Developer Mike Blackney describes Dead Static Drive as “Grand Theft Cthulhu.” It’s his debut game, which he’s developing under the moniker Team Fanclub. Though he’s not announcing a release date at the moment, he’s planning on launching it on PC and hopefully one console. The game is also demoing at the Game Developers Conference as part of Double Fine’s Day of the Devs showcase.
Dead Static Drive is an adventure game that puts you on a road trip through an increasingly desolate U.S. In the month leading up to the apocalypse, you’re more likely to meet eldritch creatures than people. You must survive, scavenge, and maybe even stop the end of the world from happening.
“I want one-part stupid-rubbish bad driving, doing flips in your car, and I also want the other part to be nameless cosmic horror,” said Blackney in a phone call with GamesBeat. “Hopefully, they work out well together.”
Blackney started developing the game toward the end of 2014. About 6 months into the project, he received an Unreal development grant; later on, he got some funding from the Australian government. It’s enabled him to quit his job as a teacher and also bring a musician and artist onto his team. However, it’s still very nearly a solo project as he does most of the art himself as well as the design and programming.
His background as a technical artist enabled him to create his own shaders, which render the colors and give the game its unique aesthetic. He drew inspiration from Americana photographer William Eggleston and the flat colors and simple shapes of Mondo-style movie posters. And the text bubbles in the game are influenced by graphic novels and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira manga series.
Dead Static Drive is stylish but also evocative, its landscape stark with horrors and the kind of isolation and loneliness that comes from being the sole witness of something incomprehensible.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Who are you?
Mike Blackney: I’m Mike. [Laughs] I’m pretty old. Before I started working in the games industry, I was a software developer. I was coding barcode scanners. It was this awesome job where I’d code these tiny little pieces of hardware and have to make them do all this complex stuff. Just a barcode scanner for somebody that works at a supermarket. It’d have to scan 20 different barcodes and be able to transfer orders across different computer systems. Really interesting for me. But it just wasn’t satisfying.
So I went back to university. I was 24. I got a games degree. I did modding for a bit, which I really loved. That was in Unreal, back before Unreal was the big thing it was now. That got me a job in the games industry pretty early, because they needed Unreal coders. I worked at Transmission Games here in Melbourne.
When I was at uni I met Alex Bruce, the guy who made Antichamber. I worked on Antichamber, but I only did a little bit. It was maybe four years of hard work for him and eight weeks of work for me. That was a real thrill, to work on that, because Alex was so big on going to conventions, playing the game with people who were just the general public, and seeing what they thought of the game. That really shaped my attitude when I was making my own game. I said, I’m going to share everything I have up front, get feedback, it’ll help me improve it. If people respond to something, I’ll put more of that out there.
So far it’s worked out really well, because there are some parts of the game that were important to me early on, but nobody really cared about them that much. It’s helped me shape it in a direction that makes it more appealing.
GamesBeat: This is your first solo effort developing a game?
Blackney: Yeah, it is. I started working on it when I was teaching. I taught for five years at a university here in Melbourne as a C++ developer, and teaching some game design as well. While I was doing that, I constantly had all these ideas for game. I’d teach students a small feature, like how to do network programming, so I’d make a small chat client, or I’d make—I made an ASCII renderer, purely characters on the screen, but it would render a 3D model using those text characters. That was super exciting.
And when I was working on AI, I thought, I’ll show them the kinds of things you can do with AI in an open-world game. As soon as I did that, I thought, this is more fun to play with than I expected. That’s the genesis of Dead Static Drive, this AI system.
GamesBeat: What’s the inspiration and story behind Dead Static Drive?
Blackney: It’s funny. I have a story in there. There is a story. But I’m less about stories than I am about vibes. For me, when I’m playing a game, the feeling that the game makes is a lot more important to me. Does it feel creepy? Like Silent Hill is a great example of a game that’s a horror game, but it’s not a horror game in the sense of using a lot of gore. It’s really oppressive. The audio design is fantastic. The locales are like a real place, but surrounded by this horrible mist. I wanted to get a feel, a really oppressive-feeling game, that felt like it was set in the real world, but was also kind of ethereal and pretty as well. I like the idea that a horror game can be an appealing game.
So for me, it’s more about that feel than anything else. And everything else has come afterward. The storyline is there. I have a storyline and I’m happy with the direction that’s taking, but that’s actually written by my wife. She’s done a lot of work with me on that. It’s written with her help. She’s a literature major and a writer on her own. I shouldn’t say she’s just a literature major, because she’s a writer of her own.
I wanted to make this game by myself, because I like that challenge, but there are so many facets of game design that I’m just not good enough at. I’m trying to make sure there’s always someone who can help me fill those skill gaps in. Which is really tough when you’re making an indie game and you don’t know that many people. And you’re in Australia. We don’t have the same kinds of access to professionals who have triple-A experience. I’m making do.
GamesBeat: Do you mainly reach out to folks online? Where do you go to find resources?
Blackney: It’s all local. A big part of that is because if I have any money, I want to invest back in Australia. I also want more opportunities to come in Australia. I could go the path of least resistance, which for me would be to just to find a cheap contractor online, whoever’s good, inexpensive, but has a lot of experience. But as soon as I do that, well, I’m not encouraging any new voices to come into the games industry, or any new skills.
Also, the reason I can’t find people very easily in Melbourne is because we’re a small place that doesn’t have—we have a good supportive local scene, but we don’t have big studios here or anything. And part of the reason we don’t is because we don’t, right? If I employ them that only increases the skills and the number of talented people here. Hopefully some of them will start their own studios or something. Not me, but maybe someone else. I want to keep it local. A big part of the funding I’ve gotten as well—it’s from the Victorian government, the local state government. They like the idea of me investing locally, which is good, because that’s what I’d like to do anyway.
GamesBeat: What’s the story and world like?
Blackney: [Laughs] Ah—I don’t want to say too much. Because—OK. The game basically is a road trip. It’s a personal road trip that’s about your character and their life and their family. But it turns into an adventure game.
You’re on a road trip and you’re traveling through a world that begins to become more oppressive and filled with weird experiences. There’s some monsters that appear. There’s places that suddenly become hazardous to go to. This happens over the course of a month. The world basically is coming to an end. You’ll start finding out what’s happening throughout the world and how the world’s ending.
The game ends at the end of that month, because the world ends. So either you stop it, you help avert it, or it ends. And then that’s the end of the game and you can restart the game and replay it, but once you’ve played through it one time, you’ll know how to play things differently. There are lots of branching stories throughout the game, so you can change the direction of the game, where it heads.
GamesBeat: Is there a survival element as you’re doing the road trip?
Blackney: Yeah, there’s survival. There’s defeating monsters. There’s investigation as well, when you defeat monsters. You can search through the towns that make up the world. There are items you can find, and then you need to investigate them and find out ways to improve the gear you carry around. That’s part of the game, to find better things and work out—it’s a little bit X-Files, I want to make it? You’ll find things and research those clues, and then that will expand more of the story.
GamesBeat: Are there any sorts of themes that you’re trying to explore with the game?
Blackney: Yeah, I want to explore family and loss and loneliness a lot. For me, I used to work night shift jobs when I was younger, back when I was at uni the first time and I was trying to just pay bills. I worked in a supermarket. I’d stand in the store at the back loading dock and I’d stare out at the night. It’d be two in the morning, and the streets would be empty. The lights from the loading dock would be on, and you’d just see this back street, some houses there, no cars. It’s beautiful and peaceful and just so lonely.
That part of my life, I didn’t have a lot of people outside of work who I could really see, because I worked at nighttime and slept all through the day. I’d have friends at work, but I’d be fairly lonely, because you don’t always connect with those people in the same way. I want someone who kind of reflects that part of life.
As we often grow older, it can be hard finding people to connect with. You can often find that the further you are from high school, the more of a loner you might feel like you are. Just that kind of experience. How much you connect with people. How well you keep in touch with your family. Things like that. [Laughs] All of this sounds ludicrous, because that’s not what I sell the game as. I don’t sell the game as a loneliness simulator. But I want that to be a big part of it. But also I’m using the context of monsters attacking the world to tell that story.
GamesBeat: How does the cosmic horror fit into it? It sounds like you’re dealing with a very personal emotion that you’re trying to elicit, but there’s also this huge eldritch thing going on.
Blackney: I like eldritch horror. I like Lovecraft-style stuff, even though we’ve gotta move on with Lovecraft, the racism and everything. Those are all problems. But I still think we can appreciate the ideas, the terrifying idea that the universe doesn’t care about you. We’ll all die cold and alone. There’s bigger things out there. I like that can be summed up with, there are creatures that might exist that you can’t comprehend. They don’t care about you. You’re meaningless to them.
I could easily take that kind of setting and make it into a heroic power fantasy, but a lot of those exist already. It’s not that interesting to me. A lot of stories follow the same formula where you start off at level one, and by the end, you’re level 50 and you’re the only one who can save the world. That kind of thing. I’d rather take that setting of terrifying monsters and cosmic horror, but then talk more about the individual who’s in that experience at the time. I just think it’s more interesting.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’re going for a vibe about vulnerability and loneliness. What are the challenges to creating that vibe? How did you go about doing that? Is it hard to find universal symbols or situations that make the player feel the same way that you want them to feel?
Blackney: That’s interesting. I haven’t found any major issues yet, but I haven’t really tested that much, to see how well that feeling of isolation and loneliness is coming across. At the moment what I’ve been focusing on is the art design, making the environments and locations really sell that it’s a real place, it feels really grounded, and it feels authentic. That goes a long way to making people a long way to making people feel that isolation.
If you have this authentic-feeling place with just your character and there’s no one else there, or very few people there, then it just naturally feels isolated. I think that sound design is going to do a great job there as well. The hum of some machinery off in the distance. The sound of wind. You’re out in the open. You can hear traffic, but it’s really far away. It’s not really—those kinds of distant sensations, I think sound can do a great job of giving you that feeling. So hopefully I do a good job with the sound. That’s just been me.
I’m looking for a sound designer this year, but—I want to find someone. Again, I want to find someone local, and ideally I want to hire someone who’s not a white straight dude, because that’s three of the people on the team already. I want another voice on the project.
GamesBeat: Were you always interested in exploring the idea of a road trip? What appealed to you about that idea?
Blackney: I’m from country Australia, country Victoria here. It’s a lot like the western U.S., because there are small towns all over the place, but there’s often 20 minutes between them. And so we spent a lot of time driving between small towns when I was young, just to visit friends. We’d know someone who was two towns across and it would take half an hour to get there on the weekend.
For me, the road trip, the idea of a road trip, is kind of magical and fun. You can sit with your friends and talk. You can just look at the scenery and it’s kind of serene. But it’s also boring, just being on a trip, and so you usually do stuff inside the car to make the time pass. It’s just a big part of my childhood.
But also, my dad was a big fan of Jack Kerouac. And Richard Brautigan, who’s not that popular. But my dad and I bonded seriously because my dad loved the beat poets and Jack Kerouac and San Francisco—he loved all of this kind of open road, working outside, not stuck in an office, he loved that idea. He was never stuck in an office. He would hate to have an office job. He was a photographer and he’d drive everywhere all the time. Just lived for himself. He loved that part.
I loved horror and noir fiction. And so Richard Brautigan was this author who did both. We really connected. And then my dad got sick and he passed away back in 2009. But we’d been meaning for a long time to go to the U.S. and go on a road trip and get a classic car and listen to ZZ Top and—we never did it. 2009, a little bit after that, I started thinking of the kinds of things that I appreciate about him. In 2014, I started making this game, and I think that was probably—a lot of those ideas were all getting fed into it.
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.