Monday, March 30, 2015

Q&A: Chris Olsen on Somerville

Last week, I wrote about the in-development game Somerville. Developer Chris Olsen was kind enough to answer a few questions about his episodic sci-fi cinematic platformer and reveal more about its gameplay and story.

1. What inspired you to get into game development?
I've been a gamer since before I can remember and was always in-love with game development.  Although I've spent the greater part of a decade working in the Film and TV industry I did dabble in the games industry early on at Ninja Theory, in Cambridge as an Animator.  There haven't been many working experiences as positive as that in my time and only due to momentum did I go down a different path.  It was always in the back of my mind to make a game but programming proved a daunting hurdle.  It wasn't until I was introduced to Unity a few years back and it's artist friendly approach that I went full hog on making a game.  At first I was intending to return to games production as a day job to absorb all the facets I wasn't experienced in but there were so many case studies in the Indie scene of lone developers diving in head first and coming out with a positive experience.  So I decided to brave the early mornings and late nights of part time game development.
2. Between The Last Night, Orphan, Hunger, and several others, classic cinematic platformers appear to be making a comeback. What makes the genre so appealing and why did you choose to go that route with Somerville?
There's quite a few factors for these games coming back, I imagine.  One being that the generation that grew up with the classic early 90's Chahi titles are getting older and the tools have become so accessible that instead of wishing someone would bring them back they're just taking the initiative themselves.  I think what we're seeing in the resurgence of all the classic gaming genres from Point and Click adventures, Isometric RPG's and Space Sims are developers freeing themselves from publisher agenda and with the help of platforms like Kickstarter delivering experiences they feel have an audience and were unjustly left by the way side.  
For me, besides Another World being such a core pillar of my childhood gaming life and all the reasons above.  The genre lends itself to all my tastes and capabilities.  I come from a film background and I get a lot of satisfaction from playing with camera framing.  Having the player on a fixed plane grants me the camera flexibility without sacrificing readability (if I do it right).  Animation wise it's a hell of a lot more forgiving and I can smash out character animation without worrying about the player throwing the camera into an area of ugliness.  I can think in terms of storyboard panels rather than 3D space, locking down color scripts or lifting concept art and dropping that exact framing into the game.  
This control over what the player can see allows me to go bolder with my ambition.  I can have spectacular dramatic set pieces and not have to worry too much about what happens outside of the frame.  Condensing the world into such a narrow view sounds limiting but I believe it gives me the opportunity to really finesse and paint the important subtleties into the periphery of the viewer rather than make them look at everything I deem important. 
From a gameplay standpoint a 2.5D platformer speaks for itself in terms of accessibility for me.  Being my first game I can attempt to nail tight mechanics, again, within restricted dimensions.

3. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Somerville is its narrative framework: a teacher telling her class about the hero of man's war against aliens, as you play during the invasion. What inspired this story structure?
As it stands the narrative structure is still being worked on and subject to change but I can tell you that it will revolve around a story being told by a future generation and it will involve children.  The story structure came from a lot of places.  The game is episodic and with the fleeting attention of children it shall be delivered almost like a "story-time" structure that you used to get in Primary School or a weekly assembly school play.  I'm toying with the idea of zero character dialogue, either written or voiced. I want to use a combination of emotive sound and animation - a narrator will help facilitate this.I've always been a sucker for tales of folk heroes and these days they seem few and far between, mainly due to the information age we function under now.  Children are also a central focus of the story so I thought why not give them one last figure to sing songs and jot notes about in history lessons.

4. One feature you stress in the game's description is its "responsive shooter mechanics." Do you feel these mechanics evolve the core cinematic platformer gameplay? And how expansive will the player's arsenal be in Somerville?
Again, still in-development but yes. My goal is to have engaging, responsive combat mechanics.  I'll probably play down the "shooter" aspect as it gives the impression you'll be blowing aliens away left right and center which would betray the path our protagonist takes (in the beginning at least).  He's fragile and the mechanics reflect a defensive approach but that's not to say he gets his moments to level the playing field.  Whilst the bulk of the game will rest in the the realm of a solitary adventure when the shit does hit the fan I intend to ratchet up the action to a level that borrows more from Treasure shooters than it does of traditional cinematic platformers.  I don't think it's an evolution, just me being a fan of enticing shooter mechanics. The offensive arsenal won't be extensive but I do intend to get as much utility out of the defensive systems as possible.
5. Can you shed some light on the kinds of challenges and dangers players will face?
Sure.  Earlier on the game is focused on survival and avoidance in hostile territory with gameplay hints toward the base combat framework.  Through the hazardous environmental challenges you will learn the fundamentals and hopefully when backed into a corner be able to apply this to fight or escape hostile encounters.  This will be the crux of the prologue, you're a weak fleshy human with an ability that keeps him alive. 
The first full episode will be about empowerment.  Gathering your strength and knowledge to take on greater foes with more intricate offensive strategies.  I won't go into detail on the variations on enemy types and exact hazards as to not spoil anything but they will all be built around the core combat mechanics. 
Overall I want it to be a nice split of puzzle solving, adventuring, topped off with frenetic action and set piece moments.  I recognize it will be a challenge to get the player well versed in the combat mechanics through means other than fighting but I believe the system I have in place will bring it together.

6. How far along is Somerville's development?
Very early.  I've set a deadline for October 2015 to deliver a prologue and proof of concept trailer.  The prologue I intend to be a couple of hours gameplay that scratches the surface of the systems, introduces you to the world and see if people like it.  About 70% of all the features I intend to put into that have been prototyped to the extent that I have faith they won't fall apart when implemented.  I've just started blocking out the levels in Unity from 2D mockups for the actual game and intend to have the prologue playable from start to finish by July.  I still need to wrap up the story treatment before I can 100% commit to churning out levels but that should be done within the next two weeks.  Most of my time right now is split between writing and finessing character control and feel.
You can learn more about Somerville on Olsen's Tumblr blog and Twitter page and follow its development on TIGSource.

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