A while back I got to play and fell in love with STASIS, an isometric adventure game set in a dark, scary near future. Now the team behind this game are back with a Kickstarter for BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION, a sci-fi adventure set in a dystopian Africa after an alien artifact allows technology to leapfrog… and lead to all-out war.
The Kickstarter is sitting past 50% of its target goal and I got Chris Bischoff to talk to us about the game, its inspiration and how things have changed since STASIS.
[SA Gamer] Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. I know things must be pretty crazy right now, so I appreciate you making time for this!
[Chris] It’s only a pleasure!
BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION has shots of Cape Town and a distinct African aesthetic. Many local developers aim for something more first world in their creations. What was the reasoning behind this choice?
We’re using a place we know well, and we’re twisting it into a post apocalyptic world. To many, Africa is already quite a different setting and we love the post apocalyptic genre – so it seemed like a natural step for our environment. As we started to really explore what we could do in that world everything started to fall into place.
There is something romantic about walking through the ruins of a long gone society – a place that you remember, but it’s different… changed and transformed into something else.
Explain how CAYNE came about, you were prototyping the framework of BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION, correct?
During the STASIS Kickstarter campaign we added an additional game chapter as a stretch goal. It was originally going to be built in the same engine as STASIS, but after STASIS’ success we decided to push ourselves with CAYNE and do something new.
The advantage was, as you mentioned, using it as a prototype of sorts for our future games. We now have all of the systems in place, and a tried and tested engine and framework to create our future games on. It’s quite a freeing experience to know that we can just dive straight into production!
Will we see more stories in the STASIS universe?
It’s an interesting place to explore, isn’t it? And yes, we do have a lot of ideas to explore in that universe.
STASIS had a lot of themes in common with Alien. What would you say your influences are in BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION?
Visually, BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION takes a lot of its cues from 1970s and 1980s science fiction. A Boy and his Dog, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and a healthy dose of Mad Max. The 1980s design aesthetic and music is also heavily influenced by those films – even the colour grading is a great reference.
At a Make Games SA evening you or Nic mentioned how STASIS was designed from an art and more structural viewpoint first, using art to do things many would do with code. Could you elaborate on this?
STASIS was built with a lot of limitations in mind. I was doing the programming and the artwork on the game – so I had to cut corners where I couldn’t do certain things. A good example of this is that I wanted to add in more interactivity into the computer systems and diaries but the systems that I was using only allowed for text and links.
In CAYNE you’ll see how the diaries can hold codes and have portraits in them, and how computers have multiple screens and can be interacted with more.
While I do think that designing within limitations is a good thing, having a more freedom in using Unity has helped us open up the puzzles in the games more.
In CAYNE every area you go to stays accessible the whole game through, while in STASIS you were often cut off from locations once you had solved everything there. Could you explain the evolution there?
CAYNE was our next stepping stone – experimental, you could say. So opening up a larger portion of the game was one of the things that we were interested in trying out from a design perspective.
BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION was always going to be a lot more vast than STASIS, so trying out this on a smaller scale now in CAYNE seemed the logical thing to do.
This is your third game set in a dark dystopia. What would you say draws you to this genre?
The idea with BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION is to have a world that has more shades of grey than the STASIS games. Even the name itself is one of both light and dark. Having those contrasting themes is something that we are looking forward to explore.
The stories that I really enjoy come from human triumph. I think that humanity’s greatest strength lies in our ability to overcome the seemingly impossible. Putting characters into these extreme situations allows for rewarding character growth – actually seeing an ordinary person’s strength shine through.
This is also your third game using Ryan Cooper for voice acting. How did you come across Ryan and end up picking him?
With Ryan I put out a call on Twitter and he responded. It was before STASIS launched on Kickstarter and I wanted a voice for the alpha demo. He hit the nail on the head with the character. I wrote the lines, but he gave them heart and soul. Ryan is such an amazing artist to work with that I find it hard to imagine a project that he wouldn’t be involved with in some fashion.
You once reimagined Fallout 4 as an isometric game. What game would you love to do in isometric style?
Oh so many! Dark Souls would be an amazing isometric button smasher. I would love an updated Commandoes game, and a new Crusader series would blow my mind.
Your games are all about puzzles, often using some oblique, MacGyver type items in crazy ways. Do you ever make a puzzle and realize it is too difficult to use in a game, or get frustrated when people miss what seems obvious?
Oh, all the time! Balancing puzzles in an adventure game is difficult. You just have to read some reviews to understand why! Some people will say the puzzles are too easy, others too hard. Some will get stuck on a certain one for ages, and other will breeze through. Some I think are logical and easy – using the gun to smash the innards in STASIS was something I put in late one evening, and I really thought it would be a basic one. Apparently not! The amount of people that got stuck on that one is staggering!
I suppose it comes down to our core design philosophy which is to make the games that we want to play. The homing beacon puzzle in Space Quest 6 is one of my fondest gaming memories. It took me a week to figure it out. I took it to school and during free periods (and one detention) I sat trying to work it out… and when I did that eureka moment was amazing. I think we’re constantly trying to add in that feeling.
The advantage nowadays is that players are much more willing to help others. When people get stuck, they go to community forums and ask for help – and in some ways that can be a rewarding thing to see as a designer.
What is the secret behind your sounds of tearing flesh and gore splattering?
Lettuce and soup.
After a day of drawing highly detailed viscera, failed experiments and mutants, how do you unwind? Does it get to you at all, the gravitas and the gore?
With STASIS it certainly did. I was doing a lot of research into death camps and human experimentation, and for a long time I had a lot of trouble sleeping. In CAYNE, I’ve been able to share that burden with my brother – and having someone to talk about these things with helps.
There is also the fact that games are extremely technical, so it gets to the point where the technical challenges are so numerous that it overwhelms the gore and the blood. It’s like watching a behind-the-scenes footage of a film. When you see the Alien is a man wearing tennis shoes, or that John Hurt was laying in a hole in the table – the scenes become less frightening.
But I think that it’s important to hold onto those dreams… those feelings of disgust and horror. I’m an empathetic person so I find it easy to put myself into the character’s mind. You want your audience to recoil at the crack of bone but muster up the force of will to move forward. If you manage to get those feelings of disgust while still creating empathy – that’s when you know you have a winning story!