Rebuilding The Lovecraftian “Deal With The Devil” From The Ground Up
A lot can happen in a year, and Rich Barham of Round Table Game Studio (RTGS) can attest to this. Last year, OnlySP touched base with Barham in the beginnings of development for RTGS’s Deal with the Devil. Gameumentary recently spoke with Barham to get an update as to the development of their game.
For starters, RTGS has amicably separated their partnership with Antimatter Games (AMG) for the production of Deal with the Devil. While this is a surprising development for a smaller studio, RTGS has nonetheless “completely restarted the work that had been done, retaining relatively few assets from what [they] had before.”
This separation occurred fairly early in 2016, and Barham discussed the partnership withdrawal stating, “With AMG working intensively on [Rising Storm 2], and our need to have a team who had their head fully in our project, it made sense to concentrate on the game in-house rather than in-partnership.” This was not a decision they took lightly, either.
But, with separation comes some struggles for a smaller studio like Round Table Game Studio. “One of the struggles for us as a developer is that our staff are voluntary, and we don’t have funding. We didn’t want to take on a big loan, and we didn’t feel the game was at a point where we were happy to show it to a regular publisher to have a demo that was sufficiently fleshed out. We are nearly there right now.”
Previously, RTGS was predicting an early 2017 release of their first episode of Deal with the Devil, but understandably, they have been set back with the restart. The game is still slated to be released in an episodic format, but looking towards a hopeful late 2017 release of the first episode.
In talking about their hopes for the future after the restart mentioned, Barham stated: “Really for us, what we are hoping for is enough exposure to attract the likes of partners who will be able to enable us to set up our own structure with funding and obviously to employ people full-time, because that will help us get this game out quicker.” As mentioned before, they are looking towards a late 2017 release date, but they are not setting anything in stone from what it sounds like, due to the fact they are getting ready to talk to potential publishers and partners in the next two months or so.
“[E]ven if we are a small, tight studio, a remote place — and right now we are not in receipt of funding — our whole belief is about making games with a level of quality that are far above what a very small team would normally look to make […] We don’t want to be seen as ‘Oh it’s kind of a bit halfway-house, but they are a small indie studio.’ We never want to be seen like that. We want people to look at the work we have done and say, ‘Wow! That was done by a small studio, we are really impressed!’ So that is key to us and why we decided to restart the project.”
NEW LOOK & FEEL
After taking the game in-house, RTGS went back to the drawing board and started from square one, but to their advantage: “The visuals are far higher quality. We are ultimately a very story driven game, which means that a player is going to stop and want to see everything around them being beautiful and immersive. We really concentrated on the visuals of the game to make it a lot more beautiful.
“We have talked to Nvidia quite a lot to see where Nvidia can support us, and certainly, whilst we are still in the early days on that, we are looking to exploit any technology that we can to make the game look as good as it possibly can and as far as a great engine to do that in. We have talented artists, so we wanted to make sure that we really played to their strengths. For example, we are spending a lot of time on making sure we are getting the Art Deco feel, so all of the UI elements are reminiscent of that, which you can see in the screenshots. The game hopefully brings this ultra high-quality finish, and then unites it with this, hopefully, classic feel. Those two things together support the story.
RTGS wants to bring to the game a lot of what people love about puzzle-y story games into their world with the enrichment of Unreal 4 Engine. In Deal with the Devil, Barham wants the player to explore and interact with the world a lot more than the story-based games that people have played, like Monkey Island and the Telltale games. “The graphics that are available to us, along with the world of the 1920s… that is a captivating and beautiful world, and has an awful lot of what people would want to see and explore. It was truly and interesting time for the world.”
With the game set in the 1920s, this opens up a world that gamers have not really been exposed to outside of video games such as the Lovecraftian Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. The closest a mass audience game has come to the time period is in 2K Games’ BioShock: Infinite set in 1912. This is a game taking place in a time period that games have not explored, which is big for a small studio to take on. They quite literally can explore game creation in a time period that has no comparative games for the most part.
In creating the game, its puzzle aspect came up frequently, and with that a sense of player agency, which, according to Barham, is the crux of Deal with the Devil. Barham emphasized that in the game each challenge and puzzle is to be met with multiple ways to approach it. This is a divergence from some of the more linear story-based games. While those have their place in the market, they are not the level of quality that RTGS is seeking.
“For example, if you’re trying to get past a guard on a door, you may engage in conversation and be able to distract him so he goes away so you can get through the door,” says Barham. “But equally, you might go off and do something that causes a disturbance that he investigates on his own. Or you may in some way disable him so that you can pass. Or you may take an alternative route entirely to get through that door using knowledge that you have.”
Each decision made in solving puzzles and choosing paths within the game ultimately play into the overall progression and development of their character, Amelia. This effect on the character’s behavior is largely due in part to the obstacles in the environment. In Deal with the Devil, there is an encouragement of exploration of the environment around the players. Whether this be finding objects or manipulating their surroundings, players can interact in different ways to solve the problems they are faced with. “It could be something as simple as finding an object, which ultimately lies as the key to something else, but it could also be about interpreting a script and understanding ritual components in order to do ritual magic.”
Additionally, with the prior development, there were “transmissions” released with clues hidden in them. Putting all of the transmissions together, you could solve the puzzles in them and eventually go to a place where a player can release content. Those transmissions were made by AMG and there is a chance that RTGS may have to create the first two over again before releasing the rest of their transmissions in a series of five. Barham went on to say, “They were exactly the sort of thing we wanted to do. This is a world we are creating within the world of the 20s and the Jazz Age period. We want people to feel they can connect with it and interact with it in ways even more than the game. There is a wonderful sort of depth to people who like that kind of conspiracy theory and ARG side of it. People can get involved in it and see that the game has that initial level of depth.”
DEPTH AND REALISM IN WRITING
If Deal with the Devil has not set itself apart enough already, this game features not only a female main character in her 30s by the name of Amelia Woods, but also a team of all female writers for her character.
“I had written the game overall in terms of the over-arching story and had a pretty clear idea about Amelia. But, being a man I think there are some things that, even being very sympathetic to what it was have been like being a woman during that period, perhaps I wasn’t able to bring her to life. I think what bringing in and all female writing team has done […] is brought her more to life. It has really fleshed out her character in a way that I can never really quite be familiar with the struggles that people perhaps still have today, and then look at how things have improved over the years — they can add that level of depth and realism to the character.”
What this means for Amelia’s character is a level of attention and detail that Barham felt even he could not do justice from the standpoint of an opposite gender. This step back for Barham is one rarely seen in the writing and creation of female characters, and hopefully one that pays off for Deal with the Devil in the quality they are seeking in not only gameplay, but also in the portrayal of a woman in this delicate time period.
“What I didn’t want was the feeling, however slight, that this is a female character in a very delicate time to be a female, but it feels a little bit like it was written by a man,” says Barham. “I would hope that wouldn’t be the case anyway, but I think that this adds an additional level of insulation against those sort of problems and even helps us to prevent, even if by accident, of course, that anyone feels as though it’s not realistic — that it doesn’t truly behave in a way that a woman might act.”
The character of Amelia is not a super athletic Lara Croft, but she is not a damsel in distress either. In games like Tomb Raider, Croft thinks nothing of scaling walls, climbing things, fighting people. Amelia? Not so much. Barham and his team made a decisions early on not to make Amelia this extraordinary heroine that shimmies up poles and scales walls. The RTGS teams wanted to explore more interesting solutions to environmental problems around this character. While in the gaming world deciding to climb over a wall to solve a problem may seem almost second nature, the fact of the matter is humans are quite sedentary.
“Most of us take a look at that ten foot wall and think, ‘I’m going to find another way,’ and Amelia is kind of that sort of person. Obviously, in an earlier era, she is not that person who looks at a ten foot pole or fifty foot tree and thinks, ‘Oh well, I’ll just climb up that.’ She says, ‘Hell no, I’m not gonna do that. I don’t want to take the risk of falling and breaking my neck. I’m going to find a way to solve the problem in another way.’ We think that is quite refreshing.”
The game also is meant to have a lot of replayability so that players can choose to play the game and play Amelia one way, then the next time go back and play through the entire game in a completely different way, changing the feel, character development, and gameplay completely. One time around you could, for instance, play Amelia as horribly as you possibly could. You could choose to go every despicable route presented to Amelia and make her an anti-hero of sorts, but the next time pick the moral high road and end up in entirely different situations and results than the first time the game was played through.
Barham and his team drew on inspiration for this game from many influences, one in particular being H.P. Lovecraft. For those not familiar with the name or what that connotes for this game, the works of Lovecraft are known for their horror. Games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu were and are staple fare for Barham and his team, from growing up to modern day, and the adventurous worlds and character agency involved in such tabletop games is something they hope to capture.
An even bigger nod to this Lovecraftian influence is the period in which the game is set, the same period in which Lovecraft’s works were set. His writings presented a dark world layer underneath the layer in which we live — the normal world.
On the other hand, Barham was also seeking to look back to games that the team found nostalgia in and ask the question, “What hasn’t quite been done here?” This question played into a lot of the decisions made to start over, make a quality game, and explore the options available in making this first person game.
“We want something that would be personally involving and horrifying, and as a result it came down to ‘if it’s not going to be a kind of Baldur’s Gate sort of feel of adventuring, then what is it going to be?’ Is it going to be third person? Nah you don’t really feel you in the persons senses,” says Barham. “It needs to be a first person game which took us down the genre.”
In mentioning favorite games, Barham made sure to clarify one point: “I don’t like calling out games that I love and pointing out deficiencies. What it’s about for me is trying to say, ‘well that experience for me would be even better if I could go around and interact with the world and really feel like I was there and make a difference out of agency.'”
In wrapping up the interview, we asked Barham what else he wanted people to know going forward with the future of development and the eventual release of the game.
“It’s a story we think will surprise and delight people — sometimes delight in an evil laugh type way, but also in where we have taken off the shackles of such a constrained world game. What we can say is we are making a real conscious effort to have a nice deep game where players have a lot of agency that tells a fantastic story taking place in an amazing time. In our world, the supernatural exists and they can choose to fight against it or be involved in it.
We know that there is a large audience interested in the same things that drive us, and we know that those people, as well as many others who enjoy narrative and horror titles, will want to be involved in a story where you can play so differently, especially where you can consciously do things that are out of the bounds of how civilized people are expected to behave. We are really excited by the character, the setting, and the story, and we can’t wait to share them with the world.”