While wandering through a nightmarish black-and-white world, I follow a path through the woods to an abandoned settlement huddled inside of a tall, wooden wall. I pass through the gate and, like a true child of the video-game generation, immediately start looking for boxes to loot. I find some, of course, but I also find a large metal bell.
I think for a moment and remember that I saw something near the gate that looked like it might have held something like this, so I go back. A prompt comes up telling me to hang the bell, so I do. Another prompt comes up telling me to ring the bell. I do that, too … and the already dark world instantly shifts to an even darker, more shadowy version of itself.
It’s really, really dark. And I can’t move because I’m bumping into some object I can’t see.
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“You heard my disclaimer about this, right?” a voice says behind me. “It’s not supposed to be pitch-black like that.”
The voice belongs to Craig Hubbard, the lead designer for indie studio Blackpowder Games. I’d just been playing an early build of the company’s PC debut, Betrayer, at the Penny Arcade Expo earlier this month, and apparently the monitor they were using didn’t like its dark world. The impenetrable, inky blackness still looked pretty cool, but it was wrong. Betrayer is still in alpha testing, and this is the first time the makers have seen a display have this kind of issue with it. They’re kind of glad it happened, really, because now they can fix it.
Blackpowder has only existed for about four months, but its team has years of experience in the games industry. Among its ranks are developers who worked on titles like the original F.E.A.R., the spy-movie parodying No One Lives Forever series, and last year’s minion-centric multiplayer shooter Gotham City Impostors.
It’s an impressive body of work they created at Monolith, a successful, established company, but a year ago, the founders split off to make their own game.
“Some say we’re crazy,” Blackpowder chief Larry Paolicelli said in an interview before the demo. “And they would be correct, but it’s what we wanted to do.
“We started with, ‘What can we do? What can we make? What do we want to do?’ And all the other questions of forming a company, worrying about health insurance — all of that sort of shoved off to the back side a little bit, and we focused on the product. It’s really refreshing to do that because the first thing we started doing was we grabbed the engine and started playing around with it, and it didn’t take long to come up with the concept and start to rally around that, and six months go by, and suddenly, ‘Oh, shit, health insurance.'”
Blackpowder officially formed last May, and after a few more months of development, it released a build of Betrayer on digital-distribution platform Steam’s Early Access in August. Early Access enables companies to release and sell early versions of games to players, who can then offer feedback to the developers while they’re still making them. In its current state, Betrayer contains about two hours of gameplay, but Paolicelli says that the finished product will be “a lot longer.”
“We actually have a pretty aggressive schedule,” said David Longo, Blackpowder’s art director, with whom I also spoke before the demo. “We’re really trying to refine and focus on the first couple areas so we know that this stuff is working as well as possible so when we do try to finish and polish the rest of the game, it helps to direct us to make the right choices for the rest of it: pacing or the way things are unfolding.”
As for Betrayer, it’s the kind of project that one could imagine being a tough sell to a big publisher like Electronic Arts or Activision. It starts players out on a beach with no indication of who they are or why they’re there. It takes place in the American colonies in 1604, an untested, un-focus-grouped period in history.
It has no minimap, no giant glowing arrows pointing to the next point of interest, and a lot of the gameplay involves wandering around and interviewing spirits for clues about what happened. Hubbard describes it as “kind of a ghost procedural,” and the team draws influences from such disparate sources as the lost colony of Roanoke, The Last of the Mohicans, and developer From Software’s notoriously unsympathetic Dark Souls.
It’s a fruit salad of a game, and it’s easy to see how it’s more likely to come from a self-funded developer than the traditional publisher system.
“How we work is we try things out, we experiment a lot,” Paolicelli said. “A lot of stuff gets thrown away. [With a publisher], you have a guy going, ‘Six months ago, you said you’d be working on the ax. Now you’re not. Why is that? We need to have a meeting about it.’ It’s software, right? It should be perfectly managed with a spreadsheet. No, it’s an entertainment product.”
“Fun is not something you can always predict,” Longo added. “You gotta find it.”
“That’s why the indie thing is so compelling,” Paolicelli said.