The name Steve Ince is widely known in adventure circles. In the past, that recognition has come largely from his work on the acclaimed Broken Sword series with Revolution. Now a freelance writer and designer, however, Ince is beginning to make a name all for himself. Receiving a nomination for “Best videogame script” at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain 2008 Awards (winner still to be determined) for his latest adventure, So Blonde, certainly won't hurt the cause.
Fewer people know much about Wizarbox, a French studio that's been around for several years and yet exploded onto the adventure scene only recently with the release of So Blonde. Get used to hearing about them plenty more in future, though, as the company has taken over development of Jane Jensen's Gray Matter, even as they continue work on an "alternate reality" version of So Blonde for the Nintendo DS and Wii.
Adventure Gamers recently went behind the scenes with both Steve Ince and So Blonde's lead designer at Wizarbox, Jerome Britneff-Bondy, to ask about their collaboration on the new comic adventure and the paths that brought the two together.
Adventure Gamers: First of all, thanks to both of you for taking the time to answer our questions. Some gamers are playing So Blonde already, but it’s taking time to spread internationally, so that gives us an opportunity to discuss the game a bit more. What's been the general reaction to the game in areas where it's available, both publicly and critically? Any surprises? Any disappointments?
Steve Ince: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the positive reactions and reviews the game has so far received, particularly when the game has been given 8/10 and 17/20 recently. The biggest surprise, though, was the fact that the review score in the French print magazine, Joystick, was better than that given to the latest Tom Clancy game.
Jerome Britneff-Bondy: The general reaction is really good so far, we got great reviews and ratings. This acknowledgement by our peers is of course a great satisfaction for the team but we don’t forget that only the gamers have the final cut - they decide concretely if the game is a success or not.
AG: And how about you personally? Now that the game is finished and you've had the chance to reflect on the finished product, how has the game measured up to your own goals and expectations?
SI: It’s difficult to judge the non-English versions completely, but the English version is everything I could have hoped for. The tone of the game has matched the aims we set out with. I was looking at the game again recently (not having touched it for a few months) and it felt really good doing so.
JBB: When we started the project, we hoped the game would be appreciated by both hardcore and casual gamers and this seems to be exactly what’s happening.
AG: Before looking at the completed project more closely, let's go back to the beginning. How did you come to be working together on this game in the first place?
SI: [Wizarbox CEO] Fabien [Bihour] sent me an e-mail and asked me if I was interested in working on the game. I went over to Paris, took one look at the sketches of some characters and it was love at first sight. Considering that I speak no French, it was surprising how quickly we all started seeing the same vision for the game.
JBB: People at Wizarbox brought the starting idea, which was to confront a young, pampered and modern blonde teen used to luxury and modern comfort with rude and bloodthirsty pirates. We thought this was an uncommon - so interesting - environment for an adventure game. When we needed to develop the story and push the concept forward, we contacted Steve who loved the idea and collaborated with us to make our dream come true.
AG: Had you known each other previously, or collaborated in any way before this?
SI: I must admit that I’d never even heard of Wizarbox prior to that first e-mail. It’s funny how the world works at times.
JBB: It was our first collaboration with Steve, whose talent as storyteller impressed us on titles such as the Broken Sword series. It has been a real pleasure to work with him and we really enjoyed it from the first day.
AG: So the game had a French development studio with an English writer and a German publisher. What kind of challenge did that pose? Were there times where translation issues, cultural differences, or just plain physical separation caused any problems?
SI: The wonders of the internet means that most of the time I feel as close to the guys in Paris as I do to my old colleagues up the road in York. I am thankful that everyone I deal with speaks such good English, which helps enormously from my point of view. Rather than difficulties, I think that having three nationalities involved in this way gives the game a positive strength because we have three versions of the game where the language is native to someone involved.
JBB: Language was not the challenge, although we thought it would be at first. When the project started, we all switched to English, for convenience. Moreover, our employees speak English pretty well - much better than Steve speaks French indeed [laugh] so it went pretty well.
AG: Steve, how involved were you in the game's development after writing the script? Was it pretty much hands-off at that point, or did you work closely with the team in implementing the design through to the end?
SI: The story, design and dialogue were all developed in stages that were done in a way which maintained the holistic feel of the project. I worked closely with Jerome, who contributed enormously and kept me from being too silly with the design. However, there came a point where I’d pretty much done all I could and it was then down to the rest of the team to put in the really hard work to make the design play as we’d intended. I have great admiration and respect for everyone involved.
AG: The game stars a pampered, shallow (at least at first), self-absorbed teen girl, and Steve, you're a... well, just about as far from a pampered, shallow, self-absorbed teen girl as there is. How did you manage to create a character that you've obviously had little personal experience with and make her believable?
SI: The character was partly created when I got involved in the project, with sketches and some description. But I was surprised at how easily I was able to get into the head of a 17 year old. Must be all the pampering I receive when I visit the Wizarbox offices.
AG: The stylized, cartoon-like visuals and the decidedly bizarre premise immediately suggest a "comic" adventure. Would you say it's accurate to describe So Blonde as a comedy? Or is it more of a lighthearted coming-of-age story? Or maybe something in between, something else entirely?
SI: It’s a comedy drama coming of age with romantic overtones in a saving the world kind of way story. Sometimes there is straightforward comedy, sometimes it’s just plain silly and other times it can be quite serious. There is a theme of self-discovery and Sunny goes through a real arc and becomes a different person by the end of the game.
JBB: So Blonde clearly belongs to the “comic” or even “parody” genre but it’s also the story of a teen becoming an adult. Behind the jokes and the funny situations stands Sunny, a young girl who never really had to do anything by herself in life so far. We thought it would be interesting to accompany her as she becomes more mature, thanks to the player’s actions. Remember that the game offers more than 5 hours of spoken dialogues.
Adventure Gamers: Steve, how is the writing in So Blonde either similar or different to other games you've worked on? Are you venturing into new territory here, or will this feel very much like "a Steve Ince game" for those who have played your games in the past?
Steve Ince: To be honest, I didn’t really set out to write in a particular style, it simply grew from the characters themselves. Sometimes when writing them it was like they were speaking independently in my head, which makes my life so much easier.
AG: The game gives off a very "old school" vibe – not in its impressive production values, but its overall mechanics (2D, point-and-click) and gameplay focus. Was that a fairly conscious effort on your part, appealing to the kind of market that made Runaway a hit, or were you simply just making the kind of game that you wanted to make?
SI: I loved the ideas immediately and was able to buy into the whole concept with great eagerness. With that on mind I set out to help create a game that would match that initial specification.
Jerome Britneff-Bondy: There are many reasons, the most obvious one being that we all love adventure games so we naturally came to that genre. Also, So Blonde is the first game entirely developed by Wizarbox and we wanted to spend our time on the game itself – rather than on its production tools. Adventure games are not about technology but about content. That’s where we put our efforts.
AG: The one thing that some might consider less traditional (or at least less welcome) is the inclusion of mini-games. In many games, these can feel tacked on, like a cheap ploy to add some "action" value to an otherwise fairly relaxed adventure. What role do they serve in So Blonde, and how have you managed to integrate them so that they feel natural to the story?
SI: They’ve just been tacked on to manipulate the gaming press. No, not really. There are a few different styles of mini-game but their purpose is linked to the gameplay at that point. Even the stylised nature of the first one – based on the Game & Watch Nintendo style games – fits with what Sunny is trying to do at that point of the game – she needs to collect water in a coconut shell. Rather than just have “use shell on water” we have “use shell on water and trigger mini-game”. It’s good fun, which was the real aim of putting them in to begin with.
JBB: We always wanted to bring an “old school” feeling in So Blonde. We assumed it completely by adding 16 mini-games, including references to some of the videogame industry’s milestones titles - like Game & Watch or even Space Invaders, which became Temple Invaders here.
AG: Any reassurances you can offer to those whose pulse quickens at the mere thought of stressful activities?
SI: Take a breath and get a grip – the world will come to an abrupt end if you fail them! Well, it might not. The games are fun and even if you fail them a couple of times you can have fun trying. It is possible to cheat your way through them, but the game may go off into a corner to sulk for a while.
JBB: All mini-games are part of the storytelling, for it illustrates – in a funny and interactive way – some specific situations. Their purpose is to bring some fun sequences between two puzzles. Now, traditional adventure fans can relax, for all mini-games can be bypassed by a simple click if you don’t want to play it. Knowing that, I recommend you to test them all for I’m sure you would be surprised by your own skills! (Remember: If Sunny can, YOU can!)
AG: Steve, you're a big proponent of "interaction density", so can we expect there to be lots of non-essential stuff to see and touch and mess around with just for fun?
SI: I think it’s only right that the player is able to interact with things in the background and this game is filled with stuff like that. I hope that some of the descriptions will give people a laugh or two.
AG: So while your first game is just hitting the English market, now you're well underway on the "Nintendo" version -- the alternate-storyline "what if" version of the game for the Wii and DS. That's a creative way to approach cross-platform releases. How did that idea come about?
SI: We discussed it and I realised how great it would be to build on this idea and give the player a new gameplay and story experience without it being a sequel and without undermining the PC version.
JBB: We wanted to create something new on the Nintendo platforms, but not different to the point where it would be considered as a So Blonde 2. We also had to manage the existing PC version’s background, so we applied the “butterfly effect”. What if the main character had met the “bad guys” first and became friends with them? A simple change in the starting situation would change everything…
AG: How much of the game would you say is simply recycled from the original, and how much is entirely new? Tell us honestly, for those considering buying both, will it really feel like a different game that's worth our while (and money) to play twice?
SI: I would estimate that 80 – 90 percent of the story and gameplay is new. There are places where we get very close to the original, but most of the time we are treading a new path, but using many of the existing characters and locations. Some of the PC locations have been re-drawn to better fit the new platforms and many of them are completely new, as are some of the characters. We also have a new playable character.
JBB: The game uses about 20% of the PC version but nothing has been really “recycled”. The story and puzzles are completely new and were designed to complete the PC version – though there’s no need to have played it to enjoy this edition. Most locations have been redesigned and cut into several screens. Last, we tried to take in consideration most of the PC players’ feedback in this version.
AG: The Wii and DS are obviously much different platforms, so how will the game seek to utilize both the unique features and limitations of each system?
SI: The interface has been developed to take full advantage of the consoles’ individual features. The really great thing is that the game is equally at home on a large TV (through the Wii) and the much smaller screens of the DS.
JBB: We designed the game to make it fully playable with the stylus and Wiimote. I also think we’ve found a simple but efficient way to use the DS dual screens. Last, the mini-games have been redesigned to make the most of Nintendo’s unique controllers.
Adeventure Gamers: Jerome, we know a lot about Steve through his past projects, but Wizarbox is entirely new to most of us. What can you tell us about the team?
Jerome Britneff-Bondy: Wizarbox was created in 2003 by 4 people as JEI (French Government Label for Innovative Company). Today, the company is employing 50 highly skilled employees (programmers, game level designers, artists…).The company provides services on all platforms and works with international prestigious partners such as dtp entertainment, Ubisoft, Atari, Koch Media, etc.
Wizarbox’s main goal is to be able to provide conversions on any platform from the Nintendo DS to the PlayStation 3. Moreover, the company can also in/outsource customers’ projects in order to offer the perfect answer to their needs and thus save them some time.
We worked on My Animal Centre in Australia and Scrabble (PC and DS) for Ubisoft, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, Kirikou, Azur et Asmar, Panzer Elite Action, etc. And we are currently working on a PC to X360/PS3 conversion, a PC to X360 conversion, 2 PC/DS/Wii titles and a PC/X360 title.
AG: What is it that appealed to you about making an adventure game? Have you always been fans of the genre?
JBB: We are all big fans of LucasArts adventures (Monkey Island, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max) so we wanted to make an original game, with its own personality, but that could also taste as a tribute to these titles. Also, we think that videogames need to have a meaning. Now, it’s fun to chase your friends in tiny corridors to shoot them, but after some time one can wonder “so, what’s the point? Where does this lead me”? We think that it’s not because a game has a story that it’s not fun.
AG: What other games or game designers have influenced you to this point, either personally or professionally?
JBB: Apart from the LucasArts legacy, we also loved Blade Runner , Runaway, Secret Files: Tunguska, Experience 112 or Fahrenheit - Indigo Prophecy, without forgetting the Gabriel Knight series. When we looked back in time, we realized that we only mostly remember games with a strong or uncommon scenario.
AG: And how did you find the experience of creating an adventure? Any unforeseen rewards or challenges?
JBB: Creating an adventure game is more challenging than it seems at first. You have to find themes that can appeal the largest possible audience. This is maybe the hardest part and it was all on Steve’s shoulders - I must say he did an incredible work here. The rest was mostly a question of data management. After the first QA pass, we were surprised because people thought the game was too hard and missing clear objectives at all times, so we changed that. But what’s hard for someone is not for someone else.
AG: With this first game under your belt, now you've also taken over the very high-profile Gray Matter with Jane Jensen, so there seems to be no slowing you down. Any glimpses into what else is in store for Wizarbox? Will we be seeing more adventures from you in future?
JBB: The answer is: red. Now, if this answer does not satisfy you, let’s consider the real answer is… yes. We are planning more adventures in future and even on different platforms.
AG: And Steve, you've certainly kept busy since your time at Revolution. How has life as a freelance writer/designer been treating you?
Steve Ince: There have been a few ups and downs along the way to becoming a full time freelance, but at the moment I’m in the strange position of having to turn work away as my schedule is so full. In many respects I’ve been very fortunate and have worked on quite varied titles and brilliant ones like So Blonde. I’ve even been revisiting old stamping grounds, but I’m not allowed to say anything about that as the project hasn’t been officially announced.
AG: Just enough to tease us with it, right? You've mentioned there being interest in your services on the casual games front. Having dabbled already in that field with Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso, is that an area you're interested in exploring further? Maybe on someone else's dime this time?
SI: In some respects the expansion of the casual market is similar to the expansion of the “hardcore” games market fifteen or twenty years ago. Trends and styles are very different but the broad sweep is similar. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge the market and when I created Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso I felt I’d completely misjudged it altogether when the game didn’t sell very well. However, it might appear that I was ahead of the market as the game has just been picked up by Merscom for online publishing through the portals.
I’ve also been approached by people developing casual games who want to incorporate more story into their projects. This seems to be a common theme at the moment, particularly with games like Women’s Murder Club based on the James Patterson novel.
AG: Why do you think that casual games are exploding in popularity?
SI: Because they are accessible and fun. The casual game player doesn’t need to feel that they have to be a knowledgeable game expert. There are times when I think that mainstream games are becoming too hardcore, including some adventures. When I play a game I want to have fun, not die ten times in five minutes or get stuck on a puzzle for days.
AG: Do you think the gap between casual games and full-scale adventures is a bridgeable one? Or at some point does the whole "casual" nature of a game break down when you try to invest too much narrative in it?
SI: What I think we’re seeing is sub-genres developing within casual games and there are players who enjoy adventure type games. Dave Gilbert has made his games into quite a success through the casual portal markets. I think there is plenty of space for richer adventures, too, though their interface may need to simplify and obscure puzzles taken out. However, this may benefit some adventure gamers, too, judging by the number of players who seem to need a walkthrough to complete some games (myself included).
AG: I won’t press you on the mystery project(s) you hinted at, but any other adventures in the works, or at least on the table? And of course I'd be remiss in not asking if there's still a chance of seeing Juniper Cresent - The Sapphire Claw made one day? There seems to be a much more established audience for such games now than when the project was first proposed, as So Blonde itself attests. Could that mean good news for Scout, Blinky and the gang?
SI: I’m pretty much committed to working on other people’s projects for the near future, but I hope to come back to Sapphire Claw and my other project ideas at some point.
AG: Many thanks to both of you for sharing your experiences with us. Any final words for our readers, whether about So Blonde or beyond?
SI: I’d like to thank everyone who has been so supportive of the game and to those who have played/will play the game I hope you enjoy(ed) playing it.
JBB: We hope you’ll enjoy playing the game as much as we’ve enjoyed making it. Try the game, talk about it to your friends, family, neighbor and then eventually buy it! And remember that piracy kills creativity.