For Montréal-based firm Rogue Factor and creative director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Hell is Us is a significant step forward. After publishing Mordheim: City of the Damned and Necromunda: Underhive Wars, it’s the developer’s first original IP, stepping away from the enormous Warhammer license and producing something the team can call it’s own.
Jacques-Belletête left Eidos Montréal after just over a decade there, where he rose to prominence as the art director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, and had recently completed the art direction design for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s now taking on a deeper role in the development of Hell is Us, helping to shape the concept for this grim new journey.
The new project of Hell is Us, an action/RPG with a genuine struggle laying the stage for a tragedy with paranormal consequences has Jacques-Belletête’s thoughts on it. He talked about the story’s dark underlying themes, the main character’s relationship with the world, and how the team aims to create experiences that players can explore without the game providing all of the answers.
Finding Home Again
The protagonist of Rogue Factor’s Hell is Us, who has yet to be identified, was born in the nameless country at the center of the novel. According to Jacques-Belletête, this mountainous nation has been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 2,000 years. When the United Nations was formed after World War II, it was formally designated as a hermit state. Fast forward to the 1990s, when Hell is Us is set, and the country is ruled by a tyrant with an “iron grip.”
The 1990s were chosen because it was a period of turbulence in a number of countries around the world, including Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Rwanda, where people endured armed conflicts, independence wars, and genocide. “The game’s major concept is that human violence and barbarity is essentially a continual circle fueled mostly by human emotions and passions,” Jacques-Belletête adds. “Like, the source of our most heinous crimes and miseries, right?” Everything is founded on human feelings and passions.”
It’s a topic that the team doesn’t take lightly, according to Jacques-Belletête. While war and its horrific consequences are crucial to the entire story of Hell is Us, it serves as more of a foundation for the game’s main antagonist: otherworldly entities.
Jacques-Belletête brings up examples of other territories and countries that have encountered similar challenges but have gone unnoticed. At the time of Hell is Us’s writing, the topic of debate had temporarily shifted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing unrest and sorrow it is bringing an entire nation and beyond.
“What is happening in Ukraine right now happens on a daily basis in a lot of other places.” That is the truth of the situation. And that’s the tragedy of it all. This utter craziness, horror, and violence. He says, “These are the things we do to each other.” “What we don’t realize is that this is a reality for a large portion of the world’s population.” We’re in such a safe environment here. We don’t know what it means. […] The horror library is extensive.”
You will not be able to choose a side in the game’s ongoing civil war, nor will you be able to solve the issue in Hell is Us. “One thing’s for sure,” Jacques-Belletête argues, “the game is not about preserving the country from civil war.” “You know, there’s no such thing as one person walking into a civil war situation and saying, ‘I’ve saved it.'” ‘I’ve put a stop to it myself.’ It just wouldn’t make sense.”
In Hell is Us, the boy is tossed from place to place as he grows up, passing through the Canadian foster family system as a child but never finding a location or family that seems like home. After joining the military, he discovers the structure he was missing from stable family life. He’s deployed on numerous peacekeeping operations around the world while enlisted, often in search of a path back to the hermit state. He tries many times during his years away from his hometown to find a way back, in vain attempts to meet the parents who abducted him and put an end to his soul’s search for explanations. Questions such as who his parents are, why they abandoned him, and why they smuggled him out of the nation will be answered. The civil conflict creates an opening, a small chink in the country’s impenetrable armor. He views this as his opportunity to track down his parents and ask them all of the questions that have been burning inside him for so long. When the man learns that a large squad of peacekeepers is being dispatched to a neighboring country to aid with the violence, he joins the mission, not to help, but to return to the clandestine place where he was born. “As a result, he’s not among the troops that are permitted to enter,” Jacques-Belletête explains. “However, the man has a plan.” His plan is to go missing on a moonless night and cross the border illegally.”
Finding Adventure In A Forbidden Land
For the first time in decades, the man enters his native nation after changing into more adventurous attire. This is where the story of Hell is Us starts. This protagonist has no notion where to look for his parents or anyone who might have information about their whereabouts. And he has no idea that a supernatural force has taken hold and will be his actual adversary.
Jacques-Belletête wishes to avoid what he refers to as “silver-plating.” He doesn’t want Hell is Us to tell you where to go, who you should talk to, or what you should see. “We’re putting the responsibility of figuring out not just what they need to do, but also how to accomplish it, how to find it back in the hands of the players,” he says.
In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, he compares this loosening of guidance to a sequence of discoveries. It starts with an elderly man telling Link about his long-lost son who used to play his flute in the woods. You can identify the stump where the boy would play for the animals and experience his ghost playing for the gathered nature by retracing sections of the story to spots throughout the world. After obtaining the flute, you can use it to summon a bird, which will whisk Link away to various locations on the map in the game’s creative version of fast travel. Nothing urges you to do it, but chatting to the father, listening to and learning about his son’s tale, and piecing those variables together turns a basic task into a revelatory experience in Hell is Us.
Rogue Factor focuses on a combination of environmental design and useable knowledge obtained from characters or other ways within the game to offer players a sense of exploration and discovery. It’s a way, according to Jacques-Belletête, of reinforcing the value of art and level design, which, in his opinion, have lost their purpose in an age with technologies that direct gamers exactly where they should go. “You start to realize that, as lovely as surroundings can be, level designers and artists’ work has no other purpose than to be pretty,” Jacques-Belletête explains. Even in other games, he finds the characters who give tasks to be empty, but Rogue Factor is attempting to make them worth listening to in Hell is Us.
After seeing how well comparable design principles have worked in games like Elden Ring, he’s optimistic that this approach in Hell is Us will work. “People are returning to the concept of ‘Wait a minute.’ “I don’t need all these false superpowers that RPGs offer if the environment communicates to me properly,” he says.
Surviving The Unknown
Taking on the surreal supernatural horrors present in Hell is Us necessitates the main character’s use of equipment that is, in many respects, not period-appropriate. The monsters that roam the country are mysterious and vital to the plot, yet Jacques-Belletête would only give a brief explanation of the beings he simply refers to as “entities.” They’re “almost artistic” in style, and the way they move is chaotic, according to him. Some are monstrous monstrosities that appear to be composed of ooze, with the substance coating their bodies in a spiral pattern that alternates between red and black. These creatures are tied to another creature that is pale and humanoid in shape, with empty areas where sections of their face and abdomen should be, via what appears to be an umbilical cord.
Modern weapons like cannons and other artillery have no effect on these beings, requiring the player to rely on unique melee weapons like swords and axes, which are clearly antique armaments. These weapons of war emit a ghostly glow of unknown origin, but the creatures are likely to be harmed by it because of its haunting resonance. As a result, the majority of the battle in Hell is Us takes place up close and personal. It will take time to figure out how and why these weapons are successful, but just because most modern armament won’t kill the entities doesn’t imply technology doesn’t have a part in the fight against this paranormal menace.
Despite the fact that Hell is Us is set in the 1990s, Rogue Factor incorporates some cutting-edge technology in the form of a drone that will assist the main character. Jacques-Belletête compares it to technology in games like Metal Gear Solid 3, a game set in the 1960s but whose director, Hideo Kojima, chose to include gadgets and weaponry that were far more advanced than what was available at the time. In the same manner, Jacques-Belletête perceives the drone. While the drones in Hell is Us may appear to be ahead of their time, he stresses that they do not look or act like the quadcopter designs that are prevalent today. When the drone is discovered on an opponent, the players’ initial experience with it raises even more questions about the reality. Only a few of the mysteries surrounding these robots include who these people are and where the technology comes from.
The drone helps to level the playing field against the enigmatic beings. Because the chaotic monstrosity and pale humanoid usually battle in pairs, having a drone friend on your side makes the situation more equitable. “Your drone may perform a lot of different things to distract one half of the entity while you take care of the other,” Jacques-Belletête explains. He also informs me that the drone can be upgraded with new abilities that will aid in combat.
At one point, players commandeer an armored personnel carrier to get around the hermit state. This APC acts as a center, a house, and sometimes mobile camping, allowing the player character to go to different areas. Because Hell is Us lacks a standard open world, many of the locations you’ll be able to visit must be researched beforehand. Before visiting a new place, a seed of knowledge must be planted, whether it’s information acquired from a map or gathered through dialogue with people. It’s all about the player’s interactions with the environment and their decisions to go in different ways.
The places will differ in size, with some being more cramped and others being vast open spaces. There are motivations for the character to explore a new location because you’ve learned just as much from people, places, or objects as they have. Whether it’s a specific person to meet, landmarks to seek out, or side stories to learn about, every new part of the country you visit is designed to have led you there in some way and, in turn, point you in the direction of more faces and locations to continue the journey in any direction you choose.