Frogwares - Waël Amr interview
To some extent, Frogwares is one of the genre's best-kept secrets. One of the largest and most prolific adventure developers in the world today, the Kiev-based studio has released five full games in the past four years. Better yet, rather than simply pushing out formulaic titles to stay afloat, Frogwares is among the few developers willing and able to ambitiously push the envelope, both technologically and even creatively. Their latest release, Sherlock Holmes: the Awakened, once again shows that they refuse to rest on their laurels. Not only is the world of Doyle's great detective in full, free-roaming 3D for the first time, but The Awakened also draws influence from the other-worldly Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. We recently had a chance to catch up with Waël Amr, the CEO of Frogwares, to discuss their latest adventure and find out what new surprises the company has in store for us.
As if working with one established license wasn't daunting enough, for your new game you're tackling a second one as well. I guess the obvious first question is: why "Holmes meets Cthulhu"?
The Silver Earring was a "traditional" Sherlock Holmes investigation, with all the classical elements of Sherlock Holmes stories (unexplained murder, incredible character fate and story details). The game was and still is a big success as a continuation of Holmes adventures. For The Awakened we choose to put Sherlock, the master of truth and rationality, facing a creation of H.P. Lovecraft, writer of horror and supernatural literature.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is English, Lovecraft is American (though he thought of himself as English sometimes). There is Sherlock, who is the priest and god of truth into the truth temple which is 221b Baker Street, and Watson the friend who believes what he sees, including supernatural stuff. These antagonisms are classical in all drama stories, and while they don't seem to fit at first glance, the mix of both is subtle and in this game you are going from certainties to madness, from classical kidnapping to the end of the world. And the balance between the two names, Sherlock and Cthulhu, is continually changing the game.
As the game has been released in France and Germany already, some players have said it is a game which gives you "cold sweats."
You've stayed faithful to the legacy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in your previous games, and apparently received a very favourable response from Holmes aficionados, correct?
I guess yes, from the email and letters we got from players, we can deduce the games have pleased people who like Holmes. But what is good is that many people who never read a Sherlock story had the feeling of meeting him in person, and following him in one of his adventures.
Aren't you a little concerned that you're straying too far outside of the Sherlock Holmes canon this time around? Or, for that matter, too far outside the Cthulhu mythos?
The main idea is to NOT interfere with the canon; otherwise we could adapt The Hound of the Baskervilles tomorrow. And if you think carefully after playing The Awakened, you will understand why Watson never told that story in the canon.
Concerning the Cthulhu mythos, I would advise people to read Lovecraft. You'll see that horror is not necessarily about seeing monsters at the next street corner.
In the case of both Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu, we are facing elementary human feelings, being frightened and trying to explain what we can't explain but need to. Holmes and Cthulhu have a different reply to the situation. You'll see which one you prefer.
Did you do the same amount of research into Lovecraft's works that you've done with Doyle's? I'd imagine Cthulhu fans are just as knowledgeable and passionate as Holmes fans.
We spent a few years of our short lives playing the Call of Cthulhu RPG game, sitting around the table with a character sheet and rolling dice, spending days and nights in the skin of an investigator trying to understand what is happening to our world, and that led us to the natural conclusion that we should share our experiences with a larger number of people.
As I understand it, the basic storyline sees Holmes investigating the disappearance of various people, apparently at the hands of a cult of Cthulhu worshippers. Any other details you can tease us with at this stage?
All I have to say is IA!IA!CTHULHU F'THAGN!
That should send players scurrying for their English to Cthulhu translators. We do know that the investigation will take players from London to a Swiss psychiatric hospital, several American locations, and onto Scotland. That's a lot of globetrotting for a Holmes adventure. Will each location have separate mysteries to solve, or are they just pieces of the much larger puzzle?
It is one story with really different elements to be solved. The whole investigation takes several months in reality. But they obviously fit into a bigger plan.
Players will get to play both Holmes and Watson at various points. Do they travel together, or is each responsible for separate areas of investigation? Will you play most of the game as one of them, or is it a fairly even split?
It is a Sherlock adventure and nobody is more exceptional and useful than Sherlock except his brother Mycroft, who is riveted to a comfortable armchair of the Diogenes Club!!! Watson will be here to help, sometimes even if he doesn't wish it, but he will assist his friend as much as he can. So you definitely play more as Sherlock than Watson. But you always have a glimpse of Watson's presence around. Being a doctor and former soldier brings a solid help when you face Cthulhu worshippers.
Will you be able to switch between characters at will, or does the game decide when players will take control of each? Do the actions of one impact the possibilities for the other?
The story is strong and complex, so it's generally linear, but you do have some freedom. There are also a few Easter eggs in the game (like the meeting of Holmes and another famous detective) that can be triggered only if you complete certain optional actions, so you are not forced to do them.
Will the puzzles be largely investigative, or will there be a fair number of other sorts of puzzles for variety?
We have all sort of puzzles: still frames, 3D, dialogs, inventory, and some with dynamic light and physics. This is one of the innovations of the game with full mouse control in 3D. I'd rather not describe them too much, as players enjoy discovery as much as solving.
How about timed elements? Those seem to be a potential minefield for a lot of players.
No timed elements, no mazes, no infiltration, no psychic dog.
I can hear Silver Earring players breathing a sigh of relief now! One of the unique benefits of multiple player characters is having the characters work together in cooperative puzzles? Have you considered doing that with Holmes and Watson?
There are such puzzles in the game.
After debuting with a first-person adventure in Mystery of the Mummy, Frogwares has done third-person games ever since, including Silver Earring. Why the switch back to first-person for The Awakened?
Originally we wanted to do a third-person adventure as in 80 Days, but with possibility to go to the first-person to look closer (the camera being 3 meters high in third-person, and only 1.8 while standing in first or 0.9 when crouching), but after the first gameplay test, we understood we needed to permanently switch to first-person to look closer. So we made the decision to be in first-person and stay there, as it is more immersive, and with all the dialogs the game has, I believe we see Sherlock enough.
Part of the draw of a Sherlock Holmes game is having such a recognizable character and being able to watch him in action. Isn't some of that benefit lost by having him be a first-person player character?
All the important character actions are in cinematics so we don't lose Sherlock's presence at all. Using first-person is more immersive while you're playing, and it really helps the atmosphere, as you will see in the Psychiatric hospital, for example.
Mystery of the Mummy
The Case of the Silver Earring
The website refers to The Awakened as "a true symbiosis of two technologies specific to adventure games: WARP (used in the first Myst or Amerzone) which allows first-person movement in pre-calculated decors; and 3D surroundings, which allows the character to be controlled and to become a spectator of the adventure." Can you clarify how each is used in conjunction with the other?
In the WARP system (as in Mystery of the Mummy) you are immersed but you move from node to node -- nice but limited. The 2.5D (such as the Silver Earring) allows you to see your character and to move widely but you remain a spectator of the action. Real-time 3D allows you to have immersion and freedom of movement, while still playing only with the mouse. It is a good mix for adventure, but it is not new, as Under a Killing Moon used it ten years ago.
I've seen many references to sanity and reason being challenged (and whose wouldn't when confronted by Cthulhian terrors?) in the game. Will you be using any special effects technology to reflect a character's changing psychiatric state?
No, this is more the player sweat that we are considering here. I'm quite confident your own face will have some strange twists at least twice in the game.
Did you give any thought to making this a multi-platform release? There aren't many adventures on consoles, and you're one of the few developers willing to work in real-time 3D.
We are not very interested in consoles. The console business is the best means to destroy creation and enslave developers to work for a publisher's marketing team. So we'll focus on PC; at least that is democratic. But we are now finishing Sherlock on DS, which will be released in 2007.
The DS, that's great! Other developers are also branching into the DS, and we're very encouraged to see it being supported as an adventure platform. So will the handheld game be mainly a direct port of the PC version, or will there be any changes to the story or gameplay?
Well, the DS is a nice platform -- funny, intuitive, and easy to handle, so it is the best (or maybe the least worse) choice among the consoles. The DS version is a port of the PC game, but we are not doing the port directly. A Quebec company is handling that.
You've had some hit-and-miss experiences with publishers in the past. This time around you've been dealing with Focus Home Interactive. How's that relationship worked out for you?
Focus Home is a fantastic team, the best publisher a developer can dream about: honest, serious, paying, and interested in the game, even playing them. They build player communities around their titles when they can, and are building an international brand today. We can't go wrong with them.
Journey to the Center of the Earth
With The Awakened nearing completion, you must have a pretty firm idea in mind for your next project. Anything you're willing to disclose yet?
Sherlock is facing another nemesis. Indications of who are in The Awakened. We're also working on a new game based on Dracula.
Dracula, nice! I'd have thought given your track record that we'd be due for another game based on Jules Verne. Is that an avenue you're still interested in exploring? What is it about Verne that you find appealing as a game developer?
No, we gave up on Jules Verne. Enough steam punk and art nouveau; we'll stick to Sherlock. As a game developer and artistic director, I loved to create these machines, architecture, and the whole parallel world of steam machines. But on the other hand, we are a big developer and the main books of Verne have been exploited now and the brand is not as successful as we hoped. And 80 Days was a painful experience. It was necessary to let us move from 2D to 3D, but painful because it was a long and difficult process to create the game, and because we made the mistake of crossing genres and failed commercially to fulfill players' expectations. It remains one of the most beautiful games I see even today, but it lacks the interaction level we had looked to achieve.
When are we going to see a totally original Frogwares title? Have you got any concepts in mind?
We are doing it now. But I can't speak about it yet.
That's something I really look forward to seeing one day, so I hope you get the chance to follow up on it. But for now there's Sherlock to look forward to, due out next month in the UK. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Waël. Any last words to leave with our readers?
Thanks to AG readers and to you Jack for the interview.