Agustín Cordes seems to like making people suffer. First he scared the pants off us with his debut horror adventure Scratches, and now the agonizing wait for his his highly-anticipated next game, Asylum, is taking much longer than expected. But that won't stop us from learning everything we can in the meantime. With Asylum getting renewed attention on Steam Greenlight at the moment, we decided the time was right to find out all there is to know about Asylum and the man behind the madness. Naturally, we couldn't resist talking about Scratches as well, and even get a sneak preview of Agustín's surprising future plans.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Agustín, it's a pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers. Like many adventure game developers, you started as a devout genre fan before becoming a designer yourself. Take us back in time and tell us how you got "infected" with the adventure game virus in earlier days.
Agustín Cordes: Hi Ingmar, on the contrary, it’s my pleasure to be here! Well, not “here” per se, but… you know what I mean. I’ve just parked my time machine in the backyard and can confirm that I was infected with the adventure game disease in 1988 while playing King’s Quest. You see, I was quite the video games freak back then, going crazy over stuff like Zaxxon, Space Invaders, Digger and Jumpman, but King’s Quest was without doubt the most sublime experience of my childhood. It really changed forever my whole perception of games and stimulated my imagination in a way only the best books ever did.
The most immediately revealing aspect was the possibilities it offered. Jumpman and similar games were a hoot; they had clear goals, advancing levels was fun and that was enough for me. But King’s Quest… The first thought that came to mind was “oh wow, I can go ANYWHERE I want to?” And you can bet that was the case. Just getting lost in Daventry with unknown dangers and mysteries lurking around the corner, anticipating the next encounter with friend or foe, was a turning point in my life. Yes, I’m that serious about it. I quickly realized that this is what I wanted to do eventually: make games, the adventure genre being the ideal format for me. I loved the possibilities it offered, the way you could introduce a storyline to the players and somehow play along with them. Of course, this was just the beginning and I’ve played hundreds of adventures ever since, but King’s Quest remains that revelatory experience.
Ingmar: Was there a key moment since then that gave you direction in the kind of developer you wanted to be? I heard that Dark Fall was a very important game for you. Is that game responsible for the "next step"?
Agustín Cordes and Ingmar Böke
Agustín: Yes, I’d say the key moment that made me jump ship can be traced back to Dark Fall. I’d always wanted to create an adventure ever since playing King’s Quest, and in fact the Scratches idea was already roaming inside my head for quite some time, but Dark Fall was the inflection point. I mean, that was essentially a one man project rivalling the greatest productions at the moment! I was floored; the possibilities introduced by Dark Fall for a wannabe developer like me were overwhelming: a full-blown, lengthy adventure with a very polished look and yet minimal investment (other than time and lots of sweat, of course). Sure, it wasn’t the first indie game ever, but in my mind it remains the most significant indie game. I don’t think Dark Fall gets all the credit it deserves these days: we’re talking about a groundbreaking title, a classic by now, when the term “indie gaming” wasn’t even common in the industry. It made me feel so confident about the idea of making games that I began to put wheels in motion to do Scratches.
I maintained lots of correspondence with Jonathan Boakes, who was extremely helpful at the time and provided much insightful advice. I like to think that I have returned the favor to other developers over the years. Dark Fall wasn’t a revelation only in terms of possibilities, but also a first glimpse into the most helpful and kindest community in the industry.
Ingmar: Not everyone may know that you worked as a journalist for a big adventure game website for a while. I'd be interested in hearing your memories of that experience.
Agustín: It’s a rather nice story how it all began, if a bit embarrassing. It was early in 2002 and I had been lurking around many adventure game forums for who knows how long. I sure can’t remember by now. Syberia was just being released and many websites began to claim that it was the adventure renaissance all fans were expecting. Well, not me because I was convinced Syberia was a pile of stinking rubbish (I still do, mind you) and decided to do what any self-respecting internet dweller would do: rant about it. So I decided that Just Adventure+ should be my battleground and posted what is possibly the most vicious rant about Syberia that exists on the web. It’s still fondly recalled among the old timers from the forum as the first flamewar at JA+. That was probably my first post ever and I was already making myself some mortal enemies. Gotta love them internets!
Things cooled down eventually and I became very tied to that community. So one day I approached Randy Sluganski, who owned JA+ at the time, and asked if he’d be interested in publishing an article of mine. This was a piece I had been working on for some time about unfinished adventures (although strictly speaking it featured Meantime, an RPG). Randy loved it and was very happy to publish it. Readers liked it too, and that’s how it became a hobby for me. The next piece was about the unfortunate Zelenhgorm, then Runaway (the first English review ever, actually!), and so on. I mostly focused on rare stuff, or Spanish games not yet available in English. It was a wonderful period, and it’s safe to say it helped me to carve my small spot in this industry. Randy, who passed away recently, was a true mentor back then, always encouraging me to write, endorsing my work, and ultimately becoming an immense help during the development of Scratches. I remember him fondly as one of the very first friends I made on the internet.
Ingmar: Scratches sold around 250,000 copies and won lots of awards. In a way, it must have been quite a nightmare to create this game, as it was your first game and you had a tiny team. Guide us through the development of Scratches and tell us about the pros and cons of this intense journey.
Agustín: It was a nightmare alright, but not without its share of exciting moments. At first it was supposed to be a hobby of sorts. I mean, I always was serious about doing a quality adventure, but I had another job at the time and wasn’t quite ready to take that “leap of faith”, so for some time Scratches was a secondary thing for me. However, when we released the first playable teaser in Halloween 2003, the reaction floored me. People loved the thing even though it was extremely short and were very supportive of the project.
Then, once we began to get contacted by publishers, I decided to take the plunge and quit my job. Scratches became a very serious goal and that’s why we decided to up the ante. We went from a simple slideshow engine to the atmospheric panorama style present in the final game, while retaining the visual effects seen in the teaser (rain and thunderstorm). A whole new floor was added to the Blackwood mansion and loads of things were tweaked. All the work of several months that we did for the teaser was essentially scrapped (graphics were deemed not worthy of the new look and the engine was completely rewritten).
The new format and style were reintroduced in the so-called Second Teaser in July 2004, including the “passing clouds” effect that would be later present in the full game, a first in panorama adventures. For some reason that still escapes me today, reception among adventure fans was colder this time, even though the new teaser was a decidedly huge boost in quality. However, it did get more attention generally.
That was basically the whole inception and for the remaining two years or so my entire life circled around Scratches. In retrospect, it was an insanely ambitious project. We should have begun with something smaller, but while there were other ideas, the concept for Scratches was the most well developed one. It was crazy to make our own engine as well but there was nothing quite suitable at the time. Keep in mind that we were essentially two persons working on this thing besides the music composer in Croatia. On top of that, it was a conscious decision to sign with several publishers as opposed to one big deal to minimize risks. As the game neared completion, we were dealing with almost a dozen companies each with different expectations and deadlines.
“Intense journey” is a nice way to put it. It was very rough at times and the only thing that kept us going was the support from the community. You’d think I'd have learned not to engage overly ambitious projects without the resources but, alas, fate decided that wouldn’t be the case…Continued on the next page...