The lifecycle of something B-grade usually goes like so: Critics get the first whiff. It smells bad enough to stain their tongues, which they use to crow about said badness. In gaming, this can be an especially cruel time for ‘mid-tier’ games, because unlike cinema there is still little precedent for them. Mixed to middling reviews ensue. Deadlines and first impressions are, together, incapable of finding the blood diamond in what is sometimes overtly dismissed. Time passes, though, and some people wonder: “Why and how am I enjoying this?”
B-grade artistry is born buried alive. Subsequently its charms take time to unearth, appreciate or even recognise. One could argue that if it was not ordained as terrible enough by tastemakers of the day, there would be no cause to notice the unique fusion reaction that can take place between big ambitions and small budgets. It is not the work of amateurs. It is the work of professionals with a collective Icarus complex and the freedom inherent in minor means to sizzle their wings. The result is often a mutation neither intended by its creators nor easily defined as gratifying by its fans: Something that is pretty good, because it can be kind of bad.
B-grade artistry is born buried alive. Subsequently its charms take time to unearth, appreciate or even recognise.
Like The Technomancer, developed by French studio Spiders and distributed by their equally as French publisher Focus Home Interactive in 2016. Aesthetically reminiscent of mid-2000s Bioware, The Technomancer’s multi-stance, dodge-heavy combat actually has more in common with Dark Souls (and was reportedly influenced by the design team’s fondness for FromSoftware’s nightmarish darlings). Its narrative can be just as complex and unforgiving, albeit in a more consistently pleasing way: Cut off from earth for centuries, the colonies of mars have become insular, warring corporate domes governed by dictatorships and theocracies that have developed in the void left by an increasingly mysterious point of origin. Complicating matters are the titular technomancers, an elite warrior caste born into unstable electrical powers and raised to form the vanguard of each dome’s military. You’re one of them.
“This sector is indeed on a roll,” says Cédric Lagarrigue, Focus Home Interactive’s CEO. “The most popular games on PC are often ‘B-grade’ games. A glance on Steam lets us to see that. There’s less of them on consoles as the barriers to enter are rather high, and the market is very structured with few releases per week, mostly blockbusters. However, this trend is changing, notably thanks to digitalisation. This is akin to cinema – the audience needs diversity, they will not only go watch super hero flicks or Star Wars movies. They also need to go watch Get Out, It, or La La Land.”
Every generation has seemed to have its maestro of mid-tier misfire. For the seventh, it was arguably Alpha Protocol. The Technomancer is the most imperfectly perfect example of a B-grade video game produced by gaming’s eighth. It’s even a curiously unlabelled descendent of 2013’s Mars: War Logs, a kind of hilarious inversion of how something like Troll 2 isn’t actually the sequel to Troll (and was originally titled Goblins, having no trolls in it).
“While working on Mars: War Logs we had to cut a lot of ideas, because we knew we had a very short development, a small team and not much money,” explains Jehanne Rousseau, Spiders’ creative director. “It was a more intimate story for these reasons, and a lot of elements were very limited, like the crafting for example. With Technomancer, the means were completely different, so even if the universe is the same, we had finally the possibility to achieve some of the ideas we had in mind some years before. It’s the proof that there is a public for different universes, but that this public is demanding. With Mars: War Logs we really did our best at the time, and there are things I still really love in the story and characters, but as I already said, we couldn’t do miracles.”
What a studio scrounging for resources can do instead is take risks, which is where the real mid-tier magic starts to take place.
“It is difficult to take risks with significant budgets,” says Cédric. “An average AAA game needs to appeal to over five million players to be profitable, and often even more. It is difficult on that kind of project to take risks, as it needs to be polished, dramatic, with an attractive universe that has proven its worth – often, a sequel or a strong license. As such, we’ll often find original and singular things in smaller productions.”
Original and singular things like a disabled party member – Andrew, initially missing his arm –, who also reveals himself as atypically (by gaming’s low standards) queer if your conversational choices prompt him to express as much.
“When I’m creating characters I’m always trying to think about them as true beings. They have to be unique, to be complex, to have goals, dreams and flaws,” says Jehanne. “When I’m thinking about them they begin to take life, and after a while, in some ways I’m living with them. Andrew is one of my favorite characters, and when I thought about him, it was obvious to me that he has been deeply hurt, not only in his mind but also in his flesh. He was cut from his main talent, because he was too talented. From this idea came the fact he had lost one of his arms. Hands are what make us creators.”
Further to that, The Technomancer’s main character, Zachariah Mancer, is heavily and permanently facially scarred from the outset. It’s not quite the same as Call of Duty: Black Ops II where, if you don’t avoid the burning pipe the left side of Mike Harper’s face will be disfigured for the rest of the game, or how Shepard’s complexion reddens with ruin the more you Renegade. It’s completely unromantic and non-stylised. It’s intrinsic.
“Here again, I think it’s important to show that the background history of a character can be visible,” Jehanne says. “Our scars tell our history, even in real life. And history doesn’t make people ugly, it makes them true, and most of the time gives them a deeper intimate beauty. That’s what I was aiming for in creating a scarred hero. I’m not fond of smooth characters, I find them boring. I want my characters to have personality before anything. Bioware games are an inspiration, of course, even if The Technomancer’s demanding action combat is more influenced by The Witcher games,” Jehanne continues. “The universe itself is in fact inspired by western books and movies more than games. Philip K. Dick is our main inspiration, and movies like Blade Runner and Total Recall are also references.”
“Our scars tell our history, even in real life. And history doesn’t make people ugly, it makes them true, and most of the time gives them a deeper intimate beauty.” – Jehanne Rousseau
Those distinctly American influences act as refraction. It’s here where things start to become definably B-grade, because non-Western creative processes tend to differ wildly between regions and their figurative and literal translation to English often adds to the artistry. The Technomancer’s permeably odd Frenchness is often cited as part of its charm.
“It’s a complicated process. We’re detailing the world, quest and stories in French, and then we work with American writers not only to translate but also to adapt and really write in English,” Jehanne explains. “Most of the time we have to correct the French dialogues afterwards, to stay close to the English texts. We thought about writing directly in English, but I’m alas not fluent enough for that. It would take me a lot more time, and we would need English or American writers to rewrite the whole game anyway. And to exchange daily with our game and quest designers, to be sure to keep a consistent story, we need to use our team’s mother language. It’s not a perfect process, but it’s the best we can use so far. It was difficult to help the US voice director for the recording,” she continues, “not only because of the language difference, but also because of the time difference! I had to spend hours late at night on Skype to answer all the voice director questions for weeks. It was a very tiring, but interesting experience.”
“Focus works with some of the best independent studios in Europe, such as DONTNOD, Deck13, Larian, Asobo, Cyanide and Spiders,” Cédric adds. “However I am not under the impression we are creating games meant exclusively for a European audience. Actually, nearly half our income comes from the United States of America. Players around the world are lucky to get to play games produced everywhere in the world, and not just American or Japanese productions. There is a lot of talent, creativity and diversity in Europe, which greatly complements the current offerings.”
The Technomancer has started to take on a cult-like status usually reserved for very specific B-grade films from the ‘80s and ‘90s. It might be fair to say that fans like such things because of their flaws. “Well maybe these flaws, at least some of them, also reflect our passion, our love for this type of game but also the originality of our creation,” says Jehanne. “Even if not as smooth as the AAA games, our games are an explosion of ideas, of desires, and players can see it.”
“Even if not as smooth as the AAA games, our games are an explosion of ideas, of desires, and players can see it.” – Jehanne Rousseau
True enough, its world and story were lauded. The Technomancer was roundly considered mediocre at best for rough edges seemingly consistent with budgetary constraints, or: Creative vision exceeding monetary reach.
“We have to be more flexible, to find a lot of tricks to realise what we want. We have to fight not only with a budget, but also with ourselves. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s also very exciting and interesting. We can never rest,” Jehanne says, before clarifying: “I don’t want to lead a AAA studio. It’s too big for me. Maybe one day Spiders will become one, but it will be without me! We have always found our audience up to now, and I hope it will stay that way. Because once again, we love what we do, even if not flawless. And we love our players too. Did I tell you they were cleverer than most?”
“Focus is a young publisher, and when you start, you rarely have the resources measuring up to your ambitions,” says Cédric. “However, passion was there from the start and most of our games found their audience and benefit from a certain love coming from their players. They managed to impose thanks to their qualities and their singularities. It only takes a glance on our games listed on Steam, with a majority of them having positive reviews.”
“The most important constraint comes from the budget,” Jehanne adds. “It defines a development length and a team size. I’m fortunate to have an incredible team, but even with this incredible team we were just 45 and had two years of development. We can do a lot but we can’t do miracles. So of course we had to cut our ambitions to finish the game, we had to limit the exploration and game areas for example, we had also to limit the character creation choices, etcetera. Most of these ideas are discussed with the core team, and each idea goes through a lot of validation from the technical, design and art leads. Of course, the goal is not to decide if we could do this with ideal conditions, but with the actual conditions, time development and budget. It’s always a team decision process.”
“Our budgets are that of games that occupy the space between small independent productions and big blockbusters,” Cédric says. “They keep increasing every year. I may not give precise numbers as they are confidential, but let’s just say that while not reaching that of AAA games, we are starting to have solid budgets for the most important games in our line-up.”
He just might be referring to GreedFall – Spiders’ next big RPG outing with Focus Home Interactive, and their fifth game together since they struck up a partnership in 2009. Early last year, its trailer made an impression as something altogether different from either sci-fi or fantasy. Though its 2018 release date remains non-specific and details are scant, Jehanne is very talkative when it comes to discussing what making The Technomancer has taught her about making GreedFall.
“There was a lot of love in Technomancer, but of course our game came also with some flaws. As you’ve already said, the Technomancer’s universe and story were mostly appreciated, but a lot of players complained about the combat difficulty,” Jehanne says. “It’s true that the combat was very demanding, and because we used a percentage system, it could feel a little unpredictable.
“For GreedFall we decided to create a story mode, where combat will be easier, and we removed the percentage system for a gauge system instead. Critical actions can now be used as soon as the gauge is filled up, and can be applied to any type of combat action. It can be used to transform a simple healing spell into a powerful group spell for example, or of course to give the deathblow to an enemy. These changes in the combat make it more tactical, and we hope it will improve our players’ experience.
“We also decided to greatly improve the size of the game areas to give more importance to the exploration. As a teleportation system was painfully missing in Technomancer, we have added some fire camps that need to be unlocked in the various environments of the game. I could also talk about the fact that the players couldn’t choose the sex of their main character in Technomancer, and probably a lot more decisions in the design of GreedFall that inherits from the feedback of our previous games.”
“Every year, we sell millions of games across the world, and every year, our budgets increase,” Cédric insists. “Today, I believe we manage to line up the means and the ambitions. As such, the budget for GreedFall is twice as big as that for The Technomancer.”
“Every year, we sell millions of games across the world, and every year, our budgets increase… As such, the budget for GreedFall is twice as big as that for The Technomancer.” – Cédric Lagarrigue
“When you’re creating universes and stories it’s a very difficult process to limit yourself to a budget,” Jehanne says. “I’m an RPG lover, and I want the best for our games and players, I want to give them everything we can. I know we have limits, we always have to cut some ideas, to restrain our ambitions, but it’s very hard to always know where to precisely put the limit based on the budget. I’m an optimistic person, I always see the glass being half full…”
“She loves writing, and I’d love that she scales down a bit on the word count in her games as it has a big impact on the final budget and adaptation costs, but I don’t tell her,” Cédric laughs. “This is actually why there will be even more dialogues in GreedFall.”
“We want this project to be better than our previous ones in all aspects, as always,” Jehanne says. “We have more financial means than before, and we’ve learned a lot from our previous experiences. We have improved our engine, we’ve made some strong artistic choices to evoke Flemish paintings, we’ve create a new fantasy world, consistent and with very intriguing lore, we even created a new language! We wrote a story even more influenced by the players’ choices and made a lot of gameplay improvement as we already talked about, but I’m afraid I can’t give you a precise answer about where GreedFall will succeed compared to Technomancer. We’re really trying to improve everything, to have a more polished experience, and to offer, once again, a journey into a completely new and original setting.”
Toby McCasker is a writer and journalist based in Sydney.