We live in an age of constant observation; tracked and analyzed by everything from email to smartphones and even household appliances. Increasingly, the only things we truly have to ourselves are our thoughts and memories, but in the world of >observer_, even that line has been crossed.
A tale of cyberpunk horror from Bloober Team, the creators of Layers of Fear, <observer_ puts players in the role of Daniel Lazarski, an Observer in a corporation-run police force who uses neural augmentation to enter the minds of other people.
Set in 2084, <observer_ draws upon wide range of cyberpunk influences, including the voice talents of Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), while staying true to its Polish origins in order to establish a unique identity in this classic genre.
We talked to Bloober Team Brand Manager Rafal Basaj about the studio's approach to horror, their cyberpunk influences, and how they used Unreal Engine 4 to bring the two together in >observer_.
What is the premise of >observer_?
>observer_ is set in a very dark and gritty cyberpunk universe. The game starts when your estranged son calls you for help. You respond by travelling to a seedy, class C district of Krakow where you enter an old tenement building. Soon, you discover there's more going on than expected. You will need to investigate what's happening and how your son is connected to all of that. You will scan the environment using your implants in search of clues, talk to tenants seeking guidance, and hack into other people's memories to uncover the mystery of the unfolding events.
From a player's perspective, how does Daniel's role as a detective fit into gameplay?
It's a cyberpunk setting, so Daniel is no ordinary detective. He has many body augmentations that help him in his job. He is equipped with retinal implants that allow him to scan the environment in two different modes; UV and Bio. The former highlights electronic objects of interest, and the latter biological signatures. Using them, Dan can seek clues and additional information about what is really happening in the tenement building.
Obviously, the more interesting part of his work is the ability to hack into people's memories and relive them in search of answers. He does so with the Dream-Eater device, which he plugs straight into someone's neural implant. Don't expect a joy-ride though – minds are chaotic places, where anything can happen!
Given Daniel's employer and skills, he almost sounds like a villain. Was this sort of ambiguity of good and evil intentional?
Daniel is a tool for an oppressive mega-corporation ruling the entire country. He is not pure evil, however his line of work makes you wonder how distorted his morality really is. The ambiguity is of course intentional; as in real life there are no black or white situations, and Daniel is a flesh-and-bone character that walks in the shades of gray. It's up to the players to decide how his actions tie into their own morality and decide what kind of character he really is.
Are you and the team big fans of cyberpunk? Are there any particular movies or books that inspired you during development?
Definitely! There are a lot a cyberpunk fans in our office who grew up watching movies like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Johnny Mnemonic, and people who read all the works of William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick. And, we've clocked countless hours telling stories in the pen and paper game, Cyberpunk 2020.
There are so many good cyberpunk works that influenced >observer_, but we wanted to give our universe a local Eastern-European flavor mixed with a sort of retro vibe, as if we imagined the future from the end of the '80s. It's filled with décor that everyone growing up in Poland during the '80s and '90s remembers from their family homes. It's a very unique blend of classic themes overall, though darker than a lot of US or Japanese cyberpunk, with a somewhat exotic Eastern-European approach.
Bloober Team has described its style as "hidden horror." What does this mean in comparison to other horror games?
The horror genre in gaming is very limited, boiling down to mostly two types of action-oriented gameplay styles; kill thousands of enemies, or run from a few that you can't kill. We wanted to give players the sort of variety that the film industry has enjoyed for years with more subtle horror about the fear of the unknown, rather than in-your-face scares. This is how the idea of "Hidden Horror" was born.
Integral to this is a subject that is morally/socially/politically ambiguous; one for which there are no simple answers and how you perceive it depends on your own worldviews. With Layers of Fear it was the decision between choosing family over work, or the other way around. In >observer_ it's the boundaries of humanity.
The second is something we call "Catharsis 2.0." All horror has one task at hand; to relieve you of tension. We want to expand on that with another layer of catharsis regarding your own worldviews. If you faced the same situation as the mad painter from Layers of Fear, would you strive to create the masterpiece, or would you sacrifice perfection for family? There is no correct answer, and this is precisely the point. We want people to reflect upon their own lives after playing our games.
Besides scaring us, do you feel there is something that horror can achieve that other genres cannot?
Absolutely. Horror is a genre that directly impacts our psychology while crossing boundaries of style and setting, be it an old XIX century mansion or a cyberpunk dystopia. Horror is both a mature genre and a genre for the matured. Creative minds can do almost anything with it, presenting improbable situations with enough realism that people can still become immersed. As a result, horror games can tackle themes and problems other genres might find difficult.
That said, horror is also a very hard genre to pull off. Mood, design, audio, art style – everything must be done correctly or the whole experience will be lacking. It's a risky genre, but if done right you'll have a masterpiece on your hands.
Layers of Fear was made in a different engine. What made you decide to switch to Unreal Engine 4 on this project?
We chose Unreal Engine 4 mainly due its flexibility and how much we can expand upon it. With Layers of Fear, we weren't able to modify or extend the engine to suit our needs in the way that UE4 allows. Having access to the source code and the ability to modify every aspect has been pure gold for us.
We were also very satisfied with how painless it was to upgrade to newer versions of the engine. One additional crucial aspect for the change is that UE4 is written in native C++, which helps to create games for consoles.
What has been your favorite tool or feature since you started using UE4?
The most important aspect for us has been the source code access and ability to code natively in C++, allowing us to painlessly expand upon the core engine and fit it for our needs. Blueprints are also an immense help for our designers, as they can script visually and not worry about lines of coding.
The FX work in >observer_ is incredible. Tell us about some of the FX and how they contribute to gameplay.
We've modified the engine rendering pipeline to implement order independent transparency. That feature allowed us to achieve many alpha blended effects that stack upon each other without visible artifacts. We've also used vertex/procedural animations in many places – UE4's flexibility allows us to write custom vertex factories – that pushed procedural animations entirely into GPU, so we had CPU free for other fancy things.
We created custom shaders that we used throughout the whole game and simulated 'living meat' and liquid effects with ease. We have also been using voxelized geometry that was set up first and managed by adding shaders to them by level designers and the art team in general. This became a kind of a puzzle that could later be used freely by the team.
What is the hardest part about creating a game that so heavily distorts our perceptions of reality?
The hardest thing is to not overdo the effects. There's a thin line between what looks cool and what makes you feel uncomfortable in this type of mind-bending experiences. People have different tolerances to the amount of events and effects their mind can process at one time. Visually crafting the game to create this effect is also a meticulous and slow process. It's often based on countless renditions and tweaking the effects time and time again until we are satisfied with the final result.
Where should people go to keep up with development and learn more?
They can go to the website at www.observer-game.com and sign-up for our newsletter. We also strongly recommend visiting our social channels, including facebook.com/blooberteam and twitter.com/blooberteam as well as those of our publisher, Aspyr Media – facebook.com/aspyrmedia and twitter.com/AspyrMedia.