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Made In Australia

Made In Australia: We Talk Conscript With Catchweight Studio

We hit the trenches to find out all about the Melbourne-made Conscript

Growing up playing games like Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Dino Crisis and Silent Hill, it should come as no surprise that survival horror is my video game genre of choice. Later in life I developed an interest in history, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Conscript – a pixel art survival horror game set inside the First World War trenches at the battle of Verdun. It’s being developed by solo Melbourne developer Jordan Mochi, under the moniker Catchweight Studio, and having gone hands-on with the game’s demo and loving my time with it, I wanted to find out more. As part of our Made In Australia segment, I was able to sit down with Mochi and discuss all things Conscript.

WellPlayed: How and when did the concept come about?

Jordan Mochi: Survival horror has always been a genre I’ve enjoyed, especially from a pure gameplay perspective. I love how purposeful the design in games like Resident Evil Remake and Silent Hill 2 is – how all the systems and mechanics merge into a cohesive experience. As a history major, WW1 has always been a topic that has deeply fascinated me. So I thought, why not mix the two?

WP: What made you choose a pixel art style?

JM: Mainly scope constraints and the realization that because this is my first ever project, I should keep it relatively simple and manageable. Learning 3D on top of everything else would have just been too much for one person, especially given the fact that I had to also learn every other aspect of development from scratch with Conscript.

WP: Conscript is more than just a survival horror game, it’s also trying to tell a story. What’s Conscript’s narrative all about?

JM: Conscript tells the story of a young French soldier named Andre conscripted into the First World War in 1916, with his younger brother Pierre. During an enemy trench raid Pierre goes missing, and so Andre vows to find him and bring him back home safely, at whatever cost.

WP: A lot of survival horror games use zombies/demons, paranormal or Lovecraftian-inspired concepts but you’ve chosen a concept based on a historical event. Why is that and why do you think that it works?

JM: In my opinion, there is nothing more terrifying than what humans are capable of doing to other humans. Personally, I find it pretty much impossible to be scared by anything fictional anymore, because, well – it’s fictional!

I think what interests me the most is how these young soldiers were able to live and fight in such terrible conditions, all whilst essentially being forced to murder each other. That’s why I felt the period would make for such a great survival horror setting.

WP: What sort of research did you do regarding World War I. Your history degree would have come in handy here.

JM: Whenever I implement a new mechanic, room or scenario I always try to research it quite thoroughly beforehand. My degree did give me quite a bit of general background knowledge, but I’m not familiar with every aspect of the war so I often have to put the research skills to use. Primarily, I like looking at first-hand accounts, memoirs, journals and letters as inspiration for the story beats of the game. A lot of WW1 era firearms and weapons are also fairly easy to research through online videos, so I also like to make sure the weapons feel and sound accurate.

When I have time I also love to read books on the subject as inspiration, although time has been very limited as of late so I’ve been leaning into audiobooks and podcasts on the topic also.

WP: Development started in 2017, how much has the game changed since then?

JM: The game has changed quite significantly since the early days. I’m hesitant to even say nowadays that 2017 was when I officially started the game – because the period of 2017–2018 was when I started teaching myself all the different aspects of game development. After a year of learning I had finished my first rough prototype of a 2D survival horror experience – titled Project Abel. Despite technically being the same project that morphed into Conscript, Project Abel really shared no similarities with what we see now, apart from the top-down perspective and general art style.

Once I had this rough foundation, I kept building on it throughout the coming years whilst also zoning in on the WW1 theme and upgrading my dev skills. That’s when the true identity of the game started to form.

WP: The game is heavily inspired by survival horror games of yore, such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. How hard was it to use that influence in a World War I setting?

JM: Some parts are hard and others are quite easy. Like I said, it’s easy to reconcile the theme and story of a survival horror game with the horrific realities of total war. On the other hand, it isn’t always easy to implement certain survival horror gameplay tropes (like lumbering, slow-moving enemies) with what some people might expect from a game set during a World War.

WP: Given you’re an Australian, why base the story around a French soldier? Why not an Australian?

JM: This is a question I get asked a lot, especially given the importance we Australians place around Gallipoli, and how the symbol of an Australian digger is so important to our cultural remembrance. I have no French ancestry (I’m actually part German) and I’m not even particularly attached to Verdun when compared to other battles. The reasons I opted for this particular setting is that I felt it provided more gameplay opportunities due to environment variety. The Battle of Verdun was known for its brutal trench warfare in and around old 18th-century style forts. The entire structure of the battle was also centred around protecting the town of Verdun – so all the different types of areas gave me a little bit more creative freedom, as opposed to just making trench levels for an entire game.

There’s also one other primary reason. Originally the game was going to be centred around either an English or Australian soldier, but I actually found that the horizon blue style French uniform contrasted more clearly with the browns of the trenches, hence making a more visually striking protagonist. Because the game is low resolution, I felt that this contrast was important for visual clarity.

The French have always had good fashion sense

WP: How long will Conscript take the average player to finish?

JM: I’m aiming for a 5–7 hour experience. Concise, but very replayable. Similar in length to classics of the ’90s such as Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill.

WP: What has been the biggest challenge gameplay to get right?

JM: Definitely the combat system, which has recently been a big focus of mine. It’s a very hard balance between maintaining tension but also not turning the game into a WW1-themed Rambo simulator. Too many enemies on screen and the game may feel like a shooter, too few and the game might not really accurately depict the ‘War’ part of WW1. Researching how Resident Evil 4 handles group encounters whilst still striking fear into players has been helpful – and I feel like I’ve been able to implement some of these unique AI behaviours smoothly into Conscript despite the different art style and viewpoint.

Resource balance is also tricky to get right. Giving the player an extra handful of bullets in certain rooms may completely break the balance and make the game too easy – or vice versa. That’s why every demo revision of Conscript so far has been through many player feedback tests.

WP: Inventory management is a big part of old school survival horror games, what role does it play in Conscript?

JM: Inventory and resource management is important in this genre because it adds extra layers of decision making on top of regular gameplay. I think what makes survival horror games fun to play from a gameplay perspective is how the player is forced to make difficult decisions constantly. What weapons should I take? Should I combine x with y? Should I save this ammo for later or use it now? If I take extra weapons, will I be able to pick up an important item later?

WP: I love that it utilises an RE typewriter-style save system, not enough games use this style anymore. However, in the modern-day these save systems are rare – what made you implement this mechanic?

JM: Limited saves perfectly compliment the risk-reward style of gameplay seen in classic survival horror. Do you risk making more progress and saving ink ribbons? Or play it safe but potentially have less of them in the future? It’s a punishing mechanic, but very complementary to the overall design of these games. Although, I also realise that not everybody loves this mechanic. So, it will be completely optional. If you’d rather play with unlimited saves or progress checkpoints, you can also just do that.

WP: Will you include different difficulty options for players who want a less stressful playthrough?

JM: Indeed there will be! Difficulty options were a stretch goal reached during the crowdfunding period, although I have expanded them a little bit to include more than what was promised. There will be an ‘assist’ type mode with frequent checkpoints, less emphasis on strict resource management and generally easier combat scenarios. Then you’ll have the standard easy, medium and hard modes, along with some extra hard modes like permadeath.

Getting combat right has been a challenge for Catchweight Studio

WP: The game will feature a character known as The Merchant, an inclusion no doubt heavily inspired by Resident Evil 4. What will his purpose be? What items can we buy from The Merchant?

JM: Indeed! Everyone loves the merchant from Resident Evil 4, so I thought it’d be cool to include a nod to him in Conscript. The merchant in Conscript however will have his own backstory that the player can uncover as the game progresses. His main services will be selling the player resources and upgrading the player’s guns. Although instead of trading him money, cigarettes will be the game’s main form of currency. In the trenches, cigarettes were a precious commodity and soldiers would often trade them for other goods or services.

WP: So far the game is coming to Steam. Any chance of a console release?

JM: Having my game on consoles is a dream! But the reality of being a one-man team is that I can’t overpromise on things that I will need help doing. Once the PC version is out, console ports will be my priority.

WP: You’ve mentioned in Kickstarter updates that you’re open to teaming up with a publisher. What impact would that have on the game’s development and release?

JM: Development-wise, a publisher wouldn’t change anything. The game is still my baby and I will still be the one overseeing everything. What it would allow me to do is focus less on the other hassles of game development (marketing, QA, localisation, trailer creation etc.) and have my time better spent polishing, refining and iterating on the game itself. I feel like this would be a better use of my time. A publisher can also ensure the console porting process is smooth and less stressful.

WP: You’ve recently delayed the launch of Conscript to 2022, what were the main reasons for this?

It really comes down to delivering the game of my dreams without significant cuts and compromises. Releasing in 2021 as scheduled would have meant an overall less polished game in just about every department. Given how personal this project is to me and the amount of time spent on it already, I was not willing to rush it out the door prematurely like that. I realise the word crunch is thrown around a lot, but let’s just say there would have been many 14-hour, seven-day work weeks trying to make that window. This allows me to finish at a much healthier pace.

WP: Well we can’t wait to play the final product. Best of luck with the rest of the game’s development.

JM: Much appreciated!

If you’d like to know more about Conscript you can check out the game’s official website. Or if you’d like to try Conscript’s demo or wishlist the title, you can head to the game’s Steam page or GOG page.

Written By

Despite a childhood playing survival horrors, point and clicks and beat ’em ups, these days Zach tries to convince people that Homefront: The Revolution is a good game while pining for a sequel to The Order: 1886 and a live-action Treasure Planet film. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan. Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts

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