This article originally appeared in issue 349 of our glossy magazine. You can get it delivered right to your door by grabbing a subscription, which will also net you special subscriber-only covers.
The story of Raphaël Colantonio and Arkane, the studio he founded and then left, is well told. But there's one episode that he recounts less often. While working for EA in Guildford, England, he interviewed for Richard Garriott—an RPG legend, and a personal hero.
"My English was pretty bad back then," he recalls. "Probably half of the things I said were just wrong." But Colantonio's passion for the games of Origin Systems came across, and he got the job. He'd be working on the next Ultima. Just as soon as the studio co-signed his contract.
"They started to drag their feet," Colantonio says. "Back then, Richard was complicated to get hold of. I was trying to call him, and panicking." A month later, news filtered through to Guildford: EA was shutting the studio down. "That's how I knew I was not hired."
Despite the setback, Origin's example shaped Colantonio's career, defining the spirit and values of Arkane. And now that Colantonio has gone independent, Garriott looms larger than ever: Ultima VII is the primary inspiration for Weird West, an isometric immersive sim.
"When we did Arx Fatalis [at Arkane], it was the Looking Glass and Ultima Underworld version of those values, that looks like a first-person shooter," Colantonio says. "Whereas this time, it's the Origin and Ultima VII version, more tactical and top-down."
It's almost eerie how closely Colantonio's formative influences echo those of Swen Vincke of Divinity: Original Sin studio Larian. While one is famous for immersive sims and the other RPGs, the principles they both cling to are the same. There's a shared physicality to their worlds, a sense of coherence and possibility. A dedication to rewarding players for finding unusual solutions to their problems. "I can see how we overlap," Colantonio says.
"When I played Divinity: Original Sin, I felt I was having a conversation with developers I've never met. They tried to convey, and honour, and celebrate Ultima VII. I felt like, 'I see what you're doing here. Me too.'"
With its isometric perspective, Weird West is the most strikingly Ultima-esque game of Colantonio's career. But that's not Wolfeye Studios' only RPG touchpoint: the studio is referring back to the very first Fallout, too.
"It's a game that's not faking it," Colantonio says. "If there's a door, there's a key to that door. If there's a key to that door, it's somewhere in the world. It's maybe on a character that owns the place. It all makes sense, as opposed to a fake building with an invulnerable NPC in front of it who's waiting to give you a quest."
Rather than double down on dialogue, stats, and spells, however, Weird West draws on Arkane's action experience by, well, drawing pistols. "We have a few younger generation action gamers in the team," Colantonio says. Ultimately, this game belongs to the same genre as Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah. Colantonio thinks that immersive sims are like wine, in that enthusiasts debate what makes the perfect batch. The simile holds true in another way: the ideas in immersive sims have aged well.
"Back then we didn't have the technology to support how far we wanted to go," Colantonio says. "Simulation is expensive when it comes to computation. You can extract what's interesting about [old immersive sims], repurpose them and repackage them. It's still super relevant."
Wolfeye itself is a fascinating blend of old and new immersive sim fans. Its CEO, Julien Roby, was Colantonio's "very, very young" assistant back on Arkane's first game 20 years ago. Now, the pair preside over a new generation of developers whose relative inexperience is more than made up for by a passion for building authentic worlds. Like Colantonio in his first meeting with Garriott, they've shown they care about the values that have resulted in games like Ultima VII and Dishonored. "They were attracted to Wolfeye because of where Julien and I come from," Colantonio says. "Our company was like a beacon for people who love immersive sims. It's the best of both worlds—it's not like they're going to be contrarian to our values, but they say, 'How about we do things this way?'"