Interview: Stasis Developer Christopher Bischoff Talks Sci-Fi, Scares, and South Africa

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In the November edition of our Kickstart This! column, we briefly looked at the dark sci-fi world of Stasis, an isometric adventure game from Johannesburg-based game developer Christopher Bischoff. I recently chatted with the designer to delve further into the belly of the deserted spacecraft named Groomlake, along with old LucasArts titles, South African gaming, and an unheard-of cinematic gem from William Shatner.

Andrew Rainnie, Warp Zoned UK Correspondent: Hi Chris. You are seeking $100,000 in your Kickstarter campaign for sci-fi point-and-click adventure Stasis. Explain the concept of the game in the length of a tweet.

Christopher Bischoff: Stasis, a 2D isometric horror adventure game #jobdone

WZ – Andrew: I believe this is one of the first South African game projects to be featured on Kickstarter (and Kickstart This!). How big of an honour is this?

Bischoff: I never thought of it like that when we set out to put up the Kickstarter campaign. I only found out after we went live, that this was the case. I hope that this serves as an example to other developers who are considering putting their projects onto Kickstarter.

WZ – Andrew: What is the gaming scene like in South Africa? Do you have any tips for those in the country wishing to carve out a career in game development?

Bischoff: The development scene in South Africa is small, but growing. There are no large publishers here, so apart from a few games that have been picked up by large international publishers, it’s almost exclusively indie. This has a definite plus side though – it’s easy for people of all skill sets to get involved in.

There are monthly meet-ups around the country where developers get together to show their work, get feedback and just ‘talk shop.’ The easiest way to get involved in South Africa is to visit Make Games SA and register on the forums where you can chat [with] other developers.

WZ – Andrew: Onto the game itself. Stasis seems to take inspiration from classic sci-fi films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien. The opening shot of Teaser #2 is similar to the Nostromo flying over the audience for the first time. Was this a deliberate reference?

Bischoff: All of the external ship shots were done to reimagine those amazing space shots of films [from] the 70s and 80s, where physical models were built and shot on smokey sound stages with motion control cameras.

Before becoming a 3D artist, I had my eye set on physical model building on film sets. Unfortunately, that is fast becoming a dying art. These shots and cinematic sequences are an extension of that childhood passion.

WZ – Andrew: On a scale of one to ten, how shit was Prometheus?

Bischoff: You know, I enjoyed it… Sure, it really wasn’t anywhere near what it could have been, but it’s a distinctly beautiful film. The production design, sound design, cinematography – everything in the film has that fingerprint of amazing artistry that Alien had but I feel it was let down by the needlessly complex story.

WZ – Andrew: You mention in your introduction video that LucasArts’ The Dig was a major influence on Stasis because of its mature approach to sci-fi games. Can you expand on this?

Bischoff: I think that adventure games forgot that adventure gamers grew up. Those games were incredible escapes from reality for young kids and young adults – but they stayed with that mindset. I think that the games needed to cater [to] their changing audience – for people whose tastes, opinions and world views had changed.

The Dig treated it’s audience as adults – creating a story that could easily have been at home in a feature film and transplanting that into an adventure game.

WZ – Andrew: The Dig was based on an idea by Steven Spielberg. Are you a fan? What are your favourite Spielberg films?

Bischoff: The Indiana Jones trilogy (see what I did there?), Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, A.I., War of the Worlds… that basement scene is probably one of the greatest alien first contact scenes ever filmed! The man has a pretty impressive portfolio.

WZ – Andrew: The derelict spaceship that serves as the game’s main location is called the Groomlake. Groom Lake is the official designation for a US Air Force base better known as Area 51. It is also the name of a terrible 2002 movie starring William Shatner. You named it after the latter, right?

Bischoff: Of course. I’m really hoping that he contributes a song or two to Stasis, after being snubbed by Star Trek in 2009. Just imagine William Shatner’s “Rocket Man” echoing through the halls.

WZ – Andrew: We have been spoiled for choice with true sci-fi games of late in different genres, such as the Halo saga, Bioware’s Mass Effect series and, to a certain extent, EA’s Dead Space franchise. What do you think Stasis brings to the table?

Bischoff: It’s strange to hear Stasis even mentioned in the same sentence as those games! All of those larger franchises have had a huge influence on Stasis. I’m constantly in awe of the amount of work that goes into them – they really are on the same level as feature films.

I’d like to think that Stasis has a happy balance somewhere in there, in that I’m trying to create a game with the same depth and history that those universes have. I love the extended universe of Dead Space and have the books, comics, DVDs and even a life-sized replica of Isaac Clarke’s Plasma Cutter. I’ve devoured most material around Mass Effect, as well as Halo. The universes go far beyond the games and that is something I’m bringing to the world of Stasis.

WZ – Andrew: Even with an isometric view, which distances itself from the main protagonist of John Maracheck, the game manages to conjure up a sense of horror and isolation from the darkness and gloom of the levels, and, of course, what lies unseen. How have you sustained that fear throughout the game?

Bischoff: In a way, I think that the isometric view has enhanced that feeling of isolation. Isometric games make you feel that you’re just a part of the world – a cog in the machine. They make the world look like it’s going to exist with or without you – and when you’re on a mission to save the people you love, that feeling of just being a small piece of the puzzle can greatly add to the feeling of desperation.

Sound plays a huge part in creating atmosphere and mood – an element that I’ve played close attention to in the game. Each creek of the ship, echo of the door and scrape of metal on metal has been carefully placed to enhance that feeling of loneliness and dread.

WZ – Andrew: You are on track to reach your goal. Could you give any potential Kickstarter campaigners out there some advice?

Bischoff: Release a demo. I didn’t have a preceding reputation to rely on, as this is my first official game. The Alpha did the speaking for me, without me having to explain the atmosphere. It showed gamers and potential backers that they’d be investing in more than an idea I had, but something that they couldn’t physically play.

I think that we have run a very tight campaign up to now. I’d have loved a bit more prep time, but that’s because I’m an artist who believes that great art is never completed, only abandoned. We spent four months on the campaign, but there comes a point where you’re traveling around in circles, and you just have to set a date and go for it!

WZ – Andrew: Stasis has been in development for three years, which is a long time by indie standards. What issues have you had to contend with over that time? What has motivated you and kept you going?

Bischoff: I love the world. I love the characters. I love the story. I just love the game. I can spend hours adding dust onto a door or making a light flicker at just the right frequency. I can finish a scene and throw it away because it’s not working with the flow of the game.

My passion has always been science fiction and any games that I do will have an element of Sci-Fi in the story. I could re-watch Alien, Sunshine or Event Horizon a hundred times and never get tired of them.

While Stasis has been directly in development for three years, the reality is that in some way or another, I have been involved in it for most of my life.

WZ – Andrew: Stasis is set to be released on PC and OSX, but not consoles, although a platform such as the Wii U or PS Vita could work well with a point-and-click game. Did this ever cross your mind? Can consoles ever compete with PC gaming?

Bischoff: The aim is to release Stasis on as many platforms as possible, but I’m currently aiming for the two platforms that I know the best. Once the game is out in the world, we’ll research different platforms and controls.

WZ – Andrew: You have managed to tap Mark Morgan, the composer of many of the Fallout games, to do the music. Tell us a little bit about how that came to be?

Bischoff: Once a few big media sites caught onto our campaign, Mark contacted me via Twitter to say that he liked what he’d seen. After some talk and realizing that we were on the same page, he offered to do the soundtrack in the game. I am a big fan of Mark’s work and to have him compose the music to bring the journey of the character into a full circle is going to be mind-blowing.

I honestly can’t wait to jump feet first into working with Mark!

WZ – Andrew: What games do you like to play? What would you say are the games that have defined you as a gamer, and as a designer?

Bischoff: I’m a terrible gamer! I love playing games for the stories and the worlds, but when it comes to the actual skill-based parts, I’m hopeless. In a multiplayer game, I’m the guy who blows himself up with an RPG. That said, I love games that have a heavy focus on atmosphere. The BioShock series is right up there with some of the best entertainment experiences I have ever had. Same with the Dead Space series. I sometimes wish that I could just explore those worlds, without people threatening to kill me at every turn!

I also love the smaller indie adventure games that have come out recently – Gemini Rue was amazing, as well as Primordia. I find myself often playing older games whenever I can. The original Fallout and Planescape Torment are two games that I play every few years for the sheer guilty pleasure of it.

WZ – Andrew: Assuming Stasis is a riveting success, what would be next for you? Could you share any future game ideas?

Bischoff: So many ideas! My brother and I have coffee once a day and discuss game ideas and stories. We have plans for everything from a noir Blade Runner-style detective game to a post-apocalyptic one. I have a notebook FULL of game ideas and inspirations. Some with entire maps drawn out.

WZ – Andrew: Is it likely you will turn to Kickstarter again?

Bischoff: Crowdfunding is such an incredible way to build up a community around a project. It gets people invested in the game and the ideas in a tangible way. To not use that immense community support would be an awful waste, so I can’t see any reason why it couldn’t be a future option for The Brotherhood to consider.

WZ – Andrew: Once again Chris, thank you for your time.

As of this writing (5:00 PM Eastern Time), Stasis was around $16,000 shy of reaching its ambitious $100,000 target, with ten days to go. Please visit the Stasis Kickstarter page to discover more about the mysteries on board the deserted Groomlake.

This entry was posted in Features, Interviews, PC, Previews, Top Story and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
In addition to being Warp Zoned's UK Correspondent, Andrew Rainnie is a screenwriter and filmmaker. You can email him at andrew AT warpzoned DOT com or you can, if you're inclined, visit his personal website.

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