The first thing that grabbed my attention about Skin Deep's announcement trailer was the space cats. The space cats who crew the spaceship that you, as a defrosted insurance agent (in space), must rescue from space pirates before they blow through the deductible on the spaceship. It may not be the sort of thing you'd expect from Annapurna Interactive, the publisher of What Remains of Edith Finch and Kentucky Route Zero, and Blendo Games, the maker of Quadrilateral Cowboy and 30 Flights of Loving – but on the other hand, given their mutually eclectic histories, Skin Deep is exactly the sort of thing we should expect from them.
I had the chance to talk to Blendo's Brendon Chung, leader of the team working on Skin Deep, and I had questions about where Skin Deep came from and where it's going. Naturally, we started with the cats; not because I wasn't pleased with the idea of rescuing blocky little cat buddies on a spaceship, but I still had to know why.
"Generally, when I do game design stuff, sometimes people think, 'Oh, there's so much artistry and creative ideas,' but I think a lot of times it comes down to practical reasons," Chung explains. "One big reason in this case is that it's just way easier to rescue a small object rather than a larger human being. And also we did not want friend or foe identification to be a game mechanic. In this case, we just wanted it to be like, if it's a cat, it's your friend. If it's a human being, you're probably gonna want to shoot them. So that just makes that easier. But also cats are super cute."
And yes, you can pet the cats, who are also a recurring element in Chung's games. If you've played his first-person story games, or his first-person command line puzzle game, or his zombie RTS, or his space battle tactics series, you've been here before. They all take place in the same loosely connected universe and the cat crew are recurring characters within it. What you haven't ever seen is Chung make a "straight-up video game" first-person shooter. Still, for a seasoned indie creator who got his start making Half-Life mods, it makes sense; plus, his "secret desire as a game developer is [to] try to collect all the game genres," so he had to wrap back around to shooters eventually.
"I just think it's really fun when you see developers do something that maybe they're not known for. I love it when developers go outside the genre that you think they would probably do next, or when a comedic actor does a dramatic role, or vice versa."
Nothing to sneeze at
I told Chung to his virtual Zoom meeting face that, having played several of his previous creations, I did not believe that Skin Deep would be any kind of "straight-up video game." From the trailer alone, we know that it will prominently feature Jean Claude Van Damme-inspired splits, inconveniently timed sneezes, and a mech that looks like Kirby with robo-legs and a gun for a face (another recurring character, naturally). In other words, teaming up with Annapurna to help make this a much bigger production than previous Blendo projects does not mean sanding off the studio's idiosyncrasies. Oh, did I mention that it's being built on idTech 4, the same engine that powered Doom 3 17 years ago?
"I felt that this game was a bit more of a bigger scope than my previous stuff, and was more ambitious. And so I was looking for people to work with, and Annapurna just felt like a really good fit for what I want to do. If you look at their track record, and the kind of games that they pick, it's totally up my alley," says Chung, later citing Kentucky Route Zero as his personal favorite. "These are all games that I love, and are very much my vibe. And when I went and met with them they were just a super cool crew of people. They were all people who had been in game development, and were very well aware of what to expect and what things happen during making games. So it just felt like a really good fit."
On top of having Annapurna's support on the business end, the company's backing also means Chung is able to work with a much bigger team than he typically has in the past (despite his reputation as a solo developer, "it's never a one-person show"). The Skin Deep team includes David Will and Tynan Wales as designers, Laura Michet as writer, Eric Itomura as coder, and Priscilla Snow as composer. "It's a really great crew of people, and it's really exciting to be able to work in a small, cool creative crew, to bounce ideas off of each other. It makes the game way better," says Chung.
Skin Deep has been in the works since roughly 2018, and it's currently headed to PC via Steam without a set release date. We can hold out hope that this first-time collaboration with an external publisher means console players may finally know the unique joy of playing through a Blendo production, but that's just wishful thinking on my part for now – neither Chung nor Annapurna are ready to announce any more release details just yet.