Could this be the indie lover’s Bioshock? Raw Games talks The Spire

An inspiring chat with the lead designer.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, December 8, 2010

The year is 2029, the nations of the Earth are locked in a brawl over scarce supplies of fossil fuel, and David Samuel Maher, a bald chap with disconcertingly blue eyes, has just awoken in the depths of an enormous Antarctic research facility. His memory is a blank page, his precise identity a mystery, but he’s evidently no ordinary lab rat, for grafted to his arm is “the Tool”, a gauntlet that allows him to lift, propel, magnetise and even crush objects from afar.

Raw Games is no run-of-the-mill operator either. The release of a teaser trailer for The Spire last week brought the UK-based independent to public notice in a big way, demonstrating a level of technical competence and an artistic coherence many of the industry’s household names would struggle to match. A moody first-person adventure, the new game sees Maher calling on the Tool’s powers to solve physics puzzles and fight undisclosed adversaries, all the while grappling with the riddle of his entrapment.

It’s not exactly the most original of setups, and Raw Games isn’t trying to argue otherwise. Billed as a “homage” to certain Valve-developed classics, The Spire aims to impress by the quality of its presentation, the richness and involvedness of its narrative, and by lending fresh intricacies to existing mechanics. VGD tapped John Tearle, Lead Designer and Managing Director at Raw Games, for more.

The Spire uses the Unreal Development Kit. For a pre-alpha project, it's looking shockingly complete.

Hi John. Could you tell us a bit about the history of Raw Games – where you’ve all come from, what you’ve worked on before, and what gave rise to The Spire concept?

It came mainly from a collaboration of different guys. We all met at university, doing computer games design courses. Without saying too much about that, we ended up realising that the skillsets that we had from the mod industry – the mod scene, I say industry – probably stood us in better stead than we realised, if that make sense. We decided in our final years to go and do a collaborative piece that wasn’t really part of the Uni’s agenda.

And we started that with what would eventually become The Spire. Within that group there was Matt Clark, who’s the lead artist, and also one of the executive directors of Raw Games. Matt and I went to work at Rebellion Games on Aliens versus Predator – they kindly took us in! We were really honoured to do a little bit of testing and learn about the pipeline and that, and they even brought us in for the Sega distribution milestone we got, which was quite cool. Sam Cobley, who’s one of the other guys, he worked on Mare Nostrum, which is a really successful mod for Red Orchestra, made by Sandstorm Productions.

The other director we have on the team, our programmer or actually technical director at this point in time, is Lee Snookes – and again he’s done a lot of little projects. All of us, we’ve come from that mod scene really. But otherwise, nothing major! Nothing at this point in time.

Alien versus Predator is pretty major, surely? You’re talking about the most recently released game, right?

That’s correct, 2010. We’ve worked at the bottom end of the scale, but it really helped us learn the pipeline. I’m not sure I’m allowed to drop names, but there’s a guy called Mike Burnham who we really feel that we owe so much to. He’s the head of production at Rebellion, and the amount of support that he showed us, me and Matt, in bringing us on board to do some stuff was just incredible. We weren’t major players in way, shape or form on that title, but it was just a really great learning curve for us, just to realise the seriousness of creating something special, something that people wanted, and of sticking to those deadlines.

The Tool is more of a precision instrument than Half-Life's Gravity Gun, but don't worry - you can still throw things around in a fit of pique.

AvP is a survival horror franchise, or perhaps “survival action” is a more appropriate label. There seems to be a natural progression there to the Spire, which you describe on the Raw Games site as a “first-person, survival, mystery, action-adventure game”. Is that “survival” as in “survival horror”?

That’s a good question, it’s something we really want to turn round and do with the game. We don’t want to reveal anything about the story at this moment at time really because without diverting from the question, a lot of people have said “Oh, look another story about amnesia” – that’s been the thing we’ve read on a lot of the forums – but it’s massively integral to our game, and it’s not told through a host of flashbacks. Let’s just say that we are very big fans of things like Lost and 24 so we take influence from them on certain of their story telling techniques. The original idea for the world of The Spire was for something episodic – whether that actually happens or not now is dependent on really either publication or investment.

But the actual survival horror side of it, regarding your question? Yeah, I wouldn’t say horror, but there’s definitely a survival aspect to it. We’re trying to do things a bit differently, let’s put it that way.

It can be a deceptive term, “survival horror”. Silent Hill is one of the biggest so-called horror franchises out there, and it’s more about tension than having something ghastly constantly leaping out at you.

Brilliant, that word that you got there, the tension – I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to tap entirely into it, be really hope that that will happen. The air of “what’s round the next corner”, that kind of creepy feeling of – I wouldn’t say entirely being alone, because in The Spire you’re not. Again, I don’t want to go off on one, I’m sure there’s going to be a question about Portal at some point – but it’s a different feeling of being alone that we’re going for with this.

Well, coincidentally my next question was about Portal! That seems to be the most obvious reference point here, or at least the comparison that’s most often made by forum-goers. I think it’s perhaps more a response to the aesthetic of it than anything else.

Yeah, which is intentional. We’re massive fans of Valve and Portal. I think the whole ethos they created was incredible. I think every designer can say that they’ve learned something from that team, because they did something that was really special and different. The word that I’d really like to use is “homage”, we really just want to pay homage to Portal and Half-Life in what we’re doing, but we don’t want to do another – without pointing the finger at anybody – we don’t want to turn round and do another Modern Warfare.

Is it going to be good? Is it going to be different? The thing is with Portal guns and gravity weapons, you don’t have to worry about balancing like, say, between shotguns and machine guns. So with physics manipulation as our weapon we’re trying to do something that’s similar, helping us to avoid certain traditional balancing issues but is does cause us others! So in other words we’re realising the limitations of a small team and are playing to our strengths. What we’re aiming for is that AAA+ style, aesthetic and feel to it, really which warrants something that’s polished.

But again, that Portal feel is definitely something we went for in the first place. Maybe somebody else mentioned Dead Space, which is also a huge influence for us – the feel and aesthetic of it. That’s the way we’re heading with the artworks.

Suspense is very much a part of the game's DNA.

Is this more of a puzzler than a shooter then, going off what you were saying about the weapons? Will combat revolve around the Tool and manipulation of the physics, or will we be trying for headshots?

It’s a good question again. At the moment in time, it’s a funny thing to say, it depends how much of a budget we end up getting for this. Being realistic, if we do introduce any kind of traditional FPS weapons they would have to have be relevant to the story, because the story is very important to us – so I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. Let’s put it this way, guns aren’t going to be a major focus of what we’re doing by any means. We’re actually doing some stuff with combat at this moment in time which we believe could be quite innovative, but we can’t say anything about that right now because the combat is still under development.

How complete is the game right now? Could you put it to a percentage?

At the moment in time we’ve had to do a revision of the game. At one point it was looking quite solid, because of the episodic idea, but at the moment we’ve been talking to potential investors, and the thing that we’ve realised is that a lot of people don’t want to risk a two or three hour game – which is what we originally wanted to do, make short, short games, and spin them out to guys like us who have busy working lives but who really enjoy playing hardcore games.

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