Space Gone Mad: An Interview with Void Bastards’ Cara Ellison & Ben Lee

*VORRP*

And with that, another explosive device that no one fully understands erupts, detonating or murder-sacrificing or sucking character into a vacuum. It’s a real roll of the dice as to what is happening in this specific weapon instance, or what is happening in general, or what is happening on the meta. But it all exudes a real heavy feeling of ludicrous science fiction that is equal parts eccentric and apoplectic.

Welcome to Void Bastards, the new title from developer Blue Manchu. The game is a stylized FPS roguelike that pairs loot mechanics with high-concept sci-fi world-building and a twisted Brit sense of humor. The highly comic book influence strategy-shooter demands equal parts planning and good aim from the player, while offering infinite opportunities to make things weird. As you progress through the game, your character is replaced upon death by the next build in a series of space convicts; ready to offer their specialized skills in the name of victory and/or brutal death.

Void Bastards is being sold as a ridiculous amplification of games in the style of BioShock and System Shock 2. Jonathan Chey, co-founder of Irrational Games, is the name behind both of those titles, and VB. His new voyage brings aboard impressive contributors who have helped a small studio shape the new title with influences like Red Dwarf and Douglas Adams. The end result is an action-strategy title that immediately exudes an intoxicating, individualized energy that has fans salivating for their first taste.

Here’s our interview with Void Bastards narrative designer Cara Ellison and creative director Ben Lee.

Fanbyte: So, Void Bastards as a name came about because you found something that felt culturally exciting and specific. What was your memory of coming up with the name here?

Ellison: I think everyone is so– the thing I think about this game is, it is so the child of Australians and Scottish people.

Lee: That’s true.

Ellison: So, Void Bastards is definitely the name that suits it best.

Fanbyte: So what leads a studio into thinking that you’ve kind burned out on a fantasy thing and three people are going to try to make an FPS together? Was that a decision to try and hurt yourselves, or was that something that you genuinely thought would be easier?

Lee: Well, Jon’s (Jonathan Chey, co-founder of Irrational Games) main motivation when we started gaming was: considering it’s something he’ll have to do for the next two or three years at least, his primary concern is that it’s something interesting to everyone who’s working on it. He doesn’t want to do a game just because it might be profitable or because other people are doing it or for recognition.

It’s “What would we love to see come out, that we think we could make?” Anytime we’re going to discuss what we’re going to do with the next game, there’s usually a lot of resistance from everybody to doing the same thing again. Everyone wants to do something new, because it’s more interesting that way.

Fanbyte: So I shouldn’t hold my breath for Void Bastards 2 to come out immediately?

Lee: Well, who knows? This is also the first time we’ve self-published in this way, because Card Hunter was back in the early days of the freemium model. After the Card Hunter experience with the game as a service, we tried to make up the nicest freemium model we could. We made it a little too nice, is the problem, and it was fine. There was nothing really wrong with that, but there was a lot of mental overhead all throughout production, figuring out how we were going to monetize it and adjusting it and trying to make sure– we didn’t want it to be fake, we didn’t want a nasty freemium game.

As I said, this was back in 2013, and there weren’t a lot of comparisons to be made at that point. Anyway, at the end of all that, we just said, “You know what? Next game we make, we’re just going to make a normal game that you can buy for money, full stop. That’s it. So we’ll see how that goes when we launch. So you know, fingers crossed that people like the idea of paying money for a game.

Fanbyte: I suppose that is the one goal. How do you make something compelling, interesting, and on top of that, funny in a roguelike? It just seems like a technically difficult thing to me.

Ellison: It originally had a very specific direction. The way I got on the project was Davey Wreden [of Stanley Parable fame], who’s a friend of mine, emailed me and he said, “Do you know any narrative designers?” and I said, “Davey, that’s really insulting. I’m a narrative designer.” He says, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I have a job for you!” So I sent my details to Ben and Jon. Everything Ben thought was interesting was everything I had read and watched growing up, like Red Dwarf. Actually, he said to me, “I don’t want it to be like the Red Dwarf TV show, I want it to be like the Red Dwarf books.” The Red Dwarf books are the greatest pieces of sci-fi satire ever because they’re actually a lot darker than the TV show.

Lee: They’re genuinely tragic.

void bastards

Ellison: Yeah, very tragic. They’re very lonely but it’s that sense of loneliness that makes it so funny. It’s the fact that Lister’s only friend in the entire universe has to be the one person he hates the most. There’s something quite– that’s so ridiculously British, as well. Now you’ll live forever with the most sniveling crew you’ve ever met in your life. So yeah, we just kind of fit, and all of the reference materials just kind of came out. I think Ben sent me Brazil, the movie Brazil, in the post, which is really old-school of him.

Lee: I’d also add, completely legal. The real reason I wanted to send you a copy in the post.

Ellison: Yes, completely legal. [laughter] So I tried to comprehend what a completely bureaucratic space hell would look like.

Fanbyte: And you have to start that with prisons, I suppose. Is that the first place you started?

Ellison: I think that was kind of– that kind of came from the Red Dwarf idea, right? The idea of a prison ship–

Lee: The prison idea was actually Farbs’ idea, really early on, that I didn’t like. When he first pitched it, the original version of the game was super scientific and dry. Jon wanted it to be like The Martian or Gravity, basically. It was sort of nearer future, realistic astronauts solving problems with stuff, by looting things. That’s actually progressed– even when Cara came on board, the main character was wearing a normal space suit, more or less. Just a regular astronaut suit. At one point Farbs said, “How about we make it prisoners being brought out of cryo-suspension and sent on these missions?” I liked the idea behind it which was, each time you die, you come back as a different person instead of the stupid fps thing where you die and you just get to come back again.

So in Void Bastards you die, you’re dead, and you’ve lost that person– I really wanted to– did you ever play a game called Cannon Fodder? The more times a guy died, the gravestones would kind of mount up across the screen. I wanted to do something like that with Polaroids of dead crew mates so that every time you’d come out, you could see how many people had died. That didn’t make it in, but that was where his prison came in. I was really like, “This is kind of going bro movie, shanky prisoner stuff,” and I was really sour about it.

Working through it with Cara, she was quite keen to do some prisoner stuff. I said that that’s fine as long as it’s not about gangs and shanking and lifting weights. It’s about the shitty bureaucracy of modern– and also the modern industrial system in the U.S. and the whole way that that’s monetized. We don’t actually talk about anything like that in the game, but these were the things that inspired the prison angle. All the stuff Cara was watching at the time was a bit prison-y, too.

“What does Hell look like if Theresa May invents it?”

Ellison: Yeah, there’s this part of this animated movie called The Twelve Tasks of Asterix where he has to complete a bunch of bureaucracy tasks, and every time I call HMRC [the British equivalent of the IRS], it feels like that. They pass you in between windows, and you have to fill out more forms until you actually feel yourself going nuts. So part of it was that and we started to go more into how a British dystopia would function. What does Hell look like if Theresa May invents it? Death by bureaucracy is a boring systemic– it’s a system that you think is really far away from you, but is in fact the increasingly banal cause of your death. It’s looking at your incredibly boring life of trying to escape this existence, but you’re trying to comprehend how you could break out of that.

It’s a bureaucratic loop. You’re trying to figure out what the system means and how to function in order to get out of it. The only instructions available are instructions that you increasingly realize are not going to help you. And that’s bureaucracy right down to a tee, isn’t it? It’s like that fucking Microsoft paperclip, every time you ask it something, it never has a good answer. It’s that, but on a grand scale: I want to break out of prison, but in order to do that, I have to rely on a bureaucrat. It was originally a lot darker, it kind of just got out of hand.

Lee: Cara, you asked for so much more than what is in the game, but I toned it down. At one point, Cara said to me, “Is that too dark?” and I said, “There’s no such thing as too dark, go darker, that’s fine. We’re not going to get mad at you for that.” I’d rather take it to too much of an extreme and bring it back a little, than be struggling to come up with things.

Fanbyte: So, it started very technical and science-y, like The Martian, and then you went to sort of a funny place, and then the funny place went much, much darker, because of what you guys were able to do there?

Lee: To be honest, it was always going to be really dark. When Jon and I conceived the game, it was just the two of us in an office and I wasn’t in a particularly great mood at the time. We were just like, “Yeah! There’s no one else, and you’re completely alone and you’re dying continually, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s loneliness and terrible and nothing!” Jon was on board with that, we both thought it was a cool premise for a survival game. But just before we contacted Cara, we just sort of looked at each other and asked, does anyone else really want to be this miserable when playing a video game, and is this a bit boring?

In our attempts to stand out, we’re not doing ourselves any favors making it dour and miserable. It’s okay for it to be dark, and have black comedy in it. We just had the black without the comedy in it. We were looking specifically for someone to come on board, because we had ignored (for fifty percent of the production) the story. We just didn’t care. We didn’t think it was important, until we went, “Actually, the story is important, otherwise it’s going to be a bland, boring, dry game.”

Fanbyte: Was it a dark version of survival when you were doing it originally, or was it also sort of cell-shaded sort of graphical style, or did that come from changing up your story?

Lee: That was there from the beginning. When we were talking before that, we were like, “Why would you be insane enough to try an FPS with three people?” Challenge one was, can you even do it? We were fully prepared for the answer to be no. So my terrifying task at the time was, can you come up with an art style that we can actually achieve with maybe not three people, but maybe under ten people? It was what led me into comics.

Ellison: We both really– I’ve been into 2000 A.D. for a while now because it has a really interesting world and I’m interested in worldbuilding. So I got a lot of that art style, like 2000 A.D., and there’s nothing wrong with going further in that direction. As it progressed, I started to do lot more reds, there’s a lot of– the world is really dark but really funny. They’re absurd as well as whimsical sometimes. You can take a lot from that, you can take a dark, upsetting world but at the same time have fun with that. Obviously, the art style is very 2000 A.D., it’s got that grimy, futuristic edge to it.

Lee: We originally had a decoy, it was actually called “Decoy.” Before Cara started, we had a thing called “the Decoy” and I think it was a box with treads, and now it’s a robot cat that’s manufactured by a corporate arm of the government posing as a toy company, but it’s actually information-gathering. But that’s exactly what we wanted, Cara, when we brought you on board. We wanted weird space shit. After you came on board– even the stuff that you might not have come up with, it broke us out of that idea of making boring space shit. Jon and I both weren’t comfortable with making it since we didn’t have a better idea. The comedy thing was the biggest turning point. Rather than making it soul-destroying to play the game, how about we make it funny-bad? And I think I pitched it to you that we want to do a black comedy treatment of this world.

Ellison: Yeah, that’s right. It was this Red Dwarf-Brazil angle, and then we started looking at comic book scripts because we wanted to get the interstitials because we wanted animated comic books that you could click through to get the idea of what the next mission was going to be.

Lee: So the whole game is in a sense, like your reading a comic book that’s come to life. I don’t mean a magical comic, I just mean– it’s a comic that you go into the panels for the action.

Fanbyte: Gotcha.

Ellison: Right, and so the opening is a bunch of panels that I wrote up for Ben, which he then condensed into the smallest amount of clips that you could probably do to get through it.

Lee: We tried a really long form one, basically, and we got through it and were like, “We’ve gotta make this way quicker.”

Ellison: The toilet thing originally came from a bunch of panels I had originally written for Ben. Then Ben had done this amazing sort of landscape shot, and a little toilet kind of floated in the back. I’d written that in, asking how I could undercut it to make it less serious. This is a stupid bureaucracy universe, what’s the first thing that would go wrong? The toilet explodes while you’re taking a shit. Every tragedy was undercut by something very stupid. Our A.I. is called BACS, and BACS is the name of the British system that pays your salary; it takes out your income tax, and we just decided that would be the name of the artificial intelligence. There’s a bunch of very in-joke– there’s a bit where the Void ark tells you that you’re getting your P-45, which is a form that you get when you’re fired from your job in the UK.

Lee: I think Pal actually fills it out for you on your way back to the Void ark after you’ve died. I’m not giving anything away there, that happens in the first five to ten minutes of the game. It’s not a big spoiler. I should mention that, once we started working, Jon liked to amp that up, too. Cara and I would do most of the ideas, and we’d present to Jon to see if he would bite. I’d say 90% of the time he was just like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” When I said at one point, “Is this too British?” Because all of these Britishisms– because Australia is basically a suburb of Britain anyway. So at one point I said, “Would this be appropriate? Because someone in the U.S. might not understand what it means.” He was like, “I actually want to go further in that direction. That gives it something. Let’s not bland it out by making it something that the world understands because it’s simple.”

Fanbyte: This is the appeal of the game to me, and what my next big question is: does it feel cool and interesting, or as if there a different responsibility to do a very Scottish science-fiction thing for a world of– especially U.S. gamers who don’t understand other cultures or that sort of thing? I understand that this was probably scary or tricky to manage. I don’t think your name is even something that American gamers know what to do with, either.

A lot of our characters are incredibly Scottish.

Ellison: I think for the longest time, TV in the U.S. massively underestimates U.S. audiences and how willing U.S. audiences are to come to other cultures. A lot of the time you’ll see stuff like our comedy TV shows are an American version we’ve made of it. I think there is a fear that some of our language and some of our mannerisms might not translate very well, which is obviously completely wrong, because Netflix always puts new things up now which becomes really popular. So it seems weird to me to not go towards this massive idiosyncrasy which seems to me to make our stuff really popular in the U.S. So a lot of our characters are incredibly Scottish.

Lee: Scallys are in it. I don’t know what a kid scally would be, but–

Ellison: Yeah. I guess Americans would say “white trash?”

Lee: No, that’s more rural. They’re more like “hoodrats” or something, I don’t know. I don’t know the current parlance for a disadvantaged youth ne’er do well is anymore.

Ellison: Basically, the name is a very classist term for people who are kids, and they’re always white, and they’re always wearing a tracksuit, and they’re always probably trying to stab you. It’s just a given in Scotland that those people exist. It’s certainly very classist, but they are a real danger at times.

Fanbyte: Yeah, we don’t have that. That’s not a thing for us.

Ellison: Yeah, they’re basically why I, as a white person, am extremely afraid of white people.

Fanbyte: And this translates to the game because you have enemies like this, or have that sort of vibe about them?

Ellison: Yeah, basically the vandals of the universe are these wee aliens mutants who look like they’re going to stab you. The further you get into the nebula, the further radiation that’s happened. So it gets more intense the deeper you get into the nebula, and you encounter people who were on these ships who had been mutated into these worse versions of themselves. Much, much worse and they’re quite terrifying.

Lee: Yeah, there’s nothing in it that I would say is just there for no reason, which is interesting. I didn’t even think about it until Cara said it just then, but there’s usually a dark reason, some sort of clinical observation reason behind every single aspect of the game. But it’s not done in a way that drives it down your throat at all. We don’t mind if you miss all of it–

Ellison: Yeah, you could miss all of it–

It pretty much boils down to the Roger Rabbit rule: you can do it if it’s funny.

Lee: That’s fine. But the point is that those details make it. It isn’t just: you’re a space marine, there’s a computer telling you to kill all of the space commies and the stuff that’s in so many games. It all works to create something unusual, but it does come from– there’s a reason behind all of it, none of it’s just made up.

Fanbyte: Was there a line or a concept or statement or something that allowed you guys to crack the world-building and the sense of humor and stuff? Was there a set of rules you guys operated by that determines what fits and what doesn’t?

Ellison: It pretty much boils down to the Roger Rabbit rule: you can do it if it’s funny.

Lee: I used to work on TV animation and games back in the 90s, and we wrote the same way. Don’t worry about what it is, is it funny or not? There isn’t really a limit, but at the same time if something is really complicated and gross but not funny, you’d chuck it. Is it funny, or does it make the point you’re trying to make immediately? Not that that’s got a lot to do with a narrative of building a video game, but the concept is not throwing stuff out until you’ve determined whether or not it’s got value or it’s entertaining. Card Hunter is literally ten years of D&D jokes that Jon and I make at each other, all the time.

We just did what we thought was funny, and I think Void Bastards is similar. The number one thing for us to keep making the game and keep putting our lives into this is we’ve got to think it’s funny. So we weren’t really writing for other people. Again, that’s why Cara was so instrumental, because– I guess she was mostly writing for us, but we didn’t ask her to do that. She was mostly– I think you were mostly writing for yourself, weren’t you, Cara, or…?

Ellison: Yeah, the Red Dwarf future is so British that there’s something in there for me. So every time I looked at what the environment inside the prison ship would look like, for example, I was thinking that I’m pretty sure that there would be a tea cart for me to take tea, and there’d be one of those passive-aggressive signs on it that says, “Wash up your mug after you’ve used it.” There’s something so normal about me having that kind of vision for this weird universe that just seemed like it fitted. I remember specifically one call I’d been on, and he’d asked me to write some lines for the A.I. or something. I think Jon said something like, “So you think that this is quite a British world, then?” He was just into it. There was also quite a bit of considerable Australian direction to it, as well. It’s quite an unusual world, because it’s so un-American, there’s nothing American about it.

Lee: Well, that’s because it’s very similar. We were a prison colony, and we never had a revolutionary war. Technically, we still have a queen, which is the English queen. So that point is very similar until we diverged with the U.S., we never had a revolutionary war so we just stayed British the whole time. When I moved here in 2005, I was taken aback at how everything I thought was Australian was just secondhand British. Literally everything. We don’t actually have any traditions that are real, just British ones that we walked a little bit. The thing that really blew my mind was train stations. I thought that Sydney train stations, which were built many, many years ago, were just Australian train stations.

I came to the U.K. and realized, nope! They’re the exact same as British ones. They’re obviously built from the same materials and plans. How did I not think– it’s such a strange, tiny thing to bring up, but it really freaked me out a bit. All of our names of our cities and stuff are just new names of places. I’m from New South Wales, which is a ridiculous name for a state. Then we’ve got Victoria and stuff… everything’s named after something British.

Fanbyte: So is there something about this game, being Scottish and Australian, that also shows that one hundred years in the future, none of this will be resolved?

Lee: No, it’s just– it’s worse.

Ellison: Probably the idea that white people are just going to make things worse. There’s a reason why we made the pirate Chinese as well, because they are the only people who exist outside of the system. All of the prisoners are obviously from lots of different backgrounds. Ben has done an amazing job of making all of the characters different from each other. But this motley crew of Chinese pirates exist outside of the system they were stuck in, and they’re the only example you’ve got of ways to get out of it. They hate you and they’re trying to kill you the entire time.

Lee: They’re the only free people in the universe that we created.

Fanbyte: I’d like to end here with a question for both of you. I’ll start with Ben because I think I’ve asked Cara this question in every interview I’ve done with her, so I can probably answer from memory. What are your favorite examples of comedy in video games? Who gets it right, and why do so few people manage to get it right? What have you learned from the people that have done well and the people who have done poorly in that?

Lee: I think that modern video games, like the ones that have come out in the last five to ten years, are significantly funnier than anything that came before them. I think before that, a lo of comedy in video games was written by one or two people on the dev team who weren’t actually writers or comedians.

Fanbyte: You’re right. The last ten or fifteen years, indie games have been great, but there’s a patch where there are things post-Psychonauts, that are like, “Here’s the Deadpool game where i’s funny because he keeps saying things about chimichangas, but you’re going to hear that a thousand times over the course of a three hour game.”

Lee: Yeah. Well, to me– I’m trying to think of good comedy games. There’s only a tiny handful, and it’s all the LucasArts point-and-clicks. They were just hilarious.

Ellison: But I think that was accidentally. Tim Schafer just started off making his own games, but he kind of had to build that writer niche, and yeah, you’re right, that was kind of a happy accident. I think you’re right that before, that specific role was not filled by someone professionally funny.

Lee: I feel, and this is probably projecting a little bit, but being from the traditional– I used to draw with a pencil, photographed with a camera animation for TV, which nobody would do anymore because it’s insanely difficult and expensive. But a lot of the people who worked on Sam & Max and Outlaws and Full Throttle had a traditional animation experience, and I think it bled into it. It was something of a breakthrough; it was like video games didn’t have to be written by ZX Spectrum programmers in their bedrooms. They can actually have people from other disciplines involved in them to make them richer. Full Throttle would not have been the game that it was had it not been for the 2d animation that was put into it. Really top quality, too. I don’t know if it was luck or they spent all of the money, but whoever put together those sequences and the animations for Full Throttle had incredible razor-sharp timing. It’s just really perfect as a cartoon. I think after that, more and more stuff got made but in my mind, I can’t recall anything that was really genuinely funny.

Ellison: My world-building took a lot of inspiration– a lot of it came from a game that was actually called Bureaucracy. It was a text game, and I played it through and it was hilariously funny. Basically that movie Brazil in a text-based format. It was probably made by people who were interested in writing. But yeah, games definitely had a period of time when maybe they weren’t so funny. I think Jazzpunk is pretty funny. It’s mainly based on slapstick. Comedy is a difficult one because the thing about games is that they’re so repetitive. By nature you have to do a lot of repetitive things in a world that’s not very big, so it’s difficult to make repetitiveness be cumulatively funny.

Lee: I also think not many games set out ot be funny. We made that choice in an attempt to not be like all the other science fiction shooters. We didn’t want to just be a science fiction marine man game, because– not that there’s anything wrong with them at all, and I’ve actually played tons of them. But we would just get lost in the shuffle if we tried that, so I think deciding to be funny helped us all a lot, even making design decisions. It’s okay to have a ridiculous machine that you’d never have in the real world, in this game. It freed us up a lot more to be creative.

Fanbyte: What’s a moment in the game that you just can’t wait for people to see or experience?

Lee: Oh, there’s too many. The thing I did in this game, and it was partially subconscious, I made the decision that I wasn’t– normally when I work on a large game, I try to take on input from a lot of different sources. The executive producers want this, your boss wants that, so it’s always a big juggling thing, trying to make art that makes everyone feel included and feel like they have a stake in it because everyone has something to fucking say about the art. It’s easy, literally anyone can look at something and go, “Well, I think this.” You can’t do that with code, coders can just get away with whatever they want.

When Cara and I started talking about comics more intensively, we actually had to write them and figure out how to integrate them into the game. There was a point where I couldn’t explain that to everyone all of the time. I’m actually going to stop worrying about what people see in the game. For the first time, I’m just going to make whatever I want. That, for me, was actually a huge breakthrough artistically. I said, “I’m just going to do what’s inside of me, I’m just going to let it all fly out,” and that’s how we got Void Bastards. I feel like I should’ve been doing this all along!

Ellison: In work-for-hire rules in video games, there’s a lot of trying to please directors who have a very firm vision of what they want in their head, but not always the best capillaries for explaining those things. It’s always a problem of communication, like, I want to give you what you want, but I don’t know how to give that thing to you if there’s no common language for us. And you’re given such freedom, like Ben said, when you have a lot of control over your area of creative output, where if you just do the thing that you think is best, some really good shit comes out, especially if you’re a professional who’s been doing this thing for years. When you’re suddenly given the chance to do something you’re good at, and someone asks you to contribute, it’s so freeing. All of a sudden, it’s not someone’s vision, it’s something that you’re all collaborating on together. This is also the first time I’ve lucked into working with a team that’s like, “Give us what you’ve got.” It’s very freeing.

Fanbyte: Ben, Cara, thank you so much.

Void Bastards comes to PC and Xbox One in early 2019.

Editor’s note: this piece was corrected for two incorrect details.

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