The talents behind the very best classic adventure games are making a comeback with a vengeance, gaining their own financing and self-publishing, combining the great adventure game mechanics from the past, with advance technology and modern gameplay sensibilities.
Two of these returning champions are Pittsburgh’s own Rob Seres and Keith Leonard, members of the Dreamforge Intertainment team that developed the innovative classic horror-adventure game, Sanitarium. Rob and Keith have teamed up to form Sword & Spirit Software and developed their own powerful game engine they’ve named “Sassafras”.
Rob and Keith joined us for an exclusive interview to give us a peak behind Sword & Spirit’s debut title and what it took to get there…
Where did the idea for Shades of Sanity originate?
Rob: It really was supposed to be something more simple. We had decided to make a 3D engine since the pocket pc market had dried up, and we weren’t interested in continuing with handhelds. So we thought a haunted house game would be a bit less resource intensive than a shooter or a role-playing game. But as we worked on it we realized it needed characters, so we expanded the tech and the story a bit further.
The plot morphed over the course of an entire year. We decided that mental illness would be a good foil for being able to dismiss the supernatural, since real things tend to scare people more than stylized ghosts. Once the core plot had been finalized, themes and symbolism fell into place. The more I studied schizophrenia the more sympathetic I wanted to make Joe’s plight, and play up society’s reaction to people with that condition, especially in the light of recent events.
It's been mentioned that Shades of Sanity is a “spiritual successor” to the PC horror classic Sanitarium. How will we experience this?
Rob: I think the spiritual core of Sanitarium was it’s psychological story, the emotional impact of the plot, and the use of other worlds and symbolism to establish Max’s character. It was compared to Jacob’s Ladder when it first released, and I think the physical manifestations of psychological concepts worked very well in the game.
So for Shades to be a worthy successor, it will have to engage the player’s emotions, it will have to rely deeply on the “other world” concepts, and every piece needs to play a larger part in building the story.
What type of gameplay can we look forward to?
Rob: There will be two parts to the game: puzzle solving and avoiding danger. The puzzles will be a mix of inventory solving, environmental logic, and “supernatural logic.” The supernatural element gives us the ability to add our own physical rules to a puzzle that a player will have to learn and exploit. (see video)
There won’t be a horde (of) enemies to blast, instead there will be situations where improvisation will be needed to succeed. Perhaps you turn on the gas and toss a match at something, or you lead something into a trap. You’ll also need to learn where danger can get in and learn to avoid those places.
The game touts a powerful engine your team has built called Sassafras. What are its unique features?
Keith: The main unique aspect is how we handle light and shadow. Our lighting solution allows us to have a high degree of dynamism while retaining a high level of fidelity, and maintaining good performance. You won’t need a monster gaming PC to run this game, but there are plenty of high-end optional features for those who do.
There are other more subtle differences between our technology and some others out there, how our ambient occlusion is solved is a little different than others; our reflections are ray marched on the GPU, things of that nature.
Performance tweaking fanatics will probably enjoy this game as there are TONS of options in the configuration to play with to make it perform best on a given system. Of course there’s an automated system for the engine to set itself up for you, but I always like when you empower the player to decide where his computer’s work goes. The engine is multi-threaded, has HDR, bloom, auto exposure, thin lens simulation, bokeh, color correction, real time ambient occlusion (ray marched), real time ray marched reflections, normal maps and detail normal maps, Poisson PCF shadows, volumetrics, and volumetric shadows.
You are seeking crowed source financing via Kickstarter. What will these funds be used for?
Rob: Since the engine is mostly complete, funding will go to 3D modelers, animators, voices actors, sound and music. We have a team already working with us, but in order to be able to make timely commitments we need to be able to offer compensation. We’ve been doing so much with just pure love of development, but funding will allow more people to treat this as a full time job.
While it is a very tech heavy town, Sword & Spirit Software is one of the few game development studios in Pittsburgh, PA. Do you see development in Pitt growing?
Rob: We’re shocked that it didn’t explode a long time ago, to be honest. Pittsburgh can be frustrating because there is so much potential here, yet it always seems to be held back. There’s the University Of Pittsburgh, CMU (Carnegie Mellon University), and the Art Institute (of Pittsburgh), so there’s no lack of talent. But back in the days of Dreamforge, funding was always an issue. Banks just don’t understand game development in this area, and young people always seem to be leaving the area.
The Shades of Sanity Kickstarter page can be found here.