While working on Lost Orbit, we were faced with two seemingly opposing ideas. We wanted to create a lonely, unforgiving universe that followed the journey of a doomed astronaut. At the same time, as designers, we wanted to entertain and reward our players with sound mechanics and positive reinforcement. We wanted players to have fun.
Trying to reconcile these two different elements of Lost Orbit was challenging. How can a player experience feelings of hopelessness, while enjoying their time in the game? The solution was a twisted and dark sense of humor, where tragedy and comedy merge using the design, narrative, and visual elements of death.
It is a difficult line between challenging a player and frustrating them. In Lost Orbit, it was clear that the game was most fun when played quickly. The ability to blast through levels is addictive, and is positively reinforced through upgrading your equipment.
We found by raising the stakes, we were able to amplify the sense of speed in the game. Harrison is little more than a fragile sack of organs. Players will discover this all too quickly with one poorly timed turn or barrel roll. It’s in knowing that death comes instantly that successfully navigating any given level is so rewarding. You must be perfect in your efforts, and knowing what’s at risk makes every moment more intense.
The speed and the stakes combine to challenge your reaction times. Often, you’ll barely have a moment to scream something unintelligible before you paint an asteroid with your guts, and therein lays the sick sense of humor.
Good designers want to immerse players in a world of their creation without boring them with endless cutscenes and backstories. The universe of Lost Orbit couples beautiful environments with the hopelessness of being stranded in space. It would have been easy for the game to take on a monotonously dark tone, but all too often games that take themselves too seriously end up being the biggest jokes.
Max Payne, Total Recall (Starship Troopers, Robocop if you prefer…), Road Runner, and Monty Python have all mastered the art of fusing dark themes with comedy. We were inspired to do the same.
In Lost Orbit, no one expects you to live. Light Spans away from nowhere, without equipment, support, food, or even a convenient way to go to the bathroom, you’re essentially doomed. Even your side-kick Atley, an alien space Probe, reminds you of this on a regular basis.
Desperate to prove you’re talented enough to make it through, you’ll press on. When the split second juicy explosion abruptly ends your story and ambitions, you can’t help but laugh. It pulls you back to the reality of the situation: you barely had a chance to begin with.
When we decided Lost Orbit was going to be a challenging game with insta-death, it became apparent that we were going to have to make death entertaining or risk a ton of invoices over broken gamepads and HDTVs.
The inspiration behind the visual effects came from sources like Army of Darkness, Looney Toons, and Itchy & Scratchy. Harrison has packed inside his little suit, not only a skeleton, but all of his major organs, modelled and rigged with physics so they plop around the screen when released. In addition, he is crammed with so much blood, that in an instant, you’ll leave a lasting mark on any asteroid you meet.
There are dozens of specific custom death sequences that we built in effort to keep losing fresh enough that it challenges you without becoming frustrating. “Good Frustration”, we call it. It is some consolation that if you must die, you can at least make a big mess.
In the end, the fragility of your life in Lost Orbit not only adds to the risk, and sense of speed in the game, but also sets up the potential for a well-timed laugh at your expense. It’s a strange way of diffusing the frustration that a challenging game presents, but it works in our case. Sometimes, even death can be a reward, if not for you, at least for the people pointing and laughing.
Lost Orbit will launch on May 12th for PS4. We hope you’ll all enjoy our morbid little game.