Storm in a Teacup’s Close to the Sun released a month ago, but much remains for fans to learn about the project. Though the inspired game has plenty of clear influences, its differences from what came before are what make Close to the Sun a standout title in its genre.
In OnlySP’s interview with Storm in a Teacup’s creative director and CEO Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi below, Bianchi talks about his influences, the studio’s future, Bioshock, and Epic Games’s contribution to the project.
OnlySP’s Amy Campbell gave Close to the Sun an impressive High Distinction, thus adding the horror title to a list filled with some of the best games available.
OnlySP: We see this happen all the time where indie games will get a lot of attention simply for the premise alone. Some are watching Close to the Sun for this very reason. What is that sudden pressure like and what is Storm in a Teacup doing to make sure expectations are met?
Bianchi: We’re incredibly humbled by all of the hype we’ve seen around Close to the Sun, we’ve been working hard with a small team to make sure we met the bar for a title like this, and the last six months have been spent polishing the title to make the experience what it is today.
OnlySP: Obviously, a lot of people are comparing BioShock and System Shock to Close to the Sun. What makes Close to the Sun similar but different when compared to those games?
Bianchi: It’s a flattering comparison which we feel comes mostly from the design language within the game—when you see Art Deco in a video game BioShock is by far the biggest point of reference for gamers, for us though, it’s more about what was visually right to bring to the game. In our version of history science has accelerated the progression of society—bringing 1930s styling to the end of the 19th century, it’s also a suitably opulent aesthetic for our Tesla who sees himself as a modern-day Prometheus.
When you look at the gameplay itself, it’s really very different—Close to the Sun is more like SOMA or Outlast. To be honest we tried to stay away a little from the BioShock comparison not because it isn’t an incredible game, (it is a masterpiece) but because we wanted to align the expectations of consumers for Close to the Sun—it’s not an FPS.
OnlySP: What are some of the game’s that got you, not only into gaming, but into making games? What games are you looking toward for inspiration when developing Close to the Sun?
Bianchi: The first games I ever played were on Commodore 64 and, as every guy coming from that era knows, just launching games at the time took some experience. It was fascinating for me at the point that I started writing my first code in Basic for fun. After that consoles came out and things got much easier, just buy a NES game, blow inside the cartridge like there is no tomorrow. Games became just something to play with, not something to think over. Even by my 18th birthday games were just something fun to play—I could never imagine I would end up developing games.
The first game that made me think was Resident Evil, it was an action game with interesting puzzles, a good story and a horror mark that executed splendidly (for the times) all of its aspects. It taught me that games could be more than just a shooter OR a puzzle solver, they could be both if executed well. The second game that comes to my mind is for sure Final Fantasy VII, still today my favourite game of all time. That game taught me that story telling could be way deeper than what I was used to. I loved the combat system and still think it’s the best turn-based system ever, but the lore in that game together with characters’ depth was something else. Another game I want to mention is Tomb Raider, that has been the first 3D game where I really felt depth! I felt so immersed in its environments that sometimes I dived from higher grounds to certain death just to enjoy the amazing vertical depth of the game. Tomb Raider was the first game that made me think: what if I could create something like this? There are many more games I could mention but these three are for sure the most important for my life as a developer.
When we started our design work on Close to the Sun we had three key pillars we wanted to use to create the game, these were: we wanted to create a suspense filled horror game, we wanted it to be on a boat (it’s the perfect setting to convey vulnerability and isolation to the player) and we wanted to include Tesla as a historical figure (and personal hero of mine). When it comes to the titles that inspired the team for Close to the Sun, we loved SOMA, Layers of Fear, Firewatch—these are all incredible titles.
OnlySP: So, the Epic Games Store controversy has gotten the entire PC gaming market riled up. A recent press release not only doubled down on the fact that Close to the Sun will launch first on the Epic Games Store, but that the partnership with Epic actually “accelerated development.” Could you elaborate on some of the ways the partnership sped things up?
Bianchi: Epic have been pivotal in the creation of Close to the Sun—they’ve been behind the project from an early stage and even provided a development grant for the game early on with no obligation. With the support they had given us and the project it felt completely natural and right to bring the game to the Epic Games Store.
On a technical development level I think it’s really easy to underestimate the value of the tools they provide—creating a horror game requires a lot of testing to see the reaction you want from the player, our team spent a lot of time using Unreal to create rapid prototypes for the final version of the game, something stuck, some things didn’t, but what was left perfectly fulfilled what we wanted to achieve and with the visual fidelity the Unreal Engine provides.
OnlySP: What do you have to say to those who are bad-mouthing the game simply because of the exclusivity period?
Bianchi: We understand fully why players feel so passionately about their launchers, but we felt the Epic Games Store was the right fit for the game, for the reasons already outlined already but also for visibility. The game will come to other storefronts in time, but right now we’re working on the console release so we can make the game available to even more players.
OnlySP: How much time can players expect to sink into the game’s story mode on the first go around? Does the game’s story offer anything for players who dive back in for a second playthrough?
Bianchi: Your first play through on Close to the Sun will take between 4 and 7 hours depending on the type of player you are. The game is rich in environmental storytelling and collectables and if you want to find and understand all these it may even take you longer. As for replay value there are some environmental elements that you’ll only truly understand once you finish the game, these are great to look out for the second time around.
OnlySP: Where does Storm in a Teacup go from here?
Bianchi: We have some ideas; we’d love to go on to create another game in this same universe but for now our focus is on the console versions of the game that will launch later in 2019.
OnlySP: Forgive me, but I’ve got to ask: Do you have any updates for Switch owners who want to play Close to the Sun on that platform? The ‘accelerated development’ comment discussed earlier definitely had me wondering.
Bianchi: We’re always open to looking at new platforms but we don’t have any news to share on this at the moment.
OnlySP: Why should people who may not already be interested in your game look into Close to the Sun?
Bianchi: Close to the Sun offers a unique experience—looking at the ideas and inventions of Tesla and what he might have gone on to achieve if he hadn’t been outmaneuvered during his years in industry. Tesla died near penniless in a hotel in New York but the world could have been so different—in 2019 we’re still barely scratching the surface of his ideas.
OnlySP: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Bianchi: Thank you for reading and a special thanks to anyone who goes out to buy the game.
198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination
Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.
In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.
The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.
Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.
That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.
With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.
Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.