October 2, 2013 5:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Cesar Bittar and Katie Hallahan of Phoenix Online Studios, the team who has already given us the episodic, freeware King's Quest remake The Silver Lining, Jane Jensen powered thriller Cognition and the English version of Face Noir, were kind enough to metaphorically sit on the indiegames.com couch and discuss their games. Mainly though, they talked about the things we asked them about: Cognition, the choices that shaped it, episodic game design, the point-and-click scene and the future. Also mentioned something about a second season too...
First of all let me congratulate you on finishing the Cognition series and providing us with four great and dark episodes. Now, how difficult was it working on an episodic project?
Cesar Bittar: Thank you! It was hard, especially when it comes down to keeping a good time between episode releases while working on Moebius at the same time. I think we managed ok for our first effort, but definitely want to improve our timings in the future.
Katie Hallahan: Thanks so much! I'd say it has its pros and cons--the story was outlined in advance, but we had the opportunity to tweak things as we went. But at the same time, it can drag out, particularly once we were working on Moebius as well, like Cesar mentioned.
And why did you choose to do a series of games and not one big adventure? Do you think this decision worked in favour of the storytelling and pacing of the game?
CB: It was a production decision mostly. As a Telltale alum, I experienced episodic production first hand while working on games like Tales of Monkey Island and Sam & Max Season 3, and I saw that, from a production standpoint, it really allowed us to focus on chunks of the game, and then put them behind without much lingering (which is a big downfall of working on a big game, you tend to never be done with it and it's easy to lose focus). We tried it on The Silver Lining, it worked great for us, and so we decided to do it for Cognition.
The downside is that we ended up making a much larger game than if we had done a single game, and, just like any TV show, it could seem a bit unfocused at parts in terms of narrative, but I'm overall extremely happy with the story and the characters, and people are really enjoying it!
KH: I think overall it worked for the story. We've got some things to keep working on if we go with the episodic format again, but I am certainly a fan of it and how it can work well for the story structure, allowing for larger arcs and smaller ones very nicely.
Interestingly, there were obvious game design improvements from each episode to the next. How did you manage to build upon feedback so fast? How much did Cognition change during its development and after the first episode was released?
CB: Things were always in constant change. Even from playtests, weeks before release, to the actual release, we made sure we took the feedback from playtesters and implemented it to the best of our abilities.
In the broad sense, things changed from the initial outline once we found ourselves working on the episodes. The story was still somehow the same, but all the details changed a lot. After the first episode was released, we took into heart what we had read in the reviews and made changes to reflect that, so this is also why episodic gaming is such a good thing: It allows us to fix problems as we go.
KH: We're always reading feedback from everyone--testers, fans, press reviews, and anything in between! And since we had breaks in between episodes where we were able to implement that feedback in realtime, there was no reason not to take advantage of that opportunity.
How would you describe Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller?
CB: Cognition is a crime thriller that explores the very dark and very gruesome mind of serial killers. It's the very intimate story of FBI Agent Erica Reed and her inability to let go of her tragic past, which, combined with her actual power of touching something and being able to see the past of it, intensifies what for most people would be a simple obsession -Erica relives her past, and so it's even harder for her to do so. It's a story about loss, what it means to be a killer and a hero, and all the gray areas in between. These characters are all very flawed and dealing with powers and events that were bigger than them, and it's interesting to see how they develop over the series.
Let's discuss Erica Reed herself. She is not only one of the few female leads in gaming, but also a character that goes beyond strong by being actually interesting and multi-layered. How did you create her?
CB: In order to have a great character, they have to have both virtues and defects that are in conflict with one another. Erica is a great investigator, and her power aids her and gives her an advantage over other detectives. But, at the same time, it hinders her, it interferes with her personal relations, and the way she relates to others. She's also a skeptic, which doesn't help her at all trying to cope with this power she has. But, over the season, she gets more and more comfortable using these powers. Another aspect of her is that she's both thirsty for revenge, but at the same time she knows that her job is justice. So there's a lot of conflicting elements and that makes for a great character. When we were looking at her, we got inspiration from other great characters like Debra from Dexter or Olivia from Fringe, and we knew that we wanted to make of her someone fully developed, even beyond any of the more comic-book interpretations of the rest of the cast.
KH: I love Erica. I'm so glad she came together as well we hoped--strong, flawed, intense, struggling. And she was brought to life so well. Most of all through Raleigh Holmes' amazing performance, she just did a fantastic job with our words on the page.
Could we have some more insight into the creative process? Did you first come up with the story and characters or was it the puzzles?
CB: In these kind of games, story is always first. However, we don't write any sort of story, we write a story that we know will fit the need for puzzles. The mechanic of Cognition, for example, came up as a great gameplay element, and then we made it fit as part of the overall story. But for the most part, we write the story knowing that, for example, a killer like Cain, a cerebral, obsessed with traps kind of killer, makes for a great villain in a game where you have to solve puzzles, and so that's how he took the spotlight over the other villains. And then of course, we had the Oracle, who was also thought in a way where leaving cryptic messages would help us a lot in terms of creating puzzles around them.
KH: The story came first, and once we decided on that, one of the first things we went into were what her powers would be, the variations and how to introduce them. A lot of that shaped the puzzles that came next. I do know that the puzzle at the end of Episode 2, the Wise Monkey Quiz, was one that I knew I wanted going into writing that episode, something that would literally quiz the player and still be really intense. But I had to make sure it fit the story, too--we very much wanted our puzzles to fit the story overall, not the other way around.
How was working with Jane Jensen like? How much did she help shape Cognition?
CB: Jane is awesome. She always knows what she wants and what makes a story great, so she helped us bring focus into the game. For example, on the first story ideas, there were two main themes in the story. One of them was the Cognition power, so she recommended we focused on that, which was the big theme, and leave the other aside. And so, we developed the story to focus around these abilities. She then proceeded to help us clean up the story and dialogs, always offering feedback. Her involvement was greater at the beginning of the series, the first two episodes especially, and then she read both last episodes but by that time, the story had taken off already and there was not much that she could do aside from offering whatever feedback she could on how we developed plot points and how we wrote the dialog.
KH: It's great working with Jane firsthand! As Cesar said, she really helped us focus, and that's a big takeaway I've had from working with her--make sure every scene, line, and step in the game is supporting your story and developing your characters. Everything happening should have a reason.
Are you satisfied with the critical response to the series? Were sales satisfactory?
CB: Yes and yes! Things are going great. The reviews have been fantastic, the fan feedback has been awesome. And people take us a lot more serious now than they did two years ago, so that's always great. Cognition is still selling strongly, and with the addition of more platforms, retail copies, more bundles we have planned in the future, I think it'll do great for a first product in a new IP.
KH: Cognition has been doing well so far, and I can't wait to see how it continues to do. I want to get to do Season 2, and I think it's looking good that we'll be doing that down the line.
In hindsight, is there something you would change in the way you approached Cognition?
CB: It's very easy to fall in the trap of what we would have changed. And yes, there are details that I would have probably worked out better after getting feedback, or maybe would have implemented mechanics much sooner, etc, but in the overall sense of the question, no. I think it's a great product, and it shows the great potential we have as a company, and also how we still must grow, and I'm very happy with what we've accomplished with it.
KH: Small things--I think we could've made the narrative a little tighter in places, and in hindsight, there are some tweaks to presentation or made things clearer, either in puzzles or in character direction. We're learning as we go, and mostly they're things we'll bear in mind moving forward to keep making our games better.
Any ideas on the current adventure gaming renaissance?
CB: I think it's great! Obviously this is a beloved genre and a lot of people are happy that it's back. I will say, however, that what I find most interesting is what studios like Telltale and Quantic Dream are doing. I think they are opening the doors between Hollywood and Gaming in ways that nobody had figured out how to do so before. I found that a lot of people these days find puzzles in these type of story games as an obstacle to enjoying the story, but when you play something like The Walking Dead, and the obstacles aren't there, and the story really flows, then the experience is intense. And that's a bit of what we tried to do with Episode 4 of the series, but of course, we couldn't fully go there because Cognition was already established as a full adventure. So I'm excited about the future.
KH: It's about damn time! Adventure games have always been my favorite genre, and even when playing other genres, the games I've liked the most are the ones with strong story aspects to them. It's great that technology and storytelling are so well integrated now, and that the indie scene has opened up so much thanks to the technology we have now, and the widespread community of gamers out there who are able to actively support the developers they like in ways they never could before, from crowdfunding to social media and so forth. You don't have to be a huge company to survive or even to thrive anymore, and the variety out there is only making game development better all the time.
What does the future hold for Erica Reed? For Phoenix Online Studios?
CB: We have a great idea for the return of Erica, and I think we'll definitely come back to it when the time is right. For now, we are very busy with Jane Jensen's MGX and Moebius, we have started to work on a smaller puzzle game in the likes of Limbo and Botanicula called "Endless", which is based on parts of the script for The Silver Lining that were cut, and a few other ideas we are very excited about in the "smaller" games territory. We are also looking into strengthening relations with some Hollywood studios as we look towards the future of Phoenix Online. It's going to be fun!
KH: Like I said before, I would love to do a Season 2 for Erica. There's a lot of story we can still tell about her! There's a lot we've got in mind for future games from Phoenix, really--it's very exciting!