In an era where games like Call of Duty and Battlefield rule the roost, and AAA gaming is at its most lucrative, it can be hard to imagine that anything could subvert the behemoth of the major developers and titles with nowhere near the same budget. Luckily platforms like Steam and the emergence of arcades on the major consoles has resulted in a thriving indie community, and one which a team that spans continents hopes to take advantage of. Franco-Californian developers Honor Code have been working on what will be their debut title Narcosis for four years now, and I was delighted to get the chance to speak to team lead Quentin De Beukelaer about the challenges of making the game, the team’s inspirations and much more.
THE ORIGINS OF HONOR CODE
Quentin’s route in to video games came through video production. “At some point I realised that while it was exciting I was a step away from my childhood dream, so I restarted by doing a Master’s degree in game design and then I got lucky enough to get an internship at Ubisoft. My enthusiasm for video games had ebbed away because I felt that games were becoming more standardised and generic, but the enthusiasm came back when I realised there was an indie scene.”
Honor Code came about by virtue of Quentin’s degree.
“Most of the team are from the same school, a place called ENJMIN, which is one of a few very good video game schools in France. We were in different specialities, myself in design, some other guys were in visual arts or programming and we worked together on several projects, which is when we started having some mutual preferences. We were good friends and loved the idea of working together. To make a good team you want to have people you like and trust but also people who are good at what they do. If you rely too much on technical skill then you end up splitting because you can’t understand each other but if you just work with people because they are your friends even if they don’t have the required set of skills or aren’t good enough then you end up not doing a very good project.”
This initial meeting would prove pivotal to the forming of the team, and after they went off to gain experience in different places they came together again.
“Narcosis actually was our final year school project. Obviously back then it wasn’t as cool as it is now! A few years later we were still continuing and modifying some stuff in it as a sort of hobby, like fixing your car on a weekend, and then we met David Chen who was leaving his job as a PR guy for Konami. We started discussing the game and it became bigger, we went to GDC in 2014 with zero budget, with a borrowed laptop, a borrowed Oculus development kit and a Narcosis demo. We got really good feedback and decided to go for more, founded the company and left our other jobs.”
Quentin explains that Honor Code was created as a way to continue development on Narcosis. “Honor Code was created for Narcosis, not the other way round. I suspect that is the case for most indie teams. You start to have an idea for a project, then you build a prototype or an early demo and when you think that you’re on to something interesting you want to build your company around it. Then it really depends on what happens with the project.”
Will Honor Code go beyond Narcosis? “Yes we would like to unless I was totally wrong about the friendship! For the moment we’re trying not to think about the next move because we’re working on this right now.”
The challenges of trying to get a début project off the ground are undeniable but Quentin thinks things are going well in spite of the obstacles.
“You think it’ll be hard and find out that it is harder than you expected, but you end up doing it anyway. We read stories like this from other indie developers so we imagined it was going to be hard and it’s even harder than expected but considering all this I think we are doing okay.”
“There is this knowledge of each other and trust of each other that overcomes the difficulty. When someone is struggling the rest of the team helps and supports them. We know each other well so we know who can do what and how we can help each other out while making the game which means we can get the most out of our team.”
In amongst all those challenges has been the fact that the team are not all in the same part of the world, and must co-ordinate across time zones and continents. “We are a remote team, which means that we’re dotted about all over the place. We’re scattered around France and then we have a few colleagues in California as well, so of course this makes things a bit more complicated sometimes but it’s not the biggest challenge because we started that way.”
“At the same time though we get annoyed that we can’t resolve something because we’re not all in the same place so we complain sometimes, but overall we have managed.”
So if the scattered nature of the team isn’t the biggest obstacle, then what is?
“I think the biggest challenge is time,” says Quentin. “You think you have it and then all of a sudden there’s only three weeks remaining and you are rushing. I never heard about a game development story where everything was on time, even at Ubisoft. It’s not a case of us trying too much either, I’ve met super cautious producers that are doubling each estimate and planning for a lot of extra time. You always end up rushing at the end, and I don’t know if it’s a sort of neuroses of video games.
You can compare it to movies where it’s step by step. You write a script, scout for location, find your actors, you shoot and when you’ve shot your scenes it’s over. The cost of shooting an extra scene one month later is super high and you would never do it unless it’s mandatory, whereas in video games you can still modify early choices and redefine your design, which might get you stuck in a vicious circle.”
Another major challenge for a new company can be funding, which is always difficult to acquire. Quentin discusses the closure of various small French studios a few years ago which were unable to balance income with expenses, and he suspects that it was the case in the US and the UK as well. “My understanding of this was that video games are too competitive and the market is too unreliable so unless you’re sure you’re going to make a lot of money you have to be very cheap in making them.”
The solution then was to be as cost-effective as possible. “We found a way to save some money from our previous jobs,” Quentin says. “We all work from our houses, use our own personal computers and so on and so on. These drastic choices mean that because we don’t cost ourselves very much we can break-even far more easily and this also helps you feel more confident because you don’t have financial investors on your back asking how much you will be able to make.”
While this frugal way of developing might seem oppressive, could it actually be beneficial to this and future projects or are more resources always the way to go?
“I think we would like some more resources but we don’t want to grow extremely big and become the next EA or anything,” Quentin says. “There is something about the freedom and the flexibility that we have right now that is super enjoyable. There are people that understand the indie scene and specialised media knows about it too, so we are happy not to become huge, even if the mainstream media and others are totally unaware of the existence of the scene.”
While the indie scene is by no means on a level playing field with the largest developers and publishers, for Quentin the rise of Steam and the arcade stores on consoles means that people can find out more about indie games and gain a more sophisticated picture of gaming.
“I think for decades at least in France, maybe also in the UK but perhaps less so in the US and Japan, we have assimilated video games with toys for children. We have grown up like this and the industry has convinced itself to make games for kids. Nowadays we have a medium that has been here for forty years and is still quite childish. I hope we can work on improving this in the years to come.”
HORROR UNDER THE SEA
So what is it about Narcosis as a game that made it the ideal project to work on, was it the horror element?
“At first we did not want to make a horror game,” Quentin says. We wanted to make a game about the depths of the ocean, which is where it really started. We were talking regularly with Benjamin [Perrot], the lead artist on the project, about how powerful the unknown is in the ocean and how as humans we know the surface of the moon or Mars better than we know about the deepest corners of the ocean. Humans have only managed to go about 5 kilometers down in to the sea which sounds ridiculous when you think that we can go hundreds of thousands of kilometres in the sky or can easily knock that out walking every day. The mysteriousness of the sea was very attractive to us so we thought about doing something exploratory, maybe similar to Minecraft where you are in an uncharted deep ocean and it’s about discoveries of perhaps civilisation or something like that.”
Ultimately though, the game is nothing like Minecraft. “At some point we decided that the idea lacked a twist or something to make it really exciting and thought let’s leave most of the details out and put the guy alone, deep in the sea with no weapons and no communication, frightening creatures and a stressful, high-intensity situation. We thought that worked much better.”
This new direction may have stemmed out of something completely different, but now it had this stripped back sensibility games like Bioshock come to mind.
“We didn’t look very closely at other stuff, so we didn’t look at Bioshock,” says Quentin. “We really like the series, and even though people see a connection with it it’s really not an influence for us. We like it as gamers but we don’t look for it particularly. More of an influence was a game like Amnesia by Frictional, which is a game that kept us excited and fed into our thought process on Narcosis.”
“It’s funny because they just released SOMA, which is underwater, so for us it’s too bad we couldn’t release before them, but it’s exciting and mesmerising that they inspired us and then suddenly they have joined us in the sea!”
The game will be making use of the virtual reality capabilities of the Oculus Rift, and appears to have been made especially for the device. Apparently though, that is not the case.
“Actually the Oculus Rift arrived a bit later on the game, we were just working for normal screens and one of our engineers managed to grab one of the first dev kits and ported the game on it. We thought that worked super well mainly because the diving suit in the game traps the player in, and is a sort of walking coffin. From the very beginning with normal screens we were already trying to find controls and interfaces to give you that trapped feeling, so the gameplay was designed to give that impression. I think our game worked well with Oculus though, once we discovered it, and it was sort of love at first sight!
Leaving virtual reality aside, the developers still had a job to do to capture the atmosphere they wanted for Narcosis. The aesthetics of a game are always important, and that’s no different here. ” I think one of the first questions we had to think about was the pallet and the colour and light in the game,” Quentin says.
It’s funny because they just released SOMA, which is underwater, so for us it’s too bad we couldn’t release before them, but it’s exciting and mesmerising that they inspired us and then suddenly they have joined us in the sea!
“One of our teachers once asked us “Is Narcosis blue or black?” which means: can you distinguish things that are near you or does it fade to black, making it very hard to see out of your immediate surroundings? We opted for the second option so you are often in total darkness. There are many games that play on darkness but thinking that it’s a normal state and only sometimes getting a bit of light is the first step of the aesthetic of loneliness and desolation. The pallet was always a challenge and we wanted to be super desaturated, grey, blue-ish whites and stuff, but there also needs to be the right balance, finding ways to put some contrast in there, perhaps a small touch of red to make you feel better about generally darker colour scheme.”
The question of music is still one that the developers are considering, and the role it has to play in the game will have a significant effect on the atmosphere. “We’re not sure of the role of the music, how much silence vs how much music and how it would affect the atmosphere, so should the music be very simple with smooth sound effects or on the contrary should we counterpoint the silence of the surroundings with a larger audio presence? The music is still very much in development.”
Narratively, the game maintains suspense by keeping you in the dark about its main character, and encouraging the player to put together the puzzle pieces they can find, whether that’s through some voiceover or something they find in the game along the way.
“We develop the character somewhat over the course of the game, but in the same fashion the environment is in darkness and you just see the path in front of you, I think the characterisation follows the same line where you receive some of the ingredients but you don’t have the full picture. The way it’s delivered through the voice-over gives you some hints and we expect you to reconstruct mentally who the character is and what it’s about. We let the player do the second half of the job.”
As a game nears the end of its development, it must be tested and looked over before it can be released. Demos are particularly useful for things like audience testing, but is that something that Honor Code is interested in doing?
“We are already doing it from time to time which is something I find really interesting,” says Quentin. “I think one thing that video games have in relation to other media is a humble stance when it comes to the working process and allowing the audience to see what they get from it and try to improve what you are doing. There is this conception of the artist working in his room and suddenly “voila!” the work of art is here for you to enjoy, but I think that’s not the only way and I would find it interesting to see artists, dancers, film-makers testing what they have way before they release it. Like you could have a first draft of poetry and ask “what did you get from this?” and you need the audience to challenge your ideas while you are doing it. It requires some courage and we’re steadily doing it.”
Currently this process is not being carried out in the public eye though, in the interests of making sure the game is as exciting as possible when people do play it.
“Generally we’re doing it in a private fashion because the game will be relatively short and has low replay value since it’s all about narration and the mystery so we don’t want to spread the demo outside and have people spoil it for themselves. It’s all very intimate.”
They have, however, had strong feedback from those who have played it. “There have been very enthusiastic people which is great, but it’s always weird because you make something and you see the defects in it, but you know that it will soon be something available globally. Hopefully we can generate excitement.”
Narcosis’ stripped-back sensibility and emphasis on loneliness and paranoia makes it very much a survival horror game where the player has little opportunity to fight back against adversity, the best tactic always being to try and avoid the danger altogether, making for a constant sense of tension. The game is slated for a PC release in March of next year and will also be arriving on consoles later.
Stay tuned for some more exclusive coverage on Narcosis later this week as we have some new in-game images to show you along with an exclusive hands-on preview from the latest build of the game.