Flying Wild Hog is the leading Polish indie studio that developed hit first-person shooter Shadow Warrior 2, a game currently being lauded by every video game connoisseur out there. Culture.pl spoke to two members of their team, Paweł Kowalewski and Tadeusz Zieliński, about the cultural and intertextual references within the game, releasing an accompanying golden vinyl soundtrack, and not giving a damn about pirating…
So what’s it like to be on the team of a video game that’s an international hit, one The Telegraph called ‘a frantic, funny and fantastic FPS’? Can you go down to your local supermarket without having to sign a dozen autographs?
TZ: Unfortunately, yes I can [laughs]. In Poland, Shadow Warrior 2 is not that big a thing. I mean - thanks to our Polish publisher Technald, we were able to deliver and sell the coolest boxed version of our game so far, but you have to remember that Shadow Warrior 2 is an indie game. It’s AAA quality but still, it was made by an independent studio and released globally by an independent publisher, so we don’t get the same kind of attention as the biggest blockbusters out there.
Having said that I’d like to add that working for Flying Wild Hog is simply awesome. I work on cool stuff, especially considering that I’ve always loved first person shooters. Plus the atmosphere here is great. Simply the adventure of a lifetime.
I’d like to ask about the stuff that surrounds the fighting, the game’s intriguing setting which is a post-apocalyptical Japan. Was it influenced by lead gameplay designer Paweł Kowalewski’s admiration for Japanese culture?
TZ: The simple answer is yes. But Paweł isn’t the only person behind this game and its setting. The setting was given, because SW2 is a remake and we needed to keep that part of the original. But we allowed ourselves a lot of freedom working on it, making use of Paweł’s and a few other folks’ fascination with Japanese culture. And that was a lot of fun for us, a bunch of Poles basically, to draw on a foreign culture and play with it in a creative way.
PK: The setting is an indispensable aspect of Shadow Warrior, so it just had to appear in the remake. In the earlier instalment by us, the action took place in a land that was a mix of Japan and China. But this time around, you play in Onishima, or the Demon Island, a place where the demonic shadow realm and the reality of Earth co-exist. The name Japan never actually appears in the game, instead the name Onishima suggests that the game is set in a Japan that’s been warped by demonic magic.
When creating the game we drew on Japanese and Chinese culture in various ways to add flavour to this setting. For instance the characters reference such mythological beings as Gozu, Mezu, Xing, these are Chinese, or Ameonna, the Japanese goddess of rain. We had a little trouble pronouncing her name correctly, so some of us simply called her Johanna [laughs]. There’s also Orochi, a mythical eight-headed Japanese dragon.
TZ: Also, the entire graphic art was inspired directly by Japan, especially the architecture of Kyoto.
PK: Anime was a big influence as well as the language. You can use a gun called Jigoku, which means ‘Hell’ in Japanese or a melee weapon, a set of claws, called Kuzuri which stands for ‘wolverine’ and so it’s a Japanese hat tip to the popular X-Men superhero.
Fighting is the core of first-person shooters. SW2 has been praised for its combat system which enables such things like slashing your opponents in half or shooting right through them to kill the next one. How do you guys come up with this stuff… over coffee, during brainstorming sessions?
TZ: Over coffee at brainstorming sessions, pretty much yes. And over severed parts of our enemies. Well maybe not that… Actually the core of the combat system was taken from the first game and we just elaborated on that. Whenever somebody would have an idea, we’d put it up for discussion. For instance, me and Paweł came up with the idea for the chainsaw over coffee.
It’s a funny story about it ending up in the game because it wasn’t entirely our choice. Before we made up our minds whether we’d use it or not, one of our PR guys mentioned that Shadow Warrior 2 will let you fight with a chainsaw during an interview for a major news outlet. He sort of spilled the milk so we just had to add the chainsaw. Fortunately, we already had it prototyped so that wasn’t much of a problem. Me and Paweł went to lunch and decided that you’ll just wave it around like a sword. Paweł added that he’d very much like it to be called ‘War-Saw’. And that’s what it’s called, after our beautiful city.
An interesting narrative concept is putting the voice of a female character into the head of the game’s hero Lo Wang, where did that come from?
PK: In part one, there was Hoji, a demon that turned into a voice in Lo Wang’s head. We also went for an ‘inner sidekick’ in this sequel, but not to repeat ourselves too much, we decided to make the voice a female one, belonging to a character named Kamiko. Given that Wang has a specific lewd sense of humour, we saw this as a situation with a lot of comic potential, especially since Kamiko is very well-behaved.
TZ: I guess you could sum up this idea in the expression ‘gender play’.
What is the trick to creating the story for a game like this, a shooter that’s a remake of an old-school classic?
PK: Firstly, we didn’t stick to the original Shadow Warrior too strictly. We took the idea but we expanded it in a way we saw fit.
TZ: There is, for example, a focus on Lo Wang’s irreverent sense of humour which can be enjoyed to its fullest in his cheesy one-liners. As to the story itself, it’s closely linked to the game’s mechanics. Namely, every time you enter a level, it’s randomly generated. So when you return to a given place, it’s always different from before. This is connected to the concept of the in-game world which is an unstable mix of the demonic and earthly reality, a place in constant flux.
The gameplay is said to reference shooters of old. Was that your intention?
PK: Most definitely. We grew up playing old-school PC shooters, so we have them in our DNA. You could easily say that at its core Shadow Warrior 2 is an old-school shooter. Of course, we added a lot of cool state-of-the-art stuff like advanced sword-fighting and a large upgrade system, but we wanted the actual fighting to have the feel of a 90s classic.
TZ: Flying Wild Hog generally specialises in creating shooters that are throwbacks to the 1990s. A bunch of opponents come at you and you have to deal with it. Doom, Duke Nukem – we draw inspiration from such titles. I’ve always said that video games are utterly post-modern because they’re based on already existing culture to start with, but our games even go a step further, they’re, so to say, post-post-modern because they cannibalise other games.
The game features music by the master of the action-movie song Stan Bush, creator of tunes for the Jean Claude Van Damme films Kickboxer and Bloodsport. Both of these are martial arts films set in Asia. Coincidence?
PK: Actually, a bit of a coincidence. With Stan Bush it all started during work on Shadow Warrior 1. We were looking for a song for the intro and our writer, who absolutely loves the 80s Transformers, suggested we use Bush’s tune from that movie. You know, even though Shadow Warrior is set in Asia, it includes plenty of references to American culture. Lo Wang is, after all, a fan of American comic books, video games and music. So motifs like this appear in our game, and that’s why we went for the Transformers song. It wasn’t until we were working on the sequel that I thought of maybe using some of the music he’d done for Kickboxer and Bloodsport. Even though I liked one of the songs from the Bloodsport soundtrack, our team didn’t share my enthusiasm. Fortunately, after being contacted by our publisher, Bush offered to make a new song especially for our game. It’s entitled Warrior and is a perfect match.
TZ: What’s also really cool is that Devolver, our publisher, actually released the Stan Bush songs included in Shadow Warrior on a golden vinyl record. The graphic side of this project, the album cover, the embellishments, is the work of leading Polish comic book author Michał ‘Śledziu’ Śledziński, who’s a big fan of the whole Shadow Warrior series. Before the idea for this vinyl showed up, he had made a piece of fan art for us, which we liked a lot and used for posters. So when the opportunity came up to work on a Shadow Warrior record, I immediately thought of him. Now there’s a very nice album out there, designed by Śledziu and with songs by Stan Bush.
This brings us to the next question: you recently started offering a Special Reserve Collector’s Edition that includes, among other things, a 96-page artbook. What can you find in it and what can you say about the process of creating art for the game?
PK: In the artbook, you can find the usual: designs for characters, enemies and weapons, as well as loads of concepts for the settings. These are all digital graphics created by our team. Some of them were made from scratch, some are collages, others were based on photographs of Japanese architecture.
TZ: The art is inspired by all kinds of things, each graphic designer has their own creative path. One of our artists drew inspiration for a firearm from the look of his motorbike’s engine. An exceptional artist whose works are included in the book is Magda Radziej. She’s responsible for most of the female characters in Shadow Warrior 2, including Ameonna and Kamiko.
PK: Paweł Świeżak and Marcin Wojtala are also great graphic artists that contributed to the game. They’re both seasoned in the field of game development, having worked on Painkiller, for instance. We had many other fabulous artists on our team, too many to mention.
You decided not to put any anti-pirating mechanisms into SW2, so-called DRMs, which can be quite pesky to players. This seems both a nod to gamers and a demonstration of your indifference toward pirates, which I believe you Tadeusz once described with a paraphrase of a famous film quote…
TZ: Our company never made use of DRMs, we just don’t want to be bothered with that. We’re an indie studio so we don’t have unlimited resources and we prefer to allocate the time and energy we have to developing a great game rather than implementing a DRM, which can be a hassle. Also we collaborate with the GOG.com online store, which has an anti-DRM policy. Besides, players don’t like DRMs and we’re with them on that. If somebody asks if the lack of anti-pirating mechanisms might cause smaller sales, I’d comment on that quoting Gone With the Wind again: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’
You take pride in an organisational culture that doesn’t involve rigid hierarchy. Your CEO, for instance, does programming work in an ordinary room with other programmers. Still, you’re one of the biggest and most successful studios in Poland. How does that work?
TZ: We’re fine this way because we’re a studio made up of veterans. ‘A safe haven for old developers’ that’s how we’re sometimes called [laughs]. We have a staff of experienced folks who, before they came to us, had worked for the biggest Polish developers such as CD Projekt RED, Techland and Vivid Games. So we function well as a flat organisation because everybody knows what their job is and how to do it – it’s as simple as that.
PK: As a team of senior game developers, we don’t need anybody overseeing our work. We’re perfectly capable of controlling ourselves. We’ve been operating like this since we started and have been doing well most of the time, so I guess that’s what works for us.
The Warsaw-based FWH currently employs over a 100 people and has recently opened a new office in Kraków, which we hear is working on an entirely new project. What is this project and in what direction will the studio be going in the near future?
TZ: We can’t really say much about Kraków, it’s a secret. They’re doing their own thing and we’ll see where it goes from there. The Warsaw branch is now taking a moment to breath after the launch of Shadow Warrior 2 and soon we’ll get to thinking about what’s next.
PK: We’re definitely going to offer new, downloadable content for Shadow Warrior 2 in the near future. So those fans who’ve already completed the game can keep playing it without repeating the same levels on and on. Let me tell you that there’s some good stuff coming up…