Catacombs: the inside story of Square Enix’s cancelled shooter
It’s always a great shame when a game is cancelled, but much more so when a genuine original is lost. Catacombs, the Square Enix shooter that was revealed by Siliconera in April of this year, fell firmly into that category: its fast-paced, team-based shooting owed a debt to Valve’s Left 4 Dead, but its narrative was distinctive, dealing with themes of perception, existence, and social and cultural disharmony in an uncommonly bold manner. What began as a simple story of four treasure hunters exploring a mansion became something much more interesting.
The Siliconera leak was satisfying for the man behind the transformation, narrative director Brandon Sheffield, who had worked on the game for a year by the time it was cancelled in early 2011. “I was definitely pleased,” he tells us. “I had felt for so long like everything I had done was for nothing, and that nobody would ever know about it. It’s a common feeling when a game is cancelled I’m sure, and ego gets into it a bit as well. You want people to know that you did a good job, sure, but you also want to know how they will feel about your work, especially when you’re taking risks. To have taken risks like we tried – not that depicting different cultures should be considered a risk, but it often is by larger publishers – and to not have anyone be able to react to it was really disheartening. So being able to see people just react to the concept was gratifying.”
Sheffield is also pleased for the opportunity to clarify a few inaccuracies and omissions in the leaked details of the game, including the name. “It was not actually called Catacombs,” he laughs. “I’m not really sure where that came from, but we may as well call it that for now. Actually, we never made a final decision on what the title would be, but I had a few ideas.”
It’s been some time since the leak, but we contacted Sheffield after receiving assets from a former employee of AQ Interactive, including a playable alpha build (from where the screenshots accompanying this piece were taken) which runs on a heavily modified version of the engine used in Feelplus’s 2011 sci-fi shooter Mindjack. It’s naturally a little unrefined in this form, but even in its unfinished state, it’s a brisk and enormously promising shooter with some inventive ideas. Many of these tie directly into Sheffield’s narrative, a tale of four characters from disparate social and ethnic backgrounds coming to terms with their differences.
“The idea of this game for me was that reality is a construct of the human mind,” he explains. “Every human’s brain is essentially its own dimension because neither you nor I have the same experience – even of this conversation – because of our own past, and things that we’ve thought and done. Since we’re all inherently different and our mind is the only thing we can truly know, then our reality exists only inside of our brains. So each stage was about these people destroying their own fears and doubts and also their identity. They were supposed to be overcoming their sense of self, and how that related to their identity as an American, but also their otherness.”