Small start-up companies and passionate indie developers are in the midst of an almost unheralded (at least in the corporate, compromised mainstream gaming press) PC gaming renaissance. For less than $20, you can get a number of high-quality, inventive, and even retro-inspired titles that will bring enjoyment long after your latest copy of US War Crimes Simulator is gathering dust on the shelf three months after you buy it.
Rochester, New York developer Workinman has one foot in both the mainstream mobile market and one foot in the passionate, indie developer camp. While they have developed Flash and mobile games for big companies like Nickelodeon, they’ve also focused their resources on creating Deathstate, which is a cosmic exploration / bullet hell / rogue-lite game with psychedelic visuals, graphics and musics inspired by horror movies, and retro-inspired gameplay.
I had the opportunity to play through an early version of the game, and really enjoyed the retro-style game design. It was old school without being cumbersome; challenging without ever feeling like it was unfair; and the enemies and environments were interesting enough to keep pressing on.
Pete Lazarski is the game’s art director. He’s also the artist responsible for a couple of book covers: High Strange Horror and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He and Matt (Game Content Producer) were kind enough to answer a few questions about Deathstate.
What is Deathstate?
Deathstate is a roguelike, bullet hell, single stick shooter set in a bizarre world of dimensional exploration for, PC and Mac. You play as a number of unique characters trying to discover the fate of Professor Elinberg who opened a portal to the void. Great and terrible mysteries and even greater treasures await if you are bold or foolhardy enough to go beyond the beyond.
Why Deathstate? What sets it apart from the rest of the shmup or dungeon crawler market?
The main difference between Deathstate and other shmups or twin stick shooters is that it’s a single stick shooter. To explain a little about how we ended up focusing on this as a mechanic, Matt and I are big fans of Cave bullet hell shooters like Bug Princess and Dodonpachi Maximum. In those you are in a forced scrolling environment and you’re always firing up. Your main focus is positioning and trying to catch enemies in your bullet stream. Deathstate and other dungeon crawling shooters aren’t forced scrolling though, lets say they’re omnidirectional. We really like playing Binding of Isaac and referred to that at the beginning of development, but we both agreed that it gets complicated trying to move with one stick (left) and aim and fire with the other (right).
Gameplay in Deathstate is about shooting, but it’s just as much about positioning. Especially since you’re going to wind up in procedural scenarios and emergent patterns of enemies stacking up on top of each other (there’s no fixed level layout to memorize enemy positions). Single stick shooter may not be for everybody, but we’re hoping it gives players something fun and maybe a little more accessible to begin with. That’s not to say Deathstate is an easy game. You will probably die a lot!
The game has a distinct visual style. What were the video game, film, or other influences on the art direction?
Matt and I were bringing a lot of Hellraiser early on and talking about it. Particularly in Hellraiser 2, there are some distinct visual things that happen that we fell in love with. Mainly the black light / dark light beam that Leviathan shines over the Labyrinth. We have an instance of something similar that can happen in some levels. It has a gameplay effect too, so it’s not strictly cosmetic.
Beyond the Black Rainbow was another big influence on Deathstate. That look of the film’s color and that sound (the score by Sinoia Caves) was something we were really trying to tap into. Pete Johnson, our lead composer, did a lot of work to help us define the sound tone for Deathstate. Eventually we came to composing the music using roughly a 90% Soundblaster instrument set. It helped set the time and tone for the game, the era. Plus it helped the other people who were composing music (Mike Burns and Theo Swartz) make some awesome thematic songs that easily fit in with the rest.
We originally wanted to name Deathstate as Motherlode (“Bring back the motherlode, Barry!”) but there was another similarly-named indie title out already.
Other things, films like From Beyond, Suspiria, Goblin soundtracks, John Carpenter soundtracks, all of that was mixed up in the soup as we were moving forward.
As far as video game influence on what we did with the visual style, when I look at Deathstate I feel like I’m looking at a demented Earthbound / Mother 2 played on a haunted TV set. I’ve always loved the feeling of the Earthbound sprites and character designs. Bold colors, kind of simple in ways, and deceptively friendly looking for an intergalactic-time traveling-alien-zombie-mind control conspiracy out to take over the world (and specifically kill these four young teenage kids). I haven’t been able to shake that, ever. I hope a shred of that can come out in Deathstate, having a mob of essentially soul-thirsty skeletons seem kind of endearing in a charming way.
One note we’ve taken from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls by From Software is how they handle game story and lore within item descriptions. In Deathstate, you can just play in this bizarre dimension-scape and not have to worry about story. But if you want, you can read item descriptions and page through the Bestiary in the Library to discover more information and history about the game world.
What’s the scope of Deathstate? How big will the game be? What can we expect in the final version?
Deathstate at launch features four main worlds, each with about 11 unique enemies per world and unique world bosses. You won’t necessarily see every enemy on a single run, so there’s some replay variability in that. Between weapons, spellbooks, potions, holy and infernal relics, plus equip-able organs we have a little over 150 items to unlock and find mid-run. We’re hoping to keep supporting the game with additional content as it goes. New worlds, bosses, playable characters, items, replayability mechanics are all things we want to do. As long as the game succeeds enough to warrant continuing!
Can we expect more original content from Workinman in the future? What’s on the horizon?
I think so. For now it may be more Deathstate stuff and add-ons. We would like to make more original games but it’s too soon to say what will be coming next.
What other personal projects are you working on?
Matt: I’ve been focusing so much on Deathstate, so not too much side stuff to report on! I will have a second art book coming out eventually, tentatively titled “100 years of Soft Drawers”. You can check out my first book, Soft Drawers, here on Lulu.
Pete: This month I wrapped up work on my side project game, Halloween Forever. It’s a retro 8-bit Halloween-themed platformer. It’s also the culmination of me teaching myself game programming using Gamemaker over the last year. Play as a humanoid pumpkin man and vomit candy corn! You can check it out here.
Deathstate is available now on Steam for Mac and PC.
Also make sure to visit the development blog for some gifs and video previews: http://deathstategame.com/blog