Introducing Nero, a ‘firstperson visual novel’ from new Italian indie Storm In A Teacup

Nero is the debut game from new studio Storm In A Teacup, an Italian indie headed up by industry veterans Alberto Belli and Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi.

Belli is an experienced figure in Italian media and videogame publishing who set up the studio in September 2013, establishing its Rome HQ. It currently hosts 12 artists and programmers and is complemented by a five-person team in London and a gang of extra contractors dotted about the globe. Nero will be Storm In A Teacup’s first title, a game executive director Alberto Belli describes as “a firstperson visual novel.”

“We want to make games with a strong storytelling backbone: there is no great product without a great story,” he tells us. “Our first game contains our company vision itself for art direction and storytelling. The idea is to create a benchmark to represent our company, something that players can recognize every time a Storm In A Teacup game is out.”

Belli’s partner at the studio is creative director Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi, a veteran of the CG scene who has worked on the Narnia and Harry Potter films as well as in the games industry at Ubisoft, IO and Metric Minds, a cinematics specialist. Bianchi and his team have poured all of their CG experience into the game’s first teaser trailer, revealed here for the first time.

Nero is the result of more than two years of “writing and imagining,” says Bianchi. The game’s puzzles are linked into the narrative, a journey through a shadowy fantasy world in which the younger character in the trailer above is “the key to all locks.”

“The trailer represents how serious we are about making games, the production values are clear,” says Bianchi. “We’ve hired experienced people from around the world – we have guys from Italy, Sweden, UK, Slovakia, Ireland, Greece and so on. A game like Nero is not a cheap production – we didn’t start from a dark basement.”

The studio’s set-up and the sumptuous detail in the CG trailer doesn’t reflect Nero’s style of play, however. The team is keen to steer its mix of firstperson storytelling and puzzle-solving away from being overly complex. “Keeping it simple is a big part of our company vision – simple doesn’t mean empty, it means not overpopulated,” continues Bianchi. “The Studio Ghibli movies really shaped me as an adult and helped to realize Nero, I have always been fascinated by the beautiful simplicity of those movies. Writing a short story and then creating an incredibly complicated world around it works only if you manage to keep the focus on your main message, but if details get more important than the message then it doesn’t work anymore. A great game that helped me in shaping Nero is Final Fantasy VII – a storytelling masterpiece.”

Executive director Belli says that his studio will self-publish Nero across a number of platforms, and the first gameplay footage will be shown off to the press and potential partners at GDC next month. Belli jokes that he’s tempted to move out to San Francisco permanently. “Making games in Italy is nearly impossible,” he tells us. “We don’t have any support, no tax breaks, no public funding. We decided to develop the game here to show that making things here is possible – we hope to help the Italian scene too with our work. We are a huge market but just a few developers work on an international scale, mostly on mobile.”

Another piece of early, exclusive artwork from Nero.

His partner Bianchi is crystal clear on the nature of their relationship: “Alberto knows how the market works, I know how to make games,” he says. “Lots of guys still think about game development as a romantic adventure in creating the greatest game, but if you don’t know how to sell it it’s pretty much useless to even start. How many very good indie titles were you expecting to come out and didn’t make it?”

Belli is the one taking care of the business side of the studio, then, and he’s critical of indies who fail to seek out partners with the business acumen to give their work the right platform for success. “You can’t pretend that game development is just about making code and graphics,” he tells us. “You can’t do anything if you don’t deeply know the market and how to approach the right people in the right places and at the right time. We spent a long time with market analysis and numbers before we decided to open the company and build up the team. Also, the skills we decided to have on our first project are something that usually a new indie developer doesn’t even take into account. Indie means a lot of things and means nothing: we have plans, investors, bills and an expensive payroll. Our vision has to match with reality.”

Storm In A Teacup’s first release hasn’t got a release date yet, and while gameplay details and the thrust of its story remain a mystery – “The narrative in Nero is so important that anything I could tell about it would be a major spoiler,” says Bianchi – that will change. Judging by our dealings with the studio’s ebullient, ambitious owners so far, they will certainly not be afraid to make some noise about their debut game’s prospects at GDC.