Devolver Digital released a story trailer for Serious Sam 4 yesterday, which struck me as a little bit odd: Without wanting to generalize too much, I think it's fair to say that there aren't too many games that rely less on narrative than Serious Sam. That's something that developer Croteam is looking to change with the new game, though, by leaning more heavily into the narrative in order to make the world and the characters a little easier to care about.
That process actually began five years ago when Croteam signed The Talos Principle co-writer Jonas Kyratzes and his partner Verena to write the script for the new game. At the time, it struck me as an odd partnership—The Talos Principle is a very narrative-heavy game—but it's also always seemed bizarre to me that Croteam made a game like The Talos Principle in the first place, so it's very possible that there are pieces to this puzzle that I'm just not seeing. Regardless of that apparent incongruity, it seems to have worked out.
"It's not exactly that narrative is more important [in Serious Sam 4]. It's not a game that is structured differently than previous Sam games. It's not that we tried to take a Sam game and then make a narrative Sam game out of it, because that would be weird," he explained in a recent interview. "It's more that it was an attempt to—without trying to disparage the previous games in any way—to do it better.
"It was an experience that needed characters, a villain, a sense of events happening in the world. The thing was just to try to do it well. It's still a game that's primarily an action game, it still plays like any classic Sam game, it's just an attempt to also do the sort of B-movie kind of story that it does, but to do it well, to do it in an entertaining, clever, and hopefully charming sort of way."
The Serious Sam series actually has quite a detailed background, but it's all very easy to miss. Aside from the fact that it's not at all essential to the core experience of blasting the holy hell out of everything that moves with ridiculous weapons, most of it is delivered through text-based lore dumps, and Serious Sam 3's flirtation with supporting characters and cutscenes was superficial at best.
For Serious Sam 4, Kyratzes' goal was to make the world and the people in it "feel more alive and active." That includes not just Sam himself, but also the "cast of likeable B-movie idiots" who make up the team he leads.
"This is more personal. The whole game is more personal," he said. "You've got your friends there, the stakes are more personal—its the whole Earth being destroyed obviously, but also the people you care about. You see Sam actually joking around with people, and he's still very recognizably Serious Sam, but he has actual friendships, he has people he cares about."
He also emphasized that while it's obviously going to be silly in spots—remember the Popemobile—the game isn't meant to be a parody in any way. He compared it instead to John Carpenter movies, or some of the better Roger Corman stuff, that are typically low-budget, strange and silly, but also sincere. "And I think that's very importunate about Serious Sam 4. This is a completely sincere take," he said. "It's silly, it's goofy in places, it's serious in places too. It has moments of proper humanity, between the characters but also between what Sam stands for and what the villain stands for."
"Ma'am! How do I get to the Vatican?"
Some of that approach emerged as a reaction to the relentless cynicism that's become popular in mainstream entertainment, primarily on television shows but also in games.
"Everything is incredibly grim, everything is, 'Oh, we stab each other in the back and everything is miserable'," he continued. "You kind of miss the more heroic, people working together to achieve some end and being funny at the same time, that kind of storytelling that has a more positive view of humanity. So that's kind of what we were going for."
That was also the impetus for the original Serious Sam 4 subtitle, Planet Badass, which was literally lost in translation: "The idea was, Earth is kind of awesome, and humans are awesome. And in this great moment of crisis, you see that humans are completely insane, but kind of awesome. And that's what we really, really wanted to have in there. These people are surviving this alien onslaught, and they're all kind of eccentric and weird, but you love them."
Kyratzes was careful not to "oversell" the narrative focus in Serious Sam 4—"it's a game that's clever, it's funny, it's got all kinds of things to it, but it's still a Serious Sam game"—and he said that's also part of why Croteam has focused so heavily on the technology underlying the game, and hasn't really talked about the narrative elements until now, just two days before the game is set to launch.
"There's a concern that you don't want to come across like you've stopped making Serious Sam," he said. "You want to also say that this is going to be a big, fun ride, and that aspect of it's gonna be there. Plus I think partially we just wanted to have people experience it as it happens, to just go on without having been spoiled hugely and go, 'Oh, this is fun!'"
I remain skeptical for now: I've always enjoyed Serious Sam as a sort of quasi-parody of lunkhead videogame heroes stuck in hellacious worlds that really don't matter (or even differ) much as long as lots of things are getting shot at and blown up. But Kyratzes is clearly committed to the effort, and given how much I enjoyed The Talos Principle, I'm eager to see if it turns out well. Serious Sam 4 releases on Steam and GOG on September 24.