Transmission 2016: A Signal From Big Robot

Hello, you.

Yes, we’ve been quiet for a long, long time. Some people have even asked if Big Robot is even still a thing! Well, it is. And here’s what we’ve been up to.

We feel like we could leave at it that, but we know some of you will want to know more. So let’s explain what this is all about, and a little about how we got to where we are now.

So What Is It?

We’re making an open-world shooter in a science-fiction setting of our own devising. That’s The Signal From Tölva. If you enjoy rich sci-fi atmospherics and free-roaming game worlds then we think you’ll understand what we’re doing here. It’s a dynamic game of exploration, territory control and robo-combat, with an open-ended story running through the whole thing.

The signal of the title is a mysterious emanation from the planet you are exploring – Tölva itself – and uncovering exactly where it has come from, and why, is at the heart of the game. That said, there’s a modern sci-fi twist in our fiction, because you (whatever you may be) aren’t actually there on the surface of the planet. You’ve remotely hijacked a Surveyor, a humanoid drone already on the planet’s surface, and when that chassis inevitably meets a violent end, you’ll simply connect to another. Remote control, via an interplanetary network. That has implications for both how the game plays, and what the story says.

Anyway, science-fictional acrobatics aside, we think you’ll enjoy both the intense firefights and just standing on a hillside watching alien birds glide by. You’ll be investigating anomalous signals from glitchy abandoned bunkers and scavenging materials from mysteriously wrecked spacecraft. We’ve talked in the past about making a game out of those old sci-fi paperback covers or prog rock album covers, and this is that, only with all the open-world autonomy stuff we’ve always been so interested in. We’ll talk more about the development process that got us to this point in a later blog post.

That World…

Isn’t procedurally generated this time, nope. We employed a few procedural and generative elements in the creation of the environment, but this time we built the world itself by hand. So many hours of work! But, ultimately, this hand-crafted approach delivers a quite a different feel and end result from the procedural fields of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, /and/ gave us a seamless map four times the size of a Sir island. We’re enormously pleased with the change of pace.

What To Expect

The Signal From Tölva is an open-ended shooter, an action game, and a canvas for exploration. The two big things are: Exploration and Combat. We’ve sunk all our resources into making those two things come alive. The game world is driven by Ai activity that decides where our robots will go, and what they will decide to do. Bots will head out from bunkers to survey crash sites or attack neighbouring bunkers or guard locations. Territory control battles kick off dynamically, with patrolling AI squads skirmishing against each other and taking control of a series of brutalist locations across the planet’s craggy valleys. Battles erupt with or without the player’s intervention, and their consequences can change the course of play by clearing ambushes and capturing or losing vital bunkers that allow for respawning and re-equipping as you play.

This time, though, you’re not hiding in the long grass as those automatons rumble past, and instead will find yourself going in with lasers blazing (even though you will pick and choose your battles, scouting possible encounters from a distance with your binocular-vision). There are hi-tech assault rifles, concussion fields, electronic countermeasures, robot-commanding modules, and defensive plasma shields.. You unlock all these by performing a series of missions for the faction you are hacked into: and these missions, as much as the territory control, drive you across that alien landscape to explore further and fight harder.

What We Can Say About The Story

The Signal From Tölva is set in a future where AI factions have abandoned humankind and set out on obsessive quest to uncover the secrets of a long-dead civilisation. There are starships, there is an interplanetary internet, and there is something very, very wrong with the planet called Tölva.

We’ve been careful to tread lightly and default to minimalism for the story-telling in the game itself. There’s little in the way of direct exposition because we want you to figure out the puzzle for yourselves, if you want to. However, we’ve still poured plenty of of brain into fiction. We’re keenly excited to say that we’re working with the awesome Cassandra Khaw to develop a (free, to you) prologue novella, as well as to help us flesh out some background lore that we’ll be publishing alongside the game. Yeah, we’re sort of going all out on this one, and we’re thrilled about the wider backstory and game universe that we’re building. We’re just not going to swamp you in it during the game. If you want to delve, it’ll be there. And you’ll be able to delve deeply.

And A Quick Bit About That Art Style

We want to go into detail about that journey into pixels at a later date, but it’s important for us to highlight that we’ve been working with two new people to make the game look as good as it does. The first of these is an artist named Ian McQue. Some of you might have heard of the fella. He’s quite good.

Having finished up a long tenure at the mighty Rockstar (since-the-first-GTA sort of long) McQue had been doodling sci-fi stuff. In fact, it turns out that he’s one of the finest sci-fi doodlers we’ve ever encountered. We asked if he’d be interested in a collaboration that would result in some some doodling for us. To our delight and amazement he said yes.

The challenge, of course, was for us to integrate McQue’s vision with our game concept. We had been more than happy with Sir’s low-fi charms and atmospheric consistency back in 2013, but this time things had to be shinier for the sake of the sci-fi, and we couldn’t do that without some formidable full-time arting. It was appropriate and good, therefore, when former-Aardman Animation CGI cleverclogs Olly Skillman-Wilson came aboard to make the 3D stuff. He uses real fancy 3D tools, knows about AO maps and has strong opinions about different modes of anti-aliasing. He uses the word “fresnel” in general conversation. What we’re saying is that he’s basically a sorcerer. And now he’s *our* sorcerer. It’s thanks to Olly’s interpretation of McQue’s work that we developed a beautiful and consistent hand-painted art style for the game.

Science fiction has many allures, and it captures our attention with the thrill of starships and beam weapons, but it really resonates with us as developers because it offers so much freedom to create a distinct and exciting palette of ideas and scenes. Being able to reference McQue’s extraordinary visual imagination and eclectic style has given that process life that we might otherwise have struggled to bring to it. It has been both immensely challenging and deeply fulfilling to engage with top-grade concept artwork, and try and build a look and feel around it. Given the size and experience of our team, I think we’ve made a decent go of that. And Olly has played a blinder. I mean, look:

But yeah. If there’s something to say in conclusion, it’s this: we’re building you a bloody great slab of sci-fi escapism.

We think you’re going to like it.

More soon.

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