More and more these days, the games that I like to play are games that put the narrative right at the centre, and where the game design is tailored to suit that experience.
Sam Farmer has been getting ready to go indie since he graduated college, and it seems like everything has come together to this point—to Last Life, his sci-fi/noir adventure game which is live now on Kickstarter.
In Last Life, murdered P.I. Jack Parker is 3D-printed back to life and aims to solve the mystery of his own death. This form of reincarnation is not unusual on Marstopia, a setting which Farmer describes as being “Orlando on Mars”—an idea he got in part from a talk with NASA scientists when they told him the red planet would most likely thrive on tourism. Every year during Marstopia’s “Dead Man’s Party,” the recently deceased are given a new body which expires within four hours—unless they purchase life insurance from the auspicious, possibly totalitarian, United Corps. During his “kindly” graced time, Parker may not only solve his own murder, but also uncover the buried conspiracy that lead to Earth’s destruction and the subsequent colonization of Mars. Last Life is a wry, cerebral, and dark mystery—it’s Twin-Peaks meets Douglas Adams—and it’s not quiet like anything Farmer has done before.
Before university, Farmer was a musician, then an artist, and then he was into programming, until he realized that developing games could help him explore each of his skillsets. While obtaining his degree in game design, Farmer helped develop three titles, two of which (Paper Cakes and Spectre) won IGF Student Showcase awards. He went on to work with a number of larger companies, including BBC Worldwide, before ultimately starting his own studio, Rocket Science Amusements. Over the years, his titles have ranged from the narrative-driven to the mechanics-based, from the AAA-esque to the social game. But Farmer says none of it really clicked with him.
“I was thinking about the kind of games that I want to make,” Farmer says. “[Last Life] was a search for the idea that would really resonate best with me.”
Hopefully [players] have an emotional journey… I really want to tell a compelling story, but to me the player’s experience is paramount.
It was his interest in transhumanism that finally led him to create Last Life. Over the past three years, Farmer envisioned enough story and enough characters to fit a trilogy—“The Story about Jack,” he calls it—and even further narratives spanning the solar system. Last Life will be like a one-hour pilot episode to introduce players to the series’ world and a cast of nearly a dozen main characters—one of whom is Parker’s killer. Stretching past the modest $75,000 Kickstarter goal will see the game polished, including more voice-over work done (only Jack Parker will be voiced at first), before funding the sequels. According to the Kickstarter, backers of even the lowly $15 dollar tier will receive all three titles of the trilogy if the stretch goals are reached.
Legendary indie studio Double Fine seems to think it’s cool too. Last month the studio reached out to Farmer and expressed their interest in Last Life, offering to help distribute and promote the game under their brand new publishing label “Double Fine Presents.”
“It’s really changed the project for the better,” Farmer says, “these guys have so much experience.”
While Double Fine are known for their humorous point-and-click adventures, Farmer says he was specifically intrigued by the way Kentucky Route Zero was built around atmosphere and the illusion of choice. Last Life’s four hour countdown clock, for instance, is actually only aesthetic (akin to 999) rather than a real restriction. The influence of Kentucky Route is clear, right down to the design of the dialogue trees, which feature a postmodern “@” sign before character names in the vein of Twitter. But, unlike Kentucky Route, Farmer says Last Life is not a puzzle game.
“The puzzles are all going to be in service of the story, and just to keep you engaged with it. But they are not supposed to stump you at all.”
Farmer described a scene in which Parker must get past a bouncer in order to reach a woman upstairs in a bar. The solution is not to draw your own weapon (that action will result in your head being blown off by the bouncer), but instead to anger one of the bar’s patrons in order for them to draw their weapon which results in their head being blown off, and thus distracting the bouncer who must clean up the mess. It’s amoral—but it’s glorious.
The bar is just one of many puzzle-type scenes which will occur throughout the game, but Farmer says there will be a fair split of interrogative dialogue, point-and-click detective-work, and problem-solving puzzles.
“I really wanna respect the player’s time; I’m shooting for a lot of variety.”
Farmer is working alongside a best-selling mystery writer to develop the story, as well as a composer for the game’s soundtrack, both of whom are actually members of his family.
“It’s just great to be able to collaborate with them, and, because they’re so skilled in these areas, it’s really lucky.”
If the trailer is any indication of the cool, noir voice in the writing, or the jazzy-electronic soundtrack of the final game, he’s sure right—every aspect of the game oozes with talent. Even Farmer’s own minimalistic, low-poly art style and gradient colour scheme suits the tone of the game so well that it’s hard to imagine how it could have looked any other way.
“I wanted to stretch my legs and see how far I could run with this… It’s something that I could see in a lot of my prior work being the thing that I was most proud of, but I never had one project that was all about that.”
Last Life is the culmination of Farmer’s every effort, and it’s shaping to be a stunner.
Make sure to back Last Life on Kickstarter and visit the game this week at Double Fine’s booth at PAX East.