One space capsule crash propels a scientist to pivot her skills to surviving hordes of aliens.
The space horror game genre got a new entry Feb. 28 with the release of Scars Above, which released on Feb. 28 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox X | S and Microsoft Windows.
The game features a scientist, Kate, who finds herself dropped onto a strange, alien-filled planet with no weapons and only minimal training. It does branch beyond the first-person shooting genre, in that Kate can pick up some knowledge tokens around the gaming areas to level up her skills.
But as we found out during a playthrough of the first few hours, the alien bosses littering the level are very powerful relative to Kate's skills. Stealth and a steady hand are your friends, as saving is a bit of a pain; it involves moving to a single level location, marked by a pillar. And of course, swarms of aliens stand in the way.
Space.com spoke with developer Mad Head Games' game director, Ivan Zorkić, about the sci-fi inspiration that went into the game (including Star Trek & the Alien movies). Also involved in the production were publishers Prime Matter and Plaion GmbH.
Space.com: Tell me about the company working on this game — how big is it in terms of people, where are you based, do you tend to attract space geeks or a particular fandom among your employees?
Ivan Zorkić: We've come a long way from our early days, evolving from a developer of casual games to a creator of action-adventure games for consoles and PC. From a small indie studio to a studio with offices in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Sarajevo, today we're 170 people strong.
We do tend to attract the 'space geeks.' We're big fans of science, astronomy and technology, but also how they intertwine with modern pop culture. We have multiple fandoms competing in our studio. We have both sci-fi and epic-fantasy fans, we have a committed cosplay and LARP [live action role-playing] group, we have pen and paper or board game players, and — of course — we're all gamers, movie-goers and avid readers of books and comics. While we all have different favorites, everyone from Mad Head is a part of some fandom, and we share our love towards the unknown worlds forged in imagination.
Space.com: How does this game relate to other titles the team has worked on?
Zorkić: We've been making story-driven games for a long time, but we've shifted to the action-adventure genre a few years ago. Our previous game was also done in Unreal Engine, and it was also an action title. However, in many ways, Scars is a first for us. This type of gameplay and storytelling is something we've wanted to do for a long time — and we’ve been fans of science fiction for even longer than that. This is the type of story we love, and a type of gameplay we are fans of — and it's been great to finally get the chance to work on a project like this.
What was your inspiration for the game's 'world-building' in terms of sci-fi series, other space games and the like?
Zorkić: We're big fans of science fiction as a studio. We grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek and were shaped by them. You could say that it was this love of the possibilities of the future, and the exploration of the unknown, that got us into gaming in the first place — and ultimately brought us all together. So, we knew from the start that we wanted to pay tribute to classic science fiction, but with modern storytelling.
I remember watching one of the great science fiction films, Forbidden Planet as a kid. It was a sort of precursor to modern sci-fi cinema from the '50s. Now, I'm not that old — it was “a classic” even back then, but there was something timeless about that movie that stuck with me, and I rewatched it many times over the years. I was captivated by the idea of space explorers arriving on a strange, dangerous planet and then learning of an ancient alien civilization that perished for some mysterious reason.
Another inspiration came from an unlikely source — and that is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice jumps through a hole and suddenly ends up in this really strange world that is fascinating but also a bit unsettling and even scary at times. I always loved the way we learn of this world by exploring it page by page, and how curiosity drives us readers forward, alongside Alice — beating any fear of the unknown.
Speaking of fear, one of the major influences is, of course, Alien. If there is a science fiction movie that I associate with being scared, it's that one. In this great movie, a crew of a commercial ship faces a terrible monster. The protagonist, Ripley, was not a soldier or someone trained for battle, but she used her resourcefulness and strength of will to survive. Now when you take all these things — the unknown and dangerous planet with an ancient alien civilization that is now long gone, jumping through a hole and ending up in a strange world with strange rules, and facing a horrific creature and having to use your knowledge and every resource you can get hold of — you get what Scars is all about.
Of course, we drew a lot of inspiration from other games, too — amazing titles such as Mass Effect, Dead Space, Resident Evil, Death Stranding, Horizon Zero Dawn, etc. As a game designer, you play and enjoy a lot of games, and they influence you in many ways.
Space.com: How did you build out the aliens? In other words, what was your inspirations for them? Are they based in any physical reality or are they based in something you learned in sci-fi?
Zorkić: Without spoiling the story — there is a reason why the alien creatures look the way they do. We wanted to imagine life forms that adapted to survive in different environments. What if their natural evolution was somehow rushed? Would this make them hostile and territorial, and how would they look and behave? What would be their natural abilities and strengths? These were the questions behind the design of most of the alien fauna and flora you will encounter in the game. Of course, we wanted to make them cool and scary, but also feel familiar in a terrifying way.
Space.com: Talk to us a bit about Kate: why did you choose a main character who is not a soldier, but a scientist, dealing with this problem? Can you talk a bit about how Kate changes or matures as the story progresses?
Zorkić: We wanted to face fear and terror with knowledge and science. We found it more interesting (and scary!) to put an astronaut and a scientist against terrible foes than a space commando or a person with superpowers. Of course, it’s an action game and a shooter — so you will have the means to fight back, but we didn't want to have someone carrying an arsenal of powerful weapons that they were trained to use in combat scenarios.
Kate is someone who has to use her engineering skills and her scientific mind to overcome the horrific dangers in front of her and also to uncover what happened and the mystery of the planet. She engineers various gadgets and devices using both human and alien technology, but also by using the natural resources of the alien biosphere around her.
Kate grows in confidence and skill throughout the story, but it's not just her survival abilities that improve, her views of science itself evolve: the incredible advantages it brings, but also the danger it can represent if misused.
Space.com: What is good for a beginner player to know as they start the story?
Zorkić: We designed the story in a way that everything — even game mechanics — has a narrative explanation. We also combined game mechanics with storytelling methods. Things will become clear in time, but you won’t get far if you try to rush through. Take some time to explore your surroundings: Kate has an advanced scanner that, combined with her quick mind, forms a powerful combination — so use it often. Examine everything you find, from defeated creatures and strange plants to items you carry and alien technology you encounter. This will not only unravel the mystery, but it will also provide new means of survival.
What has the community reaction been to the trailers and early information releases and did you make any changes after their feedback?
Zorkić: The reaction was quite positive — both from the trailers and from the people that got the chance to play various demos and preview builds throughout the development. There is a strong audience for this type of game and this kind of story, and it was great to see people respond to both.
We did change a few things based on that, and one of these changes was adjusting the difficulty. When you play a game during its development over and over, you get so good at it, you tend to balance it to your skill level. We always wanted to make the game challenging, but we also want people of all skill levels to enjoy the story — so we decided to have several difficulty options and we kept tweaking and adjusting them as more people got the chance to try the game.
Of course, we still expect players to die during gameplay and learn from their encounters — but we don’t want this experience to be frustrating. Kate dying and coming back to try again is even part of the story!
Space.com: What's next for this game? DLC? More content? A sequel?
Zorkić: We're already hard at work to bring you new and exciting things. We have new projects in development, and it is a continuation of everything we learned while making Scars Above. We can't wait to share some of the things we’re working on, but that will have to wait just a bit longer. For now, we're more than excited for players to meet Kate and experience the world we created.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.