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Law & Order: Criminal Intent - Elizabeth Cosin and Craig Brannon interview

It will take you 24 minutes to read this interview.

Law & Order is one of the most successful franchises in the history of television. Not only does the original series maintain impressive ratings, the recent spinoffs have also fared well with viewers. Of these, Law & Order: Criminal Intent is the most successful. Starring Detective Bobby Goren, whose persona is more quirky armchair detective than Joe Friday, the show has a distinctive style all its own. So it's no surprise that Legacy Interactive, the developer of three games based on the original show, set their sights on Detective Goren for their newest game. However, his unique mannerisms and interrogation technique presented an unusual challenge to Legacy. How would they take the subtle dialogue and internalized thoughts of this character and translate them into an interactive format?

To get it right, Craig Brannon, the game's Producer, hired Elizabeth M. Cosin, one of the show's original writers, to develop the script for this game. For an inside look into the merger of TV world and game development, Adventure Gamers decided to go to the source and talk with Elizabeth and Craig. We think you'll enjoy the discussion and their take on the eccentric Detective Goren.


LM: Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you introduce yourselves and tell us a little about your background and what got you into game development?

 
Craig Brannon

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Hi, my name is Craig Brannon, the Producer on the game. Originally I got my doctorate in Educational Psychology, but I was always interested in educational technology. I was even a computer teacher at a few elementary schools. I was fascinated by how kids are so motivated to use computers, which got me really interested in educational software. Ariella Lehrer, who is Legacy's President, was developing those kinds of applications at the time and I thought that was really cool, so I worked with her for a while developing educational software. As you know, that industry kind of fell to the wayside, so I began dabbling in other educational and Internet related things. Which led to entertainment applications and my work on three different Law & Order games.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] I'm Elizabeth M. Cosin, and I wrote the script for Criminal Intent. I had been a sports writer and an investigative reporter, then I moved out to California.

 
Elizabeth Cosin

I grew disenchanted with the business, so I worked on a novel and got it published. It was the first thing I had written and thought the business was easy, so I quit my job. I got an agent, sold the book -- got a two-book deal. Later, I was about to get kicked out of my apartment and the next day I was working for a big CBS show and have been working in television ever since. I had always been a big fan of Law & Order and the producer had developed his own show about a lawyer in upstate NY. He hired me; that show never got off the ground, so they did another one, which became Criminal Intent. Then all of a sudden, I am writing for Law & Order. I did that, but I didn't enjoy it that much. It's not the kind of writing I want to do. So I moved on a little, worked for another show. Then I got a phone call a year later from Craig, because Rene Balcer, the show creator, recommended me to write the script for the game. Now, I love games and play them all the time, so I thought this would be fun and in many ways it has been.

 

LM: What are a few of your favorite games?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] My favorite games are first person shooters. I really fell for Syphon Filter and Half-Life. I don't know if I would call myself a sophisticated game player, because I am not that good at it. The games I really enjoy are the ones that make you think your way out of situations, instead of just going into a room and blowing everything away. I don't want to get too deeply into whether women are different or as violent as men are. I think that women are definitely violent, though I think we prefer to try and figure things out. I have two versions of Grand Theft Auto and on one hand I find it exhilarating and on the other I find it horrifying. I really believe that until video games show the consequences of actions, within the context of the fun you are trying to have, I think that they are going to be a problem. So that's the reason I wanted to do this game, besides the fact that the money was good!

LM: Writing for a game would seem to be very different from writing for a movie or TV shows, which isn't interactive. Was switching to game writing challenging?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] It really wasn't a challenge because of the way we made this game. In some ways, the game is truer to the show's intent than the show is. I was there the first season when we created the characters and decided what we wanted the show to be about. Now, I haven't played this game yet. But we worked hard to keep everything within the sensibilities of the show.

The thing is, every time you ask a question in this game, when you are interviewing a suspect or talking to someone, you have the opportunity to decide how to logically approach that person. Which is exactly the way Goren does it on the show, and what the fans expect. I think we also came up with a story that is definitely unusual and very complicated. I am both pleased and horrified that Craig was open to such a difficult premise. Criminal Intent is very different from the other Law & Order shows and I think this is a very different kind of game.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Elizabeth knew the dialogues and the different ways that Goren approaches things. All of that was definitely helpful. Especially since we ended up writing so much dialogue for this game. We try to have the writer play up their strengths and give them as much free rein as possible. We wanted a writer who could write a game script very similar to what they would do for the show. You know, dummy up a story, create motivations and all that kind of stuff. It is only later in the process, where you have to write a lot of one liners and stuff you would never see in a show, since it is not interactive, that it gets weird for a show writer.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] I came up with a story that is very complicated and it was hard to get it right. I am sure that with as many problems as I had with it, Craig had more. So it was very gratifying to work with him. I don't know if I ever told you this, Craig, but I honestly expected, more than once, for you to say, "Shut up." Believe me, there were many times where I was trying to do something very different than what had been done in other mysteries. It was not easy.

LM: How is the dialogue system set up in the game?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] The system we came up with for interviewing and interrogating was built purely for the specifics of this game. We really wanted to address the psychological approach, which is the heart of the show and this game. Much of the story progresses through interviewing and interrogating. Of course there is the extra stuff, like collecting evidence, but its core is interviewing people. So we wanted to reflect that in the game by allowing the player to choose. In conversations, you don't choose the topic, you choose the "mode" of questioning, whether it might be more forceful, confrontational, empathetic, flattering or straightforward. The player chooses a specific emotional subset each time they select a topic to talk about. Then we give the player feedback on how well they did.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] One of the things that Goren does is say something like, "I had a brother who had the same problem." He does this to see if the person will open up more to him. That part of the puzzling was more fun in this game. It definitely was more fun to write. Which was good because it's a huge script.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] I think the script is close to 500 pages long, with 3,000 lines of dialogue. The hardest part is that over half of these lines are Goren's. We had to record his lines in two separate sessions because there were so many. Another problem with all those lines is that you can get into a rut with asking the same type of questions. But Elizabeth was very good about having fresh approaches to these modes of questioning. We never ended up with the "same old, same old" with each interview.

LM: Did you use any outside experts to help with the game story ?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] Craig hired a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Heather Krell, to help with the game. She came up with this whole psychological profile of every character in the game. We talked about motivations a lot. Ironically, when we did the show, we relied on a famous forensic psychiatrist. It turns out she studied under him at Quantico. So she knew a lot about his work and is also highly respected in this field. So we mirrored a lot of the things we built into the show. I also spoke with Rene Balcer, the show's creator, and sent him material. He approved the story.

LM: That sounds very good for the game. You have three initial cases in the game; can they be played in any order or simultaneously?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] You get three cases initially, and you can pursue them in any order and at the same time, working back and forth between them if you choose. Once you solve those three, then you are presented with a fourth case.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] It's cool, though. You complete the three cases and think you've done your work. Then boom -- this new case opens and you have to figure out how this case relates or not to your earlier investigations. Once you get into that fourth case, you get all these cool references to the show and Goren himself. This new case becomes a very personal experience for Goren. Anyone who has ever watched the show… at this point, everything that they know about the character will help them. They will have a little head start over a non-viewer of what is going on and what to do.

LM: What can you say about the basic game story?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] Each case starts with a murder. On the surface it seems to have a simple explanation. And that explanation leads to a specific suspect. Uncovering them leads to a much more complicated scenario. You end up going down a whole new path than you expected from what you saw and learned in the beginning. It's like peeling back the layers with each new interview or piece of evidence.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] The three murders have completely different motivations and how they are done. Then after they are solved, you find out with the fourth case that there is a much bigger story going on, and things may be related in ways you didn't see before.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] We used the criminal profiling to connect things. We also wanted it to parallel real life events or cases. I am not saying these murders actually happened this way in real life, but I wanted them to be based on real life premises for criminal behavior and motivations. It is based on real science. If you know the show and a little about criminal profiling, you will have a bit of an advantage on solving these cases. But even if you don't, you can use these tools, learn how they work, and still figure the whole thing out.

LM: How did you balance the demands of the general gaming public and the rabid fan base for everything Goren.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Experienced adventure gamers definitely want a really tough, sophisticated game that is challenging. We are also trying to appeal to fans of the show, who may not be that familiar with playing games. We knew there would be a range of skill level. One way we tried to address that is to have three levels of difficulty. You can change this at any time, by going into the options screen and even go back and forth between skill levels during the game. This allows players to play the game at the level they feel comfortable with. For example, during interviews, if you are at the advanced level, you have to be a lot more strategic in choosing the mode of questioning, because you are going to get set up a lot earlier if you make the wrong choices. If you choose the easy or novice setting, the game gives you a lot more slack. This is for people who just don't want to think that hard. Maybe they feel like they will enjoy it more if they don't have to spend so much time figuring these people out. There are more hints available in the easy mode, things like that. Goren will go into "knowledge" mode. He'll think 'maybe I should do this or that'. You'll get a hint about what you need to do next to advance or to unlock something. We all thought that having difficulty options addresses that issue.

LM: Aside from the clueing structure you just mentioned, are there any other differences between the levels of difficulty?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Basically the real difference is whether or not you get hints and also how forgiving the game is of your choice of questioning mode. But it also affects things like lab tests, as getting results may take a little longer in the expert mode vs. the novice mode, and some aspects of certain puzzles vary depending on the level of difficulty.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] The clueing was the most difficult part to figure out and make for this game. The hardest part about getting the evidence is writing how he figures out certain things. There are only so many ways to come up with unique clues that only he can figure out. For example in the first part of the game, he finds the murder took place along the east River. So it's how the clues are set up to move him along the trail.

LM: Do you have any references or backstory that only fans will get?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] We tried to use inside stuff from the show, like the ways Goren will refer to something or little mannerisms. When you are trying to decide your next move in the game and Goren is just standing around, he has the same little quirks that he does on the show. All those little "tics" he is known for. That is something I guarantee the fans will immediately pick up on. We tried to keep things specific to the show in there. There are a few references that will help you, that involve how the case will unfold, so if you know the show, you will have a slight leg up. There are a couple of times where you hear a name or you'll get an idea of what is happening earlier than those who are unfamiliar with Goren and the show. But even if you've never watched the show, you can still figure it all out.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Right. There's a little bit of backstory, which fans are going to know. They are going to pick up on that quicker.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] I wanted to do that, because I think that if you are invested in a show or a movie, the writer ought to give people some kind of reward for that knowledge as a game player. So I wanted to drop some of those clues for fans in there and I thought it would be a lot of fun trying to spot the show references. And there's always the moment for those people playing the game, especially people who are a bit obsessive-compulsive, when they will pat themselves on the back and say "Oh! Only I know that!"

LM: You have Detective Bobby Goren and Captain James Deakins, voiced by Vincent D'Onofrio and Jamie Sheridan. But is it true that you left out Goren's partner, Alexandra Eames? If so, why?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Clearly the show is all about Goren. And we also needed a superior, someone to bounce ideas off of. But we didn't want it to be one of those third-person games where there is another character merely following you along. So we decided to make this more like "the Goren game". We focused on his character, rather than the other ones in the show, because it didn't feel like it was necessary.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] The real premise for Goren is that he is supposed to be like a modern day Sherlock Holmes. As for the focus of the game, this is Goren's show. Also, the only way it would have really worked is if we used both characters, so you had a choice of whether you would be Eames or Goren.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] That also means the script would have doubled. We didn't want to go down that road! It was a mess enough as it was.

LM: What can you tell us about some of the other characters we will meet in the game?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] There are close to 60 speaking characters. It may be 55, I can't recall the exact number. They run the gamut of suspicious people who have motivations to have been involved in these crimes. One was having an affair, then there was the boss and the daughter. You have a list of plausible suspects, which includes all sorts of characters. People with different sets of motives for wanting to "do-in" each victim.

LM: Past games in this series always used first-person perspective. You went with the third-person perspective in this game. Why is that?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] One thing is that because we decided this game was all about Goren, since he is central to the whole show, we thought that by making it a third-person game, it gave players the full experience and ability to really connect with his character. As opposed to you playing as Detective Goren and never seeing him. If you never saw yourself, I think you would be a little disappointed. Part of what makes that show is his mannerisms. He is not only just an interesting character, there are all those quirky things he does. His manners and the way that he speaks are so unconventional. We wanted to give the player the opportunity to connect with that as much as possible.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] When we started this process, Craig told me about a game called Syberia. I played it so I could see what he was talking about and the approach for a third-person adventure game. It was a very beautiful game, but I was disappointed in the interactions not being as rich as the scenery. To me the story didn't start until the end, where you get on the train. It seemed really empty having gone through everything. But it was a good game to use as a sort of base model. I definitely tried to make our story a lot richer. I realized that at every turn we were making it more complicated than it had to be, but I think in the end, we never cut corners with our story. It is long and involved. I think we could have sold the story as a show.

LM: This game has a mature rating. Is it due to the subject matter or realistic depictions of crimes?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Well, yeah. Even though our previous Law & Orders dealt with murder and death, there are four of them in this game. And there are naturally adult themes in the motives, like revenge, adultery.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] Also in the psychological profiling, you are going into the heads of criminals. That's always a pretty dark place.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] Yes, I think that darkness is reflected also in the graphics, as well. There are a lot of typical places like an abandoned subway tunnel, the cemetery and things like that.

LM: What else can you tell us about some of the environments we will encounter in the game?

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] It is very representative of the show. There are some nice residential places, some not so nice. There's an art shop, offices. We also have a variety of places where you would normally find people, like a beauty salon, banks, a mortuary -- we have all sorts of locales that run the gamut. There are a couple of places that are slightly off your map, but it is definitely all in the northeast.

LM: Let's talk more about the psychological profiling. It seems very unique to me. Not just that there are questions and answers, but you actually get to profile people?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] This is much harder than just questioning alone. This is for players who want to think their way through a problem. It's one of the reasons people watch the show. I think Legacy has outdone themselves. It's the next evolution in this kind of game.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] The criminal profiler is integral, because building this kind of profile is implicitly what the show's all about. This is what Goren does. He's figuring out what is this killer's motivation. Why did they do this and how do I find them and what are their hot buttons and all that. We wanted to make that an actual part of the game mechanics, so that's why we came up with this device. It's kind of like a laptop on Goren's desk. You submit evidence that you find, whether it’s from the crime scene or wherever. The criminal profiler will let you know whether the evidence you submitted has something to say about what kind of person committed the crime. This is where we worked with the forensic psychiatrist. She would read Elizabeth's story and work backwards. She would say, "Let's see… what kind of person would commit this crime and what kinds of things would you find at the crime scene and elsewhere, that would demonstrate the characteristics of this type of person?" It was give and take.

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] I also wanted to create this kind of claustrophobic feeling in the interview process. When I was writing the scenes for Goren, I wanted to create a psychological intimacy between Goren and the person he is questioning and the player.

LM: Are you saying that when you wrote these scenes, you wanted the player to identify with the person questioned or to feel the impact Goren was having on his subject?

[Color=DarkRed]EC:[/color] I wanted the intimacy to go both ways. I wanted to create a sense of urgency. If he doesn't get this answer, someone might die. I think one of the scary things about video games is that you create this whole world and you kind of live in that world for a while. For example, when you are in the subway tunnels, the fact that it made me nervous fascinates me.

LM: This is very ambitious. To strive to bring a level of tension to an adventure game, without resorting to action or a timed moment.

[Color=DarkGreen]CB:[/color] You are always dealing with constraints about what we can do within the game mechanics we have set up vs. what we would like to see happen in the story. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of puzzles can we insert here that make interesting sense within the story? It is truly a constant juggling act. Where it starts and where the game ends up are of course two very different places. The game naturally evolves along the lines of what people think of and people's ideas of what would make a good game.

LM: You said earlier that your choices in the dialogues have an impact on the game or the outcome. In what ways do your choices impact the game?

CB: It's basically whether or not a witness is going to clam up or help you anymore. You're going to have to come back later and hope that they are willing to talk to you then. And if you really blew it, they are less likely to talk to you. It's not like there is this huge super complex branching thing, where you were a little off here and then all of a sudden there's this other murder and somebody else has this completely different motivation. That just wasn't going to be practical. We did as much as possible to give players the feeling that it's not as if you only have one thing to do at every point. There are a lot of varied locations to explore and people to interview. If interviewing poorly shuts you down, you can go off and do these other things. It is not as if your progress is on hold until the game lets you continue.

EC: One of the things about Syberia that I know Craig and I both liked was that you could walk off the beaten path. You could go places that didn't necessarily lead anywhere important. Which I think we still have in this game, right?

CB: Yeah, of course. There is plenty of evidence and things you can look at, collect and run analyses on. You may not need to, but you can. Some players might be interested in that sort of thing. In the end we just tried to mix it up as much as possible.

LM: What's a mystery without a few red herrings?

CB: Exactly. Without those, it's basically just a TV show. Because then everything is just led down the path and that's it. We didn't want to be overwhelming with the red herrings. We didn't want to leave the player with too much to collect, so that your inventory was overwhelming. We still made sure that you could only analyze what made sense to analyze, not just every piece of trash lying around.

LM: Can you go back and redeem yourself with a witness if things went badly the first time?

CB: We never have the event where you lose the game because you didn't do well enough. Basically your progress gets "stalled".

LM: Are alternate endings possible?

CB: No, because the game is so complex, we didn't work in multiple endings.

LM: The music for past games was fairly limited to the trademarked Law & Order mini tune that plays whenever you arrive for the first time at a new locale. Are there more ambient musical pieces in this game

CB: We worked with a composer named Chris Rickwood. We knew we were going to have a lot more locations in this game than the previous ones we developed. We wanted to have a lot more music so people wouldn't get tired of the same few pieces. And he wanted to create compositions that would be "in the style" that Mike Post would compose.

LM: About the voice work, how was it working with the guys from the show?

CB: I flew out to New York to give direction. But when you are working with TV guys like Jamie and Vince, you are not really directing them character-wise because clearly they know their own character backwards and forwards. You are really giving them contextual information and guidance. Since they had so many lines, they couldn't always know what was happening at that point in the dialogues and the game. So, they might stop and ask you "Wait, when does this happen and what is going on in the scene?" I certainly wouldn't tell Vincent D'Onofrio how to act his part. But I was there to give the bigger picture.

LM: What was their reaction to seeing themselves in the game? Did they approve the renderings?

CB: They haven't seen the finished product, but they had to approve their own characters' look and style. I think it's very similar to what they might do while taping the show. It was interesting how many times Vincent would have these reads on things. It's not how I would think of reading the line, but in the show his character has the odd vocalizations or stammering things he does. And that's his character. Which is not at all what he is like in person. He definitely got into character. He hunches over and did all those Goren mannerisms while he read his lines.

LM: How inventory intensive is the game and how is that handled in the interface?

CB: We use a PDA based inventory. Your PDA is a multi-function device that handles the inventory, the in-game map, phone, and your log. We have your inventory categorized for you, witnesses stay in their section, documents, and regular evidence. It's fairly inventory heavy, but you do need to find things, of course. Some are relevant and others are irrelevant. I think the inventory is a central part of the game, but it takes a back seat to the interviews.

LM: In the prior games, you had the inventory set up as a tabbed device located at the bottom of the screen. How is it set up in Criminal Intent?

CB: When you click on something, you get a pop-up multi-cursor of things you can do at that time. The options are collect, look at, or analyze something. When you select analyze, the piece of evidence is automatically sent off to the crime lab or research unit. There's some similarity to what we have done before, but it is also a little different.

LM: Now the profiler, is it in the PDA or do you have to go to Goren's desk to use that?

CB: You have to go to his desk to use that item. The criminal profiler is the newest gadget. We didn't add more to the PDA because we didn't want to overload the interface.

LM: You seem to have a very wide variety of challenges in this game, like dialogue based challenges as well as more traditional ones. Can you describe some of the types of puzzling the player will run across?

CB: Because we are limited to the "real world" of New York and the police work, that definitely provides some logical constraints. We tried to be as clever and creative as we can. Where would a puzzle occur naturally? Meaning where would one fit logically, in terms of where do you need information and what can we do to make that information a little bit harder to get to. Even though we have some puzzles that we've done before, we tried to do a slightly different take on them for this game. We didn't want the same old stuff. No dropping in of a regular old slider puzzle and that kind of thing. We tried to create clever challenges that I haven't seen many people do before.

LM: You also have the hands-on detective work, using tools of the trade, evidence collection and that sort of thing, right?

CB: There's no question, you gotta look around. Even when interviewing people, you might need to find some relevant evidence there as well. You won't be able to progress until you find that item to ask them about.

LM: In past games, you had the court or judicial part of the show in the gameplay as well. The Criminal Intent game focuses purely on the detective's side of the investigation and case. Why is that?

CB: Because we have the profiler as a new component of the game. This is a new thing for you to do in the game, so we decided to take out some of the other stuff, like proving your warrant. Now you go to Captain Deakin's desk, and he's going to know what you did and didn't get done. So if you've made enough progress, you're going to get your warrant.

LM: How does the future look to you for adventure gaming in particular? Do you think people who want to create commercially viable adventure games have to use all the latest bells and whistles, go to full 3D? Or is there room for innovation within the more traditional model for these games?

CB: I think adventure games will always be here, though I am not sure we will ever see the heyday again, like in the LucasArts era -- back when adventure games were king. But you will see them continue to evolve. I am curious to see Indigo Prophecy, for example. I saw Dreamfall at E3 and I was impressed. I don't think the point & click adventure game is going to be dead anytime soon. But the games will continue to evolve along with the industry. You can't just cater to hardcore gamers, either.

EC: It's safe to say that people want games that make them think, like in the Law & Order games. People don't just want to be observers of events. I think these kinds of games do that, so there's always a need for this kind of game.

LM: Another thing is that the core base that began playing in the heyday of adventure gaming is all grown up now. These aren't kid gamers. Criminal Intent has a mature rating, not so much because of violence but as you said earlier, because of the "adult themes" in the game. Do you think there is a growing market for adult-oriented games?

EC: It's not only that. There's an over-saturation of the same types of games and people are bored. They get tired of playing the same thing all the time. I think there's a point, with games like Criminal Intent… the good things about adventure games are in there, but there is also the added element of "direct me" action. I think there's a certain role playing aspect of games, where you can be a person you could never be in real life or play a role you can otherwise only dream about. Being a criminal profiler or a Sherlock Holmes type detective is a dream a lot of armchair detectives, television watchers, and Internet people have. These are a part of the community who are not typical gamers. I think that is what these games have to keep to make it.

LM: Any last words for the gamers and fans out there?

CB: We just hope that people will like the game we are putting out. We think the fans of the show and people who just like a good mystery are going to like Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

EC: I think if you always wanted to be a criminal profiling New York Detective, then play this game and be it. My thanks to Craig; it was really great to work with him. I was truly amazed at how he was able to take my dreams into reality.


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