Unavowed: Discussing Prison Boats, Voice Acting, and Unity 3D with Dave Gilbert (Interview Part 2)

Unavowed
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 split it into two parts, this being the second half. You can find the first half here.

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AppUnwrapper: You mentioned you didn’t get to cover Queens. Was there any other location you wish you could have included or that you planned to and it got cut?

Dave Gilbert: No, Queens was the only one. The mission itself would have involved a house where there was a lot of Escher-like architecture and weird things going on, but I couldn’t really think of a good story to wrap around it. Even though I knew what would happen, I couldn’t really think what would lead up to it. So I put it off and then just left it out.

That was the only one that got cut?

Yeah. There was another mission in the Bronx. There was one Jen wrote, but I ended up doing something completely different for the Bronx. So I took bits of the one that Jen wrote and turned it into Chinatown. There’s this big prison that was on a boat that was going to be in the Bronx.

Wait is there an actual prison on a boat in the Bronx?

Yeah, this is real. It’s out of commission. But you and KayKay were going to do the prison break on that boat. But everything else leading up to it was different. So I kept that and put it in Chinatown. So bits and pieces of Jen’s original design are in the game.

I also changed Zuccotti Park in Wall Street to the Charging Bull. Zuccotti Park is not that visually interesting. And her story involved the Fae using DNA vans to take samples from people to build an army. And Travis was still involved and he was a bad person. But supernatural people building an army was exactly what happened in Staten Island. So I came up with something else and decided to do a changeling story instead.

I like how you took well-known lore and mixed in your own ideas. Like the ghosts. About them seeing us the same way we see them.

I made that up because I wanted a puzzle where you go through the prison. And I was trying to think how you would go in. So you go in through the void and have this out of body experience. Your soul is going out with KayKay. But then I’m like, wait, you’re a demon, so how does that work? So I thought, who says you have to be a spirit? What if you go in your physical body into the land of the dead and she helps you? She’s a spirit guide. That’s her thing. So I kind of made up the rules to support that.

So in your five games about ghosts, that never came up?

No, that never happened. There’s this one point in Unavowed, a side conversation, where Logan asks Eli if he ever worked with a Bestower before. And Eli’s like, “well, I’ve read about them.” “And what do they say?” “Nothing that matters anymore. Everything’s changed.”

That was for the Blackwell fans. Like, just forget about it. There are no real hard, fast rules for how ghosts work in Blackwell. Like, there’s this one ghost in Blackwell Deception who operates a boat. At one point a ghost plays a piano. Why? They’re attached to the piano. Like, just roll with it.

So this question is a little weird. I played as a female. So for me the love affair was horrifying because my character just learned she was basically raped. The demon slept with a married man while she was possessing your body. You feel violated. But I saw online that some folks were accusing you of being homophobic because they played as a male and thought their character was disgusted because they were forced to have a homosexual relationship. Did you expect that response? Can you talk about it a bit?

Yeah, I found that interesting. He’s horrified that he was used for sex without his knowledge or consent. That’s why he’s upset. They thought he was upset because he was forced to have gay sex. Like, no. If they played as a woman, they would probably think it was fine. Because that’s how I would react. If I found out I was used, regardless of who the other person was, if react the same way.

Yeah, that’s why I was surprised that people interpreted it as being homophobic.

And I was like, “I don’t want to get into it on Twitter, but that was not the intent. Would you like to like to discuss this via DMs?” Because actually one person during testing had that thought and I’m like, you really gotta be reaching.

But did you consider changing at any point?

Someone said, “well, maybe you could have had an option where you’re ok with it. I’m like, that’s not okay. It’s not. It’s a violation regardless of who you are.

That’s why I’m surprised that it got that reaction. Especially since the dialogue doesn’t change if you play as a female.

Which is why I ask them, if you played as a woman, would you have reacted the same way? And they’re like, “yeah, you’re right.” I mean, it’s not up to me to say that they’re wrong to be offended. If it bothered you, then obviously I did something wrong and I’m curious to find out why. But I think it was the strength of it, how strongly they reacted to it. They’re like, “burn it, burn it!” It was the severity of the reaction. And they thought they were reacting to, oh, the gay, when it was really, oh, I have been violated in a really horrible way. That’s how I read it. That’s my intent when I read it. Considering in my head, the canon character is female. When I test it, when I write it, I always did it from the woman’s point of view. Because no one ever does write from the female point of view. So that could be it as well. But yeah, I was surprised at that reaction, too. Like, “why are you so bothered by touching a d**k?” I’m like, who says he’s bothered by touching a d**k? That’s not in the writing. They never said that. They never said, “oh my God, the gay sex.” They never said that.

Also, your games are very inclusive, with a diverse cast, so I think they should give you the benefit of the doubt?

But I’ve only gotten three complaints out of the so far, 10,000 people who bought it, so it’s not so bad. I know my intent in writing it but if you got offended, I’m not going to say that’s invalid. Obviously I didn’t make it as clear as I could have and that’s on me. So I’ll do better next time.

Have you ever explored a gay relationship in a game, or would you want to?

Not really. I’ve never really explored relationships in the games, period. I almost had romance, but I decided not to. For a few reasons. Number one, I don’t feel too comfortable with it, but also mostly it’s that, depending on the choices you made, it wouldn’t work. Like, if you chose the cop origin, there’s no way that Vicki’s hooking up with you after shooting her. Possessed or not, you killed Logan’s brother. He’s not gonna hook up with you.

It was just a difficult minefield to navigate. Like, theoretically, you killed Mandana’s father. How would she still be ramance-able? Depending on the different choices you made, the multiple branching stuff was already breaking my brain and I just decided I didn’t want to go there.

I was crushed when I had to kill Kalash.

That means I did something right. Originally, he was gonna be gone much earlier, but it was so badly paced. My original plan was after East Village. You had to deal with the ghost and then the dryad showed up and then that would have happened. And I decided that was too early for Kalash to die. You had no engagement with him. So I decided to have it happen a few missions later. So that’s what I did.

It was pretty devastating when I realized what I had to do to save the day.

That was because I did something right. If you feel sad when someone dies or something happens to them, then I did something right. Also, SungWon Cho’s voice acting is amazing. He’s just so great.

I wanted to ask about that. Everyone was cast so well. At first, I found Mandana’s way of speaking a little jarring, Woj how proper she is, but then I started to love her.

My thoughts behind her was that, since she always has to tell the truth, she’s always searching for the right words. So it leads to all these wonderful awkward pauses. She has to constantly watch what she’s saying. So she’s deliberately watching her words.

All the voice acting was great, though. How many auditions did it take to find the right actors?

I didn’t have any auditions for the big four. I always knew I wanted Arielle [Siegel] to play Vicki. I was working with her on Kathy Rain, and I said, “can you do a Staten Island accent?” And she’s like, “yeah.” And she tried it out and she was great.

And I knew Frank [Todaro] would be Eli, because I had worked with him on Shardlight and Technobabylon and he always had this wonderful, warm voice. You just feel good listening to him. And I always emphasize the dad aspects of him. But he moved away, so he was the only actor I’ve ever worked with for a major role that I worked with remotely. Because I wanted him.

And Logan, I always loved working with Logan Cunningham. But he’s always busy. He was in Resonance and Primordia as lead characters. And he was the narrator in Bastion. He’s a young guy, but he’s a chain smoker. He’s got this gravelly voice. He sounds like a sixty-five-year-old chain-smoking cowboy. So he’s young, but his voice sounds like he’s really lived, which was really good for Logan [Brown] in the game.

And Sandra [Espinoza], I’ve worked with only a few times, but I always wanted to give her a lead role. I had her audition for Mandana, because I never never worked with her on any major role and it just worked. I auditioned her first because I really wanted to work with her. And I really liked it, so I cast her right away. And everyone else I auditioned.

So how many auditions was it? It sounds like a lot of work?

Yeah, because I decided to do have remote and half local. There were so many characters and I wanted to save on studio time. So I got, like, 200 auditions and went through them all. For the most part, they’re people I worked with already. I prefer doing that. Like, the woman who played Calliope is a local actress named Abigail [Wahl], who I had never worked with but always wanted to. And I’m so glad that she auditioned.

Her stand-up poetry was great.

I took so many videos of her. She comes into the booth, she hangs up lights and puts a little troll doll on the wall. And she’s like, “I’m making it my space.” She’s weird that way. She’s great.

The voice acting is my reward for getting it far enough that I can do the voice recording. Because that’s my favorite part of the process. That’s where it feels like it’s alive. It’s really coming together. When I hear the voices in the game with the music, I’m like, “it’s a game now.” It takes a long time to get there, but when I get there it’s my reward.

If you played the same game without the voice acting, it would be a very different experience.

Even though he mouths don’t move and people generally don’t listen to all the lines, they appreciate it. They’d be more upset if the voice acting wasn’t there, because they want to know what the voices sound like.

Moving on to a different topic. Were there any supernatural creatures that didn’t make the cut?

Yes, a Minotaur.

Was he gonna be in a maze?

He was going to be in the subway. That was my backstory for Eli. The hunters were kind of taunting him by throwing him into the subway maze. That’s how they were going to kill him, and Mandana saved him. That was my canon for what his back story was. And I was gonna have that Minotaur come back. But I don’t like having a story that’s so reliant on something that you haven’t seen. I try to avoid doing that. Like, here’s this character that has a big connection to a another character for reasons that you have not seen.

In my design Bible, one of the big things I wrote was that it’s all about things happening, not about things that did happen. You are trying to discover what happened, but the core moments are about what’s happening now. The big moments aren’t about discovering what happened. And also, Eli’s story didn’t tie into it as much as I liked. You learn a lot about him, but it doesn’t play into the story a lot.

Do you have any plans for a sequel or any ideas for your next game yet?

I’ve been experimenting. This is probably going to be my last traditional 2D adventure game for awhile. I’m playing around with unity in 3D, because I think it’s time. It’s not a secret that I don’t like being labeled as old school. I see a review where they’re like, “it’s a love letter to old games,” and I’m like, no, it’s not. That’s never been my intention. But they look old school or look nostalgic. It’s two things that I just have never been able to reconcile — my desire to do something more modern while still being stuck with the pixel art retro aesthetic that has worked for us, because it’s what we can afford. So I’m experimenting. I might not go with it. I might just go back to AGS.

Would that require new artists?

Ben is learning. He can do 3D now. Yeah, he’s pretty good at it. We’re doing a Technobabylon sequel and that’s being done in 3D.

Oh nice. That was a good one.

It’s coming along really well. It looks really nice. It’s gonna be like a Telltale game.

Would you ever do first person? You said oh sometimes get motion sickness?

I mean, when done well, a game like Gone Home I love. There’s areas in Unavowed, like the Eddingd house, where you’re exploring, you’re looking around, you’re looking at pictures on the wall. And there’s only so immersive I could get it, because you click on a drawer, you see the character walk to the drawer, they open it and then they pick it up and tell you what it is. But in a first person game, you’re doing that, you open the drawer, you see what’s inside. And that’s a lot more immersive, I think. When done well, I think it’s a lot more immersive than a 2D view.

You sound like you want to do VR?

I don’t know about VR. But I’m thinking Life is Strange did this really well, where a lot of it kind of rubbed this voyeuristic tendency to walk around someone’s room and look at their pictures and look at their stuff. By the time you do that, you really know who the person living in the room is. You got a real good sense of them by the time you’re done. And I really, really liked that. With the Eddings house, I never say these are two hippy artists, but you learn that just by walking around and seeing other stuff and looking at their pictures and seeing all the art everywhere and I like that kind of thing and I’m just experimenting. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of a first person games either, but it’s probably within our skillset to pull off. But who knows? I don’t know. I’m just playing around.

You don’t have any ideas for a specific game?

I have some ideas, but nothing that I’m actually working on right now. Keeping myself happy is the most important thing.

Yeah, definitely. You mentioned that Unavowed sold better than any of your previous games. It sold in two weeks what your previous games sold in six months? Do you have any idea why?

I don’t know. But I think it was because it’s the first game I published in a while that I wrote myself. And I hyped it up for a while. I think it’s something that I need to remember for anything I publish that when I hype it up myself is, it’s excitement and enthusiasm that can’t be faked because it’s my own work. I am pumping it up and I’m really excited about it on social media and that comes across. So that’s something I should remember for games I published. Because no matter how much I liked Technobabylon, it’s not mine. So I don’t have as much personally at stake as the developer does. So I would probably get them more involved.

But I think there’s the fact that it took so long, the type of game it is. A lot of former bioware employees are interested in it and they’re talking about it. A lot of influencers are interested in the game somehow. Somehow or other I got Rhianna Pratchett playing it and tweeting about it. Pushing Up Roses just did a video of it today and I’m excited about that. Very popular streamers are looking at it and also there’s a lot of conversation about it on social media. Also, it’s a different enough game for me while also being a natural evolution of what I’ve done before. So I think there’s that. It’s different enough that it’s exciting but it’s similar enough not to ostracize the current audience. So I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what magic sauce I found.

I mean, it’s a good game, but —

Since when does that matter?

Exactly.

I was kind of convinced I would never have a game sell this well again. I figured the good times are over, the indie bubble has popped. And normally I take a lot more time and effort to get this far in terms of sales. There’s a lot more conversation about it, so I’m able to keep the signal going. That’s always been the hardest bit, not just creating the signal but maintaining it. And the fact that people continually retweet it and talk about it, I’m able to keep that conversation going. And people say, “oh my God, it’s all over my social media feed. I gotta check out this game.” You’re welcome.

That’s part of the reason I couldn’t ignore it, even though I don’t like playing on PC.

That’s the goal. Every time it’s mentioned on Twitter, I hit the retweet button. I did a couple of streams. I don’t know if that was effective. I went to a couple of conferences and you said that was effective for you.

Yes. It sold me on the game. So what are some of your favorite games that aren’t yours?

I played The Fall. There’s two of them so far. I really enjoy those. I really like Fran Bow when and I played it. I really like Firewatch and OXENFREE.

Oh I loved OXENFREE. This reminded me a little bit of that, with the dialogue.

It took all my thoughts and rules about dialogue and threw them out the window. Because it’s nonstop talking. They don’t shut up, and it’s totally fine, because it doesn’t interrupt gameplay. Which is something I did with Unavowed — I had them talk in the background. That was the core of the experience, the characters talking to each other.

With Unavowed, you can also ignore all the extra dialogue if you want. It’s up to you.

If you want to hear it, you have to wait, but that’s your choice. If you don’t want to, it becomes your choice. Then it’s less annoying, right?

And it’s not all necessary. It’s bonus stuff so you don’t absolutely need to hear.

I deliberately wrote it… I didn’t want them to snark at each other. I wanted them to leach come from a certain place and then meet in the middle. So if you go through enough of that, by the end of the game you really feel they’ve come together as a team.

Well, there’s a little snark. Mandana calls out Eli for tapping his book.

That wasn’t snark. She was concerned. Because she knows mages go insane. That’s why he actually thanks her for bringing it up. That was the subtext. It’s funny, because I originally wrote it as snark, but it was really nasty. I’m like, that’s not nice. I find characters liking each other more interesting than when characters hate each other. So I wanted you to see these characters getting together and I focused on that.

Ok, last question. I have to ask this because most of my audience plays games on iOS. You mentioned to me at PlayNYC that iOS is tough right now, but does the success of Unavowed change anything? Do you think you’ll port it over?

It’s the time it takes, and also I don’t know how to do it. Janet [my wife], bless her, he really wanted it to launch on Mac. And it was so hard. For some reason, Apple does not make it easy. You had to pass these certifications and things kept going wrong. It was working, but she just couldn’t get it to build properly. She’d come home from her job and try to get it working. She’d be up to midnight getting it working. And I’m like, iOS on top of that? Unless she teaches me how… and she even says there’s so much that it would take too long to teach.

And hiring someone wouldn’t make sense?

We could. It’s… do I want to spend the money? I don’t know. Even though it’s doing well, I don’t want to suddenly go, “I’ve got more money, I’m gonna start spending!” Because I want that money back. So if I spend money to get someone else to do it, will I earn it back? So it’s still up in the air.

I mean, considering just how little it does for us on iOS… It’s the same reason why I don’t do localizations. It would be lovely to have a translator, but it’s not a text-light game. There’s a lot of text in there and that makes it more complicated, more more expensive and a lot more testing. People offer to do it for free. And I’m like, I still have a lot to work to do on my end. It’s not easy.

So it’s still up in the air. It’s too early to say. I know that we make most of our money on new games, not supporting the old stuff, porting it. Everything is earning less and less. So when it was profitable, of course we did it. If it was easy to shoot it to iOS and have it launch at the same time, there’d be no question. But it takes a lot of work.

I know there’s a lot of people want it on the Switch, which I would love to do. That earns money. I would do that. I have to be realistic. Aside from the cool points, like, “hey, we have all these different languages. Yay, I have no money now. Aside from the cool points, there’s no reason to [port it to iOS]. So yeah I know you’re an iOS person but maybe one day.

Thank you so much for your time. I was worried we’d be done in like 10 minutes, but clearly that wasn’t a problem!

Oh, no problem. I could talk about my stuff forever.

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And that’s the end of the massive interview! If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed conducting it. And if you haven’t played Unavowed yet, you can read my review here.

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