Christopher Brendel – Stonewall Penitentiary interview

Christopher Brendel – Stonewall Penitentiary interview
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

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.

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