Chris Baker and Ivan Nicoara Interview: Circus Electrique

Upcoming tactical RPG Circus Electrique presents a unique blend of turn-based combat and tycoon management elements in a steampunk world. Many of the game's elements are inspired by Darkest Dungeon, like party management and fighting positions playing a part in battle. However, Circus Electrique undeniably comes with its own special flair, combining running a circus with fighting stylized enemies in a tactical title that takes a more narrative slant than most.

In Circus Electrique, players assume the role of journalist Amelia as she covers the re-opening of Circus Electrique. However, things soon go awry as an event called "The Maddening" unfolds, which makes people around town begin to go mad and try to kill one another. For unknown reasons, this doesn't affect the performers of the circus, who begin fighting the crazed individuals on a quest to save London. Players will be able to hire from an increasingly diverse portfolio of performers as the game goes on, like Strongmen, Fire Blowers, Snake Charmers, and Illusionists. Besides fighting, the other main gameplay feature of Circus Electrique is putting on nightly circus shows to earn money and resources, which is done through a unique puzzling system where players must try to create as much chemistry between performers as possible while meeting audience expectations.


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Circus Electrique's Project Lead Ivan Nicoara  & Lead Writer Chris Baker sat down with Screen Rant to discuss the historical inspirations behind the game, creating its unique blend of management and strategy, and the small details that make the game special.

I'd love readers to know a little bit more about the aesthetic and historical influences behind the game.

Chris Baker: Early on, we wanted to do a game that was from the sub-genre of RPG games like Darkest Dungeon fit into. And we wanted to make it our own and have our own aesthetic and stuff like that. 

We wanted to make a game like that, so we were like, "Okay, what can we do to set ourselves apart?" There was a guy on our team that we call a Babar. He was like, "What if we did something Steampunk? People seem to like steampunk, so what if we did something like that?" That's definitely different than your typical kind of high fantasy setting, so let's see what we can do with that.

From there, we did some research of the era of steampunk in general and came across these old circus posters. The circus posters inspired us to be like, "What if we combined these elements of steampunk and circus?" because these circus posters have this distinct flavor to them that we can bring that in as well. We continued down that road, and then further influences would come in. Just researching steampunk in general, we discovered The Steam Man of the Prairies was the first steampunk novel, from 1868. We were like, "What if we not only included our own kind of steam man, but that book exists in our universe? The guy who made it is a fanboy, and he created his steam man of the docks as an homage to it." That sort of thing. 

I think we didn't talk about other stuff before. Writing the story, I wanted to try to get some phrases and things from that era. There's actually a book called Passing English of the Victorian Era that was released some time around 1910, and it's this nice dictionary of all these different terms and idioms; phrases very much of their time, some of which we still say today. You'll come across things that they thought would be just a passing phrase of that era, but it's something we still say today - or at least we know what it means today. But I picked things to say in the dialogue here and there. It's not like every sentence or anything ridiculous. 

You might have noticed the phrase, "They'll fight like old boots for you." That's not something we'd say today, but I think you get what it means if you hear it. And there's a bunch of things like that - the word kerwallop is one they liked back then. So, there's lots of little influences in that regard. 

There's probably a few instances where I let things slide here and there, but I tried to think, "Is it possible that this phrase that I'm using doesn't exist yet?" I'd do that kind of backwards research. There's one particular line that I liked so much that I just left it in there, because the phrase came out around 1906. I was like, "Alright. I'll throw that in there. No one's gonna know." I would say those are some of the main influences.

You'll see the names Edison and Tesla and Westinghouse, and those kinds of things pop up, as well as some of the more fun and random newspaper headlines. I did some research of what was going on back then, and there was this terrible cyclone in Australia or somewhere that killed 400 people. And so we have, in our alternate history, this weather machine created by the company Steam that averted that and saved more than 400 lives. 

I can't imagine people know their 1899 history that well, but if they really want to get into it, there was actual thought in a lot of these headlines. There's some golfer who won whatever the main golf tournament was back then, and we talked about how he won the tournament and then fought off the Vicious. Little spins on that sort of stuff with real names, and sometimes some public domain imagery going in there.

I love the advertisements.

Ivan Nicoara: We made a ton of research. From our point of view, we had these ideas in our mind that we thought were going to be great separately. It was challenging to find a way to connect them and make the game look interesting and good. We did a ton of research, for example, with these ads. And of course, we made our own as well. There was some iteration there as well, continuing with the story. 

The story had some versions before, and we had some funny ideas. We started by having animals escape from the circus, and we wanted to find them. But after that, we became so creative that even Atilla the Hun, who was a great warrior in Hungary, became an option. And then Genghis Khan appeared as an idea. We talked a lot about the story, and then we switched the protagonist from the Ringmaster to Amelia, and suddenly everything fell into place.

Chris Baker: When we had the Ringmaster as the protagonist, he's a character! It's a little harder to relate to, so we needed a nice audience surrogate character. That's kind of how Amelia cam about. She was actually sort of a late addition in the grand scheme of things, but I think at the end of the day, she worked out pretty well.

This isn't the first Zen Studios foray into a turn-based, tactical game. Zen did Dread Nautical and Operencia: The Stolen Sun, and I believe that second one had some historical characters in it as well, right? 

Chris Baker: Yeah, it was mainly legend, but it was also where history meets legend. I was the writer on that one, and Ivan was the producer on Dread Nautical. There was a lot of stuff already written, so I was like a story editor. I added some stuff too. 

For Operencia, where history meets legend was sort of our angle. You would have Attila the Hun, but it was a legendary version of him who's purely heroic. We had things like Bushido characters, which are very Hungarian.

Ivan Nicoara: There is a festival in Hungary when they are doing their Bushido walk, and they are trying to get out the bad spirits from towns and from people. 

Chris Baker: We consulted a bunch of fairy tales, basically - Hungarian fairy tales - and created one cohesive world for them to live in. Something like Fables or The Wolf Among Us, where all the fairy tale characters live in this one world. Shrek, even. The basic ideas is that all these old school Hungarian fairy tales live in this one world. 

There's a lot of instances where it'd be a story about a king or a knight, and there was no name. Why not have the knight in this story be the same night in this story? And then in this story, they actually bothered to name the knight, so maybe he's the same knight as these other two stories. That was a really fun one to work on. It was a lot more fairy tale-based than history-based, but there was a historical angle to it as well.

Were there any lessons that you took away from those experiences, in terms of stuff that you did wanted to make sure to include in Circus Electrique or things that you wanted to pivot away from?

Ivan Nioara: Yes, we did some tests regarding randomly generated levels, because in Dread Nautical, we used randomly generated levels. We used the experience o Dread Nautical, but we switched away from randomly generated events and decided to be story driven. For the story, we decided to build unique levels. We tried to make great landmarks for each and every level; to include and build around these story events and landmark objects, so there was a switch as well. 

But, of course, we had some experience with RPGs with better systems - and at least we have difficulty trackers. Darkest Dungeon doesn't have one, which is its own difficulty. I'm so glad that you tried the hard one, and I'm actually very curious if you felt any difference.

The main thing I noticed - and maybe this was because I was going devotion-focused - is the enemies starting with higher devotion a lot of the time than I had noticed before. Other than that, I honestly didn't find it that much harder. But I also play turn-based tactical games a lot. And I did notice that my circus wasn't doing quite as well - although that was just hard in general, I would think I'd have a good chemistry setup, and then the paper would be like, "Boo, disappointing. Don't go!"

Ivan Nicoara: Actually, we did a ton of testing to have the best experience for the district one on each and every difficulty setting. I think that was the main focus for us; to have a good way in for the game, and then we will leave the player to play as they likes to; as you will see in the full game as well.

I definitely benefited from playing pretty much the exact same thing twice in a row. When I took different paths each time to just explore, I was really surprised that there were such different environments. When I went on different turns each time, the backgrounds were something I had never seen the second time I played, which was really cool. And all these random events, like interviewing her uncle or picking a book from a vendor, but I accidentally picked it in French and my team got mad at me. I wasn't sure if they were random or specifically plotted to be a little story beat. Can you go a little more in depth about the different things players might encounter when they're on the map besides just fights?

Chris Baker: Everything is very specifically plotted. If you go one direction, as opposed to another in terms of story, those will pop up regardless, you'll get those. It's not like if you go one way, you won't get that one story. But you might get a different mystery event - the book thing you're talking about is one of the mystery events, and those were really fun to put together. I think there's 51 total in the game, they all have four different outcomes. So, it's like writing about 200 different mini-stories. 

The book ones were a lot of fun, because I got to go back and just research  these books of that era. Those are all real books that existed and had some sort of influence. And they're thematic too, because you're going after the illusionist in this particular one, so all four of those books had to do with magic. They pertain to whatever your goal is, and there's one in each district. 

There's all sorts of mini games. I don't know if it's in the first district or not, but there's a shell game that's a traditional follow-the-ball one. If you do well in that, it'll open up a secret area that maybe you want to take - or maybe you don't, because it usually involves an extra fight. But there's also all this good loot and stuff.

The one I liked the best is the coin toss. It's sort of like the Olympic event curling, but it's with coins. It's fun to bat the other coins around and strategically place where you want to aim your coin at. It's very simple, but it's also just a lot of fun. I kind of wish I could just play it on the side too. There's the charity game, which is timing-based, and you've got to put up a certain number of pieces of food that you're doing for this charity. But if you put up too much food, it breaks all the plates, and they get mad at you.

Ivan Nicoara: There's the wheel of fortune.

Chris Baker: Yeah, you have your four characters with you, and they each have their own traits. You have to not only time, the wheel of fortune to stop at the right place, but consider who you have to fulfill the minimum fun goal or whatever.

As much as we love our combat system and everything, we just want to throw other things in there to give you a little something else to do. And there's the freebies, too. Sometimes you'll go to a traveling fun fair, and it's like, "Do you want 16 devotion, or do you want to 200 experience points? I's a fun freebie, and there's loot boxes you can just pick up. We say in the game that it's from people who desert a town right away and leave their stuff behind. I think that mostly covers that little extra things.

I think it really offers a nice little break, and that's something I really like about this game in general. With some games like Darkest Dungeon, you just keep going and going, and it can get really stressful. With this, because of the really satisfying cycle of fighting and then the day is over and you go back, you're not so much thinking, "Oh my God. How much is left of this?" It's just, "Alright, I have to get through this fight. If I get through this fight, everything's gonna be okay." It's not necessarily as hardcore, but that's not what you guys are going for with this one. I think it works really well. In terms of the circus element, I know that you guys have taken turn-based game inspiration. But were there any tycoon games that influenced this area of the game? Or was that all just from your brains? 

Ivan Nicoara: The chemistry inspiration comes from FIFA Ultimate Team. It was our main idea when we were designing this simulation element in the game to define how you can get a successful night. Of course, you have your stars and audience and things like this, but the main important thing is having the right team and selecting your artists from the roster in a way that you can see the outcome. You need to match the performers, because they have some chemistry, and some likes and dislikes as well. 

Indirectly, this makes you switch characters between your exploration team and circus management team, which makes you try out new characters. We didn't want to go along and finish the game without four starting characters, so that was something important. We have a really nice feature in the game, when you are unlocking a new character, you have the opportunity to try it out. You do not have to put it in your party or risk a battle because you don't know their skills, but you can try it out.

Circus Electrique battle sequence.

I can foresee it becoming a lot more complicated as the game goes on, and as you unlock more performers. In my second run, I also wanted to dismiss a lot of the starting characters and develop a team instead. A lot of them had likes or dislikes that hadn't unlocked yet, but it gets way more complicated when there's four or five slots to fill in and 12 different types of performers.

Chris Baker: There's many slots by the end of the game.

Ivan Nicoara: We have multiples of these shows, so you can choose shows that are running for two, three or five days. And we have unique characters in the game which you can unlock.

At the very end of the tutorial, I unlocked the guy who was at the bridge, the illusionist.

Chris Baker: He unlocks that entire class of character, so you'll start getting the illusionist at the train as well. But Ivan was referring to how, as you just keep progressing through the game, there's these pub brawls. If you win the pub brawl, you get that special character. 

But there's also other characters you come to, where there's a misunderstanding and you have to fight them. And then you beat them, and then they join you. I think that the fakir and the ventriloquist are all nice, fun exchanges.

And it really gives the management mechanic a whole different layer. In terms of the fighting itself, what made you want to include that devotion mechanic instead of just damage?

Ivan Nicoara: At first, we really didn't have devotion at all. We had only normal attacks and health as a parameter. We had all the other attributes associated with the characters, but we didn't have devotion. We felt that something was missing, and then we came up with devotion, which is becoming quite important system. You need to manage it as well and be careful with devotion. 

It was a tough one to add to Circus, and it was a tough one to add to the combat. We had many simulations on how should it work, and how should it affect characters. But it was a ton of fun, and it adds a ton to the gameplay.

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Do you have any favorite characters in the game?

Chris Baker: You get her super early, but I really liked the fire blower. I really liked the opening attack that I showed you in that demo. I like the knife thrower a lot; I just like kind of her attitude, and she's kind of an Annie Oakley type. The human cannonball is a fun character; just her personality is fun. 

You're probably talking more about gameplay though, and the knife thrower has that too. I really like the move she has where she can pin somebody down with her knife, which basically goes into their foot and causes some damage. I like some of the illusionist stuff, too. He has some cool moves that shuffle people around, or he can steal buffs. If a character on the other side has a cool buff, you can steal that bluff and put it on one of your characters. 

There's just a nice variety. And it really does take a long time to appreciate it. I think you probably got a taste of that when playing it twice. There's some things in the second time that you couldn't do on the first time.

You've included, at least from what I've seen in this first level, London landmarks and that sort of thing. Is that something that continues throughout the map, and are they always highlighted like they are in the first level?

Chris Baker: For the most part. Sometimes, there might be a throwaway reference to a location in a newspaper story or something. But Big Ben is a pretty major location later on, and the final level takes place near Buckingham Palace. But we definitely reference the locations. 

The alternate history angle does play a part in geography as well. It was very development driven, because we wanted to get a nice variety of things to see. We wanted some docks, but the place where we wanted docks doesn't have docks now. But it works out in our story that, by 1895, the Steam Corporation was so big that they had the power to create their own docks in the West End of London. So, in this particular history, there's docks there. 

Chinatown is in a different place because of the history of the two rival circuses. I think our reasoning is that the Circus Electrique's first run died, and the people who had been part of it moved just a little bit to the west. Whereas I think in reality, it's actually a little to the north. There's some differences in the London we know today, but we tried to account for them narratively whenever we could.

The historical research you've done is great. I love when games incorporate real life geography and stuff like that.

Chris Baker: I mentioned Tesla and Edison before. Historically, they were rivals and hated each other. But because of the spark that happens as part of our story, they actually become friends and form a corporation called Tesla and Edison. We try to have fun with it. I'm sure some people will read that and be like, "What are you talking about?" But it was a conscious decision. It's an alternate history, so alternate things are going to happen.

You guys have pulled off the steampunk concept really well, but there was a time in the 2010s where steampunk was everywhere. Was that a concern, to set yourself apart from the huge wave of steampunk that happened earlier?

Ivan Nicoara: Of course, it was a concern for us, and we had some talks about. After some brainstorming, we found that the huge hype and huge amounts of games that were set in steampunk were gone. Years before, Cyberpunk was released, and we felt that release could even be good for us because it generates hype around steampunk again. But you encounter so many steampunk-ish games in the store, so it was a concern.

Chris Baker: Yeah, in terms of writing for steampunk, I just treated it with the same kind of approach of that George Lucas probably took to Star Wars or something like that. These are just relatable characters that take place in this different world. I can't say that I was a huge steampunk guy coming into this, but I don't think that really matters. I think at the end of the day, people just want a cool story with a cool atmosphere that the art takes care of, with these relevant historical things happening. 

I think a lot of alternate history stuff is just like, "What if there was this alternate history?" and you don't really know why. But in this game, you will know why. You'll definitely know why this different take on our world exists, which I thought was a pretty fun thing to do.

Circus Electrique circus performance puzzle.

The steampunk feels very natural. It makes a lot of sense, because of the technology and everything that's happening in the world.

Chris Baker: Yeah, I'm a stickler for wanting to know why things happen. As the more narrative guy on the team, I wanted to make sure we had a sense of why stuff exists.

One more thing I'm curious about is the weather. What can players expect, in terms of how fog or rain or nighttime will affect their fights?

Chris Baker: Those are several different conditions that you just named there, and once you come up to a condition like that on your map, you will get a heads up. It's nighttime, so make sure that you're ready for it. Because if you're a fire blower, then you're going to be more effective in a nighttime condition. But if it's raining, there's going to be a whole bunch of things that come into factor. Your fire blower is not going to be as effective, because it's raining. So that's like minus 50% and her effectiveness. Everyone's going to feel a little down so their devotion is gonna go down every turn.

Does that apply to enemies as well, or just your party?

Chris Baker: Yes, definitely. You'll want to have an electrical-based character, because electricity is more effective in the rain. You want to just account for all of these kinds of new buffs and debuffs that go into the environment. You have the power going in to decide who you're going to use, so if your devotion is going down every turn, you're probably going to have a character that's good at reducing devotion, so that maybe some of the guys on the other team will leave. At the same time, you might want a character who's good at raising your devotion. Or a Super Skill that raises devotion is probably a good thing to have in that particular instance.

I completely forgot about the Super Skill that comes in later.

Chris Baker: I think it comes in at that boss fight. 

I know there's a lot of moves that can be added to it. Could you talk a little bit about that? It's a meter that goes up as your fighters do successful moves, from what I understand.

Chris Baker: In old school beat 'em ups, you'd have a summon where a character comes in and wipes everybody out. A Super Skill is a nice, really powerful move that takes a long time to be able to use. You want to be careful about when you're using it, since you don't want to waste it at an inopportune moment. It usually takes two to four turns of doing well for that meter to slowly power up. 

Anyone can use them, and they don't take up your turn. So, that's a fun, cool thing that I like. But early on, you create your super skills in the workshop, which is one of the places on the circus hub. And at certain points, you have a choice to create one thing or a different thing. In other cases, you'll get what you get. But there's a super skill that increases everybody's devotion for three turns; there's a super skill that gives everybody 40% health - that percentage is different depending on the level. There's three levels of super skill too, so a level 3 is gonna give you more health than a level 1 would. 

Every time you use a super skill, you'll get a guest appearance of Amelia herself, or her blind pet lion, which is pretty cool. Those were a fairly late addition that pleasantly surprised me when I played that build. I was like, "Wow, we got Amelia in there doing stuff. That's great."

Ivan Nicoara: Basically, it means that you have three slots. You are putting one skill the first slot, the second one is more effective, and the third one is the most effective one. It's your decision in which slot you are putting each super skill, so you need to set it up for yourself. 

We are thinking of the battle conditions as a unique selling point. Having only standard battles is kind of monotonous. We wanted to have something different, and that's how we came up with the idea to have different sets of rules for different weather, where you need to think ahead about which characters you bring into battle. And you need to set up your super skills for each and every battle condition. It's a really good tactical element, and you need to think ahead. I enjoy playing these kinds of battles.

You'll have a bank of them, where you can swap them out?

Chris Baker: You earn them as your circus progresses. In the workshop, you can invent them with crafting tools that you have. You get higher level ones as your circus levels up.

Is the workshop different from the artisan?

Chris Baker: Yes, in a way. They serve a similar function, but the workshop is specifically for the super skills, whereas the artisan is for items and boosters for the circus and that sort of thing.

Is there anything that you want readers to know about this game?

Chris Baker: I think if you're looking to experience the subgenre of RPG that you got out of Darkest Dungeon and games like that, but the difficulty was too punishing or you didn't like that there wasn't a traditional narrative, I think maybe this is the kind of game to get you into that. Not that those games didn't have stories at all, but this is more of a traditional RPG narrative being told. 

If those kinds of things appeal to you, then it's a good reason to give us a shot.

Ivan Nicoara: At the end of the day, we want to entertain players. Our main job or aim is to make memorable moments for our players, and to have enjoyable moments as they play the game. We hope that we can achieve that with Circus Electrique.