Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is a project that draws inspiration from many different places. Stemming from the ideas of graphic novel artist Romano Molenaar, this episodic adventure is being developed by Phoenix Online—newcomers to commercial development, but a familiar name in adventure gaming circles thanks to their years of work on the King’s Quest-inspired fan project, The Silver Lining. In turn, Phoenix is collaborating on Cognition’s story and design with industry veteran Jane Jensen, creator of Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter. Oh, and don’t forget that its development got off the ground thanks to $34k in Kickstarter donations from adventure game fans themselves. With so many fingers in the pie, can Cognition possibly come out fully baked? Judging from the demo the team showed at San Francisco’s recent Game Developers Conference, it’s well on its way.
A dark adventure influenced by the likes of Dexter, Saw, and Heavy Rain, Cognition follows FBI Agent Erica Reed on her search for the man who killed her brother, Scott. Along the way she will investigate four different serial killers—one in each of the game’s four episodes—under precarious and sometimes gory circumstances that put her unique powers of post-cognition to the test. Though game length is always difficult to predict, the developers expect each Cognition episode to be comparable to The Silver Lining’s longer episodes, clocking in at around 4 to 5 hours.
The playable demo Phoenix Online presented at GDC took place during the first episode’s prologue, as Erica and partner John McCoy close in on the Cain Killer during Scott’s final hours. In a 2D cutscene with a distinct graphic novel influence, the duo arrives at a gothic-looking graveyard, and in an impulsive and defiant move that’s presumably central to her character, Erica refuses to wait for back-up. The player then takes control of Erica in a third-person 3D world that meshes surprisingly well with the hand drawn cutscene art. (Think Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers in terms of the art styles’ consistency, as opposed to the more jarring Gray Matter.) The gameplay that follows is fairly straightforward for point-and-click fans, involving investigation of the graveyard, collection and use of a few inventory items, conversations between Erica and John, and the occasional use of Erica’s post-cognitive abilities to figure out where the Cain Killer has taken his doomed victim.
During the demo, the Phoenix team warned me that the interface was still under development, but what I saw worked pretty well. Clicking on a hotspot calls up a few different icons depending on the context, such as a hand to use, an eye to look, and the inventory bag to use an item. Sometimes you also get an icon for using Erica’s post-cognition powers, meaning that Erica can see into the past or otherwise use her special tricks to gain more insight into the killer’s activities. In the demo, this involved watching a past scene play out in sepia tones; Phoenix says that as the series progresses, Erica will develop and make use of other extrasensory abilities as well.
By experimenting with this “Spidey sense” in a few areas, I was able to learn where in the graveyard the killer went after his arrival, and that he buried something in the dirt. The next task was to explore the graveyard—enlisting John’s help along the way via dialogue exchanges—to come up with an item that could be used to recover what the killer buried. This turned out to be a key of sorts to open the door of the crypt where Scott was being held… but it’s not that simple. The killer laced the door with torturous booby traps, and to rescue her brother Erica must first spill her own blood—a hint of the dark and potentially gruesome themes we can expect from Cognition’s overall storyline.
The game’s major cutscenes employ a minimally animated graphic art style that sometimes makes use of comic panels to convey movement. The game world itself comes alive with dynamic camerawork and character animations, a few of which were present in this early demo. (One example that stood out to me: after she’s wounded trying to open the crypt door, Erica limps, rather than walking normally.) Even the subtitles contribute to the graphic novel vibe, with a font that looks hand-lettered appearing in thickly outlined boxes, just like the dialogue in many comic books. The game will be voice acted, and although the show floor was a bit too loud to fully appreciate them, I could hear that some voices were already integrated—including that of Erica, who happens to be played by Jane Jensen’s stepdaughter, Raleigh Holmes.
Cognition’s comic visual style is derived from Romano Molenaar’s art—his body of work includes X-Men, Witchblade, and Tomb Raider comics—and he is providing art direction for the game’s cutscenes. The rest of development is purely in Phoenix Online’s court, with the same team behind The Silver Lining responsible for story creation, gameplay design, in-game artwork, animation, and programming. As for Jane, whose official title is “story consultant,” Phoenix says that so far she has reviewed the outline for the full game as well as the script for the first episode, and has provided valuable feedback on both dialogue and puzzles. In particular, her suggestions have helped the team to focus Erica’s motivations in certain scenes and to streamline the dialogue to provide the greatest impact with the fewest lines—an efficiency Phoenix acknowledges hasn’t always been the case in their Silver Lining episodes. This is not a “Jane Jensen game” per se, but after talking to the development team it’s clear that Cognition will be stronger thanks to her involvement.
The demo ended with a timed puzzle, during which Erica needed to disarm the maniacal machine the Cain Killer had hooked Scott up to. Though a glitch caused the puzzle to solve itself (not one of Erica’s special abilities!), the Phoenix team explained that whether I had succeeded or failed, Scott would die either way. However, the cinematic that played after the puzzle would have been somewhat different depending on the outcome—another touch that reminded me of certain moments in GK1. Along the same lines, each Cognition episode will include some story branches, and the way you choose to have Erica interact with people can cause subtle changes to your options as that particular installment continues. These branches won’t create huge variety in the way the episodes conclude, but they will give players some free will (and, theoretically, give the anal among us an incentive to replay). Branches will be self-contained in each episode, meaning something you do in an earlier episode won’t be tracked to impact later choices or the game’s overall outcome, but the team is thinking about creating some potential for variety in the storyline’s conclusion as well. For now, though, they’re mostly focused on getting this first episode out the door.
Though they're also working on the final Silver Lining episode concurrently (which likely won’t materialize until later in 2012), Phoenix plans to launch the first of four Cognition episodes this summer as a PC download, available for individual purchase or as part of a season pass. The intervals between the remaining three episodes are expected to be shorter than The Silver Lining's have been, ideally measured in a matter of weeks rather than gaps of many months. In the meantime, they’re planning a live stream of the demo for all of the project’s backers, so if you pitched in money keep an eye on your inbox for details.