The Darwin Project, the first game from Montreal studio Scavengers, brings a player-generated narrative experience to the saturated battle royale genre, and it has an open beta out this weekend. Uther Dean talks to the people behind it.
With Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds coming seemingly out of nowhere to dominate 2017, the age of the battle royale is upon us. It seems such an inevitable and logical progression in gaming trends that it’s hard to remember that the genre was almost unheard of a year ago. Now it’s almost all we can see. Fortnite is already up and running as a competitor to Battlegrounds – judging on how modern gaming reacts to the faintest whiff of a trend, it won’t be alone for long.
The Darwin Project, the first game from Montreal studio Scavengers, looks at first glance to be simply an early contender in the inevitable deluge of battle royale games. The key points of difference, judging by the trailers, are the chilly climate of the arena in which you play (cold damage is a large part of play) and a cartoonish aesthetic that sits about equidistant between Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch.
But when I sit down to chat about the game and its upcoming beta weekends with Simon Darveau, co-founder of Scavengers, and Katie Stone Perez, the director of interactive and developer success at Mixer, Microsoft’s streaming platform (they’ve teamed up with Scavengers to stream the beta weekends), I learn that this game has a lot more going on than you might first assume.
Darveau is quick to point out that The Darwin Project‘s development predates the recent rise of the battle royale genre. The game’s genesis can be traced back to 2015, when Darveau was inspired by the emergent narratives he was seeing while playing DayZ, the hardcore zombie survival game where players’ desperate interactions form the game’s sole narrative.
“The first time I played DayZ, I realised that even though there is not much happening, there is a kind of social interaction in the game that is extremely meaningful,” he says. “It creates experiences that had never been seen before.”
Darveau’s concept for the game also took cues from a more surprising source: reality television. “I thought, you know what, there are reality shows that are very, very popular as far as entertainment goes,” he says. “For some reason, it seems that the realm of video games actually doesn’t even try to leverage this value.”
The Darwin Project takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape in the Northern Canadian Rockies. In preparation for an impending Ice Age, a new project – half science experiment, half live entertainment – is launched. It’s called The Darwin Project and it challenges participants to survive the cold and fight to the death.
Darveau wanted The Darwin Project to take the emergent story-telling of DayZ and heighten it through the tropes and style of reality TV. To achieve that he built the game around three tent-pole concepts. The first is the battle royale format: a large number of players are put into a specific environment and the last one alive wins. He says he likes the format because “it’s actually the same rule set as any reality TV show.”
The second core idea is where The Darwin Project gets interesting. As well as all the players duking it out, there is a person playing as what they call the Show Director. Darveau compares the Show Director role to the game makers in The Hunger Games. They can influence players, they can change the environment, they can turn the tide of the battle.
They are also camera-people and commentators. The Show Director is designed very much with video game streaming in mind (hence the partnership with Mixer), with Scavenger codifying a lot of the ways that people have hacked story into games like PUBG on Twitch. Whereas in the past you’d have to push the limits of the game to give it some of your personality – for example, how you stream to the public or play with your friends – personalisation is part of The Darwin Project’s DNA. Along with a very granular character creator, the Show Director allows players to express themselves freely no matter what role they play.
“What’s amazing is that when you watch two different Show Directors, they play so differently,” says Perez. “Not only have they built this amazing system for the players in the battle, but also the show director can really bring their personality to it. I think you’re going to see viewers start to follow [individual] Show Directors.”
The third core idea is interactivity between the game and audience watching it on a stream. The Show Director will be able to ask the audience to vote on certain outcomes and decisions within the game, with the aim of making spectating as immersive as playing the game. Mixer is already built from the ground up for interactivity like that, Darveau explains, so a partnership with Scavenger seemed obvious.
The Darwin Project, if it makes good on all its promises – and the passion with which Darveau speaks of the project makes it clear that Scavenger are giving it their best shot – could be a real step forward for the battle royale genre, and possibly even how we experience game streams in general.
While the game is aiming for a launch sometime this quarter, this weekend Scavenger and Mixer are holding a Beta Weekend with members of the dev team stepping up as Show Directors, so we’ll all have a chance to see if we’d survive The Darwin Project.
The Darwin Project Open Beta runs from February 23 – February 26 on PC. You can keep updated with the game on the Scavenger home page right here.
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