Jonathan Boakes is the man behind XXv Productions, and has just completed work on his "labour of love", Dark Fall. This promising first-person adventure game casts you in London, answering a mysterious message from your architect brother. Taking the train to see him, you fall asleep and wake up in the train tunnel. This begins a journey through a suspenseful, and sometimes even scary, mystery that showcases many fascinating elements of architecture and design while still being engrossing.
Jonathan was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss Dark Fall, adventure gaming, his company, and his future plans.
How did you personally get started in the computer industry?
It was actually playing adventure games. I once played an adventure called Mystery of Arkham on the old Spectrum ZX. I was never very interested in action games. Then, several years later someone showed me a game they had purchased, and I was blown away. That game was Myst. From then I decided that I wanted to learn how to make games like it myself.
What specifically about Myst was so appealing to you?
Exploring the strange surreal locations, and travelling to other worlds. It seemed like a really beautiful pop-up book. I also liked the isolation, it was like being on a holiday without the tourists.
Many adventure fans, generally those who grew up on the third-person adventures of Sierra and Lucasarts, view Myst as an "adventure killer" that sent the genre in a negative direction. Do you give this view any credence?
Yes and no. I think 3rd Person games are very different from 1st Person. To actually control a character on screen is a very specific form of gameplay, with first person you are essentially inside the fiction yourself.
So can I take that statement to mean you prefer the first-person form?
Yes, although I play and enjoy both, I like the idea of seeing things through your own eyes.
What is your personal favorite adventure game of all-time?
Eek. What a question. I have to say it is probably Zork: Nemesis. Great story, atmosphere, and although some would debate it, humour.
What is your favorite third-person adventure?
Blade Runner, lovely locations and a clever spiralling story. I liked the alternative endings too.
How did XXv Productions come to be?
I was producing short films for various uses, someone suggested that I should have a 'name'. I was 25 at the time, and living in a house numbered 25. XXv is roman numerals for 25. I used the name throughout my education, and then it just sort of stuck. We now use the name to cover all our output.
The company description makes reference to "one previous adventure style game." Tell me more about that game.
It was an experiment using Macromedia's Director. Using real photographed locations in a 'slide show' style the player was able to explore several locations which had been frozen in time. The main theme was the solar eclipse of that year. The game was never commercially released, but there is a shareware version of it kicking around on the Internet somewhere. Published without my knowledge. So, if you find it, let me know! It was called "The Displacement."
Currently the plan is for Dark Fall to be sold through XXv's website. Did you ever consider looking for a publisher for commercial distribution?
Yes, I was approached by two publishers, but have chosen to distribute the game myself. Partly because I want to keep track of who is buying it, and where they are buying it from. I also think I will be able to offer better support and extras for my customers by keeping a record of them. I would lose that ability if someone else took control. I think the adventure genre's future actually lies with the online community, I like to feel closer to them.
Do you anticipate selling XXv's future games this way? Could there be a point, if the games become truly successful, where you simply can't manage the sales on your own?
I would have to expand, which is something I am looking forward to. Eventually I would like to actually employ a whole host of specialised people.
Tell me about a typical day at work for you.
It starts early, at 7am, when my mind is clear (usually!), and I work through the day till 7pm. For the last year this has consisted of sitting at my console creating the environments for Dark Fall. This is something that I never tire of. It is an amazing experience to actually create a world from scratch. My mind often wanders throughout the day, and I listen to a lot of audio drama and documentaries on BBC Radio 4. They often influence the days work without me even knowing.
How many others work with you?
Dark Fall is entirely built by myself, with some historical and factual research by my partner. It has been a labour of love.
What came first, inspiration for the Dark Fall story, or the idea to make a graphic adventure game?
Definitely wanting to make a graphic adventure kicked this all off. So, while I was learning 3D I was sourcing for inspiration for the story. Taking a break during Christmas 2000 I visited Dorset, England. While out exploring the countryside one morning, I found an abandoned train station, and partially ruined hotel. The place was fascinating, and seemed to offer a hundred different stories. On returning to London I got to work basing a story around that location, and the reasons why it might have closed down. I also set about recreating in 3D what I had seen in Dorset from memory, the location has since been demolished. As the building began to take shape in 3D, I found it began to influence the direction the story has taking. You could say that the setting wrote the story itself.
Is it true that Dark Fall was originally planned to be in full real-time 3D?
No. I have always planned the game to be presented in 2D rendered graphics. I am a big fan of games in this format (Titanic, Amber, Timelapse), and wanted to use similar technology. There is/was an online RPG game called "Darkfall" which appeared shortly after I started work, I think some may have got us mixed up. Which isn't difficult going on titles!
Tell me about the puzzles in Dark Fall. Are they prevalent? What kind of puzzles did you focus on?
There is a whole mixture of puzzles in Dark Fall. Hopefully a puzzle for everyone who plays it. They include combinations, machinery and the dreaded 'musical puzzle' (with plenty of help for the non-musically minded)! All the puzzles are woven into the story and can be solved through research, observation and experimentation. I pleased to say that there are NO mazes or timed sequences.
How do you feel about action elements in adventure games? Are there action elements in Dark Fall?
There are no action elements. I think action has been used quite badly by a few games, so it has become a stigma of the genre. These sequences usually stand out because they are obviously there purely to frustrate the player or prolong one particular sequence. Having said that I can think of a greater number of adventures that have used action elements well. The X-Files game is an example as the action was relevent to both the character you were playing and the role they preform.
I have been humoured recently by some sites placing Dark Fall in the horror/FPS sections of their sites. There is no actual horror in the game, but plenty of things that 'go bump in the night'. Non-action gamers can rest assured that there are no zombies, werewolves and vampires running down corridors!
To you, what is the best part of an adventure game?
For me the setting is most important, and the way the story is told within that setting. I like to play games like virtual holidays (without the tourists), so the larger and more detailed the environment the better. I also really love when the developers take time to add little flourishes that are not necessarily part of the game play. It is the finer details that really bring across an environment.
The statement "the adventure game is dead" is made regularly. Is there truth to this?
No, if it were true I wouldn't be doing this interview and you wouldn't have a website. I personally think that the future of this genre lies with the online community. One thing I have noticed this last year is how dedicated adventure fans are, and how supportive they can be of new ventures. "Dead" is too strong a word, it suggests that nothing is happening in the genre, which isn't true. I have already played four different pure adventure titles this year, and their are several which I am looking forward to purchasing in the near future. Just because newer games don't sell as many copies as those huge commercial smashes of the 1990's doesn't mean that the interest is not there.
Does the genre have a future commercially, or do you anticipate more independently made games like Dark Fall being the future of adventures?
There are a few companies who I believe will continue to release adventures, though I was shocked to hear that Cryo is facing a financial difficulty. The software needed to create adventures is becoming increasingly affordable (and in some cases free) and the means of distribution easier. They say that everyone has a novel waiting to be written, and I think the same could be said of games. Obviously the learning curve to create games from scratch is quite a steep one, but not impossible. With individuals getting together and pooling resources an awful lot is possible.
Do you have any advice for aspiring adventure developers?
Yes! Keep lists! Of everything. Buy a whiteboard and tons of marker pens. Also, set yourself regular deadlines. Without a conventional boss you have to govern yourself, which can be a very difficult. After a week of hard 3D it is easy to tempt yourself with say "Oh, you've done loads this week, go see 'Attack of the Clones' this afternoon." The best thing to do is create your own virtual boss. Imagine what they look like and how they sound. Make him/her a really nasty one too! It's the only person who is going to keep you going.
Tell me about your next project after Dark Fall.
The next game is already in pre-production. It has a working title of "Splinter". After being abducted from your own world, you find yourself in the shadow world of 'Splinter', here an assorted group of people (from different times and places) are also trapped and attempting to get home. Working together you are able to explore many different environments (from a New York high rise car park to the 17th century smugglers town of Rye). I hope to base many of the environments on as many real locations as possible, so that players could actually visit some of the locations in real life, something I did recently on a trip to Paris.
Will it be first-person puzzle-driven like Dark Fall?
Yes, definitely in 1st person, although there will be plenty of 3rd person video sequences. The player has a definite character and personality. I look forward to introducing this character to you in the coming months.
Any final thoughts for our readers?
Yes, just to say a big thank you for the support and interest that I have witnessed this last year. It is partly this devotion to the genre that has kept this, and probably other projects, on track.