Cyclopean: Iron Tower Studio interview

PhotobucketWe knew not how we came to be in that place. By degrees, our sensibilities returned; and we were faced with such horror, our minds could barely expand sufficient to contain it.

I have the blessed ambiguity of my memory to thank for the retention of my sensibilities, allowing me to write these words down. All I remember is that there was something known only as Scott, unearthed from the bowels of Iron Tower Studio; and it was determined to impart to us knowledge of its Lovecraftian RPG Cyclopean.

CG: What will Cyclopean’s gameplay emphasise the most – combat, or exploration?

Scott: The game will be more about exploration than combat. There will be a tactically satisfying combat system and many opportunities to mix it up, but the player will also have other ways of achieving his goals.

CG: Why did you go for turn based combat rather than real time? Will random battles feature?

Scott: I prefer turn-based combat because of the careful management of skills and resources involved, as well as the tactical possibilities. Because the player must manage Life and Sanity points, and up to three followers, reflex-based combat would be a poor fit. There will be certain areas and scripted encounters which will appear once at random, but there won’t be recurring, D&D-style random encounters, like meeting the same four bandits every time you cross the countryside.

CG: It sounds like the player will be given a lot of choice in how they play the game. Does this mean multiple endings? Are there quests that the player will only see if they make certain choices?

Scott: There will be multiple endings and there will be quests that depend on previous choices, yes. I’d like to point out that unlike most Mythos-inspired games, in Cyclopean you can actually join a cult instead being the goody-two-shoes investigator who’s always trying to spoil everything.

PhotobucketCG: Quality writing is obviously important to you, and it must be said that the writing in most games is poor to say the least. Why do you think this is?

Scott: There are a variety of opinions on this subject, I think the most common being that game companies don’t hire published professional writers. But in my opinion advanced 3D graphics are (indirectly) the culprit. What drives the AAA retail games industry in every genre is fantastic 3D graphics that attempt to simulate living, breathing worlds. When the bulk of development resources are committed to perfecting the graphics engine, writing will always come in second (or third, or fourth) place. Another reason writing suffers is because developers are often unwilling to stray from pat fantasy/space opera themes and try something new plot-wise.

CG: It sounds as though you want to stick with Lovecraft’s style in your own script. Has this been difficult? Do you worry that dedicated Lovecraft fans might sneer at your attempts to emulate him?

Scott: Lovecraft pioneered an entire subgenre of horror populated by his own unique creations. I try to emulate his style but don’t claim to be his equal, and I don’t worry about fans sneering at me. More often it’s people who don’t like Lovecraft’s baroque, adjective-laden style sneering at him.

CG: It’s clear from the posts you’ve made on your forums that you’re not happy with many RPG staples. What are you changing and why? Which of your ideas would you most like other companies to pick up on?

Scott: I’ll stick with these three things:

I dislike dialogues where you choose from a selection of clichéd responses that have no actual impact on the game, or navigate to and from a menu of questions and answers. These antediluvian RPG conventions are nothing like real life conversations, and only barely distinguish dialogue from reading a message on a billboard.

I dislike FedEx quests and other meaningless in-game busywork. Go collect ten stalks of wheat from this field. What is that? It is a chore. The developer is making the player perform an uninteresting task as a build up to some fun gameplay which hopefully will be introduced later on. Shouldn’t the developer at least attempt to make the whole game fun?

Lastly, I prefer turn-based combat to real time. There are precious few true turn-based RPGs these days. Real-time-with-pause has become a common RPG compromise, but to me is completely dissatisfying. If I’m in charge of a group of NPCs with different skills and strengths, I want turn-based control. I enjoy watching attacks play out one at a time instead of trying to track a confused, start-and-stop melee. On the other hand, if I’m playing a shooter-style action game, I want action.

PhotobucketCG: Did you play the last – gen Call of Cthulhu game, and if so, what did you think?

Scott: I read quite a bit about it but ultimately did not play it because of the real time action and first person perspective, and because of what I read about the gameplay and pervasive bugs. I did think it introduced some innovative ideas, like the absence of a heads-up display and how sanity damage changing the player’s view of the world.

CG: You’ve said that you believe Lovecraft’s horror can easily be translated into a video game – but it’s difficult to deny that the most powerful moments of his writing depend on what the reader doesn’t see, rather than what they do. How have you handled this aspect?

Scott: I didn’t say it would be easy, but that it would be possible and worthwhile. In any case, I’m glad you asked!

Even if I were able to hire a studio of talented animators, the horror of many of Lovecraft’s (and my) creations would suffer grievously from being rendered as 3D models, which as you indicated would shatter the player’s immersion. The solution for these situations in Cyclopean is text adventures –similar to dialogue interactions where you make choices and read about what happens next– accompanied by still illustrations. It’s a bit retro, but with a talented illustrator I think it can be done well. I will post examples of this mechanic on the forums when the art assets are available. The vast majority of the game will still be played in a 3D world with a movable isometric camera.

CG: H.P. Lovecraft is a giant amongst horror writers; but, notoriously, he was enormously racist. How do you separate an artist from their art? Is it always right to do so?

Scott: Whoa! You’re getting into the tough questions now. I do not have a definitive answer, but when this question comes up on forums, I’m reminded of The Merchant of Venice. If that one work marks Shakespeare as an anti-Semite, would anyone suggest we throw out his contribution to English language and culture? Lovecraft died, physically and financially ruined, seventy-odd years ago. Whether or not we enjoy his work today has no impact on the author and in my opinion does not imply approval of his views.

Racism isn’t addressed in Cyclopean, but there will be black and Asian NPCs, as well as the ability to choose different skin tones for your own character.

CG: Will Cyclopean utilise the existing Call of Cthulhu RPG ruleset, or are you planning to create your own system adapted for Lovecrafts nightmarish world?

Scott: NO! I have to be emphatic that there is no connection between Cyclopean and Call of Cthulhu. When I started researching this project I deliberately avoided Chaosium’s RPG publications. I’m sure they have some brilliant ideas, but I didn’t want to accidentally crib any of their stuff or later be accused of lifting concepts from copyrighted works.

PhotobucketCG: Will we see systems like insanity coming into play, where coming into contact with otherwordly creatures can have traumatic psychological effects on our characters?

Scott: Absolutely. The Sanity stat is critical to gameplay because of the subject matter. It is also unusual in that it must be carefully maintained. There aren’t any blue potions or post-combat regeneration in this game. A small amount of Sanity can be recovered through sleep. Other methods to recover lost Sanity involve drugs, which have side effects and are sometimes addictive, and staying at the Asylum, which is expensive.

There is another –and I think wholly original– system indirectly related to Sanity. Exposure to Mythos creatures and events earns (curses?) the player Mythos points. Mythos points have one effect, which is that once they exceed maximum Sanity, the player becomes Corrupted and is able to see through the tenuous tissue separating the world of men from other dimensions overlapping our own. While this means that more and different things are revealed to the player, it also can be very taxing on one’s sanity. However, a player who pledges his services to the Great Old Ones can avoid some of the harsher penalties of insanity while still being Corrupted. Mythos points cannot be reduced and Corruption is irreversible.

CG: Once Cyclopean is finished, do you plan to make any more games based on the works of Lovecraft – or Poe, perhaps?

Scott: The date when I will need to make this decision is so far off, it’s hard to imagine. I have enough ideas to create a second Lovecraft game, but I might be more interested in doing something else entirely. I have read all of Poe’s stories, but I had never considered a Poe-inspired game. What would be the central theme?

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Written by Patrick G

One comment

  1. Interesting interview.

    Games that don’t shy away from punishing the player are rare nowadays. Makes me look forward to Cyclopean even more!

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