Tex Murphy Dons Fedora Once Again interview
The name Tex Murphy can yield radically different responses from gamers in 2012. To old-school adventurers, the Tex games are at or near the pinnacle of revered genre classics (two top 25 finishes among the all-time greatest adventures don't lie!), blending superb storytelling, engaging characters, a memorable sci-fi setting, branching plot paths, player-driven choice-and-consequence, full 3D control before 3D was popular, varying difficulty levels, challenging puzzles, and the obligatory (but in this case entirely deserved) "much more". Whew! Outside of the hardcore adventure niche, however, especially among younger gamers, the reaction may often now be: Tex who??
There's a fairly obvious reason for that, of course. It's been 14 years since we last saw Tex, so a whole new generation of gamers has grown up without ever knowing the lovable, down-on-his-luck P.I. And when he did last appear, it was squarely in the midst of the short-lived FMV revolution, a popular format at the time that faded into obscurity as quickly as it rose to prominence. As time passed, these once-bold, innovative, and progressive-thinking detective adventures from Access Software eventually became antiquated relics of a bygone era, never to be heard from again.
Or so we thought these many long years. Though series creator (and Tex Murphy actor himself) Chris Jones made no secret about his desire to resurrect the series some day, a combination of publisher apathy, waning genre popularity, and high costs of game production made that prospect seem ever more unlikely with each passing year. Behind the scenes, however, Jones and fellow Tex Murphy collaborator Aaron Conners never lost faith, and quietly began scheming to revive the franchise independently if necessary. But would the adventure community embrace a scaled-down, corner-cutting sequel after all this time?
Well, hopefully we won't have to. Now operating under the name Big Finish Games, Jones and Conners are preparing to kickstart the series once again with a public funding campaign for "Project Fedora". Seeking a modest goal of $450,000 by June 16th, the new game promises to incorporate all the best classic Tex elements with a slick new modern presentation. It's a prospect we once thought impossible, but with a new Tex Murphy adventure now tantalizingly close, we jumped at the chance to speak with the two men responsible for making it all happen. And stay tuned following the interview for an exclusive peek behind the camera from Tex's glory years.
Project Fedora Kickstarter video
Adventure Gamers: It's been 14 years since you teased us with a shocking cliffhanger ending to Overseer. That's a lot of Tex withdrawal in the meantime. Why so long?
Aaron Conners: We’re sadistic bastards?
Actually, I don’t know if you ever heard this, but Chris and I seriously debated whether or not to add that cliffhanger to the end of Overseer. It was intended to be the opening scene of the next game, but Chris loved it so much, I reluctantly agreed to put it in as a teaser. Some teaser!
Chris Jones: Aaron is such a liar. It was all his idea – I warned him what would happen. I can't believe he's putting this on my shoulders!
Aaron: As for the 14-year delay, after Access Software was bought by Microsoft, we were hopeful for a while that they might give us a chance to continue the series, but adventure games had declined so much in popularity, it just wasn’t going to happen. After that, my and Chris’s paths diverged for a while and, when we reunited later, we just didn’t have the money.
Chris: We’ve always felt that we would need a decent budget to do Tex right and, until recently, we didn’t see a way to pull it off.
AG: And now the corollary to the first question: why now?
Aaron: Over the past few years, we’ve seen a renewed interest in adventure games. It’s also possible to make better games for much less money with all the available tools, engines, graphics programs and talented people. Back in the early 1990s, we had to do everything from scratch, work around low specs and deal with tons of compatibility issues. Making games is much simpler today from a technical standpoint. Everyone has access to the same tools, so it’s now more about the vision and execution.
AG: What do you make of this renewed interest in adventures? What's prompted this cultural shift back towards the genre?
Tex and Chelsee at the Chandler Avenue newsstand
Aaron: I think there are several reasons, but maybe the biggest – certainly the biggest reason for the recent Kickstarter successes – is the nostalgia factor. I would compare it to the 1980s revival in style in music and fashion. As someone who actually lived through the 1980s, I remember how reviled that decade was during the 1990s and 2000s. Time has passed, people have become less critical and now look back on it with fondness. But it's important to note that it's a "modernized" version of the 1980s – the way we want to remember it, not the way it really was. I see a similar pattern right now with classic adventure games. Hardly anyone makes those kinds of games these days and we all want to recapture the fun and excitement they gave us. But we, as the game designers, need to be mindful that times have changed; we shouldn't give them just the experience they had...we need to give them the experience they remember.
AG: For a while it seemed like Tex might be one of the (far too many) casualties of IP limbo. How did it all work out that the property ended back in your hands where it belongs?
Chris: We retained the right to the characters via other media (which Aaron had rights to with the novels). We got additional rights and access to previous games after Microsoft closed down the studio. Eventually, we got all the rights we needed to move forward with a new game.
AG: The Tex games were ahead of their time in many ways, but a lot has changed since 1998. How do you plan to make the series relevant to modern gamers, while still retaining the core elements that made the franchise so great?
Chris: There are several ways to really update the franchise. The first is with the technical and visual elements. The original engine was great for its time, but there are much better engines available to license now. The quality of graphics, frame rate, etc. will be infinitely improved. Secondly, faster pacing. We always allowed players to proceed at their own pace (and they always had the hint system to refer to if they got stuck), but today’s gamers have shorter attention spans. This is a tricky line to walk, but I believe good design will keep players moving forward without feeling like they’re not in control. Finally, the quality of the story, dialogue and acting has to be very high. There was a novelty factor to the early FMV games that quickly wore off and won’t be suffered lightly today.
Choosing Tex's dialogue attitude in The Pandora Directive
Aaron: One thing we did in The Pandora Directive was introduce deep and meaningful narrative pathing. I intended to continue this in the sequel, but then (for reasons most people are familiar with) we decided to do Overseer and retell the story of Tex’s first case. Since the Overseer story took place in Tex’s past, it didn’t really make sense to have pathing... plus it would have been a lot of extra work and we were on a tight schedule. For this new game, however, I’m very excited to bring back the narrative pathing. Adventure gamers, in particular, seem to understand and appreciate this element and it just hasn’t been done well or often enough.
I know the Tex Murphy games aren’t for everyone. If you’re not a fan of the detective genre, don’t care about stories, or don’t like puzzle-solving, you may not enjoy our games. As a P.I., you have to search for clues, solve puzzles, interview witnesses and suspects, confront bad guys, etc. You’ll do all these things – just like in our older games – but with better graphics, higher speed, faster pacing and improved cinematography and acting. Throw in a great mystery, lots of humor, tons of things to do and see in the 3D world, a great hint system and multiple story paths, and we believe our new game will be true to its roots while offering a great experience for modern gamers.
Adventure Gamers: FMV: Yea or nay?
Aaron Conners: YEA!
I recently wrote a column specifically about this topic, which goes into a lot of detail about why and how I think FMV can work.
FMV isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the best choice for every type of game, but I believe it’s essential for a new Tex Murphy game. My reasons: (1) There is no substitute for the human face and body when it comes to emotions and humor. (2) Detective stories have a large amount of interaction between characters, and most of the time, it’s interviewing and interrogating. Watching this with rendered characters would be agonizing. (3) FMV is a fundamental element of this series. It wouldn’t be a Tex Murphy game without it.
AG: The technology for making the "gamey" part of games may have progressed a lot, but aren't the demands of filming live action theatre just as challenging – and perhaps costly – as ever? $450,000 may sound like a lot now, but it surely won't once you start shooting.
Aaron Conners, Chris Jones
Chris Jones: This is not all the money we are using on it. We had some money set aside to do a modest Tex Murphy game, but then the Kickstarter phenomenon began. We thought Kickstarter would be a great way to supplement the Tex Murphy fund and take it from a modest game to a more full Tex Murphy adventure. Kickstarter was also a way to help us gauge the public's interest in a possible new Tex Murphy game. We've been very pleased with the support we have received so far.
AG: Given the success of the final (until now) three games, it's easy to forget the series didn't begin with Under a Killing Moon. What first inspired the move to FMV from the more traditional format of the first two games?
Chris: That's where we always wanted to go. We always wanted to incorporate a "movie feel" inside our adventure gaming line. We were finally able to do that when CDs for computers could store such large amounts of information. It was always our goal to create the "Interactive Movie" experience which featured multipathing that would allow players' choices to be more meaningful.
AG: Did you have any training in filmmaking, or did you just kind of wing it as you went along at the beginning?
Chris: Filmmaking was always a hobby of mine growing up. My friends and I loved making films in Jr. High, High School, and College. When Access Software was founded, these adventure games became our new outlet for storytelling.
AG: What originally compelled you to get in front of the camera to play Tex yourself?
Business isn't always booming for Tex
Chris: Too cheap to pay a leading actor was the original motivation. Really, Tex Murphy was just a stand in role for Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum. The most complicated part of the role was the "walk cycle" where the pixilated Tex character would cross the room. When we started Under a Killing Moon, I just continued portraying the role of Tex. Besides, Film Noir had always been my favorite movie genre so it was so fun to be involved in this way.
AG: Aaron, no such acting aspirations on your part?
Aaron: I’ve had a small cameo in every game, but it’s just for fun. I’m no Chris Jones, as we say on the set.
AG: Has the role actually given you a sense of "celebrity" over the years, Chris? Or do people not really recognize you without the trenchcoat, sneakers, and fedora?
Chris: Most often, people look at me, then tilt their head for a second and say "Were you ever in a video game?" Once, I saw this 14 year old kid staring at me, and I thought to myself "He must know of my work." Well, the kid came up to me and said "Are you the dumb ass who plays the detective in those games?" That's when I realized – yes, he does know my work.
AG: Kids these days! And speaking of age, unless you've secretly discovered the fountain of youth, you've aged quite a bit (along with the rest of us) since your last game. Will we find Tex has grown older as well?
Chris: Uh... yes, the characters will all be a little bit older since the last time we've seen them. It will fit nicely into the story arc Aaron has planned out.
Aaron: I’ve always joked that, somewhere, there’s a portrait of Chris getting old and hideous. He’s aged, of course, but looks fantastic for his age. As for how “Tex” has aged, that’s a big part of the new story. It would be naive (and weird) to try and pick things up where they left off. Fortunately, the time progression works very nicely with my story.
Chelsee Bando: not your everyday, average mutant
AG: What about the rest of the cast? Will Suzanne Barnes (as Chelsee) and other familiar faces be back?
Aaron: As for what role Chelsee might play in the new story... I am sworn to secrecy. I can confirm that many of the Chandler Avenue regulars will be back, including Louie, Rook and Clint, along with several other key characters from the old games – played by original actors, of course.
AG: Will the new game be a direct continuation of Overseer's finale, or will it quickly spin off into a fairly standalone adventure of its own?
Aaron: There will be several storylines unfolding simultaneously, one of which is the continuation of the Overseer story. With our narrative pathing, players’ actions will lead them to different paths. I wouldn’t be surprised if many players who are new to the Tex Murphy world end up on a different story path than fans who have waited years to learn what happened to Tex and Chelsee.
AG: Where do the radio episodes fit into the series chronology?
Chris: Basically, this is years after the cliffhanger in Overseer. There will obviously be a lot of storyline that has happened between the end of Overseer and our new Project Fedora. However, it will take place years after the Radio Theater timeline.
Adventure Gamers: As hard as it is to believe for longtime adventure gamers, there are probably a great many people who have never played a Tex Murphy game at this point. Can you give us some background about the man and this bizarre, futuristic mishmash of humans and mutants?
Aaron Conners: Tex Murphy lives in post-apocalyptic New San Francisco. When we last saw him, it was 2043 and he had just turned 40 years old. The fallout of World War III has created a generation of mutants, who have become the lowest caste of American society. Tex is a “norm” – unmutated – but lives among mutants in an older, rundown part of town. He is the last of the old-style P.I.’s, wearing a fedora and trench coat, using old-fashioned, outdated electronics and weapons, but traveling in a flying car (“speeder”).
Fans respond to him because he’s a generally good-hearted guy who does things for the right reasons. He’s just smart enough, fairly charming (though not as charming as he thinks) and impulsive to a fault, often getting himself into situations that are way over his head (which we can all relate to) but, through a combination of inspiration, perspiration, good fortune or blind luck, he manages to come out more or less intact.
Chris Jones: Another thing that was pretty unique to our series was in The Pandora Directive, where we introduced narrative pathing and players had a chance to influence Tex’s personality, as well as his actions, guiding him to be a totally upstanding boy scout, or exploring his dark side and letting him go places he hadn’t gone before. This is something we plan to do again in the new game.
Aaron Conners discusses gameplay in Project Fedora
AG: Like several other high-profile designers of late, you've opted to fund the game through Kickstarter. Why go that route?
Chris: It’s pretty simple. We don’t have the money required to make a Tex Murphy game at the level we would like (and many fans would expect). Getting an influx of development money up front would enable us to make the game we want to make.
AG: Have you approached publishers about funding options directly? What's the response to that?
Chris: We approached a few publishers, including Microsoft. However, it was difficult to convince the traditional channels that there was even a market for adventure games. The Kickstarter initiatives are definitely showing that there are fans of adventure games out there who want these games. We want to show that not all projects have to cost $100 million to be a successful venture.
AG: As much as Tex's many fans want to see it succeed, what happens to Project Fedora if the fundraising goal isn't met?
Chris: At the end of last year, my intention was to make as good a game as I could with the very limited resources we had. But after Tim Schafer’s success with Kickstarter, I decided that this could be the answer we’d been looking for. If the Kickstarter promotion fails, it's going to be hard to get the enthusiasm to do the game. Kickstarter serves as a barometer for interest, and if there is no interest in the game it's going to be difficult to justify doing a project.
AG: More optimistically, what happens if you exceed your target with room to spare?
Chris: We’ll make the new game as good as it can be. As we said in our video that announced the Kickstarter date, we will use all funds earned through Kickstarter to make this game as epic and awesome as we can.
AG: Now operating under the label Big Finish Games, you've dabbled in casual games over the past few years. Tell us about that experience.
3 Cards to Midnight
Aaron: Do I have to? OK... Actually, we really enjoyed creating the first Big Finish game, 3 Cards to Midnight. We thought it had a great story, neatly woven into the gameplay. We made it with a handful of people for well under $200k. It wasn’t the fanciest, but it was well-designed and fun – a game I’m very proud to have my name on. It was moderately successful (in large part due to support from our Tex Murphy fans) and got nominated for some awards, but seemed to be too casual for many adventure gamers and too complex for most casual gamers. We made a sequel that was less successful, then partnered with PlayFirst to do another casual game.
Chris: When we started Big Finish, we had hopes that a fair number of casual gamers might “convert” to adventure games, but the gap is wider than we’d anticipated. That being said, there is a big market for casual games, which is why we’ve continued on with the two new “Rita James” games. But classic adventure games are our true passion.
AG: Do you plan to "casualize" the new Tex at all, or is this an unapologetic return to your old-school adventuring roots?
Aaron: I promise to fall on my sword before I would be involved with a casual Tex Murphy game.
AG: You'd probably get lots of volunteers to hold the sword if you did. Will you be developing the game entirely in-house at Big Finish, or will you be outsourcing various elements to other studios?
Chris: If we do any outsourcing, it will be minimal.
AG: What do you think it is about Tex, and the series overall, that's made the franchise so enduring?
Tex Murphy: Love 'im or choke 'im
Aaron: I think we tapped into a unique combination of mystery, humor and romance with a main character that people could relate to. Chris had already created Tex and given him a unique personality; my contribution was to give him a bit more history – an ex-wife, a falling out with his mentor, relating to mutants more than norms – and flaws – naiveté, impulsiveness, math. I think this made him much more “human” and sympathetic than typical protagonists.
Chris: I think the character of Tex is unique and fun. He’s not a typical videogame hero – he has some very obvious flaws. We affectionately refer to him as the idiot savant of crime solvers.
AG: If Project Fedora is a success, will there be more Tex adventures to come?
Aaron: Absolutely! For those who’ve been following along, there are three full untold stories in the Tex Murphy mythos, all of which have been hinted at the previous games. We would love to tell those stories. If this game is successful, Chris and I would love to carry on and keep Tex Murphy games coming for the next few years at least.
With that, Chris Jones and Aaron Conners were off to resume preparations for the upcoming game. We appreciate their insights, anecdotes, and observations about this much beloved series, and thanks to the Kickstarter campaign, the future is at long last looking bright once again for Tex Murphy. But as fans we still can't help turning a nostalgic eye back to the glory years of old. To help us do that, Chris and Aaron have generously provided some never-before-seen photos and concept work from Tex's earlier games. (Click images for larger versions.) Enjoy.
Under a Killing Moon
Margot Kidder behind the scenes with Chris Jones
Aaron reviewing the script with Russell Means
The Pandora Directive premiere (Tribeca Studios, NYC)
Aaron and Chris flank the late great Kevin McCarthy
Aaron with Tanya Roberts
Masterminds at work
Chris studying his "incredibly hilarious, yet complex and poignant dialogue"
Aaron checking out the camera angle for a scene in UAKM
Design documents and concept art - The Pandora Directive
Flowchart of the first conversation between Tex and Chelsee, where players take the first steps toward one of three different narrative paths (as referenced by the handwritten notes).
Aaron's first rough drawing of what would become the "Three Mayan Kings" puzzle in the Mayan Labyrinth. (Privately, Aaron acknowledges his skills as a "fabulous artist".)
Original drawing of the Roswell complex. Aaron claims he came up with the idea after several beers in a bar (where he did much of his Tex Murphy design work).
Originally, finding and examining this to do list scrawled by Tex's "disgusting landlord" Nilo was the key to figuring out the code to Malloy's apartment on day one, though the code was removed from the final game for Tex to discover elsewhere.
Product placement - Tex Murphy style
To avoid copyright infringement, Tex smoked Llama Lights cigarettes (which were "not inspired by any other animal-oriented trademark"). This design was slipped inside a real cigarette soft pack for the game.