Sons of Saturn Dev Took Thousands Of Photos Of Real Abandoned Places

"Honestly, I needed all of those photos. Because even though only a tiny fraction made it into the game, I needed a ton of different options."

Story Highlights

  • Sons of Saturn — a “mixed media experiment” — will be released on November 30, 2023.
  • The horror title uses assets/images from real-life abandoned asylums, making it even more eerie.
  • We interviewed Charles, the primary developer, discussing the inspirations behind his debut title.

Sons of Saturn is a narrative-focused adventure set in the fictional underground city of Minerva. Although the horror game has an unrealistic setting, it takes inspiration from real-life abandoned asylums, giving it a rather eerie feel. It is the debut title of The Saturn Studio, run solely by Charles Lawson, a talented photographer who took tens of thousands of pictures of abandoned places over five years for this project.

Although he has been taking pictures for a while, it was only later that Charles decided to turn it into a game, thinking of it as an experiment to see whether it would be possible to create a convincing fictional world using real-life images as assets. Sons of Saturn is a passion project that has captivated many horror indie lovers. As such, eXputer took the opportunity to sit down with Charles over an email interview in recent times to get in-depth details and the inspiration behind his first title.

Read ahead for the full interview comprising Charles’ insights.

Sons of Saturn
Sons of Saturn – via The Saturn Studio.

Can you introduce yourself? Tell us about your experience creating The Saturn Studio and its debut title, Sons of Saturn.
Charles: Hey! My name is Charles. I’m the solo developer behind Sons of Saturn, my first gaming project. Over the last five years, I’ve been exploring and photographing abandoned asylums and hospitals all over the world. My game, Sons of Saturn, is a mixed media experiment to see if I can create a believable fictional world using just these real photos as assets.

Nearly all assets in the game are derived from photos you have taken of real abandoned asylums. Did that process take a lot of time? And how long has the concept of the game been in your mind?
Charles: It took years. Over the last five years, I’ve collected tens of thousands of photos of dozens of different abandoned asylums. And honestly, I needed all of those photos. Because even though only a tiny fraction made it into the game, I needed a ton of different options when I was choosing which photo to make a scene work. There are all of these considerations when you’re using a photo to represent, say, a room: does it make spatial sense? How can I put my models in this scene? Is there anything for the character to interact with here? Does it pass through the filter alright? Is it something that’s responsible to include in a game? And so on.

I didn’t solidify plans to make a video game using the photos I was collecting until about two years ago. But basically, the entire time I’ve been taking these photos, it was on the back of my mind. A lot of the stuff I was seeing was just so symbolically charged; so much of it seemed like the stuff you’d see in a movie set that I felt like I ought to make some sort of media project out of it.

Sons of Saturn
Sons of Saturn – via The Saturn Studio.

I saw some of your work in photography, specifically of the abandoned places, and it was amazing, to say the least. I would like to know whether your hobby eventually turned into this concept for the game or vice versa.
Charles: Thanks! My interest in urban exploring and abandonment photography started well before I thought about making Sons of Saturn. Really, at its core, Sons of Saturn is an experiment to see how much of the aura of these magical places and of the magical things I see in life can be recaptured. Very nearly everything in the game is just something I took a picture of somewhere or an attempt at incorporating life into media. For instance, a little before development started, I broke one of my big toes. An image of that broken toe ends up being used late in the game! Similarly, I found a record-breaking giant rat on the street outside my house very early on in development – that has a role in the game, too.

Aside from taking real-life inspiration, what other pieces of media inspired your creation?
Charles: There’s a lot to cover here. I think the biggest three influences if I had to narrow it down, are Stalker (the Tarkovsky film), Disco Elysium, and the Team Ico games.

Those first two are probably pretty obvious. Stalker, viewed properly on a big screen, is a hypnotic and haunting experience. The beautiful, decaying chemical works, the incredible cinematography, the haunting soundtrack. It’s actually a decently large part of why I started exploring and photographing abandoned buildings in the first place – I wanted to recapture some of that aura. I even ended up taking a trip through many of the abandonments in the real exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, though only a few of my shots from there ended up in the game.

I took a lot from Disco Elysium mechanically. More specifically, there’s an interview with one of the developers that I found very insightful and from which I learned a lot of design principles. He goes over how putting the text on the right side of the screen allows for better shot composition, which is really important for Sons of Saturn since all of my assets are 4×3 aspect images that I can’t change the composition on. He also talked about how making the dialogue flow like a social media feed was a good way to keep people reading, which I think was a valuable tip.

The Team Ico games might be a little less obvious. But I really learned a lot from their ‘subtractive design’ approach. Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most compelling games I’ve ever played. But there are hardly any superfluous mechanics. That’s not to say the player doesn’t do anything in Shadow. You run, jump, climb, and do all of this crazy stuff that draws you in and makes you feel engaged, but all of the superfluous mechanics other developers might have felt compelled to stick in there have been filed away.

I decided to try a similar approach to designing an adventure game. There are a lot of adventure games I love, but I’ve always found dumb puzzles to be a chore. The thing is, though, they often just don’t feel engaging without them. Something about the puzzles is critical to making adventure games work. Think of Kentucky Route Zero – it’s a great game overall, but your place in the story is so passive I had a hard time becoming hyper-engaged with it. Most visual novels have the same issue.

So the question then is, what are the very core aspects? The fundamentals, that make adventure games work that keep you engaged? And what can you afford to get rid of? How do you strike that balance? The path I ended up choosing was to get rid of the puzzles but make sure the player character plays an active role in driving the narrative and taking actions throughout the game world. Grim Fandango wasn’t compelling because of the batsh*t puzzles you had to go through (though they certainly weren’t bad); it was compelling because Manny, and by extension, the player, drove the plot and action. Design-wise, Sons of Saturn is an experiment to see if you can provide an engaging experience to the adventure game player without torturing them with obtuse mechanics.

There are infinitely more games I learned from and owe a great deal to – Cosmology of Kyoto, Silent Hill 2, Norco, Unavowed, Night in the Woods, Pathologic – way more than I have time to go into here, unfortunately.

Sons of Saturn
Sons of Saturn – via The Saturn Studio.

You said that you are the primary developer of this project. Is it safe to assume that all assets, from background music to the UI, have been created by you?
Charles: Not quite! I’m the only primary developer, and it’s true that I did most of the work. But my friends Seth Emans and Alex Burden also contributed a pretty substantial amount to the game. Seth provided several of the ambient tracks used throughout the game, while Alex produced the city-scape collages (made by combining illustrations from 1800s adventure serials) used for depictions of the Minerva skyline and other locations outside of the primary hospital.  

Alex is actually working on a related mixed media project, the Grand Subterranean Line, that uses collages of illustrations from old adventure serials to build fantastic images of underground worlds. That’s why I decided to set the game in this giant underground city – it’s part of the broader world the Bureau has been building as part of their own mixed media experiment.

Will your journey in video game development stay solo, or are you planning on building a team for a potential future project?
Charles: I would love to have more resources for projects in the future, but to be completely honest, I’m kind of a control freak. Every asset, track, and expression has to feel just right for me. Even with the tracks and assets provided by my collaborators, I’ve been really picky about when and where to deploy.

I believe the commitment to detail is really important for this sort of game. Every misplaced bit is an opportunity for the audience to lose focus or to switch over to something else. There’s some hard-to-define aura, which I guess I’d call the ‘hypnotic quality’ or something, that games like this need to have to maintain the player’s attention. It’s that immersive feeling that lulls you in and makes you forget to check your phone. That quality is tough to maintain without having an extreme level of control over the experience. It can only exist when there’s a unity between the visuals, the sound effects, the dialogue, and really the entire presentation.

So, I guess to answer your question, I’d love to manage a bigger project someday, but I honestly don’t think I’d want to work with a very large team. Something like this can only really work if the people behind it are tight-knit and can come together behind a singular vision.

Sons of Saturn
Sons of Saturn – via The Saturn Studio.

If I remember correctly, the game is built on Godot Engine. Would you like to give some advice regarding the engine to those who want to get into video game development?
Charles: I would say if you’re making a game that you think you can make totally from scratch, give Godot a shot! Just don’t expect to be able to rely on third-party assets or plugins much, and expect to deal with some growing pains of the engine. I have a lot of good things to say about Godot. Its bones are fundamentally pretty elegant, it’s easy to learn, and best of all, it’s free software, so you don’t have to worry about them pulling licensing shenanigans like Unity just tried.

But it’s also just not as mature of a tool as some other game engines, even though I really do think it’s fundamentally ‘better’ in a lot of ways. In my experience, a lot of the plugins required manual modification on my part to work and maintain with updates. I ended up just programming almost everything in the game from scratch. That’s fine for me since Sons of Saturn is a mechanically simple game, but I’m not sure how well I would have done with Godot if I had attempted something more technically ambitious.

For those who want to binge through the horror adventure, how many hours would a playthrough be?
Charles: Around four to six hours, I think.

Last I checked, you were considering a GOG release for Sons of Saturn, but you received mixed feedback from other developers. So, is a GOG release still on the table?
Charles: I still hope to release Sons of Saturn on GOG! The feedback I initially received was mixed, as you said, but after reading a bit more, I realized that it’s probably the kind of game that the GOG audience specifically would enjoy. But it will probably be a few weeks until I can get the ball rolling on that.

Is there anything else you want to share with the audience? Something we haven't touched upon yet.
Charles: I just want to thank all of my wonderful friends who’ve helped me out with this project and been supportive from the very start. I’ve received enormous help from contributors Seth and Alex, the models who agreed to appear in the game, and personal friends who’ve helped playtest and edit the script. Sons of Saturn was a self-funded project made on a shoestring budget, so their extremely generous donations of time and effort mean an enormous amount to me, and I’m grateful beyond words.

YouTube video

Sons of Saturn could be considered the epitome of the perfect use of assets in an indie game. Charles has taken images of abandoned places and creatively used other real-life objects in his upcoming title. I find this very intriguing because it sets itself as an example for other indie developers not to underestimate any form of assets and use whatever they have.

The Saturn Studio’s upcoming horror game will be released on PC via Steam on November 30, 2023. According to Charles, we can expect some progress regarding the GOG release in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, the demo is currently available on Steam for those who want to dive into the horrors and wonders of Sons of Saturn.

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Mudassir is a seasoned journalist with a passion for uncovering the stories behind our favorite virtual worlds. Armed with a trusty notepad and a keen curiosity, he dives headfirst into the gaming industry's most exciting personalities. His knack for insightful questions and his ability to connect with developers and gamers alike makes his interviews a must-read. While on the lookout for the next person to interview, Mudassir keeps himself busy by writing news surrounding the gaming universe. Experience: 4+ Years || Senior Journalist || Education: Bachelor's in Psychology.

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