David Pittman's follow-up to Eldritch isn't a sequel. It's an inversion.
Eldritch was an action roguelike that dropped you into a world built of procedural mayhem and oddly appealing Cthulhian horrors. Neon Struct is a stealth game in which no element of the environment has been left to chance - and its horrors are entirely human. "Eldritch for me was a lot about taking all the lessons I had already learned from my time especially at 2K Marin," Pittman tells me as I play through an early three-level build of his latest game. "I programmed AI for BioShock 2, and Eldritch was my version of doing a BioShock kind of game. I had a very short space of time to make it and so I did everything that I already knew how to do." He pauses. "For Neon Struct I'm actually trying to expand a little bit beyond that. I want to try and tell a story that's a little more meaningful. I want to learn about level design."
One thing both games do have in common is the very basis of their aesthetics - even if the whole thing's been warped in a very different direction this time around. Eldritch used metre-long cubes to cobble together dungeons, sand palaces, and a terrifyingly complex library that remains one of my favourite hub worlds in any game, ever. Neon Struct still uses the same building blocks, and it still sets its sights on an architecture of fear, but it's the kind of creeping fear that can occasionally take hold while walking Washington DC's National Mall on your own - the fear that comes from exploring a place that resembles a college campus designed by the secret police. "I was reusing the voxel engine that I made for Eldritch," explains Pittman, "so everything was going to be cubes and right angles and things like that. I was looking at what sort of architecture I could do that would look natural built from that sort of thing. And there's a style of architecture called Brutalism - big shapes, poured concrete. It's simple but it's imposing and it does have that sort of mid-20th century government building feel to it. Especially in the US. It feels kind of terrifying."
Pleasingly for a stealth game in 2015, Neon Struct is all about being terrified. It's not concerned with predator stealth; instead it wants you to understand that you're weaker than everyone around you and that your only chance in any situation comes from relying on your wits. The premise helps, as it's a distinctly post-Snowden effort about a spy on the run from their own agency. And yet, Neon Struct is far from an easy crib of the headlines. After finishing Eldritch, Pittman had originally wanted to do an open-world game that he describes as DayZ with CCTV cameras instead of zombies. It sounds amazing, and Pittman's voice still registers a thrill when he talks about it, but he could never solve the problem of what the player should be trying to do beyond merely survive.
"So I thought about that for a while and I just couldn't solve it and I put the idea aside," he shrugs. "But I did want to make something about that theme and it felt like it would be a really good complement to making a stealth game." Finally, Pittman started to wonder: what if you were Edward Snowden? "You're not just some anonymous person - your name is out there and people know who you are," he says. "And so it's not simply avoiding cameras, but that any random person you talk to on the street could potentially report you. It's a different kind of tension when you're in the social spaces."
Judging from the early build I've played, tension is not going to be a problem. The sequences I've worked through come from the early part of the game, I gather, before you've had to go on the run. Even so, you're hardly Sam Fisher. First off, you're dispatched to a fancy hotel to steal data from a dead drop. After that, you're whisked to an office complex to meet with a sinister stranger. Both settings are transformed from the mundane to the uncanny by that looming, shadowy architecture, shot through with cyberpunk neon. Both missions are tightrope affairs where a single mistake can destroy you.
Two things are immediately striking. The first is that the environments you're navigating are vast and defined by the daring use of open ground. That hotel, for example, comes with a huge lawn at the front, much of it well lit by neon lamps and criss-crossed by guards on patrol. It's entirely up to you how you approach this area. I wavered initially for the best part of five minutes. And then I got killed.
The second thing is that Neon Struct does stealth the old school way. It's not about gadgets and sticky cover and mark-and-execute. It's about sneaking up behind people, picking their pockets, learning their patrols, and sticking to the shadows as much as possible. There's a gauge at the bottom of the screen that tells you how visible you are, and later levels will pour in a few basic tricks of the trade, but other than that it's you, out there in the world, trying to pay attention to how much noise you're making as you evade your enemies.
When it comes to the environments, Pittman admits that his approach has changed a lot over the course of development. "Where I started I would have an idea in mind of the complete space, where a building sits in the picture and how you would approach that," he says. "What I've been learning through the course of making this game is that you also have to think a lot more about the micro details. When you're in a certain spot, think consciously about what exactly the player's going to see there, what information they'll have about the guards, how big the patrols are. I've been trying to make smaller encounters now, where you don't have perfect information, because I still want the player to be surprised as they round a corner and there's a guard they weren't expecting and they have to react to it. But I also want players to to be able to comprehend a bit more of what's going on just in the space that they're in."
One of Pittman's most helpful guides to the world of level design has been something called valence theory. "That terminology I'm actually borrowing from Robert Yang, who's a developer and researcher," Pittman says. "He was writing specifically about stuff that Randy Smith described from the original Thief game. The idea is that if you're looking at a top-down map of a level, there's going to be areas that are dangerous to be in, where guards are patrolling, where cameras are watching, and you can consider those the negatives. And then there are going to be the positive spaces - areas in shadow, or if you can hide in bushes and things like that. Areas that if you';re inside those you're safe. So the map becomes a field of positive and negative influences, and you'll want to get to a positive space and have a view of where guards and cameras are, and then you'll have to cross negative space, which is dangerous, but which you have to do to progress through the level." It's not just about building a level, then, but about understanding the influences affecting the player as they move through it.
As for the purity of the stealth experience, Pittman admits purity itself is exactly what he was after. "This is true even to the point where, in most other stealth games, combat is a fallback. This is very much subtractive design in Neon Struct: you can do takedowns if people haven't noticed you, but I don't want you to be in the position where you say, 'Well, I'm going to shoot this guy, because otherwise they're going to find me.'
It helps, inevitably, that Pittman isn't working with a huge budget. "Because the geometry is so simple as opposed to a Splinter Cell game which would have all the decoration, making it so pure was not really a challenge and more just the way it naturally happened," he admits. It's the Brutalism all over again: needs must when the devil drives. "I did spend a lot of time at first getting things right, though," he adds. "Making sure the lighting and the distance and the player's motion were inputs into how aware of you the enemies will be, and stuff like that. Ultimately, all the player will really see is: did someone notice me or is someone completely aware of me? As long as it feels natural to have whatever the player is doing cause the response to the AI, I feel I've hit that balance."
Towards the end of our chat, I ask Pittman if there was a moment when Neon Struct really started to work for him, when the landscapes he'd built really clicked with the story he was trying to tell and the tools he was giving players. He answers by telling me about a particular set-piece he's very pleased with. I've encountered some of them in the game myself, and they're terrifyingly effective, although you or I might call them corners.
"The moment I first rounded my first blind corner and I didn't know what was on the other side or if I could handle it? That was a great moment," he laughs. "Blind corners are now an effective tool - a specific challenge - rather than just being features of the landscape.
"It's interesting because in an action game like Eldritch, you can place an enemy or a trap, and that becomes the challenge the player is going to face. But the idea of a blind corner as a challenging element was kind of alien to me. I'm not just building a space and putting things in to be the challenge, the space is the challenge. Once I had wrapped my head around that, the whole thing started really gelling."
BREAKING NEWS: Neon Struct will be released on 20th May for PC, Mac and Linux.