Christopher Brendel – Stonewall Penitentiary interview
Seven characters, including protagonist William Thane, wake up in an otherwise abandoned prison, not knowing how they got there. Soon it becomes evident that they’re being held captive by a sociopath with an agenda. Unravelling the dark mystery and ultimately escaping is going to require the group members to work together, but who can you trust when you know that one person is a traitor? Well, we’re certainly not going to tell you! However, if the premise of Unimatrix Productions’ Stonewall Penitentiary sounds intriguing to you, you’ve come to the right place. Read on as writer and designer Christopher Brendel, the man behind Lifestream, Shady Brook and The Filmmaker, supplies us with a firsthand account of his new point-and-click adventure whodunit, which is out now on Steam and itch.io.
Ingmar Böke: Hello Christopher, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers! You’ve been developing indie adventure games for many years, but since our readers might not all be familiar with your work, please introduce yourself and give us an idea of your previous projects.
Christopher Brendel: Thank you for having me, Ingmar. My name is Christopher Brendel, and I am both a game designer and an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University. I've been making adventure games through my own studio, Unimatrix Productions, since 2003. It's not just my job; it's my passion! I'm a storyteller at heart, and I knew at the young age of eight that I wanted my life's focus to be telling stories through games. To me, the heart of a game lies in its narrative. It is with that concept in mind that I approach the development of each title.
My first game, a first-person slideshow adventure called Lifestream, was released in 2004. The next year, I released my second game, Shady Brook. My third game, The Filmmaker, came out in 2010. I took a short sabbatical from development after this, after which my plans grew exponentially.
Brendel's Storycentric Worlds remakes beginning with Lifestream were largely text-based
In 2015, I began work on Storycentric Worlds, a series of interconnected narrative text and adventure games that tell a grander tale. I developed my own engine, which took about a year. Wanting to include the stories of my original titles in the series, I remade Lifestream, Shady Brook, and The Filmmaker in the new engine, which combined elements of adventure games, gamebooks, and interactive fiction. These remakes came out in 2016. Following their success, I decided to remake the engine yet again to include more graphical elements, which finally leads us to Stonewall Penitentiary.
Ingmar: The first Stonewall Penitentiary-related news here on Adventure Gamers dates back to the year 2005. Please share some insights concerning the game’s development history.
Christopher: I did, indeed, begin work on the original Stonewall Penitentiary back in 2005, right after the release of my second game, Shady Brook. Originally titled Awaken, Stonewall Penitentiary went through several iterations. Eventually, I decided that the game would be a first-person adventure game that took place in a realtime 3D environment with controls similar to that of a first-person shooter. I released a demo of this game in 2008, which was well-received. Unfortunately, time restraints and a lack of budget necessitated that I shelve the project.
When I decided to start Storycentric Worlds, I immediately knew that Stonewall Penitentiary would follow the re-release of The Filmmaker. I promised gamers back when I initially shelved the project that it would eventually be completed, and I fully intended to follow through on that promise. So I began work on this new version in 2017. Development took approximately a year and a half, which included both the engine, which I plan to use for future games, and Stonewall Penitentiary itself.
Ingmar: Please describe the story premise and concept of Stonewall Penitentiary in your own words.
Christopher: Stonewall Penitentiary is a classic "whodunit" murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, in which seven strangers find themselves trapped inside an abandoned prison, unable to escape. The catch, of course, is that one of the strangers is a killer who is secretly hunting down the others. You play as one of these individuals, a down-on-his-luck man named William Thane who is currently struggling with alcoholism. Over the course of the game, you the player are tasked with not only finding a way out of the prison but also surviving the night and uncovering the identity of the killer.
Seven suspects. One killer: The premise of Stonewall penitentiary is not unlike a classic Agatha Christie whodunit
Ingmar: The interface is somewhat different from your previous games, so it would be great to find out more about it.
Christopher: When I decided to remake my original three games in a new text-focused format, I did so with the intention of putting story first. The feedback I received on the remakes was positive, but surveys indicated that my audience wanted a more graphic-intensive format. I did not, however, want to go back to making classic slideshow games, as I did in the early 2000s. So I ultimately decided to combine the two formats. The result is Stonewall Penitentiary, which looks and plays similar to a classic slideshow adventure while retaining many elements of the text-based engine that was used for the first three games in the Storycentric Worlds series.
In Stonewall Penitentiary, you explore the prison from a first-person perspective, traveling from room to room by clicking on the scene. You can examine items, pick up objects, talk to other prisoners, and solve puzzles, all with a click of the mouse. The game features a standard adventure inventory, a journal to collect important documents, and an auto-mapping system, to help you find your way from location to location.
Ingmar: The setting and premise have the potential for a pretty interesting puzzle design. Can you tell us more about the kind of tasks that players can expect?
Christopher: Puzzles in Stonewall Penitentiary are kept as "real world" as possible. Tasks include those you'd likely encounter if you were actually in this situation, such as finding the combination to padlocks, searching for keys to unlock doors, and making your way past obstacles. Required puzzles were designed to challenge but never obstruct, and I worked hard to ensure that no major pixel-hunting is ever required. Some puzzles are optional and provide access to optional content. These puzzles are harder and require a strong sense of logic—but ample clues are still provided.
Despite the conceptual similarities, Stonewall Penitentiary isn't focused on sadistic gore like the Saw movies
Ingmar: I remember when the first Saw movies were released, I was thrilled by the premise but put-off by some really sadistic stuff in there. It seems to me that, while there is a strong overlap with the premise of Saw, Stonewall Penitentiary is not the kind of gore-fest the Saw movies are. Is that impression correct?
Christopher: That is definitely correct, Ingmar. Ironically, I began work on the original Stonewall Penitentiary back in 2005 before I had ever seen Saw. The script was fully written when I rented the movie one night. After viewing it, I was surprised by the similarity and instantly became a fan.
Now, let's jump ahead to last year, when the time came to finally complete Stonewall Penitentiary. Knowing the similarities that were already present, I decided to roll with it and add even more, making the game a tribute to the horror series that I love.
But it's true—Stonewall Penitentiary contains less gore in comparison. The focus of the game is on the mystery, rather than sadism. That is not to say that there are not disturbing scenes in the game—there certainly are, especially in one or two optional instances!—but it's somewhat tame in comparison to the Saw franchise.
Ingmar: How does the element of choice and consequence work in Stonewall Penitentiary?
Christopher: Deciding who to trust is essential in Stonewall Penitentiary. The way you react to certain prisoners determines how they perceive you. This, in turn, may determine who does—or does not—survive to the end of the story. The game has some elements of a branching narrative. While the branches do ultimately reach the same destination, the subtle, nuanced changes to the story make the narrative unique to each player.
Ingmar: It is possible for playable protagonist to get killed. Please give us an idea of how such potentially lethal situations work in the game.
Christopher: There are certain instances in which your actions (or inactions) may cause death. If this happens, the player is immediately given the opportunity for a second chance in the game. Certain sequences related to this require timed actions, but a generous amount of time is given. So, if the player knows what to do to proceed, there is plenty of time to accomplish that task. Other sequences require clicking the mouse at the right time. If the player fails at these sequences, they become easier in subsequent attempts, in order to ensure that no one gets stuck.
Ingmar: How much optional content does Stonewall Penitentiary have?
Christopher: There is a LOT of optional content in Stonewall Penitentiary. In fact, it arguably contains more optional content than in any of my previous games. A scoring system helps the player to see how much of this optional content has been viewed. There are entire conversations that can be missed, both between the player and a character and between two other characters. There are also optional rooms that can only be unlocked with a keen eye. Lastly, the entire end sequence can change depending on whether or not you've discovered the clues to find your way into a certain room. The game features two endings and, if you are lucky enough to unlock all of the game's achievements, a bonus scene that shows the aftermath of the events in Stonewall Penitentiary sets up for future stories in the Storycentric Worlds series.
Ingmar: It’s no secret that you’re a “story fan”. What games have recently impressed you because of their storytelling qualities?
Christopher: I'm a bit behind when it comes to playing games, but two titles I played recently really stand out when it comes to storytelling.
The first is Life Is Strange, which is, arguably, one of the best games I've ever played. The writing in the game is fantastic. It manages to weave together a coming of age story, a sci-fi time travel tale, and a murder mystery into one fantastic narrative. The characters are three-dimensional and relatable, and it's one of the rare instances in which a game affected me emotionally.
The second is The Wolf Among Us, which is a stylized noir fairytale that takes place in a gritty, real-world setting. Again, the writing here is phenomenal, and the characters are likeable and nuanced.
Narrative-focused games like these are common in today's industry, but GOOD narrative games like these are, sadly, far too rare.
Ingmar: If I recall correctly, the Gabriel Knight series left quite an impression on you. Same here! I still have very vivid memories of the first time I played Sins of the Fathers. Can you still remember what you felt when you first played a Gabriel Knight game? And what elements had a particular impact on you as a designer?
Christopher: The Gabriel Knight series helped shape both my interest in games and my interest in writing. I will never forget my first time playing The Beast Within. I know that it's common among gamers, but the opera scene really stood out to me. Never before had I seen a game go so far with production values. The whole segment was surreal. It felt like I was watching a movie rather than playing a game, and I felt immersed in the game's world in a way I had never before experienced.
As a designer, what stood out most to me about the Gabriel Knight series was Gabriel himself. Gabriel is a flawed protagonist—neither morally "black" nor "white." I had never experienced this in a game before. There were times in which I wanted to scream at Gabriel for some of the things he did or said, yet I never stopped liking his character. The detail that Jane Jensen put into writing his character—and all the characters—really stood out to me, and it really inspired me as a young writer.
Ingmar: I read an earlier interview with you in which you stated that you always had a soft spot for FMV adventures such as Ripper and Black Dahlia. This is another similarity between us. Please elaborate on that fondness, and how it started.
For a while there, Brendel releasing Stonewall Penitentiary seemed as likely as the Cubbies winning the World Series. Now both have happened!
Christopher: Actually, it all started with The Beast Within! I had never played a game that featured live actors before, and it really helped change how I perceived games. I don't understand why FMV adventures aren’t more popular. To me, no matter how impressive a game's graphics can get, CGI will never replicate a live human. FMV games bridge the gap between games and movies, and that, to me, elevates the whole experience. FMV games tend to be narrative, and nothing can duplicate the subtle facial expressions of a live human actor. I'm glad that FMV games are making a bit of a resurgence today, with games like The Bunker, Her Story, and Contradiction. I sincerely hope that this trend continues!
Ingmar: I can’t let you go without asking about your plans for the future. Is there anything you can tease about your next projects?
Christopher: I'm happy to, Ingmar. I'm already hard at work on the next game in the Storycentric Worlds series and actually have the scripts and design documents written for the next FIVE games, and I have plot outlines for nearly a dozen games past that! In the next titles, players can expect to see characters and storylines beginning to cross over more and more...but not in a way that inhibits players new to the series from understanding what is going on. I have a grand plan for the story of all these games, and it will slowly be told over the coming years. There is, for example, foreshadowing in Lifestream that will not make sense until the ninth game in the series!
My next game, Summit of the Wolf, is a special one. It tackles a pretty serious subject matter in a way that I hope does the matter justice. It features some heavy fantasy elements and also the return of two fan favorite characters from past games: Kate from Shady Brook and Brianna from The Filmmaker.
The game following that is also special—it features the culmination of events that have been set in place since my first game, Lifestream. If you were to compare Storycentric Worlds to Marvel's Cinematic Universe, this game would be the equivalent of the first Avengers film.
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for taking time for this interview, Christopher. All the best with Stonewall Penitentiary and your ambitious plans beyond that!
Christopher: Thank you for this opportunity, Ingmar. Take care!