Noise Rock and Hollow Point Rounds: A Chat with Children of the Sun’s Solo Developer, René Rother

Games Features Children of the Sun
Noise Rock and Hollow Point Rounds: A Chat with Children of the Sun’s Solo Developer, René Rother

Announced just two months ago via a trailer with a banger cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Children of the Sun is an intriguing new puzzle-shooter from Devolver Digital about orchestrating great acts of violence. You play as The Girl, a sniper with a single bullet who uses telekinetic powers to bounce her lone projectile between targets until there’s no one left standing. It’s moody, nasty, and approaching as rapidly as a round fired from The Girl’s rifle. Ahead of the game’s release on April 9, we got some time with the Berlin-based solo developer behind the project, René Rother, and asked him about influences, noise rock, and videogame hyperviolence.

Paste: My understanding is that you worked on Children of the Son as a solo developer. How long have you been working on the game?

René Rother: So formally, I think it’s four years. It’s really hard to say because it was just a random prototype for a long time. And yeah, I’ve been just doing it on the side while I was working full-time. It was just like one of these mornings where I didn’t know what to do with my life, and I sent an email to Devolver. With just like a very regular pitch, it was just a bit of text and a video of the build of the prototype. And then they said, “Yeah, the pitch was shit, but the game looks cool.” And yeah, and then we kept talking. I was still working full-time for quite a while, but now on this game game. And then I quit. But then I was working full-time on the game for like, I don’t know, two years, two and a bit? I don’t know, the whole timeline is kind of blurry. But this project’s been on my mind for quite a while already, a crazy amount.

Paste: Do you have any advice for other aspiring solo devs or people trying to get a pitch out there?

René Rother: So if you were to ask me to describe your game, I would do it very badly. Like, I’m really, really bad at pitching. That’s not one of my strengths. So, usually, in a conversation, if someone asks me, “Oh, so what are you doing?” I’d be like, “You know, it’s just like this game. It’s kind of a puzzle, it’s 3D, it’s kind of a mixture, but it’s fine.” I don’t know, I’m really bad at like, selling things. So that’s why I’m really glad that Devolver got hooked on it. As advice, it’s really hard, I think I’m a really bad example.

I think I just got very, very lucky to be there at the right time and with the right thing, apparently. I think lots of it is based on luck, unfortunately. Like, you still need to work for it, lots of it is work. You need to have something that can convince people. And you somehow need to be able to sell it. But I think one of the main pieces of advice is to be persistent, or to at least try. But then we also kind of get into these weird situations where you need to know when to stop, right? Like, at some point, you need to figure out when it’s not worth it anymore to pursue this and move on. And I was not in a situation where I had to give up. So that’s why I don’t have this full overview of this whole situation and why I don’t think I can give good advice. I think you need to try to get somewhere, and I think that’s important.

Paste: Is this the first commercial game you’ve worked on, or were you already working on games as your full-time thing?

René Rother: Yeah, I was working as a 3D artist and at a small Berlin-based studio for, I think, three years. And that was my first job in games, actually. Before, I just worked on games for myself and had random other jobs. Like I worked as a stagehand, I worked in the supermarket. And before that, I studied graphic design, and I knew that I didn’t want to work in that field, I just didn’t like it at all. And somehow, I just tried to get into games. I don’t even know why, it just felt like it’s one of the things I’m interested in and that I felt like I can do. And I think that’s an important part that led me there, that I felt I could do it. I guess confidence is a bit important. I’m not the most confident person, but I was confident this is something I can do.

Paste: As a solo dev, do you think of yourself as a jack of all trades between programming, art, and game design? And how did you develop those skills?

René Rother: I think my strong point is more towards the art than the programming or game design even. It’s funny that people — I don’t know, the demo was out with the game’s announcement, and some people played it. And some people were saying that the game design, the level design, is good, or whatever. And that’s always a bit surprising to me because it’s just, I don’t know, I’m just trying to figure things out as I go.

But overall, I would say I’m not really a specialist in anything, I can do everything a little bit, and everything a little bit bad. But I think what I’m good at is putting these things together in a way that makes it seem like they’re not bad. I think that’s an important part, playing towards your strengths. Like the game is very limited in a lot of ways, gameplay and also visually, but I’m using my limitations a lot. And I think that’s an important part to keep in the back of your mind, to keep things simple. And try to stay within these guidelines, and then try your best within those things.

Paste: So, I’ve kind of got a two-part question. What are your biggest inspirations for Children of the Sun when it comes to games? And then, what are your biggest inspirations from outside of games, so other media, life, or anything else?

René Rother: So from outside of games, a big part is music, actually. I’m kind of trying to find some specific feeling in the game. Trying to convey it, which I usually mostly get in music. It’s like this kind of melancholic, slightly depressive, but not necessarily negative [feeling]. It’s like, sometimes you can get something very positive and get energy out of something which is actually kind of depressing. And this is kind of a feeling that I’m trying to put into the game, which I’m not sure if I succeeded, but like I got some things [across], so that’s worth something. So I feel like music is certainly a big influence.

And then for movies, basically everything that Nicolas Winding Refn has done. Like, in the beginning, I was looking at a lot of these Italian Giallo movies, like these B-movie low budget, kind of slightly, maybe mystical movies. They had a big influence. It’s just, like I was talking about limitations, and I think that’s a big part of these movies, is working within limitations. Just the sets themselves, the way they are colored. The actors, the acting is from a very small cast usually, these kinds of things. I think they’re very influential to me.

And games, I guess, like the most obvious thing that people like to notice is Killer7. I guess visually, there’s something there. But also, just the moment when you plan your path, when you’re on rails, that’s already like a big connection point, I guess. Otherwise, I think I would mention something like Hitman even, these kind of sandbox-y situations. Like, I didn’t get that far, but just allowing people a little bit of freedom in how they approach conquering a level, basically. I like these kinds of games where you have freedom.

I’m not too big into like open-world games where it’s like, freedom multiplied by one thousand, and it’s like, I get lost in it. And then it takes five million hours to get through anything. I don’t know, I was with my sister for Easter, I went home, and she was playing Breath of the Wild. She’s like stuck somewhere towards the end, and she was just like, “Oh, no, can you help me finish the last boss?” And then it turns out it’s not even the last boss, you still need to collect like a million other things and walk around, and then I don’t know, it’s like, you already have like 150 hours in there. And I don’t know. It’s like, that’s a bit too much to me, I like more condensed experiences. So basically, I’m just trying to put into the game whatever I like, what I enjoy. That’s what I tried to make.

Paste: You compared the game to music, I’m curious if you had to stick one genre of music on the game to describe it, what would it be?

René Rother: Originally, I started with noise rock. It’s like, The Jesus Lizard, and like, Pissed Jeans. All kinds of random bands. But I think apart from that, there’s this whole drone noise kind of element, which is where the artist who makes the music for the game also came in. I’ve been a fan of his stuff for like, quite a long time. It’s like, usually these very long, 15-minute kind of songs, which are just like droning around with a very harsh approach. And it’s like, this wavy kind of feeling in there. And then I just messaged him one day and asked him if he would like to make some music for game. He was like, “I don’t know, I never make music for games, but why not.” And that’s how it happened, just like sending random messages. So, getting him to make the music, Aidan Baker is his name, was like a very cool moment for me to connect with the things that I like. I mentioned before, it goes with bringing everything I like into the game. I like his stuff, so why not just put it in? Not just being inspired by it, but let’s use it. It’s really cool.

Paste: So earlier, you described the game as sort of a shooter meets a puzzle game. What made you interested in creating a game in that style?

René Rother: I don’t even know. Like, I don’t remember. I don’t remember how the whole prototype even happened. It’s like completely blank, where it even came from. When I made games before, it was usually more walking simulator type, atmospheric experiences with very minimal interaction where you just walk around, and you look around, and you experience the atmosphere. Atmosphere is a very interesting thing to me to work within, to just create feelings through surroundings, through what you look at, through what you hear.

And I don’t know, I think that was one of the very first prototypes I ever made where the gameplay was pretty much coming first. So it was very early on where I was like, “Maybe this is actually a game this time?” There’s rules, there’s verbs. People like to talk about verbs in games, and suddenly, it’s not just walking and experiencing, it’s suddenly more I can do there. It find it very interesting, I just remember this moment of realizing that it’s actually a game that I was making. So, I don’t know where it even came from. It was just exciting that it’s something that’s playable.

Paste: Yeah, it certainly makes me think of games like maybe SUPERHOT or Hotline Miami, where it’s about acts of extreme violence, and you’re kind of taking the time to stop and think about each violent act before you do it. So it has a combination of solving a puzzle and then a visceral thing that comes after, which I think is pretty interesting. Were those games you were thinking about at all?

René Rother: It’s games like that which I’m pretty sure were influential to me, but I didn’t play SUPERHOT, to be honest. But I think that contrast is always interesting. Like, what you’re describing where there are moments of action and then moments of planning. This is going back to music, what is always interesting in music is the transition to the next note, basically. Like, what is it, where is it going next, what is happening, and this is what creates tension and feeling. And I guess the same can hold true in games where it’s just elevating things. I remember there was a teacher who told me something when I was very small. It was something about reading comprehension or something, like when you had to mark certain lines in a book. This teacher was saying something like if you mark every line in the book, then it’s basically the same as if nothing is underlined.

And I think that’s also a very interesting concept, which I still think about sometimes. It’s like, if everything is the same intensity, if everything is the same, then it just basically doesn’t exist. You need the counterpart of it. And it’s like, I don’t know, you need to be sad sometimes to feel happier, sometimes. It’s like, it kind of applies to basically everything. But that contrast elevates things. It’s like putting a little bit of salt in when you bake something sweet. It makes it taste better, yeah.

Paste: So, having played through the game, it feels like it’s frequently calling attention to its own violence. The most extreme example is text that literally reads: “I just killed a man, and now I’m horny.” Was there anything specific you wanted to convey about violence through the game?

René Rother: Violence is like a very weird thing, right? I don’t know, it’s very disgusting and horrible. And like, I don’t think I’m a violent person. I never got into a fight my whole life. And it has some very weird, appealing element to it. Like, I don’t know if we have it engraved in our monkey brains somewhere. And there’s something, I don’t even know what the word is, interesting, at least, it’s at least interesting. And I think games are very often violent. The game is not sticking out in that way. I don’t even know why it’s like, I guess shooting is just such a simple concept that is easy to understand? You press a button, something happens, and it has a result. I don’t know, like even Asteroids and Pac-Man is even about killing, in a way, right?

And it’s something I’ve been thinking about sometimes quite a bit. Like, why do I make a violent game? And I don’t really have an answer there. It’s just like, I think questioning myself has found its way into the game a bit. Like, yes, this is violence, but it’s also stupid. It’s like, I don’t know, the game is also funny in a way. I don’t know, some people may see it or not. But it’s like, just the way that people, like, fly around after they get hit, or just like, in the opening moment when there’s a guy peeing, just very ridiculous moments, and that kind of goes back to contrasting against the violence. I don’t even know, there’s just something interesting about violence. And nobody should be violent, and guns are shit. Nobody should own a gun. Like if you even thinking about owning a gun, like what the fuck are you doing with your life? I don’t know.

I think there was some point in the beginning where I was kind of thinking a little bit about the topic about glorifying violence or dealing with violence. It’s like the same conversation, do anti-war movies exist or not? It’s like, is Full Metal Jacket a war movie or an anti-war movie? Is it glorifying it or not? It makes it look pretty cool, but at the same time, it also shows you the side effects, like the effect it has on people mentally or physically as well. It’s a very complicated topic, which I don’t have an answer for. I think that’s why I’m just rambling now, hoping to come back with an answer.

But I don’t know. It’s like, there’s just something very interesting about violence. And games, it just works well in games, unfortunately. And there’s this whole movement now about cozy games and stuff, which I think is cool. Like, I love Animal Crossing for example, I think it’s amazing. But I don’t know what it is, but somehow, I miss the action. Like not action in the sense of explosions and stuff, but like me, acting. I don’t know, I’m just rambling now.

Paste: Children of the Sun has no spoken dialogue and tells its story through illustrations and cutscenes before each level. Given the absence of dialogue, what elements do you think are most important for pulling players into the world and story?

René Rother: It’s very abstract, but I would go back to the atmosphere. And the music plays a really big role in the art. This story is not unimportant to me, it is important to me, but I think it’s easy to miss things there. Which I don’t think is a problem. Like the whole point for me is to not be explicit about things. One of the reasons is also because I don’t think I’m a good writer. So, if I would write the dialogue and just a bunch of text, it could kill everything. Just make one line which feels off, and then suddenly, it’s weird.

The story is more about emotions. It’s not so much about, like, facts about saying, “Oh, there’s a mountain, and then there’s this,” and I don’t even know. So, these emotions can be very easily conveyed without someone spelling it out. It’s even better, I think, then if someone says, “Oh, no, I’m sad because this happened.” And I don’t know what it is, it just feels off. For this game, very early on, it was clear to me that I didn’t want any dialogue in there. I think it would just not fit at all.

Paste: Do you have any examples of a small detail you added to the game that people might not consciously notice but you think really contributes to making the game feel better or more fun to play?

René Rother: It’s a lot of stuff about the camera because you’re basically moving the bullet around, and it took a lot of trial and error to capture that. Just the angle being right, being off center, or being behind. There are just so many different things, and also, as the gameplay elements progressed and as more abilities came in, that meant that I needed to re-evaluate how the camera behaves. Like, at some point, you can re-aim the bullets to change the trajectory. And before, the camera was offset just a little bit to make it look more cinematic. But then I put this in [the re-aim ability], and suddenly, it was not working anymore. When the camera is offset, you cannot aim, which is a problem, of course. And then bringing the camera back in, and then going back out again, it just made like a very weird experience. It was just too much movement there.

And I don’t know, and also when you hit a person or a target, the camera, just for a moment, kind of follows. And then it goes back. There’s all these tiny camera movements in there, which took quite a lot of work to find a feeling for. I was looking a lot at racing games, actually, in the beginning. Just to convey this feeling of speed without the bullet actually going that fast, it’s actually pretty slow. But just like pulling up the field of view and like adding the speed lines and then adding some slight shake, and all of these kinds of things. I think if people don’t notice the camera too much, then people say it’s usually a good thing, right? But it takes a lot of effort to get the camera right.

Paste: The game is coming out very soon, on April 9, I believe. How does it feel to be this close to release after working on this game for four years and some change?

René Rother: I’ve got some complicated feelings about it. In one way, I feel pretty chill. There’s still something to do, but there’s nothing really breaking, there’s no big issues anymore. So yeah, that’s fine. And then I don’t even know what I will do on Tuesday when it comes out. What do people usually do on their release? Do they just, like sit in front of their desk and refresh everything? I don’t know, I was thinking about going out, but I don’t think I could do it because I would just be too curious about what is going to happen. And then the whole release is going to happen, and then people have opinions on it. I don’t know. And then, what do I do with my time?

I don’t know, it’s just like, so many questions I feel uncertain about. I don’t know, I feel weird. I think that’s the way to put it. I just feel weird about it being over. Because it also was such a nice experience working with Devolver, and things coming to an end is kind of sad. It can also mean that something good is happening afterwards, right? But it’s just all a big question mark, like this uncertainty of everything is just very strange. So I don’t know. Just trying to survive. Just blocking everyone who says bad things. [Laughter]

Elijah Gonzalez is the assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin