Agustín Cordes - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward interview
After successfully funding his horror adventure Asylum via Kickstarter in 2013, Argentinian developer Agustín Cordes is now returning to crowdfunding once again for his latest adventure. Endowed with the first-ever official H.P. Lovecraft license for a videogame, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is in serious need of public support to turn its horrors into reality. With so much riding on the impact of the next week, I caught up with a very busy Agustín to learn more about this promising project, as well as the current status of Asylum.
Ingmar Böke: Hi, Agustín. It’s my pleasure to interview you again. When you first told me about The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the plan to go on Kickstarter, my initial reaction was: “is it really a good idea to do that before you deliver Asylum?” I’m sure many others are now thinking the same thing. Please talk about your feelings regarding this potential conflict, and why the Kickstarter has to take place now.
Agustín Cordes: Hey Ingmar, glad to be an interviewee again. Unfortunately I can’t commit to vast and seemingly illimitable answers because of the ongoing Kickstarter, but I’ll do my best!
Game development is a tricky craft, and transition between projects is one of the worst problems we developers must face. There’s many different actors in a game project: artists, designers, programmers, and more. Some of them finish their work earlier than others — crucially, it’s almost a given that in any game project the artists will finish work before the programmers, and keep in mind that there’s a lengthy period of beta testing as well (or at least there should!) even after most programming has been completed. This poses a complicated situation, especially in a mammoth game like Asylum: what do the artists do while we finish programming the game? There can be a gap of several months if we take into account the testing phase, and the situation gets even trickier if you consider that from the moment the game goes on sale it can take a while until you start recouping money to sustain an entire team.
Thus, it makes loads of sense, even for a small company like ourselves, to have two projects overlapping. Especially because Asylum is an ambitious and complex game that will demand more time to complete and fully test, even when we’re finishing work on the graphics. So we need this new project to ensure the continuity of the whole Senscape team, and it’s the ideal moment before we enter crunch mode in Asylum. And believe me, that will be an epic crunch!
Ingmar: We talked about Lovecraft quite a bit in our last interview, where you shared your strong connection to the master of cosmic horror. How did you manage to get the chance to do an official Lovecraft game? And what will working with this particular license mean to you personally?
Agustín: Well, it’s a dream come true to work with an officially licensed H. P. Lovecraft game, to say the least, especially when the story in question is The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, one of my favorite ones and among the richest he wrote. It feels unreal to keep the master of supernatural and cosmic horror relevant like this, and no less through the adventure genre. The negotiation to secure the license took months and was excruciatingly slow. For a long time I thought it would never happen. I believe that our track record, with well-received Lovecraftian games like Scratches and the success of Asylum, was crucial to make this deal happen. It was S. T. Joshi, the man responsible for editing the definitive Lovecraft texts with revealing annotations, who put me in touch with the Lovecraft Estate in Providence.
Ingmar: The Kickstarter goal of $250,000 is quite ambitious, and obviously you’ll need a LOT more backers than for Asylum. What’s your plan for attracting these people, and where do you plan to find them?
Agustín: It is ambitious, yes, but we want to do justice to the source material and deliver an adventure game that surpasses the already high expectations. Plus, we must pay for the license, so we couldn’t settle for anything lower. So far the game has had incredible exposure — its announcement went viral and my cellphone wouldn’t stop beeping with notifications of retweets and likes for an entire day after the news broke. We raised $10,000 in under four hours — to compare, Asylum required a full day to reach that amount. However, Kickstarter is a strange beast these days and we’re having a bumpy ride. We’ll keep pushing Charles Dexter Ward no matter what, because clearly people want this game.
The house of Charles Dexter Ward
Ingmar: We talked before about previous Lovecraft games not really capturing his spirit in terms of a fear of the unknown. In what way are you trying to achieve that and do Lovecraft’s vision justice?
Agustín: I’ve been discussing this at length in the Kickstarter campaign. Lovecraft is not just about fear of the unknown but a solid mix of supernatural and cosmic horror. Too many Lovecraftian games are quick to get “physical” and demand players to fight enemies or escape a nasty fate. As I’ve argued in the past, anything that forces you to confront an alien creature or monster is categorically not Lovecraftian. In his stories, the human race is so insignificant that it can’t possibly grasp the notion of these otherworldly entities that are as old as the cosmos itself, let alone attempt to kill them.
Many adventures have succeeded in bringing supernatural horror to games because it’s indeed the ideal genre for non-physical horror, but few (if any) have incorporated the type of cosmic horror developed by Lovecraft. This subgenre must embody a fear of outer space, be very pessimistic, and should present humans as mere unimportant toys in the scheme of great forces beyond their comprehension. These are the traits that we’re embracing in Charles Dexter Ward, which turns an idyllic Providence into a parade of abhorrent influences from the past and nightmarish horrors crawling underground.
Scenic Salem village on canvas, an eerie contrast to the horrors lurking within
Ingmar: Not everyone will be familiar with the original Charles Dexter Ward story, so please give us a quick summary of the plot and introduce the title character.
Agustín: The story was Lovecraft’s most personal work and definitely remains among his best, most enduring creations. It’s quite a gruesome tale by his standards as well. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was written during his most creative period when he returned to Providence after a dreadful stay in New York. That busy urban life was too much for his sensibilities, and the story is partly an ode to the dreamy and colonial life in Providence.
Moreover, along with the The Call of Cthulhu, it features the germ of the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, which became massively popular. For example, Yog-Sothoth was first mentioned in Charles Dexter Ward and even has a very important role, so the novel is of special interest to fans of Lovecraft. As was often the case with other remarkable creations of his, Lovecraft hated it and never cared to publish it, making this the most important work to be published posthumously.
The story itself revolves around Charles, a student and daydreamer who spends most of his days researching local history, genealogy and architecture. During one of these excursions, he realizes that he’s a descendant of an apparent wizard – Joseph Curwen – who escaped the witch trials in Salem and sought refuge in Providence, eventually holding a tight grip on its commerce for unspeakable reasons related to occult arts. Charles becomes so obsessed with Curwen that he goes on a quest to raise him back from the dead by securing his “Essential Saltes” and a dusty copy of the unhallowed Necronomicon. It’s an exciting and stimulating tale from beginning to end, and these two characters – Charles Dexter Ward and Joseph Curwen – are by far the most interesting ones imagined by Lovecraft. It’s ideal for an adventure game adaptation, too.
Ingmar: Unlike Scratches and Asylum, this is a third-person game. How does that make the game a different horror experience from your earlier titles?
Agustín: It’s a different presentation and pacing, but all these games share the same principles. Whereas Scratches and Asylum rely heavily on the exploration of mostly solitary environments, Charles Dexter Ward has you traveling across towns and interacting with many characters, so third-person is very suitable for this game. Just as importantly, we want to make players feel very attached to Charles himself, who is shaping up to be a truly memorable adventure game protagonist.
That said, players seem to have overlooked the fact that you get to play two protagonists in this game: first Charles, and then Dr. Marinus Willett, a friend of the Ward family who is urged by Charles’ father to attempt to bring some sense to his delusional son. Both protagonists will endure their own share of horrors, and I bet that the contrast between these diverging personalities – a sensible young boy and a wise aged man – will bring a compelling chemistry to the game. Those readers familiar with the story will understand the reasoning behind this decision to keep two protagonists, which is a key difference from our previous works.
All in all, while the execution may be different, all of these games embrace the same approach to supernatural horror, where it’s more effective to tell and not show.
Charles visits the John Hay Library
Ingmar: Will it be a totally traditional, old-school point-and-click adventure game or are there any new influences in here? Have any other adventures been an influence on its design?
Agustín: It’s funny, because I never knew which kind of adventure it was going to become at first. My approach was to take the novel and turn it as faithfully as possible into a videogame. In fact, I respected the same structure of chapters and order of events, and before I knew it I had a design that begged for a third-person perspective. It was almost natural how well the story became interactive, and it’s surprisingly very reminiscent of LucasArts games in general.
Painting of Joseph Curwen
To give an example with the aforementioned plot detail: Charles’ quest to resurrect Joseph Curwen is a three-part puzzle of the type that is so familiar to fans of Monkey Island and others. Charles will have to complete three parallel tasks which involve looking for the necessary incantations in Salem and digging up Curwen’s “Essential Saltes” in a brooding cemetery, all while attempting to decode the diary of the evil wizard left at his old mansion in Olney Court. It’s darn traditional yet very exciting.
Ingmar: Part of the Kickstarter budget is intended for a Lovecraft documentary. What are your thoughts behind this project, and why wasn’t it a stretch goal rather than part of the base target?
Agustín: Just as I feel that there aren’t games that fully embrace the style, pacing and mood perfected by Lovecraft, I’m saddened by the lack of a proper documentary on his life. We do have the definitive biography penned by S. T. Joshi, but his thorough research hasn’t been brought to the screen. Besides being a master of horror, Lovecraft had a deeply fascinating persona which should be of interest to fans of his works – thus the motivation for this documentary.
Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi will be collaborating on Senscape's documentary
At the same time, part of the budget for the game contemplated a trip to Providence for scouting locations, taking pictures of the remaining colonial buildings for references, and researching the original manuscripts in the John Hay Library (thanks to our agreement with the Lovecraft Estate). So the extra budget for the documentary was negligible compared to the grant total.
Yes, it could have been a stretch goal. Typically, the Kickstarter model almost forces creators to offer fancy rewards, but this seems to be changing. I get the feeling that more and more backers are only caring about the game itself and spurning the physical goodies or extras. Unfortunately, we are learning this the hard way.
Ingmar: In a nutshell: Why should the adventure community not miss the chance to back you and help turning The Case of Charles Dexter Ward into reality?
Agustín: First, because adventure games are the best thing ever and we at Senscape want to keep making them for aeons to come. Second, because I promised to strip naked for every $50k pledged to the project. And I always keep my word.
But seriously, this project means a lot to us, and it’s supposed to fill an important gap in the horror genre: there simply hasn’t been a full game adaptation of a Lovecraft story before, only games that are loosely based on or inspired by his tales. Moreover, we're absolutely convinced that it will make a memorable adventure game.
Ingmar: Some crowdfunded adventure games have been released recently. What’s your reaction so far, and what future perspective do you see for the genre on Kickstarter?
Agustin (second from right) with part of his team at Senscape
Agustín: It’s a strange moment for sure. There’s general apathy towards crowdfunding these days, especially in the case of games. You can sense that enthusiasm for new Kickstarters ain’t what it used to be, and adventures seem to have taken a big hit, likely because of the constant delays of Kickstarted projects, including our own Asylum. It’s a very difficult game genre that demands a lot of time, especially with adventures that feature lots of content and great visuals. At the same time, backers are realizing that game development is risky, slow and just not very exciting in general. It’s understandable, but unfortunately as developers we’re losing the invaluable tool that is Kickstarter.
Make no mistake: I still believe in it. I think that we’re seeing a big dip after the initial enthusiasm skyrocketed, and I’m hoping that next year it will slowly go back to normal and fulfill the promise of that incredible 2012-13 period. In spite of all the letdowns, adventures remain one of the most supported game genres on Kickstarter – our own Charles Dexter Ward is currently one of the most active Kickstarters with thousands of shares, likes and comments. That has to mean something.
Beneath idyllic Providence are "nightmarish horrors crawling underground"
Ingmar: You’ve been in business for quite some time now. How do you feel that the demands for an adventure game, the reception, and the community as a whole has changed since you began?
Agustín: I don’t feel it has changed much: there’s still a big market for traditional adventure games. Moreover, people keep discovering adventures and they want more like them. It was fascinating to see Scratches doing so well on Big Fish, for instance, an audience that’s more accustomed to shorter, casual games. Sure, some didn’t enjoy the cerebral and slow-paced gameplay, but others were thrilled with a more substantial and narrative-driven experience than the typical hidden-object game. There’s always going to be a market for games like these, and the adventure game community has remained very strong even when most websites were claiming the genre was dead.
However, players are demanding more refined and polished adventures. Note that I’m not referring to technical prowess, since low-res games can be just as refined as those with all the bells and whistles. It’s a matter of presentation in the resolution, perspective and interface you choose, and I believe the community is becoming more demanding with things that work and those that don’t, be it a clunky avatar or a contrived interface. My perception is that previously they would forgive flaws if the story or puzzles were good, but nowadays they’re quick to condemn the whole package if anything falls short or feels half-finished.
Ingmar: Not to get lost in the excitement for Charles Dexter Ward, please give us an idea of the current status of Asylum. Which elements are finished, what’s left to do, and what time frame do you currently have in mind for the release?
Agustín: As we progressed with the development of the game following its success on Kickstarter, we stumbled into a couple of roadblocks, one of them rather troublesome. First we had this big wishlist of neat visual effects to make the environments look livelier and moodier (the static scenes were a big criticism in Scratches). Then, there’s the secondary characters that interact with the player – as you know, Asylum is all pre-rendered graphics, but the characters initially seemed robotic or just not very responsive with this technical approach. They simply were not on par with the stunning quality of the environments, and it soon became apparent that we’d need to support full 3D for visual effects and characters if we wanted to make the game look consistently good and polished.
Lenny is one of the newly-3D characters populating the Hanwell Mental Institute
As much as I wanted to invest time and work on our own Dagon engine, the features that we needed for Asylum would have demanded more time and money, so we made the drastic decision of mixing Unity with some readily existing features in Dagon. The result was very positive, as we already have all we need: the powerful approach of Dagon to create a detailed first-person environment with the neat tools of Unity to create breathtaking effects and 3D characters. This is all working now, as I showed at gamescom two months ago, and the new effects are every bit as good as we expected, just as the 3D characters make all the difference. We’re finally doing things that were wishlisted for years. And let me stress that we’re not abandoning the old Dagon, and will support both the standalone and “Unitized” edition in the future.
So right now Asylum is effectively in alpha, meaning that the entire Hanwell Mental Institute is fully explorable and the new engine is feature-complete. All graphics for the game are nearly done as well, but there’s still much work to do: we’re implementing the game logic, writing texts, and the testing phase will take a while. All things considered, I’m hoping to reach beta around March and a couple of months later a gold master. This is a conservative estimation, though, and some factors may speed up this timeframe.
Asylum is truly a monolithic game with lots of content. I know it’s an experience that fans will cherish for a long time, much like Scratches remains discussed and replayed to this day, but we need a bit more time to fully deliver.
The new Asylum engine allows for many news effects, such as moody volumetric fog
Ingmar: We had an in-depth conversation about Asylum back in 2012. I expect that things have changed since then, the engine situation being a very obvious example. Please give us an idea of how different Asylum 2014 is from what Asylum was planned to be in 2012.
Agustín: The core idea remains the same. The story and design haven’t changed much since 2009, when my short novel for the game was completed. It’s the presentation which has had a huge overhaul. I’ve been struggling with the interface for the game since the beginning of its development, as I’ve always wanted to make it simple and involving, allowing players to focus on what’s happening on the screen and never worrying about intrusive menus. These days I’m very concerned about the experience of the game and how to achieve something that stays in people’s minds for a long time after.
The first take on our interface for Asylum was presented in the 2012 playable teaser, and it’s even better now: it’s fully diegetic, which means that all interface elements belong in the game world. You have your journal, and that’s all you need to interact with the game. Even better, thanks to Unity and how we’re able to incorporate 3D elements in the game, both the journal and the arms of the protagonist are now beautifully animated and integrate really well with the rest of our graphics.
A noteworthy dusk scene in Asylum
In fact, the interface is working so well that we’re thinking about getting rid of the cursor as well, which would effectively turn Asylum into a “look-and-click” adventure. While I haven’t played it yet, I believe that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter works like this. To avoid a riot, let me just say that we’re going to support an optional point-and-click interface that would work similarly to Scratches. Also, Asylum is all about interaction, so no matter what interface they choose, players will be able to look at and get feedback on most things they see. In other words, the “interaction density” per location will be very high. I love rewarding exploration and observation.
Besides the interface, the game is looking better than ever with the new visual effects and characters that weren’t remotely possible with the old Dagon. The visual effects are so good that they are prompting dedicated articles about them – for instance, Bloody Disgusting said that our innovative volumetric fog qualifies as “fog porn”. Simply the best seen in video games yet.
Ingmar: A long time has passed since the release of Scratches, and even since you started working on Asylum. Do you see a risk that games like Amnesia and Outlast have changed people’s perception of first-person horror games in the meantime, and that Asylum might suffer from that?
(L - R) Ingmar Böke with Agustín Cordes and Steve Ince at gamescom
No, not at all. There’s no conflict whatsoever. Players may be more demanding when it comes to graphics and eye candy, but Asylum will deliver in that regard. The project is nearing AAA quality, especially after the changes introduced with Unity. When it comes to a sense of fear or danger, what Asylum proposes is a strictly psychological approach. The fear happens inside your head and is not caused by a tangible entity or enemy (or at least the source of the fear is not very obvious). One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that the type of supernatural or cerebral horror featured in games like Dark Fall, The Dark Eye or Scratches is timeless. It never ages, and there’s always going to be an audience for it. If it turns out that fans of Outlast are displeased with Asylum, fine – it won’t change anything because we simply aren’t concerned with repeating the Outlast experience.
So it’s just different games with different goals in mind: ultimately, Asylum is all about the story, an engrossing experience that rewards your wits and intuition rather than quick reflexes. As was the case with Scratches, I’m hoping that the conclusion of the game will demand months to be fully digested and analyzed.
Asylum creates a creepy vibe right from the opening introduction
Ingmar: Some of our readers may not be aware that you released a freeware game not that long ago: Serena. Tell us about the events that inspired the game and how the whole thing became a reality.
Agustín: Well, that’s one long story. 2013 was a terrific year for adventures, but towards the end of it an unfortunate series of events involving the CEO of Replay Games (the team behind the new Leisure Suit Larry remake) caused a huge letdown for the community. Many friends and colleagues had a rough time during this period, in particular my dear friend Serena who is a huge supporter of adventure games. The game itself is based off a very old idea I had, one that even predates Asylum. The intention was to turn it into a sort of community-driven project, with contributions from fans and developers, and give it away as a gift to fans of adventure games. We never expected the result: it was a huge hit on Steam, achieving thousands of downloads on its launch day and spawning discussions that lasted for months – the same effect that I’m hoping Asylum will have. The discussion of the storyline with thought-provoking theories is 24 pages long and keeps going. To date, Serena has surpassed 160,000 unique downloads.
Ingmar: In our last interview you stated that Asylum would be your last horror game for some time. In fact, you were planning to do a sci-fi game afterwards. What’s the status of that project?
Agustín: It turns out that fate keeps bringing me to the horror genre. Yes, I still have an idea for a sci-fi adventure in mind, but then Charles Dexter Ward happened. If the Kickstarter fails, we’ll have no option but to put it on hold, and my plan B involves a smaller but intriguing project. And yup, you’ve guessed it — it’s going to be horror.
Ingmar: Thanks again, Agustín. It is always a real pleasure. All the best on your Kickstarter for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – you can never have enough Lovecraft!
Agustín: My pleasure as well! Thank you for the lovely interview, and all the best to the Adventure Gamers community!