Rat Tower is a one-man studio working on a one-man show: the first-person action-RPG Monomyth. First announced in 2017 on the now retired Steam Greenlight, it has been in development since then, with some updates, short videos, and screenshots shared by the developer on his Twitter account. Monomyth has been on my radar since the announcement, as an enthusiast of immersive first-person action-RPGs such as Looking Glass Studios’ seminal Ultima Underworld and Arkane Studios’ Arx Fatalis, which are two of its main inspirations.
The developer, who chooses to go by Rat Tower, is not able to share much personal information due to his current work contract. The only bit of personal information that he was able to share was that he lives close to the Bohemian Forest. He first took up game development as a hobby in late 2014. Until then he worked mostly with MATLAB and was looking to get back into more conventional object-oriented programming. So he downloaded Unity, because it uses C# for scripting, and since he couldn’t do much with scripts alone, he also downloaded Blender, which he intended to get into before, but never had the right motivation to learn. Tinkering with these tools, he wanted to create “a little project.”
I was looking for an easy concept to improve on. Earlier that year I had played King’s Field 2 (the original KF in the US). I liked that game. It had some flaws (namely the controls) so I thought I could try to “fix” that by taking the concept and bringing it to a modern platform. I was mostly just playing around at that time though. I took part in some game jams, modelled this and that, also made hand-drawn textures for a while. I even dropped the whole KF idea for a while. I kept it in the back of my head though. Every now and then I’d go back to it and try stuff. At one point I switched from flat-shaded meshes to hand-drawn textures and then to photographic ones. That looked bad first but it forced me to learn more about normal mapping, PBR and all that fancy stuff.
King’s Field was FromSoftware’s first game series. The first King’s Field was released in 1994, with two sequels in the following two years, and another in 2001. It’s considered one of the direct ancestors of the Souls games. Fittingly for a game that has inspired so much of Monomyth, King’s Field also drew inspiration from the 1992 release Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
By the end of 2015, equipped with some new hardware, Rat Tower downloaded the free version of the Unreal Engine 4, recently released at the time. With a new engine came a whole lot of other tools. Around that time he had also learned about procedurally generated textures and discovered the 3D painting software Substance Painter. He took part in a few game jams, learning a bit of drawing, as he thought it could always come in handy. It was then that he remembered the “King’s Field project.” He experimented with a few mechanics, sketching out the process to create an RPG like that with the Unreal Engine.
Then around mid 2016 I scrapped all the code and started a clean new project. At that point in time, things had calmed down a little in my private life, so I had a bit more time. I decided to follow this project a little more seriously. So I actually created a design document. The time plan in that thing is (of course) completely outdated by now, but the vision from that document is still accurate. So from that point on I went on a long journey – slowly getting into all of Unreal Engine’s tools to make that vision come true. Since then I’ve been developing Monomyth next to working a dayjob as a software engineer.
Impressed by his work and commitment, I wanted to know if he is, in fact, the sole developer behind Monomyth. He confirmed that he is, and all visual assets in Monomyth are 100% original, “with the exception of a water shader and a couple of particles, which are standard Unreal Engine assets.” He only hired someone to compose the music for the Steam Greenlight trailer: the Australian composer Stephen Forsyth. I wanted to understand how it was possible for him to do everything from design, programming, modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, and so on. He told me that he used the Unreal Engine built-in Blueprint system, preferring to use the existing framework rather than adding new and untested elements. As for the rest, the process is very thorough.
With regards to level design I work with a mix of realism and gameplay oriented design. This mostly happens in two phases: I first need to know what kind of story happened in an area. That’s the requirement to get anything going. Now I have to decide what can be found in that area and what makes sense. A castle for example isn’t just a set of random rooms, connected with hallways. There are kitchens, libraries, guest rooms, servants quarters etc. Also what happened there? Was the castle raided? Did it burn down? Are the cellars haunted or flooded or both? The point of all those questions is to make lists of possible assets and to come up with a simple design. I’ll even draw a small map of what the area would look like (just logically).
In phase two comes the game design. I need to come up with certain ways to navigate that area. What are the challenges? Where are locked doors? Where do enemies patrol? What items need to be found? Are there any puzzles? What about secrets? Do all those things still make sense? How does this connect to other areas in the game? etc etc This phase can have a strong impact on the results of the first one. I might collapse a hallway or two or break bridges and walls. The second phase is sometimes in conflict with the first one. Not always everything makes sense. In that case I normally try giving game design the preference. So once I’m done I shrink everything down by two thirds, because it’s probably too big. Then I throw everything away and do it again. Then again.
The more iterations, the better. Ideally all those happen on paper, but sometimes that’s not enough. So I start blocking my ideas out with simple boxes in UE. I try to make a completely texture-less level with dummy items and enemies. Once that works out and I feel like it plays alright, I take the list I made before and start creating assets. That takes a while. I often try assets out in-engine to see whether everything is going in the right direction. Basically I slowly replace the grey boxes with fully modelled 3D meshes and dummy enemies with real enemies. Then I add details, play around with the lighting and make final adjustments. That also takes a while.
As usual with complex RPGs, Monomyth will have variable playtime. The developer’s initial estimate was about 10-20 hours, “which is roughly what it takes to finish a King’s Field game.” However, after the first few gameplay tests, he realized that this will depend on the player and the playstyle. Depending on the player, levels in games such as Thief can be finished in a few minutes. Monomyth will feature three major areas, which are split up into smaller sub-areas. The design is spiral, so that backtracking happens through shortcuts. “Some secrets and passages in earlier areas can only be accessed later in the game.”
Interactivity is a must in a game like this. Not only it will include dialogue with NPCs, it will also offer an item combination system similar to Arx Fatalis and Ultima Online, so that basically every item can be combined with every other item or interactive element within the world. One example of this is that you can bake bread by combining water and flour, then leaving the dough close to a fire, which is openly borrowed from Arx Fatalis. You can also draw water from wells, break and/or lockpick doors, lift heavy objects to use as weapons. You can even throw objects at levers and buttons to activate them. AIs can be lured into certain directions by throwing items, and so on.
To avoid feature creep, the RPG system of Monomyth so far has been kept relatively simple. There are no specific dialogue skills, but there are certain stat checks for actions, for instance: when you try lifting a heavy boulder or lockpicking a door. Players can raise their stats by resting at a shrine, which is also how saving works. Apart from King’s Field, Ultima Underworld, and Arx Fatalis, there wasn’t much influence from other RPGs, but sometimes the developer looks at tabletop RPG rule systems like Warhammer Fantasy RPG or The Dark Eye, but that’s just to get an idea of how other systems handle certain situations.
In terms of mechanics, the combat is closer to Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, though there is no kicking involved, which is sure to disappoint fans of that game. As one would expect, the first-person melee is ruled by stamina above all.
Technically you can flail the sword over and over, however you will have to control yourself with that, since every attack costs stamina. And once you can’t bring up enough stamina the attack’s power is lowered accordingly. So if you have 0 stamina, your attacks will be (almost) useless. You generally want to avoid low stamina for four major reasons:
1) Dodging is no longer possible.
2) Enemies won’t go into pain states anymore (e.g. stumble back or similar). That means they can pretty much steamroll you without much resistence, because…
3) If you parry or block your stamina decreases. If the value goes to 0 (from blocking/parrying an attack) your defense breaks and you are stunned for roughly a second.
4) If you attack a parrying/blocking enemy while having low stamina the same happens.
So you will have to pay close attention to your stamina or combat will become very punishing. This is especially true when there is more than one enemy.
It will also be possible to use the environment against enemies, since “everything that hurts the player also hurts enemies: fire, falling boulders, poisonous gas, etc.” This is still experimental, but it bodes well for the kind of creative first-person combat gameplay that is possible in Dark Messiah and Dishonored. When I asked how does he think Monomyth will compare with the upcoming Underworld Ascendant and its focus on emergent gameplay, he was cautious.
Just from what I’ve seen, I believe Monomyth will be more conservative with regards to physics-based challenges and solutions. Emergent gameplay still has its place in Monomyth though. Mostly however through specific spells or certain items, slightly changing the rules and broadening the spectrum of possible solutions for a certain challenge.
Apart from gameplay, there will be some narrative interplay with the title. I told him I think Monomyth is a really great title for an RPG, and it’s odd the idea of the Hero’s Journey hasn’t been referred to openly in many RPGs. He was modest about it.
The title was essentially the first thing I came up with. I don’t exactly remember how, but I believe I wanted something relatively short with a very basic adventure-related meaning. And since the Monomyth is a very general concept, it’s of course easy to weave it into the story. So it will also have a narrative impact on the story. Not necessarily in the most obvious way though.
When I asked about the future, he told me it’s “too early to really think about it, but I could imagine continuing the story in one or the other interesting way,” though he would also be interested in creating something entirely different for a change. “I had a couple of ideas and prototypes that I believe would work nicely as full games.” I asked how much of his work could be re-used in a sequel, and his response shows he has little interest in asset-flipping.
Technically a lot of the modular assets can be re-used, which is a good amount. It always depends though. When one area in a game is very strongly built around one type of asset you don’t really want to use that again, because it will stand out. But even then, with things like procedural texture generation and vertex painting it’s very easy to give an old asset a new look. That also goes for enemies, as seen in a lot of jRPGs. So the little brown bug from the beginning of the game comes back later, as a scary big red bug, that can also poison you. It has its charm, because you know immediately what’s going on. The trick is not overdoing it.
This leads to the matter of digital distribution. Monomyth was one of the last games to be greenlit on Steam Greenlight before it was abandoned and Steam Direct was introduced, which has led to all the issues that we are dealing with now. Steam has become a constant avalanche of shovelware, and it’s increasingly harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. Any indie developer is right to be concerned, but Rat Tower is rather nonchalant about it.
We got more shovelware on Steam these days, true. I don’t exactly know why Steam Direct was introduced in the first place, because I thought [Greenlight] was there to increase quality. It’s true that now you get buried under a ton of shovelware releases but I’m not all that bothered by it to be honest. To me it seems, that most shovelware can be identified just from looking at the icon in the release list.
Although appearances can be deceptive, it’s true that there are ways to find gems under the gravel of shovelware. The attitude he shows is interesting, though. He relies on something beyond the commercial appeal that Monomyth might have. He is not doing it for the money, he has his software engineering job for that. So how does he stay motivated to develop the game?
I stay motivated simply because I like creating things. I don’t get tired of what I do. Doing everything from game design to programming makes that very easy. If I don’t feel like programming I design a level. If I don’t feel like making a mesh I might make an animation for another. There is always something different to do.
There will be an alpha demo of Monomyth freely available later this year, and Rat Tower will rely on the feedback he will receive from players. I look forward to writing a preview based on my experience to help make Monomyth the best game it can become. If you think you will enjoy it, be sure to follow Rat Tower on Twitter so you don’t miss the chance to try the alpha demo.