Ghost Hunting in the Time Spiral: Production Blog 4

Phasmophobia / Kinetic Games

In this edition of our video game production blog, we talk spooky stories (when do we not), new consoles, old movies, hiring in a pandemic, and more. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Natalie Watson (our Associate Producer) and Jeff Petriello (our Producer). Listen to that convo here:

Jeff Petriello: Hello! Welcome to the Half Mermaid production blog. I’m Jeff Petriello…

Natalie Watson: and I’m Natalie Watson…

JP: …and we are producers at Half Mermaid: a game studio in Brooklyn founded by Sam Barlow. We’re here to talk about what we’re working on and how we work on it.

NW: We sure are.

What Even is Time?

JP: So it’s been a little while since we did one of these, Natalie. So much has changed in the world. How are you doing?

NQ: Great question. Good. It feels very weird that we’re nearing Thanksgiving when I feel like I’m still in April, but I’m rolling with it. Just trying to accept this reality we live in where time doesn’t exist.

JP: I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and he talks about how time is actually a spiral. I was really feeling that as well. Even with the change of Daylight Light Savings time, it gets dark at 4:15P, which is terrifying. So yeah, time means nothing, especially this year. As Mariah Carey says, it’s also irrelevant to me, so I’m riding on that.

But yeah, since we last talked, it was Halloween, there was an election…

Jeff tried to be both mask-friendly AND spoopy this Halloween.

NW: We’re still an election.

JP: We’re still in an election apparently. COVID has spiked again all over the country. We’re a global embarrassment.

NW: Not us personally.

JP: I actually just spent three hours this morning getting a test and thankfully I was negative. Stay safe out there, everyone. Get tested. Do your things.

But also, there was huge news in the gaming world: we have the release of Playstation 5.

NW: And the Xbox series X and S.

JP: It’s crazy!

Consoles: The Next Generation

NW: I can’t believe we’re here. I thought they would never come. I was just like: “that’s a next year thing. It’s not gonna happen this year. There’s no way this could happen.”

JP: I know. It’s not the easiest to get your hands on one, but we are definitely in the age of streaming and everyone being on the internet, so I feel like I’ve played vicariously through many people.

NW: Have you tried getting your hands on one?

JP: No, I haven’t yet. To be honest, I am trying to save a little cash for Christmas gifts for the fam. I put it on my own list hoping that maybe someone who loves me very much will look out for me. As soon as the season is over and I can budget, I’m looking very forward to this next generation of consoles.

NW: Yeah, me too. I’ve tried a couple times to get my hands on one. I think I came close. I kinda feel it in my bones that I was pretty close. But I’m not in any rush to get one. If I happen to catch an alert that they’re going live and I happen to get one, then cool, but I’m not really pressed about it right now. I’m just taking my time with it.

JP Yeah, I think that’s like a totally valid pathway at this point. Although shout out to everyone who jumped on that stuff immediately, I wish you all the fun in this dire world that you can find.

NW: I mostly just wanna play the PS5’s Astro’s Playroom.

Us (or Astro’s Playroom / Sony Interactive Entertainment)

JP: Get those DualSense features.

NW: Yeah, I just wanna see that and feel that for myself. I’m also hearing that the Xbox Series S is very viable as a stream box, so that’s really interesting to me. My PS4 can barely hold one Netflix episode at this point. It’s a first edition PS4 from 20whatever, and it’s barely hanging on. Godspeed, I love her, but it’s time for her to rest. She’s doing her best.

JP: Yeah, that’s the same one I have and the breathing is heavy. The PS4 was honestly one of my most favorite consoles I’ve ever had.

NW: Same. I love the DualShock 4. It’s like my favorite controller ever.

JP: Yeah, it was a great experience. We had a good run. I’m looking forward to the next though.

Love for Bly Manor & Disco Elysium

Speaking of Netflix shows and the past, what have you recently seen or read or watched or played that has left an impact on you?

NW: Recently, I watched the first several episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is the sequel (but not a sequel) to The Haunting of Hill House, which I loved. Haunting of Bly Manor has been a really interesting one. I think that it’s leans much more to drama than horror, but still has the horror context to live in. I really just love that for a show or any sort of media in general: horror as a context. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Even if it’s not at the forefront, it’s still communicating something through the horror elements, even if it’s not like your traditional jump scares.

The Haunting of Bly Manor / Netflix

Haunting of Hill House felt so heavy in both its drama and horror, and here we’re allowed to spend a little bit more time in the drama without fear of what’s coming next. It weaves in and out a little bit more naturally. So I’ve really been thinking about that a lot. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was gonna be, which is kind of nice. I hope we get more media like that. It’s just been such a pleasure to watch.

What about you? Are there any TV shows or movies or other media you’re into right now?

JP: Since we last spoke, I’ve probably spent a fervid 72 hours spending most of my life in the world of Disco Elysium. I know I’m late to the game, but I cannot speak more highly of it. It was such an incredible story. The writing was absolutely amazing.

NW: Did you finish it?

JP: Oh yeah, I plowed through it in four days.

NW: Oh my God.

JP: I really couldn’t get enough. I wanted to know everything. My character was like Hunter S. Thompson as a homicide detective with incredible fashion sense and terrible substance abuse issues.

Disco Elysium / ZA/UM

It was very relevant to what we’re working on in that it had to do with psychologically thrilling subjects, detective stuff, and being in a timeless, strange world. I was very, very impressed by the entire thing. So happy it came out for Mac a couple of months ago, so I could hop on and play. It really was an absolutely incredible game.

Diving into Scorsese & co’s Film Archive

I think the other big thing that I really enjoyed was a collection that came out on the Criterion Channel a couple of weeks ago, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Film Foundation, which is an organization that Martin Scorsese and a bunch of other male directors from the 80s and 90s started in 1990. It also involves Steven Spielberg and Coppola.

The Film Foundation restores and helps keep films that are in danger of being lost to time in the cultural archive. It’s is an incredible project. They have a selection of some of their gems on the Criterion Channel. I highly recommend anyone interested in film history check it out.

Criterion Channel

It starts as early as 1919. I watched a silent French film that was really beautiful [The Broken Butterfly]. I watched one from 1934 [it was from 1932, oops] called Trouble in Paradise, which was hilarious and amazing. I also watched Shadows directed by Cassavetes, which was incredibly relevant to our project, having been shot as an improvised film on the streets of New York City in the mid-century.

NW: Ahhh that’s so cool.

JP: His work was incredibly influential to the new age of cinema in the 70s that we are delving into with Project A███████ so to see the progenitor of all that was really interesting. I can’t recommend that collection enough. There are plenty of films in there to bounce around in. Some of are short. There’s a few in there that you can watch under 20 minutes. Some of them are epics – international, domestic – there’s so much cool stuff in there, so I really was happy to go through those.

NW: That sounds like such a special experience, just to have access to all of those movies. What an important feat that they’re embarking on to go through and archive all that stuff.

JP: They have an introductory video with Scorsese, and he talks about silent film. He mentioned that something like- it’s an insane percentage, like either between 70% or 90% of all silent films are literally gone. They’re lost.

You think of films and movies being streamable whenever you want them these days, but the fact of the matter is that so much of that history is in danger of being lost. So this type of work is really cool. I’m just happy that the criterion channel is putting efforts to make it accessible to more people.

NW: That’s awesome.

Ghostbusting, or a Salve for Loneliness

NW: My other recent influence is Phasmophobia, which is a game being made by a solo dev, Kinetic Games. It’s in Early Access still. It’s a game where you’re basically playing a ghost hunter, and not only has it been an extremely fun game to play with friends, but it’s been like my go-to socializing game of the past month and a half. It’s also one of my favorite ghost interaction mechanics of the past few horror games that I’ve played. You’re equipped with a bunch of different tools like a spirit box, which allows you to speak into this radio and the ghost will answer you. Your tasked with trying to identify what type of ghost is in the place that is being haunted.

Phasmophobia / Kinetic Games

It is very well done for being still in Early Access. I find myself like checking the change logs and following the developer’s Trello updates to see what’s coming next. There’s still a lot of mystery to sort of the logic behind how to get the ghost to interact with your objects. There’s something called a spirit journal, which the ghosts can write into. That’s one of the clues that will help you identify what type of ghost it is. But it’s still not totally clear what all of the objects do and how the interact ability actually works.

I think that’s really key to a horror game: to feel like there is a logic to something, but it’s just slightly impenetrable or slightly obscured – that there is a “working” going on behind the scenes but it’s just out of reach to you and your understanding. I absolutely love that, and I think Phasmophobia does that pretty well. I hope that they just lean into that more. Obviously, people are in a rush to figure out exactly how the game works, and there’s a lot of people doing code breakdowns and things like that to figure that out, but I think that is what’s so special about it. So I hope that they lean into that even more with the full release, but I’ve really been enjoying that. If you don’t mind getting scared, I highly recommend it as a game to play with friends. It’s very fun.

JP: We really are in a golden age of pandemic multiplayer experiences, and that game has certainly taken its place on the mantle of those alongside Among Us and Fall Guys, and I guess you could throw Animal Crossing in there too.

NW: Totally. I think there’s a through line of improv through all of those. When you have multiple people together doing this somewhat simple thing, a base mechanic that’s easy to understand, it just allows for a lot of improvisational comedy. It creates stories to tell the day after of what happened last night playing Among Us, or what happened last night playing Phasmophobia. Even though you’re going through the sort of same sequence, it still feels new and fresh every time you play.

I’ve played dozens and dozens of games of Phasmophobia at this point. I’ve seen every type of ghosts have been to every house, but it still feels fresh every time I go in because you’re playing it with other people who are reacting. I’m very grateful that we have games like that in these times.

JP: Very interesting.

Upgrading our Prototype

JP: In terms of production on Project A███████, is there anything that you would like to share about what you’ve been working on? I know a lot of the tasks you’ve continued from the previous time we’ve talked, but I just wanna give you a chance to shed some light on anything you’d like to share.

NW: I’m still going down the research hole, so that’s been my main focus. Other than that, we’ve been starting to explore what our first playable build looks like and starting to really embellish it, which is exciting. It’s been so wild to watch this thing go from a concept to something that I can see with my own eyes. It’s my first time experiencing anything like that. So that’s been just such a wild journey.

JP: Our programmers Connor and Lizi certainly have been in the spotlight recently for polishing up our prototype that we started way back in March right when the pandemic hit. It is incredibly exciting.

I think the launch of new consoles was re-invigorating for everyone at Half Mermaid just to even play around and explore what kind of controllers and hardware we’re potentially going to have access to. How does this game work in all different kinds of environments? Obviously, we are far from finalizing any of that stuff, but the exploration phase has been incredibly exciting to really see all the possible paths that we can take Project A███████. So that’s definitely on my list of things that have excited me in production as well.

Having the prototype brought to a next level has enabled us to finally talk about bringing in more collaborators. We had posted a listing for contract positions for both a User Interface Artist, as well as an Audio Designer, so meeting a lot of the folks who applied, interviewing during a pandemic, figuring out what working with collaborators is going to mean in the next few months, has also been incredibly exciting.

I wanna shout out all of the industry Discord and Slack channels I’m a part of – from Out in Tech to Work with Indies and Playcrafting and the Game Industry Gathering – everyone was really incredible in helping get the word out about those opportunities.

There are so many incredible people working. It was nice to get to look at portfolios and reach out to people and have awesome creative conversations. So we are finishing up that process and hopefully bringing our user interface and our audio to the next level to get this prototype even closer to the dream that we all see in our head.

An Elegy for Game Cons

NW: It’s just been nice to talk to people again. It’s the closest I’ve been to networking or just getting to meet new people in the industry in a long time. So that’s been really fun. I can’t believe how much I miss going to different conferences and getting to meet people and being in sweaty banquet halls and things like that.

JP: I know I was thinking about this time last year; I had just volunteered at PAX Unplugged. It was the first time I had ever gone and I had the best time. I was just thinking about how I came back last year and I told all my friends: “We have to go next year! We’re gonna Airbnb in Philly. You all are gonna love it. It’s gonna be amazing.” Absolutely none of that is happening. That part is a little sad, but it’s also kind of interesting.

Jeff, appropriately excited about the Gloomhaven sequel, at PAX Unplugged 2019

I know Sam himself was talking last week, how frustrating it is. If we had been at GDC, we’d be able to just casually carry around our own personal laptops, not having to work about security or whatever. You could just show people what you are working on, even if it wasn’t at an incredible level of polish because it’s just two people talking together in a room. You’re excited to see each other after a year.

Not having that opportunity has changed how development and pitching is occurring. So, we’re feeling our way through that as well. It’s an interesting development in this post-real life world of networking and business development.

NW: Yeah, it’s a whole new world to navigate. Everyone’s new to it, so everyone’s figuring it out. There’s still a lot of generative energy out there even though we’re all second home and sitting at our desks all day. It’s nice to get to talk to people and feel their excitement about what we’re excited about. That’s been really awesome.

JP: Yeah, absolutely. And we have all these new consoles to play with! So thank you to our console overlords for bringing some joy at the end of 2020. It really is nice to see that the digital play community is alive and well. There’s plenty of exciting stuff happening there.

Is there anything else that you wanted to share before we wrap up today?

NW: I think that’s all I came to the table with today.

Looking 4 Feedback

JP: I think that was all I had as well. As usual, you can reach out to us at [email protected], if you have any feedback or questions for us on this production blog, you can find me at @TheBeff pretty much anywhere.

What about you, Natalie?

NW: You can find me on Twitter @NatalieWatson.

JP: Yeah, and we will be fleeting. If you’re not already following @halfmermaid on Twitter, I highly recommend you do that. Sam really drops some amazing film and game knowledge on there every day. It’s a wonderful account to follow if you’re interested in either of those things.

So yeah, give us a follow on Twitter there, and we will hopefully hear from you soon and talk to you….not much later. Thank you for listening.

NW: Thank you so much, BYE!