By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey (PC), describing it as “a masterfully woven point-and-click adventure thriller”, offering an experience that “screams quality like an alleyway murder victim.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Katie Hallahan, PR Director for Phoenix Online Studios and director of Cognition Episode 2!
Hi Katie, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
Thank you, it’s great to be back!
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
My name is Katie Hallahan, I’m the PR Director for Phoenix Online Studios and one of the designers of Cognition. I was also one of the designers for The Silver Lining, our King’s Quest fangame.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey was recently released to critical acclaim – congratulations! For those who have not yet played Episode 2, what can you tell us about it?
Thank you again! It’s been great seeing the reactions people are having to the episode. Episode 2 picks up right after Episode 1 (so, spoilers ahead!) and the aftermath of the death of Director Davies. Samuel McAdams, Erica’s old boss with whom she does not get along, has come up from DC to fill in, and he doesn’t waste any time before getting into her job performance issues. But the office politics take a backseat pretty quickly when Sully, her on-again, off-again boyfriend, is taken hostage from the FBI Station by the Wise Monkey, a serial killer he’s been investigating who likes to take the eyes, ears and tongues from her victims, and she’s turned her attention to Sully. Erica’s put on the case and she’s largely on her own to track down the killer before it’s too late and she loses another person she cares about in some horrible fashion.
The Wise Monkey was your ‘directing debut’. What did this role entail?
The short version, that directing is a lot of work, and I learned a whole lot from it. Longer version: I got to know more about every aspect of development, from being in the animation daily meetings and giving feedback on those, to specifying what the new rooms and characters and cutscene panels needed to look like, to more detailed critiques on the art in general, to learning how to script in the Unity engine and put together game logic, and figuring out how I wanted and needed the new gameplay aspects to function. All of which would involve several rounds of making the specs, seeing what came back, giving feedback, refining what I wanted, changing what I wanted based on what was possible, learning how to be more specific in the first place, etc.
The smallest things that I would never think to mention, in the beginning, I learned later on to not dismiss as tiny or unimportant or things that other people would think to do the way I had in mind. Or how many things needed specific actions, programming, or animations! The reaction someone would have to something, how many panels a cutscene would need (and how to cut down on that!), the different flags you need to turn off and on in a simple conversation between two characters. It’s much more work, and more detailed work, than I thought it was at first; and I never went in thinking it was going to be easy, either!
That’s really why in a way, I feel like my biggest takeaway was learning how much I still have yet to learn. But, I’m glad I finally speak the language, if you will, much better than I did. I loved getting more involved, though, knowing how the different aspects of the development process really come together, seeing how they work and how they’re put together up-close, and I appreciate what the other team members and departments do on a whole new level. And it’s actually changed how I look at games I play now, too. Before I might’ve criticised certain decisions in the game design, but now I’ll look at those things and think, no, I see what they were going for here, but I bet they had to cut that down because of X, Y, or Z. Even for older games, I notice things like how much custom animation was done and how good it looks – I replayed Gabriel Knight 1 recently and was really surprised by that, actually.
How would you describe Erica Reed as a character? What makes her so compelling?
Erica has a lot of qualities that make her relatable and compelling, I think. Despite that she’s an FBI agent and she has a supernatural power, of course! She’s a very determined person, which is a nice way of saying she’s stubborn as hell, but it also means she’s very dedicated to her job, and she takes it hard when she fails. I think she’s compelling because of this – she takes it hard when she loses people, or when she’s about to lose them, and in a way she kind of thrives under pressure. And those losses weigh heavily on her – three years after Scott’s death, she’s still not giving up on closing that case and finding his killer.
She’s also affected by the events in the game. At first, the tragedy in her past and the secret she keeps about her ability make it hard for her to open up to other people. John’s the only person who knows what she can do, and Sully isn’t able to get close to her. But as she starts being able to control her powers and feel more in control of that part of her life, she does open up more to Sully, and she starts to make a new friend in Cordelia as well. Erica has a definite character arc and a strong personality, which makes it really enjoyable to write her story and her lines. Plus, she’s got a great sarcastic streak, and I’ve yet to find one of those I didn’t love!
What’s it like working with Jane Jensen and how much input does she have into Cognition?
It’s great working with her on Cognition – she’s given us some really useful insight when reviewing the outlines and doing her editing pass on the scripts, and helped us keep things focused. Really, though, Cesar and I are driving Cognition’s story – it’s our game and story and while we greatly value Jane’s feedback, the decisions on everything are ultimately ours to make. Her title of Story Consultant is very accurate, I think. She’s in a very mentor-like position of helping us, but the mistakes or successes are still on us.
Are you excited to be collaborating with Jane on Moebius?
Very! And it’s very different experience from Cognition. On Moebius, it’s Jane’s game and her design, and she’s very specific and detailed on what she wants and in her feedback on every aspect, from art to the interface to the notes on the builds. She really knows what she wants, her experience comes through clearly and in a different way than her role on Cognition. It’s been challenging for our team, but in a very good way that pushes all of us to do better and raise the bar on our work. None of us want to do anything but our best work for her.
Does Phoenix Online Studios have a HQ or does the entire team work remotely?
We all still work remotely. We’re mostly located in the US, but it’s a very international team – we have people in Canada, Italy, Denmark. Our VP, Vitek Goyel, lives in India in fact. Working online-only is another challenge, but after doing it for so long with The Silver Lining and now for over a year on Cognition, we’ve really gotten used to it and found ways to make it work for us. Plus, not having to worry about overhead costs like rent and utilities is a huge help for the bottom line, too.
Cesar Bittar seems to be a driving force behind the studio – it was a pleasure interviewing you both on AMO way back in 2011! What’s it like working with Cesar on a day-to-day basis?
Haha! That’s a great question. Hmm, depends on the day! No, Cesar really is a driving force at Phoenix. He’s got a big job at and he throws himself into it entirely. 110%, no joke. Actually, over the summer when we were in the middle of some long weeks, myself and the other directors told him his only assignment that weekend was to go see Dark Knight Rises and talk with people who weren’t online!
But, I couldn’t mind imagine Phoenix working without him. He knows everything’s that’s going on, the status of the episodes of Cognition, of Moebius, of any other business dealings that are going on, he’s giving feedback on the animations, the programming, the website, the PR, the writing, the art, the music. He knows where it all is and where it needs to be, and if he doesn’t, he’ll find out. He’s got his fingers into every aspect of the development and the company. It’s really an inspiring drive and passion.
We’ve got a great team at Phoenix, from Cesar on through to our forums mods, we’ve gone through a lot together from the early days of The Silver Lining through today. Sometimes we may fight like family, but it really is because we’re all passionate about the games and the company, and we want to see Phoenix succeed. It’s great having the kind of support that our team gives us, and Cesar’s a big part of why. You see that kind of drive in the people at the top, and it inspires you to work just as hard.
Do you ever research real life serial killers or are the killers in Cognition pure fantasy?
They aren’t based on specific real life serial killers, but we did do some research on methods and the psychology behind it. Cesar did some research specifically about hangings and the different ways they can kill you for Episode 1. For Episode 2, I looked into some of the ways female serial killers differ from males. It’s mostly made up with just enough realism to make it gritty and believable.
Who will be ‘directing’ Episode 3 and can you tease us with any new details about the events that will occur?
Episode 3: The Oracle has been designed and directed by Cesar and our Assistant Designer, Nick Bryan. Nick came on in the late stages of Episode 1, and he’s been a great addition to the design team. Cesar and I have been working together so long now that sometimes we already know exactly how a discussion is going to go between us, I think, and having a new, third voice in there has been helpful, and Nick’s got a good eye for design, gameplay and story. (And warning, spoilers ahead in the rest of this answer!)
In Episode 3, Erica’s going to be digging into the larger mystery of the game – who is the Oracle, why is this person killing other serial killers, how are they leaving these clues for Erica. The last scene of Episode 2 saw the real Wise Monkey killer being thrown from the Enthon Towers, so that’s the next destination for Erica.
Will Sully return and how will the events of Episode 2 have changed him?
Since Episode 3 picks up shortly after Episode 2, Sully is still in the hospital right now. He was very badly injured, so we’ll see him briefly, but he’s not very involved in the Episode, he’s ‘on the bench’ so to speak. But yes, what happened has definitely changed him, and not just physically. We may not get to see the full effects of this experience on him until Season 2 (which we very much hope will happen!).
Will Erica be learning any new post-cognition abilities?
Hmm, yes and no. There will be something new coming… but I’m going to be mysterious leave it at that!
Raleigh Holmes is superb as Erica Reed, as are the rest of the supporting voice cast. How does the voice recording process work?
Raleigh is perfect! As soon as we heard her demo reel, we were sold. Her recording process is also the exception, though. Most of our actors were found through live auditions in Sacramento and are recorded by our voice over director, Michael Fortunato, who lives in that area. He has a homemade audio recording set-up in his home, very ‘Bastion-style’. Raleigh, however, lives in LA, so for her recording sessions she’s in the studio of our composer Austin Haynes, and then Michael, Cesar, and/or myself or Nick have been in the recording sessions via Skype to direct.
Is it enjoyable to write for these characters?
It is! We’ve worked to give them all distinct personalities and it makes their dialogue fun, finding lines that really ‘sound’ like those people. I love writing Erica’s tough attitude and sarcasm, she’s definitely my favourite. I also really like putting in the small, more subtle touches for when things really affect her, like her phone call with her dad in Episode 2 (I’ll get into that more in one of the later questions).
Who is your favourite character to write dialogue for and why?
Second to Erica, my favourite is probably McAdams. He’s a real hardass and kind of a jerk, but I enjoy coming up with characters who are antagonistic but with good reason. We’re inclined to be on Erica’s side, of course – she’s the main character, she’s the one we step into the role of, and we experience everything through her. So I like to use McAdams to show another side of that, because everything he throws back in her face about her performance and her tendencies is completely true. He may have other reasons for being so hard on her, too, that we’ll find out more about in future episodes.
The critical acclaim has been tremendous for Episode 1 & 2 – in my review I finished by saying that “Episode 3: The Oracle is now poised to be blisteringly good.” Is there added pressure to ensure that the final two episodes raise the bar even further?
Thank you! It’s been great getting such a good reception for both episodes. Before releasing, we knew we loved it, but we were still nervous, it’s so different from The Silver Lining. And then I was incredibly nervous about Episode 2 after the first Episode did so well! So, yes, I’d say there is pressure there, but it only increases the pressure we’ve put on ourselves already. As I said, we’ve got a driven team, and they are always raising the bar on what they can do, something that I think really shows when you compare the first two Episodes – you can see how things got a little more polished. I’d say the same is true for Episode 3, and at the same time it’s got its own really unique feel. I love that about how the Episodes have unfolded, too, each one brings something new and has a uniqueness to it that makes it stand out.
Will players ever get to meet Erica’s father face-to-face? He’s always reachable by text message of course but it would be nice to finally meet him properly!
I get this question a lot, but from a very specific person – my father! My dad was one of the backers, naturally, and donated at a level to get a character modelled after him. So naturally, I chose him to be the basis for Erica’s dad, and now he’s always asking me when he gets to be actually be “in” the game. We will be seeing more of Brian, his presence is one we’ve been increasing bit by bit over the course of the game, actually. So he’ll be seen in person in Episode 3, yes, and he’ll also be in Episode 4. (There’s your answer, dad!)
What do you think has been the key ingredient to Cognition’s success so far?
It’s really been strong all around, honestly, and I think that’s another thing our reviews have shown. We’ve got beautiful artwork, a compelling, modern story with interesting twists, good puzzle design, a great lead character with the perfect voice actress, and she’s a great female lead character as well. The music, of course, is gorgeous as well! I think what makes it stand out is the Cognition power, the gameplay that comes from that – being able to interact with the people, settings, items, and see these visions of the past that give you clues but never spell out the whole thing. Erica’s abilities gave us a great way to put our own twist on the tried and true point and click mechanics.
What’s your favourite moment in Episode 2?
I have two that jump to mind. One is Erica’s phone call with her dad. She finds some… very icky evidence that Sully’s being really badly hurt, and she’s tough but with everything that’s happened, it’s finally too much. She freaks out, John’s not there, so she calls her dad. That conversation went through a lot of revisions to make it just long enough without dragging on, and the final version I love. Her dad doesn’t ask questions, or question her decisions or even her involvement in this dangerous situation. Erica tells him what she needs and he gives that to her. He takes her mind off what’s happening, but at the same time reminds her she can do this. And it works, she hears that, she takes a breath, and she gets back to what she needs to do. I know I’m biased because, again, Erica’s dad is modelled after mine, and while her life is nothing like mine (thank god!), I love the role her dad plays in all this. He’s the hint system, he’s always giving her advice, he’s there for her when she calls, it’s all stuff my dad does for me when I need it. So yeah, I really loved having that moment between them in there.
My second is the Wise Monkey Quiz at the end of the episode. I love how everything came together for that one! This also went through a few drafts, at first it was too easy, then I added in the tray and its gory contents and I love how it turned out. The visuals and music especially for that section brought it to life and just nailed the look and feel I wanted. Plus I liked bringing back that ‘old school’ kind of puzzle where you think, oh crap, I hope I was paying attention!
Thank you for your time and congratulations again – I can’t wait to play and review Episode 3: The Oracle!
Thank you, Marty! This was a lot of fun – and same here! It’s got some really great moments and new twists. It’ll be interesting to see what people think!
GAME REVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1: The Hangman (PC)
GAME REVIEW – Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 2: The Wise Monkey (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Raleigh Holmes (Erica Reed, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Jane Jensen (Pinkerton Road Studio)
GAME REVIEW – Gray Matter (PC)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Katie Hallahan and Cesar Bittar (Phoenix Online Studios)