Four people. That's how many bodies it took to turn heads at this year's Game Developers Conference. That's how many artists it took to make the world of Pamela, an upcoming first-person survival horror game set on a futuristic island colony called Eden. Four people, whose hopes were riding on a very early trailer, playing on a workstation that was practically buried inside the larger Unity booth in San Francisco.
Talking with the team this past week, what makes their work so much more remarkable is that most of them have never even made a game before.
"I mean, a couple of the guys went to school for this," level designer Adam Simonar told Polygon last week. "But we don't have a tremendous amount or really any game development experience at any other studios. So, it's very much a kind of fresh sort of thing for us. We're just kind of giving it our all, I guess. Our company, NVYVE, originally started doing architectural visualizations. Interactive condo walkthroughs, that kind of stuff, but in Unity.
"We were kind of learning the engine, learning the ropes in the architectural market. And just recently — at the beginning of this year — we kind of made the shift to making Pamela. We're up to six people now."
Today they unveil their new trailer and, for the first time, the backstory for this world they've created as well as a taste of how their game will play. It's all leading up to their next step — submitting Pamela through Steam Greenlight.
Pamela is set on a futuristic, floating colony called Eden. It's just one of many similar structures powered by the ocean itself, set adrift after the land became unsustainable for mankind.
"It's not the crazy far future," Simonar said. "Space travel is not a thing. We're still on Earth. There's actually many of these islands that were constructed — but you're on this one specific Eden, a self-sustaining, utopian city that survives from energy produced by the ocean and the sun. It's this idyllic sort of thing that's been created, an escape from all of the energy crises and things happening on the mainland."
Simonar says that one of his team's big inspirations is the BioShock series, hence the focus on a singular, ideal artificially-created world. But they've also drawn inspiration from games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, DayZ, Don't Starve and STALKER.
"Civilization is kind of falling to pieces," Simonar said. "It's sort of an attempt to escape from that kind of thing and create something that's sustainable and 'perfect' and all this kind of stuff. You basically wake up into this environment, woken up from cryosleep."
Pamela won't be a strictly narrative experience. While the story is there for those who want to experience it, at its core the game will be a single-player survival game. Players will be tasked with finding enough food and water to stay alive. Their constant companion will be the artificial intelligence known as P.A.M.E.L.A., an acronym that stands for "Partially Abiogenic Mechanized External Logistical Assistant."
Inspiration was drawn from BioShock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, DayZ, Don't Starve and even STALKER.
Simonar compares her to the Halo series' Cortana.
"You’re sort of a faceless character woken up by Pamela because she’s sort of reaching out to the last remaining scrap of humanity on Eden," Simonar said. "You’ve been frozen, so you haven’t been effected by what’s going on. There’s a biological outbreak — this horrible disease that’s been inflicting the populous. You’re kind of like untouched, pure. You’re human still, and she’s waking you up to say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to hold on to what I used to have because I used to be watching over these people. Now they’re gone.'"
As Simonar explains it, Pamela will be equal parts companion and functional tool. The other major asset you’ll have access to is your A.A.R.M., or Advanced Assisted Reactive Mount. He explains it as this fictional world’s foundation technology, akin to the modern day smartphone but with many more bells and whistles.
And lasers. And arc welders. And maybe flamethrowers. They’re still working on it.
"It's basically this device that you see in the trailer in a few places," Simonar said. "It's where your UI is projected from, it's where your weapons and the equipment you find will be attached to. It's this kind of modular system that, in this society depending on what your role is, would have different equipment that you would be given access to.
"So if you were an engineer you'd have a welding device that you could kind of attach to use, if you were a scientist you would have diagnostics, or radar. It's this kind of this multi-purpose device that everyone wears. And it also connects them into the central mainframe — to Pamela."
The in-game map in Pamela
Throughout the game players will have the chance to make friends or foes of various factions, including robots as well as The Afflicted — humans who have succumbed to the mysterious biological plague in Eden. Those alliances will effect how players are able to navigate the world, and what areas are easy to access and what areas are hard. But, just as in the Deus Ex series, players will also have the opportunity to become more than human.
"The idea of having this message behind the scenes, that it's not just a zombie game," Simonar said. "There's actually a message behind it. What we always say is our game is about exploring the costs of pursuing perfection. You're biologically enhancing yourself to be something more.
"Is it really better to be enhancing yourself in this way? Do you want to actually be more than human, or does that start to destroy what human is? These are our questions, the central themes of the game. The AI system itself is a personality-based thing. Each robot, each person that you're going to interact with is going to have its own personality."
Right now, the game as described is incredibly ambitious. The team's obvious skill with environmental creation holds up in a trailer, as does the narrative they've built so far. But time will tell if the gameplay stacks up, or if Pamela is just another entry into the seemingly bottomless survival genre.
Next, the team takes their game to Greenlight. After that? Simonar says the team isn't quite sure.
"Beyond that … well," Simonar pauses to chuckle. "That is kind of an interesting and controversial topic. I suppose in the industry right now with PC gaming, the decision is whether we do the Early Access route or if we wait and do a full launch. I'm not necessarily going to comment on what we're going to do, one way or the other, but if we do end up on Early Access we certainly want to follow the example of Don't Starve.
"I remember playing Klei's [the developer of Don't Starve] game when it first came out, and they've added a ton to it since. But it was an amazing experience even then. I played it for a ton of time, and it didn't feel at all like it was only half a game.
"We don't want to be releasing something super early, to the point where we're not even content that it's even feature complete. I think probably every game developer would say something similar to that extent."
Simonar said they expect to have something playable by next summer.