January 22, 2020
Negative Atmosphere aims to be the next great interstellar horror game
With the last Dead Space entry releasing in 2013, there has been a galaxy-sized hole in the gaming world for another chilling sci-fi/horror adventure—Sunscorched Studios is hoping to fill the void with Negative Atmosphere.
To get more insight into the Negative Atmosphere’s development and things that go bump in the night, we reached out to Sunscorched Studios for an interview. In our Q&A, the team talk about the game’s influences, elaborate upon their use of Unreal Engine, and more.
With Sunscorched Studios being a new developer comprised of 12 people, and working on your first game, what would you like to be known for?
CEO Calvin Parsons: As we break into the industry, we want to be known for making high-quality, competently written, and immersive experiences that put gameplay first. We want to be known for games that make you feel sick with fear and terrified of opening the next door, or moving down that next corridor, while also having unexpected surprises that will rattle players with panic and tension. We want to be known for crafting atmospheric, gritty, and dark horror experiences that are as unrelenting to the main character as they are to the player. No reliance on cheap jump scares, but, instead, sustained fear through strong environmental storytelling and audio-visual design.
Furthermore, we put a massive focus on our community and they are heavily involved in our development process. We want to be known for not only engaging and interacting with our community, but actively listening to them and working with them to build the best games we can for our fans. Negative Atmosphere may seem like an ambitious game for a small team, but with the tools that UE4 provides, and the many talented individuals on our team from all around the world, we are confident that we can attempt to re-invigorate sci-fi horror by telling a story of human tragedy that turns into an intense, spine-chilling struggle of survival.
Considering Negative Atmosphere takes a lot of inspiration from Dead Space, how do you balance paying tribute to a beloved franchise while also forging your own path?
Parsons: Everyone at Sunscorched Studios is a huge fans of Dead Space, and while the initial idea of this project was, in essence, to follow in the footsteps of Dead Space, our creative vision has since grown into its own unique universe that pulls influences from a wide range of sci-fi and horror media. We've moved from trying to recreate a world that already exists in its own right, to aiming to raise the bar in this cosmic-contagion genre.
When Dead Space came out, many called it "Resident Evil in space," which held some merit. Looking at it that way, Resident Evil could be seen as our original point of reference. Either way, the comparisons we have gotten are heavily based on the third-person perspective of the camera, the sci-fi theme, and the scary stories told using this style. It's a tried-and-true horror formula that has worked well in the past and can only be improved upon. To be compared to Dead Space is an honor in itself, but we hope our players will see that as just a stepping stone in terms of what we wish to achieve. We are not a triple-A studio, so our best strategy is to under-promise and over-deliver. We regularly engage with our community and show them where our progress is and take their feedback as fuel and direction for our next steps. So far, that has worked wonders, and we believe it's what makes our team special, and what will make Negative Atmosphere a game to remember. Besides, our overall storyline and themes are considerably different than Dead Space.
Parsons: Our first and primary ethos is that you don’t need flickering lights to build a convincing horror experience. Overuse of flickering lights not only becomes cliché, but it actively distracts the player and [detracts] from an immersive experience. For instance, why would every light flicker on a spaceship that’s operated fine until now?
A brightly lit scene that looks lived-in but has something slightly off about it is instantly scarier and more unsettling than a dark scene splattered in blood, debris, and dirt. We designed the Rusanov to feel like it could be a real ship; we aren’t building a “horror maze” or a “haunted house” experience; instead, we’re placing the player in an environment that is designed so that it could theoretically function if built. That means that there will be tight corridors, wider corridors, elevators, and rooms, but all will be supported by maintenance pathways, wiring, and all the parts that you would expect from a ship. The ship's lighting is reliable and constantly on (aside from general wear and tear) but towards the end of the game, it’s mostly busted and flickering with whole decks illuminated only by emergency lighting due to certain significant events. Light itself, therefore, becomes something the player loses throughout the game, as [protagonist] Edwards gets driven further psychologically and literally into darkness.
Thanks to UE4, most of the lighting in our game is dynamic. Muzzle flashes illuminate the environment, your back-mounted flashlight casts shadows, and your suit’s visor reflects what is in front of you. This means that we can not only have enemies or the AI switch off lighting at any time, but we can also have weapons and environmental hazards damage the lighting. You may wish to reconsider firing that welding laser, because if you accidentally hit a fuse box, well, it’s darkness for you. Like many horror games though, the player does have a flashlight to illuminate darker areas. However, we are still undecided as to whether it will require batteries or have some sort of draining system. This decision will be made once more of the game has been completed.
What other games and media might Negative Atmosphere draw inspiration from?
Parsons and Writer Jeff Bergeron: In terms of inspiration for the lore, Aliens for its general ship design and horror inspiration; James Cameron’s Avatar for equipment and environmental aesthetics; Star Trek for aesthetics and political backdrops (especially that of Deep Space 9); and Xenonauts and Cold War history for themes and aesthetics. Additionally, we've even taken some nods from titles such as the original Metal Gear Solid, and novels such as The Expanse (and its episodic film adaptation) for further inspiration with designs and story inspirations. There are so many diverse things we used for reference or inspiration. It’s hard to list them all.
Also, many of our team members interjected their own real-life experiences, such as personal injuries or military experiences. As for the gameplay, Dead Space, Resident Evil, Alien Isolation, SOMA, System Shock, Bioshock, and The Last of Us are our primary sources of inspiration. Their mechanics, atmosphere, and other elements have contributed to our thought process and innovation. To put it simply, we are looking at some of the greatest titles in the history of horror gaming and using the parts that made them great as inspiration for Negative Atmosphere. Overall, we’re crafting something that has been inspired by gritty, rather realistic sci-fi with the mechanical elements of various horror games such as resource scarcity, tactical survival, and situational choices such as when to use brute force, stealth, or simply flee.
No sci-fi/horror game would be complete without some truly frightening monsters. How did you create your unsettling creatures, and were there any ways in which Unreal Engine helped bring them to life?
Parsons and Lead Concept Artist Christopher Aguirre: Turning the concept of pain into nightmarish creatures that can hunt you down a long corridor or surprise you with erratic and unpredictable behavior is what we want to do best. We aim to make our creature encounters a horrifying experience that will be remembered, and this always starts with the design. There's another significant story element that determines the design of many of our enemies, but we’re currently keeping that under wraps and to be discovered during gameplay.
When making our enemies, we make sure each has its special design that can be recognized even from a flash or shadowy outline. Creating the details of the creature to tell a story of what happened to the person they were before, and keeping those human-like details, is integral to the horror of these monsters. Sinking into that fear of death and pain, we want our enemies to make people afraid of ending up like them. Some of these creatures will evoke a sense of empathy for their suffering, at least until that thing decides to go after you. That deception and a false sense of security will make true panic set in, the constant looking over your shoulder or being afraid of the next corner. This is compounded by the fact that some of these creatures are not always hostile, as their behavior and physical form can be quite varied. Fear is the secret ingredient of any good horror creature, and we strive to create fear in a myriad of forms.
By utilizing UE4’s subsurface shading system, the lighting from the environment realistically affects enemies’ skin and bodies, creating very shocking scenes when they are viewed up close. Unreal Engine’s animation graph system has also allowed us to integrate our enemy animations fluidly. Inverse Kinematics helps with realism, as enemies’ feet and arms no longer clip into geometry. Finally, Unreal Engine’s support for Substance Painter via the Substance plug-in has made the texturing process of our enemies (and all our models) much easier as we can fine-tune and tweak how the enemies look in real-time.
Parsons: Simply put: immersion. We didn’t want distracting elements for our players that would otherwise take them out of the experience. We also wanted to make it seem less “gamey” and more of a film-like experience.
What do you have planned for the different types of weaponry? And has Unreal Engine facilitated their designs in any way?
Parsons and Bergeron: The design mantra we've followed in regards to equipment in the game is that resources on the ship are scarce, especially in the event of a catastrophe. While there is a respectable amount of weaponry available, such as submachine guns, pistols, shotguns, other firearms, and even a transforming power-fist-combat-shield combo, ammunition is scarce. Edwards and other survivors often have to use what is at hand, which can also lead to welding lasers, scalpels, glass bottles, and other similar junk and improvised weapons.
Every weapon is given unique practical effects using UE4’s GPU particles system. Bullets, for example, are physical objects in our game that truly impact objects, and aren’t just hit-scan. Love and attention are also going into melee, stamina, and the aesthetics of our weapons, as [our fictional] United Earth Space Nations is a hegemony that is in a state of war, relying on often 3D-printed and utilitarian designs.
Parsons: Our team is quite familiar with UE4, but most of the work in UE4 is done by a select few members of our team. The art team starts with 2D concepts before handing them off to the 3D artists who make the models then texture them. This then goes to our animators who, of course, animate the models. At every stage of the modeling process, we test the asset imports correctly into UE4 and we do a series of polish passes to ensure it looks the best it can. Texturing is then often done with Live Link enabled with Substance Painter so that we can get accurate and detailed Materials on our models [and have them] look great in UE4 from the get-go.
The animation tools are also exceptionally useful, especially the ability to create animation montages, which helps massively with creating a reactive combat system and synced audio [effects] such as footsteps.
Hands down, our favorite tool is the Blueprints visual coding system, which allows all team members that use UE4 to quickly prototype and test events without having to get a programmer to sit down and code it all out in C++. The vast majority of the game's systems are coded in Blueprints (however, we expand base classes in C++ first for optimization's sake and then expose the C++ code to Blueprints).
Overall, the tools that UE4 provides makes the development process of our game fun and, above all else, easy to understand for team members that don’t specialize in programming.
Parsons: Negative Atmosphere is funded currently via Patreon pledges and merch store sales. This is admittedly an unusual funding solution, but due to the indie nature of our team, we had next to no funding at first. It’s worked well so far, as it means we get excellent input from our community and a dedicated fanbase to test things with. And with merch store sales, our fans get great physical items like mugs or t-shirts and even exclusive items for our patrons!
We also fully understand that making the entire game purely via Patreon funding is likely not possible and we will be exploring alternative funding solutions in the future, the specifics of which are too early to disclose at this time.
Links to our social media are as follows:
Additionally, we are planning to expand our Patreon content, including setting write-ups, recorded audio logs of various characters before the Rusanov catastrophe, and even more story-related content so our Patrons can get a deeper understanding of the setting and characters we are crafting.