Push Square recently visited the Liverpool city centre base of the independent studio Firesprite in the sunny North West of England to discuss The Persistence, which in the words of Game Director Stuart Tilley is a “brutal, sci-fi, stealth horror roguelike” game releasing on PlayStation VR next week. We sat down with both Stuart and the game’s Art Director, Lee Carus, to examine the challenges of creating jump scares, sci-fi influences, and the team’s ardent artistic ambitions, as we orbited around its infectious enthusiasm for new technologies.
Push Square: When did Firesprite first start developing The Persistence, and how did you decide on a shift in tone for the studio, from making light-hearted games like The Playroom and Run Sackboy! Run! to developing a mature, horror themed title?
Stuart Tilley: We started making The Persistence three years ago, so in early spring time 2015, and it’s the sort of game we always wanted to make. Even back in the day, we’ve known each other, me and Lee and Graeme for maybe fifteen years or so [Lee Carus - Art Director, and Graeme Ankers - Managing Director], and we’ve always said that we really, really want to make a scary game one day. Me and Lee particularly are massive sci-fi fans as well, so it was something we had always really wanted to do to make a scary sci-fi game. It’s something that’s always been bubbling for us to make. Obviously making fun, family games like The Playroom and Run Sackboy! Run! were really, really good fun to make as well. We learned quite a lot from both of them, particularly in The Playroom and The Playroom VR with how the social play worked, which is something that inspired us to some degree at least for when we were doing the companion app for The Persistence.
Did any classic or modern games – or films, literature, and art – help to inspire either the stealth horror gameplay in The Persistence?
Stuart Tilley: Yes, I think is the point, so there’s loads of stuff all the way back, even like Doctor Who, Alien, Dead Space, and System Shock. I’ve literally just finished reading The Expanse series. Some of the enemies, even The Weeper enemy in part, were inspired by The Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. We have an enemy called The Bloodhound who was inspired by the enemy in It Follows the movie, as well. Our creative and artistic inspirations come from thirty years of sci-fi.
Lee Carus: It was a massive pool to choose from, essentially. You know, if you look in some of the areas inside the ship there’s almost a sense of the kitchen areas from the Alien movie, where some of the surfaces have a similar sort of almost yellowy vibe to it. At the same time, if you go into the recovery area, it’s got more of a vibe of Wallace’s place in Blade Runner 2049. There is such a massive pool to help us build this world, basically.
What are the challenges of creating memorable moments such as jump scares and set-pieces in a roguelike horror themed game, and is it harder to create scripted shocks if the ship’s layout is procedurally generated?
Stuart Tilley: The challenges are numerous, we spent literally years creating a system, and not just the art, but also there’s a lot of control code over the top of the art creation. We have a very complicated way of making the levels, but then we really wanted to craft the player’s journey. For example a lift jump scare, a simple example that’s in there, we have a system that will simply understand how long has it been since the player felt the last one. What’s the music doing at the minute? Is it okay to trigger this jump scare? We have a bunch of different intertwined things that would then trigger, or not trigger things that are in the world. It’s one of those reasons we’re trying to keep each playthrough with as much variety as possible.
Does Firesprite recommend players to slowly and stealthily move through the game, and to what extent can you play The Persistence as a faster paced first-person shooter, gun-toting, action game?
Stuart Tilley: This is really important, the difference between stealth and action in The Persistence. Different types of players like stealth and action, and sometimes you want it in the same game. We very much made the choice that we want to make a game when the player initially was weak, they were being hunted by the enemies in the game, but then we give them brief periods of extra strength, so we can go from a journey of being scared and moving slowly to then suddenly offloading a couple of weapons. We’ve intentionally made a lot of the weapons overpowered compared to regular first-person games, but with limited ammo. You can imagine your journey as slow, slow, scared, “Ooh, look what I’ve got!” Bang! Loads of action. “I feel really good and powerful, oh no, I’m out of ammo! Let’s go back to playing slowly again.” It goes across lots of systems, but that’s the basic shape of what we wanted to create.
Stuart, you also worked as Senior Producer for Electronic Arts on Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and as Senior Producer on Killzone 2 for Sony. How did your team’s past experience with first-person shooter games inform the design of The Persistence as a virtual reality game?
Stuart Tilley: Oh look at you, you’ve been on Wikipedia! [Laughs] We absolutely have, working in first-person games a few times, particularly I was lucky to work on a few of these bigger ones. It definitely inspires you, not only is it games that everyone knows – everyone knows and experiences first-person games – it just made it a very natural thing. I’ve learned so much making them two games that when we came into making this one in first-person it was something we already felt that we had a grounding in, and we had a bunch of experience in. We knew enough about AI systems, character animation, weapon play, and weapon feedback through the gun experience that you need for all these different types of games. It was just a case of taking that cool stuff that we knew and applying it to virtual reality, and unlearning some of the lessons that apply to traditional 2D first-person shooters and then reinventing a new language for VR.
Did Firesprite consider including a PlayStation Move option for motion-based aiming controls during development?
Stuart Tilley: We designed the game to work with DualShock 4, the DualShock is perfect for first-person games, you’ve got both the sticks and we know that everyone who has got a PlayStation definitely has a DualShock 4, so we designed the game for that. A lot of players, and people online have asked for the potential of doing support for Move controllers, so we will see how it goes. I think basically what the public’s perception is to that? We’re not averse to doing it, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for us to do. If we’re going to do it, we want to do a brilliant job of it, rather than to just throw it in, essentially.
The latest issue of Official PlayStation Magazine describes The Persistence as, "This could be PS VR’s best-looking game". Lee, you are very experienced with designing visuals, so was it an artistic goal to exceed expectations regarding graphics in a PlayStation VR game?
Lee Carus: Yes! It absolutely was, throughout the development we were always pushing ourselves, and you know the good thing is PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro gives us an extremely powerful starting point to work with, but I always wanted to push the lads to make sure that we were always on top of that. New VR experiences came out, and we would sit down and say, “Right, what are these guys doing better than us, and what can we do to make sure that we’re going to look just as good and keep it current and fresh?” We spent a lot of time optimising, working with this incredible lighting system that we’ve got, which allows us to light these vast areas, but at the same time still throws tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of polygons around. Constantly crafting it, constantly re-evaluating the game, constantly reviewing it, and I still like to think that as we are right now that we’re going to one of, if not the best looking VR game out there.
Stuart Tilley: Is right! [A nice bit of Scouse phrasing from Stuart in reaction to Lee’s answer - Ed]
The roguelike subgenre provides variety to the gameplay after a player dies, as the layout of the ship changes each time protagonist Zimri Eder is cloned and reawakened. However, does the game’s story reach a definite conclusion, and are there any New Game Plus-like advantages to a second full playthrough, such as retaining purchased weapons or keeping upgrades?
Stuart Tilley: Yes, the game does reach a definitive conclusion. Basically, the player’s objective when playing as Zimri is to repair the ship and make the jump back to earth, and each of the missions you take on – one mission per deck – gets you closer to that goal. Completing a mission on a deck stays persistent [Stuart chuckles] between each playthrough, as do your upgrades, so there is definitely a conclusion. There are different endings, depending on how you do, and there is a big final challenge and how you perform in that will give you slightly different endings, and then it does open up survival mode, which is going to be there from day one. Survival mode challenges you to do the game in just ten lives, which is really hard. I think six is my record so far. We hope to be doing some DLC soon with some extra game modes. As it stands, no, it’s a brand new playthrough (after you complete it), it’s not New Game Plus, yet.
Just to clarify, is the digital release date of The Persistence on Tuesday the 24th of July, but the physical version out a day after on July 25th?
Stuart Tilley: Yes, that’s correct it’s out on the 24th of July digitally, and physically on the 25th. How exciting is that!
Thank you very much for your time, Firesprite, and good luck with the release of The Persistence. Nice one!
Will you be taking a stealth, or action route through The Persistence on PSVR next week? Are you nervous of jump scares in virtual reality, or do you feel good and powerful even without any ammo? Please wear your brown space pants in the comments section below.