“In a sense,” says Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Journey to the Savage Planet, “this is a game for middle-aged people.” And in an instant, I’m sold.
“I want a game I can finish, I want a game that doesn’t take a thousand hours, I want a game that kind of reminds me of the Sega blue skies stuff, that I feel happy turning it on instead of being miserable and weighed down by things I don’t understand unless I’ve put in 100 hours. I don’t want an infinite game! I want it to finish!”
Alex is playing to the room, for sure – in this case, the room being a cozy hotel suite just on the outskirts of this year’s GDC, the audience a couple of men like myself with more than a dash of grey in their facial hair – but good god has he got a point. And he certainly knows what he’s talking about, having come from the world of triple-A development, alongside many of his team at the 25-strong Typhoon Studios, who count Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Army of Two – Army of Two! – among their past triumphs.
“When you’re working on those big triple-a games, you’re often doing the buffet lunch version of game design,” says Hutchinson. “You’re spending so much money that you need to appeal to everyone, you ask marketing who the audience is and they say ‘everybody’. That’s not an answer! You have to hit everything – multiplayer, single-player, co-op, UGC – anything you can imagine you have to fit into it so people can find the game that they want. It became obvious to us we wanted to create a game that was unique, was its own thing, was created by a small team that we like.”
That game is being properly unveiled here at GDC for the first time, and it took me a little by surprise. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t paying proper attention during its reveal at last year’s Game Awards – look, it was late, and I might have had a drink or two – but having seen the first trailer I’d assumed it was a more intimate No Man’s Sky, a sci-fi survival game set on some faraway colourful planet. It’s not, it turns out, and is something just as exciting – maybe more so. Journey to the Savage Planet plots its own course, somewhere between Metroid Prime and Dishonored, for a flavour that’s very much its own.
“We’re not trying to do everything for everyone anymore,” explains Hutchinson. “We’re trying to make a funny, optimistic first person explore ’em-up.” Exploration is the key here, as you set foot on a colourful planet on behalf of Kindred Aerospace – proudly the fourth best exploration company in the universe – and scan the environment, charting the space and sending back word of your discoveries to your employer. There’s a sense of intrigue, too, as you set foot on a planet you’re told is uninhabited but spot traces of intelligent life out on the further reaches of the vista.
It’s a world that holds true to that beloved old maxim ‘see those, mountains, you can go there’, with your journey taking you to the peaks of the planet that are visible from the offset. Not that it’s a straight path, mind, with a small element of gear gating as you craft items that help you reach previously unreachable areas (and in our demo that’s thanks to a trusty grappling hook, unlocked late on in proceedings). A little bit Metroid, then? Well, yes, but you can also brute force solutions thanks to the gadgets you find in your possession, such as a pink jelly you can fire out that serves as a trampoline. “We’re open to speed running,” says Hutchinson. “Someone’s going to bust it in all sorts of ways. There’s a rough structure and we’re gating certain sections – but I’m sure after five minutes of releasing it someone will find a way around it.”
It’s a laid-back approach to what looks like a remarkably laid-back kind of game that’s never really fussy about how you go about things. It’s unfussy in a way that most triple-a games aren’t, a reaction to the team’s previous work in the salt mines of Montreal’s dev scene, and a very welcome one. “We used to joke that hidden content was wasted content,” says Hutchinson. “We’re breaking the rules on this one! We’re hiding a lot of the content – the basic premise is that you as a player should be rewarded for exploration. The main path of the game is 10-12, but if you rush through it you’ll probably miss half of it.”
Not that you’d want to miss out on a lot of it, as Journey to the Savage Planet is the kind of game that invites you to poke at it. It’s a world of clunking character, with jetpacks that stutter and belch out smoke and steam, purple critters that scream and then burst into even more purple screaming critters when you blast them and flying octopuses that explode in showers of gloopy ink. It’s got the colour and character of those early-noughties games that were once loved but aren’t spoken about enough these days – things like Metal Arms: Glitch in the System – and is the kind of thing that’s all too rare these days. As a proudly middle-aged player, I can’t wait.