In its pre-release state, The Low Road has looked extremely impressive. Ben McCurry chats to the team behind the game to find out why the game could be a surprise hit in 2017.
The Low Road’s initial trailer arrived to little fanfare on the internet. How could it have made much noise anyway over the deafening din of the arguments spurred by Breath of the Wild, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Yooka-Laylee? In a line-up, The Low Road is far and away the smallest game listed here, outclassed in team numbers, prestige, and budgets, but there’s a reason this article exists: based on everything we’ve seen of this game so far, and the creativity being shown by the developers, I believe The Low Road could unseat these gaming goliaths this year, with the potential to become an unseen surprise hit. I caught up with the team behind the new game to follow up on why I reckon The Low Road is going to be the year’s sleeper hit.
The creators, XGen Studios, are based out of Edmonton, Canada, and have a team of just seven people. A full complement for a team working on independent titles, but absolutely dwarfed by AAA studios. Why this number feels important is that The Low Road was made by an independent staff with AAA aspirations. There’s no complacency here, no “ah, it’ll do”; the seven members of this team are doing the work far beyond their numbers and this shines through in several facets: story, musical design, graphics, and the overall tone of the game. Their commitment to the craft of making games and the sheer visible effort put in here obviates itself.
Unusually, The Low Road is set in the 1970s, which is usually a decade shied away from by developers: period piece games usually tend towards either the 60s or the 80s. I asked visual lead of the game, Scott Carmichael, more about this design choice.
“We noticed that a lot of games that draw upon the nostalgia of the 1980s, and a lot of spy themed games that take inspiration from the slick clean style of the 1960s James Bond movies. I think people shy away from the 1970s because they tend to associate it with peace signs and lava lamps, but there’s an incredibly rich visual language to draw from in terms of graphic design, fashion, pattern, and colour palettes. We focused on a gritty 70s look because we haven’t seen too many games set in this period and setting the game in a time before Google and cell phones allows for interesting challenges for the characters to overcome with clunky gadgets and a steady hand.” As such, this game really has no precedents, no strong inspirations to work off thematically, meaning it blazes its own trail, and should be a very unique package come release day.
Period pieces, in any medium, can be difficult to write, given that you’re faced with the double challenge of both coming up with a good narrative and evoking the time period well. Happily, though, The Low Road uses a host of movies as inspiration for the era that add a lot of depth to its world. The writer of the game, Leif Oleson-Cormack, told this to Ludotempus: “We drew a lot of inspiration from paranoia-tinged films of the era, such as The Conversation, All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and The Verdict. Another big source of inspiration was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which heavily influenced the look and mindset of the game’s villainous organization, Docillio.”
Similarly, Eric Cheng, The Low Road’s music director, commented this: “The Low Road takes place in 1976, which is a time when Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon had sold the most vinyl records to date and bands like Fleetwood Mac were given endless time and resources by a thriving music industry to meticulously construct studio masterpieces. With the popular excitement and commercial success of studio crafted albums by bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys a decade earlier, the direction of record production had shifted from quickly capturing live performance to long days in the studio.”
There’s a lot of pedigree in these sources and inspirations, but more than just suggesting that the development team has good taste in music and movies, it demonstrates the rich and immersive world that players will be able to sink into when they play The Low Road – great pains have been taken to create a world as well as create a game, and this will shine through on release day. Much of the game already seems so sumptuous and sensual, and knowing that the creators have done their homework in making this game proves this feeling to be true.
Choosing an espionage story, especially one that’s a period piece, is another daring move, but one that makes the game even more unique. Although they were set in the 60s, No One Lives Forever and From Russia With Love came out well over a decade ago, and as such, there’s been a massive hole in the market for a stylised spy game that XGen are wise to fill and that fans are clamouring for.
Yet a game like this absolutely needs two things: both a fantastic plot and the right game engine to support it. Instead of writing the game in-house, which can have mixed results, XGen have recruited Leif Oleson-Cormack, an award-winning playwright, to write the game’s script. This speaks to the level of quality that the game’s plot promises, and “award-winning” is not a term used lightly, with Oleson-Cormack receiving the prestigious Samuel French Canadian Playwright Award. Yet, more than just having a quality writer on board, Leif is passionate about games. The Low Road’s producer, Kaelyn Boyes, spoke more about this. “While Leif has never worked on a game before, he is an avid point and click fan so he understood the writing style and type of narrative game design required for this genre. Leif’s quirky wit is evident in the character’s dialogue and his background in world building gave the game a sense of familiarity and believability.” Indeed, in a discussion with Ludotempus, Leif told us more about the game’s direct influences. “We were heavily influenced by the point-and-click LucasArts games of the 1990s, particularly Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max and Day of the Tentacle.”
Theatre initially may seem to have nothing to do with gaming, but Leif is proving himself to be another great choice for the project. Boyes continues, “We have found that team members who have not worked in the industry give a unique perspective and variety to the game design because their influences are often deeply rooted outside of the world of video games. Leif’s experience in theatre helped us communicate this immersive world using a single camera angle.” When you take a minute to think about this logic, choosing Oleson-Cormack makes much more sense. 2D video games, as The Low Road will occur in “rooms”; each building, house, or street constitutes a “room” with doors and portals connecting those rooms to one another. As players, we face these rooms head-on, exactly like the audience at a theatre, meaning this game needs to be mindful of staging and how levels are designed, and who better for that than Leif Oleson-Cormack? This mindfulness by XGen of how the game looks, is set up, and the significance of every object in the game is perfect, and really feeds into not just the cinematic aspects of the point-and-click genre but also the aesthetic of the game. This promises players a great story to dive into – the full voice acting (which, at this early stage, sounds great) is just the icing on the cake.
Just take a look at any of the promotional materials: The Low Road is gorgeous. The game is stylised in a quintessential 70s fashion, with graphics being styled after gouache paintings, a medium of art that experienced a surge of popularity in the decade. Gouache, for those unacquainted, can be described as “opaque watercolour” and gives a more vivid and vibrant painting on canvas. Initially, this only goes to show what a visual treat this game will be; I followed up with Scott Carmichael again for more information on their reasons for the choice.
“Our goal was to create a look that would evoke 1970s television in a way that still felt modern. Gouache painting was a very popular way for concept artists in the 1970s to illustrate their ideas for film and television. One particular influence of mine for The Low Road is the artist Ralph McQuarrie who worked on the concept art for the original Star Wars movies. There’s a certain simplicity to his paintings while still being incredibly immersive. Gouache paint, by nature, is fairly flat, however McQuarrie uses the texture of the paper to provide a believable feel to the surfaces he paints while still retaining a fairly graphic look. So, for The Low Road we wanted to use the texture of gouache paint to give the game a more natural look which we haven’t seen too often in video games.”
Happily, the plot itself looks both entertaining and conducive to a great point-and-click title. You play as Noomi Kovacs (a female lead, which is another win for XGen) who has just graduated from the LeCarre Institute for Exceptional Spies. On the heels of her academic success, she gains a job with the espionage division of Penderbrook Motors, a car manufacturer acting as a front for the spy action that Noomi and her sour superior, Turn, will get up to. Playing from both their perspectives, we’ll get to experience top-secret spy missions relating to new industry secrets within car manufacturer, with the game’s synopsis promising betrayal, blackmail, and duplicity as Kovacs attempts to get to the top of the world of espionage. Already, this is an exciting concept: the intricate plot provides a fantastic framework for puzzle-solving as a main gameplay mechanic, while also suggesting the game will be heavily narrative-focused, perhaps in a similar vein to other puzzle-adventures like Ace Attorney. As such, with the writing conducted by a virtuoso, we should be prepared for an engrossing plot that will get the internet talking.
Yet, all of this would be wildly disappointing and meaningless without the right soundtrack to back it all up. Thankfully, the sound design as described by music lead Eric Cheng puts any fears to bed. “Noomi romanticizes the adrenaline-filled spy life of movies she grew up with, and I could imagine her humming along to Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger theme song as she pictures herself in action. Turn and his rat-pack agency have “seen better days” and are getting left behind by new technologies and objectives in spying and rival agencies that risk more in progressive times. To me, these characters’ musical souls are tied to singers like Nancy Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Diana Ross.” The trailers already on offer give testimony to how the music pulses with excitement, fits the decade, and takes inspiration from the aforementioned artists. When your music takes cues from Shirley Bassey and Elvis Presley and sounds as good as it does in these early stages, there’s a very strong chance it could be the soundtrack of the year.
However, more interestingly, and an aspect we’ve yet to see in promotional materials is the character of Win Well. Created by Cheng, he is modelled on old-school American crooners such as Bing Crosby. Win Well exemplifies the struggle of old vs new represented in the game, struggling to keep up with new musicians such as ABBA and David Bowie in the same way Turn cannot keep up with the new world of espionage. Cheng explains, “He drops in on the game’s soundtrack every once in a while between conversations, in moments of reflection, and during beats in the action.” This offers up even more intrigue; perhaps Win Well will appear as a narrator, tying the plot together? Whatever his purpose turns out to be, he exemplifies the final and overarching reason why this game is shaping up to be both a masterpiece and a giant-killer in 2017.
Everything is connected in The Low Road. Nothing has been thrown in for the sake of it. All the pieces of this game, from narrative, to gameplay, setting, music and graphics; all of them are working together in harmony, and as such, it’s going to make for a much better final product. The intricate and well-written story lends itself perfectly to the point-and-click genre, which thrives with the support of a good narrative. Point-and-clicks also need a deep and compelling world to play in; the 1970s backdrop provides just that. Inspired by that very era? Spine-tingling ambient music taking cues from the decade’s greatest artists, and beautiful visuals that mimic the era’s biggest artistic trend. Everything works hand-in-glove with each other to create the best game possible. That’s why The Low Road could be this year’s sleeper hit, and if the year’s biggest releases like Persona 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Super Mario Odyssey aren’t careful, they could very well embarrass themselves going up against The Low Road.
The Low Road arrives on Steam on April 20th worldwide.