Interview with Chris Bischoff, developer of STASIS
It took Chris Bischoff of THE BROTHERHOOD five long -but full of love and excitement- years to develop STASIS, one of the best sci-fi adventure games in recent years. In 2013 a successful Kickstarter campaign proved that over 5,000 adventure fans worldwide really liked what Chris was doing. When STASIS was released in 2016, it even got the 'Daedalic Entertainment' seal of approval and the game was published in many digital portals and physical stores. It was an instant hit; it won awards and received great feedback. The proud developer is already working on two more games and Adventure Advocate talked to him about his gaming past, present and future!
Hi, Chris. Thanks for giving us this interview. So, our readers know you are a game designer from sunny South Africa who almost single-handedly created STASIS. What they don't know is what it's like to be a game designer in South Africa who has just created one of the best sci-fi adventure games in recent years.
Thank you very much for those kind words. I'm excited to be afforded the ability to work independently. Nic and I worked for more than a decade on massive creative (non-game) projects, but these were client driven projects so working on my own intellectual property has been a breath of fresh air.
We've now been working full time on our latest game, CAYNE, for an entire year. I'm pleasantly surprised how productive we've been, when concentrating on a single project for these past months. STASIS was created part time for three years and then full time after our Kickstarter campaign, however, I still had some client work to oversee. I guess I was still not 100% confident that I could do this as a career, but after the success of STASIS, I guess I can now!
Your first game was clearly a love-letter to sci-fi. Apart from 'The Dig' that we know was a great influence thanks to its mature and deep sci-fi story, are there other games you feel have affected you in some way? Should we assume you also enjoyed Dead Space 1? And how about movies and literature, are there any sci-fi stories there that you keep close to your heart?
I'm a rabid film fan. I think if I had not gone into an art related field I would've loved to have pursue film making or directing.
STASIS was a melting pot of the sci-fi genre, yes. The sense of exploration that you had during that first act of Alien, the emotions felt when the Event Horizon bursts through the clouds, Starwars, Jurassic Park... It's hard to pin it down on one specific film.
During my holiday breaks I devour as many books as humanly possible. I'm a fan of Greg Bear, his book EON was an amazing fare of galactic conflict. Not to mention a tome of Sci-Fi classics by Philip K. Dick that I've read three times. Recently, the Foundation series by Asimov has been a favourite. I also enjoy ‘pop literature’ like Harry Potter. I think it is important to absorb stories from many sources.
We grew up on the classic adventure games during the late 80s and 90s so there are many to mention. Star Control 2 was probably the most influential on my game design outlook. We had to opportunity to meet Paul and Fred from Toys for Bob, the creators of Star Control, and it was a seminal moment in my life.
Are you a story-teller in real life as well? Do you tell stories to friends or write short stories? And what about John Maracheck? People say that the first characters one creates are always originated from their close circle, or even themselves. Is John someone you actually know?
I enjoy the world building more than the actual story telling process. I've enjoyed dreaming up fantastic places and then illustrating them in my personal art. Therefore, the story in STASIS is rather simple because I wasn't as confident in the medium. I tried to paint a simple emotive tale that takes place in an evocative location.
John was supposed to be an "every-man". He is an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. I purposefully included the theme of family in the story as it is often said to write what you know and I'm close to my family so it seemed like a good fit.
I've since gained more confidence though, in the process, and CAYNE is a far more sophisticated story but it works the emotional level that people can relate to.
What is your most favourite adventure game of all times? And what would you say is your favourite element in adventure games? Story over puzzles, puzzles all the way, or immersive atmosphere above all?
The Dig is one of the few adventure games that took a mature Science Fiction story and told it using the mechanics of an adventure game. It was a game that sci-fi lovers (like myself), as well as adventure gamers, were waiting for! I think that the adventure genre is the perfect vessel for stories of mystery and discovery – a genre that puts story and exploration above everything else. I would also point to the Space Quest series as a favourite.
I think the puzzles should work hand-in-hand with the story. The latter part of the 90s digressed from this process and it endlessly frustrated me, and other players, I think. My games have aimed at grounding the puzzles in some form of reality and I always ask myself if the puzzle makes sense in this environment.
Some complain about having to unfold a story by reading diaries and notes, a well-known technique among horror adventure games. They claim this story-telling method shows a lack of experience by the developers. Others disagree and insist that this is a good method to unfold the story while being immersed in its world. Who do you believe is right?
It is a method of telling a story on a budget. Keep in mind that STASIS had 55,000 words that were translated into 7 languages. I'd love to have 240 minutes of full motion video but the costs are prohibitive and more so for an indie game developer, but that being said, I do feel that it invokes the players imagination when they read the story rather than being told the story. I think that even if I had a $100 million game budget that I'd still include writings.
Gaming will always mean different things to different players. Some want to sit back and enjoy the passive ride and others want to engage with the world. I suggest our games cater to the latter.
From Sanitarium to STASIS, more than 15 years have passed until we enjoyed another great isometric adventure game. This had to be a tough call for an indie developer. How come you went for it?
One of the many influential games of my childhood was Crusader – the isometric shooter. A great style of art, that I've naturally gravitated towards. I have to admit that it is difficult to tell an emotive story from an isometric perspective, but I think we managed!
3D games have an advantage that they can stimulate all of the players senses simultaneously and put the gamer in that place in a fairly realistic manner. With this in mind, I had to play to the other senses to make the world real. Sound and music played a large part in this endeavor.
What has been the most challenging part of developing STASIS from an indie-game-designer standpoint?
Making a game isn't easy, but finishing one is even harder! I think the most challenging part was keeping focus on an end goal for 5 years.
In STASIS there were scenes that probably intended to shock gamers. Do you think shock is a prerequisite in a good horror story?
I think the horror genre is built on shock value, some do it with gore and others with psychological impetus. The very definition of horror is an evocation of fear, shock or disgust. As I mentioned before, it is much harder to scare the player with a locked off isometric, detached viewpoint so I had to resort to a few gruesome surprises. I think as long as it can be justified in the context of the game and abides by the rules of the story that have been setup then it can and should be used.
Your first game had a great number of hotspots, not all of them necessary to proceed with the story. How come you've made that (good) decision?
I tried to flesh out the world of STASIS as much as possible, using graphics and design but also by using descriptions I could further allude to a deeper vignette without using graphic fidelity.
Judging from STASIS, one would say that music and sound seem to be of the utmost importance to you in order to achieve an immersive atmosphere. Is this true? Should we expect this to be your soft spot in future projects as well?
Mark Morgan worked for an entire year on the overture of STASIS and I think the music speaks for itself. Sound design is by far the most enjoyable process in game design, for me. It brings all elements together and ties the world to the story and makes it a believable place. We're currently finishing up the sound design on CAYNE and I think it is just as good as what you've heard in STASIS.
Dark and gloomy atmosphere, detailed backgrounds, unique items and components... you sure paid attention to the graphics as well. What we saw from Beautiful Desolation so far left us breathless. What should we expect here?
More! I learnt so much while creating STASIS and CAYNE that DESOLATION is going to be leaps and bounds beyond our past projects in every aspect.
Some gamers complain about deaths in adventure games; others are thrilled. Are you a 'deaths' fan? Should we expect this feature in Beautiful Desolation as well, or was it just to match the dark atmosphere of STASIS?
We're still in an early pre-production phase of the game. I'm hesitant to add in devices for the sake of precedent. For instance, CAYNE won’t have suicides as this is not part of Hadley's character. The atmosphere of DESOLATION is less dark and foreboding but it will be just as daunting.
And for the most important 'detail' of them all: what can you tell us about the story Beautiful Desolation will tell and the gameplay mechanics it will feature?
It will also be isometric and similar in style to STASIS and CAYNE but it will be far more open in terms of areas that can be visited… I’ve said too much already!
Will you launch a crowdfunding campaign for Beautiful Desolation? Would you like to tell us what you've learned from the campaign you run for STASIS?
Yes! We're preparing for the crowdfunding campaign now. We learnt from the process of funding STASIS and we will inject that into the DESOLATION campaign. Although we have already received several funding offers for this next game we enjoyed the crowd-funding community and it definitely assisted in making STASIS a better game.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Sign up on our site: www.desolationgame.com and www.playcayne.com (CAYNE will be 100% free to play!)
Thank you for this great interview; it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in Beautiful Desolation. Keep up the good work!