UK-based indie developer Lunar Software have been very, very busy since they unveiled the teaser trailer for their first-person sci-fi horror game Routine back in August. As a huge fan of 70s/80s sci-fi horror movies the teaser trailer got me more than a little excited, and that was before I read about the game itself. Routine promises the proper sort of horror that makes a player feel genuinely frightened, alone, vulnerable, or just plain fills them with sheer cosmic dread. In spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace.
Project Lead Aaron Foster came in from the cold airless void to answer my pressing questions. Designer and Artist Jemma Hughes, Programmer Pete Dissler and Audio Director Mick Gordon also popped in to answer a slightly less-pressing one.
Bitscreed: Routine is clearly influenced by traditional “hard science-fiction” movies like Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. What is it about that particular style of sci-fi which inspired you all to make a sci-fi horror game?
Aaron Foster: Movies from the 70’s and 80’s had this sort of musky, dirty, lots of haze around the lights, lived in sort of feel! The sounds and look to everything is something that has stayed with me since I was a kid, and something I dearly miss. Today most Sci-Fi movies try to go for a more sleek small compact clean feel, and to me that loses a lot of the character that comes with the old tech. I think that even Sci-Fi needs some weathering and damage for it to feel real and relatable. Newer more modern designs just don’t really have that! 80’s <3!
B: Speaking of the 80s, I can’t for the life of me fathom why some people are so hung-up on the fact there are floppy disks in Routine. Don’t they know Neil Armstrong and co landed on the moon using a computer with barely 2k of RAM?
A: Hah! Yeah, I think some people forget about the tech we had when we first landed on the Moon! I don’t mind the confusion honestly. The people that do understand are people that will probably appreciate the setting much more anyway!
B: When someone says “sci-fi survival horror” I immediately think of System Shock 2. Movies are obviously the bigger inspiration but have any games been a direct or indirect influence on Routine?
A: Yeah System Shock 2, Doom 3, Whiteday and of course DARK SOULS!
B: On your site you mention being able to upgrade the protagonist’s Cosmonaut Assistance Tool (CAT) with floppy disks that directly affect how your weapon reacts. So many horror games seem to lose all sense of fear when weapons are introduced, unless its handled really carefully. Will combat be a regular occurrence in Routine or more of a risky gamble for when you can’t run or hide?
A: Combat will not be a regular thing however we wanted the player to have a choice, you can use the CAT to defend yourself but it may cause more problems than it fixes! So yeah it can be a gamble, we want the player to care about their actions and the choices they make, but we also want them to know there are consequences.
B: What sort of fun or terrifying space activities can we use the CAT for in Routine?
A: The CAT will obviously effect combat which we don’t want to go into too much, but it can also be used for other things. It directly effects your Screen and flashlight: how fast the Screen moves and what it allows you to see are something we really want to play with.
B: Now Routine proudly boasts no HUD whatsoever and I’m curious as to how the game will handle things like damage and health. Can our character suddenly drop dead from undiagnosed blood loss? Or will there be ways we can keep tabs on our condition and maybe keep going a little longer without the conceit of magical sci-fi medpacks? Or are we basically screwed if we so much as get a scratch?
A: Health and Damage is something we are still playing with in terms of design, so it’s hard to really talk about it at this stage. We just want to make sure it isn’t very “gamey.” It will be brutal and unforgiving for sure!
B: Another of Routine’s most promising features, in my opinion, is its roguelike randomisation with items, environments, AI etc. What sort of challenges have you faced implementing this randomisation element, particularly in a first-person game where such things are traditionally rather immutable?
A: It’s an ongoing process! The challenge is helping the player understand where to go and obviously pay attention to different aspects of the level that are more important at that time. With AI we are quite happy with how it has turned out. We don’t really want to get into the details of the AI as its super important for the player not to know what they will do, but when I play I do not know where they will be or (what they’ll be) doing!
B: How random can we expect the base layout to be? Is it a modular design with replaceable segments or something generally quite “fixed” with variable locations of interest?
A: Its fixed, but fully open and explorable: go where you want and find out information from one area to gain access to other areas. There is a story and a reason it’s happening on this Moon base so we wanted to keep the Moon base quite “fixed” but have lots of aspects that could be locked and you may gain access to that area if you explore enough!
B: While we’re on the topic of environments, will players have an opportunity to go outside for a stroll on the moon’s surface at any point?
A: This is something we really want to do! We haven’t started testing this yet so we can’t promise right now, but it is something on our to do list.
B: All we know of the story so far is the unfortunate protagonist has been sent to investigate the strange disappearance of everyone stationed there. Will there be various explanations, reasons and enemies that change from game to game, or is there one single story behind everything going on?
A: There is an overarching story and reason behind what happened on the base but I don’t think in a single play through you could find out all information regarding what happened and of course there are multiple endings!
B: Speaking of the protagonist: with Routine featuring perma-death will he or she be a series of disposable nobodies (like your average rookie in X-Com) or someone we can grow attached to before they die horribly?
A: The player is more of a blank slate, using full body awareness and making it less game like. We want the player to feel like an extension of yourself.
B: Can I at least give the poor sod a name before I march them to their death?
A: Hah! Maaaaaybe!
B: In closing, what are your thoughts on the current crop of triple-A horror titles compared to what’s coming out of the mod and indie scenes?
A: Horror is used as a theme rather than a genre in most games today. I think they are great, but it’s really not something I want to do, and obviously some of the smaller developer teams have been doing it lately!
B: One final, optional, frivolous question: what is each team member’s personal favourite sci-fi horror movie?
Jemma: Moon (Not really horror but its Sci-Fi and AWESOME!)
Pete: “I watched a movie about a big alligator when I was a kid, It was scary!”
Routine is currently scheduled for a 2013 release and was recently Greenlit on Steam! I’ve included the original teaser trailer below for your viewing convenience and because it’s pretty bloody fantastic. Viewers eager to see some of Routine’s scares in action have a gameplay trailer to look forward to sometime in the near future, which I for one can’t wait to see.