Delivering Mars: Inside the production on one of 2023’s most ambitious indie gems

Deliver Us Mars gameplayKeokeN Interactive

Deliver Us Mars stands tall as one of the year’s most ambitious sci-fi games yet it comes from an unassuming indie team of barely a few dozen developers in the Netherlands. To shed some light on how the expansive project came together, from the cast’s first impression of the script to seeing themselves digitized on the red planet, we spoke with actors Ellise Chappell and Neil Newbon on their experience bringing the game’s central father-and-daughter relationship to life.

While KeokeN Interactive’s latest release boasts a staggering, interplanetary scope as the very survival of our species comes into question, this backdrop mainly serves to illuminate an extremely personal, tightly-woven familial conflict at its core. The troubled relationship of scientist Isaac Johanson and his daughter Kathy is the driving force of the narrative and one that takes players on many unexpected, heart-wrenching twists and turns where right and wrong, good and bad, are never truly black and white.

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It’s a surprisingly engaging storyline that we praised as a “truly unmissable journey” for sci-fi fans. Though the ambitious tale you’d expect from a AAA-caliber team, fit with full motion capture, authentic performances and a well-rounded script, comes from a relatively small indie studio toiling away in the Netherlands.

Breaking down just how this enormous project came to be, and what the process looked like for two of the leading cast members, we spoke with UK actors Ellise Chappell (Kathy Johanson) and Neil Newbon (Isaac Johanson) to gain insight on all things from the strenuous recording sessions to the research required in grounding the spacefaring adventure.

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KeokeN Interactive
Deliver Us Mars is one of the most ambitious indie games of the year. But how did it all come together?

Finding the right Isaac & Kathy

As two polar opposites, Chappell and Newbon find each other at completely different stages in their respective careers. For the former, years of performing in a number of immensely popular TV shows led to her first steps in the gaming industry. While for the latter, more than a decade of experience as one of the region’s top motion capture experts led to another opportunity in the space, though one that he wasn’t initially set to star in.

“Originally, I wasn’t going to be playing Isaac,” Newbon revealed in conversation with Dexerto. “I was trying to find Isaac.”

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Having first emailed the company years prior after playing 2018’s Deliver Us The Moon, Newbon was enraptured and fully onboard to work with KeokeN Interactive in just about any capacity. Cut to 2021 and he joined the follow-up project in pre-production as a performance director, helping the team cast its next batch of stars for the sequel.

“Someone said ‘that guy emailed us about three years ago!’” he joked of his first day in the studio. Before long, the team realized he himself was actually the best fit for the role.

“For casting, it’s treated very similar to film these days,” Newbon continued. “We do screen tests, self-tapes, way more extensive casting than we would have done before, simply because more actors are interested in games.” That’s a point Chappell echoed as well, stating the audition came through her agent “just like any other” she’d receive for a film or TV project.

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As the protagonist of the new chapter, Chappell was first to be locked in for the role of Kathy, securing her spot in her very first video game. “I immediately said yes, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.

Ellise Chappell recording Deliver us MarsKeokeN Interactive
Chappell’s first day on the project ‘blew away’ the dev team.

“As soon as I read the scenes I got through, I was really into it straight away. I found it really complex, the whole audition process was so playful, fun, and interesting.” Adding to the “new experience” was the fact it was Chappell’s first audition in a ‘volume,’ a technologically advanced production stage akin to the likes used to film The Mandalorian. This means acting with minimal surrounding context, just a handful of props, and no specific costumes to help immerse the cast. A completely different setup to what you’d find outside of the gaming space.

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“Ellise Chappell is an extraordinarily talented actor,” Newbon said, having been ‘blown away’ by her first appearance on a stage of its kind. “To see someone of her caliber come in and not only do an amazing job performance-wise but also smash performance capture… she blew us away.”

From there, it was off to the races as the cast prepared for a few weeks of flat-out recording sessions, diving head-first into an extensive amount of research in the process.

Complete immersion

Given Chappell and Newbon signed on at different stages of their career, it lines up that their experience with the series from KeokeN also differed greatly. On one hand, we know Newbon was an enormous fan, someone who “fell in love” with the original game back when it first launched.

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“I just thought what an incredibly interesting and provocative game,” he said of Deliver Us The Moon. “Then I realized how relatively small the team was and I was blown away. I actually emailed them and said I’d love to work with you on anything, whatever you want,” Newbon said.

Though on the other hand, as a relative newcomer to the gaming industry, Chappell hadn’t played Deliver Us The Moon prior to her audition. In fact, she was fairly inexperienced with the industry as a whole, describing herself as a “mini-gamer” before jumping into the deep end.

Rather than playing through certain titles herself, she instead preferred to watch a handful of playthroughs online. Games like The Last of Us helped show just what the medium is capable of, “those kinds of games where the narratives and the characters are just as thrilling as the gameplay,” she explained.

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As Chappell hadn’t yet experienced the first chapter of the ‘Deliver Us’ saga, she waited until things were official and the role was locked in before getting up to speed.

“I waited for a few weeks to hear which was a bit nerve-wracking, but then I got the news which was really exciting. I didn’t play Deliver Us The Moon until I knew I’d got the role. When I got the role, I was like, alright, I’m gonna play Deliver Us The Moon and do as much ‘space prep’ as I could.

“I loved it and I was so enthralled by the feeling I had, what was achieved in terms of feeling like you were in space. I found it really thrilling and immersive, so I really enjoyed the first game.”

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Now both caught up on the original and fully onboard for the next chapter, it came time for the cast to prepare for their new roles. From studying tape to having experts in the field read over the script, no stone was left unturned in making Deliver Us Mars as authentic as it could possibly be.

“We were all studying a lot of NASA feeds,” Newbon said. “Just to get a sense of the ambiance of space, to understand the process of becoming an astronaut. We went with as much realism as we could.”

“I was watching NASA livestreams every morning,” Chappell chimed in. “Immersing myself that way made it easier to imagine things [on set].”

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Fortunately for both, the script was airtight well before performance capture got underway, allowing them to get familiar with their character’s journey along with the overall scope of the narrative.

“NASA and the ESA were contacted to help on the script,” Newbon revealed. “So there were lots of space agencies that were actually working independently on the script to make sure it was accurate.”

Deliver us the moon gameplayKeokeN Interactive
Deliver Us The Moon launched in 2018 as KeokeN Interactive’s first game.

“I would say I had the whole shape and most of the script before we started shooting, which was really helpful,” Chappell continued. “It was like 400 pages. Kathy goes on such an incredible arc in this game, it was so useful having that all in front of me.

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“I did my prep in a similar way that I would prep for a TV & film job. I mapped out her whole arc, I put it all on post-it notes on my wall. I felt this was such a personal, emotional, and complex story within this family. To have such a personal story in duality with this huge theme and big, epic backdrops was a wonderful thing. To be able to see so much in these relationships. They’re all so complex and these characters are really interesting. I loved discovering this journey.”

An “intense” production schedule

Not only responsible for portraying Isaac, but also for helping guide performances across the board, Newbon had to strike a balance between his responsibilities as an actor and director on Deliver Us Mars. Juggling multiple hats, he described it all as one big form of “storytelling, just with a different set of tools.

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“It does take a shift in terms of focus. Directing is more cerebral than acting. In acting, you can’t overthink when you’re doing it, it’s more experiential than cerebral.”

Condensing the full capture process into just two weeks, the day-to-day hustle for all involved was “intense,” Chappell added, often having to record a “bunch of scenes every day.” But with Newbon’s assistance alongside Narrative Designer Raynor Arkenbout, the crew pulled it off without a hiccup.

“I loved it,” Chappell said of her experience on set. “It was really fun to just get completely immersed in the story. It was a really wonderful experience.”

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However, she admitted it was certainly a “challenge” jumping from familiar territory in the world of film and television to her first gaming project.

“When you’re on [a TV or movie] set, sometimes you’re working with a green screen. So in that sense, you have to imagine your surroundings or imagine a mythical character. But when you’re in a volume and you’re in a motion capture suit, you don’t have the costume to ground you either. On top of that, in this setting, you’re in space. Such a tiny percentage of the human population gets to experience what it’s actually like to be in space and wear a spacesuit. So it takes a lot of imagination.”

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Ellise Chappell recording Deliver us MarsKeokeN Interactive
As her first video game production, Chappell was a newcomer to the world of motion capture.

Over the course of the two-week shoot, the team “generally” stuck to the script given how “finely tuned” it all was, but that’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvisation. Far from it, in fact, as Chappell was told to “be vocal and go with what feels right for the character.

“With Kathy, we all pretty much stuck to the script because it’s so well-written. But there are these little moments where you feel you could be softer or add a little joke. With the emotional scenes, I had a line here and there, but it was more just here’s the shape of what happens, then I just kind of did whatever came out.”

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In a similar instance, while capturing an emotional scene conveyed through a hologram in the finished product, Newbon spoke from the heart and ended up with an entirely new chunk of dialogue not originally nailed down.

“It just came out of the experience I was having,” he explained. “Something came out amid what we were doing and it sort of became improvisational because it just felt right. [Arkenbout] deliberately kept it in because he felt it was a really natural, organic moment.”

Ellise Chappell recording Deliver us marsKeokeN Interactive
There’s no shortage of heart-wrenching sequences in Deliver Us Mars.

Having given their all to the project back in 2021, what came next was entirely out of their hands. Newbon and Chappell departed and left the developers to work their magic over the next two years as they brought the cinematic sequences to life and realized the intricate gameplay sections in between.

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“Heartwarming” reception and what lies ahead

With Deliver Us Mars now out in the wild for fans of the original to experience and newcomers to be enraptured with, it’s been a “surreal” period for the cast that did their bit a few years prior. Now seeing it all in one complete package, viewing the sequences they memorized from a whole new perspective, witnessing the level of detail in every frame, it’s unlike any other acting experience out there, both agreed.

“It’s honestly so surreal, but in the best way possible,” Chappell said. “I love everyone who worked on this project, everyone worked so hard and was so passionate about the project. So to get to play it and see everyone’s work come together was really special. I was so invested in the story and the characters, to see that all play out, to go through all of it was a complete joy.”

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For Chappell, it was such a “wonderful experience,” the UK actor is now keeping the door open for any and all gaming opportunities. “I just think it’s a wonderful medium, you can get so fully invested in it.” In fact, she’s even starting to play more video games herself, now the proud owner of a Nintendo Switch. “That’s my main port of call,” she joked. “I’m really getting into it and I’m really excited for Hogwarts legacy to come to the Switch later this year!”

As for what comes next from KeokeN, both performers are unsure of what the future may hold, but they’re absolutely eager to work with the team again should the opportunity arise.

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The following section contains spoilers for the ending of Deliver Us Mars. Do not continue reading if you haven’t yet finished the game.

Mere moments before credits roll, Deliver Us Mars hangs on four words amid its conclusion: “We can be better,” as spoken by Kathy.

Traveling back to Earth, things go awry. Our home planet has ceased communication, though it’s unclear exactly why. Could it simply be technical issues? Has devastation rapidly torn apart the rest of civilization? No one knows for sure, but the threads certainly linger if KeokeN wishes to pull on them anytime soon for a third chapter.

“I don’t know anything about what the future holds. None of us do,” Chappell admitted. “But if it was going to come back for a third game, I think there’s so much more to explore and I would love to come back as Kathy.

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“It is left on a bit of a cliffhanger, there’s so much scope to explore. What happens to Earth? What is the state that we find it in? We see the technology from Mars is starting to malfunction a bit. There are so many unanswered questions that I feel would be lovely to explore. Fingers crossed.”

“I would love to see more work from KeokeN,” Newbon added. “I would love to see an even bigger budget for whatever they do. Is something happening? I have no idea. But I think the bigger KeokeN gets, the more exciting the project is gonna be.

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“KeokeN, whatever you want to do, I’ll always audition, even if it’s playing a dude in the corner sweeping, I’d love to work with them again!”