Isolation, Death and the Grotesque: An Interview with Drinkbox Studios

Severed, Drinkbox Studios’ latest game on the PlayStation Vita, is a marvel in terms of its dark storytelling and ambience. This week, we were lucky enough to sit down with its Concept Lead, Augusto Quijano, to talk about these facets, along with the game’s visual style, music and emotional output.

Be warned that mild spoilers for Severed will follow.

Scott Russell: To start off, was Severed conceived as a counterpoint to the lighter nature of Guacamelee? If not, where did the idea for this game come from?

Augusto Quijano: I think it was a combination of wanting to tell a deeper story with interesting themes and the fact that we have been doing platformers for so long. A touchscreen combat game sounded like an intriguing challenge. I was thinking about separation a lot (I live in Canada but my family lives in Mexico) so that feeling was definitely something worthy of exploration.

SR: The game’s soundtrack, as well as Sasha’s silence are prevalent throughout. Why provide so much focus on sound, or the absence of it, within the game?

AQ: The journey Sasha goes through is as much internal as it is externally fighting monsters. We wanted Sasha to feel she had no allies, that she was on her own in this vast dangerous world and the audio and soundtrack are pivotal to creating this immersive atmosphere – they just take you right there immediately.

SR: I had found an interesting reading when playing the game. It seems as though death is not the focus, but that it is the dead; the physical corpse and it’s decomposition which has been explored. Do you consider this process somewhat more harrowing than the transition from death to life?

AQ: Yeah, there was something incredibly powerful in the image of young girl carrying the bodies of her loved ones. And you’re right the focus is not on death itself, but for me it’s all about Sasha’s process. It’s about healing more than anything.

SR: Similarly, was your intention to produce a sense of unease for the player? The creatures you’re fighting, as well as the way you upgrade using body parts, are quite unsettling.

AQ: Yes, this was definitely something we pushed. I felt that the touchscreen control was great to create a more visceral experience, akin to having a gross closeup of worms in the biology textbook and not wanting to touch the page. The idea was not to be gory or distasteful, but to get you into Sasha’s world.


SR: Is this world representative of any personal experiences from particular members of the development team?

AQ: The core feeling I think was that idea of separation I mentioned earlier. And then taking that feeling and pushing it as far as we could and finding out Sasha’s story.

I think we’ve all felt like that at some point, the feeling of loss is universal.

SR: Why create a juxtaposition between bright visuals and grotesque imagery?

AQ: I think it creates a super interesting look and feel for the game. It works well because the stylization of the grotesque allows us and the players to dive into places where you don’t usually go.

SR: What led to the decision of Sasha losing her arm right at the beginning of the game? Is it purely for mechanical purposes later on? Why use dismemberment as a motif?

AQ: It was a super early decision to have her missing an arm. I think just looking at her from the beginning you see someone as incomplete, a broken person. There’s definitely a “missing” motif.

It was for narrative purposes and became a mechanic afterwards.


SR: We don’t see many corridor exploration games anymore. What led you to go with this gameplay style?

AQ: It started with the touchscreen combat being a first-person point of view and narrowing navigation to cardinal points. After that the “dungeon-crawler” format emerged as we wanted exploration and combat to be woven together.

SR: Both Severed and Guacamelee have great endings that delivered a mixed emotional response. Do you believe that these kinds of endings are more memorable, and have a greater impact on the players?

AQ: I think so. Endings in any story need to be strong, so we put a lot of effort into making sure we express these feelings through the characters. For me personally, my favorite games are the ones that make you feel something that transcends the game mechanics alone.

SR: Severed has a bit of Hispanic flair to it (as does Guacamelee). Why has DrinkBox has chosen to represent Mexican and South American cultures so prevalently?

AQ: I grew up and Mexico and for Guacamelee I was feeling that the media was portraying Mexico in a very narrow way. For Severed we weren’t looking specifically at Mexico, we looked everywhere, from Japan to Greece to Indonesia. But it’s true a lot of Mexico is going to end up on the screen since we’ve been looking at that stuff for years.

I think Mexico and South America in general are under-represented as characters in videogames.

SR: Is there hope for Sasha after this experience?

AQ: I think so. I think she’s been through a lot and something has changed in her.

We reviewed Severed back in April, giving it a 9.5. You can check it out here.

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