From Layers of Fear to Observer: Bloober Team’s Journey Through Horror

After the success of Layers of Fear, Polish indie game developers Bloober Team have sought to continue developing games that don’t just terrify, but also inspire thought. Their latest title, Observer...

After the success of Layers of Fear, Polish indie game developers Bloober Team have sought to continue developing games that don’t just terrify, but also inspire thought. Their latest title, Observer (stylized as >OBSERVER_ ) follows in that vein, seeking to be a game that explores complex and interesting philosophical conundrums and ruminates on society – one that revels in what makes horror a great genre. There is a history of games that have done this well – games like Bioshock and Deus Ex have explored philosophical themes while maintaining a definite sense of atmosphere, for example – and Bloober’s success with their previous game suggests that they have every chance of adding another to that illustrious pantheon. We spoke to Bloober Team’s brand manager Rafał Basaj about how he got started in the industry, his thoughts on the game, what inspired it, and how they put it together – among many other things.

Rafał’s involvement with Bloober Team started after a stint as a journalist. “I’d been working for this small, Polish language outlet focused on indie games called ‘Indie World,'” he told me. “After two years of working there I got familiar with the people here at Bloober Team, and eventually they asked me to join them. So, I’ve been working here for almost two years now as brand manager for our IPs, as well as coordinating the marketing efforts for Observer.”

Prior to working on Observer, he worked on other projects for the company, including Layers of Fear. “I worked on that from before we went to early access. I came to the company somewhere around when the game was in the middle of production. The company also had shares in a subsidiary development company called iFunForAll that has since gone its own way, but I also worked on two games for them since I’ve been here.”

Unlike some indie developers, Rafał tells me that Bloober Team already has quite a sizeable team. “We are growing, but not that rapidly,” he said. “One thing that we want to do with our projects is keep the core team on each game relatively small, which means that we are working on more than one title at the same to ensure that. For Observer, the core team is about twenty people, and overall we now employ more than sixty people here in the office.”

They were a little smaller at the time they were making Layers, but the number of people working on that game was similar. “Layers of Fear involved a similar amount of people, roughly twenty to twenty-five people in the core team, but most of the company then was working on that so we’ve grown a little bit since then.”

I was intrigued to find out how much the team has been helped by all the facilities that can be accessed by indie companies in the modern era, and particularly technology. Rafał is incredibly complimentary about the availability of such technology for indie developers these days.

“When it comes to technology and the approachability from the indie scene, I think it’s tremendous,” he said. “We have these very sophisticated engines given to indie developers for free, which they can learn in and try different things out, allowing them to be creative with a relatively small budget. Overall, I think it helps the creativity of the whole industry. If you look at indie games in general, tons and tons of stuff is made that you wouldn’t see in a AAA Hollywood-style budget game for years to come or maybe even never, so the ability to have those engines and more sophisticated programs and applications to make whatever you want means we are light years ahead right now for people who want to make video games than we were ten years ago, when you had to have a lot of time to create a game. Making the engine alone sometimes took a few years.”

The company is based in Krakow, Poland, and I was interested to find out what it was like to develop games in the country – particularly in the indie scene – and whether it was a conducive place to be to make games. Rafał was very happy with the gaming environment and argued that it was a great place to be to make games. “From my perspective, the gaming industry here is very free,” he began. “There’s rarely things like dress codes or strict working hours. We have some core hours where you need to be there, but we need to get the job done. Whether we want to work at 6AM or 6PM, that’s no one’s business.”

Rafał also told me that the Polish government provides opportunities for funding for companies that desire to make games. “The government saw that the gaming industry is growing in Poland and they started supporting video game companies, thinking about games as something the country could export. With the help of the EU as well, a lot of companies were able to attend various events in North America and Asia as well as in Europe, so there are programs that are meant to help the bigger companies like CD Projekt Red, the guys behind Witcher, as well as for companies like us. That support, the visibility, and the government’s help in creating video games in Poland makes it a very good place to be making games right now.”

Observer and the ‘Hidden Horror’

That support, as well as the company’s growing reputation after Layers of Fear received such glowing reviews, meant that Bloober Team could continue to pursue the kinds of games they desired to make. Buoyed by the good reception, they knew they wanted to make more horror games that don’t just seek to scare, but also make the player think. “With Layers,” Rafał tells me, “the subject was the struggle between whether you need to focus on your family or your work and the game mirrored it, so you either could choose your family or you could choose the work side, or yourself, and if you couldn’t choose any of them you would be stuck in a loop of madness. With Observer, we are targeting the subject of the boundaries of humanity.

“Every element of the game will try to tackle this subject somewhat, whether it will be level design or even audio, it will have some hints about the main subject and the story is connected to that theme. The other thing is something we call Catharsis 2.0. As you know, catharsis is the relief from tension and each horror game is cathartic in some way. But, we wanted to expand it and add the psychological and philosophical aspect to the game so there is not only catharsis from the fear that we try to induce, but also on a psychological level.”

It’s not only simple scares that Observer hopes to provide – it intends to bring an intensity and urgency to every decision with a moral dilemma and drastic decisions to be made about where the player – and the main character – think humanity should go.

“We give you moments in the game that will make you think. There will be difficult choices to make that make you ponder about what you would choose or do in each situation. Specifically, with Observer,” Rafał continued, “we want to talk about where and how technology will take us in the future. In real life right now we are afraid of personal details being stolen, our credit cards and bank accounts being hacked – so we decided to think some more about that and whether in the near future someone would be able to hack your mind and see everything that’s there, from the most intimate moments of your life to the things that you are afraid of most. We want to have those discussions on that level with people playing the game. We actually devised a name for the genre that we want to do that consists of that. We are calling it the ‘hidden horror.'”

So, what does this new genre entail? Rafał explained that many of the things they were going for are already present in Layers of Fear. “We’re going for the same aspects that we had there,” he told me. “Creepiness, definitely, and – it’s not a very popular word – but ‘terror’ is actually the word that best describes our games. We want to make this a very uneasy atmosphere on the players. There were studies years ago that said people are most afraid of the things that they do not know because their imagination goes in to overdrive, instead of having a bunch of monsters that you can see and running from them.”

Observer makes use of its environment to manipulate what the player perceives in order to achieve this anticipation of impending doom from the player. “We are hoping for this very thrilling atmosphere where you don’t know what will happen to you in that second,” Rafał said. “The environment changes around you, more so when you go into someone else’s mind, as opposed to being stuck with “real life” in the game. You are not always 100% sure of reality either; when you walk through the setting of the game, there are holograms that are plastered around our world to make everything look like its in perfect working order and make everything look nice, because by the time you get round to the time the story is set in, everything is broken. So when those holograms start to malfunction and not work properly, the environment will change around you. We are working with these kinds of environmental mechanics to make the player feel uneasy from the beginning of the game right to the very end.”

Crafting the Future

Since the game is set in the future, specifically in 2084, the team had to come up with a version of the future that they thought made sense and allowed these philosophical themes to come through. They also had to ensure that the period they chose made sense as a good time period for the plot, especially since a lot of the themes and problems that the game discusses, namely the issue of personal security and hacking, seem like they might happen in the real world much sooner.

“That’s true. That’s very true,” Rafał started. “However, for the backstory that we made for Observer between the present day and what’s happening, there was actually a huge war, something we call the great decimation. But also something that’s very important for the story of the game is a disease called the nanophage, which is a digital, neural, and biological disease, so people with augmentations and implants would get very sick and die. Both of these events occur to cause the time differences, so we couldn’t make it closer to our time, but if we avoid those we actually might be obtaining this level of high-tech sooner than in the game.”

Rafał told me that most of the inspiration for the beats that they hit to create a viable future come from cyberpunk, which heavily influences both the story and the look of the game.

“We are clearly working within the boundaries of the cyberpunk genre,” he explained. “That means we feature most of the elements that make up that genre in the game, so we have the all-oppressive mega-corporation, we have the street-person neural detective that tries to solve a mystery, and we also have all of the other tropes, from augmentations to splicers. Once we knew that we want to work within cyberpunk, we were thinking about how we wanted to make it a unique kind of cyberpunk, and one thing we knew from the beginning is that we wanted to have a very gritty and dark world, which means we are closer to, say, Blade Runner than Minority Report.

 “A lot of people here grew up reading Gibson, Dick, watching Japanese anime from the 80s and 90s when there was a huge boom in cyberpunk, so we took all of that and tried to figure out how to make something of our own. Then we decided to set the game here in Poland where we didn’t know if anything in the genre that exists in a visual medium that had been set in this part of the world. That made us think about how we want to go through with it, and the distinctions between ours and American or Japanese cyberpunk.”

As a result, they started to tap in to some of the culture and history of the country to find those differences. “Poland was always kind of behind after WW2 from the West because of Soviet influences,” said Rafał. “We wanted to get some of that feeling in to the game, so the all-ruling mega-corporation in our game, Chiron, actually uses Soviet-style propaganda. The posters that you would normally see in books that tackle what Soviet propaganda was like. Because we were always behind in technology and pop culture until the late 90s, we decided to think about how people in the 80s would imagine a cyberpunk future, so we went back in time in to the past and tried to rethink what the world would look like from their perspective.”

The team captured this feeling by blending the futuristic elements of the story with distinct and memorable items associated with the Soviet era. “That’s why the game will have a lot of CRT TVs connected to a lot of high-tech equipment and all the very old furniture that looks very out-of-date now when you think about it, but at the time it was in almost every home in Poland. So we have a lot of those pop culture Polish influences from the 80s and early 90s. I think we have a very unique setting that you will enjoy.”

We spoke a little bit before about the setting of the game, and its dilapidated nature when the player’s mind isn’t being confused by holograms. Rafał explains that for the most part the game is set in a very compact environment. “To be honest, the main environment in the game will be a tenement building,” he explained. “The building is a real place. We actually went to it and took photos, and we moved it to this cyberpunk setting. At the very beginning of the game you get the GPS co-ordinates of the building and they are correct. If you go to the coordinates you’ll see the building standing there, and if you go inside and trawl through the corridors you could probably figure out where to go after playing Observer. In the game the building is in a far worse state, but we made all of that through real objects that were actually there. The game is set in Krakow, and the maps that are in the game are correct, real world data.”

This attention to detail definitely enhances what the game will feel like, and no doubt make the game’s version of the future feel more realistic, but it also appears like the tight, confined corridors of a tenement building provide the perfect environment for lots of scary moments, allowing the team to take advantage of a very common fear: claustrophobia. Rafał agreed.

“Yeah we definitely can use that,” he said. “Any phobia that’s very common works to our advantage, and claustrophobia is at the top of the list. It’s not a direct thing that you will be addressing, but a horror game where you cannot run in any direction that you want to, and you feel that if something shows up in front or behind of you your options are very limited – it’s great for enhancing the experience and allowing the imagination to flourish. You don’t even have to be claustrophobic to feel that those corridors are looming on to you, and you never know the time and date of when something will happen, though you know you’ll be screwed once it does.”

What else is necessary to enhance the horror experience? Though a number of successful horror games have preferred to use silence and minimization or completely exclude any voice work, Observer is not one of them, and Rafał thinks the voice work plays a pivotal part in making the game scary, allowing the player to form more of a bond with their protagonist.

“I think that voice acting gives character to a person that you as a player need to have a connection with. In Layers of Fear, our protagonist talked to you very rarely and it was hard to distinguish between how much he was the protagonist and how much he was the antagonist. However, the bond between player and character will be much bigger in Observer, as he will be monitoring and talking about what’s happening in the game, and as a player you will know how he feels because of that, how he reacts to stuff. It just builds the connection between the player and the main character, and the voice acting will play a big part in ensuring that.”

The game’s main character, Dan, will be played by Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty, Blade Runner), so there’s no doubt that the team considers voice work to be a pivotal part of the overall experience, and getting the likes of a big name like Hauer involved certainly bodes well. But does Dan also have a lot of interactions with others? “Definitely,” Rafał replied. “He is always talking to someone else. There’s no inner narration done by the main character. It’s a building that’s still occupied by tenants, so he will be talking to a lot of people, trying to solve the game’s mystery. The player chooses most of the dialogue options, so you can choose between being snappy or more witty or whatever you like. In that regard, I think it’s a game that aims to connect the player directly with the main character by allowing them to choose how to react to people.”

There is an element of choice involved in the dialogue options then, but these have less of an effect on the overall game than your choices and decisions did in Layers of Fear. “Here, they effect the game to a limited extent,” Rafał said. “There are moments in the game that will be defining because of the choices the player makes, but we are definitely using it less than we did with Layers of Fear. In that game, it actually tracked everything that you did from the doors you opened to the corridors that you chose and the objects that you picked, and all of that came together to give you one of the endings, which is definitely not the case here. We still have some very defining moments in the game that will contribute to deciding which ending the player gets, since there’s more than one, but the player’s choices definitely have less of an overall impact than they did in Layers.”

Audience Involvement

Player involvement extends past choices for the team though; they hope that the audience doesn’t just take a passive role in the game, but take something substantial out of it and think about the themes when they’ve reached the end. “Hopefully people will stop for a moment and think about where we are going as a society,” Rafał tells me. “To be quite frank, we never ask questions, never say right or wrong as a company. We never provide questions and give answers to them in the game. We provide a problem and we want the player to figure out whether they feel that something that’s happening in the game is bad or actually good. Observer will be filled with a lot of those discussions between what’s happening in the game and what the player thinks of those events.”

Layers of Fear inspired a hefty amount of fan reaction, and it seems that Bloober want a similar kind of reaction to Observer.

“With Layers, we had hundreds of pages of discussions about the plot of the game and how it reflected people’s lives. We left a lot of things very open-ended so that people could actually add anything to it, whatever they feel. That was made by design, and we wanted players to have a unique experience. The same goes here – we provide a lot of those situations in the game that will hopefully make you guys think about what’s happening in the game and how far we are from being at the same place in our lives. Technology is moving forward very quickly through history. Twenty years ago the things we have today were science fiction, probably even ten years ago. So where all that leads us to is one of the questions we really want to tackle.”

These questions don’t have simple answers, as Rafał stresses. “If you think about it you might have a different answer to all of that than I do. That’s something we want the players to have at the end of the game. We also still obviously hope that they’ll be afraid when they play, that there will be some moments that will stick with them for a long time both visually and in terms of the audio. We just want to give you guys a very memorable experience when you play Observer. As a company, we definitely want to master the psychological horror game and we are very focused on this genre. We are learning with each project so we will definitely be having a postmortem after the game launches to see what works and what doesn’t and how we can change it. We are constantly learning to bring you guys the best horror out there.”

Observer certainly sounds like a game that aspires to be more than just simply a mechanically good horror game, while also ensuring that the story doesn’t overpower or belittle the gameplay elements, which are intended to work closely with the plot to make the most visceral, terrifying experience. Since Bloober Team have made it clear that their passion is psychological horror, it seems fairly clear that they’ll continue in the genre and expand on this formula, but Rafał is understandably coy on what the company’s future plans might be. “We don’t want to talk too much about that, but I can tell you that we are working on at least one other project. We are constantly at work so hopefully we will be able to talk about our other projects after we release Observer but for now we don’t want to spoil any surprises and we will be taking this info to the public later this year.”

For now though, Observer is the center of attention, and will hope to cement Bloober’s position as a company dedicated to intelligent, powerful, and ultimately scary horror games.

Observer will be released worldwide on August 15, 2017 and will be available on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Xbox One.