In today’s Arts we talk with a French Prague-based game designer Axel Droxler. He is the lead designer on two titles for the independent studio Dreadlocks, the popular debut Dex – set in a cyberpunk world – and the upcoming Ghost Theory, in which players take the roles of ghost hunters.
“It is tied to the idea of pen-and-paper RPGs (role-playing games) with the big difference in video games being that there is no game master reacting to or overseeing the action. What you can do in the game is, for obvious reasons, is also more limited, whereas with pen-and-paper it is almost unlimited and you are completely free. In a video game, the choices are more limited.”
Dex is set in this kind of dystopian future which has many fans, which many will recognize, a world which brings to mind films like Bladerunner or William Gibson’s Sprawl series, beginning with Neuromancer…
“Yes, it’s a cyberpunk world and it was inspired by Gibson, as well as films and even other video games, if you are familiar with the Deus Ex series. All of these were an inspiration.”
In the game do you choose among an array of characters or is your character set?
"Dex is set in a cyberpunk world and it was inspired by the writer William Gibson, as well as by films and even other video games."
“It’s set, in the game you play as Dex, who is the main character. You can’t play with anyone else. On the other hand, you can influence what she is like by how she interacts with other characters in the game: she can be arrogant, she can be friendly, mean, you have freedom on that front although other aspects of her character are fixed. You also have choices in how you explore the world of the game, you can explore in any order you like and you have choices how you traverse certain sections. For example, you can be sneaky or you can fight antagonists head on.
“So you have a main storyline, which doesn’t change although there are multiple endings which are possible, but there are also side-missions or quests which are completely optional where you meet other characters, whose lives you can influence, which changes the overall experience.”
One of the things which is fascinating about video games is how much different talent which goes into producing a game: you have the programmers, the artwork, the writers behind the story, voice actors, music, it is akin to something like making a film where you have a big team which has to come together, would you agree?
“I would. Actually the video game industry is so big now in terms of budgets and revenue… now it is on par or has surpassed cinema. Blockbuster games now make more revenue than cinema, which is incredible if you look back to 20 years ago. Also, there is more and more overlap; you have famous screenwriters crossing over into video games or voice actors, so that too is happening more and more.”
Dex made use of crowdfunding which over the last few years has shown itself to be a very useful tool or model in getting many projects off the ground… Now you have a new, even more ambitious project in a crowdfunding campaign called Ghost Theory. What’s it about?
“It’s a completely different beast: you play a paranormal investigator who visits multiple haunted places and you try and learn more about particular hauntings and to see if you can expel spirits from the site. It is a horror game, so it will be scary and brings to mind Hollywood pictures like The Amityville Horror…”
"The video game industry is so big now in terms of budgets and revenue… it is has, in some cases, surpassed cinema."
“Yes, exactly. Even Ghostbusters but without the comic element.”
From the promo material it seems that all of the locations visited in the game actually exist around the world…
“That is one thing that came to us as we were planning the project: we thought it would be a lot cooler to use famous haunted areas, there are so many great ghost stories around the world we are going to try and make use of in the game.”
Usually in a Hollywood film when the protagonists learn they are living in a site which is possessed, the main obstacle is simply to get out. Here you have property owners, some of which are famous haunts; if they believe in the paranormal, what are they still doing there?!
“Yeah, well some probably don’t believe and have it more as a business. Some of the places offer visitors a chance to spend the night in a haunted home to creep themselves out or want to try and see the spirit or have a paranormal spirit. Others though, might be owners who don’t actually live at the property…”
It must be a great talking point to own a property which is the site of a famous haunt… So some don’t believe, others might. Now, one of the biggest aspects of this game is the immersion. Immersion, more and more, is seen a key goal of games like this and you want to take it further, that it will be possible to play the game with a VR headset. I imagine that virtual reality is one of the big parts of this project.
“That was the goal when we opted for this project: we wanted to make a game designed primarily for virtual reality: the first commercial VR headsets are going to be released this year. The technology is really incredible and you are fully immersed in the game. For that reason, horror was kind of an obvious genre to choose because everything becomes 10 times scarier.”
Do you have to anticipate for different thresholds of what is scary?
"In Ghost Theory, you play a paranormal investigator who visits multiple haunted places."
“We do. That is one of the things which was commented on a lot in advance by people who haven’t tried the game of course who were worried if it was too scary it wouldn’t be for them. So it will be scary but the story won’t be built on giving users a heart attack every other moment with ‘jump scares’. It won’t be about things jumping at you. You will be scared but it will be more about building up the atmosphere, you will hear sounds and not know where they are coming from, you will feel uneasy at points, but it is about the mood and immersion.”
So it’s more about a growing sense of dread…
One of the things I got a kick out of was the tools you use as a paranormal investigator, I know you have a camera…
“We wanted to find a kind of middle ground, compared to other video games. You will have tools but as a character you will still be vulnerable. The items you can use are a camera on which you hope to capture evidence of an apparition. You have equipment you can record ambient sound with, an EVP recorder which captures sound but when you play it back you hear sounds or voices which were not audible before among the static. There is a UV lamp, which is used in forensics, to reveal traces of where spirits have been. So, your character is not going from room to room shooting everything in sight.”
Axel, you are the lead designer on both Dex and Ghost Theory… what philosophy do you have as a designer?
“It goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning: choices. Because I worked on RPG games, I like it when they are provided. Although Ghost Theory is not an RPG, we are still going to try and give the user choice and certain freedom in how to go about missions. That is kind of what I am going for. I enjoy plenty of games where there are no real choices and they can be great as well, as well but because of the kind of stuff I worked on, this is an aspect which is important for me.”
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