Jordan Thomas doesn’t take this the wrong way when you ask him not to take this the wrong way. Buuuuuut the next game his studio is working on — a group of teens working together to unwind the paranormal mystery of their insular small town — kinda sorta sounds like maybe a riff on Stranger Things?
“If that’s the reason they remember us, I have no problem with that whatsoever,” Thomas, a co-founder of the studio Question, said cheerfully. “The first minute they play it, they may find something that draws on the familiar teens-versus-monsters genre. But from there it goes to a place they’ve never been before, where the familiar falls away.”
Thomas is speaking of The Blackout Club, billed as a co-operative survival horror game when it was announced in late February. It’s due for a first-quarter 2019 launch on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. Question is close to finishing up a milestone build for the game, Thomas said, when asked where development stands now.
In The Blackout Club, up to four players work together to investigate strange occurrences, evade overpowering menaces and find out why kids go unconscious in the night, awakening in strange places with no memories of what happened. The gameplay will have procedurally generated elements, such as loot locations, objectives and encounters with adversaries.
The point is to survive the night, perhaps after pushing your luck by taking just one more mission following a daring success in the first. Then you get back together with the gang and go out for another night of suspense. Though The Blackout Club may be played solo, its multiplayer bend — with drop-in/drop-out participation — focuses the game to a round-by-round experience rather than checking off a list of story-based missions.
Work on The Blackout Club began around 2016, about a year after Question’s first game, The Magic Circle, launched. Thomas, who was the creative director for BioShock 2, co-founded the studio with Stephen Alexander, a fellow designer on BioShock. Kain Shin, a programmer for Dishonored, joined the venture shortly thereafter. Question today numbers six full-time developers. (Four contractors are also working on The Blackout Club.)
“We were all talking about what we would do next, if given the chance,” Thomas said. “Cooperative play and the resurgence of the horror genre had given us hope. We’d been waiting for horror to welcome back the vulnerable protagonist, for years.”
That was right around the time Stranger Things first appeared on Netflix. Thomas isn’t defensive about it but he says that the lore The Blackout Club draws on comes from notes and treatments he wrote out for a horror game concept almost a decade before, after he had finished work on 2004’s Thief: Deadly Shadows, for which he was lead designer.
But it took fresh eyes from others at Question — Alexander and Shin, plus developers Michael Kelly, David Pittman and Jeff Lake — to make the concept into something interesting enough to play, Thomas said. And that’s where the teenage characters came from, more than something that had just caught fire on TV.
“The teenage protagonists are the culmination of what we think would make for good horror and smart scoping,” Thomas said. “If you don’t expect a 14-year-old to defeat a 35-year-old guard, you can talk about asymmetric tactics or outwitting your enemies, because the combat tactics are obviated.”
Though The Blackout Club is playable solo, Question’s developers are stressing the online co-operative experience. There’s strength in numbers, they reason, and outwitting a sentry at a point you have to cross is a lot easier when a teammate can provide a diversion, possibly putting themselves in harm’s way.
There’s another mechanism at work in The Blackout Club, something Thomas called the “bad kid high score.” As players take and complete missions out in the town, they will inevitably have to do things like pick locks, kick in doors or even knock someone out from behind. These actions raise that delinquency score. So taking on another mission rather than calling it a night can deliver additional XP gains. But that also makes it more likely the game’s bogeyman (though it is not called that) will come out, and it will go after the kid with the worst behavior.
“The more you push your luck, the higher the chance you have to earn more XP, but there’s also more of a chance you’ll get taken by this ... shape,” Thomas said. He was understandably coy about what that all means but it evidently references the big secret underneath the town, that apparently has all the adults in thrall, forcing the kids to take matters into their own hands.
What has survived from Thomas’ original musings on this eerie world is his fascination with “the ragged edge of unconsciousness.” Things like sleepwalking, or talking in your sleep. “It’s inherently unsettling,” he said. His treatments drew on some personal experiences that “I can’t allude to in the promotion of a video game,” but recollections like leaping out of bed in the middle of the night, or feeling like a shadow was watching him as he slept, ultimately led to the netherworld underneath the teens’ small town in The Blackout Club.
“I needed my colleagues to humanize it,” said Thomas. “It would have been a very acquired taste if I had built it back then.” Through their work together, they gave The Blackout Club a more colorful artistic style and added a sense of humor, Thomas said. For example, someone came up with the idea of a prank-call tactic to supply a diversion. (The teens all carry mobile phones because, duh, they’re teens.) Kelly is the voice on the line when the kids lay their trap. This detail may not survive to the full game, Thomas said, but it’s in there now and is a good specimen showing that mischief is there to keep the terror from overwhelming the player.
“It’s very sweet and silly and lightens the mood; I never would have chosen to do that,” said Thomas (who called himself a “recovering goth teen”). “I would have done something creepier and without as much heart.”
The Blackout Club isn’t going to develop its story through a linear set of missions that ultimately unravel the whole thing, Thomas said. “Our ambition is the mystery, is a community generation thing; we’re not interested in selling a big climactic story,” he said. Though there will a big set piece for players of a very high XP that reveals plenty about what’s really going on under the town.
So that leaves a lot of room for something else that distinguishes Stranger Things: fan theories. Thomas is aware that getting people so interested in your show or your game that they speculate endlessly on What Is Really Going On indicates a successful connection with the audience. “If your story only works in your head, then it essentially is useless,” he said. “What they [players] think they saw and what they think it means is ultimately the game and the narrative. The operative phrase being, ‘If you pull it off.’”
Yet there’s pulling it off in the game, and then there’s pulling it off as a product. Thomas says he has no illusions about the latter. “The truth of the indie game market in 2018 and beyond is unbelievably brutal; we are at market saturation,” he said. “To become a hit is not something you can actually shoot for and if you do, you’re deluding yourself. Getting noticed is that goal.
“So it occurs to us that those comparisons [to Stranger Things] would be drawn,” he said. “It absolutely comes up in our creative conversations. There was a time in my career where I would have protested, ‘No, it’s nothing like anything else that has ever existed.’ But I think that is madness. If some of that commonality helps people get over their hesitation to try something new, great. But in my heart of hearts, I want us to surprise them.”