GRAVE, an upcoming procedural horror title for PC and Xbox One, was recently successfully funded on Kickstarter. It’s looking special. Broken Window Studios’ Tristan Moore granted us an exclusive interview, detailing what makes GRAVE unique and why it’s going to be an essential purchase for any self-respecting horror fan…
Tristan, tell us about your studio. How long have you been together? What are the different types of influences that the team has?
Our studio was founded this year by myself and my wife Abigail Moore, and has been centered around the development of GRAVE, which we began as a Global Game Jam submission in January 2013. We both have experience in studio development, and have worked at places like THQ, Sony and other larger studios. We decided to break off and turn our side-project into a full-time development, so we launched our Kickstarter and were thankfully successful at the end of last month. GRAVE was just greenlit on Steam and is also coming to the Microsoft Xbox One.
Regarding influences, we see video games as their own distinct medium and want to see them achieve the same level of content complexity that other art forms have. We’re fans of a lot of non-traditional expression, including Salvador Dali, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky and David Foster Wallace. We want to be able to use gameplay to directly affect the emotional and psychological experiences of players, and it’s one of the reasons we went for a surrealist concept with GRAVE.
Why GRAVE? What drew you to this particular genre?
There are a few reasons we wanted to do GRAVE and a horror-genre game in general. For one, I take a very classical approach to horror, in that I believe it helps us express difficult ideas. When I play games, I find the ones that have stuck with me the longest are horror games, like the early Silent Hill titles or more recent games like Amnesia or Outlast. Gaming can be a lonely experience; you’re usually sitting in a room by yourself staring at a television or monitor, sometimes for hours on end. The thing that attracts us to horror is the way that the feelings you have through play mimic your interactions as a gamer. It’s very real, and hits harder than a lot of alternatives.
Horror is traditionally set in abandoned houses, hospitals and so on. What does your setting, a desert, bring to the table?
A lot, actually. I’m from the desert, and have lived in Arizona and New Mexico for the majority of my life. There’s a special type of loneliness that comes from the desert, from run down or abandoned houses. As a kid, I used to play in areas where there were actually abandoned buildings and ghost towns you could explore. It’s a bizarre feeling to be out in the middle of nowhere, with nobody around, exploring the remains of a life that is long gone. It’s a kind of feeling that doesn’t have to be in the dark or steeped in constant tension to get under your skin.
I think there’s a lot to be said for certain scenarios becoming dull.
Light as a weapon has only every really been done in Alan Wake, What sets GRAVE apart from the combat found in Wake?
I totally understand the comparison, because as you said it’s really only something that Alan Wake has tackled. That being said, I think the feeling and interaction is going to be very different in GRAVE. GRAVE is a horror game first, and because of that there are no traditional weapons, guns or knives to use. Light isn’t a way of removing the enemy’s “shield” so you can shoot them. Your only recourse is light, and that seemed logical in a world where monsters only come out in the darkness. However, not everything you encounter reacts to light the same way. A few creatures will be harmed by light, but many of them will only be disoriented, misdirected or distracted.
Basically, our goal with GRAVE is to create an experience that is in keeping with the vulnerability of modern horror games, but that still gives you agency and action to take. You don’t have “weapons” so much as “tools,” and even those have their limits. However, you aren’t going to be simply running or hiding; you can constantly make decisions that affect your ability to survive.
The world has quite a lurid, fantastical feel, as you mentioned similar to the works of Salvador Dali, from where else do the team draw their artistic inspirations? How big is the world? How much variation is there in it?
Salvador Dali was definitely an inspiration, along with other surrealist artists and filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. Beyond that, we’re heavily inspired by our own experiences in the west, urban exploration and ghost towns. We’re hoping to capture the crazy feelings you have in a desert landscape when you’re all alone, exploring a strange place.
We plan on building the game into multiple acts, where each of them has their own hub and aesthetic. From act to act the visual style will change pretty dramatically, and only Act 1 has a “wild west” theme. It’s hard to say what the exact size of the world will be when it’s done; because we’re changing locations around dynamically, we’re currently shooting for a dense experience more than a broad one. You never know what will be out there when the sun rises. Everything you encounter will have a lot of care and narrative put behind it, and we expect that to really shine through when the game ships.
As the daytime sees the procedurally generated environments change with the addition of buildings and so on, does that mean that the environment could potentially be different on every playthrough?
Yes, the experience changes every time you play. We still believe in hand-authoring content, so you won’t see a bunch of copy-pasted hallways are randomly generated buildings. However, the environments you encounter will be constantly changing and switching around, so you never know what will appear out on the horizon or in the distance. Items and enemies are also procedural, so every encounter will be different.
Will there be other survivors to interact with? And if so, how? Also, how will you be tackling narrative? Is it story led or environmentally?
The game is fundamentally a narrative experience. The player progresses through a story and encounters characters as they proceed. We’re hesitant to give much away because GRAVE works best when you haven’t built up too many preconceived notions. The game is heavily focused on isolation and loneliness, and the characters you meet won’t be exactly “normal.” Expect a lot of strange people with warped perspectives on reality.
You’ve stated the reason horror games can often fail to scare the player is because they’re too powerful – How hard is it finding the right balance for both hardcore and casual gamers? And what are some of your favourite horror games in the past that have gotten it right?
It’s actually extremely hard to find that balance between agency and vulnerability. We encounter issues all the time where even tiny things we allow the player to do make them feel too comfortable, and they start taking aggressive action against their enemies. You don’t have to give someone a gun to make them feel confident and in-control; sometimes, simply letting them perform actions can give them that sense of confidence and evaporate that tension.
Overall, I’d say there are three games that did an excellent job in their own respective categories; Resident Evil 1, Slender: The Arrival and Outlast, but for different reasons. Resident Evil 1 is genuinely scary because you feel vulnerable and under-equipped the whole time, and they paced it better than probably any classic horror title. Right when you start developing a reasonable stockpile of weapons they through entirely new threats at you that are genuinely difficult to overcome. You are afraid of being killed in that game more than you are of something jumping out. Slender: The Arrival and Outlast both do a really good job of building dread; Outlast is really visceral and they put you in a context that would normally have weapons, so depriving you of that is extremely disconcerting. Slender: The Arrival does something almost no horror game has done; it makes you afraid to even look at the monster, not because of the mechanic but because you’re really genuinely nervous about seeing it. I’m terrified playing Slender when nothing is happening, and that’s really remarkable.
When developing ways to scare the player – What are some of the advantages that procedurally generated worlds give, over more scripted and pre-planned levels?
The biggest advantage is that players can’t predict what’s going to happen. Normally, a horror game is scary until you encounter the monster, die and restart. Once that happens, you come to terms with the trauma, makes adjustments and jump back in with more knowledge than you had before. By making things procedural, nobody can predict what will happen. The monster may not be around the same corner, and what was safe before may not be. These kinds of procedural elements make the experience real, because you have the same reactions and uncertainty the second, third and forth time as you did the first.
Finally, you recently announced the title for Xbox One. How are you finding the ID@Xbox programme? Are you hopeful the console will support VR like Occulus?
We’re really excited to be working with Microsoft on a console version, and so far the experience has been really good. I think a lot of indies are apprehensive because of difficulties working with Microsoft in the past, but they look to be making a concerted effort to improve the experience for developers. Our contact is really great and we have constant personal support, which is fantastic.
Regarding VR support, we haven’t been given any information about the availability of such a device on Xbox One yet, but we would very much like to explore it an have expressed that desire to Microsoft. We will provide updates about that particular topic as we know and can reveal more.