Into the depths
Carrion is unlike any other game on the market today. It has all the trappings of a 1980s cult horror classic: Disgusting writhing tentacles, tons of gore, a slithering monstrosity that gets bigger by feasting on people, and dark, eerie environments.
Toss in a foreboding musical score and Metroidvania mechanics, and you have yourself a captivating experience.
Carrion is billed as a reverse-horror game where you're playing as the monster--think of The Blob from the gelatinous horror's perspective--and your job is to simply wreak havoc, chew on bodies, and get as big as possible. And it does its job well.
Since it was revealed years ago, Carrion has grown a rather sizable following. It seems the freakish terrors and old-school horror sentiments are a kind of universal language. But the game doesn't just look unique and appealing, but it also plays fantastically well.
To understand how Carrion spawned, we talked to Phobia Game Studio's lead game and level designer Krzysztof Chomicki to get a better perspective.
Chomicki talks about the challenges of Carrion, the ups and downs of working in a two-person development team, and how they shaped the monstrous indie over the years.
- FromSoftware games like Dark Souls helped influence and shape Carrion's level design (along with Metroid, of course)
- Team Phobia Studio is made up of only two people-- Sebastian Kroskiewicz and Krzysztof Chomicki-who both worked remotely to make Carrion.
- The devs used real-time feedback on Twitter to help shape the game.
- Carrion was in development for three years.
- Chomicki says there's a "good chance" that Carrion will release on PlayStation eventually. If Phobia ever releases on PS4, it may play on PS5 via backward compatibility. But nothing's been announced or confirmed yet.
- Carrion runs at 60FPS on Nintendo Switch. Switch was the first platform Phobia thought about when making Carrion.
Influences and tentacle physics
When I see Carrion, I think of Cronenberg movies or The Thing. Are there any other films that have inspired this game?
Of course, The Thing but I think very important ones would also be pretty much every 80s horror/action movie franchise. But the very important ones would be Alien and Predator. I think you can actually find some references to both franchises in the game.
Also, we were very inspired by Alien vs. Predator games--not the movies, obviously--especially the early 2000s ones where you play as the xenomorph. That's something that hasn't been explored properly in games.
When I play the game, the tentacle physics are amazing. The game flows so well. When you're moving through the corridors...I actually haven't felt anything like that. It's so smooth. How did your team create this movement system?
It took a ridiculous amount of time to get it right. Basically, the first six months of development were just working on the monster, its movement, its physics, the tentacles, eating humans, and so on.
At first, we really didn't know which direction we wanted to take it gameplay-wise or what genre it would be. The Metroidvania style, for example, was not decided on until we had the core movement and eating mechanic pinned down.
If I'm being honest, the polish work on mechanics, movement, and the monster's eating lasted almost to the release. Up until a couple of months ago, we were still working on the eating mechanics.
It was a long ongoing task of tweaking that. When it comes to working so well, it's all thanks to our game director/artist/programmer Sebastian Kroskiewicz, who's like the brains behind the project.
Funnily enough, the mass, the physics are relatively simple because it's mostly a bunch of 2D spheres connected together. But getting the exact numbers right, so it flows well and that there are no major bugs, that took a lot of effort from him. It's mostly just smart physics implementation. It's not really that complex. It looks more complex than it actually is.
You guys did a really good job. I'm playing the review copy right now, and it's just so satisfying flying around and eating people.
Funny thing about you mentioning flying around...some people wouldn't really get that the tentacles are actually what propels the monster in the way you want to go. They thought it was just like swimming or floating in the air. So for that reason, the first chamber in the over world, the Frontier, there's a large open area with no background.
That's when the player can notice that when there is no background area for the tentacles to attach to.
Level design, gameplay flow, and crunchy human munching
How did you get the level design to dictate the flow of the monster, or did the monster's movement dictate level design?
It's kind of both. I think the characteristics of the movement of the monster, the fact that gravity isn't an issue here, and that you can get pretty much everywhere, that dictated the level design quite strongly.
You don't really think about it, but in most games where you control the character directly, gravity is pretty much the main obstacle you face most of the time. Something might be unreachable because it's too high or too low where you'd die falling down.
It's a super basic mechanic and part of level design that you don't really think about normally. In this case, we didn't have that, so we had to get very creative when it comes to both the layouts to make the areas look different and varied, and also with the puzzles and challenges.
We had to be creative about the skills and the obstacles that it'd be more than just pulling switches and opening doors. It was kind of tricky, but it also makes it kind of unique. I think most people won't even notice it, that it's very unusual.
When I'm playing the game, and I get to a save point and that giant massive disgusting tentacle flesh. Every time I see it, it just freaks me out, and I keep wondering how big can the monster get. Can it take the whole screen up?
Eh, not really. It gets pretty large, and it depends on where you are in the game. There are three classes-we have this mass-based class system. The last one can get pretty big. Technically speaking, if you throw in a bunch of monsters and they all connect, because that's how it all works, you could technically fill the screen up. But we don't do that.
The last monster is pretty large. I think it gets 30 times as large as the initial form.
As an 80s horror fan, I see this game and think 'hey this is awesome.' I'm running around chewing people, and I kind of feel bad because it's so satisfying.
Yeah, eating had to be satisfying. We worked hard on the crunchiness of it.
That's a good word, crunchy. I feel the enemies can still hurt me, but I could just slam them and rip them in half, cut their heads off-whatever. It's very empowering in a very strange way.
This power fantasy was very important to us, that it feels right.
When I'm playing Carrion, the level design reminds me of Metroid. There's no map-I have to remember where to go, I have to think about what I'm doing. Obviously, Metroid influenced you, but are there any other types of games that influenced your team?
Outside of the obvious one, Metroid...I did all the level design, so I can only speak for myself, but one of the most important influences here was the FromSoftware games, the Souls series and Bloodborne, and so on. The fact that you don't have a map there, and the levels are kind of open, but you always know where you want to go. You don't really get lost in those games.
But still, if you start looking everywhere and finding shortcuts and you find out the levels are very interconnected. That's something that was definitely an inspiration for the level design here.
That's interesting. When I'm playing, it's like a mix of puzzle and a mix of platformer, but there's always something engaging. You guys have done a really good job at making the game visually stimulating and also very mysterious. It's almost like I'm playing a game H.P. Lovecraft imagined.
I'm glad to hear that. We really wanted to avoid over-explaining everything, like the mechanics. We wanted to keep them as short and as concise as possible and not have constant pop-ups that remind you what you can do. The same goes for the lore and plot. We wanted to make people come up with their own theories and read between the lines and make you feel like the monster.
We didn't want to make you read a couple hundred pages of lost crew logs or listen to a few hours of audio logs or watch cutscenes. I love cutscenes, like Hideo Kojima-style stuff, but not for this game.
We want to make the game very personal from the monster's perspective and keep the mystery intact. We do give some hints at the origin of the monster and so on, but we definitely want the players to fill in the blanks.
Ever since we showed the game in the early days, gamers have come up with their own theories. Is it an alien? Is it leftover spaghetti?
We definitely did not want to take that away from the community.
It's environmental storytelling. You guys don't have to say much. We just play it, and we get it.
Indie dev hurdles, early days of development, and level save challenges
What would you say is the hardest part about being an independent developer?
It really depends. I guess the size of the team is both a blessing and a curse. If you're not working, nothing's getting done. We don't have any major overlap in our duties except for maybe some sort of environmental graphics, which were mostly done by Sebastian. I did the level design and the proper texturing. I did some of that stuff, so there we have this overlap.
Other than that, everyone was doing their own thing. And if you're not working, this stuff isn't progressing.
On the other hand, if there were more of us, we'd have issues with communication. We'd pretty much have to have a producer just to make sure everyone's on the same page and knows what they're doing.
With our small team-Sebastian, me, a sound designer and composer Chris Velasco-it was very easy to communicate and get all the ideas across even despite working remotely. We're not sitting in the same office, and we all work from home.
Chris Velasco did the score, and he actually reached out to us after seeing some gifs and said, 'I have to be a part of this.' This was pretty much before we were even called Phobia Game Studio, and when we had early prototypes.
After Chris, we had tens of different composers who wanted to score the game.
That makes sense. It seems like this kind of weird, bizarre game is universally appealing to creative types.
That's kind of interesting because we always thought Carrion as a niche game. It's not something you think would be universally appealing. But after Sebastian started posting gifs on Twitter from the early prototypes, they clicked really well. It turns out there was great interest in the game.
We used Twitter to show off development progress, and the feedback helped guide which way we took the game, especially at the beginning when we didn't have a full idea of what we wanted to do.
I think it'd be really interesting to see the iterations of Carrion through the years. That's something I always love to talk about, how a game started from the beginning, and was molded into the final product. Can you offer any insight on Carrion's growth?
It all started on the monster's movement and eating mechanics.
One of the first gifs Sebastian showed on Twitter got a lot of buzz and reaction. It pretty much looked like Katamari. It'd go up to people and automatically eat them, which was fun, but it was more like five minutes fun and not five hours fun.
It wouldn't really have worked for the whole game.
At first, we just had one skill at a time. There wasn't really this mass-based class system-that came a bit later, after the first prototype demo we showed at GDC and that we went out to different publishers.
Carrion kind of progressed naturally from there.
Another problem we had to solve early on was how to save the game. You don't really think about it, but in most Metroidvanias, enemies will respawn after you leave the chamber, so you don't really have to save that data very often.
Normally, Metroidvanias just have to save where you are in the world and which skills you've already unlocked, plus some minor stuff.
But in our case, we wanted to maintain this horror feeling, so we didn't want to respawn after you left the chamber because it would hardly be gruesome and terrifying if everyone just popped up back alive.
That makes perfect sense. When I go back to areas I've already been, I see the horrible blood, destruction, bodies, disgusting tentacle growths, and overall mayhem that I've left behind.
It's kind of like when you finish a level of Hotline Miami, right?
But here we have a lot of backtracking. You have to backtrack to find all the optional skills and abilities, and we had to find a way to save all that data. That was pretty complex for us.
What you think of as a very simple indie game, it's not as simple as it seems. For a long time, we weren't sure whether we'd be able to keep it all saved properly. We fought that despite having this kind of Metroidvania progression-only the Overworld, the Frontier, would be transversable with backtracking, and the levels would be closed down.
Eventually, Sebastian figured out a way to save it all nicely, and we're happy with the data costs. Back then, there wasn't even an Overworld then, it was just a string of semi-open Metroidvania-ish levels, and even then, it'd be very linear.
Despite us not having a map, I think we did a pretty good job at making the whole campaign flow naturally despite having to backtrack a few times. We hope it doesn't feel forced that you have to go through the same area 20 times to get anywhere.
That's refreshing, I love it when a game respects my time. I go to games to have fun, and that's something that indies do. That's something Carrion does. You can just jump into it, eat a few people, solved a few puzzles, slither around. You feel like you've accomplished something in entertainment instead of having to grind.
Yeah, we really didn't want the game to over-stay its welcome. Everyone was saying not to make it too long or too grindy.
When I'm playing the game, I often ask myself, 'how would I even begin to make something like this?' The level design, the movement, etc. It's done pretty well.
Thanks. We sometimes ask ourselves how we were even able to deliver it. There were some moments where we felt like we'd never finish.
Development time, launch windows, and Switch was the first platform of choice
Speaking of which, how long was Carrion in development for?
Three years. We started in June 2017, so three years and a month now. We had three years' worth of interviews with 100 journalists, and even after that, we didn't get to relax. It was just Sebastian and I. Once we're done with Carrion and all the patches, we definitely need some time off.
Devolver was very chill about us taking our time on the content and everything. They didn't really put too much pressure on us. But there's also the community pressure, everyone asking when the game is releasing.
I think for us, the big release incentive for us was the release of next-gen consoles. We really wanted to make it in time before those launched. Everyone will be talking about the PS5 and the new Xbox all the time, and that wouldn't be a good time to release. And after that you'd have all the super next-gen games coming out, so that wouldn't be the best time.
I think this release window we have now is pretty much perfect for the game. That's when we started feeling some pressure when we decided it was a summer 2020 launch.
The Nintendo Switch has grown up. We've seen lots of very brutal, bloody, and violent games on the Switch, including Carrion. Indies have done tremendously well on the Switch, and I think your team will see a big surge in sales. Is that something you thought about when bringing Carrion to Switch?
Early in Carrion's development, the Switch was the single platform we knew we wanted to release on. Everyone was asking about a Switch port early on, and there was this notion the Switch was the best platform for indies.
Nowadays it might not be the best because it's getting crowded.
But Carrion is a very Switch-friendly game. It's also 60FPS. It has perfect parity and Xbox One and PC pretty much. It works really well on Switch, and it was the single-most asked about question when we were in development.
Will Carrion ever come to PS4?
It wasn't until we announced the Switch version and the Xbox One version that everyone suddenly wanted a PS4 version too. Almost nobody asked for PlayStation until we announced we're releasing on everything but PlayStation.
I think there's a good chance we'll release it on PlayStation eventually. It's just a matter of time and resources. It is super strenuous to release on all platforms at once as an indie developer-all the certifications, making sure everything's working everywhere, multiple QA, it's kind of difficult.
Let's talk about Game Pass. The service has had a transformative effect on indie games insofar as sales and exposure. Game Pass allows subscribers to see games they otherwise might not have, and download them to try out. Is that something you hope to tap with Carrion's release?
Carrion releases on Game Pass day one, both on PC and Xbox One. I think Microsoft is excited about it, and it's the main reason Phil showed up to talk to the monster during the Devolver Digital stream.
We're also excited about it. But we have no idea if it will boost our exposure that much. I'm hoping with the game being so accessible by lots of Xbox owners that it does.
We will see. We have no data of our own about Game Pass. But we're very happy about the deal in general.
Carrion releases for Xbox One (and Game Pass), Steam, and Nintendo Switch on July 23, 2020.
Carrion is currently available for pre-order here: