December 16, 2013 11:11 AM | Lena LeRay
Owlchemy Labs' psychological survival adventure game Dyscourse was successfully funded on Kickstarter a few days ago. It has no zombies, instead focusing around characters stranded by plane crash on a deserted island. Imagine a brightly-colored version of Don't Starve with multiple characters and a narrative with enough branches to rival the size of the Mana Tree and you'll have some idea of what Owlchemy Labs is working towards with Dyscourse. Grab a cup of something delicious, watch the gameplay demo above, and read on for some words with Alex Schwartz about where Dyscourse will go from here.
First, I'd like to say congratulations on successfully making your funding goal. Have you folks been any less busy and/or stressed since the Kickstarter campaign ended?
Thanks so much! I would say that it's a HUGE relief to have hit our goal and while we've taken the weekend to relax, it's back to development for us!
That is a really neat art style you've got there for Dyscourse. What inspired it?
The art style for the Dyscourse is based off of our very own Carrie Witt's personal 2D art style, with some tweaks and changes to make it work for the purposes of the game. The environment art is made to look 3D in place of actual 3D assets, while the characters are more simplified and flat in order to animate in a hinge-like fashion. Carrie had this to say about her inspirations:
"I really enjoy an emphasis on color and shape in illustration, so I suppose all my personal illustration inspirations carry over into this game (Mary Blair, Bruce Tim, Mike Mignola, Leyendecker, Matt Lyon, etc).
I'm super drawn (ba-dum tshh) to 2D game art styles. There's something charming about them that I think is lacking in most 3D games, perhaps because more often than not 3D games focus on gritty realism. I love art styles that ooze personality and a clear direction in vision, and I hope to deliver that with Dyscourse."
Your Kickstarter pitch mentioned that you're trying to make the sound dynamic, with the "musical score... arranged on the fly." How much of that is generated as the game goes and how much is scripted? Is a given background theme chosen for a certain scenario with parts that can be added and taken away to change the tone?
A number of musical tracks are composed ahead of time by our composer and are categorized by emotion. So our composer creates some sad tracks, some happy tracks, some tracks that represent loneliness, tense tracks, exploratory tracks, joyous tracks, tracks for community/group moments, etc. Each piece is meant to be partially ambient and easily blended with other tracks. Depending on how the game is currently playing out, what choices the player has made, and what the current 'feel' of the moment is, we can choose to blend in the correct track that fits. This means that we're closer to matching the audio with the mood, and it's amazing how much music affects your mind-state and your perceived emotional state of the game.
One of the big selling points of Dyscourse is the promise of a narrative that really branches, rather than branching for a time before looping back to a convergence point. Are there a zillion hard-written narrative branches, or will choices influence things like relationship values such that in the long run, you can unlock certain possible scenarios?
There's a lot of content hand-written, yes. But we're also using variables in interesting ways. You mentioned relationship values and unlocking possible scenarios. That's the kind of thing we've added in to help manage the many, many branches. For example, we might watch for a variable that tells us whether we've gotten to a specific point in a side-conversation about someone's past. Then, later on, we would have a branch that is locked out unless [the player] had come upon that prior bit of information in the previous conversation, thus unlocking or opening up a new branch that wouldn't have been seen by another player.
Have you folks done any research into the psychology of survival situations for the game?
Any research in that regard was done by consuming metric butt-loads of survival movies, books, and games. Additionally, I'm a psychology buff myself, so that helps. When it comes to the psychology of the various survivors, though, consistent writing is certainly important. We have fleshed out our characters to the point that they have very unique personalities and we as developers can ask ourselves, "How would this character react in this situation?" Then we can simply write with that in mind, so that a survivor's dialog and actions fit with our own character definitions.
The gameplay demo video you guys put out in November (above) shows a pretty tense confrontation between a couple of the characters. How dark can things get?
As with most survival situations, things can certainly get dark. We try to mitigate that by having silly / over-the-top characters, but we certainly touch on dark topics. We haven't written all of the dialog yet, but this game is probably not suited for small children.
Conversely, how light can things get? Is there much in the way of humor in this dire situation?
There's definitely humor, and that's one of the key points of the "Owlchemy style". Humor doesn't necessarily have to be distasteful, and humor in tense moments is very commonly used as a coping device. Using that to our advantage, we're able to have serious themes, with both light and dark moods from time to time.
Speaking of humor, how hard was it to arrange for the Indie Plane Crash scenario?
We approached our friends Ichiro, Rami, and Phil, asking if they would be interested in a silly situation where they were stuck on an island in Dyscourse. They were mega-excited and the idea ballooned from there, way beyond our wildest expectations [until] we ultimately decided to say "F-it, lets just message Tim Schafer and see what he says," having never met him for more than a minute at a game developer conference. He not only said yes, but offered that he would love to be on the island, and although he had Boy Scout training, he would likely be the first one to gnaw on his own leg in a survival situation. Our artist cranked out the caricatures of three of the devs in record time and we ran with it!
How much input will the featured developers have on the writing for their in-game representations?
We offered each Indie Plane Crash member the ability to have approval for their dialog. The whole point is to poke fun and create insane/silly moments among the group, so as long as we're not insulting, I don't think we'll have any issue with lack of approval. The only thing we've seen so far is that Edmund McMillen wanted a different colored shirt!
I'd also like to add a non-question comment: When I was looking through the FAQ on your Kickstarter while putting these questions together, the, "Also, Space Marines," addendum to "Why $40,000?" got a real, honest-to-goodness snort out of me. It was subtle enough that I almost missed it, and it caught me by surprise when my brain caught up.
Little things like that are our bread and butter. How will people believe in our ability to write an engaging, humorous, and thoughtful game if we can't deliver the snark in truckloads?