Indie Showcase: Interview with Agustín Cordes, Creator of Asylum


Agustín Cordes is a man who’s good at his job. What does he do? He scares people, but he manages to do it in creative and engrossing ways that keep people coming back for more. With his cult-hit Scratches years behind him, we take a look into the upcoming (and long-awaited) Asylum, Senscape’s point-and-click horror adventure. For more information or to stay up-to-date, follow Agustín’s twitter or check out Asylum’s webpage.

What was your biggest inspiration for Asylum?

I always must say that the primary inspiration is H. P. Lovecraft. He’s hands down my favorite writer. I’ve been reading him since I was really, really young, and he’s easily my biggest influence in horror. Of course, over the years, I’ve seen countless horror movies that have ended up influencing Asylum, especially Italian horror movies from directors like Lucio Fulci. But it’s still definitely Lovecraft—even in the writing style, you’ll notice his influence. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written over the years. I just love his style, how he describes things, how he created this very strong atmosphere. That’s what I try to achieve in my horror games.

Can you give us background on the story at all?

Yeah! Well, I’ve always wanted to do a game based in an asylum. I mean, my previous game, Scratches, was set somewhat in a haunted house, and I wanted to explore that setting. But soon afterwards, I knew I wanted to do a horror game based in an asylum because I think they are pretty terrifying places in real life, too. They have really disturbing pasts; some pretty awful things happened in actual asylums. That’s why I think they’re the scariest places on Earth. I’ve always wanted to explore a story in that setting.

Like you mentioned earlier, you worked on Scratches, which was a huge cult hit but also the first commercial adventure game to come out of Argentina. How has that influenced Asylum’s development?

I have been a huge fan of the adventure genre, just as much as I am of horror. And that’s why I always wanted to do a traditional adventure game. The funny thing is Scratches was always supposed to be like this hardcore old-school adventure for the huge fans of the genre, and I never imagined how successful it was going to be. We’re talking about a modest success in absolute terms of the industry. I mean, games are selling millions of copies these days, but for an indie-adventure like Scratches, it was a big success, much better than I ever expected.

It obviously set the standard pretty high. How did you approach that particular challenge when you started working on Asylum?

Well, I still believe that Scratches was a flawed game. Of course, I believe its strengths outshined the really ugly flaws it had, in terms of design. You have to endure some really boring and obscure moments in the game, especially in the beginning of the game. You had to endure just too much wandering around with nothing happening until the story really kicked off, and that was my primary concern in Asylum, because it happens to be a bigger, more complex game than Scratches. I’ve been concerned with making sure players get enough hints to help them through the game. It’s an easier game compared to Scratches, but it’s much richer in terms of the experience it offers, and the story demands more of your attention. My biggest concern has been to improve the design as compared to Scratches.

You guys also created a new engine, Dagon, for the game. How will the engine work to enhance the overall mood and atmosphere of the game? 

Well, first I tried to adapt the engine for Scratches, which was called Scream, and when I began analyzing the possibility of improving that engine, I realized I was going to have to rewrite the whole thing. I was going to need to redesign partial things, so I just decided to create a whole new engine. It takes time, but I enjoy programming very much so I decided to go ahead.

I think that using Dagon, the new engine, gives us plenty of control over how we want to present the game to players. I could’ve used some of the existing engines, but it’s much easier now to include the precise effects we want to use. For example, the final game is going to include real-time moving clouds and other visual details that definitely enhance in the mood. It would be overkill to use an engine like Unity for a game like this. Asylum isn’t full 3D. That’s why a proprietary engine like Dagon, which is specifically designed for the game, will give us a lot of liberty in the way that we present the game.

When you created Dagon, was it originally meant to be open source, or did that not happen until long afterwards? 

Not really long afterwards. I would say that in early stages of development, I decided, “Yeah, let’s go ahead and make it open source.” At some point, very early, I may have had the idea like, “Wow, hey! We’re making our own engine. Let’s sell it. Let’s make money off of it.” But the money you can make from an engine like this compared to the amount of work you’d have to put into offering the service shouldn’t be the focus of the company. At the same time, I really love the open source format, and I think it’s great to give something back to the community and, in a way, to get them to participate with the engine. I’ve already received so many improvements to the engine by using the open source model, and I really love that. I don’t think we’re losing anything, but on the contrary, winning. It’s a winning situation. The community gets something, and you get invaluable feedback.

As a horror developer with a keen interest in the genre, what do you personally feel the most important element of a horror game is?

I would say that it’s the atmosphere, which is like the combination of many different factors, and that’s what I think you have to reach in a horror game. It’s something that distinguishes the game from all the rest, and that’s what really pulls you into its game world and story. It’s the whole package. You must make sure that everything works together, that nothing takes you out of the environment. That’s where I try to make sure it all works.

In a market that’s become increasingly over-saturated with horror titles, especially AAAs, what makes Asylum stand out the most?

The game is really kind of the opposite of what’s been going in horror nowadays. You see that there’s too much reliance on gore and jump scares or shocks, moments that make you feel very, very tense. I’m not going to lie to you; we do have moments like that in Asylum, but there are very few. You can count them on one hand’s fingers.

Asylum is about really subtle psychological horror, like this dreadful thing that creeps into you. The game doesn’t want to scare you with a really unexpected, shocking moment, like a creature jumping out at you. It wants to scare you with the really creepy implications of the story and the development of the plot. As the game progresses, you’ll realize just how horrible the events that occurred in the asylum are and how you are a part of those, how it all happened to you. If I were to answer really simply, I would say its the reliance on the story is what makes Asylum a different game. It doesn’t depend as much on game mechanics or on enemies or weapons. Really, it’s just about progressing in the story, finding your way as you solve the mystery.

The play area is going to be huge. The building is said to have about 100 rooms or so. Are all of these going to be story related, or are players just encouraged to explore these on their own?

I would say there are close to 100 rooms. When we say room, you could say a location counts as a room, too. For example, the inner courtyard, which is a large location, is treated as a room. I love exploration. It’s something I really like in adventure games, so not all the locations are required to solve the mystery or understand the story, but it’s definitely encouraged to make sure you visit every room. You’ll find little tidbits that won’t necessarily add to the plot but will definitely enhance the experience. They’ll make the environment more believable, and some of the details may give you a varied perspective on the story.

There are a couple of details like that in Scratches, and for the really curious players that stumbled into those subtle details and paid attention, they found a whole alternative explanation for the story. That’s what I really like in games, where if you pay attention and put energy into the games, you’re going to be rewarded. That’s the way I like to reward players. If you dedicate the time, and if you look at things and have good observation, then you’ll be rewarded.

Do you worry that because it’s a point-and-click adventure, people who aren’t die-hard fans of the genre aren’t going to go out and explore as much?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think, of course, we can’t please everybody. I’m sure some people will love the game, and others will say, “This isn’t for me”, and be done with it. If Scratches demonstrated anything to me, it’s that, if you present the story well, and you manage to get players to become really involved with the atmosphere and what’s happening in the game, then I think you’re already encouraging players to get into the game. Of course, it also depends on how much you like what you’re doing. I’m hopeful that, for the people who really click with the game, even if they aren’t fans of the genre, they’ll realize just how much effort has gone into every room and detail of the game, and I hope that will encourage them to look into the game as much as possible. There’s way too much to do and see. Every different room has something new and different to offer, and I think exploring the asylum alone will be worth it, even if you disregard the entire story.

Asylum has been Greenlit on Steam, a coveted feat for a lot of indie games. Does Senscape also plan on exploring the Big Picture feature?

Yeah! I’m always open to new technologies and different ways to experience games. I can definitely see ourselves looking into Big Picture and how Asylum can work with it.

Do you ever see Asylum being ported over to consoles? 

We’d love to see Asylum on as many platforms as possible. I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be ported to other platforms. Of course, if it’s too expensive, we might not do it. Recently, a lot of things have made consoles friendlier to indie developers. For example, up until recently it was very hard for indies to get onto consoles, because you had to get the software development key, then you had to be approved and deal with the whole buracracy for that,  and that’s all really annoying. I just want to make the game. Manufacturers may also ask you to make the game an exclusive, which I don’t like. If you ask for an exclusive, I just won’t do it. I don’t want to cut off a portion of my audience. I want to make sure the game is released everywhere at the same time, as long as we can do it. Thankfully, those annoyances have been taken care of in the console market, so I think, yeah, we might be porting Asylum to other platforms.

Can you give us any more details about Asylum’s release? Is it still slated for October 2013?

I think so, yes. Thanks to the Kickstarter, we’re making some really good progress in the game now. The only worry is that we’re too close to the holidays, and the holidays are pretty much reserved for AAA games. In the event that we’re delayed even a little bit, we may have to wait until after the holidays, so we’re not competing with all the AAA releases. Halloween is a very strong possibility, though.

Is there anything you wanted to tell our readers?

I’m always very grateful for the support we’ve been receiving. It’s been a long time coming. I’m aware Asylum’s been delayed for very long. It’s a large project, and we’re a small team who had little money until the Kickstarter.

Our fans have been so very patient with this, and I can’t thank them enough. Thank you for the Kickstarter and outpour of support we received for the campaign.

I assure you we’re very passionate about what we’re doing here, and it is definitely a game that you won’t easily forget. We’re determined to give you a very unique, scary experience with Asylum.

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