Bringing Out the Fear in Players' Imaginations: A Chat With Artur Kordas, Co-Creator of Video Game Darkwood
Artur Kordas from Poland’s Acid Wizard Studio talks about their first release, the survival horror Darkwood. The game has already made headlines after the studio deliberately put it on a torrent website for anybody to pirate free of charge. Kordas discusses this controversial decision, how they struggled as developer novices, and about how David Lynch and Stanisław Lem inspired the game’s brooding ambience.
Marek Kępa: On Darkwood’s website I read: ‘Experience the only top-down survival horror game that will make you scream out in terror.’ Do you enjoy being scared?
Artur Kordas: Before we started to work on Darkwood, we rarely delved into anything horror-related. The main reason was the feeling of fear, which we didn’t really enjoy. Despite this, we’ve been fascinated by many elements and themes characteristic of the horror genre. The blurry line between reality and nightmare, unsettling events and visions, the theme of the hidden, inexpressible evil, alienation, loneliness… All of this had an impact on our imagination and suited a game project in which the core consisted of exploring an eerie forest…
MK: In the game, you play as a character living in what seems like 1980s Poland. You strive to survive in a forest inhabited by supernatural creatures, fighting off their attacks and trying to keep your sanity intact. At the same time little is known about the protagonist and discovering his story is at the centre of the plot. Is the mystery behind the main character a use of the horror strategy of ‘scaring with the unknown’?
AK: The mystery was intended to be the core element of the game right from the very start, causing the player to feel uncertain and lost. A typical game hero did not fit our assumptions. We wanted to do something completely different. Even at the very early stage of designing the game, we already had a preliminary idea for a voiceless, mysterious outsider with distorted, revolting features. He was supposed to be a typical anti-hero, arousing resentment in the inhabitants of the woods, as well as the feeling of alienation in the player. He became a significant element contributing to the feeling of dread in our game.
MK: You and your colleagues from Acid Wizard Studio point to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or to books by the Strugatsky Bros. as inspirations. How have these works influenced Darkwood?
AK: There were many inspirations, but they rarely had a direct impact on the shape of the game. Mostly they functioned as road signs which influenced the tone of Darkwood. Such was the case with The Shining, Twin Peaks, or Wojciech Smarzowski’s movies. The story or our game plot was influenced by the Strugatsky brothers and Polish sci-fi master Stanisław Lem. I don’t want to reveal any more here, in order to avoid spoilers.
One of the biggest inspirations for me was the first instalment of the Dark Souls series. I was always fascinated with the way From Software used game mechanics and technically simple audio-visuals to build an immensely suggestive atmosphere of desolation, sadness, mystery and ever-lurking danger. This inspired the way we slowly built the tension, the minimalist approach to our soundtrack, the use of silence, the fragmented story, which requires the player to piece it together, as well as the danger lurking behind every corner, which forces you to be careful and focus when exploring your surroundings. Also the Fallout series was a great inspiration, as it combines the dark, overwhelming atmosphere with elements of grotesque and black humour.
MK: The game has been praised for many of its elements, among others its night and day cycle, the craftsmanship system and also the use of the permadeath solution (if your character dies, you need to start all over again). How did you come up with the intriguing format for Darkwood?
AK: When we started working on Darkwood more than four years ago, we were budding game developers. The only game development experience we had consisted of two very simple, small games created in 48 hours during game jams. As it was our first game, each of us wanted to contribute as much as possible. This is how this grand vision of Darkwood came to be – a game combining diverse elements from our favourite games, movies and books. The lack of experience made us oblivious to the fact that making a coherent whole out of all these parts will be immensely difficult.
When the game got crowdfunded via Indiegogo, the die was cast and we ended up with a project full of contradictions. We did not have any experience or knowledge in the field of design or production, so it took us a lot of time and effort to put the conflicting elements of the puzzle together. Even though the fear of creating a non-playable monstrosity didn’t leave us throughout the entire production cycle, we managed to create a unique game. One which would probably never exist if it wasn’t for our initial lack of experience.
MK: Lack of experience is why it took so long to make the game – over four years?
AK: There were several factors. The main reason was the fact that the project was too grand and too ambitious. The twelve months originally planned as the deadline for creating the game had quickly proved to be a completely unreal estimation. The constantly shifting launch date negatively impacted our morale and motivation. With time, also the differences in our visions started to emerge, and we were unable to resolve them all completely.
This was coupled with the poor organisation of our work. Every decision, even the smallest ones, were made together, which considerably delayed the production of the game and often lead to misunderstandings and frustrations.
All of these problems could be blamed on our inexperience, but the truth is even very experienced studios often encounter them.
MK: When your studio started work on Darkwood in 2013, you set out to make a horror different than others, one that would focus on thrills stemming from the plot rather than from the use of clichés like presenting a plethora of horrible monsters. Would you say you accomplished your goal?
AK: It’s hard for us to judge our own game after such a long production process. But, looking at the players’ opinions, I think that we reached our goal. They often emphasise that Darkwood is one of the few modern horror games that doesn’t resort to cheap tricks and jump scares. The truth is that we had no other option. The top-down perspective required us to take a different approach to scaring players. We could not employ the well-tested solutions known from FPP and TPP [first person perspective and third person perspective - ed.] games, or even movies.
So we had to be more creative. We focussed on creating a dense, dark atmosphere, tension, an engaging script and an intriguing story. The potentially weakest elements of our game, meaning the pixelated graphics and the distant camera, enabled us to maintain a high level of uncertainty and understatement, which left a lot of space for players’ imagination. All these elements contribute to the uniqueness of the experience when playing Darkwood.
MK: Shortly after the game’s premiere, in a gesture of protest against activation key resellers, you decided to make Darkwood’s full version downloadable, free of charge, via the torrent website The Pirate Bay. This garnered you a great deal of publicity but was it a sound decision business-wise? How did that work out for you?
AK: I just want to emphasise that we made our game available on The Pirate Bay for the people that could not afford it right after the launch, in protest against the video game grey market. The reception was very positive, both when it comes to players and the press. Some players bought the game only in order to show their support for our decision. Judging solely from the messages we received from the fans after our gesture, we think it was very well worth it.
MK: Lately you’ve prepared a special edition of the game containing an art book and CD with the soundtrack. What exactly can you find in these additions?
AK: The special edition was prepared for our Indiegogo backers and currently we’re not selling it anywhere else. It includes the game, the soundtrack, a strategy guide, an art book, a poster and a t-shirt. The soundtrack consists of the game music divided into individual tracks. The art book is a collection of sketches, non-player character portraits, as well as high-resolution graphics from the game. The strategy guide contains maps of hideouts, descriptions of characters, enemies and items, as well as statistics and some game tips. We’ve also included a t-shirt with the Darkwood logo and a poster with Maxim Verehin’s art.
MK: What is Acid Wizard Studio currently working on? What’s going to be your next game?
AK: We don’t know yet. Working on Darkwood has been very satisfying and interesting, but also hard and emotionally draining. Before we make any decisions concerning the future of the studio, we need to get a good rest and recharge our batteries.
Author: Marek Kępa, September 2017