BioMutant Interview -- Experiment 101 Studio Head Discusses Mutations, Narrator, Endings, and More
DualShockers chats with Stefan Ljungqvist, Head of Studio and Co-Founder of Experiment 101, about his studio's upcoming action RPG BioMutant.
After being leaked and then officially announced at Gamescom this year, BioMutant from developer Experiment 101 and publisher THQ Nordic caught the attention of many, including DualShockers. For those who don’t know, BioMutant is an open world action-RPG starring a little furry creature in a post-apocolyptic setting. The main character can be fully customized by the player, and BioMutant features a Yin-Yang morality system that allows for a ton of player choice.
When it comes to gameplay, BioMutant’s combat has been dubbed a sort of “kung-fu” by the developers. While combat isn’t clearly defined by an existing kind of kung-fu, it is free flowing and pretty badass, as players can switch being using swords, guns, and their special powers while fighting enemies.
These special powers can come from different Biomutations, which change how one’s character looks, and psi-mutations, which give players special powers. There are also a ton of different unique vehicles that players can explore the game’s 4x4km world with in an attempt to save the Tree of Life and quell the fighting between several different tribes.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Stefan Ljungqvist, Head of Studio and Co-Founder of Experiment 101, and discuss many different aspects of BioMutant with him, including what his team took from past titles they worked on, the game’s narrator, different mutations, the different endings, and more.
Tomas: How has BioMutant been influenced by previous titles the you worked on such as Just Cause and Mad Max?
Stefan Ljungqvist: I just want to clarify that its just two of us that worked at Avalanche, but on the other hand I was studio Art Director and then game and studio Creative Director and one of the key members of the teams that built Just Cause and Mad Max and helped build the studio over a decade.
I think the main takeaways are to go “all-in”. We never did anything easy or “half-assed” at Avalanche and this is something I strongly believe is what made the studio so successful in the long run. We went through a lot of challenges and hard work, especially in the beginning when we built the studio, the technology and our first game at the same time, Just Cause, and I think this made us really strong as a team and group. We had a “no-fear” mentality that still is in our DNA. It was tough but really evolving.
Then we have the playfulness and the concept of not taking yourself too seriously, which I believe is a fundamental factor in both the Just Cause series and the way we worked together as a team. Focus was always on the fun factor and enabling creativity for the player, hence we always used the word “sandbox” coined by Christofer Sundberg as a general descriptive term rather than “open world”.
I am incredibly grateful for the journey we made together with Avalanche, and even though its more than three years since I left, I’ll never forget the studio we built, the friends I made, and the memories we created together over the course of all those years.
“The Narrator is a major character in the game, not only a ‘voice’, and what role he plays will play a part of the story and end-game.”
T: It was recently revealed that the narrator in BioMutant can be toned down. Will doing this have a substantial effect on what players get out of the story and characters?
SL: Yeah, its funny how media works when you get some attention. Everything becomes news, which I am grateful for as a developer and gamer myself. If I see an interesting game, I want to know as much as possible about that. However, that you can tone down the Narrator is not really a “key feature” of the game.
First of all it’s important to mention that the part of the narration that this is reflecting (and was questioned) is the amount he actually comments dynamically, i.e. primarily in combat. For example Horizon: Zero Dawn also had loads of combat commentary in the first demo, but they toned that down significantly for the final game.
Our approach is that the player should be left with as many options as possible to customize their personal experience. In terms of the Narrator, you’ll be able to decrease or increase the amount of dynamic narration with a slider option. In addition to this, the system itself actually decreases the amount of dynamic narration over time for each session you play and over total time played.
This however, doesn’t affect the main narration, like the interpretation of what other characters you meet says and the contextual (area based or quest related) narrative. So in essence, you’ll never be able to accidentally miss important information. Its also important to mention that the Narrator is a major character in the game, not only a “voice” and what role he plays will play a part of the story and end-game.
T: How much variety is there between the mutations? Will most players be shuffled along to get certain ones, or is there a bit more freedom with them depending on where you explore?
SL: There’s quite a lot of variation here. First of all we have two types of mutations. Primarily we have the Biomutations, hence the name of the game. These will alter the way your character looks physically, but more importantly give you powers/abilities related to that. For example, huge pinchers on your back with which you can grab and throw enemies and certain objects with, a bare tail that you can attack with, and a shoulder lump that you can deflect bullets with, to name a couple.
You’ll be able to unlock and upgrade Biomutations by first seeking out and defeating Morks (Bio-creeps) in the world as they’ll drop bio-shards when defeated. You can then find sludge pools, like the one the character kneels by in the trailer, and spend your points there to either unlock new biomutations or upgrade your current ones. All upgrades also change your character visually.
Another character-changing fact related to the bio-creeps is that they are contagious and exposure to them, like being near them over time while fighting them, for example, will eventually contaminate you and at a certain level you’ll be infected. Each stage of infection will decrease your basic attributes (stats) somewhat, but now you are also contagious yourself and will contaminate other key-characters in the same way. A high level of infection will also lead to death. There are ways to “cure” infection, for example, by using anti-infectionite packs, so there’s a lot of risk/reward elements associated with mutations.
“The four active mutations are mapped to the four face buttons – just hold the left trigger and you make the face buttons activate these instead of the combat actions. This’ll allow you to seamlessly weave mutation abilities into your creative combat toolbox.”
You’ll also be able to mutate physically through assigning level-up points to your attributes in the same way you do in the character creator. i.e. assigning points to Strength will increase damage inflicted with melee weapons, making your character larger will make it little slower but more resilient, etc.
Secondly we have PSI-Mutations, these are your X-Men style of mutations. You’ll unlock and upgrade these by exploring the open world for underground bunkers and finding radioactive machines and exposing yourself to the radiation. This will give you RAD-points that you spend on this type of mutations. These range from Telekinesis, Levitation, Ki-spark electricity from the tip of your fingers to name a couple.
So you have all the freedom when it comes to mutations. You can unlock all, but you can only have four active at the same time. You are able to respec at any time by menu choice. The four active mutations are mapped to the four face buttons – just hold the left trigger and you make the face buttons activate these instead of the combat actions. This’ll allow you to seamlessly weave mutation abilities into your creative combat toolbox.
T: How long should a single playthrough of BioMutant take, and how much are repeat playthroughs encouraged?
[Editor’s note: the following answer includes information on the endings that some might consider spoilers. If that bothers you, please skip it.]
SL: It’s a hard one to answer as it’s an open world game, but our go-to reply is minimum 10 hours. We’re really trying to encourage replays through our “open way” of completing the game. Simplified, there are just a few “requirements” you “must” complete in order to make it to the end of the game.
You are playing as the world is dying and the chance of world survival is represented by a massive tree-of-life that stands at the center of the world with its roots stretching out across the land. As a player, you have the option to heal the tree and such, increasing the chance of world survival at the end of the game. You can end the game without healing the tree; however, your personal end of the game that time will be that the world dies, so kind of a dark ending in some player’s preference.
But if you chose to work to heal the tree of life, this is done by finding small spiritual creatures called Nono that hide in glitter grass found in the open world and leading them to the root segments, that’ll increase the chance of world survival by a couple of percent per Nono. Or/and you can chose to confront and defeat the huge creature gnawing at the end of each root and this will heal that root completely. Healing all roots will give you a hundred percent chance of world survival at the end of your game – and some players will obviously want to go for that bright ending.
But it doesn’t end there. the world is inhabited by a number of different tribes that stand divided, each vying for power. As a player you have multiple choices here and they all tie into the Yin Yang system. If you chose to ally and work with a “dark” tribe Master and help him either subdue or defeat the other Masters, that will make him king at the end of your game and will change it accordingly. In addition, your Yin Yang will also play into the end.
“As we also structure the world quests with the concept of “personal discoveries” the world will also be worth exploring as there’s a good chance you’ll find memorable moments, experiences, characters, and encounters you wouldn’t expect by just traversing the world.”
For example, one of the most dark endings to the game would probably be that you are Yin and helped a Yin Master to power by either defeating (they’ll be ghosts at the end) the other Masters or subduing (chained up) them and didn’t heal the tree-of-life. In Star Wars, this would be the equivalent of being a Sith under a Sith Lord and succeeding with ultimate destruction of the world.
But on the other hand you could be Yang and work with a Yang Master to unite the other Masters and heal the tree of life. Then you’ll have more of a Lord of the Rings Fellowship ending, tributing the king in a world that’s bright, and everything in between. Defeating all of the Masters yourself is an option in itself, so there’s a bunch of endings open for you to discover here.
Maybe it’d be worth to point out that each tribe masters a certain style of kung-fu, and the only way you’ll be able to learn each specific style is to train/ally with a tribe Master. These styles are new additions to your creative combat toolbox in addition to your normal gun-fu and martial melee where you unlock and upgrade moves through level up points.
The map itself, the key characters, and the means of cool gadgets and vehicles can help you build to explore areas you otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach, and also plays a part in the replay-ability as you won’t be required to meet them all to reach the end. As such, you’ll hopefully be interested in trying a different route through the 4x4km world if you didn’t go for in your first play through.
Obviously finding and unlocking all mutations and playing around with the extensive and creative crafting system for melee and ranged weapons is lots of fun! As we also structure the world quests with the concept of “personal discoveries” the world will also be worth exploring as there’s a good chance you’ll find memorable moments, experiences, characters, and encounters you wouldn’t expect by just traversing the world.
T: How does BioMutant’s Yin-Yang morality system impact the story and gameplay?
SL: In addition to the Masters and end-game described above, your Yin Yang can change dialogue trees and quest structures when meeting certain characters. Also, it will change and affect the effect of some of the kung-fu moves and abilities/powers. For example a meditation form is health regen while Yang, but change to lifesteal when you are Yin. Also, we want to pin-point that “neutral” is a viable choice in BioMutant as it represents inner balance and harmony and shouldn’t just be seen as “middle ground”.
T: How hard was it to make the combat flow well, as you are mixing quite a few different combat styles?
SL: This was probably the hardest challenge since we started development. We had this core concept of “free-flow” we were targeting and it took us a while to nail it. We wanted to be able to move freely while attacking at any time, using either martial melee, shooting or abilities/powers effortlessly and intuitively in terms of controller input. So for example, you are able to jump, mix shooting (John Woo/Hong Kong Action Style) while airborne with shooting electrical current from your fingertips, then switch to a bad-ass mega sword chop as you land near the enemy you targeted. You are also able to switch kung-fu styles at any time.
Another example could be rolling into close combat and then switching to Turtle style to throw an extremely slow punch, that when it hits will have a massive impact on the target. All styles are “weird” in a good way, so no real life kung-fu per se served as inspiration of the moves. I think just the names give this away; consider Chicken Kung-Fu for a moment and I think you’ll get the concept.
I’d say that we’ve looked at many sources of inspiration in addition to the core concept I dreamed up: a mutated martial arts badass mammal. This includes Kung Fu Panda and many of our favorite games like Jak and Daxter, the Arkham series and Devil May Cry.
T: A lot of unique vehicles have been showcased in BioMutant videos. How do you guys come up with ideas for the game’s different vehicles?
SL: I dream a lot, but then there’s a serious fun factor to this too. As a team we always ask ourselves “what is fun with this feature and what is the player’s challenge?” In general, I think coming up with the ideas isn’t the problem, executing fun gameplay and cool looking content to match the gameplay is the hard part. Also, we use the different vehicles to gate certain parts of the open world, like needing to use the goop, a water-ski, or an animal to travel the archipelago, an air-balloon to reach certain mountain areas, a mech to venture deep into the low oxygen dead zone, etc.
“I think coming up with the ideas isn’t the problem, executing fun gameplay and cool looking content to match the gameplay is the hard part.”
T: Has Experiment 101 considered bringing BioMutant to the Nintendo Switch?
SL: You can always consider; however, our focus is to finalize and deliver the game to the best of our ability to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
T: Will BioMutant be enhanced by PS4 Pro and Xbox One X?
SL: We are currently looking at this, and while I can’t confirm anything, it would be awesome if we did that.
TF: Is there anything else about BioMutant that you would like our readers to know about before they get their hands on the game?
It feels like there’s been quite some time now where “bigger” games have become more and more unified in terms of genre and game mechanics in general. We hope that there’s space for titles that try something different, meaning that if the world needs another Call of Duty, or co-op FPS with bad-ass white dudes and/or zombies, we are not the guys that’ll develop it. I think games were more playful an had more “identity” as a media on its own about ten years ago when compared to film.
I’m not saying that everything needs to be Jak and Daxter mascot style games again; however, I am hoping for more “bigger” games that dare to focus on creativity, new IP, and playfulness again without hearing “the game won’t sell enough” from the get-go. More focus on gameplay, mechanics, and the fun-factor or interactive experience rather than a bad-ass “hyper realistic” take on proven mechanics with a cosmetic skin, even though I can enjoy these types of games as much as the next person.
The challenge for the larger publishers is why bet on uncertain products when you can be safer? But we as gamers and consumers have a strong voice and responsibility too. Of course there’ll be more games of the “same” type as long as we continue to buy them, and them only. Hopefully people will give BioMutant a chance and hopefully it leads to more bets on more creative games based on new IP.
Whatever happens, we will know that we did our absolute best; hopefully you’ll agree once you get to try the game next year!
BioMutant is currently in development for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, and is set to release on said platforms in 2018.