Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio

Severed Steel is an FPS inspired by SUPERHOT and Hotline Miami made mostly by a solo dev

Brian Crecente |
December 21, 2021

Matthew Larrabee is an independent game developer working in Unreal Engine. His company, Greylock Games Studio, released its first game Severed Steel in September 2021.
In Greylock Games’ inaugural title, Severed Steel, players take on the one-armed protagonist Steel in her hunt for revenge against a mammoth, faceless corporation. The game, which currently has a "very positive" rating on Steam, blends the best elements of titles like Max Payne and SUPERHOT and then drenches it in the neon landscape and absurdist intensity of Hotline Miami.

The seemingly end-to-end bullet time and wall running are helped along by an invulnerability twist: the player can’t be injured as long as they keep stunting, wall-running, and moving.

We spoke with developer Matthew Larrabee about his journey into game development, some of the influences and ideas that helped shape the design of Severed Steel, and where players can expect to see the game heading next.
 

How did you get interested in game development?
 
Matthew Larrabee:
The seed of interest was probably planted from the Half-Life modding scene. In middle school, I loved trying out new mods and even messed with the Half-Life SDK a bit. I didn’t have the patience or resources back then to make anything of note, but I think those lessons stuck with me for many years. In my mid-20s I got an entry-level job at a public school and through a few promotions, ended up teaching game development to sixth graders. I think teaching that for a few years made me think I could actually make a marketable game.
 
Is Severed Steel your first game and what made you decide to essentially develop it alone?
 
Larrabee:
Severed Steel is my first “real” game. Before it, I tried to make an open-world RPG which is a bit much for a first-time solo dev. I’m not sure why I chose to develop Severed Steel mostly alone. I think I’m pretty solitary by nature, and it just felt like the natural thing to do. That being said I definitely had allies, which Severed Steel wouldn’t have been possible without.
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
What sort of games do you want Greylock Studio to be known for?
 
Larrabee:
Engaging first-person action games with unique mechanics that respect the player’s intelligence and time.
 
What was the core conceit behind Severed Steel?
 
Larrabee:
Bullet time plus lots of particle effects plus angry enemies in SWAT gear equals cool.
 
What made you decide to make a game featuring a one-armed protagonist? And how did you go about appropriately representing someone with one arm in the game?
 
Larrabee:
The idea for a one-armed protagonist came to me while I was thinking about how ammo and weapon reload mechanics might work. It’s hard to remember the specifics because I thought of the idea about two years ago, but I recall realizing it would be important to realize this aspect of the character in a respectful way. Ultimately, I tried to keep the representation appropriate with accessibility options so that someone could play the game with one arm.
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
What is the narrative behind the game, and how do the narrative and the game’s mechanics work together?
 
Larrabee:
The narrative is a revenge story. The main character, Steel, has worked for the company Edensys her entire life, but after an injury on the job, Edensys decides she isn’t of value anymore and throws her out. The narrative serves to inspire the arenas the player fights in, and the short cutscenes give the player breaks in the action in an otherwise intensely paced campaign. So, for the arenas, the player starts in the underworks of Edensys, fighting in factories, cafeterias, and tunnels. By the end, they are fighting where the executives hang out: museums, ornate gardens, and marble-tiled meeting rooms.
 
There are elements of Severed Steel that feel almost like an homage to gaming classics like Max Payne, SUPERHOT, and Hotline Miami. How did your personal history with gaming shape the look and feel of this title?
 
Larrabee:
Severed Steel is a mashup of the coolest action game mechanics I’ve encountered in my 30 years of gaming. The above three are definitely influences, along with other favorites like FEAR and the Half-Life mod The Specialists. Ultimately, I was trying to distill a certain feeling of the flow state I feel when I’m super immersed in a single-player FPS game.
 
Digging in a bit more into some of the game’s delightful mechanics, what made you decide to blend bullet-time acrobatics with the frenetic energy required to essentially stay bullet-proof in an engagement?
 
Larrabee:
I’ve always thought taking damage felt awkward in FPS games. Between the narrow field of view and unknown player hitbox, taking damage feels arbitrary in even the best designed FPS game. The stunt system in Severed Steel gives the player the opportunity to have more influence over incoming damage besides hiding behind cover, essentially chaining stunts creates cover wherever you want. It lets moving towards the enemy become a strategically safe move if done right, which allows the player to be very aggressive.
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
What shaped the game’s aesthetic and how did Unreal Engine help you achieve that look and feel?
 
Larrabee:
Unreal Engine’s PBR and emissive [materials] combined with the constraints of working with voxels drive Severed Steel’s look. Because I am working with voxels of 20cm in size, there isn’t the resolution for super detailed geometry. While experimenting with different visual styles, I realized that even a flat surface can look very interesting with a properly setup material and the right lighting. The majority of world textures are sourced from Quixel. I use an albedo map, normal map, and a packed texture with Metallic, AO, Roughness, and Emissive info. I usually toned down the roughness on most materials to give the game its sleek and shiny look. To improve readability of level design, I use simple emissive voxels to highlight ledges, edges, and points of interest.
 
The world is completely destructible so static lighting was of no use; in fact, it is disabled project-wide. A skylight is in every level to provide ambient light and I swap out a static cube map and post-process LUT per level to give each level a unique ambience. I use many spotlights in a level, usually over 100, and try to be disciplined about radius to keep things performant. The spotlights are really what make the materials shine, a well-angled spotlight can make all the details in the metallic, roughness, and normal maps pop along with giving the overall scene interesting contrast.
 
As you start to dig deeper into the game, some of the levels start to feel less like a run-and-gun, or even tactical foray, and more like a deadly puzzle to be solved. Was that deliberate, and how did that design evolution take place?
 
Larrabee:
That was deliberate from the start, and was made possible by the amount of slow-motion offered to the player. Letting the player slow down time whenever they want lets them rely less on their reflexes and instead allow them to take a breather and think a move or two ahead. SUPERHOT was a big influence in integrating some tactical puzzle-solving into the combat loop.
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
Where did the notion of the arm cannon come from and how did that change the design of your levels and other mechanics?
 
Larrabee:
The idea for the arm cannon came when I realized I wasn’t fully realizing the potential of the voxel environment. At the time, the only way to mess with voxels was with small bullet holes and sometimes the player would find an explosive weapon. I realized it would be great if the player had a tool that would allow voxel manipulation to be a core part of the gameplay loop. Thus the arm cannon was born.
 
Are there any particular challenges you faced in creating the game that you’d like to walk us through?
 
Larrabee:
I mentioned it briefly before, but working with only dynamic lighting was a significant challenge at first, doubly so because I wanted the game to look nice even with shadows off, so light bleeding through walls was a pervasive visual challenge. 
 
The first breakthrough came through understanding how skylights can be used to light interior spaces. A skylight using a static ambient cubemap is an extremely performant way to light a space, and it is easy to swap out the cubemap per level to help achieve the desired atmosphere. The cubemap also shows on low roughness surfaces, so that’s another nice visual detail a skylight can add.
 
The second breakthrough came through understanding that the engine is pretty efficient at rendering lots of dynamic unshadowed spotlights, especially if their radius is under 1,000. A skylight on its own won’t bring out the rich detail in a material, but a spotlight absolutely will. The workflow I settled on to light a room was to start with an initial light and find a radius, brightness, and temperature that looked pleasing. Then I would use alt+transform to copy that light into a grid pattern throughout the room, careful to place and angle the lights to minimize bleeding into other rooms.
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
What are your post-launch plans for Severed Steel?
 
Larrabee:
I have plans for all sorts of interesting new content! Levels, weapons, game modes, level editor updates, and more! I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think players will be happy about what is to come!
 
What impact did the next-gen features of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 have on your game?
 
Larrabee:
The next-gen console versions of Severed Steel are still in development, so I can’t say anything conclusive yet, but there is exciting potential for ray tracing and haptic feedback!
Image courtesy of Greylock Games Studio
What are you most looking forward to with the release of Unreal Engine 5?
 
Larrabee:
After working with voxels, I can’t imagine ever not working with voxels, so I’m excited for new dynamic lighting tech, such as Lumen.
 
Where can people find out more about Greylock Studio and Severed Steel?
 
Larrabee:
You can find me and the game on Twitter or check out the Discord server for Severed Steel.

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