Splatter: The Rat King Collective Untangles the Methods Behind Their Madness

In a market that seems to be filled to the brim with solo devs slaving away on passion projects for a decade or more, it is nice to see the opposite, a group of like-minded and talented individuals who come together to combine forces like some sort of game developing Voltron. Rat King Collective is one such establishment, with their gang of gaming go-getters, the team has put together some rather interesting pieces in the short time they have been together. Including works of short fiction, supplements for tabletop role-playing games, and one short but memorable horror title, Meat Shift

Recently the team had released their first full commercial project, a neon fueled, blood soaked, surreal shooter titled Splatter, that hit Steam back in mid-December. I was instantly hooked on the crazy visuals and chaotic gameplay loop of the title, and after finger blasting my way through the demo, I was eager to learn more about the game, and the group of artistic animals that had found themselves all tangled together in the Rat King. 

I reached out to the team online, and thankfully they did not have to unwind themselves from the knot to meet with me and answer my questions. I was able to meet with 4 of the 7 members of the collective, and had a fantastic conversation with them about their work, past, present, and future. After exchanging introductions and thanking them for taking the time to speak with me, I began the interview. 

Starting the interview off, I wanted to know how a collective as large as Rat King, which currently has 7 members, came to be, so I asked the group how they met, and what led them to joining forces on this artistic adventure?

Rosie: Well, initially,  we knew each other from college. So most of us have that background. And then a couple other members, I think Leaf and Rea specifically, we started working with on this last project.

Ben: Yeah, so Leaf, we met when we put out a call for composers, because we needed music for our game with all the crazy music visualization stuff. And Rea, technically, we met her when she popped in after seeing the next fest demo. But actually, we knew each other way back when. I don’t know if you know Get to the Orange Door, but we met on that Discord server back in like 2017. We both hung out with the dev there for a while. But ya know, most of us, went to the same college. And that’s how we got together…

We started in 2019, right after the Small Press Expo. Our original group basically came together because we all wanted a table at that convention. But it was expensive, and none of us had enough individual items to sell to justify it. So we did that, and then we were like, “hey, this could be a fun thing to do as a team. “And we decided to maybe make some prints or comics or tabletop role playing game supplements, and sell them at conventions, that was in late 2019. And I don’t know if you know what happened in 2020. But the whole convention plan did not end up spinning out that well. So in late 2020. Because all of us are interested in games, we decided to work on a game jam. We joined the 7D FPS game jam and made a short horror walking simulator called Meat Shift. And that worked out very well. It turns out, we are good at making games together. And so we decided to make a full length project. And that’s currently where we are with Splatter having just released and us looking to try our next thing.

Rosie: Yeah, Meat Shift was very much like the test. And then Splatter was the real deal.

It was very cool to hear that the group had come together, for the most part, in a very organic manner. Wanting to know more about the creative conquests completed before the Rat King had formed, I asked the group how long they had been pursuing their individual arts before coming together?

Léa: Oh, goodness, that’s, that’s a question. Well, I guess there’s the whole like, some of us started doing art professionally during and then after college. I know Ben got an internship and then got a job right after university doing coding and stuff for a VR company. Question mark?

Ben: Yeah. If you want to talk years, though, you can probably start most of us off at college, I’d say. Yeah. 2017 is a good ballpark for at least, you know, a period of time we met on this project.

Leaf: Actually 2017 isn’t too far off for when I started looking at music as a professional thing. So you are quite right. I don’t have the same background as [Ben], because obviously, I’m not from art school. But I was sort of making a living as a music teacher, and music performer before the pandemic. And when I transitioned into games, that’s how I eventually met Rat King Collective.

Having a better understanding of how the team came together, as a follow up I asked if they could give me some information about each member’s role on the team?

Léa: I basically started off doing mostly 2D art. And then by the end, I was doing a mix of 2D art assets and also putting together, like, propping levels, doing some subtitles. Getting a few tiny little blender tests handed off to me by Ben. But I think like, yeah, Rosie and I are generally the 2D artists for the game. So we made all the advertisements, the graffiti, and also concept art, for Splatter.

Rosie: Yeah, pretty much on 2D, that’s my main situation. So when we got to a point where there was less for me to do, I switched over and did advertising stuff, if we can call it that, like social media, as well.

Ben: Yeah, and for people who aren’t here, there’s three people who are not here. Ethan was our UI guy. Obviously, there’s a lot of crazy UI in Splatter. And almost all of that was Ethan going nuts in Illustrator and Photoshop, and churning out all of these crazy things and different styles. Rea, who joined close to the end, is a dedicated technical artist. So she did a lot of shader and code to make the game look even crazier, she’s responsible for…

This is probably a thing that is interesting to hear about; The game actually runs on Beat Saber mod charts, which is sort of an insane thing to say, we needed some of the levels to have more complicated music visualization stuff. Like in level one, if you look at the spotlights,  they react to the music in a fairly handcrafted way. So we needed a framework for that, but we didn’t have time to write our own. So what Rea did is she wrote a parser for Beat Saber maps. And then we just constructed our own Beat Saber maps for the music in the game, and converted them to a format that we could read. And so that’s basically what’s running a lot of the music visualization under the hood, is her conversion of Beat Saber stuff to Splatter

Oh, and Mattie, who’s our primary environment artist, which obviously was huge, because we have so much environment. There’s four different environments in the game with a ton of props and crazy stuff. Mattie has done, I think, environment stuff. Yeah, environment stuff was the stuff that we ended up having to distribute to the largest number of people, like I mentioned, doing a lot of prop placement and stuff. But Mattie is sort of the lead there. Yeah, and I did programming also, character art and animation, there wasn’t a lot of character modeling to do, because there’s really only one enemy in the game. But there was a lot of animation.

Thinking back to how many times I had heard solo devs talk about the struggles of wearing many hats, I commented that it must be great having a diverse team who can bring their strengths to the table.

Rosie: Yeah, we’re working on diversifying our abilities as well. Like Léa’s doing a course for 3D modeling animation. It’s been really cool to see us all work on our skills throughout.

Léa: Especially since the college that we all met at, for the majority of us, was an art school. So a lot of us were just illustration majors. So we have the drawing bit down, all of us can draw generally, it’s all the other stuff that we had to branch out and learn.

Rosie: I think Ethan is the only one who was not an illustrator.

Ben: And even then he pulls out some pretty fun illustration stuff, like his pixel art can go crazy.

Moving on from how they got together to what they’ve done together, I wanted to talk about their latest release, Splatter. The title is a chaotic assault on the eyes and ears as the player finger blasts their way through a deluge of deadly enemies. Eager to learn more about the world beyond it’s bizarre setting and brutal gameplay, I asked the team if they could tell us a bit about the world, the gameplay loop, and the story for Splatter?

Ben: That’s a big one. All right, let’s see. So Splatter, our elevator pitch is that it’s a crazy, chaotic, surreal first person shooter, where you fight off hordes of enemies that endlessly adapt as you defeat them. And obviously, you have to use your finger guns in order to do so. The actual structure of the game is that it’s built in a set of 16 sessions. And in each session, you have to complete a series of objectives in an arena-like area as enemies are spawning in and trying to kill you. So that’s our concept. 

It’s hard to really talk about the world for Splatter because one of our foundational things during development was that this world doesn’t really have lore. We have a lot of references to stuff that could exist outside the game, but it’s intentionally inconsistent and nonsensical. Thunder Duel is referred to as a first person shooter, vaguely, occasionally. And it’s also referred to as a dating sim. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just intentionally, you know, left weird and ambiguous, because that’s how we wanted the game to feel…

You can make it up for yourself. It gives you a jumping off point, if you want to make up your own little story. We did have a reviewer who is fairly convinced that the player and all of the administrators and the characters who talk to you throughout the game are all dead and in literal hell, and they make the case for it. Once again, I will say nothing in Splatter is canon. So you know, I’m not going to comment on it. But it was fun to read.

I commented that it must have been great to see people scrambling to put together a logical train of thought in this nonsensical game.

Ben: Oh, absolutely. It’s great. I love the lore explanation for things, makes me very happy.

Leaf: Yeah, I will say that. As someone that joined the middle of the game being made, I did get the impression from the explanations you were giving me… There’s a lot of absurd humor and a lot of wild stuff. But it’s not entirely random, there is a narrative construction behind it, even if it’s very arbitrary.

Ben: There is a narrative, even if there isn’t lore, there are three administrator characters who are trying to influence the player to do various things. They’re based off of different, horrible person archetypes on the internet. If you’ve been on a forum, you’ve probably met these guys. And then a fourth administrator, that is sort of representative of the game or the system itself, that interacts with the player, and is trying to entrap all of the characters for maximum engagement. And the greater context beyond that is left ambiguous, but you can pretty clearly, hopefully, I mean, as you play the game, find the narrative arc, you know, as the administrators try and fail to mind control the player and then the system attempts to keep them all engaged forever. 

The game is dripping with its own style, and one thing that really had me laughing was the insane advertisements in the game, specifically, one ad, seen in the first level, gave me a really good chuckle. So I wanted to take a moment to ask about the art in the game and how the team decided on what made it into the game?

Ben: I love cockroach, I think that was actually a really big success. We had a really open and freeform dev process. So a lot of people would just bring in stuff like that. We have five different people who did graffiti on the project. You know, Rosie would occasionally show up with an insane ad. I think you spent like all night on that, what was it, pussy sex gay tank panic?

Rosie: Oh no, that one was pretty quick. The one that looks like it’s like a sexy woman in a game ad and it says you deserve an orgy on it. That one I spent like six hours, it shouldn’t have taken that long but somehow it did.

Léa: It paid off.

Splatter is not only a wild game on its own, but when compared to what the Rat King Collective was doing before its release, it is a far departure from the style they had been executing beforehand. Curious to learn about how Splatter evolved from idea to execution, I asked the team if the game started out as the maximalist shooter that we see now, or was that something that it grew into over the course of development?

Ben: So I know for a lot of us, we’re very maximalist with our styles. And when we do 2D stuff, like Léa, for instance, has a lot of crazy colorful designs, a lot of really fantastical stuff. I came from coding, I had a previous solo project that was a fast paced shooter that has a lot of the same bones as Splatter. And that one was comic book themed, so a lot more stylistically grounded. I think Splatter was sort of a departure from our other stuff. But you can, if you look closely at what we were doing beforehand, you can see how that happened. How, this is sort of a weird thing to say, but it’s like, in a way, a synthesis of a lot of our weirdest tendencies.

Léa: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

Ben: So it’s not like it’s going to be representative of all of our work, but it is basically all of us taking the chance to, like, just get it all out, you know?

Rosie: Yeah, I think, like, from an insider perspective, it feels very in character, if that makes sense.

Léa: Meat Shift, for example, all of us are pretty into weird horror. At least when we made it we were like, “Yeah, we want to do this thing with this charcoal filter” we wanted to have bright spots of color, atmospheric, have 2D Art mixed with 3D. And that coalesced into Meat Shift, which sort of represents this part of our interest. And then Splatter is all of our collective nostalgia for early 2000s, internet, love of wacky colors, absurd humor, all of that stuff. So it’s like, each of our projects, even if they seem pretty disparate, they’re still all reflective of different facets of the Rat King, you know?

Ben: I think one of the things that we’ve tried to do, like one of the things for our next project we’ve been discussing is how can we make something completely different from Splatter. And after we made Meat Shift, one of our things we were discussing was, how can we make something completely different from Meat Shift? And that’s a primary goal for us is we don’t want to be a collective that makes one thing, we want to be known for doing a bunch of different things and killing all of them.

It definitely seemed like they were killing it, with the ratings for Splatter sitting around 95% positive ratings as of writing. I asked the team how they felt about the positive reception to their first major project as a collective?

Rosie: It’s very cool.

Léa: Yeah, it was one of those things where we were on the fence about how Splatter would be received. But we did do things in Splatter that were like potentially a little player unfriendly. So we were worried that would be a huge turnoff for a lot of people. But, turns out that people really like Splatter as much as we do. So it’s nice, it’s really validating to see all that hard work be so well regarded by people that we don’t know.

Rosie: Yeah, I think what’s so important, if you’re making weird decisions, or like going in an atypical direction for something, is just to own it really hard. And I think that we succeeded in that, just being unapologetic and upfront with like, this game is gonna be really ugly, you know, this game is gonna be intentional in it’s lack of coherent design. I think that was something that really pushed it through and made it stand out.

Ben: Yeah, some of the reviews are great. And we got to see some streamers playing the game, obviously. And that’s something that always gets me, seeing somebody else playing my thing., and reacting in the way that I hoped. There’s a couple of sessions, session Four has an objective that I’m not going to talk about because I wouldn’t want to spoil anybody who hasn’t played it. But I was hoping for a big reaction when I designed it, and every time the streamer gets there they go like, “What the fuck is this?” And that’s everything. That’s what I do my job for. It was the same actually, with Meat Shift the section where you get the shot from behind, right after you wave and nobody’s there. Every single YouTube video I’ve seen of a playthrough of that game, the person always whips the camera around to look behind them. And that’s really, that’s like, that’s the thing, man. That’s what you do it for.

I could absolutely understand, when I had gotten to the same spot in Meat Shift, I had to stop myself from whipping the camera around, I told myself “just take it slow, I bet there is nothing there” and when I finally got the camera around I was both relieved and concerned that there wasn’t anything in sight.

Léa: We got another one.

One review that stuck out to me read “Ultrakill’s dropout brother that does acid in his mom’s basement, but he’s the coolest guy you know” and gave me a solid laugh

Léa: I’m literally obsessed with so many of the reviews that we get. They’re so good.

Before the game launched, was there any concern around the office that maybe you had made the game too crazy and unhinged for mass audiences?

Léa: The way that we arrived on Splatter as a concept was we all pitched a bunch of different stuff, and after going through all the pitches, we all decided that Splatter was the way to go. So we already had that group consensus in mind. And then we kind of got swept up in it. But I think we all sort of became blind to how crazy Splatter was by the end, in a good way, like we got used to it. And so in my head, I was only seeing the beauty of it. 

Ben: Yeah, We weren’t doubting, but I don’t think we had very high expectations for the actual release. We joke about selling a million copies or whatever, but our more realistic launch estimates were like 250 to 300. And we’ve hit close to double that. So we weren’t really setting ourselves up to be disappointed because we’ve done a lot of market research and we’re pretty aware of what our pre-launch numbers were going to imply.

Rosie: Oh, you know, this made me remember, we did joke a lot about making a literally unmarketable game. Because we went through this whole pitch process, we talked to a lot of publishers and we did some like, there’s even this game competition we did. And everyone was like “very cool game, I can’t publish this.” So that was kind of funny. And it wasn’t our goal to get rich quick off of this game. It was kind of sad that we didn’t get a publisher but it ultimately felt kind of funny with the messages of the game and the themes, that we were just kind of brute forcing it on no budget.

Ben: We did also, when we were pitching to most publishers, only have the one demo level and that was level one which has I think the most graffiti per square inch of any level in the game. And a lot of that graffiti is curse words, which is I think what turned people off because you could not take a shot of level one without something inappropriate for children in it.

Rosie: We had to, last minute, make a censored version of the demo for MAGFest last year, or I guess that was this year, but very long ago. And so we have some alternative versions of some of our ads and things that we had to whip up really fast because they told us a week before the convention. 

Léa: Some of them are really good too, like, I don’t know if they’ll ever rear their heads again. So this is a bit of a tease, but the censored version of Splatter is pretty iconic in its own way.

Rat King has made a point to say that they want their next game to be very different from Splatter, so with that in mind I asked the team if they had any idea or inkling of a concept for their next title?

Ben: Well, we’ve got a ton, but the thing is, because we’re a collective, we’re not run by a single person. The way we handle our big project selection is we all bring together pitches. And then we have a meeting where we pick the best one. And we’re currently reaching the end of the sort of individual training arcs where we come and prep our pitches. So there are currently a bunch of ideas on the table, and I’ve read several of them and they’re all very cool. But we have no idea which one of them is gonna get picked. And really, depending on the idea, it could be very, very different. I know like, I’m pitching a bullet hell, Rosie is I think pitching a crossword game, I only got a glance at her little mood board. There’s a lot of stuff going on.

Léa: Get ready for the Splatter crossword. 

Rosie: Maybe a desktop pet.

Ben: There you go, yeah.

Léa: Leaf’s pitch is, it’s really something, I won’t spoil it in case that’s what we go with, but it’s really something

Ben: I think you could spoil the title because I think the title is Cheesemonger. 

Léa: Yeah, Cheesemonger, that’s all we’ll tell you. 

Leaf: I have to rework it because it’s too close to Splatter for its own good.

I was excited to see what the Rat King Collective would get themselves tangled up in next. I had wrapped up the interview questions I had prepared for the interview, but as I always do, I wanted to give the team an open forum to bring up anything we didn’t touch on that they wanted to convey to my dear readers?

Ben: Actually, here’s a little fact about us, despite everything, like, every single review goes, “I bet these guys were on LSD. I bet they were on meth” I think basically every drug under the sun has been associated with this game’s development process. And actually, the answer is none of that is true. Half of the people on this team don’t even drink, this game was made stone cold sober. And it’s not the moral way but I do really think it’s funny. I think people should know that  we just raw dogged this.

Léa: I remember one of my high school friends asking, “So what do you do for fun in America, what are you doing, you’re drinking, you’re partying?” And I say no, every Friday me and my friends play D&D, and then I go home and I just do my homework.

With that insight into the world of a typical American game dev, I wrapped up the interview. Again, I thanked the members of Rat King Collective for taking the time to speak with me about their practices, their projects, and their potential future games. 

If you need a little less sense and a lot more style in your shooters, then be sure to check out Splatter, available now on Steam. And If you want to get caught up in the Rat King Collective, be sure to check out their website, as well as their Twitter page where they post updates on the team and their task at hand.

And as always, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish and gruesome gaming, then be sure to head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!