Interview with Summerford’s Rob Clarke
Interview with Rob Clarke
The Autumn Steam Game Festival is upon us soon, and with it will come a whole slew of new demos to try out for upcoming games. Whatever one you’re looking forward to, the one that caught my eye the most was a survival horror game called Summerford.
Interested in the game and its premise, I decided to talk to Rob Clarke (@DrWayward), one of the three team members in Summerford’s family-made team, Noisy Valley Studios, from Rochester, England. In the interview, we discussed multiple topics, such as Summerford’s inspirations and take on the survival horror genre.
Freelance: When and how did your team first come up with the idea for Summerford, and what caused you to pursue it?
Rob Clark: Well, the game is being made with my brother Dan and his wife, Sarah. Before working on Summerford, we had been working on lots of different projects including a board game cafe and web software for restaurant bookings. I think we had decided we wanted to do something different and as I worked in game industry years ago a game seemed like a good choice!
I remember pitching Summerford to Dan and Sarah at a Wetherspoons (A UK pub chain) in January 2018. I wanted to make a survival horror because they’re the type of game I enjoy, but also because it felt like there was a gap in the market to bring those type of games back.
F: What inspirations, both video game and not, have led to the creation of Summerford?
RC: Well the most obvious are Resident Evil and Silent Hill; that era of classic survival horror. You kind of have to be careful when you tell people that though, because those names come with certain ideas and expectations. Their both very different games in their own right as well, but they are good starting points for our design.
I think we’ve also tried to take some inspiration from other genres, too. I think our writing and characters certainly have a LucasArts feel to them, for example.
F: So, on your Steam page, you talk about how you guys are modernizing the old controls of survival horror games. Some people find the use of tank controls and fixed camera angles to be archaic. What steps have you taken to make sure not only those new to this style of survival horror are welcome, but those of old as well?
RC: Every time you take something classic and try to update it you do run the risk of making something that’s the worst of both worlds. If you want to make something you market as a classic survival horror game, then you make decisions all the way through the design about what to keep and what to change. One of the things I think you’ve absolutely got to have is fixed perspective cameras, which means you’ve got to work around those control limitations you mention.
After all, the original Resident Evil wasn’t made the way it was by design — it was meant to be a first person game but ended up being a third person title due to graphic and hardware limitations of the time. Of course, it still became a cornerstone of the genre.
Sometimes the best option is to give players [a] choice. We’ve retained tank controls, but we’ve also added a more modern system similar to what the Resident Evil 1 remake used. These games are never going to have this perfectly fluid feel to the controls, it’s never going to feel like Dark Souls. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want them too. Part of all horror is a feeling of helplessness — if you give the player too much control and too many options, you become an action game with a horror theme.
F: In that same vein, in what direction are you going with the combat? Something more action-oriented like Resident Evil? Or something like Silent Hill where fighting is, in most cases, the last resort and awkward feeling on purpose?
RC: Combat is a delicate balance in horror games. It goes back to what I was saying about player control and agency and not giving the player too much power. You don’t want to be running around with an SMG because that’s not very scary. However, if there’s no real fighting at all then the only way you can really implement combat like encounters is through stealth, which is a mechanic that I’ve personally never enjoyed in horror games.
What we’re trying to do with Summerford is make combat something that needs to be planned for. We can’t just throw guns and ammo all over the English countryside, so we’re focusing on melee combat. Enemies will drop quickly, but so will the player, so avoiding and planning for combat using traps and things like weapon durability will be key factors.
F: Is there anything behind the use of a nuclear power plant as the catalyst for Summerford’s horror, or did you just want some fun reason for the horrors you’ll find upon the island?
RC: We’d actually been on a trip to Chernobyl for my stag party a little while before, so it was fresh in my head. This was before the TV show made it really popular again!
I wanted to make something set in England because it’s an underused setting for horror games and because we live here, so we sort of merged the factual idea of Chernobyl with a fictional setting that we were more familiar with.
We’re not trying to say anything about nuclear power politically, though I think nuclear reactors and radiation always carry some element of fear. Unlike many fears, it’s one that has not only come true in parts of the world but also something that will remain in the zeitgeist for a long time to come.
F: That’s an… interesting place for a stag party.
RC: It was! I wanted to do something a bit different and I’d seen Chernobyl and Pripyat (the closest big town) so much in games before, it had just always been on my bucket list
F: A STALKER fan, I assume?
RC: Of course! STALKER is an interesting game actually because it rarely makes horror lists but it’s got to be one of the scariest games I’ve ever played. It’s about isolation and atmosphere rather than jump scares but it really sells its setting. Having spent about four full days and one night in the zone, I can definitely say it does it justice
F: Wow. Speaking of atmosphere, one of the most important aspects of the horror genre as a whole is the atmosphere itself. What have you done to the atmosphere of Summerford to keep up with that standard?
RC: Sounds are going to be one of the last things we invest in as it can be expensive, so we haven’t got too far on that yet. We’re very aware of the importance of sound, but I also don’t want us to go down any routes where we end polishing only to change things around at the last minute. There’s only 3 people on the team, but we’ve very recently been getting in voice actors and a musician to work on those things which is making everything come together.
F: Another important aspect of survival horror is its music. When planning the music, are you going minimalist with it to keep the atmosphere on the main stage, or are you going to be creeping us out with some tunes?
RC: We’ve recently started working with @Tengushee for the music on the demo and hopefully we’ll be able to have him work on the full game as well. We’re trying to avoid falling into the common traps with horror music of making things too industrial or too droney, so we were looking for an artist that doesn’t come with too many preconceived motions of what horror should sound like. We want to end up closer to a John Carpenter movie than a Silent Hill game.
We’re a game set mostly in a rural location, so want the music to incorporate that, alongside our English roots. We also want to add some meaning to the music when we can. For example, our main theme song we’ve used in the demo is ‘Jerusalem,’ which is an old hymn which references the horrors of the England’s ‘Dark Satanic Mills’. Growing up in a Christian family, it’s a song I’m very familiar with from my childhood, too, so it’s also a nice personal touch for us.
F: What other challenges or obstacles have you faced in making Summerford?
RC: Just about all of them! We’re completely new to game development. We are one programmer and one artist making a fairly complex third person game. Although we’re at the 18 month period in development now, I’d say at least the first six months were spent learning the basics of development rather than really working on what Summerford has become.
Luckily we’re self funded from our previous businesses, and as a family studio we’ve managed to work around coronavirus better than I think some larger teams, so we’ve not had to lose much development time in what has otherwise been a really difficult year.
F: Now, you guys are going to be a part of the Steam Game Festival, along with a dev livestream on October 9th at 8PM BST. How exciting is it to be a part of something such as this?
RC: I have no idea! We’re excited people will be able to play the game, but we’ve got no idea how well it will go for us both in terms of reception of the game and the festival itself. Digital game shows are something very new to everyone. I’m very happy the stars have aligned to the point where we can be in the festival and that it’s happening at the time of year when many people are in the mood for horror games.
We would have otherwise been heading to Eurogamer Expo and maybe Gamescom. Those shows are great for live feedback and to actually chat and hang out with other developers and players and is sad to miss out on that. However, I think the Steam festival could bring a much larger group of people together. Being free to take part is also a big deal for us and many other indies that want to spend all our available money on the game, not giving it to media and events companies.
F: For any out there who are looking into making survival horror games themselves, do you have any tips for them so that their cabins don’t begin to spin for trying to lock them?
Can you add a locked door to this cabin please?
Programming department: pic.twitter.com/nBuWFzpk6C
— Summerford (@SummerfordGame) September 15, 2020
RC: Haha, considering how new we are to development I think we’re more about learning from others than giving advice at this stage.
However the advice I think we’ve had to learn to take from ourselves is to not take things too seriously when everything seems to be going wrong. It’s easy to look at something that hasn’t quite gone as expected and see it as wasted time but in reality it’s when we’ve experienced bugs that we’ve learnt new better ways of doing things. If you’re going into any game development with the mindset of you should be getting everything right the first time every time then I think you’re setting yourself down a path of burnout and frustration.
F: Thank you for your time, Mr. Clarke. To finish things off, when will this demo be going live, and what should we expect from it?
RC: The demo will be live exclusively on Steam on October 7th for a limited period of time. You can expect around 30-45 minutes of gameplay that we think is a great sample of the game as a whole, featuring combat, exploration and puzzles.
Summerford is set to release in the fourth quarter of 2020, but you can try out the demo on October 7th for a limited time. I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on this indie survival horror game.
You can follow Summerford’s development on @SummerfordGame. You can also follow its developers on Twitter: Rob Clarke @DrWayward, Daniel Nethersole @djdclarke, and Sarah Lea Nethersole @flearah.