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.

Solarix – Preview

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(Played on PC)

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

A question I find myself frequently mulling over is whether I’m more on edge when playing as an armed or unarmed protagonist in horror games. Whilst my personal preference is generally for the unarmed variety, there’s certainly a strong case to be made on both sides of the argument. If you’re playing a title like Resident Evil or Dead Space, then there’s definitely something intensely panicky and stressful about having to make every last shot from your weapon count in order to survive; hearing the chilling empty click of its chamber when in combat can really make your blood run cold. Likewise, when sneaking around in a game like Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Alien: Isolation or Outlast, where discovery is practically synonymous with death, the constant dread and terror of being found with no way to defend yourself can feel like a nightmarish game of cat and (terrified) mouse.

Pulsetense Games’ Solarix is a stealthy sci-fi horror first-person shooter which has clearly been influenced by both stealth and weapon-based horror games. Described as “a science-fiction horror game featuring open-ended levels for both combative and stealth-focused playstyles”, Pulsetense’s goal was to “combine old-school sci-fi horror with next-gen style and graphics”. A hybrid of these two broad approaches then, Solarix has moments where you must hide from enemies, and moments where you must use your limited arsenal of weapons and tools against them. Unfortunately though, whilst the game has some interesting ideas and story themes going for it, the game’s clumsy presentation, awkward stealth mechanics and its overall lack of horror and tension left me in the dark.

Hallway

Let’s start out with the basics. There’s not much of a narrative setup included in the game itself to immerse you into the world of Solarix, but what you do get does the job; you play as Walter, a survivor who’s stationed on a military/research base on an alien planet who wakes up to discover that the base’s inhabitants are slowly becoming infected by some mysterious virus. Contacted by A.M.I., the base’s AI, you’re instructed to go about the steps required to synthesise a vaccine, whilst dodging both infected humans and hostile guards. Along the way though, you’re also contacted by other characters, such as the mysterious Betty; a rather neurotic survivor who alongside telling you that she’s erased parts of your memory also grants you access to weapons and items whilst offering her own warped advice along the way. Not exactly the ideal person you want on your side in a dangerous space quarantine scenario, but hey, you take what you’re given I guess. You pull on your hazard suit and start to explore, twitching with apprehension as you venture out into the darkness.

Bloody Hallway

Unfortunately, one of the first significant issues that I encountered when playing Solarix was that for a horror game, it very quickly loses what little horror and tension it manages to build up in the game’s opening moments. The opening level easily felt the most suspenseful, featuring a suitably tense evasion section against one of the many infected humans who roam the facility’s corridors. While it’s perhaps not set in the most original of environs to be creeping around in – a dark abandoned industrial warehouse – nonetheless it’s familiar horror game territory; you’re unarmed and with no way of fighting back, you absolutely have to play stealthily and stay out of sight.

Courtyard

So far, so good – but the problem is that when you shortly get hold of a gun in the next section, the horror elements are pretty much gone. You walk outside into a rainy courtyard, and the game becomes just a mediocre stealth shooter – but unfortunately one that doesn’t particularly work very well. From this point on, you’re mainly dispatching the rather bland human guards (who rapidly spout their repeating lines of dialogue over and over) as they routinely patrol their posts. Gone is the dread of being discovered; now your aim is to just sneak further into this nondescript base and dispatch the rather dim guards that are in your way. To be fair, being found by a guard does usually means a quick death, but it’s nothing particularly scary or horrific – you just catch a facefull of bullets, and one checkpoint reset later and you’re back in. It’s about as frightening as Perfect Dark or Metal Gear Solid (bad example, the Metal Gear series has some really fucking weird stuff going on in it actually, but you get the point).

Solarix‘s stealth mechanics feel dull and frustrating, and there’s a variety of reasons why – a rather annoying one being that it’s incredibly easy when sneaking through a level to get caught in the environment’s walls and floor textures. You’re encouraged to play stealthily and avoid making direct confrontation (i.e. shooting people), so you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time slowly crouching your way around the edges of the maps, sticking close to the shadows to slink past guards and space zombies alike. However, whilst slinking around, I’d far too frequently end up getting stuck in the ground, walls, objects, practically everything and anything in close proximity to my character over and over again. At one specific checkpoint, I would have to consistently untangle myself from the floor by repeatedly moving, jumping and crouching before I could move on, every single time I respawned. Annoying to say the least, but hopefully these glitchy moments will be fixed by the time the game properly launches at the end of April.

Zombies

When you’re not busy getting trapped in the environment, there’s further frustrations to be had when trying to play like a sci-fi Solid Snake. The taser-like tool the game provides you with for performing stealthy non-lethal takedowns has an interesting design (it only works when fired at the back of your opponent’s head) but more often than not it just feels fiddly and awkward to use. It has an undiscernibly vague range, and there’s no visual feedback to the player with the targeting reticule to let you know if the jolt is going to hit. You have to get right up behind your wandering guard/space zombie of choice, but not too close or they will whip round and start blasting/mauling you. Fair enough, this does add some mild tension back into the experience a tad, but using the taser still felt like a consistently awkward and arbitrary process to me even after several hours of playing.

Strangely though, you’re actually better off ditching the stealthy tactics altogether. It’s actually significantly easier and a far more enjoyable experience to simply forget about the taser and go in all guns blazing. You see, this is one of the more fundamental issues with Solarix; you have no real incentive to play stealthily whatsoever. Rather than bothering to spend time carefully distracting guards with thrown objects or shooting out lights to sneak by, it’s far easier and way more enjoyable to charge through each level whilst gleefully headshotting your enemies like a maniacal madman.

Contrary to the information the game tells you, you actually have plenty of ammunition to take on all threats in the demo, and spare clips can often be acquired from the various storage boxes littered around the levels. It’s a shame, as tighter ammo restrictions would have easily made the stealth mechanics feel much more relevant and tense to the playing experience. Making sure that the player has to carefully keep track of a dwindling supply of bullets would naturally encourage them to opt for using stealthier playstyles…but as the stealth mechanics are so frustrating in their own right, I’m actually quite thankful that Walter is packing plenty of heat in this case.

So, without a serious threat of running out of bullets, you can save yourself the rigmarole of going through the game’s awkward stealthy shenanigans. Even when you re-encounter the space zombies in the third level, it’s easier to just take the opportunity to practice your sharpshooting skills and pick them off from a distance than to bother trying to sneak up on them. Unfortunately though, even shooting your way through Solarix is not exactly a glitch-free walk in the park either. Just like the non-lethal taser, the pistol is plagued with its own particular set of frustrating and obtuse quirks as well. Sporting a vague and inconsistent range, and wildly fluctuating damage output, every time you virtually squeeze the trigger you’ll never be quite sure whether your bullet will hit its target, and if it does, kill or just alert your opponent to where you are. For example, killing an unaware opponent takes a single bullet to the head, whereas an aware one can take upwards of four. Again, there might well be some narrative explanation for this in the finished game, but in this demo without any external context, it just ends up feeling inconsistent and cheap.

Computer

Actually, speaking of hypothetical story explanations, let’s hold up just for a second here; while you don’t get many narrative threads to cling onto in this demo, what little story elements you do get are actually pretty good. While I found most of the in-game world and its inhabitants itself to be largely uninteresting, there’s a handful of crew logs scattered about which help to liven things up quite considerably. One in particular had a chilling written account about a group of technicians unearthing and observing an ancient alien machine, and the threat of a sentient AI interfacing and infecting the crew of the base. It’s in these moments that Solarix manages to claw back some of the horror and unsettling atmosphere that it regrettably jettisoned out of the airlock so early on. The piecemeal delivery of the story information here reminded me of the effective way in which the horror is slowly drip-fed to the player through written artefacts in games such as The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs; even though you’re not told exactly what’s going on, your mind can’t help but uneasily churn the few disturbing details you do have around in your brain as you blast your way through the game.

Loading Screen

Additionally, there’s some cool Silent Hill-style implications that what you’re seeing and experiencing might not be real, which might be an issue that the final game explores as part of the narrative – is it right to be gunning down the clean-up squad mercilessly? Are these infected humans I’m pumping full of intergalactic lead actually innocents? In this demo though, there’s no such moral restraints to hold you back, and the combination of the frustrating stealth mechanics and the ever so fiddly taser mean that you’d probably not care all that much if such in-game ethical concerns actually were an issue.

Crashsite

Regretfully, there’s still another problematic aspect of the game that I’ve yet to address, and get ready, it’s a pretty big one. The game is just too damn dark. It sounds like an utterly ridiculous complaint to level at a horror game, but trust me, in this case it’s entirely appropriate.

Things are fine to start off with in the indoor corridor sections, but it’s once you get to the great alien outdoors and you’re mainly wandering around in wide-open valleys in murky darkness that the lack of light starts to really grate on you. You have an unlimited flashlight attached to your suit, which you think would solve this problem, but for whatever reason it’s ineffectual after the first indoor level, throwing out just a watery crescent moon of pale yellow light at your feet and nothing else. It barely illuminates anything, rendering it practically useless. The game’s Steam blurb boasts about its next gen-graphics, but you’ll have a hard time appreciating them without whacking the gamma settings up to max.

Gloom

At first, I didn’t mind the gloominess all that much. As I trekked my way in practically pitch-black darkness across through these strange alien hillsides and picked my way through various burnt out spaceships in order to find supplies, things initially felt nice and eerie. After about five or ten minutes of uneventfully wandering around however, I soon found myself getting bored of looking at nothing but the same dark dull environments, empty save for a few dopey infected milling about in specific spots. There’s just so little contrast in terms of the in-game lighting that the ubiquitous darkness quickly stops feeling sinister and just becomes plain boring. While it’s nice to not be in the typical claustrophobic tunnels of practically every other horror game, by the time I got to the crashsite in the third level, I was just tired of seeing nothing but empty, perpetual darkness.

Trees

This unfortunately means that in these low-light conditions, it’s incredibly easy to repeatedly miss items and areas that are necessary to make progress. As the majority of Solarix is a featureless black landscape, it can be painfully dull to try and navigate your way around successfully, and just one glance at the fuzzy, undynamic in-game map let’s you know that it’s going to be completely unhelpful in your attempts to orient yourself.

Map

On top of that, there’s these invisible walls that prominently protrude into several paths you have to take throughout the levels, and others that block off empty areas that otherwise look perfectly accessible, making your fumblings about in the dark even more confusing. To make matters worse, there’s also places where there aren’t any barriers in place where you do want them – i.e. solid rock walls, meaning that it’s actually incredibly easy to end up accidentally clipping out of the map entirely. It ends up creating this no-win, no-fun situation; you have to search every nook and cranny of the maps to find what you need, yet if you do go poking into the nooks and crannies of Solarix then you also risk getting stuck out in the great dark beyond with no obvious means of getting back in. Once again, I appreciate that this is a pre-release demo that I’m playing here so hopefully these are things that will also hopefully be patched out for the final release, but the fact that it’s so easy to get trapped outside of the level without explicitly trying to force your way out doesn’t exactly encourage you to go off and explore the game’s world.

Outside Map

Obviously, horror games are loved for the very reason that they don’t offer the player as much help as other genres, that they are designed to make you stressed and anxious and that more often than not they can be more punishing than other genres. Yet while I admire Pulsetense’s choice to not hold the player’s hand as they explore, or to not broadcast giant distracting navigation markers to herd the player towards the next objective, I felt that Solarix ought to have done a lot more to clearly communicate important information to the player about just what exactly they’re supposed to be doing at times, or what specific item they’re currently after.

For example, in my first playthrough of the demo, there was a point where I just got completely and utterly stuck. Perhaps I’m just a complete fucking idiot, but after finding a door locked with a handprint scanner in the second level, and later a conveniently-placed hacksaw nearby, I felt pretty confident that I knew exactly what to do next – namely go back to one of the still-warm guard bodies I’d only seconds ago riddled with bullets, roll up my sleeves and start to slice ‘n’ dice.

I then proceeded to spend what felt like an eternity trying fruitlessly to chop hands off the fallen guards, and getting increasingly baffled as to why I couldn’t. As I wandered from corpse to corpse, desperately trying to detach a hand (and even in a moment of grim determination resorting to hurling a dead body at the scanner to see if that worked, sadly to no avail) a string of ever-more puzzling questions were starting to race through my head. What am I doing wrong? Do I need to equip the hacksaw as a tool? Why can’t I equip the hacksaw as a tool? Is it space bar or left mouse button to cut off their hands? I keep clicking on their hands but I can’t chop them off? WHY OH WHY ARE THEIR BLOODY HANDS NOT COMING OFF ALREADY!?

It was only after spending the best part of an hour fruitlessly clicking and aimlessly wandering back and forth in the level over and over again like a complete chump that I just happened to stumble across a pitch-black cave hidden round a corner and completely off the beaten track which contained the very specific corpse and the very specific hand that I needed to sever to use on the door panel. Nowhere had the game bothered to inform me that only a specific hand would work, and thanks to the vague in-game map, it was just pure luck that I’d stumbled across the actual solution. The reason that I’d missed the cave every single time as I roamed the area was – yup, you guessed it, the entrance was pitch-black. I could have still been there in that section to this day, furiously clicking on corpses and mashing the space bar to no avail if I hadn’t stumbled across the solution by accident. By this point, I was just so annoyed that I desperately wanted to start hacking Walter’s own hands off just to make it all end right then and there.

Corpse

Anyway, look, I know I’m just textually ranting by this point so I’ll draw things to a close. Overall, there’s also just this sort of rough, unpolished feel to Solarix which makes it really hard to get into and properly enjoy. There’s some cool ideas in the game, wrapped up in what looks to be an interesting narrative, but there’s just a such a litany of various annoying problems cluttering up the experience which repeatedly get in the way of the player’s immersion. The stealth mechanics don’t really work that well, and there’s practically no horror elements whatsoever, and the interesting narrative ideas buckle under the weight of boring and dull level designs. Whether you play stealthily or aggressively, combat in Solarix is vague and murky at best; you’ll be crossing your fingers each time you line up a headshot or prepare to jolt the back of somebody’s head, never quite sure of whether things are going to work predictably. In short, you’re left with an underwhelming and fiddly shooter experience in a dull world that’s shrouded in darkness.

Pit

Again, just to be totally clear about this, I’ve been playing a pre-release demo of Solarix, so hopefully Pulsetens can get the smaller glitchier problems with the weapons, invisible walls etc. fixed before the proper release. I’m just concerned that the bigger problems the game has with the stealth and combat systems are fundamental design issues that unfortunately can’t just be fixed with a quick patch. Personally, the game feels undercooked; Solarix needs to get out of the shadows and back into the developmental oven – ASAP.