Why do you think these systems heavy games like the original System Shock aren't common?
We're big fans of Looking Glass, big fans of System Shock, Underworld, Thief and all those games. Unfortunately, they went under a long time ago, and I hope that Arkane is still keeping the flame of these kind of games burning. I think historically they had not been very successful, as far as sales go. There's of course a lot of fans that are heart-and-soul dedicated to these kind of games, including a lot of old gamers as well, like me. But unfortunately, they were never very successful. So I think with Dishonored we tweaked that around and got finally a successful immersive sim IP there.
So that would be one reason, because at the end of the day, publishers want to make games that sell. And two, they're also hard to make, they're just very hard to make. You end up doing a lot of things that are not… that are invisible.You spend a lot of effort managing players going crazy and doing their own things. And so that just creates a lot of work that you don't put on the box. You can't say on the box, 'hey, you can do all these crazy things.' Instead you just sell your world, you can sell your core experience.
So those are things that I think make it that those games are very hard and rare. That, for us, is one of the biggest satisfaction, is when we see someone doing something that we don't expect. As long as the game doesn't break — I mean it can break in a nice way, but as long as it falls back on its paws like a cat — that's what we like.
Prey seems to have sci-fi horror themes, but it's not a horror game. Why is that?
The horror for us was more a context than a finality, than a goal. That's why we don't say it's a horror game, because making a 'horror game' would make it sound like that's what you wanted to do, you wanted to just spook people.
In our case it's more about the story and the psychological thriller behind it and who you are and what you're going to do when you have to make decisions; these themes of empathy. So the horror is more context. You might be scared at some point because there are some… [trails off] it's a horrific context. But that's pretty much the extent of it.
There is a desire from us to create some tension, of course. Management of ammo and resources in general creates tension when [they are] scarce. And that's why there is also all sorts of strategy like the fabricator, the recycler. There was this moment where, as I tested the game myself, I got lost in it. And there was this moment where I was struggling to keep going so now I have to return to the last recycler that I saw and maybe recycle some of my own valuable objects so that finally I can get this healthkit, so that I can keep going a little longer. And I think it's just part of the survival vibe, which is an important mood to us. And it's not survival all along, at some point it will become something else, it's a pretty rich game.
Is it difficult as a creator to know that so much of what you create will go unseen by players?
It's an effort because, in a way, it's letting go of the temptation to control every second of the player's experience, which I think to us goes at odds with the game. The more you can do whatever you want, the better. I think things like plots are more in the way of the experience than anything. So, the way we like tell a plot is to not interrupt the players. Even if they miss some stuff, at least they will still have their own experience, as opposed to an imposed movie or something.
Our level designers are always paired with an architect. And the architect imagines a compelling space, which is logical as opposed to just being something to serve the purpose of the game. They do something that is a little more real. They always think about how it would be in a real space. And sometimes it's in the way of player experience control and that's fine. As long as this works, usually people feel like the game is more real, the simulation is more real, because it's like, 'ah, I could cheat it. I could actually go on the other side of the stage and see what's behind the scene.' And that is something that I think is very inspiring to people.
I'm more about lore than I am about plot. I think the strongest moments are more around visual storytelling or finding out what happened here. I like plot too, and we have plot of course in Prey, and it works for me as long as it doesn't go head-to-head with the player's space and the player's experience. Because often the plot is interruptive. I don't know how much I want to spoil things, but everybody's playing the demo right now. And at the beginning of the game, when you escape your apartment for this first time, it was important for us to let the player do it entirely in first person. It doesn't interrupt you, you just do it. It's a big, strong narrative moment when it tells tones of things in one action. And it is plot, but it's not like a piece of cinematic where we interrupt your game, and now we're going to tell you about this story, and then you're going to play again. That's the kind of plot that I want to avoid in my games.
It's [thematically] definitely very different from Dishonored, but the approach was similar. How we build a world was very similar. It's always a very fun process. It take a long time and it's very, very iterative. I think it's one of my favourite parts, creating a new world. There is a lot of people that go down the route of more procedural narratives and... I think procedural part of our stories anyway is what people remember the most. Because the player suddenly had his own quest that he made up, I need to whatever, whatever it is you need to do at this moment. And then you go around all the obstacles to do this and then once you achieve it, you're like, 'Yes!' And it feels like you own it and that no other player had it as well and I think that's those moments that people remember the most, when they survive something crazy and they were clever and they did something that was unexpected. The plot, everybody has the same plot.
How did you go about constructing the Alien race for Prey?
We had an opportunity to create aliens that were different. And I think that was important to us. We did not want to use the usual claws and flesh and muscles. Or lizard men with guns or whatever it is that are the usual types. We wanted something more paranormal, ghost-like, not quite from our world, this hard to grasp material. Is it transparent or is it not? It's blurry. So it took a while to get to the right look and the right animation as well; animations are very important in this case. That was the idea initially.
I don't think we've talked about the press so much, but one day our animator was looking for a style of animation and we did not have any texture for the proxy model yet, so it was all black. And he made this animation that was really cool. Sent it to us. It got compressed on the way in a very small format, it was very blurry on the edges. So I saw this thing coming with the animation and it was a mimic animation when it walks like a snake a little bit. And it was black and it had all these pixelated blurry edges. And I said, 'I want that. I want to reproduce this thing in game.' It was a mistake that got us to eventually land with this look.
Was the mimic's ability to transform into any object difficult to implement?
No, it was more about the idea rather than the implementation. Of course after that there are a lot of implementation details that were complicated, but it was not our worst nightmare. We've had some systems that were a lot harder than the mimic to do. Like the GLOO cannon. The GLOO cannon had a programmer pretty much full-time on it. It used to be even more versatile, you could literally build bridges. But it was not good for performance, not necessarily good for gameplay.
It's a tool that I personally tried to kill many times and Ricardo Bare, the lead designer, was really insisting on keeping it. So he was right.
It's an expensive feature. Our games rely on a sum of systems. They all layer together and they will create an emergent thing. When one of the systems monopolises your programming team more than others it better be very important. At some point, I was doubting that [the GLOO Cannon] was worth the effort. And it was always causing more problems. As we'd fix this problem we'd find another three. That's where it was stressful, but it ended up working out.
Stay tuned to AusGamers for our Prey review, which will be coming soon.