Weird West: Making an Immersive Sim From With a Distributed Team, and Without Chris Avellone

Weird West: Making an Immersive Sim From With a Distributed Team, and Without Chris Avellone

Former Arkane president Raphael Colantonio talks going indie, incorporating his band's music, and sheds light on how WolfEye is working on Weird West together, apart.

Raphael Colantonio, founder and former President of Arkane, wants to fight. At least, that's what he said on Twitter recently in a reference to Weird West, the upcoming debut title from his new studio WolfEye.

Colantonio and fellow ex-Arkane dev Julian Roby revealed their new team to the world last November, and announced Weird West at The Game Awards a month later. At a glance, you might take it for an isometric RPG; one where the Old West meets the Old Ones. In recent days, though, Colantonio has stressed that Weird West is an immersive sim at its core. If you're not convinced of the shared DNA between Weird West and the projects Colatonio led at Arkane, from Arx Fatalis to 2017's Prey, then his invitation to fight him might be for you.

A new, short gameplay reel from this past weekend's Devolver Direct may be proof enough, however, that WolfEye is indeed making an immersive sim, albeit from a perspective that differs a bit from the norm. Also, when a co-creator of Dishonored says "it's not inherent to the immersive sim that they're first-person," it's hard to argue otherwise.

I spoke with Colantonio after the Devolver showcase to dive into the ways in which Weird West does differ from his work at Arkane: how he's adjusting to WolfEye's distributed team, embracing a focus on consequences for player actions, and what it means for Colantonio, personally, to also be making music for the game with his bandmate Ava Gore. Colantonio also sheds a bit of light on the role that prolific game writer Chris Avellone had earlier in Weird West's development, which ended before multiple women came forward to accuse Avellone of sexual misconduct last month.

First, if you haven't seen it already, take a moment to watch the reveal trailer for Weird West. In the span of a minute, it rolls you up in the atmosphere WolfEye's seeking to create, with the help of Colantonio and Gore's music and the eerily evocative sights of its namesake genre.

A New Angle on Old Ideas

Colantonio spent close to 20 years at Arkane pushing immersive sims forward, and prior to that even did QA on System Shock. From his early days at EA France through to Prey, the last title he directed at Arkane, most of the titles Colantonio has worked on have been first-person. In talking about Weird West, he emphasizes the deeper considerations of the immersive sim.

To Colatonio, it's about "the amount of choices that you have—not only the pre-authored choices, but the choices in the geometry that you actually are exploring." While Weird West's elevated camera angle lends itself to combat that's "more tactical," Colantonio believes, and better suits its action RPG party mechanics, the spaces players will explore will be made to accommodate a variety of play styles. Fighting, stealth, and trickery are all on the table, and Colantonio says Weird West will always land back on its feet and present an opportunity to progress if players fail. "At least if we've done our job correctly," he adds.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a Western if going in guns-blazing wasn't an option. | WolfEye Studios/Devolver Digital

Two aspects of Weird West's design will make it all the more complicated for WolfEye to nail that formula. First, Weird West will have a strong emphasis on dynamic sidequests and events, utilizing a "Conductor" that keeps track of player actions and that serves up events based on the information it has collected. Second, player choices and consequences, small or large, are going to be permanent.

Right now, there are two main modes of play in Weird West. In one, when players die they're resurrected at a wanderer's camp, but everything they've done up to that point remains the same, and can't be undone. The other mode has permadeath—"not only for your [party] characters," Colantonio says, "but also for you." There's an in-fiction way for players to revive themselves in that mode, which entails collecting petrified heads belonging to an ancient civilization that could revive themselves (I resisted the urge to ask Colantonio if that's a Highlander nod). As it stands, your actions will stick with you in either mode, and if a party member dies for good, that's it.

"That's the way the game is intended to be played by the designers, but we'll probably add options to soften that," says Colantonio. "The save game topic is always a very touchy one, and we don't want to impose something, at the end of the day, that people don't want."

As for how the moment-to-moment gameplay is controlled, Weird West will feel a bit like a twin-stick shooter. "It's more like we extracted the controls of a twin-stick shooter because they're familiar to people, and very intuitive in general," Colantonio explains. "In the same way, in some of my past games we'd use the first-person conventions[...] because that's what people are used to. That doesn't make those games first-person shooters, but it makes them familiar to people who play first-person shooters."

"It's always hard to describe a game when nobody has played it yet, but it would almost be like an action-y version of Fallout 1 or 2," he says before stopping himself for a moment. "It feels dangerous to name specific games, because then people latch on some detail that they have in their mind about that game, and then it doesn't necessarily map to your own game."

Journeys, Meetings, and Partings

Make no mistake—for all its dynamic elements and room for player choice, Weird West will tell a central story. The arc will be spread across the journeys of five playable characters, each of them played in a specific order.

"There's a reason for that," Colantonio teases. "Once you're finished with one hero, you'll never play as that hero again except if they're in your party—you don't play them, but they're with you, and whatever abilities you've acquired will stay with that character."

That's yet another layer of complexity on top of Weird West's immersive ambitions, but as Colantonio told last year, having a small indie team "doesn't mean making small games." WolfEye is a team of about 20, and as a distributed team split up across four continents, bringing the whole team together would be quite the journey itself.

This map screen does scream classic Fallout, at least to me. | WolfEye Studios/Devolver Digital

The WolfEye team has come together twice during Weird West's development, Colantonio says, once in Austin, and again in Los Angeles. The plan was to get together every three months, with the next WolfEye meetup planned to take place in France, until COVID-19 hit.

"It's sad," Colantonio says. "It hasn't really been super disruptive to our production methodology because we've been distributed from day one, but it's true that we were relying on 'every three months, the entire team meets,' which is a really great way to connect and to work on hard problems together." It may be a while before WolfEye gets together again, "which is a shame" he says, but Colantonio imagines that other developers have had it worse.

Back at the Game Awards reveal in December—both ages ago and still startlingly recent, in a strange way—one of the first names to pop up in association with Weird West was Chris Avellone. Colantonio and Roby took the stage at the show to introduce the game, and a short while later Avellone tweeted about his involvement (he also wrote for 2017's Prey). After Avellone was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct last month, Techland reached an agreement with him to end his work on Dying Light 2. That same day, Gato Studio (The Waylanders) and Paradox Interactive (Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2) released statements clarifying that Avellone's contracted work was already complete on those games. At the time, WolfEye did not issue a statement about Avellone's involvement with Weird West.

"[Avellone] has been consulting for us on and off for a while," says Colantonio, but his contract ended before the allegations came to light. "He was basically coaching our writing team, working with them. He did not do, directly, some in-game content, and the content is iterating all the time. By the time the game ships, even the writers themselves won't be very sure who wrote what."

Since Weird West's reveal, WolfEye has added writers Lucas Loredo and Erin Lee Firestine to its team as narrative designers. Indigenous designer and writer Elizabeth LaPensée (When Rivers Were Trails, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) has also contributed to Weird West.

Wolves of the West

With WolfEye keeping its story under wraps and only a few minutes of gameplay footage out there to see, perhaps the best way to get a sense for Weird West's sensibilities is to give Weird Wolves a listen. That haunting track from the reveal trailer, "Ghost Voices," was written and performed by Colantonio and Ava Gore, who formed the band in 2018. Weird Wolves also wrote "Realization," the credits song for Prey's Mooncrash DLC.

Colantonio's work with Gore here is doing a lot for Weird West's first impressions in a way that's new for his musical contributions to games. "We already do a very dark type of music," Colantonio says of Weird Wolves. "So it maps to a lot of things. The idea of the world came first, and then we took the guitars and did that trailer music."

"Being on a smaller team and having more control on things like we do right now is a really wonderful feeling," Colantonio adds. As Creative Director on Weird West, he's happy to have another angle on the game through its music, but he's also quick to point out that Roby and others on the team are also bringing their vision to the project. "It's a really cool new adventure, and music is kind of my hobby on the side. Having a chance to put some of it in is great."

He likens it "a little bit" to how James Cameron does concept art for his own movies, or how David Lynch has recorded music for his film and TV projects. Still, Weird West's moody blend of frontier Americana and the occult or supernatural came before Colantonio and Gore grabbed their guitars and got to work. Other Weird Wolves tracks, like "Eyes of Orion," lean more electronic, but the band's goth and post-punk vibes (The Sisters of Mercy and Depeche Mode top Colantonio's list of musical influences) do feel like they're a natural fit for the game.

In a way, Colantonio's move to get more involved with the musical side of things seems like almost as much of a natural offshoot from his time at Arkane as WolfEye's focus on immersive sim design is. Before writing "Realization" for Prey and "Bridgemore Lullaby" for Dishonored 2, there's a bard you can find in Arx Fatalis playing guitar—that's Colantonio plucking the strings. Weird West may aim to present some out-there and unsettling sights, but it seems like there's definitely elements of the familiar running through it as well.

While I'm personally trying to heed Colantonio's cautionary words about latching on to particular details, the idea of playing an immersive, "action-y" Fallout set in a warped and nuanced Old West has me intrigued. WolfEye is targeting a launch in 2021, and I'm looking forward to seeing more soon. Devolver and WolfEye aim to do some sort of closed beta in the coming months. Right now, PC is the only platform Weird West is 100% confirmed for, but some manner of console launch is also in the works.

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Mathew Olson


Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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