Interview: The Bathrooms Takes AI Design Inspiration From Alien: Isolation

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The Bathrooms - via Hidden Palace

If you are seeking a liminal space and atmospheric horror video game, The Bathrooms is the best choice to go for. Set in a dark atmospheric school, you will be exploring all the liminal spaces with a Custodian chasing your character around different rooms. 

The game utilizes copium mechanics allowing your character to survive throughout the challenge. Plus, you may also encounter different treasures and weapons to progress the campaign. If that does not suit your playstyle, you can opt for a run-and-hide strategy, but no matter what you pursue, it is going to be challenging survival. To discover more details about the development process, we interviewed Jordan, the solo developer behind The Bathrooms, over an email. 

The challenge of the Bathrooms
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

Introduce yourself and tell us about your work on The Bathrooms.

Jordan: My name is Jordan and I am the owner of Hidden Palace. I am also the sole developer of The Bathrooms.

I am a professional programmer by trade in the games/tech industry, but for indie game development, I do everything from programming to level design, 3D modeling, environment art, and game design. I developed this project on a part-time schedule for a period of about 16 months.

While the overall theme and design choice look unique and perfect, how does the foggy, deserted school setting contribute to the overall atmosphere of the game?

Jordan: The Bathrooms was partially inspired by the YouTube video “The Infinite Toilet Dimension”, which covers a common dream setting where people are stuck in endless bathrooms, which I have experienced a few times. Much of the time, people’s dreams start in a school environment, which prompted me to use this setting.

I also wanted to set up a little bit of lore around The Bathrooms. The player needs a way of accidentally “ending up” in The Bathrooms, which is done by entering them into the school.

The empty school surrounded by fog was inspired by Silent Hill games, which aligns well with the dreamlike nature of the rest of the game. There are mysterious notes and clues around the school area that the player can explore if they so choose.

The Bathrooms - via Hidden Palace
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

What are the key gameplay elements that players need to master to escape the nightmare?

Jordan: There are a few mechanics players should learn to escape The Bathrooms. The orb is the most important, as its color and abilities guide you to victory. Copium is also critical since it gives you a speed boost, giving you a better chance of outrunning The Custodian. And if you manage to find the clown gun, you can use it to temporarily stop The Custodian, granted your aim is good.

You will want to practice going into stalls and closing/locking the door quickly–this will save you on many occasions.

If you manage to find your lost dog Shibosu, you need to carry him back to the exit. If you are holding him, however, you cannot use any of your items and you have to put him down. This makes the game a little harder during this time, so extra caution must be taken if you are to rescue him.

One last thing to note: remember to use your flashlight if the power goes out, and look for a primer to reboot the power system.

The magical seeing stone sounds intriguing. Can you explain how it functions and the different ways it can be used?

Jordan: The orb is the key to winning the game. It will turn red when you are near a key needed for the exit. When it turns green, you should hide (in a stall if possible; remember to lock the door), as this means The Custodian is nearby. You can also ponder it to see what The Custodian is seeing at that moment.

Perhaps the most useful ability is Orb Reveal. It shows a hand that points you to the nearest key so you can follow it to get closer. It also allows you to see the exit illuminated as a bright yellow sphere through the walls, and you can also see your lost dog, Shibosu, highlighted as a pink outline through the walls.

Since The bathroom is such a vast realm, this is very helpful to your escape. This ability has a cooldown so use it wisely.

The Bathrooms - via Hidden Palace
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

The game promises an 'unpredictable and intelligent AI.' Can you shed more light on how accurate and challenging it can get for progression?

Jordan: The AI (The Custodian) is a free-roaming being. He can go anywhere he wants, aside from a stall you are safely hiding in. Most of the time he is walking or running around the vast dreamscape in search of intruders. If he finds you, he will hunt you down until he either captures you or you manage to get far away enough or hide.

As the game goes on, he starts to learn about locations he has seen you in. He may go back to check for you from time to time. He may also decide to jump out at you from an occupied stall, but this is a rare occurrence. Once you learn to recognize the signs that he is close, you have a better chance of survival.

Developing intelligent AI as a solo developer can be complex. Can you share some insights into how you achieved this?

Jordan: The design of this AI was inspired by Alien: Isolation. In that game, the alien has a “macro” and “micro” AI. The macro AI (i.e., the “director”) knows everything and can sometimes guide the alien in the right direction towards the player.

The micro AI is the primary system, which is only what the alien senses with its auditory and visual perception. The Custodian in The Bathrooms follows a similar system. Most of the Custodian’s actions are driven by what he sees and hears. He has goals of searching the entire area as well.

Thanks to Unreal Engine’s AI systems, I was able to get all of this working with minimal hassle. The navigation system and behavior trees were very useful for implementing this. However, I had to write a great deal of custom code.

world of The Bathrooms
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

Expanding on my previous questions, what was the thought process behind making a game with a procedurally generated world?

Jordan: I wanted each player’s experience to have a different layout, adding to the labyrinthian nature of the bathroom realm. It also makes it impossible to memorize the game world. I use an algorithm to stitch together pieces of the world to generate a consistent but unique layout for each play session.

How did you come up with the character of The Custodian, and what makes him unique as an antagonist?

Jordan: I went through a few monster ideas and eventually settled on the clown/jester design for The Custodian. I liked him because he is out of place; a clown is not something you would expect in a maze of bathrooms, which adds more to the unsettling terror. I also think proper scary clowns are underrepresented in the horror game space.

The Bathrooms - via Hidden Palace
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

Can you also share details on the collaboration with Avith Ortega and Mount Shrine for the game's music?

Jordan: Avith Ortega was great to work with; he was very responsive, allowing me to use his music in the game. I had been listening to his Silent Hill-inspired tracks for probably a couple of years prior. I went back and listened to every single track he produced to select the ones that would be best in the game. People love the rich atmosphere that Avith’s trip-hop Silent Hill-style tracks add to the game.

As for Mount Shrine (Cesar Alexandre), he unfortunately passed away in 2021, so I was unable to contact him directly. I communicated with the record label he released his music through, Cryo Chamber, to make sure I could use his haunting ambient tracks in the game.

As a solo developer, what were some of the biggest hurdles you faced during the development process?

Jordan: This project was initially supposed to be quite small, but I kept having ideas to add and it grew and grew. It got so large I had to cut several major features in order to make it feasible to complete by the summer of 2024.

With all of the responsibilities of programming, design, some 3D modeling and environment design, audio editing, testing, and marketing, it became quite complicated to manage, especially on a part-time basis on top of my day job as a programmer. But by splitting up the work into chunks over time, it became somewhat manageable.

Optimization was a key part of this project, as the game world is quite large, with lots of moving parts. I strongly believe in taking extra time to produce quality software and that games should run well on all capable hardware. This is a challenge for a lot of indie developers, so I spent extra development time with different hardware making sure everything would run smoothly.

The Bathrooms - via Hidden Palace
The Bathrooms – via Hidden Palace

How has the gaming community responded to your game so far?

Jordan: Overall it has been positive. Many streamers and YouTubers are having fun. The game is challenging, so some people may struggle at first, but if they persevere and learn the mechanics they can have a good chance at beating the game and being rewarded.

Many people think the game is weird, which I agree with. I love weird horror games. It is however nowhere near as bizarre as it could have been, I just want to say.

I have even received some very useful feedback on how to improve the game from some players, which I am grateful for, and I have already updated the game to address that feedback.

Anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Jordan: The game will continue to receive updates as I receive more feedback and have time to add features. There are more original projects in development at Hidden Palace, which will be bigger and better.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

The Bathrooms is a Dark Atmospheric video game, developed and published by Hidden Palace. The game was released on May 17, 2024 for PC. You can follow the developer across various social media platforms

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