Tell us a little about RocketBrush Studio, how and when did it start?
We started our work in 2016 by making game graphics and art for various developers. Gradually, our projects became more and more formidable, which led to increasing our team size. Eventually, we decided to run an in-house game project in addition to our main area of business. After a series of trials and failures, we finally came up with The Unliving.
What difficulties you have to overcome when you make a game for several platforms at once?
We have not yet approached the stage of porting our game to consoles and thus have not tried to assemble builds for them. But it seems that thanks to Unity everything should go more or less smoothly in this regard. There are some difficulties with controls and interface, but here we stick to the sort of “mobile-first” (in our case, “console-first”) principle by trying to provide comfortable controls and interface for console players in the first place.
What do you use as references for the visual style of the game?
Basically, everything. Experienced artists usually absorb everything they see. You can notice a cool scene in movies when watching something like "Mad Max" and find a proper place to use it in your work years later (this has really happened, by the way). We were watching a wide array of games from Medievil on Playstation 1 to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. And of course, we learned a lot from Blizzard’s Diablo 2 and 3, we carefully analyzed Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft. Although we have 2D and pixels in general, the overall visual difference is not important. Mostly we look at how they work with lighting, what components make up a location, what happens with proportions, color, and so on. After all, pixel art is just a tool, it does not define the visual language of the game – doing so is the prerogative of the artist.
In The Unliving you play as a villain protagonist. Can you stay evil till the very end of the game?
We are not trying to show our hero as an absolute evil and, moreover, we are not trying to oppose him with something even more terrible. In the first place, we tell the story of a powerful Necromancer who paves his way to immortality – this goal justifies almost any means for him. However, his opponents are also far from being sinless. The balance of good and evil in the game world is not polarized in our case – we leave it up to the players to make their own moral judgments based on their views.
Necromancers are quite common in video games. Which ones are your favorites?
If you mean necromancers as a class, then we can probably say that the necromancer from Diablo 2 is our favorite. Probably, this is because for us, like for many other players, this was the first experience of playing as a necromancer. If we are talking about characters, then, frankly, nothing bright pops up in memory at all. Actually, this is one of the reasons why we are making a game focused on a strong necromancer character.
Tell us more about the world and the lore of The Unliving. Is this a familiar fantasy setting or there are some original elements in your game?
We do not raise the question in this specific way and do not consciously try to borrow something from the other universes. Perhaps, it helps us that we don’t need to make a choice between different races and classes at all, because if you do you can usually begin to subconsciously borrow a lot. So naturally, we have come up with something original, some kind of our own world, which allows us to reveal the concept of the connection between life, magic, and death on a deeper level. In the world of our game, both the past and the present, the earth and heavens are determined by this connection and the conflict that arises from all the different views on it. While the hero, who has gained the strength, eagers to grasp it and use it to his advantage, the Church of Zolar – his main opponent, severely punishes everyone who is associated with magical arts, just like the medieval Inquisition. All inhabitants of The Unliving, from the lower species to the aristocracy that feasts during the plague, suddenly find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place. We will tell their stories too.
You mentioned that the player will be able to control various unique creatures. Which for example? Who will be part of the undead army?
We wouldn't like to reveal everything in advance. The undead army will include everyone who can’t escape from it :) This is the feature of The Unliving: the one you kill won't just be resurrected as a typical skeleton, but rather as a dead version of itself, gaining the corresponding abilities. For example, you can raise a necro-werewolf if you defeat the ordinary one. Cool, huh?
Necromancers repeatedly appeared in different games. Which image seems the most relevant to you, and who do you focus on when working out your characters?
Again, there are not many bright personalities of necromancers in videogames, so we are more guided by the characters from the other media, handpicking those who conveyed this topic at an angle that is close to us. For example, a hero like Victor Frankenstein from the 1818th novel desires to understand the secret of eternal life and learn to subjugate death itself. But his passion does not meet the understanding by a conservative society, which translates into fierce confrontation and sacrifices on both sides. In general, necromancy is more of an interesting original entity, not tied to specific characters, but rather to some idea or mechanics. The main sources of necromancy are primarily games like Diablo, Heroes of Might and Magic, Warcraft, and Disciples.
As this is a rogue-lite will the player have the opportunity to raise one's body from the dead too?
What happens to the body of our necromancer after his death is something we would like to keep a mystery for now. But the most straightforward process of resurrecting your own body that you can probably imagine right now is not how it's going to work. However, the necromancer does return to the world after every death as it should be in a rogue-lite.
Tell us about rogue-lite mechanics. What will be the difference between the runs – just spells you can use or something else? And what about the character's skills development?
It will vary a lot. Firstly, a level map is randomly generated each time from the hand-drawn chunks. Opponents, traps, and special battle effects change within those chunks. Secondly, the attack and special abilities of the hero will be changing too: during one level run, you can infect enemies with a plague, in another one – make totems from their corpses. Then, we have a special feature – necromancer can sacrifice his undead units, transforming them into specific spells. In the game, you can find artifacts that modify those spells with various effects. And there will probably be something else in addition to that :)
You said that there will be a narrative in the game, which will be presented indirectly, bit by bit. Why did you decide to make a narrative like this, and how important is the plot in The Unliving at all?
Well, in fact, we are still experimenting with storytelling mechanics in the game – the longer we work on it, the more features and details we want to saturate the world with, and the plot component gradually grows bigger.
How serious is the overall mood of the storytelling?
The narrative of Unliving will have a rather serious tone. There will be a certain amount of dark humor in it, but the narrative itself will not slip into “narrative arcade”, most characters will be serious about the world they live in and will not be breaking the 4th wall unnecessarily. The topics touched in the game will get some serious development, but of course through the prism of a fantasy world.
Tell us more about creating the art style of The Unliving. Among ordinary gamers, there is a stereotype that pixel art is one of the simplest art techniques. Is that true?
Pixel art is an easy entry point into the game art, but it’s not as simple as one may think. Developing a skill here can be more difficult than in a conventional digital drawing: pixels have their own characteristics that you need to learn, otherwise, a beautiful picture will not work. Somewhere it really allows you to save some money, but somewhere it may be faster to do that in 3D. Ultimately, to make Owlboy-level graphics, you need to know and be able to do as much as a regular CG artist and maybe even a little more. In our case, pixel art is not a solution to cut the corners – we invest hundreds of hours of work by professional artists in creating graphics. This is a choice to convey a certain atmosphere and create a highly readable 2D picture, in which, however, there is still a place for the player's imagination.