When I first emailed Christian Kesler questions about his game, he had to postpone answering because of a goodbye meal at work. He had just resigned in order to make Allison Road full-time. It’s fair to say that he’s pretty confident about his project - it also happens to be his first ever video game:
“My background is actually feature film; I've been working in the film industry as a Matte Painter, Environment Artist and Concept Artist for quite a few years now. I have never worked on a video game before, I have to admit. However I have quite some experience in dealing with massive projects and occasionally guiding other people through the nitty gritty, so I figured how different can it possibly be?”
To be fair, he is making it look easy. In a few short work-in-progress videos and a handful of screenshots, he’s successfully convinced many that Allison Road is a potential successor to the genre-redefining PT. The doomed Hideo Kojima-Guillermo del Toro collaboration - built to introduce the feel, if not the mechanics, of a new entry in the Silent Hill series - was a direct influence, but development started because of a confluence of events.
After celebrating his 30th birthday, Kesler decided he wanted to dedicate himself to something new. As a lifelong video game fan, he’d always been interested in making his own – but it was only with the release of Unreal Engine 4 last year that he saw his chance to make something both beautiful and manageable. Two weeks prior to his birthday, PT had come out, and the internet was abuzz. It was a game that matched a brilliant concept with a small scale. As Kesler puts it, “it was almost like a perfect chain of events. On the 26th August I got up, subscribed to UE4 and that was that.”
On first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking Kesler has simply snatched up the PT blueprint and scrawled a few new words across it. Unreal 4 has allowed him to create a near-perfect simulacrum of a British townhouse, all mottled, off-white walls, cramped hallways, even the warped view through corrugated glass on a conservatory roof (an effect I haven’t seen since Half Life 2, presumably because it’s a total arse to try and replicate). Blow up the screenshot below and you can every individual title in the house’s Blu-Ray collection.
Onto that blank horror canvas, Kesler’s drawn the bloodied form of Lily, a clear reference to PT’s grotesque haunting presence, Lisa. We know nothing about her, beyond the fact that she seems to be taking up more of a role of ‘hunter/haunter’ to PT’s ‘scripted moment where you see a woman covered in pus’, but a scabbed line can be drawn between the two. Both games place you in uncannily familiar locations, using the power of modern machines to make the player feel unnaturally at home. Which makes it all the worse when they proceed to scare the ever-loving shit out of you.
“Personally I believe realism makes all the difference”, enthuses Kesler. “I do love sci-fi and fantasy horror games, no question, but setting it in a believable environment creates tension on a totally different level in my opinion. Probably most people who are fans of scary movies or games can relate to the odd sleepless night, when you think you are perceiving certain things, or maybe even feel threatened. But by what? In 99% of the cases the horror is really only happening in your head (unless you have an actual intruder in your house) and that's exactly what we are going for.”
PT made that feeling the core of its experience – proceeding through the vagaries of its ‘game’ portion often felt like psychological punishment. Incredibly well-realised and visionary punishment, yes, but punishment all the same. As a full game, Allison Road wants to - needs to - go a little further. It seems to share similarities with the likes of Gone Home, or The Room series on iPad, its environments both story and puzzle, with Lily your timely, horrifying reminder that you need to speed up. Realism doesn’t just become part of the horror, then – it’s a game mechanic:
“When I did the initial brainstorming I tried to really find the essence of what makes for good horror”, explains Kesler. “I came to the conclusion that it's neither gore nor things like jump-scares. I think the best horror comes from toying with the uncanny and from story elements that really let you live through it, become emotionally invested. We are definitely approaching Allison Road’s mechanics more like an adventure game than a horror rollercoaster.
“All the assets are created with meticulous attention to detail - because every detail tells a story. Let's take a simple scratch on the wood floor for example: How many people have walked on this floor before you? Who has lived here? Did somebody move in, drag furniture over the floor and scratch it? Or did someone maybe deliberately scratch it? So many possible stories to tell. It's almost like reverse engineering a crime scene.”
I can’t help but think that last sentence might be a clue to the game itself – rectifying the age-old gaming trope of amnesia by using tiny clues to work out just what’s happened, and what’s drawn Lily to the house. In fact, the house itself seems as big an obstacle as Lily. While Kesler’s a German who’s lived in Britain for years, he’s chosen a British setting for more than personal reasons:
“One thing that always fascinated me about the (particularly Georgian) architecture here is that from the outside countless places look kind of beat up; some of them almost derelict. The exposed brick, the graffiti everywhere, the dirt in the streets etc. downright gritty in some places. However, once you go inside these places, which look almost indistinguishably similar from the outside, you see this wonderful mixture of interior styles and layouts. It's really incredible. Some places look so tiny if you just take a look at the exterior; but then the interior turns out to be massive. It's like British people have a very thorough understanding how to make the most out of the (very limited) space. Fascinating.”
It makes for a game space that has to twist upon itself, reveal unusual room layouts and will most likely force you down corridors almost constantly. As any PT player will attest to, corridors are the worst. Kesler wants you to get to know that space as if it were your own house, and with good (or at least chucklingly horrible) reason: “What would you do if you could feel something stalking you in the dark in the apparent safety of your own home? If you couldn't tell what's real and what's not? Shouldn't your home be the one place where you are safe from whatever may be waiting for you out there? Not in Allison Road.”
It also makes for a game that not only needs full-time attention, but requires more than just Kesler working on it: “Initially I toyed with the idea to go the entire development solo, but then the more I built, the more I realized that in order to hit the level of quality I want to achieve I'm gonna have to spend some serious time on all the assets. To really give the place character… almost an identity of its own, really. There needs to be some dirt and grit, it needs to feel lived-in ...and that takes a long time to get right. If I had to learn Blueprint (UE4's visual scripting language) and AI on top of that I would probably be working on Allison Road until the end of days.”
After some hard work finding them (you can see his, er, pointed complaints about flaky programmers on the Allison Road Facebook page (opens in new tab)), Kesler’s got himself a team he feels is worthy of not only his game, but hopefully the one to which people perceive it to be an impromptu follow-up:
“When I started on Allison Road there was no sign whatsoever that PT/Silent Hills would be scrapped by Konami. Some gamers out there are clearly very passionate about Silent Hills and I absolutely appreciate that - so I guess we'll just have to see if people would be interested in playing it and adding it to their horror game repertoire.” Early signs are good – the game’s built up a vocal following, one I can only see expanding as more of the game’s secrets are brought to light.
There’s one particular fan of PT I’m interested in, though. Does the man who had his greasy heart broken by Silent Hills know about Allison Road? “I love Guillermo del Toro's movies and I'm 100% sure a collaboration between him and the legendary Hideo Kojima would have been truly spectacular”, says Kesler. “I actually wanted to work on one of Guillermo's movies for a long time - however, sadly it never happened. If any chance of collaborating with him should ever arise I'd obviously be super-thrilled. Got his email by any chance?”