Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth Q&A

We talk to Andrew Brazier, artist and designer at Headfirst Productions, to get a development update on this first-person action-adventure game.

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Over the past several months, Headfirst Productions has been steadily making progress on its first-person adventure game, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which is loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's series of novels as well as the pen-and-paper role-playing game. However, Headfirst is taking a decidedly different approach to the adventure game genre by incorporating a number of elements that you'd normally find in a first-person shooter, and in fact, the development team even has plans to incorporate multiplayer deathmatch and cooperative modes. The cooperative mode in particular will play into the game's sanity system, in which you lose your sanity as you progress through the game, mistaking shadows and even partners for enemies. We had the chance to speak with Andrew Brazier, artist and designer at Headfirst Productions, to learn more about the sanity system, multiplayer modes, the lack of a HUD, and other aspects of the game.

Call of Cthulhu doesn't use a traditional first-person HUD.
Call of Cthulhu doesn't use a traditional first-person HUD.

GameSpot: Designing the game so that it doesn't make use of a heads-up display must be difficult. How has the team been able to handle the problem of adapting traditional HUD features into the game itself?

Andrew Brazier: Our game differs from many FPS-type games in that it's not as action orientated as some others--subsequently the pace is slightly slower. This means that there's not so much of the frantic gun swapping like Wolfenstein or Quake 3. The onus is on the player to prepare for the action sequences by making sure their gun is fully loaded and they have the right one ready--just like real life. You wouldn't barge into a room of monsters, then pull out your gun and find you had no bullets left.

You'll need to keep a close eye on your ammunition.
You'll need to keep a close eye on your ammunition.

GS: How will players know how much ammunition or health they have left?

AB: They are given feedback through the control system and also visually, so you can actually see how many bullets you have left by looking in the chamber. Alternatively, you can access a separate screen where all that sort of information is available like Resident Evil.

GS: One of the more notable features of Call of Cthulhu seems to be the level of interactivity with the environment. How difficult has it been to determine which objects players can interact with and which ones they can't? Or is it simply a matter of only using objects that are relevant to the quest at hand?

AB: It'll be a few years before you'll be able to interact with everything in the environment, so there'll still be an element of "I can move that chair but why can't I move that desk?" We are trying to equalize this as much as possible by letting the player move objects that you would expect them to be able to in real life. It is tricky designing levels in this situation though to make sure that the player doesn't trap themselves in an area.

GS: Looking at some of the most recent screenshots, the character models and environments look extremely detailed and stylized. Has the development team been able to spend more time on the artistic side of the game because the core graphics engine (NetImmerse) was already constructed?

AB: That's exactly right, which is one of the reasons we decided to go for a third-party engine. We have concentrated on putting a lot of authentic detail into the levels to make sure that everything fits for the time period. This means pushing NetImmerse as hard as possible to get the best out of it.

Since the technical aspects of the engine are already in place, the development team can spend more time on art.
Since the technical aspects of the engine are already in place, the development team can spend more time on art.

GS: Do you feel that engine licensing in general is a better route to take with game development since it leaves more time for other aspects of game design?

AB: It can be, although it is a mistake to believe that it is an "out of the box" solution. NetImmerse is excellent, but we have had to write a lot of our own additions and amendments, which means you still need graphics engine programmers on your team. It does mean you don't have the large outlay of time at the start of your project though.

GS: How many different types of creatures are there?

AB: The final number has not yet been finalized, but there is likely to be seven or eight monster types with lots of variations of each one.

Dark scenes like this are a common sight in the game.
Dark scenes like this are a common sight in the game.

GS: It's been noted that the team decided on the first-person perspective rather than the third-person perspective to completely immerse players in Cthulhu's environments, but obviously, the first-person perspective is usually associated with fast-paced shooters. Has there been any temptation to lean more toward creating a game that's more akin to a traditional first-person shooter as opposed to a shooter that uses elements of gameplay commonly found in role-playing games?

AB: No, we've always resisted the temptation to make Cthulhu more action orientated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it just doesn't suit the source material and has already been done in games like Quake (heavy Cthulhu influences). Secondly, our gaming background has always been with adventures and RPGs, so that is something we wanted to continue--and we felt that decent puzzles and character interaction was something missing from most first-person games available at the moment.

GS: How does the character skill system work? Are players rewarded points that they can disperse into different categories, or will the character just become stronger in certain skills by using them repeatedly over the course of the game?

AB: Skills are automatically improved as the player progresses through the game and through repetition, so the more you use a weapon the better you become with it--quicker aiming, faster reloading, and so on.

GS: How are the levels structured in Cthulhu? Have they been designed so that players go from point A to point B, or is there a lot of backtracking and branching paths?

AB: There is a certain degree of linearity in the levels because the storyline demands that certain things happen at certain times. However, each level is more of a zone, which has a number of tasks to be completed in it, meaning that how you go about that and what order you do things in is up to you. You are given a lot of freedom to explore levels and don't ever feel like you are on rails.

Scenes like this can also involve puzzle solving.
Scenes like this can also involve puzzle solving.

GS: Can you give an example as to the type of objectives players will have to complete?

AB: There are lots of puzzles in the game, most of which have a number of different solutions depending on whether you prefer action or more logical methods. One example of this is how to get past marauding deep ones, armed only with a torch. You could try stealth--sneaking past them and hoping they don't notice--or you could use the light from the torch to deliberately distract them away from where you are and get past that way.

The sanity system slowly drives the main character insane over the course of the game.
The sanity system slowly drives the main character insane over the course of the game.

GS: Are there any nonplayer characters (NPCs) scattered throughout the game? If so, do they provide information or advance the storyline at all, or will most of that take place in cutscenes?

AB: There is a large cast of NPCs in the game, and most of them are vital to the development and progression of the storyline. Most have information or objects, which are needed throughout the game, and some even help you in certain situations--maybe providing cover for you to escape a gang of hybrids or by driving you out of town with you hiding in the backseat. Your character can question any NPCs he meets about his current mission or other info they may know, and this is an important part of the gameplay.

GS: The sanity of a character plays an important role in the game as well. How do the characters lose their sanity, and what are some of the side effects?

AB: You lose sanity points by placing yourself in stressful situations or whenever you witness something horrible or find out some forbidden information about Cthulhu and his minions. You can gain sanity back by slaying evil creatures and doing good deeds such as rescuing NPCs or successfully completing goals. Sanity effects include things like hallucinations and visual distortions (motion blur, etc.) as well as your character showing obsessive behavior such as nervous twitches or constantly loading and unloading his gun.

GS: Are the hallucinations and other insanity effects randomized, or have they been scripted to occur at certain points in the game? Is there any item players can use to offset these effects?

AB: Some sanity effects will always happen at certain points of the game, such as attacks of vertigo when you are on the top of tall buildings or crossing a rope bridge over a deep ravine. Other effects are randomized and are brought about by situations such as encounters with nasty creatures or the discovery of human remains. The player can avoid these to a certain degree by trying to avoid confrontations with creatures--by using stealth and brainpower to work out how to avoid battles and therefore preserve their sanity.

You'll encounter a variety of different monsters in the single-player mode.
You'll encounter a variety of different monsters in the single-player mode.

GS: Somewhat surprising is the fact that Cthulhu will have a few different multiplayer modes, including deathmatch. Will there be separate levels constructed for the deathmatch-style multiplayer levels, or will they mainly make use of the single-player levels?

AB: There will be specific levels created for the multiplayer version, as the single-player levels are generally created to suit the puzzle and story structure so they don't make really good deathmatch levels. Multiplayer scenarios have specific missions to be completed, so the levels will be created to reflect this. However, the multiplayer levels will be built in the theme of the single-player levels in the game.

The development team continues to work on the game's AI.
The development team continues to work on the game's AI.

GS: Last time we spoke, the development team was working mainly on level design, because the core elements of the game's AI and animation systems were in place. How far has development progressed since then, and when do you expect the game to be complete?

AB: Improvements continue to be made on the AI and animation code, and the programmers have also just completed some neat special effects such as a motion-sickness-inducing blurry sanity effect and a special system to get ground fog and mist animating along a path (so we can have fog rolling in down the streets).

GS: Does the development team feel any added pressure since Lovecraft fans are keeping a close eye on the game?

AB: To a certain degree yes. We are aware of the responsibility being placed on our shoulders, and also hard-core Lovecraft fans are a notoriously hard bunch of people to please--they are very protective of his work, and some are averse to any diversification of the mythos outside of novels and stories. We have had a lot of positive feedback from fans though, so we feel that we are doing well so far.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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