"Our game is mostly survival - it is not a horror game. We do not try to suddenly frighten a player at all costs. Instead, we wanted to create an atmosphere of sustained uncertainty and fear that eventually leads to paranoia. We believe that John Carpenter's movie The Thing is a brilliant example of such an atmosphere, and we really tried to convey this vibrant atmosphere in our game."
In the survival/strategy game Distrust the player finds themselves stranded in an abandoned arctic base after a helicopter crash. They're given control of two characters in a randomly-generated scenario and tasked with finding some way of staying warm, staying rested, and escaping their predicament. The need for test is the troublemaker in Distrust, though, as sleep makes a monster draw ever closer. Staying awake causes madness, though, with the character losing their mind in several ways.
Distrust's inspiration from The Thing doesn't lead to a showdown between characters, but one between the player and the characters they control. Is what they're seeing in the game real? What new challenges are created in surviving when you cannot even believe what the game is telling you?
Producer Artem Bochkarev, designer Vladimir Kovtun, and Stanislav Stepchenko, head of development studio Cheerdealers all weighed in on creating this breakdown of trust between player and game, and what it meant for their survival game.
Distrust borrows the idea of a remote polar setting and a strange alien force from The Thing (1982)
"In the movie The Thing, the characters cannot trust each other because anyone may be a monster. We separated the unknown aggressive force as a standalone antagonist and introduced an additional game feature – madness."
The developers at Cheerdealers were looking to create a survival game, and in many ways, The Thing felt like a perfect inspiration.
"First of all, we are fans of this movie. When we decided to create a survival game, it was the The Thing that came to mind," says Bochkarev. "Moreover, we are all from Novosibirsk, Siberia, so we are no strangers to snow, cold, and other severe climate conditions. In addition, the setting of the film – some polar base, lost in snow in the middle of nowhere – is almost a perfect setting for a survival game."
Freezing cold, blowing snow, and an abandoned base made for an excellent setting where players would need to work hard just to stay alive. Even better, the film had a hint of a neat mechanic already buried within its story. Having several people at a frigid base all trying to figure out if any of them were infested with an alien life form would breed distrust between them, which gave the developers an interesting idea.
"We did not aim at making a game out of the movie," says Bochkarev. "We were greatly inspired by it, but we wanted to make something new out of this inspiration. In the original movie, the characters cannot trust each other because anyone may be a monster. We separated the unknown aggressive force as a standalone antagonist and introduced an additional game feature – madnesses. This reflects in the title: a player sees the scene through the eyes of a survivor; by 'distrust', we mean that a player cannot trust a character who is mad."
"We are all from Novosibirsk, Siberia, so we are no strangers to snow, cold, and other severe climate conditions."
What is something the characters would need that the developers could play on? Sleep. Survivors would need rest in this difficult climate on top of warmth and food, and it's one whose lack could cause certain psychological effects. By making players choose between rest where they could potentially die, or staying awake and developing a dangerous mental effect, they could add not only a complex decision for players to make, but also create a distrust between the player and character, emulating that important part of The Thing's atmosphere.
"The intention is pretty simple – there are tons of great survival games on Steam, and we wanted our game to have something new; some feature that would make our game more attractive and interesting," says Bochkarev. "Instead of working on some other setting or creating some additional monsters, we've come up with an idea of adding another gameplay dimension to the game."
"By staying awake too long, players can developer different mental issues, false visions of monstrosities and other perception-altering afflictions, all of which obscure useful information that the player needs in order to stay alive."
"The verb ‘survive' means to go through difficult circumstances and not let them affect you very much - to continue to exist even after being in a dangerous situation. Therefore, a true survivor should reach the very edge and then overcome whatever threatens their lives."
Surviving a randomly generated snowswept abandoned base and finding the means to stay alive within it would already be the challenge that the developers mentioned, but madness adds another twist of the knife. By staying awake, players can developer different mental challenges, from visions of monstrosities to other perception-altering afflictions, all of which obscure useful information from the player that they need to stay alive. These madnesses can be avoided by resting, but that can bring the attention of a monster that kills them.
"In addition to surviving in severe climate conditions we also added this element of balance between sleeping and staying awake," says Bochkarev. "This is another edge that we put the survivors at. Of course, through these very mechanics, we also implemented the interactions between the survivors and the aggressive force: anomalies come and threaten the survivors when they fall asleep. However, we do see this search for the balance between sleeping and staying awake as an additional situation that the characters should go through."
"The initial prototypes featured a complicated crafting system. In the end, we decided to completely drop it."
Distrust was initially imagined as a more complex game, with players having to find items that could be crafted to form useful tools and survival means. This, however, seemed to glut the game with details, taking away from that rush of trying to escape while avoiding the mental effects of staying awake for too long.
"The initial prototypes of Distrust featured a complicated crafting system. In the end, we decided to completely drop it," says Bochkarev. "We only kept an option of repairing instruments. All the other things – searching for parts, then making some tool out of them, then improving it – we excluded everything."
"Our game is not about a character who should fight with weather and nature by building some safe space," he continues. "Our base is a place that you do not want to stay at. You have to get out, because of both the severe weather conditions and the unknown aggressive force that comes in the form of anomalies."
"We did our best not to turn this system into a race against time."
This version of survival – crafting items and players looking around for items they would need to survive – was more designed around a weathering of the storm. It focused on staying in one place, which would run counter to the strengths of the madnesses and anomalies.
These creatures and effects make the player want to leave, which would make for a different kind of survival – fleeing the situation, and doing whatever it took to make that flight happen. This meant a paring down of the initial concept, but one that made the game's atmosphere of distrust much stronger.
"The distrust makes the game even more dynamic. Not only should you hurry to find the way out, but you must also avoid the madnesses, because once you have one (or some) it may slow you down and eventually your character will die," says Bochkarev. "We did our best not to turn this system into a race against time, we do hope that we have successfully navigated this search of balance."
"In Distrust , the player controls two survivors, with an option of switching between them. If they develop different forms of madness, you can get a different picture each time you shift between them."
This form of survival would mean a breakdown of trust between the player and the characters they controlled. Games can often focus on clarity, providing players with details on their environment, their character's well-being, and aspects of how they can succeed. Distrust 's central element looks to shatter that trust, creating a nervous tension in the player as to whether they can really accept what the game is showing them. This creates a compelling extra layer of detective work while also creating tension.
The developers did give the players tools to figure things out, though. "In Distrust , the player controls two survivors, with an option of switching between them. You always see the base through the eyes of one of the survivors. When you switch between them, the picture changes as well," says Bochkarev. "Of course, you will see or hear the changes only if a survivor gets a madness. If both survivors are mad (by the way, each of them may have several maddnesses at a time), you can get a different picture each time you shift between them the characters."
Players can change between characters to get a better idea of which one is afflicted, and use that information to discard certain elements. However, it may not be long before both have come down with something, forcing the player to make decisions on what they can trust and what they can't.
"The sleep/madness system was much easier to design than the random generation."
For survival game fans, and for the team at Cheerdealers, this is just like any other survival element in most survival games. Players will have to assess whether they push themselves harder in a difficult state, or try to counteract the difficult state they find themselves in. It's no different than pushing a starving character to move on or find food.
"As for the sleep/madness system, it was much easier in comparison to the random generation. Basically, we fixed the metric the way that any decision a player takes could work out fine," says Bochkarev. "Players decide by themselves to either take the risk of staying awake and getting another madness or to fall asleep and attract monsters."
"However, neither of the decisions is a lethal one. A player always has a chance to both manage a new madness and cope with anomalies. Sometimes it takes skills, sometimes it takes a specific set of circumstances, but either way, there always is a chance if you act quickly and efficiently."
"The player has to decide whether to waste time playing detective (with possibly no benefit), or rush ahead based on what they guess may be true."
While similar in that it's something players will have to decide how to cope with, and often be able to find their own ways to cope with that make the game more engrossing, it also provides an opportunity for the developer to have a little fun with making troublesome states for the player. "In addition, some madnesses were created just for fun (although, constantly repeated Shakespeare's quotes may drive someone crazy), others may even be useful, and others are very easy to manage."
The madnesses are an extension of regular problems players have in survival games – food, warmth, and rest, and dealing with what happens when you lack one. It's again up to the player how they wish to deal with those issues. However, that breakdown of trust between player and game adds yet another aspect to Distrust 's flight-based form of survival. Now, the player has to decide whether to waste time playing detective (to possibly no benefit), or rush ahead based on what they guess may be true.
The results are a stressful campaign and a brand new thing for players to concern themselves with. While breaking down trust between player and game can create some frustrations in many games, in Distrust , it has been used to add tension and a whole new survival element. It enhances the flight-based survival the developers were shooting for, and was a fine thing to carry over from The Thing.
And it's also gotten players talking and sharing, helping each other with their own survival ideas and techniques. Even outside of Distrust's world, the game is drawing people into banding together to survive.
"As for the system that lies to players, we think it is self-evident to a certain extend," says Bochkarev. "We monitor players' feedback on Steam and see that the game still has some points that are not clear for the players. But on the other hand, we see players come to Steam Hub to discuss strategies, to share the info on different madnesses and anomalies, to create guides and help each other with advice. We believe that it's great when some lack of clarity may involve players in active discussions."