Game Creative Director Wojciech Pazdur talked about making a photorealistic and non-linear game Chernobolyte.
80lv: Could you please tell us about your game studio? What other projects have you worked on, guys?
The Farm 51 was founded in 2005 with a goal to create good-looking immersive first-person games that would be both engaging and visually stunning.
Our first projects were a World War I horror called NecroVisioN and its sequel – Lost Company, then we moved to multiplayer games and made Painkiller: Hell and Damnation and Indiana Jones Deadfall Adventures. In 2017-2018 we released a multiplayer military FPS World War 3 and Get Even. The latter was the most important project for us as it was our first successful attempt to develop a rich, non-linear story and use locations scanned from the real world.
Today we work on two projects including Chernobylite.
Our team is constantly exploring different art creation methods. 5 years ago we’ve formed a special team called Reality 51 that was doing R&D on expanding our content creation technology, especially 3D-scanning and VR, and we are still helping other developers with our tools.
Creating Visuals & Atmosphere
80lv: Let’s talk about the general art style of the game. How was it developed? Did you draw any inspiration from the Fallout universe?
During the last few years, we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time on learning how to make nice game visuals. We wanted Chernobylite to look photorealistic and have its own unique style at the same time.
We did a lot of 3D scanning as it looked like a promising way to create photorealistic assets and digitize real-world objects. We strongly believed that it could save us a lot of the production time and increase the visual authenticity of our content. These days, many studios use this technique (especially photogrammetry) but 6 years ago, when we were newbies, there wasn’t really any workflow based on scanned objects.
As we started to grow, we began to hire some people for photography, filmmaking, physical lighting, offline rendering, and many other things that were not really popular among game studios.
We have a relatively small team (20 people) where only a few people have more than one area they work in. People who came as 3D artists occasionally became photographers or scanning specialists.
An interesting fact: we don’t try to create the so-called “cinematic experience” where the game and its story looks like Hollywood adventures. We make the stories that can be only done within the video game storytelling using interactive mechanics and turning a player into the main storyteller.
As for our inspirations, I guess we’re closer to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro rather than to Fallout in terms of the art style, but we used the Fallout franchise as the main reference for game flow and storytelling. Although Fallout has specific visuals and gameplay, for us, it’s a symbol of freedom and unhurried exploration of the post-apocalyptic world that we love so much. Looking deeper at the game interactions, its non-linearity is something very inspiring that gives a lot of room for your imagination. Indeed, we’re using some elements resembling Fallout so the players always feel they are in a heavily contaminated zone.
By the way, Chernobylite is a real radioactive chemical substance created during the catastrophe. It only exists in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and nowhere else in the world.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro served as a big inspiration for creating post-Soviet apocalyptic aesthetics. I had a lot of meetings with the devs of the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and, as I expected, we had a pretty similar approach to creating this atmosphere. We both like to add elements of raw nature and put as many tiny details as possible.
Game Storyline & NPC
80lv: As far as we understood, there will be NPCs who can be either helpful or harmful, is that correct? What influences their actions: is it linked to the story development or decisions of the player? We’ve also read that you decided to build the game around the real people from Chernobyl. How much is the game based on those stories?
The characters you’re going to meet in Chernobylite are all supposed to be full-shaped personalities with their own storylines and agendas. Just like in Get Even, we did not develop these characters just to support the storyline but to create the feeling that the game world is alive and everything can turn 180 degrees with or without your actions. You will play your own story and influence the other characters by your decisions (or by not making decisions).
There’re several interaction levels between you and NPCs including non-linear dialogues leading to different decisions they or you are going to make. The way you manage survival resources can ultimately lead to deaths, loss of morale, or turning friends into enemies.
The thing is that no matter what you do and who dies (including you!) the story will not end. There can be another version of the story if you replay the game.
All the main game characters have some real-world references, but we decided not to point it out directly because people who suffered from real events still deal with the consequences.
There is a huge number of people from Ukraine and surrounding countries who lost their health, family or place to live. We met and talked to many of them not only to learn their stories but we also organized an act of charity to help. We also brought some food and medicine to those who were still living inside or around the Chernobyl region or who were affected in other ways.
80lv: The lighting in the game is absolutely amazing, it adds both a sinister touch and creates a post-apocalyptic feeling. Could you tell us more about the way you approached lighting in the game, from general scenes to the glowing eyes of the stalkers?
One of our goals was to get realistic lighting. We also added a touch of abnormality with radiation that’s changing the density and transparency of the air.
From the technical side, we spent a lot of time trying to get as much as possible from the UE4 lighting system combined with physically based rendering and assets created with photogrammetry. The variety of things which can be simulated in Unreal is huge but it’s not so easy to use it with complex scenes.
We really wanted to get the best results using a pre-computed lighting system where you can get very accurate lighting and shadowing simulations, but unfortunately, the complexity of our scenes made the calculation time way too long. Our level design is very open and we constantly add or alter some interactive elements, visual objects, and gameplay elements. It means that we need to pre-compute lights whenever the scene is changed. This fact started to slow down our design work.
To speed up the design process, we switched to dynamic lighting where everything can be updated in real-time, and every location change is instantly rendered. It wasn’t easy because the accuracy of dynamic light rendering directly affects the game performance but so far, it was the right decision. Dynamic lighting works globally for the whole scene, so you can’t easily customize different areas with specific light styles, therefore we still had to adjust lighting for indoor places.
We were happy that UE4 had good lighting tools as our production process would take much more time without them.
Game Release & Supported Platforms
80lv: When are we going to see the game going live? As for the platforms, you previously said that you aimed at PC, consoles, and VR, – are there any changes in the plans? Do you have any future plans after Chernobylite is launched?
We want to demonstrate the first playable version in April 2019. Then, we plan to release it for PC on Steam (by the end of the year). We strongly believe in community-driven development, so we’re now considering several community-related campaigns like Kickstarter with demo access, closed/open alphas, and early access release.
It’s still too early to tell, but we’ll definitely focus on the PC version first, then release the game for the consoles. After we launch Chernobylite, we’d like to keep expanding the project with more story campaigns and new explorable areas, not necessarily as DLCs. We also hope there will be a chance to makу a sequel, prequel or spin-off.
We believe that the best option for us will be to treat Chernobylite like an open, continuous TV-series rather than as a closed story. Our goal is to get enough players so that we could keep adding new episodes without the need to sell them as separate products. Time will tell.