Most people who grew up playing video games in the mid-90s and 2000s will no doubt have fond memories of a particular platformer or action-adventure game. But as game development has evolved over the years, experiences like those we enjoyed as budding gamers have largely been left behind as developers chased modern trends. Every now and again, developers dive back into this era of video games in an attempt to blend the old with the new, which is what Brisbane-based studio EmergeWorlds has done with its upcoming game Dros, a game that wears its influences on its sleeve. I recently sat down with Dros’ Creative Director Ben Ward and Executive Producer Tim Moloney and found out more about the game ahead of its July 20 release.
WellPlayed: You’re developing a game called Dros – what’s the elevator pitch?
EmergeWorlds: Dros is an adventure platformer that lets you switch between a slimy little creature and her human shell. It’s set in a strange steampunk world of corrupted Alchemy.
WP: When did the development of Dros begin?
EW: Almost four years ago.
WP: Dros looks and plays like a classic platformer but with modern sensibilities. What are some of the game’s inspirations?
EW: We were fans of classic platformers of the 90s (and played our fair share) but the inspiration for Dros really came from a much wider spectrum of sources if truth be told. In terms of gameplay and mechanic design, Nintendo provided regular inspiration as we developed; Mario Odyssey for platforming, Link’s Awakening for the combat elements and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker for its diorama-like stage designs. Being the story-driven game that it is, we drew inspiration from 80s dark fantasy films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as well the animated films of Studio Ghibli. The way those films and stories explored contrasts of opposites is what always intrigued me. In the same way, the world of Dros is simultaneously scary and funny, dark and cute.
WP: Where did the idea to play as two (but one) characters come from?
EW: Our earliest prototypes focused on Captain (the human) as the player character. The ‘Dros’ were regarded only as enemies at that point. There was nothing particularly unique though that was coming from this so I proposed a scenario whereby the human (Captain) and a ‘little’ Dros were forced into a kind of Quid Pro Quo partnership of survival. Neither really liked the other too much but both were forced to work together. I think the best thing that came from this was a sudden realisation of all the funny and absurd scenarios the two could find themselves in. The idea seemed to work in generating secondary ideas for mechanics as well. For example, the core idea of the human (Captain) being the bulky and more crude member of the two immediately gave rise to ideas about the Dros (Little Dros) being nimble, agile and cute! This core idea continued to guide both game design and story as we developed.
WP: Were there ever any conversations about including co-op in the game?
EW: Of course when designing a single-player game where the player switches between two characters you can’t help but consider what that alternative co-op mode would be like. Perhaps in the future there may be ways Dros could take this form. Part of the attraction of keeping the game single player though was giving players the strange split-brain kind of sensation of playing two characters as one.
WP: You’ve referred to the game’s levels as dioramas. Can you explain the design process behind this?
EW: The word ‘diorama’ may conjure up different images for different people, however my use of the word is to describe a ‘compactness’ of game experience into a smaller, more intimately crafted scene. In other words, more detail and more exploration are packed into a tiny space. Captain Toad Treasure Tracker by Nintendo is probably the best modern game example. Its stages are mostly confined to box shapes with levels and puzzles that fold back on themselves. While not all stages in Dros strictly follow this pattern many do. Simply put, we wanted each Dros stage to feel like the player was looking down onto a modelled little diorama set. One that can be fully explored.
WP: When it comes to combat, will players have multiple attacks to use? Can Captain take damage if Dros is off exploring?
EW: Leaving Captain alone can be perilous if enemies are nearby. Just as well though, Little Dros’ recall mechanic is pretty fast. If players notice Captain taking some hits it’s a relatively quick process of getting back to him and fighting off the enemy. We deliberately made the recall mechanic quite speedy because of this.
In terms of multiple attacks, the benevolent Alchemist known as Enki will provide players with a few abilities as the game develops. He is using Little Dros and Captain as taste-testers of his wacky new Alchemy Soda flavours. Each flavour unlocks more of Little Dros’ latent alchemy powers which enables her to transmute Prima into Captain. Players can basically ‘spend’ some of the Prima they collect to perform charged-up versions of Captain’s slash, sprint and block.
WP: Tell us about the art style. What were the inspirations?
EW: As mentioned above, Jim Hensen’s 80s dark fantasy films served as great inspiration for the look and tone. The works of Brian Froud (the concept artist on those films) have a dark charm that is timeless. In addition, Japanese animated films such as Nausicaa, Laputa, Spirited Away and even Akira all have this ‘punk’ aesthetic to their fantasy worlds. Whether it’s the rusty, fungus-covered flying ship of Nausicaa or the neon-lit Cyberpunk streets of Akira. There is a real-world grit and charm that these films are imbued with. In terms of art direction, that’s what I desired to do with Dros.
Dros’ levels have been referred to as dioramas and it’s easy to see why
WP: Players can discover a lot of lore about the world through exploration. How will this work?
EW: We reward player exploration through journal unlocks. I liken the journal to that of a 19th-century naturalist exploring a new undiscovered island. The player gradually fills the journal with notes about the world and the characters they meet. It was a way to expand lore that was in scope for our small production team(3 core members). So it was really more of a scope decision in the end as well. The question is: How to flesh out a larger world and story without blowing our budget? The answer to that question became this journal.
WP: What is your favourite thing about Dros?
EW: For me (Ben), the tone of the characters and world are very close to what I originally wanted to achieve. That contrast I mentioned above; between dark and light, scary and cute, funny and serious seems to have worked well. Also, I’m proud that we persisted with the switching mechanic between the two characters…it was not easy to develop but I think it’s cool and also reflects this ‘contrast of opposites’ theme.
(Tim) I like the humour in Dros. I feel we have a good dose of it and it’s expressed through all the strange characters in the Tower. It’s a wacky style of humour with inspirations from Monty Python, The Mighty Boosh and Monkey Island.
WP: In 2022 your Kickstarter for Dros had a goal of $14,000 but raised over $21,000, which is an awesome result. How much has the additional funding helped improve the game?
EW: Significantly. It really allowed us the time to put another level of quality and polish on the game. Making the game always felt like a race to be honest. But this extra bit of funding allowed us to pit-stop, make some additional choices and additions and test the game more thoroughly.
WP: How long do you think an average playthrough of Dros will take?
EW: Because of the myriad of different collectibles and story journals to find it’s hard to say but 10 hours may be a good estimate for the base game. If you were to search for all the collectibles, that playtime would be much higher.
WP: Will Dros have any accessibility options?
EW: At the moment we have a base amount of settings in the game and will look to expand on these after release. We have options to turn off certain visual effects and sounds that could improve the experience for certain players.
The duo will have to work together to reach the top of the tower
WP: Could you see Dros becoming a series or is it a one-and-done sort of game?
EW: I do think Dros as a game and Dros as a world have more to give. Both the dual-character puzzle-solving mechanic and the slimy steampunk setting seem to be reasonably fertile territory at least in my opinion. I think the setting of the Alchemist-gone-mad and creating his own Tower of corrupted creations is also a cool angle to work with.
WP: What other platforms are you hoping to launch Dros on?
EW: Nintendo Switch has always been our main goal after PC. Beyond that, I think Dros would work just as well on PlayStation 5 and Xbox. It’s also worth mentioning that localisation Dros is still one of our goals as well for this year.
WP: Thanks for your time and good luck with the game’s release.
Dros releases on PC on July 20, you can Wishlist the game here.