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A small Romanian studio Interactive Stone is currently building an impressive horror adventure game Gray Dawn. The project is developed with the help of Unreal Engine 4 and so far it looks one of the best Silent Hill inspired indie games, that can compete with Allison Road. Gray Dawn passed Greenlight and have secured its place in Steam. We’ve talked with the Interactive Stone team and figured out how 3 former mobile developers were able to achieve the kind of graphic quality some AAA-games can only dream of.
Interactive Stone is an indie studio based in Iasi, Romania. We are three guys: 2 programmers (Eduard Bursuc, Razvan Sandu) and one 3D artist George Remus. We worked together in the same company that produced mobile apps. In time we turned our attention towards game development. We started to produce small games for Android and iOS. Then, we decided to make something more daring, something bigger!
It was our 3D artist, George, who came with the idea of making a horror game. He was always excited about creating something in the mood of Silent Hill. The way he tells it goes like this: he got a number of PCGames magazine (nr. 2 (10)/2008, ISSN: 1843-1194). The number happened to be dedicated to the horror genre. Among the titles were Resident Evil, Sillent Hill, Undying and Call of Cthulhu Dark Corners of the Earth. At that time, in high school, he didn’t own a PC, only a typewriter that helped him write his first horror stories.
George brought the idea of this game to the rest of us. His excitement motivated us and we started work right away. The goal of this project is to make the game feel emotional, so we turned our attention towards our childhood stories: real events, unexplainable fears, our childhood dreams and our bedtime fairytales.
Innovative Gameplay for Horror Games
Though it may have strong narrative aspect, Gray Dawn won’t be a walking simulator. Being a horror game it is very difficult to keep away from making a gore experience. We plan to make more of a psychological horror. We want to make the experience very immersive. Also, we added a bit of spiritual/religious touch in order to spice it up! Of course, not in a blasphemous way. The game could be considered as magic-realistic: it breaks the main sense of the things around you, giving them new unimaginable purposes. We made quiet a strong research: from playing games, to watching movies and reading ancient philosophy and metaphysics.
The Choice of Unreal Engine 4
It wasn’t hard for us to chose an engine. We are proficient both with Unreal Engine 4 and Unity 5. In the end we decided to use Unreal, though we had more experience in Unity. We chose UE4 because it was easier for us to achieve the visuals that we wanted with less effort. Also UE4 comes with a lot of free tools and that was a decisive point.
The Importance of Light
One of the coolest thing in UE4 is the lighting. The process of creating a good lightmap starts in the 3d editor (3DS Max in our case). UE4 uses the second UV map of a mesh for lightmapping. Light is a very important feature.
Our artist is into baroque paintings. There we found some clues on how to use lights in order to achieve emotional effects. Less light can sometimes have more effect by producing a tense atmosphere. We chose to make the church interior in a dark, sort of gothic/romantic style. On the other hand you have those beautiful environments full of light and color! Also, the light from the environments are dynamic because it is easier for us to change it along the seasons change. But everything has a price. With Gray Dawn we will target stronger platforms.
UE4’s terrain tool is amazing, it helps lowering development time a lot. We especially like the fact that we can make the foliage animate (simulate wind) through the use of materials.
Another great feature of the terrain tool is that it automatically loads different assets depending on the distance the user is at (LOD-level of detail), thus saving memory and allowing us to create even bigger worlds. Also the terrain paint tool makes it very easy to create environments like the ones we have in ‘Gray Dawn’.
Though Unreal does a lot of magic stuff concerning the graphics, it isn’t enough. Everything that happens in Gray Dawn is scripted. So we have to manage each part of the environments. If there’s a house down the river, it is not just a visual thing. It is there, because something will happen there.
Spilling Blood and Changing Seasons with UE4
We tried creating the blood in many ways: particle effects, meshes, mesh morphing but eventually we did it using decals. Decals in UE4 are not just simple images, we can assign a custom material to them and inside the material we can create many effects, including the blood waves we used.
The season change effect involved updating the materials for every object in the scene, the lights and the post processing affects. Updating all the materials was a lot easier than we expected. UE4 has a thing called MaterialParameterCollection. Basically you store some values (color, alpha, etc) in one place (a file), make all materials use them and then you can change those values at runtime and everything will update. No need to reference all materials (which is what we were expecting).
The visual effects are story telling aspects of the game. Also the season change plays a role in solving some puzzles .
Details like small cups, paintings, furniture, make the scenes feel more authentic. It is very important to know how to scale objects, where to place them, their number in order to make a scene look bigger. For example, if the room didn’t had the teacups, the dagger, the candles, it would’ve looked smaller and emptier. We want the players to see something interesting and storytelling, everywhere they look. George usually creates these objects in 3DS Max, then works with them in Quixel and finally puts them inside UE4.
Style over Realism
We are learning how to use color from our great baroque masters! George is mad about Caravaggio. That is why most of the interiors will have sort of a visceral aspect, strong contrast with aggressive colors!
Gray Dawn is both realistic and stylized: The graphics are tending towards realism but the story part is very stylized, full of metaphors and other strange things. We do have some effects that cannot be seen in real life but we think they will enhance the experience.