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“Cultures Don’t Really Hold People Back”: How Mad Max, Firewatch, and The Big Lebowski Inspired Aussie Narrative Game STONE

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STONE

Twenty years ago, one could hardly swing a bandicoot without hitting a character-based platformer with an anthropomorphic main character. However, the march of time has put the once-loved genre on the endangered list. Deep and meaningful stories are the new norm, and significant technology advances since the last century have enabled developers to create near photorealistic digital humans.

As a result, animal fables in gaming have fallen to the wayside. However, one ambitious development team is seeking to make everything old new again by transplanting an anthropomorphic protagonist into a story-driven project. Enter Convict Games—a new studio helmed by former Remedy Entertainment developer Greg Louden—and STONE, a neo-noir adventure starring a hungover koala detective.

Releasing this week, the project attracted considerable attention when it was announced for its unique attitude and atmosphere, so OnlySP took the opportunity to speak with lead developer Louden to learn more about what makes this game so special.

“It’s really like what games can be and should be or less—not everything needs to be a huge blockbuster. Some things can be a bit more arthouse-y.”

Louden points to Firewatch, Gone Home, Virginia, and What Remains of Edith Finch as some of the games that inspired the creation of STONE by providing narratives that are both tightly contained and inherently different from the bulk of those found elsewhere in the medium. As that list of touchstones suggests, STONE is a narrative adventure, but of a different kind to the ‘walking simulators’ dominant within the genre. “I just kind of wanted to join that scene and offer more interactions and more of a world than they usually offer because they’re usually linear and this is a bit more open.”

That player agency is evident in even the opening few minutes. As users explore the eponymous character’s trashed home, they can urinate, talk to a rubber duck, watch films from the public domain, and play a drum machine. Later options include dialogue choices, while Convict Games has also given Stone the ability to smoke: “We were trying to think of some of the things you could do with the buttons, and I thought, ‘well, if it was […] Stone, what would he do if he just needed to pause and think? He’d smoke.’”

Though many users are likely to overlook this feature, it displays a commitment to character building rarely witnessed in AAA games and their larger-than-life heroes. However, Louden has made  an attempt to build a more believable protagonist.

Stone is a private investigator who wakes after a heavy night of drinking to find his “chookie,” Alex, missing. One menacing phone call later, the detective work begins, and Louden has endeavoured to avoid falling into cliche with his writing:

“My brother is actually a detective—and so are obviously some of his friends—and they helped me do some more of the police and detective lines about inquiry and that sort of stuff, so I tried to add a bit of authenticity to it.”

While the interrogation sequences are not as in depth as those in L.A. Noire, players will choose between taking a soft or hard approach when talking with witnesses, and those individuals may react differently depending on Stone’s behaviour. The investigation process also involves locating clues, but Louden downplays the difficulty of therein, refusing to say that STONE incorporates puzzles. “It has these moments where you need to read your environment, but it’s very streamlined, so it keeps the pacing and the flow.”

The gameplay, then, for all its agency, is designed to be palatable to a mass audience. However, the story is another proposition entirely.

Arthouse movies have something of a reputation for being difficult. Compared to the bulk of Hollywood fare, such films are often darker, more serious, and more clearly intended to make members of their audience think. These traits are also hallmarks of noir, which STONE pays a clear debt of gratitude to in far more than just its marketing.

Louden cites a bevy of key influences behind the creation of the game, from Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon to The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice. “The final thing was [Charles] Bukowski’s novel Post Office. I read it, and I just loved this character who was so vulgar and so just not a good person, but there was a good person in there. I was like, ‘it would be so interesting to push this sort of character through a world and go through some of the experiences that Bukowski wrote about or Hemingway wrote about’.”

In other circumstances, the night of black-out drinking and kidnapped lover that set the tone of the game could make for a bleak experience, but the lurid colouring and animalian characters give STONE a more offbeat feeling. Nevertheless, Louden is keen to downplay any suggestion that the title is purely lighthearted. “It’s a comedy, but noir is also known for having darkness, so it has a darkness.”

“I think it has a great message,” he adds, saying that the choice to feature anthropomorphic characters “allows the message to come through more clearly—a bit like in Animal Farm by George Orwell where he replaced people with animals so that, in this way, that meaning could come through.”

While that statement may raise fears that Convict Games is simply trying to push a political agenda with its art, Louden ambitions are grander than that. He says that the gaming industry feels overly centralised in its sources:

“It kind of feels like games are telling the same stories—and usually American stories. There aren’t that many games that are purely in French. There aren’t really that many Australian games, so I really wanted to present that scene. […] Cultures don’t really hold people back. If anything, they make it more exciting.”

A common saying from yesteryear is that culture is more easily found in a tub of yoghurt than Australia, but STONE drips with Australiana. Most of the anthropomorphised animals are indigenous to the continent—including the lead character (a koala), his chookie (a lorikeet), the local bar owner (a galah), and Stone’s best mate (a wombat)—though an American alligator and British foxes will make appearances. Meanwhile, the game’s dialogue is rife with slang and intertextual references to stoner and noir fiction, as well as hip-hop music. Taking inspiration from Mad Max: Fury Road “which is just filled with Aussie slang,” Louden is throwing players into the deep end. However, he also says that STONE will include a glossary of vernacular to help players unfamiliar with the language used.

Despite this focus, the game truly is a global effort. Louden is based in Sydney, Australia, while at least one Australian music producer—Luchii from Perth—will appear on the soundtrack. One of the most prominent musical collaborators on the project is Ryan Little, who is a prolific North Carolina producer, while others, including Biniyam and Warchief, hail from Finland. Furthermore, the lead concept artist, Ivan Pozdnyakov, is from Moscow, Russia.

“I just saw [Pozdnyakov’s] art style and thought it was incredibly cool[…] I think the style—it’s pretty cool. I think, as someone who’s never been to Australia before, being from Moscow, he’s nailed the style and the atmosphere really well.”

The passion that Louden has for this project is infectious, and the team he has built for its creation is incredibly talented. Furthermore, STONE is one of the most novel games currently in development. The inspirations behind the title are remarkably diverse, the scale of the team lends it international flavour, and old approaches blend with current trends.

If STONE lives up to its promise, Cole Phelps and Phoenix Wright can step aside; a new detective is on the case.

Watch out soon for OnlySP’s review of STONE and be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube for all the latest from the world of single-player gaming.

Interview conducted by Dominic Galeano. Editorial prepared by Damien Lawardorn.

Interview

The Long Return Creates a Beautiful Aesthetic in Each Level — An Interview With Max Nielsen

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The Long Return is a beautiful third-person puzzle adventure game, following the story of an orphaned cub. The player explores hand crafted levels as the cub retraces the steps it once took with his mother. The Long Return’s level design is familiar yet still distinct and refreshing, taking inspiration from both new and old games to create this muted low poly feel.

This gorgeous, debut project is the work of solo developer Max Nielsen. Although he is currently finalising the game ahead of its release later this year, he took the time to talk to OnlySP to reflect and tell us more.


OnlySP: What inspired you to bring The Long Return to life? Was it an idea you were sitting on for a while or did it come on quite suddenly?

Nielsen: Actually, I never planned on releasing this game, or even finishing it. I had just quit my job at Microsoft and wanted to create a quick demo for my portfolio, so that I could apply for jobs in the industry. At the time I was working on a 2D RPG mostly for fun, and I knew I would need to make something in 3D for the bigger studios to give me a chance. So I decided to make a fairly simple demo with around 10 minutes of gameplay. However, while working on it, I got offered a job as an application consultant at a great company, and they said they would let me work on my own games and run my own company on the side, so I accepted the job and since then I have been working on this game as a hobby on my free time.

OnlySP: Each zone in The Long Return has such a pleasing aesthetic, how did you go about level design in a mostly natural world?

Nielsen: I am a huge Nintendo fan, Zelda OoT is still my favorite single player game ever, and I had just played through Zelda BotW, and wanted to create a world with a similar color palette and feel. After trying out a few different things I decided to use the low poly style because that would mean I could actually model some stuff by myself. I think I’ve gone through the level design of each zone in my game at least 10 times since I started, it’s crazy how much you learn just by trial and error (although time-consuming).

OnlySP: Will the game have a stronger focus on gameplay and location or story. Is The Long Return is a mix of the two?

Nielsen: Since the start I really wanted to tell a story without any words or text, and I have kept true to that. Instead I tell the story using memories and visuals. This does set certain limits to how gripping and detailed the story can be, especially when working with animals, but I think the message comes across quite well. The game is, at its core, a puzzle/adventure game, and you spend most of your time solving different puzzles and finding your way past obstacles, accompanied by an amazing original soundtrack that I still cannot believe is for my game.

OnlySP: Being your first big project game, what have you learned during development?

Nielsen: That list is incredibly long, and hopefully I can create a post-mortem detailing most of it. But I would say the main things I will take away from this project is:

– Plan, research and test; When starting out I kind of just created features for the game by trial and error, this leads to some really messy code. Nowadays I always make sure to properly plan, take notes, research best practices and test everything in a dev-environment before putting it in my game.
– Marketing is a necessary evil, even as a hobby developer with very limited time, I still don’t do enough of it, shame!
– It’s okay to take a day off, don’t burn out, it’s supposed to be fun!

OnlySP: Overall, how long has it taken for you to develop The Long Return?

Nielsen: Roughly a year. But I’ve been working on games for 4-5 years before that as a hobby.

OnlySP: Do you have any plans after The Long Return is released?

Nielsen: Big, BIG plans, haha. While I love this game and all I’ve learned, I am so excited to start my next project. It is much more “my type of game” and I have very high hopes for it. I won’t say too much yet, but it will combine my two favorite genres of single player games; RPG and city management.

The Long Return is set to release in August 2019.

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