April 4th, 2012 | By Chris Priestman
Lewis Denby and Ashton Raze are two fairly well-known and certainly established gaming journalists. Like many of their kind, they have a burning passion for not just writing about games, but also making them. Being huge fans of adventure games of any shape or form, upon deciding to collaborate on a project, that was the genre they settled on.
Not long ago, the pair of them approached IGM with the idea of revealing their game through us and naturally we were thrilled. So, Richard and I decided to think up some questions for Lewis and Ashton about their game Richard & Alice…a kind of wife swap it would seem, though with less wives and with the swapping of questions for information. Anyway, we’re also huge fans of the adventure genre, especially of the many breakout titles that have used the very tools that this development pair are! Should we expect big things? Emotions, gripping story, tense action? We found out and now share it with you!
IGM: As seasoned video games journalists, you’ve undoubtedly had a great deal of hands-on experience with the ‘finished’ products that the public ends up playing. Would you say that your journalistic experiences have given you a better indication of how to approach the actual development phase of video game creation?
Lewis Denby: No, I’m still pretty terrified that I have no idea what a good game looks like. The thing is, you can apply the theory all you want, but applying it successfully is what’s important. We’ve both played enough adventure games that we think we know when we’ve spotted a good one, but I find that when I’m playing for research rather than for a review, I end up looking at totally different things. As a reviewer you’re generally speaking in broader sweeps. As a designer, everything’s in the tiniest details.
Ashton Raze: We definitely had a list of ‘things we absolutely don’t want to include’, but I’m not sure that came from being journalists so much as a couple people who’ve played a ton of adventure games. I think spending so long critiquing games does help the vision, but whether it’ll have an effect on the end product remains to be seen. I’d like to think it will!
IGM: You guys aren’t the only journalists to try your hand at video game design and story writing in recent memory. Have their undertakings influenced your decision to get into fully-fledged game development, or has this project been bubbling under the surface for a while now?
LD: I was actually making something approximating ‘games’ long before I became a games journalist. I started tinkering with Half-Life modding when I was about 12, just after the game came out. It was all shit, of course, which is why I don’t really talk about it now. I suppose recently has seemed like the time to revisit the process. I’ve had ideas for adventure games in my head for
ages, but it’s only last year that I went, ‘Oh yeah, I actually could probably make one’. As for Richard & Alice itself, it’s exploded from an original idea I’ve had in mind for a long time, but it’s only recently that it’s turned into what it is now.
AR: Likewise, this isn’t my first foray into the world of games development. I’ve had a project on the go with a friend of mine for almost two years now – we’re pushing for Fez’s record – although I’d say the desire to go into games development was more a case of wanting to combine my two passions: writing fiction, and understanding video game construction. I think the reason quite a few games writers go into games development is because to want to do this job, you almost certainly have a huge love of games, so it’s a natural step.
IGM: So your new project is Richard & Alice, can you explain the premise of the game and, what seems to be most important, the story? Can you also outline the influences and the origins of your ideas?
LD: So, Richard & Alice is an adventure game set in a world where the weather systems have gone mad, in a way that no one, even the experts, ever predicted. Half the globe’s in a new ice age, the other half’s melting in perpetual desert conditions. And as a result, the world’s gone a bit mad. In the UK we’re absolutely dreadful at dealing with just a couple of hours of snow – the whole city of London comes to a standstill – so I started thinking about what would happen if it just started snowing one day and never stopped. And that’s kind of where the idea came from.
AR: We both really liked the image this snowy wasteland conjured up. Snow’s very evocative, I think, and we don’t really get to see much of it in the UK before it turns into slush. For me, it was that image that really kicked things off, the isolation, loneliness, sacrifice that a blank white snowfield brings to mind. And from there it just seemed to naturally evolve into this story of two people, and the idea of them sharing this very unique, unusual situation. There are quite a few current affairs-y undertones to the backstory as well, mainly it just started out with the desire to make a game about two people in an interesting situation.
LD: Richard and Alice aren’t the only two characters you’ll meet, but they are the focus. Before we started on this I was actually thinking of making a one-room game that was almost entirely a conversation between two characters. But then this snowy wasteland idea came to mind, and it just started to grow. So now, it’s a game where you start out locked up in a luxurious future prison, but one day you wake up to find you’re not alone in your cell any more. Alice has turned up from the ice-ridden outside world, a bit worse for wear, and a major part of the story is basically about piecing together what happened to her, and what’s going on outside.
IGM: From what we know about Richard & Alice so far, it’s clear that there’s a strong underpinning of social and political commentary in the game, namely with regards to humanity’s reactions to unforeseen circumstances. Have any specific real-world events coloured your attitudes towards the game’s background story?
LD: …I don’t know. Have they? I was about to tell Raze to answer this one, then remembered it was me that came up with the concept, so bugger. Erm. I mean, global warming’s the obvious one, but it isn’t a game specifically about anything that’s going on in the real world, and I don’t think we really have anyopinions about that that we want to voice here. The game has a couple of statements to make, but they’re more about individual moments than anything else. And characters. It’s very much a character story. We wanted the name to reflect that, which is why we just threw the names of the two main characters on either side of an ampersand, instead of thinking up anything more ambitious, or with a colon in it.
AR: I think there’s a lot of real-world events mirrored in it! There’s the whole erosion of civil liberties angle, of course, and the way different people deal with things. I dunno, I see a lot of current news stories and ideas reflected in our design docs.
LD: I think though – for me personally, anyway – it’s more of a subconscious mirroring, rather than a desire to make any particular statements. What I’ve enjoyed about working on the story, which is pretty much finished now, is that we’ve bounced ideas around in a really fluid way. One of us will go, ‘Okay, I’ve had this idea’, and the other will expand on it and add things and make suggestions, and generally it all ties up that way in a really natural manner.
IGM: Another overarching theme appears to be the value of companionship in desperate times. Is there anything you can tell us about how you’re aiming for the relationship between the titular characters to shape the player’s emotional reaction to the overall gaming experience?
LD: Gosh. By making it compelling? That’s not a very good answer, is it?
AR: I think the goal is to convey crushing loneliness by gradually removing it from the characters’ lives. For me, I want people to either think ‘I have an Alice/Richard’ in my life or ‘I’m missing an Alice/Richard from my life’. How people react to it is going to be quite personal, but it’s basically impossible not to relate to it in some way, even if it’s to think ‘I could never stand being this close to someone I don’t really know’. Obviously, as Lewis says, ‘making it compelling’ will be a primary goal, and I’d also add ‘making it believable’. People tend to talk to each other in very specific ways in games, we want to show two people conversing in a way that you could actually believe.
LD: Yeah, I do dislike a lot of dialogue style in games. Or rather, I don’t think we have an equivalent of – say – Shane Meadows, whose writing is stylised in such a natural manner that it’s really quite surprising. I don’t think you can do quite the same in games, especially ones without voice acting – you can’t really communicate interruptions or people speaking over each other, or the weird intricacies of speech that cause us to occasionally misfire words. But I do hope we’ve found a nice balance here.
Other than that… well, I hope there’ll be a moment or two that make people think about the human condition and about human relationships on a level that stretches beyond just Richard and Alice themselves. This is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory, and also hard because we’ve not finished writing the scene yet… but there’s something in the game that even we disagreed over in terms of implications for the characters and how we felt about their actions.
IGM: What can you tell us about your attitude towards the adventure game genre and how this will affect Richard & Alice? Do you prefer to keep the player stumped with puzzles or is this intended to flow along with the narrative, for instance?
LD: You know, I’m glad you asked this. And it’s funny you did so, because we have a mantra that’s looming over us all the time we’re designing the game, which is that we believe puzzles should provide pacing to the narrative, not distract from it. I mean, that’s the mantra for this game, anyway. I’m not saying anything about what other adventure games should do. I prefer not to spend hours scratching my head on the same puzzle, but I know others do. For this game in particular, there are puzzles of course, but we’re working really hard to keep the story flowing throughout, and a lot of the time you can engage in long, extended conversations at your discretion, burying your nose as deep into the story as you want. That was kind of where the idea spawned from.
AR: I’ve seen reviews praising adventure games for lasting a long time because ‘you’ll be stuck for hours on the puzzles’. To me, that’s not a good thing. I don’t want to sit there impotently unable to progress, or feel like I need to check Gamefaqs because I want more of the story. I want to feel smart by solving the puzzles, reaching the solutions after a few minutes of thought, rather than brute- forcing my way through them by using everything on everything. Unless you can go and do something else in-game while working out the solution, it’s frustrating
and breaks the flow. I’d much prefer the puzzles to complement the narrative, which is what we’re aiming for.
IGM: One of the most important in elements in games is the use of music, especially in adventure games that portray a certain story usually with an attached emotion. What kind of music are you using in Richard & Alice and to what effect?
LD: We’ve commissioned an original soundtrack which we’re in the process of finalising with the composer at the moment. It’s sounding great. That’s all I really want to say about it at this time, though. But I totally agree – audio is absolutely crucial, and often overlooked.
AR: Audio is perhaps the biggest area of game design that gets short thrift when it comes to critical analysis. When we approached the composer, we kind of pitched tracks based on concepts/ideas, so that the focus really was on nailing the right mood with each piece.
IGM: Do you think it’s easier and more cost effective for people to tell a story with a game these days than it is through say a book or film? Why did you decide to pick this medium to tell your story over another?
LD: Cost-effective? What, financially? Not really – Richard & Alice is being developed on a miniscule budget, but you can write a novel for free. I wanted to tell this story in game form because it’s a story that works in game form. It’s about meeting a person that fascinates you and doing your best to pick away at what makes them tick. Obviously we can’t give the player absolute freedom in this, but much more so than if it were a book or a film, in which case you’re limited to the one thing the author decides a character will say at a specific point. A thing games do really well is allowing you to discover. I hope we can allow you to discover in Richard & Alice.
AR: I agree with Lewis, I don’t think ‘easier’ comes into it, just ‘different’. All three mediums are brilliant for storytelling, all three offer something different. Telling a story through a game offers me totally different opportunities than when I write prose, and vice versa. I would like to see more people using video games primarily as storytelling mediums, but I don’t think there’s an ‘easiest’ option. Just, in this case, it was the right option.
IGM: We’re not sure of your coding skills Lewis, but we do know you’re not a full time programmer. Which tools and programs are being used to make Richard & Alice and how easy are you finding them to work with?
LD: Adventure Game Studio. Lots of people think of it being just for amateurs… which, to be honest, we are. But look at Gemini Rue, the Blackwell series, Time Gentlemen, Please! and suchlike… these huge, brilliant adventure games created with this little freeware tool. I’m so glad it exists. It’s really flexible, but it’s only taken me about six months to really get to grips with it, and the fact that it’s completely free, even if you’re selling your game, is a fantastic and humbling thing.
IGM: This question’s mainly directed at Lewis again. As many people know, you spearheaded the PR campaign for Dear Esther. What would you say you’ve learned from your experiences with Dear Esther as far as pitching concepts to the public and to experts within the gaming industry is concerned? Share your worldly advice!
LD: [Unfathomably long pause] Um. I’ve learnt… that… having four IGF nominations and one of the most beautiful trailers in gaming makes your job as a PR guy a lot easier! Actually, I think one of the interesting things about Esther was that we were very careful to market the product as nothing but what it was. We used the word ‘game’, because we believed it was a game, but if you read anything we put out to the press or public about Esther, it always described a game in which you did nothing but walk and explore. Yet a lot of people still felt misled. I think it’s telling that a whole load of people still absolutely adored Esther, but I guess I learned that people make judgements based on those first impressions, those first ideas that form when they hear about what you’re working on, and it’s really difficult to shift those, even if you keep saying, ‘No, really…’!
IGM: How do you see your future in the industry? Are you looking to continue to make games on an ad hoc basis or do you have a few specific ideas in
mind for you to explore after the release of Richard & Alice? Related to that, will you collaborate again?
LD: It depends how rubbish I am to work with, I guess. Raze, do you hate me enough that you’ll never work with me again?
AR: Definitely, I’ve already applied for a restraining order. No, I think we’ll definitely work on something else together. We were discussing the possibility of doing something before Richard & Alice came up, if you remember. Personally I’m working on a couple other games as well, as I mentioned before, so it probably won’t immediately follow Richard & Alice. I have a book out before the game (at least in theory) as well, so will be concentrating on these things before any future projects are planned.
LD: Honestly, it’s not something I’m thinking about yet. Crap answer, but it’s true! We had an idea for a game, so we decided to make it. If I have another idea for a game in the future, and making this one hasn’t bankrupted me, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t go for it. And we’ve certainly discussed other ideas, but it’s never gone further than ‘oh, this would be cool to do’. One project at a time. Says the man who’s always working on about a hundred projects.
IGM: Do you intend to release Richard & Alice as freeware or is this a commercial project? Do you have a rough release window and target platforms?
LD: It’s a commercial project, but don’t run screaming. We want to keep the price as low as is financially possible. We need to make our money back, so it’ll be more than a few pence, but – I dunno – does a few quid sound about right for an indie game of this ilk? That’s the sort of level we’re aiming for. The price of a London pint, or something. And it should last you a few times longer than a pint, too.
As for release window, all we’re saying at the moment is ‘this year’. I think that’s achievable. Production’s well underway now, design is heading towards completion, and things are all starting to come together. Slowly but surely. But we’ll take as long as we need.
More information on Richard & Alice can be found over on the game’s official website.