And Then There Were None - Lee Sheldon and Scott Nixon interview
"Ten little Sailor boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine."
What does that mean to you? If you scratch your head and say, "Uhmm… Agatha Christie?" you'd be right. And if a well-versed fan said, "Wait! That's wrong. Her book has ten little Indians!" they'd be right too. This particular line is from the first game ever based on Christie's novels, with a plot adapted from perhaps her most famous book, And Then There Were None.
The prospect of working with such an impressive license was enticing enough to attract Lee Sheldon, noted Hollywood writer-producer and game designer, to help create his first new adventure game in five years. And Scott Nixon, art director and game designer for AWE Games, pulled out all the stops for the chance to work on the game. What they faced was the challenge of designing an accessible game for Christie fans new to gaming, but still provide an engaging adventure for experienced players. For a glimpse into the process, Adventure Gamers went to the source and talked with both Lee Sheldon and Scott Nixon about this highly anticipated game. As for the sailors, we'll let Lee explain that new twist to this classic mystery tale.
LM: It's a real pleasure to meet with you both! Could you tell us your roles in the development of this game and some brief background info?
LS: My name is Lee Sheldon. I am the designer/writer for And Then There Were None. I had a career in Hollywood for a few years as a writer/producer and worked on shows like Star Trek Next Generation, Charlie's Angels, and Cagney & Lacey. I have been doing games for the last eleven years. I started out with Sanctuary Woods in Victoria, British Columbia. I did The Riddle of Master Lu there and have worked on 17 games since then. For the last five years or so I have been concentrating primarily on massively multiplayer worlds. Though I started out on adventure games, I haven't done one in a while. So it is nice to sort of get back to my roots. I have also written a book called Character Development & Storytelling for Games in an effort to get a few more people to be thinking about the kinds of things they "should" be thinking about as they create games.
SN: I'm Scott Nixon and I am the project director. I started doing games while I was still in my last year of high school. I worked for Capstone, which was a company based out of Miami. These games were license-based titles and Wolfenstein clones. After that I was with Microprose, where I worked with Civilization II. Then I went to n-space in Orlando and worked on PlayStation games like Danger Girl. In 2000, I got a call from James [Wheeler, president of AWE], who I worked with at Capstone and is also a good friend. He told me he was doing a start up and asked if I would be interested in coming down. I was and joined AWE that year. We came down here with only one project lined up and nothing set up after that, so it was pretty scary. But surprisingly, we have gotten a lot of work since then. We actually ended up turning away a lot of projects.
LM: What drew each of you to work on And Then There Were None?
LS: I have been reading Agatha Christie for years and have a number of her books in first edition. I have been a mystery writer most of my life, because whatever I've done, there has usually been some element of mystery. So when DreamCatcher approached me, it seemed like a pretty good fit. I was personally very interested in working on an adaptation of Agatha Christie and choosing which book we were going to do. I am happy that we stayed with this one.
SN: My mystery background started a little later. I really got into Agatha Christie back when David Suchet played Poirot on the A&E shows based on her books. She was my bridge into mystery writers for sure. Now I am into them incredibly, the classics and the contemporary stuff as well. This game came to my attention when our executive producer James Wheeler had gone to E3 or one of the other trade shows. When he came back, he casually mentioned that The Adventure Company was looking for a group to do And Then There Were None. I freaked out and totally lost it.
We had been working on kids' titles since our inception in 2000. So I thought it was a great opportunity to branch off and do an adult title and one that I had incredible interest in. When James brought it up, I am not so sure he thought it was something that anyone here would be interested in. But as it turned out, there were several people who were really excited about it. So we put together a demo in three days and sent it to The Adventure Company. We didn't even know it was going to be And Then There Were None; we just knew it was going to be an Agatha Christie title. Fortunately, they decided to take a chance and go with us.
LM: Scott, when I first found out you guys were going to make the game, I was a little surprised. AWE has an excellent track record, but it is built around kids games and cartoon-styled graphics. Obviously that is a very different graphical style than what you would expect in a game based on this license. Is that why you felt the need for a demo?
SN: I don't think there's such a huge difference, other than graphically. It's more complicated and convoluted; certainly there is a lot more to take into account. The animation, for example, must be more precise. As far as the engine goes, the way that we work, it's not that big of a departure doing an Agatha Christie game. They are all adventure games and we had done adventure games before this. It sounds like they're polar opposites, but they aren't really that far apart. Now, some of the cutscenes for None were done out of the U.S. A couple of them -- not many, but some were. But it has worked out well for us with this game.
LM: This is a unique license. And the holders of the Christie license are notoriously selective about who and how they allow the Christie properties to be used. How was it working with them?
LS: I met with Chorion last summer after I had created a sort of pre-design document. Yes, I found them to be very protective of their license. But on the other hand, if you remain within the "style" of her books, I found them to be remarkably open about changes. I have in fact made some changes to what is one of the best-known mystery novels ever written. And I've made some major changes. This is the first time in ATTWN where there are eleven people on the island instead of ten. I changed the identity of the murderer. Because I felt like with one of her other classic stories, like Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or even The ABC Murders, the solutions to these mysteries have become almost archetypal now. They have been used so much in other works that people are very aware of "who did it" in books or stories like that. So I was allowed to change the identity of the killer as well. And they were enthusiastic about it. I was very pleased. I am really hoping that only purists might get a little annoyed with some of the changes. I think it still ends in the style and spirit of Christie.
LM: Regarding your plot changes, I believe there is or was a submarine in the game?
LS: Oh yeah. Agatha Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard, who oversees the estate, and I really liked this one change to the story, but none of the women in the room agreed. It involved an excursion to a shipwreck on a mini-sub. I had this whole sequence where you could put one together, go underwater and travel to a wrecked ship. It made sense, since this is an island noted for its shipwrecks. However, that got voted down, for not being in the style of Christie. The actual phrase they used was "Boys and their toys!"
But the mini-sub still makes an appearance of sorts in the game. So that one idea got turned down, but that was a small thing compared to the larger things I was allowed to change in order to make this story a game as well as a story.
LM: What about the expectations of fans versus accommodating newbies. Any compromises?
LS: We have been true to the style and spirit of her novels. I think the fans are going to love the fact that they can now tramp all over this island. We made the island bigger and added more things, because this is a game. It was originally pretty confined. I have added to the story by including elements from the history of the Devon coast, which includes pirates and shipwrecks all along that area. Adventure gamers who really don't know Christie will enjoy this game because it's still an adventure game and it follows the conventions of an adventure game. If I have any concerns, it would be because it is so story heavy. I usually like to do stories non-linearly, because I think that is the best way to play games. But because I wanted to follow the orders of the murders and everything, it sort of forced me into a linear path. And the cutscenes, cinematics, and longer dialogues are necessary simply because it is based on a novel and a lot of that novel is people talking to each other. So I tried to find ways around that. If this were a game I was doing from scratch, I wouldn't have done it that way. So I think the newbies are just going to like it because it's a pretty good adventure game. The fans are not going to be too upset because… I would be very surprised if they can tell every place where Christie leaves off and I begin.
LM: Scott, from a design viewpoint, what will be attractive to both sides? People who love Agatha Christie and her stories and also regular adventure gamers?
SN: As far as the fans go, I don't see how you could have made this game without changing certain things. If the killer hadn't changed, one of your prime motivations would be gone. You would have been in the room with the killer right at the beginning of the game and you would be looking at the screen saying, "It's that person, I know it is." I would think you would be very frustrated.
LM: Isn't there an option to play the game so that you see the ending as originally told in her book?
LS: At the end of the game, once you have successfully gone through our version of it, you can experience the original ending of the book. Not the ending of the movie or the stage play, the actual ending in the book. Which has not been seen outside of the novel, to my knowledge.
LM: Really, that's great to hear.
SN: Obviously while you are playing the game, we couldn't have had all the clues pointing in two directions -- they had to point in one direction.
LS: They point in ten directions!
SN: Well, yeah…
LS: He's right, though. In order to play fair, you have to actually have clues that point to the real killer. Early on we talked about, "Gee, wouldn't it be cool if the killer could change anytime you played or something." But this isn't Clue. There's a whole different thing going on here. A game like that is very open-ended and modular. This is not. Doing something like that wouldn't be paying homage to the spirit of her books. It would also be so complicated to pull off with the additional assets that it probably wouldn't have made sense.
LM: You mentioned wanting to create a sense of freedom for the player vs. perhaps a "locked room" mystery feeling. I saw the house at E3 and got the impression there is a sort of pseudo real-time feel to movements of people around the house.
LS: Yes, in games like The Last Express, gameplay was very free form and you could actually miss things. We have created the illusion that there are things going on when the player character isn't present. In fact, we guarantee that people aren't going to miss anything important.
SN: You could miss some things if you are not thorough, but you wouldn't miss anything plot essential.
LM: So not things that are necessary to complete the game?
SN: It is more like there are packets of time. It's like a play the way Lee wrote it. It's all separated into chapters. We sub-divided those chapters into acts. You will play through an act and then time will advance. Anything you didn't do in that previous act, obviously you wouldn't be able to go back and get. But anything missed isn't game ending. There isn't anything game essential that you can miss.
LM: There are eleven characters in your version. The playable character is Patrick Narracott, the boatman. What can you tell us about the other characters in the game?
LS: The other characters? We have... can I do them in alphabetical order? Probably not. Let's see, we have Philip Lombard, who is an adventurer. He is dashing, roguish and probably not as nice as he should be. They all have their secrets too. The same as in all the other versions, and the new eleventh character does as well. We've got Vera Claythorne, who was a governess and is now coming to the island to be the secretary. She is the young ingénue. Emily Brent is this bible thumping, very rigid kind of middle-aged woman. There is this dotty old General, John Mackenzie. Then there's Justice Wargraves, who is a retired judge. We've got Doctor Armstrong who has been nipping at the bottle a little bit. Tony Marston is a young playboy. He is the golden child of a wealthy upper-class family. There are the two servants, a man and his wife, named Thomas and Ethel Rogers. They are as proper as English servants were supposed to be. They are a little upset about the situation, but they don't voice that very often. You have a private detective named William Blore, who has been hired to look after the Lady of the house's jewels. They all think they are there for one reason, but they have all been gathered there for another reason. They are all being manipulated. I think that is all of them?
SN: Yes, you got them all.
LM: These characters, they have their own backstory?
LS: Yes, and because of one of the game innovations, the amount of backstory you learn is entirely up to you. We have a couple of things that we are doing. One is based on something I hate in adventure games. Which is where you walk into a private room with the occupant standing there and immediately start rifling through their drawers and all their stuff. And they don't say anything. That drives me crazy. So there are negative consequences if you get caught doing something that any one of the NPCs thinks you shouldn't be doing. We measure that with something we are calling the "Suspicion Meter". Now this is not part of the interface; it's something we are doing behind the scenes. It's a very simple meter; it only has three positions. You start off in neutral with each of the other characters. If you do things that they don't like, it falls to a negative one. If you do things they like, it moves up. So there is never more than two spaces you can move the internal game meter for that character in either direction. The dialogues shift automatically, depending upon what your relationship with the NPC is at that time. If you are in a negative position with the characters, you will learn less than you would if you had been a little smarter in your investigation. But there are always ways to get back on the good side of somebody. They each have their own little foibles or likes and dislikes, which you can play on to get on their good side. But you can't really do your typical adventure game stuff, like opening and poking into everything, yelling at everybody, without consequences.
SN: It's like an RPG with side quests. One of your objectives, although not an essential one, is to get in as many characters' good graces as you can.
LS: Actually, it helps solve the mystery, too.
SN: Yeah, that's true. Obviously the more background you have about the characters, the more likely you are to figure out the killer.
LM: Does any of this affect the ending at all?
LS: The ending does have several possibilities. I am not sure what all the permutations are. I don't want to go into too much detail here. But you do have the opportunity to rescue some people. And depending upon who you manage to rescue or if you don't care and let them all die, that affects the ending. A couple of your other actions or at least one of your other actions I know of, has the player influence a "little joke" at the end as well. There are a number of different possibilities that can happen and I think probably the scene with the most variations is the last one back in Sticklehaven.
LM: Which game location is Sticklehaven?
LS: It's the seaside town where I begin the game. As far as I know, none of the other adaptations have started the story there, although that is where the book begins. I start with the people in transit. So we get to introduce each character; we set up some of the mysteries pretty fast. That is sort of the opening cutscene.
LM: What can you tell us about this town and the other locations in the game?
LS: Sticklehaven is a little fishing village. There is a lot of stuff going on and then they embark on a boat and travel to "Shipwreck Island", where the house is located.
LM: Does the house have a history?
LS: Christie, in two or three sentences, listed rumors surrounding a few of the people who lived there before this mysterious Mr. Owen bought it. I took each one of those and treated them as an actual fact. There was a story that the island was at one time a secret military base. Then there was a yachtsman and his wife, who didn't like water. A famous actress once lived in the house, which explains why we have a screening room. Because of the island's history, there is a deserted fishing village there. It's a tiny little place; just a few houses. Some other things that we added were as a result of this history. And then there were also a lot of shipwrecks and pirates along that coast.
SN: The house is styled after the Frank Lloyd Wright house, "Falling Water".
LS: One of the things that I noticed as I was reading the book again carefully for descriptions, is that all the other adaptations had this sort of spooky old mansion look to the house. When in actual fact, she described the house as very modern and stark looking. And modern and stark in the 1930s was Frank Lloyd Wright, so my first inclination was to go in that direction. Of course we didn't do it exactly, but it's that same style of architecture and I think you can recognize it.
LM: I noticed that you have sailor boys instead of the classic little Indians. What was the reason for this change?
LS: There was some political correctness involved. The first version of the novel, published in England, was the least politically correct of all. That was changed to Ten Little Indians, meaning from India. And the figurines at the table were Indians. Then that became politically incorrect, so in the new publication of the novel, the Indians became ten little soldier boys. That didn't really work for me, because we're on an island. We have boats and everything else, so I asked if I could change the soldiers to sailor boys and again Chorion was willing to go along with it. There is one screenshot I have seen that shows the figurines on the table. Those are representative of the "Jack Tar" British sailor boy look.
LM: What was done in the design process with the game locales to create a sense of freedom and visual variety in the house and around the island?
SN: How much do we want to give away?
LS: Just a few more interesting spots.
SN: There is an aviary, a goat pen, and other areas on the island. Basically the way the game works is there are times when you are restricted in your movement and there are other times when it just kind of balloons out. Then you are able to explore the island and pretty much do whatever you want for awhile. Then another segment of time might pass, where you get sort of railroaded back into the house. The weather is a large mitigating factor on whether you go outside or not. This also served as a device for us. If we needed the player to be inside the house, we'll step up the weather to become a fierce thunderstorm. There are definitely sections where you can go wherever you want. When you unlock all the areas, you will be totally free to wander wherever and whenever you want, as long as the weather isn't too bad.
LM: I did notice it seems to be raining a great deal.
SN: Pretty much, the sun never shines.
LM: I saw the game at E3 and it looked good. Then I noticed a few recent shots seemed blurry. Does the onscreen falling rain make getting clear looking screenshots of outside areas difficult?
SN: That would have some effect. Rain is an animation and it doesn't capture well in screenshots. There are night and day cycles. But even during the day, there is never anything like a bright cloudless day. It is more of overcast, could be dusk, look.
LM: Are there many cinematics or other in-game animations used, and if so, how?
LS: There are a lot of cinematics. The nature of the property sort of encourages this. If we had a ton more money and a few more years in development, we could have done away with most of them. Because I think that almost anything you can do in a cinematic, you can end up doing in gameplay, assuming you are clever enough. But in this case, to be true to the Christie book, there are quite a few cinematics.
LM: What other optional interactive elements are in the game?
SN: Depending on how you choose to play the game, there are large sections of gameplay that are purely optional. Obviously with the time factor, a room might be barren and featureless in one act, but could suddenly change in some significant way. So you could find something there that you couldn't have found previously. Maybe someone left something there or planted there for you to find. Basically it is difficult to view a scene as a static energy, especially in the house. Because when you are there matters so much to what you might find in that room.
LS: There will be some things that will remain constant, but there is always a chance that something may change in a locale as the story unfolds.
LM: There seems to be a never-ending debate at many adventure gaming forums over puzzles vs. story. How did you balance the demand for a detailed, riveting story with some gamers' preference for quality puzzling?
LS: That's really not how I approach puzzle design. I approach puzzles as dramatic obstacles as much as anything else. All of them should be there to do something other than to slow the player down. They are part of the story. There are character-driven puzzles, trying to figure what's up with these people, to try and track down the killer. Then some mechanical puzzles are there, but not ones that come in from left field. Everything makes sense. You are trapped on an island, so there are puzzles related to trying to get off the island. I don't think there are any gratuitous puzzles.
On the other hand, because we are very much aware there is a crossover audience here, I doubt this is going to be the most difficult adventure game that people have played. Not to say there isn't a lot of challenge. There is, and a lot of brain work that needs to get done. But we also recognize there are people who might be new to adventure games and we think this is a good thing. We want to encourage that. So hopefully we achieved a balance between the mission critical puzzles, which have some real thought to them, and other puzzles that are more interesting to do, but not that hard to figure out.
SN: The one thing that struck me the first time I read through Lee's game design, there were no gratuitous puzzles. With all the puzzles in this game, I don't think you could pick out one that doesn't fit, or that was thrown in there just to be a puzzle or to take up the player's time. All of them are contextually correct and lead towards a goal. There's no creeping, jumping, or 'clicking things at the right time' puzzles. There's nothing like that. Basically, everything is framed within the story, the puzzles included.
LM: There are also character or dialogue challenges in this game?
SN: Are you referring to the suspicion meter puzzles, where you have to do things for characters? If so, those are some pretty complicated puzzles. They involve multiple inventory items and talks with people, combining things. Then there is figuring out what you need to get, or have another character do, to influence a particular person.
LS: You obviously have a limited number of things on this island to work with. You can't go down to the store and get whatever you need. So you have to improvise with what you have to duplicate something you need that may not be available.
LM: This game has a lot of people and stuff going on, which can create information overload. Is there a notebook or journal that records information?
SN: There is an in-game journal that records everything needed for the game plot. Any points where you have a conversation that you might forget that is plot essential will be written into the journal for you. You won't need to write anything down.
LM: That's good to hear. Scott, what can you tell us about the game engine and the interface the players will use?
SN: It's a 2.5D engine, where the backgrounds are pre-rendered and the characters are 3D modeled. The inventory system is fairly basic, with the ability to combine up to four items. You can also examine individual inventory items. All that information is accessible via a button on top of the screen. The same goes for the journal. It sort of separates itself by categories, depending on what the information is about. You have a characters page, which lists them all by name and lists details about them. Then you also have separate pages for items, documents and books. As you get that stuff, you can always go back and reference any of it. It's fairly straightforward. The cursor is context-sensitive. When you pass over an interactive area, the cursor automatically changes to whatever interaction is appropriate for that hotspot or that character. You don't have to cycle through various interactions. That is a nod to people who are new to adventure games, who start playing because of the Agatha Christie license.
LM: I know you are in the big crunch right now to get the beta done within the next few weeks. How are things looking for a November release date?
SN: I don't think the release date is going to move much, so I believe we are still looking at early November.
LM: How does the future of adventure gaming look to you?
SN: You take this one, Lee. I'm leaving now.
LS: I think there is a place for adventure games as a major type of game. I do think that adventure game developers got very lazy for a long time. They just churned out very similar looking stuff. Which is fine if you happen to be the flavor of the month. But if you are already a niche, to continue "niche-like" is probably not a very good idea. I am glad to see there is some innovation happening. Hopefully it will continue. Every design, I try to do something different. Something that hasn't been done; that will make people say "Oh!" I also think that we have to be aware of who's playing the games and try to give them what they want, without turning our back on the people who are die-hard adventure fans. Then add stuff that will also attract a larger audience again. I think it is all possible. I think adventure games will come back, but it will take a pile of interesting products to do it.
SN: I agree completely with whatever Lee said! Seriously, though. It will work, but it has to be the right kind of innovation. I haven't actually played Indigo Prophecy yet. But when I read the reviews, although they've been glowing, when they mention something like a "Simon Says" puzzle, where you have to tap-tap the keyboard, that scares me. Though I am definitely going to play the game.
LM: Lee, are you going to do your traditional thing and hang out at the forums and talk with people who are playing your game, after the game releases?
LS: I am going to try. I already hang out at the forums and reply when I see something that is appropriate to respond to. I have been watching your forums. I like to do that. If people want to ask for hints and things like that. I have to be a little more careful, as I am just a hired gun here. I have to go along with whatever DreamCatcher has in mind and I will honor that. But yes, I love doing that. The only thing that would prevent me from doing this would be if I were deeply involved in something else at the same time.
LM: What are you most proud of about this project?
SN: I think what we were talking about earlier. That the story and the puzzles aren't at odds with one another. They work well together. The whole time issue came out very well and even better than we expected. In most adventure games, once you've been someplace and checked everything out, you never go back. I like the fact that you can't really play this game with that kind of mindset. You have to always keep in mind that everything may have changed in that location. You have to always have your feelers out. Even if you are running through a room several times to get to another room, you won't want to just click through. You'll want to make sure nothing has changed or that you haven't missed something introduced by another character or even the killer. I actually enjoy the dialogues because they are really interesting, and then there's the story too. It's just entertaining on so many levels.
LS: Thanks, Scott!
I am very pleased because I think we have succeeded with being true to Christie's vision, even though we have messed with it. That is what I am most proud of. Novels are not easy to adapt to games. We haven't seen as many of those as comic books and other things that are shorter, that allow us to elaborate in games. So novels provide their own set of challenges, especially one that is this carefully structured. You can't just pull a thread out here and one over there, because the whole thing can unravel. So I am very pleased that we are capturing the vision of Agatha Christie in a new medium. And hopefully introducing her to new people.
LM: I really want to thank you two for taking this time to talk about And Then There Were None. Any final thoughts for our readers?
SN: The first thing is I really need to get some sleep!
LS: I have really enjoyed doing an adventure game again. It's been a while. I have never lost my interest in them. Some of the challenges in solo games aren't quite there for me anymore, which is why I have been working in massively multiplayer games. But adventure games are games for the mind and that has always been an attraction for me. So I was happy to be given a chance to come back and do another one. Thanks!