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The Accidental Immersiveness of Shovels In Weird West

We chat with WolfEye Studios about their upcoming western

If Weird West isn’t on your most anticipated games of 2022 lists already, it’s about time you caught up. A collision of Immersive Sim mechanics, old school Western trappings and magical realism inspirations, Weird West is shaping up to be one of the most exciting debut titles we’ve seen in a long time. The game comes to us by way of WolfEye Studios, the latest endeavour of industry veterans Raphaël Colantonio and Julien Roby, both formerly of Arkane Studios. As we close out another year of uncertainty and adaptation, I spoke with Colantonio about the impacts of COVID, the inspiration behind the game and how a simple shovel mechanic broke my heart.

WellPlayed: Having worked in large studios before, how has the team handled the transition to a smaller one?

Raphaël Colantonio: Both Julien and I were there at the very beginning of Arkane, back in 99 so it felt pretty familiar, to be honest. Start with the core team, it’s the most fun part of the project – quiet, efficient, we can pick and choose the best elements… it feels amazing.

WP: Do you feel there are inherent creative freedoms in smaller team structures? 

RC: Yes, simply because what’s at stake is not comparable with a big AAA team. The budget to recoup in a AAA studio encourages you to do what’s familiar and safe.

WP: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted development and team wellbeing?

RC: We were already set up for remote working prior to the pandemic, so it only impacted us in the sense that it was (and still is) hard on families, on mental health. We also haven’t met in person in 2 years, so it did impact us for sure. It’s hard to do creative work and finish a game without ever meeting people in person.

WP: Devolver Digital has amassed something of a cult following in the industry over the past few years, how has it been working with the irreverent publisher?

RC: It’s been perfect. Devolver is amazing to work with; competent, great communicators, fun, fast to make decisions, flexible… a dev’s dream.

This ain’t your grandaddy’s Western…

WP: Can you talk a little about the inspirations for the game? Other media, personal aspirations to create something in the Western genre and so on. 

RC: We see it as our take on a fantasy version of the wild west, which seemed like a cool creative opportunity. A bit of horror, a subtle bit of supernatural stuff. I personally was a big fan of the HBO show “Carnival” that had an amazing balance between reality and the supernatural. References are always a touchy topic because what I see in there might not be what you see, it’s all filtered through perception.

WP: Weird West is evidently not aiming for historical accuracy, but it is still a love letter of sorts to the Western genre. How important was it to the team to present a diverse cast of characters in a genre that has traditionally been whitewashed by mainstream media? And did the liberties taken with the era by the team encourage you to include a more rounded cast?

RC: Our team is diverse in many aspects, so I believe we were naturally inclined to represent the different facets of the characters while maintaining our artistic integrity, as opposed to turning it into a box-ticking exercise. On top of that, we consulted a variety of people on some of the more sensitive topics specific to the old west. The trick is: it’s a fantasy world but we’re still hinging on some of the tropes, so it was complex to navigate.

WP: There’s a small touch early in the game where you can choose to bury your son’s body using the shovel you picked up for another objective. I adored this detail; it really spoke to the consideration given to your cast of characters. Are there many of these small, bespoke moments of character building in the game?

RC: It’s hopefully one of the pillars of the game. The interesting thing here is that this emotional moment came for free thanks to the systems and the story the players tell to themselves. We never authored the game that way, no one said “we should allow the player to bury their kid”. Instead, we designed a shovel and listed the action that can be done with it, including burying any corpse, and that was way before the kid story was even in the game.  We then realized players would do that naturally and feel emotional about it. I guess it’s a good example of the power of the immersive sims philosophy.

Playing your way will have consequences 

WP: What draws the team toward the immersive sim genre?

RC: It’s a life mission and passion. Immersive sims offer a space of possibilities like no other games, that’s why we’re in it.

WP: I noted in my preview that Weird West was very easy to pick up and play, using genre/medium visual shortcuts like enemy cones of vision and the like to convey stealth mechanics to the player quickly and easily. How much does player accessibility and readability play into your design ethos given that the immersive sim genre has been quite impenetrable in the past?

RC: We believe that the strength of Immersive Sims is not related to its traditional inherent obscurity, and the more we can resurface things to the players, the better the game is. A consequence (whether mechanical or Story) is only meaningful if the player connects the dots. So, lately, we’ve made a good effort to show how the dots connect.

WP: Speaking of the game’s writing, can we look forward to our narrative choices having tangible impacts on the game world? 

RC: Yes, all in all,  there are quite a few of those choices to be made, and some stay with you until the end of the game.

WP: No spoilers of course but what are you most looking forward to players discovering in Weird West?

RC: Personally I hope the players will care for the world and the characters, will want to lose themselves exploring it, and that they’ll get a kick at having moments that feel personal.

WP: Thank you for your time!

Weird West will release on March 31 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

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