Written By: Erika Haase
It was a dark and stormy night in New Jersey. The lights and wi-fi connection flickered ominously. On the other side of the globe in Brisbane, Australia, Ballistic Interactive developers Ariel Chai and Pete Skyking took a break from their arduous studies of the supernatural and strings of code to have a chat. What follows is a transcript of these events.
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Hellhunter is a game that promises much, and after speaking to its developers at indie studio Ballistic Interactive, you can rest assured that the influences they’re pulling from are examples of the horror and suspense at its finest. Set in the late 80s/early 90s, Hellhunter casts you as a supernatural detective in Australia. You’ll have personal motivations for such an odd career choice, but you soon find out that what goes bump in the night isn’t just haunting you. People are reporting strange and unexplainable events all around, and it’s time to set things right with your particular set of skills. Hauntings, infestations, and even possessions; nothing is off limits. Australia is home to more than its fair share of lethal creatures during the day, but at night in the world of Hellhunter – you haven’t seen anything yet.
When I saw the trailer that is currently up on the Steam store, I was instantly struck by how polished the animations of the wraiths were, the level of detail in the environments, and the idea that you had to apply logic, knowledge of creatures, and a fair amount of strategy to an otherwise frightful scenario that is urging you to run as fast as you can in the other direction. With an isometric in-game perspective (picture Diablo), it didn’t seem like the environment could be immersive enough for horror, until I started to see how shadowy creatures and wraiths seem to dissolve from, and disappear to, somewhere off screen. If titles like Corpse Party and Lone Survivor have taught me anything, it’s to never think a game can’t scare you if it’s not a AAA graphics extravaganza. This isn’t to say Hellhunter doesn’t look incredibly polished, however. Pulling elements from action-adventure, survival horror, and RPGs, Hellhunter is promising an interesting fusion of gameplay and I knew I had to talk to the developers myself to hear about what has gone into obtaining this degree of design and attention to detail.
/BCG: First of all, of course, welcome to Big Cheshire Grin. I’m glad the two of you could join me and talk about Hellhunter.
Ariel Chai: Thanks for having us Erika.
Pete Skyking: It is a pleasure to chat with you about it.
/BCG: The pleasure is all mine. I came across this game and it jumped out at me as something that has the potential to be really special. Right in the description we have an interesting premise – detective work and the supernatural. That’s always been something of a winning combination. What led you to this genre out of the work each of you has done in the past.
AC: Interesting question. When we [had] just decided to start the project around 18 months ago, we brainstormed more than a dozen game ideas.
PS:…And what you now know as ‘Hellhunter’ stood out among the rest.
AC: Not only was it such a better idea, but it was also a subject both of us were passionate about.
/BCG: Yes. I know for Pete, you came from a lot of mobile game dev before this, and Chai, you have a lot of sci-fi titles on your resume.
AC: Hah, nice research skills, you’ll make a fine Hellhunter. 😛
/BCG: That’s good to know!
AC: …And by the way, that’s a good point. We wanted to make something different, you know?
PS: Yea, having worked on mostly mobile my entire career, it was time to team up with the best, and by the best I mean Chai, and really dive into the world of PC gaming, which I love.
AC: Damn, man.
/BCG: The feels.
AC: We live in a sea of clones, and for us indie dev means a chance to really break the mold.
/BCG: That is very true. Chai, you’ve worked with PC gaming in the past, correct? And Pete, was this your first foray into building a PC game?
AC: Pete brought a lot of experience running his own mobile games company. Be it logistics, business, etc., a lot of people don’t realize how important it [experience] is when making games.
PS: Let’s just say this is my first PC game that is going the mile, but definitely not the first PC game I have made. :p
AC: Yea, most of my commercial work was with PC games, and specifically being a lead artist / art director.
/BCG: Speaking of having developed for mobile, Pete: what made you want to branch away from mobile after having so much experience there? I know there’s a lot of mixed opinions on developing in that area, or about depth of game play (or the lack thereof), do you think that’s fair?
PS: I think that’s completely fair, and a big reason why I moved to PC gaming. Not only am I an avid gamer, but it is just the natural progression of things as a games developer.
/BCG: Conversely for Chai: working with someone who was so heavily mobile beforehand, do you feel the skills meshed well to create a bigger, richer gameplay experience or was it sort of like learning a new playing field?
AC: It’s funny. Having worked with so many programmers, some even at AAA level, I’d say Pete is by far the best, and I couldn’t have wished for a better partner. It’s worth to note, the Unity engine is cross platform, so Pete has been able to seamlessly transfer those skills.
PS: Thanks, Chai!
AC: How many years you’ve been coding now, Pete?
PS: It’s been 9 years with the Unity engine (5 years commercially).
/BCG: The Unity engine to my understanding is the engine of choice now – it’s either that or Unreal – but I hear Unity works more with bringing things from PC to console.
PS: Yeah, that’s right. These days, as you said, its Unity or Unreal. And to expand on that, exactly as you mentioned, it allows for easy porting to console, which is definitely on our radar.
/BCG: Circling back around to the game itself for people who don’t know yet. What is Hellhunter – or better yet, what do you as the developers most want the player to know about this game, and why they should be keeping an eye on it in this massive sea of indie titles (and talent) out there.
AC: You mean beside the giant Australian spiders? 😛
/BCG: Who doesn’t love a giant Australian spider.
AC: Honestly, it’s hard to answer this question in a few lines, because a lot of the gameplay mechanics haven’t been done before
PS: Yeah, as Chai said, basically Hellhunter is merging paranormal investigation, RPG, and action into one intuitive and free flowing experience.
AC: As you know, those elements sort of contradict each other, so it’s been a challenge – but a rewarding one – to find the harmony. For example, investigation is slow paced, and obviously, action is fast paced. Then you add RPG elements to it – how do you make an RPG investigation game? But just because nobody has attempted to solve this, doesn’t mean the riddle has no answer. 😛
/BCG: So naturally you two said “let’s do THAT.”
PS: Haha, yeah, we always love a good challenge.
/BCG: However, that’s a good point, and something I wondered when I saw the trailer. I’m seeing limited inventory and strategic planning, and a good balance of those quiet moments highlighted by the “get the hell out” jump factor. It brings to mind the classics like Resident Evil, but also the moments of quiet in games like Condemned: Criminal Origins back on XB360, which was an FPS horror game, but with a lot of detective elements for anyone that missed out on that.
AC: Oh my, the trailer is quite embarrassing compared to what we have now 🙂
(Editor’s Note: The “embarrassing” trailer is at the bottom of this article if you want to take an earlier look at the game!)
/BCG: If that trailer is embarrassing, then you REALLY have me curious.
PS: Oh wow, thanks for putting us in the same boat as Resident Evil and Condemned: Criminal Origins. It’s definitely something we draw inspiration from.
/BCG: One of the things I enjoyed the most about Condemned, aside from being scared out of my mind by mannequins, was how unique the detective parts were. It forced you into this state of logical calm when every instinct was to run. I like that in Hellhunter, you have the questions come up investigating objects, and I really like the idea of having to actually understand the enemy – it doesn’t seem like having the biggest gun is going to cut it.
AC: Yes, definitely. Hellhunter revolves around uncovering clues which help you decipher the identity of the enemy, which is crucial for exploiting weaknesses in such a deadly supernatural creature.
PS: Every time you take on a job, everything is randomized from the environment layouts, clues, and the identity of the enemies, which really makes it an intense experience every time you play the game.
/BCG: It seems like it’s not just guns that you fight with. You’re going to have use of a few gadgets, too?
AC: The gadgets are a central point of the game. You’ll use them to gather clues and to act as a warning against the poltergeist which you cannot see otherwise. It’s also one of the methods we used to bridge the gap between investigation and RPG, e.g. improving a certain gadget will increase the performance of gathering the clues … a very important thing when your life is on the line in a haunted house.
/BCG: I noticed in one of the screenshots, you show a map of various locations that have different problems – haunting, possession, infestation, etc. I imagine you’ve been working to make each situation very unique not only in terms of level generating, but what skill sets you need to bring in?
PS: That’s exactly right. As you can imagine, you wouldn’t want to bring ghost hunting equipment to fight demons, and vice versa, so it is crucial to understand your surroundings and prepare for the battle ahead, which again we tie into the RPG elements. What I mean by this is that you will buy/upgrade specific equipment for specific jobs, e.g, during a haunting job, you would setup a perimeter of special thermostat detectors to pinpoint the location of any poltergeists, which you cannot see with your naked eye. Conversely, such a device will be useless against a shape-shifter or demon.
/BCG: I noticed that you have an element of “shaky camera” in some of those moments in the trailer. It reminded me of something akin to a “fear level” that we’ve seen in other horror games. Will Hellhunter make use of a “panic level”?
PS: People who have been following Hellhunter will be happy to hear we actually removed the motion blur effect. Having said that, there is definitely still a concept of a ‘panic level’ in the game
AC: Yea, we love to mess with the players head, be it flickering of the torch when paranormal activity is nearby, motion distortion for certain psychokinetic enemies, and so forth…(but definitely no motion blur). 😛
/BCG: Haha, yes, motion blur is a tricky beast, and it usually bites back.
/BCG: In regards to the panic level, how did you develop this mechanic so that it doesn’t feel like it’s getting in your way but instead adds to the experience. Any thoughts on that, or is it still too much in development to speak on?
AC: Yes, as a matter of fact we didn’t put those elements in to “scare” the player, but rather make it an intense experience. That level of intensity lasts for many hours of gameplay whereas cheap jump scares lose their novelty very quickly.
PS: Furthermore, those elements not only add to the intensity of the investigation, but the player will soon realize such cues are important as a hint for nearby threats and an urgent need to set up a better detection network.
/BCG: I see a lot of room for strategic thinking and getting creative. Speaking of creativity, let’s talk about that pretty formidable looking bestiary (officially called the Cryptonomicon). That looks like the product of a lot of research and writing. Is that still just the two of you, or do you have a folklore expert on hand?
AC: Actually, funny you ask. We are in the process of farther expanding this very element. We cannot go into specifics at this point yet, however we’ve been in contact with various cryptozoology experts and writers for when everything has been proof tested and implemented.
/BCG: Oh wow, so this is some pretty in depth folklore you’re building up for the world.
PS: Yeah, it’s a fun and rewarding opportunity to put our own spin on popular folklore.
AC: For example, the Kelpie is more of an undead horse that haunts riversides in Celtic folklore drowning unwary travelers and children. In Hellhunter, the Kelpie is a part liquid part spectral aggressive spirit. That one was so fun to design 😉
/BCG: I’ll say this, from what I’ve seen, since you brought up the part liquid-part spectral element, the wraith animations are fantastic! In keeping with that, not just the wraith animations, but the particle effects when (in the trailer) it bursts through a doorway and shatters the wood are super polished. For a game with this kind of perspective, the level of detail you have makes it look like it’s almost coming off of the screen.
AC: So great to hear, Erika. That was our intention.
/BCG: Hellhunter takes place in Australia, a place you both call home. Since you obviously could have put a series of hauntings anywhere, are you particularly excited to highlight for the rest of the world certain aspects of where you live? Any areas in the game that have meaning to you?
AC: Not only [does] the game takes place in Australia, it’s also set in the late 80s / early 90s. It’s a certain atmosphere we want to capture. Some of the readers may have heard of Crocodile Dundee & Wolf Creek. Also, every time I go for a morning walk, I’m amazed how big the spiders here are, though Pete says they only bite a bit. 😛
PS: Only when you’re not looking. :p
/BCG: My vote is to skip the spider bite entirely, and bring a flamethrower.
AC: A woman after my own heart. Kill it with fire! Also, it’s worthy to note the Aboriginal cryptids such as the Bunyip and the Yara-ma-yha-who. Even if they don’t make it to the game, it does set an interesting atmosphere. A shadow ghost spider was the natural progression. 😛
/BCG: I hope they do make it to the game, or at least mention of them. I’ve never heard of those before, and I really like how much of the world video games introduce people to.
/BCG: On Twitter, you post daily inspiration images, which is nice since it shows a real connection to what’s going on in the genre, as well as setting the tone for your own work. What are some of your horror game favorites, and what is something you felt inspired you the most in regards to Hellhunter?
AC: Damn, is there a limit to how many we can mention here? 🙂
PS: As we mentioned earlier, we are really mixing the genres into what we now call Hellhunter, so the list of inspirational titles is long to say the least, but here are a few: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Devil May Cry, Diablo I. Give Chai a couple of minutes, he gets the feels when he thinks of his inspirations. :p
AC: Shin Megami Tensei (the old SNES one), Slender demo, Dark Souls (I know it’s not horror but still :P), also the movies The Mist, The Thing, and The Conjuring. Obviously, there’s about a hundred more where that came from, and damn how can we forget Supernatural!
/BCG: WOW, SMT way back in the day!
AC: Oh, finally someone who’s actually heard of SMT! I loved the demonology in that game, and how many different combination of demons you can fight/summon.
/BCG: Yes – I find it funny that a lot of people don’t realize the fight to get the original SMT: Persona over here, and how the first game was totally censored for its religious overtones and content, and now Persona is everywhere you look.
AC: Totally, fan translations were a god send there. There was also The Descent, and perhaps Troll Hunter (European movie), they bring a lot of immersion and suspense of disbelief to the mix.
/BCG: What are some things you’ve done in Hellhunter to bring that feeling of immersion to the player?
AC: In Hellhunter, we wish to explore agoraphobia rather than the usual claustrophobia. You see claustrophobia in many horror games nowadays, but we actually found the opposite to be more effective. The freedom of choice and error is truly scary in video games, whereas corridor horror games always give you that comforting sense that all you need to do is follow the trail, and you’ll progress in the game. In Hellhunter, you are introduced to a pretty open ended level, there’s no hand holding or specific right/wrong direction to take. You do not know what you’re going to fight, and where it will be.
/BCG: That’s very interesting actually, because you’re flipping something very popular right now on its head. The open world genre is in almost everything, and you’re turning that concept into horror.
AC: Exactly. We only rarely witness it, in titles such as Amnesia and the Slender demo, where there’s dynamic threats after you in an open-ended level. That seemed to be far more effective than the games that rely on music & cheap jump scares to push the player through a linear path.
/BCG: That’s a refreshing approach. Horror is often confused with action-adventure, and it’s easy to lose those elements which all come down to timing, atmosphere, and what’s NOT happening being as scary as what IS happening.
PS: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
/BCG: So, in Hellhunter, do you have a specific character that you play as, or is it more in the vein of creating a detective with various strengths at the start? How much pre-set story have you built into this world outside of the folklore, if I may ask?
AC: We’re definitely hoping to introduce character customization eventually, especially playable female characters. We don’t want to go too much in depth, as a lot of that might change based on our development at present time
/BCG: That’s fair! Towards the end of last year, you guys attempted a Kickstarter which was unsuccessful. However, now you’re up on the Steam store, and the discussions on the forums seem really positive in response to the trailer. How did the Kickstarter not working affect your development process?
AC: We took a hard look and analyzed what we could learn from that experience. A big thing is building an audience before release, which as you can see, we are getting around to now. Not only does it help power the release, but we’ve been getting valuable feedback about our game. It’s the right way forward. The fans have been awesome, and it really pushes you reading the kind comments after working day and night on development. 🙂
/BCG: You hope to have the game out this year? is that still accurate?
PS: Yes, we are hoping for a Q4 release this year.
/BCG: Well, that’s all our time for today. Thanks so much to the both of you for joining us, it was a pleasure to have you, and I can’t wait to get hands on with this adventure.
PS: Thanks for the kind words Erika. This is what keeps us going! We look forward to getting Hellhunter into the player’s hands!
AC: Yea, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the awesome interview.
Hellhunter is planned for a Q4 2017 release on PC with hopes for future console release. You can currently check out discussions on its Steam Store location or follow the developers @BstInteractive on Twitter for regular updates in the forms of GIFs and creepy inspirational images.
Disclaimer: All images and video used are property of Ballistic Interactive and used with permission from the developers. I have received no promotional materials in association with, or compensation for, this interview and make no money if you click any links.