Owl Cave Games' upcoming Location Services is looking like a very interesting adventure with a distinctive, '80s sci-fi aesthetic. Recently, we chatted with writer Ashton Raze and artist Molly Carroll about the new title and the team's previous work -- today, we get an exclusive first look at a short extract from the full game.
Owl Cave was keen to stress to me that the demo I was playing was from a pre-alpha state and thus any rough edges I found would be cleaned up prior to release. It's also worth noting that the demo was lacking a significant part of the game's intro sequence, meaning that a degree of context was lost, but at the very least it was a chance to see how the game goes about presenting its world, characters and puzzles to the player.
Location Services' heavily-pixelated presentation is immediately distinctive, as you can doubtless tell from the screenshots. Its color palette is very muted throughout, with most things on screen being a shade of green or blue. The eerie floating ghost-like characters that populate the game's digital world stand out strongly against the background thanks to the sharp contrast in colors -- backgrounds are dark, characters are bright. Most characters are either white or green, but those who represent the digital world's security forces are immediately distinguishable by their red tint. The use of this somewhat "loaded" color doesn't necessarily mean that they're unfriendly or dangerous, though -- at least not in the clip of the game that made up the demo.
The audio for the game is understated; the cutscene that opened the demo was accompanied by some minimalist music, then the soundtrack of the game proper was largely ambient noise and a different, similarly low-key track, punctuated by piercing digital bleeps when doing something you shouldn't be, like hacking a password.
Similarly, Carroll's visual details are kept stark and clear; buildings are represented as little more than square blocks, occasionally with pixelated writing on them, and characters' sole distinguishing features come in their various "attachments" and costumes. The idea of how you represent yourself -- particularly online -- is a key theme in Location Services, and a number of the characters reflect that. One that you meet early on, for example, notes that they spent their life savings on a costume that they now regret purchasing as it makes them look like a gorilla. "No-one will take me seriously now," they say. "I'm an accountant."
You may have noticed the gender-neutral pronouns in that past paragraph; one interesting aspect of Location Services' deliberately abstract presentation is the fact that unless someone outright tells you what their gender is, there's no way of telling conclusively whether that person is male or female. Interestingly -- and I'm not sure what this says about me, or about societal perceptions in general -- I still found myself pre-judging these faceless, featureless floating people and making assumptions about them based on the limited information I had before me. There's some potential scope for the subversion of expectations here; whether or not it will be followed up on later in the game remains to be seen -- knowing some of Raze's past work, however, you can probably expect a few surprises here and there.
The way in which you interact with the game is as pared-back as the presentation. There's no 3D movement, for example; everything happens on a 2D plane. You move left and right with the A and D keys on the keyboard, and interact with characters and objects by clicking on them. Occasionally, you'll receive items to your inventory and can examine them by right-clicking -- necessary in some cases, as the pixelated items don't always make what they represent immediately clear. In one case, in fact, you're presented with what is referred to as an "immoral" (but not "illegal") object, and even examining it doesn't really tell you what it does, leaving it up to the player's own imagination to determine what on earth this strange pink item actually is. Bonus points if your mind doesn't end up in a filthy place.
The puzzles in the demo were limited to a password-cracking minigame in which you have to unscramble an anagram before a security meter in the lower-left corner of the screen fills. This meter persists after you've finished the minigame, so if you spend too long on one password cracking attempt, you might be putting yourself in a difficult situation later. The demo didn't appear to correctly implemented what was supposed to happen when the meter fills, but I think it's fair to assume that it's probably a Bad Thing. Fortunately, to avoid such a fate, every so often there are little stations where you can purge your security meter and reset it to zero, allowing you a little breathing room.
The demo ended as things were getting interesting, but even from this short 15-20 minute extract from (presumably) early in the game, it's clear to see what the team at Owl Cave is going for. Carroll's description of the game as evoking a cross between '30s noir and '80s sci-fi seems like a particularly apt one -- the stark, minimalist visuals and sounds are a surprisingly good fit for the somewhat "hardboiled" feel of the dialogue. While there's certainly a lighthearted tone to some of the exchanges between the protagonist Lira and the incidental NPCs, there's also a slightly menacing air about this peculiar digital society suggesting that all isn't quite as it seems. There's also plenty of characters who are more than willing to lie through their teeth to further their own agenda.
Suffice to say, my limited time with the game was most certainly enough to pique my interest, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the game (and story) develops as it gets closer to release. To stay up to date with what's going on with Location Services, you can follow Owl Cave on Twitter; also be sure to follow its individual members Ashton Raze, Lewis Denby and Molly Carroll for their own thoughts.