!

This full second line now means that the game will take 3 seconds to fade out to black once the player touches the flag. We’re very nearly done, trust me! There’s just one last line of Kode to input, and it’s to tell the game to actually finish once the player touches the flag.

Move the cursor down using the d-pad/left stick and start a third line of Kode by pressing the A button on the green DO + symbol. Again, the blue horizontal lines of the cursor show you which line of Kode you’re currently selecting, and each line of Kode is numbered on the far left. Once you’ve pressed the A button on the DO + symbol, go to AppearanceDisplaygame over. This instruction will tell the game to end, but we also need to delay the ending so we can have chance to read the victory text.

Figure 49: The game over instruction ends the game, but we want it to sync up with our fadeout. We need two more pieces of Kode to get it all working together nicely.

Figure 49: The game over instruction ends the game, but we want it to sync up with our fadeout. We need two more pieces of Kode to get it all working together nicely.

The second to last step (very nearly done, don’t worry) is to move the d-pad/left stick to the left and select the blue WHEN (still on the third line), press the A button to select the + sign and then go to Timing and Logiccountdown timer.

Figure 50: The countdown timer instruction will delay the game over so it doesn’t happen immediately when the player touches the flag. We still need to tell the game how long to delay the game over for.

Figure 50: The countdown timer instruction will delay the game over so it doesn’t happen immediately when the player touches the flag. We still need to tell the game how long to delay the game over for.

Finally, press the A button to select the WHEN + symbol one more time and then go to ValuesNumbernew number to enter a value for the end of game timer. Let’s go with 3 again, so enter it using the virtual keyboard and press the Menu button to complete the last bit of kode for your first game.

Figure 51: Once again, enter our favourite number and press Menu - that's it!

Figure 51: Once again, enter our favourite number and press Menu – that’s it!

Speaking of victory messages, congratulations! You’ve just successfully created your very first Project Spark game. The final page of code for the second page of your flag’s now swelling brain will look like this:

Figure 52:  The flag's complete second page of Kode for our game over ending sequence. Combined with the first brain page of our flag, the game will now end and fade to black whilst displaying the victory message 3 seconds after the player has touched the flag.

Figure 52: The flag’s complete second page of Kode for our game over ending sequence. Combined with the first brain page of our flag, the game will now end and fade to black whilst displaying the victory message 3 seconds after the player has touched the flag.

Don’t forget to save your map by pressing the Menu button and then Save, and then Save As to give your game a special name, and use Save + Share to upload your masterpiece onto the Project Spark servers so your friends can download and play your game too. Once you’re happy with your game and it’s saved, go to Exit, and then select Play, and away you go!

Figure 53: You're now the proud owner of the world's brainiest flag. Well done!

Figure 53: You’re now the proud owner of the world’s brainiest flag. Well done!

If you want to download the map I’ve created whilst making this guide to tweak it, remix it, or simply destroy it, then from Project Spark‘s main menu go to Play, then Community, and search for ‘Everybody Plays Tutorial Game’ in the search bar at the top right of the screen.

Figure 54: Time to set out on your adventure! Have fun and thump some goblins for me! Don't forget to share your creations with your friends and see what they think of your game.

Figure 54: Time to set out on your adventure! Have fun and thump some goblins for me! Don’t forget to share your creations with your friends and see what they think of your game.

The steps we’ve gone through in this guide to make your own basic game are really only the tip of the iceberg. The worlds and games available to download from other Project Spark creators show off some remarkable skill and ingenuity in their design, which makes them a great place to learn new tips and tricks for your own creations. There’s also in-game tutorials that will teach you how to build games similar to the one we’ve just created, as well as several others that will guide you through how to build many different types of games. New content, help, items, tools and other bits and pieces are regularly added to the game via regular updates, so you shouldn’t run out of things to do or make any time soon.

I hope that this guide was helpful in getting you up and running with making your first game; perhaps it’ll be the initial spark (get it?) of inspiration to get you making many, many more.

56

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – Review

Title Screen
Standard

(Reviewed on PS4 and Xbox One)

No Alf Measures With This Fresh Meat

17 years ago, the gaming world was presented with one of its most unlikely yet most loveable mascots. Blue, alien, dopey, and most certainly odd, Abe the Mudokon made his debut in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. Developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, figure-headed by series creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the game introduced players all over the world to the eponymous loveable blue stitch-lipped hero of the title, and his quest to save his enslaved Mudokon people from becoming tasty snacks at the…well, figurative hands at least, of the industrial Glukkons.

A 2D side-scrolling action adventure game, Oddysee was renowned at the time for its unique art direction, detailed environments, cinematic CG cutscenes, challenging difficulty, and, of course, its oddball characters. The game’s story followed Abe, a Mudokon slave labourer (think cute blue and green aliens with rather fetching ponytails) working as a lowly floor waxer in Rupture Farms; a shady and dangerous meat packing plant run by Molluck the Glukkon (think a purple suit wearing greedy Octopus and you’re on the right lines). Hard at work waxing the factory floors late one night, Abe eavesdrops in on a Glukkon profit meeting, only to discover that Mudokon slaves are next on the menu to be chopped up and served as tasty pie fillings. Yikes!

Hearing this fantastic news, our petrified hero goes on the run and begins his adventure. Over the course of the game, Abe escapes the meat plant, seeks out his hidden power by braving two shamanistic rites of passage out in the wilds of Eastern Mudos before returning to Rupture Farms to use his new-found power to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons. Simple right? Well, not quite. You see, as far as video game characters go, Abe was just a wee bit underpowered in comparison to your regular gun slinging action hero. Unlike your typical armed to the teeth space-marine clichés, he had no guns or any physical means of defending himself; instead, all you had to rely on were your quick wits, Abe’s handy but limited possession ability and his noisy bowel (seriously) to make it through each screen in one piece…and not in several smaller bloodier ones.

Anxious Abe

Abe, our loveable schmuck/hero finds out that Mudokons are next on the menu. Gulp!

Players would need to guide Abe on his journey through traps and environmental obstacles, and past trigger-happy guards and vicious wildlife all out to kill him in a variety of increasingly unpleasant ways. Because of his positioning as a hapless everyman-sort of character (only with far-from ordinary flatulence problems) Abe became a popular mascot for the PlayStation brand back in the late ’90s. A sequel, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus followed in 1998, before Oddworld Inhabitants moved development on new games in the series over to the big green Xbox machine, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee in 2001 and later Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath in 2005.

Anyway, I digress. Jump forward all those years to today, and our loveable blue chump has made the transition to PC and next-gen consoles in Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – a complete HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, with development this time being carried out by Otley-based studio Just Add Water. So, as Abe would say, “Follow me” and let’s get stuck in.

Boardroom

Molluck the Glukkon, along with the rest of Rupture Farms’ shady executives.

The gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty is simple. Just like its 1997 predecessor, the aim of the game is to guide our hapless blue hero through each dangerous area alive. Landmines, trapdoors, electric chambers, meat grinders, flying landmines and many other horrific hazards are strewn liberally throughout the environments, usually in deadly combination with each other. Slig guards (think robotic trouser-wearing slugs with machine guns) march around with incredibly itchy trigger fingers, eager to mercilessly gun you down on sight, snickering loudly when they do (the swines), and dangerous wildlife that are more than happy to devour you become very present and real threats as you progress into the later levels. In other words, there’s a lot to worry about, and one wrong move is usually fatal.

However, it’s not just all about getting Abe out alive. Throughout the course of the game, you can choose to try and save as many fellow Mudokons as possible, simply ignore them, or, for those especially black-hearted gamers out there, actively go out of your way to kill them. How many you save/ignore/kill affects your Karma, or ‘Quarma’ as the game likes to call it, which ultimately influences which ending you’ll get. If navigating through all those previous hazards and enemies sounded difficult solo, trust me, it can be even harder with several Mudokons in tow. Saving your fellow Muds is tricky, but getting them to follow you is in fact incredibly easy; you just need to talk to them.

Chatting to your fellow Mudokons is done by using the ‘Gamespeak’ function; pressing the d-pad directional buttons when standing next to fellow Muds lets you interact using simple greetings and imperatives. This was a core feature of the original game, and it returns here with several small improvements, such as multiple variations on each response, and most importantly, a dynamic randomised library of fart sounds, which are both hilarious and actually essential to progression in certain areas of the game.

Additionally, this is the first of many fantastic improvements that Just Add Water have made to the original game. Whereas you could only give commands to one Mud at a time in Oddysee, you can now address multiple Muds at once in New ‘n’ Tasty – a feature which was only later introduced in Abe’s Exoddus. This removes a lot of the tedium that plagued the original game when you’d have to individually lead every single Mud in an area to the bird portal escape, before going back and braving all the obstacles you and your previous Mud just successfully navigated to do it all over again with the next escapee.

Bird Portal

Abe opening a bird portal for Mudokons to escape. Impressive stuff, feathery friends!

All the levels that you’ll be, running, jumping, sneaking and farting your way through have been carefully updated from the Oddysee, and some have been ever so slightly redesigned in order to better fit with the new screen mechanics. This is because one of the major changes from Abe’s Oddysee to New ‘n’ Tasty in terms of overall gameplay design is the conversion from a flip-screen camera to a scrolling one. In this sense, it’s almost like an entirely new game on a mechanical level, as all the original environments and puzzles have been built to accommodate this new change. It’s an incredibly awesome alteration to the original design that I absolutely adore; not only does it remove the small but irritating delays you’d get when moving from screen to screen in Oddysee, but it really helps the strange and wonderfully bizarre environments you’re moving through feel much more intricate and cohesive.

Don’t worry though, the new scrolling camera doesn’t suddenly make the game unfairly punishing. There’s plenty of ambient audio noises and helpful visual cues that clue you into what nearby enemies and hazards lie ahead so that you’re not constantly worried about bumping into some unseen threat that’s not currently onscreen. For example, the Sligs now have a radar-like scan ability on their visors, which keeps them challenging and effective with this new screen change; it effectively lets them search areas outside of their screen bounds. In the original, you could generally escape them by just running offscreen and hiding, whereas in New ‘n’ Tasty, they will give chase but now also stop to scan the environment when they lose you. It’s a cool mechanic, as it keeps them deadly and prevents you from running (and farting) rings around them without deviating too much from Oddysee‘s blueprint.

Slig Shooting

Watch out for Sligs, they can chase and scan for you offscreen now in New ‘n’ Tasty.

On a contrasting note, New ‘n’ Tasty does deviate from the original game’s template when it comes to difficulty, as there are now three difficulty modes to choose from when starting a new game. Rather than sticking slavishly to the Oddysee‘s challenging difficulty, which inspired Marmite style love it/hate it responses from gamers when it originally released, New ‘n’ Tasty opens things up for those completely new to the franchise. Although this might be something that returning hardcore fans of the Oddworld franchise might initially scoff at, in my opinion, offering the player a choice of difficulty options is a very considerate design decision.

On easy or medium difficulty, Abe has a health meter represented by a flock of birds (which can be viewed by pressing the Triangle/Y button), and can take a couple of bullets from a Slig before going down, as opposed to the one-shot kill of hard mode. It’s not a huge advantage; Abe still can’t take much punishment, and certain things will still kill in one hit, such as those annoying flying landmines, but this small concession to include a health meter makes many of the enemy encounters much more palatable for an unfamiliar and new audience.

Difficulty Select

The ability to choose your preferred difficulty level is a great move, giving newcomers to the series an accessible and gentler starting point without diluting the original challenge for returning hardcore fans.

New ‘n’ Tasty also implements an inspired solution to Oddysee’s spread out checkpoint system. The original game could feel incredibly punishing at times, often sending you a significantly long way back in a level upon each unlucky death. Thankfully then, the new game allows players to make their own ‘QuikSave’ checkpoints as they play, eliminating much of the frustration from a game in which difficulty and repeated deaths reign supreme. Simply tap the DualShock 4’s touchpad/Xbox One controller’s View button once to make a QuikSave, and then when things inevitably go wrong and you don’t quite time that jump right, or that pesky Slig manages to riddle Abe with bullets, never fear! Just hold the button down to instantly load your last QuikSave and you can seamlessly carry on as if that hideous yet darkly comedic death never happened.

This change to the checkpoint system doesn’t make the game significantly easier; it just makes it significantly more enjoyable to play. This is an Oddworld game afterall, and a violent death awaits Abe around every corner. Throughout your adventure with your loveable blue chum, Abe will get shot, electrocuted, minced by grinders, ripped apart by hostile wildlife and experience many other pleasant ways to go; being able to cut out the tedium of having to wait for a lengthy checkpoint load lends the game a more fast paced and arcade-y feel which suits it perfectly.

Speaking of hideously comical deaths, the fun and humour in New ‘n’ Tasty feels much more prominent this time round compared to the original game (hell, even the online manual is a hilarious read). The new ragdoll physics in play now mean that when things do go wrong (and trust me, they often do), the results are gloriously daft. Seeing Abe get shot mid-leap by a Slig, only to then flop down onto a tightly-packed pile of landmines below is both humiliating and amusing in equal measure. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the way the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their Mudokon loincloths. You will die a lot whilst playing New ‘n’ Tasty, but you’ll also be cracking up just as much, as each fantastically ridiculous demise plays out before you.

Scrab

Abe face to…well, beak, with a fearsome Scrab.

Graphically, it’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. Having played the game on both the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s worth pointing out here that while the PS4 version remained smooth throughout, the Xbox One version did seem to repeatedly struggle to keep at steady 60. I’m no expert on framerates and I have a hard time distinguishing frame rate dips and such with the naked eye, but playing both versions of the game side by side, things did feel noticeably slower and not quite as snappy on the Xbox side of things unfortunately. However, it’s only a small disappointment, and the gameplay still manages to feel fast and enjoyable on both platforms (I haven’t personally played the PC version, but I’m sure that it’s probably closer to the PS4 version in terms of smoothness).

The Oddworld games are known for the grotesquely beautiful art direction, and New ‘n’ Tasty absolutely delivers on that front. It’s one of the first things that you’ll notice when you fire up the game, and it creates a pleasantly weird dichotomy; the levels look at once both nostalgically familiar yet also excitingly different, bursting with a vibrancy and brightness that the original sorely lacked. Even the menu screen looks fantastic, which displays Abe in all his HD glory.

Rupture Farms Escape

Even the interior shots of Rupture Farms look really vibrant and colourful.

All of New ‘n’ Tasty’s environments have been painstakingly recreated in a full 3D engine (Unity to be precise), as opposed to the pre-rendered backdrops of Oddysee, and the world looks far more interesting and detailed as a result. Oddworld itself looks nothing short of beautiful, particularly so in the more rural levels of Paramonia and Scrabania.

Paramonia

The outdoor areas are real graphical treats for your eyeballs.

The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms, the colours and lighting effects still manage to pop out at you. The early moments inside the plant showcase great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. The twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside is another visually jaw-dropping moment, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages of the Stockyards.

Slig Foreground

Each level has plenty of intricate things going on in both the background and foreground.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. At various points in the game you can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling about (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and on a more grisly note, Scrab and Paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms levels. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

Additionally, new camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Rupture Farms Exterior

Rupture Farms, in all its orangey, industrial glory.

On the topic of moving through the lovely environments, back when the game launched in July last year on the PS4, I initially did have a couple of specific issues with New ‘n’ Tasty‘s controls, though thankfully these have since been addressed. The game’s default control scheme has been configured with today’s gamers in mind first and foremost; the original title’s controls have sensibly been revised and brought into line with what brand new players to the franchise would typically expect a platformer to handle like today.

One of these revisions is a change to the way the jump controls operate; When you pressed jump in Oddysee, it would make Abe hop forwards in the direction he’s facing; pressing jump in New ‘n’ Tasty now makes Abe jump vertically straight up in the air. This took a while to get used to as a big fan of the original Oddworld platformers, and it was hard to unlearn Abe’s original behaviours that I’d become so familiar with over the years. For other returning old school Oddworlders like me then, it can take a bit of practice to get the timing down for the hop (pressing the jump button ever so slightly before the desired direction seems to do the trick), but it’s not a massive hurdle, and likely something that a new player wouldn’t even think twice about.

Abe Hop

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

A slightly more frustrating concern however was that originally all of Abe’s movement in New ‘n’ Tasty was governed by how much pressure was applied to the left stick. Pressing the stick fully to the left or right made Abe run at full tilt, whilst applying gentler pressure caused him to plod along with his characteristic walk. Due to the overall faster pace of gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty, having both the walk and run controls assigned on a continuum of sensitivity to the same controller input made sense for the most part, and perhaps made things a bit more intuitive for a new player who hadn’t previously played the originals.

Scrab Chase

The chase sequences and puzzles feel faster (and far more terrifying) than ever before.

However, without a clear tactile distinction between running and walking, a lot of the more intricate platforming sections quickly started to make the new movement controls feel maddeningly imprecise. I spent a decent chunk of my early hours in New ‘n’ Tasty desperately fighting my own ingrained 17-year old muscle memory until I could start to develop a feel for the appropriate walk/run sensitivity needed to make a pixel-perfect precision movement between obstacles under pressure.

For example, while navigating through the more meticulous meat drill puzzles in some of the game’s challenging secret areas, it could sometimes feel incredibly inaccurate and frustrating when I’d just slightly overshoot/undershoot the correct left stick pressure and repeatedly send Abe careening into the gnashing blades of death over and over again. After only a few such sections, I really missed being able to toggle running on and off with a separate button like you could in Oddysee.

Meat Drills

Watch your step Abe!

Thankfully though, in a very neat move, Just Add Water later patched in an optional control setting which gives you the option to assign the run control to a separate shoulder button press, just like in the original game. Problem solved – and now I have absolutely no excuse for my terrible platforming skills…sorry Abe.

Finally, to top off the whole New ‘n’ Tasty experience, Just Add Water have also not only revamped Oddysee, but added their own piece of unique content to the franchise as well. Alf’s Escape is a brand new piece of DLC that tasks players with a rather unique and interesting spin on the main game’s platforming mechanics.

Unlike the main game, you’ve only got the one Mudokon to rescue here, and it’s none other than the fan favourite, mailbag-checking, amateur shrink and barista extraordinaire of Oddworld Inhabitants himself -yup, Alf from Alf’s Rehab and Tea fame of course. The DLC is essentially an intricate and extended obstacle course for two, an elaborate Oddworld version of Takeshi’s Castle if you will, in which you first have to navigate through successfully solo, before reaching Alf’s bar and making back to the start of the level in tandem in order to escape.

The action here can get insanely fast and can require some particularly quick thinking to pull off. Having to coordinate your movements so that both Abe and Alf can escape uneviscerated is challenging, requiring both quick reactions and nimble finger dexterity in equal measure. There’s also some cool easter eggs for observant oddballs to ogle along the way, so remember to keep your eyes figuratively peeled and not literally peeled as you dodge the myriad of meat drills, swinging buzzsaws and many other nasty, sharp pointy objects that are in your way.

Abe Grin

Overall, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a bit of a paradox. It feels like a completely fresh and brand new experience whilst also delivering a heady rush of nostalgia for fans of the original game. It’s faithful to the original’s legacy, whilst also carefully taking thoughtful creative liberties here and there when necessary. The smooth framerate and responsive controls make the game a real pleasure to play, and without the flipscreen changes of the original, there’s a faster and more enjoyable rhythm to the gameplay thanks to the on the go QuikSave system. If you’ve already guided Abe out of Rupture Farms (and beyond) all those years ago, then New ‘n’ Tasty will far surpass your expectations. If you’re new to the series, then get ready for a whacky and delightful adventure into the world of Odd.

Beyond Flesh and Blood Developer Interview – Phillip Muwanga & Lee Blacklock

Skyscrapers
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There were lots of cool indie games on display at this year’s EGX Rezzed, and among the titles I was keen to try out and play was the latest playable demo of Beyond Flesh and Blood, by Mancunian studio Pixelbomb Games.

If you missed my impressions on the demo, here’s a quick rundown on Beyond. The game is a third-person mech shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Manchester in the year 2281. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic Earth cities (AKA Manchester) and get them back under control from gun-slinging bandits and bitey alien lifeforms. From what I’ve played and seen of the game so far, it’s shaping up to be a cool shooter that brings some interesting new tweaks to the mechanical mayhem of the mech genre.

I had the chance to chat with the two project leads, Coder Phillip Muwanga and Game Designer Lee Blacklock and talk about Manchester, mechs, meatsplosions and more.

Tom: What was the original inspiration for Beyond Flesh and Blood, and what inspired you to make a mech shooter specifically?

Lee: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs, and being a dev company in Manchester, we wanted to set the game in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We thought that a combination of these two things would be quite a playful scenario.

Phil: The basic thing is we love mechs, we love science fiction, we love action games, so we are finally able to make the game that we want to make.

Mech games in the past such as Steel Battalion and Titanfall have traditionally favoured a first-person camera view to get that cockpit experience. What was the decision behind deciding to go with a third-person camera?

Lee: Interestingly, when people ask us what the genre of the game is, we say that it’s a third-person action shooter, which is different from your typical mech shooter. It’s a third-person game, you just happen to be controlling mechs. We absolutely love robots and all forms of them, from the Japanese ones to the big stomping western mechs, so things like Steel Battalion were a big influence.

Phil: It pains me that I never got to play Steel Battalion on the big forty-button controller. I like the idea of a game where when you die, if you don’t press the eject button, you lose your save file. That’s a wonderful thing!

Townhall Concept

The game is set in Manchester, and the maps feature prominent Mancunian landmarks in their design – did you run into any issues with getting permission to use their likenesses in-game, and what other locations are you planning to get into the final game?

Phil: The main thing is that you’re fine to use the exteriors, but if you want to use the interiors then that’s when you need to get permission. But, of course, you can make a building that’s inspired by something, and that’s okay. For example, we’ve replicated my favourite bar in The Triangle – mainly because I want to fight in front of a bar that I drink in! (Laughs) There are a few other areas that we’re not talking about, but the main focal points are Deansgate, The Triangle and in front of the Hilton. We’ve purposely stayed away from having the Man United or City stadium because if you pick a side then we’ll alienate half the audience!

Lee: I think for us is the fact that the game is concentrated in the city centre as well, so to go to another location would mean jumping out of the city and we really want to focus on that sort of overgrown future version of Manchester.

Phil: The political answer is we have members of our team who support Man U and members who support Man City.

BF+B Play Expo Stand

You demoed the game last year at the Manchester Play Expo – how was that experience, and do you have any plans to take Beyond to any other shows or Expos after Rezzed?

Phil: Yes, that was a wonderful Expo. It was nice to do an Expo in our home town with a game that’s based in Manchester – we got a lot of positive feedback. There are a few big shows that we’d like to take it to, but we are mainly focused on just finishing the final thing now. What will be quite nice is that once we’re closer to release we’ll have a more stable build, so we won’t have to spend quite so much time getting a build ready to tour at Expos. It is important to get the game out and to talk to members of the press so that people can hear about it.

The game is designed as a singleplayer experience with a solo campaign, but have you got any plans to implement any online multiplayer features into the horde mode maps at a later date?

Phil: The gameplay that we’re showing here is from our wave-based mode – this is an added extra that comes with the game, the singleplayer story is the primary focus. We’re not showing much of that because we don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that it does take place in these areas here, and that it involves mechs and people being torn to pieces.

Within the world that we’ve made, there are various factions and it would be wonderful to do a multiplayer shooter where they fight against each other. We’re talking and thinking about that, but at the moment we are focusing on making the best singleplayer experience that we can. The campaign is our focus. What we didn’t want to do was to tack on a multiplayer component just to have a tick on the back of the box. If we were to do multiplayer, we would want to be properly focused on that.

Lee: When we’ve been developing in the studio, we’ve actually switched the player camera around and switched to the other AI classes that we’ve got so we can run around as them. It’s not going to happen for the game, but it’s just what we’ve been doing in-house just to have a play around, so like Phil said that’s given us the multiplayer ideas, and we’d love to do a lot more in the world of Beyond Flesh and Blood.

Dropship

I appreciate that you don’t want to say too much about the story, but what challenges did you have in writing a story around what’s essentially a faceless robot character?

Phil: The interesting thing is that you can’t die in this game. You’re in a space station in orbit, so if you’re suit is killed then they just send in another suit from orbit. It is not a big deal for them (The United Global Remnant, the in-game faction you play for). We try to tie this mechanic into the gameplay of the world – these soldiers on the ground, because they can die, they will comment on the fact that you’re not really there or that it all feels like a game to you. These are some of the areas that we wanted to explore in this.

Lee: We’ve not really had difficulties, but it’s more about the amount of choices we’ve got – we’ve got to keep narrowing it down. Like Phil said, there’s lots of themes we’d like to explore but it’s a case of just how many of these we can effectively explore in the timeframe.

Phil: The hardest bit that we’ve had is trying to squeeze all of our ideas into this game. It is a combat-focused game, so we want the gameplay mechanics to tell most of the story, rather than have a lot of expensive cutscenes and FMVs. Those two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive; we do have a story that we want to tell, but we are focused on making a fun, enjoyable gameplay experience. At the end of the day, we are a small indie studio – we’re not a big triple-A studio who can afford to hire all the animators it takes to do your cutscenes.

Mark 1

When I played the previous demo myself I used mouse and keyboard controls. I’m normally a player who favours using a controller, but I have to say I thought that the way you’ve designed the keyboard controls was spot-on. You really get a feel of each mech’s weight and momentum, especially the Mark 1.

Lee: That’s definitely something that we want you to feel as you go through the different mechs – we will have four mechs, so as you go through each one that feeling will feel different, but we still want it to feel very meaty. Like you were saying, in the Mark 1 you can really stomp around with it. The mouse and keyboard controls still need work though at the minute, they are still in development so that they can be even better.

So there’s four mechs in total?

Phil: You start off with the Mark 1 – he’s basically a walking JCB; he’s a slow engineering mech and can’t dodge so far. He can use his size to tear people to pieces and to pick up large objects and to interact with the world in a very physical way. As you move up through the marks they become smaller but more agile, but they lose the physical powers that the Mark 1 has.

Next is the Mark 2 – he’s the baby brother of the Mark 1. He isn’t quite as strong, but he’s faster and a more agile engineering mech overall. He’s still not purpose-built for combat, but he does have a welding laser which is really effective. The special thing about this mech though is that he’s got awesome extendable arms; if you think of the Mark 1 as the JCB, then the Mark 2 is like the forklift version if you will. Obviously it’s still very powerful – he can use his arms to extend himself up in the air and slam down on enemies. We’ve used his arms in a number of the sync kills which are unlocked through story means.

Eventually, you get to 4th mark, the Prototype Suit.

Mech Landing

Is that different from the Prototype Suit featured in the demo then?

Phil: Yes – I know the terms are the same, but the Prototype Suit that you’re seeing here is the prototype that we internally made as our test, and not the finished thing.

Lee: We made this in-house prototype so that we could get a sense of its scale and movement speed, and how that will differ in comparison to a larger mech.

Phil: The actual Prototype Suit in the final game is an advanced suit which has all sorts of interesting tweaks to it. It’ll be able to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Unlike a lot of other third-person shooters, you’ve got these big open environments in Beyond which aren’t littered with a load of conveniently-placed thigh-high walls to hide behind for cover, plus you can actually improvise and arrange your own cover using the items in the environment.

Phil: One of the choices that we made was that the player cannot take cover in our game. The AI can, but you instead have to rely on the suit’s powers and abilities, and the fact that you can slow down time and dodge. I love Gears of War, but I don’t want to make another game where you hide behind a chest-high wall, wait for yourself to auto-heal and then you come back. It’s why, from a gameplay point of view, you don’t recharge your health; the only way to get your health back in Beyond Flesh and Blood is to kill your enemies, so you can’t hide. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got to get into the fray and get into the fight.

I like the game’s tower mechanic – it’s a cool way of reining in the player’s power and reach without it feeling overtly restricting.

Phil: The main reason why we have them is that in the singleplayer campaign, we don’t like it when the player encounters an invisible wall, so the towers are our way of leashing the player to where we want them to be.

Lee: The story element of it is that the pilot controlling the mech is on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, controlling his mech with his mind – he constantly needs connection to that mech through the towers, so when you die, that connection is severed. Another mech gets sent in and your mind reconnects to the replacement.

In one of your previous interviews you mention that you specifically didn’t want the game to be too hand-holding when it came to difficulty. Is that a personal reaction against the design of modern shooters, or rather a case of giving the game some of that old-school shooter difficulty?

Phil: I’m an old-school gamer – I like games that are hard, that you actually have to think about them and learn the gameplay mechanics. One of the things that I don’t like is when people take a dislike to a certain game because it doesn’t feel like a game that they already know. If you don’t like a shooter because it doesn’t play like Call of Duty, then fair enough that’s your personal choice, but perhaps you should try and learn that game’s own gameplay mechanics. The configuration of the pad doesn’t have to be locked, I’d much rather a game dev did different things with it.

As for the holding hands bit, I like hard games. It pains me that nowadays quite a few games just give you this sort of rollercoaster ride. We want our players to really have to think about the game and understand the mechanics to be able to progress.

Speaking of old-school, Beyond has some crazy levels of gore going on – is that also a throwback to older shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake and things like that where gore was a big part of the shooter zeitgeist of the time?

Phil: We are late ’90s gamers. I like games with gore in them. The big thing that I always say is that we’re not making a torture-porn game – it is over-the-top action movie gore, where you shoot someone and they explode into gibs. The violence is easier to palate the more extreme it is, as it takes on a cartoon-esque vibe.

Lee: Phil is also working on a new dismemberment system, and new sync kills – the melee kill animations that the mechs perform they tear people apart. We’re still working on them, but we’ve managed to get a lot of the new animations in. These are going to be a lot more detailed – we’ll be releasing some more footage sometime soon.

Phil: With the Unreal 3 build there was only so much that we could do. Now, I can tear any limb off any person and punch holes in people – basically all the things that my sick mind wanted to be able to do to people in games! (Laughs)

Printworks

How was the transition going from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4? I’m guessing that it wasn’t just a simple ‘right-click – save as’ process?

Phil: No – I’ve not had much sleep over the past two months and the whole team has been working incredibly hard to port all of the assets over. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not a simple job; we’ve had to rebuild the game from the ground up.

Lee: I think Epic have done some things to help this process, like there are exporters for things like content, but it’s still a big job to move the code base over for our AI, the shaders, the dismemberment system and a lot of the assets.

Phil: It’ll be worthwhile, but I’ll be glad when it’s done because we have a nice stable build here, we need to get our Unreal 4 build to feel as polished as our Unreal 3 build does.

Lee: We’ve definitely got both feet in Unreal 4 now, but it’s just a case of continuing on with that process.

I’ve read that you’d also made changes to the enemy AI since the previous demo – how exactly have you changed those systems?

Phil: They are smarter, we’ve used everything that we’d learned in the Unreal 3 build to make the Unreal 4 AI a hell of a lot better. They have squad-based AI now, so they know where you are in relation to the rest of their teammates and will try to flank you. The AI is an important part of the experience – we don’t just want them to blindly fire at you. We want them to apply pressure.

Lee: Even in the AI themselves, we’ve got separate classes of AI that will respond to you slightly differently as part of their own AI class but will operate together as one when part of a squad.

On a related note, can we expect to see any more extra-terrestrial enemy types in the final game i.e. ranged variants?

Phil: We aren’t talking about that faction yet, but let’s just say that we have a crack team of artists who are making some interesting content. (Laughs) We do have to keep some things back for the singleplayer.

The game is coming to the Xbox One and PS4 after the PC release – do you have any plans to use the unique hardware and features of those consoles? Any plans to use the DualShock 4’s touchpad or the Xbox One’s Kinect?

Lee: With the Kinect personally, aside from what we’re doing with our game, I was really excited when it came bundled with Xbox One. Now that it’s an optional extra, you can never be sure that every user has a Kinect, so we’re not 100% certain about those elements.

Phil: Unfortunately because the marketplace has now been split with the Xbox One, you need to cater for people who don’t have one.

Anything in mind for the PS4 touchpad?

Phil: It would be nice, but just as long as it doesn’t influence the core gameplay too much.

Any plans or thoughts on integrating VR or Oculus Rift support into the game in the future?

Phil: We’re aiming to get the game to run at a stable 60 frames-per-second, but to integrate VR we would have to half that, and do it all in 3D. It’s something we’re not heavily focused on – we’re focused on making this the best singleplayer experience that we can, but just for my own personal pride I would like to see it working on Oculus.

Lee: I’ve played other games on VR and I think it’s an excellent experience so I hope that it definitely does take off. It’s interesting now that Valve is releasing its own VR headset (the HTC Vive) now.

Phil: It does feel like this is now an actual thing; VR is happening, and the future is all about these new headsets.

It’s funny how VR is still a concept that’s in vogue today after it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of a gimmicky fad back in the ’80s with things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy. In such a short period of time it’s come back and it’s now a very real possibility and practically an inevitable thing at this point.

Phil: I think it was at EGX last year that I played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus, and that was a mind-blowing experience. If that is just the baseline of it, then the future is going to be bright.

Lee: Yeah, and that was on unreleased hardware as well, so hopefully it’ll just keep getting better and better.

Main Title

Anything else that you’d like to say about the game that we didn’t get chance to cover? When can players expect to get their hands on the final version of the game – Summer 2015 right?

Phil: Yeah that’s correct, we have a free demo of the game that players can download from our website (www.beyondfleshandbloodgame.com) so if you’re interested then you should get it downloaded.

Lee: Also, for anyone who’s interested in the game to keep an eye on our content releases, as we’ll be releasing more things to do with Unreal Engine 4.