The brothers behind ACE Team have grown up and they’re not looking back
The Bordeau brothers Andres, Carlos and Edmundo put the “ACE” in ACE Team, Chile’s oldest surviving games studio which bears its founder’s initials. The moment their father walked through the door with a Macintosh Plus and 1986 platformer Dark Castle sparked a lifelong dream, leading to the formation of the Santiago studio which created the Zeno Clash first-person brawlers, the Pythonesque tower-defence Rock of Ages series and their latest action game, Clash: Artifacts of Chaos.
Carlos vividly recalls the magical impression made by their introduction to late 80s hardware: “This little box that was able to play these very basic sounds and draw these very noticeable pixels was really amazing.” Edmundo, the younger brother to twins Andres and Carlos, describes how from the age of nine “even though we had no way of making games, we would take Mac Paint and make graphics for games we didn’t know how to program.”
They’d awakened a lifelong interest in game design and art, their passion as alive as ever whenever the brothers talk about their craft. Although, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight, the brothers agree when Edmundo observes, smirking,“it would have made more sense if one of us had become a programmer”.
Like many developers, it was the emergent 90s FPS mod scene which put these skills to work in the Doom and Quake engines. Their most ambitious project was Batman Doom, a Doom II total conversion, turning Adrian Carmack’s hellscape into Gotham City with hand-drawn pixel-art versions of the Penguin, Joker and many Batman thugs. Andres quips: “We really owe the fact we could develop games to teams like id Software.”
At the time, none of them planned to become pioneers in Chile’s then non-existent games industry. The scene they knew existed online, and mostly in North America. However, a scouting agency interested in their mods gave them hope one could exist in the future. Andres says, while himself and Carlos both dropped out of engineering degrees, qualifications didn’t matter when their task was “to start creating the industry from scratch.” Andres and Carlos still found work with the now defunct Wanako Games, but, unsatisfied by their work on casual games, for four years the brothers never stopped working on a prehistoric brawler prototype for the scouting agency.
After their first prototype was rejected, their second attempt secured the distribution deal that would change their lives – a huge coup when Steam was still a closed ecosystem – Andres and Carlos quit Wanako to focus on Zeno Clash with Edmundo, living on savings and family loans. Released in 2009, their unique punk fantasy brawler was a success, winning an IGF nomination and PC Gamer’s Independent Game of the Year, partly thanks to an unconventionally surrealist aesthetic that stood out against the late 2000s trend for gloomy, desaturated visuals.
Their second major opportunity swiftly followed, but reaching the once undreamed of console market with Zeno Clash’s Xbox 360 port brought unexpected obstacles for the longtime PC gamers, particularly because as Andres explained: “Chile was on the blacklist of countries that could not receive devkits.” Desperate to meet the terms of their Atlus deal, Carlos flew to the US to physically collect the devkit. “That almost cost us our first console deal”
Since that frantic flight, the studio has grown over the last 14 years, and so has the surrealistic punk fantasy setting of Zeno Clash and Clash: Artifact of Chaos. Their unique world of Zenozoik combines huge, peculiar mammals from prehistory’s Cenozoic era with the surrealist style of masters like Picasso, Hieronymus Bosch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. A less well-known influence, particularly on Clash: Artifacts of Chaos, is the artist John Blanche, best known for his Games Workshop fantasy art.
Carlos explained how Blanche’s “twisted and gnarly” fantasy illustrations for Steve Jackson’s 1980s Crown of Kings Sorcery! gamebooks, a rare discovery in a Chilean school library, led to their games’ stubbornly idiosyncratic style so many years later..
“Fantasy was so much more open and interesting back in the 80s. We didn’t have these mega productions like the Lord of the Rings, which made everything more homogeneous, we got the green goblins, the orcs, and everything looks the same now with wizards and pointy hats. Back in the 1980s, you’d get a greater variety of what fantasy was, the amount of imagination and creativity behind the designs not only in his books but other media.”
The brothers speak about these books, which they took turns to read as children, with evident warmth. Andres confirmed they remain a treasured family possession to this day. In their games the brothers continue Blanche’s unconventional spirit across their setting’s unique melange of prehistoric mutants, scrappy ancient relics and otherworldly landscapes. Edmundo describes their world, two decades in the making, as a mysterious abandoned outpost separated from a developed outside world.
Perhaps in another time, the brothers could have been artists, but they feel video games reach the broadest audience. Their levels are painted with unreal depictions of natural features, inspired by childhood influences – Clash’s mountain ranges pay direct homage to Blanche’s illustrations – and also look to their home country. If they need a tree, they can call on their native Araucarias, known as the monkey puzzle tree due to its distinctive, unclimbable shape and towering branches.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is the same Zenozoik with a hand painted look, but abandons the formula set in Zeno Clash 1 and 2. Aiming for an increased narrative beyond their existing skills, they brought in The Talos Principle writer Jonas Kyratzes to pluck player’s heartstrings, and a lavish soundtrack with stirring vocal elements inspired by Nier: Automata.
While previous Zeno Clash games starred humans, this time ACE Team wanted to avoid focus group design and fully commit to their unusual setting with a mutant protagonist. Instead of creating a bespoke character, responding to imagined audience expectations or focus groups, they went through enemy character designs to find one who could be elevated to the lead. “What if you look at a character and you let him talk, you let the design talk back to you.” The result was Psuedo, probably 2023’s ugliest character, pairing deformed musculature with a face to make Kratos feel like a charming Pedro Pascal in comparison.
The most significant change was the shift from first to third-person, aiming to forge a connection between players and Psuedo and the Boy (a cute, if slightly nightmarish, child companion riffing on 2018’s God of War). That was a major learning curve because animating a full player character, not a roving camera and two fists, demanded far more mobility than previous Zeno Clash games, causing challenging ripple effects across animation and combat design.
They’re proud of the end result, a balanced set of distinct combat styles with Soulsbourne RPG elements Andres compared to building a tower of matches “even the Yakuza games easily messed that up”. They see what players have done with the game’s flexible combo system since release as proof they succeeded. Like their previous games, Clash is punishing, but Edmundo believes it’s fair – citing evenly distributed heatmaps of player deaths “seeing people die everywhere is good data.”
The Chilean developer scene is still small, but a vibrant scene has blossomed since ACE Team started. Studios and university-run game jams have sprung around the country and the tight-knit ACE Team have no regrets they stayed in Santiago. Andres explains their stability resists nomadic contracts that are the norm elsewhere.
“Because we’re the oldest surviving [games] company in the country, we’re already seeing a lot of people with kids who have their life here in Chile, it wouldn’t be easy to move. […] Many people at the studio have been with us for more than 10 years. It’s different to what you see in the rest of the scene where there’s a lot of rotation, people work for a company for two years then look for a new position.”
They see their studio as a small family, perhaps unavoidably when founded by three siblings. When asked about the challenges of running a studio with their brothers, Edmundo sees it as a strength, saying that, even if blunt family talk can challenge professionalism, “You can tell us “Your idea is terrible” and nothing’s going to happen […] We just have to close the door so the others don’t hear us.”
Andres is clear that, since the pandemic normalised remote, global workforces, they see their future firmly in Latin America. “The real challenge is the same challenge everyone is facing no matter where you are, that is discoverability”. Andres goes on to state how he believes games have a bright future in Chile, but he has concerns that the country must increase industry funding initiatives for the industry to reach its full potential.
“In Chile, the amount of investment that the government does through grants in TV and cinema is ten times what you see invested in the video game industry. But from my perspective, Chilean cinema has a very clear roof when [Chile’s] games industry could grow in ten years to ten times what it is today.”
And one thing is certain: Going by ACE Team’s wildly imaginative creations so far, Chile’s game development industry is worth the investment.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is out now on Steam, PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox One/S/X.
Read original article here: www.nme.com
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