By Sebastian Nuß
Agustín Cordes’ debut Scratches, being produced in a very “indie” way, has been highly acclaimed by fans and critics. As he puts it, this adventure was a product of the vast amount of horror movies he used to watch as a kid. His Buenos Aires based studio Senscape is currently working on their upcoming chiller Asylum. In this interview he talks on how to put “gamey” stuff in a story, the flaws of Metal Gear solid and why it’s sometimes better to leave adventurers alone in the dark.
Play As Life: Your first project “Scratches” as well as your upcoming title “Asylum” are both horror adventures. What is it that fascinates you with horror stories? Is the Adventure genre the best genre to “scare” the player?
Cordes: I certainly think so! Adventures are the best vehicle to provide the most effective scares because you have players (hopefully) investing their utmost attention in your game. Action oriented games don’t have the same effect because players are constantly readying themselves to stumble into an enemy, then hit or run. It’s a certain type of fear that is very effective at first but gets very tiresome near the end. Adventures, at least the good ones, require a level of concentration and patience that is rarely seen in other games, and thus the scares are more psychological, subtle, yet far more powerful. Whereas in action games you end knowing all the potential enemies you can meet, in the case of adventures, just like any well told story, you simply can’t know what to expect. This is all generally speaking, of course. Horror fascinates me because, like a very wise writer once said, the oldest and strongest emotion of humankind is fear, and it’s quite a challenge to scare people these days. I understand this is a very morbid pleasure but I love being scared; it puts some strange gears of your mind in motion. Unfortunately, horror is being misused these days, it looks like the common approach is to either provide cheap, jump-out-your-seat scares or gratuitous gore. There was a certain sensibility in horror of past times, crafted by masters such as Poe in books or Cushing in movies, that is sorely missing now. We are losing the ability to create, and appreciate, subtlety.
Play As Life: Would you ever design a non-adventure game in order to transport a “better” story? Should the narrative in a game adapt to gameplay or the other way around?
Cordes: No, if what I want to do is primarily tell a story, then I would never design a non-adventure game as a vehicle for it. To put it somehow, all the other genres impose specific game mechanics that push the plot to the background and ultimately have an effect on the story itself. For instance, in a First-Person Shooter it’s a given fact that you must shoot people, so the story will have to contemplate that. In a Role-Playing Game, you will have to consider battles and some kind of positive progress for the protagonist(s) as they gain new abilities. In other words, in these genres the gameplay takes away some freedom from storytellers. This is also applies to adventure games but to a much lesser extent. It is the only game genre that has historically focused on the story while pushing the gameplay to the background. You could say there are subgenres of adventures focusing on the puzzle aspect where this is not the case, but the consensus is that the genre is primarily a story vehicles. It’s no wonder that adventures make rather “poor” games, ignoring things such as replay value and the increasingly popular social aspect. To me, they shouldn’t even be considered a game genre at all. They have the potential to become truly serious and thought-provoking pieces of entertainment; when you put the genre tag to them, people start to have expectations, and thus developers have to abide to some tacit rules. I long for the day when players buy a game for its plot description alone without any other sort of expectations. I’m sure it’s becoming evident what I think about the second part of your question: ideally, I prefer that the gameplay is adapted after the story, but this always depends on your motivations. If you intend to tell a powerful story, then you should think about the gameplay last. This is a fairly dangerous advice though because you might find in the end that your story does not work well in the game format. In any case, there’s no rule of thumb here: it’s very much like composing a musical piece, sometimes the music comes before the lyrics and sometimes it’s the other way around. For the really lucky ones however, they sometimes come hand in hand.
Play As Life: You said in an interview once, that writing adventure games is similar to the work of a novelist or movie director. But still adventure narratives can’t always unfold like in a movie or a novel. When writing the storyline for an adventure game, how do you deal with the non-linear aspects? How much “freedom” do adventure players need?
Cordes: This is a difficult question because it should be analyzed in the context of particular games. Also, I must clarify that this is my approach to adventure game design; others may do it in a completely different way. It’s true that the better adventures are those that allow players to freely explore and experience their game-world in a nonlinear way. Restrictions are generally not well received in games. However, the nonlinearity of the gameplay has very little to do with the way the story is delivered, which is always linear. Sounds paradoxical, I know. When I designed Scratches, I first wrote a complete narration of the game, thinking of it as a short tale and without any consideration whatsoever of the “gamey” aspects. I did know in advance what parts of the story where going to translate into puzzles, but I tried to disregard them. Then I proceeded with the actual design of the game, thinking about the environment (the Blackwood mansion, its surroundings) and how the story could be adapted within this game-world. This is where the nonlinear parts of the game comes in: you allow the player to have some liberty in the locations and treat each noteworthy event they trigger as building blocks for the story, but ultimately the progression is linear. It’s actually an illusion of freedom. That said, too much freedom can spoil the game. Players should have at least some sense of direction, that they’re part in the story; but they shouldn’t become unwilling directors themselves. It’s a delicate balance.
Play As Life: Good NPCs are considered to be one of the toughest challenge for adventure designers. Yet “Scratches” works almost completely without any “visible” NPCs. The player can just talk to some characters on the phone. This gives her a certain feeling of loneliness which really adds to the mood of the game. In general: How important are NPCs to tell a story in adventures? And what makes a “good” character in your opinion?
Cordes: Like you very well pointed out, I don’t believe that secondary characters are essential to have a good story. The protagonist alone can be a very rich character, and his thoughts and motivations enough to carry a story. Both Poe and Lovecraft where masters at writing this internal dialogue, depicting protagonists that struggle to make ends meet. The best horror stories in my opinion are those that operate in solitude and introspective environments; this way, the connection that people achieve with the protagonist is stronger, and therefore the scares more effective. Then again, it all depends on what works better for the story, as long as it isn’t artificial. If the story works with very few characters, then stick with that; don’t try to make it longer by forcing characters and more dialogue into it. However, it’s worth noting that a larger cast is crucial to sustain a certain type of story, investigative thrillers for instance. I would say the key to create a good character is to understand his or her underlaying personality; this is what many like to call “characters with multiple dimensions”. Even when they’re secondary, they should have motivations, dreams, and an internal conflict that maybe isn’t evident but is always present. When they say A, in reality they’re thinking of B; the famous subtext. I don’t believe there have been characters with such kind of depth in the history of videogames, but that’s the overall idea: the best characters are the most human ones, those that truly reflect what we are.
Play As Life: Casual games have become very successful. But instead of keeping the games as abstract and simple as they used to be, it seems like even the simplest “Tetris” clone gets fixed in a narrative frame nowadays. What do you think of this fashion?
Cordes: I think it’s fairly useless to say the least. The game should be aware of its goals: if it’s a Tetris clone, then fine; we can’t get enough of Tetris clones these days, but to artificially attempt to enhance the gameplay by encapsulating the experience within a shallow story is a waste of time because nothing is gained. It’s perfectly fine if we get some background, just an idea of what’s going on in the game-world to get into a certain mood, but as you say, we’re being flooded with fairly straightforward games intent on being “hip” by including inconsequential storytelling. The best example of this I believe is the latest Metal Gear Solid, and I’m sure this is going to be a controversial statement, but I thought that game was preposterous: fairly generic gameplay interceded with endless cutscenes telling a convoluted and rehashed story. What for? None of my actions during the game sequences had any impact whatsoever in the story exposition; they just felt like cutscenes added after the game was finished, like an afterthought. To me, gameplay and story didn’t complement each other but the majority of people seem to think otherwise. This is what I like about adventures: the storytelling and the interaction strongly work together, you can experience the story as you play the game, not as a series of relaxing cutscenes after the gamey parts. If MGS4 is the direction where the industry is heading then it’s hopeless, because I think they got it all wrong.
Play As Life: You designed “Scratches” with a minimum of personnel and budget. Today, new distribution channels and mobile platforms allow little Independent developers to create a hit game much more easily than five years ago. Do you see a potential for the adventure genre in this trend? Would people want to play a horror adventure on their mobile phone at a bus stop?
Cordes: In general, yes, I think that mobile devices can be a great fit for adventures and could mean a big boost for the genre. Adventures are a niche market and as such they can benefit from alternative channels of distribution. More specifically, the App Store from Apple has proven to be very successful for independent developers who can’t (or don’t want to) deal with large publishers. In the App Store all games can potentially get the same exposure, be it an indie with a minimal budget or an expensive port from a AAA game. I think this is a very promising trend that you currently can’t find, under the same conditions, in any other platform. Now, the iPhone turned out being a terrific device to replay old adventures (in just two years we saw far more adventures in that device than in the DS or PSP) but truly worthwhile originals are still missing. In this regard, I’m more looking forward to the iPad with its bigger screen and intimate feel; the iPhone works better to play games on the go whereas the iPad is meant to be used in the comfort of your home. This is ideal because the device is perhaps reuniting all the requirements to play adventures: being comfortable, investing your attention on the iPad alone and intimacy. In particular, intimacy is the key here because playing adventures is meant to be a very solitary experience, which goes totally against the current philosophy of the industry. I feel like this generalized lack of attention is becoming very worrisome in computers, which have become social hubs, and consoles, which happen to represent the complete opposite of intimacy; modern games for these platforms are supposed to be quick and kill the time, they don’t exercise your patience anymore. Keep in mind the iPad is being touted as a great reading device and, truly enough, most users claim that they’re using it mostly to read and play games. We can finally put adventures right where we wanted: very close to the readers, potentially the most patient gamers.
Play As Life: What are your five best kept secrets of adventure game design you would like to share with indie adventure developers?
Cordes: It’s no secret, I insist on it every day: READ. The best advice any developer ever shared was said by Brian Moriarty. In the old days, Brian used to tell fledgling game designers to study literature and art, and perhaps programming; these days, he recommends them to get into business administration, which is a faithful reflection of the current state in the industry. I believe his old advice still holds true for adventures because they are enjoyed by a minority that is more critical and open about their expectations. They want fresh challenges and compelling stories, and no rehashed stuff will cut it for them. The only way to come up with a truly original story (unless you’re a gifted human being) is to exercise much reading, fiction and nonfiction, research the subjects that motivate you, read the news that nobody else reads… Basically, just make sure you read something worthwhile every day. I know you asked me for five and that’s the most important advice for me. As for the remaining four… Well, I’m not sure I can make it to four! Let’s see: first, know your limitations. Don’t plan making The Longest Journey if you don’t have the resources; sometimes a shorter but focused adventure can do the trick. If you can support yourself, never sign with a publisher until you’re well into development, and I mean nearing a beta milestone. Don’t announce your game with a fancy website and shallow mockups when you don’t have any real development done; people hate that. Most “pro” developers insist on having a well fleshed-out design document before even getting into development… The heck with that: you risk never doing any actual work. Those extensive design documents are meant for a very restricted working environment where the process of game making gets lost within corporate nightmare. You’re free to do all you want, but don’t fool yourself: start with a draft and at least have a clear goal in mind. Think of developing an adventure as the work a novelist does, revising and rewriting the initial draft as they see fit… But the challenge is to know when to stop, so make sure you work with schedules and a timeframe. Above all things: do what motivates you. Ask for opinions and consider all of them, but ultimately follow your instinct.
Play As Life: Thank you a lot for your time and we wish you all the best the future.