Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a weekly series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters.
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When I heard how Cavalier Games made The Sexy Brutale, its Groundhog Day-inspired puzzle game, which sees you exploring a mansion that’s trapped in a tight time loop where all of its guests are being killed off in brutal fashion, I knew it had to be part of our Britsoft Focus. The team made the entire thing without knowing what it would look like, constructing it out of grey boxes and primary coloured objects. They then handed it off to Tequila Works, the studio behind Deadlight and the upcoming Rime, to invent a visual style and dress the entire game.
The division of labour is so clear cut yet works so well, in spite of the fact that Cavalier Games is based here in England and Tequila Works is over in Spain.
Work on The Sexy Brutale started back in 2013 when Charles and Tom quit their jobs at Lionhead to partner up with James, who had been working at Mediatonic, and formed the Guildford-based studio. “We decided to leave and club together and make something,” Charles told me. “It was an idea we had had for a long time, this idea of doing a Groundhog Day-style game.
“We liked the idea of characters on a schedule, simulating their little lives,” Charles continued. “It was inspired by a few Japanese games like Majora's Mask. That had the cool thing of people living out their days but it was underpinned by being a Zelda game. There were other games like Gregory Horror Show and Moon Remix RPG Adventure.”
Released back in 2003, Gregory Horror Show was an eerie Stealth game on the PlayStation 2. it saw you sneaking through a hotel and stealing bottled souls from guests. As you collected more souls the now soulless guests continued to patrol the corridors of the hotel trying to grab you and stop you from depriving newly arrived guests of their souls. Moon Remix RPG Adventure, a game for the original PlayStation from back in 1997, never saw release outside of Japan but it’s gained a reputation for its unique structure. The game plays on a week long loop that runs in real time, with every character following a schedule and you need to learn it find items and NPCs who only appear at certain times in the week.
“We really liked all these niche Japanese games about people having scheduled lives and went to a few Punch Drunk Productions in London, the immersive Theatre stuff.”
Punch Drunk plays are nothing like traditional theatre. You turn up to a venue, often a warehouse split over multiple floors, and are left to explore on your own. The warehouse is filled with actors who are all playing parts in a multi-stranded story woven throughout the building. There’s no right way to follow the story, you simply choose to follow an actor and see where they go and what they get up to. You could follow one actor for the full two hours or break off from one and follow another or you could simply stay in one spot and see who turns up.
Cavalier wanted to create something similar, a space filled with activity that played out to schedule but it wanted to “make it actually interactive," Charles said. "We didn't want it to just be like 'Here's a story, observe the narrative, isn't that fun.' We wanted to go further and make it a real game. We weren't ashamed of it being a video game and being playful and having puzzles and that kind of stuff.”
The three developers shared a programming background and wanted to escape what Charles describes as “the big Microsoft structure” by getting straight into “what we felt was the important work.”
“Rather than get distracted with the usual things... In a bigger place it's all about the concept art and that kind of stuff which is all great and gravy but it's not the core game loop.” Now in charge of their own studio they “were able to just spend the time doing exactly what we wanted, which was experimenting with everything in grey box and blocking it out and iterating.”
The first challenge was immediate, Charles told me. “A lot of people like the idea of Groundhog Day but there are a lot of problems, like, do you spend a lot of time waiting?” In Moon Remix RPG Adventure, if you miss the appointed time slot then you have to wait for it to come round again. In a week.
“That's why we have a whole day taking place over the course of nine minutes,” Charles explained. To make it easier “you can skip between three sections, so the day is only three three minute long sections.”
An example of how this plays out, Charles explained “is one character who is getting shot by one of the staff members at 3.45 in the afternoon. During the course of the day the victim who gets shot is rummaging around looking for part of something of his story. As part of doing that he dislodges lots of things and opens up a safe. The answer to saving his life is in the safe that he opens” – a blank cartridge. “You need to wait until the character who is going to become the victim unlocks the safe in order to get the thing you need to use. The loop is short.”
The clever thing is that you only need to complete the puzzle once.
“It's like peeling the layers of an onion,” Charles said. “It isn't like you have to repeat all these puzzles in one day – the design of it is more like a Metroidvania... a temporal Metroidvania.” Once you save a character’s life they give you something, a new ability, an item, or a piece of knowledge that lets you open up another part of a mansion. A key through a gate, the code to a secret passage, or a way to distract a character blocking your path. When the loop starts anew you still have that gift you were given.
“It's by that way,” Charles continued, “that although all the content is exactly the same through the game, the path that you take through it turns it into a multiple hour experience as you're drilling your way through to find the answer to the ultimate mystery - why is the loop happening and how can you stop it.”
With such a tight loop involving many characters and puzzles that are only solvable at certain times, with certain abilities, and in certain places you can imagine this fast becomes a tough thing to keep track of.
“There’s a wall that we have in the office in Guildford which is basically the house spread out as a blueprint and the characters plotted their path around it,” Charles said. “You need to be able to zoom out and take a picture of every character's' movement. It was very complicated because all the puzzles are sat on top of one another. In other point'n'click type games it's a lot easier to block out because the whole game world at any one particular point is in a static formation and it will stay in that form until you've done the next thing necessary to change the whole game state. It's the classic thing of 'I can't do that until I've spoken to this guy'. The point is, that's how the game is gated. Of course, we can't do that in the same way because everything is [happening in motion].
Cavalier spent almost two years working on the grey box prototype of The Sexy Brutale.
“We wanted to make something different and a bit unique,” Charles said. “There are no shortcuts to that. You have to plot it out, try it out, getting these puzzles and putting them together and being very careful with how we adapt and change one because if you change the very first puzzle in the game it may affect the finale of the game. The nice thing about not being part of a corporate structure is that we could actually take the time to figure this stuff out.”
Normally when a game is coming together, with the designers and the programmers building the mechanical structure of the game and the spaces players will explore, the artists are developing how it will look. They’ll draw up concepts, create assets to take the place of grey box props, and work in indicators to the environments that draw the player towards the solution to puzzles. That wasn’t the case with The Sexy Brutale.
“We sort of had the whole game blocked out,” Charles explains. “We had the mechanics we wanted and the systems but it was all still very scrappy and grey box-y in appearance. We only had one little section that even had any artist at all work on it.”
Cavalier sent this prototype to a few friends to get feedback while it decided how to proceed.
One of the people the studio sent it to was Raúl Rubio, the CEO and creative director of Tequila Works, who Charles had met in the past. Raúl liked it a lot. So much so that he suggested a partnership.
When the papers were signed in September 2015, Cavalier delivered a fully playable version of the game. Every puzzle in place and NPC scripted. It was a complete game it just didn’t look like one.
Tequila Works spent the first three months discovering the game’s art style, producer Miguel Paniagua tells me. They contacted Spanish artist Enrique Fernandez, sending him “a very big background Cavalier had written – the story of the Marquis and the mansion and things like that. He came up with, like, 150 concept arts.” Designs for the characters, the rooms, the masks that everyone in the game wears. Miguel sent these over to Charles’ brother, James, who was narrative director on the project. “He was like 'Oh my God, this is exactly how I imagined it.' We were very proud of the choice of this artist and he's a very good collaborator.”
However, it’s not been as simple for the two teams as one side handling the design and the other dressing it up to look nice. Video games are many-disciplined and you can’t simply divorce the labour entirely.
“The game was already prototyped and very advanced, somehow we had to just build up and dress up all of the levels,” Miguel explained, “but it turned out that sometimes we had to change the size of some of the rooms or some areas and it was a mess there because all the characters are synchronised and scripted and changing the size of one room creates a lot of difficulties.”
If a room is larger then it means a character has more distance to cover; they may not be where there they need to be when they need to be there for the schedule.
“The further you get into development the more the fine details are set in position and the more delicate it becomes,” Charles added. “You felt that house of cards aspect. You change one thing - walk speeds for characters, the exact dimensions of rooms, it all matters.”
“It's not as simple as we had a finished game and slapped some different art on and it's done,” Charles explained. Art supports design by sometimes leading a player to a solution or, in other cases, making a solution less obvious. “When we had the grey box everything is grey except for the one panel that you can touch which we obviously made bright yellow,” Charles recalled. “We had a few people play that and test it and, what do you know, everyone knew the panel was special. Of course they did because it's all about the contrast at that stage and the contrast is easy to make in a world where everything is grey box but then, as the whole world starts to become more detailed, and Tequila Works is making everything look lovely and great and final, then it becomes a different story. Now your panel is one nice thing amongst a whole world of nice things. Then you have to do that work again to be like how do we make that stand out amongst this art. That's something we've had to work on and iterate in order to say 'What works in a grey box doesn't necessarily transfer to a final game'.”
“Our art director,” Miguel added, “is very talented at making the art serve the design. Art is not like ‘Give me an asset and then it's done. You make an asset and then you have to iterate it. You may have to change the colour, the texture, the material, the size.’ We have made lots of concepts on how things fit the mechanic we have.”
Work on The Sexy Brutale is nearly complete, with a release set for April 21st. I'm intrigued to play it for myself, mostly as a result of the way Charles describes a sensation it evokes.
“I really like those games like Arkham Asylum where it made it feel like it was one night,” Charles explained. “It brought real sense of intimacy to the space. There was a feeling like this place existed over a space of time. That's why I think having a day and night change is really important aspect of the art style. It felt like we had to have that because it's part of what makes it feel like a day you're going to get to know better and better. The first puzzle you're exposed to, this guy who gets shot, he gets shot at 3.45 in the afternoon every cycle.” You learn that sound and what sound means. In most games, when you progressed you would leave that behind, “but in this, right from the beginning of the game up to the end, you're hearing that gunshot at 3.45. You're getting reminded of where you were so many hours of gameplay ago and the fact that puzzle, that short story, that moment is still occurring live as you move through it even if you're in a completely different part of the mansion at the time.”
In drilling-down on The Sexy Brutale’s central conceit of a repeated day and spending two years designing a mansion interlocking with activity for a player to dissemble, understand, and solve – before spending a further two developing a visual language that communicates the functions of the machine to the player – Cavalier Games and Tequila Works has made something that couldn’t exist in another medium. The sensation of intimacy that comes through repetition is something that the protagonist in Groundhog Day feels. But in The Sexy Brutale the memories are ours, we live this cycle, and the difference is everything.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted Bilbao's Fun & Serious event. Flights and accommodation were paid for by the event's organisers.