Secrets and shadows: exploring The Park with Funcom

By Brenna Hillier, Wednesday, 21 October 2015 12:00 GMT

The Park marks Funcom’s return to single-player adventures. Come with us on a trot through the atmospheric horror adventure.

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Welcome to The Park. Spoilers: it’s not a very nice place.

This will come as no surprise to anybody who explored The Secret World’s first major zone, where the same theme park can be found. The Park is set at least 20 years before The Secret World, and although some areas will be familiar, it’s much larger and has a very different layout to the MMO’s version.

That shouldn’t be a surprise to The Secret World players either, because horrible disasters seem to have dogged the place throughout its history, and that it may have been levelled by fire (or perhaps common sense) and rebuilt is perfectly reasonable.

The player should feel the psychological horror of an inevitable disaster; a terrible fate that cannot be averted. Like a dream of falling.

Funcom was kind enough to give us a hands-off demo of its upcoming horror adventure. Players arrive in Atlantic Island Park in the shoes of Lorraine – quite literally in her shoes, which you can look down and see, along with the rest of her. Writer Joel Bylos told me he wants Lorraine to feel very embodied rather than a floaty perspective; you can see her in mirrors, too.

By right clicking, the player can have Lorraine call out for her son, Callum, who races along just out of reach. As well as providing insight into Lorraine’s state of mind through her choice of words and tone of voice, this triggers visual cues that direct the player to nearby interactive objects and the suggested direction of travel.

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These visual cues have multiple functions, including opening the game up to those with hearing impairments, but most notably they’re there because “pixel hunting is not fun,” according to Bylos. “As a mechanic it’s pretty tired,” he said.

Old school adventure gamers may scoff but they can always disable this visual part if they like. Also, it’s always the player’s decision whether to call out or not; you could just explore in silence. “I think it reflects your mental state as a player,” Bylos said.

There’s a cool down on calling out – Bylos said it’s “about ten seconds” – which should prevent players from shattering the tension by spamming the call button as they explore, something I like to refer to as “Jasoning“. On a normal playthrough the player shouldn’t hear many immersion-breaking repeats, either, as Lorraine has about 50 calls for each area of The Park.

Lorraine is voiced by Frydda Wolff, whose credits include Underworld Ascendant, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Planetside 2, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Evolve, among others. Bylos said she was in Funcom’s booth for LEGO Minifigures Online, and he “made” her stay to do The Park while she was there, since she was so highly recommended by other Funcom staff.

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This is the sort of cute anecdote you get out of a project with such a strange production schedule. The Park was originally conceived of as a test project for Unreal Engine 4, investigating the pipeline from start to finish as Funcom switches over from in-house rendering tech Dreamworld. Development began in March 2015, and when Funcom reconvened in August after the summer holidays, management looked at The Park and decided to make it a really truly Thing. Asked how long would be needed to polish it, Bylos ambitiously suggested Halloween as a release date. When else should you release a horror game?

Before that, the project grew organically. In the beginning a team of just three – Bylos as writer, an art director and a designer – set out to experiment and come to grips with the new engine tech. The end result was an “exercise in focused development” as Funcom tested whether it could “limit the feature set and still make an interesting game”. The project was designed around quality of experience, as early on the team decided that “length wouldn’t be the primary factor”.

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Bylos said the three started by implementing the basics – contextual interactions. Once these were in place, they decided to do a short, narrative-driven game along the lines of Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: you walk around looking at things, there’s no combat and you can’t die. From the basic story premise came the idea for the calling mechanic, and from the setting came the rides – an opportunity to get down and dirty with Unreal’s physics.

You can check out every attraction in The Park. Some are optional experiences you can do just for fun – although fun, in the world of The Park, has a pretty broad definition including things also filed under “deeply creepy”.

You can check out every attraction in The Park, and where appropriate you can even adjust the speed of them. Bylos said the development team are very happy about the Excel spreadsheet that ultimately controls the physics of each ride. #justgamedevthings

Some of the attractions are set pieces which must be explored to advance the game; you can walk past, but you won’t ever find Callum if you don’t follow him through, for example, the Tunnel of Tales and the House of Horrors. Others like the Octotron and bumper cars are optional experiences you can do just for fun – although fun, in the world of The Park, has a pretty broad definition including things also filed under “deeply creepy”.

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Top 5 Joel Bylos facts

1. Joel Bylos is creative director at Funcom, having taken over from Dreamnfall creator Ragnar Tørnquist when the latter went indie.

2. Joel Bylos also took over as lead on The Secret World, which continues to thrive and expand despite a rocky start.

3. Joel Bylos once wrote us a nice letter after I wrote to him saying I didn’t love The Secret World as much as I had wanted to.

4. Joel Bylos has never worked on a commercially-released single-player game before. It’s MMOs all the way down.

5. Joel Bylos is an Australian and therefore automatically 45% more rad than non-Australian developers. Follow him on Twitter.

If you enjoy deeply creepy things, or just want to explore the world of The Park, you have plenty of opportunities. You can look for written materials and other interactive objects around the environment and in optional areas – and you can also just keep your eyes open. During the Octotron ride, for example, I spotted something in the control booth. Bylos wouldn’t tell me what it was. Earlier, something had sent some rocks tumbling from a bank near the path; if we had looked quickly enough, we’d have seen it, Bylos said.

There are plenty of supernatural elements like this, and even a few jump scares – although most of them are found where you’d expect, in the haunted house attraction. But most of the horror atmosphere of The Park arises from its core story concept – a missing child. The player should feel the psychological horror of an inevitable disaster; a terrible fate that cannot be averted. Like a dream of falling, Bylos said.

It’s not just that Callum is in danger, though. Bylos, who is a parent of two himself, said he wants The Park to tap into “some of the things people don’t tell you when you’re about to become a parent”, things you don’t really care about before you experience parenthood.

“The dark side of parenting – something people don’t talk about very much,” he added, just as Lorraine’s narration cut in with a story of how her first sight of her child was tinged with disappointment. Awks.

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Callum is ever-present; most of the time when you call, he’ll respond, and often you can even see him. Lorraine can’t just run up and catch him though, no matter how fast she goes – and you can run. Artificially padding the game’s length by making the player walk everywhere is “a bad idea”, Bylos commented. I wholeheartedly concur. You can’t run while Lorraine is chatting away, or when she has been badly scared, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule. Mostly you set your own pace.

Although players can choose to race through or explore thoroughly at their leisure, I feel The Park presents a great opportunity to explore in detail an aspect of The Secret World’s universe in a way the MMO itself doesn’t necessarily foster; just try stopping to read all the flavour text when your pals are shouting hurry up into the mic like the locusts they are (love you, darlings).

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Bylos said he expects The Secret World veterans to come in with expectations of supernatural happenings, and he hopes to subvert some of those. There’ll be reward for Funcom’s faithful too; although the technology change meant assets had to be overhauled and polished up with new textures, Funcom was able to reuse some 3D shapes and meshes, contributing to the shorter development time. Some things will be immediately recognisable; the bumper cars, the park’s map; cutouts in the House of Horrors; even the Boogey Man character.

The Park offers multiple layers of depth. Beyond the story of Lorraine’s search for Callum and the secondary story of The Park itself, there’s the story of “things Lorraine brings into the park,” Bylos said, mysteriously.

“Every ride is symbolic of something,” he added. “I think true horror comes from within.

“Flawed people, true people are perhaps the source of it all.”

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