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Ares Breathes: Pyotr Romanov Brings Tank Controls to Clunky Mechs

When it comes to tank controls in gaming, one complaint has been heard since the original Resident Evil “it just feels so unnatural” and while many do not take umbrage with tank controls, myself most certainly included, it is undeniable that the act of maneuvering in those classic games is anything but smooth and intuitive. This is what separates Ares Breathes, the passion project of Pyotr Romanov from the rest, as it puts the player in control of a large, heavy, and unwieldy mech suit as they aim to bring a mars colony’s vital systems back online. 

Inside the metal shell of the mech suit, Pyotr aims to make the player truly feel each and every heavy step of the machine, leaning into the classic tank controls as a way to restrict and remind the player that they are at the whims of the machine. The planet is harsh, the remaining robots are hostile, and everything from the world to the amount of time you can spend outside is working against you. This man vs nature battle had me intrigued, and after following the project for quite some time, I wanted to know more about it. 

I reached out to Pyotr Romanov over Twitter, and thankfully he is still located on earth, so aside from dancing around our individual time zones to meet, he had a much easier time establishing communications than the protagonist of Ares Breathes ever would. After exchanging introductions, and thanking him for taking time on his lunch break to meet with me, I began the interview, aiming to learn more about Pyotr, his past, and his upcoming project.

Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed on Pyotr’s Twitter page, the first line on his bio read “Dutch guy working in the Japanese games industry as a programmer.” Which is a short sentence that packs a lot, so I started the interview by asking how his journey as a game developer led him to work with a Japanese studio?

Pyotr Romanov: Oh, that’s not that much of a journey. Like I just went to university for computer science. And I’ve always been playing with Game Maker and Unity and all that stuff. And in the Netherlands, I couldn’t really find interesting studios to work for. So I just ended up applying to a bunch of Japanese studios. And one of them took me in. It’s not like there was much of a huge journey. But yeah, just applying to companies and getting in… It’s been an interesting experience.

I asked if he worked for the company remotely, or had he relocated to Japan?

PR: : I live in Japan, and I work at a Japanese studio. It’s a small studio, like we mostly help other companies with graphics, programming, shaders, that kind of stuff. Yeah, so I get the opportunity to watch a bunch of different stuff and different in-house engines, and it’s pretty interesting. It’s just a small Japanese company. There’s no other foreigners. I’m the only foreigner in the company, which is fun.

As a follow up, I asked about the culture shock of moving to another country, as an english speaker, I feel as though I might meet a decent amount of people in other countries who would use my home language out of courtesy, but when living in another country, there is a lot to learn and to adapt to. With this in mind, I asked which was harder to overcome, learning the language, or dealing with the social differences after moving?

PR: I would say probably the bureaucracy is the worst, which I suppose goes into culture. Like, I have been practicing Japanese at least as a hobby for quite a long time. So speaking and stuff, It’s not that much of a problem, even reading or writing is fine. But just having to deal with the language on documents and stuff, and having to go to… get some bureaucratic government [work done]. And it’s only open during work days and work hours. It’s so silly, there’s a lot of silly stuff. Besides that, the people are nice and help without much of a problem adjusting. I mean, it’s good. I’ve always had internet friends here and stuff, so I have people I can talk to about stuff. And yeah, my colleagues are really nice, so they give me advice on anything I need.

It was good to hear that he had been able to acclimate easily to his new surroundings, on the topic of the work he was doing in Japan, I asked if he had any favorite projects that he had gotten to be a part of?

PR: I mean, most of it is NDA, but the one thing my name is currently officially attached to is Platinum Games’ worst game Babylon’s Fall. So that’s fun, it was an interesting experience as well. I just did some porting and stuff. I didn’t do that much.

I joked that he can tell people he worked on a Platinum Game and when they ask which one just deflect and be like “Oh yeah it was nice working for such a well known company”

PR: Yeah, well, you know, the one you haven’t heard of, probably. The one I hope you didn’t play.

Moving on to the real reason I tracked Pyotr down, Ares Breathes. The game was beginning to come into its own form, and knowing that this was something he worked on in his spare time, I was curious to know how long he had been working on it so far. So I asked Pyotr if he could give us a rough timeline for how long he had been working on the title?

PR: Yeah, it’s, um, I started learning Blender and stuff. I think it was summer of 2021, 2020, probably. So I guess it’s been like, two years, maybe two years. But I mean, yeah, I think it’s like studying Blender stuff. I basically just started it as a way to put together all of my practice models, and then somehow, I was like “what would it look like?” And I was like, “Okay, what kind of game was something that looks like this be?” We kind of went from there.

While many devs I have spoken to started their project with a solid idea in mind on day one, It was cool to hear that this had grown organically from a fun exercise into the current project it had become.

PR: Yeah, kind of taking its own personality, I would just make something and then I would start to interpret what that would look like in a more like, whole project, I suppose. I’m still kind of doing that as I make it. I’m like, “How does this make sense? How does this fit into this? Why am I making this at this point?… What does this say about me? What made me make this?”… I’ve been asking those questions of myself and trying to get consistent answers, it’s been pretty interesting.

Now, I am not the first person to bring attention to Ares Breathes, as multiple international outlets have already written pieces on the work in progress. With this in mind, and the growing support from people online, I asked Pyotr if he was excited that people were getting excited, or was the impending hype train something that made him nervous about how people might react to the finished title?

PR: Yeah, it’s definitely like, it makes me happy and it’s also kind of humbling, I don’t know, it’s interesting, I guess for now I hope people don’t get too hyped. Like, seeing all the [progress] that I make and then when they play it, it feels [underwhelming] or whatever. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. I don’t know, I’m trying not to really pressure myself to work, like it’s still a hobby thing. I’m trying to mostly have fun with it myself and not think too much, hopefully make some money or whatever.

I commented that one of the benefits of doing it in your free time is that the worst that can happen is you go back to your day job.

PR: Exactly, so long as my day job isn’t too bad, like, I’m hopefully just putting out whatever I feel like in the moment. I suppose I do like seeing the number go up and I do get the hits of uh, in Death Stranding it’s called Likecin, or whatever, the hormone that gets made in your brain to feel happy when you get a like on Facebook or whatever. I’m glad to farm those, like, let’s feel slightly better during the day, it’s fun. At work, I could just post a little video of my game and get some likes, it feels good, it’s nice. It’s a good, like, therapy measure, I suppose.

I am glad that he had been posting his updates online, as that was how I found his work. Speaking of first impressions, one of the things that drew me in was the design of the mech and the world it inhabits. After seeing that Pyotr was quite a fan of classic 80’s anime, which featured many large clunky robots, I asked if the mech was inspired by any specific titles from that era?

PR: So, kind of, but not directly, maybe inspired by Maschinen Krieger. Basically the design is lifted from this. Honestly I should probably differentiate it a little bit more to like not upset the guy who made it but it’s a series of plastic model kits from the 80s. Yeah, this guy Kow Yokoyama makes ridiculously sick designs, all of the Maschinen Krieger stuff is cool. It’s been used in some really obscure OVAs, and also in Metal Gear 2. There’s a mech in Metal Gear 2, not Metal Gear Solid 2, that is based on this guy’s [work]… But yeah, I actually make plastic models before I make 3D Blender models so I can try to better get that skill to transfer over to the 3D models, especially with weathering and stuff. So yeah, it’s been interesting.

Speaking more about Ares Breathes, I wanted to know more about the world of the game, as a cool robot is no good if it’s not in a cool world. I asked Pyotr if he was far enough along to be able to tell us about the world and conflict of the title?

PR: So my main setup is that I really like Souls games, and it’s kind of stuff like with the not post-apocalyptic world, but a world that has already died, basically, and exploring those. I really, I mostly focus on the, how should I say this, even in the real world I really enjoy looking around and seeing how the world is like a big interconnected series of systems… And with the game I’m trying to explore how even our world is insanely precisely tuned to be as livable as it is. And you can have a really high stress colony on a planet that’s not made for us, if we’re not even capable of surviving on it without subsistence, how much stress would that be for all colonists involved and how crucial every single day will be. And I guess like the main idea of the setting is you go around this colony and you try to find out all of the places where it could fail, and you try to figure out where it did fail if there’s no decisive answer, and kind of learn about the colonist’s lives, and figure out just how ridiculously unlikely it is to even have happened in the first place, and so on… 

The conflict is mostly between you and the world. The player character is in this world that was not made to exist in, so you have to set up infrastructure to survive, you have to prepare stuff, you have to collect an amount of resources, that kind of stuff. And I mean, besides that, there are leftover [robots] from the colony, if you have to interact with something it might be hostile they might not be, but there’s not really anyone else alive at this point. It’s not aliens or anything, it’s just you and the hot desert, or cold, cold as fuck desert… The player and their attempt at at least sustaining their own life long enough to maybe get home or maybe adjust, one of those.

One thing I found very interesting about the mech and the game’s engine was how Pyotr was emphasizing the physicality of the mech, and how he wanted it to feel like the weight of the machine mattered. I asked if he could elaborate on what he meant by that?

PR: Yeah, so I mean, part of it is that I don’t know how to animate, I absolutely suck at animating, and I haven’t felt like learning it. So when I started learning it in Blender, I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m just going to write my own procedural animation system, and just apply it because programming is easier than Blender” and that has led me to different gameplay mechanics where you can interact with the environment, pull things around, push things around, the player can use the right analog stick to precisely tune what angle the lever they’re holding is at. So I can use that for puzzles and stuff. And it kind of fits the theme of like, your body not being made for this environment and the awkwardness of having to rely on this giant mechanical suit so you can survive and breathe. So I feel like all those things fit together. it’s all supposed to be kind of awkward feeling. It’s like your body is definitely out of place.

As a follow up I asked if he could tell us what the ratio of procedural animations vs key-framed animations used in the game?

PR: I mean, the nice thing about the procedural animations and stuff, there’s not really a number. I mean, right now, the main categories you could put them in are like, the walking, the aiming and interacting. The interacting is pretty wide, you have levers and stuff, you have doors, you know, drawbridges, you have a wheel you have to turn to open something, that kind of thing. There’s a bunch of interactions, I mean, I’m just adding whatever is necessary to make interactions. Yeah, I basically just look at cool sci-fi interactions that could happen or like some kind of weird operation that the player could be facilitating. And I think, like, “what’s the order or the steps necessary for this robot to awkwardly fumble into place to get this to work?” and i’m trying to make that an expedited process right now… There’s currently no Key-frames whatsoever in the game. 

Staying on the topic of the procedural animations, I asked if the recoil of weapon fire was taken into consideration, or if it was something that the player would have to manage on top of the other threats and concerns in Ares Breathes?

PR: The aiming is like computer assistance, rather than the player having to aim at something specifically, you kind of target different parts of the enemy’s bodies. I suppose that particular animation is more like a cooldown than it is a gameplay system that the player has to deal with. It’s more like, I guess if you’ve played like Parasite Eve, it’s more in in that vein where you separate the body parts of the enemy, use the right analog stick to select the upper part or the limbs or whatever, choose which parts to disable in which order so that you can most efficiently avoid taking damage from the enemies.

While we were talking about combat, I wanted to ask if this title would feature combat as typically seen in classic survival horror games, in the sense that you will frequently encounter enemies or foes of some kind, and you can make the choice to interact with them, or was it more of something on the backburner to the navigation and environmental puzzles?

PR: It’s relatively major. I mean, I’m still working out designs and stuff, so it’s hard to say. But I feel like I enjoy the current combat system, so it would be kind of a waste to not see a decent amount of it. I’m trying to make it relatively smooth. Like if you’re if you want to play really efficiently, you can kind of figure out the exact route and exact patterns with which to most efficiently disable enemies and such, which is mostly very interesting to me, personally. So I feel like it would be a waste to not see many enemies to play around with. So I definitely do want to do that.

Continuing our conversation about the procedural animation and how it affected gameplay, I asked if the movement presented any unique challenges as far as having to rework areas to ensure that the mech could navigate them efficiently?

PR: Yeah, it’s definitely pretty challenging to design the world around, like, I want the world to make sense, but also be traversable. It’s pretty hard to keep this [world] decently realistic, while also keeping the movement speed manageable and just making sure that everything kind of fits together, it’s hard to make sure that the camera doesn’t transition every single step, or whatever. You don’t just give the player constant transitions of camera angles. It can be pretty messy, sometimes, sometimes I just zoom all the way out to get a big wide shot, but that doesn’t look as cool. I chose this set of camera angles, because I can make them look cool. So if I’m just zooming out a bunch it’s not gonna be worth it at all. So yeah, it’s definitely a struggle in that sense. And also, in terms of audio design, like all of these motions that he does, there’s never like a set start or end of the motion, it’s always player driven. So I can never make audio that’s just a linear progression of sounds, it always has to be stuff that loops and can end and start at any time. I’m pretty new to audio design, that makes it quite hard to work with. That’s a whole new dimension to learn, it’s ridiculous.

I could absolutely understand, while in the world of game development there is a seemingly endless array of guides, tutorials, and plug-ins to assist with development, in the world of audio tech work, there seemed to be little more to do than just read and learn. 

PR: Yeah, definitely, I’ve definitely had trouble finding good sources for audio design, especially with the specific problems I have. It’s like, I’m basically just playing VR games just to figure out how they do the sounds, because they also usually have nonlinear interactions and stuff. But yeah, besides that, there’s not that much written up about it, pretty messed up.

While we had somewhat discussed the typical gameplay loop over the past questions, I still wanted to hear about what players should expect from the title, so I asked if he could tell us what we might encounter in a typical hour play session of the title?

PR: Yeah, so essentially, you have like a central hub kind of thing. And the idea is that you head out of this hub and explore the town and try to get some kind of system back online. So you go in some direction, and you find the oxygen production facility or whatever, and you try to fix it, you solve some kind of puzzle, defeat some enemies to get this back up working. But you have to make sure that all the pipelines and stuff are fixed so the oxygen can lead back to your base. And the idea is that every time you spawn at the base, you’d have a certain amount of oxygen, a certain amount of hull, a certain amount of like, all these resources. And that kind of limits the amount of movement you can do and the places you can go. And as you get more resource production facilities online, your starting resources increase, so it’s better, it gets easier to go further. And eventually, it’s kind of like the open-world design, where eventually you can go through the end game path towards the rocket at the end, or whatever. And you finally have enough resources to actually make it through. So you can basically do most of the different dungeon kind of things separately, like in any order. And then at the end, whenever you feel like you can handle it, you can try the last dungeon kind of area, that is the main idea right now.

As a follow up I asked him to clarify if the upgrades would occur incrementally, like a traditional RPG, or was this something where the player would be able to choose and allocate the upgrades the way they deem best?

PR: It just depends on the specific system you get online. So if you get the oxygen production online, you will get an increase to your oxygen levels, you get the repair facility online, your hull will be stronger every time you respawn, that kind of stuff. So I’m trying to make it so that from the moment you set out somewhere you already know like, “alright, this time, I’m going to try to fix the oxygen thing.” It’s not like you go somewhere. And then it’s like, “Oh, I was supposed to be doing this. Oh, I didn’t know this is what this place is for.” I kind of want there to be some intentionality on players parts to be like, “alright, I really need some more oxygen, I’m gonna go find the oxygen generator. Gotta follow this oxygen pipeline and figure out where it goes and then fix this thing and then finally have more oxygen.”

I loved the idea, as an adult with a job and other things that take up my time, I grew to dread games that required a significant amount of back tracking. 

PR: Yeah, exactly. I don’t really want that, that’s not something I enjoy too much. I want at least some amount of intentionality on the players’ part, in that sense… I mean, there might still be some backtracking. But I want to make the player feel like it’s their own choice. So like, “I would feel safer now going back and trying this with knowing exactly which challenges are ahead” rather than, “Oh, I didn’t know I needed this. Let’s just go back.”

On the topic of the dangers found when traversing the planet, I brought up a post he had made about a set of bulkhead doors that gave the player a choice between waiting for the area to decompress, or rushing in prematurely, and damaging the doors, causing unforeseen repercussions in the colony. Frankly, that idea sounded awesome, and I asked Pyotr if this was something that the player would encounter frequently throughout the journey, or was this something where it would be limited to certain setpieces? 

PR: I think it’s gonna depend on the scale of the game probably. I kind of want to have like a few opportunities for the player to make that choice, like, where a speedrunner might be like “I’m just gonna sacrifice this because I know I don’t need it”  but for a new player, it’s like, “wow in that second this seems kind of scary” like the Firelink shrine Going out moment in Dark Souls or something is really impressive to me. I feel like it would be really cool to have something like that where just because of your own actions your hub doesn’t work anymore and you have to [repair it] so I definitely want a few instances like that but probably not like a super consistent game mechanic, it’s more like that a thing you do twice during a play through, and that’s probably about it.

One last question I had about the world of Ares Breathes pertained to the hostile robots that permeated the unforgiving landscapes. I asked if he could tell us where the enemies came from and what caused these machines to go on a rampage?

PR: Mostly they’re just manufacturing robots or things that were used by the colonists. I really don’t really have a particularly good reason as to why they’re there. That’s something I still have to figure out. Honestly, I do want something to fight against, but frankly, It doesn’t make that much sense right now, I’m working on that.

I joked that it can be the mystery that teases players into checking out the game.

PR: Yeah, exactly, that’s it. Hopefully I will have figured it out by then. I mean, like, I’m sure you can always figure out some lame excuses. I would like it to actually make sense somehow, which I haven’t gotten to figure out. There’s a lot to figure out, it will happen.

I added that if he can’t think of anything he can always fall back on the tried-and-true reasoning that “a solar storm hit the planet and made the robots go crazy”

PR: Yeah, exactly. There’s always that one. Worst case scenario, yeah

My final question before wrapping up the interview regarded the development of the title, put simply, considering that it was something he worked on in his free time, did Pyotr feel like he was making good time on the project?

PR: Lately less so, I feel like at the start, it felt pretty smooth. Lately, I’ve just been busy with work, and social stuff, or whatever. It’s always hard, I guess, but it’s been a bit slow lately. I still feel like I have a pretty good idea, at least systematically, gameplay wise and feeling wise, what I want to include. And in that sense, like, the end is somewhat in sight. But making all the actual content, the finalized content is probably going to take a year even beyond finishing all the systems. So, you know, it’s gonna take a while.

I had seen that he had hoped to release a demo in April of 22, with that date having come and long gone, I asked if he felt like players may get to experience a small slice of the sandy world of Ares Breathes sometime in 2023?

PR: This year should be possible, there’s no way I can’t, right? It’s not like it should be impossible. It just kind of depends on my work schedule as well. I mean, I’m sure you know about the Japanese tendency to overwork everything.

That was the end of the questions I had prepared for the interview, but before I left, as I always do, I wanted to open up the floor to Pyotr and ask if there was anything that we hadn’t touched on that he would like to mention, or if there was anything he wanted the readers to check out concerning Ares Breathes?

PR: I guess in terms of marketing. That’s the conflicting opinion, so many people are like, “you have to make the Steam page and you need to have all the marketing material already.” And other people say “you need to make it as soon as possible to grind up those wish lists.” I haven’t done either, I haven’t done any marketing besides Twitter, I’m way too lazy to do that. And it’s probably gonna be like that for quite a while. So if people want to know about the game just follow the Twitter. And that’s probably all that there is right now, so let’s hope that Elon Musk doesn’t destroy Twitter.

And with that we concluded the interview, I thanked Pyotr again for taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me. And after learning more about the progress and the scope of Ares Breathes, I left eagerly awaiting future updates about the title.

If you want to stay up to date on the development of Ares Breathes, be sure to follow Pyotr on his personal Twitter, you can also check out his Itch.IO, although it does not have all of the current materials on the page. And as always, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish gruesome gaming, then head back to DreadXP to read more of our frightful features!