Sometimes I think about how many scientists I’ve watched get killed by monsters on the other side of unbreakable glass. In games like Half-Life and System Shock 2, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to eggheads screaming, running, and being dragged into vents to die terrible deaths, just so I’ll be properly cautious when the monsters are on the same side of the glass as me. Abiotic Factor points at those poindexters and asks, “Do you want to be them for a change?”
That’s half the idea, and it sounds like a fun one. A co-op game where, like the Ghostbusters, you’re a bunch of academics who are out of their depth, clutching scientific gadgets as the greeblies rush in. Watch the first minute or so of the announcement trailer and you’d think that’s all there is to Abiotic Factor—but keep watching.
Suddenly those scientists are harvesting the corpses of green-blooded aliens and cooking them on a stove. When they’re not eating aliens they’re using those things that look like proton throwers to gather scrap from demolished desks, then looking at blueprints to build a better variety of weird science gear.
The other half of Abiotic Factor is that it’s actually a survival-crafting game, a kind of underground bunker Valheim. “Survival games have a lot of fun elements,” says Geoff Keene, design director at Abiotic Factor studio Deep Field Games. “But the settings are getting very similar and repetitive. They’re always like: chop down trees, build a cabin. I think people want something new there. They want to do something different.”
There are no trees to punch in Abiotic Factor. Instead, trapped in the offices of the GATE Cascade Research Facility post-disaster, you wade in with pipe in hand to turn office furniture into valuable scrap. “We have entire cubicle farms that you basically harvest for supplies,” Keene says, “so you’re going around smashing computers and stuff, which I’m sure is cathartic for some office workers.” Thinking of the scene from Office Space where they absolutely demolish a printer (opens in new tab), I agree.
Office Space is actually a decent point of reference. Half-Life has a vein of 1990s workplace humor running through it, with the break-room microwave and so on, and Abiotic Factor (which is set in 1993) follows in its footsteps. For instance, there’s a series of promotional shorts (opens in new tab) in the form of watercooler conversations between two employees named Abe and Janet, and in-game customization is limited by the GATE Cascade Facility’s strict dress code. “You can customize your pants in various beige colors, we don’t give players RGB sliders,” Keene says. “But ties can get pretty wild.” He explains this will be called “your tie-dentity” in the menu, then winces at his own glorious pun.
As well as choosing a loud tie to accessorize with, characters are defined by skills, traits, and perks. “We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from RPGs and also other survival crafting games like Zomboid and things like that,” Keene says. “We have character traits so when you start off the game you actually get to pick your PhD.” You also pick positive and negative traits that can be traded off, and Keene gives examples like a character who is sleepy all the time and needs to regularly lie down on the couch, but also gets hungry less often.
So yes, there will be hunger meters. “As far as survival mechanics go, there is hunger, thirst, sanity, there is fatigue,” Keene says. Fatigue can be relieved slowly by sitting on the floor, he explains, or quickly by sitting on a couch, or turning one of the longer couches into a bed. “We’ve got continence systems,” he adds, “so you have to go to the toilet. After you eat it fills another bar, that’s your time-to-poop essentially. You can actually use that for fertilizer.”
Another way Abiotic Factor differentiates itself from other survival games is via scale. You’re trapped in a research and containment facility after a transdimensional boo-boo occurs; there’s no roaming across the wilderness. “Games like Valheim, Minecraft, The Forest they’re very expansive,” Keene says, “but we’re kind of doing this closed open world. It’s in a facility so you’re limited by the hallways and the rooms and the buildings, space that you can actually explore. You can’t go outside really—there’s larger caverns and things that feel more outdoorsy, and there’s of course nice office plants to make you feel like you’re not underground in a concrete bunker.”
The best open world games aren’t always the biggest, and I’ve played plenty that relied on procedural generation to fill out a space, only to repeat themselves and feel less real because of it. There’s no worry of that with Abiotic Factor, however. “It’s handcrafted,” Keene says. “We are building every sector by hand just to create a really nice, very set experience.” It’s a kind of underground open world, as he puts it, one where you won’t be able to run from one end to the other. “You can range all over a sector, then there’s various doors that might block you that you have to hack or unlock or circumvent—sometimes actually through vents.”
That means the facility will always be the same, no matter which server you’re playing on (characters will be per-server, letting you choose different traits and level-up different skills, though customization will be shared if you don’t want to lose your tie-dentity). It’ll be finite too, with a set amount of resources in it. Enough that you’ll be able to make it to the end of Abiotic Factor’s story, and continue playing after that point if you want. Toward its end, the trailer suggests a way to get even more resources, with the scientists seeming to travel to another world.
“You can actually find these portals that take you to other places,” Keene says, “not just alien worlds, but other universes or other places on the planet that might have something going on. There’s one that takes you to a foggy town.” Each of them resets after a certain amount of time, meaning that “we have these renewable resource dungeons you can go into and come back out of with a bunch of cool loot.”
Don’t be fooled by the glimpse of a purple alien landscape. As that hint about a place resembling Silent Hill suggests, Abiotic Factor draws from a wider pool of influences for its threats. “At first glance some people see we’ve got some alien world stuff and they’re like, ‘oh, that must be like Xen from Half-Life,'” Keene says. “But we’re actually pulling from a lot of different mythological places, and supernatural and anomalous things as well. The facility that does all this science is also containing a lot of weird things, anomalous entities and things like that and some of these get loose during this event. You’re not only dealing with alien species from portal worlds.” He says we should expect a bit of horror alongside the sci-fi. “What we really did with our roster of enemies is tried to get a lot of variety in there.”
Keene says the most exciting part of the game for him is the gadgets you can craft. At the low-tech tier, lab coats can be tied together to make ropes. Then there are jump pads, and the vacuum. “It’s a problem in games, you have all your stuff all over the floor and you have to go around mashing E to pick them all up. We’ve got a tool you can make that literally just vacuums stuff into your inventory, it’s quite fun. You can even vacuum up the smaller creatures and launch them out of it like a cannon.”
More high-tech gear, like spinning fan-blade traps, will need to be powered by pulling cords from the walls and chaining power strips together in the way you’re not supposed to but everybody does. There are Tesla coils and science guns, though Keene explains that whenever the developers got too into guns they tried to rein it in, preferring more inventive tools. “We have a BOB principle,” as he puts it, “Brains Over Brawn.”
Finally, and this is important for a misanthrope like me, though Deep Field Games focuses on co-op experiences, Abiotic Factor doesn’t have to be one. “You can absolutely play it solo,” Keene says. “We want the whole game to be playable solo, it’s just gonna be harder, right? Like any survival game is harder when you don’t have someone else building something for you. When I play survival games with my friends I just stand around and watch them do everything. It’s great! But when I play solo, I have to actually, like, try.”
Abiotic Factor is currently scheduled for release in 2023. You can find more information and add it to your wishlist on Steam (opens in new tab).