A couple of weeks ago, a roguelike which uses the Banner Saga engine to create a rather attractive post-apocalyptic cocktail of FTL, The Oregon Trail and XCOM popped up on Kickstarter. Bedlam's around $90k into its $130k goal, with just eight days left on the clock. I've had a chat with the devs, who include veterans of Darksiders studio Vigil, about what they're aiming for with the game, what the Banner Saga engine enables them to do, what they've changed about it, and the 80s/90s comics visual influences for this game of desert bandits and desert death-buses. Also - what about that other game called Bedlam?
RPS: When we think Banner Saga we think more of its art style than its engine - what is it that the engine specifically enables you guys to do to that other engines would not?
Jeff Johnson, Gameplay / A.I Programmer: The Banner Saga Engine allows us to hit the ground running. Animator Sam Gage has created a system that enables him to build and animate characters in 3Ds Max, render into Flash for hand-animated VFX, export into The Banner Saga Engine, set up some character information, and there we have a new character in the game. Artist John Mueller is able to create awesome parallaxing environments and vistas that are easily imported into the game, ready for multiple resolutions and additional features. The groundwork for the tools is already there, so I can focus on gameplay while John and Sam concentrate on getting artwork and characters into the game.
Sam Gage, Animations / VFX: It’s basically a head start to the game and allows us to make an awesome experience in a very short time. The one-year timeline we have given ourselves would not be possible if we had to create everything from scratch.
John Mueller, Artist: The Banner Saga Engine allows us to have a balance of turn-based combat, story and travel with a presentation that showcases our own distinctive artistic style and influences. It seemed like a perfect convergence. The fact that Stoic is also a three person team means they designed their tools with limited resources in mind. We are also a three person team so it just felt like a perfect match for us.
RPS: Conversely, is there anything that using that engine has prevented or complicated you from doing?
Jeff Johnson: We haven’t found any problems with the engine, though we are rewriting a lot of the gameplay code to fit our own unique version of the game structure and we’re adding our fast-paced “Blitz Battle System” to add a lot more speed and fun to typical tactics games from the past, so it’s very different than The Banner Saga’s. Our traveling structure is also set up quite differently than theirs as we’re going for a more roguelike world structure, with randomly generated locations you can travel to during your journey. This is much more like FTL when you reach randomly generated locations, or XCOM when you receive missions or successfully research an item.
RPS: Obviously you’re after funds from Kickstarter to get to release, but how far into development is the game already?
Sam Gage: We started by designing and playing a tabletop version with dice combat pieces and cards for events, weapons, upgrades and abilities. We created the combat ruleset with chess-like character classes, and we played with that and tweaked the rules until it felt like we had a solid plan to start putting everything into the computer. We got the basics up and running in our prototype and created final art that has yet to be implemented because our focus has been the actual campaign.
RPS: What specific influences are you drawing upon for the look of it? It’s got that 80s/90s comicky look, but I don’t know if there are specific artists or titles that informs it?
John Mueller: I think between the three of us we have developed a lot of personal artistic influences over the years. The greatest influential overlap was the incredibly talented artist Moebius, who has left his fingerprints all over our imaginations for the past three decades. His influence has touched dozens of movies and comics, and inspired countless others to create their own worlds, and BEDLAM is just one of the latest. Other tone and aesthetic influences are drawn from gritty 80s comic books such as Judge Dredd and Frank Miller/Geof Darrow’s “Hard Boiled”, as well as 80s sci-fi movies like Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL, and Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER.
RPS: What’s the balance going to be between combat and dialoguey stuff? Should we expect something similar to the Banner saga in that respect?
John Mueller: Expect something much more akin to XCOM or FTL when it comes to dialogue versus action in the game. We want to keep a fast-paced story along with the fast-paced combat. There will be NPC interactions, which are big moments in the game, but we will have a special conversation system that allows impatient players to skip to the point, while rewarding more diligent and invested players with further mysteries and clues for various side quests.
RPS: How central is the Dozer to the whole thing, comparative to crew members?
Jeff Johnson: The Dozer is the main component to the game’s fiction, while The Mechanic is basically a blank slate the players can project their imaginations upon, and the crew members are your team full of characters who you will grow to love and/or use as meat for the grinder.
Sam Gage: I’ve always described the Dozer as the main character in the game that you customize with weapons and upgrades, with your crew members as your “minions” to control and assist on the battlefield using special abilities from the items you have equipped. Certain Weapons or Upgrades will even allow you access to special areas if you have them equipped, similar to a “metroidvania” lock-and-key system.
RPS: How brutal is it, in terms of the frequency with which you’re going to lose crew and even the vehicle? Is a campaign likely to last hours, or minutes?
Sam Gage: Our plan is to make a game that is accessible yet challenging to the average player, so the game can actually scale in difficulty depending on how you play it. Going to Aztec City by selecting only Marauder territories will offer a comparatively easy endeavor, though if you explore more of the other Faction-controlled territories, you will be faced with more challenges and receive greater rewards. We expect a single playthrough to last three or four hours on average, but after a successful journey we offer the players a chance to Double-Down and risk everything for a trip back through Bedlam to Bysantine, but without any passengers to promote for additional crew. This is the beginning of our NewGame+ system, but don’t want to spoil the surprises.
RPS: What single feature are you most excited about?
Sam Gage: I am most excited about the hidden paths and rare events scattered throughout Bedlam. There’s going to be a lot of cool crew members and other items to discover and acquire that will take a combination of luck and skill to access. I really want to capture that feeling of discovery from playing video games in the 80s, before there were wikis and FAQ sheets everywhere you looked.
John Mueller: I love the NPC interactions, I can’t wait to bring all these characters to life that have been roaming around my imagination for the past 3 decades.
Jeff Johnson: Battlefield mayhem. I can’t wait to implement the over-the-top animations, A.I and battle gameplay that will set this game apart from other games in the genre.
RPS: I guess you’re aware that there’s another recent game called Bedlam - are you going to keep on using the same name or have there been discussions?
We knew of the game from the early 90s called BEDLAM, but the recent FPS of the same name didn’t turn up in our searches and we weren’t aware of its existence until long after we had filed our trademark on the name and passed the point of no return with all of our marketing and social media materials. We have already spoken with someone from their team and have several options available that we hope results in an amicable solution for everyone.
RPS: Do you have a contingency plan in the event the Kickstarter doesn’t work out?
Sam Gage: What’s the asking price for a kidney on the black market nowadays?
John Mueller: Need your car washed? I paint a pretty mean dog portrait.
Jeff Johnson: Contingency plans don’t compute. We won’t fail!
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Bedlam's on Kickstarter now, with $86,582 pledged of its $130,000 goal at the time of writing.