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Lifting the Fog on Gloomwood: A Chat With Indie Dev Dillon Rogers

Gaming article by Trevor Whalen on January 14, 2019 at 2:00 PM
Interview

If you’re at all interested in first-person immersive games, survival horror, or first-person shooters, you should follow the development of Gloomwood, a foggy first-person mashup by Dillon Rogers.

I’ve been following the game’s development closely since discovering it via Twitter. Dillon himself, obsessed with Thief and Thief fan missions, is a man after my own heart. It was thus a rare privilege and honor to speak with one whose inspirations so closely mirror my own.

 

Note that included throughout this interview story are new screenshots of Gloomwood—very special thanks to Dillon.

Motivation and Inspiration

TechRaptor: What inspired you to make games and why have you kept at it?

Dillon Rogers: I started modding games, first! I would mess around with Starcraft's world editor and try to make stuff that was way over what that tool could handle. Eventually, like many others, I became drawn to the Source engine and started learning how to put down level geometry and make my own spaces. I made a bunch of stuff for Portal, Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 (usually under the name “ForbiddenDonut.”)

 

Sometime during college I took a course on independent game development and decided to try my hand at making stuff on my own. Absurdly, I wanted to make the stuff I was interested in, which was almost always first-person games.

I tried to make a cyberpunk detective, Blade Runner-inspired game called A Crimson Searchlight for a while with a few college friends. Unfortunately, as it was college, everyone got busy and at that time I didn't know how to code, model, texture or most of the technical disciplines required for solo development.

 

So then I made much smaller games that I could do solo, like one called Electric Tortoise, also a Blade Runner-inspired game. At that point I was like, "Right, so I'm going to be a solo developer."

As for why I've kept at it - I'm just super stubborn, haha. This is my creative outlet and I enjoy letting players enter a different universe and get a sense of the atmosphere and mood, despite how difficult games are to make.

TR: So you began as a modder—nice! And with Starcraft of all games, not Doom or Quake. I love "ForbiddenDonut"!

How did you overcome not knowing the technical disciplines you listed? How did you approach learning them for game development?

 

Dillon: I pored over tutorials and other game repos and stayed in close contact with developers who faced like-minded challenges. A lot of it was just frustratingly trying to roll a boulder uphill, which is why it takes me a long time to make anything. I've continually tried to grow past my own critical eye, and that can be exhausting. You know when something looks good or bad and sometimes you have to just keep hacking at it for months or years.

TR: So no one's really alone—learning game dev is a struggle for anyone. It also sounds like networking and collaboration were vital.

For your early games, when did you decide to "let them go"? That is, how did you learn when to keep working on something versus when to complete it and let others experience it?

Dillon: I'm still really bad at that. Sometimes it would be simply "I can't look at this project anymore. It's just going to have to be done."

 

Part of what let me work on Gloomwood so long is that it's been challenging enough to make that I'm continually working towards minor goals and not getting bored, and also those milestones can be super rewarding. Like when you see an AI wander about a level or search for you after you made a noise. That stuff gets me excited about how players are going to experience it.

gloomwood screenshot city scene
Welcome to Gloomwood. Don't get lost!

What is Gloomwood?

TR: What's the elevator pitch for Gloomwood?

Dillon: The pitch I usually tell people is that it's a first-person shooter set in a warped, foggy Victorian town full of top-hat wearing phantoms and plaguemask-wearing ghouls. That's usually enough to be like, "Huh, that's not really a setting you see often!" I'm a sucker for that kind of “Jack the Ripper,” foggy London aesthetic, but also wanted to combine it with my own interests in the supernatural and the bizarre.

TR: That's quite an intriguing description! It gets right to the point—I'd definitely want to play it!

So what is your style? How will Gloomwood represent that style?

Dillon: So, this is probably going to surprise you when we start talking about Thief and such, but I actually did not originally design this game with immersive sims in mind. When I started this game, I hadn't even played Thief: The Dark Project. Crazy, huh? When I go about designing games, I usually come at it from the angle of, "Okay, what's the world I want to represent?" And then I design the game around fulfilling the emotions and tone of that world.

For Gloomwood, I wanted to put the player into this uneasy position of feeling like a stranger. This has been the guiding light since I first laid the groundwork for the game, and through multiple revamps and redesigns. The goal has always been that the player is a newcomer to this town, and they have no idea whom to trust or how they're going to survive as they learn the layout of these streets and tunnels and encounter the inhabitants.

gloomwood screenshot phantom
As a stranger in an unsettling city, you must learn your way around - and how to deal with the locals.

TR: So for you, the world comes first. You ask what kind of feelings you want the player to have based on the gameworld they explore. That's not a bad starting point at all. But you have intrigued me by saying Gloomwood did not begin with immersive sims as inspiration, and that you had not played Thief yet. Let's explore this some!

Love of Thief and Indie Collaboration

TR: How did you first come upon Thief? How has its design influenced your design philosophy? How much of that influence may show in Gloomwood, and how?

Dillon: So, a lot of my current tastes in games developed from my friendship and collaboration with David Szymanski, who is the designer behind DUSK. Originally, we both became friends because he thought Gloomwood looked neat and I thought DUSK looked neat. Over time we would just spend hours talking about game design and how best to squeeze the most life out of our worlds. As two designers with relatively stubborn opinions, we would debate game design with a lot of other dev friends.

One of those friends, Jess Harvey (who is making Tangiers and made Paratopic) would constantly tell us about how incredible Thief was. And while we both have played a few immersive sims (David is a big Deus Ex fan, and I had played Bioshock), we hadn't full explored the genre or even Thief. So we decided to try it. And the funny thing is, I wasn't quite sold on it at first. I'm not a big stealth game fan. I was also playing System Shock 2 and it felt much more my speed - the horror, the shooting and excitement of being chased by hybrids. But slowly, Thief had planted something in my brain. I kept coming back to it and realizing more and more just how incredibly good it was. Once I had made it up to the famous The Sword mission I was kicking myself. "How could I have let this game sit in my library for so long? This is like - the best game I've ever played."

TR: So it was through a connection with another game dev that you were inspired to try out Thief. It seems we Thief fans always have to tell other gamers and game designers how amazing Thief is to finally get them to play it! Otherwise, it seems like no one's tried it out! It's also fun to know that yourself, David Szymanski, Jessica Harvey, and other devs are talking game design behind the scenes and checking out stuff like Thief at each other’s behest.

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It seems, then, that playing the original Thief was like a watershed moment for you. How much did it affect your approach to Gloomwood? Did you start planning new features because of Thief?

Dillon: I think playing Looking Glass games in general started to make me appreciate little elements that bring out the world and creature interaction. An example would be the footsteps in Thief and System Shock 2. In most games, footsteps are like a decorative element of the game, but here they have real weight and consequence. If you land onto some hard metal with a loud thud, you bet the nearby Hammerite or hybrid is going to start coming your way.

I didn't radically shift around Gloomwood, because I felt like my approach of putting the world first was already pretty compatible. But I started to try and bring out those small details I liked: footstep sounds, the way sound moves about a level and how you can use it to your advantage, the AI being more conscious of the player and having a more reactive role beyond just being an enemy combatant. I had already been experimenting with in-world details like physically bringing your backpack out as an inventory, or opening your guns to see how much ammunition you have loaded. It just felt like all these elements of design that I had been trying to find and replicate finally had a genre to put a name to.

TR: That demonstrates that you had good ideas about game design early on. Thief, System Shock, and Ultima Underworld are primarily about a world you explore (with System Shock being largely about an arch-enemy as well). Playing those games seems to have informed design instincts you already operated on. In other words: you have good instincts! Also ones I relate to: with games, I have always cared greatly for the world I am exploring above other traits.

Dillon: Not all my initial design ideas were good! Gloomwood was procedural generation early on, because like many designers at the time, that seemed like a great way to solve the issue of having to put a lot of work into making levels. It would be a painful lesson to realize that I shouldn't have done that, and at some point during development I cut it out and switched back to my forte of making handcrafted levels. I pieced together that my strongest work was from when I could get in and make these great, smaller, in-level moments or stories, and procedural generation just can't do that as well.

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Survival Horror and Gloomwood

Now, in addition to Thief, I know that you are very enthusiastic about survival horror. How has that style influenced you, and how are you capturing it in Gloomwood?

Dillon: Survival horror has been a genre I have loved since a kid. I played Resident Evil way too early via my brother, and it was glorious. I adore the sense of place those games have and the creeping dread of not knowing if the resources you have are going to carry you through the next difficult situation. And, in general, survival horror games tend to have some excellent, interconnected level design. They often focus on backtracking past enemies you had to keep alive because you just don't have the bullets to waste.

gloomwood ghoul
Gloomwood is also made from the stuff of survival horror, as this frightening scene demonstrates.

When you're staring at your game map and trying to figure out what route is the best to take based on your supplies and what potential threats might be along the way, that is some excellent higher-level spatial thinking that you don't get when a game relies on, say, a map marker or very linear (or even too open!) level design.

TR: So amidst Thief, survival horror, and first-person shooters, what will Gloomwood be most like? Mechanically, how will it play?

Dillon: That's hard to say because it's so clearly a smashup of all those things. So it really depends on how people approach it and what their expectations are. Survival horror fans will probably see the saferooms and ammo conservation and be like, "Oh duh, yeah." System Shock fans will notice that you can backtrack through areas and it has got a mix of hiding and shooting. And then Thief fans will probably just look at the art, jumping on loud tile, and surrealism and be like, "Oh yeah, that's totally Thief." Or maybe it'll just be its own thing from being a splice of all that stuff. Or maybe everyone will hate it because it's not enough like any of them. You don't really know until you know, really!

TR: Indeed! But from the sound of it, it's like a mashup of every design I love in gaming. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works together!

gloomwood cool shadows
Like the games that inspired it, Gloomwood will be a mashup of different gameplay styles.

From the game’s website, I see that a couple people have joined you over the past few years in the game’s development. What has it been like to collaborate with others on your project?

Dillon: The two main folks I've worked with are Roy Graham and Taylor Shechet. Roy helped a bunch with getting the narrative and tone of the game world to a really solid point, and Taylor made the soundtrack for the game. They've both been off doing other work and projects for a bit now, so I'm back to solo development, but they're awesome and brought a lot of their unique creativity to the table. They knew exactly the tone I was going for and thus I felt okay letting them play around with the ideas.

TR: Oh, okay, so you're back to developing it solo. I imagine it must be a relief to find collaborators who understand what you want to accomplish.

What do you enjoy working on in Gloomwood the most?

Dillon: Easily, putting together the game world. Making an alleyway or cobblestone street, covering it with a layer of fog and putting shadowy figures on the other end. I'm having a blast just building out the spaces that I (hope) players will stumble about nervously as they read street signs and try to navigate this strange city. I smirk whenever I put together some fun “gotcha” moments that I know will surprise players and in turn make them smirk. And ultimately, one of my favorite things to do in games is to just stand there and take in the atmosphere: listen to the ambience, maybe stand by a fireplace or canal and just gauge the experience of being a part of this space. It feels special that we get to travel to all these bizarre worlds and wander about them. It is what drew me to this medium. It's crazy cool to be able to partake in that.

TR: I love that answer. That's almost exactly how I feel when playing games, and it's what inspired me to try my own hand at "Dromeding" years ago! I want to recreate my own version of spaces in Thief. Maybe I should get back into that? It's great to know that that thrill of world creation and wondering how the player might feel when exploring this world is what drives you in designing levels.

Gloomwood's Biggest Influence

TR: What single game would you say has had the most influence on you, if you had to name one?

Dillon: If we're talking about what single game is currently my biggest driver, then yeah, it's probably Thief. But if we're talking about what game has over the length of my career been the most prevalent? I have a lot of love for the rough and quite flawed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. It's another game where the world just grabbed me and I felt elated to be there and exploring each part of it. It's a huge shame that the studio died along with it, because it deserves a better legacy than the half-broken port it has. And it was one of those super rare FPS meets point-and-click games.

TR: That is one that has been on my radar screen—I read about it a few years back—but I never played it, partly put off by the bugs people said it had. Perhaps now I'll give it a shot!

If you don't mind: what's your favorite Thief mission? (I just have to know.)

Dillon: If you do the unofficial fan patch, Call of Cthulhu is generally fine. I've played it front to back a bunch now. As for favorite Thief mission, that's always a toughie. I think it's probably The Sword, but I feel like my answer could change every week. Song of the Caverns is incredibly good, too.

gloomwood screenshot cornered
I get the feeling that, like in Thief missions, if you get cornered in Gloomwood you’re cooked.

TR: Same here. The Sword and Song of the Caverns are a couple of my favorites, and I could change my picks all the time, as well! Depends on the mood. Do you have a favorite fan mission, as well?

Dillon: My favorite fan mission is probably The Seven Sisters by the late Lady Rowena. I adored all of her maps, but that map was something else. Monumental undertaking and it was just so atmospheric. It's hard to pick, too, because the Thief FM community seems to just spin gold constantly. It's bonkers how good all of those folks are. It feels rare that a community can so totally and fundamentally understand what made a game good, and recapture all those elements.

Oh, and Eclipsed by HipBreaker. What a crazy map. And in this extremely unique style I hadn't seen in Thief before.

Both maps have kind of similar "undead overrun a town" vibes, but they're so good.

TR: Thief FMs and the Thief community at TTLG have inspired me more than just about anything else. The FM authors there are incredible and the work they do is among the best in entertainment, and, for me, are my favorite pieces of storytelling in anything. I, too, love The Seven Sisters, and other favorites include The Inverted Manse, Autumn in Lampfire Hills, The Black Frog, Dracula, The Flying Age...it goes on and on, really! Hard to pick a favorite, indeed!

Dillon: Yeah, you see how often I post about FMs. It's like - the primary way I enjoy games nowadays.

TR: Me too!

Thank you very much for your time in this interview. I could keep talking about Thief FMs for forever, as I'm sure you could too! Anything else you want to say?

Dillon: I think that's everything! And I really enjoyed talking about Thief with you!

TR: Oh yes, and the feeling is mutual!

To find out more about Gloomwood, hit up the game’s official site and follow Dillon Rogers on Twitter.

About the Author

Photo of Trevor Whalen

Trevor Whalen

Writer

I am a lifelong, enthusiastic gamer, freelance writer and editor, blogger, and Thief FM aficionado. I think that exploration-heavy, open-ended first-person games are the best vehicle for story-telling, with the finest Thief missions leading the pack.