Spectra: Ellis Tucci Brings the Horrors of the Cold War to the Immersive Sim Genre

Fear takes many forms and comes in many sizes, and while the landscape of indie gaming is filled with various instances of extreme examples, ranging from psycho killers to mutant creatures, one can argue that our world can be just as terrifying if not more. One era of history that surely inspires dread in those who lived through it is the Cold War conflict that saw the US and Soviet Union locked in a series of proxy wars and acts of espionage in an attempt to further their ideological and geopolitical goals. This tense time in world history is the setting for the upcoming stealth immersive sim Spectra, which will see players take the role of a Soviet agent in an alternate history 1972, tasked with infiltrating the fortress city of Hiawatha.

It seems as though immersive sims have seemingly taken off in popularity in recent years following the success of Gloomwood and the boomer shooter renaissance bringing classics like Deus Ex and System Shock back into the public zeitgeist. Amidst this trend I have seen people creating new and unique settings for their stories to take place in, and when I saw the neon soaked cityscape that Ellis Tucci was crafting for his upcoming title, I wanted to learn more. Being a fan of film noir and tales of espionage I was drawn in by the moody atmosphere and the mix of retro-futurism with classic 50’s and 60’s art deco. As I learned more about the title and its influences I was eager to get an opportunity to speak with the creator about his project. 

Thankfully neither Ellis or I have found ourselves embroiled in a deep state plot to spark a revolution, so no fancy cypher or messenger pigeon was needed to get my messages to him, and thankfully, without the need to hide his identity from prying international agents, Ellis was able to make time to speak with me about his project, his influences, and his plans for the full release of the title. After exchanging our introductions and taking a moment to compliment his fantastic fashion sense, I began my line of questioning on Spectra

I had learned that before taking the dive into game development, Ellis had been working in the field of maritime software, and only began developing games in more recent years, so to start the interview off, I asked him how long he had been working in game development, and what had led him down this path?

Ellis Tucci: Well, I don’t have any professional experience in game development. But ever since I knew what a video game was, I knew that I wanted to be involved in making them. And so I started out, probably when I was like, nine years old. I tried to make something in Dark Basic, and it was just the most horribly confusing thing that it just made me weep. But I didn’t totally give up. I did e modding for a while. This current project actually started as a quarantine project out of boredom in March 2020. And it’s gone through three iterations since then, so I’ve gotten to learn a lot and incorporate those lessons. So like, I had this very, very rough version that was essentially a little town that you walk around, that didn’t look very nice. And then Unreal Engine corrupted that build, and I had to start, again, from scratch. And so I got to, you know, take some lessons into doing a second version that was a little bit better, but still not quite there. And then I stored that on an external hard drive that I dropped one day, and completely destroyed. And so I started on this current iteration in, I guess, November 2020. And so I got to incorporate a lot of things that I’ve learned from doing things wrong in the past into doing things right this time.

As a follow-up I asked if this was his first time making a full game?

ET: This is the first full game. I did small little personal mods that I never really shared with anyone else. But yeah, I just decided that I was going to slowly have this really long project that I can whittle away at, over a really long time and hopefully, eventually create something that’s really neat.

While the Twitter page and website made it clear that this project was developed solely by Ellis, I wondered if this was something intentional or out of necessity. So I asked if he was open to the idea of expanding the team, or if this was a choice made to ensure that his passion project came out exactly as he envisioned it?

ET: I think, generally, I am of the mind that I want to do as much by myself as I can. Like, there are certain areas where my expertise might be lacking that, you know, maybe I have some people in mind that I would like to work with. I know some people that I’d like to get involved with doing music and scoring, because that’s not a strength that I have. There are certain instances where I’ll need, say, a really complex piece of 2D art, like a mosaic or a mural that is maybe a little bit out of my wheelhouse. And so in those instances, you know, I would not be opposed to working with other people. But in general, I think I have a really, really specific vision for how everything is going to be and it would be really difficult for me to communicate the level of detail to another person… I think with something where it’s just one person, you can definitely get a really firm sense of authorship, which is definitely something that I’m going for.

Moving on to the development of the title itself, it is no industry secret that making an immersive sim is not only time consuming but requires a herculean effort at times to make sure that the interconnected mechanics are all functioning properly to create a living world. With this in mind I asked Ellis if there were any specific challenges he faced that he had not considered when starting the project?

ET: Oh, absolutely. It’s like, every single day, I run into a problem that I had not considered when I had initially started testing something. And, you know, of course, now, I can’t think of a direct example off the top of my head, but I mean, this has definitely been an intense learning experience. Because you can start out thinking that you’re designing something incredibly simple. And it very, very slowly morphs into something incredibly complex. And so managing that and knowing how to navigate that is, I think, really important.

On the flip side of that question I asked if there was anything that he had assumed wouldn’t be a problem but due to the nature of immersive sims ended up being a greater challenge?

ET: Anything that I didn’t think was going to be a problem that ended up being difficult? That’s a good question. I think I probably thought that everything was going to be difficult. It’s difficult not in the way that it’s indecipherable, or impossible to navigate, but it’s just a real time commitment. A lot of my friends who aren’t into development, kind of look at the things that I do and think that it’s some black magic, and incredibly confusing. Really when you look at it, and especially when you’re working in something like an Unreal Engine blueprint, you can do some really complex and impressive things, only knowing how to master a few pieces of code. And so development isn’t necessarily, you know, untying a Gordian knot, but it can definitely be repetitious… And visual scripting works very well with me. I’m a very visual thinker, and so just seeing how you can connect things up in that way, it just makes sense. I can’t do, you know, typing out code, C, that kind of stuff, that’s totally beyond me. I think the people that can do that are real magicians. But I think Unreal, definitely is a steep learning curve, but it can be pretty accessible, depending on what you’re looking to do.

With the project being so large from conception, I wondered if Ellis ever felt like he had bitten off more than he could chew. With this in mind I asked if he ever felt as though he needed to take a step back and create something smaller for his first project?

ET: There were definitely moments when I adjusted my scope. Initially, kind of when the idea had less of a form, the game was a bit larger in scope. I had planned to have a branching storyline that led to a different set of missions depending on a choice that you made. And there came a point when I realized that, you know, that total amount of work would either make the project impossible to complete, or it would mean that the total quality of the levels overall would suffer. So I’ve made the decision to limit the scope of the length of my game to include seven levels total, six of which are going to be really significant gameplay levels, which like, you know, six is not a really big number. But each of these levels is a really large, complex interlocking space, with a lot of opportunities for branching choice and decision making. So that’s the route that I’ve chosen to kind of avoid. You know, really biting off more than I can chew.

Having discussed the origins of the development and some of the challenges with the creation of the world, I wanted to talk more about the game itself. Specifically, I wanted to know if there were any specific inspirations for the game. So I asked Ellis if he would be able to tell me about what helped shape the world of Spectra, mechanically and aesthetically?

ET: Yes. So in terms of mechanical inspirations, the Thief games specifically Thief 2 in terms of stealth, you know, I have a mechanic for different footstep sounds on different materials, I’m working on light gem-esque mechanics similar to that. Deus Ex is a big one, except, because of the way that I’m structuring the game, there’s not a focus on talking with NPCs, mainly like the ability to choose your play style that Deus Ex offers the player. in terms of an aesthetic influence, BioShock was probably the first game that showed little me what games could be as a visual medium, and I think that influence is probably very apparent looking at my work today. Dark City, the classic neo noir film with lots and lots of neon, The Hudsucker Proxy, which is kind of a screwball black comedy by the Coen brothers set in 1959. The 1989 Batman movie, Brazil by Terry Gilliam, which is like a fantastic parody, you know, black skewer on a dystopian world. And then, some more oblique literary influence, being Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities, which is an influence more in the way that the city itself is kind of an organic character and a reflection of, you know, human thoughts and actions.

With an idea about what inspired the world, both fictional and factually, I asked Ellis if he could tell us a bit about the world of Spectra, as well as the conflicts within?

ET: So the world of the game is set in an alternate history 1972, in which the Soviet Union is winning the Cold War. And so the reason for that is, in 1934, a fascist coup deposes the newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was a real thing that almost happened in our real world. That in turn causes the United States to remain neutral during World War Two, and causes the Soviet Union to emerge into the post war period as the dominant power. Now you play as number six, who is essentially the Soviet version of James Bond, who has been sent by your superiors to infiltrate the dystopian fortress city of Hiawatha, and connect with the rebels to help overthrow the essentially tyrannical warlord of the city, which is this gigantic corporation called Saturn. And so you do that through multiple means throughout these missions. Got all sorts of things planned.

On the topic of the historical influence on the story, I asked if the player would take part in other historically significant events, or meet historically significant people during their incognito escapades?

ET: The theme of history is very, very present throughout the entire game. So the people that you interact with on a person to person basis aren’t going to be real people. But there are definitely, you know, real characters that play a part in this story, real historical events that play significant roles in the lore. Because given that it’s an alternate history, there are plenty of real people from our timeline that serve parallel or alternate roles in this universe. So, yeah, it’s definitely very, very, very informed by history.

It certainly sounded like the player would have a lot on their hands undoing the political mess made in Spectra. I wondered what kind of toolset the player would be able to use to accomplish their goals, and in an attempt to enlighten myself I asked Ellis if the game would present the tools to the player to use in any way they see fit, or would the game feature a more traditional system of leveling up your characters skills as they progressed? 

ET: I think right now I’m leaning more towards the former, kind of like, you know, throughout levels, you can find various weapons scattered about that you can swap out at whim throughout your inventories. I’m working on a diegetic inventory system right now, that’s got the classic Tetris style arrangement. So it’ll be very flexible, pick up things as you go that accommodate your play style. Really, really play with the tools however you want. And I’ve got some strange and fun little gadgets up my sleeve.

I was happy to hear that, because I had felt the dread of getting halfway to ⅔ through a game and trying to change my playstyle for a mission only to realize I had upgraded myself into a corner.

ET: Yeah, I’ve been considering various ways to handle things like an upgrade and progression system. Because that is a mechanic that I’m interested in including, but I’m not quite sure how that’s going to fit in yet. Outside of upgrading the inventory, it’s like a suitcase, and you’ll be able to find expandable trays for them scattered throughout the level.

I had seen the mechanic in action, and commented that it would be a lot of fun in the late game when you open your case and a christmas tree of trays folds out.

ET: Yeah, I’m really not looking forward to making the animations for that.

While Ellis had talked about how he had to restrict the scope of the decisions the player would face, I was still curious as to how the player would be able to shape the events of the story. So I asked if the player would be able to stray away from the main objective and possibly betray their allegiances, such as real spies might be tempted to?

ET: You cannot. So this story is set up like, well, I feel like saying that you follow a linear story would be misleading. Because there isn’t so much like a huge focus on telling a story. It’s mainly focused on storytelling through mechanics and through building on complex lore about, like, how did the world end up to be this way? What’s happening elsewhere? And so I’m not really aiming on getting a huge investment in the story. I don’t know if that answers your question. 

For clarification I said that while the player doesn’t necessarily have to go ABC to complete the objective, it sounded like it’s always going to end at z as far as the story is concerned?

ET: Yeah, if I can, I can give you an example… The level that I’ve been working on, you know, your objective is you’re going to infiltrate a broadcasting company headquarters, and you’ve got to recover a list of names, and sabotage some broadcasting equipment. And so, every level, you’ve got general objectives, and complete freedom with how you want to achieve those…  I really want to make it as flexible for the player as possible. Which takes of course, many, many manifestations across designs, but, you know.

I admired the work, because frankly, as I had said before, immersive sims are some of the hardest games to make.

ET: Yeah, oh my gosh, oh, why did I do this to myself?

I had talked to a few people who had said that after making an immersive sim they wanted to make something much simpler, so I asked Ellis if he felt the same way?

ET: After this, I fully plan on making another immersive sim.

I told Ellis that made sense, if you’re gonna sharpen up the toolset, you may as well just keep using it.

ET: Yeah, absolutely.

While I know it can be hard to tell how a player is going to react to being dropped into the fully fleshed out worlds that immersive sims often offer, I asked Ellis if he could give us some info about what the gameplay loop may be like for new players in the starting hours of Spectra?

ET: Your typical gameplay loop is going to be, I’ll give you an example of the opening, what’s going to happen in the opening level. You’re dropped in on a pier on the outskirts of the city, and you’ve got to make contact with someone. So your gameplay loop is going to be based on a kind of diegetic exploration. So, you know, you won’t have a map unless you find a map pickup across the level. Each building has street numbers on it, the streets will have signs on them. And so it’s about navigating a realistically designed space, really however you want. So you can climb up over through the rooftops, you can go down through the sewers, you can pass through buildings, you can go down the streets, it’s pretty freeform. So I guess it will be difficult to say what the minute to minute loop would look like… You can play it ghost, non-lethal. If you like, you can go in guns blazing, though that may not be the smartest idea. You know, really however you like.

I reiterated again that I was excited to hear about the freeform approach players would be able to take with all missions, as it was always a massive downer to realize I had upgraded myself out of a viable option for completing an objective.

ET: Yeah, I’ve never been a big fan of that. Which is why I’m trying to avoid the upgrade tree kind of progression system.

Considering the fact that he had suffered two catastrophic losses of game data, and was on his 3rd iteration of Spectra, it really seemed like Ellis had covered a lot of ground in the past two years and change. Wanting to get his perspective on the work completed versus the work yet to come, I asked Ellis if he felt as though he was making good time on the project?

ET: I think I’ve made a good amount of progress for the time that I’ve been working on it. But I’ve also been spending a lot of time building out systems that are going to save me a lot of time later. So like, I’ve been building out a huge series of blueprints for mechanical things that, you know, the next time I need to implement them, it’s not going to take me a month to come up with the code. So progress is slow in that respect. But, theoretically, it’s slow so it can get faster later. So the short answer, I would say yes, I do feel I do feel good about that.

While Ellis had made it abundantly clear that there was no release window for Spectra, as the amount of love and care he intended to put into creating his world would take quite some time, but I was still eager to get my hands on the project, and I asked Ellis if he had any timeframe for when players might be able to get a taste of the gameplay, and perhaps even a demo?

ET: I don’t know if I can give a realistic release window. And I’ve been considering whether or not I want to do a publicly available demo. I would like to by the end of this year have something that I can share with a wider private circle. But the reason that I would choose not to do a public demo is because you know, due to the six levels, I don’t know if I would want to share a full sixth of the game. You know, in advance that seems like a big portion and building out a piece of content specific to the demo, I don’t know if that would be the most productive use of development time. So we’ll see what comes of that. But yeah, the short answer is I’m hoping to have something that I can show on a more full level this year.

I told Ellis that it made perfect sense, as it was a hard balance to keep the player excited for the game without giving them too much for free. I had played many demos that offered so much of the game that the need to buy it was diminished. 

ET: Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I think if I don’t do a demo, I would like to show off a lot of footage of gameplay. But you know, as of now, I don’t know if I’m going to release something that’s publicly consumable.

I was excited to see more of the game, it was interesting to see a game in the indie space that was trying to find a unique setting that didn’t eschew reality for originality. 

ET: Thank you. That’s the goal, at least. 

With that, I wrapped up the questions I had prepared for this interrogation. Before we departed and Ellis returned to his top secret work forging the city and citizens of Spectra, I asked him where interested parties would be able to follow his work as he continued development?

ET: If people want to stay up to date on the project, they can follow the Twitter, which is @Spectrathegame but yeah, I think that’s just about it.

As he said, for up to date updates on the declassified development of Spectra, be sure to visit the game’s official Twitter page, and if you are absolutely fiending for more information on dastardly dystopian games, head on back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features.