The end of the world is nigh. Again. Humanity is under attack once more, and unfortunately Orphan doesn’t put you in the boots of a muscular gunman, or even a wise-cracking idiot with a baseball bat. Instead you’re tasked with looking after a young boy who might just be the sole survivor of an overnight alien invasion.
This strikingly beautiful side-scroller is a combination of action and stealth platforming and a hell of a coming-of-age story for a boy unlucky enough to be the only one left. “I think there’s something much more fun and romantic about young characters going on a grown-up adventure,” explains one-man development team Brandon Goins. “I think of characters from movies and television when I was growing up, like Charlie Brown, Peter Pan, and even someone like Elliott from ET. I don’t know if all young kids feel the same way, but those stories were always my favourites, and as I feel that videogames are still a medium with kids at heart, it felt natural to make a similar character. This vulnerability of the character is certainly shaping the gameplay in the direction of stealth, but I think in this medium it’s especially acceptable to go over the top and have fun with it. I want to make that transition from weakness to strength the core of the gameplay.”
Goins has been influenced by games like Abe's Odysee and the ultra-retro Another World to create a platformer that has a true sense of atmosphere as you explore the world. He doesn’t want Orphan to just be a matter of reaching the right-hand side of the screen. “Aside from the dark, moody tones of those games, what set the gameplay apart from your run-and-gun action-platformers was that each enemy was its own unique battle, and you often had to use wits instead of button-mashing to defeat them,” he explains. “It’s a slower and more personal experience, often full of trial and error. In the end that’s what I want Orphan to feel like.”
Thankfully it’s not just a matter of running and hiding as you explore. It doesn’t take long before the boy arms himself with a laser gun, flares, and all kinds of tools of distraction to evade the robotic nasties who have invaded Earth. Brandon is passionate about the stealth gameplay he wants to achieve. “Abe’s Oddysee was probably the first time I can remember playing a stealth game. Tiptoeing Abe in and out of shadows was just awesome to me,” he says. “Since then there have been plenty of different approaches to stealth, like Metal Gear Solid 5, that have probably influenced me further, because now you’re taking stealth and combining it with lots of fun gadgets and weapons, which created a game with many ways to approach the same problem. That’s much more fun than being herded through a game’s obstacles in a very specific way.”
Set in the picturesque region of the US where Goins grew up, the events of Orphan take place in the mountain region of Appalachia. “Harlan, the town where I was born and lived most of my life, is fairly notorious for being a rugged and scary place, and is the subject of many songs, movies, and even the FX TV series Justified,” he says. “There is a lot of great imagery that can be pulled from this area along with some interesting culture, and I think it will help to make Orphan something different.” And it’s taken this long, but what you really want us to do now is mention the similarity to the visuals of a certain Playdead game.
Thankfully, this isn’t a comparison that Goins minds. “It was more chance than anything. I began working on the general idea of a night-time game, but my own experience as a photographer made me want the scenes to look somewhat photorealistic,” he explains. “It only looked natural when the foreground was silhouetted. Immediately I knew it looked like Limbo, and I often wonder if I would have even thought such an art style was acceptable if it hadn’t been for Limbo, but it looked good and I didn’t want to change it. But, fully aware that the comparisons were coming, I’ve tried to take every opportunity to set the game apart from Limbo, and the opening scene of the trailer was done in daylight for that specific purpose. I still get a lot of Limbo comments, but they are mostly positive so I’ve grown comfortable with the comparison now.” With the beautiful visuals and lonely atmosphere that Orphan seems like it can deliver, we most certainly are too.
This game is in the unusual position that Goins is only a one-man dev team, and this is, incredibly, his first ever project. He’ll be taking on another programmer in the future to lighten the load a little but, in the run up to getting moving on the game, Kickstarter was the only way that he could make the dream of Orphan a reality.
“I studied a lot of other indie games and their journeys through Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter, and the results are so wildly varied that I never knew what to expect,” he explains. “I probably wasn’t surprised as I knew the reaction could be extreme in any way, and all I could hope for was that people wouldn’t totally dismiss the game. The last half of the campaign was full of so many awesome personal moments of individual people throwing their support my way in huge ways. So many times I would bring a message I had received to my wife and say: ‘just read this.’ The whole experience has been personal, dramatic, and life-changing. And the best parts are still to come!”