A Routine interview about crafting lunar horror

I chat with indie developer Aaron Foster about crafting Routine, Lunar Software's upcoming survival-horror, first-person roguelike set on a desolate Moon base.

The marketing geniuses behind the classic 1979 horror film Alien once noted: "In space, no one can hear you scream." Aptly-named indie developer Lunar Software is in the process of exploring that adage through the development of a new first-person, survival-horror title set on the Moon, called Routine. The short teaser trailer for the game--which the developer debuted at this year's Gamescom festival--is equal parts creepy and intriguing, even when taken at face value. However, after finding out that the game will ostensibly play out like a survival-horror roguelike, I had to reach out to Lunar Software's Aaron Foster, to ask him about Routine's revolutionary design, and get his take on what makes survival horror succeed in video games. What first struck me about Routine was the game's Moon-base setting. It seems like such a great location full of scare potential that I immediately wondered why so few developers had capitalized on the setting to date. Foster naturally agreed that the Moon is "a great setting for a horror experience," and elaborated a bit on why he settled on Earth's most famous natural satellite. "I have honestly been in love with the Moon since I was a kid," Foster said. "It's so far, but also so close! I always imagined what it would be like to stand on the Moon and look back at Earth. It must be extremely lonely and really that's why I first went with the Moon!" He added that "being so disconnected from Earth, all alone on a Moon base with 'things' that really don't want you there," is one of the core tenets of what makes Routine's setting scary. Routine's core design aesthetic also takes somewhat of a retro spin. The game is being designed around "an 80's vision of the future," and some of this influence can be seen in the Gamescom teaser. The most obvious example is the inclusion of computer floppy disks scattered around the base itself, some of which can be used to alter the abilities of the C.A.T. (Cosmonaut Assistance Tool), which is the player's primary puzzle-solving and combat device, all in one. It's another clever twist that gives Routine more of its own identity, and I asked Foster if the circa-1980's choice has implicated the actual gameplay in any way. "I honestly wish I could say [the 80's aesthetic choice] started because of a gameplay idea, but it initially started from a pure aesthetic/music standpoint," he explained. "I have always been more engaged with movies that are over 30 years old! The music and setting[s] still just blow me away." Foster goes on to note that films like "The Shining, The Thing, Alien, Space 1999, and, of course, 2001 a Space Odyssey, are all inspirations of mine when I started this project. Though since then," Foster admits, "we have brought in many gameplay elements inspired by the 80's, so it is really working out now, and I think it's a great choice!" Routine is also being developed to include multiple game endings, but even more fascinating is its roguelike design. Randomization of items and locations in the game will occur with each playthrough, and should the player succumb to one of the game's deadly traps or lose a life-or-death encounter with one of the game's (yet-unrevealed) protagonists, death necessitates restarting the experience from scratch. It should also be noted that although Routine is played from a first-person perspective, and even features a "deadzone aiming" mechanic, the game is not a shooter. I asked Foster for an approximation of how much content Routine will include, and about the notion of replayability. "Replaying the game will be necessary if you want to see everything," he said, "but honestly I actually think it is quite nice just to play through once and whatever outcome you end up with is yours, and its quite personal to your play-through!" Foster wants to manage expectations though, since Lunar Software is only a four-person team. "While we are working our arses off to give you the best experience possible," he said, "please just don't expect the next Skyrim of content!" But what about Routine's multiple endings? "I can't really say how many endings there will be but there isn't a "default" ending," said Foster. "It's entirely down to the player what ending they will get, based on when and what they find out in the Moon base!"

Routine, by Lunar Software, sounds like it'll be anything but.

Given the strength of Routine's premise, and the atmosphere that drips the screenshots and trailer, I also asked Foster for his take on what makes survival-horror succeed in video games, and where he feels other titles miss the mark. "Fear of the unknown, sound, music, anticipation, not too much contact with the enemy, and trying not to let the player get too comfortable," Foster replied, rattling off some key building blocks. However, he asserts--perhaps moreso than any of these factors--that a player has to be willing to invest themselves in a scary experience for it to have real teeth. "Honestly--this may sound a bit strange--but I think the player needs to be willing to be scared," Foster said. "I've seen far too many people watch a horror movie or play a horror game but be completely disconnected from the situation: playing during the day with people all around you, talking/texting on the phones sometimes not even playing with much sound! It's crazy! Why you would start playing something like a horror game and yet be so disconnected from its experience! Give the movie or game your full attention if you want to experience it properly." When it comes to where other developers misstep in making a horror-based experience, Foster's answer is simple: "I think most developers use horror as a theme to their action game rather than actually making a horror game." Foster and the rest of the Lunar Software team are currently neck-deep in trying to make Routine the best (and scariest) it can be. They're working hard towards some internal milestones, and could have something new to show about the game as early as November of this year. Routine doesn't have a release date yet, but will be equipped to take both PC and Mac users on a terrifying ride to the Moon when it eventually ships.
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