Talking Gunbrella inspirations and the importance of gameplay momentum with developer Doinksoft

Posted on July 25, 2023

Gunbrella is one of the next big games under the pipeline for indie publishing company Devolver Digital. It’s anticipated for good reason: it’s being developed by a proven studio in Gato Roboto and Demon Throttle creators Doinksoft, and it has one ultimate hook. You are a man on a quest for revenge. You have a gun and umbrella hybrid weapon and you must use this tool to traverse the land and take out all who stand in your way.

After recently playing a substantial preview build of the game and having it shoot high up in my anticipated titles for 2023, I got to take the time to pick Doinksoft’s brain, chatting with co-founder Cullen Dwyer all about the exciting upcoming title.

Gato Roboto was heavily inspired by Metroid. Demon Throttle took notes from NES games like King’s Knight. When playing through Gunbrella its inspirations aren’t immediately as apparent. The interconnected and ever-moving level design leads you to believe it’s again in that retro vein, but that isn’t 100% true. Some inspiration is even stemming from titles very much in the zeitgeist today.

“After we got the player’s core move set feeling solid and were trying to figure out what shape the game as a whole would take, we played around with some survival horror and immersive sim ideas,” says Dwyer. “Those didn’t really stick because it’s hard to balance the driving forward action and power fantasy of the Gunbrella itself with the powerlessness of something like a survival game.” 

So the direction of the design instead went to pure action. “Some games tossed around as examples of certain concepts during development were: Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, Batman (NES), Kirby’s Adventure, Deus Ex… Kinda all over the place.” On the surface, that might read like a confusing boiling pot of ideas and Cullen is transparent about that. “The degree to which any of those influenced the design can be felt, but not seen, I guess? The game really took a life of its own over the last few years.”

However, peel back the curtain and you will see some of that inspiration there. Though I would certainly not go as far as calling it an immersive sim, every part of Gunbrella’s world feels deliberate and full of purpose, much like Deus Ex. There too is the worldbuilding of environmental politics that is reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII. Many residents, drifters, and bartenders you’ll meet give their own perspectives and even conflicting theories about the energy crisis they’re currently facing. Cullen lists this as some of the story stuff he is most excited for audiences to discover and come to their own conclusions about.

Gunbrella is a game drenched in vibes that are noir meets steampunk. It’s forever raining and your bloody beginnings follow you throughout the game, coming across many foes such as giant rats, cultists, flesh amalgamations and the like, intent on stopping you in your tracks. It’s a big part of what has me so eager for the game thus far but those beginnings didn’t start like that, with Cullen Dwyer citing Gunbrella was originally going to be ‘more cute,’ likely where the Kirby comparisons popped up. Though as we know it today, the game is a complex, gritty, and awe-inspiring world.

“The first bit of art was the player character, then [creative director] Britt thought, ‘Well it’s an umbrella, so I suppose it should be raining a lot,’ then when getting to environment art, the word steampunk was thrown around a few times… I think Britt was watching Peaky Blinders at the time, so a bit of that seeped in.”

“The ‘noir’ part came in once we got the first version of the lighting in, I think, which then set the tone for a mystery revenge thriller,” continues Dwyer. They cite their worldbuilding process as ‘organic,’ before finishing that thought. “We always like to come up with our own worlds and not rely too much on genre conventions, which I think is the spice to building a compelling world.” 

The good news is this worldbuilding is also very apparent in the sidequests I’ve experienced thus far, managing to be yet another of the game’s strengths. “We tried to use side-quests and minor characters to help build on some of the themes and storylines of the world, especially beats that aren’t thoroughly explored in the main quest.”

Gunbrella as not only a title for a weird, experimental indie action game but also as a premise is genius and has been eating away at me. You hear a video game name like that and immediately you have at least a bit of an idea what you’re info. Asking Cullen about this, he says “Gunbrella–both the word and the concept–were born at the same moment, I think. A while back, Britt and I were thinking of fun platformer concepts, and the umbrella from Kirby’s Adventure had a cool moveset to it, and one of us thought what if it was a gun? A Gunbrella!” This of course means that the game quickly no longer was the cute, quirky platformer we once knew, but was a momentum-focused action game.

Recent heavy hitters such as Neon White share a similar momentum-focused shooter design idea and have stolen my heart and my adoration. Selfishly, I see that potential in Gunbrella and, somewhat putting Dwyer to the test, I probed him on the importance of momentum in a game like this. “Moment-to-moment control is one of the most important things to us, at least as far as action games go. It was the first thing we designed, and throughout development, we have constantly refined it and added new ways to interact with the world via the Gunbrella.”

The Metroidvania style of progression was a design choice considered but at the end of the day not on the cards. “From the get-go, you can already glide like three screen lengths and double jump and whatnot. We didn’t want to take that away from the player or make them have to build up to it. Instead, we leaned into the fact that most of your core moveset is available from the beginning. Because the movement is a little bit unconventional, we trust that the player will improve as they become more familiar with it.” 

Cullen ends this thought with the following: “Difficulty is really weird to get right in this one. Half of all new players tell us it is really hard, and half say that it’s a bit too easy–regardless of their familiarity with the action genre.” As a gameplay-over-story lover, the sicko in me is very excited to hear these words and the promises of a game that will be a vastly different experience for all. That’s already evident in the easy-to-pick-up but hard-to-master style of movement found in the game so far.

“We always like to come up with our own worlds and not rely too much on genre conventions.”

Though Devolver Digital has published all of Doinksoft’s games thus far, the two have finally made their next step in their relationship with the publishing company buying the studio earlier this year.

“We’ve been working with Devolver since we formed our company, and were basically planning to ask them to publish everything we did anyway, so in a lot of ways, it’s straight sailing. We operate about the same as we did, but with more resources and we don’t have to spend as much time doing business-management stuff and can focus instead on what we like doing–making games. The team at Devolver in charge of saying yes or no generally says yes to us.”

A cat on a Metroid-like adventure, a vampiress and a cowboy pairing up on the hunt for a demon and now… Gunbrella. Doinksoft has a bounty of opportunities ahead of them. What will be on the cards next for the team? They’re not exactly getting back into the thick of things right away. “We’ve brainstormed! Working on a game for several years means that you can get a bit burnt out. One thing that makes me feel refreshed is to write some ideas or designs in a notebook. I have lots of notebooks full. The world is Doinksoft’s oyster, and the Doinksoft oyster is the entire world. But I think we’ll take a nap before we get to shucking. Why did I say it that way? Thank you.”

Gunbrella doesn’t yet have a release date outside of being due sometime in 2023. Whenever it does, a riotous blast of a time looks to be in store.