Senscape – Asylum
On Friday, Agustín Cordes took time to show me what progress the Senscape team has been making with Asylum since their successful Kickstarter campaign. As a backer myself, I had already seen an early version of the game but the engine has now been improved with regards to performance and stability. The crowdfunding money has allowed them to rent a small office so they can be in the same room while working, which has been very productive, the more personal team dynamics really ramping up the progress. The plot is already wrapped up, so they're currently implementing game logic, stringing events together and establishing what a player must have done in order to progress beyond certain points. They'll soon hire a programmer to finish Agustín's work so far, as at the moment he's the only programmer on the team. They're aiming for a release early next year.
Asylum's Hanwell Mental Institute
Agustín still doesn't want to tell much about the story, instead focussing on the game's mood. The recently completed intro shows us the nameless protagonist driving up to the asylum where he was once a patient to spend one night there. When he arrives he's greeted by the receptionist Julia, which surprises him as he did not expect anyone to be there; the asylum was supposed to be abandoned. As he does not want her to think he's mad, he acts like it is completely normal to find her there, which introduces a tension that will be present throughout the whole game: is this real or a figment of the protagonist's imagination? Like the bottle of pills many players missed in Agustín's previous game Scratches, there is also a duality in the strange things you experience in Asylum – could there be a scientific explanation or is it supernatural?
The Hanwell Mental Institute is huge, but to avoid making the player feel too overwhelmed, initially there will be only a few locations to be explored. Only after solving some puzzles will the rest of the floor be unlocked, while the other floors will still remain off-limits, opening up after solving some more. Asylum has a dynamic hint system, and if you look at an object or visit rooms several times without accomplishing anything, there will be different responses, not only reflecting the protagonist's mood but also gradually introducing small hints as to where to go or what to do next. He will never say "it's a window", but rather will comment on the state of disrepair or what he remembers happened when he was last there.
Agustín mugs for the camera flanked by Phoenix Online's Vitek Goyel and former House of Tales designer Martin Ganteföhr
Agustín also showed footage of the 'unique inmate', shaped after the $10,000 backer. He is on the loose in the cafeteria, wreaking havoc, and players will have to find a way to calm him down in order to gain access as part of a puzzle. The backer is reportedly very happy with his resemblance.
The story operates on different levels, and each character you encounter represents something. Agustín also believes that each puzzle should be there for a specific reason, and solving it should reveal something about the story. At the end of the game, there will be full closure of the main theme (why are you returning to the asylum?), but there are many subplots that will be open-ended, leaving players to fill in the gaps with their own theories.
CBE Software - J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition, Pearl-handled Gun
Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek from CBE Software were next with their latest build of the Indiegogo-financed J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition. So much has been done to change the look and feel of the game, and so much has been added to the story and interactivity that the subtitle "Enhanced Edition" no longer does it credit. The prologue alone, which used to take players about eight minutes to play through in the 'old' version, now takes about an hour. In the crowdfunding backer forums, the developers are asking for suggestions for a brand new title to reflect the 'new' game better. They are also trying to get it accepted on Steam Greenlight.
New scene from the radically overhauled J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition
Playing as Rachel Manners, you spend your time trying to discover what became of your crew. Every other member was mysteriously roused from their cryo chambers long before you and have since disappeared, leaving you behind on a space probe far from home with only a pair of artificial companions. The backstory is partially told through datapads you find lying around. The six crew members each had their own view on what was happening around them, and because of their paranoia they didn't talk to each other. Only by piecing these disparate tales together are you able to connect it all and figure out what happened. Based on the security access of each crew member, the datapads are either unprotected, encrypted with a hackable password or securely encrypted. You can analyze the datapads in several ways to find information, such as looking for chemical composition, spectral analysis, biological residue such as DNA or fingerprints and examining the data itself.
CBE have done a lot to make the backgrounds look animated, for instance with blinking panels and dust particles. The interface has received a huge overhaul as well. In each of the screen corners, a collapsible menu is hidden so as not to clutter up the gorgeous artwork of the new backgrounds. There is a logbook that keeps track of information so you are never left feeling clueless. If you find a keycode somewhere, you don't need to write it down as you can always check it there later. Tasks you haven't done are clearly distinguishable from those you have by the tense in which they are written, which makes it easy to pick up the game if you haven't played for a while. Entering numbers or passwords can be done with the keyboard, or by mouse using an onscreen representation of a keypad or keyboard, accommodating as many players' preferences as possible.
Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek pose in front of the majestic Cologne Cathedral
The game has optional sidequests, and you will be rewarded for being thorough in your explorations with more backgrounds to encounter and more puzzles. If you are extremely observant, you will get access to a 'mind-o-matic' that will allow you to sort through dozens of keywords and put them in the right place on a huge deduction board or delete them if they aren't relevant. This completely optional feature will allow you to figure out what happened by combining names, verbs and words (i.e. x died from y, a murdered b, etc.) in the right chronological order.
Jan and Lukáš also told me about a quick game they built during gamescom using the Wintermute Engine called Boredom of Agustín Cordes, which tells the story of how Agustín is waiting for his friends in his hotel room in Cologne (now available to download). More seriously, they showed me some scenes from their upcoming 2D adventure game Pearl-handled Gun. Its protagonist, Victor Lustig, is a scam artist who sneaks onto a luxury cruise during the 'roaring twenties' to try to trick people into trusting him with lots of money. He can, for example, steal someone's wallet, then pretend he found it and give it back to the owner, gaining his trust. Later during the cruise, he can then sell shares to this person that look valuable but are worthless. It's an old-school adventure with contextual interaction menus and a cartoony style. The game has been more or less finished but because of funding issues it may not be published any time soon.
Animation Arts - Secret Files: Sam Peters, Lost Horizon 2
Secret Files: Sam Peters is a spin-off of the main Secret Files series. You may remember Sam from her appearance in Puritas Cordis, where Max left her in the Indonesian jungle. In Sam Peters, we'll finally find out what happened to her and how she managed to get off the island. Sam writes for the magazine 'Uncharted' covering expeditions and excavations. She was in Indonesia to look for an old temple in the jungle when she was captured by terrorists. We join Sam in her self-titled adventure right after Max has liberated her and she has managed to get to the coast of the island, where Max has left an inflatable boat for her.
Secret Files: Sam Peters
After solving some puzzles, Sam makes it off the island and the next chapter finds her in Berlin, where she is supposed to meet with a scientist. However, he has already left on an expedition to Africa, so Sam has to find a way to enter the building in order to eventually join him. The final chapter, which forms about half the game, is set in Ghana, where Sam researches a legend surrounding a lake. She figures this might make for a good article for the magazine.
We were shown the game during a public presentation and also got the chance to play the game ourselves on the show floor. As it uses the same engine as the first two games, it looks and feels the same as them, sharing its interface including the hotspot locator and the journal that keeps track of your tasks. This spin-off adventure is short, only taking about three to five hours, but the puzzles and challenges should be a little bit harder. They will include a mix of inventory puzzles, code/safe-breaking and minigames. One such challenge, involving some reflexes, requires catching ants that are walking on a log. Sam's adventure will be available in Germany in October, with an English release following 'soon' after.
Lost Horizon 2 is making the step to 3D, which means it no longer has handpainted backgrounds. What I saw still looks nice enough, but it has definitely lost some of its charm, although the graphics at this early stage are definitely not final. The game is set around twenty years after the first part of the series. Fenton is in the British Army, stationed in Northern Egypt just before the Suez War. He is tasked with sneaking into Port Said to find out where the military buildings are located.
Lost Horizon 2
A result of the move to 3D is that during dialogues you can freely turn the camera around the protagonist so you can see him from all angles and look at the environment. Although the game is still in its early alpha phase, a playable demo was available during gamescom. Its WASD keyboard controls feel clunky at this point, and having to keep W pressed down during conversations to keep Fenton on top of his camel moving forward was a bit of a nuisance, even though it was kind of nice to be able to move the camera around him. The novelty wore off quickly though.
The developers have also added some jumping, platforming and sneaking to give the game a bit more of that dynamic, action-filled suspense that was present in the Hong Kong car chase in the first game. A blue shimmer around objects indicates interactivity, and onscreen icon cues explain how to move the mouse to push a cart or remove some rubble. I had no trouble climbing and jumping my way to the top of a wall, avoiding some guards looking down at me by hiding underneath an overhang – a matter of observing their patterns and pausing my progress accordingly. The game saves automatically at checkpoints just before such scenes so you can try again if you fail, without having to replay a lengthy string of hurdles.
Lost Horizon 2 should be out sometime in late 2014.
Josué Monchan / Thierry Begaud (adventure game localizations)
The most relaxing meet of the gamescom was without doubt the one with Josué Monchan and his friend Thierry Begaud. We sat down at a juice bar to talk about the importance of localizations. You may recognise Josué's name from when he worked for Pendulo, writing the stories for such games as Runaway and Yesterday. Together with Thierry and a whole network of other friends, he now runs an indie translation service for adventure games. All the translators are very experienced in game development and/or writing for adventure games. For instance, Thierry has been doing this since the early days of Sierra, translating games from English to French. Josué has been translating to Spanish for a couple of months now, and is learning a lot from it. Together, the team covers a whole package of languages, and they are in frequent contact via Skype so they can discuss certain idioms or jokes. If a translated joke doesn't make sense in "your" language, perhaps someone else's solution might work for you as well. It is very important to get a proper feel for the mood and emotional message of the game, which is where their experience with writing their own games comes in. Inspired by this creative process, Josué says he now feels like writing a game of his own again.
Red Thread Games – Dreamfall Chapters
The final appointment of the day was with Ragnar Tørnquist, Dag Scheve and Martin Bruusgaard from Red Thread Games, who treated us to a couple of scenes from Dreamfall Chapters. Unfortunately, their laptop's battery was almost dead so we didn't get more than a few minutes, but it was enough to show us an early puzzle. The game is set about a year after Dreamfall. Zoë lives in an apartment complex in Europolis, a big megacity based on Prague and Germany. It has no borders, but no wealth either, as the entire city is broke. The section we saw had impressive-looking futuristic graphics, showing Zoë walking through one of these impoverished areas of Europolis.
Red Thread Games showed off Dreamfall Chapters... at least until the laptop battery ran out.
You can play with keyboard and mouse, or with a controller. The interface is intuitive, with contextual icons popping up when you are near an item. Items in your inventory can be rotated 360 degrees so you can see if there is something on the back or bottom of them. Dialogue choices are presented in a circle, and depending on your input device you can select the option of your preference by clicking on it or by moving the analogue stick towards it. Red Thread emphasizes the importance of choices, which will influence your relationships with others, for instance, and even the way other characters live their lives, but its implementation was intentionally kept vague.
The puzzle we were shown involved convincing a bot to go somewhere, effectively sending it on a suicide mission. The game has the option to log in with a social media account; if you do, it will show you – in a way that is similar to what Telltale did with The Walking Dead – what others have chosen to do, such as 76% of players choosing to spare its life.
The Norwegian trio estimated the game will take about twelve hours to finish. Some familiar characters, like Kian, will return, but there will also be plenty of new characters. They ended our nice conversation by explaining how Dreamfall didn't fully work out the way they intended it, especially the combat. This time there will be some obstacles (they don't like to call them "puzzles" per se) requiring some reflexes, but no actual combat. They're aiming for a November 2014 release.
The Friday night following gamescom night is traditionally reserved for a party organized by our colleagues at the German website Adventure-Treff. This one was at the same location as last year, a beach bar, and fortunately they provided more lights for us to see each other after the sun went down. This year, not only were some Kickstarter backers finally able to meet the Argentinian developer of Asylum, Agustín also showed them a few scenes from the game and gave them a special poster. Jan Kavan and Lukáš Medek also arranged an impromptu backer meet. The total number of guests at the party included too many to mention, but among the many people I'd already met these past three days were the Red Thread Games team, Charles Cecil, Martin Ganteföhr, Anne von Vaszary, Jan 'Poki' Müller-Michaelis, PR consultant Kimara Rouwit, Josué Monchan and Thierry Begaud, Nexus Games, Laney Berry and Phoenix Online's Vitek Goyel. When the venue closed, a large group took trams, taxis and private cars to get to an Irish pub near the Dom cathedral to continue the conversation and fun until the early hours, before finally returning to their hotels or homes.
An excellent end to another busy gamescom.