The Sexy Brutale is a difficult game to describe. Its Groundhog Day style core mechanic asks players to repeat a day in a mansion populated with colourful characters going about their perfectly choreographed schedules. It just so happens that these schedules involve being murdered, with players tasked with preventing bloodshed by learning the movements of each of the manor’s inhabitants.
Charles Griffiths, co-founder and design director at Cavalier Games, started the studio with his brother James Griffiths and Lionhead colleague Tom Lansdale.
“Tom and I were at Lionhead and James was at Mediatonic in London,” says Charles Griffiths. “We played around with ideas in the background but to actually do something, at some point you’ve going to commit and execute it properly. So in 2013 Tom and I left Lionhead and started prototyping what became The Sexy Brutale.”
The idea behind the game initially was to create a simulator for scheduled characters, in a similar vein to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It was intended to be a larger world than The Sexy Brutale’s mansion, but as the team explored this routine simulation idea it discovered more enjoyment in this smaller, Groundhog Day scenario.
“It was always about little people on schedules and the idea of giving them character, with inspiration from a bunch of Japanese games like Gregory Horror Show, Moon RPG Remix and Majora’s Mask, things that had characters on a timeline,” Griffiths explains. “But it was only in the beginning of 2014 when we decided to tilt it heavily in the opposite direction of rather than being something that had random elements, we were going to make a game that had the fewest random elements ever. A complete orchestration. This total choreography of every single moment. Because it felt like if we’re going to do a Groundhog Day, that was actually the purest, most extreme form you could make.
“It had always been hovering in the back of our minds, but it always felt like ‘we can’t do that. We can’t go full Groundhog Day’. Because then every piece of music would have to be timed to the second with the actions taking place and every single character’s movement would have to be completely choreographed. That would be tricky to tell the story, that would be tricky to do puzzles, it would tricky to do everything. But it was the cleanest and most exciting form of the idea.”
The team refused to let the challenges ahead of them put them off what it envisioned to be the most exciting form of its routine simulation idea. It meant that the developers had to get the majority of the gameplay completed in greybox so that before they added music and art, as much of the choreography was complete as early as possible.
“I think after having worked in triple-A, there is a horrible sense of being on a treadmill and you’re running and you’re only just ahead of the art, animation and voice over pipelines,” Griffiths says. “That is just a horrible, horrible place to be, because it’s not a place where good decisions get made. Because you’re only two steps away from someone saying, ‘oh, Ben Kingsley is in next week and we need to record all his dialogue’ in Fable and you just don’t know enough about how that character is talking yet.
“We were so determined to not end up in that position that we took advantage of the time we had working in greybox. We built out almost all the game in a very rough form. It was ugly and it didn’t have music and it didn’t have all the great sound effects, and so on. But what it did have, and what changed very little from when we were actually taking it to publishers to when it was finished were the actual movements of characters around the house. If we hadn’t had that, so much other stuff would be impossible.
“The music is a great example of that. There is no way in hell we could have had music scored perfectly to the second with the action that was happening unless we had that locked down. Which means having a quite a lot of other things locked. So in the end it wasn’t that hard for the musicians themselves, because we provided them with videos. For them it’s a bit more like scoring a movie.”
Working this way comes with its own set of challenges, however, with even small changes to the game having a knock-on effect on the entire experience.
“One of the most nerve wracking changes was having to add in around two hours to a character’s schedule upstairs,” Griffiths says. “It’s a person whose body then falls down in a certain place, which is then reacted to by people in a completely different puzzle, and so on. That was bad because that was like open heart surgery on the game. The knock-ons are enormous, but you’re trying to find the safest way to insert two hours and push everything back and then get the music changed to reflect that as well. Making a change late on this kind of game is extremely difficult.”
Another difficulty that comes with building the entire game in greybox is not taking the weight of the final assets into account. Cavalier Games worked with Spanish developer Tequila Works in a co-development capacity, with the latter producing the game’s wonderful art.
“We got too comfortable on a technical side with having lightweight assets,” Griffiths explains. “If we went back, what we would do is shove in more random heavyweight art assets and music earlier on. That would better stress-test things earlier, because the problem that we found was then once we were putting in final assets, we hadn’t anticipated how much that could add to loading times. So that’s a downside of doing things in greybox.”
With The Sexy Brutale, Cavalier Games was treading new ground in non-linear storytelling. The team took inspiration from immersive theatre, the sort created by Punchdrunk, where the story is happening around the player, who is infiltrating it and affecting it from within.
“Obviously Punchdrunk has dealt with these problems before and people have written narratives that go on all around you,” says Griffiths. “So it’s not a completely unknown problem. But what we were doing in terms of threading gameplay and puzzles through it, that’s quite different. What is interesting about the narrative is the fact that it’s telling two stories at the same time. You’ve got the events of the day itself and all the character’s movements across the house. That’s one big story.
“But then you have a completely different story, the one that’s being told to the player because of the order in which they experience the elements that make up the other big single narrative. A kind of Pulp Fiction, Memento style thing. You can lay out Pulp Fiction in one straight line and there’s your story, but what makes it so good is that it’s also a completely different tale because of the order that the director takes you through the scenes. It reveals itself in a new order and a unique way. That was what we were trying to nail.
“I think that the biggest thing for [narrative director] James was giving it meaning and closure and an explanation. It’s not that games that have an ending or theme left to your interpretation are always bad... I think it’s a question of faith. Do the people making this game really have a meaning to this? Are they very selectively leaving parts out in order to allow you to interpret in a way that’s actually going to make this better, or is this just a cheat? Have they just taken the easy way out?
“With something like The Witness by Jonathan Blow, I think everyone is aware that he’s got enough credibility and enough skill that when he leaves you something to interpret it’s going to be actually worth interpreting. He has thought of it and considered this. There are other games where I think that’s very much not true. It doesn’t feel like they have an answer and it doesn’t feel like they ever had an answer and it feels like an easy way out to just hand wave and leave it open to interpretation.
“We were very, very keen to not do that, because we don’t feel that is good storytelling and James doesn’t feel like it’s satisfying storytelling. So that was a big driver. What sort of story can be told in this kind of framework that we’ve given the game? And then how can that story, despite being this kind of weird circular thing, how can it satisfy in the same way as any good linear traditional story should?”