Digging into the low-poly horror vibes of Airdorf's Hatching and FAITH: Chapter III

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For the past several years, pixel and low-poly games have experienced a renaissance in the horror, combining old visual styles with modern tools and techniques to refurbish the genre.

One of the pioneers of this wave has been developer “Airdorf” (real name Mason Smith), creator of the FAITH trilogy series, which first took Itch.io by storm in 2017. Evoking the camp and simplicity of 80s horror movies and early PC games, it told the story of a priest who visits a disturbing house in the woods, seeking to perform an exorcism to free the family within. 

Since the game’s initial release, Airdorf has put out a sequel, FAITH: Chapter II, as well as a number of commissioned, browser-based projects, from Attack of the Murder Hornets with Discovery+, to The Wind with IFC Films. The latest, HATCHING, is a collaboration with film distributor IFC Midnight and serves as a playable, Tamagotchi-inspired teaser for the movie of the same name, a Finnish production about a young girl who nurtures a mysterious egg.

Not many game developers bridge the worlds of indie development and advertainment-type games. Airdorf’s know-how about the world of interactive horror makes him a great talent for these crossover projects—and he’s taking lessons from these games back into the upcoming FAITH: Chapter III. Here’s how:

Tell me how this HATCHING project come about–were you approached by the filmmakers to create this teaser or was it something you suggested? Whose idea was it to make a Tamagotchi parody?

I had previously worked with IFC Midnight on a promo game for The Wind (2019) and I guess they liked it so much that they kept me in mind for possible future projects. So it was IFC Midnight, not the director Hanna Bergholm, who approached me for HATCHING. I’ve only pitched a tie-in game to filmmakers once and that was for The Velocipastor (2018).

Their original idea was for me to make an actual hand-held virtual pet toy. So I would 3D print a case, get a hold of all the electronic components, and program a simple virtual pet game using a 64×64 OLED display. We would make a few of these and send them to influencers to hype the film. 

However, after considering the costs and timeframe they decided to go with a quick game for web and iOS. I think an actual physical toy would have been awesome but ultimately a game was easier to distribute to more people.

The Tamagotchi-with-a-horror-twist was always IFC’s plan. They sent me a screener for the film and after watching it the game design ideas just came flooding in. [The film] Hatching has a really cool narrative where the main character Tinja has to make decisions [about] whether to care for this mysterious egg she found or please her mother by devoting time to her gymnastics career. 

Even though the film doesn’t have the ’90s retro aesthetic of Tamagotchi and other virtual pets from that era, it was actually really easy to adapt the events of the film into a sort of light virtual pet experience.

A screenshot of Hatching's itch.io page. Two images on the left and right show a young girl interacting with a weird egg.

Did you ever play [with a] Tamagotchi as a kid or was that before your time? What was the design process like as you distilled that experience down to its most important elements for the promo?

Yes, when the virtual pet craze hit I got a Tamagotchi for Christmas. I was lucky to get the “secret” full-grown Tamagotchi that requires just the right combination of love and abuse. It looked like a middle-aged man with stick limbs.

Before I start a game project I try to answer the question What is the point of this game? Obviously, you want the game to entertain but with these promo/teaser games you have the added objective of generating interest in the film. 

Then I determine the Affect, Narrative, and Mechanics of the game: What do I want the player to feel while playing? What should the game feel like? What beats from the film’s story should I include? What is the player’s journey as they play? How do I reflect the actions in the film in the game’s mechanics? How do I design those mechanics as elegantly and simply as possible?

Once I determine all that, my design “vision” becomes pretty clear. However, that doesn’t mean stuff doesn’t get cut. We messed around with the idea of having food/health/rest/affection gauges for HATCHING but all that got cut in favor of mechanics that worked to advance a simple story. 

The story of the film is weird enough, I thought, so let’s just focus on that. So in the end it is a very short experience with very little “ludography” (although there are multiple endings depending on your actions). 

Despite the short length, I’ve received a lot of feedback from players saying it got them interested in the film. Mission accomplished!

I’m always impressed how you do so much with so little, in terms of your games’ pixel art visual style. How do you distill the source materials’ most iconic visual elements into simple silhouettes and shapes that are easily identified by the audience?

I specialize in minimalist super-low-res pixel graphics but getting HATCHING‘s graphics right was a challenge because A) I could only use one color to match the Tamagotchi aesthetic and B) the visual elements, especially the film’s monster, had to be recognizable as such. I couldn’t rely on the “omg wtf is that” fear-of-the-unknown vibe that I relied on in FAITH and SUMMER NIGHT.

The original idea for the app was to have a egg-like toy graphic with some virtual buttons to tap and a screen-within-a-screen setup:

A promotional image for Airdorf's Hatching game

…so actual in-game graphics and text would be very constrained. In-game elements would have been much more compact and simple. You couldn’t have an image and text on-screen at the same time:

A screenshot from Airdof's Hatching game

And then the first iteration of the monster Alli which hatches from the egg had a cuter more virtual-pet-like design. It wasn’t very recognizable as Alli’s in-film counterpart so I went back and redid that design, really paying attention to Alli’s scenes in the film to get her basic shapes and silhouettes right. 

I will typically take a snippet from the film and import it into Photoshop and get the initial shapes that way.

In the end, the virtual buttons and plastic toy case didn’t quite support what we wanted to accomplish with the app so I streamlined the UI, allowing for more to be shown on-screen.

You’ve grown a lot as a developer over the course of FAITH and your many side projects. What are some of the major design victories you had along the way? What can players expect from FAITH: Chapter III? How will Chapter III conclude and tie together the events of the previous two games?

I posted recently that I’ve finished Ending 2 of 3 for the final chapter. This week I’m working on the third and final ending. I work on my games in chronological order so this means we’re very close to finishing Chapter III of FAITH

There is quite a lot more work to do before everything is ready for Steam/console release but I’m really excited with how things are going.

All I’ll say about design victories/triumphs is that I consider myself extremely lucky to be in a situation where I can get paid to make games. I have a terrific publisher; the folks at New Blood have been nothing but supportive and positive about FAITH‘s development. I have full control over my IP, ideas, etc. 

I think Dave Oshry’s overall philosophy on how to run a games publisher is something more people should pay attention to.

FAITH: Chapter III is going to be much bigger than Chapter I and II. There will be more animated cutscenes and more original pieces of music. Players can expect a few mysteries to be resolved, especially when it comes to John’s past and also Gary. 

But they’re also going to encounter some interesting surprises that I may or may not explore if I make a Chapter IV. Depending on the player’s actions some things will conclude nicely and others will be left a huge mess.

A gif of footage from FAITH: Chapter 3
For FAITH: Chapter 3, Airdorf has focused on improving animations and cut scenes.

Most solo developers tend to outsource parts of the process like music. I’m impressed that you handle that on your own. Do you have any background as a musician or composer or is that something you learned along the way?

There are actually 3 music tracks that were provided by a fan that appear in Chapter III. And of course, I am always on the lookout for royalty-free/public domain music that I can appropriate.

I’ve always been really jealous of people who could compose music. I don’t consider myself to be a good composer; I have to keep my stuff pretty simple. When I work on a song I will usually spend at least a few days listening to pieces of music that I think could be good influences. 

For Chapter III I spent weeks listening to the soundtracks for Silent Hill 14, Doom 64, Shadow Man, and Resident Evil II, trying to understand how the composers put together their tracks. I just try to have confidence in what I’m doing. It helps me go places creatively that I thought I could never go. I surprise myself sometimes.

Some of the most prolific songwriters of our time were self-taught that way–I’ve heard Diane Warren wrote Unbreak My Heart by singing directly into her tape recorder. 

How do you go about realizing the music once you have an idea of how you’d like it to sound? And has your design and programming experience in games development mirrored this at all? Or did you have some level of education or training before you began the FAITH games?

With music it depends. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a melody or tune that I think sounds cool so I’ll rush to my laptop and work it out on Online Sequencer before I forget it. I usually find myself humming or singing it first. Online Sequencer is a great tool for me because it’s so easy to use and I get instant feedback on what a track sounds like. 

There are other tracks I do that are more ambient/experimental sounding and creating those requires a lot of trial and error figuring out sound samples and then stringing them together in a cool composition. For those ambient/experimental tracks, I often sketch out shapes that represent the rising and falling and positioning of the various tones and samples and that ends up being my “sheet music”.

I took one class on game design back in 2013 and a couple of programming classes. For programming it’s just been a lot of trial and error, starting small, reading up on documentation, perusing questions that people already asked on Stack Overflow… 

When people ask me for programming advice I always tell them to learn what to ask on the Internet in order to accomplish something. So instead of Googling “unity how to make gun” you should learn how to Google things like “unity spawn object when click”, “unity calculate bullet impact”, “unity create decal flat surface”, “unity play animation when press key”, etc.

As for game design, basically, since I first held my first game in my hands at age 6 I’ve been thinking about video games and their design. It’s hard to turn the “games” channel off in my brain! 

When I was a kid I knew I wanted to make games as much as I wanted to play them. I got an early start making content for Zelda Classic and posting my work online when I was 11 or 12. It exposed me to the process of releasing a game online and getting feedback. 

With FAITH, I had consumed enough horror games content that I felt pretty confident in my vision to create a super-lofi horror game. After seeing that players liked it, I started work on Chapter II where I was even more confident about how I could entertain and scare the player. 

So my current game design philosophy has been several years in development, and I fully expect it to continue evolving and maturing over time.

A gif from FAITH: Chapter 3
From FAITH: Chapter 3.

I imagine over the course of FAITH‘s three chapters you’ve come a long way in terms of technique and tools. What are the biggest upgrades to your process since you started FAITH?

The biggest upgrades were being able to purchase a Huon display tablet; That made producing FAITH‘s rotoscoped animated cutscenes much faster. Before that, I was doing them all with my mouse. 

Now that I have the display tablet I can feature more cutscenes that are longer and have more detail. There is a cutscene in Chapter III that lasts over a minute and has some really cool details. I was also able to completely upgrade my seven-year-old dev PC last year and better customize my development pipeline. 

Both of these purchases were made possible by the generosity of fans and I’m very grateful for them.

As for technique and development tools, how have you progressed over the three games? Have you been able to streamline or improve upon any of your processes (as with producing the rotoscoped scenes)? Where have most of your learning resources come from?

I think I’ve gotten a little more knowledgeable about video memory management; With all the animated cutscene frames being stored and recalled I have to be really efficient and organized with how cutscenes are executed. 

The first few iterations of FAITH would crash people’s video cards because the animation frames were stored at full 1080p. Now they’re brought into the game at the original drawn resolution of 192 x 160 pixels and are upscaled during runtime. This drastically reduces vram usage. It’s probably a no-brainer for veteran game devs/computer scientists but it was something I had to learn on my own.

Other progress I’ve made would be just overall getting more efficient at coding and setting up objects and functions to be less of a slog and a little more automated. That’s not to say I’m a competent coder at all; I just know enough to do what I want to accomplish.

I learned the most from the Internet, either watching tutorials or looking up questions people asked on forums 10 years ago to solve a specific problem or resolve a specific issue.

Have you thought about your post-FAITH plans and what direction your development will take once you move on to a new project? Are there other formats, genres or visual styles you’ve thought of pursuing?

After the release of FAITH: The Unholy Trinity, I will have to dedicate several months to fixing bugs, providing updates, helping to manage Steam reviews, designing merch, signing movie deals, etc. After that, depending on how well FAITH’s launch goes, I would like to take maybe a year off from major projects and just do small games.

TorpleDook and I would really like to “finish” Earl’s Day Off and make it a full fishing horror game. That will likely be the next big project I do. There is also a FAITH spin-off game in the works. I think I would also like to break into “serious games”; I have an idea for a horror game that relates to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

I’ve got a few ideas for VR games that serve to teach awareness and empathy re: mental illness. And, believe it or not, I have a few non-horror game ideas I’d like to try out.

I have so many game ideas in the backlog and not enough time in my life to create them all (kind of a weird thought). If I’m lucky, FAITH will be successful enough to allow me to continue making unique games for years to come.

A screenshot from Earl's Day Off
Earl’s Day Off, developed with TorpleDook during a horror fishing game jam in 2020.

Tell me about this collaboration with TorpleDook. Was Earl’s Day Off your first foray into the PS1 lowpoly visual style? What would a fully realized version of the game look like–would it be a more sophisticated version of the fishing game or would it lean into meatier narrative elements?

True story but we had been talking about a fishing horror game before the jam was announced. We used to discuss game design and game ideas over fast food when we were living in the same town and a fishing horror game was one of them. I originally wanted to do a lo-fi pixel horror game set in Lovecraft’s fictional Innsmouth. 

But when the jam happened we decided to combine each other’s expertise and do a short 3D game that spoofs the old Sega Bass Fishing games. It’s actually not the PS1 but the N64 we were trying to mimic. I had messed around in Unity before but this would be my first “release” of a 3D game. It was really challenging for me to do a 3D game and implement what simple fishing mechanics we were able to do before the jam was finished. 

Torple worked on the story and mechanics and also saved the project from getting corrupted/deleted several times despite my best efforts (tip: learn how to do version control properly like TorpleDook!). We were really happy with how it turned out for being a little jam demo, and Markiplier played it which was also cool.

My vision for Earl was to find a way to make every mechanic of an arcade fishing game scary. So use the camera, sound effects, underwater distance fog, etc. to create moments of dread and horror. Both Torple and I really like Resident Evil 4, so a boss battle while tethered to a giant river/lake monster like Del Lago might find its way into the game. 

I also wanted to have a level where Earl pilots his boat through a half-submerged steamboat in a gator-infested bayou. I definitely think Earl’s wife will play a larger role. TorpleDook always has great ideas for out-there horror concepts. It’ll be a fun but challenging collaboration, I think.

What would a FAITH game spin-off be like? Would it continue the FAITH story from a new angle or focus on new stories from FAITH characters? Or something else entirely?

Well, the current FAITH spin-off game takes the FAITH universe and brings it into a totally unexpected game genre that I think will excite a lot of fans. I’m also not ruling out the possibility of a Silent Hill-style third-person survival horror game set in the FAITH-verse.

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