As cyberpunk becomes more and more popular, it becomes an immense challenge for developers to create original environments within this genre. Armed with the right industry experience and an extra dose of creativity, The Ascent developer Neon Giant defied odds and created a refreshing and absolutely striking world. Toting some of gaming's most incredible visuals and densely packed with so much detail and lore, The Ascent was an undertaking to create.
The Ascent is a cyberpunk world infused with otherworldly sci-fi elements. There's aliens, complex artificial intelligence, laser beams, mechs, and other inclusions that make it more than just hard cyberpunk. There's also a a cornucopia of incredible individualized zones for players to explore in this twin-stick shooter. Just about everything in The Ascent has lore behind it, from the zones themselves to alien races and exotic tech. TechRaptor talked with Nenon Giant Co-Founder and Creative Director Arcade Berg to learn more about how his team created the absurdly detailed world of The Ascent.
The Foundation for The Ascent's World
The team behind The Ascent is smaller than you might think, but it also comprises individuals with substantial game development experience. As such, they bring plenty of ideas for new game worlds. Although inspired by media of all types, including books, comics, and movies, The Ascent is a title with no singular inspiration.
"There wasn’t really any game we looked at saying, 'That’s what we want to do,'" said Berg, "but there’s no denying that of course we play a lot of games, and that by itself brings with it a lot of thoughts, ideas, and things you want to try out. With a vast majority of the studio having worked mostly on big AAA-titles in the action and shooter space we brought a lot of that with us. I think that's why people appreciate the shooting and second-to-second gameplay."
Players will notice that there is a lot of clutter in The Ascent. Not bad clutter, either. There's rich detail everywhere, from scraps of trash and towering buildings, to the humans and aliens that inhabit the world. This effect was achieved through a top-down perspective, which for some might serve as an unconventional way to soak up the atmosphere of a game world.
"When we started Neon Giant and The Ascent," said Berg, "we were just a handful of people and attempting to make an FPS that’s competitive with production values is a huge commitment. We didn’t even have an animator when we started. We saw this top-down genre to be an opportunity for us to come in and produce a high-quality game and hopefully raise the bar for games to come."
The atmosphere and environment of The Ascent is not smoke and mirrors. Recently, YouTuber Griff Griffin unlocked the camera for The Ascent (a feature not available in the actual game) and revealed the immaculate work Neon Giant put into capturing the atmosphere of their world. Gameplay would certainly be impacted by a first-person perspective, but nonetheless, Berg said that the top-down perspective presented both "challenges and opportunities."
"The benefit is that we can work with scale in a completely different way than you would in an FPS or third-person over-the-shoulder game," said Berg. "As a lot of people have seen, we can use verticality in a very deliberate way that really shows a huge world. Whilst the camera is usually far away, we can use our custom cameras like when you talk to people to show the actual fidelity up close."
Looking at Griff Griffin's video, it's evident that Neon Giant put in a lot of work into details that might not even be seen by most players. There are so many art assets, like boxed components on the shelves of the game's stores, that players won't see. Despite this, one would be overly presumptuous and say that Neon Giant went a little wild while creating assets. Berg admits one of the challenges for him and his team was, quite simply, to hold back.
"Since we’re used to making another type of games," said Berg, "it's hard to remember that people won’t be able to push the game camera right up to every object. We also have to be mindful to not block the flying camera with things in the foreground whilst still making sure there’s something there to offer a lot of parallax movement in the environment to make it feel more alive even when there's no people around."
Creating Unique, Individualized Zones in The Ascent
Players can easily tell that Veles, The Ascent's game world, is filled with millions upon millions of inhabitants. And housing all of these humans, aliens, and robots are plenty of zones serving their own purpose. From the industrial, robot-infested underbelly of the Deepstink to the red lights district of Stimtown, every location in The Ascent has a reason to exist. As a result, it feels as though no inch of game area is wasted.
"We always made sure there was a seed for what 'kind' of place it was before building anything," said Berg. "I can easily draw an abstract of the entire game world on a whiteboard or a piece of paper for you and then say here’s this and there’s that with rough descriptions like 'That’s the corporate area,' 'This is where the interstellar ships dock,' and 'And this is an abandoned area that’s been flooded.' Once you have a single statement for a location, it’s much easier to start coming up with the rest. We tried to make sure there are some landmarks in every area you can refer to when talking to people. Anything from statues, specific buildings, or vistas."
This design philosophy is very evident as you explore The Ascent. In the case of statues, a very recognizable landmark in the game's world is the giant golden Buddha statue of The Golden Satori. This is a remarkable area in The Ascent as it combines elements that we may recognize from the real world. Elements of Asian culture abound in the area in and around The Golden Satori. The Ascent is very inspired and feels like it could take place within our universe through its Asian influences and otherwise; heck, you'll even come across background details like kebab shops.
"We envisioned this world to be 'somewhere else' far into the future, but with there still being humans there, we could bring with us whatever we wanted from today’s culture and with that - do whatever we want," Berg said. "Culture, language, and iconography always change over time, so we didn’t feel tied down to anything. We can mix and match facts with fiction however we see fit. We can mix low-tech with sci-fi and earth with space to create Veles."
While there are many fascinating and engrossing areas in The Ascent, the one that struck a personal note for me was Scrapland. This houses piles and piles of rusty scrap. Robots are bustling about, welding and scavenging parts from various, decrepit piles of junk. There's even a small, humble market selling who knows what. It's a darker area that really makes you feel like you're in the bowels of an enormous, industrial complex.
To me, this area encapsulated the ingenuity of Neon Giant's world design and highlights world building at its finest. I had noticed it was a completely optional area too, which I discovered in my pursuit to soak up all that The Ascent has to offer. There's no quest driving you there, just the player's own wanderlust. For Neon Giant, it turns out that Scrapland was a favorite among many of its developers, as well.
"I think that it’s completely optional is very much part of the charm," Berg said. "It's the forgotten place. The philosophy was around it being the place no one goes. The art, music (one of my favorite tracks!), and the missions all play into that. I firmly believe that having a few areas that you don’t get to visit at all in the main story makes the world feel much bigger. You don’t want it all to be explored that easily. Areas like Scrapland helps with the bigger picture."
No doubt other players have similar feelings for their own favorite zone. Maybe some prefer Cluster 13, the game's main hub world that serves as a friendly resting place in a brutal game world. There's also The Pinnacle, piercing the clouds. It's where only the elite may reside and is almost quite literally an "ivory tower." Neon Giant is a new studio, so there's bound to be more from the studio soon. There's a lot of lore potential in The Ascent, and while we definitely can't count on a sequel (at least for now), prying for more information resulted in this statement from Berg:
"From day one, we’ve always tried to make sure that we were building a world and narrative that’s larger than the game itself. I think that’s the only way to allow players to get immersed and think 'outside' of the story at hand. There are many things that I think could be fun to explore. What was the tease all about? The Ascent Group arcology is the arcology you know - what else is out there? Is meat sculptures really a good idea?"
You can play The Ascent now on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X