‘Mechajammer’ is a grimy cyberpunk CRPG that’s more than the sum of its inspirations

Whalenought is trying to create the cinematic CRPG feel and give you as much agency in the grimy world of Mechajammer.

You have probably already heard of Mechajammer. This grimy cyberpunk-horror RPG has had two cracking demos released through the Steam Next Fest.

The husband and wife team of Whalenought Studios, comprised of Hannah and Joseph Williams, say that whilst the game is somber and dark, there are actually “pretty lighthearted” parts to it, too.

Escape from New York was probably the big atmospheric and premise influence, Robocop and Brazil inspired how the syndicates have created a galaxy-spanning maze of unmanageable, indecipherable hierarchy and command that is hanging on by a thread,” say the pair, via an email interview.

That jet-black streak running through the movies above is clearly visible here, in addition to the feeling that ties the three together: despite the bleak dystopia all around them, people are just trying to survive in the society they’re in. Here, while you and your party are trying to escape, most people are just getting on with their day-to-day routine. There’s beauty in the mundane, after all.

“Movies like Robocop, Escape from New York are messy and sweaty, and we wanted to capture that — it’s so easy to make a clean-looking 3D sci-fi game but the sweaty dirtiness certainly adds a challenge,” they add. “Cyberpunk has the tendency to lean so digital and flashy, but the low-life aspect is the more interesting part to us. Workers with weird cybernetic implants they used for their old job as they try to get by on the streets, rather than flashy cars and walls of neon-lit buildings and swirling advertisements. As a genre it should act as a – sadly verging on reality – warning, a broken society, and the filth and grunge acts as a sort of on-the-nose reflection of that, but makes for a sort of cozy atmosphere when it’s as low-res as Mechajammer, at least we hope.”

Mechajammer
Mechajammer. Credit: Whalenought Studios

Whalenought’s last game, the fantasy-based Serpent in the Staglands, was released in 2015. Mechajammer was already in their heads as that game shipped, and while they had a few ideas for what was next, they fancied going into some hard sci-fi for a change of pace after releasing a fantasy game.

Mechajammer, going by the title Copper Dreams, was kickstarted successfully in 2016 and outside of the retitle (and a lot of iteration to the combat and turn-based system), it’s largely the same game since then.

“We strived to make a combat system with turns that had a focus on sensory mechanics — enemies listening for you, moving to your last known position to investigate, and so on,” say Whalenought Studios. “We wanted that immersive-sim feel for a more isometric game like this. We tried a lot of variations of things that dealt with turns with time to help with that, and landed on this simultaneous turn system, which gives you step by step control in and out of combat.”

“We were fortunate enough to be able to continue working on something to the best of our ability for as long as we have, we really wanted to meet those design goals and believe this product is the best version of them.”

Perhaps impressively, when it comes down to the actual game development, it’s just Hannah and Joseph working on the project, although they highlight the musical talent of Kevin Balke (“he has provided us with some excellent jams ever since we started our company”) and voice work from Caleb Merrick for helping to bring Mechajammers to life.

Mechajammer
Mechajammer. Credit: Whalenought Studios

“For our next project, it’s ambitious enough that we might be reaching out more, but for the CRPGs we make we try to keep somewhat focused, despite the open worlds. Mechajammer always had a tighter concept, we sometimes refer to it as a ‘one-shot’ campaign in premise, which is on the box: escape! The goal to that end was to make the roleplaying systems and gameplay a sandbox enough to make that an interesting one on its own.

“Unlike a lot of CRPGs, this one’s map and plot are almost laid out like a RISK board, with gangs and syndicates in place, and the player’s crew figuring out how to navigate it, and then reacting to your actions. It’s an interesting challenge, and we’ve enjoyed working on these more simulation-based systems.”

This work gets much bigger when you consider that everyone in Mechajammer can join your party with the right social roles, meaning everyone could be a teammate.

“Social rolls and bribing were definitely an early idea which helped so we could design around it for everything else. It definitely can be more work, they all have their own unique stats, a bunch of portraits to choose from, and so on. There’s also the work surrounding it, they try to heal you if you get knocked out, they can be equipped with anything you find, level up with you, and so on. Then you get to gangs, which you can ally with and employ from their worker pools, but then you make enemies with their enemies, and so on. We wanted to give the player a lot of options to make friends, and we thought it was worth it.”

Whalenought says it’s all a part of the studio’s main goal of giving the player as much agency as it can within the rules of the game. “Player agency requires foresight in what they can actually do at any time, and making this a lateral design feature throughout the game is the better way to do it, instead of just in choice dialogues we choose outside the player’s control,” the studio explains. “The system mechanics between exploring and combat are what fascinates us, and we’ve tried to focus on that in this game.”

Most of the main influences for Mechajammer are films, and Whalenought asked – if this were tabletop campaign – what’s the kind of agency the studio would like to have to influence the experience that would be fun.

“Why not be able to ask anyone to join in?” asks Whalenought. “Roll social, bribe them with cigarettes or money? Their life expectancy is about to really drop, in any case, with the player around. Thinking from the ground up of what kind of agency we could have in something like Escape from New York made most of the systems what they are — driving, civilian mobs, faction combat, and so on. It had to end up being a small simulation to accommodate that.”

Mechajammer will release in 2022. A demo for the game was made available during Steam Next Fest.

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