It's a tale as old as time, director Wan Hazmer informs me about his upcoming game No Straight Roads. It's an action-adventure game where with the power of rock music you overcome electronic dance music, better known as EDM. "It's a classic tale of my taste is better than yours," he says with a laugh. Though it's not always cynical about EDM; it has a respect for it, and why people love it, too.
Before co-founding his own studio Metronomik in his home of Malaysia alongside former Street Fighter 5 concept artist Daim Dziaudden, Hazmer worked at Square Enix in Japan from 2010 to 2017 and was a lead game designer on Final Fantasy 15.
"On Final Fantasy 15, I was just lead game designer. I just took care of the game. But now that I have my own company I have to take care of the accounting, the human resources," he says. "It's really tough, but I'm actually really enjoying what I'm doing right now because, first of all, it's good to have a certain level of control over the game. But the most important thing though is that more than half of our employees are fresh graduates or they have never worked on a game before."
Metronomik was founded back in December 2017, and has been plucking away at No Straight Roads since its inception. It's a rhythm-action game; one that in theory reminds me of Crypt of the NecroDancer, but in playing feels less like it. Or less brutal, at least. In my demo during E3 2019, I battle against a massive egotistical DJ as the two playable characters Mayday and Zuke, switching between the two. In beat with the music, I dodge attacks and whack at giant planets to bounce them back toward him. The music weaves through genres with each phase, and the style of the level changes with it. While music is at the center of No Straight Roads, Hazmer wants the game to be less punishing than your typical rhythm game.
"You know, not everyone can play a guitar, but everybody appreciates music. So I wanted to translate that into game design," Hazmer says. "And I know that music is only used in two reasons in games; usually it's soundtrack or rhythm games. I want to find an in-between way you actually participate in the music. Rhythm gameplay, but you don't need the skills of a rhythm gamer to enjoy it."
Each boss in No Straight Roads will essentially have three stages. As I saw in my demo, the stages vary dramatically, and go to ludicrous heights. In a surprising nod, Hazmer tells me about how he's inspired by how Dark Souls obfuscates its storytelling. Visually and musically, No Straight Roads wants to leave its story up to interpretation.
"So, Japanese have their own style of storytelling. You know, their cutscenes have to mention everything," he says. And he would know, he worked on Final Fantasy games. "One very big exception to this is Dark Souls. In Dark Souls, you really experience what they want to tell you. It's implied narrative. So for our game as well, like the DJ that you fought, he thinks that he's in the center of the universe. So he's very egotistical and that's why he actually spins the planets and then his ego got too big, that he gets swallowed by his own ego to the blackhole."
The music itself obviously plays a large part of No Straight Roads. It even has four composers in total who work together. Pejman Roozbeh, also known as Funk Fiction, is just one of them. And luckily, he tells me, he already knew the three others going into the project. They've been working together consistently for six years. Their workflow, in turn, has settled into an easy flow. For each boss, one composer creates the base track—basically their theme music, or what you'd hear in the first phase of the battle. The second track is the EDM-ified version, crafted by a different composer on the project, while the third is a rock-focused track composed by a third person. The composers' biggest task is creating three versions of the same track, while retaining the base song's style.
Roozbeh says that while he can't speak for the others' influences, he finds himself in particular heavily inspired by the early era of Daft Punk—think classic records like Homework and Discovery—and Jamiroquai. "He is like the Funk Fiction Bible," he says. "And then a lot of like classic Sega and Nintendo music. You know, just good old Sega Genesis; Sonic the Hedgehog or JRPGs from that era. 16-bit and 64-bit era video games are really kind of part of the vocabulary. Like Wave Race, that's rock and jazz fusion right there."
No Straight Roads is currently in development for PlayStation 4 and PC, and is eyeing a release window of 2020. Hazmer says that he, his cousin who also works at the studio, and his co-founder Dziaudden have been discussing the game since long before they founded Metronomik; from back in their Tokyo days. Where basically every Saturday, they'd gather to brainstorm about it. But No Straight Roads, he says, is actually turning out "way better" than what they originally planned; part of that he attributes to the freedom he's imbuing his studio with. Like the freedom he granted himself with when moving back to Malaysia to pursue his own original game.
"[My] style of directing is actually inspired by how I led the team at Square Enix, by just giving them a vision and a goal," he says. "And don't be too stubborn with the vision in my head, so I'll just let them do their magic. And the game has been magnificent so far."