If you've ever seen or read an apocalypse story, you know it's not the natural catastrophe that's the real killer (or at least the real horror), but the resulting fallout in the quest for survival, as man turns against fellow man, while governments clamp down in an attempt to maintain order. Such seems to be the case in the upcoming indie adventure Richard & Alice, though it's entirely unclear just what caused the devastating extreme weather conditions afflicting the planet, and who or what is now in charge. I recently had the chance to play through a preview demo of the game, and already I've been swept up in the plight of its titular protagonists and the surreal world they live in.
Created by Eurogamer's Lewis Denby and The Telegraph's Ashton Raze, Richard & Alice tells the story of two prisoners. But these are no ordinary criminals, and this is no ordinary jail. In fact, with food dangerously scarce due to the neverending wintry conditions outside, it seems almost like a barred sanctuary. Richard's cell has its own bedroom and bathroom, a TV showing now-outdated nature documentaries, and comfortably automated climate control. Even stranger, he's been the only inmate around ever since his incarceration, until finally Alice moves into the opposite room. Perhaps there are guards and wardens as yet unseen, but prisoner requests are submitted impersonally through "tickets", and in the demo at least, there's not another soul in sight. What's going on here?
Indeed, "what's going on here?" seems to be the central theme of Richard & Alice. How did the world get in this state? What's the nature of a prison that keeps the bad elements from getting in as much as (supposedly) from getting out? Who are Richard and Alice, and how did they each get here? These are just some of the questions you'll be asking right from the opening sequence, as the two convicts reluctantly get acquainted. The demo provided no answers at all to the first two questions, and all we know about Richard so far is that he's a former military man being punished for insubordination while protecting his fellow troops, his family left to fend for themselves through the global weather disaster.
Alice also has a son, and I got to experience her backstory up close and personal through a pair of flashbacks. These sequences portray a tense, harrowing tale of personal captivity at the hands of a predator, and the subsequent quest for safety following their escape. Barney is a remarkably poised little five (and a half!) year old, but he's also just a kid, prone to boredom and noisy outbursts, a need to question everything, and an innate trust in people who don't deserve it. Alice isn't merely fighting for survival, but raising her son as a mother in crisis, watching her language and protecting him from sights best unseen by a child. Both Alice and Barney are written believably, and in refusing to play the "victim" card for either, the script makes it easy to get behind them both as sympathetic protagonists – a fact that makes the foreknowledge of their inevitable separation all the more uncomfortable.
As a small-team indie adventure, Richard & Alice has a decidedly indie aesthetic, with its retro pixel art and faux-top down perspective that shares more in common with early Japanese RPGs than traditional adventures. Some confined scenes fill only a central part of the screen, surrounded by black borders on all sides. This is clearly not what you'd call a "pretty" game, but nor is it depicting a pretty world. The snow-covered outdoor areas are largely blankets of white, with splashes of colour from dead trees and animal carcasses, while indoor areas (so far) consist of muted brown and greys and greens. The art design is dreary and borderline depressing, which of course is exactly what the desperate conditions dictate.
Character sprites aren't overly detailed, but they're more than sufficient to support the story, the vivid red hair and similar outfits of Alice and Barney reinforcing their bond as mother and son. Close-up portraits appear during dialogue, but for now there's only one per person, with no change of expression. I'd like to see some additional images added before final launch, as without any voice acting of any kind, it makes the lengthy conversations a rather dry affair visually. Music is also fairly sparse, consisting largely of ominous tones to set the mood instead of complex melodies, which again is entirely appropriate given the circumstances. Sound effects are basic but effective; the default foot-clomping is somewhat overdone, but it nicely changes to crunching snow when the action moves outside.
The point-and-click interface couldn't be simpler. A right-click elicits an observation, while left-click interacts. Inventory items are stored in a visible panel down the right side of the screen, where they're easy to select for combination and use. The puzzles I encountered were all item-based and logical, as the developers are committed to having "puzzles provide pacing to the storytelling" rather than being arbitrary obstacles simply to slow players down. Sure enough, the most difficulty I had was finding a slightly elusive cabin in a wide outdoor expanse, and even then the game steered me back on course if I was straying too far outside the intended zone.
Unless the difficulty ramps up considerably, Richard & Alice may not be the game for you if you're looking for a dense puzzle challenge. Rather, at first appearances this game seems to be all about a challenge of a different kind: a story-driven adventure that challenges your emotional and ethical perceptions in times of great stress. Black-and-white are not easily discerned in a world where the prison seems the safest place to be, while a mother protecting her son can be locked away for murder. I'd have loved to learn more about where the characters are coming from and where the story is going, but for that I'll have to wait with everyone else until the game's eventual completion sometime later this year. In the meantime, I did the next best thing, flagging down Denby and Raze to answer some of my many remaining questions...
Adventure Gamers: The game's title suggests that Richard & Alice is a very personal, character-driven drama more than a plot-driven one. Would you say that's an accurate assessment?
Ashton Raze: I think we’ve got a balance of both, actually. The scenes with Richard and Alice are definitely more about the characters, their interactions with one another, and understanding them as people. The flashback scenes are a little more about the situation. There’s not too much I can elaborate on here without giving things away.
Lewis Denby: It’s definitely a character story, though. In fact, when we first started the early design process, it was a game almost purely about the interaction between two people in an awful situation. Ultimately we expanded on this quite a lot, but it’s key for us to have a set of credible characters who you believe in. Games don’t do that very well, generally, I think it’s fair to say.
AG: The preview gives us a glimpse into Alice's history, but we still know nothing about Richard. What can you tell us about his story?
Lewis: Not a lot!
Ashton: Richard is a military man, fairly high ranking, who – for reasons we can’t go into yet – is in jail for dereliction of duty.
Lewis: There’s stuff in the preview build that gives you an idea, I think. But there’s definitely a story there to uncover.
AG: It's interesting that their prison is more like a haven from the catastrophic events going on around it. It may have bars, but it's safe and warm, with regular meals and TVs provided. Clearly this is no Alcatraz.
Ashton: It’s hard to talk about this at all without ruining anything!
Lewis: Yeah, I’m aware that we’re being a bit useless with our responses here. I suppose it’s about the way we’re approaching the storytelling. Most games, I think, start with a fairly comprehensive back-story and build upon that. But we’ve got, in a way, four separate story strands – there’s what happens in the present day, in Richard and Alice’s jail, but there’s also each of their back-stories that you uncover as well. And then you’ve got the story of the world – what happened to it? Why are things the way they are? What’s with this weird prison? And this is the sort of strand you’ll be able to read into as much as you like. You can race through the game just to get to the end, or you can take your time, explore, delve into the fiction of the world. That’s something we really wanted to bring to the table.
AG: The bulk of the action I saw occurred in flashbacks. Does that begin to balance out with present day events during the course of the game?
Ashton: It’s an equal balance. The preview build has been tailored to show what we thought would make a good cross-section of the game, and there are sections missing. Again, giving too much away about this would ruin a considerable portion of the plot, but let’s just say Richard and Alice aren’t as satisfied with their ‘comfortable’ prison as you might expect.
Lewis: What I’d say, though, is don’t expect a game where the intro sequence is to escape and then there’s this huge world to explore, and a new story that takes place there. Richard and Alice are very much in jail, and no one likes that, but frankly there’s not much of a life for them on the outside either. But yeah, you’ve only seen a small fragment of the present-day stuff. There are longer sequences in between the flashbacks as you press further into the game.
AG: The world of Richard & Alice has been devastated by inclement weather and the resulting fallout of our increasingly barbaric response. Is this mainly just a thematic backdrop here, or are you consciously trying to make a statement about mankind as a self-destructive species?
Ashton: No comment.
Lewis: I’ll happily comment on this, actually. I can honestly say that, when I started conceptualising Richard & Alice, I had absolutely no ‘statements’ in mind. What’s interesting – and I hope this suggests the writing is good! – is that I think the characters have started to communicate certain... I don’t know, feelings about the world? A couple of weeks back I was writing a scene, quite a dialogue-heavy one, and it just felt natural that these characters should be mulling over these really quite philosophical points. That wasn’t me trying to make a statement – it was just me thinking, ‘if I were in this situation, these might be the sorts of things that were on my mind.’
Questions. I’d say the game asks questions, rather than makes statements. But that’s just me. One of the great things about a co-write is that each of you brings different stuff to the table!
AG: Who or what would you cite as some of your creative influences?
Ashton: In terms of loving adventure games, Charles Cecil – and in particular Broken Sword – is a big influence for me. I love the classic, older-style adventure games too, but Broken Sword is the pinnacle for me in terms of puzzles rooted in real-world logic, a fantastic, character-driven story etc. There are a ton of different influences on my work overall, but with Richard & Alice in particular, looking outside of games for a moment, I’d say stories like Children of Men. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has been mentioned in relation to it quite a few times – including by us, in the game no less – but personally I’ve never read or seen that.
Lewis: The Road is remarkable. It would be silly of me to pretend it wasn’t a huge influence. I’ve actually only read a small portion of the book – I find McCarthy’s writing to be beautiful and elegant, but difficult – but John Hillcoat’s film is something that stayed with me for a while. I watched it when I was ill, actually, and it just took on this whole additional fever-dream element. And the way the ash created this astonishing, barren, desaturated land was an enormous visual cue when dreaming up Richard & Alice. More so than the story itself, in fact, despite the clear parent-child parallels with Alice and Barney.
Within our medium, the horrible, lonely desolation of the Stalker games is something I was eager to capture, even though we’re working in a very different genre. The natural, candid dialogue of a Ragnar Tørnquist game, too. The smartness of To the Moon’s plot, and the way it told a story almost entirely rooted in the past and yet let you live through it in the present. There’s a lot.
Actually, going away from games for a minute, Emma Donaghue’s Room is a really powerful novel about the relationship between a mother and a child in extremely difficult circumstances. I actually didn’t think much about this when writing the characters, but I did recently notice that our script, somehow, probably owes a lot to that book.
AG: More and more games are going deliberately "retro" these days. The SNES-era presentation you're using has a kind of innately cheerful nostalgia associated with it, which stands in blatantly stark contrast to the subject matter. Why that decision for your game?
Ashton: Practical mainly, although I’m very happy with the results.
Lewis: It turns out that being an artist is something people expect money for these days? Pah! To hell with them – we’ll do it ourselves! In all seriousness, though, I think what we wanted was a visual style that was able to capture the mood. That’s it, really. We didn’t need a flashy 3D engine, so we didn’t use one.
AG: Why an adventure game? Are you long-time genre fans, or was this simply the best way to tell your story?
Ashton: I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I can remember, from the Sierra and LucasArts classics to modern titles like The Whispered World and Telltale’s output. I’m also a big fan of exploring how the interactive medium can be used to tell stories as, say, a form of literature rather than alternatives to playing other games. So adventure games work well here in that, if you want, you can very much make them with the approach of creating an interactive story.
Lewis: And why else do you play an adventure game, really? If you want good puzzles, then wow, there are plenty of far better places to look for those. Adventure games are, fundamentally, about telling a story and pacing it with obstacles. They’re about living through, and dealing with, the plights of characters. It’s just a natural fit – and so, as someone who really enjoys a good interactive yarn, I’ve always turned to adventure games.
AG: You seem to be one of the few indie developers these days not going the crowd-funding route. Was that something you considered?
Lewis: It’s something that crossed my mind, but there are two reasons we didn’t go for it, I think. One: by the time we had anything to show, the crowd-funding bubble was already starting to burst a little bit. People were growing tired of it, and being a UK-based outfit we’d have had to either contrive a weird US business or go with a lesser-known crowd-funding arena. The second and more important reason, though, is that we didn’t really need to do it. Richard & Alice is something we’re making in our spare time, on a very small budget. We’re not paying ourselves a wage during development. I like to think it’s really good for a spare-time-developed game, and I hope it does well when it’s released, but being an indie developer isn’t my job, so I don’t need to fund-raise for it, really.
AG: You've both worked in the games media previously. What motivated you to make the leap to making your own game, and did your journalism experience benefit you in any way as a designer?
Ashton: Well, personally I’ve always been involved in other forms of writing. I’ve recently released a book for instance – the gaming media was actually something I went into initially to have a break from certain processes in the literary world. I’d also been dabbling in game design beforehand, although it’s not been until recently that I’ve really found the opportunity to do anything much with it. If anything though, I’d say it’s the other way round; the game dev experience, and understanding the process, is really helpful when it comes to writing about games. I don’t subscribe to the theory that all games critics should make a game, but understanding how games are made certainly helps a lot.
Lewis: I’d be cautious about saying I’ve “made the leap” to game development. My full-time job is still very much embedded within the games media, and I don’t really see that changing any time soon. As for what made me want to make a game, well, I’ve dabbled before – your esteemed publication very kindly covered my freeware game Masked, in fact! I enjoy the creative process: seeing your characters come to life, and seeing those puzzle elements start to lock together. I love writing about games, and editing content, and all that jazz. But making a game is exciting in a different way. It scratches a separate itch.
AG: Your stated goal is to avoid puzzles that serve merely as a "stubborn distraction", but that's the $64,000 question, isn't it? How do you design puzzles that are substantial enough to make people think and provide a challenge, yet not feel like a roadblock that grinds the story to a screeching halt?
Ashton: When I approach a puzzle, I consider two things: would this work in reality, and is the player able to actually approach the puzzle with the goal of solving it in mind? I’ve played games where, for instance, you’re expected to perform interactions that achieve your solution by luck. I didn’t want anything like that. I want players to think, ‘right, I need to unlock this door and I don’t have the key.’ I want them to think about ways they could unlock that door, then try them out. I don’t want them to, say, pull a tree branch that causes a bird to fly out, crash into a window, causing a rock to bounce off Barney’s head and hit the padlock. If a player is trying to unlock the door, I want them to be able to approach that puzzle by doing things that might unlock the door. The rest is just having trust in the player that they can think of ways to do this. If we’ve done our job right, they should never get stuck longer than they would if the situation was occurring in reality. Maybe ‘problem solving’ is a better term for the mechanic than ‘puzzle solving’ in our game.
Lewis: I think there’s a weird school of thought about adventure games, which is: the harder your puzzles are, the better the game is. In fact, the generalist games media is really guilty of this, I’d say. I went back and played Syberia when we were designing Richard & Alice, for instance, and read a few reviews of it, and almost all of them were saying, ‘This is a fantastic and imaginative world, with amazing characters and a wonderful, poignant story, but it’s still not great because the puzzles aren’t hard enough.’ For me, Syberia worked precisely because it never blocked your progress. It was a game entirely about this strange, brilliant world, and the stories being told within it. If I had to use the frog on the toasted sandwich maker to get the egg so I could unlock the door, I’d have banged my head against my computer monitor and given up after ten minutes, thus missing out on an extraordinary game.
AG: Will Richard & Alice be a completely standalone experience, or is this just the beginning of a much larger adventure, possibly with other characters in this post-apocalyptic world?
Lewis: I genuinely don’t think we’ve even talked about this internally!
Ashton: Interesting question. Richard & Alice definitely tells a complete story, and one that I hope people will come away from feeling fulfilled. As with any fictional universe though, there are no doubt more stories to tell in it. Whether we will or not, I’m not sure. If we do that, though, they’ll be new and complementary stories. Richard & Alice’s story will be told in its entirety within this game.
Lewis: Oh yeah, it’s always been designed as a self-contained experience. Whether or not we’ll return to the world is something we’ll have to think about. I don’t even know if I’ll make another game! I’ll probably make another game.
AG: What stage is the game at now, and when do you think we'll see the finished version?
Ashton: Haha, I never know how to answer this question. We’re a fair way towards finishing it, anyway. I don’t think I can say any more than ‘sometime this year’ as to when it’s coming out.
Lewis: I think about half of the game is playable in some form. Maybe a quarter of it in polished form. All the art is well on its way to being finished, though, and the puzzles are pretty much all designed, so after that it’s just a matter of piecing it all together. The story’s fully written, for example – that’s basically locked down, with only minor sections of dialogue still to do. So it’s getting there. We’re definitely well past the halfway mark.
AG: Well, don't let us tie you up any longer, because we're eager to see where the story goes from here. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Now get back at it!
Lewis: Yes sir!