the chant

The Chant Interview: How A Brand New Studio Has Crafted A Unique And Compelling Horror Experience

We speak to Creative Director, Mike Skupa

Huge industry events like Gamescom are an absolute whirlwind of brand-new experiences, especially when it’s your job to play and talk about as many new and upcoming titles as you can fit in the scant few days in those packed halls. And while it’s great to be able to get your hands around things you’ve been anticipating for months or years, what tends to be more exciting is finding those hidden gems – games that have flown under your radar that turn out to be a surprise favourite. Games like The Chant, from brand-new Vancouver studio, Brass Token.

After playing some 30-40 minutes of The Chant at Gamescom last month I was all but sold on its mix of survival horror gameplay, narrative built on ideas of modern spiritualism and 70s horror film aesthetics. It’s the kind of game that’s instantly memorable for the sorts of unique ideas and bespoke design that could only come from a team with the passion and backing to really execute on a vision. To that end I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to chat to The Chant’s Creative Director and Brass Token CEO, Mike Skupa, about what to expect from the game and how it all came together. Have a read below:

[Note: Some portions of the below interview responses have been edited down for clarity and readability]

First of all, I mean I was lucky enough to play a little for myself already at Gamescom so I know what’s up, but I’d love to hear in your own words what The Chant is?

Yeah, so The Chant is a third-person, cosmic horror, action adventure game. It’s set at a remote spiritual retreat and focuses on the character Jess, who goes to the retreat to get over some shared trauma she had with her friend Kim when they were teenagers. And what is more of a therapeutic session soon turns out to be a spiritual nightmare. We also look at the island itself as kind of a character so in addition to the the core narrative around Jess and the other retreat members there’s this parallel storyline from the 1970s with the Prismic Science cult that was there previously and so those stories intertwine and then at some point in the game they’ll kind of collide and you’ll get to see how everything transpires.

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I think the setting is what sold this game the most for me, it’s an interesting thing to explore this idea of, I guess, a very commercialised idea of spirituality. How did this whole concept and narrative first come about?

I mean, it started off with us wanting to make a cosmic horror game, but also having that setting of a spiritual retreat. In Vancouver, BC there’s a lot of retreats here, so there’s a lot of inspiration. And we started off looking at different spiritual practices and even elements of the occult and so forth, but it was really important for us to create our own, I guess, mythos. So that’s why we created Prismic Science and came up with these certain elements that fit both with the storyline and the supernatural world that we wanted to create. 

For us, trying to keep it as authentic as possible was really important, so that it was a believable place. We also just really focused on making sure that each of the different characters had a chemistry with each other. And then symbology, numbers, something that you’ll see playing the game in its entirety is each character has their own colour associated with them. So within the Gloom, which is our primary supernatural world we have, we take elements of energy and so forth. So we’ve created a kind of parasitic system around that, blending those spiritual elements with the pseudo-science and supernatural lore we’ve come up with.

I guess it begs a particular flavour of horror as well, one that’s maybe less reliant on jump scares and gore and the like. What sort of feelings or fears are the team trying to invoke in this game and how do you achieve those?

For us the atmosphere is the main thing we focus on, it’s creating that feeling of dread throughout the island, and unease. A lot of the characters, they go to the retreat to get over things that are troubling them in their lives or things from the past. So they all have an element of uncertainty about them. And then it’s a very remote setting, even the codename originally for the game was ‘Remote’, because we just wanted something that was kind of on the edge of the world, away from technology, away from other people and with modern day characters. 

So I think yeah, that feeling of dread, but also something that’s really important to us since energy was so key to the concept and we were looking at a lot of references from horror movies from the 70s and so forth, colour was really important to us as well. So a combination of terror and beauty and that sense of wonder, I mean, personally that’s one of the things I really love about horror and weird fiction and so forth is just experiencing new things and new ideas. So that was really appealing to us. It’s something where you’re drawn to it, and it’s something that’s attractive and engaging, and the colours and numbers and sacred geometry, even our creatures are designed to take the appearance of sacred geometry and symbols and so forth, so just having that kind of consistency throughout.

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And what can you tell me about your playable character, Jess? What would you say makes her compelling as a protagonist and how will we as players, sort of, come to know and understand her?

For Jess, she’s someone who hasn’t really been in a situation like this, she’s someone who lives a relatively normal life. She’s a sceptical person. So she’s not spiritual, she’s kind of doing this both to reconnect with her old friend, but also is at a point in her life where she’s dealing with, you know, panic attacks and so forth over the previous trauma. She figures she’s coming out of her comfort zone to try something new. So, I think for Jess, her journey is about having to do what she needs to do and getting over the guilt and the regret of the past. So that’s her personal journey and because the other characters start to descend into madness once this ritual they do takes place, Jess is forced to, in a sense, become the true leader and save her friend to escape the island. On the other hand, we also have this system we call Mind, Body, Spirit, [which are] your three core stats. So Jess also is vulnerable to losing her mind, which makes her, I guess, prey to these creatures as well.

From a gameplay perspective I thought it was really interesting that Jess’s main defences against all these nightmarish creatures aren’t traditional kinds of weapons, they’re more thematic like the salt and sage and fire. How did the design of combat and that sort of three-way system of Jess’s states all come together?

That was actually quite organic. We started off with a really small team that was just a few of us. And as the team size grew and we got to work with people that we’ve worked with before on previous games, the ability to add more gameplay, add a combat system, and so forth, came into being. But for us, we just really wanted things to be thematic. And we didn’t really think it would make sense to, you know, have guns or anything like that on the island. We really liked this idea that in our horror fiction, there’s truth to a lot of these spiritual elements where it’s like, using things like mugwort or sage, traditionally in cultures it can fend off negative energy and so forth. So for us, like, since there’s actually this negative energy, this kind of parasitic dimension, we figured it would be interesting to play with those things. 

You can use things like salt to kind of harm these creatures and slow them down, we have essential oils as well, and then you can actually use the negative energy that’s stored in the prisms, and you can unleash it. There’s different powers that you can unlock, some of them are utilitarian, some of them are more offensive. And I think on that end, too, we really wanted our combat to be resource driven, so that you’re not just constantly being encouraged to fight and defeat every enemy. So you actually have to be careful and certain recipes, certain items are better against different enemy types. Balancing those resources is pretty key to the survival of the character.

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Seeing a game that spins a mechanic out of a character’s mental condition I feel like I get my guard up a little bit, especially something like panic attacks as someone who’s suffered those in the past. What’s Brass Token done to ensure these things are portrayed sensitively?

We wanted to have, with Jess, an actual background with what she was dealing with, so it was really important for us to tie that into the narrative. And in our world we set it up so that, a lot of the things that are actually happening around us where, if you’re having negative thoughts or you may be giving in to your darker emotions, we’ve actually tied that in with the supernatural. So if something really bad is happening to you, there are actually these creatures that are around us feeding and preying upon it, and they’re even promoting it, in a sense, right? So it was really important to be very considerate about that while also factoring in, when you kind of lift the veil on our supernatural world, what’s going on out there and really have that kind of tie into the mechanics as well as the narrative of the different characters.

Something I didn’t really get to understand fully when I played was how the game is structured. Will there be distinct chapters within different parts of the island or is it a place that we’ll slowly uncover and roam freely over time?

So the island is interconnected, but it’s more of a hub-and-spoke design – so in the centre of the island is the retreat. And because the symbology, and numbers, and even the themes of the characters are really important, each character has their own Gloom, which is represented by a different colour. And also there’s different locations you’ll go on, so we have the concept of ley lines and so forth in the world. 

It’s kind of funny, this was something that helped us both structure the narrative, but also the development of the game, because we sort of structure the island, thematically around the different characters. So you’ll actually go through the game through chapters. And these chapters take place in different key locations, but there also is backtracking and we have interconnected locations. So it’s a fairly linear narrative, but there’s a fair amount of stuff to explore in lore, collectibles, and side things that you can do. So that’s been something that’s really important to us to balance, especially when you’re telling a story about different characters and what they’re going through. We wanted to make sure that we’re balancing those key narrative beats with the exploration so you’re not spending three hours and then coming back to it like, “Oh yeah, that’s what’s critical to what’s going on with my character in the narrative.” So that’s something we’ve been fairly careful around.

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And it’s also interesting, because as you explore the different Glooms, you’ll actually see we have these little creatures called Mind Eaters, and they feed off of negative emotions, so you’ll actually get to hear the dark thoughts or, I guess, negative thoughts of the different characters through these things. As they’re feeding on your mind, they actually start to take on the voices and stuff of the different characters. So it’s kind of both creepy, but also a good narrative device for us where we can tell you a little bit more about what the characters are thinking.

Like little cosmic horror parrots.

Yes, basically!

How long are you expecting most players will spend in a playthrough of the game?

Yeah so when you’re planning these things out, often you have targets and then they change. We’ve been looking at just our own people playing in focus group tests and stuff like that, and the range that we’re typically seeing is about seven-and-a-half to 11 or 12 hours. And I think a lot of that is really dependent on what difficulty setting you’re playing, as well as if you’re going through the lore and so forth. And then we also have three different endings. There’s an ending based on your Mind, Body or Spirit experience, because when you do things of your Mind, Body or Spirit it gives you experience, be it through the conversation system, different actions like reading or combat and even the consumables you use, so that also gives some incentive for replay.

How are you managing difficulty and accessibility in this game? Will there be a lot of options to sort of tweak the experience to suit peoples’ skills and capabilities?

On the default difficulty it’s kind of a combination of survival and really, like, exploring the narrative. And then the first one, which is more story based, you’re rarely going to run out of resources and you’re going to be able to get through the game probably in a more focused manner. And then the hardest difficulty, that’s something where you’re gonna have to be fairly careful about resource management. Most of our settings there are along the lines of the resource allocation, you know, damage and so forth on both ends. We had a lot of things we wanted to do there but just based on our own internal resources, we’ve tried to balance it so that players can modify their difficulty based on like, if I’m getting stuck here or I’m just spending too much time having to explore and collect and I just want to really focus on the story, I can change my settings based on that.

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The music in the game really stood out to me while I was playing and in the trailers, so it was cool to see you’ve tapped Paul Ruskay for that. I’ve never actually played Homeworld but I love his eerie, cosmic sort of sound. How did The Chant’s auditory identity come together?

What’s great about Paul is he does both sound design and composition, and also he plays live instruments and so forth. So early on we were talking about, just, it’s a cosmic horror game heavily influenced by 70s, early 80s horror movies. And obviously a lot of material came about with that. And what we would do is we would just do play sessions together and just play through the game, even from our early prototype, and Paul would go in and he actually started off just throwing in a lot of experimentation and whatnot just to kind of get the vibe. Personally, I always kind of liked it when it was a bit more exploratory and strange. So then Paul went in, and he picked up some old classic synthesisers, he played some instruments, and he’s just done an amazing job. A really wide array of different soundscapes, I’d say, are in the game, which is pretty cool.

And the other thing that’s been really neat is Paul’s also worked with different musicians around the world and that’s also allowed us to give it, I’d say, a unique feel in the sense that we’ve got strings, live drumming and so on. What I like is it just has a real kind of analogue feel to it, since it’s got live instruments but then it’s also got, even with the sound effects, a lot of those sound effects are created with synthesisers. Especially those really early synths where it creates a really strange, unique feel, especially when you’re dealing with the Gloom and some of the creatures. It’s kind of got a pretty far out sound. 

That’s been, for me, one of the most fun parts of working on the game, just that whole side of things. And also just with a lot of our references, music is so key to the atmosphere and the vibe. Looking at some of our favourite movies in the genre, and even games in the genre, the soundtrack is often just as important, if not more important than anything else.

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You’ve been in the industry for some 25 years and worked across quite a few AAA studios and projects, what’s your experience been in leading and working as a more boutique studio like Brass Token?

Creatively it’s been amazing, just to be able to be daring and take chances. And I think we did it at the right time. We have systems like Unreal, we have our own motion capture setup, there’s a lot of technology we can  take advantage of to do things that we would not be able to do five years ago with such a small team. So I think we’re really fortunate on that end, and I think the other thing that’s nice is, although we started the game with a really small team, in our first year of development it was under five people, that allowed us to really explore and make a lot of mistakes and try a lot of different things and experiment. 

But as the team has grown, everyone else that’s joined has brought something new to the table and the game is kind of organically shaped around that which, to me, has been fantastic. This game is the work of each individual on the team and this would not be the same game without any key member, which was really neat to see, for a project to take shape like that. It’s also been nice to work with people I’ve worked with for 15 years as well as people that, you know, it’s their first industry job and just seeing people grow and contribute on that end, we’ve got a really good chemistry. And so that’s been really exciting.

And what has the experience been like under the Prime Matter banner? How has that helped your team achieve their vision with The Chant?

Oh it’s been great because in addition to, obviously, the support that you would get from a publisher with exposure, feedback, QA, financial support, there’s also been really good sharing of ideas. Even with the look and feel of the game, the creative services team over there have done some really good visual art and so forth for branding, and we’ve incorporated a lot of that into our game and I think it really helps create the mood and tone. We’re a small team, we don’t have a tonne of extra resources so being able to, not just have that support from the publishing side but also help with the development’s been a huge asset. And I think it also creates a real synergy between the look and feel of the game that you see out there as well as when you actually pick up the controller. You can see how that’s helped form our look and our atmosphere.

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Finally, what would you say has been the highlight of this endeavour of making The Chant as your first game as Brass Token?

I just think the fact that, as a new studio, being able to make an original IP with a great group of people has just been a dream come true. As a studio, we’ve kind of set out the type of games that we want to make, and we’re just looking towards releasing this game, and obviously supporting it, and then continuing on and trying out new things. So yeah, it’s been a really fun experience, collaborating and working on something like this. I’ve been in the industry for a very long time, but this has definitely taken me and a lot of the other people I worked with completely out of our comfort zone, doing things that we never would have thought we could do. That’s super exciting and quite re-energising.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions and a massive congrats to you and the team!

I appreciate that!

The Chant is due to release on November 3rd for PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC.

A special digital pre-order bonus will grant players a 1970s-themed in-game outfit and VFX filter mode. You can find out more at