In the opening moments of Obscurant, I don’t immediately understand why what seems to be a typical top-down adventure game is placed on a grid. Why every step the android-like, amnesiac protagonist takes through the desolate sand of the first desert area feels laborious and rhythmic, as if they have to pause and think before each one.
Then, I meet the “Little Round Guys.”
They are strange, robotic little creatures, not unlike the most basic machine enemies in Nier: Automata in shape. They walk back and forth in a pattern – two steps in one direction, then back two steps the way they came, then repeat. After a few cycles of this, they pause in the middle of their path to recharge for five beats, before lighting up again and resuming their pattern. If they see an enemy, aka me, they give chase. They are faster than me and will always catch me.
Which is, immediately, where the grid and my character’s hesitant stepping motion clicks into place. When I make a move, they do too. Each step is one “turn,” and I can stand in one place and wait to make turns pass with a single button push. At first, I’m using the Necrodancer-like rhythms to sneak past enemies. Then, I find a broken Little Round Guy on the ground and steal its outfit, and here then is the main loop of Obscurant: in order to avoid being observed and murdered by more Little Round Guys, I must become the Little Round Guys and effectively deceive them into believing my masquerade. Two steps in one direction, back the way I came, then rush past them while they recharge. Repeat the pattern when they wake up again. Beep. Beep. Booooop.
(Developer King Brick Games did not name the Little Round Guys – I did, via an in-game journal that allows me to freely jot down names and notes on every enemy I encounter in the wasteland and beyond, and even applies the names I give to the enemies themselves when I see them in the world. It’s a great and useful mechanic and also hilarious when you name Very Serious Enemies with Extremely Silly Names like the cow creatures I named Buffy Bufferson).
Obscurant’s clever and effective take on mimicry is something I have never seen done before on any scale, let alone by such a small, new-to-game-dev team. It began as a college thesis project for creative director Liam Harwood, and was initially a side-scrolling platformer. Sometime after he graduated, while working as a full-time software developer outside of games, Harwood picked Obscurant up again and tried the top-down approach. After a few months, he got it working well enough to warrant asking three of his close friends from school – developer Max Vitkin, artist Eri Caferra, and audio director Brian McCarthy – to join him for the rest. None of them had game dev experience at this point except Caferra, who had done some art on very small game projects before. Vitkin was working in financial services at the time, McCarthy was also in software development, and Caferra was a freelance artist.
The closest thing I’ve played to the ideas of identity, stealth, and deception that King Brick explores in Obscurant is the Hitman franchise, though the two are nonetheless wildly different games. Harwood tells me it was indeed Hitman that inspired him initially. He loved the disguises Agent 47 donned to gain access to otherwise closed off areas, but thought it would be more interesting if he also had to act the part of his disguise to fool those around him.
“The first big thing that we had to figure out was how the actual mimicry mechanics were going to work,” Harwood says. “How are we going to calculate whether or not someone is suspicious of you? Because it is a nebulous concept if you think about it.”
They began with basic movement, like the Little Round Guys I described above. Further in, Obscurant extrapolates on the concept in other ways, such as exploring interpersonal relationships between enemies, and even dialogue mimicry in later areas. It was all quite challenging just on a conceptual level, they tell me, because there are so few other models of mimicry mechanics in games to follow after.
“Something we struggled with for a big part of it is explaining to the player what mimicry as a mechanic really is, because I think this isn’t really something that’s been explored in gaming a lot,” Vitkin explains. “I don’t think it’s something that’s super intuitive, so something a lot of people struggle with is at the very beginning, when you get to that first enemy. At the time, we didn’t really have much like tutoralization around what it meant to mimic. We tried to allude to it because we didn’t want to necessarily hold your hand through it, and we wanted the player to try to figure it out on their own. But a lot of people would just either try to abuse line of sight, which wasn’t possible or just try to brute force through it, which also really wasn’t possible.”
But mechanics weren’t the only challenge for the team. Caferra says that Obscurant went through an “artistic transition” during development, where initially the entire game was in a hi-res format, but later they decided to make the backgrounds all pixel art so that the entire team could help create them. It also helped the characters “pop” more – something that it turned out was necessary for players to follow the action in a game largely about blending into one’s surroundings.
“In my mind, it also felt like it added to the weirdness of Obscurant, because Obscurant is supposed to be a weird game, and having this mixture of art styles is weird,” Caferra says. “So having the pixel art background be almost blurred in that sort of way visually, as compared to the characters that are animated and alive, adds to this obscure nature of the game.”
Obscurant Official Screenshots
Caferra adds that their designs for characters began with written descriptions from Harwood as to what he thought the characters should look like and what their personalities were. Then, they would draw several silhouettes from that description that the rest of the team would then vote on, and Caferra would develop the art from the winning silhouette.
It’s a process not unlike the one Caferra used to use to draw comics for the group’s college D&D sessions based on the character descriptions given to them. “They would pluck it out of our mind and put it on the page,” says Harwood.
As for McCarthy’s part, having never composed a soundtrack before, he says he had to lean into what he knew: guitar. He’d been playing for years, and while he didn’t have a lot of experience in composition or recording, similar guitar-centered work from composers like Darren Korb’s work on Bastion and Andrew Prahlow’s soundtrack for Outer Wilds reassured him that he could do the job well.
“I played Bastion when I was in high school and I was so used to soundtracks that were very orchestrated, and so hearing this very guitar heavy soundtrack that came from somewhat of a more singer songwriter background was, I think, something that clicked into place, like, ‘Oh, I could do this.’” McCarthy says. “There are more kinds of music in games than just orchestrated scores.”
With Obscurant complete and out the door, the future for the four members of King Brick Games seems as vast and unknowable as the desert Obscurant’s protagonist awakens in – but in a much brighter way. They want to continue making games, even if they can’t do full time all the time. At the moment, they’re exploring multiplayer co-op game ideas, but seem to be equally happy if their experience on Obscurant opens the door for other opportunities for members of the group to work with other game studios, teams and projects. They, like the protagonist and the Little Round Guys, are just taking it one step at a time.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.