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I Finally Got to Play The Dark World: KARMA in 2022

By Dan
Jan. 6, 2023 updated 04:15

The Dark World: Karma (hereinafter referred to as Karma) has attracted much attention since its official trailer dropped at TGS 2021. This first-person psychological horror game has an intriguing setting featuring grotesque TV heads and memory-diving. On December 18, Karma finally debuted offline, and we had the chance to play its demo at the first opportunity.

In Karma, players control a thought police officer from ROAM to delve into people’s minds and explore their past. The story takes place in an imagined past in the 20th century, where the monolithic Leviathan Corp engages in omnipresent surveillance.

We played 30 mins of the demo and chatted with Wang Yonghe, CEO of Karma’s developer Pollard Studio, about game inspirations and the development process at the local event in Shanghai.

Players waiting for the event to kick off exuberantlyPlayers waiting for the event to kick off exuberantly

The development team spent little effort covering up Karma’s dystopian theme. The thought police are immediately reminiscent of George Orwell's legendary fiction Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Leviathan is often a symbol of the absolute sovereign, derived from the Hebrew for a giant sea serpent. Wang agreed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the worldview prototypes that Karma draws on. The telescreen used by Leviathan in the game to assign tasks is indeed inspired by Big Brother that watches everything.

TV is omnipresent in KarmaTV is omnipresent in Karma

The world in the game overlapped with the real world for a considerable period of time but followed a different worldline at some point after World War II. In the world of Karma, a tech company called Leviathan Group is committed to rebuilding the once war-torn city and bringing peace and progress to its people.

Leviathan did help the city rise to become a modern metropolis, but people also felt a hint of something different. Whether it was the telescreen used to assign work or the thought police to maintain social stability, Leviathan's surveillance was everywhere.

This reality-based setting creates a subtle sense of oppression. Many scenes in the game, such as the house’s interior and home appliances, are restored to the furnishings of the mid-1900s, but the details are slightly different. For example, in the real world, people in the sixties and seventies used mail for document delivery, but the game world used pneumatic transport tubes with a more centralized sense of control.

As a thought police officer, the protagonist's job is the same as that of a real-world police officer who needs to enforce social security, but the means of enforcement are pretty different. There is no need for interrogation in the world of Karma because investigators can directly access the suspect’s brain through a mysterious device and live the suspect’s memories.

Here is the core gameplay: the player travels through others’ memory as a "roamer" (called "ROAM agent" in the game), not only to do what they were doing but also to feel how the other party was feeling at the time. In the bizarre world of the brain, the player tries to find traces of lost memories and uncover the truth.

A player trying out the demoA player trying out the demo

This inhumane mind invasion can easily lead to serious self-doubt. Am I really doing the right thing? Has Leviathan really made the city a better place? The tech giant does not consider any human factor while bringing about change.

Wang Yonghe is sharing behind-the-scenes of KarmaWang Yonghe is sharing behind-the-scenes of Karma

When asked about the game’s background, Wang mentioned that Karma draws on BioShock, Half-Life, and other predecessors' imagery of social forms under mass surveillance and totalitarianism in its dystopian setting. It concretizes this imagination into a question: Would a high technological advancement lead to a better world? "At first, you may think the world sucks, but when you think back, is the world the one that sucks, or is it you?" Wang hopes that by the end of this game, players can think about the relationship between themselves as viewers and the characters they control.

But unlike many dystopian games that focus on totalitarianism, Karma comes down to a personal story. When putting aside all the external limitations, it is up to the individual's vision of how to look at the world around them. Maybe everyone seems to be a bad guy until you dive into their memory, but once you learn more about their past, there’s always something heart-wrenching about each of them.

That is all the plot that can be revealed at the moment. Wang indicated that there is more to uncover in the official release.

As for the development process of Karma, Wang said the core team’s international work experience greatly influences game design. Most of the members of Pollard Studio have worked for Virtuos and Ubisoft. Wang himself has more than ten years of experience in game development and has participated in the production of multiple AAA titles such as Uncharted 4. The team has always wanted to make a story-driven walking simulator.

Walking sims may seem very popular in the Western world, but they are not super common among Chinese developers because (in Wang’s words) "they do not pay back.” In the West, almost every indie developer would start with a walking sim, such as Layers of Fear and What Remains of Edith Finch. With its overseas experience, Pollard Studio is relatively familiar with the development of walking sims and has more room to explore unique visual effects and world views. Even if they cannot wholly separate Karma from similar games on the market, Pollard Studio hopes the game can be unique with its core content.

Karma’s pursuit of uniqueness has not always been a smooth one. Especially when it comes to visual experience, many of the ideas that the team came up with were already explored by other games. "Often, when people see something, it sows a seed, and people would grow ideas out of it. But when we go to the trouble of growing something we only find that other people have grown more ideas than we do. " Wang made a wry smile.

In the end, the development team adopted an emotion-driven approach. The team will plot the corresponding emotional experience before making each chapter, just like the three-act-screenplay structure that consists of the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.

For example, the protagonist may be preparing a birthday gift for his daughter calmly, then the monster attacks and the mood begins to fluctuate. The protagonist ran off and hid in a pipe, feeling a little relaxed. He then wandered to another place and screwed on the TV head when the monster suddenly appeared again… The team would always conceptualize the emotional state that the player will experience in each chapter, create the layout of the game flow and a matching art style, and finally iterate into a sample piece of demo quality.

Of course, there’s no magic formula for game development, and Karma does not strictly follow the three-act structure. I was particularly impressed by the subtlety of the jump scares during the demo. There were a handful of scary moments; sometimes, the entire chapter ends with a jump scare. But the rhythm was just right, leaving enough space to give players time to chew over.

What also impressed me was the game's soundtrack and sound effects. Karma offers an immersive auditory experience rarely found in a walking sim. After entering the office for the first time to put the lousy TV on the pile, the whole office is surrounded by strange noises: the dog starts tossing its head, the keyboard crackles, and the printer crumples paper. When creating the sound effects for this scene, the music team went the extra mile to set up individual sound units for each keyboard and added sound effects for the paper coming in and out of the printer.

This immersive sound experience is largely due to the new Dolby Atmos technology and Wwise sound engine. Dolby Atmos allows sounds to be interpreted as three-dimensional objects, while Wwsie helps developers simulate the reflection ratio and actual sound in different spaces. Dolby Games’ official website also posted about Karma earlier this year, which was rare for an indie game.

Reagan li, the music director of Karma, is a Berklee graduate and has a wide range of talents in composition, singing, and conducting. Knowing that the studio’s budget wasn’t too big, Li used his connections to get the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, a band that had worked on live recordings of the movie Parasite, to work on the theme song for Karma.

Although Wang emphasized during the interview that the development team is very frugal, no trace of saving money can be seen from the quality of the finished demo. "We don’t want to give players the impression of being too frugal, but instead want them to look back and wonder how we got these amazing things done with such low budget. "

Whether it’s the intriguing art style or the immersive auditory experience, what Wang liked most about Karma is the story itself.

Almost everyone at Pollard Studio is a film lover. Before they became too busy with Karma, they would host a movie night every Friday with good food and drinks and find rare film sources to watch and discuss as a team.

A group of highly aesthetic people means tolerance and support for unusual art forms. "When I talk about a man with a flower growing on top of his head or a man with a small TV growing inside his brain, everyone on the team can picture that without thinking it's strange." Wang feels super grateful that everyone on the team approves of the final presentation of Karma.

TV-headed manTV-headed man

Karma is not a game where the producer gets high on themselves. Pollard Studio is full of highly expressive people who want to tell stories and let their voices be heard through games. Whether it is the event plot or level design, everyone will share their thoughts actively. The offline event is also an excellent opportunity for Pollard Studio to listen to the players and make final adjustments.

Players discussing game content after playing the demoPlayers discussing game content after playing the demo

Karma is Pollard Studio’s attempt to tell a good story before they attempt something more native. As a Chinese developer, Pollard Studio is aware of the rich folklore in Chinese culture that is worth exploring. But this very awareness gives the team a slight fear of failure. "I've always thought it's very hard to create a story about your own culture, more so than foreign things. " Wang wanted to find out the preferences of players in other parts of the world before he deemed himself capable of telling a native Chinese story.

The game characters are all in Western faces and English voices, but there is no strong indication of where and when the story happens. Players may find the scene matches a specific year in the real world, but the next second they would travel to another period.  As to why the game is named Karma, Wang said one needs to finish the entire story to understand "the starting point.”

The current plan of the Karma team is to run through the whole gameplay and traverse all storylines by the end of the year and then gradually improve the animation and character models. The final game is headed to Steam in 2023, with ports planned for all consoles soon after.