‘El Paso, Elsewhere’ is ‘Max Payne’ with break-up trauma – and it wants to change the industry

Getting to first basement

Have you ever been in love with a monster? Maybe it was a particularly villainous ex, or a suspiciously charismatic TV bad guy. Maybe it was that awful friend you knew was too toxic for you, or that arrogant jerk from Uni that reminded you a bit too much of your dad. Or maybe – just maybe – it was the Queen of the Vampires.

“In El Paso, Elsewhere, you’re fighting through this motel, floor-by-bloody-floor, to destroy the monster you loved – while also hearing the story of how you and the monster fell in love,” explains Xalavier Nelson Jr., the game’s director, writer and designer.

It’s an allegory, yes: not many people in the real world have actually fallen in love with Draculae, Lord of the Vampires. But they may feel like they have, because that’s what we do – we tend to vilify those that get too close to us, see us too exposed, and hurt us. It’s self-defense, in a way.

“You and the monster meet before your confrontation at the bottom. There’s a lot of secrets and surprises and twists and an entire conversation, voice acted and animated, about the mundane conversation you once had as a couple where she was like, “Yeah, I’d like to fuck a werewolf at some point,” because that’s the type of conversations couples have.”

Nelson Jr. isn’t interested in playing it safe with this game; by his own description, it’s inspired by the likes of Die Hard Trilogy and Max Payne, but it goes harder than these now-retro relics, because it wantonly leans into its supernatural and otherworldly lore. It’s got more balls than those games. Werewolf balls.

The premise is fairly simple; El Paso, Elsewhere is a supernatural neo-noir third-person shooter about fighting classic and distorted horror monsters in a haunted motel, and your goal is destroying the monster that you loved. You play the role of James Savage, a folklore researcher who – several years prior to the events of the game – ended up meeting and falling in love with Draculae, the Lord of the vampires.

“It changed your life for the better and then it changed it for the much, much worse,” explains Nelson Jr. “You escaped the relationship dynamics of that relationship. It fundamentally altered you in ways you still struggle to cope with. And now you find yourself in a position of being the only person to stop her. Not just from destroying your hometown, but from completing a ritual that will allow her to consume the entire world.”

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

“It’s as if confronting your abusive ex also had the high stakes of the fate of the world on the balance. No biggie.”

A lot of games, Nelson Jr. says, explore the beginnings of love stories; those moments where your heart is alight with adrenaline and lust, infected with infatuation. But there aren’t that many games that examine the consequences of falling in love – for better or for worse. “I keep coming back to wanting to explore more relationship dynamics, and more pieces of time in which people affect (and are affected by) the concept of love… while also shooting giant monsters in the face.”

Nelson Jr. cites the way Remedy establishes a statement of intent very early in the game experience as an inspiration. “You hear the word Stephen King about 85 times in the first half hour of Alan Wake,” he says. “And that’s easy to make fun of, but it is also very clearly a statement of authorial intent. They’re telling you exactly what that game is as early on as possible.”

He wants to bring that same sense of ‘internal cohesion’ to his own game. “We have the confidence to deliver a great story and a great combat experience in a set of levels that you can explore and take apart and rush through to your heart’s content,” he explains.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

“And as to how we’re approaching this player character divergence in El Paso, Elsewhere, a lot of the game is just unpacking a fully realised human being. James is a good person. He is a heroic avatar, but there are pieces of him that are not just fundamentally flawed, but that can potentially push an audience member away from him.” This character-centric methodology worked a treat for Hades, the world’s current indie darling, and it seems to work wonders in El Paso, Elsewhere, too.

Nelson Jr. talks about El Paso, Elsewhere with a lot of confidence and energy. And that confidence is well-warranted, based on what we’ve seen of the game so far – especially when you consider Nelson Jr.’s studio, Strange Scaffold, is a young, independent studio with a small number of developers on staff. But Nelson Jr. uses his restraints as inspiration, and sees opportunity in the barriers he has to work within.

“As an indie, we have far less resources than Remedy even did to make the first Max Payne – but that’s an opportunity, rather than a burden” he explains. “We can afford to make the game more interesting, rather than simply bigger. We can take more risks. We can present a great story – and the best werewolf shooting you’ve felt in a video game – without having to come up with some arbitrary way to keep players grinding at the game for hundreds of hours to justify our production budget. People won’t come back to El Paso, Elsewhere to avoid losing their daily login bonus. They’ll keep coming back because they love the music, and the character, and the sensation of tearing a corrupted angel from the sky with a molotov cocktail.”

Strange Scaffold is doing everything in its power to make this game “gorgeous, and punchy, and heart-pounding” says Nelson Jr. But his focus is also on making intentional decisions to ensure the studio can build El Paso, Elsewhere in a way that prioritizes the health of its team. “This game does not contain every possible horror monster in existence. This game is not endless. This game will not single-handedly change the face of video games,” he explains. “What El Paso, Elsewhere is, is focused. And sincere. And angry. And every decision we make about what the game doesn’t need, to become the best version of itself, allows us to more clearly define what it is.”

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

Similarly to other games of this ilk – whether that’s nu Doom, Max Payne, Serious Sam and Shadow Warrior come to mind – El Paso, Elsewhere makes you think on your feet. You need to balance logic and adrenaline, otherwise you’ll be unceremoniously pulped, and you’ll never get closure on that messy relationship. “Do I prioritise the Damned Bride as a threat?” Nelson Jr. says. “Or is the threat actually this werewolf who’s in this other corner, that can leap several metres in the air and tear the shit out of you like an assassin?”

El Paso, Elsewhere uses its own unique version of combat chess (reminiscent of what you’d see in, say, Doom 2016) that results in ‘an interplay of monsters with very specific priorities, attack styles, and ways of moving’, according to Nelson Jr. “Every time you enter a room, you’re dealing with an improvisational puzzle. Do I have time to use my grenade launcher? Do I dare take the chance this weapon I’m firing will kill the people I’m trying to protect?”

And all this is being put together in a way that protects the developers, and the studio. Strange Scaffold is utilising tech and development methods that safeguard the wellbeing of the real, human people involved with games development. That’s what he means when he talks about the ‘intentional internal decisions’ being made at the studio.

“I strongly believe that we can make games better, faster and cheaper than they are now,” he tells us. “We can make quality titles while also not risking the livelihoods of the people involved. Destroying people in the effort of a game that someone will play for 0.2 hours on Steam and give a thumbs down.

El Paso, Elsewhere Credit: Strange Scaffold

“So, in even the design of the combat of the game, you can see my emphasis on building compelling games in a way that is focused. Building compelling games with vision and efficiency that also prioritises the health of the people who are making it and their ability to walk away if everything goes horribly wrong. Even that can be seen in the combat layer.”

El Paso, Elsewhere may be born from the pain and separation trauma of a particularly difficult breakup, but it’s outlook and purpose is much more positive. It’s a tale of acceptance, and growth. “You cannot separate the game that is being produced from the production process that births it,” Nelson Jr. explains.

“And the more that I look for ways to deliver compelling stories in ways that are still healthy and represent the sustainable level of risk for the people who are making it, the better my games become.”

El Paso Elsewhere is planned for release in 2022.

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