It's the season of cyberpunk. We've got quite a few upcoming titles in this popular genre, all of which will be here by the end of the year. There's Ubisoft's Watch Dogs: Legion, which teeters on the edge of modern and cyberpunk. Then you have two games by Polish studios. One is, of course, CD Projekt's Cyberpunk 2077. The other is one to keep on your radar as well, and that is Ghostrunner. In terms of gameplay, it's one-hit and one-kill, and as a super slick ninja-like warrior, you can cut through foes with your sword and lithely jump from obstacle to obstacle. Taking place within a spiraling, tall dystopian complex, Ghostrunner is an exciting entry into the genre.
Developed by One More Level, 3D Realms, and Slipgate Ironworks and published by All In Games and 505 Games, this is an ambitious title between multiple studios. During PAX Online 2020, we talked with One More Level's Head of Studio Szymon Bryła, Narrative Designer Jan Gąsior, and Lead Level Designer Marcin Kluzek to learn all the details on this game's development.
Developing Ghostrunner With Multiple Studios
One thing that sticks out about Ghostrunner is just how many people are behind its development. There's three studios, with One More Level serving as the lead. There's also Slipgate Ironworks, and of course, 3D Realms, a legendary studio known for myriad titles such as Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior. Bryła and his team are responsible for the PC port of Ghostrunner. Slipgate Ironworks are bringing the game to consoles and offer any additional support.
"Of course, we have here 3D Realms," said Bryła. "It's not necessary here to tell you all about the legendary studio, but I would say the guys are helping with marketing, some advice for the development process, and of course we always know they are open and flexible for talking with them about the gameplay, et cetera."
Bryła says they all have a very "flexible" cooperation, and the concentrated effort between all three studios in addition to the two publishers will be better for the players. Meanwhile, Bryła mentioned that One More Level has a close working relationship with another company: Nvidia. Perfect for the cyberpunk genre, Ghostrunner is aiming to utilize raytracing to maximum efficiency, and that means bringing on Nvidia to make sure it runs well and looks even better. RTX can be seen in Ghostrunner's ambient occlusion, shadows, and reflections, among other things. And while RTX might be intensive, the team is focused on current-gen systems right now, in addition to the PC version.
"We know [next-gen consoles] will give us really good tools to show great games and tell great stories," said Bryła. "But now, we are totally focused on the Ghostrunner, because we definitely want to bring this game this year, so it's hard to say what will happen with Ghostrunner on the next-gen consoles."
The High-Stakes Gameplay Behind Ghostrunner
There are many different mechanics at play in Ghostrunner. This is a fast-paced game that offers different obstacles and environmental puzzles, and there's also enemies that are as deadly as the player. Parkour is at the heart of all of this. To really nail the fluid movement of Ghostrunner, One More Level looked at games such as Titanfall 2, Mirror's Edge, and even Doom as examples.
"And, it's heavily connected to level design, actually," said Lead Level Designer Marcin Kluzek. "Particular movements are required to progress, and you constantly think how to make it more pleasurable to players."
All this jumping around is helpful when you're tackling lethal enemies that can one-shot you. One surprising influence behind Ghostrunner's one-hit, one-kill mechanic is Hotline Miami, where you can go on a rampage and slaughter enemies in a single hit, but you have the same vulnerability. Such a mechanic is fitting, as Kluzek points out that with HP, the gameplay would be less dynamic. Players would have to constantly jump around everywhere and dodge hits, or necessitate the use cover a lot more. One might think this extra dose of lethality makes for an overly difficult game, but that is not so, says Kluzek.
"We make a lot of checkpoints, so each section is like a mini-puzzle for the player."
For those worried about combat getting stale, One More Level made sure to constantly incorporate new enemies as players progress. There are, as an example, drones which players jump on to eliminate, humans with pistols, and the like. The team also added story exposition areas where players can take a "breath," and then move back into the action. Narrative Designer Jan Gąsior was tasked with incorporating the story into such a combat-heavy game.
"Basically, it was kind of a challenge to make the plot complement the action and never slow it down," said Gąsior. "The question was how to make a compelling story, a believable story that was engaging but that never requires you to pause too long to listen to someone talk or read a wall of text."
There's dialogue between encounters as players naturally progress through the game. For those interested in collecting or seeing everything a title has to offer, Gąsior incorporated "little breadcrumbs" in the form of audio logs and collectible items so players can learn more about the story—although this isn't necessarily for players to enjoy Ghostrunner. Gąsior adds:
"If you're just interested in heading on and beating the levels as fast as you can, then you're not obliged to find those hidden extra parts."
Climbing High in Ghostrunner
Gąsior also talked about the inspirations behind Ghostrunner. He says that the team incorporated many different elements from all different works. Their aim was not to reinvent the genre; rather, it was to create a game that was "more than the sum of its parts." Personally speaking, Gąsior said that the '90s series Battle Angel Alita is his favorite work in the cyberpunk genre. Elements from Alita can be seen throughout Ghostrunner, where it's a more rusty and decrepit look rather than ultra-clean futuristic.
Players will see for themselves as they climb Dharma Tower. This is the setting of Ghostrunner—an extremely tall, multi-layered tower. Starting from the bottom, the players will find their way all the way up at the top, all the while encountering different districts, each offering new challenges in gameplay.
"So, at the very bottom it's an industrial underbelly of the tower," said Gąsior, "and you can tell that everything is covered in machinery, there's not so many living quarters or spaces that provide services.
As you climb higher up, you'll notice areas that are, as Gąsior mentioned, meant for residents. In the build TechRaptor was shown, it was a residential area with ziplines and rotating billboards, which aren't in the industrial part of the tower.
"Each level actually serves something new to the player that's connected to the setting," said Kluzek.
There's a lot to look forward to for cyberpunk enthusiasts, and all of these elements come together to create a thrilling adventure that, above all else, is fair to the player. Fairness is something that Bryła emphasized at the end, since Ghostrunner might appear complicated to some.
"We are making a pretty hardcore game, I would say," said Bryła, "so the things we already talked about—the checkpoints, about the level design, the game design—is very important here, because we already know that our game has to be fair for the player. We need to give them really clear info why they died or why they have to change their approach to the level."
Players can get their hands on Ghostrunner soon when it launches on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on Oct. 27.
Are you excited for Ghostrunner? Let us know in the comments below!