C++ Of Tranquility: Lunar Software Explain Routine

By Jim Rossignol on June 26th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


Aaron Foster and Lunar Software are making Routine, a fascinatingly atmospheric sci-fi horror game set on the moon. It’s non-linear, based on exploration, and filled with horror and intriguing ideas. I spoke to Foster and asked him to share some of those ideas with us.

First, though, watch the trailer if you’ve not seen it already.

RPS: Can you introduce yourself for the readers?

Foster: My name is Aaron Foster and I am one of the four developers on Routine. I mainly work as an artist and designer, but we all came from different areas. I did a lot of modding in the past, mainly using Quake 1 engine, I worked in Eurocom for two years, in games like Disney Universe and such. Then I did this. Gemma joined us straight from university, Pete, the programmer, has been making his own engine, and Mick, our audio guy, works with big studios. He worked on the new Killer Instinct, and the new Wolfenstein. So we all came from different places with different kinds of experience, and that’s what makes Lunar Software.

RPS: And you are making a first-person game appropriately set on the moon? What’s your role in that?

Foster: I started all this in Unreal, because I don’t have any real experience in technical programming. Unreal at least has a visual scripting language, which I can handle, but it meant that what I was doing was quite basic. So at the start Routine was a small project which was really just about the atmosphere. It was much closer to Dear Esther. Pete, though, was programming his own game, for which he had no art. So we did a skill trade, where he started doing some programming for Routine, while I did art for his game. We got on so well that he became a permanent part of the team, and that changed things.


RPS: So you guys are all just pitching in? Funding it yourselves?

Foster: We all had savings, I guess. I was a tutor at a University, and I’ve only just quit to work on this a bit more, so I had some savings. Pete had tiny bit of savings, and so did Gemma. Mick is Mick, so he didn’t have any worries as such.

RPS: How did these guys joining the project change it into what is now, rather than the “Dear Esther” thing you were talking about earlier?

Foster: It was a weird thing where, well, when you are working on something on your own it takes longer, so your attention can start to drift, which means it takes even longer. I just had to stop doing that. The reason I started Routine was that I started looking at the things I am really passionate about, and that’s sci-fi, horror, but also I love the moon. I’ve got a really strange passion for the moon. I made sure that things that I love, and had stayed my love since I was young, were the focus of what I was doing, so that I could stay motivated. So that’s why Routine. But then, when the others joined and we all collaborated, there was suddenly a bigger picture where we could all step back from what we were doing and see the bigger picture. We suddenly had a better idea of the potential.

RPS: A lot of people have made the Amnesia connection with what they’ve seen of Routine, has that game influenced you at all?

Foster: Oh no, not at all. The horror influence hasn’t actually come from games for us, but from film. I get why people compare it with Amnesia, because there’s not an emphasis on combat, also the leaning, so that makes sense. It fits with the sneaking around methodology. But Routine actually comes from late 70s and early 80s stuff – The Thing, Alien. That said, I don’t want say anything against people making that connection with Amnesia, clearly it’s a good one!


RPS: Let’s talk a bit about what we saw in the trailer? It seems like that could have been the start of the game?

Foster: Well no, because the game is open-world in a sense. It’s not a world, it’s a moonbase, but it is non-linear. You can go where you want. At the start of the trailer you can see he’s on a sort of tram, and this is how you can get around between the sections such as the hydroponics, the R&D area, or the dig site. The area he gets off the tram is the Public Sector, and we concentrated on that because it’s a bit more polished than the other areas. It’s not the start of the game, at least in that you can choose to go to that area at the start, but you can choose to go other places too.

RPS: What’s the player doing there? What are they aiming to achieve?

Foster: Well, the way we are trying to spin this is: you are trying to achieve what you think you need to achieve. It’s down to the player. The game has multiple endings, based on how the game perceives you act, and therefore what your goal has been. There’s an obvious goal, of course, and that’s that there’s obviously something wrong. When you there’s something wrong like that you want to find out what’s behind it and how to solve the issue. So there’s that. But… we have one section of the game, which is shown at the end of the trailer, the sewers, and that’s interesting because there’s almost no story progression down there. There’s no links to go down there, there are warnings to say to the player not to go down there, there are visual warnings. But it leads to that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ thing. We want to play with that, to see what drives players, to see what curiosity does to people. There are multiple endings, of course, and what they are depends on you. But there is a story being told, and it’s dependent on the player as to what you find out.


RPS: So open-ended as well as open-world?

Foster: Absolutely. It’s a really tricky game-design thing. Most horror games script elaborate jump scares, but we can’t do that, because people can go anywhere. So our programmer has been working on an AI director that will try and read what the player is doing, and try to react to that in certain ways. There are a lot of things in the base which can grab the attention of the enemies. When you saw the player using the computer in the trailer, well, one of the things that can happen is that if you download files for too long, then the computer’s alarm will go off, and that grabs the attention of nearby robots. Things like this will direct the AI, but they’re not scripted as such. They walk around, follow their work paths, do things. We don’t know where they are! But we will have systems to build attention in a non-linear passage.

RPS: The trailer seemed to have a large element of artifice to it, but you are expecting events like those in the trailer to kick off dynamically from the way the AI and their director work?

Foster: We tried to keep it to three scenes to highlight some different situations in the game. They’re not exaggerated, they’re very much the game and nothing’s set up, aside from us playing it multiple times to make sure that we get good footage. It will certainly play out as you see it in there.

RPS: Tell me about the handheld device, because at one point it seemed to be a gun, at another a scanner?

Foster: We call it The Cosmonaut’s Assistant Tool. Nice generic name! In the trailer, when he’s walking up the elevators, there’s a projector that says ‘no signal’. When you find this around the base you’re able to plug in your Cosmonaut’s Assistant Tool and look at the data on there. That allows you to review everything you’ve found out up to that point. Audio logs, and all that stuff. We really want to push the idea of using the environment, and we wanted to avoid using HUD, so this was a good solution to that. If you pay attention to where the projectors are then you can review your stuff by using them. Also in the trailer he shot the robot, and that just pissed the robot off. There’s a risk/reward scenario there. There are weak spots on a robot, and that can disable them, but if you miss and risk pissing them off, well…


RPS: How vulnerable is the player?

Foster: There’s a lot of testing going on with that. We don’t want the player to ever be confused about why they died. We have permadeath, so we don’t want any kind of confused reaction to that. When the player dies they should know exactly why they died. We’re playing with a wound system right now, which will have a strong visual representation. It’ll let you know that you are not in a good way, and that the next time you get into a situation you aren’t going to be able to escape. That sort of thing. With regards to the shooting, there are only ever two batteries in your tool at any one time, so when you shoot both of them they tool won’t work anymore. The flashlight won’t work, connection to projectors won’t work, you need to find more.

RPS: How big is the moonbase?

Foster: When Routine started it was pretty big. Unnecessarily big. It’s about fifty percent smaller now because we wanted to makes sure that everything in the base was meaningful. We wanted each sector to have something unique to it in the sense of how the sit within the game. Both visual style and narrative meaning. It’s a decent size, but tight.

RPS: How long to get through it?

Foster: I can’t say. I hope everyone gets a really nice three hour experience. It could be a lot longer than that if you want to explore properly.

RPS: What’s the plan from here?

Foster: We’re on the third iteration with the AI, and we want that to feel really good. That’s important and will affect things. We can’t really say in terms of percentage finished, because we keep hitting points that we really want to keep iterating on.

RPS: Release in 2014?

Foster: We’ve had a lot of offers of help recently, and that might mean that progressed speeds up. But that depends on the choices we make. If people help with the art I will be able to focus on design, and that will speed things up. We certainly have a lot more options since we released the video last night! But I’ll say that we are aiming for the end of this year. But you know how that goes!

RPS: Absolutely. Thanks for your time.

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69 Comments »

  1. Brun says:

    The best article title.

  2. DrMcCoy says:

    According to their Twitter account, no Linux version because of UDK. Boooooo.

    • elderman says:

      Yeah, what a shame. There’s such a wide variety of native Linux games around that I have the luxury of only buying native Linux new games. I only have to fiddle with Wine for GOG.com purchases.

      There are always games I have my eye out for in the hope that they’ll come to Linux, like Miasmata, Antichamber, and Starseed Pilgrim. Perhaps Routine will join that list.

  3. Viroso says:

    Watching the trailer one thing I thought “wouldn’t it be great if it was open world”. Nice. I want more horror games like that.

    • Drayk says:

      I think i looks cool. But something bothers me…

      If the game is set on the moon, why the hell do the guy try to climb a ladder while he could jump over thanks to the low gravity…

      • Ginga121 says:

        There is still gravity on the moon… just no where near as much of it. Plus this game is clearly set in the future so they could have worked out a way to get gravity generators or boots or something like that

      • scatterbrainless says:

        The nerd in me instantly responded to this with “of course there’s artificial gravity, any long-term space settlement would require it to avoid endemic muscular and skeletal dystrophy..”, then the real person in me shut that down with “shut up, you nerd, the other voices in your head will hear you and laugh”. I’m guessing it was just a game design decision for convenience and atmosphere.

  4. Andy`` says:

    Cosmonaut’s Assistant Tool

    ‘curiosity killed the cat’

    The twist is cats have taken over the moon.

  5. tnzk says:

    “But… we have one section of the game, which is shown at the end of the trailer, the sewers, and that’s interesting because there’s almost no story progression down there. There’s no links to go down there, there are warnings to say to the player not to go down there, there are visual warnings. But it leads to that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ thing. We want to play with that, to see what drives players, to see what curiosity does to people.”

    That sets my creative loins afire. Anyone else?

  6. Mctittles says:

    Reading this I was excited, excited, excited, excited, “I hope everyone gets a really nice three hour experienc”….awww.

    With that time limit I have a feeling this is going to be a game where after playing it I will wish someone made a game with all the cool stuff shown.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      Well, hopefully it’ll have a three hour pricetag too. And if you buy it, maybe the next one’ll be longer?

      The video posted earlier got me interested and now I’m excited. I’ll be following this with interest.

    • Penicillin says:

      I feel precisely the opposite. For a game with permadeath and multiple endings, 3 hours is perfect. With only 4 people developing, I’m glad they’re focused on making a tight, awesome experience…not some 20 hour repetitive grind.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I like the short time limit. Somehow makes exploration seem more vital. I’m thinking of Outer Wilds.

    • Bork Titflopsen says:

      “It could be a lot longer than that if you want to explore properly.” Literally the next sentence!

      My guess is that the ending is something arbitrary like “Get of the moon in a spaceship!” and isn’t really related to the story in any way and that if you want to play moon-sleuth and get every bit of story you can find, you’ll be running from robobro’s quite a bit longer

      Edit: Realised that rather than being snarky, I could try and add something constructive to the conversation instead.

  7. The Sombrero Kid says:

    It’s almost exactly what I’m trying to do but better, I can empathise a lot, It takes a long time to get things done when you’re just one person.

  8. Wedge says:

    This looks like everything I want, and yet, will probably be too scared to ever play. It’s only the lack of scripted horror things that gives me hope, it’s the _knowing_ when a game is going to come after me that keeps me from ever going there.

  9. grundus says:

    I want this game to happen to me. I shall lie here and await the day with patience.

  10. aircool says:

    Sounds awesome. Thanks for flagging this one up.

  11. Nicodemus Rexx says:

    Having flashbacks to Dead Space 1 personally, which is good. I haven’t beat 2, but half way in and I haven’t found anything to unseat the first as my favorite.

    The Permadeth had me worried until it was mentioned that this game is kind of short. Combine that with the open ending and it sounds like this will be one for multiple experimental play-throughs. Could be awesome.

    I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

    • Stevostin says:

      “Having flashbacks to Dead Space 1 personally, which is good.”

      Please. DS is a ridiculous piece of crap by itself, but compare to this, it’s not even that. This doesn’t have a view blocked by your own ass. It doesn’t feature the cliche after cliche shameless story of Deadspace. It’s considerably more original gameplay wise. You’re comparing a fast food restaurant (and not event a good one) to some gastronomie here.

      • Spakkenkhrist says:

        How dare he like something.

        • Stevostin says:

          Thing is, we live in a market driven game making process. In other words, I get to play the game the market deserves, and you too. It is then fair, in my view, to yell when the general taste is feeding lesser stuff instead of feeding better stuff. I blame Dead Space success for not having more System Shock.

          • Spakkenkhrist says:

            What, like this game?

          • F3ck says:

            Does this carry over into all of your proclivities?

            Do you tell people not to enjoy the music they like when it clashes with your own tastes, in the hopes that eventually more bands will sound just like the ones you like?

            Only your taste in cuisine is what should be on the menu?

            Please, indeed.

    • F3ck says:

      Having also enjoyed DS thoroughly I’d like to make a suggestion; let DS2 be the end of it.

      Despite what the connoisseurs might tell us, the original (while perhaps not overwhelming with inspiration) was just plain fun.

      But anything you might dislike about the second incarnation will surely be abundant in the third installment…and then some.

      At least play the demo before you commit…you’ll thank me.

  12. webwielder says:

    Can someone please make a game that is exactly like this except not scary thank you very much.

  13. Perjoss says:

    Reminds me of system shock 2. Ever since playing ss2 ages ago I’ve always been intrigued by the kinds of games where you’re all alone in large closed off environment where something terrible has happened but you’re not quite sure what it is and the idea of the game is to discover what exactly is going on.

    • Trithne says:

      I see this comparison made a lot, but I contest that the game is more akin to System Shock “One” than its daughter. SS2, to malign one of my own sacred cows, had all the silly RPG elements and it was easy to end up in a strong combat build, even if you hadn’t started that way, along with a whole bunch of psi-as-magic and connect-3 hacking. SS1, by contrast, kept you constantly weak, guns were crap, and had many varied puzzles to gain access to places and the like.

    • Kobest says:

      I wholeheartedly recommend Teleglitch to you then! It’s a bit on the lengthier side (not to mention its difficulty), but it has really good gameplay and atmosphere!

      • Perjoss says:

        thanks for the recommendation, are you talking about the top down shooter? I watched a trailer and it certainly looks interesting.

  14. Stevostin says:

    This game is incredibly beautiful. I mean it. It beats the crap out of any “space base AAA” any time, big time. Moreover everything in gamedesign screams “bloody great” to me.

    For once, I plan to buy this day one. I admire the work done here. Those guys are good.

  15. analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

    How should Indies make games? Like this lot and Sir, You Are Being Hunted, you make the game!

    It’s obviously doable if you have the dedication ideas and skills. Or I suppose you have a ‘great’ idea, make a few screen shots then go onto Kickstarter and make a load of promises and ask people to fund you! I am sure in a few instances Kickstarter is the right option, i.e. for the larger amounts of $£$£$’s being sought where there is an existing game project that needs finishing and taking to market. I do however feel there will be a backlash against crowd funding in the near future as people who have been burned by the ‘unfulfilled promises of people with a great idea who just spend the cash and achieve nothing’ start raising their voices!

  16. PeggyAdams34 says:

    on a side note.. anyone tried out this goo.gl/YcMRl ?…it looks like you can make some fast cash using google

  17. DXN says:

    Yessssss. It looks absolutely fantastic and I adore the things the man says. This, Gone Home, Tangiers, Journey… they’re restoring my faith in a medium that seemed doomed to be compromised by so many studios with no taste and no imagination.

  18. Bart Stewart says:

    This reminded me in a very good way of System Shock. There was even leaning around corners!

    But there’s one thing that puzzles me.

    On the one hand, we’re told that Routine is “absolutely” both open-world and open-ended. To me, this implies that exploratory play — entertainment through interacting with the gameworld’s places and functions to understand them — is expected and supported.

    On the other hand, permadeath.

    Why are so many indie designers insisting on permadeath, especially in games that are otherwise exploration-friendly?

    I understand that Routine is meant to be a horror game. Permadeath increases the sensation of fear by amping up the risk. (More cynically, there may be some other designers who use permadeath as a cheap way to encourage replays of short games — a tactic I suspect backfires more often than not.)

    But telling someone they can explore, then punishing them for exploring, is a design problem. A high risk of having to start the whole damn game over discourages exploration, which means one part of the game is in direct opposition to another. (Minecraft can reasonably understood to be a survival-exploration game, and System Shock was horror-exploration, but neither insisted on permadeath.)

    I think it is possible to combine horror and exploration gameplay, but very hard to do it well. You can design to induce intense, lizard-brain sensations, or you can design to encourage the thoughtful gathering and organization of knowledge about the world, but it’s extremely difficult to ably integrate those as simultaneous core elements of the same game because they interfere with each other. In particular, scares interrupt thinking.

    But if it’s possible at all, I sincerely doubt that the blunt-force application of permadeath is an effective tool for creating a game that enjoyably fuses sensation-seeking and knowledge-seeking as play experiences.

    Having said all that (and it’s open for debate), I certainly don’t wish ill to these developers or to Routine. In fact, I’m impressed by what’s been shown and I’m eager to see more of it.

    I do think it’s fair, though, to question the use of permadeath as a hardcoded part of games that otherwise support exploration play. Surely there are better ways of making a gameworld feel horrifying that don’t depend on ending the game…?

    • cunningmunki says:

      I have similar reservations, but from the interview it sounds like you really have to take beating to die, and it’s always very clear if you’re in a situation that could result in your death. But hey, we all make mistakes. What if, for example, I forget to press the pause key, go for a wee, come back, and find I’ve been permadeathed by a moon-robot-zombie-thing!

  19. Cpt.Average says:

    The only question I have is how saves work in a game with perma-death. I’m not going to sit down to a 3-hour game that tries to give me a heart-attack every five minutes without a robust save system, but with a game like this it also has to work with the atmosphere as well. And with the no-HUD thing.

  20. orionsmasta says:

    This kinda reminded me of an old game I used to play called Iron Helix… if they manage to keep the baddies scarce and lethal, instead of relying on the dead space pop and shock approach i’ll probably enjoy this

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