Interview – How Little Orpheus takes The Chinese Room on their grandest adventure yet

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Best known for their excellent narrative experiences Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Chinese Room’s latest game is very different to what you might expect. Little Orpheus is out for iOS via Apple Arcade.

It’s the product of a few years of change for the company, having been acquired by Sumo Digital in 2018 and stepping away from the “walking simulator” model that they were best known for, though it’s no less inventive. We loved it, and you can find our Little Orpheus review here.

We also spoke to Lead Designer Matt Duff about the game’s origins, and how The Chinese Room are adapting to the challenges of 2020.


TSA: Can you describe Little Orpheus in three words?

Matt Duff: Unexpected, Eventful, Engaging.

The Chinese Room’s Matt Duff

TSA: So, there are certainly some similarities between Little Orpheus and Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, what else inspired Little Orpheus?

Matt: Little Orpheus was inspired by everyone’s joint love of those Saturday morning B-Movie serials like Undersea Kingdom. That influence can be seen particularly in the way we end each episode on a cliffhanger. Ray Harryhausen, Flash Gordon and sixties Sci-Fi in general were also big influences on the game, particularly in the visuals of Little Orpheus. Ivan, our main character, tells a tale that is larger than life, so our visuals needed to match that story.

TSA: Given that the game plays out in episodic chapters and has that ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ feel to it, can we maybe expect to see some additional chapters or content in the future?

Matt: I would say that Little Orpheus tells the story of how Ivan Ivanovich went to the centre of the Earth and returned some three years later. The eight episodes featured in the game tell one of the many stories, one of the many adventures he had in those three years. So, I will just say that Ivan is an incredible storyteller, who probably has a lot more stories to tell.

TSA: Little Orpheus is a very cinematic experience. With lots of dramatic set pieces and some fantastic dialogue. Can you briefly walk me through how you crafted the more dramatic action segments?

Matt: Firstly, the amazing and crazy story that our Creative Director Dan Pinchbeck wrote allowed us to create those dramatic action segments you refer too. Reading through the narrative, these moments just leaped out at us and we knew early on they were going to be a big part of the game.

Those sequences are the combination of a bunch of incredibly talented people coming together, storyboarding, grey-boxing and then iterating over and over until we feel it’s right. We want to make sure every episode has its memorable moments, from Ivan fleeing a prehistoric monster to him racing down a hill inside a giant snowball.

Collectively we come up with the concept of those segments and then our fantastic concept artist storyboards them so we can get an early feel of how they might look and play out. We then sit down with our incredible programming team and discuss any new mechanics or editor tools we need.

Once we have those, one of our brilliant level designers will take those concepts and begin to grey-box them, letting us get hands on and get a feel for how they play. Once everyone is happy, we hand over to the amazing art team we had on Little Orpheus and they turn the grey-box into what you see in the game. Usually as the artists come onboard, more ideas emerge, which leads us to iterate further until we end up with what you see in the final game.

TSA: Why did you decide to work with Apple on this? How was that partnership formed?

Matt: It was just one of those amazing moments of timing really. Sumo were talking to Apple about potential Arcade titles just as The Chinese Room was going through the process of joining the family so it was natural to put Little Orpheus in front of them too. They loved the concept so we literally began work on it almost the day after the paperwork was complete and The Chinese Room became a Sumo Digital studio.

TSA: If you’re at liberty to say, can we expect to see a release on other platforms later down the line?

Matt: Right now, we are focused on the Apple Arcade version of Little Orpheus and we’re really excited to seeing how players react to the world of Ivan Ivanovich and the story he has to tell.

TSA: This is the first game The Chinese Room has developed from the ground up for mobile, so how was that process? Did the iOS port of Dear Esther make this project easier? And if so, how?

Matt: Most of the Little Orpheus team had previously worked on mobile games, so we were able to hit the ground running from day one which made the development process incredibly smooth. Luckily that meant that we could avoid the mistakes that most console developers make when moving into mobile development. We knew that mobile players are unique and think and play differently from those on console and could therefore ensure that Little Orpheus was a mobile game through and through.

TSA: How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your development cycle? And do you think it will change the way future titles are developed?

Matt: When the lockdown hit, we were a few weeks away from submitting the game to Apple for approval, so not the most ideal time to suddenly shift everyone away from each other and to begin working entirely remotely. However, the team made the transition effortlessly and within a day we were all set up and working remotely. The support from Sumo throughout lockdown has been incredible, ensuring that everyone is safe and has everything they need.

The team have been outstanding and to be honest, the outbreak has actually had little to no effect on the actual development of the game. We haven’t compromised or altered anything because of the outbreak. The game that will be released is the game we wanted to make and the one we are all incredibly proud of.

In terms of the future, I don’t think anyone really knows right now what that will look like. We are very lucky that we work in an industry where working from home is a realistic option and has minimal effect on our day to day work. I think there will be changes throughout all industries, not just video games, and it’ll be exciting and fascinating to see what those changes will be.

TSA: What’s next for The Chinese Room?

Matt: Well first up is enjoying the launch of Little Orpheus and seeing how it goes down with the Apple Arcade community. We are really excited and can’t wait to hear everyone’s thought and experiences with the game.

Elsewhere in the studio, our next game is already underway, an incredibly exciting return to first person gaming. I can’t talk about that at the moment but the team working on it are creating some truly awe-inspiring stuff that I believe will blow people away when they get to see it.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to chat to us. Make sure to check out our review of Little Orpheus, the game is out today for iOS via the Apple Arcade subscription service.