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Darkwood developer Acid Wizard on ambiguity, humour and fear of the unknown

Top-down survival/horror roguelike meets its Indiegogo goal with a week to go.

The three-person Polish developer Acid Wizard's upcoming survival/horror roguelike Darkwood is about the fear of the unknown. When the small studio launched its Indiegogo campaign earlier this month, it was facing it's own fear of the unknown as its $40K funding goal didn't get off to a rousing start.

"We expected a bigger press response to our Indiegogo campaign launch, and unfortunately, a lot of press outlets out there which previously wrote good pieces about Darkwood and were really excited about it - they didn't really care when we launched it," Acid Wizard programmer Gustaw Stachaszewski explained. "For a time it was very depressing. We didn't think we would make it."

This would likely result in Darkwood never getting made as the Acid Wizard trio all have to sustain themselves taking contract work, usually in advertising. "Sometimes we'll get assignments that we'll have to work on for a month and we'll have to focus on them 100 per cent," said Stachaszewski. "Two of us can work on Darkwood while someone else disappears for a month. That's very disruptive to our creative and production process."

Thankfully, things are picking up for the indie studio as its just released a second trailer this past Monday [below] that boosted pledges by $15K in two days, pushing it past its $40K goal.

Cover image for YouTube videoDarkwood pre-alpha gameplay trailer #2

With Darkwood's mysterious fate out of the way, we shifted our conversation to its mysterious essence. Acid Wizard is a big fan of leaving things open to interpretation, as it turns out, citing such sources as David Lynch films and the Strugatsky brothers' novels as inspiration.

Speaking of Lynch movies, Stachaszewski explained that "They provoke a lot of discussion and almost everybody has a different opinion of what they really mean. His movies are very cryptic with a lot of hidden messages and they don't give everything on a silver platter to you. That's something we really want to emphasise in Darkwood."

Based on its debut trailer, Acid Wizard seemed to hit the nail on the deranged potato-head there. "If you look at the comments to the first trailer, you see a lot of people talk about what really happened," Stachaszewski said with a hint of weathered pride. "Who was the kid character? Was he a ghost or was he really there? Or with the generator - was the generator really talking, or was it the protagonist's mind going insane? Or was it a ghost tricking the player into thinking the generator was talking? We want to screw with the player's mind and see what comes out."

"I love the way people respond to the generator and the kid: the way it forces discussion and everyone perceives it in their own personal way," he added.

This ambiguity extends to beyond the story, but is emphasised in the art style, too. Stachaszewski noted that typically horror games aren't portrayed from the top-down perspective because conventional logic dictates that first or third-person persepctive are more immersive. Acid Wizard believes that this can actually be more evocative as it obscures the details.

"Our art style makes it more exaggerated because it's pixelated," Stachaszewski explained. "It makes the characters, enemies and objects not very clear to identify. So your imagination works like you're reading a book. It's a much closer experience to reading a book, especially when we don't use voice-acting. You have to imagine what the characters sound like and look like."

"Our goal was to create an atmosphere of the fear of the unknown and make the imagination of the player work against them in terms of fear," Stachaszewski stated.

Cover image for YouTube videoDarkwood Pre-Alpha Gameplay Trailer

Stachaszewski remained cagey on Darkwood's core mechanics - although you can see glimpses of its combat and survival elements in the two gameplay trailers - but he explained that this was because he relishes the experience of learning how to play a game, particularly when it doesn't explain everything to you.

"When I played Dark Souls I didn't know anything about the game and it immersed me so much. I get a lot of enjoyment when I discover the lore of the game, the characters, and the mechanics. It's so different from all the mainstream games that I'd encounter recently and it gave me a lot of enjoyment to just discover how the game works. We want to create something similar with Darkwood. That's why we don't talk about the story or the different mechanics openly. That's too much of a spoiler for us."

He did, however, tell me that there will be several locations that won't appear in every playthrough and he wanted players to constantly be making new discoveries. He also explained that there will be multiple endings and much like The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky before it, there will be plenty of additional content left to see long after the credits roll.

When asked how Acid Wizard would implement character dialogue into a roguelike, Stachaszewski said that this is one of the few elements that will persist between playthroughs. "With permadeath, a lot of people are afraid of this because they think it means when you die you lose all progress and have to do everything over again. We want to avoid that and give some sense of progress even if you die after 10 minutes." As such, some story elements will carry over, but the team hadn't quite settled on what, if any, character progression will carry over between unsuccessful attempts.

As Acid Wizard initially struggled with its Indiegogo campaign, I wondered if it had anything to do with its image as a pretty goofy studio based on its quirky Darkwood pitch video - featuring the team dressed in s***ty wizard costumes - or its pretty rad game about a vampiric Kevin Costner munching on tatanka. Stachaszewski explained Darkwood won't stray far from its horror themes, but may feature some Easter eggs.

"Darkwood in general will be pretty serious. It's not in any way goofy, but there will be a lot of WTF moments like the generator talking," he said. "In horror and thriller mainstream movies you have this comic relief. So you have this tension, tension, tension, then you have something funny and this is supposed to relieve you of this tension. We want to do something similar, but less cheeky and more like an acid trip."

"As you can see from the first trailer, we're not afraid of things that are unorthodox."

Given the huge push in backing since the latest trailer, it looks like backers aren't afraid of something unorthodox either. Though they may be scared of the creepy spider thing, because seriously, what the f*** was that?!