Most adventure game fans will know the name Phoenix Online from their fan-made continuation of the King's Quest legacy. But now Phoenix is ready to make an even bigger impression with the premier episode of their first commercial project, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. With the launch date mere days away, we had a long chat with company CEO César Bittar about the new series, along with many other topics such as the turbulent history of The Silver Lining, César's relationship with Jane Jensen and his time at Telltale Games.
Ingmar Böke: Hi César, it’s a pleasure to welcome you here for your first interview ever at Adventure Gamers. To start us off, I would like you to introduce yourself to our readers and give us a brief overview of your work in the game industry so far.
César Bittar: Hi, Ingmar, it’s a pleasure to be interviewed here. I’m currently the CEO of Phoenix Online, and also one of its main Producers and Lead Designers. I enjoy doing all three, and I’ve been trained mostly in production as I worked with both Activision and Telltale in that area. But I’m a writer and designer at heart, and as Phoenix Online grows I look forward to hanging up my Producer hat and dedicating myself fully to design, as well of course as my responsibilities as CEO.
Ingmar: You've said that everything started with your love for adventure games, and that even now you haven’t stopped being a fan. Guide us through your journey as an adventure game fan to the point where you became a developer yourself.
César: There was a time in my life where I would almost only play adventure games. Other genres just did very little for me, and although I did play some of them and some games I truly enjoyed, such as Dune the strategy game or Lands of Lore, my heart was always in the magnificent adventure titles. Especially those of Sierra, but also the ones from LucasArts and other companies such as Westwood (love Kyrandia!). Those are games that I always go back to – in fact, I’m currently replaying Indiana Jones and the Fate of the Atlantis, one of my all-time favorites.
When I was a teenager, I used to live for Sierra titles. Anything that came from that company, I used to anticipate with a lot of excitement. Any time there was a new Space Quest, Larry, Gabriel Knight, or King’s Quest, I would read all the news, and expect the games dearly. The first titles I ever played, I think, were King’s Quest 3, Larry 1, and Police Quest 1. And from there, I played probably about 85% of all the adventure games that came in the '90s. I would devour them, and always beat them without any help. I wish today sometimes I had the patience (and time!) to finish an adventure game without cheating with a walkthrough as I did back then, but hey, times change.
The reason for my love of adventure games is simple: They provide a different story that you don’t find in any other genre. I used to immensely enjoy JRPGs for a while, but there was a moment in which they all became the same to me, and that’s something that adventure games never suffer from. The source material seems wider, the situations more expandable, and even if the mechanic seems the same, there’s much more difference to be found between adventure games than there is in games of any other genre. That’s probably why they never grow old to me.
Ingmar: As one of the main driving forces behind The Silver Lining, it's no real secret how much you love King’s Quest. Talk about your connection to that series with some personal highlights from the King’s Quest legacy.
César: You’ll find this funny, but King’s Quest is probably the series I was alienated from the most in the Sierra catalog as I grew up. Aside from having played a bit of King’s Quest 3 when I was a kid, the first time that I really played a King’s Quest was KQ6. It’s the most wonderful game in the series. I also loved KQ7, which reminds me of a very special Christmas. I think I’ve told the story of how I played it before: I used to have a 1x CD-ROM, and the screens would take 5 to 10 minutes to load, but even at that, I got all the way to chapter 4 before I migrated to a faster computer. But that’s how dedicated I was!
Ingmar: A lot of people (including me) agree with you that King’s Quest 6 is the best KQ game. What are your reasons for believing that?
César: Well, there’s no denying it has the stamp of Jane Jensen, and it no secret she’s my favorite adventure designer. It made for a more complete world, and richness of its lore. I was in love with the lands of the Green Isles. But beyond that, I also loved how it was so diverse within itself; how you could jump from isle to isle and see completely different settings. I tend to love games that do that. Megaman is one of my favorite games because I can choose between eight different worlds to play right from the beginning. Demon’s Souls did the same and I absolutely loved the game. That freedom was the number one reason why I loved King’s Quest 6 so much. One day, I can only hope Phoenix is big enough to allow me to create a world as rich as that.
Ingmar: Phantasmagoria is another stated favorite of yours (good choice!). Tell us about those reasons and your thoughts on FMV in general.
César: Phantasmagoria revolutionized what I wanted from games. It was the first true cinematic experience I had when playing a game, and that stirred something in me that made me want to go into the videogames industry. See, I always wanted to do films, but loving games as well, what better place than somewhere where you could do both.
My experience with Adrienne and her haunted mansion touched me in ways you could not imagine. I was so obsessed with the game that I actually recorded the whole thing using a camcorder, and edited it to show it to my friends.
FMV didn’t last long, of course, but as 3D grew, it gave me the same feeling of real cinematic experiences. The first time I truly experienced that was with Final Fantasy VIII, and that’s how I came to love the Japanese RPGs. Xenosaga is probably one of my favorite games out there, with its one-hour cutscenes that were incredible to look at.
Nowadays I’m a little less inclined towards extremely long cutscenes with no gameplay in between. I guess as I started to play the big game titles in the past three years, I understood the value of interactivity in the hands of a player. Because of that, I would probably never opt to do an FMV game, but I was replaying bits of Gabriel Knight 2 last night, and when it’s done right, it shines. There’s something so organic about real people that will never be replaced by the wonders of 3D technology.
Ingmar: Speaking of Gabriel Knight, that series also left an enormous impact on you. Talk about your fondness for GK and your first memories of the series.
César: Gabriel Knight was the first mature story I played in my life. It was suddenly what made something click in my head as to say: “hey, games can also be about mature subjects and it works like a charm.” Of course, everyone who’s played Gabriel Knight knows that Jane pulls no stops when telling her stories, and to experience something as beautiful as the tragic story of Malia Gedde and Baron Von Glower, watch the full nine minutes of a lost Wagner opera, or find the remains of Jesus Christ are moments that will never leave my memory. The smartly written dialogue and how it was all brought to life make the Gabriel Knight series my absolute favorite.
The first time I ever saw anything GK-related was an ad in Computer Gaming World magazine that folded out and had four Sierra games: Quest for Glory 4, Police Quest 4, Larry 6, and Gabriel Knight. There was just something so mysterious about Gabriel Knight that it jumped right to the top of my most wanted games. But when I finally got it, it wouldn’t run on my computer, so I had to stalk my friends to let me play it on theirs, until I finally convinced my dad to buy me a 486 system. I also remember that I pissed my dad off when GK2 came around. I wanted the game so badly, but for my birthday he gave a leather jacket instead. You have no idea how much I hated that leather jacket, and being the bratty teenager I was, I complained until I made him mad. It was finally my mom who gave me the money to get the game. I’ve always gone extreme lengths to get my hands on these jewels.Continued on the next page...