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The Journey Down - Theo Waern interview

Journey Down hands-on
Journey Down hands-on

Heeeey, mon!  Dis heeah's da preview for d'upcoming point-and-click adventcha The Journey Down: Chapter One!

Cough... hack... ahem...

Whoops, sorry about that.  Still had my inner Rasta going strong after playing this game.  And believe me, the same will be true for you, as SkyGoblin Games' episodic debut is a delightfully quirky adventure steeped in black African culture.  (What else would you expect from a bunch of white guys in Sweden?)   And yet the game is so much more than that, quickly establishing a unique personality all its own with a combination of comedy, conspiracy, and even a dash of cyberpunk.  It's like Grim Fandango-meets-Blade Runner-meets Bob Marley.  In other words, it's a little bit like other games, and a whole lot like nothing you've ever seen before.  It's The Journey Down.

Actually, saying you've never seen anything like this before isn't just a fib, it's a bold-faced lie.  In fact, you may well have already played the game (and still can if you haven't).  The Journey Down was originally released in 2010 as a freeware adventure, but has now been given a serious facelift with HD graphics, full voiceovers, plus some additional locations and puzzles.  And what a job the team has done.  While the pixel art in the original version was already impressive, now the graphics are eye-popping in their gorgeously stylized cartoon presentation.  With much of the action taking place at night, the colour palette is fairly muted; the hero's orange jumpsuit often brightly standing out against the deep purple backdrop.  The cinematic cutscenes are superb, and in-game animations are so fluid you'll practically want to dive into the rippling water on Kingsport Bay, while a ceiling fan spins smoothly, its shadow trailing ever-faithfully behind it. 

Speaking of facelifts, faces are perhaps the most distinctive visual feature of this game, as they've been heavily inspired by ancient African masks and carvings.  The main character, Bwana, has a clover image stamped on his massive forehead that recedes into tightly curled dreadlocks.  His diminutive buddy Kito has lightning-shaped tattoos across his forehead and cheeks, and the eclectic supporting cast is similarly marked or defined by oddly distorted, caricatured features.  It's a small thing that ultimately has no bearing on the story, but it's so wonderfully unusual that it makes the game boldly stand out from the masses. 

And if visuals alone aren't enough, you'll know you're in for something different as soon as you hear Bwana's thick Jamaican-like accent (or at least, a close enough approximation to fool me), making the inclusion of voiceovers crucial to the success of this remake.  A few of the smaller supporting vocal roles are fairly weak, but most are nicely acted, and none more so than the protagonist, who does an outstanding job of delivering a kind of playful innocence with a mischievous side; laid-back about life, but determined to fulfill his tasks, regardless of the number of hoops needed to jump through to achieve them. 

The story begins rather ominously, with a pair of mobster thugs storming the office of a university professor only to find the occupant missing.  The trail eventually leads to the waterfront Gas 'n' Charter, which has been run by Bwana and Kito ever since they were mysteriously abandoned by their adoptive father.  Seriously behind in their electric bills, the pair jump at the chance to help a young woman named Lina, who arrives seeking a lost book that may hold the (illegal) secret to reaching "the Underland".  Unfortunately, their airplane hasn't been flown in years (apparently the "charter" part of the business has been lagging), and will need a variety of parts and repairs in order to take off. 

This task represents the bulk of the action in the opening episode, though of course it involves a host of smaller objectives along the way.  Bwana will need to secure entrance into the docked cargo ship, outsmart a watchful dog and hungry pelican, collect ingredients to Mama Makena's famous stew spice, and help a beleaguered chef prepare for a ritzy dinner party on a yacht, preferably without getting himself locked in a walk-in freezer in the process.  And while Bwana may protest his aversion to puzzles at times (a fact that results in one particularly amusing "solution"), there are actually plenty to overcome here, with no hint system or hotspot highlighter to help you in a jam. 

Almost all of the puzzles are inventory-based, including some multi-item combinations.  Some demand a definite stretch of logic (requiring, in Bwana's own words, some "stupid ideas"), but all make sense with a degree of lateral thinking, and a few of the more clever ones include moving parts in the environment.  It's absolutely imperative that you try interacting with items more than once throughout the game.  Certain hotspots become important only after subsequent story triggers, so never assume that an object you've looked at earlier is irrelevant, even if Bwana gives no indication it might be useful later.  This means a bit of repeated dialogue, especially as there are quite a few non-essential hotspots to begin with (more charitably described by the hero himself as "pointless... but satisfying.").  Fortunately, the single-click interactions generally elicit a lighthearted comment from the protagonist the first time, and repeats can be clicked through immediately.

It's not clear where and when exactly The Journey Down takes place.  While the accents and serene atmosphere might suggest a mellow Caribbean locale, the peaceful shoreline overlooks a major metropolis across the bay, rather unscrupulously run by the Armando power company.  And while the era seems to be largely contemporary, there's a rather quirky mix of retro equipment and futuristic technology like a high-speed overhead tram system.  Of course, perhaps the former has more to do with Bwana and Kito themselves, whose easygoing, unambitious lifestyle has resulted in a home now lit exclusively by candles.  The music offers no real indication either, but it's a delightful element nonetheless, seamlessly weaving between a mix of light reggae and jazz. 

 

As just the first of four planned episodes, I still have very little idea where the story is heading.  This entire installment takes place in and around the Gas 'n' Charter, but ends with our heroes leaving their home behind for destinations unknown under decidedly cliffhanger-ish circumstances.  There are hints throughout to suggest that a confrontation is coming with the powers-that-be, particularly in relation to their cover-up of the infamous Underland.  The mobster boss foiled at the beginning wants all interfering parties dead, and it seems clear that Bwana's and Kito's missing father will yet play an important part in the upcoming tale.

If not for the episodic nature of The Journey Down (and the fact that its unique style might have been a tough sell in any creativity-squashing publisher pitch), there's really nothing about this game that says "indie" at all.  The production values of the enhanced remake stand with the genre's best cartoony offerings, elevating the game from its initial Secret of Monkey Island-level graphics to Curse quality in one fell swoop, all while injecting some wonderful African flavour.  The humour rarely attains side-splitting guffaws, but nor does it really reach that far and miss, opting instead for fun-loving whimsy more than outright gags.  So if ya' want sumtin' different, mon, keep ya' eyes peeled for da' game's downloadable release lata' dis month.  In the meantime, let's go a little further behind the scenes for a one-on-one with The Journey Down's creator, Theodor Waern.

Adventure Gamers: So, Theo, how does a white dude from Sweden decide to make a game featuring elements of black African culture?

Theo Waern: When I was two months old my mother and father stuck me on an airplane and took me with them to Lusaka, Zambia in central Africa. My father had a job working for the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] with infrastructure planning and we lived there for about one year. Back then the UNDP had some kind of quirky deal with its employees, stating that everyone had their own container to fill with junk going there and back again. My parents chose to pretty much dump all the stuff they had brought with them from Sweden, so on the return trip they found themselves with a huge empty container with their names on it. They decided to fill it with African loot.

Thus, I've been raised in a home bursting with central African arts and crafts. Masks, textiles, drums and all sorts of strange instruments littered my childhood home. I was pretty much surrounded by them, growing up. On top of that, my parents brought tons of African highlife music with them home. This cultural background noise has all become a part of me, and this odd African heritage of mine is something that I'm now finally exploring with the art and ambiance of The Journey Down.

AG: Were you concerned at all about inadvertently crossing any racial stereotype lines?

Theo: I'm not going to say we've worried about it but we've done our best not to offend anyone, and I'm quite certain we're in the safe zone. Our goal has never been to be edgy in any way with our characters; they just happen to have an African heritage, that's all.

AG: After playing through the game, I still can't place its general location, or even the time period. Where and when does The Journey Down take place?

Theo: Well, that's anyone's guess. "In my brain" is my best answer.  Time-wise it appears to be some kind of mash-up of the seventies and eighties, with a nice chunk of retro-futurism thrown in for good measure. As for the location, all in all it's an odd mix, but chapter one is rather contained, and mostly takes place in Kingsport bay, outside the fictional city of St. Armando. I imagine the bay to have a nice warm tropical night-time breeze to it, probably similar to something you'd find in the Caribbean. But the location is by no means intended to represent a specific place here on Earth.

AG: Bwana is a very unusual protagonist (in the best possible way). Tell us a little more about him and Kito.

Theo: Bwana and Kito are both incredibly laid back and relaxed characters. We've really done our best to make playing Bwana as fun as possible and have truly geared his whole personality toward that very goal. We didn't want a generic adventure game protagonist who mopes and groans about all his obstacles and refuses to try stupid or dangerous things, we wanted someone who simply oozed a nice, happy “sure, let's try it!” mentality.

AG: Originally the game was released as a freeware adventure. What prompted that decision, and then the later decision to enhance it and go commercial?

Theo: Ever since I started developing the first free version of The Journey Down, I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to expand it and do more with it. Voice acting was an obvious thing to wish for, and so was seeing my art in full HD. In the original, I chose the retro low-res look for the simple reason that it was a way more feasible thing to pull off with what was pretty much a one man team. I never really liked seeing my art mashed up in that way though, and now finally I get the chance to show it off the way I've always wanted to.

Going commercial was actually a choice of necessity. In becoming a father I suddenly realized I had zero free time left to work on The Journey Down, and I figured if I'm somehow going to get to keep on working on it, the only realistic way of doing so was turning it into my day job, and so I did!

AG: Tell us about your own background in adventure gaming.

Theo: This may be extremely obvious to anyone looking at the screenshots of The Journey Down, but I might as well mention my affection with the LucasArts classics such as the Monkey Island series and Grim Fandango. Much of my art and gameplay design philosophy stems from my experiences with those and similar games from that era. I've taken much inspiration from other classics of that age though, such as the brilliant Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword games – these certainly deserve an honourable mention as sources of inspiration.

AG: Did you have any prior experience as a developer before starting TJD?

I've been making games together with the SkyGoblin team for over six years now. We've built all sorts of strange things, ranging all the way from mobile games and flash games to our flagship title, the non-violent social MMO, Nord. So we've had plenty of time to hone our skills and to get our teamworking in order. Without this previous knowledge and experience, building The Journey Down would have been utterly impossible.

AG: Was the team at SkyGoblin together from the start, or did that partnership largely come about after the decision to remake the game?

Theo: TJD actually started out as an experimental test project me and Mathias [Johansson] (who now does pretty much all the scripting) did to try out Adventure Game Studio. We did some co-op development on it during the start-up phase but it quickly became my personal project. Mathias jumped in and helped out a little now and then during the entire development cycle though, specifically with the trickier programming bits and with some of the dialogue. Markus [Larsson] (our other programmer at SkyGoblin) also dabbled in it a little bit right before release, so the majority of the team had in one way or other been involved in it before the HD release was even thought of.

Markus' role right now consists of back-end stuff like building and developing our game engine and editor, but the biggest addition to the workforce has no doubt been my animator colleague Henrik [Englund], who has pretty much animated the entire game himself. Frankly, without him this new HD release wouldn't feel very HD at all.

Simon De Souza, who was the composer on the original version, is also on the team working on this HD release. He has added A LOT of new great music to the soundtrack and I'm very happy to still have him on board.

AG: Is this a part-time project for the whole team while you pay the bills with regular jobs, are you committed to production full time until it's done?

Theo: The Journey Down has been our full time project during the last year or so, but we have had periods of doing all sorts of consultancy work to keep afloat. Also, we have our other game to take care of, so some time has gone into keeping Nord running as well.

AG: English voice recording seems to be a major hurdle for developers in Europe. In this case, you had the additional challenge of asking for some very particular accents. How did you approach the process once you decided to go that route?

Theo Waern in recording

Theo Waern: Voicing TJD has been an incredibly rewarding but tricky task to handle. As we've been on an extremely limited budget (we're independent, after all) we didn't even consider the option of paying someone to handle voicing, and no less paying the actual actors. So yes, finding fitting actors that are willing to invest themselves in a project of this magnitude, for free, was extremely difficult. I must admit I feel kind of bad for not even being able to pay our main cast for their effort, but there simply have been no funds available. I sincerely hope to be able to make enough dough on chapter one to be able to at least pay the main cast something when working on chapter two, but who knows? They certainly deserve it.

The actual process was pretty straightforward, I spent a lot of time headhunting on voice acting forums and did my best to outline the project and our needs, and sure enough, lots of people were interested and we got tons of auditions. Lots was sub-par but lots of it was really, really good. There is a lot of talent out there just waiting to be picked up!

We also did some last-minute recordings here at the SkyGoblin office; among other things, you'll hear my beautiful distorted voice in act two, asking for coffee.

AG: Have there been any unexpected surprises during development of the remake?

Theo: When we started the HD project, we (or at least I) naively believed we could easily pull it off within the limitations of Adventure Game Studio. It quickly became apparent that this wasn't the case. I'm not sure this qualifies as a surprise, but it certainly put a big dent in our schedule.

AGS is an amazing toolkit in very many different ways, but it isn't built with high resolutions in mind and for this reason didn't work out very well for us with our HD demands and all. This caused us to quickly change course completely and build our own engine and editor, which opened up the great opportunity of also porting the game to several platforms, something I've long dreamed of doing.

AG: For anyone thinking this is just a standard old adventure wearing a black African mask, tell us what makes your game so unique.

Theo: The cultural fusion of TJD does indeed make it unique, but that's certainly not its only selling point! I'd say one of the key features is the way the story, puzzles and interactions flow in and out of one another organically, truly making it stick out from similar games in the genre. This is not magic, but simply the result of very, very, very much testing on very, very, very many different players. Good gameplay design is always the result of good testing. (Thanks testers, you rock!)

AG: What would you say to someone thinking "I can play pretty much the same game for free; why should I pay extra for practically the same thing?"

Theo: First off, you'd be missing out on a lot of puzzles and back-story if you settled for playing the original; in those respects we have expanded the game greatly. Another good reason to buy the HD version is to help support our future development. We will build the following chapters no matter what, but more funds means we can focus more on TJD and thus get the chapters out the window with shorter gaps between releases. Win-win for everyone!

Original and HD comparison screens

 

AG: The first episode really just scratches the surface of the larger story, mainly introducing us to the main characters. What can we expect in the three episodes to come?

Theo: The four chapters offer a wide range of different characters and plot twists, ranging from the clever to the bizarre. The plot in itself becomes a lot more dark and sinister in the following chapters, as Bwana and Kito start coming to terms with the world around them. Everything isn't quite as hakuna-matata as the duo perhaps wishes it to be. Along the journey, the player will encounter everything from rainy cityscapes to dense tropical jungles, with each chapter having its own specific over-all setting.

AG: You've said the original game took you five years to make, plus another year and a half for the updated version. Presumably you plan to finish the series sometime before 2030. What kind of timeframe are we realistically looking at between episodes after this game is released, and what will account for the significant increase in production?

Theo: Much of the groundwork was baked into those first five years. I've got the whole story and subplots figured out and all locations and characters exist in one sketchy form or another in my piles of sketchpads, so much of the actual “thinking stuff out” part has already been taken care of. Also, technology-wise our new engine and development environment are now ready and just waiting to keep on being used for the following chapters.

This means that from now on we will be able to focus purely on the actual development of the game and its assets and not on other time-consuming stuff such as, well, using our brains.

How long a delay we see between chapters depends entirely on how well we do financially on the first release. More funds means we can focus more on the game, less funds means we need to spend more time doing consultancy work, etc. My rough estimate, however, is that you'll see chapter two go gold roughly 6-9 months after chapter one, but I'm leaving this wide open.

AG: What kind of distribution and purchase options to you plan for The Journey Down, and how far away is the game at this point?

Theo: TJD will be released as a digital download only and we expect to see it live in online stores by the end of May.

AG: Well, that doesn't leave you much time, so don't let us get in the way! Thanks for taking a few moments to answer our questions, Theo, and good luck with the home stretch.


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