Courtesy of Starward Industries

Unreal Engine powers stylish stellar mystery The Invincible

Brian Crecente

Starward Industries was established in 2018 by a group of creators who were instrumental to the success of several AAA franchises including: The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077, Dead Island, Dying Light, and Call of Juarez. The studio’s focus is on bringing a meaningful experience to players on PC and consoles in smaller, but still groundbreaking projects.
Trauma-inducing survival horror game Alien: Isolation and charming narrative adventure game Firewatch hardly seem like they could both be inspirations for the same new game.

But developer Starward Industries believes it managed to weave together the sense of personal journey found in Firewatch with the unnerving sense of constant threat that terrorized players in Alien: Isolation.

The result is The Invincible, an intriguing new take on a masterful piece of hard science fiction of the same name written by famed Polish author Stanisław Lem and published in 1964. The book, which deals with the nature of life and weighs heavy philosophical questions about humanity, is so steeped in future tech creations and interstellar landscapes that the one attempt to turn it into a movie failed for a lack of funding.

While this video game take on the book will focus on the narrative and analogue, retro technology found in the original story–which is about the search for a lost interstellar spacecraft on Regis III–it’s being told through a set of different eyes and another crew.

We chatted with some of the team at Starward Industries about the game’s inception, why Unreal Engine was a perfect fit for the team, and the advice they would give other indie studios hoping to create an atmospheric story-driven game.

The studio has a team of developers who have worked on an impressive array of games including The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077, Dead Island, Call of Juarez, and Dying Light. How did you come together to form Starward Industries and what was your goal for this new studio?

Marek Markuszewski, CEO:
Some of us met through mentioned triple-A projects, in which we had a chance to directly show our skills to each other and evaluate them. While forming a team, our key goal was to find like-minded people with far reaching ambitions, focused on high quality, and were open-minded to creative discussions. We wanted Starward Industries to make games that move players, move us, and make an impact on the world. It’s what we call meaningful entertainment.

Starward Industries website mentions that the studio has AAA experience, but AA ambitions. What does that mean to you?

We want our studio to take two variables of AA games—creativity and quality—to the next level. In other words, we want to create AAA quality projects that have a AA scope. Our ambition is to give people that meaningful entertainment; leave players with valuable emotions and thoughts long after the credits roll. And we hope to achieve that with The Invincible.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
The Invincible is based on a book by prolific Polish sci-fi author Stanisław Lem. His works have been adapted into movies–most famously Solaris–and influenced video games as eclectic as SimCity and Stellaris. Considering this is the first direct adaptation of one of his works into a game, how did that come about?

When we looked for a cultural reference for our first game and talked about valuable stories that completely changed the way we looked at the world, we immediately thought of The Invincible with its provoking and insightful narrative. We grew up reading Lem’s pioneering works in which he predicted a lot of the technology that we use today, such as the internet and VR, and drilled into the subconscious part of the human species. He forced his characters to face the unknown, making them face their own limitations, fears, and deep-rooted problems of mankind. We decided to talk to Stanisław Lem’s son, Tomasz, to see if we can work something out. Fortunately, he was open to the idea (laughs).

How closely are you following the book in terms of the story?

We wanted to remain true to the novel’s main focus of the narrative: hard sci-fi knowledge oozing from pages and mind-boggling scientific phenomena that force people to rethink all they know about the universe and mankind’s position in the evolutionary chain. However, we did change the timeline of events and characters. We made a conscious decision to go down this road as we wanted Lem’s fans to discover the story through a different set of eyes, and to add things that enhance the overall gameplay experience. At the same time, we didn’t want to alter the characters created by Lem, as they were meticulously crafted, so, instead we proposed Yasna and her crew. Nevertheless, players who wish to see the characters from the book will have a chance to come across some of them in our game.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
How did you interpret the action of the book into gameplay mechanics?

We focused on things that Stanisław Lem paid a great deal of attention to: the narrative and the analogue, retro technology. In our game, players will experience a deeply psychological story based on discovering the mystery of Regis III and an underlying feeling of danger. The narrative will be co-created by players’ decisions that will lead to one of the multiple endings. Moreover, throughout the game, players will be able to use many retro-futuristic devices so they can feel like real scientists, on a mission to explore every variable of Regis III and report it back to their Astrogator.

What made you decide to use Unreal Engine for your studio’s first game?

Daniel Betke, CTO:
We came to the conclusion that Unreal Engine would best support The Invincible creation for various reasons. Firstly, it facilitates the process of putting animation together by enabling us to integrate them with UE’s Blueprints system, so it’s a great time booster and saver. Secondly, Blueprints makes iterating ideas for a game feel like playing in a playground. We can truly let our creativity flow. Thirdly, it was the Unreal’s Materials system that made the creation of vast landscapes of Regis III and atompunk machines possible, as it allows full physics-based rendering to make various surfaces look like a real stone or metal. We also appreciate Unreal Editor for helping us manage the workflow and production process throughout all these months of The Invincible's development.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
You mention on the website that the game uses a “retro-futuristic atompunk” art style. Can you explain what that means and how Unreal Engine helped you to achieve that look?

Wojciech Ostrycharz, Art Director:
The retro-futuristic art style refers to the 1960s vision of the future, when digital technology was beyond most people's imagination. It was the beginning of the Atomic Era, when people dreamt of analogue technology driven by atomic power. That’s the combination that they believed would take humanity further. The machinery was heavy and monumental, full of protruding parts to interact with: handles, cogs, and levers. Unreal Engine was really helpful in creating these parts, together with a realistic-looking material of chrome shining in the sun and reflecting the terrain around Yasna. We gained a vivid color in reflections and a breathtaking contrast between chrome surfaces, and opaque, sandy landscapes of Regis III. It helped make those machines feel heavy and tactile. It made them feel real.

From the demo, it appears that a lot of work went into creating the red-hued, dusty environments of Regis III. How did you achieve the otherworldly and slightly claustrophobic look of the planet?

We wanted Regis III to be the planet everyone would like to discover, but also subconsciously be wary of. Our art director, Wojciech Ostrycharz, created the design of the environment where landscapes are often obscured from a player’s view. There are a lot of rock formations looming over Yasna, a lot of tight spaces to squeeze through. It makes you fear what you are going to find on the other side, but at the same time, it keeps you motivated to go forward and discover landscapes unparalleled to those you have seen before, and igniting aesthetic pleasure in your mind.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
Beyond the works of Lem, were there other movies, books, or video games that inspired your work on The Invincible?

Apart from the works of Stanisław Lem, we took inspiration from science itself and from the history of mankind’s conquest of the universe, as The Invincible has a narrative full of hard sci-fi knowledge. Besides that, we wanted our game to resemble, in some way, the personal journey players went through in Firewatch and the feeling of an underlying threat present in Alien: Isolation. But, even though we analyzed many references, we remained focused on Lem’s grand vision of retro sci-fi, a very unique concept in video games.

Can you walk us through how you came up with the audioscape for the game?

Brunon Lubas, Music Designer:
Together with our audio designers, Brunon Lubas and Łukasz Kindel, we've set a couple of principles to follow. We decided to avoid the hi-fi, cyber futuristic feel, focusing instead on older technologies like a radio or a tape. Sound effects had to be immersive, but not overly realistic, as we chose the feeling over the picture-perfect realism in our visuals. While creating the acoustic instruments, we wanted them to represent humanity, its achievements and culture, and the eerie, experimental sounds to underline the mystery of Regis III.

The studio recently had a public demo for the game. Was there anything you learned from the response and the playthroughs to this or previous demos that you’re implementing in the game’s development?

A release of a demo is like a treasure chest when it comes to community’s feedback. At Poznań Game Arena, we heard quite a few times that our VOs lack emotions, so we changed them—and the feedback from the next demo at LudoNarraCon shows that it was a good decision. Some people had problems with optimization (FPS dropping, bugs connected to area transitions) or unsupported screen resolutions, but we still have some time to improve their future experience and we plan to use their feedback to the fullest before the game is out.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
What advice would you give an indie studio looking to create an atmospheric, story-driven game?

Firstly, look for cultural references that really inspire you. You have a long journey ahead and the right reference will both motivate you and keep you on the right track. Secondly, do a wide research of games similar in the narrative, gameplay, or art style to the one you plan to create. There is a lot to learn from other studios' successes and mistakes. You also want to make sure that you stand out from them in some way. And thirdly, do not be afraid to get feedback from the community. Make external tests, create demos, or go for early access. Even if you’re scared of what people will say, it’s better to hear what they think about the game now rather than after the release.

What features of Unreal Engine 5 are you most looking forward to using in future games?

There are quite a few things that we are excited about in Unreal Engine 5: Lumen’s illumination and reflection features are great for bringing vividness to the game, Nanite Virtualized Geometry finely supports the environment design and MetaHuman makes the creation of characters much easier than before. We can’t wait to see what the future will hold.
Courtesy of Starward Industries
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about The Invincible and Starward Industries?

They can visit our Steam page or The Invincible website, where we prepared a free online comic based in The Invincible world. They can also join our Discord crew community and follow us on other social media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And if they want to read more about people who create the adventure on Regis III, they can look for more info here.

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