Corey King’s revolution is running out of time.
It’s called Clandestine: Anomaly. It’s been in the works for two years now and, if King has his way, it will spawn a franchise with multiple installments in the years ahead. It’s an epic that would take place across the world, and across numerous entertainment mediums. It’s an indie project for which King has already recruited a few dozen composers, artists, writers, engineers and designers from all over his native Canada. It’s an unusual effort that he believes will legitimize an entire genre. It might be a little more than he can chew.
Clandestine: Anomaly is an augmented reality game.
But its future is in doubt. King and his Winnipeg-based studio, ZenFri, took their big idea to Kickstarter earlier this month, as countless other indie companies have over the past few years. They’re asking for $50,000 to keep creative control over their project. “We know our vision and refuse to let it be muddied or watered down to suit a bubble-gum game marketplace,” their Kickstarter’s description reads. With just six days left before funding ends, ZenFri is currently $42,000 short of its goal.
Where Clandestine: Anomaly goes from here is uncertain. King’s ambitions for the project, however, are anything but.
Not Your Typical Games Studio
ZenFri isn’t your typical games studio, because it isn’t one. Instead, King calls it a “creative arts and entertainment company” whose aim is to “create innovative, narrative-driven works across a range of mediums.” He isn’t kidding – alongside his co-founder and wife Danielle, King has written, directed and starred in short films that have ranged in genre from horror to stop-motion animation; composed short stories; founded a transgressive arts magazine; made paintings; and hosted a podcast devoted to telling the experiences of “independent new media developers.” He’s got four more projects in the works today.
King takes his work seriously. His projects are often dark, dealing with themes like depression, divorce, lost love, instability and mental illness. His biography on the ZenFri website describes him as an “award-winning filmmaker, published writer, game designer, entrepreneur and philosopher.” The slogan to his arts magazine, Warpaint, goes: “In the battle against conventional wisdom, artistic expression is our greatest weapon.” He and Danielle won multiple local honors for a mixed media project they designed for digital picture frames; it was called Infinite Struggles of Man.
King’s body of work isn’t easy to categorize, and that’s a deliberate decision. Rather than serving the needs of a particular form, he says ZenFri is primarily concerned with telling stories. “We’re passionate about telling the best story possible, and we’ll cross mediums, conventions, and technologies to tell a story the way it wants to be told,” he says.
“I don’t really care to think in mediums,” he continues. “They’re nice reference points, but I think it’s terrible to actively restrict the types of stories you can tell by limiting yourself. Like, in the digital age, when you can imbed a movie into a book, it becomes very difficult to see where the boundaries really are. I love that, because it gives lots of opportunities to explore.”
Clandestine: Anomaly was born from this line of thought.
King has never made a video game before. In fact, he only found himself interested in the medium four years ago. And unlike a majority of game makers scrapping away to make names for themselves today, King’s primary inspiration wasn’t a transcendent Super Nintendo game or a rock star developer – it was his iPhone.
“When I first held the iPhone in my hands, I just imagined the possibilities of what could — if not at the time than in the near future — be done with the device,” he says.
Those imagined possibilities would soon become the basis for Clandestine: Anomaly. After a failed attempt to make a story-driven mobile adventure game called Warp! — which, according to King, was to feature a plot twist concerning a dead mother who guides her two children away from their abusive, mad scientist father — King decided to double down on his original idea.
He fleshed out the concept, hoping that its grand scope would attract the kind of talent that could provide the technical game design experience King doesn’t have. It did, for the most part, and two years ago King composed the general game design document and a 300-page universe bible that details all the creatures, spaceships, narrative threads and other ideas he wants to include in Clandestine’s world. King has grown his team since then, and acquired some funding from the Canada Media Fund that was used to progress the AR and GPS-based tech that powers Clandestine: Anomaly in the process.
Today, the game is past its pre-production stages. The art, research and design parts of the development process are finished, and ZenFri has released a number of demos of the game in action. The tech still has to be fine-tuned, and some assorted design loose ends have to be tied up, but as it stands now ZenFri plans to get Clandestine: Anomaly onto iOS and Android devices by April 2014. A PlayStation Vita release is planned for around the same time. Then ZenFri’s revolution can begin.
The Best-Laid Plans
If it wasn’t already apparent, King and ZenFri are talking a big game with Clandestine: Anomaly. They’ve called it “the next evolution of mobile gaming,” “reality’s expansion pack,” and “a game that leverages everything mobile has to offer to craft a truly mobile experience,” among other claims. King himself says he Clandestine to become IP that would ideally “go toe to toe with Star Wars and Halo – just with more heart soul than Halo.” These folks are aiming high. They’re dreamers.
Or they’re just marketing. Either way, all of this ambitious speak puts the actual game of Clandestine: Anomaly under a more stringent microscope, and at first blush it doesn’t exactly appear to be a revolution. It actually seems a little goofy.
Its base story deals with aliens (the “homo mechanis”) crash landing on Earth, a well-worn narrative thread at this point. Its art direction appears to follow a familiar-feeling, Halo-cum-XCOM model. Much of the gameplay takes place over a Google Maps interface. Players will collect items throughout the game and real world, upgrade those items, and then use them to attack and defend against waves of invading enemies.
At its core, Clandestine: Anomaly is a tower defense game with RPG leveling and customization elements and branching narrative paths. That could be fine, more than fine even, but it doesn’t quite sound like the game changer we were promised.
And who knows, it may never be that promised landmark title. TechnologyGuide hasn’t gotten the chance to play it yet. But there still may be a reason to buy into what King and company are selling: They’re not jumping into the AR game blindly.
Well, technically, they are a little bit. King says he came up with the core concepts for Clandestine: Anomaly before he even knew what AR was, only knowing it would be the best fit for his vision once the tech behind it matured. After that lightbulb popped in his head, he claims ZenFri started to build Clandestine: Anomaly from the ground up with AR in mind. And now, he wants do what almost every other augmented reality game has promised but failed to do for years: intersect an expansive virtual universe with the real one.
King realizes this spiel has been made before. He understands that most AR games have either been shallow, unrefined or too in love with its own gimmicky-ness to provide anything engaging to most gamers.
Even the best of them aren’t exactly deep or practical. Zombies, Run! is great fun but more of a running app than anything else. CodeRunner is highly inventive but tends to make its users look like weirdos in public. The PS Vita’s collection of AR games is competently composed yet creatively uninspired. And Google’s Ingress – a popular AR title which King says was introduced a year after he had already started development on Clandestine – is still in its beta stages, and mostly forces players to wander about town.
So there’s an opening for Clandestine: Anomaly to own its chosen space, but King admits that the largely inferior quality of past AR games has presented a perception problem around his game by default.
“Doing something like Clandestine, you notice that the more seasoned the gamer, the more they’ve already decided what to think of the game without even looking at it. Just because it’s based on AR and GPS, they pass judgment,” he says.
“I find it kind of funny that people become so jaded so quickly,” he continues, contending that AR tech should be given some leeway since it’s still new to gaming. “They look at what’s been offered and think that’s an example of what is possible. AR is still a very new tech. It’s like looking at film in the 1900s and complaining that it’s black and white, has no sound and isn’t 3D.”
To conquer these preconceived notions, ZenFri is putting added focus on two design elements in particular: narrative options and technological restraint.
Just Trust Us
The first of these is obvious. King’s mantra has always been that the story comes first, and he believes that an AR game is the only proper conduit for telling the tale he’s created. “For me this is about learning how to tell a story on the world’s biggest canvas — the world itself,” he claims. “And it’s about truly eliminating the avatar by finding a way to make the player — the actual person playing — the main character. That was the vision, and I knew it hadn’t been done at the time, which was the attraction.”
King thinks that if he can nail the story aspect of Clandestine: Anomaly, everything else will fall into place. And he means everything – not just his project, but to some extent the genre of AR games as a whole.
“Most mediums become popularized and legitimized to the mainstream once someone figures out how to tell a story,” he contends. “For us this is the real trick, and what we think will make our game stand apart. We don’t worry that the tech isn’t perfect, because it never will be. We worry about what we can do with what we have, and we endeavor to solve a whole host of basic problems with telling a story this way.”
There’s that big talk again.
So how is ZenFri going to do this? How will it floor enough users into taking AR games seriously? Generally, King says his goal is to make it so no two players experience the same story at the same time. He claims that as players progress through Clandestine: Anomaly’s various tower defense missions, the people they talk to in-game, the research they do, and the way they head into battle will affect their understanding of the game’s events.
“For me, the player is only as good as the information they have, the characters they listen to and befriend have different perspectives on events, and different allegiances. So we’re hoping players who play different have two different understandings of the story, despite the canon being the same. To me that’s like life — your understanding is based on what you’ve learned.”
But as far as specifics go, King is still playing his cards close to his chest. And given that the alien invasion themes mentioned above sound fairly hackneyed at first blush, it’s easy to remain skeptical that his mouth is writing a check that his game can’t cash.
Yet King seems to anticipate this sort of response, noting that he understands how the “just trust us” mentality may not generate interest in the short time but will, in his eyes, be worth it when all is said and done. “If I give away the plot, or a perspective on the plot, I ruin the journey,” he says. “We are trying to use the player’s own sense of understanding to propel the story. It uses the real you and the real world.”
He does give one tease, though: “It’s not really an invasion. Nothing is as it seems, and there is a lot of mystery to unravel.”
A Keyhole into Another World
The other point of focus on where ZenFri’s take on in-game AR deployment comes in. It’s different than what one may expect. See, King believes that greater restraint leads to greater reaction, so his way of building a better AR game is to use the actual AR sparingly.
“The AR is used as a keyhole into another world,” he explains. “Some players will definitely use it more than others, but it’s designed so that it’s used for brief moments. It’s like taking a picture — maybe a little longer, but really like that.”
“This may make it seem unnecessary, but the best 3D is used sparingly and doesn’t constantly jump in your face,” he continues. “The best horror or the best mystery stories are as much, if not more, about what you don’t see.”
The core of the Clandestine: Anomaly is built around progressing through its narrative, collecting items, and building up defenses to hold back waves of enemies. (It’s still a mobile game, so don’t expect a Mass Effect-sized adventure here.) It all takes place on an actual world map. But King says that at no point will players be forced to go outside and head to the actual locations of their battles.
Everything can be played remotely. It’ll come at a slightly higher cost of in-game resources, and the narrative will be warped accordingly (“If you don’t go personally, you’re beholden to second-hand, and sometimes biased, reports of what happened,” King explains), but King says his studio is making an AR game that doesn’t necessarily need AR in the first place. Oddly enough, that may be Clandestine: Anomaly’s most compelling hook.
ZenFri doesn’t want people to, in King’s words, “look like idiots as they play,” so they made Clandestine a tower defense game. They don’t want players to be straying into random neighborhoods just to collect some doodad, so they built a system that lets players feed more detailed information about their preferred, most frequented areas back to the game’s servers. They don’t want players to pretend their phone is a gun or a mysterious weapon, so they’re treating it like a phone, one which lets players text, call and receive video messages from their in-game allies.
“AR only works if reality is part of the consideration,” King explains. “If you’re really in a covert inter-dimensional war, you’d try not to blow your cover. You’d try to blend and control massive armies from a seemingly harmless device – like a phone.”
ZenFri wants to use AR as an enhancement, not a crutch. If someone wants to venture out into the game world, which is the real world, they can get up close to the creatures they are attacking. If they don’t, they don’t have to. For King and ZenFri, this is meant to create a feeling of the “front lines” being everywhere.
“You should feel like you’re not able to see or know everything,” King contends. “That drives you forward, and drives the impulse to use the [AR] mode.
“Also, psychologically, I think there is value in knowing that what you’re doing with the things you’re building has a real relationship with the world,” he adds. “Knowing that you could see this massive fleet makes it feel more rewarding even when you’re not currently looking at it, because you know it’s there. And if you went down the street, it’d seem to have a real place in space and time.”
One could say this AR-without-needing-AR approach is too risky, especially if the core of Clandestine: Anomaly doesn’t prove to be as enjoyable as hoped. But King believes the temptation of knowing that his war is somewhere out there will drive curious players to take advantage of the tech. Besides, he and ZenFri have seen too many underwhelming AR games in the past to follow in their footsteps too closely.
“Most games go too far with the high-tech stuff,” he notes. “That’s what makes it gimmicky. Using it to enrich a bigger experience, and keeping it confined to when it’s needed, is more valuable.”
Starving and Depressed
King’s game, like the way he entered into the industry, is unusual. It’s grand and weird and different from what most of gaming industry sees on a regular basis. At this point in its Kickstarter, that oddness has given ZenFri struggles when it comes to marketing and detailing Clandestine: Anomaly to those who aren’t terribly familiar with augmented reality. Which is a lot of people.
The game may slip away in that ever-expanding ether of lost indie projects when all is said and done, either by lack of pre-release funding or post-release quality. The future is foggy.
But King and company are still going for it. Stubborn or not, this is the only way they want to tell their story. Foolish or not, they genuinely believe in the scope of their cause.
“If we do this right, we might really define a whole new way not just to game, but to experience stories,” King says. “For me it’s worth the risk.
“When I’m not starving or depressed, I really find this magical. You really got to push yourself and your team hard. But if you get where you’re looking to go, you know you f—ing earned it.”