As promised, here we present our first CrossedDevs podcast, where GameCrimes lets devs do the talking.
For our first non-interview, we had two indie developers who know and appreciate each other’s work – Luis Oliván of Fictiorama, live from Madrid, and Samuel Bass from Three One Zero Games, joining the conversation from Los Angeles.
It was a riveting, fluid talk that you can listen here. Due to technical problems (this is showbiz!), the audio quality was a bit sub-par, and therefore we offer here a summarised version of this great chat. This is the first half of the conversation (to be soon followed by the rest of it… bear with us a little more!).
“It’s all about telling stories… This is why we make games”
Luis: When my brothers and I started Fictiorama Studios, it was because we wanted to tell stories. In fact, Dead Synchronicity is based on a short story by my brother Alberto, and we agreed that it would be great stuff for a game. And that’s the focus we’re using in our next project as well, telling stories that we think may be interesting for players but also that can move them and make them have a really good time playing.
Samuel: You know, we come sort of from the same aspect at Three One Zero. Our purpose is to create experiences, you know. And games… well, there are games – like action games – where the story is not the point, and then there are games that put you in some else’s shoes, in someone else’s life. ADR1FT came from many places, but one of them was that fantasy: “I want to be in space, I want to fly out there. I want to be that person.” And from there it goes into “who is that person who’s floating in space?”. And from there we try to make up a story that is interesting but also a human experience.
Víctor: It’s quite interesting, because when you think about these very different games you guys have made – ADRF1T is described as “a first person VR experience” and Dead Synchronicity is a classic point and click – well, they are both about telling a story, right? And living an experience.
Luis: Yes, in fact one of the things I like about VR is that it lets you live an experience. I think this is one of the most powerful things about VR, and I really like the way ADR1FT has achieved to deliver both things, a story and an experience.
The challenges of environmental storytelling in VR space
Luis: This is something I wanted to ask you, Samuel. Did you have VR as a goal from the very beginning? How did VR affected the storyline, the narrative, the mechanics?
Samuel: ADR1FT was always going to be a VR game. Even when Adam did the first 15-minute demo it was on the Oculus DK1. They showed it to me and I was like “whatever this is I want to make it”. Adam had a very specific story he wanted to tell…but as a user experience it was completely uncharted territory. My running joke is that I’ve been making games for 21 years and now with VR I realised everything I knew was wrong, so I had to basically start from scratch. All the tricks and techniques that we use to tell stories can make people sick in VR. You can’t control where they look, can’t control where they are or what they listen to. There is very little control you can have, specially if you want to give the player 360 degrees of freedom to explore, which is a challenge for storytelling.
Víctor: Did you find it particularly challenging because it was set in space or because it was in VR?
Samuel: Well, in space the player can move up and down, left to right, and we had only a few mechanisms to contain him, like oxygen – at a certain point the oxygen gets too low, so the player can only go so far.
But still, in an FPS when you come through a door you would be looking forward. In ADR1FT you can come through a door floating on your back, and you will miss all the environmental storytelling that should be right in front of you. We did invest a lot of time in making the station feel like a real place. And yeah, there is a good chance people will miss a lot of this.
And a lot of environment design work was about leading players without putting a giant objective marker on things. We found that if we did that people will just barrel through places and never stop to look around. That’s a problem when you try to tell a story and create a more exploratory sort of experience. So we took the marker away, but you have to balance this [with the problem of players not finding their way]. It was very challenging.
Dead Synchronicity, from short story to videogame
Samuel: I was thinking about this little quest in Dead Synchronicity, when you solve a puzzle giving [a certain character] a gun…
Luis: Oh yeah, I know the one you’re talking about!
Samuel: That bit really stuck with me. It’s a challenging part, and it’s not the kind of story you normally see in videogames. It’s a great ending to that story but it’s also the solution to a puzzle. So I was curious, what did come first, the puzzle or the story?
Luis: The story. We had to find the best way to turn this short story into a game and we had no experience whatsoever. It was an exciting and difficult process, finding the strongest points in the plot and focusing on them, in terms of characters and objects and situations. We made the puzzles afterwards. The source material was lineal of course, but the game is not. We tried to have an open approach, to offer the player the chance to move freely around the world. A lot of graphic adventures today are actually made of small point and click games: you have two locations and you have to solve the puzzles there before moving to another set of two locations, and so forth.
So it was quite exciting, especially for the writer, to find that balance between the original story and the game. In this particular puzzle, it was in the original story but not in that way – I can’t tell you how it was before because that will be a spoiler – but we found that taking this naive and innocent character and turning her into a different character, giving her this power to change her own life… that was quite interesting from the point of view of the story also.
Art direction: utopia or dystopia?
Luis: I wanted to ask you about the amazing art of ADR1FT. What are your influences? One of the things you said earlier is that you want to let the players experience how it is to move in a spaceship, so what are your references, where did you look for inspiration? Movies, books or real spaceships?
Samuel: The original ADR1FT demo was very realistic-looking – you know, within the context of a space station full of flowers… And then as we starting to work on the game we said, let’s create something unique, something more specific. Our biggest influences were films from the 60s and 70s, speculative SF, you know, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris… in fact Adam and I shared an office like 13 or 14 years ago and he gave me a copy of Solaris for my birthday because we share a love of Tarkovsky. There is a lot of that, speculative SF, dystopia but not entirely stark and cynical view – humanity is still humanity even in space, people will still have the same emotions and regrets.
And also oddly enough, the 60s and 70s were amazing for appliance design, you have these beautiful, very minimalist objects. And the game comes pretty much from there. We changed from realism to minimalism.
And another thing – honestly, VR is so overwhelming. If you try the Occulus Rift or any headset and you haven’t tried it before the first couple of minutes is just kind of… it’s is a bit too much, so we thought “if we create this very busy and realistic spaces we will make people’s heads explode”. They won’t be able to set themselves in that world and be the character, they will be just like “oh my god, oh my god”. So we wanted to create this kind of pure, clean spaces, and in that way when we destroy them the contrast is significant. You know, you spend a lot of time on those beautiful spaces and then they are torn apart.
Luis:It reminds me of course to 2001, what a great movie. It’s funny because there was a point in science fiction movies when that cleanliness of the spaceships changed into this dark and creepy spaces, a change from a positive future into a really negative one – like Alien or Blade Runner, where the future is a bad dark place to live. I would like to think about ADR1FT as an example of this positive thinking, this is a clean and beautiful spaceship where you can spend a really good time, unless you are alone of course.
Samuel: It’s funny actually, it’s kind of a utopia/dystopia thing. When I was playing Dead Synchronicity the thing that kept hopping into my mind was England in the 80s, 2000AD and the great British comic writers, they reminded me to of type of reaction. The 80s, dystopian view of the world. Dark and gritty, cynical… that was my impression.
Luis: Yeah, that was one of the reasons. We wanted to make a point and click that was not the usual stuff. Specially when you think about the games in the 80s and 90s, the most common thing in the point and click adventure was some kind of comical stuff and maybe an adventure game, but there are just a few examples of really dark point and click adventure games that told a creepy story. For instance I Have No mouth and I Must Scream, or Sanitarium. We wanted to pay homage to that kind of game. Games made not for teenages or for kids, but for mature people. And we love an adventure released a couple of years ago called The Cat Lady.
Samuel: That game is amazing!
Luis: Yeah, yeah! Really cruel and dark, we loved it. We were really close to meeting the developer in an event in London, but we couldn’t. And we would have loved to, because it is a really great game.
Samuel: It’s funny, that game spoke to me too. That was the thing that drew me to it, because I grew up on you know those adventure games, like Gabriel Knight.
(To Be Continued…)