It's always good to have an old fashioned adventure here and there. While it may not be a genre that has seen many recent major releases, it still gets a good amount of entries from studios both small and large. One such studio is Clifftop Games, developers of 2016's Kathy Rain and the recently released Whispers of a Machine. I wanted to know more about both games, so I teamed up with fellow writer Courtney Ehrenhofler and emailed a list of questions to Clifftop Game's founder and developer Joel Staaf Hästö. Thankfully he had the time to respond to us.
TechRaptor: How did Clifftop Games get started?
Joel Staaf Hästö: Clifftop Games was the result of Kathy Rain suddenly growing from a hobby project into a full-time commercial title when I signed with indie game publisher Raw Fury back in 2015. I had been working at different game companies for about six years at the time, but never considered becoming a full-time indie developer. Thankfully, Raw Fury happened to learn about my game, took a chance, and things somehow worked out from there!
TechRaptor: For those not aware of it, or who don’t know much, can you give a quick rundown on Kathy Rain?
Joel: Set in the 90's, Kathy Rain tells the story of a strong-willed journalism major who has to come to terms with her own troubled past as she investigates the mysterious death of her recently deceased grandfather. Armed with her motorcycle, a pack of cigs, and a notepad, Kathy begins to delve into a local mystery surrounding her hometown that will take her on a harrowing journey full of emotional and personal turmoil.
TechRaptor: Why focus on an old school adventure game for your first project?
Joel: I knew I wanted to tell a story about this strong female character, and I love the classic point and clicks. An old school adventure with pixel art also allows telling a story with limited means in terms of budget and time, so it seemed like a great match!
TechRaptor: Was it difficult to capture that look and feel?
Joel: Not that difficult as one might think, no! Having grown up with adventure games, I think most things came intuitively to me. I also worked with artists familiar with the genre, and the game engine, AGS (Adventure Game Studio) does plenty of the retro point and click stuff out of the box.
TechRaptor: Kathy Rain deals with a wide range of topics not usually explored in video games, and particularly not through a female perspective. What made you decide to tackle some of these heavier topics like abortions and parental abandonment?
Joel: I suppose those are the types of stories that resonate with me, personally, and I think these topics are also fairly underrepresented in games in general.
TechRaptor: What made you decide to take the (potentially) paranormal/supernatural route in the story, rather than leaving it as a regular murder mystery?
Joel: I prefer to not fall into a standard formula with my stories; I like ambiguity, surprises, twists and turns and leaving things open to interpretation. In the case of Kathy Rain, the supernatural angle grew out of that.
TechRaptor: Will there be sequels to Kathy Rain?
Joel: Probably, fingers crossed! Kathy Rain 2 is one of my most likely projects after Whispers of a Machine, but we will see how things develop as I recover from the intense crunch of WoaM…
TechRaptor: For those not aware of it, or who don’t know much, can you give a quick rundown on Whispers of a Machine?
Joel: Whispers of a Machine is a Sci-Fi Nordic Noir that tells the story of Vera, a cybernetically augmented detective in a post-AI world, who investigates a string of murders and unravels a dark conflict over forbidden technology.
TechRaptor: Why the hard shift in settings?
Joel: Me and my cohort Petter Ljungqvist of Faravid Interactive had been discussing creating a game together for a year or two prior to Kathy Rain's release, and I always wanted to make a cyberpunk sci-fi game. At the time, Kathy Rain’s sales looked grim even if that changes further along the line. But at that time, it made the decision to go for something different quite easy.
TechRaptor: What did you learn from the development of Kathy Rain that you were able to use for Whispers of a Machine?
Joel: Proper planning and better collaborative tools. Having a portable game UI design from the start. Preparing early for localization and voice overs. A lot of tech stuff was also re-used since we had the same engine.
TechRaptor: What inspired the post-AI setting in Whispers? Could you ever see this becoming a reality someday?
Joel: AI is all the rage these days and is looking like the next technological revolution on the horizon, but when the project started out, the topic was more commonly discussed in philosophical terms. Me and Petter started approaching the subject at some point (I believe Petter brought it up originally) and it seemed to be a good backdrop for a game. As for an AI-collapse becoming a reality - probably not. AI likely won't be different from any other major new piece of technology, which us humans don't have a tendency to approach very thoughtfully. I believe AI is here to stay, for good and for and bad.
TechRaptor: Roombas. Evil or no?
Joel: I think Roombas are just heavily misunderstood :)
TechRaptor: What inspired the bioaugmentation system used in the game, and why did you decide to link it to Vera's personality development?
Joel: The augs, while in essence a variation of the cyberpunk staple with cybernetic implants, was also inspired by Deus Ex and the tv-series Continuum. I'm not sure where the idea came from at the very start, but I believe the decision to link it to Vera's personality was rooted in an attempt to create a more personalized experience and to encourage replayability. The relationship between Blue and the augs was also a way to add a layer of mystery and danger to the augs.
TechRaptor: The choice driven bio-augmentation system in the game follows on the heels of recent adventure games where the choices you make affect not only the outcome of the game but how you get there. Why did you decide to add the choice mechanic and break away from the more traditional, linear way of storytelling in adventure games? What do you think this added to the storytelling and the overall gameplay experience?
Joel: I did love the idea of creating a personalized, replayable experience where people can approach the game in different ways depending on their preferred playstyle, but it's also hard to make a purely linear adventure these days. Youtube and streaming has changed the landscape for fixed experiences, as many potential players will opt to just watch a Let's Play of the game or interact with their favorite streamer live rather than play the game themselves. So the replayable/branching aspects of the game was also a way to try and mitigate that, and to encourage the viewers to give the game a try on an alternate path.
TechRaptor: What’s an interesting fact about the world of Whispers that you wish you had more time to explore in the game itself?
Joel: The origins of the town of Nordsund itself, and why it is placed upon a concrete pedestal. I would also have loved to flesh out the Free Church of EPOS some more.
TechRaptor: How does it feel now that the game is finally done and in people’s hands?
Joel: It's always a strange feeling to release a game. You have lived and breathed a project for a number of years, and then it's suddenly done, and you're giving it to someone else. But it feels good! There are always things you can improve, but the players seem to like Whispers of a Machine so far, and after all, that's what matters!
TechRaptor: What’s next for the studio?
Joel: Probably Kathy Rain 2, but we'll see!
We'd like to once again thank Joel for taking the time to talk with us.