Convict Games‘ narrative adventure Stone is a colorful noir, infused with Australian slang and starring anthropomorphic animals. It’s the studio’s debut title, and it will arrive later this year on PC.
The premise is familiar: Stone’s a private investigator with a drinking problem and a pack-a-day habit. After an all-night bender, he wakes up and can’t find his significant other, Alex. Someone calls his phone with a mysterious and threatening message. Now Stone must retrace his steps, discover the truth, and rescue his love. But this isn’t a gritty, grimdark detective story — because Stone is a koala in a bright floral print shirt.
Convict delights in juxtaposition. Stone has a sunny, laidback Australian vibe, which plays off the notoriously gloomy archetypes of hardboiled stories for comedic effect. A soundtrack of upbeat house, techno, and hiphop tunes by small independent artists completes its surreal aesthetic, one that doesn’t shy away from acid fuchsia intertitles and a main character who’s after the baddies while sporting a pair of pink flip-flops.
“I like to say you’re always playing a dude, whereas I’ve always wanted you to play The Dude,” said Convict cofounder Greg Louden in a phone call with GamesBeat, referring to The Big Lebowski. “I’m a huge fan of Charles Bukowski. I love Raymond Chandler, the author. I hadn’t seen that many characters like that. I only recently played Grim Fandango, and I was like, why aren’t there more games like this? This is brilliant.”
Louden and his sister Sarah Louden founded the studio, whose team members are scattered in several different countries. She’s back in their native Australia while Louden is in Finland. Other team members are in Moscow and Texas. Just as the studio is geographically eclectic, so are its influences. An all-caps list on its website includes musician Kanye West alongside author Haruki Murakami and painter Claude Monet.
Stone’s sense of humor and overall aesthetic comes from a creative license to mash up and remix all these disparate sources of inspiration.
“Why aren’t there more funny games? Why does everything need to be so serious? A lot of characters in games, I wish they talked like characters in books or films. I love the Coen brothers. I love [Quentin] Tarantino and rapid-fire dialogue like Aaron Sorkin. For me it was the idea of taking all these great things in other mediums and mashing them into this new type of game, ” said Louden. “I read this great Nick Cave quote, where he said, ‘Good writing is where you combine two crazy characters and just let the fireworks go off.’”
The Stone demo is short, but it showcases a lot of attitude. After I received the threatening phone call — from a voice that plays up a friendly Australian twang for hilarity — I explored Stone’s apartment. It’s filled with little touches of personality, like a playable drum machine on the coffee table and one of Alex’s easels in the corner. A TV plays public-domain movies in entirety so if I wanted to, I could just chill on the couch and watch. The mechanics also reflect Stone’s personality; when I instinctively pressed the spacebar to jump, instead he lit up a cigarette.
My search for Alex took me to a dive bar and later to a club. I mainly talked to people, like a cockatoo bartender or an alligator DJ, and the dialogue would pop up in bright pink boxes. You select one of two options, and sometimes characters will remember later on whether you decided to go for the aggressive approach.
Though Stone is a narrative adventure, its world also provides what Louden calls “side experiences.” Its main story unfolds over six acts, but partway through, the map opens up and players can explore at their leisure. They can watch full-length movies at the local theater, have a drink, or attend a dance party.
Before cofounding Convict, Louden worked at Remedy Games. He was the senior narrative designer and level designer on Quantum Break, and he was also the senior narrative designer on Crossfire 2 and worked on preproduction for the upcoming Control. Before that, he was the FX technical director for films like Gravity and Prometheus. His interdisciplinary background has affected the way he and the team work — “Movies are made at such a rapid pace by distributed teams,” he said — but it’s also reflected in Stone’s approach to bending genres and expectations.
“Why, in games, are we always creating the same types of characters? Why is it always photorealistic when we can do that in cinema?” said Louden. “I realized, why don’t we push it? It’s essentially an animated feature in this sense, so why not do these animals, which will provide a really nice metaphor? I’m a big fan of Animal Farm. Stone, as much as having a strong sense of humor, I think it has a strong message you go through as you play.
It starts out a bit reckless, but there’s a deeper core there as well that I can’t talk about yet, but I look forward to you exploring it when you play it in full. I think the metaphor, combined with the fact that it’s a strength of the medium — we’re going to have to create an entire world. Why mimic reality when we can create our own worlds?”