Developer Chip Sineni describes Corpse of Discovery as a kind of Sisyphean hell.
"The player is stuck on a planet, and they're trying to figure out how to get back home," he begins. "They have this information ... all you have to do is one thing, it's a dangerous task, but once you do this one thing you'll be picked up and sent back to Earth and everything will be great, finally. You'll live the life you want to live, and you won't have to worry about financial security."
Of course, it's not going to be that easy. "As a player you take that, you think yes, this is my way out. But then when you're in the middle of this you fail that mission and you get another one and another one and it becomes this loop of whether you're ever going to get to that point, and what did you miss along the way when you were doing that?"
Sineni's work changes on every project, but he's comfortable going by "director" at Phosphor Games. Corpse of Discovery has been a two-person project for the first year or so, but now four or five people are working with him in the final months of the game's development.
During that time, he quickly found out what he was missing out on, and his struggles mirrored those of the game's character. He wasn't seeing his family.
When your game keeps you from what you care about
Making a game about being away from your family and children wasn't his intent, and in fact the first version of Corpse of Discovery was thrown out. "We started prototyping this game last year, it was a project between other projects ... it was low stakes, low risk, we were talking about an exploration game, a little more survival based." Phosphor Games consists of 70 developers, so a project of this size wasn't a huge undertaking in the scheme of things.
During development he asked his wife to record some lines, bringing in her voice-over work to help move the game along. Something about it stuck.
"It resonated more and more, like it was actually my wife telling me these things instead of subbing in for another actress," he explained. "I used my kids the same way, we have this cheap scanner that's almost like a Kinect and I scanned them in and used them for this hologram. And slowly the most interesting things in the game were the personal stuff I was pushing to the side, almost."
This aspect of the game, the fact the character is away from his family, was originally meant to be optional. The player could dig into it if they chose, but it quickly became one of the main themes of the game as Sineni realized he was going through the same thing in his personal life.
"I really am missing out. I'm not going to the pool with the kids today, I'm not doing this other thing. I'm not going out for ice cream tonight because I'm working," he said. "It wasn't the game I set out to make, it was the game that was happening around me, as I was making it."
The time demands of game development
Game development is an all-consuming job and making the game itself is only a part of it, especially for smaller teams outside of the AAA system.
"As an owner of it, I'm not only [developing the game], but I have to do pitch and a prototype, and I have to go to game developer talks and I have to go to these things and people are saying I should be tweeting more," Sineni told Polygon. There is always another task.
"The first thing I would do if I had an hour is sleep," he said. "The second thing I would do is see my kids."
It's a weird self-fulfilling prophecy. I point out that, from the outside, using the fact one doesn't have enough time for the game and your family in the game has to be hard for your partner. Using their distress as fuel and inspiration for the game's development crosses a strange line. He thought about it for a moment.
"If I'm going to be doing this, it's good to have them there," he responded. "It's even allowed me more time to work at home because of that. I think the gist of that question, isn't it weird that you could have also not made this game and almost fixed the game from ever needing to be there? It's a valid point."
This aspect of his personality has always been a part of his relationship with his wife, however.
"My wife and I have been together for 25 years, and I was like this in college. I would work a lot and get my stuff done," he said. "She's not happy about it, she accepts it. She's a character in the game itself, how she's appearing in the game itself isn't far from how she is. She wants that last thing, she wants that stability that lets her live her life. By making this game I'm hoping I can finally break the chain of doing it."
The game isn't done yet, but it's clear that Sineni wants to make sure his message gets through. He's not sure if it's coming to consoles yet, although he said there has been some interest. He's not sure if the game will find an audience on PC. Juggling the art of being a good partner and a good parent while making games you care about can often feel like an impossible job, and finding a balance in both goals is more of a journey than a destination.
"I really want to play my own game," he said, "to see if I get the right message out of it."