You Are Empty
Interview with Yaroslav "Cray" Singaevskiy


You Are Empty is a fascinating first-person-shooter with elements of survival horror. It's set in an alternate version of the 1950s Soviet Union, where an experiment to create the perfect communist society has gone horribly wrong.

The game is the work of Ukrainian developers Mandel ArtPlains and Digital Spray. It was published in Russia in 2006, and worldwide the following year.

I'm a big fan of the game. Its main strengths are its highly imaginative and detailed environments and the haunting, post-apocalyptic atmosphere that it creates.

I recently conducted an interview with YaE designer/writer, Yaroslav "Cray" Singaevskiy.


> START OF DEVELOPMENT:

Q. Before you began work on You Are Empty, I believe you were a journalist. How did you get into game development?

Yaroslav:  Iím actually a polygraphist. I graduated as printing machines engineer. But I started working on games during my institute studies and very soon found myself in game industry.

About journalism... I can say that I worked as game developer and journalist simultaneously. I have some writing skills (itís not my opinion :) so I used to write various articles about my favorite hobby - computer and video games. Happy for me those articles were published very often.

Q. Two companies are credited for YaE: Mandel ArtPlains and Digital Spray. Am I right in thinking that Digital Spray provided the technology (the DS2 engine), and you guys (Mandel ArtPlains) created the game?

Youíre right. Digital Spray developed DS2 engine and provided full technical support. Game itself was designed and created by Mandel ArtPlains.

Q. How was the team formed?

It all began in the end of 2002. Denis Volchenko (art director of future Mandel ArtPlains) had general view of future game - setting, monsters, common storylineís milestones and so on. He already worked in industry and participated in various projects, for example Boiling Point. So he knew how the things should work.

Denisí friend Viktor Marchevsky told him about one guy who deeply involved in games and writing (this guy was me). We (Denis and I) met and discussed possible project. I started working on story and design document.

In the same time we found two programmer guys (the core of Digital Spray) and received their agreement on technology usage.

Small demo version was demonstrated in Moscow at local developers conference (KRI) and really steals the show. We received proposition from well known 1C publisher and began full time work.

Q. Where did the idea for the game come from, and what particularly attracted you to it?

Denis Volchenko was our main origin of inspiration. He studied the monumental art in the art academy so old soviet period was very attractive to him. The 50s-60s in Soviet Union was era of utopia. The country successfully wins the great war (I mean WWII), industry was on the peak and communism ideas seems very close to reality. There was a time of great hopes and very ambitious projects.

We were trying to follow "what if" line. What if Soviet Union turns into most powerful state in the world? What if soviet scientist developed groundbreaking technologies? What if government decided to reach total happiness not by social changes and economical growth but by some kind of strange mind-controlling experiment?

So we take the real historical basis and recreated some sort of sneaky alternative reality.

Q. What kind of research did you do?

We visited archives and libraries, do a lot search in internet for old soviet prints, photos, posters, books, furniture, advertisements - all stuff that can help us create the proper atmosphere. Also we have special phototrips to Moscow, our goal was collecting information about buildings, locations, soviet art and so on. Our sound engineer was listening to soviet marches and songs all day. I can say that we did a lot of research.

Q. Were there any games / books / movies that particularly inspired or influenced you?

"1984" by George Orwell, all sci-fi novels by Strugatsky brothers, "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" movies by Terry Gilliam, "Dark City" movie by Alex Proyas, "The City of Lost Children" movie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, "Half-Life" series by Valve and "KingPin: Life of Crime" by Xatrix Entertainment.

> PRODUCTION:

Q. How long did development of YaE take? Did it go smoothly, or were there major obstacles?

We spend 3 years on this game. The main problem was an engine. Programmers tweaked it a lot in a graphical way but forgot about proper game system support. I can say that we worked almost 2 years on the graphic and only last one year - on actually gameplay.

Q. It seems that a lot of things changed during YaE's development. Previews stated that your character could become a mutant himself, and would be able to use special abilities. There were various monsters (e.g. butcher, exploding pig, diver) as well as weapons and levels that didnít appear in the final game. Why were these elements discarded?

All these cuts were made due to time shortage. As I mentioned earlier we had very limited time for creating gameplay. So we discarded all these mutant ideas, cut series of levels (for example botanical garden and railway station), some weapons (Maxim chaingun), monsters and scripted scenes. We feel very sorry for that but we had not any other choices.

Q. What was it like working on YaE?

It was a very fun experience in general. In Mandel ArtPlains we had really enthusiastic and even crazy (in good way) guys. We worked as art studio not like some corporative company. You know, flexible schedule, beer, pizzas, discussing various ideas at kitchen, design and gameplay experiments, deathmatches in Quake III and CS every evening and so on. So almost all time it was like being in some kind of "developers dream". Of course, we had crunches and worked at nights before milestones but this didnít matter to us.

Q. The level of detail in YaE's maps is incredible. How long, on average, did it take to create one of the levels? What can you tell me about the design process?

At first every level was created in a simple version. Common layout, huge bricks instead of buildings, small bricks instead of cars and obstacles, flat lighting. After that designers began to add details and replace bricks with real models. Almost every object and especially building in game was modeled using real prototype reference. If you come to Moscow and Kiev you can find structures and even whole locations we reproduced in game. Not just copied, but changed and reproduced.

Designers had a lot of time for level work - all because we cannot start with gameplay until programmers had finished their tasks about game system. So I cannot say how much time we spend on each level. They were constantly redesigned during 2 years.

Q. The game is dedicated to the memory of concept artist Viktor "Lukash" Marchevsky. What can you tell me about Viktor and his work?

Denis Volchenko (our art director) and Viktor were friends from art academy. Viktor was really great artist. He has specific drawing style. Using his sketches we modeled a lot ingame characters. He created Huge Chicken, Pavlovís Dogs and Workers for example. He also proposed some interesting gameplay and storyline ideas.

But Viktor is gone... Itís a life. All we can do is dedicate this game (his last big work actually) in memory of him.

Q. Anatoly Lavrenishin created the wonderful and unique cutscenes, which I think impressed everyone who saw them. How did he become involved? What do you think of his contribution?

Anatoly is one of the most famous young Ukrainian animators. His films win awards on animation festivals in Ukraine, Poland, France, Thailand and other countries. And for sure he made great work for us.

When You Are EMPTY was in production Anatoly was involved in some projects that were very close to game industry. And we decided to invite him to our office and propose to participate in You Are EMPTY creation.

We - me personally, Denis and Anatoly - worked in tight collaboration. I wrote scenarios for these films and made simple storyboards, Denis helped as director and artist, Anatoly worked on characters, environments and animation process itself. He found unique visual black and white style. And I think these animation scenes in final became one of the most important parts of the game.

> AFTER RELEASE:

Q. How did you feel when the game was finished and released?

We were unsatisfied. We cut a lot of things that we wanted to do and the things that actually done were not made on proper quality level. The game not finished - I think you understand what I mean. We wanted to make a lot of improvements in game design: tweak AI, redesign some scenes, add real alternative ending and so on.

Q. What was the public / press reaction like? Do you think the game was unfairly treated, or misunderstood, by some people?

Absolutely not. We had received a lot positive reactions. This game was (I donít like this word, but use it anyway) philosophic in some sort. And we were really happy to see that people can read and understand gameís message. It gives a feeling to us that our work was not just waste of time.

If speaking in general You Are EMPTY was quickly added to unusual art-projects list. Despite gameís negative moments and some clearly disadvantages almost all reviewers end their stories with conclusions that this project is worth a look.

Q. What happened to the development team? Did you start work on another project after YaE?

Developing process must constantly flow. You must start new project before finishing the current. Because of many reasons we did not make that. It was a fatal mistake. You Are EMPTY was already in retail and we just sitting in our office thinking what to do next.

Of course we had some ideas. But none of that actually became complete design document. I think it was true to say that most people did not feel desire to begin making YaE sequel right now. We felt exhausted after release marathon and wanted to take some kind of vacation.

When we finally realized that new project not starting we decided to split up.

Q. You're now the editor of GamePlay magazine, and a freelance developer. What have you worked on since YaE? Are there any ideas you want to develop in the future?

I worked on two adventure titles for Russian speaking countries. One is based on well known fairytale and other is more folklore-way project.

Also Iím participating in casual games development. One of my projects will be published soon in English (actually it was developed for western market). I cannot say what it is - it's not announced yet. But it made in adventure genre too and has great artistic visuals.

Q. There are a lot of interesting games coming out of Russia and Ukraine. One of the most famous ones in recent years is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (which two of YaE's level designers worked on). I personally thought Pathologic (Mor Utopia) by Ice-Pick Lodge was a masterpiece. The upcoming Cryostasis from Action Forms looks great.

What are your thoughts on the game development industry there? Are there any games or developers we should pay particular attention to?


We have a lot good outsourcers and small successful companies that involved in casual projects development. But big companies struggle now because shortage of good managers, lead game designers, art directors. And I think that managing problem - is most important. Game development is not just an art creative process it also a business process too. And all these business regulations in big companies are still pretty weak here.

For the interesting games... A4 Games company from Kiev (it has a lot of guys that worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) now developing project named Metro 2033: Last Refuge. It has great post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Ice-Pick Lodge ends another game - Tension, it very unusual and interesting. Phantomery Interactive, guys from Saint Petersburg, just finished unique adventure named Sublustrum (on English speaking markets will be published as Outcry).

Q. What are some of your favorite games?

Half-Life, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Burnout series. I very like RPGs - the old ones (Baldurís Gate, PlaneScape) and new ones (The Witcher, Mass Effect). Also various adventures: Grim Fandango, Dreamfall, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in US).

Of course Iím a big fan of Portal and spending a lot of time playing Team Fortress 2.

And my Nintendo DS always with me. This platform has unique projects like Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, Phoenix Wright, Doodle Hex, Soul Bubbles, The World Ends With You.

Q. And finally... Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Do not spend all the time before TV or/and monitor. Enjoy your life in various ways.

-- Many thanks to Yaroslav. This interview was conducted by e-mail on 08/30/08.
-- You can contact the interviewer here.



LINKS:

* You Are Empty official site
* Interview with composer Dimitriy Dyachenko at www.game-ost.ru
* Buy online - GamersGate
* Buy online - Amazon.com
* Entry at MobyGames
* Entry at Wikipedia
* Animator Anatoly Lavrenishin's site

Two of YaE's unsavory characters
View from the roof of the theater
On the farm
Hospital waiting room
The city
Alleyway between hospital buildings
A pack of sickle-wielding farmworkers
Destruction in the city streets
Nailgun fight at the factory
Attacked by two firemen
A dark backstreet
Creeping through the theater
The butcher didn't make the final game
Lukash's concept art for the diver
...and for Pavlov's dogs
An image from the opening cutscene