Inside the Dollhouse of horrors: Alisa Dev Casper Croes shares some low-poly tips and dishes on the future of his games
I think it is very safe to say that if you are reading this article, you have a passing knowledge of the current survival horror renaissance that is happening in both AAA and indie gaming scenes. And while the big leagues might have themselves occupied rebooting as many franchises as they can, the indie scene is still riding high on the wave of PS1 styled low-poly games that aim to invoke the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
While there are more of these games than you could shake a square crank at these days, not all of them manage to believably emulate the technical limitations and market trends of the time. The ones that do manage to do so will always stick out. This reason specifically is why I had my eye on Alisa long before its release. While you can take one look at the game and see how much hard work was put into the game, I wanted to get an idea about the challenges that came with making a game in a style that requires you to impose limitations on yourself.
I reached out to Casper Croes, the Belgium-based solo dev behind the project, and asked if he could spare time to talk about the project. Thankfully, I did not have to navigate a dollhouse of horrors to ascertain these secrets, as Casper agreed to be interviewed. And with a little time-zone management and the magic of the world wide web, we were able to find time to sit down and talk about Alisa, its development, as well as the future for the series.
To get things started I wanted to ask what the initial inspirations were for the project. While a cursory glance would lead you to believe this was nothing more than a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, there is a lot more to the game than that. So I asked Casper, what were the building blocks for the story and the world of Alisa?
Casper Croes: Well, the story, I think, I didn’t get much inspiration for the story itself, but like the concept kind of started around a period when I started making the game, this was in 2017. This is a while ago, I was playing a lot of PS1 Resident Evil games, and I think I got some inspiration from, it’s like, half animated half live action, a bit old 70s, Alice from Jan Svankmajer, if I say his name correctly, it’s a little bit horror looking animated stuff. A lot of dolls in this one. So that was probably one of my biggest inspirations. And then a bit later, I got some more inspiration from games like Bloodborne and stuff.
As I mentioned before, there is a whole lot to this game aside from the Alice in Wonderland vibe it initially gives off. The game takes you from a rural village to a circus over the course of the game, so I asked Casper if it was a conscious choice to have it in the dollhouse for the reason of allowing for a lot of variety? Or was that something that just came as he was developing the world?
CC: While I was making it, I remember that I wanted to have a, sort of mansion, as usual, the dollhouse. There is this garden part, the iron garden where all the plants turn into iron, this was also one of the things I wanted to put in this world. And I also wanted to have a circus part. So many things. So yeah, it became kind of like, different styles of zones. So it was already kind of planned to be there.
I followed up by asking, from a creative standpoint, which of the zones was the most fun to work on?
CC: Probably, the circus part, the house of fun. It was probably one of the most fun… Yeah, there’s just a lot of creative freedom there.
Alisa features a lot of cool, creepy, and creative creature designs. I asked Casper which of the creatures he had created were his favorites?
CC: Good question, I never really thought about it. The one I always wanted to make from the start was the guys on the bicycles. It’s also one of the most hated enemies. Maybe the creature in the box, like, first you think it’s just a box and it comes out and starts running at you. And maybe the knight boss Flora in the iron garden. This is one character that I liked making, it was pretty difficult to animate but it was fun to make.
One thing that always stuck out to me about Alisa was the animations for the characters. I wanted to know more about how he managed to nail that PS1 style, so I asked Casper if he took any special steps to ensure the animations in Alisa were faithful to the style of PS1 classics?
CC: I don’t really put much limitations on the animations. Well, I don’t use any, like, IK or something. They call it so that you have points, and like in modern games, you can say like “the feet are always standing on the floor”. Like a hand just follows a certain object. So I didn’t have these because I was thinking back in the day, they didn’t have this. So everything is more like, I animated it almost like stop-motion. Like if you have a figure and you make pictures of it frame-by-frame, more like this.
Expanding on that topic, I was hoping Casper would be able to give some advice on how to get that classic Resident Evil vibe, so I asked if he felt like there was a “secret sauce” when it came to making a believable PS1 throwback game?
CC: Well, I used the pre-rendered backgrounds and pre-rendered videos and stuff. But even without it, I think the most important part is not relying on lighting. Like, many people rely on dynamic lighting. It’s very heavy and it didn’t really exist back in the day. So I think that’s one of the most important parts, is to have only like, it’s called vertex lighting. So models get like, a little bit of glow on one side. But for shadows, just use these transparent circles under the character. Because that’s kind of what they did. To know… if it’s standing on the ground, or when it jumps you know it’s jumping. Otherwise, it’s more like, floating in space, and you don’t really know where your character is. So yeah, I think the lighting is very important. And the resolution has also been important, but not maybe not super important. Yeah, I think that’s about it.
Like I said before, making a game in this style means imposing limits on yourself, and that means sacrifices in convenience. I asked Casper if there was any game making tool he wishes he could have used but couldn’t in good spirit?
CC: I’m thinking, probably lighting, maybe. Ah, of course, moving cameras. Because I put on the pre-rendered backgrounds, the camera cannot move, basically, or the background has to move and becomes a video. This was probably one of the most challenging parts, to make cutscenes, but the cameras cannot move. But yeah, I think that’s the only thing.
Hoping to get some more advice for aspiring indie devs, I asked Casper if there was anything he had noticed any anachronistic inconsistencies in these PS1 throwback games that indie devs should be on the lookout for?
CC: Except for the dynamic lighting, I think often the environment is more detailed than the characters, there’s something I see often like they have this extremely low-poly character but the environment is very detailed. Sometimes people make fixed camera angle games and they emulate that the backgrounds are pre-rendered so they make it extra high-poly. But at certain points the camera starts like, rotating and it’s not really possible. Yeah, that’s what I find. I don’t actually play many of them.
Curious as to why he didn’t play too many games in the style he championed, I asked if it was similar to how some musicians didn’t listen to music in their own genre to avoid outside influence, or if it was simply because he felt he had had his fill with PS1 survival horror?
CC: Maybe, I get disappointed pretty quickly. And yeah, I don’t want to get too much disappointment so I mostly only play the ones that people recommend me.
I followed up by asking if he had played any modern games that he felt evolved the genre?
CC: Modern so the ones that are not following an older style… I actually have to think, because I cannot remember the last time I played like, a real survival horror game. I did play MADiSON, that’s more like a horror game. It’s not much like survival horror, because there’s not much fighting in this game. [Author’s note: I misheard and incorrectly listed Medicine Horror as the game Casper was playing, I have corrected it to MADiSON]
On the topic of what exactly makes a survival horror game, I asked Casper what came to mind for him when it comes to defining survival horror?
CC: I think fighting, but like, you are not strong enough to fight all the enemies you come across. A certain type of item limitation. For example, limited inventory space, or something like that. Or, the only limitation is that you can only bring two weapons at a time. Yeah, I think that’s the, and of course that it’s horror.
But actually, I played a game that was not really horror, but it played like a survival horror game. It’s a Japanese indie game called, I have to check. The main title is Kwaidon: Azuma Manor story. It was a fun game, definitely. Yeah, it’s not really horror, like a little bit horror, but it’s not, like really scary or something. It has a very Dreamcast-y feel which was very nice.
Alisa came to light as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, and while it is a blessing to indie devs, it can be hard managing the expectations of your backers. On this note, I asked Casper if there was anything he had to cut from the game in order to ensure the game was released in a timely manner for the people who had helped fund the game?
CC: Quite a lot, quite a lot of things, actually. I am now working on an update that would add everything I could not add because the budget was limited. I could not keep working on it, because at a certain point, I won’t have money anymore to live. So I released it, kind of like, bare-bone, like you could finish it, it was very buggy. But I actually wanted to put like, three endings on it. It released with only one ending… There would have been New Game Plus, and like, another shop, more dresses, and weapons; and two enemies had to be scrapped. So I know I’m adding everything as a free update.
Frankly, the idea of having all of the cut content restored in a free update was very cool. But working on Alisa for over 5 years with more to come had to have given Casper time to think of what would come next, so I asked him if he had given any thought to what his next project was going to be?
CC: Alisa was the first project that I finished. Before that I had a lot of unfinished projects. But I’ve always wanted to do multiplayer, and I wanted to do sci-fi. So it’s completely different from Alisa. But I think I will always stay like, kind of retro in a certain way. But the next project might be not horror. But, well, maybe my games might always have a little element of horror, or a little bit of unsettling style. But I’d like to do some multiplayer, like Co-Op or something.
I followed up by asking if he ever planned on returning to tell more of Alisa’s story?
CC: Oh yeah, definitely. But I think when I make Alisa 2 the game might be a lot different. Since she went through… so much character development, she cannot be the same character anymore like, hiding behind a gun, scared or something. It might become more of something between Resident Evil and Devil May Cry or something. I think I just skipped like, three games and instantly move to Resident Evil 4 or 5 or 6. But I also planned to have like, a prequel to this game, and this is definitely going to be the same style of gameplay, survival horror.
To wrap up the interview I wanted to get an idea of how capable Casper thought Alisa was, so I asked if Alisa was trapped in the worlds of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, did he think she would be able to survive?
CC: Well, since she’s like, elite soldier, how she starts, maybe she will do fine. I think it’s easily comparable to S.T.A.R.S. since they are also a little bit elite forces… So I think she will do fine. I think after seeing like, all kinds of creatures, I think Silent Hill will be okay. But now that I think of it, Resident Evil was mostly gore. I don’t know how she reacts to gory things.
I asked if Alisa thought being through a creepy dollhouse was not as scary as seeing someone get torn in half?
CC: I think so, at least for me, you easily see that it’s like a doll, it’s more like robots or something. She’s basically shooting robots or something, you know.
With that mostly glowing endorsement for his character’s combat capabilities, I ended the interview and again thanked Casper for his time.
If you want to play Alisa for yourself, you can pick it up on steam right now, and complete it in preparation for the upcoming update. To see what Casper cooks up next, be sure to follow him on his personal Twitter page or visit his website.
And as always, if you are absolutely fiending for more ghoulish gossip on the latest and greatest in gory, gruesome gaming, make sure to head back to DreadXP.com and read more of our frightful features!