Obscurant’s fascinating take on mimicry is unlike anything I’ve seen before
In the first moments of Obscurant, I don’t immediately understand why what appears to be a typical top-down adventure game is set on a grid. Why every step the amnesiac android protagonist takes across the desolate sands of the first desert area is laborious and rhythmic, as if he had to stop and think before each one.
Then I meet the “Little Round Guys”.
They are strange little robotic creatures, much like the most basic machine enemies in Nier: Automata in form. They walk back and forth in a pattern – two steps in one direction, then back two steps in the direction they came from, then start again. After a few cycles, they stop in the middle of their path to recharge for five beats, before turning back on and resuming their pattern. If they see an enemy, aka me, they chase him. They are faster than me and will always catch me.
It is there, immediately, that the grid and the hesitant stepping movement of my character come into place. When I make a move, they do too. Each step is a “turn” and I can stand in one place and wait to go through turns with the press of a single button. At first, I use Necrodancer beats to sneak past enemies. Then I find a broken Little Round Guy on the floor and steal his outfit, and so here’s Obscurant’s main loop: In order to avoid being watched and murdered by more Little Round Guys, I have to become the Little Round Guy. Round Guys and actually trick them into believing my charade. Two steps in one direction, back where I came from, then dash past them as they reload. Repeat the pattern when he wakes up again. Beep. Beep. Booooop.
(Developer King Brick Games didn’t name the Little Round Guys – I did, via an in-game journal that lets me freely jot down names and notes on every enemy I encounter in the desert and beyond- beyond that, and even applies the names I give to the enemies themselves when I see them in the world. It’s an awesome mechanic and useful and also hilarious when naming very serious enemies with extremely silly names like cow mobs. whom I named Buffy Bufferson).
Obscurant’s clever and effective take on mimicry is something I’ve never seen before on any scale, let alone by such a small team of rookie devs. It started as a college thesis project for creative director Liam Harwood, and was initially a side-scrolling platformer. Sometime after graduating, while working as a full-time software developer outside of games, Harwood took over Obscurant and tried the top-down approach. After a few months, he got it working well enough to justify asking three of his close friends from school – developer Max Vitkin, artist Eri Caferra and audio director Brian McCarthy – to join him for the rest. . None of them had any game development experience at this point, except for Caferra, who had done art on very small game projects before. Vitkin was working in financial services at the time, McCarthy was also working in software development, and Caferra was a freelance artist.
The closest thing I’ve played to the ideas of identity, stealth, and deception that King Brick explores in Obscurant is the Hitman franchise, though the two are very different games nonetheless. Harwood tells me that it was Hitman that inspired him in the first place. He loved the disguises Agent 47 wore to gain access to otherwise closed off areas, but thought it would be more interesting if he also had to act as his disguise to fool those around him.
“The first big thing we had to figure out was how the actual mimicry mechanisms were going to work,” says Harwood. “How are we going to calculate whether or not someone distrusts you?” Because it’s a nebulous concept if you think about it.
They started with basic moves, like the Little Round Guys I described above. Further on, Obscurant extrapolates the concept in other ways, such as exploring interpersonal relationships between enemies, and even dialogue mimicry in later areas. It was all quite difficult just on a conceptual level, they tell me, because there are so few other models of mimicry mechanics in games to follow.
“We had a really hard time explaining to the player what mimicry really is as a mechanic, because I think it’s not really something that’s been explored a lot in the game,” says Vitkin. “I don’t think it’s something super intuitive, so something that a lot of people struggle with is at the very beginning, when you get to that first enemy. At the time, we didn’t really have any tutoring on what it meant to imitate. We tried to hint at it because we didn’t necessarily want to hold your hand, and we wanted the player to try to figure it out on their own. But a lot of people were just trying to abuse line of sight, which wasn’t possible, or just trying to brute force it, which really wasn’t possible either.
But the mechanics weren’t the only challenge for the team. Caferra says that Obscurant went through an “artistic transition” during development, where initially the whole game was in a high resolution format, but later they decided to make the backgrounds all pixel art so that all the team can help create them. It also helped the characters to “pop” more – something that proved necessary for players to follow the action in a game largely to blend in with its surroundings.
“In my mind, I also felt like it added to the weirdness of Obscurant, because Obscurant is supposed to be a weird game, and having this mix of art styles is weird,” says Caferra. “So the fact that the pixel art background is almost blurry in this way visually, compared to the animated, living characters, adds to that dark nature of the game.”
Obscure official screenshots
Caferra adds that their character designs began with Harwood’s written descriptions of what he thought the characters should look like and what their personalities were. Then they would draw several silhouettes from this description for the rest of the team to vote on, and Caferra would develop the art from the winning silhouette.
It’s a process not unlike the one Caferra used to draw comics for the group’s D&D sessions based on the character descriptions given to them. “They were taking it out of our mind and putting it on the page,” Harwood says.
As for McCarthy, having never composed a soundtrack before, he says he had to look at what he knew: the guitar. He’d been playing for years, and while he didn’t have much songwriting or recording experience, similar guitar-centric work by composers like Darren Korb’s work on Bastion and Andrew Prahlow’s soundtrack for Outer Wilds reassured him that he could do the job well.
“I played Bastion when I was in high school and was so used to the highly orchestrated soundtracks, and so hearing this very guitar-heavy soundtrack that came from a more singer-songwriter background was, I think , something that clicked into place, like, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ “Said McCarthy. “There are more types of music in games than just orchestrated scores.”
With Obscurant finished and released, the future of the four members of King Brick Games seems as vast and unknowable as Obscurant’s protagonist wakes up in the desert, only in a much brighter way. They want to keep making games, even if they can’t do it full time all the time. At the moment, they’re exploring ideas for multiplayer co-op games, but seem equally happy if their experience on Obscurant opens the door to other opportunities for band members to work with other game studios, teams, and projects. They, like the protagonist and the Little Round Guys, only take one step at a time.
Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.