By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed a wonderful new indie adventure game entitled The Journey Down: Over The Edge, describing it as “one of the most essential adventure gaming experiences of the past few years”. In an exclusive interview with AMO, creator Theodor Waern kindly joins us to answer some questions about the game – sharing plenty of design sketches and production artwork along the way – and also reveals some new screenshots from the recently announced The Journey Down: HD!
Hi Theodor, thank you for your time! Can I begin by asking you to tell AMO’s readers a bit about yourself please?
Hi! I’m 27 years old, I live in Gothenburg, Sweden, and run a small game studio together with a couple of friends for a living, primarily working with the online game “Nord” (www.nordgame.com). I spend most of my free time sketching and writing, most of it for The Journey Down. When I’m not sketching I’m usually lurking on the AGS forums or spending time with my fiancée with whom I am soon about to have my first child.
When did The Journey Down first emerge as a serious idea?
That was a slow process. At first it was merely a way for me and my colleagues to experiment with the AGS platform. We wanted to try it out and see what it was capable of doing. Some time during that process though, I started realising that the project had some mean potential and started dedicating more and more time to it as the days flew by.
Am I correct in saying this is largely a one-man project?
Yep. Though some specific key people have truly helped the game to be brought to its full potential. Simon D’souza (http://www.souzamusic.co.uk) with his amazing musical skills, and Chris Jones with the wonderful AGS toolkit he provided, were both more or less critical to the game’s solid feel.
How close is Chapter 1: Over The Edge to what you had originally planned?
Honestly, I think it more or less landed having exactly the mood and feel I was initially looking for. In sheer size however, it’s a gazillion times bigger and more complex than I had first imagined it. It was supposed to be a simple little game. Not the hulking 125 megabytes of animation it is today.
Why did you decide to release the game in several parts?
It’s a wonderful way of working on something “epic” but not necessarily having to finish the whole thing before leaning back and enjoying the sweet feedback of having it released. In short: it was easier.
The character designs in particular are incredible. I think I mentioned in my review that they were based on African mask designs… is this correct?
Certainly. I have a long running fascination with the morbidity one can get from masks – specifically African ones. This is art that has been honed over the centuries to evoke the simplicities of emotion; what could possibly be better suited as a means of portraying character’s feelings?
Were the character names influenced in a similar manner?
Many of the names are simple words from the Swahili language. Just to add a nice flavour. “Matoke” for an instance, is a type of banana, commonly used in cooking in Central/East Africa. “Bwana” basically means “man” or “sir”. But many of them (as with the character faces) are just made up from nothing.
Do you think such visual character designs help to establish individual personalities quickly? Considering Chapter 1 is fairly short, every character feels pretty fleshed out and unique…
I think the fleshed out feeling comes largely from many of the extreme close-ups I do in cutscenes. This is a feature I have more or less blatantly ripped off from LucasArt’s Full Throttle. People don’t remember this, but there are many scenes where Ben’s face in Full Throttle literally takes up 60% of the screen area, thus portraying his emotions in minute detail. They also do this with many other characters during cutscenes. It goes a long way in adding depth to a character.
How does Bwana differ from your typical adventure game protagonist?
When designing Bwana as a character I was hell-bent on him being someone you’re comfortable with. The whiny unwilling hero attitude works great in films, but it creates a dragging feeling of the protagonist just being a gripey, boring jerk in adventure games. I wanted Bwana’s “no worry” attitude to simply leave the player with a nice relaxed “everything’s gonna be all right” feeling while playing.
I described the game universe in my review as “every bit as coherent and detailed as the ‘Underworld’ that was shown within LucasArt’s classic 1998 adventure game Grim Fandango.” How important was creating your own believable world to you when designing the game?
For me it’s all about the ambiance. When I first started the project it was basically all about art. I wanted to paint stuff and I wanted my paintings to fit into a universe of sorts. What better way to embed nice environments than in an adventure game? After working on the game for a while however I started realising that maybe a good game isn’t all about environments, but largely about the characters that inhabit them. (Obvious for most people, but I’ve always seen adventure games as amazing environments, not stories with interesting depth.)
So as time went by I spent more and more time fleshing out the characters as well and then realised that it is all interconnected. If you liked a specific character in a game, maybe that was largely due to the nice environment he was standing in? Or maybe it was because of the nice music running in the background? Or maybe due to the brilliant voice acting? The clever writing? Or maybe, just maybe, all of them combined?
Do you think the parallels I drew between The Journey down and Grim Fandango in terms of character design and game world design are apt? I know you are a big fan of Grim Fandango!
Certainly! The mix of film noir and Mexican folklore is genius. I was certainly hoping to create a similar blend when making my odd mix, and I’m proud to say that I seem to have more or less pulled it off. Expect to see a lot more African influences in the coming chapters!
You used Adventure Game Studio to program the game: was this always your first choice? What would you describe as AGS’s strengths and weaknesses?
I love AGS. Strengths I’d say are infinite when building point-n-click games. It’s got it all. One major strength with AGS is it’s incredibly devoted community, that constantly help improve AGS itself as well as acting as a great resource whenever a developer is stuck on a specific issue. People love helping each other out there. As a lonesome developer, it makes a world of difference having experienced people close by that you can bother with your questions.
As for weaknesses I have only found a few and I’m sure it won’t be long before these too are stomped out. For one there is currently no support for any real high resolutions, thus rendering the engine more suitable for retro type games. Another issue is the fact that it can not compile games for Mac/iOS devices. A feature that would no doubt make AGS a lot more interesting from a commercial perspective. (This however I doubt will happen any time soon.)
Do you remember any particular problems you ran into during the production of Chapter 1: Over The Edge?
All my issues have been code related. I’m no programmer, so this is only natural. Though AGS makes life very simple for people like me with only basic scripting skills, it’s still easy to get stuck on what a common programmer would think are the smallest of issues. Fortunately I have the AGS forums and several programmer friends who have been able to help me out the few times that I have truly been stuck.
Specifically I remember having an incredibly hard time with that stupid rat-puzzle. I don’t want to talk about it…
I heard you had to make some cuts to the game before it was released: how extensive where these changes?
Not very big. I cut a couple of scenes in the outro and a couple of minor rooms that honestly didn’t really have a reason for existing in the first place. I gotta say though, it’s central to good gameplay design to remove things that don’t add to the experience. In the end, it’s always better to have few things that are polished, rather than many that are sloppy.
What resolution does the game run in? Was using this resolution a stylistic or practical decision?
It’s built in 320×240, though technically speaking I believe it runs at 640×480. This was a choice I made primarily because I figured it would most likely generate less work, also, when starting the project it was definitely more geared toward hardcore point-n-click gamers, the type of crowd that almost prefers retro-styled low-res things instead of shiny high-res stuff.
Will you keep this resolution for future chapters for the sake of continuity, or is there a chance we could see a higher resolution iteration of The Journey Down at some point in the future?
What’s happening right now is that I am, together with my animator friend Henrik Englund (http://www.henrikenglund.com) discussing a commercial, high res version of Chapter 1. Which hopefully will run at 1280×720 and feature a full voice cast (as well as a bunch of extra puzzles!). My plan is that the coming chapters will follow the same, new shiny standard.
Chapter 1: Over The Edge is completely free. Why did you decide to release it this way? Will future chapters possibly come with a price tag attached?
Since Chapter 1 of JD was more or less a one man project, I figured my only chance of getting any real exposure was by releasing it for free. Since then however I have realised that the game’s only chance of reaching its full potential is by making a modest economic venture out of the whole project. In short: yes. I’m quite certain the coming chapters (as well as the high-res version of Chapter 1) will come with a small price-tag attached.
Do you think Chapter 2 will take less time to create now that you have a foundation to build upon with Chapter 1? Is it already planned out?
Certainly! Most of my time working on JD has been working on the whole thing, not on Chapter 1 specifically. I have most of Chapter 2 worked out. I’ve got all locations, all characters, most of the puzzles and the story all figured out. What’s missing now is the actual implementation of it all and all the animation work. And all the sound design, and testing. And voicing. And dialogs of course. I need to write them. Heh, it seems there’s still quite a lot left to do. But the difficult part has been done: laying down the plot, puzzles and characters.
The music by Simon D’souza is fantastic! How did he become involved?
That’s a pretty funny story actually. During the majority of the development I had a proxy soundtrack I had stolen from an old acquaintance of mine. It sort of did the job but since it wasn’t written for the game it left many areas silent, specifically the interaction parts that I felt really needed a short musical burst to add effect. That’s when I went to The Freesound Project and started looking for short musical clips I could borrow for this very purpose. I found some that fit perfectly. A tiny collection of quick, short, strange jazzy saxophone blurbs that all worked magically when put in context. I threw them in there and forgot all about it.
When I was closing in on release, just a couple of months from actually launching the game, I figured I should send the musician an email and ask him if it was okay that I borrowed his sax-clips for my game. He responded with great joy and said “if you need anything else musical just ask and if I can I’ll give it a go…” The timing was perfect. I had music for everything except the outro sequence so I figured I might as well ask him if he’s interested in helping me out with it. He was. When we started working together I realized the potential, and simply asked him if maybe he was interested in re-doing the entire soundtrack, and so he did. I am incredibly grateful for all his hard work in making the mood and timing match so well with the actual game. I owe a lot of the ambiance in JD to Simon D’souza (http://www.souzamusic.co.uk).
Many reviewers (myself included) have commented that the game almost feels like a classic LucasArts adventure game. What would you say where your greatest influences within the genre when creating The Journey Down: Over The Edge?
Full Throttle, for it’s visual style in storytelling, and Grim Fandango for it’s cultural mix. Gameplay-wise I like to think that JD is a mix of all games with nice fluent puzzle design, and none of the bad choppiness coming out of sheer trial and error games (these games are in my opinion largely responsible for making sure the point-n-click genre never really got a good foothold among common gamers).
What is your favourite moment from Chapter 1: Over The Edge?
I love how the sequence where Bwana finds the book and shows it to Lina finally worked out. It’s a great zoom in on the two characters and also works musical magic. The music from the very second we first step out onto Kaonandodo’s loft all the way to when we go downstairs to make the phone call is just gorgeously matched with the dialog and gameplay. I want more of that sweet synched mix in Chapter 2.
The game features no voicework: again, was this a stylistic or practical choice?
Purely practical. I’m confident good voice acting could raise the game higher than it already is. Again, we are currently considering creating a commercial, high res, version of Chapter 1. This will definitely contain a full voice cast. Something that I am certain will expand the game’s possible user base, as many players who are new to the genre find all these blocks of text intimidating.
What do you have planned for 2011?
A high res version of Chapter 1, implementing the foundations for Chapter 2, and if all goes well, finally seeing the birth of my first child.
Thank you for your time, it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you!
It is always a pleasure to rant about my big passion in life, I’m just glad someone is interested! Thank you!