The 1950s was an unforgettable period in the age of film. Society was growing increasingly fascinated by science fiction. Specifically, people were starting to get into UFOs and aliens. Over a decade after the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, film was starting to explore the outer cosmos, albeit with far more primitive resources. Spaceships were just small crafts held up by strings. Fearsome alien beasts were just guys in hokey rubber suits. The 1950s sci-fi movement in film was a sign of those times and one that the developers at Loomiarts and Fehorama Filmes were eager to recapture in Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers.
The trailer above was a captivating watch. At first, one watches it waiting for the 1950s film effects to stop and for the gameplay to kick in. That's when the realization sets in that the 1950s black-and-white, grainy film setting is the gameplay. That makes Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers one of the most visually riveting titles to come along in quite some time, which is why Shacknews reached out to the developers to learn more about its conception, its inspirations, and just how this space shooter came together.
Shacknews: How long has the team been working on Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers?
Giordano Gio, Executive Producer at Fehorama Filmes: Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers was envisioned by Márcio [Rosa] many years ago. He’s been developing it since 2016, first all by himself.
Throughout the years, many partners came onboard. The cutscenes director Felipe Iesbick, the sound crew led by KF Studios, the composer Renan Franzen. Our film company, Fehorama Filmes, became partners with Loomiarts in this project in 2018, when we shot the live-action cutscenes. In 2020, we finally closed the deal with our main publisher WhisperGames, which allowed us to finally gather a larger team to finish the development of all the remaining levels and also to complete the post-production of our cutscenes, alongside Forno VFX, the company who filled the green screens with the landscapes, cityscapes and aircrafts that surround the actors.
So, it’s been almost seven years, with a few setbacks, during a very difficult political and economical time here in Brazil, but we’re very proud of everyone’s work in the project, and happy to finally showing Marcio’s creation to the world.
Shacknews: Before even getting into the "how" of how you put this together, I want to take a sidestep to talk about the research put into this project. What old-timey sci-fi movies and TV shows did you watch that ultimately helped with the game's aesthetic?
Márcio Rosa, Creator at Loomiarts: Our focus was cinema, not much TV. Sometimes, not even exactly from that era, we have some big famous productions from the 40s or 60s being referenced as some sort of an easter egg.
But, of course, the sci-fis from the fifties were our main goal. Some with a more similar premise, like a war between humans and aliens, others with other kinds of menace, others with a smaller scale. Obviously, we have famous flying saucer movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Also, monster movies like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Thing From Outer Space, It Came from Outer Space or other Jack Arnold’s movies, Godzilla and other of the movies directed by Ishiro Honda, Kaitiki and Planet of the Vampires, which was also directed by Mario Bava and was not exactly from this era, but has nice old-style visuals. Not of This Earth, This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, When Worlds Collide... all of it had some influence.
Shacknews: How did you do this, from a visual standpoint? How did you put this together, where you're basically playing in an old movie with set pieces held up by strings, everything's made of cardboard, and the monsters are people in cheap rubber suits?
Rosa: Since we are making a game, it’s impossible to fully get away from a "digital looking," which is the opposite of these handcraft, analog cinema from decades ago. But, as soon as we "get" what makes a movie from the 50s look that way, we tried to reproduce small little pieces of it into the game. Me and the cinematographer of the cutscenes, for example, worked together to create a shader to reproduce the film grain of the celluloid. We thought the Unreal Engine's built-in effect was too digital. Although the game may run at 60 FPS, we had animations and some effects, like these post processing shaders, running at 24 or 12. We use disproportional pyrotechnics and exaggerated physics movements to simulate miniatures from an era where many professions still didn’t know how to record the footage in the correct speed to hide the usage of small objects. We have pre-rendered backgrounds in 2D to simulate mattes. We didn’t have enough budget to actually work with paints, but using static images already gave some idea of it.
Sometimes, we had even to control the quality of the art direction; the fifties were before Kubrick’s 2001 with its very detailed tech stuff, so ships and futuristic gadgets were way simpler than today’s standards, more like plastic or wooden toys. Sometimes, [they were] even silly. The monster is a good example. We've tried to use animations and a proportion that fits a human inside the costume, but the company that made the monster for us had some initial difficulty to not make it too good-looking. After they gave us some alternative designs, the less cool for modern standards was chosen, and even after that, some small adjustments were made, like changing the very well made eyes to a more simple "two white spheres with a dot in the middle."
Shacknews: I'm just as impressed by the audio quality. You nailed those early days of raw, 50s era Hi-Fi audio. How did you approach the audio process for this specific project?
Rosa: The sound department was handled by KF Studios, an external company that has great structure and expertise in filmmaking. They made many movies and TV shows along the years, but this was actually the first time they made a game. Still, they manage to learn all the tech that was new to them and implement the sound directly into the game. I think I worked close to them more than anyone else in this project, personally. We’ve discussed a lot of things, from technical stuff to artistic decisions. We used all movie references to create the sound design and music, but we also made adaptations when needed, since the game is much more frenetic and noisy than the references we had.
Of course, our musician, Renan Franzen, not only created hours of music tracks, but also helped to put everything together. It was a very nice process that included listening sections in the studio, to take notes regarding the sound mixing or filters to be applied to make the game sound "old."
Shacknews: Tell me about the FMV cutscenes you put together. Where did you record them and what were the challenges in making it look like a production from 70 years ago?
Gio: When Márcio showed us the project, we’ve talked about how the perfect way to do it would be by replicating 1950s physical effects and scenography, which was also the director Felipe Iesbick’s intention. However, as a small indie, almost-no-budget production in Brazil, it’d be a very difficult goal to achieve.
We gathered a large team of artists, from great actors to makeup artists, to reach the best result possible according to Marcio’s references from the atomic age. Of course, at first it was a hard decision to shoot it all on green screen instead of building the scenery and it was a big challenge for everyone involved, since most of the cast and crew was working with chroma-key for the first time. When our visual effects artists from Forno VFX came onboard to give life to Marcio's vision on the 1950s Planet Earth and Vega Corporation's machinery, we were confident that we made the right choice.
Shacknews: The instinct in gaming is to always go cutting edge. It's to use techniques from today or, if you're aiming for a retro audience, use ideas from the 80s and 90s. However, with this game, you want to go back even farther, so were there any specific game mechanics that you might have wanted to implement that you ultimately couldn't because it wouldn't fit with this style?
Rosa: This is a very interesting question because it points to some aspects in which we actually walked a little away from the style of the 50s. See, my first idea was to make a SHMUP game. And then I decided the style. It was almost at the same time, but still, the genre of the gameplay came first. Movies from the 50s had a different pacing, only in the 80s the video-clip editing style became a thing. I think it may explain why so many TV, movies, games, only go back to the 80s.
We, however, tried to keep the style of the 50s as much as possible, but not always 100% faithful to it. The game is more frenetic than anything from that era. So, instead of cutting some mechanic that didn’t fit, we slightly changed the style. Like I mentioned before, it applies to the sound too. To be honest, although I think it worked as intended, I’m not sure if I would do this if I started the development of the game today instead of 2016. Maybe I would change the mechanics instead of the style, without compromising it, of course. But this was the direction we had since the beginning, and the direction I passed to the entire team as well.
Shacknews: What are the primary differences between the four playable aircrafts? In what ways can they be upgraded?
Rosa: The main differences are the size and "weight," which is a thing you feel because of the speed and acceleration. It seems simple, but it affects the level design as well, since some aircrafts are more suitable to quickly dodge bullets and pass through small spaces than others. This is why the player can’t select the aircraft, they are pre-defined in each level. Also, some planes have more than one streaming of bullets. Like the second one, which is a big plane with many machine guns attached. You start with one stream of fire and end with four. It’s a very simple update, since you activate the machine guns just by staying alive for some time. More complex are the items the player selects before starting the level. We call it "enhancements" and it works like a progression system. Each item improves the aircraft in some way, like installing a secondary weapon like a bomb, a missile or a flamethrower, or by increasing the resistance to damage, or by decreasing the hitbox size etc. The player can unlock new items with the score achieved in the levels.
New slots can be unlocked as well, so more items can be selected. Even if the player could not finish the level, the score is computed as well, so the player can try again, this time with new items installed.
Shacknews: Lastly, do you envision creating more games in this style in the future?
Rosa: Although I never had a plan to make this kind of style a personal mark, I had some ideas while working on Squad 51. Not necessarily "sci-fi movies from the 50s," but maybe other genres and periods of time in cinema which also may have a distinctive style, maybe even more niche. Cinema is an art form with more than one century, so it is a very good source for style and it is not even used so much in games, with the obvious exception of AAA games with "modern blockbuster" cinematic style. I'm not saying this is bad, but there are a lot more possibilities.
Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is available now on PC. It's coming soon to consoles.