We recently spoke to a team of developers from Antimatter Games and Round Table Game Studio about their upcoming collaborative psychological horror game, Deal With the Devil. Among them were Studio Head Rich Barham, Producer Toby Ellis, Code Lead Nate Steger, and Designer Tom Coveney. Round Table’s first title, Deal With the Devil, aims to bridge the gap between storytelling and exploration…and leave you with a few sleepless nights in the process.
ROUND TABLE GAMES
Deal With the Devil is being headed up by Round Table Games Studio, a startup gaming company founded by Rich Barham and based in Falmouth, Cornwall. His breadth of experience has served as a formidable foundation for the studio.
“I’ve been around a little bit,” he told us, “I was with Blizzard for a few years, first in Europe and then the U.S., working on the World of Warcraft project predominantly from prior to release to beyond Wrath of the Lich King. I worked on the studio build up for The Elder Scrolls Online with Bethesda and was brought back over to the west coast to look after some of the stuff at Riot Games for League of Legends. Two years ago, I spent time with IO Interactive in the planning and the running operations of the studio for the Hitman game that’s coming out this year. In the interim, I moved to Cornwall, and I’ve been working on this project and also working with Falmouth University on their games course, which is local to here. Falmouth University is the number one arts university in the U.K., and they’re doing a lot in games now. So I guess I’m the old man of games compared to the rest of this team.”
Rich also sits on the Board of Directors for Antimatter Games, the largest gaming company in the area.
“Antimatter Games was formed from the original team who made the Rising Storm expansion for Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad,” explains Antimatter’s Assistant Producer, Toby Ellis, “They’re also making Rising Storm 2 currently.”
Rich’s mutual involvement has united the two studios in a local creative alliance.
“Antimatter Games has been around for a few years and has a lot of technical experience in house,” he explained, “Whereas Round Table is more of a startup environment, which has got a lot of resources, and we have a number of people with quite storied careers–for example, the guy who works on our sound has worked with a lot of very large organizations, but not so much in games. Tanya Krzywinska was named one of the Top 100 Women in Games last year and her background, a lot of it is in research, genre, creativity, writing.”
“So with Round Table Games, what we wanted to do was–we own the IP–but to actually bring in and collaborate with Anitmatter’s technical and production skills that they had in house, rather than duplicating that, because we’re trying to build the region up as a hub for games. We don’t want to build two companies up in the same region sitting on top of one-another who are basically competition when we have every reason to believe that the best route would be to use the best of what we’ve got from both sides to build the team up. So the way it actually plays out is that a lot of the creative side of it, and certainly some design, sits on the Round Table side, and the more technical side of things is handled by Antimatter.”
Just as the team is a blend of creative and technical strengths, it is also a blend of seasoned veterans and experts and fresh, raw talent.
“Our team is built up from some people, such as Toby, who this is his first production,” explained Rich, “He was doing a lot of game journalism and working with streaming, and he’s coming into it form sort of a passion for games. Tom is also working on the university course, but this is actually his first design project. So we’re really a mix of people who have been in the industry a long time and people who have a lot of talent, and have been recognized for it, but haven’t necessarily got such a storied background.”
“This is my first project as any kind of production lead, so it’s a little bit nerve-wracking but at the same time, really very exciting,” Tom said. “The creative process is fascinating.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-born Code Lead Nate Steger feels right at home, saying “I’ve always had a passion for software development, so slipping in with AMG and working on Rising Storm 2 was pretty much a good fit for me, and then I got asked about this project and I jumped on it, because it seemed like a lot of fun.”
“It’s largely a collaborative project,” Nate described. “Everyone is working together as best they can to make sure that the game turns out as good as possible. We have a code team working at Antimatter Games, and a lot of the design influence comes over from Round Table. It’s really sort of a marriage of concept with execution, which is working out very well for the project.”
It turns out that the answer to “What is Deal With the Devil” is pretty complex. According to Producer Toby Ellis:
It’s a heavily-atmospheric, insidious psychological horror game, starring what we hope will be the strongest female protagonist ever created for games in general. It’s set against the backdrop of the 1920s and it’ll go on this sort of grand, globe-trotting horror adventure, meeting with interesting characters, interacting with the world, and just uncovering all sorts of goings-on.
The ultimate goal is to craft a game that seamlessly blends psychological horror, choice-driven storytelling, and thoughtful exploration. Rich went into some detail about all the different influences playing into this blend, and how they’re weaving them all together to achieve it.
For us, it was about taking some of the things that we’re passionate about, and putting those together in such a way that we thought there would be a lot of audience interest in it. There are a lot of horror influences—you know, Lovecraftian, more modern things like Steven King, but also touch on other, pretty storied authors like Poe to give us a lot of inspiration toward a kind of insidious personal psychological horror.
“We wanted to make sure that we made the game in a format that was going to be really different to what’s been done before,” he continued. “We’re very big fans of story games like Telltale, but we wanted to fill a gap that we felt existed in the market, so a problem, if you like, in games: we felt that story-driven games and action games didn’t have anything in between. You’re either going toward Telltale, which has great, rich story, but very little interaction with the environment or ability to explore, or you’re into things a bit more like the reboot of Tomb Raider, where you have a platforming element, you have quicktime events, and you feel the pace perhaps is something that takes you away from the story. We wanted a complementary area, where if we did have an influence from Tomb Raider, it would probably be the first one, that hearkens back to this lost, lonely, strange locations, where you could explore, and there were puzzles and ways to interact with the environment.”
To aid in the storytelling and suspense, Deal With the Devil is being designed as an episodic game.
“Each of the episodes will be in two parts,” Rich said, “one of which will be about information-gathering and resource-gathering, and then the second part of each episode is about using that information and those resources in order to go and pursue the story to the end of the episode. What will happen is that based on your decisions and the way you interact with people, and based on the way in which you pursue the story, that means that people are going to interact with you differently. Some people are very much not going to be keen on helping you, whereas maybe some other people share a little bit of your slightly questionable moral compass.
“The more you choose that path, you open up different ways to move forward in the story, and different resources, whether that be goods that you might find on the black market that otherwise people might not approach you to sell or people that if you follow a slightly higher moral path might extend a hand in other ways. So it allows the player a lot of agency and gives a lot of replayability to the same story to see how dramatically differently the story can play out in that horror background.”
Deal With the Devil is set in the 1920s, just after World War I and the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Issues of the time, such as women’s suffrage, are woven into the background, and framed in an Art Deco style that may remind you of BioShock’s Rapture or Colombia. That should give you some idea of the style’s capacity for creepy undertones.
“I think the big influence that really struck home to us was that we wanted to choose a period in time which was beautiful, which was very distinctive, which could heavily impact the protagonist,” Rich recalled. “In this case being a woman in the 20s, coming out of the Victorian era, which was really fascinating, you had the Suffragette movement, and that’s actually linked into the main character’s background. You had people starting to change their opinions post the First World War You had wide-reaching, impacting things, particularly in the U.K., and it is set in Britain when you first start out in the first episode. You had a population that was decimated, not just by what they called the Great War, but also by the Spanish Flu that infected and, again, almost decimated population.”
“And then a very strong and very polarized society,” he continued, “where you still had the riches of the aristocracy, and literally streets or houses away you had these horrific low conditions, the have- and have-nots of the 1920s. So that gave us a great backdrop.
“We love the Art Deco feel that was prevalent then. You also still have the Victorian era with those large, brooding properties that the architects were building then. It was a great time of change in the way people saw things and thought about things. It was constantly in flux then. Being able to set something whereby the environment would really tell stories and would impact the protagonist so that it would really get people thinking about what it would be like and then making decisions on that backdrop, made the 20s a very distinctive time. It’s also not something that’s been done really a great deal before. Plus the fact that one of our influences is Lovecraft, a lot of which was set around that time. It all came together, and all of those things together made it a period that we felt would really give us the opportunity to make a story-rich world.”
AN ORIGINAL CHARACTER
Round Table has committed to the development of a realistic and complex female protagonist, in the hopes of breaking loose from the skewed representation of women in gaming. Leading the charge is Co-Founder and Creative Head Tanya Krzywinska, the first professor of games in the U.K. and one of the Market for Computer & Video Games’ Top 100 Women in Gaming.
“What we’re layering this with,” Rich explained, “is a story where you play a character who…The fact that she’s female is relevant particularly because of the time period in which it’s set, and the most important thing is that she’s a very rounded character.”
She’s quite a heavily flawed character, and she teeters on the brink of being able to be a very bad character, or not. What we’re very happy with is that, through the way in which you elect to play the character, it will guide you down a path toward either being quite the anti-hero, or actually being a regular person, or even a good, more heroic person, although certainly we’re not guiding it toward a heroic feel to the game. You can be more of a normal person and follow more of a normal moral compass in the way you do it.
The U.K. in the 1920s was as much a time of change for women as it was here in America. Women had been brought in to work the factories in the absence of male workers during World War I, and this opportunity shifted many women’s views on what their role in society should be. By the time the ’20s began, women over 30 had received the right to vote, with that right extending to women over 21 by the end of the decade.
“It was something that excited us because it was a very interesting time,” Rich remarked.
This complex era seemed the perfect setting to explore the complexities of a realistic female character, one that serves neither as a passive sex object nor an untouchable Mary-Sue.
“It’s so very important to us,” Toby explained. “Let’s take some things about Amelia Woods, our protagonist: first, she’s in her 30s. She is not physically imposing, she has weaknesses…Oh yes, she’s dead inside. She’s all the things you would see in a male character, where you wouldn’t feel like ‘oh, that’s a thing.'”
“She has some pretty bad habits,” Rich added, “which as a player you are allowed to make worse. You know, she’s really flawed, like real people, and I think one of the things that frustrated us, obviously you’re talking to a bunch of guys here, and in a way, some people might find it weird to hear it from us… I mean I would certainly hope not, but for us it’s really frustrating, because when you meet a real person, a lot of the things you see about them is their personality, right? I mean, you would hope you don’t walk in and say, ‘Well that’s a girl, so she’s gonna be like this.’ One of the things that we always found as gamers—and we’ve got an awful lot of years gaming between us—is that almost felt like it was a thing, like ‘Oh that’s a girl, so she must be like this or that.’ They’re either too perfect, or too far the other way.”
For us, the strongest thing—and I think it’s on one of our white walls somewhere—is that Amelia Woods is a normal person, and normal people are not generally perfect by a long way. They’re not usually super-intelligent, super-rich, super-athletic…super-anything.
So complex is the background of their protagonist, named Amelia Woods, that the team is planning to release a series of teaser videos to allow prospective players to uncover the mysteries of her past.
“In a series of videos that we’ll be starting to release soon, we’ll start telling some of that background and giving players an opportunity to solve the mystery that’s embedded in those videos, to be able to unlock some additional content while we’re in development,” Rich said.
“The hope is that Amelia will allow players in all walks of life to be able to empathize with her, and make decisions driven by what it would be like to walk a mile in her shoes,” Toby explained, “You have the opportunity to do what you want to do and to look through Amelia’s eyes at a world which is quite different to ours, and to go through the spectrum of someone’s behavior who’s in a really interesting situation. She has a very storied background, stuff that you as a player won’t necessarily know, and that’s a big reason why we’re publishing this series of videos to sort of give you this kind of background. It’s obviously not straightforward—we don’t spoon-feed it to the players, there’s a lot of mystery and…well, you’ll see when you see the videos, but there’s a lot in her background which will play into the way things are set up, and if you’re careful you’ll understand some of it, but sometimes getting an answer will lead to three more questions.”
One of the first things we learned about Deal With the Devil‘s mission statement is that it would not resort to jump scares and other “cheap” horror tactics. The guys at Round Table and Antimatter are committed to creating a persistent, subtle, seamless sense of discomfort uncertainty that will eat away at you over time.
“Environmental storytelling is one of our key USPs,” Toby told us. “We’ve taken a look at things like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and the way in which they tell stories through an almost implicit narrative, rather than simply spoon-feeding you information.”
To fine-tune this narrative, the team has invested heavily in real-world research to summon up ideas and images derived from very real behaviors of the human psyche.
“Toby has spent a lot of nights not sleeping because he did a lot of research on some quite heavy books about psychological illness, and the impact of shock on the human psyche,” Rich explained, “That’s the thing we’ve been really trying to understand what hurts the brain, what really upsets people in order to do that. We talked about USPs and our other one, which is internal but certainly not a secret, is a lot of people talk about the most terrifying this that and the other. For us, it was about trying to craft the most disturbing experience that a player can have in a game.”
“There’s a Disney film called Watcher in the Woods,” Rich recalled, “Which, if you watch it, it’s a Disney film, right, so how bad could it be? And it’s certainly not horror, it definitely has no jump scares or people jumping out with axes, there’s no gore, but it’s unsettling, and it carries that through by environment, by sounds, by visuals, and that’s really what we’re trying to reproduce. It’s that feeling of being in a place where things are not right, and utilizing the benefits of the research we’ve done to do that without having to, say, disgust the player with gore, or chainsaws and axes, or with jump scares, which are great in their own type of game, but that’s not the type of horror game we want to craft.”
Toby, who has personally been doing a lot of the necessary research, weighed in with some of the disturbing things he has found and hopes to employ against the players, saying “I don’t know if you’ve ever read any books about protracted periods of stress and psychological discomfort on the human body, but it turns out that there are some quit well-documented phenomenon which are truly upsetting. I remember once turning a page reading about the way the circulatory system responds to seeing things that the brain can’t comprehend, and there was just a picture of a necrotic human heart, which gave me much the same experience. That was just wonderful. It turns out that making video games is a glamorous job.”
With all of this detailed information, the team is hoping to bypass the need for a mechanical indication of character sanity, and get straight into the minds of the players themselves.
What we didn’t want to do was have this really arbitrary kind of bullshit sanity meter, where you’re like, ‘Now you’re crazy, so you’re dead.’ We wanted to try and understand if someone is suffering from shock and from something that really hurts you and upsets you mentally, what does that do? What does it look like through someone’s eyes? How do they feel? How do they act? Where do they lose control? Where do they maintain control?
“We’re putting systems in the background where how you do things, and what you do, will affect that, and by doing so, all of your perception—what you see, feel, think, fear—is all built in and linked to other mechanics so that your experience is subtly impaired in a way that, according to all the research we’ve done, it would be if you were actually feeling this. And yea, there’s a lot of tweaking , twisting, and making that work, but it’s rooted in research because we think that’s actually a better way of doing it. We don’t want a UI-heavy thing that says, ‘Your bar’s gone red, so you’re crazy now.’ We find that immersion-breaking.”
They’re also making a point to handle the issue of mental illness with as much sensitivity and empathy as they can. It’s important to recognize that there are people who legitimately experience some of these things in real life, and that for them, it is most certainly not a game.
“We also want to avoid any kind of problematic representations of mental health,” Toby asserted, “And as such, the level of research that we’re doing…It’s a very tricky subject and basically we’d rather explore fear.”
“We’ve done a lot of things to make sure we’re respectful of issues that are potentially problematic,” Rich added, “We’re making a game about fear and horror, some pretty disturbing subjects as we’ve talked about, but we’ve had conversations that are unusually wide-reaching for game studios, as things like discussions with funeral directors, and research with people who deal with funerary practices…People who work in the mental health sector, research that was done as far back as the period we’re in. So, it is a narrow line and as Toby says, you know we want to be respectful of that. We don’t want to make that comedic or pantomimey at all, and that wouldn’t frankly fit with the type of game we’re making anyway. So it has certainly, I think, opened our eyes quite a lot to some of the darker sides of things that people experience.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAYER AGENCY
The beauty of the video game as a medium is first and foremost that the player has some level of agency–that is, a level of control and ability to directly affect the way that the experience plays out. This can range from simply the way in which the player character wins an encounter, to the choices they make and the way they can potentially change the outcome of the story. Usually, we view more agency as better. However, many would argue that in a horror game (particularly one with Lovecraftian roots), the opposite is true; a sense of helplessness and irrelevance is often a key element in horror, especially of the Lovecraftian variety. With this in mind, we asked the team what they feel the right amount of agency is and how they plan to achieve it.
“One of the best reasons to play a video game is to take control,” Toby said, “to enact your agency upon the game world, and it is of paramount importance that the player feels like they are in control of their character. Yes, in Lovecraft as in eldritch horror, one of the main themes is helplessness and a lack of control against overwhelming odds. But we’re trying to present that feeling through atmosphere, without restricting the player’s choices too much. There will be a lot of player choices, but those will all filter into mechanics and meters and grand stuff.”
“Very minimal UI is our intention,” Rich added, “Obviously there has to be some indication so that people actually know what they’re doing, but interaction with the environment, environmental storytelling is really key. It’s all in the background, and we really want to give that feeling of impending fear and horror building up, without meaning that has to take away the player’s ability to guide their destiny, no matter how unpleasant that may be.”
“It’s been interesting,” Nate explained, “Because we’re trying to develop systems that give the player the most amount of freedom possible without presenting a typical game feel. So menus are very minimal and choices are obvious but not in the way that it’s done traditionally in most games. It’s really been trying to achieve a bridge between the player and interacting with the actual game itself in a different way that’s never been done before.”
They went on to explain that they are so committed to player freedom that they want to offer every choice you could want to make, even if some of those choices could have serious narrative consequences or even end the story prematurely–an outlook that some might consider controversial. But erratic player behavior can lead to a break in immersion and by introducing consequences, it begins to feel less like “just a game.”
“It’s maybe a little bit of an interesting journey, even into player death,” Rich explained, “If you look at some games, particularly story games, there’s almost a reticence for the player to actually die, because you want to get to the end of the story, right? You’ve written a story, and you want them to experience everything up to the end of it.”
But for us, even if the player knows that it’s going to potentially be a very perilous path they’re walking, we want to support the player’s ability to walk that path, even if that does mean death. And even if that does mean that you don’t get to see the end of the story because you chose this way. It was a dark path and you were spiraling into something really horrible, and you almost dared us to take you further. We want to sort of take their hand and lead them to those dark places, even if that means that maybe they have no happy ending because if you look at our influences. there weren’t a whole lot of happy endings to be had.
“Because there is so much player choice, it would be wrong of us to have them dovetail down into one sad ending,” Toby added.
“[People] have the capacity to be a lot of different things,” Rich continued, “and a lot of times, being those things costs you, whether they cost you in terms of social acceptance, or in terms of relationships, or perhaps physically. If you want to be a jerk to somebody at work, maybe you lose your job and then you don’t have any money. If you decide to do something completely honest, maybe that’ll catch you up. When it comes to Amelia and also a lot of people she’ll meet, we’re really big on consequence. A lot of time, when you play a character, you do stuff, and when you’re honest with yourself when you think about it in terms of the real world, you would never get away with that. Something would come back and kick you in unpleasant places later because you did something. But it’s a game, right, so you can get away with it.
“For us, we’re metaphorically sitting in the shadows waiting for you and that means that when you do things, there will be repercussions. That’s the sort of thing we want to catch the players with, where they think, ‘Hey, it’s just another game, right? Normally, if I was a person doing this, I would never do this, but hey, it’s a game, so I’m gonna do it.’ We’re expecting that behavior, and we’re going to show people that it’s actually a game with consequences. That doesn’t make it any less fun to us and in some ways a lot more fun.”
THE PATH FORWARD
Unfortunately for us, Deal With the Devil is still a ways off on the horizon.
“We are at a relatively early stage,” Rich told us. “It’s slated to be an episodic game with the first episode currently slated for the beginning of 2017. So there is a lot of work yet ahead of us.”
The game is currently being developed in Unreal Engine 4, which is proving well-suited to the team’s needs.
“Having access to the engine source code has allowed me to create game objects that are specific for what our game needs to do,” Nate explained. “It’s been really positive to develop with so far.”
“One of the best things in my mind about UE4 is the Blueprint system,” Toby added, “which means that even someone like myself, with very few technical skills, is able to contribute technically to the project.”
“The biggest challenge so far has been that there have been a bunch of creative decisions that have been made and changed,” Nate continued. “So I’ve had to kind of change directions. I’ve been able to sort of pick up the ball and run with it, and it’s actually…Again, giving credit to the engine, it actually lends itself to this task.”
“The changes that Nick is talking about have to do with dialogue, and the fact that we really want to link the environment with dialogue,” Rich explained. “We start off with an idea and then we want to make it a little bit more advanced, more elegant, a little bit more evolved, which unfortunately is more work for the technical guys. But it’s actually been quite successful, I think. It has helped us make a much better experience for the player, and I think maybe we weren’t being as ambitious at the start as maybe we could have been.”
Oftentimes, when we speak to a team in their early development stages, they have plans to crowdfund their projects–most often by Kickstarter, but sometimes via other platforms like IndieGoGo or their own private system. Round Table and Antimatter however have no plans to go public with their funding. They’ve watched, with the rest of us over the last year or so, as major projects come under fire and are held to relentless standards. This very public trial by fire can make or break a project with little bearing on the product itself and for them, it just wasn’t worth the risk.
“At the moment, we’re a pretty small deal,” explained Rich, “We are two small studios—Round Table, which is unfunded and not much further on than start-up, with a relatively small team, and Antimatter, which is certainly bigger, and has been around a couple years, but we’re not part of any publisher. Right now, we are developing this growing team in order to support it. For us, in an ideal world, this would have been something that would be great to crowdfund—I think we’re answering a lot of problems, dealing with a lot of things, and we’re looking to get additional funding to help us get as much depth and build as much into this as we possibly can. But what we’ve seen in terms of the way people have interacted with more ambitious games’ funding in the last year or so, it seems to suggest less confidence in projects, particularly larger projects, and less willingness to invest in crowdfunding.”
So for us, we will certainly look at investment and partner publishing with people who are interested and there are certainly meetings to be had that we’ve already set up. We probably would have liked to go down that route, but what we don’t want to do, with two small studios that don’t have that incredibly broad marketing budget, we don’t want to put ourselves in that vulnerable position when we feel that that field is diminishing. It’s unfortunate—I think it would have been a great platform for us to fund the game, but at the moment it’s not something we’re convinced is going to be the right strategy for us.
So the team will press on at their own pace, and hopefully craft something truly unsettling.
Intrigued by Deal With the Devil? You can stay up to date via the Round Table Game Studio website. Don’t forget to keep your eye out for their upcoming series of teaser videos to piece together Amelia’s past. And look for Deal With the Devil‘s first episode in early 2017.
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