ANIMAL’s “Game Plan” feature asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Allen Trivette, creator of the indie game Spirits of Xanadu.
If you’re a fan of science fiction in any medium, the premise of Spirits of Xanadu will likely be a familiar one: A starship called the Xanadu, roaming the universe in an alternate version of the year 1983, has discovered some sort of alien object, and whatever it was has caused things to go very badly for the crew. Now the ship is stranded in space and your character has boarded the Xanadu and is tasked with fixing it up and sending it home. And since it’s a video game, you’ll also have the ship’s robots to contend with as you explore it.
Spirits of Xanadu is primarily the work of two men: Allen Trivette, a game designer living in Tennessee who built the game, and the UK-based Lee Williams, responsible for the words contained therein. Trivette told ANIMAL that the inspiration for Spirits of Xanadu came from many of the usual suspects that nerds would expect from reading the description above: the films 2001, Solaris, Alien and Stalker, and the games Deus Ex and System Shock 2. “I wanted to combine an interesting sci-fi story, full of mystery and awe, with the kind of interactive and immersive environment found in that immersive sim genre of games,” Trivette said, referring to the sort of non-linear gaming experience in which the structure (if not the specifics) reflects what it would be like to be put into a given situation in real life. The game’s visuals reflect the throwback nature of its influences as well, as Spirits of Xanadu looks much more like a product of the ‘90s in both style and graphical fidelity than it does a game launched in 2015.
In Spirits of Xanadu, that means you’re dumped onto the Xanadu, now devoid of life aside from the malfunctioning opposing robots and thus moody as hell, with a task but no direction. You need to get the ship moving, and you can try to figure out what happened to the crew if you’d like — doing so will present you with some new options for what to do with the Xanadu. That choice is key, and the nature of this type of game is that it’s possible to play Spirits of Xanadu through to the end without realizing there even is a choice, one way or another.
Trivette began work on the game in 2013, treating it, he said, as “another one of my hobby projects.” Trivette makes games as a moonlighting gig in addition to working a day job, and typically would release them online for free; he’d been working with Williams in this capacity for a couple years. For much of that time he sort of casually constructed it because he “had no idea where the project was going” but he kept grinding away at it because Williams had given him a story he felt was quality and didn’t want to waste it. And then one day “it clicked and I went full bore on it. I don’t even remember how it ‘clicked’, it just did.”
From there, Trivette said, he began to spend 40-plus hours per week getting Spirits of Xanadu into shape so he could push it through Steam Greenlight. Steam is the predominant storefront for PC games, and Greenlight is the democratic process by which independent games without traditional publisher support can break into that platform. The campaign was a success last June, but it took another nine months of work before it was ready.
What sets Spirits of Xanadu apart from the other games of its ilk, particularly those two cited as influences, is an option to play on the so-called “peaceful mode” in which the robots do not attack you. They still will wander through the ship, creeping you out, but you’ll be able to explore the Xanadu and repair it unmolested. Spirits of Xanadu is a horror game even in this mode — perhaps even more so — as the player is better able to appreciate the more subtly unsettling facets of this derelict vessel. This mode helps bring the experience more in line with the films that influenced Trivette, which are more slowly troubling than a shooter game ever really could be — it’s only physically peaceful.
Just having this as an option is unusual. As I noted when I asked him about it, usually the developers of a game that contains shooting will consider the shooting to be the game, and so if you’re just here for the story you have to suffer through it to get to the good stuff. Longtime gamers generally treat this as a fact of life. But Trivette thought of it differently.
“I felt confident in adding “Peaceful mode” because there are a whole subset of people who aren’t interested in combat and there are enough things to do apart from that to make the experience still worthwhile. The combat in Spirits is more of a backdrop, it wasn’t the focus,” Trivette said. “The main attraction was meant to be other areas of the game, with the combat providing a kind of balance to spice things up a bit.” He said this mode has been received warmly enough by players that he’ll do something similar with any future games he makes where it fits. Games are very often surrounded by numerous barriers to entry — for Trivette, removing at least this one made very clear economic sense. And from an art standpoint, it’s meaningful to remove an obstacle that impedes the player’s ability to consume the aspects of the game that the artist deems most important.
As a piece of game art, Spirits of Xanadu is an ideal construction: accessible and contained enough that it can be played through in a few hours, in a setting small enough that it’s never overwhelming. So much about Spirits seems fairly typical, being an indie game built in the author’s spare time, with a story that at first glance appears to be stock sci-fi. But as is always the case when someone makes something good, the whole is something other than the sum.
Spirits of Xanadu is available on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam, Humble and icth.io for $14.99