Have you had a look at Grave yet? It’s an open-world survival surrealist horror that forces players to use light as their weapon as they navigate an increasingly threatening, Dali-esque, surreal dreamscape.
The game is being developed by Tristan Moore, his wife Aby and friend Daniel Strayer for PC, Linux, Mac and Oculus Rift. We’re always game for a bit of horror here at BitPulse, so we sat down with Moore via email to chat a bit about Grave’s history and the road to Kickstarter.
BitPulse: I’d love to ask you about the challenges in developing such a complex title as a small team. Grave is fairly unique and has a lot of elements, such as the day/night cycle and use of light. Is that difficult to manage with just a few people?
Moore: I’ll start with a little backstory! We started Grave as a gamejam in 2013, partly because we’d never worked in Unity before. We saw a lot of cool things happening in the horror space at the time, and we were interested to test some of the boundaries ourselves. I’d long been a fan of classic survival horror from back in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I was curious where some of those experiences could go. New horror titles like Slender, Amnesia or Outlast have focused a lot on removing player interactions with the creatures, focusing really heavily on increasing the scare factor by making the player powerless. The side-effect of this is you don’t really have a whole lot of agency; you can’t make decisions or affect your environment. One of the main goals with Grave is to give the player back that sense of interaction, while still retaining the horror experience.
One of the ways we wanted to do that was by experimenting with tone. Games that allow you to explore freely and don’t pressure you to react to combat allow you to take in the game world more heavily, and they tend to illicit an emotional response. We wanted to use this, so we set up the idea of the day-night cycle to contrast combative horror with exploration. We felt it was a good way to hit two emotional levels, and so far it has paid off substantially.
The hardest part for us in all this is that our goals aren’t those of a small indie team. We want to add more interaction into the game, but a lot of the reason indie titles typically don’t do that is that it’s actually a lot harder to do. We’re introducing some really complex interactions into Grave, and it’s more than a little ambitious. I think a lot of times when people see the trailer or check out the game, they don’t realize that the majority of the work was done by 3 people after their work at other studios and jobs.
Unity’s Asset Store has been of tremendous help to us. We’ve been able to acquire tools and plug-ins that massively extend Unity’s base functionality and make our goals more viable. This includes Ultimate FPS Camera, Marmoset Skyshop Shaders, RAIN AI and uScript visual scripting. for just a few hundred dollars we’ve been able to turn Unity into a very custom, extended tool which does a lot more than it does out of the box, and it has allowed us to focus our development in the areas of innovation that really matter, instead of having to build all the basics from the ground up.
How has adding Oculus Rift support into that affected things?
Integration of the Rift was fairly easy, because Unity supports it as a simple plug-in. Really, the challenges in developing for it are more in the concepts behind virtual reality. We have a lot of established “best practices” for normal shooters, such as how movement controls work, how set up interface, etc. For the Rift, we’re having to reinvent some of those standards, and there isn’t yet a roadmap for the best way to go about it. Because we want the game to support both Oculus and non-Oculus play, we’ve had to make sure the experience is consistent across both styles of play.
It’s actually been interesting, because we’ve moved the standard experience into a more immersive space by doing so as well. Working with new tech is really awesome though, we’re super excited to be able to do so and the challenges are worth it.
What are the particular challenges involved with promoting an horror game in the crowdfunding scene, especially when there are so many titles competing for attention (like Nevermind or Darkest Dungeon)?
When we started on Grave in the 2013 gamejam, the Oculus hadn’t even hit the scene and there were only a few new horror titles out there. Because we’re so small, we’ve had to deal with the fact that we just can’t get the game out as quickly as a larger studio could, and that meant we’ve seen new games enter the space since then. When we added Oculus support, we were actually one of the earlier Oculus games that was freely available to download, but now there’s a ton of Oculus compatible games.
I’d say the hardest part isn’t really the competition, it’s telling people why our game is different. We’ve been working on the concept for a while, and I can assure you we’re not shooting for the same goals as most other horror titles. We’re focusing on the value that being immersed in an experience can give to the crazy or the abstract, and we really want you to feel like you are making choices and interacting. Our choice of a surreal landscape isn’t just for looks, it factors heavily into the experience we want gamers to have, almost like Salvador Dali’s Destino meets Silent Hill.
Do you think that setting the game in a surreal environment rather than a familiar one heightens the potential for horror, or lessens it as everything is unfamiliar?
There’s a few ways of looking at the surrealist concept and how it relates to horror. First, a cool part for me about surrealist art is how really realistic it is in many cases. The unreality comes from what the world is depicting, not the style in which it is rendered. Dali’s paintings have a huge amount of detail, yet you’d obviously never see a melting clock in the desert in real life.
We want to use the surrealist style to immerse players in the experience of the game. A lot of “real-world” horror has already been done; stuff that takes place in familiar settings has been done often, and we’re actively trying to move away from heavily tread ground. We want to stay away from insane asylums and haunted houses, while emphasizing fascinating imagery and unsettling tones.
In a way, there are elements of our aesthetic that are more focused on creating a strange, memorable experience than producing traditional scares. We’re trying to avoid the usual tropes, such as jump out scares tight corridors. We’re really focusing on isolation, loneliness and apprehension as major emotions for the experience. Interestingly, in the experience we’ve had with players so far, some of the most scared they’ve been is when nothing scary is actually happening; it’s the tension of the experience and the strangeness of the world that tends to get to them.
As a note, one of my favorite moments in Dear Esther was exploring the underground caves. The location had this strange unreality to it, and was absolutely amazing to look at. The wonder of seeing something entirely unexpected can’t be overstated, and its super important for us as we develop Grave.
How has the relationship with the Let’s Play community shaped the game, and were you surprised by this element growing around it?
We actually moved forward with production of our original prototype based on the response from the YouTube “let’s play” community. After we finished the gamejam, we put it up online, made a few updates and then moved forward with work on other projects for our studios. I actually remember getting a message from Dan, our lead programmer, on night. He asked “dude, why didn’t you tell me about Grave?” I had no idea what he was talking about so he linked me to about a dozen Let’s Play videos for Grave.
We hadn’t even realized anyone was playing it, but they were all getting really scared and we found out that our plan for the game was working; people were really getting immersed and the game was totally dynamic; the prototype had no fixed goals or paths to take. It was totally freeform, and we’d set up a spawning algorithm to make the creatures appear to be stalking you through the darkness. People were getting really freaked out, often without even seeing the creatures.
One of our biggest boons was when PewDiePie played the game, early on when we’d just incorporated Oculus Rift and were still experimenting with the tech. I’d say that the Let’s Play community has had the single biggest part in getting the game out there to the public.
And finally, what are the challenges in promoting the game as heavily- especially going to expos- when you’re a small team?
Honestly, promotion is not something we really know much about. We make games, so the idea of contacting people constantly to inform them about the game has been a bit of a new thing for us. We’ve been lucky to be offered great opportunities to show the game, at The Mix this year during GDC, at Arizona State University and at the Phoenix Art Museum during the Art of Games exhibit. I’ve been doing the bulk of the marketing and I’ve tried to adopt a policy of just saying “yes.” If there’s any lead, I try to follow up on it. If someone expresses interest I give them a ton of info and spread the word as much as I can.
The hardest part for me has been cold-contacting people in the media. I always like my work to speak for itself so I think there’s a part of me that hopes to just be able to put my stuff out there and have people come to it. Promotion doesn’t work that way so I’ve had to take a bit of a crash-course!