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Indie News Q&A

Q&A with Liviu Boar, Creative Director of ‘Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure’

Indie Ranger recently covered the upcoming Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure, a gorgeous point-and-click comedy-horror game by Romanian dev team Stuck in Attic. Ahead of the game’s August 7th release, Liviu Boar, creative director for Gibbous, was able to answer a few questions for us regarding the game:

Before we start, I want to get to know Stuck in Attic. What can you tell us about the team?

We’re three people from Targu Mures, Transylvania, Romania, a small town 60 km away from where Vlad the Impaler was born. Myself and Cami (the artists) met Nicu, the programmer when someone smashed into our cars in a parking lot. We got to talking in the insurance company’s waiting room and realized we were all passionate about story-driven games and wanted to make one. One year later, we were building the demo; the next year, we funded it on Kickstarter, and we’ve been full-time indie developers since.

What can you tell us about Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure? What’s the story? What can we expect?

Gibbous is a tale revolving around the Necronomicon – an ancient book, rumored to be capable of changing the reality around it. You’ll play as Don R. Keytpe – a private eye hired by mysterious clients to find the Book – and Buzz Kerwan, a young librarian. It’s Buzz who finds the Necronomicon, takes it home, and by reading it accidentally transforms his cat Kitteh into a walking, talking abomination. The three set off on a quest to change Kitteh back, uncovering darker mysteries and conspiracies along the way.

Gibbous was born of my love for Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, 90s adventure games, cartoons, and the inevitable realization that cats will once rule the world. It’s completely hand-made – we’ve spent countless hours animating the characters traditionally, frame by frame, and painting the huge environments you’ll be exploring. There are globe-trotting, bumbling cults that are warring with each other over which Old One deserves worshipping over the other; there’s reading the past and dreading the future, dozens of voiced characters to interact with… We’ve taken our time and made sure we created a fully fleshed world that you can explore and be constantly surprised by.

The story involves cults who worship the Old Ones

You’ve mentioned that the game was inspired by 90s LucasArts classics. How did that influence your work and what additional pieces of media inspired Gibbous?

I was an artsy kid who’s always been fascinated by cartoons, and all my school books were adorned with flipbook animations. If left to my devices, I’d just watch Cartoon Network until my eyes gave out. That’s the reason why discovering LucasArts adventure games was mind-blowing to me – I remember first seeing someone play Day of the Tentacle and being aware that my mouth was agape the whole time. You could walk around in a cartoon, and interact with everything! Something clicked in my mind, and I knew this is what I wanted to make, at some point in the future. Twenty-something years later, it’s happening.

LucasArts adventures of the 90s certainly aren’t without flaws, but 20 years later, developers are still using their formula to create believable, living worlds. As first time developers in the genre, following this tried-and-true formula (with some modern quality-of-life additions) enabled us to better focus on fleshing out the story and the characters, building a world that pays tribute to Lovecraft’s incredibly atmospheric writings, and coming up with fun puzzles that don’t feel divorced from the story you’re experiencing.

Other influences include writers such as Tim Powers (who is great at mixing horror and comedy in a delightful grotesque way), 40s adventure serials and monster movies, Miyazaki animated films’ intricate background art, Hitchcock’s way of blending understated humor and suspense, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s surreal worlds, and many more, too many to mention.

Why did you want to create a game like Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure?

I love telling stories, I love how a few animated cels can provoke emotions comparable to actual people moving on a screen, and the fact that you can engage with a video game for hours on end without killing anyone in the game’s world. Not that I have anything against violence in games! I just love the slow burn of unfolding a story by walking around, asking questions, and solving puzzles. I feel that playing a narrative game that’s about as long as ours (9-10 hours) is a similar experience to watching a gripping mini-series. You have the time to find out who the characters are, become affectionate with them, root for them as you’re determining their fate.

I also feel that adventure games are the perfect video game genre for adapting Lovecraft’s work, because they are not so much about the tentacled abominations as they are about hinting at them, meticulously constructing the threat over hours of gameplay, the journey is as important as the destination. What drew me to Lovecraft’s stories was first and foremost the atmosphere, and reproducing that in a game using atypical means such as cartoony graphics and colorful environments was one of the most satisfying challenges I’ve set for myself as an artist. Modesty aside, it worked beautifully. Players coming to Gibbous thinking that it’s just a light cartoony comedy-adventure might run into a few surprises throughout their journey.

Is this the first game you’ve made as a team or have any of the Stuck in Attic members made a game before?

Our first foray into gaming was a 3D flying shooter for mobiles called Time Dude. It was a fun experience, and I’m grateful for it because it taught me invaluable lessons about team size, responsibility, and the need for a vision. I consider myself a pretty egalitarian person in real life, but a video game needs a strong vision and someone to assume creative control and responsibility. We’ve applied this to Gibbous‘ development, and it paid off. The game feels like a coherent whole and it knows exactly who it is, and lets you know that from the get to. That unique voice is something I feel very strongly about, and I think players will appreciate it.

Being able to make exactly the game you wanted to make, coming off the heels of a project that wasn’t that, is an excellent boost to your enthusiasm and dedication, so we’re grateful for the experience.

Why decided to undertake such an ambitious project like Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure?

It’s funny, everyone tells you to start small when you go into game development, but does anyone really do it?

In our case, there were several reasons for being so ambitious. First and foremost, we’re very much aware that this is an absolutely cut-throat business, and there’s the possibility that Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure is our only shot at making a game that is 100% our vision. We decided to give it our all, completely give up on unimportant stuff such as “social life,” and make the game the center of our existence. We’re so grateful to the people that supported us and crowd-funded the game, and we want to repay that trust with the absolute best product we can deliver. And, when you have the freedom to create your art exactly the way you want it, it feels more like a privilege than a duty, and all the sacrifices made along the way feel worth it.

Secondly, telling an epic story inspired by such a universally adored writer sets up some expectations regarding production values, and our goal was not to let one aspect of development pale in comparison with another, be it writing, animations, environment art, or music. Do we want this to truly look like an interactive cartoon? Yes. Does that mean drawing hundreds of thousands of individual drawings, until they start invading your dreams at night? Also yes. Do we want the musical theme to change with almost every screen? Yes. Does that mean we need to compose 4 hours of original music? Also yes, but when there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing, you’re at it with a huge grin on your face, and feeling like the luckiest person in the world.

Did you have any difficulties that stand out in the technical or artistic sense when making the game?

Yeah, given how ambitious the project is, I guess it was inevitable. Animations, in particular, were a big concern for a while, because when you have hundreds of thousands of individual images that make them up, the game will balloon up to the file size of a AAA title. Thankfully, the internet is filled with very helpful folks that provided us with great technical solutions. Also, uncompressed painted backgrounds, some measuring 6000×6000 pixels, along with real-time lighting and shadows, water reflecting everything, etc – these were all things that we needed to optimize, and only having one programmer means it takes a bit of time. Sure, we could’ve just dropped all these cool features and moved on, but Gibbous is not that kind of project. Gibbous is about saying “this is the absolute best that we can make, and we hope it’ll blow your mind, especially if you’re aware that it was made by three people.”

You’ve mentioned that the game will be a classically inspired adventure game with a “modern approach.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by modern approach?

Sure! I’m still impressed by how good it feels to play older adventure games in 2019, but there’s always some clunkiness involved, and a certain feeling that the devs are going “deal with it” when the player gets stuck. That’s why I’m a big proponent of making the experience as hassle-free as possible by including a hotspot highlighter that eliminates the dreaded pixel-hunting, having an autosave, saving whenever you want, and including an in-game hint system to nudge you along when you can’t figure out how to progress. Our goal was to make the experience as pleasant for a newcomer who’s never played a point and click before as it would be for a veteran.

You’ve mentioned the mix between horror and comedy. How heavy are the horror aspects and are they focused on as much as the comedy?

I’ve actually made an animation about it around the time we Kickstarted, and an animation’s worth 10,000 words, but I’m happy to sum it up in text form: I’m personally not a big fan of parodying the Mythos by having the Old Ones be cute or helpless, just reducing them to their opposite and calling it a day. Lovecraft paid much more attention to his world-building and his higher concepts than his characters, which are more plot devices than people you care about. This gives us some wiggle room to develop the characters and throw some humor in without affecting the overall creepy vibe. That’s why my approach was to relegate the comedy to the humans (and fish people, and cats), and keep the cosmic entities as big, scary and mysterious as they deserve to be. There is definitely humor throughout, but it slowly gives way to creepiness as the game progresses, so what it feels like to play it, in the beginning, might be very different than what it becomes towards the end. There’s no gore or body horror because that’s not what Lovecraft is about. It’s all about the atmosphere.

How was the writing process? Did you find writing comedy to be difficult and were writing duties handled by one member of the team or were they shared to some extent?

I’ve written the entire game myself, with some help from our voice actor for Don’s character with regards to detective slang. Writing funny stuff comes pretty naturally to me, but in Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure’s case, it was more about creating quirky, memorable characters rather than successions of punchlines. It’s not really about belly laughs, more like a giggle here and there to break the tension. Kitteh, the sarcastic talking cat, was by far the most fun character to write. Cats have this pervasive sense of superiority around them like they remember being worshipped at some point and being annoyed it isn’t happening anymore, and imagining what they’d say if they could talk made writing a refreshing experience.

I find that being the same person that writes the story, designs the puzzles and creates, animates and paints the characters and environments goes a long way towards the game being a coherent, unified experience. It’s one of the biggest advantages of small development teams.

You’ve mentioned the three protagonists: Detective Don R. Ketype, Buzz Kerwan and Kitteh. Do you play as each in the exact same way or does each have their own abilities?

Each has their own ability that they pick up along the way. I won’t mention what Don’s is, so as not to spoil the surprise, but Buzz’ ability is… Kitteh. She acts as both a sidekick and a hint system. You can talk to her at any point during your journey, and you can also ask her to help when more athletic solutions are involved. She’ll help… If she feels like it. I wanted her to feel like a real character, with motivations and flaws (quite a few flaws!), and not just an automaton that’s there for you to use when you’re stuck. I love it when a characters’ personality is reflected in the gameplay, and that’s what we tried to do with Kitteh.

A look at how the characters function differently

With hand-painted backgrounds and traditional 2D animation throughout, the workload seems substantial. Can you tell us a little bit about how much work went into these aspects?

A lot of the animation is drawn at 24 frames per second. We do three passes (volumes, rough, and final), which means 72 individual drawn pictures for one second of animation. Here’s what that looks like. And there are around 70 fully animated characters in the game.

Painting an environment took me anywhere from 8 to 60 hours. That results in thousands and thousands of hours dedicated just to the visual side of things. There’s a very pragmatic reason a lot of indie devs go for pixel art, and it has nothing to do with skill, it’s just simple math: fewer pixels, less painting, less time required. It’s one thing to fill a 320×240 pixels canvas, and another to do 3000×3000. I really appreciate the skills needed to suggest detail in a pixel art environment, but on the flip side, when you work in HD you have to paint that detail in; there are no workarounds or tricks, just hard work that takes a lot of time. While I do love those low-res games, Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure would not feel right unless in HD hand-painted glory. This did mean that the game took longer to create than first expected, but overall, for a two-person team, I am very proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve never worked this hard in our lives before, and judging by reactions so far, it was totally worth it.

A lot of voice actors are involved in the project. Can you tell me what it was like to work with so many? How did you go about getting Doug Cockle to star in the game?

Working remotely with voice actors was very scary at first, but once we got the first voice files a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders. That’s because before that we had 100% control over every aspect of the game, and it was so strange to suddenly have to rely on other people’s work. Thankfully, we’ve been fortunate to collaborate with extremely talented folks, and they inhabited the characters splendidly even with written instructions instead of actually being there to direct them. We did get delayed by Don’s actor having some serious health issues, but it’s the kind of stuff that you can’t predict or avoid; we’re just happy he’s feeling better now.

We met Doug Cockle at the excellent AdventureX conference in London, back in 2017. We attended a talk of his, and a bit later on I was happening to enter the building just as he exited it. I bit the bullet and walked up to him, declared myself a fan, and informed him that I would love to have him in my next game, to which he replied: “why not your current game?” We were absolutely blown away by his work for Gibbous, and he was very patient and professional. He plays one of the most important characters in the game, and his voice brings so much weight to it that it raises the hairs on my arms every time I hear him speak. Can’t wait for players to experience that!

You’ve mentioned that Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure will feature realistic Transylvanian accents and how it was made near the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Would you say the game has been influenced by Romanian culture and/or history to some extent?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Most people doing Lovecraftiana will try and reproduce that New England feel that’s specific to the Mythos stories, but that felt wrong to me – I’ve never been to New England. In true “write about what you know” fashion, it felt a lot more honest – and interesting – to visually place the game in a space that we’re familiar with. Almost every building in the game, whether it’s in stinky Fishmouth or Transylvania, is inspired by the architecture of our home town. This came to me while walking around the old parts of Targu Mures at night, listening to a Lovecraft audiobook, and realizing that the creepy, crumbling 1800s buildings fit the atmosphere perfectly.

It was also fun to travel to Transylvania in-game, to a fantastic version of our town where I had quite a bit of fun turning movie clichés on their heads, all while weaving in parts of authentic folklore, such as folks wearing traditional clothes complete with creepy masks, and the soundtrack being reinterpreted Romanian folk songs, with a young Roma Gipsy violinist providing extra feeling and authenticity.

Working with local actors was both satisfying and hilarious – they kept trying to do proper English accents, and we kept having to tell them to forget all about that and just pronounce everything as naturally as it comes. The thought of places and people from my small town in the middle of nowhere being experienced by so many people all over the world just puts a huge grin on my face.

In-game buildings inspired by the architecture of dev team's hometown

You successfully met the Kickstarter goals for Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure in 2016. How did that help towards completing the game?

The game would have never happened without our backers, plain and simple. To be sure, 50-something thousand dollars is not a lot of money when it comes to game development, but we buckled down, cut our expenses to the minimum, and stretched those funds out as much as possible to make the best game that we could. Living in Eastern Europe, where everything is significantly cheaper compared to the West, helps. Renouncing most of your free time, living as low on expenses as you can, and practically moving into the studio helps even more. We’re just grateful that so many people all over the world trusted us with their hard-earned buck, and I’m confident they won’t be disappointed with the result.

What do you think of the reception you’ve got for the game so far?

People seem to really want this game! The few people that have played it – we’re in the process of doing a closed beta with our backers – have really enjoyed it. So far, it’s too small of a sample to make any assumptions, but I’m convinced anyone will be able to tell that it’s a labor of love and that we gave it our all. It’s a product that’s born of a passion for everything it involves, and I think players will really resonate with that passion.

When Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure comes out, what do you hope or expect from it?

We want the players to fall in love with the characters, be enthralled by the story, and appreciate the hard work that went into it. Being artists, our lives are all about making things for people to enjoy, and there’s no greater satisfaction than having that confirmation. Financially, our biggest hope is that the game sells enough that we can keep making video games the way we made Gibbous, with the highest of ambition and no creative stops along the way. It’s every artist’s dream! Making this game was the best experience of our lives, and we’d be so grateful if we could continue doing this for a living.

Does Stuck in Attic have any plans for the future?

If Gibbous sells well enough, we definitely want to make another game set in the same universe. Probably not taking five years to create it this time around… We’ve been in Gibbous‘ world for so long now, and instead of getting sick and tired of it we only grew more fond of it. We’d love to be able to expand the story, build the world even further, and keep telling creepy, funny, warm and dark stories. So help us Yog-Sothoth!

A huge thank you to Liviu Boar for taking the time to answer a few questions for us and we wish the very best for them and Gibbous. Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure releases August 7 on Steam and GOG for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Scriptwriting student based in Dorset, England. I'm an avid fan of video games and some of my favourites are Fallout: New Vegas, The Witcher 3 and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

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