Combating Oppression the Occult Way, Conversing About Coven with Ethan Appleby
Coven has had me under its spell for quite some time. I first came across this hex-dressed tale of violence and vengeance when it was being shared around on the Twitter pages of notable indie devs. Its frantic FPS gameplay was anachronistic to its pilgrim-era aesthetic, and its brutality would make the headless horseman seem like a good samaritan.
Eager to expand my understanding of the gory grimoires of Coven, I was able to get in contact with Ethan Appleby, the lead designer on the title. He found time from his schedule of stirring cauldrons and cooking up new content for Coven to speak, so I conjured from my spellbook a spell known as Discord so we could speak from the comfort of our respective covensteads.
I began my interview with a clarifying question about the size of the team. From what I read online, there were only two members of the dev team, so I asked Ethan, was this true?
Ethan Appleby: Kind of, it’s mostly me. And then my friend kind of helps here and there. He made the save system, he recently added mouse scroll for changing weapons. But mostly, yeah, I’m like 100% on it.
Game design is extremely difficult, and considering the fact that Ethan has been mostly working on this alone, it is impressive how much he has done, especially considering the many iterations the game has gone through, as we will discuss later.
The next thing I wanted to know was how he had come across the name Gator Shins for his development team?
EA: So basically, have you played Hunt: Showdown?.. It’s pretty punishing, but it’s so much fun. So basically there’s a trait in Hunt called Gator legs, which makes you move quicker through water. it’s like an ongoing joke, my friend group used to play football [Soccer, for us in the Americas]… And if you shin the ball, it’s kind of funny, It looks wrong, you know? it kind of just came from there combining hunt traits with us being idiots playing football. And it’s my Steam name, and obviously, I uploaded the game on Steam using my Steam account. And it just automatically set it so I was like, “fuck it, that’ll do” because we were trying to come up with the name and it was like we’re trying to think of something similar to 3d realms. But, uh, it just says gator shins so I was like fuck it… It clearly works, right? I need to make a logo for though and I don’t know where the hell to start, I guess maybe some gator shins.
There are certain levels and areas that will always be tropes of the FPOS genre, but I can not say I have heard of many games centering around a revenge-driven witch, so I asked Ethan, what were his inspirations for the game.
EA: Um, so originally I started in, it would have been 2015. I was playing a bunch of Quake at the time, and Brutal Doom and Blood. And as it started off it was a cyberpunk retro FPS. Because at the time I was big into like, like synth wave music. But then after a while, I worked on it a little bit and kind of dropped it because work, life, you know, gets in the way, and in 2017 started again, but as a VR game, like it was originally a VR old school shooter. And I really just liked the idea, like the whole witch thing. Being a witch who…, originally it was like you were a coven of witches and you’ve been asleep for a while, like resting somewhat and some grave robbers would come in, and like wake you up to say they murdered the rest of the coven. Yeah, then it kind of just evolved into more of a revenge thing.
Aside from the mechanical inspirations, I asked Ethan if there were any pieces of fiction he drew from for inspiration, or was it as simple as wanting to be a vengeful witch?
EA: A bit of both like I really enjoyed the film The VVitch. It’s one of my favorite films, like it’s probably my favorite horror film of the last 10 years. Obviously very different plot wise, but just the whole, like, the folklore around witches and like how fucked up it was. I don’t know, like, King James of Scotland was the 16th century? Just you know, it was a bit of a mad cunt, and it caused like 1000s and 1000s of people to be burned at the stake. Yeah, I thought it was good, like, inspiration for the player because if you want to murder a bunch of pilgrims, right, you need a good motive. And you know, being burned alive is a pretty good start.
On the topic of guilt-free fodder for video game violence, Ethan recalled the feeling of killing Nazis in a recent title.
EA: I was literally thinking of that the other day, I was playing Sniper Elite five on Game Pass, And I was just murdering Nazis. And I was like, “holy shit. I don’t feel bad”. It’s like one of the best enemies to kill is a Nazi because you don’t feel bad killing it.
I commented that Zombies also made good fodder, and that the people who made Nazi zombies really hit on something.
EA: Exactly. Yeah… It’s like the ultimate combo.
Having mentioned multiple games that play rather differently as major inspirations, I asked Ethan to clarify as to what kind of gameplay a new player should expect to compare the title to?
EA: I mean, gameplay wise in terms of the enemies and weaponry, mostly Quake? And Blood, I guess. And then obviously Brutal Doom for the like, over the top, you know, blood fucking everywhere. Yeah, but I’d say mostly, technically, mostly Quake, I’d say.
The halloween demo did make use of some physics puzzles for a small puzzle section, I asked Ethan if this would be prevalent in the final build of the game, or if the player should always expect the action to be front-and-center?
EA: Mostly the action. There will be like, you know, certain levels will flow more like, it’ll just be combat sequences with a bit of, you know, quiet time, maybe some exploration. And then other levels, like In… a town level, which is going to be kind of like one long puzzle, but you know, in a space of combat, so you’re trying to solve this, yeah. I can’t say exactly what but, trying to solve the level. But obviously on the way you’re just murdering folk. It is mostly violence. Yeah, with a bit of lateral thinking thrown in there.
On Twitter Ethan frequently posts updates on the development of the title, and at this point it looks like it is coming along quite well, so I asked plainly how far along he was, and if he thought he was more than 50% done?
EA: Yeah, yeah, I’d say because I mean, the gameplay mechanics are pretty much done. I’ve got a couple more enemies to kind of refine that are in there, but the AI needs a refactor, I guess. And then after that, it’s just it’s many levels. I eventually finalized the level list, which I’ve been kind of like, chopping and changing for the last two years. So yeah, I’d say it’s 75% thereabouts. I’ve got, obviously, most of the game mechanics, like, finalized. I can just make the levels. Which I’ve got a pretty, pretty solid plan on what I want to do.
At this point during the conversation we deviated slightly and discussed the luxuries of modern indie game development, and the “Have laptop, will develop” nature of modern game studios.
EA: Oh, it’s fantastic. Like, I was looking at development costs back in the day, like, N64 development cost. And you had to be rich basically. Either you had a company or you had to have, like, serious fucking money to even get a workstation development kit. Whereas now, it’s like I just download unity, like, you know, and then just go from there. It’s incredible.
I asked Ethan what changes he had made to the game since the release of the Halloween demo?
EA: So it’s been a lot of tweaks basically. I’ve kind of tweaked the dash, I’ve tweaked slomo, a lot of people said they didn’t feel like it was necessary. Or like, if you used it, it wasn’t really giving you that much of a benefit. So I’ve made slow motion more slow. And also guns fire faster in slomo now so it’s like if you use the pistols in slomo it’s like using the chain gun. Like, it just shreds, and it just feels nice. Yeah, what else, more enemies, I’ve added a tick enemy? Because I fucking hate ticks, like, theyre prevalent in Europe, I’m not sure if it’s the same in America. It’s a fucking nightmare. Taking my dog out and it’s just like, yeah, I hate the bastards. I was like, I’ll put them in the game and I’m gonna murder them.
I added a cardinal as well. So it’s fitting in on the whole like, religious, you know, people abusing religion. He’ll buff enemies around him and do AOE attacks. He’s like, floating around, it looks really fucking creepy. Yeah, and also, I’m still adding actually yet another thing, I’m adding the Necronomicon, which is basically, it kind of fills in a bunch of weapon slots. It’s like multiple pages to use different spells. But I’m trying to avoid your typical fire, ice, lightning thing to try and do more kind of weird shit. Kind of funny stuff. Like, I’m still coming up with the last couple of spells for it. But uh, just weird shit. Like, you know, lift an enemy in the air then like closing your hand. And that body just like folds in on itself, like, crushes all it’s bones and shit.
I commented that it sounds like he has a lot of great ideas for weapons in Coven, and I likened it to the oddity of weapons from Blood, Specifically, the Voodoo doll.
EA: Yeah [the voodoo doll] Yeah, man. It’s so, like, Blood as a whole, the vibe of that game, the weapons, everything, It’s so unique. I think it’s like, in my opinion, it’s the best build engine game. I love Duke Nukem, I love Shadow Warrior. But like, Blood is just, the fucking peak in terms of like, weapons, level design, and just overall vibe,
On the topic of the development journey for Coven, the game had at one point been a VR title, so I asked Ethan, what had led him to begin developing a VR title, and did he stop for technical reasons?
EA: It wasn’t so much that, it was like because I had the basics down for VR, like, you could pick up stuff, you could interact, you could change weapons, move around, teleport, all this shit. But I was just playing and I was like, I wanted it to be purely, like, just locomotion. So you remove the teleport. But like, it was 2017 at the time, VR was still relatively new. You need your VR legs, right? If you want to be like, fucking flinging around, you know, the speed, like FPS games are just a lot for people. I don’t think they would have enjoyed it, they would have probably thrown up.
I only started as a VR game because I was like, “Oh, I just bought a vive” I was like, fuck it, I might as well just try and make something for it. And then I realized that the better choice was just to have it, like, 2D. the game would play better… I just thought it’d be much more fun, you know? I prefer to play them mouse and keyboard, and I was thinking, why am I making something which I technically, don’t really, you know, I prefer to play it a different way. So it’s like fucking i’ll just make it pancake or whatever you call it.
I followed by asking if, hypothetically Coven did very well, would there be a possibility of bringing it back to VR?
EA: So I mean, I’m going to go up on, fingers crossed, early access around Halloween this year. And then after that, it’ll be a thing of just like, doing other episodes set in different time periods. And then I guess I could just add VR support at some point. I mean, why not? Right? There’s tons of framework out there like VR TK, like virtual reality toolkit, I think it’s called, which is open source. And it kind of just gives you the basics, which I feel I could easily just, you know, make it like, fork off, and make a VR version, since I have the levels in the interaction. You know, it’s all there, I just, I just need to kind of, yeah, make a virtual player control. So I don’t see why not.
I was very curious as to what Ethan had said about the possibility of future episodes set in future times, so I asked if he felt comfortable elaborating on that topic?
EA: So it’s quite open at the minute, I’ve got some ones I specifically want to do, like, the second episode, is, it’s going to be around the same time. Like, you know, late 1600s, early 1700s. But like, kind of Pirates of the Caribbean shit, like in the Caribbean, it’s not set in stone yet. But it’s basically like, either, you’re the girl you in the first episode, it’s either gonna be her and she’s in the Caribbean, fighting the British. Or, like her spirit, like, she’s kind of like just passed on to other bodies who are people who were wronged.
So imagine you’d start off as a pirate, you’ve been like, fucking murdered, pretty much been killed by the British. And you’re set out to hang. You’d wake up and the crows are eating you and you fucking drop down and then just like start murderin all these cunts in the Caribbean. Mainly just to keep it fresh for the player. And for me, I don’t want to make another episode in the same place. You know what I mean? Like, creatively, it’s much more interesting that I can go to another time period and then you know, it keeps it interesting to make another one.
Another one was just kind of like, I’m assuming you saw Robocop, yeah? So like that kind of 80s Detroit but it’s futuristic, but it’s grimy as fuck. Something like that would be another episode. So it’s kind of like, imagine, you know having VHS on the shelf. And you’ve got like, Coven part one which is like 16 hundred’s, Coven part two, and it’s fucking pirates and the third one, you know, kind of like a slasher series where it’s the same kind of vibe but it’s generally centered in a different place or time.
I really just want a pump action shotgun to be honest, yeah. Like you know, I’ve got the double barrel, I’ve got the fucking other shotgun, but like, we just want a pump action actually like the one from Duke 3D like, the grip on the pump. I just want to make a 3D model of it and just be able to blast people’s legs off in a subway or something.
Back on the topic of the story already being told, I asked if the plot will be on the forefront during a standard playthrough? or if this was more so like the story in doom, which as its creator put it was expected, but not the reason people played the game.
EA: Yeah, it’s under the same kind of thing. Like it’s there for motivation. It pretty much sets you up. Obviously there’s journals you can find throughout if you want to know more, but it’s mainly just like, obviously been burned. If this priest has lied, and had you burned at the stake, and it’s basically just set up to make you really want to fucking kill him and get your hands on him and like, rip em to shreds.
I asked Ethan if the villain of the first episode would return from the dead, or if the villain of each episode would be unique to that time period?
EA: I mean [when he is killed] that’ll be him, like done. But in general, it’s a thing of like, through the ages, religion being misused and abused, to kind of keep people down. So it’ll be you know, it’ll be different. For example, in the pirate-y, whatever the fuck, I don’t want to say Pirates of Caribbean, but you know, pretty much it’s the same thing of just government or religion.
And then in the future would be the same thing, someone being wronged. I mean, if it was like, 1980s Detroit, like, you know, maybe some young black lass who’s been fucking, like, you know, cops are like fucking her up or something. You know, it’s pretty much just a running theme of oppression. Where I’m kind of stuck at the minute is like, do I keep the same character? And she’s, like, immortal. So she’s like, you know, walking the earth for like 1000 years. Witnessing all this, like, horrendous shit? Or is it some kind of spirit, which is, you know, it’s in her at the end of the game, whatever. And then the next one, it’s like, you’re, like, transferred to a new body kind of, I don’t know, it’s kind of up in the air. But the theme is going to generally run throughout.
I thought this was a great idea, the concept of a vengeful spirit traveling to wherever injustice has occurred to get revenge.
EA: yeah, like, obviously, that the game starts with you being like, burnt alive. And I was thinking it’s such an interesting way to start a game. Like you instantly get that motivation, in the first five seconds of “Holy shit, this guy just fucking burns her alive, I want to murder him”. And I was thinking, you know, how often would that happen? If she was immortal? Maybe not. But if it’s like, she just gets dropped in this other body. At the moment, you know, you know, let’s say they get fucking hanged or you know, shot on the street. And you know, it instantly gives the player motivation which saves on time, you know, get straight the killing.
I followed up by asking if the player would ever get to see the trials before the burning, or if they were less important than just witnessing the aftermath of the event?
EA: As you play you’ll read journals and, find out a bit more of the backstory, at least in the first few levels to kind of like, pin down exactly why it happened. But, generally as it goes on… You saw an island, and then you take a boat across to the mainland… the further you get away from the source of this thing that happened, people wouldn’t really be discussing it. So it’s more like an early stages thing and then it builds motivation. And eventually there’s just you trying to find them to perform a very fucked up glory kill basically. you’ll get there and you’ll fucking rip his heart out or some shit. I haven’t quite decided on it, but it’s going to be brutal, yeah. To make it feel worthwhile, you know? And there’s not going to be any choice of “Do you want to kill him or do you not” It’s like “no, you’re gonna fucking kill him. Man’s a bastard you want to kill”
The world of Coven is clearly a world of strange happenings, but I was curious as to what the extent of this mysticism was, so I asked Ethan, is the witchcraft in Coven limited to the main character, or is the world, and the afflicting plague, also mystical in nature?
EA: So basically out there’s like the old gods who are kind of pissed off with Christianity, the way it’s kind of misused. So they’re kind of unleashing it, it’s why the statues come up from the ground of these old gods. I’d say mystical in terms of it’s kind of like, biblical, you know, like, smiting people. You’re kind of driven by the old gods to, you know, get revenge and kill this guy, but it’s like “Should you be following the word” I don’t know let’s just cast the plague on these cunts because they’re Christians, fair enough.
I had learned many secrets of the witchy ways of Coven, but I couldn’t end my interview without asking the most important question. Of all the body parts that the Coven witch would eat to regain health, as you will often do in the game, which piece of man meat was her favorite treat?
EA: gotta be the testicles, doesn’t it? Like, you know, what’s more terrifying to a man than some Lassie going round, murderin’ cunts and eating their bollocks
I commented that this was a circumstance where the first man down is the luckiest, as he doesn’t have to see what happens.
EA: Oh yeah, just like instantly devouring them, must be fucking terrifying.
With that last bout of flesh-eating inquiry, I wrapped up the interview, thanked Ethan again for his time, and wished him the best in his arcane efforts in finishing his work before Halloween.
For more information on the latest and greatest in gory horror gaming, be sure to stay on DreadXP and read more of our frightful features.