Liberated

Announced during last year's Indie World Showcase in December, Liberated is an upcoming noir graphic novel game coming from to Switch this year. Developed by indie team Atomic Wolf and L.INC, it blends the darkness of a branching dystopian comic book narrative across chapters with side-scrolling action-aventure gameplay. The result is a playable graphic novel with hand-drawn art that has you getting involved with the stealthy gunplay as well as dialogue choices.

To find out more about this intriguing media meld, we spoke to Marek Czerniak and Konrad Wałkuski, Creative Director and Producer respectively at Atomic Wolf, about striking the trial and error of finding the right balance when mixing mediums, the hope of attracting comic book readers as well as core gamers, and the real-world and genre influences the team looked to while developing Liberated.


Nintendo Life: Liberated blends the form of the comic book or graphic novel with the interactivity of a video game. Tell us a little about the game and its conception.

Atomic Wolf: So… how did it all get started? Well, we — as in the Liberated crew — are basically huge fans of both, we grew up on video games and comics and they’re still a huge part of our lives. So the simple answer is that it was kind of… the obvious thing to do. [smiles]

A really big [challenge] was just getting a good ratio [...] Shoot off too far in either direction and you end up with either a visual novel or an action game that just has comic book cutscenes.

Indie gamedev is more accessible than ever, digital comics are getting more and more popular, so we just figured: why the hell hasn’t anybody done this yet? We could be doing so much more with digital comics!

So we went out and decided to make the world’s first truly playable graphic novel. Our dream experience — something that feels and reads like a comic book, with all the charm that goes with that, but also pulls you right into the story, and action, and challenges to overcome.

We were kicking around different ideas and approaches for a pretty long time actually. Just trying out different art styles and gameplay elements, even starting from scratch several times over (what you’re seeing now is actually the third reboot), until we finally hit the sweet spot — this fun and engaging and beautiful balance between a comic book and video game.

To be perfectly honest, there are moments where we feel it’s actually kind of incredible how well the two mediums can end up working alongside one another.

Liberated Screenshot 1

We’ve seen attempts in the past to mix games with other art forms (film, music, etc) with varied results – some incredible, others not-so-much. What challenges have you encountered merging these two very different mediums?

Oh man, there was plenty of challenge. Like I mentioned, it took MANY attempts to get to where we feel like we’re in a good place.

A really big one was just getting a good ratio between the comic book and video game elements. Shoot off too far in either direction and you end up with either a visual novel or an action game that just has comic book cutscenes. So even getting to that point where we feel we have the right balance, that took a while.

Something you’d think is simple like speech bubbles: you have to consider positioning, fonts, reading speed, variety, and don’t even get me started on localisation.

This was also important since we’re hoping to not just reach gamers, but also comic book fans that maybe aren’t core gamers. One of the ways we’re making that work is by introducing two gameplay styles — something challenging for the gamers, and a more casual story mode for the readers.

Then there’s that general comic book flavor and style that we want to preserve whether you’re reading the story or playing out the action. That means little details like visually showing off sound effects (guns that literally go “BANG!”), but also finding an art style that transitions seamlessly between 2D and 3D. Think Into the Spider-Verse, which has done an Oscar-worthy job of that sort of thing.

And I mean, creating a comic in general is tough as hell. We have amazingly talented artists on the team, but we’re an indie studio not comic industry veterans, so we had to figure out a lot of the basic stuff well. Something you’d think is simple like speech bubbles: you have to consider positioning, fonts, reading speed, variety, and don’t even get me started on localisation.

Audio is also a big one, we iterated on this a ton. We’re not doing voice-overs, so music and sound effects are so important in setting the right tone and feel and pacing when you’re reading the comic.

You know in the end, we could just continue iterating and changing things forever because there’s always improvements to be made or crazy new ideas to try out. But I think we got to a good place that we’re really happy with, our playtesters generally agree, now we just have to see how everyone else feels and go from there.

Liberated Screenshot 7

The mixture as seen in the trailer (bottom of the page) immediately brings to mind the Mega Drive / Genesis game Comix Zone. What inspirations - across any medium - did you look to when developing the game?

This is a really big question because in terms of age, our team basically spans two generations. Everyone brings a part of themselves and their own inspirations to the table.

But let’s just start with the obvious: video games. Comix Zone, XIII, Max Payne, and a bunch of others already dabbled in mixing comic books and gaming so of course those are going to be an influential part of our DNA. We’ve seen individual bits and pieces of comic book influence in those video games, but I don’t think anyone’s gone as far as we’re doing it with Liberated. We also really look up to Inside and Shadow Complex as action-adventure excellence, so I definitely hope that comes through in a good way.

We’re hugely inspired by cyberpunk because, well, it’s basically all around us [...] the puzzle pieces are already here, and they all come together in the world of Liberated.

Also: comic books, comic books, comic books. We’ve had to study the hell out of the format. In particular V for Vendetta and anything by Frank Miller, especially Sin City’s work with contrast, all have been hugely influential. Our art is generally inspired by noir, but I hope that we found our very own identity too.

And then — and I think this is just as important as the way the game looks and plays — there is the world and the themes that we’re shooting for. And honestly, for a good list of inspirations you just turn on the news.

We’re hugely inspired by cyberpunk because, well, it’s basically all around us. Mass misinformation, deep fakes, remote drone warfare, world politics playing out online, Cambridge Analytica and subtle global surveillance, extreme class inequality, China’s social score system — the puzzle pieces are already here, and they all come together in the world of Liberated.

So, humanity has kind of caught up with the cyberpunk fantasy, but it’s still something that influenced us as when we were young and feels so nostalgic. Asking around the office, some of us used to play pen & paper Cyberpunk 2020, read Gibson and Ghost in the Shell, we read about androids and their electric dreams. Speaking as a Poland-based studio, Jacek Dukaj and his novels are an absolute treasure — I believe The Old Axolotl is available in English, and Netflix is actually doing a show! The younger folks on our team are all about Black Mirror and Blade Runner, and we even sat them down to watch The Matrix for the first time ever (too bad they never made any sequels [smiles]).

Liberated is being built in Unity, although using a specific tool created by L.INC. Can you tell us about the tool and how it helped development?

Working on Liberated sort of naturally had us developing our own toolset, so we’re now building a whole Playable Graphic Novel framework around it. PGN we call it. The reason why is that we just want to keep going after Liberated. Continue exploring this direction of bringing comics over to a new medium — not just video games with bits and pieces of comic book flavor, but simulating the whole comic book experience that’s then enriched with sound, motion, choices, and honest-to-god enjoyable gameplay.

Liberated Screenshot 4

The game is coming to PC and Switch first. The tablet-like form of Nintendo’s console presumably makes it ideal for a game that’s part-comic book. Were there any other reasons for making the game a Switch timed-exclusive?

I won’t sugarcoat it: thematically, Liberated will not be escapism. It’s noir, it’s inspired by the world around us, and it’s filled with shades of gray.

I mean the Switch form is just perfect for a comic book-like experience that you can pick up during commute or cozy up with at home. And what’s more important, anytime we’d show off the game, people would immediately ask “Is it coming to the Switch? That’s how I want to play this!”

So of course we had to listen, and switching (pun super intended) focus over to Nintendo’s platform proved to be pretty helpful as an indie studio with limited resources. Nintendo is a great partner, Liberated was featured in the recent Indie World showcase which came with a lot of new publicity (hello Nintendo Life!). We’re just very excited in general about that partnership and Nintendo’s support.

What’s been the biggest challenge of developing for Switch? We imagine that controls, UI and text scaling must cause headaches in addition to any general constraints.

It feels like legible font sizes and text scaling seem to be a problem with a lot of games these days. Being a comic book and all, Liberated has a lot to do with text so we’re looking at that very closely. Switch is especially tricky when you consider handheld and TV mode, so we’ve developed a solution that lets us dynamically adjust the view and text sizes to fit either mode. Smooth performance and optimising for the Switch is definitely something that we’re working very hard on right now as well [...] We’re making sure that the comic looks good and legible regardless of which mode you’re on.

Liberated ISSUE 4

There’s certainly no shortage of near-future dystopias to enjoy in games (or books or films, for that matter). With current events polarising many people and news reportage thriving on doom and gloom, how do you combat player fatigue and set Liberated apart from other games with similar settings?

I won’t sugarcoat it: thematically, Liberated will not be escapism. It’s noir, it’s inspired by the world around us, and it’s filled with shades of gray.

But we don’t intend to be preachy with an outright agenda to tell you who is right or wrong, or who’s good and who’s the bad guys. We take a step back from that, and observe a diverse cast of characters in the world of Liberated. I don’t want to get too deep into the plot, but you’ll encounter themes of hope and hopelessness, a clash of values and perspectives, and fundamentally good people pit against each other by a broken system.

Liberated is coming this year – any idea on a more precise release date?

We’re not ready to commit beyond Q2 of 2020 just yet. Sorry! Soon™️. A rushed game is forever bad and all that.

Finally, are there any Switch games the team has been enjoying during their downtime?

Short answer: yes!

Long answer, going around the room: I’ve recently finished Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope over the holidays which was an absolute masterpiece, and now hopping back and forth between Astral Chain and Fire Emblem: Three Houses depending on the mood. I’m hearing Luigi’s Mansion from our game director, also Baba is You, Grim Fandango, and Night in the Woods from others. So, seems that our tastes are pretty varied!


Our thanks to Marek and Konrad for their time. Liberated should be with us sometime in Q2 this year, so keep your eyes peels for more information and let us know below if you're liking what you've seen so far.