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C++ Of Tranquility: Lunar Software Explain Routine

“I've got a really strange passion for the moon.”

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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Jim Rossignol