Interview

Close to The Sun - The jump scare in gaming really isn't dead!

Storm in a Teacup
Picture of the art deco style in Close to the Sun
Close to the Sun

Single player horror game Close to The Sun has attracted attention because of its stylistic resemblance to BioShock. Lead designer Joel Hakalax says that while he is flattered by the comparison, his game is a very different proposal.

Storm In A Teacup's Closer To The Sun is one of the most anticipated single-player games launching in the near future - and not just because, as lead designer Joel Hakalax agrees, it does use the same broad stylistic palette as BioShock. We've played a demo, and found it impressive, from its story to its overall tone.  

It's set in an alternate world where Nikola Tesla hasn't been done over by Thomas Edison, a story that fits the currently fashionable reading of the two inventors' relationship.

There's no doubt the faintly mysterious and misunderstood Tesla gives an excellent narrative underpinning to a retro sci-fi horror yarn set on a giant research ship in international waters. We spoke to Joel ahead of the game's launch in a month or so.

Storm in a TeacupTransportation onboard The HeliosClose to The Sun

Why should we be horrified in your game?

"We're using horror, not as you would expect from a SOMA, or an Outlast, we're using horror as a way to keep the player on their toes. We're using it as a way to maintain mystery while still focusing on our main core narrative and our gameplay loop of providing the player with places of exploration, gradually increasing tension and one-off 'run or die' events where you either think on your feet, make split-second decisions - or get stabbed or die in various other horrible ways. We're putting you on a rollercoaster."

Do you have any jump scares?

"Yes we do! Hopefully, they are well paced. So you build up to them and they become memorable gaming moments."

There's been commotion in the last few years against the jump scare. So why use them?

"Jump scares done well are memorable gaming moments. If you abuse them, or overuse them, they become frustrating and annoying. But if you have a jump scare that hits, then that becomes something that you can remember far more than the general creepiness of a location, or a vibe. We still do our best to create that kind of atmosphere, but when we do our jump scares, we want them to be executed in a memorable fashion. You need a bit of spice, and jump scares are an effective tool."

Storm in a TeacupElectrical overload onboard The HeliosClose to The Sun

What's an example of a good jump scare for you?

"In F.E.A.R, that old school shooter, it had some crazy advanced AI for the time. There was this little girl, she was a ghost, or a vision, and as you were exploring, you step onto a ladder and as the animation happens when you grab the ladder to climb down, you see the two feet of the girl standing there. That was enough for me just to throw the mouse at the wall. That's something that stays with me at least 10 or 15 years after playing that game. If we have one moment that hits half as hard as that, then I'll be very happy."

How did you approach the game's pacing?

"It's difficult. Even now, we second guess ourselves. A user will do what a user will do, and you have to be content with that. As an indy developer, we have limited amounts of resource. If we spend that limited resource on a certain scene, and a player goes straight past it, then it's tough. We've had to iterate on and iterate on to adapt to all various types of players. I've learned so much. So, we have built a system with a series of natural triggers into the game, that will ensure a player does experience everything."

Storm in a TeacupPicture of some Tesla experiments from Close to the SunClose to the Sun

You wouldn't say that the singleplayer experience is in decline?

"Definitely not. Games are such a wide and capable medium, you can do so much within the confines of games that single player will always be a part of it. It's a genre of gaming that is very personal and very focused on your experience - and that type of experience will never go away."

"If anything, it will become more important as VR grows to be more powerful, when that sense of immersion and presence becomes a real thing. We still have tons to learn when it comes to VR but once we nail that, and get close to those personal experiences, that's when you can have something that's really focused on the singleplayer experience."

Why Close to The Sun? After the legend of Icarus?

"You'll see Icarus references onboard the Helios. Without revealing too much, I can say that sometimes when you're pushing for scientific discoveries, you might be pushing too hard, you might have unintended consequences, your aspirations might be causing some negative outcomes despite your best intentions."

Storm in a TeacupControl room onboard a transport to The HeliosClose to The Sun

Where does Nikola Tesla fit into your story?

"We're playing with an alternate take on history. A world in which Nikola Tesla didn't get screwed over by Edison. So all of Tesla's genius, his ambitions, his aspirations, have come to fruition. He's basically the Elon Musk of the late 19th century. The rivalry between him and Edison is still alive and well."

"So Tesla, in our take, has built this giant floating laboratory called The Helios. It's a massive ship, so large, it has its own internal rail system. It has attracted scientists from all over the world in order to enhance mankind's technological capabilities, fostering in a golden age of electricity - and then an experiment goes horribly wrong. Edison is trying to infiltrate, trying to sabotage, trying to steal secrets."

"In our original brainstorming for the story, we wanted something isolated from mankind. We didn't want phones, we didn't want GPS and so on. So we went back to the past. Then Nikola Tesla's name came up - and well, whenever you poke Nikola Tesla, something interesting falls out. It doesn't matter if it's from the scientific standpoint, from the personal standpoint, his persona is just so rich, that he was just an endless fountain of concepts and ideas for us. So from that point on, the game just referenced itself into being."

Storm in a TeacupA fire blocks an exit onboard The HeliosClose to The Sun

Is the game's aesthetic of the time (late 19th century) or has it been changed because it's alternate history?

"If Nikola Tesla were to have been massively rich and have built a large-scale boat, he would have used the cool architectural style of the time, which was Art Nouveau. Having Art Nouveau and the Art Deco style to work with has been so much fun for us. And now it has lead to people comparing Close to The Sun with Bioshock, which is out of this world - a massive compliment. We're not a 300 person, multi-studio, triple-A production - we're 15 people working in Rome for two years."

You're using Unreal engine?

"It's doing a lot of the heavy lifting for us, so we can concentrate on gameplay. The community around Unreal is so vast now, whatever your problem is, someone has already encountered it - and most likely has a solution."

Storm in a TeacupA theatre onboard the HeliosClose to The Sun

You're exclusive to the Epic store?

"I believe so for launch. We're looking towards a May release now. With PC first, and then PlayStation and Xbox. The Switch is definitely on the radar."

"We will be on Steam - but not at launch. I think the Epic store is a good initiative, I think it's healthy for the industry. It's better than what Steam was at launch. When Steam launched with Half-Life and Counter-Strike, it was a rough piece of software, it wasn't particularly good. Epic has some backlash because it's not at the level that Steam is today. There are tons of features that Steam has now that the Epic store doesn't have yet, but they're working on it and they will get there."

"Hopefully, they'll get there much faster than what it took Steam to get there. The percentages that the Epic storefront offers are a significant boost to indy developers primarily. Everyone will come around and accept there's a new player in town, eventually."