It’s one month into an early access release, and its development, largely handled by one guy, is still being refined. But if I got to name a Most Inspired Labor of Love Game for 2022, it’d have to be We Who Are About to Die, by Jordy Lakiere.
What Lakiere calls a “criminally underused” setting and theme — ancient Rome! gladiator combat! — finds a perfect toehold in a very popular genre, the roguelike or roguelite, which has really caught on with independent developers. What really makes it go here is the Belgian developer’s tight focus on gameplay systems, with the game’s scenery and other aesthetics serving those systems, not the other way around. This required Lakiere, who is trained primarily as an artist and animator, to extend himself and grow as a games developer over the seven years that We Who Are About to Die has been in the making.
“Roguelikes are known for their difficulty,” Lakiere said in an email interview. “I think an ‘unforgiving gladiator game’ sounds like a good hook, too. The title summarizes the sentiment perfectly — morituri, we who are about to die. When you’re sent into the pits, you can try your best, but you’re basically already dead.”
Launched in early access on Nov. 14, Steam user reviews are strongly positive, for good reason. Instead of a linear tale of a single hero swashbuckling through lush scenery, We Who Are About to Die plays for stakes from the first match.
Actual gladiators played with permadeath switched on, of course, and that’s what you face in We Who Are About to Die, too. Players must think tactically, break down their opponent’s stances, keep moving and keep their defense up. Lose a match, and you lose your character, no matter how long your run may have lasted. That’s a roguelite, after all.
“There’s also just something absolutely magical about permadeath,” Lakiere said. “It transforms gameplay; suddenly, there are real stakes. You get emotionally invested in this character, this story that has only ever been experienced by you, and you can lose it forever.”
Disclosure: I love gladiator combat as a video game type. Yes, I had LucasArts’ universally acclaimed Gladius for Xbox back in the day; I also had Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance and Circus Maximus (gladiators and racing?! I’m fanning myself). Lakiere cut his game-development teeth at age 14 making mods for Mount & Blade, a series well known for the fidelity in its melee combat. He counts that as an inspiration, plus the gladiator games I enjoyed, plus others ranging from Spartan: Total Warrior to Spelunky and its sequel.
But, importantly, Lakiere didn’t set out to replicate games he already enjoyed. His modding resumé led him to enroll in university to pursue development, mainly through an art and animation track. He had a six-year run as a freelance artist paying his bills, but creatively grew restless over not developing his own game.
“I asked myself, what is the simplest shell around an interesting combat system that reduces scope, so I can do it solo?” he said. “I remember laying on the couch and brainstorming and actually having one of those cliché ‘eureka’ moments,” he said. “The core loop is combat, the arenas are limited in scope, round-based combat. At the time, roguelikes and roguelites were very hot, and I had the realization — gladiator roguelite!”
Amplifying this inspiration is the fact the gladiator genre has been mostly AWOL since 2013’s middling Ryse: Son of Rome. “It’s a universally loved setting among gamers (I thought, at least),” Lakiere said, “and criminally underused, as many fans of WWAATD have mentioned.”
We Who Are About to Die has some rough edges, to be sure. The animations and reactions are noticeably repetitive and not always smooth. It’s also a difficult game; players really need to focus on adding momentum to their strikes, and those with experience in Mount & Blade will be quicker to pick up the flow than others who might expect a button-mashing hack-and-slash. All of that said, We Who Are About to Die is admittedly a work in development, with an ambitious content roadmap.
It’s also had a strong enough launch to get Lakiere serious about staffing up a development studio for the game. He hasn’t soloed the entire seven-year project so far — some contractors have helped with the game’s components — but WWAATD’s first month beat his expectations “by 20x,” Lakiere said. “And the drop-off of sales is much lower than expected — a really healthy tail so far.”
“So it makes a lot of sense to take the plunge and to finally step away from solo development,” Lakiere went on. “The immediate goals, besides behind-the-scenes company stuff, is to debug, add content and some peripheral features. […] More randomness, more items, levels, backstories [for the cast of Aspirants, as the gladiators are called].” Controller support is a big goal, as is is optimizing the game for Steam Deck. Lakiere hopes to have both of these done early in 2023.
But We Who Are About to Die, at least, seems to have the fundamentals in place. There’s a rock-paper-scissors aspect to the matchmaking: shield-and-spear fighters are great all-rounders, while two-handed ax fighters are slower but break defenses more quickly. “They are a bit like glass cannons,” Lakiere said, “and smart players can make sure they have a spear equipped to get through [them].”
We Who Are About to Die saw its first major title update on Dec. 7, and it’s currently discounted 20% until Jan. 5. It is available from Steam for Windows PC.