Hell is Us is a huge step forward for Montreal-based studio Rogue Factor and creative director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête. It’s the developer’s first original IP after the release of Mordheim: City of the Damned and Necromunda: Underhive Wars, which came out of the massive Warhammer license, creating something the team could call their own. Jacques-Belletête left Eidos Montréal after spending less than 12 years with the company, achieving success as Artistic Director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided and had just completed designing art direction for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy before leaving. Now stepping into a larger role developing Hell is Us, he’s shaping the vision for this new dark adventure.
I recently spoke with Jacques-Belletête about the new project, an action/RPG with a realistic struggle that sets the stage for a catastrophe with supernatural repercussions. We discussed the dark core themes of the narrative, the main character and his relationship to the world, and how the team wants to create experiences that players can explore without the game giving you all the answers.
Find home again
Find home again
The main character in Hell is Us, whom the Rogue Factor has not yet officially named, born in an unnamed country at the center of the story. Surrounded by mountains, says Jack Billet, this nation has been largely isolated from the rest of the world for nearly 2,000 years. It was officially designated a hermit country when the United Nations was created in the aftermath of World War II. Fast forward to the ’90s when Hell is Us, and the country is ruled by the “iron fist” of a dictator.
The 1990s were chosen because it was a period of turmoil in many countries around the world such as Kosovo, Bosnia and Rwanda, whose people faced armed conflicts, wars for independence and genocide. “The main theme of the game is that human violence and barbarism is essentially a perpetual cycle fueled in large part by human emotions and human emotions,” says Jack Billet. “Like, the cause of our worst atrocities and our worst tragedies, right? It all depends on human emotions and human emotions.”
According to Jack Billet, it’s a topic the team doesn’t take lightly. But while the war and its horrific outcome are central to the overall fabric of Hell is Us, they are also central to the battle against supernatural beings, who emerge as the game’s main aggressor.
Jacques Pelletier brings up stories of other regions and countries that have experienced similar hardships that go unreported. The topic of discussion briefly changed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conflict and pain it was causing to an entire nation and beyond at the time of writing.
“What is happening in Ukraine now happens every day, in many other places. That is the truth of the matter. And that is the sad thing about it. This sheer madness and the horror, this violence. These are the things we do with each other.” What we don’t realize is that This is a reality for many people on Earth. We are here at Maui. We have no idea what that means. […] Long Horror Library.
The main character in the game’s ongoing civil war will not take sides, nor will the crisis be resolved. “One thing is for sure,” says Jack Billett, “the game is not about saving the country from civil war.” “There is no such thing as, you know, a man is going through a civil war, and that the end is, ‘I saved her. I stopped it myself. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
A boy grows up as he moves from place to place, navigating the Canadian foster family system as a child, but never settling in a place or family that feels like home. He found the Hulk he lost from a stable family life after joining the army. While enlisted, he was sent on various peacekeeping missions around the world, often looking for a way to return to hermit status.
In his years away from his homeland, he has tried many times to find a way back, futile attempts to meet the parents who abandoned him and calm his burning soul for answers. Answers to questions like who his parents are, why they left him, and why they smuggled him out of the country. Civil war presents an opportunity, a small crack in the country’s impenetrable shell. He sees his chance to find his parents and ask all the questions that have been burning inside him for so long.
Upon learning of sending a huge group of peacekeepers to a neighboring country due to conflict, the man was able to join the mission, not to help, but to return to the secret land in which he was born. “So it’s not part of the units that are allowed in,” says Jack Billett. “However, the man is planning this. His plan is to go without permission on a moonless night and sneak across the border.”
Find adventure in a forbidden land
Find adventure in a forbidden land
Dressed in more adventurous clothing, the man steps foot inside his homeland for the first time in decades. This is where Hell is Us begins. This hero has no idea where to look for his parents or anyone who might know their identity. Little does one know that the supernatural being has taken root and will become the real enemy.
Jacques Billet wants to leave behind what he calls his “silver platter”. He doesn’t want us to explicitly show Hell is Us where we’re going, who we’re talking to, or what we’re seeing. “We’re giving players the responsibility to discover not only what they need to do, but how to do it, and how to find it,” he says.
This directive relief is compared to a series of discoveries in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The story begins with an old man telling Link about his missing son who was playing the flute in the woods. Retrieve parts of the story to locations in the world, find the trunk where the boy plays for the animals and see his soul play for the collected wildlife. Later, after you get the flute, you can play it to summon a bird, and teleport the link away to different points on the map as a smart version of the fast travel game. Nothing specifically tells you to do that but talk to the guy, listen to and learn his son’s story, and putting these factors together makes connecting a few simple points into an inspiring moment.
To give players a sense of exploration and discovery, Rogue Factor relies on a balance of environmental design paired with usable information gathered from characters or other mediums within the world. Jack Billet sees it as a way to uphold the importance of art and level design again, which in his view lacks purpose in an age of mechanics that direct players exactly where to go.
“You begin to realize that the work of level designers and artists, however beautiful the environments can be, serve no other purpose than being beautiful,” says Jacques-Belletête.
Even the characters that provide missions in other games often feel hollow, but Rogue Factor works to make it worth listening to in Hell is Us.
He hopes this route will be a success now that similar design philosophies have become common in games like Elden Ring. “People come back to the idea of, ‘Wait a minute.'” If the world speaks to me right, I don’t need all these artificial superpowers that RPGs have.
Surviving the unknown
Surviving the unknown
Confronting the surreal magic horrors found within Hell is Us requires the main character to use weapons that are, in many ways, not contemporary to the time period. The monsters that roam the land are mysterious and important to the story, although Jack Billett reveals little about them other than a brief description of the beings he simply calls “entities”. He stylistically describes them as being “almost painterly” and chaotic in the way they move. Some are huge monsters that look as if they were made of sediment, with the substance covering their bodies alternating between red and black in a spiral pattern. These entities roam the land bound by what looks like an umbilical cord attached to another pale, humanoid creature with empty spaces where parts of its face and stomach should have been.
Modern weapons such as guns or other artillery do not affect these objects, forcing the player to rely on special melee weapons, and certainly ancient weapons, such as swords and axes, to cause any kind of damage. These objects of war exude a ghostly glow of unknown origin, but their agonizing resonance is likely to cause damage to entities. This means that most of the battles in Hell is Us are up close and personal. How and why these weapons are effective will be revealed in time, but just because most modern weapons won’t kill entities, that doesn’t mean that some form of technology has no place in combating this supernatural threat.
Although Hell is Us takes place in the ’90s, Rogue Factor injects some very advanced technology with the inclusion of a drone that would aid the main character. Jacques-Belletête compares this to the technology in games like Metal Gear Solid 3, a game that was set firmly in the 1960s, yet whose director Hideo Kojima chose to incorporate many more advanced gadgets and weapons than was possible at the time. Jack Biltett sees the drone the same way. While it may sound early, it makes clear that the drones in Hell is Us don’t look or act like the quadcopter design popular today. Players’ first encounter with the drone is when it is found on an enemy, which opens up more questions about the world. Who these people are and where the technology originates are just a few of the mysteries surrounding these machines.
The drone helps to beat the odds against mysterious entities. Since enemies usually fight in pairs with chaotic mayhem and the pale spur to work together as a team, having a friend with a drone by your side makes the situation more of a fair fight. “Your drone can do all kinds of things to distract one half of the entity while you care about the other,” says Jack Billett. He also told me that the drone is upgradable with new moves that will help even more in battle.
To travel around the hermit state, players at one point drive an armored personnel carrier. The APC acts as a hub, home and often a mobile camping site that can deliver the player character to different areas. Hell is Us does not have a traditional open world, and many of the places you will be able to travel to must be familiarized in advance. Whether this information is gleaned from a map or gathered through conversation with locals, a seed of knowledge must be planted before exploring a new area. It’s all about player interactions with the world and options to explore more in specific directions.
The areas will vary, with some going to be more compact, while others are more widely open lands. There are reasons why the character is exploring a new area because you’ve learned a lot from people, places, or items. Whether it’s a specific person you meet, landmarks to look for or side stories to discover, each new part of the country you’re traveling to is designed to lead you there in some way, and in turn, direct you toward more faces and locations to continue the journey the way you want it to.
Hell is Us is still a long way from release, and Jacques-Belletête isn’t ready to estimate when it’ll be ready to play; He says it may take several years before the game is in our hands. After speaking with him though, I’m willing to wait to see how this ambitious title unites, when I can finally explore the many dark mysteries of such a horrific and unforgiving land.
This article originally appeared in Game Informer Issue 345.