Unavowed: Discussing Demons, Bioware, and Puzzle Design with Dave Gilbert (Interview Part 1)

By: Wadjet Eye Games

I hope my regular readers will forgive me for once again covering a PC game, but I enjoyed Unavowed so much that I asked Dave Gilbert, the man behind Wadjet Eye Games, to sit down and discuss it with me. We covered a ton, but I’m cutting it down to the highlights both for your sanity and mine. There are some SPOILERS throughout, both big and small, so I suggest playing the game before reading this.

Note: The interview was really long even with cuts I made, so I’m splitting this into two parts, this being the first half. You can read the second half here.

AppUnwrapper: Hi Dave. Thanks so much for doing this interview. I had such a great time playing Unavowed and am excited to pick your brain about it. So, the first obvious question — what was your inspiration for Unavowed? I saw your doodles of the scene on the roof. Is that where it all began?

Dave Gilbert: I’m a big fan of Dresden Files and things like Hellblazer and well, the darkness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love urban fantasy when done well. But I also was very inspired by an interview a former Bioware writer gave, a woman named Jennifer Hepler, who talked about how in action oriented games, they let you skip the cutscenes to get back to the fighting. But in the game she writes, like the Bioware games, she finds the action elements to be annoying. She’s not good at them. For her, the core of the game is the narrative stuff. She wants to skip the action to get back to the narrative stuff and she got a lot of undeserved flack for that. But I thought that was a great idea. That sounded like a really good point-and click-adventure game because it has all this stuff I love about the Bioware games, which is the party stuff, like putting together a party and having them react to the things in the world depending on who you have with you. And there’s always that sense of how would this have changed if I brought somebody else? I always wondered that, you know? That’s my favorite thing about the game.

But it’s a bit torturous, too, because there’s a ghost and you’re like, “oh no! I didn’t bring Logan!”

But at the same time, some people have said , “oh, it would have been better if you couldn’t see the ghost,” but I’m like, I wanted you to see, oh, here’s something that you could climb but you don’t have Mandana or here’s something you could fire read, or here’s a police officer. So you know how it could possibly go if you brought someone else. That’s why I wanted to enable you to see the ghosts. But at the same time, I wanted to reassure the players. I think I did. I don’t know. Like yeah, it was frustrating you couldn’t talk to the ghost. But at the same time people weren’t frustrated that they couldn’t talk to a police officer, you know? Or that they couldn’t climb this thing, and that’s there too. Why wasn’t that frustrating? But I think it’s more that I wanted each combination to be satisfying on its own, that you know what you’re missing. But you’re not missing out. I tried to make each combination a satisfying experience, so you get something out of each one. So that was my goal.

So taking a Bioware game specifically and getting rid of the combat.

Yeah, it was always kind of very satisfying to wander around and talk to some random NPC and they’re like, “oh, hi Bob.” And your companion is like, “oh, hi, it’s you.” <Annoyed voice> And you’re like, “they know each other! Holy crap!” That was just so random. I wouldn’t have seen that if I brought someone else and I always loved those little moments.

They always say for indies, find some small part of a much bigger game that you like and make that your game. And that’s what I did with Unavowed. I took the party stuff from Bioware games and I made that the core experience.

Well, it works very well. Do you think you’ll do another game like that?

I mean, it’s funny. If you asked me that six months ago and I was completely stressed out and climbing the walls and tearing my hair out, I would’ve been like, no, but now I’m thinking it was kind of fun.

How long were you working on it?

About three years.

Oh, that’s not so bad in the game developing world, right?

It is the longest I’ve ever worked on my own projects, but it wasn’t entirely three years. I started it soon after Techbobabylon ended and there was another six to eight months while we were working on Shardlight. So I only started it three years ago.

But that’s pretty impressive because it’s a big endeavor.

Yeah, well, Blackwell Epiphany — it’s funny, because during that time we got pregnant, had a kid and moved, and that still only took me a year and a half to make. Yet Unavowed took me twice as long. The thing with Unavowed is that, not only was I making a really complicated game where I was designing each section of the game four or five times for all of the party combinations, but there’s also branching paths because of the various choices. And it also couldn’t be a short game because I wanted you to take advantage of the different party combinations as much as you could. So I wanted you to be able to try to at least have every combination at least once if you wanted to, and so it couldn’t be a short game. So not only was each section taking me longer to write, it was also my longest game. So I was kind of really compounding the extra work, but it’s stuff that I knew that I could do, like the writing of the dialogue, the atmosphere — I know that’s stuff I can do and am good at. I just sort of expanded on it, stuff that I knew I could do. It just took longer to do because there was a lot more of it.

Can you actually talk a little bit about your process and making all those puzzles work, no matter who you took with you?

Well, I’ve never really been a puzzle guy. So one complaint about the game is that it’s too easy. At this point, every game I’ve ever written was very light on puzzles. So I just say like, okay, if it’s a surprise now, sorry. If it’s a shock that it’s light on puzzles when I’ve been doing this for 12 years, umm…sorry?

Oh, okay. So the process. There was no rhyme or reason, really, but I knew that each character had their own way of getting information. And I sort of figured, okay, in order to progress you needed X bit of information, how do we do these combinations, get that information? And I didn’t want them to be in isolation, because you can get this information from a ghost, but maybe the ghost needs something before he’ll give you that information. So okay, maybe you need something via Eli, maybe you get that information via Eli’s fire reading or something Mandana can get, or something Vicky can get from a police officer. And so it compounded the complexity a lot.

So yeah, so that’s how I did it. Basically. I figured there was a certain bit of information you needed to progress and then that’s where I focused my efforts. How you get that specific information using the different abilities. And I had to do a lot of testing to make sure that each combination worked and didn’t get you stuck.

Yeah, I noticed when I was in the storage facility and I had Eli and Mandana with me, and the first thing I did was stick Mandana’s sword in the vent. And then I was like, “now what? Why isn’t it working?” And then I saw the other options, but it’s interesting that you didn’t block me from trying it. She just keeps working at it even though it can’t lead anywhere on its own.

Yeah. I know a lot of games, they do this thing that bothers me. Quest for Glory did this. I thought it was a cheat where you’re a thief and there’s a door you need to go through. And suddenly there would be something that you can use to pick a lock, just magically there that wasn’t there before. And if you’s re a wizard, suddenly there was a magic spell that you can cast. Well, that’s a bad example. It’s like, there would be an object or something in there that wasn’t there if you chose another class. And I always thought that was cheap. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make sure that the only thing that changed was the characters that were with you. I deliberately did not do that.

There’s one case where, I think in Staten Island, if you have Eli with you, since he feels very strongly about family, he’ll mention something about family and that’ll prompt another character to talk about the barbecue. That’s the only time I ever sort of cheated, but I don’t feel like I really cheated, because Eli would naturally talk about that and that would lead the other character to talk about something else.

I don’t know if I ever went to Staten Island without Eli, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. I still want to replay it in full to see any combinations I missed. Vicki always got the shaft because I already found it difficult to choose between Mandana, Eli and Logan.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Dresden Files. There’s a character named Karen Murphy who was basically like Vicki. Vicki is Karen Murphy with the serial numbers filed off, like the real grounded one who’s a police officer and the one who keeps everyone down to earth. And that’s how I saw Vicki, as the one who was knowledgeable about the mundane mortal stuff. But that also made her less interesting because she didn’t have any cool powers. So she was the one who got left behind the most. I feel bad because Ariel’s voice acting is so great.

It was very impressive that you managed to make all the puzzles work with everyone. That was a real highlight. You don’t even realize it at first until you try taking a different character, and you’re like, “wait a second… I can do that!”

It took a long time. I mean, it felt like a long time, it felt like I was moving like molasses, just weeks would go by and I got nothing done and I’m just screaming, staring at the screen. The other day I was looking through my old design notes from Unavowed, and some of the later ones, I think it was from January of this year, like in the middle of it was just this scream rant about how much I hated myself and how I couldn’t do this. And I’m like, “I’m a frigging hack. I can’t do this. I’m so tired.” And I don’t remember writing this, but oh my God, I actually typed it all out. Because I must’ve just been totally fed up. I’m like, I can’t make this work. And I don’t remember writing this. I must have been in a really dark place. It’s a lot of work, but I got there in the end. I got there.

You did! Ok, let’s talk about the opening. Did you always intend it to be that way? To just grab people? The face eating, the corpses everywhere?

I knew it was going to start with an exorcism. I knew I wanted the multiple origin thing. You know, he introduction is always the most challenging part of the game. So naturally I made the work three times harder for myself by having to do three introductions.

So you knew there were going to be three origins from the start.

I really wanted that from the get go to make you feel like your choices mattered in small, subtle ways. It doesn’t drastically change things, but your dialogue options change, you get new options in some places, that kind of stuff. I knew I wanted that. The male/female thing — that was that kind of a pie in the sky idea. We started, I talked to Ben about it and he’s like, all right. Yeah. Once he does one animation, he says it’s easier for him to do another character doing the same thing. So we’ll try it out and if it gets too much we’ll just go to one character. And I said, okay, that works. And he ended up being fine. It turned out he’s a machine and was able to do it with no problem.

It’s nice being able to choose your gender, especially since this character is kind of a blank slate.

I figured if it was going to be a blank slate, I should own it and doubled down on that. So the non-voice character, that gave me a lot of flexibility, because I didn’t have to worry about voice acting later and I could do a lot with that. And that was fun to do. It’s a very challenging way to write, actually — the unvoiced character. At least the way I did it. Because in a traditional way of writing the voice character, if you just had, “Hello? Hi, how are you? I’m good.” It’s just three lines. But in Unavowed, you want to say, “hello, hello. What are you doing? How are you?” And then the other character would respond in one of those three ways and each of them would have to go back into another set of options. And so I had to write a lot more than I would have otherwise. So, people think it was cheap and lazy, but it was a lot more work.

For me, it was just a little weird at first not having my choices read back to me. That’s the only thing that was jarring for me. But you get used to it.

We could have had a little pause, so it feels like they’re…no, that would actually be very frustrating. I grew up on games that did that. Quest for Glory did that, Baldur’s Gate did that. The Old Republic did that, Jade Empire, even the first Dragon Age did that. It’s not that unusual and it wasn’t that long ago that that was normal. And it’s definitely designed to be a blank site. And for you to describe your own personality on top. Like, sometimes characters are very boring and the excuse is, “Oh no, it’s a blank slate.” No, they’re just boring. Like here, I knew because the player character wasn’t voiced, it was up to the other characters to pick up the slack. So I had to really make sure they were interesting.

Well, that’s the thing. How could anyone say it was lazy when you got all these other characters fully fleshed out? It’s not about your character, it’s about the others.

That was always the focus. It always had to come back to those four, no matter where I went in the story. So if I was getting lost and frustrated, I always brought it back to one of the four characters. So most of the missions involve one of the major characters in some way.

On that note, I want to get back to the puzzles. Was there an ideal or preferred puzzle or combination of characters in each area?

There was no right or wrong way to go through any mission. I mean, it’s not even about the puzzles. It’s about the stuff you encounter. Like, if you bring Logan along, you’re gonna get to talk to the ghost and you get a little bit of extra story there, versus if you don’t have Logan, you learned about the family barbecue and that history there. So you just get different parts of the story. Brooklyn kind of worked out interesting that way because you have all these characters involved in the melodrama and you get pieces of it depending on who you bring with you.

I took Logan and Mandana with me there and I think that’s probably the easiest and most direct route?

Well, I think easiest one is probably Vicki and Mandana because that one is just straight talking to the cops. That was the one path that I wasn’t happy with because the puzzles there solve themselves. But I get over that because I have never been a strong puzzle person. And whenever there are puzzles, usually people don’t like them. The one real puzzle in the game, everyone seems to hate — the roof code on Wall Street. Either you figure it out and they’re like, “Oh, it’s the legend of the Sphinx.” But people either despise that puzzle or they breeze through it.

For me the summoning puzzle near the end was the worst because I was trying to get it perfect. It took me like fifteen retries from a save.

Ah, with that puzzle, I realized in the end that maybe Robin Goodfellow should have had some lines. I didn’t record any lines for that and I’m like, “Oh crap.” I just sort of cobbled something lame together. Some lines like, “I am a fae of the winter court,” and then he disappears. And I realized that doesn’t really make any sense. But I forgot to write any dialogue for that. So I had to cobble the lines together. That’s the one drawback to voice acting everything. If you don’t record something, you’re stuck.

I also felt silly when I couldn’t figure out how to get to Prospect Park.

There was one other tester that had trouble finding it and, you know when you asked the characters for help? I actually changed it. Like, if you’re in the right location, if you’re in the subway location, they say it’s right across the street. They actually say it. I was also thinking, if I had made the character May Stein walkable, I might’ve had her walking down there when you first entered the room.

Yeah, I felt so silly. I was like, come on, I can’t be stuck on this little thing. I’m not a fan of pixel hunting, so I started using right click then to show hot spots.

Well, I tried to avoid that, but I put that in there just because it’s expected. And I didn’t cover every hotspot. Just the important ones.

Yeah, I prefer to spend time figuring out what I should be doing, not what I can do.

I try to avoid those things, but sometimes when you’re in, you’re enmeshed in it, you don’t think of it. It’s only when someone looks at it later and calls you on it, like, oh yeah, then it’s dumb. When I publish stuff, it’s easy for me on the outside to be like, no, this is a really bad puzzle for X, Y, and Z reasons. Versus when I do it myself, I don’t see it. So often the things I tell other developers not to do, I find I’m doing myself. Because there’s this thing about adventure games. I think Tim Schafer once said something about how the puzzles in Broken Age got more and more complicated because you’ve gotten better at them. There’s no such thing as getting better at adventure game puzzles. You either get them or you don’t, because there’s no learning, there’s no skill in it, really. It’s just figuring it out. The rules are constantly changing, so there’s no such thing as getting better at those puzzles. They’re just there.

I actually wanted to come back to that summoning puzzle, because — I don’t want to attempt to fix your game or anything — but I was kind of disappointed that information wasn’t available in the book on the supernatural beings in Chinatown.

You know, I thought of adding a codex. It was just one of those cool features that I just never got around to doing it. I had this wacky idea for it. It was a glossary kind of thing where it was sentient and it would like talk to you while you read it.

Like Alexa?

It t was more like, if it was angry at you, it would not give you information. It was very strange. If it was angry, the tone of all the entries would change. It was an insane idea. There were several little features and things that got left out because of time. I just didn’t get around to it. There’s always a feature that you could have added and just didn’t have time.

What other kinds of things got cut?

There was going to be another party member — Calliope, the muse, was going to be a companion. Each of the origins was going to have one companion character associated with it, which is why the actor is probably slightly less satisfying. I think what happened was that, since you wouldn’t have met Calliope until much later in the game, until Brooklyn, it could have been over halfway through the game at that point. I also hadn’t really written Calliope yet. I didn’t know who she was going to be.

Originally it was going to be, you could take any combination of characters out of the five, which was, I think something like 10 or 12 combinations. And that was nuts. Like, I couldn’t do it. And so I thought, okay, I’ll limit it to Eli and Mandana, the veterans. So if you encounter something supernatural, they’re the ones who can tell you about it. So one of them needs to be with you. Otherwise it’s like, what do you do? Call them on the phone? I didn’t know what to do. So one of them has to be with you. And that lowered it to about 7 or 8 and that was still a lot. And I was still thinking about it and thinking about it. And then I finally got to Brooklyn where I was going to introduce Calliope and I’m like, you know what, I’ve come this far without her.

She was a fun character, though.

She ended up being fun. She’s one of these things that I kind of found the voice when I sat down to write her. Like, holy crap, she’s fun. Maybe I should have kept her because she actually is fun. But I think, because she wasn’t going to be a companion character, it gave me the license to do whatever I wanted with her. Because I think she might’ve become annoying as a party member. Her power was going to be that she could see any work of art and tell you what the thought process was behind making it. That’s why there was so much graffiti in the game, because she could look at the graffiti and know what went behind the making of it and what the person was thinking. Like, something about the area, something about a person or whatever. Which was an interesting idea, but I had no idea how to make it work. And so I cut her as a companion because I needed to have fewer paths and I just didn’t know what to do with her.

She was still fun, though. I liked her too much to force her to become a muse again.

A lot of that is Abigail [Wahl]’s voice acting. She’s so much fun. So much fun. So yeah, there was that, there was another mission that ended up getting cut because it was more Mandana centric. It was the one conspicuously missing borough – Queens.

I was going to ask, because you touched upon at the end.

It was going to be an old house and, like, Mandana’s stepbrother was living there. So, every character kind of had their big moments and she never did.

I guess if you have her in Brooklyn, you get a little backstory.

That was just it. Like, in Brooklyn, it always had to come back to the characters. And when I was trying to figure out how this should end, like that’s what it’s about. That’s the reward for choosing certain characters.

That’s also why I want to replay Brooklyn. I haven’t played it yet with the other characters and I do want to because you get so much backstory there.

Yeah. I found that a lot of fun to do. And especially with Mandana, you have her mother there. That was good fun.

She’s a good character.

They’re all good characters. They’re all good in different ways. There’s no character that is universally everyone’s favorite, although everyone really likes Eli. And there’s no character that’s universally everyone’s least favorite. So some people loved Logan, some people thought he was too preachy. John Walker’s review is like, he’s so one note, he just talks to them about life.

Aww, I liked that. I was going to ask you about Logan. He was one of the most interesting characters for me. I loved how you used his alcoholism both as a weakness and as a strength. It helped him understand the ghosts he was trying to get through to. What was your inspiration for him?

It was actually very inspired by Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, because it’s about a detective who is a recovering alcoholic. And most of it is about, he’s dealing with recovering from alcoholism while solving mysteries. The mysteries are almost a side thing and I always found the whole routine about how he struggles and deals with it very interesting. They’re very, very well written books. If Lawrence Block isn’t a recovering alcoholic himself, he must know someone who is because it’s so well written. And I just found that very fascinating. I knew I wanted a new bestower and I knew KayKay was going to be the spirit guide and I wanted someone to kind of be a foil for her even though you never see them interact.

Wait, you don’t? Oh you’re right — only when she’s a ball.

You never see them talk to each other. And it’s funny, even before people play Chinatown, they’re like, “yeah, I love their relationship.” Like, you never see them talk to each other. I take that as a triumph, that in the preview build, they really liked them even though the preview build didn’t have chinatown in it. So I was very proud of that, that they really liked KayKay even though they never heard her talk except in the Bronx.

The writing on the windows was so great.

Yeah. And you’ve played Blackwell, right?

Soooo… I started the first game a while back.

The first one’s not very good.

I bought the first four during a sale. I got through like half of the first, but kept getting frustrated with the puzzles because I felt like it was expecting me to know things I didn’t know yet. Like, I didn’t realize I had to go back home to learn that I can have Joey do things for me.

Everyone gets stuck there. The walkthroughs don’t mention it and everyone gets stuck. The games get so much better.

The reason why I asked you if you played Blackwell is that the character of KayKay is from Blackwell.

Oh and I was going to ask if Logan and Rosa will meet up, but don’t tell me. It’s not a spoiler for most people who are gonna read this, but it is for me.

Yeah, there are a lot of references to Blackwell if you’d played them.

Yeah, playing Shivah, I recognized Dirk.

Dirk is in Blackwell, too. And the hospital guard is in Unavowed as well. He’s the guard. Francisco Gonzales. He’s the Lamplight City guy. He did the voice of the hospital guard and Sam Durkin and since they’re both in Unavowed, the hospital guard is now the guard in front of the bank. So yeah, really old reference.

Oh, so I wanted to ask about Easter eggs. Besides those, I loved that there’s some of KayKay’s writing on the bathroom mirror in the bartender origin.

Not everyone noticed. I’m impressed you noticed it. I kept it really subtle. You know going into it what’s going on if you had played the game already. She’s different in Blackwell, so you wouldn’t really notice it even if you played Blackwell before Unavowed. Originally I had the writing being written, but it was too noticeable. So I just had it very slowly fade in.

So this is kind of a weird question. I don’t even know how to ask it. Playing actor first — you already answered the whole Calliope thing, why there was no third character. So how do you explain how this all happens? Because for me, I played the whole game as an actor. I only met Logan and Vicki in their areas where I picked them up. But if you play as the cop or the bartender, you meet them right away. And you see those things actually happen to them no matter what profession you chose. So how does that work?

It happened without you. It just could have happened in different ways. Logan says his brother killed himself. Vicki says this cop went crazy and killed people in the club. That happened with or without you. It’s like Dragon Age Origins, right? If you played the human noble origin, you’re part of this noble family and they get attacked. And you escape and you join the great borders. If you play the dwarf origin, something else happens. There’s a royal coup. But regardless of which one you choose, that stuff still happens. That family still got attacked. There was still a royal coup. It’s just your character wasn’t there.

So whether or not there’s a demon involved in those things…

Jonah still killed himself, there was no demon involved. For the nightclub, all it says is this cop went nuts and started shooting. So it could have happened with or without the demon. It just happened without supernatural means.

Do you have a preference out of the three origins?

I mean, not really. I like each of them for different reasons. I like the bartender because I feel it has the best story arc. Jonah goes on a journey. I feel like that’s really satisfying. I like the story of the cop origin the best. I feel like that’s a very interesting thing. I liked the actor origin because it’s the only one that actually has a puzzle in it. On a personal level, I have a lot of actor friends. There’s these two theaters that they do a lot of performances in. There is Under St. Mark’s and The Brick, so the theater in the game, the outside is Under St. Mark’s and the inside is The Brick and that’s why it’s called Under the Bricks. Overall, the actress is probably the least satisfying because you don’t have that companion connection. So after the big twist, I didn’t quite know who was going to be sitting next to you and talking to you. So I kind of just did this thing where, oh, Mandana saw your show once and now she’s talking to you. But in my head I always knew she was a fan of the theater and the arts. So in my head canon, that made sense.

It was weird going back and playing the other origins, knowing that Vicki and Logan become playable characters. I’m guessing their reactions when they see you again later are different than if you play as an actor?

You know what happens to Vicki in the origin story? So she’s obviously not happy with you.

Right. It just threw me a bit seeing her there.

That’s exactly what I wanted for multiple play-throughs. It’s like, wait a minute, there’s Logan here, what’s going on?

That was very weird playing as the actor first. Probably if you played either of the other ones first…

Yeah, sorry you got the least satisfying one. But I always think, if you don’t know it’s there, you can’t miss it.

I don’t think it was less satisfying, just weird coming from that angle. So, I wanted to ask about the demo, because that’s what sold me on it. I played it last year at PlayNYC and I just needed to experience the rest of it. And people have mentioned that Technobabylon has a demo but Unavowed doesn’t. So is there a reason you don’t have the demo available to download?

Because now it’s not really necessary. Wanna take a guess at the percentage of Technobabylon players who played the demo?

How many?

2%. People just don’t play them. Especially now with the Steam refund policy. Basically, you can buy it, decide you don’t like it, and send it back. So that’s your demo. If you decide you like it, you keep it.

Yeah, that’s true. That makes sense. So anyone reading this should just buy the game and try it. Even playing the opening the second time, I still got a kick out of it and having my face eaten. Where did you even get that idea? When did you know it would be in there?

That was all Ben [Chandler, one of the artists on the game]. I just said, “he kills you.” And I thought he would just, you know, like grab you and that would be it or he’d, like, cut your throat or whatever. No, he rips your friggin’ face off! I saw that and it blew my mind. The same thing with — you did the actor — so when you stab Morey in the eye? I thought you’d get him in the neck or the chest. No, eye. Wham!

Yeah that whole opening just sold me on the game. After all that craziness, how could I not continue with it, even if it’s not on iOS? When did all that come tougher, the first 20-30 minutes?

The alleyway bit was a lot more complicated at first. I had this whole big thing where you have to avoid the police that are coming in. And I envisioned you’re going into the subway, going into the tunnels and escaping. And I’m, like, this is too complicated for the first area. And I’m like, let’s just keep it in one. I thought you’d meet a ghost and learn what ghosts are, but I’ll save that for later. Let’s just keep it short and simple. Here’s some monster who wants to kill you. That’s simple and I can work with that.

And he eats your face off.

Ben is the nicest, sweetest guy. But then you give him the potential to do something really violent and he’ll just go nuts. It’s so funny.

I thought Ben does all the art, but he doesn’t do the portraits?

He doesn’t do the portraits. That’s Ivan Ulyanov. He’s fantastic. He did the poster, too.

They’re so expressive. I mean, Technobabylon had impressive artwork, but this is a big step up.

It was low resolution, so Unavowed is double the resolution of Technobabylon.

Oh, that helps. So, how did you decide on the three professions?

I wanted to think of skillsets that would help you over the course of the game. I thought an actor could lie, a bartender is empathetic and could get people to talk about themselves. And a police officer would be more authoritative, or commanding.

So I guess if you kept Calliope, her skill would also sort of be tied to the actor’s? Like the way the cop is tied to Vicki and the bartender is tied to Logan?

Well, in a way. Her skill is that she would be able to read art. Also though, that’s another reason why I cut Calliope. Because Logan and Vicki would have a history with the player character, whereas Calliope wouldn’t? So that made it easy to cut her rather than one of the other two. It’s kind of very satisfying to play through the cop origin and Vicki knows you from before. I thought that’s kind of cool.

So there was no point where you felt like there was some redundancy? Like, we have a cop, why do we need another cop?

The thing is, it’s like you have a cop, but when you’re with Vicki, you ask her, “you know him?” And it’s like, you never spoke to anyone, did you? Vicki’s ability is that she knows every cop and they’re more friendly to her. So they’ll part with information that they wouldn’t part with otherwise. Vicki’s like fourth generation cop family. She knows every cop in the city. So that’s the Vicky’s thing.

So Vicki is still the cop. I’ll eventually have to play through it again as a cop to see how it plays out.

Everyone asks that. They’re like, “how would you get through this without this character?” I’m like, “play it. Find out. I designed it with all that in mind.” People are like, “This might be a bug. If you don’t have Eli, you wouldn’t be able to get past.” Did you play without Eli? Did you try it? No? Then it’s not a bug.

I actually didn’t encounter any bugs. Considering the scope of the game, that’s pretty impressive.

So there’s one that I can’t believe I missed. At the beginning when you choose your name, I had it set up, so if you type in the name of one of the four characters, it wouldn’t let you.

Ah yes, I saw that on Twitter. Someone’s name had “Eli” in it and the game wouldn’t allow it?

Someone named Felicity. I was like, goddamnit, eight months of testing and it never came up.

Nobody had Eli in their name?

No, not a single person. It was kind of amazing.

I almost thought I encountered a bug on the boat, because I had Eli and before I noticed the gasoline, I kept trying to stab the General with the flagpole. It took me a while to find the gasoline.

The boat is the bit that I always show people when I want to give an example of how things play out differently. Because it’s a nice quick way of showing it. Like okay, here’s how this will play out differently depending on who you have with you.

Yeah. It’s great that all that stuff is there and you still let us play around with it. So, do you have a favorite character? It’s hard, right?

It’s hard. I mean, whenever I write, I always try to find various aspects of myself in a given voice. I’d say Eli is the closest to me. Like, I’m a dad, he’s a dad. Something I feel strongly about. Vicki is me with the filter off. Mandana is kind of like my love of history, because my way of thinking about her is that she’ll look at a street corner and she’ll know that that was there 200 years ago. It was like, I used to climb the tree that was here. She just knows everything about it.

It was a great way of showing history. I’d sometimes forget I could talk to the characters about the areas because you have to go out of your way to do so.

I do like how every character has their own opinion on the neighborhoods. And to keep it from getting overwhelming, it’s like everyone’s got their own way of looking at neighborhood. Logan remembers the places he used to drink at. Vicki always compares every place to Staten Island. Mandana remembers what was there 300 years ago. Eli thinks in terms of his old business or what he used to do there with his family, that kind of stuff. So everyone’s got their own way of looking at the neighborhoods and that kept it from getting very overwhelming.

So you don’t have a favorite. They’re all you.

Yeah. I found Vicky was the easiest to write for, because she was just fun. Logan was the hardest to write for, I think. People love him, but I never really connected to him the way I connected to the others. I knew he was a recovering alcoholic and a bestower. Aside from that, I couldn’t — still can’t — tell you much about him. I don’t know what his job was. I can’t tell you anything about him. I never really figured that out and it was never important.

Now that you mention it, I did kind of wonder what was he doing before he became a bestower.

Or what drove him to drink. That was never really brought up. My original thought, way back when I first designed this was that he was a gang banger. I’m like, that’s stupid. And then I thought he’d be a former politician. But that’s not good either because that just opens up too many problems. So then I thought, maybe he’s a fireman. That’s interesting. But then we have Eli there, a fire guy. So in my head he was a fireman but I never brought it up.

I think I did wonder, but he’s such a lovable character that you kind of just forget about it.

That’s just it. It didn’t matter. What made Logan interesting is what he is, not who he was. And half the time, something would happen and I didn’t have the slightest idea what Logan’s response should be. And so I didn’t have him say anything. So everyone’s like, “he’s the strong silent type.” And I’m like, yeah, let’s go with that.

I remember him saying some words of wisdom.

Most of the stuff he said was through the lens of philosophy. I felt like that’s who he is. I know a lot of recovering alcoholics. They kind of are very selfish in that way. Like, if it’s going to affect their sobriety, they are dicks. They’re like, no, I’m not doing this. I’m sorry. I don’t care if your life is in danger. I’ve worked too hard. And a lot of that was Logan, but I guess he was the hardest to get. He was the hardest to personally connect to because he’s the one probably farthest removed from myself. But I know what it’s like to have regrets and have a past you want to forget about and that kind of stuff. But like, I never really knew who he was. Eli I could relate to, Mandana I can relate to, Vicki I could relate to. Logan I had the most trouble. I still love him to death and I adore KayKay. That bit with her in Chinatown ended up being much more fun to write than I thought it would.

I was cursing you every time I accidentally opened the door without her, and then I saw there was an achievement for that. I’m like, he’s a little evil.

Even I had trouble getting that achievement. It’s very hard. Some of the testers were like, “can’t you just do it automatically?” I’m like, no, because I wanted to hammer home that you would be f***ed if KayKay wasn’t there. If she wasn’t there you’d be trapped. I needed to remind you constantly that her presence is very important.

I think I very rarely didn’t mess up.

That’s why she’s got like twenty responses if you screw up.

That was fun section. Most puzzly, I think.

I didn’t expect it to be that fun, which is why I expanded the bit by a lot. Which makes Chinatown the longest mission of the bunch. And I thought people wouldn’t like that, but no one was bothered.

I liked how you had the bathrooms first when you walked in there, so you’d play around with the mirrors, even though you didn’t need anything in there yet. It was a good way to experiment with your powers and learn what you can do.

Exploration is something I always try to focus on. I want you to get to know an area and then you can start poking around in it. Because all our other games had map screens and I decided not to do a map screen. There’s a map screen to get to each hub, but once you’re in a hub, I wanted it to be continuous. I wanted you to really feel like you know the area by the time you’re done.

I think each area was small enough for that and you accomplished what you set out to do. So, I was curious about Melkhiresa after everything. I googled the name and all I found was Melkiresha, with slightly different spelling. Was that done on purpose?

Honestly, when I first started working on the game, I got a bit of help. I got a narrative consultant, Jen Hepler, to help me. Because I was wrapping up Technobabylon and Shardlight, I kind of knew I wanted to have a design waiting and ready to go. Since Jen inspired me and I knew her — we were friends from way back when — I asked her if she could help me with the initial design and she said okay. And what’s funny about it is it was basically a first draft. It’s almost unrecognizable now from when she did it, because that’s always the case. You write a quick design, initial design, everything changes. But she gave me that foundation to work from. Like, first she had the character of Jordon, for example. He wasn’t even a fire elemental in that version. You go into this church where you discover that you had a cult, you go to the church and you find a guy named Jordan who tells you X, Y, and Z. So I’m like, first of all, who is Jordon? And then I thought, okay, maybe the goal should be find Jordon instead of him just being there. And then that ended up becoming the entire section — finding Jordon. In her design, there was a whole cult, a whole group of people and I kind of streamlined it down to two people and told the whole story that way. So a lot of things changed. Wall Street was completely different. Brooklyn was completely different. I think every single mission was. But you could see germs of it in there, like the name Melkhiresa. But the whole twist of you being the demon, that was my idea.

How early on did you come up with that?

Later on, because at first it was just a straight demon story. She came up with the name. It was from the Dead Sea Scrolls or something like that.

So that spelling is a little different. Was that on purpose?

That was just how she spelled it.

So you came up with the twist much later.

Yeah, because I just wanted there to be a motivation for the demon. I’m like, this is dumb. There needs to be some reason why they’re doing this. And then I thought, what if you were the demon?

I just wanted a motivation. Actually, Jen’s original idea was that you, the human, had summoned the demon on purpose to do all sorts of nefarious things. But you forgot that you had done that. And I decided, well, okay, maybe that could still be there, but you were actually playing the demon from the very beginning. I think that’s where it came from. I’m not sure. Honestly, the human soul in the game is not all that deep. I envisioned it as they’re just basically a sociopath and nothing makes sense to them. And they’re tired of pretending, so they want to make a world where they don’t have to pretend. I kept it simple. Now they’re allowed to let loose. I mean, the main villain not being terribly deep is not a problem as far as I’m concerned. Like, I watched the Last Airbender. The Fire Lord is not terribly deep, but it doesn’t matter because everyone around them is. The stories that that come about as a result of him are very well done. And so the fact that the main bad guy is not terribly deep is not a problem.

It’s still interesting learning you’re a demon, but you’re not a bad demon. You’re just a wealth of knowledge.

It’s just more like you decided to choose to be a good person.

Do you think Melkhiresa will ever return?

I don’t know. Her story is told. I probably wouldn’t bring a bring back that character because it’s done. The story is told.

But you’d be willing to explore the universe further with the other characters?

Yeah, I would definitely be willing to bring back those characters.


If you got this far, click here to read the second half of the interview.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. D Farris

    I’m like, and then he’s like, whoa, and then, like well, like, and then I go, and then he goes, and I’m like, and it would be, like, whoa, like, and I’m like, and if we did this or that, then, like…. yadda, yadda, yadda. Why did you think you had to quote him vertabim? You sound like a couple of middle school cheerleaders. You could have edited this to help this guy sound more professional. Just because millennials talk like 8th graders doesn’t mean you have to write like 8th graders. I’m like outta here, like, you know?

  2. Razvan Popescu

    i need more autonomy, more neutrality. or better philosophy – read ayn rands romantic manifesto

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