His second idea is for a Sherlock Holmes audio drama based on an existing story in the public domain. For this one, “we’re beefing up what the voice controls can do to respond to a much wider variety of [commands],” he explains, pointing out that Codename Cygnus’s binary choices are only an early example of what Reactive’s tech can do. “[Codename Cygnus is] expecting some very specific responses—it sets you up and it often gives you a specific cue of, are you going to do, X or Y? That was done for reasons of economy because they had to make the thing really fast, and training the voice recognition modules is one of the hardest parts; it takes a while to do that. So you’ll notice in Cygnus there’s some repetition of what it’s looking for [you to say]. But there’s [also] a directed narrative where the audience isn’t responsible for the specific same thing all the time; it’s situational.”
“What we want to do [with Sherlock Holmes] is expand this to allow the audience to be a lot more free with what they’re going to say at any given time, so the game could ask a question like ‘What do you think it means?’—a question like Holmes would be asking Watson—and that means the moments can be a lot more engaging; you don’t feel that artificiality that’s being imposed. That’s where I think we’re going to get things that are more directed narrative-wise, but a lot more dramatically and emotionally compelling, because the audience gets sucked in a bit more.” As for puzzling through the mystery, “Holmes is going to figure it out sooner or later, but there’s going to be a lot of intrinsic stuff giving you the opportunity to figure it out for yourself. And also your interactions with Holmes, who’s kind of annoying—how are you going to take that? And you’ll respond if you’re asked a question, that kind of thing. [It’ll be] about feeling the choice in the moment and managing your relationship with Holmes.”
Jennifer Bean records in Reactive's own sound booth
Being choice-driven and episodic, the audio dramas do have some similarities to the games Dave made at Telltale. “I definitely think there are elements of narrative design, about setting up and paying off a moment of choice, that are intrinsic to both studios. That’s more going to come across in projects where the audience is specifically playing a character in the story, where it’s a little more free-form and engaging,” such as the proposed Sherlock Holmes game. As for the episodic format, “When radio serials are your model, it’s sort of obvious where that comes in. Leave Pauline dangling from a cliff, and tune in next week, and buy Weetabix, and all that stuff.” But because Reactive’s apps lack graphics and are fairly simple to program, they may be able to pull off the elusive episodic schedule more easily than even Telltale has in the past. “Another thing we’ve got going for us is quick turnaround,” Dave says. “We already have some back end in place so that it’s really easy for us to modify the content and put up the new stuff with hours of turnaround. And because we’re not trying to do visuals, that also means that we cut a lot of production time, so we can make a schedule that’s pretty aggressive and put things out every week or two.”
One issue that has emerged in Telltale’s games and other choice-driven adventures like Heavy Rain is that what seem to be major choices (should I save Doug or Carley?) turn out not to have a big impact on the overall story. When each story branch requires additional art and programming resources, it’s understandably prohibitive to develop a lot of them, especially for scenarios few players will end up in. “I remember in the last episode of the first season of The Walking Dead, at the beginning there are all kinds of ways that scene can be set up depending on who’s there with you, and my favorite versions of the scene were the ones that were statistically the least likely to occur,” Dave recalls. “You there with just Ben is really fun, and nobody ends up there, and I think just Kenny was the other one that was quite good. So I was kind of disappointed that more people didn’t see those, but I was really happy that they were in there, because some people do see them, and I want to support that.”
Doug or Carley? Key choices in The Walking Dead impacted which characters you rescued from trouble, though they had little impact on the overall story.
In Reactive’s audio dramas, “Because of the relatively constant amount of effort that goes into producing any particular piece of it—you basically do a little writing, and then you need to do a little audio work, and maybe some sound effects—that means we can do stories that are really branchy,” Dave explains. “The Jekyll and Hyde thing would probably be like that, and I imagine there will be all kinds of wild things happening, that would be too art-intensive to do three or four or six different versions of, if you were trying to do graphics. But if you’re doing something that’s audio only, then you can. So we actually can allow the stories to go to crazier places than we would be able to do otherwise.”
Codename Cygnus lets you easily rewind the story at will
Not only will story branches be easier to produce, but he hopes they’ll also be easier to explore: “That’s kind of a design thing. [Replaying to see all the optional content is] not how you’re supposed to enjoy [Telltale’s games]. But if we’re doing something where a lot of the fun is in that back and forth exploration, you just need to provide a little support for that thing you do when you read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which is ‘I’ll stick my finger in the page here and come back to it’—I just need a rewind function so I can go back ten minutes. I want all that stuff anyway because the nature of the distracted audience is, ‘I was cooking dinner while I was messing with this thing, and something boiled over so I wasn’t paying attention for the last five minutes, can you repeat the last five minutes?’”
Voice recognition software has been around for years—in 2012, Adventure Gamers even posted an editorial about its potential use in adventure games—but applications like the iPhone’s Siri have shown that conversing with your so-called smart device often has dumb results. How will Reactive improve on this experience? “Siri is an interesting example; you can see the sparkly ‘hey wow’ parts where it’s working well, and the seams where it’s not working well,” Dave says. “We have a bit of an advantage because what we will be asking it to look for [is] narrower than anything you might say to your phone. There’s a narrative going on … there’s a subset of all human speech that makes sense for you to say here, and we can concentrate on that. So the hope is that we’ll have something [with] a higher rate of success of interpreting what you’re trying to say.”
Simple voice commands allow player freedom without being overly demanding technologically
Then again, typing unexpected commands (and naughty words!) into a text parser to see how it will respond is more or less a requirement when you’re playing a text adventure. Can Reactive’s technology deal gracefully with these scenarios? “I think if we do go and do something that’s a lot like an old text adventure, and it’s very free-form and expecting you, the audience, to make decisions about what you’re going to pick up and where you’re going to use things, and all these puzzley things, then we do reintroduce some of the problems that parsers had back then,” Dave agrees. “There’s a lot of empty space in between things that are valid for you to say, and getting the voice recognition system to respond in an intelligent and fun way when you either haven’t done the right thing, or when it hasn’t understood what you were trying to tell it to do because it was too complicated; that’s part of the challenge. That’s where the work becomes harder.”
Should non-native speakers of English be concerned about their words being understood? Grossman says no—so far, dialects and accents haven’t been an issue, thanks to “lots and lots of aggregate data of many different people recorded saying the same thing. It just gets better and better over time. We get all that data, it comes through and it will report to us, ‘Here are things we thought people were saying to the game’, and we can look and go, ‘Oh, well that’s not right, can you play me the audio of that? Okay here’s what this actually should be.’ So it gets better and better. As part of the training we go through a beta phase where the game’s done, you train it up with people just playing the game and testing it and stuff, and this can keep going after the game is live.” And if the game just doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say? “The fallback is that there are going to be buttons on the screen, if you notice that it’s really having trouble with your particular version of English, you can [use those]. But hopefully we don’t have that problem.”
With their Kickstarter promises delivered and Codename Cygnus underway episodically, Reactive is now pursuing venture funding so they can continue to grow. Dave’s first release with the company is a Codename Cygnus holiday special, which can be accessed as free DLC from within the (also free to download) app. Set at a holiday party with the Cygnus agents competing in a contest to take each other down, Grossman’s trademark humor is in full effect and the fun of figuring out how to be the last agent standing gives an encouraging glimpse of the sort of narrative puzzles we can expect in Reactive’s future releases.
While there are no firm release plans yet for either the Jekyll and Hyde or Sherlock Holmes projects Dave talked about, we can expect developments in 2015. “I’m excited about it because it’s new and it’s going to be fun,” he says of his new career adventure. “It’s going to be fun for me to do, and it’s going to be fun for people to play, too. Some of the audience that came along for the Telltale ride and is enjoying those things, I think there will be similar stuff about [Reactive’s games] that they’ll like, but under different circumstances.”
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Read on for Dave’s thoughts on the current state of adventure games, Kickstarter, and how he’s seen the industry change since he started at LucasArts.