HEAT VISION

"Make the Apocalypse Relevant": 'RAD' Lead Says It's Right Time for Story of Societal Collapse

Lee Petty describes his 1980s influences, his take on a "post-post-apocalypse" and why the Double Fine title feels timely: "kids nowadays are being handed a giant bag of shit."
Courtesy of Bandai Namco
Lee Petty describes his 1980s influences, his take on a "post-post-apocalypse" and why the Double Fine title feels timely: "kids nowadays are being handed a giant bag of shit."

Double Fine Productions has made a name for itself over past two decades with independent games known for a strong focus on humor, creativity and gameplay. With its latest offering, RAD, the studio is wading into the popular post-apocalyptic genre, with a notable twist: the post-post-apocalypse.

Set in a far future society influenced heavily by the 1980s aesthetics of neon and ripped jeans, RAD presents a world ravaged by nuclear radiation. Players control a teen tasked with bringing peace to the turbulent society by venturing out into the wasteland and uncovering secrets of the past. 

There are a number of notable gameplay conceits. The game plays as a rogue-lite (a tweak of the video game subgenre roguelike, which features random procedurally generated dungeons and high difficulty levels), with an emphasis on randomness, both in the worlds explored and the tools and powers acquired by the player. Against this backdrop, RAD reveals its coming-of-age, warning-of-hubris narrative. 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with RAD's project lead, Lee Petty, to discuss the game's unique gameplay loop, why the post-post-apocalypse genre needed to be introduced and the allegorical themes ("kids nowadays are being handed a giant bag of shit") explored in new title.

RAD has a unique aesthetic. What was the inspiration?

I’m a child of the '80s, and a lot of my inspiration came from that era. The visuals were inspired by a lot of surreal art I experienced from some of the European artists at the time, like Mobius and some of the stuff you would have seen in publications like 2000 A.D. or Heavy Metal. We wanted to capture some of that retro feel but also a lot of these rich colors and crispness that would be best described as a graphic novel feel.

The game also features a good deal of humor. How did you work that in?

There’s not a lot of joke-telling; there’s definitely a lot of puns, but a lot of the humor is the absurdity of the world, and I felt that was important. When we sat down to make a post-apocalyptic game — or in our case, a post-post-apocalyptic game — we didn’t want to go after that brown, hopeless environment that a lot of people have explored. Instead, we were more after this vibe of people surviving and these teenagers inheriting this world that generations before them have completely messed up. We felt that by having some humor, there’s a sense of dystopia, certainly, but there was an underlying sense of hope. Despite the odds, things could be fixed, but the solutions would rest in the hands of these underdogs, these kids. That tone, that neon-drenched wasteland tone, is in part a punk rock attitude.

What would you say is the genre of this game?

Broadly speaking, it fits into what people call either a roguelike or a rogue-lite, depending on how pedantic one is. It’s an action-based game, and we have a lot of randomization in the game, but we still wanted to tell a broader story, and there is a persistent element that you come across at multiple points throughout the game and that mainly centers on the town and home base for the character.

How do you tell a narrative in that genre?

It’s a really interesting challenge. Compared to other Double Fine games, we kind of took a soft touch with our storytelling. We have exactly one cut scene at the beginning. For the most part, we wrote along themes throughout the game and spoke to those not only through things the player can encounter in the world, but there’s also a lot of things we’re working with here. As your character goes out into the wasteland, he also winds up transforming the landscape, because as your body has been re-engineered to observe the radiation of the world, it leaves behind a growth and transformation. Just by surviving, you’re growing something now. But your character also mutates more and more. While mechanically that makes you more powerful, on another level it makes you something very far from looking like a normal human being and the teenager you started out being. We have a lot of dialogue in reaction to those appearances. You come back to town, and even though you’re saving the town, people can’t help but have strange dialogue or reaction animations to you. There are a couple themes there, of xenophobia and the idea that whatever it is going to take to save this world is not going to be an easy road, and all sorts of change ahead of you.

Is that allegorical, or something that arose organically from the story you were working on?

I think a bit of both. I’m always more about subtext in games more than just taking people to one specific place. When I thought back to my inspirations, as a child of the '80s, I remember a lot of the nuclear panic of that decade. A lot of the creativity that came after that, either from Hollywood or the games that emerged from that, were a way of processing that terror. Nowadays, there’s this imminent fear of global ecological collapse, and a lot of the things I’m seeing and feeling are reminding me of that same sort of panic. There is a way to make the apocalypse relevant now. We connected to that energy a bit. As the game moves along, you’re not doing things because the elder told you to do it, you’re doing it for your generation. I found that was interesting. The kids in our story and the kids nowadays are being handed a giant bag of shit. There is an underlying subtext. There is still this sense of adventure, because these kids are being asked to do this impossible task, but there is still this sense of adventure and a feeling of a road trip to the wasteland.

Where did the idea for a "post-post-apocalypse" come from?

We started thinking about where this genre can go, and there’s really not a lot of rules. I wanted to have sedimentary levels of storytelling for the player to wade through. Having two apocalypses, what the player infers is that the first nuclear apocalypse happened in the '80s. That’s called The Ancient. After that, another civilization, known as The Menders, rose hundreds of years later — you don’t have an exact timeline — and they had a non-nuclear apocalypse, and that’s one of the things you have to figure out. Why did they suddenly disappear? What I’m also exploring is these two civilizations, both of which are deified by different groups of people in the game. They both got it wrong. They both messed up, and to some extent the elder says he has all these answers. I think, to some degree, anyone who says they have all the answers is full of shit.

What sets RAD apart in a crowded indie game market?

A few things. First of all, our aesthetic. We go for things that are equal parts charming and disturbing. Beautiful and weird, but also "What the fuck?" I think the game is filled with those. Mechanically, I think there’s a couple things going on. One is our mutation system, which is not just an art swap of guns or whatever. The biggest difference in our game is that when the player takes off on their run, their character is going to randomly mutate. They’re not going to be able to create their own character class and always play the archetypes they’re used to playing. They’re going to be given this weird mutation and, in some cases, imperfect tools for the task at hand, and they’ll be challenged to adapt to the environment. That makes for a very unique play experience. We’ve paired that with a more open world than most of these roguelikes. We invested a lot into this system that puts together exterior spaces with randomized weather and time of day, as well as the mutation stuff we talked about.

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RAD launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on Aug. 20.

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