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Interview with Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games
Interview - posted by Jason on Sun 11 April 2010, 04:40:31
1. The Blackwell series has a very unique horror/noir setting. What was the main inspiration for this interesting blend of ghost and detective story?
Several years ago I saw a Hitchcock movie called “Family Plot,” which involved a medium. In the movie she would always call upon her spirit guide for advice, and I wondered what it must be like for the spirit guide to always be at the beck and call of this crazy woman. The character of Joey formed from that, and the rest of the setting fell into place soon after.
2. The gameplay is much more dialogue oriented than the typical adventure game, as shown by Sierra and Lucas Arts, where you mostly collect and combine items. What made you decide to deviate from the traditional adventure formula and focus on dialogue instead of items?
Even though Blackwell deals with ghosts, it’s very grounded in reality. And in a setting like that, it’s hard to justify the usual adventure game puzzles of using objects in obscure ways to solve arbitrary puzzles. In you’re in a fantasy game and you find a door that can only be opened by six mystical bagels, then fine. You can accept that. But when the setting is urban noir, it’s more difficult to suspend your disbelief. So instead I focused more on dialog-related puzzles and gameplay. I’ve always been a sucker for games like that.
3. The Blackwell games leave open many mysteries - will they be solved in sequels, or will you keep most of the mysteries unsolved (open to the interpretation of the player) because it fits the theme of the series?
The Blackwell series definitely isn’t over. I have a few more planned, which will take the story to a conclusion and hopefully answer everyone’s questions. A lot of fans want to know more about Joey, but they also say his “mysteriousness” is what makes him really interesting, so I’m hesitant to reveal too much too soon and spoil the character for everyone!
4. The Shivah, Blackwell: Legacy and Convergence had some neat moral choices that would affect their endings. What do you think about moral choices, or non-linearity in general, in video games, and whether it can be expanded or improved in any way?
I *love* moral choice trees, and seeing the results of your decisions unfold as you play. My games tend to be on the short side, so it’s not possible for me to include as many far-reaching choice branches as I’d like. The main problem I have with choice trees is that there is always this sense of “Oh, did I miss out on something cool by making this choice? Should I go back and make the other one?” It’s a challenge to make all the results satisfying.
5. In your future games, will we see more instances where the player can literally 'screw up' due to choosing the 'wrong' dialogue options, like it was the case in, for example, the first conversation with Mrs Lauder in The Shivah? The Blackwell series didn't have any opportunities for a 'game over' screen, and some people might find that a bit disappointing, since there were a few places where it could be appropriate. Is punishing the player for carelessness ever desirable, even in a usually streamlined and 'laid back' genre such as adventure games?
I didn’t want to kill the player off or allow them to “screw up” in Blackwell for several reasons. For one thing, the game deals with ghosts and life after death, so enabling Rosa to die during the game would have more consequences than a simple “game over.” With Shivah, it was different. I could go completely crazy with it. And I killed the Rabbi off in numerous ways! Also, when a game is encapsulated into one story like Shivah, you can have as many different endings as you want (I think the game has 4). Since Blackwell is a linear story told over several games, I have to be pretty strict about branching paths.
6. What motivated the rather significant changes of atmosphere across the series? Legacy might be regarded as a 'generic crime story with teens', Unbound was obviously heavily inspired by various noir works, and Convergence was the most 'supernatural' of them all. Why not maintain a similar style for all games?
My original intent when starting Blackwell was to start off reasonably grounded (as grounded as you can be with a ghost sidekick, anyway) and introduce the heavier supernatural elements as it went on. My mistake was envisioning that I could get these games out much faster than I have. I imagined getting them out every 3-4 months, instead of once a year (or even longer). At the time, I couldn’t foresee that a publisher would hire me to design games for them, which would end up eating the majority of my hours. The result is that the Blackwell story is being told at a much slower rate than I would have liked, and the changes in theme are probably a lot more noticeable.
7. How important is it to provide a story with very striking or unique characters? After all, you don't see bitter rabbis as protagonists in every game. What are the advantages of that to giving the player a 'generic' or a kind of 'blank slate' character to which he could relate to? One might say a mixture of both was done in Blackwell, since there's the more-or-less normal Rosa (and Lauren), and the out of the ordinary Joey.
I once wrote a mystery game (“Two of a Kind”) where the biggest complaint was that the detective was too generic. The problem with detectives is that they don’t have a personal reason for solving a mystery – they do it because it’s their job. So I decided to create a character who wasn’t a detective, but had a genuine motivation for solving a mystery. Since people tend to go to rabbis with their problems, I thought a rabbi would make a pretty cool detective.
The advantage of a “blank slate” character is that you can project your own emotions and personality onto it. A lot of western RPGs do this. Your character is almost a natural extension of you, so you can be whoever you want. There’s a lot of freedom in that, but it can be very complicated to design!
8. What can you tell us about the new/old sci-fi adventure?
Hah. This is something I designed aaages ago, oddly enough while I was travelling in China on a 27 hour train ride from Guangzhou to Shanghai. I wanted to make something more light and fun than my usual fare, with exploding spaceships and aliens and crazy exotic worlds. Typical space opera stuff, but the kind that I enjoy. I designed the majority of it, and one day I’ll sit down to make it. Maybe one day I’ll get the budget to do it!
9. You've mentioned that you'd like to transition to RPGs in the future. What prompted this possible change in direction? Why did you start out with the adventure genre in the first place instead of jumping into RPGs? Any fear of alienating your existing adventure fanbase?
It seems a very natural progression to make, really. I always loved adventure games, so I made adventure games. I always loved RPGs too, and I always wanted to make one, but they always seemed too complex, too large, and too expensive to make. Now that I’ve spent the last several years making adventures and I know what I can and can’t achieve, I feel better about making the attempt. The fact that my wife is a professional programmer who has similar goals certainly helps, as well!
As for alienating my existing fanbase? I haven’t given up on the adventure genre by any means, so I am not worried about that.
10. What do you have in mind for a future RPG project? What sort of setting and gameplay elements are you leaning towards? Single character or full party? Turn-based or real-time? Springsteen RPG or Inkeeper RPG?
The games my wife and I always talk about are Planescape and Fallout, so whatever we make will be along those lines. We want to make it turned based but it will depend on what technology we use to make the game (we’re looking at Unity). We have our idea for a setting, and while it’s a setting you could typically find in a game, it’s never been a typical RPG setting. So I’ll leave you with that bit of crypticness.
11. Since you've recently outed yourself as a Spiderweb Software fan, we have to ask The Question:
Geneforge vs Avernum, which is better and why?
Honestly? I haven’t played much Avernum yet. The world of Geneforge really hooked me and I’ve been playing through the series. Maybe when I’ve reached the end I’ll give Avernum a whirl.
Many thanks to Dave for the interview.
Check out his games here: http://wadjeteyegames.com/