Chris Bischoff - BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION interview
Nic and Chris Bischoff may not be household names in the gaming industry just yet, but we suspect that is only a matter of time. The two brothers hailing from South Africa burst onto the scene in 2015 with STASIS, and to say it was an impressive debut is a major understatement. The sci-fi horror adventure set in the aftermath of a spacefaring genetic research facility gone terribly wrong managed to get just about everything right. From its fantastic art and sound design and sadistically grim atmosphere to its detailed backstory, the derelict Groomlake pulled us in and never let go until it had wrung our year-end Aggie Award for Best Adventure from our petrified hands.
The Bischoffs gave themselves a hard act to follow, so what did they do next? Merely offer their next game free. CAYNE returns players to the STASIS universe, but this time as a pregnant woman who must survive the terrible medical facility in which she’s trapped and escape with her baby. With upgraded graphics, a new story and an improved engine, this isn’t merely a rehash of STASIS with a different character either. Offering several hours of gameplay, it’s a far more polished, complete adventure than many commercial offerings. (Did we mention it is FREE?!)
For their next full-scale project, Nic and Chris (appropriately dubbing themselves “THE BROTHERHOOD”) are leaving space and keeping things a little closer to home: in their case, the African continent. In BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION, a highly advanced, mysterious alien object became the catalyst for an earthly apocalypse of misused technology. Now the survivors are left to pick up the pieces of this lovely but curious retro-future world, including Mark and Don Leslie, along with their four-legged reconnaissance drone named POOCH. In order to complete the game, the Bischoffs turned to Kickstarter for funding. The good news is that with only a few days left, the game has managed to nudge its way over the top to reach its minimum goal, though there's still time for stretch goals and breathing room.
If you’re still on the fence about supporting the game (and even if you aren’t), read on as we chat with artist/designer Chris Bischoff about the brothers’ earlier successes and the BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION ahead.
Adventure Gamers: So, two brothers from South Africa, of all places, became adventure game developers. How did that happen?
Chris Bischoff: It's been 14 years that Nic and I have been working together professionally. We started an architectural illustration studio that we ran – and grew – for more than a decade. Before that (being brothers) we had years to work on small game projects together growing up, and a multitude of other creative ideas blossomed.
We work well together – both bringing a unique set of skills to our projects and businesses. I think it's our respect and understanding of the other’s roles and capabilities that make our partnership so powerful.
But with this being said, we're not bulletproof! Living at the tip of Africa and being in this field certainly has its challenges. Working within tight budgets and with limited resources, in a small game development industry in South Africa, has perhaps stretched our creativity even further.
In BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION's case, we're lucky to have access to a unique environment we can incorporate into our projects.
AG: I believe it was Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw who once suggested that an indie developer shouldn’t publish their first game (knowing the many rookie mistakes it is likely to contain). You guys ignored that sage advice… and went on to release our Game of the Year for 2015 on your first try. So much for that theory! How do two independent upstarts get so good so fast?
Nic and Chris Bischoff
Chris: "The more I practice, the luckier I get!" Although STASIS was our first official game, we have been making games together since the mid ‘90s, including a Scorched Earth clone that we gave away for free and an overly optimistic take on a Star Control II-inspired space trading game.
Both Nic and I thrive on success. Our parents are also business owners and instilled in us a drive to succeed by our own sweat – so do it ourselves because nobody was going to do it for us!
Many late nights (turned early mornings) of development and what felt like endless hours of play testing turned into STASIS. It was born out of a desire to tell our own story, which is perhaps why we shied away from taking on a publisher.
While STASIS itself took five years to make, in reality it has been many years in the making! Every conversation we had, every movie we watched and book we read... every time we played through a game over and over again, and discussed what we would've done differently – all of those things came together into The Brotherhood.
AG: The Kickstarter for STASIS referred to classic Sierra and LucasArts titles such as King’s Quest and Monkey Island. Were you big fans of point-and-click games when you were growing up, and what drew you to the genre?
Chris: I grew up on Space Quest and the Sierra games – which is probably why the idea of death in adventure games comes so naturally to me. I spent countless hours on Space Quest (being a huge Star Trek fan, Space Quest was an easy thing to love), but it wasn't until I played The Dig that my eyes were opened up to the idea of adventure games being a vessel to tell a hard science fiction story.
Star Control II was also an obsession of ours! And we were soon distracted by the tools we had to create it.
In both of those instances, we loved the stories. Adventure games are games that bring characters to the forefront in ways that few other games can – and it's what we love about the genre!
AG: Following on from that, it's still a pretty big leap from there to the horrors of STASIS. What made you want to explore such a dark future, rather than, say, exploring a tropical island and using monkeys as hand tools?
Chris: Alien changed my life. I can't remember how old I was when I first watched it, but I do remember it leaving a profound mark on me.
In comparison to Star Wars and Star Trek, that I'd become so familiar with, Alien was dark and terrifying. The Space Jockey, the derelict ship, the planet itself, and of course the creature... for the first time in my life I saw something that was truly alien.
Wrapping up horror into science fiction added an entire new level of emotion. Fear and the unknown are the two greatest things that I love about the horror genre, and weaving those into a science fiction world seemed natural.
It's exciting and tantalizing – and that's what we want players to feel.
AG: STASIS feels very cinematic; it’s clear you’re sci-fi film fans as well. How did that influence translate to an interactive medium?
Chris: As well as the huge influence Alien had on STASIS, others like Event Horizon, Sunshine, Logan’s Run, Pandorum – all of these films have had an influence on us as artists. Everything from the model sound design, story, cinematography and dialogue that make these masterpieces found its way into STASIS and CAYNE somehow.
AG: One of the standout features of STASIS is its detailed worldbuilding, both in terms of the ubiquitous PDAs and hints at events such as the Eugenics Wars. You’ve already returned to it once with your impressive freeware spin-off CAYNE, but with BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION taking a different path, is this nonetheless a universe you plan to return to at some point in future?
Chris: I would love to return to the world of STASIS. There is much to explore, and we have a detailed view of the world beyond the Cayne Corporation facilities.
We have some rough ideas for a new devilish story and I'm sure we'll revisit this world, but we've lived inside those decrepit halls for a little too long, so I'm looking forward to getting out into the open plains.
AG: Close relationships sit at the heart of your games: John Maracheck searching for his family, Hadley and her unborn baby, and now a pair of brothers in BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION. How important do you think it is for stories to have an emotional core like that, even in a generally plot-driven genre like sci-fi?
Chris: I think that it's most important to create stories that people can relate to. To tug on the heart strings, if you will. It builds interesting characters in the world, and drives their actions and motives.
Many of our favorite stories deal with this too. Most recently in Interstellar, where Cooper and Murph's relationship had us choked up at his desperation to return to his family. Or Ripley's fight to save Newt, in Aliens.
We want to evoke emotion, and drive our characters as we delve into our wonderful worlds and extreme situations. STASIS was our first attempt at this process. I think we have gotten better at it and we are ready to tackle even greater emotive familial relationships.
AG: Both the Groomlake setting from STASIS and the post-apocalyptic African wasteland from BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION have very distinctive looks, blending retro and futuristic aesthetics. What goes into imagining the worlds in your games?
Chris: I think that us being introduced to science fiction through (what are now considered) classic films of the ‘70s and ‘80s has influenced our art. Its nostalgia mixed with something fun.
When I wanted to create science fiction worlds as a kid, I'd imagine them made up of vacuum-formed plastic and old recycled pipes. Now that we have the opportunity to make those worlds, I get to make those early childhood dreams come true!
AG: The scientists in STASIS are a pretty amoral lot (and that's putting it mildly). Do you believe there's any real risk that a company as reckless as the Cayne Corporation could come to be? Do we have enough safeguards in place to keep ethically questionable research in check?
Chris: People make the best monsters. Humans have the ability to be incredibly selfless – and at the same time we have the ability to be truly horrific. I think that everyone exists in that grey area in-between, and it's when the consequences of our actions are completely removed that we start to see how far we will shift in either direction.
Corporations and governments are just people, but as these huge institutions get larger and larger the consequences for their actions get smaller and smaller. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
While we've never had a company as powerful as Cayne Corporation in our world (yet...), history has shown what happens when these centers of power get too large. Our safeguards tend to come in the form of our empathy and our humanity – and the optimist in me believes it's that humanity which will always show through in even the darkest of times.
AG: More realistically, do you see the technologies discussed in STASIS, such as organ cloning and genetic manipulation, coming to pass? If so, would that be a good thing, or should we start preparing for the worst? Are we (as humans) as incapable of using technology responsibly as your games would suggest?
Chris: I'm incredibly excited about the current state of science and technology! We are living in the future! I have a tricorder in my pocket, we're 3D printing artificial limbs and we're only a few years away from biologically printing body organs and understanding our own genetic code. ‘Childhood Chris’ would be impressed!
I think that scientists are inherently good people who want to leave the world a better place than when they got here. I like to think that the world of Cayne Corporation will only ever exist in my head…
AG: Although a much smaller game than STASIS, you easily could have charged money for CAYNE and probably done quite well. Not that we’re complaining(!), but why release it for free?
Chris: We made the decision to release CAYNE for free before we went into production. It was the perfect project to test our new asset pipeline, as well as the new Unity framework we had in mind. It also allowed us to work out how to work intensely together on a game project. CAYNE only took us 11 months to complete and so we now have a benchmark on what we can do in a time period. CAYNE has also given us a rock solid foundation to build our future projects on, and has been downloaded over 160,000 times – which is a lot of engine future proofing!
AG: You’ve also contributed to the art design of Wasteland 3, correct? It’s certainly no surprise that others have recognized your skills. How did that partnership come about?
Chris: I did some early fan art for Wasteland 2 when it was first announced, and since then I've kept in touch with industry legend Brian Fargo. We met up at GDC2015 and discussed the idea of working together on a more official basis for InXile's next project – which happened to be Wasteland 3.
Over a few months we helped with look development and concept art to flesh out the world and visually show off the new ideas that Brian and his amazing team had.
It was an incredible experience, and it's something that I'm happy to keep doing as long as they will have me!
AG: The brotherly bond plays a big role in BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION. It's not hard to see what inspired you on that account! How have you found the process of working so closely together for so long? Do you still get along, or can it be a strain at times?
Chris: We get along better than most people! And while there is conflict, we navigate around it constructively. While we share so many similar interests, we also have different views on a multitude of things. Where these opinions meet is where the interesting ideas emerge.
AG: As you’ve noted on your Kickstarter page, it's novel for a game to be set in Africa. Looking at the footage so far, it's easy to see why you wanted to show off how beautiful it can be. So why bring down an apocalypse upon it?
Chris: New York and San Francisco have had enough science fiction destruction!
The ideas for a post apocalyptic game in Africa have their roots in a story that Nic and I wrote years ago (pre-STASIS). So when it came down to us planning our next project, we dusted off the old ideas and this one jumped out at us! It seemed a good fit, and as we started exploring the idea further, we were more and more excited about the possibilities.
AG: Do you feel like ambassadors for African game development? Will we see more great games coming out of Africa in the future?
Chris: I don't consider us to be ambassadors, but I do hope that people can look at what we have achieved and realize that they can do the same. Digital distribution has torn down the barriers to releasing a game out into the world.
I do hope to see Africa being explored in games, beyond the idea of a war torn continent. There is such beauty and wonder here – it's an extremely wide pallet for artists and creators to explore.
AG: So we know that the world of BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION changed dramatically with the appearance of a mysterious monolith called the Penrose, when mankind blatantly ripped off its technology (as we are wont to do) without having the maturity to wield it responsibly. Is it the goal of the game to discover who built it and where it came from, or is that largely just a narrative backdrop for exploring (and surviving) this unique place?
Chris: The Penrose is the catalyst for the story and the world, but at its heart, BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION will be about family and those bonds. Having The Penrose gives us an opportunity to create some otherworldly technology and an air of magic while still keeping things grounded in reality.
The Penrose itself is intrinsically linked to Mark and Don Leslie – but just what that link is... you're going to have to play the game to find out!
AG: Along with the two Leslie brothers, one of the central characters is a mechanical dog-like reconnaissance drone called POOCH. Will we get to play as POOCH?
Chris: POOCH is an NPC, but she will work with the player as a companion. You will talk to her, get her to do tasks and take advantage of her various abilities to help solve puzzles.
POOCH is more than a walking toolbox, however, and she has her own story and her own sets of goals that will come into sharp conflict with the brothers' journey.
She has lived in the world for a long time before Mark and Don arrive, so she often acts as a guide to the player. I think POOCH will be a very challenging character to write and create because we want her to be more than just a walking toaster.
AG: All your games so far have used an isometric viewpoint, which is common to RPGs but still relatively rare for adventure games. What’s the appeal of that perspective to you as developers?
Chris: When I first did the tests for STASIS, the isometric camera angle seemed natural. I loved Fallout 1 and 2 – and, of course, the Infinity Engine games – so when it came to building a game of our own we moved towards the isometric viewpoint.
I think my art style lends itself to the isometric vantage point. I can add just enough detail to make the scenes look awesome but I do not need to fuss over them for days on end.
While it can be difficult to create a connection with a character from this aspect, it could also serve as an effective tool to convey that the characters are a piece of a bigger picture. They are a small part of the whole – which I think is a powerful lens to tell a story through.
AG: You’ve incorporated numerous improvements since STASIS, first in CAYNE and even more so in BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION. Can you elaborate on some of these?
Chris: The largest is the decision to switch engines from Visionaire to Unity. Unity is an incredibly flexible piece of software and has allowed us to expand our game design ideas out into many different areas.
Another switch is from 2D to 3D characters. 2D characters are time and memory intensive. Each motion that John did in the STASIS world was rendered, lit and then imported. This would often take days for some of the complicated interactions. Our move to 3D characters is simpler and faster to implement, which in turn speeds up the overall game design.
As I'm sure you've noticed in CAYNE, we've pushed the visual aspects in directions we weren't able to do in STASIS. Using interactive lights, normal mapping, particle systems and additional animations all make the game more immersive.
In addition to this, our new sound engine allows for directional and distance-based sound effects. All these tools make for crafting a better game, faster.
CAYNE was just the beginning and we think we can take the art to an even higher level of fidelity. Our test scenes that we created for the Kickstarter campaign look even better than CAYNE does and these are the early days of the ‘look and feel’ development.
AG: And how about enhancements from a storytelling and gameplay perspective? Not that you left a whole lot of room for improvement in those areas, but what did you learn from your first game that will make the next one even better?
Chris: We're looking at moving away from the linear storytelling style of our previous games in BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION. We will still have a definite story with a beginning, middle and end, but we want to give the player more freedoms when it comes to how they play the game.
In CAYNE we tried to open the game up from the typical ‘unlock a room and move to the next room’ process. We applied a hub setup to the game and it worked fairly well. However, it can and will be improved on in DESOLATION.
AG: We applaud you for the brutally honest 2019 target release date for BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION. That’s so refreshing after the many Kickstarters that over-promise with blatantly unrealistic production goals (and of course, fail to meet them). Were you concerned at all that the long development cycle would scare people off?
Chris: We were (and are), but we're coming to backers and asking for their hard-earned money, so it's our responsibility to be honest.
CAYNE was a test of our skills with regards to our development speed, and now we're confident about the size and quality of game that we want to make.
We haven’t committed to multiple platforms and operating systems because we are unsure if we can deliver our game to them on day one. I know we would have doubled our Kickstarter funding if we said ‘Yes, this will be on PS4 and XBOX’ but that would be a lie and we pride ourselves on transparency and honesty.
2019 is a far way away, but I promise that it will be worth the wait!
AG: As we speak, the game currently needs one final push to get your funding over the top. Any final words to those still on the fence about supporting BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION?
Chris: If anybody is still unsure about what we're able to deliver, please play CAYNE – it's free! – and see what we can do.
The community has been supportive of us – they believed in STASIS and we delivered more than what was expected! Even with full translations.
We don't take our crowdfunding campaign lightly, and we're confident that we can create an amazing experience with the fans’ help, and I just hope that they will come along on the ride with us.
Visit our Kickstarter page and learn more about our vision.
AG: We’re certainly rooting for you, as we can’t wait to see what’s in store from the Bischoff Brotherhood. Thanks so much for taking time to talk with us, and all the best on the project!
Chris: Its been a pleasure!
Peter Mattsson and Jack Allin contributed to this article.