“I never want to playtest my own games again.”
Paratopic is a strange game. Since last Wednesday and up to this date, it has remained firm on the Top Sellers of itch.io, introduced as a really short but impactful first person experience, mixing elements of horror with mistery and action. But that’s not all. The team, formed by only three people, brought some personal ideas that can be considered as ‘unconventional’ for the regular public (and it certainly isn’t a game for everyone), but it’s in this distinction, this freedom, that Paratopic shines on its own from the very beginning.
Into The Spine spoke to Jessica Harvey, Doc Burford and Beau Chaotica about the development process behind Paratopic, how did they meet, personal stories that were used as inspiration for the game and KMFDM.
How long has it been since you all know each other? When exactly did the idea for the game appear? I know Chris and Doc started working together on g1 long before Paratopic.
Doc: “I’ve known Jess for a billion years, probably since around the time I did an article on Dishonored way back in the day, not really sure. Late September of 2017, I was chatting with Jess about some ideas I’d had for polishing my skills in level design and stuff and floated the idea of some vignettes I was thinking of doing. I had this idea of trying to do a bunch of unique first-person moments, like photography and conversations, instead of just shooting. She liked the idea, but wanted to try it as a little stand-alone game instead. So we got started in October.”
Jess: “Yeah, around then, Doc was musing over some ideas and vignettes he had. I liked a lot of what he had, so we chatted over these for a bit, talked about how we could join them together. I knocked together some prototypes, and things grew fairly organically from there. So, a lot of the development for Paratopic came out of improv – an extremely loose central plan filled out by riffing off of what we came up with, iterating on ideas and prototypes in a very unguided way.
Not the most effective way of working, but both myself and Doc have… somewhat differing design sensibilities in places, and hashing that out in-situ in the early days of development was the best route to finding an approach that plays on both our strengths.
This isn’t to say that everything is freeform with the game. We put a lot of construction into the world outside of the game, beyond what you’re able to see within Paratopic…”
Chris: “For me I think I saw the game in my feed in mid December because it was well into production, and those empty spaces and the mood, the colour – the things which everyone else has found compelling about the art – caught my attention and I guess I just @’d Doc and Jess with like a.. ‘if y’all need any sound..!’ I came onboard properly in late Jan. I’d never met Jess before that point but we got on pretty well pretty quickly. Doc is like one of those features in your life which you think has always been there until someone points out that it hasn’t. We met in a Kotaku comment section talking about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines years ago, but I’d really struggle to tell you exactly when that was.”
How much of Tangiers is present on Paratopic? Is there something you accomplished that you would like to add on your own project, design wise?
Jess: “There’s going to be some shared sensibilities, some noticeable overlap in tone and the approach to handling space and environment. But for the most part, a lot of what I did in Paratopic was consciously separate from my work with Tangiers. For an easy example, the predominance of orange in the colour pallete was initially a reaction to years spent working with blue lighting.”
When you are composing, do you tend to inspire your work based on ideas, concept art, drafts, or do you make some samples first for the team to listen and work around them?
Chris: “By the time I came onboard a lot of level design, art and flow was already implemented by Jess. My first point of interest with work like this is always going to be what mood we want to convey with the scene. So for example, in the Apartments we wanted to communicate that the place was quiet, derelict, and perhaps give it a slightly alien context; an industrial environment rather than a suburb or something. The sound design overlapped with music quite a lot in this title.
I experimented with the metallic effects and sparse melody. We also wanted to imply the threat that was waiting for the courier upstairs, so I cooked up a drone, separated from the rest, which has some movement to it to keep with the weirdness. So we’ve got the sound of the waking dream, and the sound of the waking nightmare. At each stage here I’m passing demos across to the guys. There were a few re-writes on the melodic elements to get the tone right. It’s a very organic process of experimentation.
From there once I’d established a kind of sonic palette for the sound design and music, I tried to work with the themes I’d made for particular scenes and characters, adapting them down the line. Finding that point of connection at the start was the most challenging period I think.”
You have to tell me more about the adaptation for Professional Killer. And, if you would have had the chance to “add” another KMFDM song, which would it have been?
Chris: “Well, in good humour I want to stress that a reference is a different animal to an adaptation. Doc felt that the Assassin’s MO was described by PK. I produced a demo along similar tonal lines, but it was actually pretty bad and the tone was completely wrong for the scene because KMFDM can actually sound really bright and upbeat in spite of their lyrics, right? So the final track which is ingame now in that scene and remixed in the credits doesn’t especially have much more to do with KMFDM than anything else I produce.
I am a fan though, and I think the best way to answer this question is to say that my favourite track is probably Dogma, because it just has this relentless beat, and it really speaks to my barely-suppressed teenage angst.”
Doc: “Yeah, while the band was huge for me in thinking about the characters as I conceived and wrote them, especially Assassin, and I was like ‘hey, I want these kind of vibes for the track.’ We weren’t actually adapting KMFDM. Some of the lyrics have stuck with me as I think about these characters, like Shock and Professional Killer, but there is no KMFDM in the game at all.”
Kicking the door, putting off the cigarette, manually reloading the gun. You guys took interaction to a whole new level. Based on your opinion, do you think that this level of interaction is something that modern FPS should be paying attention to?
Doc: “Each of those examples are all Jess. I had ‘first person assassination sequence’ as an idea, but stuff like the guy turning at you with a start and backing up, putting out the cigarette, stuff like that, it’s all her. Chris and I bounced some ideas back and forth and the shack door came out of that. When I told Jess about the project, we talked a bit about unconventional things you could do in first person; I mentioned first-person shaving at one point. I’ve had some ideas that made it in, but that implementation is all Jess.”
Jess: “While it’s true that I went ahead and implemented elements such as the gun before presenting them to Doc, ‘What Would Doc Do’ was something I kept at the front of my mind when designing & implementing such parts.
As for other games, absolutely. It’s kind of a trope that this breadth of interaction is mainly limited to those kinds of immersive sims where you’ve got the go it your own way, FPS/Stealth/RPG blend. What I’d like to see is that form of design being applied to games with a more narrow scope. Dishonored-level interactions in Call of Duty.”
Doc: “A lot of how I wrote was based on conversations I’ve had with people. ‘Milk store’ comes from a time where I briefly forgot the proper name of a grocery store and referred to it as ‘the onion store’. The birdwatcher vibes–that sense of unease in the forest–comes from a time when I got chased through the woods near my house by a uniformed man. Listening to Art Bell on the AM radio late at night after my parents went to bed is why I asked Chris to implement talk radio.
There was this one time, though, where animal control came to our house, must have been 15 years or so ago. He told us that people had been calling because we were abusing our chickens. Of course, we weren’t, as he was quick to point out, but he had to stop by. He was friendly and outgoing, but he had to stop by every few weeks ‘cause someone was making calls. Dad and Mom liked him because he was a church-going Boy Scout leader. Seemed like a great guy.
When the police arrested him, revealing that he was the infamous BTK Killer who’d eluded the authorities for 30 some-odd years, it was shocking, to say the least. Nobody has called animal control on us since then. ‘You have an enemy’, comes from that, as well as the general vibes I was hoping to include in the project. BTK had been telling people he had his sights on a new target. I was told later that it was my family, which is why he’d been finding excuses to visit.”
Your influence is there from the very beginning (the FOV slider and right-clicking when holding the gun made me smile like a child), and I’m interested in knowing more about how you translated your knowledge on the movies industry to the game. Are there any other games that you consider that try to accomplish this? For example, the new God of War will barely have camera cuts. But I have never seen transitions such as the ones in Paratopic.
Doc: “I’ll gladly take credit for insisting Jess include the FOV slider, but the gun is all Jess. A lot of the implementation is Jess; at best, I’ve offered a lot of feedback, but the bulk of my actual workload on the game was just scenario work, writing, and feedback. Jess may have a different take on this, but my memory is that she and I talked about how Thirty Flights of Loving had handled cuts as transitions, and that’s why we went that direction.
Our process was like… I’d shotgun off a lot of ideas, then we’d bounce them back and forth, and go from there. So I’d be like ‘yeah, I’d like to do a driving sequence where we’re barreling down a road at night, and then there’s a giant coyote in the middle of the road, and we crash.’ Then we’d go back and forth on it a while and eventually find a good way to implement it.
I can say that several scenarios I came up with are in the game, especially the driving and photography, but Jess deserves all the credit for implementation. If it was all me, it would probably be very different. Coming to an interesting outcome while working together on this project is what makes it interesting. I don’t think anything on this project is the untouched product of just one person’s brain.”
I can’t imagine how tough the last few weeks of development must have been. Could you tell me a bit about the difficulties that led to the, sadly, inevitable crunch period?
Chris: “It’s just normal stuff really, but this is the first shipped title for all three of us. So bugs add up but equally, y’know..an afternoon lost to git going wonky here, a bit of a longer cycle than expected on something there..it adds up. It didn’t help that we kept thinking of great ideas to make more work for ourselves.”
Doc: “I never want to playtest my own games again.”
Chris: “Seems reasonable.”
Jess: “Yeah, it was generally just a miasma of all those little things that you can get caught up on kicking in at once. Lessons learnt though, right?”
Paratopic is such a powerful experience. I can bet that pretty much everyone was left with a “I need more” feeling after the credits rolled. Did you expect this huge positive response? Would you like to keep expanding upon its universe?
Jess: “That did catch me by surprise, and has been a joy to see. I really didn’t expect people to be quite so eager to return to the game or the world after playing – my anticipation was that people would play, think it’s cool and move on without much comment. I also didn’t anticipate the response being almost unanimously positive – I thought that this would bounce off and alienate more people than it did.
As for other games in the world? There’s some hooks in Paratopic we can follow up on, but they might not be what you’d expect…”
Chris: “For my part, I tried to be content with knowing we had a good product. By the time my stuff was mostly in, I knew we were achieving what we wanted to do as well as we could. It’s been a really interesting – and genuinely heartwarming – experience seeing the feedback come through. We’ve always known though that the game won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine, because it’s partially by design and we wanted to break convention a bit. I feel that in spite of that, people have generally been really fair in recognising that the work is there even if it doesn’t quite hit them squarely where we’d like it to. With that said, personally I’m a little apprehensive about wading out into the shark-infested waters of some of the larger distribution platforms…
What’s most encouraging though is that there’s a little bit of a mandate to keep pushing our radical agenda. Some people have been verging on hyperbolic about what we did here, but for my part it’s definitely raised some interesting questions about what counts as admissible in the medium.”
Doc: “I’m a bit surprised. I’d written an article on the death of walking sims a few months prior, and had only recently published it. I was expecting to have a ton of people responding to it with ‘meh, it’s just another walking sim’ so I’m immensely grateful that few people are talking about it without referring to it as a walking sim, because I don’t think it is one. I’ve been surprised by the comparisons to Virginia, which I’ve never played. I’ll have to check it out!”
Chris: “Likewise, we’ve had a lot of comparisons to Silent Hill, which I think Jess has never played and I’ve only got as far as one particular lock puzzle on Silent Hill 2.”
Doc: “I think our push for interesting interactivity is a big part of the reason it succeeded. Personally, I have a lot of ideas about where to go in the universe; even little requests I made, like ‘hey, could you put a giant dome in the trees?’ has a purpose. Whether we do more remains to be seen.”