VGB Feature: Iron Fish Interview with Creator Dean Edwards and Creative Director Shaun Leach

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One of the more intriguing upcoming PC games that really hasn’t received a ton of hype or exposure yet, Iron Fish is a deep sea narrative adventure and psychological thriller driven by the fear of exploring the terrifying and mysterious uncharted depths of the ocean. Read along as the creative forces behind Iron Fish, including its creator Dean Edwards and creative director Shaun Leach, team up to fill us in on new details about the game’s story, world design, puzzle and exploration elements (including wildlife photography!), and more. Many thanks to Dean and Shaun for taking time out of their schedules to answer our questions, as well as Beefjack’s Charlene Lebrun for helping to coordinate this interview. Now dive in!

VGBlogger: Psychological horror thrillers are largely associated with settings like asylums, haunted houses, creepy forests, abandoned towns, etc. What inspired the idea to bring the genre to the abyssal depths?

Dean Edwards: Initially, it was the science of the ocean that really to want to make a thriller based in the ocean. I have always enjoyed watching nature documentaries, particularly those that focus on the deep ocean, a very much unexplored place and one that we know very little about. Not to mention the fact that it is very dark in the abyssal depths. Some of the creatures found in there are not only scary but also enormous, the giant squid is a prime example of this. There are also quite a lot of myths and legends that surround the ocean, many of which were depicted to be quite perilous, so this is also a very interesting inspiration for Iron Fish’s setting.

Shaun Leach: I think actually a big driving force to take such an interesting risk in the environmental setting is Dean. He came up to us with a really interesting set piece for horror – the fear of the deep and the abyss. Nature, really, is the most fearsome element down there, so when we already have that as a framework to play within and layering that with monsters, monstrosities, genetic mutations, adds a lot more richness to that world. It’s definitely an unusual place to have that type of game in, but in actual fact I think it makes it also really special.

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VGB: As a psychological thriller, how will the mental state of the player character factor into the experience? For atmospheric effect, or will it play a direct role in how the story progresses or alter gameplay in any way?

Shaun: Really good question. For us, it’s about telling a story first and foremost and taking the user on an experience. So Cerys is a character and all the way through the experience, we connect the player to what Cerys is feeling. So rather than creating set pieces where the user experiences emotions and that gets embedded into the game, we’re really getting Cerys to be the leading idea, essentially. As the situation escalates and she gets deeper into the abyss, her mental state will change – I think that’s fair to say. So you really hear the sense of panic through her voice, the way she’s communicating… It’s really character-driven.

Dean: Definitely, Cerys’s mental state has a big impact on the game experience as it changes in the game’s story. As well as its role in the story, we also want to convey Cerys’ emotions and feelings about her immediate situation to the player, so it will also provide the tone for the atmosphere.

VGB: Since the game seems to be running with the idea that so little of sealife has been discovered by man, how has that influenced the team’s creativity with the creature designs? Is the intention to maintain a relative adherence to natural science, or are you guys pushing the boundaries of realism into supernatural or Lovecraftian themes?

Shaun: The game is really about science first and foremost but it’s a horror game and it needs to have strong entertainment value, so we really started off by examining really interesting creatures in the abyss, and also sub-surface as well and making sure that we’ve got first and foremost quite a realistic world to play within. We then wanted to play with that and as we amped up the horror, we started having fun with our own science as well and our own fears of what could really be laying down at the bottom. It’s really a fantasy with science but realism is also a big influence.

Dean: Yes, with the design of the creatures, we wanted to ensure some well-known real-world creatures existed in the game while still allowing for us to put our own spin on things. I feel that this really allows us to create a much more dynamic experience that better evokes feelings and provokes reaction from players.

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VGB: Will the game have puzzle­solving elements or interactions with different types of tools or equipment? (If so, can you elaborate with some examples?)

Shaun: Yes it will – our game really has an open sandbox feel to it because we give you the tools and the problem, and then it’s up to you to solve it. Figuring out what tools to use in what environment is really important, but equally we punctuate the story and the flow of the game with significant puzzles at certain points. Iron Fish is a puzzle game in many aspects and also an exploration game. So there’s a lot of finding and searching for things using your tools and equipment to help you uncover new areas.

Dean: There are puzzle elements that are solved both by the player using Cerys’ tools and/or by interacting with the environment. Cerys has a submarine equipped with a sonar which will help you find the general objective location. Then she is able to leave the submarine and use her metal detector to help find objects around her, so a lot of Cerys’ personal tools are focused around exploration. The environmental puzzles include things like a box with a special kind of lock that Cerys must open by interacting with it and solving the puzzle with only one clue provided in order to retrieve an important item.

VGB: How is the underwater game world structured? Is it level/objective based? Linear progression? Open world exploration?

Shaun: The game feels like a sandbox, it was a really important thing for us to establish really early on, for it to really feel as if you’re underwater it’s important not to have sharks swimming around on whales for example. So we built an interesting sandbox but only to make sure the atmosphere felt right. What we wanted to do was to tell a really linear story to be perfectly honest, but one that we could be sure that it would be really entertaining and is appropriate for the scope that we have.

Dean: So essentially, Iron Fish is level-based, although the environments are huge. The player can use Cerys’s submarine, aqua jet and swim around freely to explore and there are both main and side objectives. We wanted to capture the sheer size of the ocean, while keeping the game quite narrative driven.

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VGB: Pulling off a convincing underwater landscape and realistic swimming locomotion is no easy task in video games. What have been some of the biggest challenges in designing around the deep sea setting?

Shaun: It’s no secret that speed and movement was something that we were playing around with, so very early on we always knew that we would have tools and vehicles that aid exploration, for every type of situation.

Dean: Exactly! One of the things that I wanted to make sure felt right from the beginning was ensuring that the game felt as though you were underwater and not like you were in space with fish, so getting the accurate feeling when moving through the water was challenging but essential. Pacing and moving through the large environments was also a big challenge, which is why we have given Cerys her three modes of transportation. The submarine being a reasonably fast and safest option, best used to move through the open water to find your general location of interest. The Aqua Jet is the fastest way to travel but is not as safe, best used to move quickly around your immediate area. Swimming is slowest and most vulnerable option, however it’s necessary in order to access the more enclosed areas.

VGB: The setting would also seem to create a challenge for storytelling since it’s rather difficult to have a lot of dialogue while scubadiving. How is narrative delivered to the player? Are you going for more of a “show, don’t tell” approach to storytelling while letting the player fill in the blanks with their imaginations?

Dean: Cerys does have limited contact with her colleagues on the surface via her enhanced communication technology. The narrative will be delivered to the player using voice acting and subtitles. There are both conversations between Cerys and her colleagues and Cerys making her personal thoughts of her current situation known to the player. These make up the core component of Iron Fish’s narrative.

Shaun: It’s conveniently set in the near future so for us a big piece of it is the story, communicating an impactful story that you would remember after the fact. So we need to have really good tools and vehicles for the story. The voice actors are communicating emotions at key times, which is a massive vehicle for the story and how we communicate emotion and a feel for the story; there’s also data logs which Cerys can find – some of them related to the task she’s on, and some really about the rest of the world that she’s in and the way the exploration ties up with the story is such that this is your reward: the more you explore, the more you find and you’re uncovering a mystery about what’s really happening.

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VGB: How are you balancing the audio aspects of the game to capture both the natural ambient sounds of the sea while also building tension for the player through music?

Shaun: Really good question. Really early on, we felt that this project is born of the natural fear of the deep, so we didn’t really feel as though in the first instance we needed to put a heavy audio track on it to make it feel creepy, its stark sound design almost deafened as well, there’s lots of things going on and really that poignant silence is almost terrifying in itself so when you do hear screeches and screams, it’s really significant. So in actual fact, nature has created our amazing soundtrack for 90% of it, and we punctuate it with special interludes at key cinematic points. We want this to feel as natural as possible and nothing that we’ve put in musically should detract from the overall atmosphere.

Dean: Exactly, it’s definitely important to have ambient sound in an underwater environment in order for it to feel natural. The music will certainly be used as part of the tension building, we have put a lot of work into ensuring the music does this but also does not spoil the natural sounds of the ocean.

VGB: Something about deep sea exploration in video games brings out the wannabe wildlife photographer in me. Will the game have any sort of photography or scanning element? (And perhaps an accompanying bestiary to catalog?)

Dean: There certainly is! Cerys does in fact have a camera that she can use to scan the ocean creatures that are then catalogued. Once scanned, there is then a short bio of the creatures revealing facts and useful information about them.

Shaun: Absolutely. One of Dean’s big inspirations for this was a few BBC documentaries on sharks and deep sea life so there’s almost this pseudo-documentary theme underlying the game’s background. There are a lot of creatures you can scan, find information about them, how they live, do they stay in packs, etc. This also gives you information on how to avoid them and clues on the stealth mechanics and how to use those to your advantage. The game’s a really nice blend between learning and exploration at its core to an extent and then we have fun with it as well.

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VGB: About how many hours do you estimate the game will take players to finish? And, piggybacking off the previous question, will there be collectible exploration elements or any other type of side content?

Dean: We estimate the main story will take around 2-3 hours to complete.

Shaun: We were aiming originally for the game experience to be two hours. Now we are further in, there is a more intricate story that we’d like to tell. Our biggest concern is making sure that we have the most appropriate amount of time to tell our story. We don’t want this to feel like it hangs on or we’re just padding up content, it really is just going to be the story. But right now we’re looking at 3-4 hours.

Dean: Including side content that can be found through exploration, revealing more of the backstory and Cerys’ past.

Shaun: Absolutely, there will be side quests and missions to do, this will also help educate the player about the world but these add layers to the game and can definitely enhance your overall experience at the end of the game, so they’re quite well worth it. But it’s also a nice way to learn about things and stay in the world a bit longer. Replay value is something we’re thinking a lot about.

Dean: Also logging all of the creatures is a fun part of the side content too!

VGB: How far along is development and what is the current estimate for a release timetable? Do you plan to do an Early Access or will the game release only when it’s fully complete?

Shaun: We’re not doing too bad, right now we are really thinking about adding in content and making sure we have all the right content and it fits in the right way. We really want to start showing this outside of our studio soon to let people start having the first proper hands on with the game. Needless to say, we’ve got a lot of pieces there ready to go, but we want to make sure that when people first play it, it’s good and representative. There are no plans for early access this year, but we will be trying to take this on the road as soon as possible to get people’s first hand experiences with the game and use that as a benchmark to improve the overall game experience

Dean: I don’t think we will have an early access due to the narrative heavy nature of the game.

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VGB: Have things like pricing and system requirements been finalized yet?

Shaun: Good question. System requirements not so much, but we do want to ultimately make this as accessible as possible. Right now we are still very much in the mindset of ‘let’s make this pretty, let’s make this good’, and then when we start really optimising this and playing around with the system requirements as well to make sure that you can adjust them. The price point is something that’s always been up for debate and we haven’t finalised any kind of price point this year but again, like anything with price and system requirements, essentially we want a lot of people to play our game and to appreciate it, so…

VGB: Are there any plans to support VR, either at launch or in the future via updates?

Shaun: VR is of course very interesting, reading any recent magazine in games or otherwise, you’ll find VR all over it. VR is a very significant thing in tech, but is it something that we considered? Quite possibly (laughs). Is it something that we’ll actually commit to doing? I think you’ll have to wait and see.

VGB: Has there been discussion about the potential for Iron Fish to come to consoles? Or is that all dependent on how the PC version does first?

Dean: Right now we are just looking at a PC release.

Shaun: But also in a perfect world we’d really like to see the PC game get a lot of good feedback that we can learn from and tweak and tidy up the game. We’d always want to make sure that we support and nurture our PC gamers because this is where it started, but obviously we want as many people to enjoy this game as possible so if that means taking it to console as well, it’s something we would look at after the PC release.

VGB: Thanks for your time!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!