Kickstarter is a place where game developer dreams literally come true. The crowd sourcing phenomenon has enabled the revival of long forgotten classics with Wasteland 2 and Elite: Dangerous, seen veterans return to their roots with Pillars of Eternity and Broken Age, and brought us a new way to view games with the Oculus Rift. As such, Kickstarter is full to the brim with innovative new videogame ideas, the only caveat being that they all need funding to become a reality. Ashen Rift: A man and his dog, is one such game.
Somehow, somewhere, an unknown group of scientists headed by an unknown sect of the government conducted an experiment that inadvertently led to the end of the world. But that was a decade ago and since then the main character and his dog, Bounder, have done all they can to simply survive. Tired, desperate and with no future in sight, the two make their way across the ashen wastelands of central America to the place that started it all: the Rift.
This is the vision of lone Canadian developer Barry Collins – to allow players to act out the last 25 miles of the lead character's journey via a first person survival horror game. Through the implementation of in-game interactions with Bounder, objects, the destructible terrain, and the monstrous, mutated Feeders, Collins aims to allow players to devise creative solutions to Ashen Rift's deadly challenges.
After 14 years as a videogame industry freelance artist, Collins hopes to go it alone and share his own stories, rather than tell other peoples'. He's already displayed his experience and imagination by way of a proof-of-concept demo – built in less than five months, part time – viewable via his Youtube channel.
But it seems that Ashen Rift has reached a turning point, with Collins' now looking to crowd sourcing as a means to fund his project to completion. If his $45,000 CAD Kickstarter goal is met, Collins will be able to work on Ashen Rift full time, pay for a Unity3D licence, pay musicians, voice actors and coders, and release the game Dec 2014.
While Collins' aim is to create a videogame, it's Ashen Rift's story that sticks out as its defining feature. The Kickstarter page's story synopsis paints the picture of a slow paced and dangerous journey, of undefined length, to reach an uncertain goal. This mental image brings forth memories of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road, prompting me to find out just where Barry Collins' idea for Ashen Rift came from.
“I like to keep my story influences very minimal so I don't get too carried away and emulate them too much,” Collins told me, “But you're right about The Road.”
“Gameplay wise though, it's going to be a whole lot of Quake 1, meets stealthy MGS (Metal Gear Solid) stuff meets Oddworld 1's (Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee) AI interplay – all wrapped up in a neat little package with Bounder to mix things up. He might save the day, or bark and get you in a load of trouble – a nice little random element.”
The “post-apocalyptic” sub-genre is the gift that keeps on giving – existing in large amounts within every storytelling medium there is. But with so many good quality post-apocalyptic tales out there, conjuring a new one that doesn't rely too heavily on past successes is a difficult challenge. It's understandable then that Collins would want to draw from the genre as a whole, without latching onto any works in particular for inspiration.
Even so, the world of Ashen Rift seems larger and more complex than what has been shown in trailers and on the title's Kickstarter page. Of course, the game isn't out yet and my thoughts are presumptuous. Yet, I was intrigued: Has the tale of Ashen Rift always existed as a game, and will this tale be confined to just one title?
“It has always existed as a game and the story evolved out of the development process,” Collins continued, “But now that you pose that question, I suppose I have been plotting the back story and the stories enough that there is content for a book or graphic novel; which are things I would love to do, down the line, if this project is able to gain enough traction with players.
“Ashen Rift: A man and his dog is my (Star Wars) 'A New Hope' in the sense that I know there is story before and after this. On top of that, it is the most explanatory of all of the (Star Wars) episodes, so it works well as an introduction while also being the most mellow. So this gives me a chance to actually attempt to do this with little support. Episode II, III, IV, V and the ability for much more is planned – even pre-Episode I stuff is possible. In fact I really hope I get the chance to tell some of the stories from earlier on: before, during and just after the Rift opens.”
Despite my personal interest in the origins and further development of Ashen Rift's story and the “mythology” that surrounds it, this tale of “a man and his dog” will, if Collins' Kickstarter proves successful, be delivered as a FPS videogame. As such, Ashen Rift will enter a heavily populated market alongside innovate new indie titles and “AAA” juggernauts. Interestingly, “AAA” is the very term used by Collins to describe Ashen Rift on the project's Kickstarter page.
“I realise my features list is more of the selling points I want to communicate than actual features of the game,” Collins tells me, “'AAA' to me just refers to the art style and technology level. Trying to push new tech like DX11 particle systems and giving players that 'current' or possibly even 'next generation' feel.
“I struggle with the idea of calling it a 'First Person Shooter' since that brings COD (Call of Duty) and those sorts of games to mind. To my mind, this is a 'First Person Story' since the shooting and action are all being used as a means of furthering the story.
“It's kind of cool really – since there is a 'standard' in the FPS genre, you can remove or alter bits of that norm to make a statement. So the fact that the player might only fire five shots, lets say, in the first hour of gameplay not only forces me to pick up the pace with the story and other interactions, but also says something to the player, simply by removing something they will likely expect: ammo."
Another aspect of Ashen Rift that Collins highlights on the game's Kickstarter page is the time it takes to beat the game: “3 to 5 hours”. Many would argue that the “time vs length” discussion is pointless, and that strength of videogame is determined by its quality, not simply by how “long” it is. It's an argument that I agree with, so I was surprised to see Collins, who is clearly confident of the strength of Ashen Rift, even mention the game's “play time” in the first place.
“Well, I landed on three to five hours as a development goal for myself because that's a lot of game time to try and produce,” Collins told me, “It took me 2.5 months to do ten mins of gameplay at one point, but that was while still developing the content/gameplay/prototype etc., so that time can be cut down greatly once I have everything in place.
“My goal is to release by December of 2014, so I need to be confident in the amount of gameplay time I try and produce. Three to five hours also feels reasonable compared to what large studios offer in the 60 dollar range. So, for 15 bucks and one developer with no budget I thought 'Don't bite off more than you can chew! Say three to five hours!'”
Although Collins is comparing his project to what more larger, mainstream studios are producing, the sheer humanity of his own project – his own personal story – is a quality rarely found within the “AAA” sphere. Additionally, Collins' apparent transparency and honesty regarding what he hopes to achieve – including the game's length – is an important factor for many when deciding whether to back a Kickstarter project.
As of writing this article, Ashen Rift: A man and his dog still has some way to go before it reaches its $25,000 CAD goal. But hopefully the combination of the game's story and malleable gameplay elements will attract the backers needed to see Barry Collins' vision of a wasted, ashen American landscape come to life. If all goes well, Ashen Rift: A man and his dog will be available to buy December 2014. Be sure to check out the game's Kickstarter and official website for more information.