'The Big Lebowski' With a Koala: How an Aussie Studio Crafted a "Hip-Hop Stoner Noir" Game
"He's a koala. He's a detective. He's hungover. He needs your help."
That is the premise of Stone, an interactive story game described as a "hip-hop stoner noir" by creator and director Greg Louden, who operates independent Australian studio Convict Games with his sister Sarah.
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"There's so many genres and types of stories that aren't being told, and I found that really exciting," Louden says on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter from Finland, ahead of the game's release on Xbox. "The origins of wanting to do a stoner noir was, I think, my own taste and connecting with films and books — I love Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon — and I've always wanted to play a game like that." Armed with a grant from Film Victoria and the desire to make Stone uniquely Australian, Louden set forth on his quest.
Summoning the one thing that set it off, Louden highlights The Post Office by Charles Bukowski. "In games you're always playing the hero, but to me the character in [that book] is a hero. Obviously it's a dark character study and quite subversive, but nevertheless I thought it would be interesting to follow a character like this, that you could try to understand."
Labeling himself as "a huge cinema head," Louden was also inspired by films like The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice. "I often wish that you could stop and explore those sets and talk to the characters," he says, alluding to the adventurous quality that Stone offers. "I think in interactive narrative, you can have a very cinematic-driven experience where you choose what happens and then the next cinematic [occurs], but I knew I wanted to be a lot more exploratory." As a fan of public domain cinema, Louden's numerous classic film nods in the game include a curation of Australian titles such as 1919's The Sentimental Bloke and 1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang. During a break from his investigation into what happened the night before, Stone can enjoy a beer and watch these films, one of the many side activities on the menu.
As for choosing a koala as the game's protagonist, Louden was interested in creating something that resembled "real life." He wasn't sure what type of reaction he would get from the topics featured in the game, so he introduced an animal for some grounding. "People can relate to a koala," he says. "I think it's [also] good to bring Australian nature to the forefront, because it's obviously under threat," continues Louden. Plenty of other animals, given new life as quirky characters, make appearances in the game.
The musical accompaniment is a crucial element of Stone. "When I think of 2018 or '19, hip-hop has really redefined music and what people listen to," says Louden, adding that he imagined that this character, the koala private investigator, would listen to hip-hop music. Ryan Little and Biniyam are a couple of the hip-hop artists featured.
"It’s cool that you can listen to licensed tracks in a game, but to me it’s more important that you can listen to them after you hear them, so when it came down to the game structure, I included a map with a record shop," explains Louden. He says that Stone is not only a story, but it's a music festival of sorts. "You can listen to music you may not listen to [ordinarily], from avant-garde Finnish experimental pop to trap music to techno." Among the Australian artists, the rock band Golden Grove and trap star Luchii are featured.
After playing video games like Doom when he was "a little too young," Louden indulged his creative interests by studying computer science at the University of Technology in Sydney, where a lecturer once told him that the most complicated information system technology you can build is for a bank. When Grand Theft Auto IV came out that day, Louden identified the game as a more complicated system. "It's GTA; building a virtual New York," he says, recalling the memory. From that point, his drive to work in video games was set in motion.
On the way, he worked in the animation and visual effects departments of films such as Happy Feet Two and Gravity before joining Remedy Games — he was a "huge fan" of Alan Wake — to work on its titles Quantum Break and Control.
Among the games that Louden thought about during Stone's development, the 1998 computer game Grim Fandango came to mind. He played it recently, and wondered why there weren't more games with that sort of character, comedy and exploration. Among more recent titles, Louden mentions Florence, from Australian game studio Mountains, and Firewatch.
Referencing the latter, Louden says, "It told me that you can make a game without anything now. It doesn't have to be a game about jumping and shooting, racing, gangsters or war."
Stone, which is already available on Steam and iOs platforms, is set to be released on Xbox One and Xbox One X in January. It is the first title from Convict Games.
View the gameplay trailer below.
by Pamela McClintock
by Richard Newby