How many minutes has it been since you last heard the phrase “battle pass”? Did you grind out a couple hours last week to get some sweet skin? Or maybe you spent a couple bucks, because who has the time to play games anymore anyway?
Jessica Harvey and her studio Arbitrary Metric, known for creating Paratopic, have set out to challenge these trends with their next project, Roman Sands RE:Build. Part satire, part fever dream, this experience features voice work from popular streamer STPeach.
More importantly though, Harvey wants players to feel enriched from this cathartic, five-hour, long-form rollercoaster ride.
How Roman Sands RE:Build Got STPeach
STPeach’s character in Roman Sands RE:Build appears in the second act of the game, which turns into a survival horror that turns pretty dark. While exploring an abandoned research facility, everyone’s life support starts failing, and her character is in a similar situation. All that connects you two is a radio.
“The character she's playing is very sort of anxiety ridden,” Harvey said. “But we didn't want it to be all doom and gloom. We wanted to have someone who has sort of a natural extraversion and sense of fun to be playing against type so that we have that, like, innate depth to the character that you're meeting.”
When creating the second act of Roman Sands RE:Build, it took the team some time and research to find potential voice actors. Their publisher Serenity Forge, known for games like Doki Doki Literature Club, reached out to STPeach and helped coach her through the voice acting role.
“We struck gold with STPeach working on this. We’re beyond fortunate,” Harvey said. “It was great to see her announce it in her Twitch chat and to see everybody getting excited over it.”
Doing Gacha Without the Gacha
I was first drawn to Roman Sands RE:Build because a lot about it reminded me of Paradise Killer. The vaporwave aesthetic and art direction looked interesting, but it wasn’t until I dug more into it that I realized just the kind of game it’s shaping up to be.
“The gist of it is obviously satirical. It's got its anti-capitalist leanings,” Harvey said. “But what we're trying to do with that is not just make a game that portrays those sentiments. Because fundamentally, when you create satire or portray something, it's easy to just parcel it up, put it away to the side, and ignore it.
“We're trying to make something that not only portrays but embodies and overwhelms,” she continued. ”All this stuff that's sort of rooted in very capitalist-driven game design, from sort of gacha to sort of artificial compulsion, et cetera, we are trying to shove into your face and make something that is just so over the top, but it will really leave a mark.”
"I spent seven years running shifts at a grocery store, and I have poured every inch of bile from those years into this game." --Jessica Harvey, Arbitrary Metric
When you look at what’s popular today, it’s easy to see where she’s coming from. Games like Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail, while popular, regularly entice players to engage with their gacha mechanics by rolling out new characters.
Most battle passes create a sense of scarcity, compelling players to complete them by a certain date to get some cool skin. If you can’t finish it in time, you could always shell out a couple extra bucks, in an exercise that redefines the phrase “time is money.”
All of these artificial compulsions and carrots on sticks, which are predominantly seen in service games, are the target of Roman Sands RE:Build, according to Harvey.
“That is just, to me, so toxic on a creative level. It's not spiritually enriching. It is trying to create this sort of psychological drug,” she said. “And so a large part of the game is satirizing that, which is why as well as the whole UI angle, we've got sort of a token gacha game in there.”
To clarify, this isn’t a real gacha game. As far as I’m aware, once you purchase Roman Sands RE:Build, that’s the only monetary transactions you’ll have related to the game. Harvey cheekily thought about doing a real gacha system for a laugh, but ultimately decided against it.
"Everybody on the team told me it’d be a bad idea. I thought it’d be really funny,” she chuckled. “But I don’t want to do that and then find out some whale has spent $2,000 on us. I couldn’t live with myself.”
Compelled to Complete
From the little bit of Roman Sands RE:Build that I played, it starts out as an adventure game. You’re suddenly a worker at a luxury hotel that exists outside of time and/or space.
The sun will eat the hotel eventually, but your immediate concerns are related to the hotel guests, all of whom have their own demands. They’re also rude, snooty, and generally unpleasant to interact with—and that’s all by design.
“I spent seven years running shifts at a grocery store, and I have poured every inch of bile from those years into this game,” Harvey said. “I think much of the team has had similar experiences. Our writer spent a long time working in a coffee shop before tackling this. So yeah, we’ve been there.”
These guests give you tasks, and every time you do one, the game makes a large point about how you’ve completed a task. It rewards you with XP, which, contrary to what you might think, is actually necessary to complete the game. You don’t need a lot of it though, and you’ll hit the cap early on.
“Everything beyond that is like completely pointless skins,” Harvey said. “We're doing it so that you can level up high enough and get a new skin for the flowerpot, a new coffee mug, and yeah, have some fun with that bullshit. It's a petulant game at heart.”
If any of this speaks to you the way it has to me, you can wishlist the game on Steam to help out Harvey and the team at Arbitrary Metric ahead of their upcoming release.
“My main hope is that people play this, take our ideas, and run with them, and make more work that sort of takes on our worldview,” she said. “And hopefully, it is, just through being a sort of overwhelming satire, it’s a little bit enriching to people in terms of being able to go away and feel that level of catharsis and spiritual refreshment after they finished playing.”
I interviewed Jessica Harvey and played Roman Sands RE:Build during PAX West 2023.