Fragmented Almanac: Teaser Trailer and an Interview with Developer Roby Provost

Last month, the Junkyard office was abuzz with excitement when we caught wind of the news that Fragmented Almanac, a compilation of two eerie narrative-based puzzle games, was soon due to be released by fledgling indie studio ANTIRUINS on our beloved Sega Dreamcast. Alas, we don't actually have an office (yet), but the flurry of activity on our Discord and WhatsApp channels did a commendable job of emulating an exuberant water cooler experience nonetheless.

The duo of games contained within the Fragmented Almanac wrapper, The Hideout and Summoning Signals, have been in gestation for many years now, and whenever we had the opportunity to sample the work-in-development, our appetites for more only grew. At times it looked like the projects were sadly destined to join the extensive list of cancelled Dreamcast games, and so it was particularly sweet to hear that they are in fact now complete, and due for both physical and digital release in March of 2024.

Of course, after a lengthy session ogling the artsy ANTIRUINS website, I only wanted to learn more. Fortunately, lead developer Roby Provost has been kind enough to spill the beans in the following interview that covers everything from the conceptual foundations of Fragmented Almanac, down to the nuts and bolts of the game's printing and distribution. To put the cherry on top, Roby also provided us with a new teaser trailer that we are delighted to reveal for the first time here on the Junkyard.

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DCJY: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Roby. To kick things off, can you tell us what players should expect from The Hideout and Summoning Signals, the two games that are being released together as Fragmented Almanac?

Roby: They are quite unique games. They're not shmups, that's for sure! I honestly think that Fragmented Almanac might be one of the most polished indie Dreamcast releases we've seen so far. As I tried to explain on our website, it is at the intersection of video game, art and alchemy. It's a game that makes you dream, or at the very least, makes you think. We wanted to make a project that lingers in the back of your mind, trying to decode the meaning of "scroll". The whole release is designed like a puzzle: full of secrets, truths and symbols. 

This being said, they are not long games. We wished we could have made the full version of Reaperi Cycle, a game which The Hideout was initially a demo of, but it was way too ambitious - especially when we first started back in 2016. Still, we think that people who enjoy strange, narrative-driven games with some puzzles will enjoy Fragmented Almanac. It's definitely a unique proposition, as games like Seaman or Seventh Cross Evolution were. Of course, I really think Seventh Cross Evolution could have been way better. Maybe we'll have to make Eighth Cross Evolution one day 😉.

And if you had to categorise them by genre, would it be fair to say they are "point-and-click" adventures, or is that too restrictive?

I honestly struggle to find the proper term for these games! You don't even click to move around, so perhaps it's more like a cursor adventure? But even that doesn't have a great ring to it. Maybe they are puzzle games? Strange, narrative-based puzzle games?

Whatever they are, they have a distinctive eerie and mysterious style. What is the inspiration behind that?

I think eerie and mysterious is just in our DNA! More seriously, most of the inspiration for our games is drawn either from ideas of the past, or visions of the future - and in particular, things that have been forgotten or that are not bound to happen. The concept of the almanac, a book or document that predicts the time, felt like a great starting point. It's interesting to think about what motivated the creation of almanacs. Were their authors trying to create a system to anticipate the future? Were they trying to provide a guide, a sense of security? Some almanacs are based on the words of religious texts while others get their predictions from the stars. It was interesting to research the many forms that almanacs take, both visually and in the information we provide.

For us, the Almanac is used to somewhat guide and inform the player. As you play the game, you'll unlock fragments and access more lore and art from the game. Muet (Simon Chiasson Greffard), one of our team members, is the one who infused The Hideout with most of its alchemical philosophies. We dug deep within alchemical imagery and symbols and tried to craft something out of it.

Some of our readers may recall the demos you released back in 2020. How have the games developed since then? Can players expect a lengthier experience or are there enhancements of a different kind?

The Hideout is very similar. We tweaked the puzzle a bit and changed a combination that was just too frustrating to unlock. We feel that this new version is a bit more "fair". The textures are slightly upgraded and the background music is crystal clear. And it runs at 60fps.

Summoning Signals has a new ending and a handful of new areas. They're unlocked once you finish the storyline. As with The Hideout, the audio is glitch-free and it's running at 60fps 99% of the time. The menu and quest tracker have also been refined.

I would say that Summoning Signals is a bit longer than before, but to be perfectly honest, this is not a super lengthy release. Our intention is to deliver a high quality and very focused gameplay experience.

What was the rationale for combining the two games under the Fragmented Almanac banner? 

Initially, it was primarily for practical reasons. We realized that we (the ANTIRUINS team) had made like... five or six game prototypes over the years. We decided to take the ones that were the most complete, finalize them, and create a structure that ties them together. 

However, beyond the practical impulse, as we thought about those games, we began to see more links and patterns emerge. Their narratives are based on events that happen before or after the player actually engages with the story. You don't play a hero, you don't even have a name. You're just… a different version of you. In all games, the focus is on discovering new things, new worlds, assembling ideas, and figuring out what happened to the world around you. 

By creating Fragmented Almanac, it also allowed us to include art and content that otherwise wouldn't have made the final cut, but that we felt could fit somewhere on a strange release like this. There are two short prototypes of games included that we have never shown before. They're hidden in there, somewhere. Maybe you'll find them? Good luck!

You mentioned your collaborator Muet (Simon Chiasson Greffard) earlier, but we can see several other names listed on the ANTIRUINS website too. Can you tell us a bit about the team and how you came to work together?

The original project (Reaperi Cycle) grew out of the conversations Muet and I had about alchemy and mysticism science many years ago. Muet has a great occult book collection and he would suggest some readings to me and so on. He's not a game designer or into making games at all, but we bounced around some ideas for a game where you're a spirit that needs to prepare the return of the phoenix. 

We didn't have a proper artist at the time. I met Charles (Charles Arsenault Dionne), a couple months later at this painting exhibition. His art is very symbolic, colourful, and full of strange characters and landscapes. I asked him if he'd be interested in making art for an alchemical Dreamcast game. Prior to this, he had never touched any 3D modelling software or made art digitally. Eventually we all did a bit of art, puzzle design, and wrote the main story for Reaperi Cycle together. Gabriel Ledoux, the composer, is a long-time collaborator. I feel like he saw this project as kind of a crazy dream, but nonetheless got along and composed most of the music for Reaperi and Summoning Signals.

OK, moving onto more practical matters then. Fragmented Almanac will be the first release by your Canada-based studio ANTIRUINS. Are you intending to handle everything from production through to distribution, or might we see collaboration with other parties?

Right now we're handling everything ourselves. We were working with someone else, but things fell apart. We have a handful of retailers in the USA, Europe and the UK and are looking to get more. That being said, we are talking with other developers about the possibility of forming an indie Dreamcast developers alliance of some sort, though it's too early to say much more at present.

Currently the games are in English only, but if someone wants the original text file with a view to doing a fan translation, then they should feel free to reach out.

Can buyers of the physical copies be assured they will receive a quality product? And what exactly is the difference between the NTSC and "CYCLES" version?

Yes, we're producing the game at a factory that prints thousands of music CD projects every year. I think you can expect the very best in terms of CD production, jewel cases, etc. The CDs will be silkscreened and the inserts are on an offset print. We want it to look GOOD!

The NTSC version has the standard black arc on the left style and the CYCLES version is really just an alternate cover. If you have a spare PAL case and want to have something a bit more PAL-like that would be the version to pick. This being said, both CDs are identical. We called it CYCLES because…. well you'll see in the game.

What tasks are left to complete in order to meet the slated release window of March 2024?

Honestly, not that much. I need to proofread the box art…. 

We've all had our share of endless postponements and cancelled projects. Previously I "cancelled" Reaperi Cycle and then Summoning Signals and it didn't feel good. With Fragmented Almanac, I made sure that 95%+ of the project was done before announcing it.

We noticed that aside from being the title of the Studio, ANTIRUINS is also the name of the engine that has been used to create the games. Can you tell us a bit about this engine and the opportunities it might present to the Dreamcast indie and homebrew scene?

So, the ANTIRUINS engine is basically the toolkit I made over the last five years. It really stands apart from other Dreamcast tools because it isn’t necessary for the user to compile the toolchain (which used to be harder than it is now) or learn the intricacies of the hardware. It's very easy to get some sprites on the screen, move them around with your controller, display images on the VMU, and more. For now, it can only make 2D games. 

One other major advantage is that with ANTIRUINS you can now program your game using Lua, a very flexible scripting language, instead of C and C++. Since the language is more or less similar to Python, some would say it is more modern and easier to learn.

There is already some decent documentation and simple examples available to help people learn the engine. As soon as Fragmented Almanac is released, I plan on making a video series on how to use it, write better documentation, and I'll also try to host a game jam to get people to try it. I have a lot of plans for the ANTIRUINS engine in 2024.

Lastly, before we let you go, we have to ask, why did you choose the Sega Dreamcast as the primary platform for these games?

The Dreamcast is the machine that personally got me into programming. I remember stumbling across DCEmulation in 2002 trying to figure out how to connect my console to the internet, only to discover that people were creating emulators and homebrew games. My mind was blown. I was 12 at the time and began attempting to figure out how you could generate something as "realistic" as Shenmue or as memorable as Skies of Arcadia and put it on a disc. Every couple of years I would try to compile the DC toolchain while watching Falco Girgis' "Adventures in Game Development" YouTube series for inspiration. It took more or less 15 years (mainly because I was also obsessed with other things like music and digital art) to reach this point. I owe a lot of my interest in hacking, programming and preserving technologies to the Dreamcast. It just makes sense to try to create something for the console that has inspired me for all these years.

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Thanks once again to Roby for taking the time to speak with us.

To pre-order Fragmented Almanac, visit the ANTIRUINS website. We'll be sure to report any developments on the Junkyard blog over the coming weeks, and will also publish a full review in due course.

If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more content like it from the Junkyard, then please do consider making a small donation so we can continue to cover our running costs.

1 comment:

Lewis Cox said...

Thanks for putting together this awesome interview, Lozz. And of course thank you to Roby for taking the time out to answer the questions.

This has been one of my most anticipated Dreamcast projects for a while now - it’s just so unique, and I really appreciate the artistry behind it.

Can’t wait to play it!