April 13, 2020
Getting to know the developers behind Backbone, Dead Static Drive, and A Juggler’s Tale
So, late last year, we retooled the project, opened it up to any and all projects under Unreal Engine development (not limited to Dev Grant recipients), and focused on what fuels the inspiration and creativity behind these projects and how teams of different configurations collaborate to make them a reality.
We’re three profiles in now, and it seems like a good time to share the results so far.
Dead Static Drive: A Dark and Winding RoadThe road trip horror game Dead Static Drive was the subject of the very first Revving the Engine, so it seemed fitting to kick off the new series by returning to it so we could see how it has come along. I spoke at length with Lead Developer Mike Blackney about his ever-changing relationship with cars and, more importantly, his lifelong interest in horror. Here’s a sample of the story:
This time, we start talking about The Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania, an odd art book from 1981 that reprints a bunch of horror novel cover paintings and tries to tie them together through the narrative conceit of being a travel guide for the most horrific place on earth. Through some cosmic quirk of fate, we both picked up copies for ourselves within a few months of each other.
“I think I was five years old when I was in a library, and kids would go and find books with pictures that are scary or sexy (or any other adult stuff),” he says. “I don’t remember who it was, but a friend of mine brought the Tourist’s Guide and flicked through it, showing some of the pictures. I remember seeing a painting of the undead with gross worms coming out of the zombie’s face. I thought it was saying that zombies are real, and if you go to Transylvania, you’ll find them.”
Backbone: We’re All AnimalsFor our second feature, I spoke to Aleksandra Korabelnikova, Narrative Designer for EggNut’s Backbone - a gorgeous, side-scrolling detective game set in Vancouver and populated by anthropomorphic animals. We discussed pixel art, the game’s roots in noir and hardboiled fiction, and how animal characters open the way to honest discussion of social issues, as well as the pros and cons of developing a game when your studio members are spread across six time zones (con: not enough hugs).
Back in 2017, the game that would eventually become Backbone was entirely different, a stealth game in a science-fiction setting. During a conference call brainstorming session, the team was interrupted by a crash that came from outside co-founder Nikita Danshin’s home. Raccoons had stormed his composting bin. To scare them off, Nikita, also the game’s composer, resorted to the loudest thing he had at hand: his trumpet.
The incident wasn’t soon forgotten. “We were unable to stop chuckling about how fun it would be to play as a raccoon strategically stealing people’s garbage,” says Alex [Korabelnikova], “and after a few iterations, Backbone’s world of anthropomorphic animals was born.” Character Designer and Senior Artist Kristina Dashevskaya worked up concepts for a swearing, trench coat-wearing raccoon. “We instantly fell in love, and the rest of the world building stemmed from there.” The science fiction stealth theme fell away, and a raccoon detective took center stage.
A Juggler’s Tale: Pull the StringsFinally, just a few weeks back, we talked to Dominik Schön of Kaleidoscube, a student studio out of Germany working on A Juggler’s Tale, an intriguing puzzle platformer revolving around the adventures of a marionette in a puppet theater. The irony of a group of three students managing an almost unimaginable number of responsibilities to work on a game about pulling a puppet in different directions was not lost on Dominik, but that only adds to the layers of metacommentary in the game’s narrative.
“We wanted to build a strong connection between the player and the narrator,” says Dominik. “Of course, with all the characters being connected to the omnipresent narrator through the strings, they can be the reason for conflicts between the puppets and the narrator. They are a movement restriction but also an opportunity for the narration to actually interfere with the player's action by lifting the string puppet around.”
This gets meta very fast. The narrator controls Abby as well as every other character in the play, so acts in a way as both protagonist and antagonist. Meanwhile, the player is competing for control of Abby, and the developers—in their way—are pulling the strings of everyone.
“Multiple layers of control and constructed story!” says Dominik. “Also, there is a traveling circus inside a puppet-theater play inside a video game – it's always so hard to summarize this game in one short sentence.”
I will be back in a few months with another batch of features. If you’d like to read them as they come out, consider subscribing to Unwinnable Monthly – we’re an entirely independent publication devoted to thoughtful cultural criticism and we’d love for you to check out what we do.