Initial Inspirations… and moving away from them.

I started working on Sagebrush after dropping a much larger project that I realized was far too big in scope for a solo developer with my level of skill/experience. The months spent on that project were massively educational but the project itself is shelved until I have more experience and maybe (maybe?!) even a budget.

So the initial concept for Sagebrush was to keep the scope manageable for a solo developer while leaning into my strengths and interests. I’m a better writer than I am a programmer, so a game that was heavily text- and narrative-driven rather than systems-heavy seemed like the way to go. And while I’m not much of a 3D Artist, I was interested in learning more and seeing how well I could tackle a fairly robust environment.

I wanted to stay away from character modeling, animation, AI, combat, etc. Eventually I’d like to tackle a project that involves more of those elements but as part of keeping the scope smaller, I decided to take the Gone Home route – no combat, no NPCs, just you in the environment, uncovering the story. I also wanted to try my hand at a low-poly, mid 90s 3D look, a first-person take on Silent Hill-era survival horror. It’s an art style that I love deeply but also has a much quicker workflow than trying for a more photorealistic look.

The initial concept for Sagebrush leaned far more on horror tropes and cliches. The game was going to take place entirely at night, illuminated entirely by your flashlight. The fact that you had stumbled onto a cult compound was going to be slowly revealed. The compound itself was going to be more explicitly nightmarish, with blood spatters on the wall and corpses strewn about. And the ending was going to involve discovering a room with dozens of freshly killed bodies of cultists. SHOCKER! They all committed suicide! What a twist!

I briefly considered having wraith like spirits wander the compound. I even thought about giving the player a gun that would be completely ineffective, just to mess with expectations.

As I worked on it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was essentially making another one of those cheap Unity horror games that clutter Steam, the ones that basically involve a bunch of free assets plopped into dark corridors, with the player wandering around with a flashlight waiting for jump scares. That’s well worn territory now, and within a couple of weeks of work it became very clear to me that it wasn’t actually very interesting to me.

Two small changes ended up helping me realign much of my conception of what Sagebrush was about.

The first was a matter of experimenting with the environmental lighting. An asset pack I was using came with several different skyboxes and I decided to try out a sunset. When I matched the ambient and directional lighting to the skybox, I was instantly sold. 

The new lighting was far less scary, and yet… even walking around the temp landscape, it felt more evocative. Even my crappy terrain and placeholder buildings suddenly felt more soulful, more tangible. Sadder. Seeing the environment in a new light (literally) led to the second change.

Like I said, originally the mass suicide of the cultists was going to be a plot twist, a dramatic stinger of an ending. But I realized quickly that stories about cultists, especially in games, only ever really go in two directions: 1) they all kill themselves or 2) they manage to, like, summon demons or something. And while shooting demons is the great gaming pastime, that’s not the game I’m making.

I nearly threw out the entire idea, since I’d realized a major pillar of the experience was going to be ineffective and, frankly, lame. But then I thoguth about going to the other direction. What if I leaned into the mass suicide? What if I didn’t hide it at all? Now, the very first image you see after the initial credits is this:

Leaning into the cult aspect and being up front about the suicide realigns the story. Instead of anchoring the story around an unfulfilling mystery that culminates in a cheap, unsurprising shock, I’ve now put the people involved at the center of everything, focusing on the more human and, I think, more interesting questions.  Who were these people? What had brought them here? What drove them to suicide?

Suddenly the compound wasn’t just a haunted house, but a place where people had lived, loved, hoped, feared, and died. Or at least that’s the plan!