Art studio Atomhawk Design, which has produced art for games like Mortal Kombat, Dead Island, Driver: San Francisco and Enslaved, began working on the concept for The Realm 18 months ago. Meanwhile, Lantern Interactive technical director Tom Szirtes was looking for a new project. "I met up with [Atomhawk creative director Ron Ashtiani], who I used to work with at a company called Computer Artworks, and we've remained friends for a long time. We met at GDC in San Francisco actually, last March, and he was showing me the graphics that they'd made."
"So I suggested, 'Okay, let's try and make a game out of this.' And so that's really where it started off." It began as a part-time project, but eventually became a full-time endeavor. It became clear that the two studios couldn't make The Realm into the game they wanted it to be without some help, and so they turned to Kickstarter.
The Realm is a point-and-click adventure, starring a young girl, Sarina, and her powerful stone golem, Toru. Both can be controlled by the player, and each is needed to progress through the dilapidated world, an Earth reclaimed by nature. Beyond the dynamic between Sarina and Toru, Lantern is aiming to change the traditional adventure formula a bit. The team wants to avoid pixel hunting, Szirtes says, "where you're moving the mouse around the screen, trying to find the interactive object that you need to use." Instead, interactive objects will be highlighted as each character moves close to them, and clicking one brings up a contextual menu. "Obviously, there's sort of a typical asymmetrical power balance here, that he's the strong and powerful [one], and she's the brains but [also] light and vulnerable. So, our puzzles depend on both characters having to use their unique abilities."
"For instance, Toru might be able to smash through an environment, but Sarina could squeeze through a gap." Should something heavy block Sarina's path, Toru might lift it to allow her to pass. Sarina can also ride on top of Toru's shoulders, which can protect her from dangers below, and some puzzles will be based on this mechanic. Though Toru is incredibly strong, Szirtes says The Realm won't have any direct combat. "More it's going to be about avoidance. There are enemies in the game, but rather than direct combat, it'll be more about avoiding them." Certain aspects will require timing, he says, but won't require meticulous character control. "It is more like lateral thinking puzzles as opposed to any combat aspect."
"So we're looking for a similar length to a game like Machinarium, so depending how you play it, I guess that can be from a couple to four or five hours," he says of The Realm's planned length. "It's an indie game, but we want it to be enough, obviously satisfying to people who play it. Also on Kickstarter we have a stretch goal to add more levels."
Thus far, the small development team has been working on The Realm for free. It currently numbers around six or seven, but may expand to as many as nine people by the project's end. As for the goal on Kickstarter – £195,000 ($300,000) – he says there are many things the money will go toward. "There's environments to paint, we need to do all the animations for the characters, and [pay] for those things. We also want to record some sound effects, and various extras. So, there is cost. They add up quickly." Compared to a AAA project, the budget is "tiny," he says. "We're doing this as cost-effectively as we can."
"These kinds of games are just time-heavy, just because you need to design each level. Each level is going to be hand-painted and unique. So it's not like you have a kit, which you can then just reproduce massive levels with, by replicating the same graphic art. That's not what the look and feel of this game needs. This is a high quality visual look and feel, so it just takes the man-hours to do all that stuff."
Speaking of the game's visuals, I mention its resemblance to Namco's Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom from 2010, which tells the story of a young man and his stone golem. Joystiq staff and readers were quick to notice the similarities when The Realm was announced. The resemblance, Szirtes tells me, is purely coincidental. "We can honestly say that we weren't familiar with that game." Furthermore, he notes that there are many video games with similar relationships between characters. He also points to The Iron Giant animated film as an inspiration. "But we weren't familiar with that game actually, so it was as much of a surprise to us [as everyone else.]" The two games are very different, he says, noting that Majin is tilted toward action, whereas The Realm is an adventure game.
"We're confident we can pull this off."
Other inspirations, he says, come from the team's love of old adventure games. "Things like Monkey Island, Beneath a Steel Sky. You know, we're really quite nostalgic about those kind of games. And also more contemporary games, definitely, we've taken inspiration from. Like Machinarium, the Drawn series, Tiny Bang Story, [these are] all games that have influences." The team also hopes to draw on the atmosphere and character relationship seen in Ico. "The atmosphere is something that we really like from Ico, this kind of quiet, haunting, lonely environment – and that you've got these two characters that are battling their way through this environment, and how their relationship grows. So those are our main influences."
Lantern and Atomhawk plan to tell most of The Realm's story directly through gameplay. There will be minimal voice work, but there won't be "loads of screens to read through." There will be animated cutscenes, he says, which will be painted by Atomhawk, and should be similar to the concept work seen in The Realm's Kickstarter trailer. "The rest of it, I think, will come from objects that they might discover, which might contain textual descriptions. There will be characters, some of which will speak and others not. Again, that really depends on our budget in the end, how much voice acting we can actually bring in."
As ever, a looming question with every Kickstarter is how a project's creators build trust with backers. How do you reassure them that the game will actually be released if funding is reached? "I think we have to base it off the team's experience." Lantern Interactive is a new company, says Szirties, but the team has a broad level of experience. "I started making video games at the age of ten," he says, and he has worked for several prominent companies over the years.
He's worked at Sega, moving onto Computer Artworks, where he met Ron Ashtiani and Andrew Curtis. Together, they helped create the successful video game adaptation of John Carpenter's The Thing, and now the three have come together again. Ashtiani has experience with Midway, and Curtis – lead designer on The Realm – was formerly with companies like EA, and he worked on Killzone 2 and 3 with Guerrilla Games. The team has also picked up composer Richard Jacques, who's worked on everything from Mass Effect to LittleBigPlanet 2 and Jet Set Radio.
"We have quite a lot of experience between us. Obviously, [with] any game development, there's some risk of [not completing a project]. But we're confident that this kind of game – it's smaller scale than normally the stuff that we work on, so we're confident we can pull this off."
"One thing that's been really nice is just the reaction of the community, especially the adventure game community," he says. "Suddenly, you meet all these people who are really passionate about this kind of gaming. And when they come and they love your project, that's really rewarding. It makes you feel really good about it."
As of this writing, The Realm still has over £140,000 ($217,000) left to raise on Kickstarter, with 13 days to go.