Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interview with Agustin Cordes (lead developer of Scratches)

Agustin Cordes co-founded the indie studio Nucleosys in 2003, where he worked as lead developer of the 2006 cult hit Scratches.  When the studio disbanded in 2009, he started up another studio--Senscape--where he is currently working on a new Scratches-esque horror adventure called Asylum.  Although I found the gameplay of Scratches to be a little questionable, I was fascinated by its approach to horror, and knew I wanted to interview the man behind the madness.  Luckily, he was willing to take some time out of his busy schedule to oblige.

Scratches (2006)

Let's start with some general questions. What games or developers have had the biggest influence on you?

Undoubtedly, the major one has always been Sierra On-Line. King's Quest was the first adventure I ever played, and thus it changed my perception of games forever. I love most titles from Sierra and it's safe to say that each one of them has left a mark in me. Other than Sierra, Legend Entertainment and Infocom games have been strong influences.

What are some of your favorite games? Horror, adventure, or otherwise?

It's always easy to determine the non-adventure ones: Wasteland, Another World, System Shock, Fallout, Planescape Torment. It's perhaps easy to mention horror adventures: Alone In The Dark, Shadow of the Comet, Dark Seed, The 7th. Guest, The Dark Eye. But non-horror adventures is next to impossible… I love the Space Quest series, Rex Nebular, Death Gate, Monkey Island, an obscure adventure called Maupiti Island… Put simply, way too many of them!

What do you think of the adventure game scene nowadays? Where do you see it in 5 years?

The adventure scene is definitely in a healthier state these days. Many titles are well produced, exciting, and some quite daring in their proposals. It worries me that the general perception of adventures remains biased; too many major publications keep ignoring them, and it's becoming too difficult to ensure a strong presence in Steam. Provided we overcome these obstacles, I'd say the adventure genre could become very relevant again in the coming years.

Likewise, what do you think of the horror game scene nowadays? Where do you see it in 5 years?

I think horror is dangerously stalling. Only indies seem to be trying different things and experimental approaches to the genre. Look at games like Amnesia or The Cat Lady, for example. Major companies' insistence on sticking to tired formulas is definitely causing harm because players are growing accustomed to them. For example, as much as I liked the game, Dead Space felt like a Resident Evil with a different story and setting. So I don't believe major games will evolve much, but hopefully the indie scene will keep producing intriguing titles.

Storytelling was a major focus of Scratches. How do you think the industry is doing in terms of storytelling? Is there anything you'd like to see different?

Storytelling seems to be getting better alright. The big companies understand that players are demanding thought-provoking stories, and thus they're investing more on better scripts. Still, it seems to me that they insist on detaching gameplay from story; in fact, I've seen renowned writers complaining that they're brought into projects after the games were designed. So it still feels like the story, albeit a good one, in the end is sugar-coating the gameplay. That said, adventures have always been better at merging story and gameplay together. A most fine recent example would be The Walking Dead.

Scratches has often been compared with the Dark Fall series. Have you played either of the Dark Fall games?  If so, what do you think of them?

I loved the games; in fact, the original Dark Fall should be credited as the catalyst behind Scratches. I always wanted to do an adventure game but it wasn't until playing Dark Fall that I decided the time had finally come.

You've mentioned that Scratches originated as a dream. What parts of the game were part of that dream, exactly?

The very ending. It was quite a vivid dream that stuck with me for a long time. The whole idea was greatly expanded and several layers of plot were added for the sake of complexity, but most elements of that dream survived in the final game.

Scratches is a wonderfully scary piece of horror. And what's so interesting about it is that it's actually much less "eventful" than other horror games. Was this simply a byproduct of the story that you wanted to tell, or did you intentionally choose to do things differently?

It was very intentional. You always have many resources at hand to "spice up" a horror story, but it was a conscious decision to keep things low key. This way, players would have the chance to get really soaked in the atmosphere and give more importance to each individual discovery. For example, finding about the nursery is a major turning point in the game, and it's the more revealing because nothing particularly important (other than listening to the scratches for the first time) has occurred until then. However, some aspects of the game were toned down because of budget constraints. The biggest omission that was present in the original script would be a meat truck that you can see outside the house during the first day, and some research that ensues about it (however, I did leave a hint about this in the trunk in the attic).

You've mentioned that nowadays "we are losing the ability to create, and appreciate, subtlety." Do you think this applies only to horror, or to videogames in general? What are some examples of a loss of subtlety?

I'd say this is happening in general, and not only games but movies. The reason perhaps is the fast paced world we're living in today. I think there's an actual demand for immediately accessible products, and a subtle story requires patience and lots of attention. I especially love the kind of stories that reward good observation, with hidden details and nuances hinting at exciting possibilities. Horror is perhaps the genre hurting the most nowadays; an example of subtle horror would be 70's movies that focused on mood and story, whereas today most of them focus on gore and cheap scares. Same with games: the most "shocking" moments in horror tend to be cheap scares. Back to Dead Space, I'd say that game was very tense, but not really scary.

Some people found the puzzles in Scratches to be frustratingly linear, as certain interactions and items wouldn't show up until you had followed the correct sequence of discoveries to get there. What was the purpose of this? Looking back, do you think it was a mistake, or do you think this type of puzzle has its merits?

The puzzle design in Scratches was certainly flawed, yes. The game depended on too many "triggers", precisely those actions that "unlocked" the next events, and to make things worse the game rarely gave you hints about what to do next. I wouldn't say the gameplay was linear though; most of the time you were able to perform several actions in a different order (which is perhaps more evident in the final day). The problem was that the required triggers were too specific; for example, you will only advance in the second day if you try using the typewriter during a precise range of hours, regardless of the status of the non-linear puzzles. The reason for this was a constant struggle between telling a coherent story in a sandbox environment; remember you had access to pretty much the entire house at once! This is an aspect of design that I'm definitely improving in Asylum.

What was it like working on Scratches? Were there any major difficulties that you ran into during development?

Yes, countess. This was a very large endeavour for such a small team, and we hit many roadblocks during development, chief among them tasks taking way much longer than we originally thought. But the most curious difficulty you probably won't imagine is that our computers weren't powerful enough to properly render all graphics, and we didn't have money to upgrade them as often as we wished. For example, rendering the garden surrounding the mansion was a royal pain.

If you had to give one piece of advice to other game developers, what would it be?

Always do what you want to but listen to people. Feedback is invaluable, and you sometimes may find that a particular aspect you thought was clever or meaningful turns out to be an annoyance to most folks. Yes, the game is your vision, but others are supposed to play it as well. Also, try starting with something small first (in other words, don't do as I did!).

Adventure games have always tended to err on the side of trial and error, and they can be quite frustrating and/or boring to some people. Do you think there's a way to make the genre more appealing to everyone without sacrificing what makes it so fun?

You're right and I believe a good approach is to simplify interfaces, which sometimes are unnecessarily cumbersome, and go easier on the puzzles. Some tend to be challenging for all the wrong reasons, or aren't meaningful. Many hardcore adventurers likely won't mind them but the general audience will. Adventures have a critical problem and that's when players get hopelessly stuck. This doesn't happen in most games; you can encounter a tough boss in shooters, or struggle with a particular level in a platformer, but you're always trying and retrying until you're done. Each time you retry you may damage that end level boss some more, and that gives you a sense of progression. But adventures often come to a standstill until you realise the next move, or how a particular puzzle is solved. Yes, some may argue this is what makes adventures fun in the first place, but I'm afraid it has to be toned down if we want adventures to be successful with the short attention spans these days. Maintaining the fun factor while providing a fair challenge can be extremely difficult in the genre.

Scratches used both verbal dialog (through phone conversations) and text narration to communicate your characters thoughts and feelings. Do you think one of these methods is better, or are the both equally effective?  How did you go about implementing and balancing the two in Scratches?

I believe both are equally effective, albeit in different ways. Text narration in first person can give you a more straightforward impression of the character's feelings and thoughts, but generally it's through dialogues and interacting with others where you can show what kind of person your protagonist really is. In the case of Scratches, narration was supposed to be very introspective feedback, while dialogues one of the means to increase the tension. This is noticeable right in the first day, as Michael grows more disappointed and angry with Jerry given his precarious and quite unexpected situation in Blackwood Manor.

You're working on a new game, Asylum. What are some things that fans of Scratches will like about it?

I think so, yes. Asylum is a spiritual successor of sorts to Scratches, even if it tries to do things differently. Fans of the cerebral gameplay, subtle yet tense plot, and moody environments will feel right at home in Asylum. In particular, the same kind of twisty storyline with layer after layer of discoveries and horrifying revelations will sure please fans of Scratches.

Finally, in a previous interview, you mentioned that the "original" ending of Scratches hadn't been revealed at that time. Is there any chance you'll ever reveal it? If so, any chance you'll reveal it right now? ;)

Ah, yes. The original ending was much less ambiguous and not fitting at all, even if it provided more closure: basically, you used the amulet to kill Robin, after which he turns back into human being. If you failed to realise this, you died; that alone was completely unfair in terms of design, since you couldn't die for the entirety of the game. But this conclusion was a very early idea, around the time the African theme was first introduced in the story, and it was soon changed; and for the better, I think.

Thanks for doing this interview. It's been a pleasure.

No, thank you for the wonderful questions! I'm very glad to have done this interview.

You can find my review of Scratches here, Asylum's official website here, and Senscape's official website here.

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