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Exploring the Serene Open World of Uppercut Game’s Unreal Engine 4 Powered, Submerged

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In the last part we talked about Uppercut Games, an Australian indie studio formed in 2011 by former 2K employees Ed Orman, Andrew James and Ryan Lancaster. Following their success with iOS shooter series, Epoch, Uppercut wanted to try something different.

Submerged is an open-world exploration adventure, telling the story of Miku, a young girl, as she arrives in an enigmatic sunken city with her ailing younger brother, Taku, intent on searching out the supplies to nurse him back to health. As Miku traverses the decaying cityscape using her skills as a climber and the boat the children landed on, she will reveal the mysteries of her surroundings, while the player uncovers the motives behind the endeavour and the relationship between the siblings.

“The game starts with this little girl arriving in this submerged city with her injured brother,” says Ed Orman, designer and co-founder of Uppercut Games.  “We don’t tell you how they got there or why they’re even there yet. But that’s the emotional connection that we want people to have right away, her relationship to her little brother and what she’s going to do to help him.

“Over the course of the game, every time you find something that’s going to help your brother, we reveal a little bit more about the backstory of what led them here. We also reveal more of what happened to the city, how it got to this state, because it’s a pretty unusual state. I don’t want to talk too much more about it, because I want it to be something that players discover at their own pace.”

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Miku isn’t your quintessential video game protagonist, and this divergence from the norm was deliberate.

“We haven’t made an everyman character,” Orman says. “We deliberately set out to make a protagonist that was different, she’s a 14-year-old, Polynesian, mixed race girl. She’s very different to an ancient robot combatant, or a lot of the other characters you see out there. But we really wanted to have somebody different, because why the fuck not? There’s no restrictions that we have other than the ones we place upon ourselves. With this style of game there’s no need for it to be…”

“A burly white guy with a background in martial arts and spec ops training,” interjects Andrew James, another co-founder of Uppercut Games.

“And I have nothing against the burly white guy,” Orman continues.

“I like playing those games,” says James. “But there’s also other things we can do.”

“Exactly,” says Orman. “You will find out about Miku and Taku, there are definite characters in the game, not just blank slates.”

Creating characters that players identify with and care about is difficult on a budget. The team at Uppercut are well aware of this, and took steps to strengthen the player’s connection to their characters.

“We thought when we first started the game that we could get away with a more simple form of storytelling without expensive cutscenes that take up lots of time and money,” says James. “But we realised after PAX AUS [Penny Arcade Expo Australia] that we needed to strengthen the emotional connection between the player and the character, so we’ve been going through and doing facial animation and reworking the prompts in the game so they all come from the character. The story’s being told from her perspective, I think that’s already a lot stronger. One of the challenges is she doesn’t speak English, so there’s a lot of visual communication.”

Orman continues: “She does have vocalisations. And you can convey a fair amount of emotion and attitude even through those. I’m actually in the process of trying to record these now, and you want to get her character across. Again, she’s not a martial artist, she’s doing some fantastic things, but that doesn’t mean that she’s fully confident in her abilities to do so. You try and get some of that attitude across.”

“She’s vulnerable, but strong,” James says.

“Fearful, but driven,” says Orman.

He goes on to say: “We are trying not to overwhelm the player with that character, so you try to pick your battles for where you try and get it across. There’s a few cutscenes, a handful of important story beats, then there’s how she acts and reacts to the world. The backstory that you get to see about Miku and Taku, is revealed in what we call ‘pictograms’, essentially her dream sequences after she’s achieved one of the major goals in the game. Those help to flesh out her character and her relationship with her brother more.”

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Submerged has a heavy emphasis on escapism, rewarding curiosity and exploration in an effort to create a game world that is not only fun and engrossing, but relaxing as well. The inspiration for the game came from an unlikely source.

“The short version is I saw a video of a mod for GTA 4 on PlayStation,” Orman says. “And in that video, they raised the sea level, which broke the game, but you ended up with the city sticking up out of the ocean with lots of chaos, with all the systems failing, trying to deal with it. When I saw that image, that was the first time I had the idea. That’s the kernel of it, and then I added to that the image of this little girl in a boat, but I had no idea where the hell that was going to go. But it was a serene moment for me, that’s what I took away from it all, was that idea of a serene place. We’ve built on it massively since then.

“How do you make a place serene and still interesting? A place you actually want to explore and want to hang around in. That’s been the real crux of what we’re trying to do. Trying to build a beautiful world and keep it interesting enough for the player, but also allow them to just explore and relax in it.”

“We actually had a bunch of combat elements and all sorts of crafting and things in the game design when we wrote it down on paper,” says James. “We got one of our friends, who’s a developer, to play the game and he got in the boat and we were like, ‘Hey, you can go over here,’ and you’re trying to hard sell your ideas and you’re really excited. But he was just like: ‘I just want to explore the city, I don’t care about your combat system. Shut up, just let me play the game.’ That was the first time that I thought, ‘maybe we don’t need any of that stuff’.”

Uppercut’s creative process has drawn on a variety of influences in their quest to imbue Submerged with an air of peace and tranquillity. But the game is defined as much by what it tries to do differently, taking inspiration from gaming and popular culture, but also subverting the traditional formula for post-apocalyptic fiction.

“The ground is the water, and we have a load of islands which are buildings,” James says. “Is it a science fiction game? Where’s it set? We never actually say where the game is. It’s post 20th century, some point, in a divergent alternate future.

“There’s definitely a lot of reference that we took from games like The Last of Us and Fallout 3, some of the other post-apocalyptic titles. There’s also the matter of what architecture will work for the game, you’re basically always looking at half way up the buildings, which is the boring part. But then at the same time, that makes the game look a bit different from everything else out there, you’re not at street level. It allowed us to play around with rooftops, you spend time going through buildings and on top of them. We cherry-picked a lot of referents that fit the vibe of the game, in the way that they had details in the right places. We’ve been looking at a lot of buildings in New York and San Francisco, some stuff from London, and actually buildings from Sydney and Brisbane, sandstone and marble structures that have lots of detail on them that can also serve as landmarks when you’re climbing around.”

Orman continues: “We came up with a backstory for the city. That’s one of the mysteries of the world is what happened to this place. That itself has also been evolving over the course of production and it informs most of the decisions we’ve made. One of the great strengths of this process is that it has been informed by the other decisions that Andrew’s made in that very first prototype, that then ultimately effected the backstory of the world. Because of that process, it’s ended up more cohesive, it’s actually more interesting, I think.

“I worked on Fallout: Tactics, and that was the dream gig for me because I loved the Fallout games and I love post-apocalyptic stuff,” he says.

“When you step away from the post-apocalyptic theme, some of the gaming influences have been some really terrific new directions taken by indie games. Journey came out a couple of years ago now, Gone Home came out in 2013. Those are two games that I think did some really interesting stuff. They were quite inspiring in showing that you can do something different and gave us a bit of confidence that there is a market out there for games that aren’t just run-and-gun.

“I was going to say [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road, but I’m going to take that back. There’s none of The Road in this game, this is the least depressing game I’ve ever worked on. But that’s been a struggle too, because as a writer, post-apocalyptic stuff isn’t generally very happy, it’s not usually depicting a nice world. And that was the tendency at the beginning of Submerged, but both Andrew and Ryan were telling me, ‘it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant place, it doesn’t have to be bad’. So not The Road, forget The Road.”

Sub1“In the past, we’ve had a good friend and he did some concepting for us for both environments and characters,” James adds. “He actually went on to work on Star Citizen as a contractor, so we couldn’t work with him anymore. We got some great concept art for characters, Miku and other characters in the game, by a husband and wife team, Colin and Annie Fix, we used to work with Colin at 2K, I think he concepted the Big Daddies and Splicers on Bioshock 2.

“With the environment, it’s been a process of reference taking and then almost like painting in the editor. We hadn’t done any concept art for the game, so we were basically concepting it in the engine.

“There’s a bunch of work that’s been put into just the wind as you climb up a building. The ambient soundscape changes, the wind changes, the way it mixes in, the sound of the ocean fades away and starts getting gustier. You don’t notice it when you’re playing, but it all adds to the feeling you get, it adds a lot.”

Submerged’s soundtrack also plays a vital role in establishing the atmosphere in Uppercut’s flooded urban expanse. The team enlisted the help of BAFTA award winner and industry veteran composer Jeff van Dyck, who produced the soundtracks for The Creative Assembly’s Total War series, as well as working on Alien: Isolation and various EA sports titles, such as Need for Speed.

“He’s just terrific,” says Orman. “The first piece of music we got, I remember, just nailed the vibe of what we’re after. If you watch the Submerged trailer, you’ll hear it in there.

“It can’t be understated when you’re making a place that’s ambiently supposed to not just draw you in, but be a place that you want to spend time in. I’m still not happy with our soundscape, I’m going to be tinkering with it until we ship.”

James Billcliffe
Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

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2 Comments

  1. I am impressed to see developers who are not afraid to switch gears and make a point of it. There is this one-or-the-other idea around, that you either have to be a “hipster who only wants female protagonists and light stuff” or a “dudebro who likes ‘splosions”. Fact is, most people are not black and white and a studio making one type of games does not make it incapable of doing the other.

    I think that’s a good message. That we don’t have to choose or make everything black and white, because both things are fine, both normal, both need to be shown and can both be done and enjoyed by the same people. The game itself looks really nice, although the animations and visuals do need work still, and being a sucker for post-apocalyptic settings and exploration, I will definitely check it out. Lovely write-up, James.

    1. Cheers. :) You’re bang on, their ‘why not’ mentality really struck me as well. Even though it’s coming to console, I’m most looking forward to seeing how this goes on mobile. I think the resolution on a small screen will look really cool and if the gameplay’s there, then this could be a real benchmark.

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