Routine is a first person horror and exploration game set on an eerily abandoned moon base. Sent to uncover the mystery behind the disappearances of the people stationed on the base, the player will have access to the game’s fully open world; surviving, running, and hiding against the challenges of a permadeath system, no HUD, no health packs and the sensitivities of full body awareness. We talked with Aaron Foster of Lunar Software about horror, world building and indie development.
The abandoned base as a setting for horror narratives has a venerable history, appealing to our innate curiosity, but also threatening us with the sense of isolation and vulnerability that such stories entail. Aaron remarked that, in its toned-down 80s aesthetic, the game has influences from sci-fi movies of the 70s and 80s, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and The Thing, but that, “in terms of games System Shock 2 and Dark Souls [came] to mind straight away”.
With their small team of four, Lunar Software are seeking to make strange something that we see every night in our skies, but also know so little about. But they are also adding fresh perspectives in terms of how the game will be played and experienced. Aaron explained that the player will experience a full body awareness in the game, where “[a] HUD is just a way to give the player information he may otherwise find hard to receive. If we can give that information to the player in a much more immersive and smarter way there is just no need for it”. In the gameplay video, we can see this immediately; when the player brings up their weapon, or tool, the only information available is on a readout on the object itself. Similarly, you can also see how the player interacts with an information panel to access details about the moon base.
But this full body awareness will also extend to other actions in the world, in terms of how the player moves, explores and shoots. Aaron explained that “I have always personally liked Deadzone aiming and hoped it was used more, we can remove the crosshair and stop players sticking bluetack on their screen as a workaround”. The team are, then, trying to make the experience as real – as atmospheric and immersive – as possible, removing the crutches that players normally rely on, such as a crosshair. Or health packs. Aaron explained with the game’s permadeath system “we are still playing with all the tiny details so it’s hard to explain exactly how it works, but permadeath is not there to make the game really hard, it’s there to make you really care about the actions and choices you are about to make”. A lot of development effort is being focused here on the “time consuming” process of animating everything in the game world.
The open world of the base therefore offers up a number of different approaches to unraveling the game’s mysteries. Aaron explained that to “reach your goal there are objectives you will need to do [but] the base is mostly open and the location of enemies, items, keycodes, locked doors etc etc are randomised in some way”. This randomisation will mean that successive playthroughs will offer new challenges and opportunities, not allowing the player to fall into the tidy expectation of knowing where enemies are placed. Each time you start the game, it will be a slightly different world into which you explore. At the same time, the team have emphasized that this is a game with a core story that they want to tell.
But these choices – and the actions they animate – will have a crucial part to play in how the game unfolds, where “the endings are based on your actions throughout the game and what you deem as your goal and purpose in Routine, do you want to escape or do you want to find out what is going on?” It’s an exciting prospect of being so in control of what we can do, and where we can go, in following the game’s mysteries. Everything that Aaron’s team are putting into the game speaks of its urge to create that responsibility and accountability for your actions. And yet, because of the centrality of story and explanation at the heart of Routine, this is not going to be a Rouge-like dungeon crawl. It has focus, it has story. There’s something specific going on in the base. It is the tension of the unknown. Aaron wants to ramp that tension up by not revealing too much about the game’s specifics.
The prospect of taking different playthroughs of the game, based on different actions and choices, will be made possible by the game’s length. Aaron mentioned that it “will be roughly 3-4 hours”, where “anything longer than that will get extremely annoying with permadeath”. Aaron was emphatic that this style of play, unique to the possibilities of indie development, means that as a team they can make Routine a game that pushes “mechanics that would scare off the mass market”, that “the freedom we have to do what we want as developers” has shaped everything about the game, from its aesthetic and setting to its gameplay mechanics.
Aaron revealed that two additional gameplay videos will be unveiled before the game’s full release, sometime in 2014. We will keep you posted with updates, news and images as they become available to us.
Thank you to Aaron Foster for taking the time to answer our questions. We can’t wait to uncover the mystery at the heart of Routine.