Home Features Marija Milivojevic, Mad Head Games talks about Scars Above and women in STEM

Marija Milivojevic, Mad Head Games talks about Scars Above and women in STEM

Marija Milivojevic, Mad Head Games talks about Scars Above and women in STEM

Mad Head Games certainly live up to their ‘unconventional’ self-description. Few game developers can cite having offices in Belgrade and Novi Sad (Serbia), and Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Or a release rate of 60+ games in just 11 years. 

Their latest release, however, marks a sharp turn of direction for the team. Their slate of casual series has been retired, replaced by a lineup of top-tier action titles – this year’s Scars Above being the first. 

Scars Above is a ‘challenging sci-fi third-person action-adventure shooter’ with a main story completion time of about seven hours. Taking on the role of scientist and engineer Dr Kate Ward, players are shot just beyond Earth’s orbit to investigate an alien structure – dubbed The Metahedron – that has recently appeared. It goes without saying, but the investigation doesn’t go quite to plan. Cue the action-adventure shooter. 

Scars Above – Mad Head Games

Here we speak to Associate Game Director Marija Milivojevic about influences, astronauts, and how video games might inspire the next generation of female STEM professionals.

TAHLIA: Can you tell us the story of Scars Above’s genesis? 

MARIJA: While we were developing early prototypes for Scars Above and exploring some gameplay mechanics, we were thinking about how to create a story that is both familiar and original. So we started with the basic idea – ‘an astronaut stranded on an alien planet’. Many sci-fi stories start in a similar fashion. 

Then we wanted to create a main theme for our game – something that would help make it unique. While researching and looking at the references, something stuck as a suitable motif: the idea of confronting fear and chaos with knowledge and curiosity. So with that in mind, we started writing an abstract for the story, how Kate’s journey would look and feel, what the main story points were, and how her story would be tied into the game mechanics. Once we established the core concept of the story, we started fleshing out the details: characters, player’s journey, world-building, etc. 

TAHLIA: Were there any films or games that influenced its creation? 

MARIJA: Of course! Many classic sci-fi movies inspired us: Alien, Prometheus, Oblivion, and Annihilation, to name a few. Some are visual inspirations; some are inspirations in terms of themes they cover or questions they ask. I always like to quote one of the first sentences in our Game Design Document: [Scars Above is] ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Alien’. That was written by Ivan Zorkić, our Game Director, and I always found it very inspirational. 

When we talk about games that we looked at, I can mention Remnant: From the Ashes, the Resident Evil series, Alien: Isolation, Destiny, and Horizon Zero Dawn, for example. We tried to analyse what made those games good and use similar concepts to tell our story. 

TAHLIA: Did making Scars Above present any unique challenges or delights to the team? 

MARIJA: Scars Above is a very special game for us. It marks an era of transformation for Mad Head Games. Our journey from a developer with a focus on casual games to [a focus on] core gaming was finally completed with this game. 

During the first six months of the development of Scars Above, half of the studio was still working on our casual projects, and by the end of the first year, all of the developers were retrained for their new roles, new pipelines, software, and approaches. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was definitely worth it. Here we are, a couple of years later, and we are finally able to make the games we always wanted – together. The team has grown bigger and stronger during this period. We have learned a lot and are ready for new adventures.

TAHLIA: Your team has grown exponentially in the last ten years. What key traits or skills have you looked for in new hires? 

MARIJA: We are looking for experts in their fields, and proactive people with a growth mindset who will lead them through research, problem-solving, and innovation in game dev. 

Also, people with in-depth knowledge of Unreal Engine and experience with game development in AA and AAA production. Senior individuals are the main focus since the games in front are the top-tier complexity. We have big plans and really awesome projects in development already! 

TAHLIA: The design and art of the various biomes on the alien planet are stunning, and there are several poignant moments with some of the creatures who inhabit them. Is there a comment on our own environmental predicament wrapped up in this story? 

MARIJA: It’s clear – now more than ever – that we as a species are capable of greatness, but at the same time, we do nasty things to our home. The responsibility lies with every one of us. I would be happy if we managed to provoke thought about our future on this planet.

TAHLIA: A reviewer wrote that Scars Above puts ‘the science back in science fiction’. Did you learn any wild facts about our planet or environment while developing the story world? 

MARIJA: That’s the beauty of game development – by doing research for your characters, stories, or mechanics, you always learn something new. This type of game was an excellent opportunity to revise our knowledge of chemistry, biology, and physics since our core mechanics are rooted in the reality and laws of nature. It was also a pleasure to learn how astronauts live. It is fascinating how well-trained, well-educated, and amazing those people are. Working on projects like this makes you respect some life calls even more.

TAHLIA: Speaking of amazing people, you recently spoke to Dr Jackie Bell about the gender gap in STEM professions. How might video games help decrease this? 

MARIJA: In my experience, many girls go – by default – toward professions traditionally meant for women, simply due to a lack of information and examples of other girls in fields traditionally considered ‘male’. Games are an extraordinary platform for reaching those young girls by providing them with more role models and showing them all the great possibilities and opportunities that STEM studies can bring in various creative ways.

There’s one more thing: when you love games – in many cases – you are interested in making them, which could be the initial spark that inspires you to pursue a STEM career. A good game can be as inspiring as a good book. It can make people think, wonder, and learn with such ease. So for starters, we could recommend a great game to the girl next door. It might be just what she needs. 

Special thanks to Marija and PLAION for their time. 

Scars Above was released on 1 March 2023 and is now available on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. 

Mad Head Games is already in the works on their second title, based on a famous horror film IP. Be sure to give them a follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to catch that announcement when it drops!