May 10, 2019
Storm in a Teacup invites players ‘Close to the Sun’ in its new horror adventure title
Sporting a brooding steampunk aesthetic, you’d be forgiven for thinking Close to the Sun is torn right from the pixels of BioShock, but apart from their similar art deco backdrops, that’s where the similarities end. As there are no weapons in the game, Rose, the game’s largely defenseless protagonist, will have to rely on her wits and puzzle-solving skills if she wants to survive a creepy voyage on Nikola Tesla’s fictional floating ship. Emphasizing intelligent play over straightforward action, Close to the Sun pushes to stand tall on its own.
Sitting down with Storm in a Teacup founder Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi, who has worked at companies like Ubisoft, Crytek, and Square Enix, we discussed his reasons for venturing out on his own as an indie developer, the benefits of developing the game using Unreal Engine 4, and what the Unreal Dev Grant meant to him and his team. Storm in a Teacup is a relatively young studio with three other games under its belt within a six-year period. Tell us how the studio came together and why you wanted to pursue indie development.
I had been working abroad for several years with companies like Ubisoft, Metricminds, Crytek, and Square Enix and I decided to go back home to Rome for family reasons. Once home, I faced some different opportunities and among them was the chance to open my own game company. I knew it would be difficult and tiring, but I decided that was the path to follow at that specific moment in my life.
The company was started knowing that the first projects had to be part of a preparation for something bigger. When the time came, after three smaller projects, I decided that the fourth one was going to be the big one. Needless to say, I was scared as hell because Close to the Sun was both huge and expensive. For that reason, we implemented big changes including relocating to a new office, hiring more people, and restructuring the company with additional managers. After two years of development, through blood and sweat, I can proudly say we made it, but not just that, we made it bigger than we had initially anticipated.
Those are some big changes indeed! So, with the three smaller games in your rearview mirror, what made Close to the Sun your “big one?”
Close to the Sun is our attempt to enter what we like to call the “big indie” market with our AA title. It’s a market we feel isn’t too full of games because usually indie companies tend to develop either very small or very big projects. There’s lots of room left in that middle area.
If you think about the horror/adventure niche and the size of other titles like Outlast or SOMA, you have to admit there aren’t many games out there that fit the same bill. Clearly, that shows that developing a game like Close to the Sun is a hazard on so many levels for a small company like ours. You really need to believe in what you’re doing.
Taking a look at some of the famous titles that inspired us along the way, we knew we wanted to incorporate some of their elements into our game. We studied in-depth what we wanted, but also looked for what really worked in other titles alongside what didn’t. After a lot of tailoring, we came out with something truly unique. This means — we hope — that you’ll find Close to the Sun different from any other indie horror/adventures you’ve already played, but at the same time still feel familiar and have it resonate. We’ve invented a new universe, but not a new genre, of course.
Comments I've read see fans drawing a lot of parallels to the BioShock series. Was BioShock an inspiration at all? If not, were there any other games that were?
Personally, I only played the first couple hours of the first BioShock and also never finished the Infinite chapter. Our Art Director never played any of the games in the BioShock saga, but in the end, I’d still say there was some inspiration. What we can say for sure is that after a ton of research on art deco, art nouveau, and steampunk, we came to stylings that were similar to BioShock. When people started making comparisons internally, our Art Director and I checked out everything we could find online about the series to make sure that our game would be as far away a take as possible. The result is something that reminds people of BioShock, but definitely is not BioShock in any form.
Close to the Sun is also inspired by the works of Nikola Tesla. Taking place on Tesla's own fictional ship, how did you get the idea to add the horror and survivor elements to the game?
At the very beginning, we had months of meetings before we even started to model anything. We literally got everyone involved in the initial creative process. We knew we wanted to make a horror adventure with elements of survival, but we weren’t sure if we had to take the classic “haunted mansion” path or if we wanted something more than that. Ultimately, we decided that since the project was so huge and dangerous for us, we couldn’t afford to take shortcuts at any point and focused on creating something new and fresh.
Keeping those thoughts in mind, we moved the action from a standard mansion to a huge ship and that’s also how we came to adding a historical figure to the equation. We knew we needed a pulley of some sort, something or someone that everyone knows, even just by name, and that could reconcile our need for a historical “excuse” with the player’s need for a “deus ex machina.”
When you make a haunted mansion game, you don’t need logic. You don’t need to explain why objects levitate or why there are monsters; it’s simply accepted as fact. In our game, everything is logical and scientific, so we needed a scientist pulling strings from above and the choice for Tesla was perfect. I’ll add to this that in my personal and very humble opinion, Tesla was one of the biggest minds in history and yet he died rather pitifully. I wanted to give him some glory. Maybe we gave him too much glory, and funnily enough, that’s why the name of the game is inspired by the story of Icarus.
The game's protagonist, Rose, is mostly defenseless having no access to weapons in the game. What kind of gameplay mechanics did you rely on to keep things interesting for players when combat isn’t really an option?
The first thing we created was a universe. We didn’t just place a character in a ship and cross our fingers for it to be entertaining. This means that under every mechanic in the game, we have a structured layer of lore, dead characters, living characters, betrayal, revenge, and so on. This isn’t a mechanic so much, but it’s extremely important to understand that this is the base of every mechanic present in the game.
When we started thinking about puzzles and blockers, it all became very clear — the game itself is based on the fact that everything must be believable, so puzzles and other mechanics had to be as well. We ended up with puzzles that don’t quite look like puzzles and mechanics that don’t quite look like mechanics because they’re strongly tied to the environment surrounding the player. This was really interesting because we achieved exactly what we wanted and we did it with our specific style. It was a win-win situation both for us and for players, but it was indeed more complex than just spawning ghosts in a mansion. Very, very complex. So complex that we discovered we couldn’t have a single core mechanic and just use it during the entire game. If we really wanted something believable and strongly tied to the environment, then every single situation in the game had to be different. So, in the end, the game has many levels all extremely different from each other and every environment has different situations with different problems and every problem has its own solutions.
Close to the Sun is a recipient of the Unreal Dev Grant. How did that extra funding benefit development, and what did that support mean to you as a studio?
For a small studio like Storm in a Teacup, the Unreal Dev Grant made a huge difference! We could simply say that the extra monetary infusion helped us recoup a month or so of costs for the production, but it would be very limiting just to say that. Numbers are numbers and we can’t do anything about that. The Dev Grant repaid us one month of production (yes, game development is an expensive business), but there is something more to acknowledge, something much more important than money itself.
When we won the grant, we understood we were really on a good path with Close to the Sun. Team morale skyrocketed and we pushed even harder on the production. Passion is a beautiful thing to work with, but knowing that what you’re doing is recognized as being good fuels that passion and allows you to go the extra mile. I suppose this is what the Dev Grant is about. It’s not just about the amount of money, but also about the immediate feedback you get from being acknowledged. I honestly don’t know how to explain how happy we were about the Dev Grant. It meant the stars for us in a very stressful moment.
Visually, Close to the Sun has a haunting and gorgeous steampunk aesthetic. How did Unreal Engine 4 help the team create this vivid world?
We evaluated different engines for the game and the choice to use Unreal Engine came very easily. In today’s world, where quality is everything and speed is even more important, we had to find a compromise between quality and speed. We found that with Unreal Engine 4, we didn’t have to compromise — we could have quality and speed at the same time. This is quite simply the truth. Unreal Engine 4 gave us more quality and made it happen faster than other engines.
I, myself, am a lighting and postfilter artist, and I’ve been working on huge AAA games for more than 15 years now. I know how much work it takes to make a game beautiful. With other engines, it would have been a hazard for us to aim for such quality with the budget and timeframe we had.
In some ways, Unreal Engine’s graphics engine allowed us to make beautiful graphics with just a few clicks. The Blueprints system allowed us to quickly prototype, the native integration with Perforce allowed us to use our favorite versioning system, the debugging was easy, the [source] code is open, and we could develop anything we wanted on top of the original engine. There are so many reasons why we chose Unreal Engine and we would never want to take a step backward. This isn’t even mentioning the incredible support from the entire Epic team, both for marketing and technical. I’ve made many choices in my life that I regret, choosing Unreal Engine 4 for Close to the Sun is not one of them.
Do you have a favorite feature in Unreal Engine 4? What was your most valuable tool?
For me, it’s the rendering system. It’s so powerful that at some points in the production, we started asking ourselves if we were really that good or if there was a saint helping us! Let’s say it’s a mixture of both!
Were there any Unreal Engine 4 resources you found particularly helpful while developing Close to the Sun?
Simply put, the open code. We have an engine programmer that comes from a AAA background as well and he could put his hands into everything. We’ve developed tons of technology and we’re even selling some on the Marketplace.
Where are all the places people can go to keep up with both Storm in a Teacup and Close to the Sun?
Thanks for asking! You can follow us on Twitter at @stcware , follow our Facebook page, or drop by our websites at http://www.closetothesungame.com/ and www.stcware.com.