A screenshot of R-Flesh

R-Flesh: Xena-Spectrale Talks About the Unconventional Inspirations for Their Unconventional Games

When going through the many forums, boards, and scrolling feeds of the internet in search of upcoming indie games and other radical finds, you will see many, many projects that are influenced by a very, very small pool of games. And not to trash that concept, there is a reason that games like Clock Tower, and Silent Hill have become such common muses for the future of horror gaming, put simply, they rule, and are timeless. But to that note, where there is comfort in taking inspiration and guidance from such time-tested classics, there is also the thrill of the risk when taking a chance on resurrecting a dead, if not completely forgotten game, and bringing its workings into the modern world of indie gaming. What I am getting at, dear reader, is that as soon as I saw R-Flesh, by Xena-Spectrale, and read about how it was influenced by Jumping Flash, the oft-forgotten PS1 first-person platformer, I knew something crazy was being cooked up, and I had to learn more about it. 

Do you remember Jumping Flash, have you ever heard of it before? This archaic first person platformer was a launch title for the original PlayStation, and like many games of the time, it had some interesting ideas about how the player should move and jump around in the thrilling new 3rd dimension. Needless to say, the gameplay is rigid, and to those unfamiliar with that era of gaming, it is a bit unwieldy and disorienting. With all this in mind I was absolutely enamored with what I saw of R-Flesh, how it took this antiquated gameplay and used it as the foundation for this, frankly, gruesome and groovy-looking game. As I learned more about Xena and their work, I saw that they had their fingers in many pies, and after I reached out to them and expressed my interest in learning more about said pies, they were happy to work with my schedule and find a time to meet for an interview. 

After exchanging introductions I thanked Xena for taking the time to meet with me. I took a moment to praise their diverse catalog of indie games before diving into my first question. To get started, I asked Xena how long they had been working in game development, and what exactly made them want to pursue this medium?

Xena: Okay, so first, thanks for those nice words. It’s always pleasant to hear nice words about your works. And, in fact, my game dev journey started a while back, it was kind of a dotted line, I would say. Let me recall this. I think my first entry into Game Dev was with RPGmaker XP, back in like, 2005. I just played around with it, not making real games, just placing tiles and stuff like that. I was a huge Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest fan at the time. So I was just toying around trying to remake some of the stuff I liked. And then I think I dropped game dev for a while, up until maybe 2010, where, with a friend we wanted to make a mobile game. We got together several times talking about it, planning it. I also ended up buying a new computer to make this game with my friend. In the end we didn’t make anything. And with my brand new computer I started a completely different path, I started making music. I discovered the Ableton Live software for music creation, and I think in 2010 I dropped game dev for music making. And time passed, I went to a fine art school for several years. And when I finished my course I came into kind of, oh, I would say an existential crisis, with big questions about what it means to make art, what I was going to do with my life. And it came back clearly to me that this stuff with game dev was following me all along. And I decided in 2020 to get a bit more serious about it. And in fact, it’s a time where I learned a game engine, I also started to learn to code. And that’s what started my serious game dev journey. When I say serious, I mean, it’s still just stuff made in my free time. But I consider it a bit more seriously than in the past.

A small selection of surreal simulations

Xena had answered my next question for me. I had seen the plethora of music made for their games, and it made me wonder if music or game development was their first foray into self expression, but after hearing them talk about their history of game development, it seemed like it was a little bit of both.

Xena: It’s a bit of both. I mean, at the time, when I was serious about making music, I was completely off game dev, I didn’t think about it. I was just making electro music at the time, and thought that I had found the stuff that I would like to do for my life, but it wasn’t, really. I don’t know, I still make music a lot but I consider it more like a hobby than an actual thing to do for a career. I don’t know if career is the term when we are talking about art, but yeah.

I commented that it must be nice to not have to rely on somebody else to make music that fits your vision.

Xena: Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s also kind of a double edged sword. Because with Game Dev, you are always busy with a ton of stuff to do, and managing the music fully can be kind of exhausting. It’s pleasing, but exhausting. so, I don’t know, maybe at some point I wouldn’t say no to paying someone to make music from my games or just sound because it would alleviate a lot of work from the project.

One thing I had noticed about the games Xena had released is that there were quite a few instances where a key point in a project was the deconstruction of the typical UI in lieu of something that elevates the experience. With this in mind I asked what it was about destructuring the players UI and disrupting their field of view that they found so fascinating?

Xena: Well, I think it came pretty naturally when I resumed my game dev journey in 2020. I was in the game engine and asking myself what kind of games I wanted to make, and foremost, why I wanted to make them. And I don’t know, it came up that I felt, at the time, that many games were trying to hide the UI stuff a lot. And to me, it’s just, I don’t know, like, you use the screen space. And I asked myself if I wanted to make it a bit, I don’t know, cluttered. I like in my work to clutter stuff a bit, or just hide stuff that used to be in plain sight, I like to hide them a bit. So using the UI to cover stuff is a nice way to do this. And I don’t know, I like just to experiment with stuff. Sometimes it’s just visual, there is really no purpose behind those beyond just pure experimentation. I try stuff, some things work, others are falling totally flat, but that’s okay. It’s just, you know, the pleasure of experimentation, I think it’s pretty important in any creative field.

You could fill a field with all of these creative creatures!

On the topic of the cluttering or deconstruction of the standard UI, another trend I had seen across the smattering of small games was the prevalence of the Nintendo DS, sometimes aesthetically and other times serving a gameplay purpose. Seeing that there was clearly a great reverence for the handheld console, I asked Xena if they had ever considered making a homebrew DS game? 

Xena: Oh, yeah, well, in the beginning, I was really fascinated with dual screen stuff. I had the Nintendo DS when I was a kid, and I really enjoyed playing all those fringe games. I recall stuff like Trauma Center, that was pretty rad at the time. And when I came back to my game dev journey, it was obvious for me that I would try to do stuff that I enjoyed as a kid. And actually, I watched a bit about the various homebrew scenes. albeit, GBA and Nintendo DS. But to be honest, I think at the moment, I don’t have the the necessary time to dive deeper into those fields because apart from GB ROM scenes; that is pretty open because there is software to make games on the original Gameboy. Stuff like GBA and Nintendo DS are really on another level. It’s way beyond my reach, I mean.

That was absolutely understandable, while homebrew scenes are very cool, and often showcase extremely clever uses of the technology, the downside is that you are unfortunately limiting the reach of your game by a significant amount by only releasing it on antiquated software. While it is all very cool in concept it can be quite tricky in execution.

Xena: Yeah, but also I think that the homebrew scene brings up an interesting question in the video game industry, because it brings back the question of, you know, the ecology, the fact that we are still using all the old hardware that is already made, and so we don’t have to build new ones. I think there is some interesting stuff in those concepts. But then yeah, to apply them in real life would be something completely different.

Moving on to Xena’s current slate of upcoming releases, while I did reach out to Xena specifically to discuss R-Flesh, I did think it would be a great disservice to not give them a platform to promote their other projects, as making games of any size is a great challenge and deserves to be recognized. First and foremost, I did have questions about their upcoming monster collecting game, as I had seen online that they had been working with another dev I had interviewed in the past, Warrrkus. I asked Xena if there was a title for the upcoming project, and how it was coming along?

Xena: We have no title yet. But the game is supposed to come out next Friday. So by then we will have a title for this game. But for the moment, it’s just a monster collecting game, and an RPG in a sense, but you will see more when it’s released. But yeah, it’s untitled at the moment.

Untitled monster collecting game will also let you battle the monsters, it’s not just for collecting

Even when considering that both Xena and Warrrkus are no strangers to the ins and outs of game development, it still seemed like they had completed this project rather quickly. Curious as to what led them to work together, I asked if this project was for a game jam, or did they simply make the game just for the fun of it?

Xena: It’s for fun, just to work with Warrrkus. When I asked him, a bit more than a month ago, he was okay with making a game with me. And we got along well, so we started making this game, keeping a small scope to take like, two months to develop it. But I think it’s going pretty well, and it was a nice collab, I would say.

Another title that they had been cooking up on the back burner was an interesting game titled Tower of Tears that appeared to combine the cute characters and graphics of PS1 adventure games with the unsettling atmosphere and gameplay mechanics of survival horror titles. Wanting to learn more about this grim game, I asked Xena if they could tell us a bit about Tower of Tears, its story, and what inspired this haunting title?

Xena: Yeah, so Tower of Tears is a project that I had in mind for a while now. But I didn’t find the time before to settle down and try making it. In fact, I started a prototype for it In 2021. But I wasn’t really inspired at the time, so I decided to put it back for a moment and come back to it later. And that’s what I’ve done, I came up with a new prototype, like, I would say, two or three months ago. And basically to describe the game, at the moment, it’s kind of a mix of a survival horror with I would say a little bit of fighting. At the moment the fighting is a bit clunky, but I think it will do the job for what I want to convey in the atmosphere. I mean, clunky combat can be okay, it’s my opinion that if it’s not the center of the game, we can support a bit of clunky fighting. But it’s prone to evolve too, so nothing is set in stone. And yeah, it’s just a survivor horror game. I drew inspiration a lot from my feelings of the Animal Crossing on the Nintendo DS. I thought that this game had, I don’t know, really special atmosphere. It’s not at all like the one on the 3ds and Nintendo Switch. The one on the DS, the original DS, I found it really strange in terms of atmosphere. As a kid, it really scared me a bit. I don’t know why, I can’t put my finger on it. But it was a very special game to me, too. I drew a lot of this kind of essence, and I tried to put it in Tower of Tears. And actually, the game Tower of Tears, is taking a bit of a bit of inspiration from a game I made in the past, Sanctuarium. Again, that is emulating a kind of Nintendo DS aesthetic. And I kept bits of the lore and the universe that I set up in Sanctuarium, and took it over to Tower of Tears. It’s not a spinoff per se, but it’s a kind of set in the same universe, in the fiction.

It’s like being at school after everyone’s left, and feeling like you’re being watched

I loved to hear that Xena was taking lore from their previous titles into Tower of Tears, and I was excited to see more of that project be revealed in the coming months. But moving on, I wanted to discuss R-Flesh, the game that led me to initially reach out to Xena. The first question I had regarding the title was its blatant inspiration from PS1 classic Jumping Flash. I asked what made them think “the world needs this style of first person platforming?”

Xena: I didn’t think about that, I was just playing Jumping Flash, I played the trilogy a while back now, six months ago. And I don’t know, it clicked for me more than it did in the past. And so I asked myself, if I would try to kind of reproduce the engine of Jumping Flash, which is a pretty simple first person platformer. That started a bit of a challenge for me, to reproduce the mechanics, and see what I can add to the formula to make it a bit less clunky. You know, those games have aged, that’s a normal thing, but they are pretty stiff to take in hand nowadays. So I thought that I would take this recipe and smooth it a bit. Without, how would I say, without taking the essence out of the original game. In the original game, you didn’t have full control of the camera. It’s locked, It’s basically tank controls. In the engine I worked on, I implemented those OG tank controls, but it felt a bit off to control, it wasn’t really pleasant to control. And I smoothed those things a bit. And at the moment, I’m pretty satisfied with how it’s turning out in terms of just game feel and gameplay, and it’s cool. So I didn’t think that the world needed it, but I wanted to make it, so I went ahead and started it. We’ll see how it goes but I plan to release it this year. It will be my first, I would say commercial release, so I’m pretty excited about it.

While the moment to moment gameplay may be instantly recognizable as having that Jumping Flash DNA, the similarities stopped there, as the rest of the project was a surreal landscape of flesh and fury, wanting to learn more about Xena’s creative process, I asked them what other influences made their way into R-Flesh?

Xena: Well, for the UI, I took inspiration from a previous game that I made, Vacation Island where I started building this kind of fleshy UI around the screen. And this idea came from the older Elder Scrolls, you know, where you have those big bars at the bottom of the screen and then on the side, you will have those stone pillars. So at the moment, I wanted to make this kind of interface but a bit more, a bit more lively, so that was kind of a first influence. Then for the universe, and and all the characters, my influences are pretty varied. I draw a lot from King’s Field IV made by From Software and Resident Evil 4, I think it has a really interesting atmosphere, overall atmosphere, and its influence in my work is pretty, I would say like a background, the Resident Evil 4 influence is like a background to my work and to this game in terms of feelings. Obviously, the recent From Software games are also a huge part of my inspirations. Yes, I think they are really sitting in this special place. They managed to convey a particular atmosphere with themes that I really like, and I don’t know, they are really a huge inspiration to me. In fact, in 2015 I almost came back to Game Dev when I played through Dark Souls One and two, but I did something else, and they came back way later. 

The titles that had been listed as inspiring the world design clashed against the typical structure of the Jumping Flash games. The level select for the original title was very simple, letting the player choose one of the levels from a menu before beginning the stage. With this in mind, I asked if R-Flesh would feature open, interconnected areas for the player to explore, or were these explorable areas going to be segmented into separate levels for the player to take at their own pace?

Xena: Well, to be honest, with you, my heart at the moment is really torn between two philosophies of world building and gameplay structuring. I mean, in a way I really like open fields and stuff that you can explore freely, I think it would work great for both this kind of gameplay. Like, first person platformers, it would work really well. But on the other end, I feel that the amount of time that this kind of game requires is a bit beyond my scope at the moment. So I might, in the end, find a kind of in-between place, like not having a complete open world to explore, but not having 3 levels where you select them by navigating menus. I would like to find a kind of in between, maybe having a main 3D world to explore where from there you can go to most specific areas, or levels, mixing the classic the classic Jumping Flash formula, which was level by level and a more open ended one that is more prone to discovery, and secret discoveries. I think I might end up going this way. That’s also the way that I find creatively the most stimulating, you know, thinking about complete places that are a bit interconnected, that’s something that I really like, and that really sticks with me as a player. So it might end up this way but at this moment nothing is too set in stone, I left some space to be able to switch things up when I need to.

I am curious to learn how this world ties into alchemical symbolism

To get a better idea about the gameplay loop I asked if the player would be able to revisit past levels once they had gained the proper items needed to progress or uncover a secret?

Xena: Yeah. totally That’s the kind of gameplay logic that I really like. And I plan to toy around with those ideas, totally. Not a Metroidvania per se, but kind of a bit of secret discovery based on item placement and how to use them in their environment to unlock stuff. Or to discover secret or nook and cranny hidden areas here and there. In fact, I would say the structure of the game is almost completely done. But I’m not really sure about it. I can’t allow myself to talk too much about it now, you know, but yeah, definitely having some kind of relation between items and places. And stuff that you can reach when you have certain items or certain power ups is definitely part of the game.

Having discussed the mechanical structure and influences of R-Flesh, I was eager to learn about the world. I asked Xena if they had put a lot of thought into the world and its conflicts, and if they could tell us about it?

Xena: Yeah, in fact, R-Flesh development started soon after I finished Vacation Island. So these games are a bit tied in then in terms of narrative. I took back some elements, I threw away the Animal Crossing aspects. But I had a lot of lore written down on various notebooks or in my tablet. And yeah, the world is pretty much fleshed out. I’ve got a lot of drawings, I like to draw a lot to set up characters and stuff like that, not concept art that just random drawings that inspire me to. And yeah, the world is almost almost set up. I can’t describe it too much now because I want to keep some kind of, not mystery but a bit of, I don’t know, a bit of a secret for the moment. But I drew a lot of inspiration from all the alchemical symbolism. That’s something I’ve been into since like 2010, I was really drawn into those. I made the Pilgrimage from the south of France to the east, to the western coast of Spain, the pilgrimage of St. Jacques de Compostelle. I’m not religious, but I did this for all the alchemy symbols that we found on the way. It was like a 900 kilometer walk. You know, you have your backpack and you walk  20 kilometers a day, you sleep and you go again the next day, and I did this in 2013. I drew a lot of inspiration from this particular experience. That was really pretty strange, but really interesting, in terms of discovery, like an open world RPG without the fighting.

It was very cool to hear about the influence of alchemical symbolism on the title, as frankly, it was something I was completely unfamiliar with, and I was eager to see how it affected the final game. While I understood Xena’s wish to stay tight-lipped about the story, I was still very curious about the world. Digging to get some dirt on the protagonist, I asked Xena if they could tell us about the main character, and what their place in this crazy world would be?

Xena: I can speak about that no problem. The main gimmick, I would say is that you play as a kid that has been infected by some kind of life form. I don’t know if you will have seen the the third season of Twin Peaks… The third one is a special show to me, it spoke to me, like few shows have done in the past. But in this series, you have this scene where you see a little girl sleeping in her bed, It’s set in the I think in the 50s in the United States. And this girl is sleeping, she’s like maybe 10 years old, and you see this big, crawling insect advancing to her and the insect is going through her lungs. And you get that at this moment, without spoiling, something bad is happening. And the relation between the kid that you play in R-Flesh and the entity that came out of his head is kind of the same, you know, you have this body of a kid and just above his head passing through his cranium, you have a kind of blobby thingy with wings that is controlling him. But I hope that the relationship is going to be a bit more nuanced than just the kid is a host and and there is a bad thing on his head, I hope to meet make it a bit more nuanced than that.

I commented that by the end of the game it might be some sort of messed up Bonnie and Clyde, or Stockholm syndrome situation.

Xena: Yeah, I would really love to be able to develop the kind of, you know, ambiguous relationship between two bodies that are sharing the same essence, I would say.

It’s like a modern retelling of a Boy and his Blob

I was growing increasingly interested in the gameplay and world of R-Flesh, but I most likely had a ways to go before I would get to play it. Wanting to learn more about the development I asked if Xena was the only one on the project at this time?

Xena: Yeah, at the moment I’m the only one on the project. I plan to make the music the sound effects, and the programming. I’m already deep into it right now but for some parts of the art, I would really like to commission someone to do something a bit out of my style or just the way I tend to approach things. There is an artist that I only know their works through twitter, their name is Witness the Absurd, it’s an illustrator and I really liked their art style and I would really love to ask them, to pay them to make some art for the game. I know that recently they have worked on a game named Slave Zero X  And I really dig the art style. You know the little vignettes of the character. I’m not really into Pixel art or things like that, but the art style of person that made the character vignettes and the character design really spoke to me, I will say… I am totally in love with them. It really really speaks to me. They used to redesign the old Yu-Gi-Oh cards. That’s a special thing that I like, the early design of Yu-Gi-Oh cards are dear to my heart.

Considering that aside from cover art  The entire project was going to be developed solely by the solo dev, I was curious as to how the development of the project was going. I asked Xena if at this time they felt as though the development of the project was going smoothly?

Xena: Well, smoothly is maybe not the right word, it’s going fine. I mean, every week I try to make some progress on it, develop stuff, refactor my code when it’s needed. Because I’m not a coder, you know, it’s not my job. I’m a self taught programmer in a sort of way. So I learn new stuff every day. So when I come back to my project, I ask myself, “well, I did this at this time, but now that I have this new knowledge, can I redo things a bit better?” So this kind of scheme is a bit slow in the process overall, but I hope to have at least a demo ready for I would say, July, something like that… It will depend on the time I can allow to go on this project.

Hearing that a demo that may be coming in July got me thinking about how far the full release could come after. Looking to get an idea about how much content Xena expected to have in the final game, I asked them if they were aiming to match Jumping Flash’s 2-ish hour length as well?

Xena: I would really love to get, I would say if I can get two hours, two hours and a half, it’s great. Great for the amount of work, I think it’s enough. I myself growing up, I have less and less time to do extensive gaming sessions. So I tend to also prefer shorter experiences because they fit into my life a bit better now. So making something that I will be able to finish as a player is also part of the thing.

I bet that crescent headed guy thought he had made a friend, wrong game for that, apparently

I agreed and commented that it was rough watching people enjoy those 200 hour RPGs when I just simply did not have the time to. 

Xena: Oh yeah, for me nowadays, It’s totally almost a no go. If I try the game, I try it for like 10 hours and I drop off. Like most JRPGs nowadays, they are really too long for me. I am an old RPG lover, you know the PS2 era RPG like, Final Fantasy XII or Dragon Quest VIII are on my top 10 games of all time because I have so many fun, good memories with them. But at the time, I was way younger, and I could spend 80 hours playing them, but nowadays it’s just not possible anymore.

That did wrap up all of the questions I had prepared for Xena and their eclectic collection of cool indie capers, but before I wrapped up the interview I asked if there was anything else that we had not touched on that they would like to talk about, or perhaps even something they think our dear readers should be tuned in to?

Xena: Well, let me think a bit about it. I can give some horror movies recommendations to your audience. It’s not games, but I like to promote a bit of French horror cinema. So if that’s something that’s okay with you, I can do that… There is this movie, that’s really, that’s an odd movie to watch. It’s not overly gory, it’s just thematically, a really pretty strong one. It’s called Martyrs from French filmmaker, Pascal Laugier. That’s a horror movie that had a big impact on me, And I don’t know, I think there was a remake by, I don’t know if it’s English or American filmmaker, but the remake, I cannot recommend it. The original movie is a really strong movie with this kind of late 2000 white-ish, blue-ish aesthetic, you know, like the laboratory from the first Resident Evil movies that are full white and blue. This kind of atmosphere, but a bit grimmer and with a bit more serious tone. So that’s a movie I really like to recommend to everyone who hasn’t seen it. And also, the movies of Julia Ducorneau, she made Raw and Titane. Those are pretty recent French horror movies. Titane was actually an influence for my game, Brasier, which takes place in a fire station. And I think that’s going to be fine with me for the final words… [Raw] is a really great movie, it’s a contemporary interpretation of the cannibalism type themes. And I think it’s a really, really interesting movie. What I like about the Julia Ducorneau movies is that they really try to make you think about stuff during the movies,  and she does it really, really well. I think she deserves way more visibility than she has right now, because her movies are really great.

With a plethora of new information on the deets and development of three upcoming titles, as well as a slew of new films to find time for, I once again thanked Xena for their time, and let them get back to their jam-packed schedule as they work on the triple-stacked task of delivering the untitled monster collecting game, Tower of Tears, and of course, R-Flesh sometime in the not too distant future. 

If you want to stay up to date on the development of these projects, your best bet is to follow Xena on their Twitter page, you can also check out their very cool website, which links to all of their projects and socials. And of course, if you are absolutely fiending for the latest and greatest in ghoulish and gruesome gaming, then head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!