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We had a chat with some of the guys from Lilith Ltd., who are developing Allison Road, a first person survival horror title that is being built with Unreal. We spoke with the creator, writer, and programmer of this exciting game and we learned about what it takes to make a true horror title, the development of the game, and the jumping toast in the gameplay that scared everyone.
Allison Road actually went on Kicktarter, to get some money for the development. Later the studio dropped Kicktarter, because they found a publisher. Great news. Now we will definitely see Allison Road in the stores.
Full Audio Interview
Chris Kesler, Director & Creator, Lilith Ltd.
Patrick Schnegg, Programmer, Lilith Ltd.
Paul De Vrijer, Co-Writer, Lilith Ltd.
Chris: I think first person is way more immersive than third person. I mean, I love third person too, but if you play first person you become the character and it feels like you’re already there. It’s a little harder to tell a story if you can’t see the character (the emotional connection), but at the same time it is more immediate, like you’re part of the universe.
Patrick: You know the toast that flies out of the toaster, it wasn’t supposed to be any type of scary at all. We watched all these YouTube videos of people watching the trailer and they jump at the toast flying up. It’s like, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that!”
The Emphasis on a Strong Narrative
Chris: Have you ever played The Last Of Us? Why do you like it? The game mechanics weren’t new, the setting wasn’t new, the story sort of borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but the thing is the characters were just so well written. You really care for them, and at the end you just want to know that they’re all fine.
Imagine if this game had really bad writing, and it was literally just about walking around and protecting that girl. If people didn’t get involved with the characters, nobody would care and just forget about them. I think it’s so important to have a really good narrative that you can relate to.
Patrick: I also think that you can’t just only scare in a game and nothing else. You can make a scary game and you don’t tell the player what’s going on at all. You can be in a house with blood everywhere and it’s scary as hell but you have no clue what’s going on. There needs to be something more for the player.
Chris: At some point, especially in some jump scare based games, it isn’t even scary because you know it’s coming so you’re just waiting for it and it comes and you’re like, boom there it is.
Paul: I think there’s different types of scares as well. People lump all of them into one heap. Jump scares is just your body flinching and it wants to avoid the flinching. It’s not scary, per say, when you’re walking through an empty house like in Gone Home, I think that’s scary on a different level. It’s when you dread something, that’s true horror. Having something jump out at you, can be somewhat of a tense moment, but it’s not really scary, it’s just your body reacting, like if a cat were to jump out at you or something.
Chris: Because it’s totally state of the art in terms of the graphics performance. I love this engine.
Patrick: It’s just a very nice and professional engine, but it’s not without problems. No game engine comes without any problems, it’s just too complex of a software so there’s always going to be something coming up, the same thing goes with Unity.
I just prefer Unreal Engine. I mean, I’ve dabbled with Unity but it just never really clicked with me. That’s not to say it’s bad though, you can make games in any game engine. It’s like they say, what counts is the guys who actually make the game and not the technology so much. We could go back 10 years and use Unreal Engine 1 or something and we could still make a pretty cool game, it would just look kind of crappy. With Unreal Engine you have absolute state of the art graphics and graphics technology.
Chris: Back then when there was only Unity 4 and Unreal was way superior in terms of graphics, but now with Unity 5, they’ve come much closer.
Any Other Tools?
Patrick: Substance as well.
Paul: I’m using Final Draft for the script, which is standard for script writing I suppose. I really got used to that in the early days I was writing so I just continued using it. It’s easy to get formatting right, but I wouldn’t use it for books per say, I think you could do it, but I think Microsoft Word works just fine for books. I don’t think any of that is really necessary though, it’s just writing things down, and for clarity sake I use Final Draft just because it works faster.
Environment Design and Level Design
Chris: As a matter of fact we just showed a glimpse of the outdoor environment because a lot of people kept asking us if this is set only in the house, but it’s not. So with this we just want to give them an idea of what it will look like. In terms of the actual environment design it’s based on actual real world locations. The floors are based on real floor plans, the rooms have accurate size.
To be honest, we used to have completely accurate real world measurements, but after some testing we realized it just felt small in the game. You don’t get the same perception of space, so we did scale it up a bit just to make it feel a bit more proportionate.
Patrick: That’s also important in the Oculus Rift, that you keep everything to scale because you’ll instantly notice if there’s a meat cleaver the size of a car or something. You can cheat, but you can’t cheat in virtual reality.
Chris: It’s incredible, you notice any discrepancy immediately.
Chris: Our composer Marco, and SFX Specialist Jonas did an amazing job. In the game there’s a thing called the ‘room tone’ where even if you hold your breath and you don’t say a word, it’s never really completely silent, there’s always some sort of ambient sound. So if you’re walking and you hear nothing but your footsteps, there’s still this lingering atmosphere in the background (room tone). It makes a lot of difference. All of a sudden it takes you from this sterile environment into a real world. Room tone can be anything. It can be atmospheric sounds, wind outside, or car horns off in the distance. It’s funny how such a little thing adds so much.
Patrick: Sound is just extremely important for horror anyway. You can just make a horror game that’s just completely dark and only has sound.
Paul: I think audio is more important in some way than visuals. You can make a full game with just audio and make it scary.
Patrick: Given the challenges we made for ourselves we’ve made pretty good progress.
Chris: We basically talk online using Slack, where the entire team is communicating, but it’s just chat based. Obviously because we don’t share a physical space, and we distribute updates of the game online through a server, clearly it brings its own challenges, but it’s going well, especially with a group like ours.
The Player Experience
Chris: That’s why we spent a lot of time developing the story properly. Most of the times when you play a game you just put it down and forget about it. We want this to be something where, when they put the controller down they feel uneasy a long time after they put it down and think about the story and their experience. We want to make it more than just a game.
Paul: Everybody remembers that moment in Silent Hill 2, that twist, and also there are so many moments in The Last Of Us that you resonate with. It would be cool if players could walk away from Allison Road with the same feeling of something emotional.
Patrick lives in Switzerland currently while most of the team lives in the United Kingdom. He’s been a programmer for a number of years mostly doing business software until about 2 years ago, which is when he switched to game development. He had enough of creating business software which serves no other purpose other than to make a few employees more productive. It wasn’t very satisfying for him as a programmer. When Unreal came around, he started creating his own game and then a year later he met Chris through the forum where he was searching for a programmer.
Paul has been a freelance writer for 5 years and have written quite a few short movies and television shows he’s based in Holland. He’s been a huge horror fan since the days of Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2 (his favorite game of all time). In the void of horror games from the last couple of years, the Allison Road project caught his eye and he realized this is exactly what he wanted to work on, and he joined the team from there. *Our interview was the first time Paul and Patrick ever spoke on the phone as they work with a remote team*
Chris is from Germany but he lives in the UK with his wife. His background is in film, where he has worked as a concept artist and an environment artist for almost a decade. He’s been playing games since a young child, but he never made games but then Unreal Engine came out. He figured that he wanted to make a game that he would like playing and that’s how Allison Road got started last year.