Near Death will be 'harsher than traditional survival sims'
When I shared the announcement trailer for Orthogonal Games's Near Death last week, I was struck by the game's amazing atmosphere and visual callbacks to other media (most notably John Carpenter's The Thing). I had to know how much I was reading into this trailer versus how much was intended on the part of Near Death's small development team -- so, I reached out to lead designer Kent Hudson, Orthogonal's founder and self-professed admirer of deadly continents, to hear more.
Hudson is a former AAA developer with a considerable pedigree, serving as a core developer for Deus Ex: Invisible War and as a senior designer on Bioshock 2. He founded Orthogonal Games in 2013 to produce his one-man game, The Novelist, an intimate tale concerning a writer and his family in their summer vacation home. Tonally and aesthetically, Near Death is a world away from The Novelist, instead focusing on a lone, stranded survivor trying to survive in the Earth's most unforgiving environment.
ZAM: Near Death seems to follow in a trend of harsh survival sims (The Long Dark, etc) which foreground their difficulty and the player's sense of embodiment or "immersion." Would that be accurate to say?
Kent Hudson: Near Death isn’t actually a survival sim, at least in terms of the common features and tropes of the survival genre; we don’t have hunger, thirst, fatigue, wildlife, enemies, an endless sandbox, or the other things associated with traditional survival games.
Instead, Near Death is a game with a narrative path and a beginning, middle, and end. It’s very focused on the intense moment-to-moment experience of fighting for your life in terribly harsh conditions, and you have a clear objective from the very start: escape the base and make your way back home.
All that said, in some ways our game is harsher than traditional survival sims. The temperature in the game can get to 100 below, at which point your character -- who crash landed near the base and isn't outfitted for such an adventure -- will die within a minute of stepping outside. So while the player isn’t managing long-term meters like hunger or fatigue, they’re constantly aware of the fact that they can freeze to death very quickly if they’re not careful.
"In some ways our game is harsher than traditional survival sims... While the player isn’t managing long-term meters like hunger or fatigue, they’re constantly aware of the fact that they can freeze to death very quickly if they’re not careful."
So the tension and challenge in Near Death comes from managing that ever-present danger; you can repair broken parts of the base and provide yourself with temporary safety, but you’re always pushed to brave the fierce blizzard before long, and that provides an in-the-moment challenge that we feel differentiates the game from traditional survival sims.
You've moved from working with big studios like 2K Marin to solo development on The Novelist, and now back to a team (albeit a smaller one) for Near Death. What has that been like?
The move from AAA to solo indie dev was as jarring as you’d expect, though at the same time it was really exciting. With a large team you have far more resources to work with, and the scope of what you work on is much, much larger, but all of that comes at a cost: low personal influence over the project, a huge amount of institutional inertia, and the challenge of building consensus across a team full of different opinions.
With indie dev, you basically reverse that dynamic: you can work on whatever you want, you get to learn all sorts of new skills and disciplines, and you have full accountability. But the scope of what you can do is strongly constrained, which provides its own challenges.
I said when I went indie that I wanted my successes and my failures to be my own, and I still feel that way. For better or worse, it’s great to feel like you have real agency in your creative life and career, and even when things go wrong it’s nice to know how and why it happened and not feel like a helpless member of a huge organization.
And the shift back to a very small team (me; a full-time designer, Ryan Mattson; and a part-time artist, Alex Munn) has been fantastic. I much prefer it to solo development. For one, it’s healthy to interact with teammates regularly. Not only does the project benefit from having more people throwing ideas around and developing things, but it also increases the scope of what you can do. Near Death is a much larger game than The Novelist, and it wouldn’t be possible if I were making it on my own. It’s really exciting to have partners on the journey, so to speak.
From the video footage we've seen, Near Death is also a big stylistic departure from The Novelist. How did you arrive at this look and did you go through a few different iterations?
Just like with a gameplay feature or a sound effect, every creative decision on a game needs to come from the source idea. So with The Novelist, which was very focused on telling a story and putting the player in the author’s shoes, it made sense to have a storybook, stylized look. Whereas with Near Death, we wanted to go very realistic and harsh, to match the idea of an uncaring environment that’s basically trying to kill you.
Early on we did iterate on a few styles, but nothing too far from what you see today. Mostly we just tried to balance the practical realities of being a small self-funded indie team -- high-poly AAA artwork is definitely out of scope for us -- with a style we felt represented the world of an Antarctic base and evoked the simple, government-issue starkness of an abandoned research facility.
The Novelist was also about its characters' inner lives, while Near Death seems much more about external conflict (literally "woman vs nature"). Was it a challenge to shift gears toward this kind of storytelling?
This type of game actually feels much more natural to me. My background is in systems design and gameplay, so The Novelist was way outside of my wheelhouse; to be honest, the story of a game is almost never the main appeal for me. I undertook The Novelist for the challenge of creating a traditional narrative game, but with a story that was generated by underlying systems and algorithms (if you really want to nerd out, you can get all of the nitty gritty details on the story systems that drove The Novelist in my GDC talk from 2014).
So even though The Novelist is obviously a story game, it’s a story game by way of game systems, and it was really an outlier project for me. It was quite intentional to move back to more solid ground for Near Death, which has made it a whole lot more fun to work on. I’m happiest when I have a technical challenge or a new feature to implement and can just sit down and figure out how to make it work. Writing game stories is extremely hard for me and never came naturally, even toward the end of The Novelist, so if anything the pitfalls were on that project. With this game, I’m back to doing what I enjoy.
So I'm just going to ask: did you base any of this on John Carpenter's The Thing?
Well, let me start by saying that we are massive fans of The Thing. And to any Thing fans who haven’t listened to it, check out the Blu-Ray commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell; it’s fantastic. We definitely looked at The Thing for inspiration, mainly through location and time period (Near Death takes place in the same era). But the inspiration stops at the look and feel. The challenge the crew faced in The Thing was otherworldly, but we're keeping Near Death's antagonist grounded to the real-life horror you can experience in Antarctica.
"Antarctica is the closest thing we have on Earth to another world."
You've mentioned a personal fascination with Antarctic exploration -- could you say a little more on where that fascination comes from for you, and what you learned while conducting your research?
The original inspiration for the game, as you mention, comes from a general love of Antarctica. I’ve always been fascinated by extreme places -- the coldest, hottest, highest, lowest, densest, or most remote places on our planet -- and Antarctica is an amazing and diverse place to study. It’s the closest thing we have on Earth to another world, and humans cannot survive there without an incredible amount of infrastructure and support. It’s a place that’s indifferent to humans at best, though the conditions themselves seem like they’re trying to kill you at all times.
As for specific interesting things I've learned, by far the one that has stuck with me the most is the effect that extended time in Antarctica has on the people who go there, especially the people who stay through the total darkness of winter. In winter in Antarctica, you are completely cut off physically from the world: there are no flights or overland treks, and communication with the outside world is fairly limited (some bases share an internet connection that is closer to dial-up speeds than broadband). That kind of isolation has a profound effect on the psychology of the people staying there, which is why scientists and psychologists use people at Antarctic bases as test subjects for studies on long-distance space travel.
I talked to a man who worked a summer at a major Antarctic facility, and he was on one of the first flights to arrive after [the winter ban on travel ended]. He said that some of the people who had been there all winter had basically regressed to animal behaviors: grunting instead of talking, being extremely territorial about even the smallest things, coming to blows over trivial misunderstandings, avoiding eye contact, and so on. He told me that for every month you spend down there, it takes a month back in the real world just to reacclimate to living in normal society.
There are a million other tidbits I could start running off here -- researching Antarctica is completely engrossing -- but I think that the psychological effects are some of the most interesting things to read and talk about. That experience certainly plays into the backstory of the game, though that’s a tale for another time.
I certainly couldn't resist asking whether this theme of isolation would play into Near Death's plot, but as you might expect, Hudson was tight-lipped about it. Nevertheless, you can expect to hear more about Near Death in the coming months. The game is currently slated for a 2016 release on Steam.
Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. And certainly not a John Carpenter fanboy. Just like, semantically, that's not possible. You can follow Kris on Twitter @KrisLigman.