Having discussed the circumstances in which it became possible for Exploding Tuba to embark on the journey of making Divide in yesterday’s first part, this part of the interview focuses on the game itself, from the process of making it to the story and the gameplay, together with just what the game is trying to achieve and many other things besides.
Once the dream of making a game became more of a conceivable reality, Chris and the team had to work out what appealed to them so they could work around the game designs.
“Everything in Divide sort of came about because we thought about what we wanted to make and what the scope could be, and it developed in to what it is now,” said Chris.
But what has it become? Chris explained the themes and ideas behind the game, and what thoughts inspired it.
“It started out with just a feeling. What would it be like if you had your loved ones taken away from you or you were separated from your home and from where you feel familiar? I wanted to capture that ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances type of feeling. I knew I wanted it to be in a sci-fi setting, and I knew I wanted a more realistic take. There’s obviously certain outlandish conceits but a lot of it I wanted to make as grounded in actual science as I could. I definitely wanted more of a hard sci-fi kind of feel. We just starting building it from that initial idea, considering what kind of game it would be and what we had the ability to do.”
Much like other indie developers, the team had to figure out how to expand upon those themes without their reach exceedingtheir grasp, and they found a way to do so: by utilizing the isometric perspective.
“I really like the isometric perspective because it means that we don’t have to render a huge world where you can look in any direction but we can have a detailed one that lets you move in several directions,” Chris explained. “Bastion had just come out when we started making the game and in fact Supergiant Games getting together a team and making a game like that which became popular and readily available showed it could be done.
I wanted a creepy 1984 aspect to it but I also wanted it to be clear that they are trying to act with the best interest of their people at heart. I didn’t want it to just be over the top evil corporations. It had to be a weird, confused sort of thing.
“The isometric perspective meant that I could tell the scope of the story I wanted to tell. The perspective was something that I liked and it was something that we could do with the scope of a small team.”
The game is looking to use that style to its advantage, allowing the player to explore the different environments whilst incorporating a number of different features, all while telling the story that Chris wants to tell. He explained a little about the background of the game, and its unabashed cyberpunk sensibility.
“The initial concept was basically what if companies like Facebook and Apple got so big where they basically became self-contained communist states? They’re these great companies that want to do good by their workers but they got so big that now they have their own schools, they have their own living quarters for the workers and everything else. They’re their own city states. What if governments became less relevant and most of what is around the world are these giant company-states that would encourage people to get their kids to go to their schools and have whole generations stay at this one company and never ever go anywhere?
“I wanted a creepy 1984 aspect to it but I also wanted it to be clear that they are trying to act with the best interest of their people at heart. I didn’t want it to just be over the top evil corporations. It had to be a weird, confused sort of thing.”
The story of the game references the existence of all these companies, but its focus is on just one.
“Our game focuses on one specific company, the Vestige corporation,” Chris told us. “There may be mentions of other things but we’re focusing on this one company and exploring their specific agenda.”
These companies are hard to imagine, but Chris boiled it down well.
“The direction I gave the environment artists was to imagine Soviet Russia as if it was designed by Apple.”
From this description, it seems obvious that the game is set in the future, but it’s not as simple as that. The dichotomy between present and future will be revealed, but needless to say, Divide‘s look is unabashedly futuristic and features augmented realities and lots of hacking. This all plays in to the mystery of the game, forcing you to try to make sense of things at every turn.
The story is undoubtedly intriguing, but how is it told? The way it’s put forward is a vitally important aspect of making the game as effective as possible, and Chris knows that. He told us that elements of the story are prevalent everywhere, and are never presented to the player in a uniform manner, with cut-scenes, character interactions and exploration all playing a major role.
“There are cut scenes where characters will talk and exposition will happen, which occurs more regularly early on as the story is being set up. There are links between conversations and events that happen throughout the game and there’s a lot of looking for information that will shed light on to what’s going on in the story. Some of the things that you find you can actually talk to your companion about, which will give you more insight in to what’s going on. There’s a lot of optional conversations, conversations that will happen through the course of the story and even interactive information.”
“I didn’t want it to be that all of the story is contained in terminals on computers so that if you don’t do any of that you won’t understand what’s going on. I didn’t want to fall in to the trap where it is all told through a bunch of emails from other people. That works with certain games like Gone Home, where it makes sense but the story that I wanted to tell was a bit wider than that and telling a story through documents and things would be a bit too understated.”
The direction I gave the environment artists was to imagine Soviet Russia as if it was designed by Apple
Basically, the more you explore and interact with the world and those around you, the more you will understand what’s going on, and thus the better you will be able to piece things together.
“You’ll get the broad strokes of the plot if you don’t do much exploration, but there’s a lot of nuance and detail that you will or will not uncover depending on how much exploring you do,” he said.
Chris has worked out how certain bits of the story will be revealed as they go, saying that some things have been switched around to be more or less prevalent to the player.
“Certain story beats have moved. There may have been something that you could discover and then discuss, but I subsequently decided that it was actually really important and moved it to the transition between one chapter and the next, for example, turning it in to an important story point and not necessarily through finding a particular object. I went with what felt right and decided between the kind of thing that maybe you won’t find and the kind of thing that felt necessary for the story to continue and we definitely need to happen.”
Character interactions do remain an important part of the story nevertheless, but Divide is not a game that throws new characters at you every few seconds, instead focusing on building a relationship between the main character and one important other.
“The game doesn’t contain huge cast of characters, there are a couple of secondary characters near the beginning and end that you’ll be able to talk to, but for the bulk of it you’ll only have this one person to discuss things with regularly,” Chris explained. “I wanted to make it about these two people from different places and how they learn about each other and learn to trust each other over time. It was going to be better for our game if we focused a lot on just them two.”
Keeping the number of people that the player can interact with to a minimum allows the mystery of the game to truly flourish, meaning that the player has to learn everything they can from the few interactions they have and work out what those discussions mean for the story. They have to beware though, because those interactions may not be all they seem.
“It’s a mystery that both of the characters are trying to solve,” Chris explained. “The main character and the companion don’t necessarily have the [same] end goal in mind, and that creates some conflict. We definitely wanted to have the sense that not everyone is being truthful or certain people will have a certain bias to how they see things, which then makes it up to the player to make their own determination about who is being truthful and what is really going on. As a result, other characters or items that you find that have or contain different ideas about the core mystery in the game pertaining to what it is or what it’s supposed to be. This means the player has to put a sense of it together in their head.”
In terms of gameplay, Divide mixes elements of stealth, action, adventure, shooter and dungeon crawler together to create a varied experience that adapts to each situation. Chris explained how those elements came together.
“That just evolved naturally as we figured out what we wanted the game to be. I wanted the game to have a deliberate pace and I wanted to have combat, but I didn’t want it to be like an arcade action game where across the course of the game there’s thousands of enemies and you have to mow them down continuously. I wanted a more deliberately-paced, cat-and-mouse style where you have to use your skills to find the right moment to take down a small handful of enemies. Both you and them are vulnerable and it’s a matter of just finding them and getting the upper hand.”
Chris told us that he’s confident that the game has found that middle ground.
“The gameplay ended up finding a happy medium between the cat-and-mouse stuff and also a few easier enemies that we found that we needed to have. We couldn’t just have these very hard, deliberate encounters, we had to have something that ramped you up or eased off to change up the pacing a little bit.”
The adventure aspect of the game is also an important part of it, since it allows you to explore the environments and discover things about the world. A crucial point is that none of the things that you find are irrelevant to the game’s narrative.
“I wanted it to be that the things you would find all had to do with the story,” Chris told us. “I didn’t want to make it so that you were constantly looking through chests or drawers for clothing or upgraded armor and that sort of stuff. Those are fine and good but I wanted to focus on a few things so that everything you find gives you insight in to the story or the character or what this world is that you’ve been transported to. We made sure to consider how much exploring was fun and how much was too boring.”
“We also had to work out how to make elements like hacking worked, which is how the hashes came about,” he said.
I didn’t want to make it so that you were constantly looking through chests or drawers for clothing or upgraded armor and that sort of stuff. Those are fine and good but I wanted to focus on a few things so that everything you find gives you insight in to the story or the character or what this world is that you’ve been transported to.
“You’re not just getting information about the story, you’re also getting a currency you can use to break through security systems, and you can make choices about what you want to do with them.
For example, you could go in the door that’s unlocked and kill a bunch of enemies, or you could spend a bunch of hashes to breach through a locked, encrypted back door and go through another way. This opened up a lot more meaningful gameplay options, making it more than just going around looking for information and shooting things.
The team decided that the hashes could work for everything in the game.
“The currency works with just about anything, meaning that lots of things are wireless, secured systems that you can break in to, including enemies. We have these contact lenses that we’re calling Solus, which is an augmented reality system, like a futuristic version of Google Glass, that allows you to mess with the enemy’s systems and tell them to go patrol a different area or do other things that allow you to sneak by unnoticed.”
This suggests that there is plenty of choice in the game, and different situations can be approached how the player thinks would be most appropriate. Chris, however, said that not every situation allows for that kind of forethought.
“The bigger set pieces offer that kind of thing, but in general, when you’re wandering around and you come across an occasional enemy, you’re making your choice instantly then and there between going out and shooting them, which might attract attention, or hiding behind something and using the Solus to open the enemy’s menu and cause them to move away or do something else in order to get through without being seen. So it’s a little bit of both, some of it is thinking on your feet about what you want to do, and some of it is deciding what to do in big areas that have a lot of resistance with a front door and a back door and other options at your disposal.”
As mentioned previously, hacking is a major part of the gameplay, and is reliant on in-game currency hashes. This might imply that you should save what money you have for situations where hacking may be the only option, but Chris disagrees, and says the game always attempts to make hacking a possibility in all scenarios.
“Very early on when you start to get hashes, you can get them from so many places that I hope we’re encouraging people to spend them and experiment on the different things that you can use them for. Obviously there will be situations where you have to consider whether spending a large amount of hashes – say unlocking a door when you could take on some enemies instead – is a good thing to do, and there will certainly be choices to make, but if you really want a lot of them, then you can spend the time exploring the different areas.”
So it’s a little bit of both, some of it is thinking on your feet about what you want to do, and some of it is deciding what to do in big areas that have a lot of resistance with a front door and a back door and other options at your disposal.
“It’s not required that you visit every area but there are always things to siphon hashes from and you’re getting information about the story while you’re doing that. I would hope that you would want to know what’s going on and you would want to do that anyway. However, your companion is able to siphon some hashes as well so that if you do run out completely, you can go back to ‘home base’ so to speak and gather a few more. Technically it’s possible for you never to run out of hashes, and you should be encouraged to spend them pretty recklessly. I definitely don’t want you to feel like you should have to save them for the ‘boss battles’ or something. You have to think about what you use them for but you want to try things out.”
Music and sound also plays a major part in the world, and as a composer, Chris got to work on the score for the game as well. It’s rare that the director on a game also works on the score, and it had pros and cons for Chris, as he explained.
“I wrote some stuff early on and then basically just thought about it while we were making the game,” he said. “That meant I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do and what it should be. It was difficult getting started because it was weird writing music for something which I also came up with so many of the ideas for, so I was constantly battling with deciding whether or not I was using the music to make too big a deal of things.”
That turned out not to be the case at all.
I had been experimenting a lot with combining a lot of electronics with orchestral sounds
“In reality, having listened to what I had, it became evident that I thought about that so much that I ended up feeling like I understated everything and made it too drab and boring. The score was very atmospheric in places and I kept a little of that where it made sense but I had to get in to a weird mode and pretend that I was more external to the project than I was and write what felt right for the different parts of the game. Hopefully people will enjoy the music. I did like having control over it, and the system we designed meant that I could put markers exactly where I wanted them so that if the music system said that I needed to transition to another piece, it would wait until a place of my choosing.”
Many science fiction games go for a futuristic sound with their scores, but Chris decided to mix a sense of that with something more orchestral.
“I had been experimenting a lot with combining a lot of electronics with orchestral sounds,” he said. This is a hybrid of the two for sure. I’ve always liked Vangelis’ music, and that’s been an influence on some of my stuff before and certainly plays a role in this. It’s that combined with lots of fun orchestral stuff.”
As well as the soundtrack, Chris has also been overseeing the sound effects for the game, and the challenges that brings with it.
“The sound effects are an ongoing thing,” he said. “I’ve been creating giant spreadsheets of all the sounds we need. Someone who was a sound designer on Fringe has been helping us with it in his spare time. It’s coming out really great, but there’s still more to do. As sequences get more complete, certain things need customizing. I didn’t want to use a generic sound library stuff at all. I like the fact that the sounds have been constructed and put together for the game.”
An interesting aspect of the process is most definitely coming up with sounds for things that don’t exist in the real world. Chris explained that process and how much he has enjoyed doing it.
“Yes that’s always fun to come up with, either that or the future versions of things. When you’re interacting with things in the world, there’s a lot of augmented reality things and things you’re clicking that make different noises. He did a lot of cool things that were almost Atari inspired, and we’ve used a few of those. I think the menu sounds are all really cool and interesting and have an old school feel even though they’re really subtle.”
“Metal Gear Solid as a series is a big influence,” he told us when asked where he drew inspiration forDivide from. “Both me and JD Straw are huge fans of the series, not just the craziness, but a lot of the nuances of it regarding how systems work together, particularly in the fifth game, how they come together in an interesting and new way for an open world game.
“I remember in MGS II, they were very deliberate and careful with their choice to make sure every pixel was a certain size and represented a certain length in the world of MGS. We did the same thing in our game where every 10 or 20 pixels is one metre to the player. This means everything looks uniform and nothing is out of place. In the case of MGS, you’ll never have a really high resolution poster on a big blurry wall. Everything is consistent which means you believe the world of the game more. That I think is why MGS looks so good on the platforms it’s on and it’s something we took to heart and did in our game as well.”
Chris mentioned Vangelis earlier as well, a composer who is perhaps most famous for his work on iconic films, one of which is Blade Runner. Chris also credits that as an influence, though more as a study in how to set tone and mood than perhaps thematically.
“Blade Runner is also an influence and one of my dad’s favorites of all time. I was exposed early on and it grew on me over time. I’ve grown to really appreciate the tone and the way it sets mood to the detail in the world from the umbrellas to the blimps. Our game is not Blade Runner, it’s not dark really. It’s got dark hallways but it’s not dirty and gritty, it’s quite pristine.”
“Having worked with Michael Giacchino and JJ Abrams, I’ve come to learn a lot and appreciate their styles while cultivating my own,” he went on. “There were barely any games that scratched the itch of the mainstream big-budget stories with strong characters that you went on emotional journeys with. The sort of stories that are present in a lot of his work from TV to films. I felt like most games were either going really abstract, indie art film style, or they were just huge, Michael Bay action things or well done popcorn films. I felt The Last of Us was kind of a turning point because it was an actual real serious emotional story. That started to get towards the kind of thing that I wanted to see more of in games.”
“I’m very glad that stories are a more important thing that developers are considering because, for the longest time, it was one of the things that bothered me,” he said. “I thought there was a lot of opportunity to tell stories in games and no one seemed to be writing them for anyone other than teenagers. It was probably insulting to them too, as if they wouldn’t enjoy something more interesting than just a shoot ’em up or whatever forgettable thing it might be. There’s obviously people who want more interesting characters and adult-oriented stories.”
That, in the end, is what Divide is hoping to be.
Overall the experience of making a game has undoubtedly been a challenge for Chris and the team, but it’s one that he has enjoyed and relished.
“It’s definitely been both enjoyable and challenging,” he assured us. “I knew I was going to have to learn a lot of stuff while doing this and I think I have learned quite a lot. The most fun part has been actually making it and learning new stuff, figuring things out as we go.
“The hard part is the stress of making sure we have money, and the unknown of when we’ll be able to show it to people and make sure that they know that we exist. I’ve had to be conscious of how we revealed it, to ensure that we didn’t release our trailer to a non-existent audience, which would then be very demoralizing after working on it this long. Finding publishers and sorting out marketing is also a major stress, as most people would tell you in this industry.”
With the game coming closer to completion, Chris explained that the marketing process for it has really only just begun, with options in the pipeline for the future.
“So far it’s really just been announcing our game on the official PlayStation blog,” he said. “We’ve been talking with Sony for a year now, giving them updates on the state of the game, slowly feeling out when it would be the right time, and it came together so we put the blog out there. Marketing all depends on the publisher and who we end up working with. Otherwise we’d have to rely on PR to make sure that outlets that have a large reach have copies of the game and can show it to people. There are multiple avenues and we’re not fully sure where we’re going to go yet, we’re just sort of playing it by ear.”
Another way of getting the game out in the world is by taking it to conventions and other gatherings, but Chris says that whole process looks quite overwhelming, and he just hasn’t had the time.
“That’s something that I’ve been really bad at doing because there’s been so much on my plate. I don’t have a lot of connections, so how do I even get it to be at PAX?” He asked with a hint of incredulity in his voice. “For a long time in the process, we didn’t really have a demo that I felt like would work really well on a show floor because it’s a more deliberately paced game. Now we have a few sections we could show or let people play, but again I’m sort of winging it when it comes to that.
“There are so many avenues to let people know about your game now it’s kind of overwhelming, and it’s very difficult to know what you should do. Should I be putting it at PAX or this place or this other place? We’re just trying to do what we can and what seems right. We’ve also been talking to publishers because we finally feel like we have something that we could send out for them to play with and let us know what they think. That could change the way we go about showing it to people.”
Irrespective of all that, Chris hopes that the game will be out quite soon.
“We’ll see what happens but the goal is still to release later this year,” he said. “We’re pretty far along, now almost at Alpha, getting through the final features, and then the rest will just be scripting and polishing.”
The team are aiming for the game to be released in the final quarter of the year. “That’s a good target, with the end of the summer being the earliest it could be out,” he informed us. “I’ve got things scheduled out but certain things are in flux. The closer we get the better. I see why no one wants to commit to a release date because you just don’t know sometimes with all the things that need sorting out. The point at which you can see everything that needs to be done and will be done is hard to get to and it takes a long time to get there. At that point, it’s much, much easier to commit to a date, but more realistically something will pop up and that pushes the game back a couple of weeks.”
The game has been announced for PC and PS4 so far, but Chris says there’s no reason why they wouldn’t look further afield, provided the game has been successful, and pointed to Xbox as a possibility now that the console is on more stable footing than it previously was, though there are still obstacles in the way and Chris explained what stopped the announcement from happening before.
“It’s PS4 and PC for now, which is kind of all we can handle,” he said. “After that, we’ll start exploring where else it could go. Xbox One is a candidate, but you always hear about what their weird policies are about a game having extra stuff if it’s coming out after the PS4.
“I’ll deal with that headache when we get to it,” he quipped.
“I’d like to come out on Xbox One,” he went on, “but at the time we were making these decisions, Microsoft was still making all of their huge changes from when they launched the system with Kinect and all that stuff. They have good people working in the indie games division there, but it took them a long time to get some actual support from the higher-ups and at the time when we were trying to get our hands on a dev kit, they just weren’t in that position really, whereas Sony totally were, so we took that opportunity instead.”
Since the game is getting closer to completion, feedback may be helpful to the team. Chris told us that there has been some so far, and it has been quite productive.
“I have certain industry friends who have played it. I have brought friends over, as have other people on the team, to play through certain sections. So far it’s been positive. Early on, people brought up certain things that we’ve looked at and tried to address.”
Responding to constructive criticism is very important, Chris explained, and it’s best to leave your ego at the door.
I hope that people have a fun, thrilling adventure with characters that were memorable and that they can’t wait to go on further adventures with.
“After working in the entertainment industry for a while, you start to learn that you have to try not to get too attached to your stuff and look at it from the perspective of an audience member to see whether it’s confusing or works well. I’ve been fortunate to work for a lot of people whose interests were not egotistical but to make the thing they’re working on as good as it can possibly be, and I think what results from that is something really cool, rewarding, and special, and so I want to make sure that we’re doing the same thing.”
Ultimately, he wants the audience to enjoy themselves playing it and to want more by the end.
“I hope that people have a fun, thrilling adventure with characters that were memorable and that they can’t wait to go on further adventures with.”
This leaves the door open for potential sequels, but Chris is adamant that the team don’t want to get too carried away, despite entertaining a few possibilities for what that game might be.
“I mean there’s all sorts of avenues we could take. Either a direct sequel or a side story in the same world. I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself and make sure that this game is as good as it can be and that it does what it needs to do. Hopefully that will allow us to do things in the future.”
As well as a prospective sequel, the team have also been pondering another avenue that they might go down once Divide is done.
“We’ve brainstormed about a follow-up to Divide of course, but there’s also a prospective three- to six-month small project that we might do to experiment with some ideas on a really small game, so we’re considering things like that as well,” Chris informed us.
In any case, it definitely looks like Exploding Tuba plan to continue forging a path for themselves in the gaming world, and Divide, with its layered plot, interesting visuals and a potential wide range of gameplay mechanics, looks to be a perfect platform for the company. The game is planned for release towards the end of this year on PC and PS4.