Simulations and immersion are like peanut butter and chocolate, or hazelnuts and ganache if you prefer. They’re lovely things when separate and go shockingly well together in a classic genre born out of experimental titles in the 90s.
Dillon Rogers is no stranger to the genre and decided, after working with New Blood on DUSK, to embark on his own homage to the Looking Glass greats.
We sat down for a chat about his London-fog flavored stealth shooter Gloomwood:
REBIND: OK, first things first let’s get the much hyped Super Electric Tortoise HD out of the way, when’s it coming out?
Dillon Rogers: I’ve actually wanted to do a longer game in the universe of Electric Tortoise for a while. Something that combines my love of the first Deus Ex with the emotional resonance of the original Blade Runner. Hopefully will get around to it one day!
REBIND: Joking aside, what are your inspirations when it comes to making games?
Dillon Rogers: Typically I come at my games with a rather eclectic collection of influences. While other games have definitely played their role in inspiring me, I also draw a lot from novels, film, painted works, music, architecture and even theme parks.
I tend to always approach my games from the context of how I want to present the world and its tone. Every decision about the game stems from that central fulcrum – right down to menus and object interactions. I like to make the kind of games that people wait until night, and they draw the curtains and turn out the lights. Not strictly horror, but games people want to immerse themselves in.
REBIND: Tell us your own personal feelings towards Gloomwood as a designer and artist. You’ve made games before, what makes this one different?
Dillon Rogers: Gloomwood has easily been the biggest project I’ve dedicated myself to. It was hilariously over-scoped for the skills I had entering it. It went through multiple iterations as I improved as a developer and also understood my own tastes better. After all the time I’ve spent working on it, I should be sick of looking at it, but I’m not. I think I hit on something that I felt is unequivocally me.
I mean that in the sense that every part of it is some element that draws from my own interests: The foggy, Victorian setting with plaguemasks and crowmen, the mechanics that emphasize caution and survival, and the general mood of forlorn mystery that fills the cobbled streets.
And it’s also the first game I made that got to have emergent elements. Since I took a bunch of inspiration from games like Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock II, it has those moments where you aren’t sure if your cover is blown and you’ll have to escape a tight situation with a tense chase or desperate shootout. I love watching people play it and how they approach the space and denizens differently.
REBIND: You’re based out of the Los Angeles area- what’s that scene like for developers? I can’t say I’ve met too many devs from SoCal, do you engage with other local developers at all?
Dillon Rogers: The only developer in my local area that I hang out with is Taylor Shechet, who became the audio designer on Gloomwood. Roy Graham, the narrative writer for the game, also used to live in my area but has since moved to Philadelphia. I’m honestly a bit of a shut-in and tend to interact with most the developers I know online.
As for Los Angeles – well, the weather is great! It’s also pretty expensive, though. I probably will end up moving to a less expensive city at some point, since indie development is difficult enough as it is.
REBIND: What was the genesis for Gloomwood? How did you first envision it?
Dillon Rogers: While mechanically Gloomwood has changed a lot over the years, the overarching theme has essentially remained the same: you are a stranger who washes up on the coast of this decrepit town full of bizarre and grotesque denizens. The player then freely explores the city districts as they uncover what happened to this once lively place and its inhabitants, culminating in a visit to the large and sealed mansion that sits above the town.
The city of Gloomwood has always been a dangerous place. While not every denizen is hostile, some are fiercely opposed to outsider presence and will actively hunt the player down (or other denizens helping the player). It is up to the player to observe each situation, learn the street layout and open up new routes in order to navigate the city safely.
The player does get access to a variety of firearms, but ammunition is scarce and the loud nature of those weapons make using them extremely risky. Combat is typically a last, frantic resort.
REBIND: Since this isn’t your first game but obviously a much more involved title, what surprised you during the development so far, were there any hard won lessons from the challenges it presents?
Dillon Rogers: I think moving forward I’m going to have to more solidly stick to some pre-production design structure. I came at Gloomwood mostly knowing what emotions I wanted to achieve, but not having a good handle on how to go about it. That led me down a road where I would end up tossing out work that I felt didn’t work (procedural generation) because I was just experimenting with a bunch of stuff.
The game is much, much stronger for it, I think, but it also cost me a lot more time and work that I want to avoid for my next games. My tastes in games also dramatically changed over the years. My love of immersive sims is only a few years old, and that ended up seeping into my design sense.
REBIND: Is there an obscure title out there with a special place in your heart, a game only a designer could love?
Dillon Rogers: Close tie between Pathologic and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Both games are this jumbled mess of mechanics and characters, but they are just so moody and atmospheric. Pathologic has this permeating sense of dread as the town progressively gets sicker, and Call of Cthulhu is just this wild adventure into Innsmouth that is surprisingly in-depth. They can be difficult to enjoy, but they’re also very difficult to forget.
REBIND: Audio is a huge part of stealth games, and you’ve talked about how you’ve employed diagetic music in the hub world. What kind of approach are you taking to the overall sound design? Did any particular music you spent time listening to previously or during development inspire or influence you?
Dillon Rogers: This is another place where a bunch of different stuff influenced the game. For example, the player saves the game at gramophones, and those gramophones play a distorted version of a calming track that plays at the lighthouse (the player’s “safe house” of the game). That idea came from the traditional survival horror trope of having calming music in safe areas combined with the beeping noise the save stations in Alien: Isolation make to alert you they’re nearby.
In terms of sound design, stuff like Thief is again an inspiration. I wrote my own sound propagation system so sound could travel about the levels in a predictable and (more importantly) manipulatable way. So, shutting doors can block sounds, but you can also lean against doors to listen through them.
As for music and ambience – Taylor and I went back and forth with that. I wanted tracks that were wispier and foreboding, so we looked at stuff from like – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Penumbra: Overture. Taylor also had a lot of fun instruments like zithers and waterphones on hand to make some incredibly striking sounds.
REBIND: Thank you so much for the interview!
Dillon Rogers: No problem, and thank you
We’re super excited to see what Dillon comes up with next for Gloomwood and its brick-clad courtyards full of menacing Birdmen.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice