A lot has been written about the adventure game crash of the late ‘90s. But whilst popular classics from that turbulent time period such as Grim Fandango and Gabriel Knight 3 continue to be celebrated with strong followings, most others have fallen into complete obscurity. Some of them pretty darn good games, too.
One such title hit the shelves in mid ‘99. It was Discworld Noir, a fantasy detective adventure and the third point-and-clicker to be set in Sir Terry Pratchett' popular Discworld universe.
Discworld Noir was a bold title to come out when it did – one which ultimately didn't pay off commercially. Unlike its colourful cartoon predecessors, it sported a dark and dreary presentation, and its pre-rendered textures arrived at a time when the 3D powerhouse Sega Dreamcast was just around the corner. And whilst other games were becoming increasingly more streamlined to appeal to the everyplayer, Noir did things its own way. It didn’t just set itself within the Discworld universe, but plunged neck-deep into it, explaining little to those unfamiliar with the book series, unabashedly doubling down on British humour, and downplaying the tried and tested item-based puzzle formula for a (then) relatively unique notebook / interrogation interface.
Oh, and the game's development company, Perfect Entertainment, was swamped in legal battles, whilst lack of funds from publisher GT Interactive – soon to be extinct themselves – resulted in near-zero promotion and ultimately no release in North America, period.
In hindsight, it never stood a chance, which only makes its existence all the more fascinating. Yes, Discworld Noir was (and in many ways still is) a unique game. I knew it the moment I first began playing, and 18 years on, it remains my favourite point-and-click adventure. So much do I adore it that I took it upon myself to contact the game’s writer and designer Chris Bateman to dig deeper through the ins and outs of this tragically overlooked game.
Chris remains a busy man with his own company now, but fortunately he was willing to spend time indulging a Discworld fan with the following insights.
Stefan Lubienski: Whilst we’re aware of Sir Terry’s involvement at the start and end of Noir, do you know if he ever played the finished Discworld games and, if so, what were his impressions?
Chris Bateman: Terry played all the Discworld games. He played the first two with his daughter Rhianna (now a successful writer in her own right), but he played Noir on his own. He was very happy with the finished game. There were a few wrinkles earlier in development, but we always fixed anything that he wasn't happy with. Discworld was his world, after all – we're all just visitors!
Stefan: It has at least been implied in the past that Pratchett was a bit prickly when it came to inventing new characters; hence why so many prominent characters from the books made up the cast in the first two games. However, most characters in Noir are original creations, presumably from yourself and the rest of the Perfect team.
Chris Bateman shows off his spiffy $45 haircut
Chris: Pretty sure every character in Noir that wasn't borrowed from the books (like Vimes, Gaspode, Death etc.) was invented by me. The one exception was Laredo Cronk, which was created by me at Terry's request. He loved Tomb Raider and wanted a Discworld pastiche of Lara, and I was happy to oblige! I had some fights with him about the names, but he had given me a broad licence to make a new cast for this one, owing to the concept being so original. I guess that makes me the only person other than Terry to have made Discworld characters... Hadn't really considered that before!
Stefan: Were there any characters, dialogues, or situations in the story that Pratchett ever objected to and, if so, why? Or, on the contrary, were there any that he quite liked?
Chris: There were some interesting disagreements, and some simple fixes that Terry requested. He was most concerned by the names, to be honest. The half-elf barkeep was originally named 'Legolam' (or some such) but he thought that was too close to the similar joke in Bored of the Rings, so he changed it to Mankin. He was not happy with Horst, and I had to argue quite strenuously that the name was geological (as all Discworld names are) and that it fit his role in the plot too. I might have overplayed my hand on that one, but Terry always took my foibles with gentle good humour.
Stefan: Conversely, was there anything Pratchett demanded MUST be included in any of the games?
Chris: Absolutely not! He was very supportive of our creative process. However, when he heard the voices for the Noir characters, he insisted that Vimes was all wrong so we had to get Rob Brydon back to re-record Vimes to sound like Gordon Jackson's character in The Professionals. I actually liked the original voice more – but hey, who knows how Discworld sounds if not Terry Pratchett?
Stefan: I’m particularly interested in his opinion of Lewton, if he had one. Personally, he is one of my favourite characters in any Discworld fiction, and I’m somewhat disappointed Pratchett never considered including him prominently in any future books.
Chris: It's a great honour to have Lewton praised like this, and I was really pleased with the character – and Rob Brydon's performance. But let's be frank: it was my character (with guidance from Gregg Barnett, who had the original idea for a film noir Discworld), and it was only through Terry's grace that he got to be a part of Discworld. I find it unthinkable that Terry would have incorporated anything from Noir into his core mythos, since his suite of characters was intimately connected with his writing. This isn't a situation like Star Trek, where multiple writers were contributing to storytelling – it really is quite astonishing that I got to contribute anything to Discworld, even peripherally. To put it another way, Discworld Noir is to Discworld what the Animated Series is to classic Trek – and there's no doubt in either case about what has precedence.
Stefan: There’s no question that what differentiates Noir from the previous titles is the darker visual style. Whilst I played the previous two games first, Noir immediately became a favourite for strongly resonating with the feel of the latter Discworld books, mainly those featuring Vimes and the Watch. How did you go about designing the locations? Obviously noir films were an influence, but were there any other factors given consideration?
Chris: For art design, I really have to heap praise on the incredible team of visual artists at Perfect Entertainment, and I include in this our out-of-house concept artist, Nick Martinelli, who was key to the process. Also, don't underestimate Gregg's involvement as director in guiding that process and getting the best work out of everyone – myself included.
As for the choices of location, well, a great many are straight from the books, of course – I read all the ones that were available during pre-production, and Terry and I had read a lot of the classic fantasy authors too, like Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber, whose city of Lankhmar was a huge influence on Ankh-Morpork.
The film noir influences are immediately evident throughout Discworld Noir
There was also, as you say, a mess of film noir influences (and a few Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall flicks that weren't strictly noir). Beyond that, I also read a large chunk of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels to get to the heart of the hard-boiled detective genre. The Chandler books were brilliant in their own right, and The Big Sleep was a big influence on Noir (there's a Bogart and Bacall film too, but it's not a patch on the book). The Von Uberwald mansion, which is one of my few additions to Ankh-Morpork in the game, is a straight mash-up of The Big Sleep and the Discworld mythos. I got very comfortable reverse-engineering Terry's method. I couldn't match his prose, but the bricolage, the 'poons', the deep references – I worked hard to produce forgeries of Terry's way of adapting source materials into a fantasy world. I felt a bit like a hack artist copying a Da Vinci!
Stefan: Discworld Noir has a very unique design for the most part, made even more so now that pre-rendered graphics have gone very much out of fashion. There’s a slightly surreal aspect to the architecture and structures. Are you able to give any more details as to how much thought was put into each location?
Chris: Gregg, Nick, and the art team all the way! The one thing I'll say is that the artists each worked on one location at a time (with another set working on character animations), so they were really involved in getting the most out of each one. It was a painstaking process at times, but worth it. As for the pre-rendered graphics, Gregg had felt (correctly) that 2D was under commercial pressure following the success of the PlayStation, which brought real-time rendered 3D into the home. We simply couldn't make a good looking game in full 3D in the late ‘90s – imagine how ugly low-poly Noir would have been! – but Resident Evil showed how pre-rendered backgrounds could raise the bar for location design, and we followed them gladly down that path.Continued on the next page...