AdventureX 2013: Part One
Two years ago, AdventureX was a small gathering in a room above a pub. Now it is a major feature of the adventure gaming world. Having attracted sponsorship from both game creators and online portals, the genre’s only dedicated convention once more set itself up in a central London venue at the University of East Anglia. Organisers Screen 7 did not cut any corners in making this another weekend of fun and gaming for developers and enthusiasts alike.
With a host of demos, guest talks and discussion panels, attendees were met with a bewildering array of choices to fill the two days. Dave Gilbert, as a major sponsor for the event, flew in from New York again and enthusiastically threw himself into proceedings. The head of Revolution Software, Charles Cecil, did a major talk and video interview. The man who stretched ‘80s TV technology to the limit in creating the computerised fantasy game show Knightmare, Tim Child, both reminisced about the past and offered thoughts about the future. Even Steve Ince, prevented from attending in person, found the time to put in a welcome appearance over video Skype.
With nearly 250 attendees this year, this was a convention by adventure gamers for adventure gamers, and the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. Working closely with our colleagues at Adventure Treff, we set about the daunting task of gathering as much information as possible to share with you upon our return.
Dave Gilbert – A Year in Review
At AdventureX 2012, Dave Gilbert gave a talk on establishing Wadjet Eye Games and the highs and lows of making it a successful company. Since then, his plans to port their back catalogue to iOS have not gone quite as planned. To date, only two games have made the conversion process, Gemini Rue and The Shivah. Partly this has been down to technical issues, as there’s more to putting a game on an iOS device than just transferring the code to a new language. In some areas, the mechanics had to be redesigned to fit the capabilities of the new system. The most difficult – and unexpected – problem came down to graphics. The original version of The Shivah presented indoor locations as small compartments on the screen, accenting their enclosed nature. This was fine when displayed on a large monitor, but on an iPhone screen, these became the size of postage stamps. Simply scaling the graphics up created resolution issues, so ultimately every graphic in the game had to be redrawn for the conversion. Fortunately, talented game artist Ben Chandler is now a full-time staff member, so an expert hand was available for the task. Wadjet Eye now intend to take on a specialist member of staff dedicated to handling iOS porting, guided by Dave’s wife Janet, so they can concentrate on new games.
Gentleman Dave Gilbert waves hello to an AG writer's wife
Only a single boxed game was produced by Wadjet Eye, that being Vince Twelve’s Resonance. Whilst a nice option for hardcore fans, this version actually lost money, so there are no plans to repeat this offer any time in the future. In a lot of ways, this has been a quieter year on the production front generally, with no new deals for publishing other games and the studio itself concentrating on Blackwell Epiphany. Having had a good year prior was a factor in this, taking off some of the pressure to continually produce to pay the bills. A far more significant factor is that Dave and his wife have been contributing to a new generation of adventure fans, having produced a little gamer of their own. Having to move four times with a small baby has definitely cut down on game development time.
Dave also found out this year that a fateful decision made when he first got married meant that he missed a golden game-making opportunity. With his wife living in Sheffield and him living in New York, they had to decide which of them was to move. They chose New York, and only after this did Dave find out that Charles Cecil was developing the Doctor Who Adventure Games in Sheffield. Catching up with Charles during a break in proceedings at the convention, Dave asked whether Charles have taken him on if he had turned up at his door and asked to be involved. The answer was naturally an emphatic “yes”.
Continuing to work full-time, Dave is looking at getting back to publishing again. Janet is currently only part-time, but is wanting to write her own game as well as working on other projects. Who knows, there may well be two famous Gilberts in the adventure gaming industry in the not-too-distant future. In time, maybe even three if their progeny follows in her parents’ footsteps.
Steve Ince – Writing for Games
Steve Ince sadly could not make it to the venue, but he made up for it by appearing on a large screen using Skype. After a brief introduction covering his career so far, including the Broken Sword games, Beneath A Steel Sky, two So Blonde games (and the Captain Morgane spin-off) and script editing on games such as The Witcher, Steve talked about how writing for games and other interactive media is different from writing books or movie scripts. A movie lasts only about an hour and a half, so you need to tell the whole story in that small amount of time. A TV series might have 20 or more episodes, which influences the style and size of the story immensely. A game is different again; it matters what kind of game it is and you must also take into account that there is not only interaction between two characters but also between the characters and the player. For each section (chapter, scene) of the game, you need to establish how long it is expected to take the player to play through it, and you need to keep the player interested for that amount of time and make sure there are always things to do (e.g. explore the environment, solve a puzzle or talk to someone until the next 'story beat' happens).
The Great Oz... err.. Steve Ince addresses his audience via Skype
Steve gave some great tips for aspiring game writers: dialogue must be realistic to be believable and immersive; it is important to listen in on real conversations; people pause, people interrupt, people change their words mid-sentence. If you want to make it sound natural, study the rhythm and structure!
Jon Ingold – Video Game Dialogue
For Jon Ingold of Inkle Studios, there are three essential components to building a realistic world for gaming. The first is the setting itself, shown to the player through either text descriptions or artwork. The second is a sense of causality, that actions good and bad have an effect on the world as a whole. The third is characters, the people who live there with all their quirks and foibles. The talk he gave at AdventureX focused on this third point, most specifically how this is carried across in dialogue. As a starting point, he took the “Press X to Jason” puzzle from Heavy Rain. Having lost his son at a shopping mall, the lead character has an extended scene in which the only action available is to shout his son's name. The over-dramatic tone of the cries, and the lack of any other options to break the monotony has turned this section of an otherwise serious game into a target for worldwide mockery. However, Jon’s issues with dialogue in games go well beyond this most egregious of examples.
Joseph Humfrey and Jon Ingold, Inkle Studios
One way he feels that adventures fail is by having entirely pre-written dialogue. Whether in cutscenes or click-through conversation, any dialogue where the player exerts no control whatsoever is always going to prove frustrating. One step up from that is the “snark point” conversation. This allows you to make choices within the dialogue, but generally restricted to making some mean or sarcastic comment. Whilst this provides an illusion of control, and can even be fun to start with, the interest wanes as nothing is affected by your choices. The final example he gave is the “choose the order” dialogues. Going into any conversation, there will usually be only a handful of options that actively interest the player. However, after using those, most players will still go through all the other options to make sure they don’t miss anything important. The end result is that all of the dialogue options are exhausted and players only control what order they do them in.
But he does see a way forward: Making the dialogue matter. Maybe making snarky comments annoys people so they won’t help you later. Asking too many questions could cause someone to become suspicious of you and clam up before giving you a vital clue. Perhaps it's something as simple as a character having goals and interests of their own and being more ready to converse with others showing matching traits. All these serve to make the characters, and by extension their world, a more believable place to be.
Not a man to criticise without making an effort himself, Jon has tried to implement a more meaningful dialogue system in part two of his Sorcery! adaptation. In converting Steve Jackson’s series of game-books from the 1980s to mobile devices, he and his team have strived to make them more than just a book on a phone. Using their own in-house scripting language they have tried, and to my mind largely succeeded, to bring life to their characters and setting. The second part takes place in the bustling city of Khare, and you will converse with many of its varied citizenry on your journey.
Jon showed two simple ways in which conversations were made to appear more real. Some conversations have a “weave format”, where different approaches come to the same conclusion. Pretending to be a visiting lord or a mighty wizard will both get you past the same guard, but you’ll have entirely different conversations in doing so. More interesting were the “hub format” conversations. At first glance, these appear to be just “choose the order” dialogues, with a selection of choices the player must work through. However, each time the player makes a choice, the demeanour of the other character changes. This might be as simple as a shopkeeper growing tired of you not buying anything or a thug getting riled by your constant questioning. The end result is that you will be moved on in some way without being able to exhaust all the options. This not only serves to make the characters more than just sounding boards waiting for your arrival, it makes those dialogue choices more vital as you risk missing important information if you are not careful in your choices.
One last innovation, only mentioned in passing during the talk, was words exchanged over a game. Many of the townsfolk offer you a challenge in the form of a bluffing dice game. In this, each player starts with five four-sided dice which they throw in secret. The players then take turns making guesses about the dice total. When a player thinks their opponent’s guess is too high, they call and all dice are revealed. The round is won by either the most accurate guesser or the correct challenger. Viewed simply on this basis, this minigame could have been a standalone distraction to take or leave accordingly. But small talk made at a gaming table continues throughout the match. This conversation not only makes the scenario feel like a real situation, it often contains clues to your quest, making the game something to be sought rather than avoided. Even better, hearing conversation turning towards your quest can cause you to forget the dice game momentarily, a distraction that can prove fatal to your chances of winning.
Anyone wishing to try Sorcery 2! and its dialogue options for themselves can get it at the App Store. Whilst this can be played on its own, it is recommended you play the previous instalment first to get the full story.
Tom Kitchin – Theme and Mechanics in a Story-driven Genre
Tom Kitchin is a software developer who's interested in game design and analysis, though he hasn't worked on any adventure games so far. His talk concentrated on how a theme is not only created with character design, music and style of graphics, but also the mechanics of interaction. Take two action games, for example Doom and Deus Ex. Both essentially show just a crosshair against a background, so they might look like very similar games to a non-player. But if you tell a player of these respective games to move, the Doom player will take off immediately at high speed whereas the Deus Ex player will carefully examine his surroundings before slowly, cautiously walking away. Mechanics thus affect the theme of the game more than anything else.
The core mechanic of adventure games is observation. They are slow, easygoing, thoughtful games with detached interaction. This is great for both investigations and sedate odysseys like The Longest Journey, as well as comedy. But it also poses a bit of a problem, as there never is any real urgency. Even if there is some kind of terrible threat or the world is about to end, the player can take their time to examine their surroundings. Some developers like Telltale have tried to solve this in various ways, such as adding Quick Time Events, but these tend to take you out of the world as you worry about your fingers being in the right place on the keyboard or controller instead of the game world. Also, if you die and try again you know exactly what is expected of you and there is no longer any perceived threat. Another example is the timed conversation. A number of options are shown, and if you don't pick one within the time given, your character will stay silent, which influences the person you are talking to in a way you may not have intended. A third option is something that was used in an episode of The Walking Dead, where after only a few seconds of showing you the dialogue options and long before the timer is up, a zombie interrupts the conversation and attacks who you were talking to.
Much like Jon Ingold suggested elsewhere, Tom ended this thought-provoking talk with an example of how an NPC in a game might grow bored with your questions and after one or two refuse to answer any more, which is obviously not a result you would want for your adventure game protagonist, and would therefore cause players to think more carefully about every choice they make and the possible repercussions of poor decisions.
Mark Estdale – Voice Acting and Direction
Mark Estdale, voice director for Omuk, has worked with Daedalic, KING Art and Revolution, among others, providing voice acting talent. He demonstrated how your ears can deceive you and the importance of sound with a couple of quick experiments. Asking half of the audience to close their eyes, he rustled some plastic bags while showing a picture of rain to the other half, then the first half of the audience was shown a picture of food being cooked while rustling the same plastic bag. And it was true: the brain interprets the same sound in different ways based on what you see. In a further, rather gruesome experiment, we were shown a clip of someone bending their fingers backwards, without any sound, and then once more while Mark broke some celery stalks. The second version had a lot more impact. In a similar way, voices can add a lot to games. He trains actors to understand the difference between linear entertainment such as theatre, movies and music, and interactive entertainment such as games where the player influences the behavior of the character.
Mark Estdale speaks before a full house
Adventure games are often made with a tiny budget, but ironically often have huge amounts of text which leads to relatively high costs for actors. It is also unfortunate that voice acting is often left until very late in the process of creating a game. Mark tries to get the developer to think about voice acting as early in production as possible, as knowing what a character sounds like can help them write better dialogue. It is also important to keep the script as organised as possible with regards to context. If an actor is just given dozens of lines of text, he doesn't know if he should whisper or shout, sound surprised or angry, so he should always know what has gone on before. If a game is to be translated, this is even more important.
Mark never gives the actor the script beforehand, because an actor will sound more natural if he experiences whatever happens in the game for the first time. As an example, he described a situation where an actor has to drive a car. If he has been told he'll crash at the first intersection, he will act totally different than if he's told to just drive off. Actors are shown character art and given information on what kind of person they're representing. This is all stored in a spreadsheet, which has links to all kinds of important stuff like background designs, images of objects important to the scene, the soundtrack with music as well as ambient sounds and details about the setting. All of this is accessible during the recording. Mark also likes to work with head-worn microphones so actors can walk around and use gestures freely. For some scenes, multiple actors can be in the recording room at the same time so they can respond to each other naturally as an ensemble. How well this approach works can be heard in games like Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse.
Jon Ingold/Dave Gilbert/Alasdair Beckett-King – Pet Peeves
It was then time for Adventure Room 101, in which three developers were invited to choose one thing they would like to banish from adventures and why. The spectators were then allowed to defend their opposite viewpoints (if any) and a vote would ensue.
Can we say "inventory clutter"?
First up was Jon Ingold, an interactive fiction author, who wanted to get rid of inventory clutter. Why do you still have that stuff that you needed four hours ago in your backpack? Collecting endless amounts of loose stuff detracts from the story. It's also not very realistic, improvising to use things together in the real world just doesn't work that way.
Dave Gilbert wanted to banish people who only look back at the so-called 'Golden Age'. Although making primarily retro-styled games at Wadjet Eye, Dave thinks we should look to the now and the future. We've established that adventure games are not dead, he said, so now let's do something with that victory.
Alasdair Beckett-King was in favour of erasing all Sierra games with “Quest” in the title from memory. According to the developer of Nelly Cootalot, their random and incoherent punishment is unfair and just annoys the player on purpose, which makes them frustrating and not fun.
Dave Gilbert/Kris Fosh/Jon Ingold/Mark Lovegrove: Bursting the Indie Bubble
About six years ago, being “indie” was new and hip and there weren't many developers making commercial games, but now there are lots. There's also a race to the bottom going on pricewise (e.g. iOS games). With all the “bundle” sales going on, you can invest $5 a month and have more games than you can ever play. Steam is greenlighting dozens of games each month, some not even finished or already cancelled. The floodgates have opened and there is hardly any quality guarantee. For indie developers, it will get harder and harder to sell their games. Developers must make sure they get noticed if they're just one of the 100 games being released that particular month. They should also diversify, for instance by going multiplatform.
Lewis Denby – Going Pro
After co-creating Richard & Alice, Lewis Denby talked about the lessons he learned in his first year of going pro. Lewis pointed out that, although making games for a living is possible, and a great thing if you can achieve it, it is also an awful lot like a job. There are often times when long hours and mundane tasks will make you feel miserable, and you'll need a great leader to remind you of your goal to get you out of it. It's also important to remember that there's no such thing as a successful bad game (with the possible exception of Myst, Lewis cracked) and that good games deserve good marketing. Without marketing you will never reach your audience, so it's important to start approaching social media, press and communities early on. The good news is that it’s become quite easy to enter the industry and start up your own game, with all the tools and engines available.
Lewis is now working on a puzzle/adventure game called Location Services, which will be a side-scrolling game taking place in a digital world. Although details are scarce at this point, we do know that the protagonist is a secret agent investigating weird phenomena, and meeting people is an important part of the experience.
James Dearden – 3D Models for 2D Games
Creating a good game requires a variety of skills. You need to write a good story, create an exciting world and think up challenging but fair puzzles. You also need the game to look good, and unlike the other requirements, intelligence and a good imagination will only carry you so far in this. With earlier adventure games, the restrictions of running on low-res machines largely defined their look. The limited palette and detail allowed both lent themselves to simpler designs. Even so, different developers still had distinctive styles, with the seasoned adventurer easily able to distinguish Sierra from LucasArts. With more modern machines having much greater processing capabilities, graphics have moved on apace. Indie games often still adopt the retro look, but consumers have become more demanding regardless, and you need to get the graphics right.
Whilst I personally have found no problem with his previous efforts, this is what James Dearden, aka Technocrat (Nancy the Happy Whore), considers his biggest weakness. He thinks he is lousy at drawing, with proportions and perspective not always working properly in scenes he has drawn by hand. However, he has discovered a way of overcoming his perceived shortcomings using modern tools. His tool of choice is Blender, a piece of free and open-source modelling software. This is not some obscure program only known to a handful of gaming nerds. Having been improved and updated since its inception in 1999, Blender has gone on to be used in major film and television productions, such as Red Dwarf X and Spider Man 2. But if you are building a 2D world, what good is a 3D modelling tool?
The answer, as ably demonstrated by James at AdventureX, is that it allows you to get many of the trickier elements of a scene sorted before creating the final background. By building up a 3D model of your scene, be it a single room apartment or a large train platform, you will get proper perspective and vanishing points for things that would be 3D in the real world. Since it’s possible to adjust the size and shape of parts of the model with a few clicks and sweeps, finding you’ve made a door too short for your characters to get through does not involve starting over from scratch. Add to that Blender’s lighting effects, allowing you to place a light source and see how the shadows fall, and you have the basis for a solid scene before you start the colouring and detail work.
For James, Blender has several advantages over other modelling engines – besides the fact it is free. It is relatively easy to get started and the specs to run it are fairly low. It also has a good community fan-base, meaning it should be possible to get help if you run into any problems. This is good, as a major redesign in 2011 rendered the tutorials created before then useless. The software is also compatible with a variety of platforms and is capable of functioning with the popular Unity engine, allowing users to reach a wider audience.
That is not to say that Blender will solve all your graphical problems. Whilst a video recorded in real-time showed it was possible to create a decent looking room in under three minutes, it will take a while to reach that level of expertise. It also won’t design the scenes for you, so you still need to put your imagination to work and plan ahead. For game scenes, you not only need to think about the type of scene, but also where characters will be able to walk, and how they will get from here to other areas. It also has its limitations if you have more grandiose ideas. Being more suited to building blocks and other uniform shapes, it is hard to do abstract work in it, and cartoon graphics are similarly hard to pull off. If your art skills are up to the job, it may be easier to just start from scratch if that is the look you desire.
Based on the artwork for the updated Technobabylon episodes, it must be said that the approach seems to work. For those wanting to find out about Blender themselves, check out the engine website. To see what the end product can look like in an adventure game, keep an eye on Technocrat Games for James’s upcoming productions.
Tim Child and Knightmare
Back in the early 1980s, UK TV showed a children’s program unlike anything seen before. In this, a brave soul wearing a helmet that completely covered his or her head delved into a dangerous dungeon, with only the instructions of three friends watching remotely from the entrance to guide them. Facing hideous monsters, deadly traps and bizarre characters, the sole aim was to find a way through this deadly place. In this quest there would be no retracing of the path for “The only way is onward. There is no turning back!”
This game show was Knightmare, the creation of Tim Child. Using projections of dungeon levels on a chromakey screen and a small company of live actors, he created a small but compelling fantasy world to delve into. The difficulty could be brutal at times, and Tim proudly boasted of having managed to kill off dozens of other people’s children over the years. With the show largely unscripted, the actors had to employ skills akin to Commedia Dell’Arte, adapting their performances on the fly to the actions of the live player. This proved a daunting task initially for the company of seven actors with two series behind them, before they became confident in their abilities.
To a certain extent, their job was made easier by Tim predicting what players would be likely to do, though he got caught out more than once. A recurring trap at one time was a corridor with sawblades sweeping back and forth halfway up the walls. For a while a succession of players would throw themselves against the chromakey walls, shored up by studio stage hands, to avoid the blades. Then one day, a player realised that if the saws were halfway up the walls, he could simply crawl underneath them, and the corridor was never used again.
The show continued successfully up to 1994, when it ceased to be broadcast. The reason for its cancelation was not dwindling audience figures, but that the audience who had started watching it when it first appeared had now grown up. Despite not appearing on television for nearly 20 years, Knightmare has not been forgotten. Geek Week this year on YouTube included a remake, this time with adult teams. There is even a stage show version that has appeared at the Edinburgh festival.
Geek Week Knightmare remake
Having been behind a show where improvisation and adapting to the player was key, Tim feels that the games these days are lacking something. Comparing them to curries, he likened an adventure game to a ready meal, cooked by someone else and simply reheated by the player. With the experience largely the same for all, they lack the spicy individuality of a freshly prepared meal. Having done some work in A.I. and hosting the last Turing test, Tim has some ideas for a way forward. By having a game react to the player’s actions and words, a unique experience for all can be made. He has achieved some success in this endeavour already, creating a goblin that you could hold a conversation with. The peculiar speech patterns of the goblin helped to disguise any serious mismatches in its responses. The key is to anticipate the likely player choices of words and actions. The wider the range of possible actions, the harder this is to do, so it is easier to achieve in a limited domain. It is a lot easier to mimic a natural conversation if the only available topic is the weather.
Tim has undertaken many different projects over the years since Knightmare, including Britain’s first fully fledged Motion Capture Theatre. Other shows such as The Crystal Maze have taken their lead from his live action example. Whilst he has never been directly involved in a computer game, perhaps his inspirational ideas, possibly even assisted by the man himself, will create a new and exciting era of adventure gaming.
That was it for the guest speakers and panels, but stay tuned for Part Two of our AdventureX coverage, as we detail the many games that were on display.
Stephen Brown and Astrid Beulink contributed to this article.