No studio has managed to give us just as many nightmares as Bloober Team. From Layers of Fear right through to the recently released Observer: System Redux, the studio has continually managed to scare us senseless with its own brand of mind-bending psychological horrors. When it came to selecting a studio to focus on for our next edition of Vertical Slice, Bloober, were of course, on our radar, and luckily, we were able to catch up with CEO Piotr Babieno to talk about the studio's origins and its most notable projects.
Piotr's roots in horror can be traced way back to the late 2000s. Back then he was head of a studio known as Nibris, who worked on Sadness, one of the Wii's earliest announced titles. The project was a survival horror, which sported a minimalist black and white visual style and utilised the Wii's motion controls during gameplay. Sadly though, after years of silence, the project was canned in 2010, and the studio became defunct shortly afterwards. Piotr explained that the decision was ultimately made as they "didn't have people to work on such a project and everything that we did wasn't good."
Following this, Piotr and several other developers from Nibris jumped ship to Bloober Team, another studio located in Kraków, Poland. From 2010, the studio released several smaller titles for a variety of platforms, but their first really noticeable release was Basement Crawl, which was an early release for the PS4. Piotr told us: "It was very famous because it was the worst game on PS4, basically. The multiplayer at launch didn't work correctly and we made a lot of mistakes." Learning from this though, the team went back to the drawing board and produced Brawl, a free game for those who had splashed out on Basement Crawl.
Still, whilst reception was a lot more positive for Brawl, the team weren't fully satisfied with the quality of their output and the direction that they were going in. After some time for reflection Piotr and his team decided to shift their attention to the psychological horror genre and they strived to make projects that they were proud of. Piotr told us: "We believe that psychological horrors are the most immersive and that we can give a lot of emotions and we could get really impactful subjects for those games and tell our stories in the way that we would like to tell them."
Layers of Fear
Layers of Fear, the team's first true venture into the psychological horror genre, follows a painter's descent into madness as they desperately try to create their "magnum opus." The concept, Piotr told us, came to fruition as the game's creative director was an artist and the team felt like it could be a unique concept. Prior to development, the team doubled in size and took talent from world renowned Polish studios such as CD Projekt Red and Techland.
Piotr explained that during development he wanted his team to share a central vision for the project whether they were working on its art, music, or level design. This way the project could grow cohesively and everybody would all be pulling within the same direction. Piotr told us: "In Layers of Fear it was the question 'what is more important in our life, our job or our family?' Can we be a good artist and be good to our family at the same time, or do we need to sacrifice something?"
Development of the game took nine months and it eventually launched into Early Access in August of 2015. The game then made a full release in February 2016, and it was met with a positive reception from both fans and critics. On Metacritic, the Xbox One version of the game sits with a solid score of 78 and on PS4 it has a similarly positive 74. The release of Layers of Fear helped to restore the studio's fractured reputation and helped build their reputation as one of the industry's most promising horror indie developers.
Whilst being consistent in delivering the scares, Observer was a very different beast to Layers of Fear, as it took place within a cyberpunk-inspired world. Taking place in Krakow in 2084, the title sees players step into the shoes of Daniel Lazarski (Rutger Hauer), an augmented detective that is able to integrate subjects by delving into their minds.
The studio struck big as they were able to get Blade Runner actor Rutger Hauer to voice the game's main protagonist. Hauer's performance within the game, for us, was one of the most memorable parts of the story and Piotr agreed too that the project wouldn't be nearly as special without his involvement. When talking about Hauer's preparation for the role, Piotr told us: "He is one of those movie stars who needs to feel the place in which he needs to play. He needs to know everything connected with the project and he spent a lot of time in Krakow. He visited some Polish pubs, he visited some Polish buildings, streets, and so on."
Observer ended up being critical success for the studio and they decided to release an enhanced version of the game to coincide with the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series. Piotr interestingly described it as being in between both a remake and a remaster. We asked why this particular game was chosen and Piotr told us: "From our point of view we felt like we didn't finish the story. We weren't able to do a second part though as without Rutger Hauer it would not be the same experience."
Blair Witch was exciting for the studio, as it was the first that they had worked on an existing property. The game follows Ellis Lynch, a former police officer who has been lured into the Black Hills forest after hearing about the disappearance of a missing boy. The title uses the studio's signature mind-bending horror techniques, but it takes place within the forest, which is a much more open and expansive place then we have seen within previous titles.
Piotr told us that talks about the game began not long after the release of Layers of Fear. The team were contacted by United Talent Agency and following this, a director at Lionsgate asked them which of their horror IPs they would like to centre a game around. After some discussion, the team landed on Blair Witch, as it was a franchise that was pretty dormant and there wasn't a great amount of pre-existing lore. Piotr told us: "If you have an IP which is very described, if you have characters that people are very connected to, then it's really hard to create something that is yours."
Interestingly enough, The Medium was the concept created by Piotr and his team after committing to the shift to psychological horror. The team started working on the project as early as 2012, but they decided to shift gears and focus on something smaller as the project was so ambitious and the team were new. Piotr told us: "Of all the projects we have made The Medium was the one that was the most personal to me." This was because it was a project that he and his wife dreamt up and worked very closely on towards the beginning.
If you haven't seen The Medium already, it features a very unique mechanic where the player can traverse both the spirit world and the real world at the same time. This idea was born when examining people's actions from multiple perspectives and there were doubts at first from designers as to whether it could really be pulled off. Still, the team persevered and the project is looking to be one of the most ambitious horror titles arriving in 2021.
The Medium is launching January 28 as one of the first console exclusives for the Xbox Series. We asked Piotr what it was like developing a project for this new platform and he told us: "Even with optimisation and everything we did we felt like we were not able to deliver the game for current consoles because usually when you have split screen you usually just have one world, but in our game we are rendering two worlds at the same time. It's not like we added a filter onto a world, we had to build two completely different worlds and show them at the same time." It seems then that the added horsepower was an absolute necessity to get the project running on a console as the project is heavily demanding in processing power.
Bloober Team's upcoming project The Medium will launch January 28, 2021 on PC and Xbox Series. You can check out the previous instalment of Vertical Slice, where we were able to speak to Gunfire Games' David Adams here.
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