When Eerie Canal, a new independent studio formed by veterans from Harmonix and Irrational, announced its first game Dreadline, the developer conceded it was a risky concept that likely no big game publisher would touch.
Set to release early next year, the RPG/real-time-strategy PC game tasks players with controlling a squad of time-travelling monsters as they crash into historical calamities (e.g. sinking of the Titanic), and slaughter mobs of people already doomed to die. It's a speedrun-focused title, too, and will presumably reward players who kill efficiently.
Dreadline is meant to be a humorous title, as evidenced by its absurd characters and its silly slogan -- "where time is running out for those that have run out of time" -- but when details of the game appeared on consumer sites, some immediately took offense.
Critics condemned Dreadline for making light of real-life tragedies, with one remarking, "Maybe it's 'cool' to lack empathy for the victims of horrible disasters." Some even jested that Eerie Canal would be tasteless enough to design a World Trade Center/9-11 stage for the game.
"I do think the game's concept is in bad taste in a way," Eerie Canal co-founder Bryn Bennett admits to Gamasutra. "I mean, we are making jokes about terrible times in history. Hopefully there has been enough time between the events we cover and now that it's acceptable."
He adds, "We knew this game would be polarizing in a number of different ways. It looks different than most games. The content is different than most games. People are going to love it and people are going to hate it. We're ok with that. It's not going to sell a billion copies, but we're such a small team, it doesn't matter."
Screenshot from an alpha build of Dreadline
Bennett's last employer, Rock Band series developer Harmonix, wasn't known for games with violent or controversial content, but that's part of the reason why the company's former lead programmer left, so he could work on "creative and inspired games that are too risky for large studios."
He formed Boston's Eerie Canal with Steven Kimura, who was a lead artist at Harmonix, late last year. "We have been working in the industry for quite a while, and we were getting pretty burned out," says Bennett. "Personally, I felt like I joined this industry so that I could be creative, and ended up in the opposite situation."
They were soon joined by other "misfit musician game developers" from Harmonix, but the team's first project is far from the rhythm title one would expect given its history with the genre. Bennett notes, however, that he and Kimura built RTSes like Freedom Force in the past when they served as the lead programmer and lead artist respectively at Irrational Games.
"Plus, I worked on something like five-plus rhythm games at Harmonix. Time for something new!" says Bennett. And though that something new has drawn some early controversy, he says that won't affect how the group proceeds with the project -- a luxury Eerie Canal can afford as a small, self-funded indie.
Bennett argues that big game companies play everything way too safe. "I've been in way too many meetings where a bunch of creative people would come up with a crazy idea and love it, and then say "OK... but for real... what should we do." Honestly, I think we should have stayed with the original idea. That's what we're doing."
He compared Dreadline to The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey's macabre but comical book illustrating the deaths of 26 children. "The humor is very dark, but the artwork keeps it palatable and abstract," he points out. "That book would be absolutely horrifying if handled another way."
Eerie Canal looks to take a similar approach. "This is something, I'm sure, we're going to have to struggle with until the end of the project," Bennett admits. "I mean, you're controlling a group of monsters who are doing absolutely terrible things to people. We have been very careful to make the monsters as 'lovable' as possible, and to keep the violence cartoony."
As for creating a 9-11 stage, that's not going to happen. "There are a lot of modern events we would never touch. We're not trying to offend anyone. The idea of a terrible calamity happening, but it getting even worse is just funny. If you were going down in a ship, but a werewolf jumped out and bit you... it's just so stupid and over the top."
"We're all afraid of dying," he continues. "I'm just surprised that this cartoon way of death is what bothered people while photorealistic games are completely accepted. There are games about current wars that are out now, that I, personally, would consider far more offensive."