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Crow Country’s Creative Director Explores Classic Survival Horror and Experiments with Art Direction

Crow Country, a game that harkens back to the era of PS1, was met with widespread critical acclaim upon its release on May 9 across PlayStation, Xbox, and PC platforms. This fresh offering from SFB Games casts players as special agent Mara Forest, tasked with probing the secrets of a forsaken, spine-chilling theme park.

The narrative centres on unravelling the enigma surrounding the theme park’s closure and the owner’s disappearance. Players are immersed in a battle for survival amidst the dark as they navigate through puzzles and obstacles, all while managing scarce resources and fending off nocturnal creatures. For enthusiasts of survival horror and nostalgic gaming, Crow Country promises a riveting experience. For a deeper dive into the game, read our review.

Behind SFB Games are siblings Tom and Adam Vian, hailing from London, England. With a history spanning two decades of game development, the duo notably collaborated with Nintendo to bring Snipperclips to life in 2017 and dominated the Switch download rankings for an extended period.

In this exclusive interview, we had the privilege of gleaning insights from Adam Vian, the studio’s Creative Director. He shared reflections on SFB Games’ trajectory, unveiled the creative journey behind Crow Country, and expressed his passion for the classic survival horror genre.

Congratulations on Crow Country’s rave reviews! Can you tell us a little bit about SFB Games?

SFB Games is the name of the company I formed with my brother Tom, but we’ve been making games together for over 20 years. We got started making Flash games for browsers in the early 2000s, with me as the artist and Tom as the programmer. Over the years, it slowly turned into something we could get paid for, and eventually, something we could call a career.

We’ve made all kinds of games – platformers, puzzle games, detective games – we like anything that’s interactive, fun, colourful and unique.

SFB Games is, officially, just the two of us, and we often hire just a couple of friends when we’re working on a game. We like to work in small teams! The development team for Tangle Tower, for instance, was about 5 people. And it was about 7 people for Snipperclips. Crow Country was unusual in that it was just me working on it for a while, and then Tom, and then the composer Ockeroid.

Why did the team decide to develop a PS1-inspired survival horror game?

It was something I wanted to have a go at, just because I love the genre – I grew up playing PS1 games, and even today I collect and play them frequently. Over the years, I’d realised survival horror was my favourite genre, but I found myself disappointed with a lot of modern horror games. There’s something about the scope and fidelity of games from the PS1-era that suits that genre much more.

Before starting on the project that would become Crow Country, I actually made my first horror game entirely within MediaMolecule’s ‘Dreams’. It was called Horror Kart – featuring a cute bear driving a MarioKart-esque go-kart through a spooky graveyard full of survival horror puzzles.

The game was previously announced on PlayStation and Steam, then later confirmed that Crow Country would be coming to Xbox. As an indie studio, what are the challenges of getting the game onboard these platforms?

It’s a fair amount of extra work. You have to get hold of the dev kits for those consoles, you have to get your game working with those controllers, you have to worry about achievements, user log-in data, cloud saving, passing certification, and so on. But it’s worth it, in the end. Steam is often still the most important place for an indie game to succeed, but getting your game onto consoles as soon as possible really has its advantages.

It was especially appropriate for Crow Country, which is something of a direct homage to console games.

With so many survival horror games available on various platforms, what motivates the team to continue with the old-school methodology?

As mentioned, a lot of modern horror games aren’t really to my tastes, and I feel like I’m probably not alone in this regard. I’m personally not a fan of first-person for horror, although I have to admit I did enjoy Resident Evil Biohazard and Village. I’m also not really a fan of sci-fi horror, the subgenre of several of the modern AAA horror games. I don’t like those mascot horror games that are designed to make streamers scream. I don’t enjoy horror games that are just walking down a hallway with the lights flickering. Boring!

I want my horror games to be full of puzzles, collectable inventory items, memorable NPCs to meet, and secret weapons to collect. There’s some special magic quality to the original Resident Evil 2 that has never been beaten – even by its excellent remake.

I will say, though, the prominence of horror games on different platforms has been kind of encouraging. I’m glad we live in a world where The Last of Us and Resident Evil 4 Remake can be massive successes – it means there’s a big audience looking for survival horror games.

Can you tell us a bit more about the game’s design? What kind of engine was used to achieve the desired aesthetics in Crow Country?

The game was created with Unity. We learned how to use Unity for Snipperclips, and never looked back. I actually programmed the game mechanics myself using Playmaker, a visual scripting plugin for Unity. And I modelled everything using Probuilder, a 3D modelling plugin.

The visual aesthetic is achieved with a multi-faceted shader on the camera. It crunches the pixels down and applies a bunch of distortion effects to create that low-fi look. I stumbled across it while I was experimenting. Everything in the game was modelled and textured while looking at it through this camera shader – so I always knew how it was going to look in the final product.

Exploration mode makes the game more accessible to those who may not be interested in horror games. Was this addition planned from the beginning, or was it something that was stumbled upon as the game developed?

I had the idea about halfway through development. I’d seen a Tweet from someone asking around if there was a mod to remove the monsters from Silent Hill because they ‘loved being there’ but didn’t want to have to worry about killing things. It really stuck with me! So, I ended up implementing something like that for Crow Country.

It basically turns the game into a spooky puzzle adventure game – which it is anyway, monsters or not.

I’d noticed some people occasionally say things like, “Oh, this looks cool, but I can’t/won’t/don’t play horror games”. So – why not make a mode so those people can also enjoy Crow Country?

In Crow Country, exploration plays a major role in the overall gameplay element. Does the game contain hidden passages for players to encounter that are unlikely to be discovered in the first playthrough?

There are a couple of optional secret rooms, yeah. The game contains 15 secrets, and I expect most players to find about half of them on their first playthrough – unless they’re really trying to collect them all. So it’s likely that players won’t see everything the game has to offer on their first time around – and I’ve had plenty of messages from people saying they dived right back in for a second playthrough or even that they’ve just finished their fifth playthrough.

You can also unlock new weapons, costumes, and challenges to encourage repeated playthroughs.

Against the background of a decrypted theme park, Crow Country adds a unique style that brings back the retro horror survival genre, which begs the question: what inspired this concept?

I love theme parks, but I’ve always wanted to be able to explore a theme park by myself – go through all the locked doors, look behind the animatronics, look in the staff areas and control rooms, etc. So that’s what you get to do in Crow Country!

Could you tell us your favourite horror games of all time and why?

Okay, so:

  • Resident Evil 2 (Classic) – just a perfect mix of gameplay, challenge, story, music, puzzles, everything is just right. The Raccoon Police Station is one of the best-realised locations in all of video games.
  • Resident Evil 1 (Remake) – this game is beautiful. It came out in 2002 and still looks good today. It’s the purest expression of the Resident Evil formula. Also, the Lisa Trevor subplot is one of my favourites in the entire genre.
  • Silent Hill 2 – probably the best game in the genre, and perhaps the best example of storytelling in any video game.
  • Silent Hill 3 – my personal favourite survival horror game. I love the protagonist, the locations, the music, the puzzles. It’s a really scary game, too. The scariest.

Honourable mentions:

  • Parasite Eve 1 & 2, and Haunting Ground.

What are your future plans for Crow Country?

We’ve been fixing bugs since it launched, Ockeroid released the soundtrack on Bandcamp, and we recently added the new hard mode, which was a requested feature. That seems to have gone down well!

As I’m writing this, we’re preparing the Steam trading cards.

The other thing that was on our content roadmap that’s still ongoing is the addition of more languages. Beyond that – nothing I can talk about just yet!! But we’re still working…

As for the issue of a sequel, I think it’s much more likely that I’ll make a brand new survival game with the Crow Country engine, but not a sequel to Crow Country. Something in an entirely different time period, probably.

Crow Country is now available for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam.

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