By Duncan Harris on September 16th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Just a moment while I stand and address the group. Hi everyone. *deep breath* I am a Monoholic. One whiff of vintage Monolith Productions and I’m back in the throes of a FEAR bender, or in a caravan park somewhere fighting ninjas disguised as Wiltshire police officers. And now this: Betrayer, an action adventure from six Monolith veterans born again indie and calling themselves Blackpowder Games. Quick, someone, chuck me that copy of Shogo or I’ll burn your house down.
Betrayer may be – or maybe not, thanks to some new sliders – in stark black and white, but shades of the confetti-coloured No One Lives Forever seep through. Weapons like the tomahawk feel kinda kooky in the hands of a videogame, and objectives come thudding into nearby woodwork via arrows shot by a mysterious young lady. All in a place that’s equally unlikely: the New World of 1604, miles and centuries from the nearest FPS.
Plenty’s been said about the game and how it borrows the ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke legend for its unpredictable ghost story. What shines in the Early Access version – the game is 70 per cent complete, they say – is a strong sense of place that feels particularly rooted in FEAR. The way the rustic colony seems to grow from the environment, exposed to whatever shapeless terrors blow through its timbers, reminds me of one of my own favourite movies, Ravenous. So that’s two favourite things lacquered in a rather brave and divisive – the best kind, right? – art style. Not bad for a tenner.
This is the first of three conversations I’ll be having here with creative director Craig Hubbard and art director David Longo, the second two covering FEAR and the No One Lives Forever games. I promise to stay calm on the outside.
Whatever beef you might have with games that seem inspired only by other games can be left on the doorstep should a Blackpowder member, say, invite you to dinner or forget to renew that restraining order. Hubbard “can’t wait” to see A Field In England, he says somewhere in the middle of an almighty great list of books and movies that aren’t all so plainly relevant to Betrayer at a glance. Not to say that developers elsewhere don’t read or nuffin’, but few find the opportunity to channel inspirations so directly into their work, if at all.
Craig Hubbard: “I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and the same friend who turned me on to those turned me on to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. 100 years further on or even later has fascinated me for a long time, an era I didn’t know a whole lot about. It was actually David [Longo] who proposed that we look into Roanoke for research. I’d heard about it but never read about it. The more I read about the era, the more I got excited because it’s such a brutal, brutal time. The stuff that was going on in England…
The game is set right after the gunpowder plot, which is another one of those things I had the gist of but had never really read the specifics of, particularly of how they were punished. In Guy Fawkes’ case he threw himself off the platform and broke his own neck to avoid the castration and disembowelling. And the juxtaposition of that against the journals that I’d read from the New World… That was actually my first introduction to John Smith and some of other people who were there during Roanoke and so on, and how they’ve got this attitude of being the civilised people, and the native peoples are these savages. And from the modern perspective, everyone feels barbaric in some ways and civilised in others, so there’s tons to draw from. Another thing I liked about it is that compared to some other periods in North American history, this feels like a very international time. Everybody from Europe was trying to establish a foothold here. That makes it a more interesting period versus the Civil War where if you’re not an American you probably don’t care that much about it. And even if you are American it’s like, ‘Yeah, alright.’”
Hubbard waited until a weekly meeting to surprise his colleagues with Betrayer’s scratchy new India ink look, but it didn’t happen overnight. Some arguments between the game’s colour and contrast had to be resolved before they clicked.
Hubbard: “The way I tend to test things I’m unfamiliar with is to set the ranges to the extremes to get a sense of the overall spectrum. So I cranked some values all the way down and the game became pitch black, then cranked them all the way up and ended up with a harsher version of what we went with. It reminded me of Frank Frazetta’s ink sketches. Growing up, I had friends who preferred Boris Vallejo, but Frazetta was a storyteller.
Anyway, we did a bunch of experimentation after I chanced upon the high contrast look, but while a lot of them were prettier, they tended to feel a little contrived. None of them changed the way the game felt, so they just seemed a bit gimmicky.
The downside of the high contrast look is that you lose valuable tools when you give up color, which feels like a pointless sacrifice unless there’s an experiential benefit. Not that there’s anything wrong with stylization for its own sake, of course. It’s just that we started with something that felt purposeful, so anything less seemed like we were missing an opportunity.”
A recent patch has given players uncommonly fine control of Betrayer’s look, even rolling the game back to naturalistic colour if preferred. But if the look is now optional, assets having to work in both India ink and colour, is there a danger of having to bastardise those assets to satisfy both demands? Would a determinedly mono version not feel stronger and more stylistic?
Longo: “We’ve actually created all the content in colour because if we were to try and make everything in black and white for black and white, it’d be a lot easier to stray from the right values for different materials to separate them. Having good source and colour work going in makes it easier to make sure it’ll look correct when it goes into black and white. Certainly, the amount of re-work and polish that we may have to do by introducing colour, there might be a little bit more of that now that we’re exposing it to players. But I think the benefits of allowing more players to try the game out far outweigh any of the extra work we might have to do.”
Hubbard: “We’ve found that people, before they’ve played it, will be more put off by the look. Once they actually get their hands on it and can ‘feel’ it, they adapt pretty quickly. When we were at PAX we’d see people start playing with the sliders, and then they’d go back to the default look because they thought that was best experience. That’s kind of what we’re hoping will happen.
One of the reactions I saw a lot was people worried that [the ink look] would become a handicap that would get them killed cheaply a lot. They’re worried about a bad implementation where it’s not fully integrated and the game is not balanced around that. So I think that’s a reasonable concern. But of course it was a major concern for us, too.”
Jumping on the J-horror bandwagon just as its wheels were falling off, FEAR invited scepticism but revealed a mastery of juxtaposition and player manipulation. Both are evident in Betrayer, where encounters and discoveries aren’t always as malignant as appearances suggest. Some don’t even suggest anything, in fact, until they’ve lured you in for a closer look. Camouflage and imagination are only amplified in this high contrast world.
David Longo: “When we started playing with the new look, being able to discover things as you moved through the world – things that you may not notice from 100 yards or something – kind of added to the exploration, the tension. It just really stuck.”
Hubbard: “One of the things I found as I was playing is that I felt much more like my brain was working harder, and it felt more engaging as a result. There were some different elements in the first fort initially: there were some stocks, and you’d kind of have to strafe around it from certain angles to tell what it was. There’s sort of a deciphering process to that where the world resolves as you move, rather than just being instantly readable. That contributes to the tension in a way that’s really interesting.
You always want to try and surprise people, and we started on that with FEAR. But you realise when you start to make an interactive experience that so much of what works so well in those Japanese and Hong Kong horror films is because the camera is in the right place to see the right thing. When you’re trying to make it interactive and not do it with cutscenes, you realise how hard that is. So a lot of it is trying to get a draft of the game done, then playing through and just looking for opportunities to do it, and we’ll be doing that with Betrayer.
There’s one I just implemented the other day that I think is going to surprise people. It’s about manipulating expectations. One of the things we like to try and do is to introduce something that you’re initially fearful of, but then you start to accept it as part of the experience and something mundane – and then we turn it against you.”
Hubbard likes to talk about how the almost surreal churn of rifles, tomahawks and clubs that goes for combat in Michael Mann’s Last Of The Mohicans has inspired Betrayer’s use of weapons. Like FEAR, this jazzy violence then counterpoints elements of mystery and horror no less inspired by the movies, keeping players on their toes.
Hubbard: “A lot of it comes down to: what weapons do I want to use in a game? Everybody on the team thinks this way and contributes ideas, and then the ones that sound coolest are the ones we do. On Betrayer it’s actually very much the case that the time period was chosen by the weaponry, weaponry I’d personally been wanting to put into a game for a while.
There’s a wide range of influences for the horrific elements. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village: not the movie that it was, but the movie that it looked like from the previews. I wanted to see that film. Another one that’s stuck with me is this really bizarre Swedish film called Sauna about these guys who, I think it’s in the 1500s or 1600s, are supposed to map the border between Finland and Russia after a war. They set off through this swamp and happen across this weird little village. The movie I didn’t really understand, but there’s a tone to it that’s really ominous, and some really interesting dynamics going on. I absorb everything I watch so it all factors in.”
The Betrayer team has a track record with ghosts, of course, and all the hoodoo voodoo they make our graphics cards doodoo. You’d be right to expect different in this game. The ghosts here feel more corporeal than your common or garden apparitions, as if plucked from one of those creepy daguerreotypes of the late 1800s.
Longo: “It’s great that you like it so much because we’re going to be doing another pass on it. The challenge there was that we were trying to make sure you could differentiate between each of the dead colonists you were approaching: they had some characteristics you could recognise. So we were looking back through paintings from the era and trying to get some contrast in each of the dead. But there is that thing of trying to balance the ethereal, something you can recognise that still feels otherworldly. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but we’re hoping. It should be better.”
Faraway, So Close
BioShock aside, it’s surprising how few American videogames are actually about America. Compare this to the more regularly introspective content of games from Japan or the Ukraine. It leaves Europeans like Rockstar North and Remedy to put their own spins on the American way of life, gaining through artistic licence what they lose in authenticity. The Seattle-based Blackpowder team is no stranger to this foreigner’s advantage, even when dealing with local history.
Hubbard: “I grew up watching a lot of European horror films. One of my friends, his dad was a dubbing director in Italy, so we’d always watch these really bad Italian horror movies. Sometimes they’d be set in New York, which was obviously just somewhere in Italy, but that actually added charm to it, and hopefully there’s a little bit of that in Betrayer.
Alan Wake is an interesting one because it’s set here. It’s obvious that they came here and did some photoshooting and so on, but it’s sort of off. It’s probably very similar for somebody from one of the countries we visited in NOLF. You can see [Remedy] cared about it and did their best to represent it, but it’s off in a way that’s probably even more interesting for us.
We don’t have a budget, so we weren’t able to go to Virginia for Betrayer. Virginia at the time [of the game] was everything from New England to Florida almost, so we’re a little bit vague about where the colony is set. But we still tried to capture enough that there’s a specific sense of place.
My first game as a designer was on Shogo, which was already in development when I can aboard, and they had already sort of mapped out the world. There’s an importance to the setting in that game that made us have to focus on it, and No One Lives Forever was even more so because it’s in these exotic locales. That sort of specificity of place becomes engrained in our process. I come from a writing background and I think specificity of place – specificity of anything – is really important.”
An almost pseudo-3D game at times, as comfortable on paper as on the screen, Betrayer then throws a curveball with its depth-of-field effect. Appearing suddenly at a distance close to the horizon, destroying whatever detail is in those far-off hills, it’s hard to tell if it’s painterly or photographic – or even necessarily good.
Hubbard: “Wes [Saulsberry] is our technical art director, he’s the guy who did that. The way he used it is more impressionistic. I like it in that respect where it does add a certain softness to the background that highlights the foreground without feeling like I’m looking through a camera.”
Longo: “There was a moment where it felt a little bit too much like tilt-shfit, which kind of changed the scale of the world – but like everything else that was probably one of the earlier efforts. We’ll keep trying to nudge things and massage it till it feels right. And I totally agree with Craig: it doesn’t look the way your eyes work, so there is an amount of artistic liberty that we’ve taken to create an impressionistic version.”