Lucah is an unforgiving action role-playing game that follows the journey of a child as they wrestle with their own identity in a hostile world. It’s set in a low-fi nightmare realm that’s etched with neon slashes and jagged creatures who attack with no provocation. It’s the latest game from indie developer Colin Horgan, and it’s slated for a PC release later this year.
The protagonist, Lucah, has been accused of being cursed and only capable of causing destruction. Though they occasionally meet other characters who mean them no harm, more often than not, they’re hunted by monsters called Nightmares.
Horgan launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for the game last year. They’ve also released a free demo and two side stories, Sacrament I. and Sacrament IV, that delve into the story. As the titles of the accompanying games might imply, Lucah’s world is scattered with references to religion and defined by a deep sense of isolation.
“To me, Lucah’s world represents a sort of weaponized Catholic guilt; this feeling that there’s something wrong with you for just being who you are, and unless you do X, Y, and Z, you deserve the torment that the world throws at you,” said Horgan in an email to GamesBeat.
Lucah’s gameplay is challenging, but Horgan includes a Sin and Punishment system that enables players to adjust the level of difficulty. And though healing isn’t an option, you can rewind time for another shot. The caveat is that you’ll also have sacrificed any progress you’ve made along the way. The difficulty is part of the story, though.
“Every in-game failure is really another opportunity to grow, because Lucah will always get back up,” said Horgan. “By the end of the game, I want the player to grow with Lucah and gain that confidence that comes with self-acceptance, because they were able to survive and triumph alongside Lucah and learn to love themselves for who they are, whatever that means to them.”
Horgan has developed several other titles, many small projects for game jams. They were also the lead developer on EctoPlaza, a local multiplayer beat-’em-up for the Wii U.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about yourself? How did you get into game development?
Colin Horgan: Games were an on-and-off interest of mine for pretty much my whole life, so when it came time to start thinking about what I wanted to do after high school, I thought game development might be a neat thing to try. I took a Java programming class my senior year and used that to start making super-tiny text adventure games. It felt pretty natural to me, so I just kept going with it.
I went on to study game design at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games division, where I made sure to keep making tiny solo projects alongside my classwork. During that time, I was mostly focused on games in the health or educational sphere, the “serious games” sort of thing, but as I got closer to graduating I realized I wanted to branch out and make more games like the ones I enjoyed playing, which were mostly indie action games (developers like Cactus and Vlambeer were my big inspirations at the time).
That eventually led me to where I am now — since graduating I’ve worked both full- and part-time in mobile and VR spaces to make ends meet, but I never lost sight of that innocent (and a bit naive) indie spirit. Now I’m getting to live that dream with Lucah, and while it’s some of the toughest work I’ve ever had to do, I’m happy that I’m fortunate enough to even have the chance to do it.
GamesBeat: What’s the inspiration for Lucah?
Horgan: Lucah started as a top-down roguelike-shooter prototype I was making in my spare time after work back in early 2016. It was supposed to be an evolution of a jam game I’d made the year before, using the same sort of visual style and genre, but made into a full game. As I continued working on it, I started to see it wasn’t really doing anything new or interesting to me; I was just making a fangame of games I’d already played, but with a different coat of paint.
I started to change direction and challenge myself to do things I’d always wanted to do but never really felt like I could for one reason or another. This included design challenges like making a melee combat system and hand-designed levels, to more creative challenges like writing a narrative game and handling all the art & animation.
Once all the pieces started coming together, certain themes and images started to emerge — the focus on religious imagery, anxiety, dreams, etc. — and I just let myself fall deeper into whatever hole this game was becoming. I thought it was appropriate for the style of game this was becoming to let it sort of “flow” from my head to the screen, like I was capturing the subconscious process that gives us dreams.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about the story and what kind of themes you wanted to explore?
Horgan: Lucah tells a story about a cursed child who can only seem to cause harm in the world no matter what they do. Vicious beings called Nightmares hunt them down wherever they go, and unless they can find some sort of salvation, their path will only bring about death and destruction.
To me, Lucah’s world represents a sort of weaponized Catholic guilt; this feeling that there’s something wrong with you for just being who you are, and unless you do X, Y, and Z, you deserve the torment that the world throws at you. The problem is, sometimes living up to the expectations others set for you isn’t possible, or isn’t true to who you really are, and escaping that feeling that you must follow these arbitrary rules and guidelines to become okay with yourself can be an almost impossible struggle.
That’s why I call the game a “nightmare action-RPG about finding oneself.” “Finding oneself” as a phrase is a bit of a cliché, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe that journey. I was raised Roman Catholic, and a lot of what I’m putting into Lucah’s world and story reflects my own version of that struggle: feeling like I didn’t fit into this structure I’d been raised in, that I was unwanted for not adhering to it, and dealing with the mental and emotional battles that kind of alienation can cause, ultimately finding a way out of those structures to come to peace with who I am.
Lucah (the player-character) might be “cursed,” but that’s a status imposed on them by others, and not indicative of the kind of person Lucah can actually be. Lucah’s world is hostile and treacherous, but you can survive it if you don’t let it crush your spirit. Every in-game failure is really another opportunity to grow, because Lucah will always get back up. By the end of the game, I want the player to grow with Lucah and gain that confidence that comes with self-acceptance, because they were able to survive and triumph alongside Lucah and learn to love themselves for who they are, whatever that means to them.
GamesBeat: Lucah has a unique aesthetic — can you talk more about how you arrived at that art style? Was it challenging to keep that kind of sketch-y look while conveying information to the players?
Horgan: Lucah’s style definitely started as me working within limitations. I don’t really consider myself an artist, since I first starting making games from a programming background. Any visuals that were in my solo projects were super simple, either basic shapes or text-only. Eventually I decided to try my hand at basic pixel art, so I started with outlines of characters that I’d put into my prototypes (with the intention of “finishing” the sprites later), but the look of these sketchy wireframe-like sprites on top of black backgrounds was super appealing to me. I tried out the high-contrast, outline-only sprite art in some tiny games, and people seemed to like it enough that I figured it was something worth exploring.
Lucah now uses a more refined version of what those early prototypes looked like, with some camera effects and tracks to make everything read a bit better, but that rough DIY feeling is still something I try to keep. There’s been some difficulty of conveying what the game is through its visuals on social media and the like, but generally people who play the game and see it in motion get a better grasp of what’s going on.
I think it helps that everything in the world is color-coded, with things that can hurt you mostly being red, and other characters you interact with standing out from the muted world. It’s been a lot of work getting the colors and animation to reach this point, but for the most part, when someone plays the game I’ll hear “I’m not exactly sure what everything is, but I know when it’s trying to hurt me,” and for the experience I’m going for, that sounds about right.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me a bit more about the Sin & Punishment system? Why did you decide to let players adjust the game for their skill levels?
Horgan: The Sin & Punishment system was implemented on a whim right before I launched the Kickstarter, because the game was becoming too easy for me while testing, but was still pretty difficult for anyone picking it up for the first time. I needed to achieve a better balance between hostility and gentleness if I wanted to accomplish my goal of bringing people on a journey of self-actualization, but there wasn’t really a good way to do that without providing some sort of option to adjust difficulty. While I was toying with the idea of difficulty modes, I saw an opportunity to make the choice a bit more interesting, so I came up with the dual Sin & Punishment system.
The first option, “Sin,” dictates how smart or aggressive the enemy Nightmares are. On the lowest difficulty, they’re slow, have less HP, and don’t react too intelligently to the player. As you increase the Sin difficulty, enemies start to act and react faster, putting up more of a fight. “Punishment,” the second option, dictates how much damage Lucah takes from enemy attacks. As you increase the Punishment difficulty, enemy attacks take off more and more HP, with the highest difficulty turning all hits into one-hit KOs.
Enemy AI is an integral part of most technical character action games like the ones Lucah is modeled after. It’s also one of the most interesting parts of designing the game for me, so I didn’t want people to miss out on that work if they were playing on a more traditional lowered-difficulty. I figured, if someone could instead just adjust how much the game punished their mistakes, but without toning down enemy behavior, they could still get a valuable action game experience that’s suited to their ability. With the dual-difficulty system, this is an option players can have.
Likewise, if someone (like myself) is used to these sorts of games, or simply wants more of a challenge, they can up the difficulties to make the game borderline unfair. My hope is that players will experiment to find the right settings for themselves that still provide the sort of experience I’m going for, and by allowing players to change these settings at any time, I’m trying to make it as easy to do as possible!
GamesBeat: It seems like an integral part of the experience is to feel like the character is always in danger — but there’s also a “rewind” option. Why did you decide to include that?
Horgan: The Rewind mechanic has been an interesting problem throughout development, as it’s something I wanted to include as an important part of the game’s core loop from almost the beginning, but it works against the expectations people typically have of games in this genre. Whereas most games give players some sort of resource to heal their character, I opted to replace that function with a more intense “do-over,” which can act similarly to a heal, but produces a very different psychological effect.
Lucah’s Rewind was inspired by my experience playing Bayonetta, which I was really into right around the time I was making the Lucah prototype. Bayonetta is a game that, at its highest levels of play, demands a kind of “perfection” from its players. Specifically, the game awards its highest grades for a fight where you never get hit by an enemy attack, never break your combo, and finish within a strict time frame. The effort it takes to accomplish all these goals is intense, but when you watch someone do it, the action on screen looks like a beautiful cacophony of bullets and acrobatics. It looks Cool, in the way that Bayonetta is Cool — calm, confident, and untouchable. That was what I wanted high-level Lucah play to feel like.
To get to that point, you need to fail a lot. When I played for perfect rank, most of my time was spent resetting the game after getting hit a few seconds into a fight. It was kind of silly when I thought about it, and I wished there was some way to just instantly rewind the fight whenever I made a mistake. As soon as I had that thought, everything seemed to click, and I ran to put the Rewinds in Lucah.
While it may seem like an instant do-over could diffuse the tension in a fight, in practice I think it does the opposite. If you had a simple healing item instead, you could make a few mistakes, get hit a few times, heal in the middle of the fight, then pick up where you left off. Rewinding the fight, on the other hand, can erase any mistakes you made, but it also erases all the progress you made — the fight just starts over right where it began. This means you need to ask yourself some questions before you commit to the Rewind: “Do I Rewind now and erase everything I’ve accomplished so far? Have I done enough damage to the enemy that I’m confident I can finish it off before I get hit again? If I win the fight with only a sliver of HP left, will I be able to survive the next fight? Can I survive to the next checkpoint?” And so on.
Making the main “healing” mechanic of Lucah a do-over means that mistakes are precious, and the only way you can really advance is to learn how to play better. Thankfully, resetting the fights gives you more time to learn enemy patterns and practice your play to more confidently take down the Nightmares. There are ways to recover lost HP in Lucah that aren’t as drastic as the Rewind, but they’ll never be as numerous or integral as the Rewind. By introducing the concept early in the game, my hope is it’ll gently guide players down a path that has them not just surviving the game’s world, but thriving in it.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me a bit about running a Kickstarter campaign? What were the main challenges there?
Horgan: Running a Kickstarter was a really interesting experience! I think the biggest challenge running one, and the challenge most people probably don’t see, is everything leading up to the Kickstarter. My collaborators and I were lucky enough that our Kickstarter was successful, but a big part of that success came from the audience Lucah had gathered before then, as well as the state of the game at the time. I had shown Lucah at a few small festivals at that point, and my personal Twitter and Tumblr had accrued a small but dedicated following of around 600 people, after about a year of sharing Lucah GIFs and updates.
There was also a public demo that had been published and iterated on for a few months, and though most of our views and plays for the demo during the campaign did not come from the Kickstarter page, much of the coverage we landed during the campaign emphasized that we had a substantial playable demo. By the time we launched the Kickstarter, it was apparent Lucah was a “real” game, and I think that gave people the confidence to contribute to our campaign, and more importantly, to champion it to their friends and followers, who would then also contribute.
Of course, I should give credit to the specific contributions from my friends and collaborators that helped me expand Lucah’s appeal way beyond the little niche it occupied before the Kickstarter launched. I brought on producer Kevin Wong to help me with PR and public outreach, and Brianna Lei worked with me to create the amazing header art for the campaign. Lucah composer and longtime collaborator Nicolo Telesca spent hours with me refining the Kickstarter trailer so that it put forth the best first impression of the game we could give.
All these elements lined up to polish and refine our Kickstarter’s presentation, giving us that extra bit of legitimacy that a lot of game Kickstarters seem to struggle with. It helped us generate the interest we needed, both in the press and on social media, to reach our funding goal. Our goal wasn’t a super large amount of money, especially compared to some other game Kickstarters, but it was still more than a project as relatively unknown and weird as Lucah probably should have expected to raise. For that, I am extremely grateful.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.