In recent years Norwegian developer Funcom, which made its name with cult adventure game The Longest Journey, has been operating almost solely in the MMO space. One of the studio’s more interesting efforts was 2012’s The Secret World, which mashed up everything from Lovecraftian entities to Norse mythology to Japanese cyber-demons in order to create a deeply odd, yet intriguing, occult fantasy setting. The studio’s next project, The Park, is set in the same universe, though it really couldn’t be more different. It’s an atmospheric first-person horror, which follows young mother Lorraine as she tries to track down her son Callum in the planet’s least inviting theme park. Inevitably, spooky things start to happen. I tracked down Funcom’s creative director Joel Bylos to find out more.
GameWatcher: The Park actually started as a kind of tech experimentation for the dev team to get used to working with Unity, right? Roughly how long were you working on it for?
Joel Bylos: Around six months. We started in April, and we’re just wrapping it up now ready for next week’s release.
GameWatcher: How soon did you realise you had something interesting on your hands?
Joel Bylos: I never intentionally started out to do anything half-arsed, so I wrote a design… basically what we did was, we started out just by having a chat about potential locations and things like that. We came across this theme park that we really liked from The Secret World, and then we discussed thematic things that we’d like to see in the game. My maxim is that powerful characters in games are appealing, but characters with flaws are always the most interesting. So I said, what if we have this mother who’s looking for her child in this creepy amusement park. That’s something that people can instantly grasp, but I wanted to explore a little deeper, which is something I love doing on The Secret World, it’s full of symbolism and things like that. I really wanted to make sure that element carried over to this game.
So the core of the game has always been there, but the question of whether we would sell it, or whether it would be a commercial title at all,was really not answered until August. We were just sort of working on it, and we wanted to make sure people inside the company would like it. That didn’t necessarily mean it would translate commercially.
GameWatcher: Did you find it freeing to work on a more personal, less systems-driven game, after so long on The Secret World?
Joel Bylos: Oh, absolutely, and singleplayer too. You know, it’s funny, there’s such a huge contrast between making singleplayer games and multiplayer games. Having worked mostly on the multiplayer side, and having designed for those games for so long, I think maybe people who only work on singleplayer titles don’t understand the limitations we work under. In a singleplayer game, if I know you’re looking in one direction, I can hide something behind you, I can distract you. In a game like The Secret World, anyone else could be standing behind you, looking at something different. You never now what any of the other players in the area are looking at, so you have to always take into account that anyone could be looking at anything. When you’re in a singleplayer game, you can just cheat! It’s amazing, and very liberating in a lot of ways. If I want to scare you, I can force you into looking left and then when you look right, bang. Something will be there. In a multiplayer game that would never, ever work.
GameWatcher: What’s your approach to the horror elements in the game? In the preview clip I saw there was a bit of jump-scare stuff going on, but generally it seemed like the idea was more about creating a very creepy atmosphere.
Joel Bylos: When we talk about horror, I think one of the most scary things, at least in my personal life, is that sense that things are inevitable and there’s nothing you can do to prevent them. When you’re driving your car, and you pull in behind a person in front of you and hit the brakes, those few moments where you’re absolutely aware that you’re going to run into the back of them and all you can think about is how bad it’s going to be, how many people will get hurt. That inevitability is an absolutely essential part of horror. So that’s the way I like to describe this game - you’re having a dream that you’re flying, but then you realise that you’re falling, and you can’t stop the ground from rushing up to hit you. There’s nothing you can do.
GameWatcher: One of the things you’ve repeatedly said about The Park is that it’s a short game; you want to give the player a memorable horror experience without overstaying your welcome.
Joel Bylos: Absolutely. It’s about ratcheting up the tension. From what we’ve seen in testing, peoples’ play-time varies between one and two hours. Some people want to go around reading everything they find in the world, and some people don’t. Some people sprint all the time, some people explore. The important thing for me, and this links back to what we discussing about this being a liberating experience for me in terms of design, was to not dictate. The game’s quite linear in the sense that you experience the story in a particular way, but I don’t want to pad out a game by forcing you to walk a few feet a second if you don’t want to. The game tells its story, and it tells it at the pace that you want to explore as a player. I do think it’s really easy to create a tension curve when you know people will play it and finish in a single sitting - at least I hope that’s the case. I hope people are hooked enough to finish it all in one sitting.
GameWatcher: There are a couple of little things that you’ve added that are slightly different from most first-person horror games. One is the walk speed, which you mentioned there, and the other is the ‘Shout’ button, which allows you to control how vocal the main character is. Are those changes a response to some of the clunkier elements of modern horror games?
Joel Bylos: Yeah. (Main character Lorraine) monologues a bit, generally after larger events have happened, and to me that’s fine. That links you to her as a character, and it also refers back to the thing about parenthood that I was talking about, the darker side about being a parent. A lot of games… it’s not something that I think it’s lacking or anything, but being a father I wanted to explore that idea. There are times when I have dark thoughts, when my wife and I have dark days, and when kids run off it can be a very frustrating experience. I just wanted to look at that.
The ‘Shout’ mechanic itself you can spam the hell out of if you want to, you can do the… what’s it called? The ‘Jasoning’ thing from Heavy Rain. Press X to Jason, that was the meme. But there is a cooldown, and you can’t shout when she’s in the middle of talking, when she’s scared she’ll whimper more than shout. What I think is interesting though, is that there are times when I increase my own tension by shouting more often. Her voice brings me a certain amount of tension, some of the things she says. So that mechanic gives me a bit of control – sometimes I just don’t want to hear from her. It gives you a bit of freedom. But yeah, we wanted to play around with that mechanic, it was something that came up early on and we kind of stuck with it.
GameWatcher: The Park is obviously tied in to the universe of The Secret World, and there are characters mentioned here that make an appearance in the MMO. Will players from TSW find other little easter eggs and secrets scattered about that those coming in fresh won’t pick up on?
Joel Bylos: Yeah, I think so. There’s a few parallel stories running in The Park. You have the sort of the park itself, the mysterious character you saw in the preview, his story is fully told in the game through various bits of environmental storytelling. Players from The Secret World have actually encountered and probably fought him as a boss in that game, but who exactly he was actually was left very vague. That backstory is all filled out here. But a new player, who hasn’t played the MMO, will also find out his backstory in this game, and it will be a one-off story for them that should resonate. Of course, that all ties back into Lorraine’s story as well, but it’s all interconnected in this game and there are no extraneous factors. I think The Secret World players will get a kick from reading things, like the accident reports on some of the fairground rides, there are names mentioned there that they will have heard of. They might get a kick out of that, but new players won’t miss out on anything.
GameWatcher: If The Park is a success, will we see more of these kind of one-shot games from Funcom? Maybe trying out different genres, different ideas, but set in this same core world?
Joel Bylos: I think so. We’re in a very interesting position at Funcom at the moment. We have a new CEO, and his plan is to make higher-impact games in general. We had this mandate, under the old CEOs, that meant we only worked on MMO games, and he’s the first CEO to say that actually no, we can be more than that. This is the first step in that strategy, and for us it’s been great. I’ve had to re-learn the singleplayer design mindset. As I’ve said it’s very liberating, but I’m sure I’ve made mistakes that singleplayer designers will pick up on. But for me it’s a fantastic working experience, I’ve really enjoyed working on it, and I’m really looking forward to what we do next. Which could be any number of things, so that’s very exciting. If this is a success, I’m certain we’ll end up making more of this kind of thing, probably not a direct sequel, but more things in a similar style.
Many thanks to Joel for speaking to me. You’ll be able to book a ticket for The Park when it launches this October 27.