April 7, 2014 9:00 AM | Staff
Dave Gilbert is about to cash out from the last eight years of his life. On April 24 he'll release The Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth and final in his Blackwell series, and this long, winding chapter of his life will finally be allowed to move on, as if Joey and Rosa themselves were talking it down gently.
Really, it's been even longer than that. Gilbert first introduced the idea of a young woman who pairs up with an old family ghost way back in 2003 when he wrote Bestowers of Eternity -- The Blackwell Legacy was a continuation of that concept three years later.
"I've had these characters in my head for a very long time," he tells me. "So it's going to be weird not having them as part of my thought process anymore."
"So that's sad, but also it's a bit nerve-wracking," he continues. "Blackwell is a nice, stable seller. It's never a blockbuster like Gemini Rue, but it's not going to bomb either. So I always know that I can release Blackwell, and we'll stay in business. There's a little less security now."
With his studio Wadjet Eye Games, and even prior to that, Gilbert has been a notable proponent of the adventure game scene for around a decade now. Those who follow the industry veteran know that he doesn't just create games -- he also publishes them too, with great titles like Resonance, Puzzle Bots and the aforementioned Gemini Rue helped along by the veteran designer.
But with Blackwell coming to a close, Gilbert is about to find out for himself what it's like to not have that same-old comfort and security. When the series comes to an end later this month, he'll be looking to start something completely new. As you'd expect, that's a tad bit scary.
"But it's time," he says. "It's so time. I could drag this on forever, but I'll get sick of it, and the audience will get sick of it. I originally planned on having a new game out every four or five months or so. Obviously that didn't happen. I thought 'Hey, I can make 10 games, I'm working on it full time, I'll be able to do that!' But no, that wasn't possible."
The dev did have another idea for a sixth game in the series, but says it wasn't really strong enough to sustain an entire additional installment -- hence, he folded the idea into the final game, in a bid to go out all guns blazing.
"I'm gonna miss it, but it's also nice to move on to other things," he muses. "I've had these characters in my head for such a long time, and I'm also feeling like the original games, while they're still good, I just see what I could have done better. I'm still attached to those games while Blackwell is still going on, and now that it's a clean break, I can move on to something else without feeling like I need to get another Blackwell game out for the fans."
"It's time. It's so time. I could drag this on forever, but I'll get sick of it, and the audience will get sick of it."
"It's nice that I'm done with it, but I'm really going to miss it."
As you'd expect for a video game series that has stretched out over eight years, both the franchise itself and Gilbert's style have evolved heavily throughout. For one, he's now savvy to being a bit more economical with his writing, and making every line of dialogue count.
He adds, "If I've learned anything, it's not how to make a good game -- I've learned what makes a bad one. I've made decisions that didn't go over very well, and people didn't like it and I didn't like it. And now I know not to do that again, so I can learn to make a better game. It's not so much that I know how to make a good one, but I can avoid the pitfalls that I've made before."
Now that Gilbert knows what he's capable of, he can afford to be more ambitious in terms of scope, length and subject matter with his next project -- this is what he's done with Epiphany too.
"I took all those lessons and put them into Epiphany," he notes. "For the first time I'm looking at it, and it's finally the Blackwell game that I always had in my head, but I never was really able to make happen."
And the number one adventure game design tip that Gilbert has learned over the years? "I really feel the more satisfying adventure games are the ones that let you explore and experiment," he says. "They let you go through at your own pace. A game might be easy, and I think that's fine, as long as you still respect the player's intelligence enough to solve those easy puzzles."
Where does Gilbert see the point-and-click adventure game genre headed in the near future, then? The dev believes that he's seen the best route for these games to take, and he's excited to see how much further it can be pushed.
"If I've learned anything, it's not how to make a good game -- I've learned what makes a bad one."
"What's important for a lot of developers to learn to do is to break out of the -- I don't want to say 'clique' exactly -- but making adventure games clearly for adventure game fans was more challenging, because it was a very insular kind of community," he notes.
"So I think our biggest break was with Gemini Rue. We somehow managed to reach a mainstream audience, and that's what put us on the map. Suddenly people were looking at us, and they were like 'Wow.' They like what we do."
What both players and developers are beginning to now realize, reasons Gilbert, is that point-and-click adventure games should no long be thought about in the same way that they most often have been.
"You can't just think of them as adventure games," he notes. "They are games, and games are for everyone. They're stories, and everyone likes stories. I think the danger was that saying 'Yeah, we're making a point-and-click adventure game!', that was what was supposed to get you excited - but that's not enough anymore. It's got to be 'We're making a game about a guy stranded in space' for example -- that's what gets people excited. It's not just about being an adventure game -- that can't be all."
With this in mind, Gilbert discusses the tricky balancing act that is integrating story with gameplay in more traditional point-and-click settings.
"Often I will cut really cool story elements because I just can't make them interact or fun," he notes. "Is it fun to experience, or is it just a cutscene? I'm always thinking 'Okay, how can I make this an experience, and not just a passive watch?'"
"And I think that's where better adventure games shine," he continues. "Why make an adventure game as opposed to a book or a film or TV show? It's because you're in the experience, and it's happening to you, or you're making it happen. You're the agency that drives the story forward, and it's a very difficult balance to pull off, but when it works, there's just no experience like it. That's where this genre really works well."
As for Gilbert and his future work, there's no way he's going to be doing another episodic adventure game series any time soon, that's for sure.
"You can't just think of them as adventure games. They are games, and games are for everyone. They're stories, and everyone likes stories."
"Knowing what I know now, I don't think I would have done a series like I did," he admits. "I don't like calling it 'episodic' -- I like to think that each one is standalone -- but obviously there's a lot of story going on."
"I think the problems are that customer faith just isn't there yet, unless you're Telltale," he adds. "No one wants to get invested in something that might not be finished, or might not be finished soon."
Even with all the faith that players had in his Blackwell series, Gilbert notes that those games don't sell nearly as well as his standalone releases. "You buy something to get a complete experience," the dev reasons.
He'll also be leaving Adventure Game Studio behind too, which is a pretty big deal, given that every game he's made to date has AGS chugging away inside.
"I keep meaning to make the switch to Unity, but I keep coming back to AGS -- I know how it works, and I know how to make it do what I want," he says. "After Blackwell is a very good time to do that."
"Also Janet [Gilbert, his wife and CTO of Wadjet Eye Games] has forbid me from touching a line of code again," he laughs. Blackwell Epiphany is kinda the limit of what I can do as a programmer and a designer/writer. I'm so focused on bug-fixing and stuff like that, when massive areas need writing or rewriting. I was just so busy implementing everything that I kinda had a freakout, like 'There's so much to do... Ahh!' And Janet said 'Next game, either I'm programming it, or somebody else does. You should just focus on design.'"
Gilbert has an idea of what's he's personally going to work on next, but his next big step is publishing Francisco Gonzalez's first commercial game The Golden Wake. Gonzalez gave me a demo at GDC, and it's definitely shaping up to be a rather interesting new addition to the Wadjet Eye catalogue, with some L.A. Noire-style interrogation thrown in there, and lots of choices to be made.
Equally interesting is that Gonzalez has moved to New York to work alongside Gilbert. No longer does the veteran dev sit alone at his laptop in the NY cafes -- now he and Gonzalez work together, and both designers appeared incredibly happy with this setup.
"Knowing what I know now, I don't think I would have done a series like I did."
That's not all. Gilbert has also poached Ben Chandler for his Wadjet Eye team. If that name rings a bell, it's because Chandler has been a mainstay in the adventure game scene for quite a while now, with games like Eternally Us, Shifter's Box and I Fought the Law, and the Law One to his name.
"Ben is now mine," he laughs. "It was nice to be able to give him that job, because for a long time I kept kinda dangling it in front of him, saying like 'Yeah, if our games do well we'll totally hire you full time.' He got to the point where he was so busy with his day job, and I thought it actually made more sense to just hire him now. That way he can work with us full-time."
Chandler is working on a full release of a previous freeware game TechnoBabylon alongside its creator James Dearden (which Wadjet Eye is also publishing), and elsewhere doing plenty bits and bobs for Gilbert. "He loves being able to draw and being creative, and being busy," notes Gilbert. "It's a great situation, because I'm paying him every month, and he just does it, and I don't have to babysit him. He loves doing it so much, so it's great."
What about a move to mobile? Wadjet Eye has released two ports for iPad -- Gemini Rue and The Shivah -- and Gilbert says that while these have sold okay, they aren't topping PC sales.
"We're also porting the first three Blackwell games to mobile," he notes. "Once those are done, we'll focus on the rest of them. For us it's about having a long tail. We can do more longer-ambition stuff, because we have our older games still earning money for us. That's our motivation for doing it."
"As for my next project, I have an idea of what I want to do next, but I think I'm gonna take a break for a little while."
[Mike Rose wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]