Still Ridge: Solo Dev Justen Brown Talks About his Southern Gothic Adventure and What he Took From Silent Hill
As my dear readers have surely noticed by now, the easiest way to get me out of my comfort zone when it comes to game genres is to add in a lil bit of that survival horror spice, as House of Necrosis, and Rogue Mansion had aimed to do. So my interest was most certainly piqued when the initial playable teaser for Still Ridge dropped last year. The initial demo for the title was a short haunt inspired by PT, and adapted the setting and tone of the title into a point and click adventure.
If that had been the end of the story though, I most certainly would not be here writing, what it is that brings this back into the light is the release of the Still Ridge prologue, which dropped on Steam and Itch.io a couple of months back. While the original demo was little more than a love letter to a canceled instant classic, the prologue shows that behind the skin-deep inspirations from Silent Hill, solo developer Justen Brown has a lot more planned for the world of Still Ridge than just another foggy romp through a dilapidated town.
Like a man driving out to a mysterious town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, I was in search of answers that I could not get on my own. I wanted to know more about Still Ridge, but I also wanted to know more about the man behind the project. Thankfully, I did not have to send a letter from our special place to reach Justen, as he was quick to respond to my online messages and was happy to make time to speak about his project. Over the course of our conversation I tried to lift the fog on what to expect from his upcoming title, and the genre known as Southern Gothic.
After exchanging introductions we began the interview. As is almost always the case, I was curious to learn where Justen’s game dev journey began. I asked if the titles found on his Itch page were his oldest projects, or had he been making games before then?
Justen Brown: I first started RPG Maker 2000 back in the year 2000. But around 2019 was the first time I actually released something. You can find an old demo of mine floating out there on the internet. I don’t want anybody to find it. But yeah, 2019 is about the time when I actually released real stuff.
I told Justen that I was already familiar with some of his work, specifically the short, sweet, and spooky game Come On! Come On! Come On!
JB: Oh, yeah? Thanks! That was like, my breakout hit.
I was impressed by how many titles he had put out since 2019. As someone who has tried and failed to get into game development, I could really appreciate the grind on display. We spoke for a moment about how making games is hard work, and how he had really been keeping his nose to the grindstone.
JB: Yes, it is. Yeah, 2020 was my most prolific year. And then like, now that I’m on a serious actual real project, things have slowed down.
One project from his Itch page that stood out to me was his adaptation of In the Walls of Eryx by Kenneth Sterling and H.P. Lovecraft, titled At Ishtar’s Gate. Being a fan of obscure pulp fiction myself, I loved to see those old weird tales get some of the recognition they deserve. I asked Justen if there were any other stories he had considered adapting into smaller projects, or was it just a one time thing?
JB: I have a huge document. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of ideas swimming around there. I’ve been bouncing around an idea for adapting The Terror Of Blue John Gap, an Arthur Conan Doyle pulp horror story as sort of a first person adaption of Hunt the Wumpus. So it’s kind of like randomized, you have a gun, you only have two shots, you have a lantern going through dark caves. But yeah, that’s if I was to adapt anything in the immediate future, that’d be it.
It seemed that despite a few deviations, Justen was front and center a developer of point and click adventure games. I asked Justen if he saw himself as a developer of point and click adventures, or if he had any plans or ambitions to move into other genres in the future?
JB: Yeah, point and click adventures is the genre that I feel like I don’t play a lot of but when I need some comfort food it’s always gonna be a LucasArts game or even just some of the more esoteric stuff. Like, I always returned to Clock Tower, Clock Tower 2 in Japan, on the PlayStation, that’s a favorite of mine, I can go through that game and like three hours. I’ve got design documents for life Sims, you know, I’m currently kind of sort of working on a survival horror game. I call it a “fix-your-home simulator” based on an experience I had where a tree punched through my roof. I wouldn’t mind making an immersive sim, but you know, I see how much effort and time goes into Gloomwood and I’m like, “No, I’m good, you know, adventure games is where it’s at.” I think with adventure games, historically, it’s a genre that can be made easily with one person, you know. It’s very creator driven and very economic, like if you look at it, like even something like Monkey Island, there’s maybe two dozen screens total in the game. You know, there’s like, like, maybe 1000 words of dialogue there. It’s a game that is suitable for the size of a game jam, or it can be scoped out to be the size of, you know, like a Quantic Dreams kind of cinematic adventure.
Moving on to the topic of Still Ridge, I spoke with Justen about wearing his inspiration on his sleeve when he developed the original playable teaser for Still Ridge. The title has many similarities with PT, including the layout of the singular hallway that the game takes place in. But as I said before, it truly feels like the full version of the project is shaping up to be much more than a love letter or spiritual successor. With this in mind, I asked Justen if he felt as though fans of Silent Hill will know what to expect in Still Ridge, or is the inherent inspiration from Silent Hill something that’s more aesthetic and less thematic?
JB: Yeah, the original playable teaser that was released as part of the HPS1 demo disc was an attempt at taking PT and spinning it into a third person point and click adventure. as I got deeper into development for the demo disc, I was like, “Well, I want to take this in an original direction.” The whole diner scene at the end was a very last minute, like one week to completion, addition where I kind of sprinkled in hints in there from Come On! Come On! Come On! Because I kind of want to create a shared universe across all my games. Like, each successive game has a reference to a previous one. But the response, like, the large response I got back was that the escape room style gameplay was just okay, but people really gelled with the diner scene. You know, they love the dialogue, they love the very rural colloquial style of writing. I received a lot of feedback from West Virginia natives, which I mean, you know, Markiplier has got like, what, 20-30 million subscribers, but I was honestly taken aback by how many people were like, “Hey, I live near Elkins.” And I’m like, “Oh, I just, you know, I just picked a good looking spot on a map that was just rural enough, but close enough to a major city.” I didn’t realize that 5 out of 6000 people in this small mountain town would recognize my location. So yeah, the game itself is, at this point, more aesthetically derived from Silent Hill than it is inspired by Silent Hill. But it is a game about secret cults, you know, demons and psychological horror.
It was good to hear that fans of Silent Hill wouldn’t be getting a point and click treatment of their favorite story. I asked Justen if he had begun working on the full version of Still Ridge right after he had released the playable teaser?
JB: It all started in 2019 as part of a game jam thing called Devtober. Which is just like, make a game and post your results. Yeah, it started with the concrete room at the beginning of PT in the long hallway. But actual development on the game proper, like from the prologue going forward began after 2020, no, late 2021. Wow, yeah. So yeah, I’ve only been working on the game proper for about a year now.
I told Justen that it was awesome to see how much he had gotten done in such a short time.
JB: You know, one thing I learned after 20 years of releasing nothing is how to finally scope properly. And, you know, I put development time at about a year, year and a half.
While we had talked about the things that had inspired the vibes of Still Ridge, I wanted to know what inspired the game itself, so I asked Justen if he could tell us about the point and click adventure games that inspired the moment to moment gameplay in the title?
JB: Mechanically, I mean, mechanically Clock Tower. The PlayStation One Clock Tower, it’s split between chapters, Still ridge is a chapter based game. And I do take an approach where during the daytime, you go through investigative puzzle-light elements. The Gabriel Knight series definitely influenced those. And then at nighttime, you go through more horror-heavy action / survival, kind of gimmicky segments. I don’t mean gimmicky in like, a pejorative sense. But gimmicky like you’re being chased by a monster. One segment is kind of cheekily inspired by 12 Minutes, a kind of controversial adventure game from last year. But it is a groundhog day scenario where things keep looping until you find the right loop to complete the night segment.
As a follow up, I asked Justen if the player should expect to regularly see those kinds of breaks in the gameplay?
JB: Yeah, it’s the climax of the chapter, you know. During the daytime segments, you learn about the mysterious happenings of the town and the townspeople and those build up towards the night segments where things get twisted through, let’s say, supernatural elements. And those end in a big boss segment, kind of like how you would encounter ScissorMan in Clock Tower, but during the day you would bounce from location to location, talking to NPCs.
And to clarify, I asked Justen if we should expect to see any combat through the lens of a typical point and click adventure?
JB: Yes, you’re not hoarding ammo, you know. This isn’t Resident Evil, it’s not even like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, which has some, like, goofy mini games. The extent of it is you select an item from your inventory, and you click on something.
I commented that it seemed like it was shaping to be less “break the mold” and more “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
JB: Yeah, and it’s also to reduce my headache as a designer, because you know, whenever I try something new and funky, and it breaks, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?
Before I asked about the plot of Still Ridge there was one term he had used to describe the game that I was not entirely familiar with, I knew that I had enjoyed media that labeled itself this way, but before I went off on a wild google chase, I wanted to hear it from the developer himself. So I asked Justen, could he tell me what Southern Gothic as a genre entailed?
JB: Yeah, there’s a certain mysticism to the United States of America. Just because like a lot of our traditions in the south, you know, they came from African slaves, they came from European pagan immigrants, it also came from indigenous people. And so you’ve got this big mixing pot of Christian and pseudo-Christian and African and European elements that just kind of swirl together. Everything is real distance distant and disconnected. So you’ve got these pockets of communities, and people, like they’ve basically got their own language. It’s not like you know, like you go to New York City, and yeah, New York City’s got different culture for the different boroughs, but like out here in the hills, a town 30 miles over might have a different word for a creek, a crick, a hollow, you know, like people they’ll ask me “what’s a holler?” I’m like a holler isn’t yelling, a holler is an old dusty road, a hollow. So yeah, Southern Gothic to me means sort of like Eastern European rural ‘don’t go into the woods there be monsters there’ and nobody really believes it, but you know, still people will put pennies in their shoes to ward away the haunts, you know. it’s really something that needs a killer movie, you know something to reach the masses.
As a follow up I asked if he could suggest some killer pieces of Southern Gothic fiction for the readers?
JB: Yeah, Okay, like recent example, Lovecraft Country, that was an unfortunately short lived HBO show that that’s about a black man going through the American South and coming across Eldritch horrors, you know, it’s Lovecraft, but taken out of the relative comfort of Boston. Kentucky Route Zero, it’s more Lynchian than Stephen King, but that’s a that’s that’s a great Southern Gothic Game. Night in the Woods, I believe technically takes place in Pennsylvania, but the concept of a small dying town with a dark twisted history to it, that’s very southern, it’s a very southern aspect to think everything is okay even though you’re sitting in darkness. True Detective, season 1, especially season 3. I feel like everybody slept on season 3 after season 2 being terrible. But Season 3 of True Detective, that that was good stuff. Some elements of that might even end up, I’m trying my best to just, you know, keep things clean and tight, but some elements of season 3 may end up in Still Ridge.
With a better understanding of Southern Gothic, I asked Justen if he could tell us all that he felt comfortable sharing about the plot and conflicts of Still Ridge?
JB: So Still Ridge is about a psychotherapist named Omar Fletcher. He has an honest-to-god supernatural ability to walk through the memories of willing people. Within those memories, he witnesses a murder that has yet to happen. And he’s not a character who is willing to just sit idly by and let things happen. So yeah, he travels to this faraway town that he saw within his vision to investigate the murder. From there, like, the crux of the story revolves around the comet of 1813. I believe it’s 1813, let me double check real quick. The Great Comet of 1812, like, throughout history, comets have been used as an omen. And this comet was seen all the way from Tecumseh, the Shawnee King, all the way east to Europe. People saw this comet across the world, and saw it as an omen, or a sign of good luck. Some saw it as a sign of danger. And if you notice in the trailer, Omar approaches what appears to be like a large fiery object heading towards Earth. And that forms the crux of the narrative, in addition to this murder mystery that he’s solving, it unravels to be a doomsday plot..
I commented that he was sprinkling a little bit of that Twin Peaks in there, show up for a murder, stay for the rest of the craziness in town.
JB: Yeah, the murder is just the bait on the hook.
I loved to hear it, it sounded like Still Ridge was a town located at the intersection of David Lynch and Silent Hill. Before wrapping up the interview I wanted to take a moment to talk about point and click adventures, seeing as I rarely get to speak to someone who is a fan and developer of the genre. I asked Justen if he were given the chance to resurrect a dead franchise near and dear to his heart, did he think he would be able to make a new entry in the Clock Tower series?
JB: You know, yeah, if given a modest budget and the team, Hell yeah, i’d make a Clock Tower… I think it would take place between Clock Tower 1 on the Super Nintendo and Clock Tower 2. I really want to figure out how that little wiener kid can just flip the switch and become like, a powerful, shambling monster.
As a fan of Clock Tower I would love to see him take a swing at it. On the opposite end of the “quality of games” spectrum, I asked if there was any point and click game out there that he felt like he could have made better if given the chance?
JB: Indigo Prophecy / Farenheit, like, I digitize my face, and I put myself in the game as like a jab at David Cage. You know, I’m the guy who runs the diner. Fahrenheit started so amazingly well. It’s a game that begins with a ritualistic murder. The main character snaps to, and the player is immediately allowed to clean up the murder, you can make it appear like nothing ever happened, or you can go running out the diner, your wrist still bloodied, knife in hand. And then immediately it cuts to the police investigating the scene, and it follows up on all the actions you did in the previous scene. So if you cleaned up and just paid for your dinner and left, then the police are like, “well who is this guy? obviously like a serial killer.” But if you came running out of the diner, without doing anything, the police are like, “well, we’ve got a madman on the loose. We got to do something about it.” And then the game just takes a big wet fart after that. It’s terrible. Like it’s a bad game. But those first 30 minutes were amazing. And yeah, I could do better.
I did play the opening sequence of Indigo Prophecy, and after hearing Justen speak about it, it sounded like I had dodged a bullet. I asked Justen if he could confirm what I had heard, that the big twist was that the killer was the internet come to life?
JB: It gets even worse than that. It’s like the ancient Mayan gods are digitized as ones and zeros. And like, they kill the main character and they turn them into a zombie. And the zombie bangs a woman. Everything you’ve heard about the game, it only gets worse.
Oh boy am I glad I missed that one, but speaking of things that should not be missed, I wrapped up the interview by asking Justen if there was anything that we had not discussed in the interview that he would like to mention, or that he would like the readers to check out?
JB: Yeah, just check out my Itch.io, At Ishtar’s Gate is my favorite game so far, but it also was the worst performing one. I think it just got lost in the, you know, the hustle. So yeah, check out my games, check out the Twitter. Check out Heilwald loophole, that’s a fantastic game that came out of the HPS1 community. I describe it as Wario land 3 the first person PlayStation horror game. I guess you could also link to my Patreon page. I really don’t post anything that’s behind a paywall, but I’ve been trying to start a series of articles where I really dissect adventure games as a genre, because there’s really not a lot of scholarly writing on adventure games, it has always been something that’s just like, “you know it when you see it.”
I had read the article in question, and I made sure to tell Justen how much I appreciated his well thought out graphs on the subject.
JB: That took a lot of thought, that one nearly killed me. But yeah, I post my thoughts, at least I try to do something at least once a month on the old Patreon, and I haven’t posted anything like behind a paywall, really just some news about the future.
And with that I thanked Justen again for taking the time to speak with me, especially during the busy holiday season, and I wrapped up the interview, leaving him to return to his work of dreaming up terrifying new encounters for Still Ridge.
If you want to stay up to date on the development of Still Ridge, be sure to follow Justen Brown on both his Itch.IO page and his Twitter account. And be sure to download and play through the prologue for the title so you are all caught up when it releases, hopefully in 2023.
And as always, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish, gruesome gaming, then head back to DreadXP.com and read more of our frightful features!