A 1930s Space Age: Exploring the Surreal Adventure of Ira
A child reaches for the stars, burdened by circumstance. Folks chained by debt, indentured to the powers at large. The year is 1930. Mankind is thrust to the stars following after a signal spanning the void of space and time itself.
The above text is the description for Ore Creative’s debut title, Ira. Funded through Kickstarter last year, Ore Creative has been hard at work bringing their surreal world to life over the past year. During that time, they’ve completely revamped the game’s look after switching from Unity to Unreal Engine for development purposes.
I hadn’t heard of the game myself until I saw a short little teaser for the game on Twitter a few weeks back. The art style immediately had me intrigued because of its similarities to Firewatch, and the teaser itself was quite mysterious. Based out of Chicago, Ore Creative is looking to take you on a “trip” with Ira later this year.
I recently spoke with one of the two developers working on the game, Zachary Downer, to learn more about Ira and what the game entails.
GAMEUMENTARY: Tell me about yourself and your history as a game developer.
Zachary Downer: I’m Zach. I’ve been doing graphic and interactive media design professionally for about 5 years. I got my start in game development way back in high school creating mods for both Half Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source.
I went to college for graphic design. After college I worked in a few different studios, from Michigan to Switzerland. After I came back from overseas, I decided to peruse game design full time, while freelancing on the side. Which brings me to where we are today.
GAMEUMENTARY: So how did Ore Creative get started? Did you guys work together in school?
Downer: Ore started as a freelance design group that I put together in college. I had a fascination with raw materials and what elements those bits of unrefined ore could be turned into. So the name Ore stuck around.
Nick (my partner) and I have known each other since middle school. So we have long standing friendship, and it just so happens we are able to work in a professional capacity with one and other as well. We did have another mutual friend who started the journey with us, but sadly it didn’t work out.
We met a few times as a group before I left for Switzerland and talked about diving into game development full time upon my return. It took awhile to let things sink in and work themselves out, but upon returning, we all moved in together for a year to Kickstart our game, Ira.
GAMEUMENTARY: So do you guys now have an office space in Chicago following your move from Detroit, then?
Downer: Yeah, kind of. We moved in a week ago. My space is much nicer than what I had back in Michigan, but to be honest it’s just a second bedroom in my apartment. It’s nothing amazing, but it does have ample space for game development and VR development.
GAMEUMENTARY: So what exactly is Ira about?
Downer: Ira is a surreal adventure through an early 1930s America where a communications company (Inele Co.) gets access to technology that’s beyond their time; they wield that power like a kid who found his dad’s gun, sparking an earlier technological and industrial revolution. The story of Ira is not just about how the world is different due to these events; it’s about the people who live and die in this alternate world.
You’re going to find bits of the story that contain social commentary about the rugged individualism and corporatocracy of the 1930s and how it has parallels with today’s world. Act 1 touches on themes of exploitation and humanity’s willingness to survive.
There are a lot of strange things that are just accepted in the Ira universe: There are miners on Mars digging for a rare mineral called Iron 76; There’s space travel, but they haven’t cured TB yet; and Intele Co. has their eyes set on our closest celestial neighbor, The Lithic System, which is promoted as a cure-all for the world’s ailments. It’s going to be a trip…
GAMEUMENTARY: When did you guys initially start developing Ira and what influenced you to do it?
Downer: I guess it’s hard to pinpoint an exact date, because our original game wasn’t Ira, but a game called Planetoids. Very little remains from that time period; as we matured as developers so did our skills, and subsequently our ambitions. If I had to put a date on it, I would say 2013.
The process of why we started Ira was simple: we loved creating and working with interactive content, each of us with our own specific wheel house of skills we wanted to use. I wanted to step away from working in other people’s worlds so I could work in one of my own design; it’s just an enriching experience.
Now, as to what influences have gone into Ira is a little more complicated. In terms of visuals, my background as a designer plays a large role in that — so do technical papers from Valve on creating stylized graphics for TF2.
As a designer, I prefer simple visual communication; things like icons are not just easy ways to communicate ideas. (Simplified forms feel more comfortable to me as I have difficulty visually tracking-in over-complicated 2D/3D work — most people do.) This Idea generally lends to greater readability in game and, in Ira, characters are constantly switching between a solid form and a cell shaded mesh. This allows for staging scenes in a way that use less resources to create content, and with a two man team that’s very important. Simple design lends to a simpler production pipeline.
Cinematography plays a large roll in the experience, as well. People like Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and even Hayao Miyazaki have played a role in influencing visual movement, rendering, and the story of Ira: Miyazaki for his ability to create worlds and then not have to point out to the viewer how things are different in a ham-fisted way. He just allows characters to live their life, and people experience the world by their reactions to it. Things just exist as they exist; Kurosawa for his ability to brand characters with unique identifiable movement. This idea is utterly important when all you see is the silhouette of a character for much of the game. Being able to identify a character by watching just movement is a necessity; Kubrick for his future forethought and clean presentation. This starts going back into simple design and good visual communication.
There are many others as well that have contributed to my sensibilities as a visual artist, but those are some notable ones that have influenced how Ira is visually expressed.
As for games that have influenced Ira, I would have to say that Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, and The Wolf Among Us really pushed me into thinking in terms of cinematic gameplay. I can’t thank Telltale enough for those amazing games. Ira takes game cinematics in a more ethereal direction as that lends to the gameplay style of Ira.
GAMEUMENTARY: I noticed that the game has gone through a pretty big shift in style since the reveal on Unity to where it is now on Unreal Engine 4. Is it still a point-and-click adventure, or has it evolved into something else?
Downer: Ira has gone through a lot of iterations to get where it is today, visually. When I first started experimenting with different style possibilities, I created almost every known style I could find, from Borderlands to Team Fortress 2 — not to use those art styles for Ira but to understand the scope of style creation and figure out what was possible so I could then craft a unique style for Ira that fit our technical limitations.
One unique feature about Ira’s visual style is that it’s a hybrid between open landscapes that appear almost 2D with near telephoto perspectives that transition into intimate 3D spaces; it’s so subtle that people don’t even realize it’s happening.
The controls are now a hybrid setup — no pointing and clicking to move. Movement is now handled via the thumb stick on console and WASD on PC. The mouse is used in a more traditional sense, you know — finding items on-screen to interact with. We have a selection system that replaces the mouse on console.
GAMEUMETNARY: How does the game play then? Is it more of like a narrative adventure-style game similar to Firewatch, or something more akin to Oxenfree, etc.?
Downer: More Oxenfree than Firewatch, but you will find elements of both. It’s neither one system nor the other. Ira has dialogue communication and choices from multiple player perspectives at any given time; player choices do flavor and change future events. We also have a progressive animation system that moves character animations along as you progress the conversation. Something you might find in The Wolf Among Us, for example.
It’s hard to draw a direct comparison, because we built a custom system that works for our specific needs and subsequent considerations.
The player does move in 3D space from controlled camera perspectives. The perspectives are not always static, as the camera follows the player on a rail at times.
GAMEUMENTARY: Based on the assets you’ve released thus far, the art style of the game is very striking. How did you decide on the final style?
Downer: I didn’t have an art style I picked out that already existed; I had a list of criteria, things that I needed the art style to accomplish — like easy asset creation or simpler environment setup from gray boxing to completion. Other points like simple readability and legibility, while still being able to achieve atmosphere, were some others. Another big one was being able to transition from seemingly different styles, from outdoor to indoor spaces. The transitions make a lot more sense when you see them.
So, a criteria-based example would be as follows: If I were to try and create the style from say Firewatch, I would have to individually unwrap and texture (including normal maps) for every asset in game, which is a massive resource-suck for a two-man team. Ira uses a group of generic gradients and textures in gray scale that can be applied to almost any object via multi-sub object materials. Gradient or texture and color is all that’s required to create unique looking materials in game. It’s more about the shapes and color grouping that make people think an object is believable in Ira.
One thing that does run in the same vein of Firewatch is high color saturation. That might be the vibe you’re picking up on. That being said, we use it for flavoring moods within scenes and to intensify feelings of characters — no different than what you might find in various films.
GAMEUMENTARY: So what kind of gameplay elements can players expect from Ira? Obviously there’s the narrative and dialogue elements, but what else is there to do within the world you’re creating?
Downer: You hit the nail on the head — adventuring and making choices are the core elements. Another fun element is not knowing what comes next. There’s definitely a sense of unpredictability. It’s going to be a fun ride.
GAMEUMENTARY: So, in terms of the game itself, what would you say is unique about Ira that sets it apart from any other narrative adventure title?
Downer: The outcomes that occur due to the alternate reality that character’s live in and through — it creates some very interesting experiences and lore you can really sink your teeth into. We’re not going to spoon feed the player either. There’s been a trend as long as games have existed which involves treating the player like the are incompetent and cant figure things out on their own. That’s not us.
GAMEUMENTARY: Any idea of when the first episode of Ira will be available?
Downer: We are shooting for the end of 2017 on PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One (PS4 at a later date), and we are in talks with Nintendo about the switch right now. (Approved for Switch moments after our interview concluded.)