The Psychological Survival of Dyscourse

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It’s been a little over a month since Owlchemy Labs’ Dyscourse was successfully funded on Kickstarter, and the Boston-based developer has been busy counting its Internet millions.

Okay, not quite: Dyscourse is the other kind of Kickstarter success, the one that doesn’t resurrect a beloved franchise or have “name” developers attached. The game puts players in the role of one of several survivors of a plane crash trapped on a randomly-generated island, populated with wild animals, but light on food and supplies, in heavily-branching scenarios. And the modest $44,000 that Owlchemy was able to generate from the campaign is going into a conceptually fascinating game that is as much about creating new ways of telling stories as it is about delivering a new survival/adventure experience.

Recently, Owlchemy’s Chief Scientist/founder Alex Schwartz and CTO Devin Reimer spoke with us about the history of this still-young studio, what “psychological survival” means, and stranding Tim Schafer on an island with Edmund McMillen.

For Schwartz, founding Owlchemy in 2010 was the antidote to a year and a half of working as a technical artist for a defunct studio working on PS3 and 360 games (based on his LinkedIn profile, it would appear this was the Boston-based Seven45 Studios). “You hear a lot of people come from that AAA background to do indie games,” Schwartz admits, and for Owlchemy, their early trajectory was a familiar one: create something odd and unique that couldn’t exist in the AAA game space.

2011’s Smuggle Truck, was an off-beat racer that saw players attempting to sneak illegal immigrants across the border. After flirting with controversy (the game was rejected from the App store until Owlchemy replaced the immigrants with stuffed animals and redubbed the game Snuggle Truck), Schwartz says the game’s success helped keep the studio afloat while also making a name for the company with the quirky aesthetic.

It was about this time that Reimer came onboard, providing support during the development of Smuggle Truck, later moving to a tech lead role on Jack Lumber and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: For The Awesome before assuming the role of CTO in the three-year-old company. Before that, he’d spent four years as a Flash developer before attempting to strike out on his own as an independent developer. He met Schwartz at a Unite game event where conversation about Unity development quickly turned into collaboration.

When it comes to working with major publishers or taking in venture capital funding, Schwartz seems suspicious of working with anyone who might involve “outside control or diluting of our company.” A game like Dyscourse, Schwartz says, simply wouldn’t exist under those conditions—hence the Kickstarter campaign.

“Our previous games—Jack Lumber and Smuggle Truck—were around six to seven month development cycles with around three to five full-time equivalents to work on them. But Dyscourse is, by far, our most ambitious project with over a year of development with possibly more full-time people as the game ramps up.” Schwartz says that Dyscourse might not necessarily be unattractive to publishers and VC backers, but he could imagine their squeamishness about putting money behind a game outside of a proven genre, versus the more experimental Owlchemy method.

“We seem to have a unique and funny way of coming up with ideas that seems to have proven itself over the last two years,” Schwartz says when asked about the evolution of a game like Dyscourse. Part of that methodology involves a cabin in the woods, a handful of indie devs, and a lot of liquor as part of the IndieCabin retreat, where the psychological survival game was born.

“Devin, Carrie (Owlchemy artist Carrie Witt), and myself were all sitting in a room, talking about some of our current influences and things we were playing at the moment. And we got to talking about this open, survival-type game as well as the RPG Werewolf.”

“We were playing a lot of that at the cabin,” Reimer adds, “and we’re thinking that what really makes that game interesting is that you don’t know who to trust.” Reimer and Schwartz say they were drawn to the post-apocalyptic feel of those games (as well as The Walking Dead and Oregon Trail) without the ubiquitous zombies of survival scenarios.

It was that communication element which spawned the concept of psychological survival—forcing the player to talk to and interact with the other NPCs in order to learn who to trust. “Is it that you’re more fearful of what’s in the forest and desert at night,” Schwartz asks, “or is it that the other humans that are with you are more dangerous?”

With Dyscourse, the Owlchemy team wants the player to occupy a sort of “animal brain” way of thinking, amid Witt’s colorful art style (something Reimer says was done to balance out the darker themes in the game).

Consigned to a lower budget given the ambitions of Dyscourse, Schwartz, Reimer and the team found that they were liberated from some of the constraints of larger-budgeted games involving deep, narrative branching. While the game features randomized scenarios and extensive, branching dialog, Owlchemy has opted to do away with recording VO for the character dialog the way the Mass Effects or Fallouts of the industry might feel compelled to.

dyscourse screen 1.png

All of that extra 3D rigging and voice over recording “ends up tying [developers’] hands,” according to Reimer. “It was very appealing to work on a game that was structured in a certain way that let people feel like they’re choices really matter.” Schwartz says their approach was to change the constraints—text is cheap and placing much of the narrative focus on text-based dialog allowed them to create as much content as they needed for the campaign.

In fact, it was in prepping the video for the Kickstarter campaign that the team touched on an animation process that allows them to create and iterate on scenarios quickly. Originally, the plan was to have Reimer and Schwartz talk into the camera about the game, but after some negative feedback about the relatively static presentation, they struck on the idea of using the Owlchemy team to talk about the game in-engine.

And this is how you end up with Tim Schafer in your game.

“The concept of putting some of the other indie [developers] on the island was spun out of the idea of how fun it was to see ourselves stranded,” Schwartz explains. “We thought, ‘Oh man, it would be so awesome to have our friends in it.’” Thus was the “Indie Plane Crash” scenario born, featuring Tim Schafer, Edmund McMillen, Phil Tibitoski, Alexander Bruce, Ron Carmel, Robin Hunicke, Ichiro Lambe, Adam Saltsman, Will Stallwood and Rami Ismail.

While Schwartz and Reimer were friendly with some of the other devs on the list, it was Schafer who gave them pause since neither of them had ever actually spoken to the man. Ultimately, they wrote to the Double Fine boss who not only agreed to participate, but volunteered the fact that he had Boy Scout training and would likely be the first one to gnaw off his own leg in a crash scenario.

As for additional post-release content, Dyscourse fans will have to wait until the game ships with its initial scenario and the “Indie Plane Crash.” “Just knowing that we have the ability to do that with semi-ease,” Schwartz offers, “you can work with what you have and create new stories. [We’re] definitely hoping to do something like that.”

Charles Webb is a long-time game industry veteran, having worked as a writer and narrative game designer. You can enjoy his complaints about movies on Twitter at @TheCharlesWebb.

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