From ‘F.E.A.R.’ to ‘Betrayer’: Coloring colonial America in black & white

Mystery is the lifeblood of the grey-scale world that Blackpowder Games created for its debut effort, Betrayer. Spurts of red seep into the black & white spaces shown off in the game’s reveal trailer in much the same way that the plot’s secrets are revealed gradually, as you explore deeper. The premise: it is 1604 and you are a shipwreck survivor bound for a Virginia colony that turns out to be deserted when you arrive. It quickly becomes clear that something dreadful happened here, and you’re left to find out what.

Craig Hubbard, Blackpowder Games

The Blackpowder team is small enough that titles aren’t important, but de facto creative director Craig Hubbard – lead designer on the original F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever – admits that the push for a colonial America setting came from him. “It was a fairly organic process,” he tells Digital Trends of the studio’s first steps toward Betrayer. “I wanted to make a game set in this era. I’ve wanted to for a long time and I could never do it at a big publisher.”

Hubbard cites a literary inspiration for the setting: Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which charts the experiences of British army man Richard Sharpe during the 19th century. “I don’t remember how many years ago, but I read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series… which is set during the Napoleonic wars. That made me want to make a game with muskets,” Hubbard says. “As soon as we got this opportunity, I really wanted to get muskets into a game. Then of course the other weapons are really fun too; I really like bows in games, and I like throwing things at enemies, so getting tomahawks in there was a blast.”

It’s not the action that sells Betrayer, but rather the striking black & white art style. There’s nothing quite like it out there in the wider gaming world. Platinum Games’ blood-soaked Wii exclusive MadWorld comes close, but Betrayer is much more sparing in its use of red. This isn’t the sort of action that spatters blood across your field of view; Blackpowder injects color to serve as more of an indicator, a guide to help you find your way through 19th century America’s forests and forts. If you see a flash red in the world, it’s something you ought to explore further.

Betrayer interview 4

“I wanted to make a game set in this era. I’ve wanted to for a long time and I could never do it at a big publisher.”

“We always wanted to have a unique look,” Hubbard says. “We went through a whole bunch of experimentation to try other approaches [and] what we found is: the more it got away from that really crushed, high-contrast look, the more it felt like a pretentious art choice as opposed to what it is, which is really about the experience. We even tried variations on the contrast with a light color wash, but it started feeling a little too summery, a little too pleasant. It didn’t fit the tone of the game, or the premise. This look actually dovetails perfectly with the premise.”

“We were originally thinking of something a little more storybook stylized,” Hubbard continues. “As I was doing some experiments, I found a photograph that I really liked and it was high contrast. I was playing around in [Unreal Development Kit], trying to get something similar. The way I test things is I usually go to the extremes. I’ll push it all the way to max and I’ll push it all the way to min, and then I’ll try to figure out what the range is and start working into the middle. So when I did that … it just totally crushed the scene down into almost like a 2D image.”

Hubbard compares the result that he got to Frank Frazetta’s (of Fire and Ice fame) black & white comic book work, something he’s a self-professed fan of. He realized as he played around with the look in UDK that he was on to something. The details that you lose using this more stylized look are automatically filled in by the player’s brain. “The Law of Closure describes how we can take little pieces of visual information and our brains are wired to interpret them into images,” Hubbard explains.

Betrayer interview 2

It’s like watching a motion-capture session during the recording process. The actor in the suit is is a flesh-and-blood human in the performance space, but he or she is rendered by the computer as a bunch of connect-the-dot points. Your eyes see dots on a screen, but your mind decodes and identifies it as a wireframe human form. Betrayer‘s look is similar; you don’t see every little detail, but the spaces and objects within them are laid out in such a way that you’re able to spatially orient yourself.

“It was that sort of sensation when you’re playing,” Hubbard says in reference to the Law of Closure. “It takes a little bit of translation in your brain to sort out the environment, which is really engaging, but it’s also really tense. Especially when there’s dangerous enemies that can pop out of anywhere. Initially we were all a little bit nervous because it is very different from anything that’s out there, but it just felt so cool that we just had to do it.” 

“The tone is sort of action/adventure; there’s a fair amount of combat, but it’s not a blistering action game by any means. It’s more about exploration.”

There’s a very large world designed around this unique look. Hubbard compares the makeup of Betrayer‘s environments to GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. The entire region is broken into smaller (but still large, and open) loading areas for you to explore. There are seven of these in all, plus an eighth introductory area. As you work your way through each one – occasionally backtracking with the help of a fast-travel feature – you slowly start to understand more of the mysterious circumstances that led to this colony being deserted.

“It’s not actually totally deserted,” Hubbard says. “There is a woman in a red cloak who is communicating with you by means of firing arrows with notes attached to them. You don’t know why she’s doing that, but it factors into the story.” Players will also find loot and other secrets hidden away, as well as spectral quest-givers and store chests – an admitted video game-y contrivance – where ammo and improved weapons can be purchased. That’s not the focus, however.

“The tone is sort of action/adventure; there’s a fair amount of combat, but it’s not a blistering action game by any means. It’s more about exploration,” Hubbard says. “The colony is deserted in the sense that there’s only this one other woman that you see, but you do encounter these wraith-like people that also seem to view you as something of a ghost. So you don’t know exactly what’s going on there. You’ll be able to interact with them, and as you discover clues about what happened and the various horrific crimes that have taken place in this area, you can talk to them about the evidence you find.”

Betrayer interview 1

Betrayer‘s planned Steam Early Access launch, set for August 14, 2013, serves up only a small chunk of the full experience. Just the introductory area and the first full environment, amounting to only a couple of hours of play. Hubbard promises a “very regular release” of new content after the initial launch. The piecemeal delivery is entirely a product of the team’s long-held appreciation for playtesting as well as a desire to ensure that the various bits and pieces of Betrayer work before too much effort is poured into the larger game.

“We’ve always been a very playtest-focused group,” Hubbard says, referring to the advantages of going with a Steam Early Access release.”N.O.L.F. 2 is when we really started getting into it. We really like refining a game by getting people to play it and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The more that we can do, the better.”

“We’re trying to make a game where we just sort of dump you on a beach and leave a bunch of clues for you and let you figure out what’s going on instead of hand-holding you through it. We don’t want to make a tour guide experience where we’re telling you everything you should do. It’s much more about discovery and exploration.”

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