The Drifter offers a dark 2D, pulp-thriller adventure set in a city underworld. Mick Carter is the hero, but he has a soft grip over his sanity, which is slowly slipping away. Mick is propelled through the story from one situation to another, with barely a moment to catch his breath. The Drifter combines techno-supernatural elements of gameplay, time-travel via quantum-cognition, an intense narrative, and puzzles to produce a supernatural adventure-thriller experience.
In an exclusive interview with OnlySP, The Drifter’s designer Dave Lloyd discusses influences, game development, campaign length, an obsessive madman capable of time-travel—and much more.
OnlySP: Powerhoof has built a strong reputation designing iconic pulp-thriller adventure games in under a fortnight. Do you feel that designing games within a short time frame yields better results than if you spread out development over months?
Lloyd: Making games with a tight deadline is really freeing; it lets you try out crazy ideas without having to worry to about them being the right-thing-to-do. Without a tight deadline, I’m constantly second guessing myself and worrying that I’m not doing everything the best way possible. I need to be worrying, because I know I’ll be sinking so much time and effort into it! With a short deadline though, I just run whatever idea I come up with first, the crazier the better, and chances are it’s just as good anyway. Honestly, I think gamejams are just about the best thing you can do for growing as a game developer. You get years worth of experience and learning cramming into a few days or weeks, you get to experiment with crazy ideas, learn what works and what doesn’t, and you get to ship a project at the end for your friends to play.
OnlySP: Crawl, Peridium, and Alluvium have all been considerable successes, receiving awards at Adventure Jam. How did your experiences creating these games and working in the games industry help you with the development of The Drifter?
Lloyd: I’d never made a serious adventure game before Peridium, just comedies, and I never would have had the confidence to jump into making a thriller like The Drifter if I hadn’t entered Adventure Jam. But I feel like every project, even the smallest ones that never go anywhere helps with future projects. One of the things I like most about making games is that there’s so much to learn in so many disciplines, whether it be writing, mechanics design, coding, sound, art… There’s always something new to pick up, so each project you always learn a bunch of new things, and add more tools to your gamedev toolkit, which you then lean on for future projects. Peridium and Alluvium were almost like trial runs for The Drifter, though I’m definitely finding making a larger game very challenging despite that.
OnlySP: The Drifter initially started development in late 2017 as a side project, but now it’s in full time production. How has the game transformed from its conception to what we see in the reveal trailer?
Lloyd: A couple of months ago none of what you see in the trailer was there, those sections of gameplay existed, but all it was was placeholder art and unpolished dialog. I set an internal milestone to get the first chapter arted up and to add voiceover and music, and it all came together in just a few weeks. It was a strange feeling suddenly having an idea what the final game will look and sound like after working on it for so long.
There’s been a few major changes since development started. Gameplay was originally a very straight two-click (look, and interact) adventure interface with classic Lucasarts-style dialog trees. That’s now been replaced with a few modern and streamlined interface concepts. You can mouse-over objects to have a description displayed rather than having to click everything for simple descriptions. Dialog choices are now handled by collecting “topics” you can interview characters about, which fits nicely with the investigative gameplay. I’ve also got a rather experimental interface for gamepads which I’m really happy with, so I’m hoping that opens up the game to a wider audience of people that don’t have mouse and keyboard as their favored gaming input device.
I’ve learned a heap myself since starting, too. Shortly after I began working on [The Drifter], I started looking up tips on writing, which ended up in a deep dive into learning how to be a better writer. I’d never really thought about it before then, and there’s so much to learn! I’m still learning as I go, and it’s really challenging, but rewarding too.
OnlySP: The game’s plot is set in a city underworld and centres around protagonist, Mick Carter, who drifts from town to town like so many who are often forgotten or ignored in society. Why did you decide to make a drifter the lead character?
Lloyd: I’d love to say it was for altruistic reasons that I wanted to shed light on issues of homelessness… But really it just came from our voice-actor friend, Adrian Vaughan, having a great gravelly voice, and the image of a gruff, itinerant worker moving from place to place just popped into my head. His back story, and the themes that the game explores just kind of evolved from there.
OnlySP: The Drifter’s narrative design takes Powehoof’s macabre formula previously seen in Peridium and Alluvium. However, it adds supernatural elements with Mick’s consciousness witnessing his own murder and feeling haunted by something from the ‘otherside.’ What inspired you to add supernatural elements to the narrative?
Lloyd: The concept behind Peridium was that it should be ambiguous to players whether the whole thing was in the character’s head or whether it’s actually some body-snatchers kinda deal. The absolute best thing for me after releasing that was reading all the fan-theories people came up with as to what was going on. For The Drifter, I wanted to repeat a bit of that vibe with a Stephen King influence, and that’s where the supernatural elements come in. I love playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, describing things as how they seem from his perspective, which you can’t quite trust. So I get to play off the supernatural stuff against Mick’s slowly deteriorating sanity as the game progresses.
As with Peridium I’ve got to be careful to make sure there’s an actual answer to mysteries in the game, it’s easy to fall into the trap of piling on lots of questions as the writer but not actually having answers yourself, and I think players see through that.
OnlySP: The 2D graphics and animation style are stunning. Urban environments within the reveal trailer and screenshots look grimy, run-down, and claustrophobic, which is further enhanced by the lighting effects. How do you want players to feel as they traverse through each location?
Lloyd: There’s sections of game that are more investigative, some that have a tense thriller vibe, and others that are pure horror. I think the high contrast, low colour style lends itself really well to giving an unsettling, sinister tone to the environments, and the heavy use of shadow gives that strong sense of mystery too. Modern settings are nice since they’re immediately relatable in a way that sci-fi and fantasy aren’t, and I think that means players can relate to the characters more easily as well.
OnlySP: The Drifter’s gameplay mechanic features a classic point-and-click system which has seen a significant resurgence over the past few years. How does point-and-click gameplay enhance your development style and keep the player engaged with the story-telling?
Lloyd: I’ve always loved how point-and-clicks mesh story with gameplay. In an action game, you tend to have sections of gameplay interspersed with cutscenes where story is delivered, whereas in an adventure each click triggers a new mini-cutscene. It might just make the player walk across the screen, but it might be some character-building observation, or trigger an animated sequence when a puzzle has been solved. The result is that story exposition is tightly meshed with the play rather than sectioned off from it.
Action games also tend to have a few interactions you perform over and over in a very systemic way. The designer will design the way you interact with a vase for example (maybe you punch it and it smashes), and then that’s the way you interact with the hundreds that are scattered throughout the game. Now, smashing vases is fun, but there’s no real way of having that add to the story. But I love how in an adventure game the designer can define the interaction with any object in the game. You might find a key hidden in one vase, climb on top of another to reach something, shove an unconscious guard in the next, take a vase with you to use later, hide inside the next to eavesdrop on a conversation, or just put flowers in one to cheer up your mum.
OnlySP: Solving puzzles is a keystone gameplay mechanic that underpins the story, helping to join up the dots as players progress through the campaign. Is it difficult to design puzzles that are challenging without obstructing progression?
Lloyd: Yes! It’s one of the hardest things about making this kind of game. My philosophy for The Drifter is that puzzles should be the glue that binds the story together rather than the focus. So I’m keeping puzzles quite real-world and logical. I’m not aiming to have any real head-scratchers, so for puzzle-nuts they might be on the easy side but I love the way even simple puzzles guide the player through the story, and let the player put the pieces together as they go. But yeah, coming up with puzzles that don’t feel contrived, and are balanced enough to be interesting but not get people stuck is really bloody difficult!
OnlySP: You cited critically-acclaimed authors Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and John Carpenter as influences for The Drifter. How have these author’s novels inspired you to create horror/thriller narratives?
Lloyd: I love the way Stephen King bestows his stories with an unspoken malevolence and unsettling sense of the supernatural, and his book On Writing has been inspirational as I’ve been learning to write myself. Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers have a knack of putting characters into an impossible situation, then throwing more and more difficulties at them. As soon as a character escapes a situation, they’re in a worse one, and that’s (unfortunately for Mick) my goal for how The Drifter will play. I love the technology side to his novels as well, which has influenced the time-travel element to my story. The John Carpenter influence probably comes across the clearest in the trailer from the music and visuals, I just love the rawness of his style.
My influences are pretty broad, and those authors are probably the most well known, but I’m enjoying having the excuse to devour whatever cheesy airport-novel or b-grade schlock thriller I can get my hands on!
OnlySP: The game features several antagonists, but the most intriguing is an obsessive madman. Can you reveal any information about the madman’s thousand year old obsession? What compelled his ominous obsession to start?
Lloyd: I couldn’t help dropping that little intriguing tidbit in the game’s description, so glad it’s making people curious about the story. I don’t want to go into exact detail, since that’d be spoiler central, so I’ll be a jerk and say you’ll have to wait and see.
But I can tell you that the tech in tech-thriller came from doing a wiki-deep dive into theories of quantum-cognition, how our brains have evolved to make use of the crazier side of physics that we’re barely starting to understand ourselves. On the other hand you’ve got quantum entanglement with its lack of respect for the usual laws of time. So, maybe if time-travel were possible, it wouldn’t be us that first tamed it, it’d occur as a natural evolutionary step.
So, what if our consciousness already has the ability to jump back in time? What if someone discovered this, started jumping back… what if they’d lived a thousand years when everyone else has lived only 10?
OnlySP: Can you provide any additional details about what players can expect from the story including how long the campaign will be?
Lloyd: Similar to our release date of when-it’s-done, our estimated playtime is as-long-as-it-ends-up-being. I’m trying to keep the game as tight as I can, attempting to keep dialog snappy, avoiding padding out with superfluous puzzles or lots of wandering about, so that tends to put it on the shorter end of the spectrum, I’d say something in neighborhood of four-six hours is the goal.
As for what to expect from the story, I’m hoping to play on people’s expectations and keep them guessing to the end. But I’m honestly still finding out myself, I have the major story beats up to the end, but there’s a lot more work to nail down how the player gets there.
OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Lloyd: Thanks for taking the time to read my ranting. You can wishlist and follow The Drifter now on Steam, and play our previous (free) adventure games at powerhoof.itch.io. Definitely let me know what you think if you do!