Image supplied by Loiste Interactive (Note: Pictured work is still in production.)
At PAX Prime 2013 I met a man whom I initially recognized as Booker DeWitt from BioShock. I didn’t think much of it beyond the costume being pretty cool, that is until they introduced themselves. It so happened that I had met Luke Smithers, a member of a small development studio called Loiste Interactive, as he was promoting their upcoming game: INFRA. In that initial meeting and subsequent visits to the game’s sight, I learned that the game was going to be what they call a “gun-free exploration game”, with an emphasis on environmental/observational puzzles.
The basic set up is this: You’re a structural analyst whose mission evolves from a simple assignment to a fight for survival, of both yourself and your home city of Stalburg. With nothing more than a camera and your wits you will need to find your way through the danger and either figure out how, or if, you can save your city and whether or not to risk your life for it. This is a game with a heavy focus on exploring the environments and paying close attention to everything. Information is vital in the world of INFRA; any little detail could be the difference between victory and utter disaster!
I recently managed to snag a few minutes of Luke’s time in the hopes of learning more about just what sort of game INFRA is shaping up to be, and I was not disappointed.
UWG: In interviews with others, you’ve mentioned that player will be encouraged to thoroughly scour each level for secrets, and that the amount of exploration they do will affect how the story ends. You’ve also said that the world is meant to be responsive to player actions/choices. With that in mind, is there such a thing as too much exploration in INFRA?
Luke: We want to give the players time to explore, there will be puzzles that are very time-sensitive and during those puzzles…exploring won’t be discouraged I guess, but there may be consequences associated with ignoring the puzzle too long, and then horrible things happening to your character.
The main mechanic we’re using to encourage exploration is a camera, and that’s one of your main tools as you’re exploring. (…)You’re tasked with finding faults in the infrastructure, finding things that need to be repaired. (…)You’re documenting this, at the end of the mission you’re sending a team out to repair those things so that they get fixed before things happen later on in the game. In addition to that, there’s also some hidden audio logs, hidden content… some Easter eggs were thrown in there just to reward those who do explore because everyone on the [dev] team is one of those who meticulously gather every potion or pick up every rock.
UWG: Okay, so we’re not going to get punished for seeking everything out, but ignoring things can become a problem.
Luke: Yeah. (…)Know when to explore, when it’s appropriate. It’ll be pretty clear when to explore and when to focus on the task at hand.
UWG: I like the sound of that! Next, on the INFRA website, the game is described as a gun-free exploration game. There are also hints at the idea of having to survive by your wits. With that in mind, I have a couple other questions for you:
First, can you tell me a little about the decision to make this a “gun-free” game? Specifically, can you tell me about what this design decision meant for INFRA and/or what goals it will help the game achieve?
Luke: Yeah, early on Oskari and Jukka, (…) who are the main leads in this project, (…) watched a documentary; I believe it was called “The Crumbling Infrastructure of America”. (…) It was an hour-and-a-half-long documentary that looked at real-life examples of where we’ve got infrastructure from as far back as the ‘30s that now, well it hasn’t been maintained and is sort-of falling apart. So the reason [that it’s not a shooter is] they went with that as the theme and it’s not super conducive to something like a first-person-shooter, and we originally also felt that we can’t compete with big names like Call of Duty or Battlefield.
Those games are great in their own regards, but with a team of five guys, five people who began in their college years, we just don’t have the time or resources to really make something that would do a first-person-shooter justice in our mind. We also didn’t have an original concept for a shooter that would be conducive to a small team making it.
We also wanted the “combat” to come more from your surroundings and environment as opposed to swarms of guards or whatever happens to be gracing games these days.
UWG: It definitely seems like a more unique angle. It doesn’t sound like Dear Esther or other 1st -person wandering games we’ve seen so far.
Moving onto my other question: regarding the tone for the game, are we looking at a survival/horror sort of feel, or perhaps something more akin to adventure with horror elements, perhaps even “none of the above”? Personally, the word “ominous” came to mind while watching the trailer.
Luke: I would say it’s sort of a mix. It’s not pure horror in the sense that there’s going to be monsters or jump-at-you scares as far as supernatural goes. (…) There are several areas that feel claustrophobic, so people who suffer from claustrophobia, that’ll be a hard part for them. We want you to feel like your life is in danger, or your actions are causing someone else’s life to be in danger, and to kind of feel the suspense through that. As far as the “ominous” feel goes, a lot of our stills are dark and moody, but (…) we really do want to touch on the bright, open [spaces also]. We want to focus on going from that kind of suspenseful, tense, “things-are-falling-apart”, to here’s somewhere where (…) you get a break from that. It gives the player time to reset and it’ll be brighter…
UWG: Judging by the trailer, it definitely felt like the horror was meant to be more indirect than anything else. It was unsettling, but more from where I was than what was going on.
Luke: Yeah we want those moments. But I guess our focus was less on creating those moments and more on creating unique spaces; where we could either implement puzzles or actions going on, or triggered events that help the player feel as they would if they were actually in that environment.
UWG: Actually on that note, the main protagonist for the game: Are they meant to be their own distinct character or are you going for more of an avatar sort of feel.
Luke: That one’s a little up in the air. It will be a distinct character, you will do dialog. So, it’s not a non-speaking role like many Valve games. It is a speaking role. There is a cast of about seven very fleshed out characters who either indirectly or directly play a role in the game, which you’ll learn about, and you are connected to them. How exactly you’re connected you’ll learn through playing the game as opposed to getting something like a prologue.
UWG: So, we’re not going to be a “Gordon Freeman” sort of character, where we’re supposed to be part of the world but it feels like we’ve just been dropped in.
Luke: Correct, it’s the players’ character. The character you’re playing will present his ideas as you’re going along through the game, which will help relate to other characters, or [they’ll] comment on what’s going on. We aim not to do the “Oh, that’s weird”, talking to yourself thing.
UWG: That’s actually very encouraging to hear. Silent protagonists leave the player wondering why they’re they silent; It’s distracting.
Luke: (…) we sort of look at it as if you were to go to a theatre and see a play. You’re looking at a point in someone’s life where it’s the most significant point in their life, and the decisions they make matter. You don’t need all that prologue right at the start. You need to get into the moment, feel the moment, through that moment you are given all the other information. (…)
UWG: It’s a good approach. I don’t know if you’ve heard this one, I don’t even recall where I heard it, but it goes something like “If you’re not showing the most important part of a character’s life, it begs the question of why we’re not seeing that.” For example: if I were to play a game set after this big war, I’d wonder why it’s not set in the war, since that would sound a lot more important and exciting than the aftermath.
Luke: Yeah, like why was I blacksmithing this whole time? Not to hate on blacksmith simulators…
UWG: Yeah, actually it wouldn’t be too surprising if there were a few of those. I haven’t been on Steam for a while so, who knows?
Luke: Yeah, the whole Greenlight process has been really interesting as of recent.
UWG: Yeah, actually do you think you could give me a bit of insight into that? There’s been some controversy going on around that lately.
Luke: Definitely! We got in fairly early
UWG: Oh, wow!
Luke: And it was kind of the wild, wild, west back then…we shot out an email to Valve asking if there was an opportunity to use their Source engine; because we started out as a mod [of Portal 2] and now we’re just a fully-fledged game. (…)
So, we shot Valve and email and we never heard back from them, if we did it was kind of like a “sit tight”, and about 3 months later the actually announced Greenlight. So we immediately got some stills together, got a video ,and went up on Greenlight and it was just overwhelming. (…) we were at that point in the project where we’d been grinding through it for about a year and it was nice to put something out there and then suddenly have like 60,000 people say “yes, we want to buy your game”, and 120,000 people had seen it. So it really brought a whole new life to the project. It definitely gave us that excitement to make it even bigger than it was, which is why instead of a year-and-a-half, which is what we were shooting for in the beginning, it’s now going on 3 years. Unfortunately we’ve had to push the release date back to spring of 2015.
UWG: So if you’re aiming to release in spring 2015, are we going to be seeing any more preview materials coming out in the intervening time? Or is the sort of game where it’s better to keep more of it under wraps so people don’t get spoiled.
Luke: We’re definitely going to be releasing more. We do want to be careful, like you said, because we don’t want to give the story away. (…) Because we feel, much like Portal and Portal 2, a lot of people like puzzlers for the straight puzzles, but what keeps a lot of people going is just that great storytelling that goes with it. (…)
UWG: Are you going to be at any of the shows between now and then. PAX perhaps?
Luke: I personally will be at PAX [Prime], and I will be cosplaying Booker again. I’m not sure about PAX East. The bulk of our team is in Finland, they were at GamesCom last year…But as far as an official booth presence, we’re kind of at a disadvantage. We’re unfunded and just kind of unrecognized so we haven’t really sought that out. We probably could get something if we went after it…like most naïve developers think, but we’ll see!
UWG: Fair enough! Cycling back a bit: you’ve said the storytelling in INFRA was going to be mostly passive. Was it a decision made purely for gameplay or more for placing greater emphasis on careful observation?
Luke: It’s hard to say. I’d say a little bit of both again. We want players to be actively listening. We want them to be actively looking. When we have dialog going on, we hope to enhance it with the environment they’re in. (…) there will be active storytelling in that you start the game in an office, which we hope to do a demo of the game which will basically be the first level, which takes place in the starting players’ office. That’ll be active in that you’re talking to other characters; you’re talking to your boss. And then there’ll be more passive things like notes written on a table, we want to include audio logs because that’s just a great way to get a lot of content out as far as storytelling goes, and it gives some characters life as opposed to having to straight-read everything. But little things like markings on a wall so you can tell where a human has been or things out in nature that wouldn’t be there unless someone has put that there.
It may not be pivotal to the story, but it might tell a little side story associated with it. In a way we want a blatant story that everyone can follow, but though exploration and careful listening you’ll be able to get more foreshadowing a hints as to what’s going on.
UWG: Okay, so players won’t have to find everything out in order to get the important picture, but you’ll get more pieces if you try to seek them out.
Have you found this approach to be tougher than the traditional straight narrative found in most games?
Luke: Definitely! Most of us don’t really have a background in writing. We’re actually using a buddy of mine, he’s written a couple of short plays…one acts and such, and he’s doing most of the writing for the game. A lot of the dialog and the names of some places do have a big Finnish influence due to the bulk of our team being from Finland. I can’t personally comment on how difficult writing dialog is, but doing the nuance, writing down what the main story is and kind of thought-bubbling out ways to kind of point back to that main story without spelling it out so…tricky, but not un-doable!
UWG: Circling back to the world you’re building, I’ve read elsewhere that the design of your fictional city of Stalburg was done in a way that reflected growth real-world city growth, both in geographic and historic senses. Was Stalburg given much history? Put another way: is this a world that will have much lore for players to discover?
Luke: [Regarding] city growth and city age: (…) there’s an area of the city that’s an old, ruined castle of sorts and so it was an old city, it wasn’t always Stalburg. You’ll have to play to find out. It’s a city that kind of grew and crumbled in the past, and now there’s a modern city that’s built in the same area, since it’s maritime so there’s great opportunities for commerce. When we built the city, we wanted it to be a city that you’d feel like you could go and live in, and also to keep in mind the built path of a city. So it started small and certain buildings became high-rises and then more high-rises were built, and a metro was put in…there are sewer systems…whole systems that would actually work if they were in real life. I think we really benefitted from the engineering background of the two head devs as far as that went.
You talked about learning the background of the city; that is definitely something that we’re exploring in it. You’re kind of learning the story of:will this city grow and crumble and can you do something about it or: what caused the growth, what has caused it to go wrong, and what can you do about it? So yeah, the story of the city is very important and is a big part of it [INFRA].
UWG: So we can expect to get a good idea of what this place is.
Luke: Yeah, you should be very familiar with Stalburg by the end of the game.
UWG: Any games you drew inspiration from while designing this?
Luke: I think the thing that really made us go for a puzzler was playing the Portal games. It’s that whole idea of puzzles with a story; it just spoke to a lot of us. I think that INFRA in a way will be sort of like that: where the first time you play through you get this great learning experience and story…all the puzzles take your time, and in the end you probably could run through the game pretty quickly if you knew all the puzzles and didn’t care about listening or discovering things as far as speed-runs go. So yeah, the Portal games were big for us, we’re big Valve fans and we’re using their engine, so it has a similar aesthetic. We tried to put our own spin on things to make them look believable, but the Source engine is starting to show it’s age a bit. Similar texture feels and whatnot.
UWG: Being involved in game development, can you comment on why it’s so important to keep things under wraps?
Luke: I feel like with a lot of ads and movie trailers, you watch it before you see it. You see the trailer and you know what’s going to happen, and then you watch it and it’s great, but that sense of discovery and finding something for the first time, even though you and a thousand other people have discovered it that day; I feel like that’s very rewarding as a player to feel like you discovered something and you put something together while playing the game, as opposed to being told it in the trailer. Then of course there are other cases where we’re like “oh we can’t show that yet because it’s not done.”
UWG: That makes a lot of sense actually. It’s just always been something I’ve wondered about after years of hearing internet conspiracy theories and the like.
INFRA is being developed by Loiste Interactive, an eight-man team based mostly in Finland. Luke Smithers is the Senior Executive Producer of the game, and the project is being led by Jukka Koskelainen and Oskari Samiola, whom Luke said are largely responsible for shaping the project and keeping it going. The rest of the team responsible for bring this game to life include their composer – Finnian Langham, their level designer – Mikko Viitaja, their visual effects artist – Nick Seavert, and of course their programmers – Samuel Hall and Aleksi Juvani, along with 3 others who’ve helped the team immensely.
For more information on INFRA, please take a look at their site: www.infragame.net or their Steam Greenlight page: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=127346274