A rad take on a familiar theme.
We all know Double Fine for its rich history of adventure games with an unmistakable, funky charm. Founder Tim Schafer is a household name at this point, especially because of games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and Psychonauts, but there’s a lot more to the independent development studio than Schafer’s legacy. I'd say Double Fine's collection of games is already rad, and it's about to be even more so with Rad. The game is being led by Lee Petty, who has had a prominent role at Double Fine as art director for both Brutal Legend and Broken Age, and project lead for Headlander. And I was able to catch up with him and see Rad in action.
At its foundation, Rad is a roguelite isometric action game set in a deranged, yet colorful non-linear wasteland, which may sound familiar. Rad has its own twists, though. Mutations act as randomized power-ups that add a necessary (and unpredictable) diversity to your moveset. One such mutation can be a cute, monster-like turret attached to your back that shoots enemies behind you or thrown down in a stationary position. Or you can grow irradiated feet that makes you immune to poisonous terrain and leaves a hazardous trail to trap enemies in pursuit. Variation is key to the roguelite genre, and appears that Rad gives that to you in spades.
Run-based action games have no doubt grown in number and popularity since Spelunky's debut more than 10 years ago, so I asked Petty about how he and the team plan to make Rad stand out in an increasingly crowded genre.
"I still wanted to find a way to create a memorable world in that space. For me, that was a simple choice, why would you want to basically be in a series of locked rooms? Because it's easier to balance combat because you're stuck in a room and have to clear it. But it's never felt like a world to me. We're going to have some dungeons, but you're going to be able to walk around this world. We're going to make exploration more interesting with stuff to find, and more opportunities for environmental storytelling."
That shone through a bit in my short time with the game. Fundamentally, however, I had to find a number of certain objects in the world to advance as the game funneled me through encounters with unique enemies and a challenging boss fight. Everything flowed smoothly thanks to tight controls and a few effective abilities. But being a roguelite isn't the only area that's challenging for a game to stand out in, Rad's also playing on a familiar setting: a post-apocalypse. Even in 2019 alone, it's a frequent backdrop, so I asked Petty how he and the team are distinguishing Rad's version.
"One of the big things is we really wanted to make a game of a post-apocalypse that wasn't about killing other people for resources. This is really about having this surreal world that's undergone two apocalypses with little bits of like 80s culture. I was a teenager in the late 80s, as a lot of this stuff was happening. It wasn't the shocking post-apocalyptic movies that I found interest in. It was the weird stuff like Solarbabies or Miracle Mile, or even crazy stuff like Hell Comes to Frogtown. It's almost like they paved the way for an alternate fantasy role-playing game genre, but it was way more surreal and creative. It was science fiction, mutants, and weird off-shoots of human civilization."
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Petty's perspective is apparent from the start with Rad's lively presentation and visual quirks that build onto your character with each mutation. Naturally, I wanted to know more about the youthful character you play and how their story gets woven into the roguelite loop. Petty mentioned that you'll perpetually go to a hub world where you speak to folks who react to your progress and changes in the world. But playing in the post-apocalypse evokes certain worldviews that drive an overarching narrative. Petty had something to say about that.
"There is this arc of, 'Well, what town or elder is fine with just throwing their teens to the grinder to solve this problem?' You start to wonder, well, are these good people? Why are we doing this? Is there really a threat out there?
"You have the sense that, and you see this in a lot of those 80s movies, the protagonists are the underdogs. Even back then, there was a sense that, like, the baby boomers fucked us all over. We all agree on it now, but even back then we were thinking, 'What the hell? We're going to fix this I guess.' I think that's the relevant point and why it's been on my mind lately. Like okay, we're going through stuff with climate change, right? Usually there are themes of transformation and bringing the world back, but there's some sense of hope underneath all of the mutation and mutants."
It's refreshing to hear where Rad draws inspiration and see it in action. And it channels that quirky Double Fine personality in a genre and theme that can seem worn which certainly helps Rad stand out. Needless to say I'll be curious to see how the gameplay loop, increasing challenge, and narrative all coalesce in the full game. We'll see just how rad Rad will be when it launches in Summer 2019 for PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.