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In the ever-competitive world of independent games, where small studios jockey for publishing deals that they hope will bring more eyeballs in a market as tight as a vise, the aesthetic of your game has to pull off an uneasy balancing act. If it’s too derivative – for example, the classic 16-bit pixel-art approach that’s become the de facto standard – the customer might just scroll past it. However, if your visual style stands out a little too much – as some have said about developer Melessthanthree’s acclaimed “Lucah: Born of a Dream” – you risk alienating your potential consumers entirely.

A top-down brawler cast in bold, wriggling linework that attempts to merge the frenetic fighting of “character-action” games like “Bayonetta” and the more-methodical sword-swinging of the From Software’s “Souls” series, “Lucah” proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. Although director Colin Horgan admits the game’s distinct artstyle has proven a love-it-or-hate it proposition, he says he doesn’t worry about it too much: after all, he always figured that “Lucah” would divide people.

“We had a huge advantage compared to some other indies, which is that we were successfully Kickstarted. Apart from that, I think the game has done about as well as we thought it would,” says Horgan. While he might remain less-than-vocal about the game’s lack of penetration relative to its quality, its fans aren’t shy about singing its graces, with multiple Steam reviews calling it one of the most underrated games of 2018. According to Horgan, the team behind the PC, Mac, and Linux game naturally want it to reach as many people as possible, he always wanted to keep “realistic expectations” for its performance. In fact, he can recall the exact moment when he realized that “Lucah” might not be for everyone.

“Originally, I really wanted a publisher to market and fund the game. I think it was when I showed it to a major publisher that shall remain nameless, and they said, ‘We love everything about the game. We love how it feels. We love the story, but let’s talk about the elephant in the room.’ And I said, ‘What elephant?’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re not sure we can market your visual style.’ And that’s when I realized, well, this is our aesthetic, and we’re sticking to it, but maybe it won’t reach everyone. Personally, I think it works really well, but I know that it splits people.”

That aesthetic is the game’s defining feature – and, arguably, its greatest weakness. Rendered in a blunt, spare style that you might term “Newgrounds arthouse,” “Lucah” looks like the doodles in the back of a Dungeons and Dragons monster manual come to life. Combined with the game’s understated, lo-fi soundtrack, which pulses and screams along to the rending of your foes, the game creates an atmosphere that’s as oppressive and hostile to the senses as beloved horror games like “Silent Hill 2.”

But while the uneasy swirling of the black-on-black pencil lines seems to obscure the game’s workings at first – a potentially fatal flaw, given that it demands so much of your reflexes and overall game-sense – over time, the vicious visual vocabulary of the game becomes abundantly clear. Every enemy in the game is a malformed red monstrosity of some description, while the hues of the player character vary according to the weapon you use. Physical attacks cleave through the air, like a rip in a paper, while area-of-effect auras come in simple geometrical shapes that blink away quickly. In a genre where the screen can often fill up with so much flashy detritus that you can’t actually tell what’s going on, it’s a nice change of pace.

From a certain perspective, Horgan admits that a more traditional pixel-art approach would have probably resulted in more mainstream attention and maybe more sales. But after early talks with a publisher fell through, like so many choices in independent games development, he realized that if he tried to push for a new aesthetic now, there was no way that the team would ever finish the game. So, he forged on, determined to do “the best version of this style possible.”

“It might sound kind of weird, but a lot of the choices I made with Lucah were born out of what I see as shortcomings in the ‘Souls’ games,” Horgan says. “‘Bloodborne’ is definitely the most influential of the series for me personally, as it’s a little more simplified, but there’s still an absolute ton of numbers that you have to keep track of, with the wide variety of weapons and damage types. I wanted to emphasize the parts I enjoyed, and deemphasize the ones I didn’t.  One of my design goals was to keep things as simple as possible, within reason. That’s just my taste.”

“Lucah’s” bold design choices extend far beyond the stark, vertiginous shadowscape that constitutes its surface. In the upper right corner of the game, there’s a “corruption” meter that ticks up ever-slowly. It serves as both a time limit and a punishment for mistakes – fall to a foe, and you’ll wake up back at the save point, with your percentage increasing by a set amount. If it fills up completely before you manage to complete the game, it has a direct effect on the ending you see. While it might prove divisive to some – my personal distaste for time limits in video games knows no bounds – it feels so thematically appropriate that Horgan and company actually manage to get away with it.

More than anything, Horgan says that he wanted “Lucah” to promote a sense of acute anxiety, and the totality of the game’s elements speak to that. He describes the game as a “mood piece” that explores themes of self-discovery and alienation, especially from one’s own origins. While the actual story of the game itself is even murkier than that of its inspirations, the sheer volume of religious iconography can be overwhelming at times, a decision Horgan says reflects his own experience of growing up Roman-Catholic. “I prefer to leave things up to interpretation,” he says. “However, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people who identify with parts of the game that I never even intended. That’s really awesome, but that’s what shows the value of keeping things open like that.

“Though I call it a personal game, it’s also a metatextual game. I wanted to take elements from all these games that I love and combine them into something that I personally like better. A lot of what makes ‘Lucah’ work comes from the frustrations I had from that time in my life, working a crappy job, not satisfied with what was going on in my life. I took the things I loved and put them in the game, and I’m happy with the result, and I’m glad other people are too.”

The Independent Variable is a monthly column that delves into the unknown, unhinged, and downright bizarre in search of the most outstanding indie games by freelance reporter and curator Steven T. Wright.