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Archive for February, 2005

Think about your favorite adventure games. Gabriel Knight. Monkey Island. Broken Sword. Grim Fandango. The Longest Journey. The stories are very different, but they each have one thing in common: great characters. Whether the goal is to make your way through the Land of the Dead or solve the mystery of the Templars, the reason you care about your quest at all is because you like the characters in the game.

Sure, graphics contribute to the atmosphere. The story is crucial, too, and puzzles are important if for no other reason than that bad puzzles can ruin an otherwise perfectly good game. But there’s nothing—NOTHING—more critical than good characters. And when it comes to characters, none are more important than the main character, who becomes the player’s eyes, ears, and personality in the game world.

Developing an authentic and engaging hero can be a daunting task. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Building character

Enter ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson, the hero of my upcoming adventure game, Rise of the Hidden Sun. Jake sprang from my imagination as a distant, Wild West relative of Indiana Jones, with maybe a touch of Guybrush Threepwood on the side of the family that no one wants to talk about.

In my mind, the main character has to accomplish at least two things in the game. The first is to become a part of the game world, which involves giving him or her a quest that makes sense within the world you’re creating. The second, and perhaps more important role, is to become an alter ego that the player wants to identify with.

I may be nothing like Guybrush in real life (in fact, I hope I’m not), but I liked becoming him in Monkey Island. The Monkey Island series developed this by making Guybrush into a sympathetic character with personality, wit, sarcasm, and ineptitude that became downright charming. And for this, we loved him.

Not every hero needs to have this same balance. The hero can be perfectly capable, or brave, or intelligent. April Ryan of The Longest Journey is all of these things, and we like her, too. The important thing is that the character has a personality that matches the game world you, as a developer, are trying to create.

In the case of Jake Dawson, I started with a storyline and a setting, and played around with a lot of different types of characters that might work. Would Jake be an inept hero like Roger Wilco? Would he be just an ordinary guy like George Stobbart from Broken Sword? Would he be a career adventurer like Indiana Jones?

As the story took shape in my mind, it began to make sense that Jake should be someone who would doggedly pursue his quest, and the next question I had to ask was, “What is his motive?” Does he want to find this lost treasure out of greed? Financial desperation? Because he likes a challenge? Because the fate of the world hangs in the balance? Because he wants to win the heart of a pretty lady? Because he has nothing better to do?

Any one of these motives is a starting point, and each leads to a different kind of character. They’re also not mutually exclusive. Maybe he’s just desperate enough to go on a treasure hunt, but over the course of the story he also learns that there’s more at stake than just a pile of gold. Do his motives change as the story progresses? In what ways does he grow and evolve as a character?

Anatomy of a hero

After I got a good sense of who Jake is and what makes him tick, my next challenge was a visual one. What does this character look like? It’s one thing to tell people he’s a down-on-his-luck cowboy. It’s quite another to show it. The design for the character needs to match the concept behind him.

I wrote a timeline of Jake’s life. I figured out how he got to where he is when the game starts. I decided that by the start of the first episode, he’s been beaten down a little by the world. He’s not going to be wearing new clothes. His shirt is probably a little dirty, and almost certainly wrinkled and well worn. He’s sort of morally ambivalent, so he wouldn’t be wearing a white hat. He’s also likely to have a five o’ clock shadow and probably be a month or two behind getting his hair cut. These are the kind of details that are important to transfer to the look of the character.

Talk is cheap… or is it?

Adventure games are different than almost every other gaming genre because they typically involve copious amounts of dialogue. You can look at or interact with just about everything you see on the screen. That means that the hero of the game will probably comment on the things you see and do, which gives developers a chance to define characters by their words and actions in a way that isn’t available in most other types of games. If you do it correctly, it can solidify the bond between the player and the character.

It’s important to make sure that the character’s dialogue matches his personality. As a developer, my first charge is to know my character. How would he react if a homicidal mime suddenly jumped out from behind a bush? Would he be scared? Amused? Skeptical? Indifferent? Whatever the answer, my next charge is to write a response to the event that reflects his internal reaction to it, and remains consistent with the characteristics I’ve already established in other scenes.

In Rise of the Hidden Sun, for example, Jake encounters an old prospector who recognizes him as the ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson of a popular cowboy song. How Jake responds to this will reveal a lot about the character. Is he flattered? Shy? Annoyed? And, depending on the tone I’m trying to set in the game, is his response funny? Let’s take a look at how I handled it, and see what it reveals about Jake.

OLD PROSPECTOR: Say, you got a name there, fella?
JAKE: I’m Jake Dawson.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Jake Dawson…?
OLD PROSPECTOR: *THE* Jake Dawson?
OLD PROSPECTOR: Yer that rattlesnake feller I done heard so much about!
OLD PROSPECTOR: ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake, they calls ya. Deadliest gunfighter west o’ the Mississippi.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Yuh even got yer own ballad!
JAKE: I do? [Turns to audience.] This could be embarrassing.
OLD PROSPECTOR: Now let’s see if I remember how it goes.
OLD PROSPECTOR: [Singing] Weeeell… Born in an alley, an’ raised in a valley, with a gun gripped in ‘is hand…
JAKE: Thank you. Really. Please stop.
OLD PROSPECTOR: [Singing] He’ll kiss yer sister Sally, just addin’ to his tally, he’s the fastest draw in the land…
JAKE: Seriously. Stop now. [Draws gun]
OLD PROSPECTOR: Har, I bet that ain’t even loaded. I bet you wouldn’t shoot an old man like me.
JAKE: Bet how much, exactly?
OLD PROSPECTOR: Er… I’ll stop.
JAKE: Right. [Puts gun away]
OLD PROSPECTOR: Ahah. Hah. Ahah. Say now, what’s a famous gunslinger like you doin’ here in Old Sierra valley anyway? Ain’t ya heard this here town’s seen better days?

So what does this conversation reveal about Jake? For one thing, it shows that he’s not exactly thrilled about the fact that there’s a ballad written in his honor. (Which opens up another question—why isn’t he thrilled about it?) It also shows that he’s not someone to simply “take it” when someone annoys him. He’s morally ambiguous enough that he’ll pull a gun on an unarmed man, though here it’s used as much for comic effect as for defining the character. And the whole exchange is also, I hope, somewhat amusing.

Conclusion

There’s no one way to build a character. My methods may be entirely different than yours. In fact, I often think there must be an easier way to do it. But the key is to find something that works for you, and not be afraid to ask others to critique your work. If your character is supposed to be cynical but sympathetic, let someone read what you’re writing and tell you if you’re succeeding. You might learn that the character is coming across as too cynical, and is hard to like because of it. Or, hopefully, you’ll be encouraged by the feedback and find that you’ve hit exactly the right notes to achieve your desired effect.

That’s all for this month. Next time, I’ll talk about building the user interface that lets players interact with the game world.

This blog post originally appeared at Adventure Gamers.

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This is the transcript of an interview I just completed with the folks at Phoenix Software Insider.  Enjoy!



Thank you for taking the time to have this interview with us. Tell us a bit about yourself?

Thanks for asking me to do this interview. It’s really quite flattering to see that people are taking an interest in Rise of the Hidden Sun. A little about me? Let’s see, I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’m 29 years old, and I’m married to my high school sweetheart. I grew up in the heyday of adventure gaming during the mid ‘80s, when every year it seemed there was a new King’s Quest or Monkey Island game coming out, and that really shaped my interest in becoming a game designer.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to college and was old enough to apply for a job at Sierra or LucasArts, those companies had pretty much given up on the adventure genre altogether. So eventually I decided to turn my attention to creating a game on my own.

Tell us a bit about your past, and what happened when your company first started?

I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few interesting jobs in my life, starting right after college with an editorial position at Marvel Comics in New York City. Later I become an entertainment/pop culture writer for not one but two now-defunct websites. Currently, I do some travel writing, and am the managing editor of a travel website in Boston.

I started Chapter 11 Studios about two years ago with the idea of forming a completely not-for-profit, independent adventure game design studio that I could use to create the kinds of adventure games that I always enjoyed playing, and making those games available to a wide audience by making them free to download and play.

Two years later, Chapter 11 now boasts a team of contributors from as far away as eastern Europe and as close to home as the next town over from me. The unifying theme is that everyone on the team genuinely believes in what we’re doing.

Tell us a bit about your first title: Rise of the Hidden Sun?

Rise of the Hidden Sun is the first title from Chapter 11 Studios. I think of it as my shot at writing an Indiana Jones adventure, only set in the 1860s and with the freedom to add as much off-the-wall humor as I can cram into it. For adventure gamers out there, think of it as Indiana Jones meets Monkey Island, with a dash of Broken Sword thrown in for good measure.

It’s crammed with just about everything I’ve ever loved about those stories: Lost treasures, secret societies, ancient myths, nonstop adventure, and a very healthy dose of comedy. In short, it’s everything I would want in an adventure game. I’m really making this game for myself and all of the other fans out there who I know enjoy this kind of stuff as well.

Any chance of getting a look at the GUI that is going to be used in the game?

Since we’re using Chris Jones’s Adventure Game Studio (AGS) engine to build the game, we have a tremendous amount of freedom from programming the smaller details, and that provides us with a lot of flexibility for design and GUI. (And as an aside, I simply can’t say enough about Chris or the entire AGS community, which has been extraordinarily helpful over the past few years. And without the AGS engine, I never would have even attempted to create something of this scale.)

But back to the GUI, or general user interface. We’re using an icon-based point ‘n’ click system established by Sierra in the early ‘90s for actions, and the SCUMM-like dialogue system originated by LucasArts in games like Monkey Island and The Dig.

Judging by the work already produced, Rise of the Hidden Sun has legendary backgrounds, such high quality. Please explain the process of making these backgrounds?

Well, first off, thanks for the compliment. When I came up with the idea of Rise of the Hidden Sun, I knew from the start that I wanted it to be something special. I also wanted the game to have a sort of organic look to it, so I stayed away from purely computer-generated images, which are easier to create but lose a little of the grittiness I wanted to establish for this beat-up, dusty old Wild West world I was creating.

Instead, I roughly sketch out an area of the game and break it down into a number of screens to give the real artists a sense of what I’m trying to get at with the scenario. Then another artist will take my light pencil sketch and redraw it, creating a darker, more solid screen that’s pretty close to the final layout. Finally, we scan in the pencil work and then use Photoshop to digitally paint the screens, letting the original pencil lines show through a bit to give it an organic look that I think works really well for the game’s setting.

Any chance of getting a peek at the other locations that will feature in Rise of the Hidden Sun? And also some details on the location?

The game follows the story of a down-on-his-luck cowboy turned treasure hunter named ‘Rattlesnake’ Jake Dawson. His adventures take him all across the Wild West, into dusty old desert towns, haunted mines, Indian temples, a strange Stonehenge-like rock formation, ancient Indian cliff dwellings—he even ends up smack dab in the middle of a train robbery. I pretty much emptied out every Wild West and treasure hunt scenario I could think of for this game, and put it right there in the storyline to make it come to life.

Do you have a release date you can tell us?

What’s the standard response for these kinds of projects… when it’s done? Seriously, it’s hard to say, since so many of us working on the game are doing so on nights and weekends between other jobs that actually pay the bills. That said, we’ll be releasing the game in four serialized episodes—all of which will be completely free to download and play—with an eye toward completing the first episode by summer 2005. And when all four parts are done, we’re planning on a special edition CD with some cool bonus features and a sneak peek at a possible sequel, tentatively titled Curse of the Hidden Sun.

What are the future plans for Chapter 11 Studios?

Games, games, and more games! Far from being exhausted by this massive undertaking, I’m actually stoked to start making more games. I have a notebook full of ideas for different settings, characters, adventures, etc., that I’d love to get to someday. Not to mention the fact that, like all great adventures, Rise of the Hidden Sun will almost certainly have a sequel somewhere down the line, though probably not immediately. There’s a different story I want to tell first, once this game is done.

From a business standpoint, I’m interested in the possibility of turning Chapter 11 into a for-profit adventure game development studio down the road. It’s a lot of work making these things—much more than I anticipated, and I anticipated a lot—so it would be nice to someday be compensated for all of the hard work. But as for Rise of the Hidden Sun, I went into this project promising that it would be free for everyone, and I’m going to stick to that promise. Think of this as a really cool, really long, really fun demo reel for something even more ambitious down the line.

Like any good adventure game there simply must be some humour. Tell us what we would expect?

Oh boy. Um, probably some of the worst jokes you’ve ever heard. Really high on the groan meter, I’d say. Lots of puns and wordplay. If I had to compare this game to some that your readers might be more familiar with, let’s say Monkey Island and Quest for Glory. Jokes so bad that you’ll probably shake your head, but you’ll have a smile while you’re doing it. Oh, and you can also expect a lot of Easter egg jokes referring back to classic adventures. So be ready for anything!

Can you mention some names that are on the team? Writers? Artists? Programmers? Musicians? Animators? Others?

I’m glad you asked. These guys and gals are just absolutely amazing, and Rise of the Hidden Sun quite literally would not be possible without them. So let me give a great big shout out to the heart and soul of this project: Dan Lee, our lead animator and colorist; Marc Fortin, Hazel Mitchell, Paul Schmalenberg, and Frankie Washington, pencil artists extraordinaire; and Eric Joyner, Sarah Yoo, and Jane Stroud, superstar colorists. Jane Stroud, by the way, was one of the lead colorists on another little project you may have heard of—Revolution Software’s Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars.

The game’s plot, story, setting, and puzzles were written entirely by me, and I’m currently buried up to my neck in dialogue for episode one right now. I may bring in a few more writers to help polish off the dialogue as well, since there are still several thousand lines to conversation yet to go.

I notice you have lots of merchandise up to buy. Tell us a bit about the products and the quality?

The products are provided by CafePress, and there are a good number of T-shirts, posters, lunch boxes and the like for sale with our logo or promotional material from the game. As I mentioned earlier, the game will be completely free, but we certainly won’t turn away any money or publicity we get from merchandising, however small. It helps offset some of the incidental costs. Also helps pay for the occasional cup of coffee on those nights when inspiration strikes at three in the morning.

Will your backgrounds feature night and day modes?

It’s a fairly linear storyline that takes places over the course of a predetermined period of time. Some scenes do take place at night, but we didn’t see a need to invest the resources into creating different night and day settings for most locations, since the story doesn’t specifically require it. That said, there are a few places the player will need to visit at night to understand their significance.

Was Chapter 11 Studios ever associated with any other company? Or has it been independent ever since?

Chapter 11 is completely independent and always has been. I did work briefly for a subsidiary of GT Interactive a few years back, though, and a few of our artists and animators have worked on other games, including—as I mentioned—Jane Stroud’s involvement with Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series. But as for an official affiliation with any big companies out there, nada. I don’t like the corporate game design environment much, anyway. They make you design games they think will sell, rather than games you know in your heart are more creatively satisfying. And I think the love one puts into a game shows through for those who play it.

Any word of advice for the game developers of the world?

I think I’ll steal Nike’s slogan and say, “Just do it.” (Waiting for the lawyers to descend upon me now.) But seriously, programs like Adventure Game Studio have made it possible for just about anyone to make a game if they set their mind to it. It’s a lot of hard work, and despite the way it looks it’s not always fun, but it is worth it.

Don’t jump into it unprepared, though. Start with a story and characters—these are the two most important parts of game, far more than the flashy stuff like graphics and animation. And don’t start recruiting a team until you actually have stuff for them to do. From what I’ve seen elsewhere, nothing will kill a game faster than bad project management.

The advice I got when I was starting out was to start small, but it would probably be hypocritical of me to suggest that since my first attempt is—as Tolkien would say—a tale that grew in the telling. Now it’s simply monstrous in size and scope, but that also makes it even more worthwhile for me to work on.

Any last words?

Last words? Uh oh, what are you going to do to me at the end of this interview? Oh, oh, you mean last words about the game, right? Phew. Yes, in that case, I’d like to say thank you very much for requesting this interview.

Thank you for your time to do this interview, greatly appreciated.

It’s been my pleasure.

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