Interview: Stellar Jockey's Hugh Monahan on Brigador

With its Syndicate-like world, John Carpenter-like music, and old-school difficulty, Brigador is the greatest robot action game you’ve never heard of.

Interview: Stellar Jockey's Hugh Monahan on Brigador

Brigador has touched a nerve. With its cyberpunk aesthetic and difficult-yet-rewarding gameplay, this dark game of mercenary robot action has inspired a cult following. Created by Hugh and Jack Monahan, Brigador was directly inspired by Syndicate and Crusader: No Remorse. But something that surprised Hugh was the way it reminded fans of so many other ‘90s action games – the way it tapped into a zeitgeist. 

“What’s interesting is that a lot of the major touchstones for players are ones that we didn’t even know about. Neither of us had ever actually played Desert Strike, or any of the Strike games. I’m sure I’d seen them, somewhere before, but it wasn’t something I recalled. Future Cop LAPD is another one that comes up a lot. I never had a PlayStation. We weren’t familiar with that game either. I knew about MechAssault, but I’d never played it.” 
It would seem that a lot of gamers’ fondest memories are forged in games with high skill ceilings, where progress unlocks a greater breadth of possibilities, as opposed to just making things easier. “Look at XCOM versus Terror From the Deep. You look at Crusader: No Remorse versus Crusader: No Regret. The American Revolt, the expansion for Syndicate. They basically took the groundwork that the game laid, and just gave you access to more material, but continued the skill trend required in order to engage with that content. 

“We weren’t actively trying to be old-school about it. Or retro. Neither in appearance nor design, oddly enough. It just so happens that the way that we went about building the game harkens back to stuff that tends to be associated with ‘90s isometric-style games. The pre-rendered art style... we went with that because it’s what allowed us to produce the tremendous amount of art with only one artist. 

“On the gameplay side, it just came down to: We don’t want to waste people’s time. I want a game that you can get straight in to. There’s going to be a learning curve; part of that is the control scheme, and part of that is the difficulty. But it shouldn’t take two hours of playing the game in order to even be able to do everything that the game has to offer. If you’re good, then you can just jump straight in. That’s something that I think hasn’t been too common lately.” 

Brigador was the manifestation of a singular vision, passionately pursued; yet it sold poorly. To perform something of a post-mortem on its launch, we asked Hugh about his initial marketing strategy. “I think implying there was an explicit strategy behind it is a little generous [laughs].” He pointed out that a major hurdle was that Brigador defied being pigeon-holed into a catchy elevator pitch. “People need these sort of pithy, very succinct descriptions or statements about your game to easily process what it is. If you can’t summarise your game in one sentence... [laughs] We never really figured out a good way of doing it. The best shorthand we ever came up with was a Kool-Aid Man Simulator. [laughs] Which gets to the spirit of it, but isn’t actually super-descriptive for the game itself.” 

Hugh believes that this necessity sparked the widespread practice of describing games as being ‘Souls-like.’ “A lot of these games lately have been just re-imaginings of older franchises. You look at Stardew Valley, which is like Harvest Moon. These easy reference points. For us, the only obvious touchstone was actually a game called Bedlam, which is this ancient, ancient PC game. Again, one we didn’t even know about until after early access. The point is that if you want to market your game well, you need to be able to condense it down into a neat statement. And we were never able to do that with Brigador. 

“We toured the game a lot. But we were on the tail end of the growth curve for new games getting released on Steam. If Brigador had come out in 2014 I think this might’ve been a very different ball game. It’s tricky. There’s so much involved in launching a game. I think you have to be very careful. Or be very ready to commit some serious resources, if you are not already connected into the industry. Because there’s such a volume of games coming out now that it’s very hard to vie for attention. The signal to noise ratio is insane.”

For the soundtrack Hugh wanted a suite of John Carpenter-style synth tunes, and a chance encounter at GDC led him to hiring the ace synthwave composer Makeup And Vanity Set. “It was a dream to work with him. We just handed him our design documents and he just made music for a couple years. That was it. Our only direction was just: ‘More.’

“He’s actually the reason we doubled down. The original soundtrack was only going to be an hour, an hour and 15 minutes of music. But his stuff was so good. By the end we launched with two and a half hours of music in the game. And then to boot he ended up releasing another EP of another 20 minutes of music on top of that. It’s a prodigious amount of content. And we ended up using that music as a backing for the audio book as well, which [laughs] has a whole other story.” 

The visual and aural aesthetic of Brigador was heavily influenced by Alien, and by early John Carpenter films, particularly Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. “This kind of chunky, ‘80s vision of the future is one that we just find very appealing.” 

While an American production, Brigador had a lot of subtle British influences. “Brad Buckmaster who helped us with a lot of our writing, he’s a technical consultant for us for military stuff, and he also wrote the Brigador book. He’s a tremendous fan of 2000AD. Judge Dredd came up often in our conversations. And also, we’re all huge fans of Blackadder as well. So it was a natural fit. 

“There’s a show, That Mitchell & Webb Look. They’ve got a skit about SS officers realising that they’re the bad guys. [Mid-Western US impression of a British accent] ‘Have you looked at our caps recently? They’ve got skulls on them!’ That skit perfectly encapsulates for me part of what we wanted to do with Brigador. Which is that you’re the bad guy! And we’re not going to explicitly tell you you’re the bad guy. But if you pay attention at all, in the game, it’s going to be very obvious. The very first mission in the game is you assassinating an unarmed person trapped at the end of a traffic tunnel. And then this demonic robot talks to you and says: ‘Welcome Brigador.’ Very ominous.”

Snake Plissken’s wry attitude was another influence on the overall tone. “I think not taking yourself too seriously, especially if you’re making a kind of dark, violent world, can benefit you greatly. We didn’t want to turn Brigador into some sort of morality play. We just sprinkle breadcrumbs throughout the game, these very odd elements, and they’re there for you to engage with. If you want to read into it, you can. And if not you can still just enjoy the game and not have to think about it.” 

Brigador may have bombed on release, but Hugh and his team are not giving up. “We’re re-launching the game on the one year anniversary. Beginning of June 2017. We are basically just re-releasing Brigador. There’s a lot of things that I wasn’t happy about, on the launch. There’s an aphorism with regards to art: ‘Art is never finished, it’s just abandoned.’ The same thing can be said for games. From a content standpoint, we’ve already released several new missions, new playable vehicles, added some extra writing.” The re-release will include a lot of new content on top of an improved tutorial campaign. “New levels. New vehicles. Some fun stuff for the guys that have stuck with us, the guys who were day one purchasers, there’s still plenty for them to come back to.”

As an example the type of content fans can look forward to, Hugh cited the addition of the Varlet – a tiny three-wheeled scooter that’s wonky, vulnerable, and has the two weakest guns in the game. 

“We added it basically as a joke. It was one of those throwing-the-gauntlet moments as a developer to your audience, and people took to it like a fish to water. There’s a bunch of videos on YouTube of these guys doing runs of the game in the most challenging vehicle, on the hardest difficulty. And just doing it with aplomb. 

“From a developer standpoint, there are few pleasures greater than seeing someone so thoroughly understand what you’ve produced that they can operate at that level of mastery. It’s become it’s own sub-genre within the game. It’s something that was embraced by our community in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for.” 

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