Mit dem First-Person-Adventure Scratches wurde der argentinische Indie-Entwickler Agustin Cordes schlagartig einem großen Publikum bekannt. Nun ist Cordes mit seinem neuen Studio Senscape zurück und bereitet die Ankunft des Horror-Adventures Asylum vor.
A-T: After your viral marketing campaign for your new game Asylum, and the recent exposure of the game, we already know that Asylum will deal with terrible happenings at the Hanwell Mental Institute. Obviously, we’re craving for some more info on the plot of the game. Please tell us some details about the story and some of the main characters.
Agustin: As you can imagine, I like to keep my lips very closed about the story. In retrospective, all you knew about Scratches before getting to play the game is that a writer called Michael Arthate was heading to the Blackwood Manor to finish a book, but soon the plot became very entangled with two timelines (past and present) clashing together. The same holds true for Asylum but the story is even more elaborated and deeper. The cast alone should give you an idea of this since we have eleven characters that are fully fleshed out and all of them have an important role in the game. I’m really happy the way the story has turned out and I think that you’re going to love it. It works on two different levels as well, similarly to Scratches: past and present, although in this case you have a part in both since you are an ex-patient of the Hanwell institute who has been there before the place was shut down under dubious circumstances. You happen to have some strange hallucinations, flashes of events that obviously took place at Hanwell. At one point you can’t stand them anymore, so you go back to the asylum after a few years, thinking it’s been long abandoned by now, only to find the building is in the process of being reopened. Thus, you will have to solve the mystery within the course of one night before the incoming workers and staff destroys all the remaining evidence of what really happened there.
I’m sure that must be raising many questions instead of answers and of course I’m being ambiguous on purpose. Of the main characters beside yourself, I can talk a bit about Julia, since you know her from the Trailer already: she will your best friend during that night, your ray of hope amidst the surrounding shadows and chaos. She happens to be voiced by Sue Anderson, the same actress who did Barbara in Scratches, which incidentally was a similar role.
We also have “Lenny” Huntings, who I’m sure you’re loving already... Yes, you get to meet Lenny in the game.
A-T: Scratches took its time to build up tension elements, slowly soaking the player in, before things got “nasty”... probably one important reason why the impact of Scratches was very effective on players. Would you say that Asylum sticks to that “formulae”? And in addition: Atmosphere was one of the key factors in achieving the mentioned effect and of course, a good horror game and atmosphere are generally elements that can’t be separated. Give us an idea of the mood in the game and tell us in which particular ways Asylum is using atmosphere to cause an emotional effect on the player.
Agustin: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s the best formula for horror games: rather than throwing a constant chain of scares at players, you leave the very best for the end. That’s a problem I’m seeing with many horror titles recently... the scariest sequences appear too early in the story! By the time you reach the end, you have experienced the worst. I’ve always likened the experience of playing Scratches to that of reading a book and it’s a shame that most games never intend to obey the most basic rule to tell a story: to clearly set apart beginning, middle and end. If you think about it, the pace of the storytelling is always the same in games these days... The story becomes an “accessory” while you focus on moving forward. Maybe the game gets more challenging but the story is boringly lineal. Please, note that I’m talking about games in very general terms.
Now Scratches was a very typical story when looking at its structure: the first day or chapter is pure introduction and exposition. The second day is the middle when the plot is really developed. And the third day is where all the lose ends come together and the story concludes with the climax. It’s really 1-2-3 in storytelling but it worked and you rarely see it in games and, unfortunately, many adventures. I believe that developers simply don’t care about any of this and they mostly focus on the gameplay, but more on that later.
So, back to Asylum: yes, I’m abiding to the same formulae (a very slow pace that builds until a climax) but the three stages of the story will be less evident now. We are however quickening up the pace since many complained that the first act in Scratches was too slow. Still, while both games differ in many aspects, they will be similar in spirit and let me tell you in advance that the ending of Asylum will be truly shocking.
Mood is also of utmost importance and it complements the story. The connection you have your character and the setting will be very strong because, by revisiting your past, you will come to understand how it caused what you are suffering until today. Most importantly, you will emphatize with the rest of the inmates and their pains. These are not your typical asylum looneys, these are human beings who have suffered through inhuman situations. But make no mistake: above all, Asylum will be an unadulterated and relentless horror experience.
A-T: Until now we don’t really know anything about the gameplay, so let’s change that. What kind of tasks and puzzles can we expect in Asylum?
Agustin: I really can’t elaborate much on this aspect because what happens inside Hanwell is a tight secret right now. And I mean it: only a few select people have gotten access to the script, and we want to keep it that way to make sure that the experience of playing Asylum is a complete surprise -- in every regard! For instance, I have revealed one big secret already: that the Hanwell institute is inhabited. The idea was that players would think - like the protagonist himself - that the building was long abandoned and meeting Julia would be the first surprise. Since she was introduced in the trailer for better effect, we’re cool about that now, but this is an example of just how I important I believe the attention to the story must be: the impact of learning such fact is more effective if you experience it by yourself.
In other words, the experience starts the very first moment you load the game. It might sound obvious but many developers opt to focus on the gameplay or “game value” instead rather than the experience, so we’re told way beforehand quite literally what kind of game to expect. I really wouldn’t want that, I’d rather have players feel that Asylum is like this big secret waiting to be revealed the minute they go inside Hanwell. Suffice to say, you are going to turn that place upside down. As for the puzzles, I can say tell you that they will be logical and intuitive to resolve, as well as being strongly tied to the story. No mini-games nor arcade sequences whatsoever.
A-T: The Hanwell Mental Institute seems like one hell of a creepy and dangerous place. Will that element of danger also express itself in timed sequences, where the player can lose his life? If that should be the case, please tell us something about these elements.
Agustin: I think many wrongly believe that the possibility of dying adds a lot to the scare factor but I don’t see it that way. In the original ending I had in mind for Scratches, you could actually die at the very last minute if you didn’t perform a certain action. I realised how wrong it was because... What next? Force players to reload a game? Magically resurrect Michael for one more try? The minute you die is the minute the sequence stops being scary. That’s the problem with dying: it’s far more effective if you allow the player to experience the horror without interruptions and no artificial punishments. It’s definitely more difficult to achieve, of course. Let me put it this way: when you read a story by Lovecraft or Poe you know the protagonist didn’t die because he’s narrating the whole thing, and yet you’re still scared out of your bones. Taking advantage of death to enhance the scare factor is a lousy resource in my opinion, at least in adventures. But still, the sense of imminent danger will be constantly present in Asylum and we are preparing a few special sequences that will make your adrenaline flow much faster.
A-T: How much of a linear or non-linear experience is awaiting us in Asylum?
Agustin: Very non-linear. I like to give players the freedom to explore their surroundings as they see fit and do things in any order they want. I believe that being in full control of your actions adds a lot to the immersion factor. This was particularly true in Scratches where players felt like Blackwood Manor was really their house and cared for it. In Asylum though, as I stated before, the atmosphere will be far more menacing.
Even though the game is non-linear, we’re structuring the story in a linear way, that is, the progression of the plot is always the same (and I wouldn’t want that to be other way). Since you are staying one full night at Hanwell, each passing hour will be like a “chapter” of sorts. However, the actions you must perform through each one of those hours are not necessarily the same, only key events move forward the story. I like this structure very much as I think that the notion of passing time adds a lot to the story with a feeling of urgency and impending doom.
A-T: What can you tell us about the control system in the new game?
Agustin: The control is point-and-click but we’re making it look very dynamic (you know, because apparently it’s so passé these days). It’s somewhat similar to the control system in Scratches Director’s Cut, easy to handle and feels natural. We made it feel like your hand is controlling the head of the protagonist, like many First Person Shooters. Don’t worry, that was just a comparison for the sake of it! Seriously, I believe that everyone will feel very comfortable with the control system.
A-T:The trailer of Asylum noticeably points out that quite some stuff has happened on a visual level compared to Scratches. Please introduce us to some graphical/technical key features that you’re especially proud of and tell us about the engine that you're using.
Agustin: Yes, we’re putting much attention on the technical aspect, to make sure that not only everything looks good but it performs fine as well. The game is prepared to run in very high resolutions, true High Definition actually. We’re talking about 1920x1200 pixels so it should be able to tax most high-end TV sets out there (if the game makes it to consoles, hint hint). It runs fast as well and we can guarantee almost no loading times. Those are easily the technical features that we’re most proud of. Additionally, we’re making extensive use of graphical shaders to make the atmosphere come truly alive (nothing like this was used in Scratches). We’re not quite ready yet in this regard either as we’re still exploring other interesting possibilities to include. Particularly, we’re looking to feature an innovative fog effect that, to my knowledge, has never been used before -- at least not in this way (I love being mysterious!).
All these elements, coupled with the control system I described before, come together to provide a very engaging experience: you really feel like you are inside Hanwell. The engine is called Kinesis which I’m sure many of you have heard about since it’s currently being hinted at on our website. At first it will support Windows, Mac and Linux systems, then iPhones and iPads. We’ll be sharing some truly terrific news about Kinesis very soon.
A-T: Blackstone Chronicles was another 1st person horror game that took place in a mental asylum. Did you have a closer look at the game to check out some elements that might work or not work for a “mental asylum game”? In case you did, which elements come to your mind?
Agustin: Not really, at least not while working on the story and script because it’s something I’ve been developing for quite some time. I never played Blackstone Chronicles entirely until recently but I can say that, without a question, it’s one of the best horror games ever made -- I have much respect for Bob Bates and the work he did (in fact, Legend Entertainment is my favourite game company along with Infocom and Sierra). There are some inevitable elements that reappear in Asylum but, then again, it’s a given that most games inside mental asylums will share some similarities (as well as haunted houses, for that matter!). In the case of Blackstone Chronicles, I was really touched by the way the story revolved around the patients and their problems. They felt very human, more than any other game made at the time. That’s something you can expect in Asylum: the cast of patients, their personalities and fears, will feel very lifelike, even familiar.
A-T: Your website is currently mentioning a release of Asylum in 2011. Is it possible, at this point of time, to tell us what part of 2011 you’re aiming for to get the game done? And in addition: It might be too early to bring this up, but who knows: Any negotiations with potential partners, who might release the game in Germany, so far?
Agustin: We don’t want to make the mistake of giving away a release date too early and then fail to meet that deadline. We’re very serious about the development of Asylum and want to make it right in every possible way. It’s a very large game with many ambitious goals! So, sometime by mid-2011 is as specific as I’m willing to get right now. It could be earlier or later than that. You can be sure that we still have many more goodies to share before the game is released to appease the wait.
I can also tell you that we are in negotiations and there are many interested parties to publish the game. Again, nothing too specific at this point, but you have my word that Asylum will be definitely released in Germany. If not, I will personally get there to sell the copies myself!
A-T: Aside of Asylum: Can you give us a little outlook into the future of Senscape? I’ve heard, for example, that you’re planning a social game?
Agustin: Aaah I can’t keep any secrets from you! Yes, many thought I was kidding but we’re really planning a social game. You should also know its name by now but I won’t be so obvious to tell it to you . We’re trying to bring something new to the social market. I’ve been playing many of these games and they are all lacking in one important area: the story. You don’t feel connected in any way to with what you’re doing, most actions you perform feel empty and mechanical as if you were a cog in a complex system rather than a truly important character. Many would argue that this exactly what social games want to be like but we’re still going to try a little experiment. Imagine a world that you’re exited to visit every day, that the actions you perform have a meaning, that you are rewarded for your intellect and not for your persistent clicking of a button. And most importantly: that you truly care about what happens next, about how the story will unfold. This is what we’re trying to bring to the table with our current project. Needless to say, adventure game fans should love it.
As for the long term, our next adventure will be serious science fiction. I’m afraid that Asylum will be my last foray into horror for a while so, as you can imagine, it must leave a very shocking lasting impression.