Recompile is a new game that mixes adventure elements with systemic hacking, modular enemies with explosions akin to those of The Matrix, and more. This is a complex game with a plethora of inspirations, like Zelda games for exploration and metroidvanias for the gated progression, and that’s without including Plato’s solids and their impact on biomes and enemy types. Game Rant talks to Phi Dinh from Phigames about what it meant to develop Recompile.
Being a hacking adventure, Recompile does a great job at making hacking bits more realistic than most other games, as Dinh explains how hacking is usually a side task relegated to quick-time events and mini-games. The game was developed on Unity with the new HDRP, and it comes for both next-gen consoles and PC, fully taking advantage of haptic feedback and other features from the DualSense controller. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Recompile looks beautiful. How long did you spend working on all the details?
A: I started working on the project and prototyping the game in 2014, so it was over six years ago. I always wanted to make a game about being inside the virtual world, inside a computer. As a child, I’ve always been interested in Tron, The Matrix, books, and stuff like that. I experimented with some ideas and prototyped a lot of things. I always wanted to make a metroidvania-style game, but it was the case that I knew I wanted to do progression that was gated, but I didn’t know what kind of game it would be.
So the first prototype I did was a turn-based strategy game inside a computer, but still had the gated progression and mechanics in there, but it didn’t work out too well because I’m bad at making puzzles and strategy design. I realized we were really good at making action games, so we made Recompile. That’s how it started. I think we did the prototype for the version you can see now in 2018, and then we posted it on Twitter. It went viral, with 12,000 views, and knew it was good and people really liked it. Then, I used the prototype to pitch to publishers, and from there I thought “That’s Recompile, that’s what it’s going to be.”
Q: What about the soundtrack? Was it always as is, or did it come after the game was finished?
A: The whole thing is interesting. Our core team in the Phigames business is me, I am the programmer and game designer, and then we have James Marshall, he’s responsible for the visual effects and animation, and then we have one more person, Richard Evans, and he’s the audio director responsible for both the sound effects and the soundtracks. In the beginning, it was just him doing the music. He’s more into a Dark Souls kind of music, more orchestral, epic adventure kind of stuff. For a long time, the soundtrack was just going to be that, but halfway through the project someone called Paul Wolinski, who is from the band 65 Days of Static, contacted me saying that he was using my open-source UI framework to create visuals for 65 Days of Static music videos.
In the trailer, you have the command line terminal computer 1980s art style kind of stuff. That’s my custom UI system, and I open-sourced that, then 65 Days of Static discovered it, and they wanted to make their music videos based on this and emailed me asking for my permission. I said it was fine, then I looked at the music video and it was amazing, it really blew me away. I didn’t realize what you can do with my UI framework. I asked them to join the project to make the user interface for Recompile, and they did.
A year later, Richard was having issues with time, he didn’t have time to do all the music because he was also doing production and level design, so I asked 65 Days of Static – “Paul, can you maybe provide the guest track?”, and then they did, and it was also amazing, and it blew me away. Now they’re involved in the soundtrack and the audio design as well as the user interface, which is really crazy. It’s not every day that you hire a band known for their work on No Man’s Sky to create a user interface for a game, and then have them do the music as an afterthought, but that’s what happened.
Q: What was the actual inspiration for the game? Were there specific games that influenced it more than others?
A: I mentioned the whole wanting to do a game inside the virtual world, so all the movies I liked as a kid. I’m also a computer science graduate. I have an interest and experience in academic AI, so I wanted to make a game about AI and the implications on the future of humanity if AI becomes a real thing. Like, what happens when AIs become sapient, what we do when the technological singularity comes up. I’ve researched the different outcomes in films, books, and TV programs that portray what happens when an AI becomes sentient.
Like when the Terminator AI kills all the humans and we all get exterminated, that’s an obvious one, but also The Culture series from Iain Banks. He describes AI as having a symbiotic relationship with humans and then together they colonize space, and they have a special bond. I wanted to include some of that in the game as well. So I was checking all these stories, different movies, different books that portray how AI expands into the future. In terms of games, I really love metroidvanias, but recently I’ve been enjoying more open-ended ones like Zelda games or Hollow Knight.
I think if you mix open-world exploration with the gated progression from Metroidvanias that’s the best kind of balance in game design. You give players ways to explore without being forced down a specific route, but you also give them gated elements to prevent them from straying too far. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but I really hope that Recompile manages that.
Q: Some players compare Recompile to Journey, others to Tron, and others to Returnal. What do you think of the comparisons?
A: With Tron, the visual style, there are lots of glowing materials, there are a lot of pipes, and it’s very much an electronic thing, and that’s cool. With Journey, that’s interesting because our concept art is inspired by Journey as well. The fact that the player is traveling through this vast world, you get this freedom of exploration, but it’s also calming to play. Some of Recompile is really intense, dangerous, there’s a lot of action, but there are elements where you’re just running from A to B and you’re admiring the scenery.
That’s what resonated with me about Journey, I loved the beauty of it, and I hope you get a little of that in Recompile too. In terms of game design, it’s completely different. There are lots of abilities, and you have to collect different things, there’s shooting and all that stuff that is in a more traditional game. Journey is something that’s really flattering to get a comparison by, but I don’t think there are a lot of games that can compare to that.
Q: Are there other media that inspired Recompile as well?
A: About The Matrix, aside from the fact that you’re in a computer, what inspired us were the visual effects. Like, James is good at making things look really punchy and satisfying, so when you kill it, it explodes in tiny little bits and things got physics on them. When you jump around and land on the ground, you don’t just land, you crash-land and the ground ripples away. There’s a shader that shakes the screen and makes the ground feel like it’s vibrating when you crash-land, when you’re dashing around, when you’re flying.
It feels really satisfying. It feels like you’re getting punched in the face when you turn the jetpack on. With stuff like that, I think The Matrix is very inspiring. I think it’s one of the best visually intense action movies that I’ve ever seen, and I really wanted to replicate that. We didn’t want the enemies to explode and add a little particle effect on there. Every tiny little bit of armor, the eye, they all separate when you destroy something. The explosion looks different every time. It’s not just one animation.
Things bounce off the floor and you can kick them around. Everything feels really physical. I think we spent six months just doing the damage system for the game, making that feel good. Some games really emphasize the balance of the game, the damage formulas, and stuff like that, but we wanted to focus on feeling things. Screen shakes, explosions, that’s what we’re really good at and what we focused on.
Q: What is the story behind how Recompile came to be?
A: It’s a good question. I think the main catalyst for the game coming together as you can see now has been the character design. We posted that on Twitter and it went viral, and the reason why we decided to make the game. We didn’t have a character artist at the time, but we wanted to make a third-person adventure game. We knew it was inside a computer, and we knew it was a metroidvania type of thing, but we didn’t know what the hero was going to look like. At the time, it was just me and James, and we thought, “Ok, the character is supposed to be a virus, it’s supposed to represent a bunch of code, so what could we do just as a placeholder?” James said, “Let’s get a random character and put lots of particles in there instead of the actual design. Everything just glowing, with lots of particles.”
We ended up making this system where the character is made of thousands of cubes that all come together in the animation, so we turned that placeholder into our style and posted it on the internet, and everyone loved it. We thought, “We actually don’t need a character artist, this could be our hero,” and it makes sense because the character is a pure ball of energy that’s made up of code. It doesn’t have to be male or female, it could be just a humanoid shape that exists as code. From that point, we knew what Recompile was.
Q: What is the main character trying to achieve in the game?
A: When you start the game you know that you’re a program and that you’ve been installed into this system called ‘the mainframe,’ and you got these little messages every now and then from someone called Janus. You don’t question what your mission is or what really is your motivation. All you know is you’re there to infiltrate the system. You’re a program, you’re a virus, you’re there to do something to benefit your creator, which is Janus. As you progress through the game you realize why you’re there, what you’re trying to repair, what you’re trying to take down, what you’re trying to dismantle, what you’re trying to hack.
Eventually, you discover that the world is this mysterious facility that the group in the real world is trying to hack. I’m not going to spoil too much by saying why they want to infiltrate the system, but I can say that it’s for the benefit of humanity, it is kind of the humans’ last stand. It’s up to you, as this virus, to complete your objectives and somehow take over the system, and that would be the thing that saves us all. There are two stories. There’s the story inside the computer, which is you, yourself the player, what you’re doing, what you’re hacking, what you’re fighting against, and all the anti-virus systems are trying to stop you from doing what you’re doing. But there’s also the story in the outside world.
The story in the inside world is only one second long because computers are really fast, but in the outside world someone’s got a USB stick and they stick it inside the laptop, and they install the virus. One second later, the virus works, or maybe it doesn’t work. That one second is the entire game that you play. Then, on the outside world, there’s stuff happening, and you find out about that stuff. There’s a war going on, there’s a climate disaster, the world is dying, and you’re trying to save it somehow by hacking the system, but the details are unknown until you play the game.
Q: Are there skills, upgrades, or talents in the game?
A: There are the traditional traversal abilities. You can move around and jump, obviously, but then you might be able to double-jump and dash, fly around. Then, on the combat side of things, you have several weapons, and each weapon is good at certain things and against certain enemies. And you also have something I’m really proud of. You can hack the environment, you can hack enemies, and that naturally lends itself to the theme of the game – you inside a computer, you’re a virus. These are the hacking tools that you have available.
Q: How does flying work?
A: Flight is more of an endgame ability, so I don’t want to spoil too much of it. Once you have achieved all the different jumps and traversal abilities, at some point you’ll get something that gives you complete freedom of movement in all of the biomes in the game. You can basically fly anywhere, like Neo in The Matrix. You’ve got that one thing that gets you anywhere that you like.
Q: How many biomes are in the game, and how do they differ from one another?
A: In Recompile, there is a recurring theme, and that’s the theme of five. There are five different biomes in the game, there are five different endings, there are five different colors, there are five different shapes. Everything runs on the common number of five. This comes from the Platonic solids. These are the shapes that the philosopher Plato theorized that the universe was made of, and they are five things. These are the five different elements. You have Air, Earth, Water, Fire, and the fifth one is Ether, which represents energy.
We took that concept and made the world of Recompile work on these five different things. You may have noticed that the enemies are different shapes as well. These five Platonic solids are tetrahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, hexahedron, and dodecahedron. All of these enemies are based around these different shapes, and with that, you have air, earth, water, fire, and ether as the elements in the game. You have the icosahedron biome, which is a water biome, there are ice elements, a cave, water, and that kind of stuff. Then fire, which is based on the tetrahedron biome, with lots of lava and volcanic stuff. All these biomes represent one type of system in the mainframe.
So, tetrahedron, which is based on fire, is the security system in the mainframe. It controls the antivirus stuff, and that’s the function it performs in the mainframe. In the game, the mainframe has been abandoned for thousands of years, so it turns out that the tetrahedron biome has grown past its programming and has now decided to take over the rest of the system. There’s also a conflict between the different biomes. Octahedron is about mathematical functions and chaos theory, hexahedron is all about programming and authoritarian construction in the system, so stuff like that. Icosahedron has a special function that I won’t spoil, as it’s really important to the story.
Q: I couldn’t help but notice that one of the enemies looks like the Ghost from Destiny 2. Is that intentional?
A: That’s interesting because many people say that the cube enemy, the green one, looks like the companion cube from Portal. I guess that’s the consequence of using Platonic solids. Everything is kind of familiar. The tetrahedron enemy is like a four-sided pyramid. That’s used in a lot of imagery. The icosahedron is very much like a sphere, so it lends itself to whirling around and jumping about. Using the Platonic solids gave us a nice toolset to develop the game and its visual identity.
Q: Which is your favorite enemy type?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I really like the hexahedron, which is the cube, and I think you’ll find out why when you face the boss from that level, that’s basically a Rubik’s Cube that consists of multiple enemies that stack together. I really like the idea of modular stuff. That boss is the same enemy, just made of several enemies that stack together like that. If you look at the trailers when they show the bosses, they are all made up of modular pieces, and each one is the individual enemy itself. That’s a little touch we decided to add.
Q: Are there hidden areas, enemies, and other things in Recompile?
A: The core of the game is the metroidvania stuff and the bits of story that you get from Janus, the character I talked about earlier. There is also a certain type of collectibles. They are these Platonic shapes that are glowing, and once the player collects them it brings up another UI screen. Those are data memories and you collect them, which gives you a kind of backstory about how the mainframe came to be, and they all act in a different order and you have to piece them together. Depending on which memories you collect, from which biomes, so what biomes you play more, what mechanics you use the most, you collect different types of memories.
The number of memories that you collect from each biome all are calculated together at the end, and that gives you a different ending. Basically, how you play the game and what mechanics you use open different areas so that you collect different types of memories, and at the end of the game, these memories are combined together to create your personalized ending. There are several secret areas with different memories that you can collect, so you have to experiment when you play the game again and spend some time figuring out what memories cause what endings.
Q: How does death work in the game?
A: We have two different types of death. You can fall off a platform into the water, lava, the void, or whatever it is. You instantly respawn where you fell, but you lose a tiny bit of HP, like 10 percent or something. Falling off a platform is not the end, you’re still given another chance. We wanted to keep platforming a challenge without punishing the players too much if they fall. If they are fighting against enemies, and the enemies are shooting at you, and your health is depleted to zero, then you die. When you die for real, we have these save points in the game, and they are these little circles. We call them back up saves to keep the theme of being inside a computer.
Standing on those circles saves the game, and when you die you respawn at the save points with full health. I like challenging games, and I think Recompile has lots of challenges there. Combat is difficult, some platforming and puzzles are really difficult, but I don’t really enjoy punishing the player in the same way something like Dark Souls would, where you have to replay the same thing over and over again.
Q: What is your favorite feature?
A: For me it’s hacking. Lots of games do traversal and shooting, but hacking is often like a mini-game or a quick-time event. You go to a door, you press a keypad, and you hack it. When you complete the mini-game, it goes, “Ding! Hacking successful,” and you can bypass the door like that. For me, that’s really silly. If you think about a heist movie, where you’re trying to break in a bank, and there’s a security camera on the ceiling, there are laser tripwires everywhere, you wouldn’t just go the keypad and go, “I want to hack it now!” You need to find where the power source is for the laser tripwires and security camera, so you hack that, turn off the power, and it turns off the security system. Everything has a cause and effect, everything is systemic.
With Recompile I wanted to replicate that systemic design. All mechanical stuff like puzzles, doors, enemies spawning, even objects that give players abilities, will all work in electronic circuits. In the trailer, there are lots of pipes in the game, and they have the function of electrical wires. They’re all powered by these components called logic gates. Just like in electronics, you have an input signal, then the logic gate does something, and you have an output signal. Even something as simple as opening a door, everything is in the level design, so there’s a pipe that goes to a button that goes to the door. When you press that button you see the glowing electrical current traveling from the switch to the door, but if there’s a logic gate in between that inputs a signal and outputs a new one.
Everything is powered by these circuits’ logic gates, and when we give players the ability to manipulate logic gates, they can invert them, change the behavior of the circuits. So, just like hacking, you’re changing the electrical components in these circuits, and you can hack every single thing in the game as long as you can afford it. The enemies’ AI works on the exact same principle. They have targets and they can navigate and attack them, but there’s nothing in the game that says “You have to kill the player,” the player is just a target, like anything else in the game. So you can tell them to target another enemy and they’ll work for you. They fire against each other and you can just run away.
We wanted to make all the systems in the game really systemic and general. Everything is part of the level design, and if you change that level design it changes the behavior, so that’s something I’m really proud of. It makes me think of another inspiration for the game, which are puzzle games by Zachtronics, like Infinifactory and Spacechem. They are all focused on systemic design and how you have to put different pieces together, and that creates a big machine. With Recompile, a lot of that is simplified, but the principle is the same; all of these puzzles are built using modular components and circuits, and then you can one thing and it changes them. You know, the bigger picture.
Q: Is there anything you want to add?
A: About the mainframe, because it’s the virtual world, anything is possible, so nothing has to be realistic. I wanted to touch on the art direction for the game in terms of shaders, lighting, the scale of objects, as there are some that are really big and the player feels really small. There are areas in the game where the shaders, the environment is exploding and shaking, look really glitchy and weird. The lighting is totally not realistic. There are weird lights everywhere. Stuff like this and the Platonic solids wouldn’t really be possible in the real world. In the virtual world, we could go crazy, and we really did. Some playtesters came to us saying, “Oh, the game looks corrupted, the graphics are glitched,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s the whole point, I did it on purpose.”
Also, about Unity. We used Unity to make the game. We’ve been Unity game developers for a long time, but with Recompile, we wanted to experiment with the new HDRP feature in Unity, which stands for High Definition Render Pipeline. That allows us to take advantage of a lot of stuff that’s normally reserved for triple-A games, like in-built volumetric lighting, which renders endless times of real-time lights. The game is dynamic, and we could focus more on adding content and gameplay. All our particle effects have real-time lights and post-processing and blur, all that stuff that really expensive as a triple-A developer to kind of figure out how to do that kind of stuff.
We wanted to experiment with the new HDRP to get the game looking like it does today, but that requires us to tap into more powerful systems, so that’s why we decided to go with the next-gen consoles as well as PC. We really wanted to target the haptic stuff. For PS5, the DualSense controller is really interesting. There’s a lot going on about that, but it was really interesting for us to explore.
Recompile is available now on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.
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