Dead Static Drive

Road Tripping Through The Apocalypse In Dead Static Drive – A TLS Interview

The vastness of the endless road can be a salvation for some people. By simply hopping in a car or merely walking, one can have time to reflect and let their feelings dictate where the journey takes them.  Going on the road is almost akin to meditating; one can do self-reflection and potentially start anew if they wish.  

A road trip can also test the mettle of a person as well since unforeseen incidents can put a stop to an otherwise pleasant journey.  Though, what would happen if the apocalypse happened while someone was on the road?

STARTING THE APOCALYPSE

Over the years we’ve seen plenty of horror games or those set when the world is on the brink of extinction.  More often than not, these games are a variation of something already released, and the results can be middling.  Dead Static Drive from creator Michael Blackney examines a different look at the apocalypse, one which has the player going on a road trip as the world ends.

For Michael, after spending working at Australian studios he wanted to do something different. “One of the roots of Dead Static Drive is a game idea I wanted to make back in 2010 when I was working in a game studio on a sports game.  I was a programmer on the project, working on the tournament structure and flow. It was extremely mundane work that required a lot of recompilation of the game and rebuild of some assets.”

Eventually, Michael’s desire to pass the time evolved into conceptualizing his ideas.  “My compile time I usually spent drawing, and I started getting into drawing teenagers and bears fighting against monsters.  Often the monsters would be something corporeal, so the bear could hurt it – ghouls and things reminiscent of the Flukeman from X-Files.  I got into the concept a lot and even started on an isometric horror prototype for these characters.”

With this concept, the foundations of Dead Static Drive were nearly in place. Most notable though was how the vision initially didn’t feature cars. “The car idea was inspired by an image I saw online. I don’t remember if it was an advertisement or if it was an illustration for an article, but it was an overhead view of a car driving through a forest,” Michael said. “ It struck me how much I loved overhead driving games like Super Off Road and World Rally Championship. The forest reminded me of Twin Peaks, Lovecraft, and the old horror ideas I’d wanted to work on.”

COHESIVE MONSTROSITIES

Melding genres, Dead Static Drive is a supernatural experience at its core.  Even though the apocalyptic premise allows for fantastical things, Michael wants a serious atmosphere for complete player immersion.  “I need a cohesive feel, so I don’t want to mix in an X-Files level of elements like gray alien flying saucers and chain-rattling ghosts, making the world feel like a fantasy theme park – but nonetheless I want to have what are essentially aliens and ghosts.”

With Michael liking Dead Static Drive to a Grand Theft Auto meets Cthulu experience, enemy variety will be major in the game.  Though will players actually come across giant Cthulu beasts adorned with dozens of tentacles? “There’s a mix of large and small in the designs,” said Michael. “Right now there are some small creatures that are about the size of snakes, and it goes all the way up to things way larger than your largest vehicles – which are trucks.”

“There are different themes of creatures you’ll deal with.  There’s your old one, outside God style being, very Lovecraftian.  The are witchcraft and supernatural creatures, and a few based on traditional evils like vampires.  I’m trying to make sure they’re all meshed well, so it feels like a cohesive world. But I still want that X-Files monster of the week variety.”

STANDING ON THE ROAD

Staying true to inspirations such as Twin Peaks, mystery will be plentiful in Dead Static Drive. With a definitive set-up, the apocalypse, players will have to uncover the true nature of things as they play.

“I want something players can spend time unraveling.  And it’ll be presented a lot more through gameplay and piecing together clues than through any scripted events or cutscenes. I want players to be able to work out what’s going on in their own way, rather than by following a path that’s laid out for them.”

The world may be on the brink of the apocalypse, but some people haven’t given up.  So the towns of Dead Static Drive will have a few brave, and perhaps unstable, citizens to meet.

Interacting with these characters will offer dialog, or in some instances, characters will respond to the actions done by the player. Speaking more of the element Michael said, “Players who want to investigate will be able to find clues to what’s occurring in each town.  Sometimes these will be through talking to characters. But often they’ll be through environmental storytelling.”

With such variety present and a tone which will be supernatural, Dead Static Drive will offer players an experience more Stephen King than Jack Kerouac in its tone.

FREEDOM TO EXPLORE

Dead Static Drive is a road trip game through a world perhaps on its last legs, and as such players will have freedom to explore.  Being a one person team, Michael is seeking to evoke the feel of an open environment all while maintaining the quality he’s capable of.

“I think of it as a gated sandbox game.  Each town or location (there are presently around 23 in the design) is its own sandbox area.  The player can travel from town to town with few restrictions.  You need fuel, so you need to refuel occasionally. As you drive, you’ll get tired and worn-out. So you need to rest and sleep it off, or to drink coffee to push on.”

Dead Static Drive

The towns themselves will be a key part for players to find resources and learn more about what’s transpiring in the world.  An interesting design element is how Michael is handling town exploration and the ensuing impact it has on gameplay. “When you’re in a town the game plays in real time, but with the time of day paused.  When you sleep, or when you drive between towns, time passes in in three-hour increments. How far depends on how long you slept or how distant the towns were.  And the time of day can have an impact on how easy it is to be in some towns.”

Rather than simply being visually pleasing, the world of Dead Static Drive will be almost fully interactive.  With players at the wheel of a car, they can do as they wish. This includes running over fences or even blowing up stationary vehicles.  This aspect of the game is something Michael relishes as a designer, and the possibilities it offers players.

Dead Static Drive

“One of my big design inspirations is the Metal Gear Solid series.  I love the sheer bravado of designing a whole host of actions the player can perform. Coding in an AI rich in behaviors, and then just dropping in the player.

“It puts a lot of responsibility on the game designer to understand all the features of their game and how they interact. As a designer you need to bear the responsibility of giving the player plenty of places throughout the game to apply the mechanics you’ve put into the game, and that the player wants to use.”

CAR SURVIVAL

Like other games today, surviving will play a key part in being successful within Dead Static Drive. To this end, Michael is setting out to balance pure survival elements, and making sure the game isn’t derivative.

Dead Static Drive

Connecting to the theme of venturing on the road, players will have to maintain their car.  Serving as the best way to navigate the environment, cars will require gas, repairs, and a little bit of old fashioned luck to survive.  Of the importance of maintaining the car, Michael said, “You can easily just steal a new car, but then you’ve got to move all your gear across from one trunk to the other (or lug it around in a bag).  If you want to fix up your car, you have a few opportunities at garages, or you can find parts like new wheels and do it yourself.”

Of the importance of maintaining the car, Michael said, “You can easily just steal a new car, but then you’ve got to move all your gear across from one trunk to the other (or lug it around in a bag).  If you want to fix up your car, you have a few opportunities at garages, or you can find parts like new wheels and do it yourself.”

LOSING YOUR GRIP ON REALITY

The player maintaining themselves will also be as important as making sure their vehicle is in top shape.  This focus will primarily be on player exhaustion, an element which ties into the road trip basis of the game.

“Your macro stats are things like tiredness and exhaustion, and the fuel for your car.  This part of the game doesn’t progress until you rest or drive between towns, so it’s turn-based,” Michael elaborated. “While you’re within towns adventuring and exploring, time stands still.  When you sleep or drive, time progresses and your exhaustion/tiredness is changed accordingly.  If you can’t sleep and want to just keep going, you can drink coffee.”

“But coffee and alcohol only help you manage how tired you are. Your exhaustion levels will remain as they were. And if you don’t manage exhaustion (or you have too many terrifying encounters) you’ll lose your grip on reality.”

AN AMERICANA APOCALYPSE

There are many interpretations one can take with the apocalypse. The world being on fire, or society turning on one another are just a few common depictions.  With Dead Static Drive, Michael has chosen to present a sense of stylized vibrancy with each town.  Additionally, the 1980s setting of the game shows an era often not explored in games.

To find the artistic direction, Michael leveraged both realism and the style found in a comic book.  For constant reference, he created a Pinterest board for inspiration on locations and art. “I have loads of photography in there by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Images of mundane America are great references to have when you’re trying to make a game that feels grounded and authentic.” Seeking to provide an accurate depiction, Michael researched images of America via Google Earth. This approach allowed him to get a proper glimpse at architecture, as well as research geography.

Dead Static Drive

The stylized nature of Dead Static Drive came from Michael’s past work on two titles heavily rooted in unique visual presentations.

“I’ve worked with the Unreal Engine on a number of other projects. Firstly mods, but then I did a little work on Antichamber and the canceled Sin City game.  I’ve wanted to make a game with a comic style for quite a while. I think Unreal 4’s amazing temporal antialiasing is what made me choose it for Dead Static Drive. I started Dead Static Drive thinking I’d try giving it a comic style, but the line quality was so crisp that it reminded me of vector and poster art. So I’ve really tried to push that direction as well.”

THE JOURNEY CONTINUES

Created out of happenstance, Michael has put together an intricate, vast, and complex game with Dead Static Drive.  Providing player freedom, the potential for limitless scenarios, and a premise which is compelling, Dead Static Drive is moving beyond typical genre conventions to become a unique entity of it’s own.  It’s this basis that the game easily stands out, and could impress players once it arrives on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC later in the year.

Ian Fisher
A Chicago native, I'm a six year veteran of the game press industry with a deep passion for smaller indie games and all things Sony.

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