When Daedalic announced 1954: Alcatraz last summer, I unceremoniously ignored it. I live in the San Francisco area, and to be blunt, what could a German studio possibly know about Alcatraz? Gene Mocsy, the designer behind this upcoming prison break adventure (and a resident of nearby Berkeley) set me straight when we met at GDC, and as a result this game has shot way up on my anticipation list.
Though this is his first time collaborating with Daedalic, Mocsy is no stranger to the game industry, having started out as an environment artist at EA. During his six years working on games like James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, The Godfather, and The Simpsons Game, he eventually moved into design. A closet LucasArts fan, he left EA for Bill Tiller’s Autumn Moon Entertainment, where he worked as a writer and designer on A Vampyre Story and Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island. “And then Bill was kind enough to say, ‘Go ahead and use the engine to make your own game,’” Mocsy said of 1954: Alcatraz’s origin. “So that was how this all started.”
When deciding to set his game close to home, Mocsy drew inspiration from the Blackwell games, which are set in Wadjet Eye designer Dave Gilbert’s stomping ground of New York City: “I wanted a very specific time and place, a real place. A lot of games are sort of vaguely in a time period or in a sort of mythical world, but this is here [in San Francisco], and since I’m in the area, I can do research all the time. And I chose ’54 because it was a very cool time for the beat scene in North Beach.” He went on to explain that the North Beach neighborhood—home to writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—plays as prominent a role in 1954: Alcatraz as the prison itself.
Background based on photos from a Chinatown rooftop and the second story window of City Lights Bookstore. Alcatraz is in the distance, tying the two worlds together.
The game has two protagonists: Joe, a man incarcerated after his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time contribution to a big heist, and his beatnik wife Christine, a bohemian artist who lives across the bay from Alcatraz in San Francisco. For most of the game, the player can switch between the two characters at will. Joe is trying to break out of prison, while Christine needs to find the money her husband hid somewhere in the city before the gangsters who are hassling her make good on their threats. Their stories intersect and eventually converge, with Christine uncovering some unwelcome surprises about her husband along the way. “We want the player to always feel like the marriage is in jeopardy. I wanted it to be about this escape but also an interesting marriage,” Mocsy explained. The gameplay is neatly split between them: “It starts out more of Joe’s story, in his cell with his routine, then by the end it sort of becomes Christine’s story because you decide how she wants to end the story. So [fifty percent of] the storyline is with each person, but we start with Joe and segue to Christine by the end.”
Using Autumn Moon’s engine, Mocsy created a very rough version of the game before the opportunity to partner with Daedalic arose. The studio known for vibrant and quirky visuals in games like Edna & Harvey and Deponia is now redoing 1954: Alcatraz in their own Unity-based engine. “They’ve been slowly upgrading all of the elements of my rough game. Every element is being upgraded since I came to Daedalic,” Mocsy explained. All of his original backgrounds have been redone by Daedalic’s background artists, and another German company was contracted to create 3D characters based on concepts by Jean-Louis Sirois, who also worked on A Vampyre Story and Ghost Pirates. Daedalic also contributed the budget for Mocsy to enlist a composer friend and record a live jazz soundtrack. “I was going to keep slogging through,” Mocsy said, when asked what he would have done if Daedalic hadn’t picked up the game. “It was going to be very rough. I’m glad it worked out this way.”
Joe's cell, prototyped in the Autumn Moon engine, with a very questionable background perspective. Joe is a modified version of the hero of Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island (courtesy Autumn Moon Entertainment).
Joe's cell in HD resolution using Daedalic's new Unity-based engine. Background perspective has been corrected and brought to life. The new character model displays an interesting new pose.
To authentically recreate Alcatraz, Mocsy paid several visits to the island prison, which is now open to tourists. “One of the times I took the tour was really cool because I met a ranger there who led us backstage, into the civilian quarters [where the guards’ families lived] and also the generator room,” Mocsy said. Joe is a mechanic, which gives him access to locations most convicts can’t get into and allows him to pocket items that will aid his escape. “I’m trying to make the puzzles more common sense, not too obscure. There’s a washer that’s stalled and it’s broken, what do you do?” Mocsy said of the gameplay set inside Alcatraz. Joe’s ultimate objective, however, is to break free of the prison famous for being escape-proof. As Mocsy pointed out, it’s an obstacle perfectly suited to an adventure game: “It’s one big puzzle with a lot of sub-puzzles that you have to solve.”
In prison, Joe interacts with guards and other prisoners, including a transvestite who has a crush on him and the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz. “I’m trying to make him like the crazy, psychotic killer Birdman,” Mocsy laughed. “Not like the Burt Lancaster, super handsome Birdman. I’m returning him to the real roots. It’s authentic.” For the prison atmosphere and the gameplay that takes place inside it, “I tried to research as much as I could." In anticipation of a knife fight, Joe can enlist another prisoner to make him a shiv-proof vest, a real commodity inside prison walls. In another sequence, “You find some jailhouse pruno, the liquor they made with fermented fruit, which is just fruit in a plastic bag, wrapped and hidden for a while. You have to construct yourself a shiv, because you’re going to get in a fight, but you have to get through the metal detectors, which was a real detail. They had very early 1950s metal detectors, so you need to make yourself a shiv out of glass or wood. But if you use the glass one it will break, it’s one-time only. So you have to decide, should you use it in your first fight or should you save it for the end?”
Christine, meanwhile, has the run of San Francisco, where she’ll visit a number of based-on-real-life locales including a nightclub modeled after the venerable Bimbo’s 365 Club, a bookstore not unlike North Beach’s famed City Lights, an authentic beatnik coffee shop, and an opera house in the heart of Chinatown. “She is friends with everybody. She can get backstage anywhere because she knows everybody behind the scenes,” Mocsy said of Christine’s gameplay. “She’s sort of a fixer in a way, in that people come to her with problems and she can figure out a way to solve them. There’s the gay poet couple that’s breaking up, and if you can get a poem from one and pretend it was written by the other guy, you can convince them to stay together. And there’s a priest that’s being blackmailed; if you can get the negatives and the photos for him, he’ll do you a favor. Her puzzles are more about problem-solving with people, and Joe’s are more mechanical because he’s a repairman.”
Alcatraz metal detector with Joe and two correctional officers. Background sketched over photographs taken on Alcatraz. Characters are placeholders, modified from Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island (courtesy Autumn Moon Entertainment).
Alcatraz metal detector with new models for Joe, the correctional officers, and convicts. The background is vastly improved, but lighting and animations using an older engine still need updating.
Alcatraz metal detector in HD resolution using Daedalic's current engine, with new lighting and animations.
The game has stylized cartoon art reminiscent of Runaway, with creatively designed characters and environments that make interesting uses of color and lighting. In their process of bringing Mocsy’s work into their own engine, Daedalic is tweaking the visual style somewhat. (When I saw it, he said they were still playing around with toon shaders to land on the final look.) They’re also making changes to Mocsy’s original UI to bring it closer to Daedalic’s usual point-and-click format. And though the game was already fully written and playable when Daedalic got involved, they’re helping to polish the gameplay. “They’ve been totally great,” Mocsy said of the collaboration. “They haven’t been touching the plot or the setting, they’re trusting me with that. But they have been helping me with puzzles, making sure that they follow all the way through to the end, make sure there’s no dead ends.”
He’s especially grateful for this sort of help because 1954: Alcatraz has a bunch of alternate puzzle solutions and endings. “I tried to give you some options because I never want you to be stuck,” Mocsy explained. “Also, some things should be interchangeable. To get into the nightclub Christine can pick the lock in the backdoor, but if you don’t have a lockpick, you can also bribe the bouncer, you have some contraband that you can obtain that he might be interested in, or you can harass the people in line until the bouncer’s like, ‘You’re less trouble inside, just go.’” Back on the island, some of Joe’s alternate solutions depend on which resources you’ve managed to acquire, including alcohol, pain pills, and even hand-drawn, mimeographed porn (another Alcatraz / 1950s authenticity).
Background based on a very popular nightclub in North Beach.
“This is more of an adult title than most Daedalic titles. There’s knifing, there’s prison, there’s killing, there’s booze,” Mocsy admitted. Acknowledging the apparent disconnect between the game’s cartoon style and its adult themes, he said, “It’s a little more shocking when you realize, ‘Oh, the stakes are real.’ You can die. If you die, we show your funeral, then we fade to black and say, ‘Let’s try that again.’” Ever authentic, this sequence depicts a graveyard in nearby Colma—as Mocsy’s research revealed, it’s illegal to bury bodies in San Francisco.
San Francisco has a character all its own, and it’s great to see this recreated in a game with the amount of care and attention to detail Mocsy’s put into this one. And he hopes that 1954: Alcatraz won’t be his last game set in this area. “There’s a lot of cool periods. I would love to continue with the ’50s in San Francisco, but I could do a groovy psychedelic 1968, or dotcom bastards in the first dotcom bubble, people totally selling out and having crazy parties,” he joked as our demo wrapped up. For now, though, he'll continue acting in an advisory capacity as Daedalic finishes up the game for release in Q4 of this year. I’ll be first in line for the Alcatraz ferry when that day comes.