And Then There Were None - Interview with Lee Sheldon

Interview by Rosemary Young (February, 2005)
Lee SheldonLee Sheldon is no stranger to adventure game players. We've seen his name on a stack of games including The Riddle of Master Lu, Dark Side of the Moon, Wild Wild West, Temujin, and he also had a hand in the more recent Uru. Added to this he's worked as a scriptwriter for such TV programmes as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Charlie's Angels, Quincy, Cagney and Lacy and Murder She Wrote. He's also written his very own murder mystery, Impossible Bliss, as well as a more serious work relating to computer games entitled Character Development and Story Telling for Games.

All this sounds like a good recommendation for Lee's involvement in the new Agatha Christie game, And Then There Were None, soon to be released by The Adventure Company. It was a very pleasant surprise when we first heard this news, and we couldn't resist a chat.

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Rosemary: Hello Lee :) My first question is: How did this come about? We've all known about the Agatha Christie games for a while now and we even threw your name in as a possible writer. So how did you get the job?

Lee: DreamCatcher acquired the license and contacted me last April. Even though I hadn't done a "mystery" game per se, all of my games have mystery in them. I'd also been nominated for two Edgar awards by the Mystery Writers of America for scripts I'd written for TV, and Impossible Bliss was being re-issued this past fall. They thought I might be the perfect choice for the job, and I agreed!

Rosemary: Now I shouldn't make sweeping assumptions, but practically everyone has read at least one or two Agatha Christie mysteries, what about you? I'm talking about before you embarked on this project.

Lee: I've read every novel and story Agatha Christie wrote under her own name. I used to collect first edition mysteries and owned both the unfortunately titled first edition and the first U.S. edition of And Then There Were None. I also have many film versions of her work on DVD, plus all of the David Suchet Poirot's and the Joan Hickson Miss Marple's. I saw the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple's from the early 1960's again very recently as well.

Rosemary: I'm wondering, is it easier to write a computer game when you're the original author as opposed to adapting another person's story? Say, the difference between Master Lu and this game, And Then There Were None.

Lee: Actually I took over The Riddle of Master Lu from another designer who gave up. And of course Francois Robilliard was co-designer. He's the sadist responsible for the Baron's Laboratory, not me! In fact most of my career I've been picking up after other designers who dropped the ball, working on ideas from other people, or licenses. Dark Side of the Moon was my original story based on a sketchy idea that was about a paragraph long, but I can't claim it was original. Wild Wild West was my original story, but obviously based on the license, although I went back to the original TV series for my inspiration after I read the script for the movie and thought uh oh...

But there is a difference between the two games. I could be freer with the structure in Master Lu, but in ATTWN I had a well-known novel to follow. I knew I would need to mess with it a bit. I'm designing a game after all, not a story that the player simply clicks through. In that way it was both easier (my structure was pretty much there) and harder (that lead to constraints on what I could do). For example anyone who's read my book on characters and storytelling in games knows I'm not a big fan of cut scenes or long-winded dialogue. I've managed to keep the dialogue pretty trim, but there are more cinematics in the game than I would have preferred. Having said that though, it made it easier to capture the feel of a novel or film.

Rosemary: And Then There Were None is an interesting choice for the first Agatha Christie game because there is no detective... no Poirot, no Miss Marple! Why this choice?

Lee: Well, for marketing we knew a well-known title would be a plus. Also the island gave us a nice, restricted setting. When your setting is not so restricted you are forced to be more overtly linear in structure. On an island I can often allow the player to wander freely. There are no artificial borders or rails; there's rocks, an ocean... and a storm... that naturally restrict the player's movements. Also it allowed me to create an entirely new character, or at least to extrapolate from a minor character in the novel. I'm sure DreamCatcher will do a Poirot or Marple in more than one of the upcoming games.

Rosemary: So this retelling of And Then There Were None adds an extra character to the story who is controlled by the player, making 11 characters rather than 10. On first reading I thought: "Ooh, I could play myself", but you have 'described' this extra character, he's the boatman. Firstly, did you consider a 'mystery' 11th character so players could be themselves? It could be a boatwoman. :)

Lee: That's a choice the designer always has to make. Do you want the player to be the character, or simply control the character? I much prefer the latter. I have no problem empathizing with female characters in other media. Pretty much everyone can. I also wanted to explore the potential in the semi-romance between two of the characters (this shows up more in the play version, Ten Little Indians, that Christie wrote), and introducing another healthy male into that had possibilities that will hopefully appeal to women. The characters are more human as a result. I hope it will induce players to care if they die or not, and possibly even try to prevent the deaths.

Rosemary: Secondly, is the boatman a 'fleshed out character' with a 'past', or is he just some shoes for the player to slip into? Will we see him on screen?

Lee: Yes the boatman very definitely is a "fleshed out character with a past." All of the ten characters in the original novel had secrets. The player-character is no exception. He has his own reasons for being on the island. Yes, you'll see him onscreen (it's a third-person game). So even the art would have been a problem with a male or female choice.

Rosemary: Assuming (again) that mostly everyone has read an Agatha Christie mystery or two, are you acutely aware of this? Does it increase the pressure to satisfy devotees?

Lee: Very aware! My biggest concern was that the ending to the novel was one of her most famous, right up there with Murder on the Orient Express. I wanted to stay absolutely true to the spirit of the book, but mysteries need surprises. I read the book many times, picked up pieces of background or history or tiny character mannerisms that I could build on. The history of the island for example is speculated on, but I've made it more specific to be able to create an island that is more than just a hunk of rock with a house on it. I paid attention to the description of the house. You'll be seeing a house very different from the 1945 movie. I've added several new features to the island and the house based on the history as suggested in the book, and the history of the south Devon coast in general. Did it add pressure? Maybe at first, but when I set down to work I'm wholly concentrated on making the best game I can. It's fun to write and design games. And I had a particularly fun time with this one!

Rosemary: I believe you had to meet with the Agatha Christie Foundation/Trust/Family? What happened there?

Lee: The name of the company that owns the rights to Agatha Christie's work is Chorion. Mathew Prichard, her grandson, is a part of Chorion. I met with him and several others who are great Christie devotees. Remember me mentioning mysteries need surprises? I pitched the surprises I had planned, and thankfully was rewarded not just with acceptance, but enthusiasm. I hope that the players who love Christie will feel the same way!

Rosemary: Can you tell us briefly about your involvement in the game? We understand you are the writer and designer, so what does this entail?

Lee: I wrote the design document that AWE Games, the developers, are working from. Scott Nixon, who is their in-house designer, is essentially acting as their in-house producer on this project (Mike Adams is DreamCatcher's producer), but I know how un-fun it is to make lists of objects and animations, so I've asked him to contribute some writing as well. There are a number of books and documents. We split the duties on those. Otherwise the changes to the original story are mine. There is no one else to blame! The dialogue, puzzles, etc. are mine. As in my previous games there is more to the gameplay than just solving puzzles and moving through the story. There are a couple of innovations, but I don't want to give too much away. I promise though there are no action sequences requiring hand-eye coordination!

Rosemary: I confess I don't know much about AWE Games, can you give us a short introduction?

Lee: They are based in Sunrise, Florida, about four hours from me, which makes it very convenient (well, better than England). That's near Ft. Lauderdale. They've worked on many licensed games including Scooby Doo 2, Shrek 2, Jimmy Neutron and most recently SpongeBob SquarePants. Their engine is proprietary and the third-person gameplay will feel familiar to those who have played other Adventure Company titles, although I've tried to simplify the point-and-click interface a bit. What I've seen of AWE's work so far has been outstanding.

Rosemary: Can you tell us what balance you're aiming for? In an adventure game story is important, but so are the puzzles and challenges too as they dictate the amount of interaction!

Lee: Given the source there is probably more emphasis placed on story and dialogue than is usual for me, although if you compare my games to others you might think I always concentrate on those. I try to strike a balance. Even here there are plenty of puzzles, and plenty of... er... other things to keep players occupied. And I always strive to make the puzzles a seamless part of the story and environment. Hopefully there won't be any puzzles that feel as if they've just been tacked on, because "a puzzle was needed here." I've also experimented with a couple of different ways to generate suspense, since suspense is important in a game like this, but I'm not giving any details away just yet...

Rosemary: I'm assuming there'll be lots of clues to collect, so will we need a pen and a good supply of note paper, or will the game have a diary or journal to take care of note-taking?

Lee: What would a mystery be without clues? There is a journal. On general principles I'm against a game design that requires anything outside the game to help you keep track of what's going on. We'll have to monitor journal entries carefully to make sure players always have enough information to keep them on track. I hate aimless wandering in a game! I also try to play fair with the players who are trying to figure out the solution. All the clues to help them solve the murders will be there on the island to uncover. Remember that I am a pretty knowledgeable mystery writer. I know a lot of tricks. Don't expect the clues to be easy to spot, or if they are, don't immediately assume they point in the obvious direction it may appear...

Rosemary: Will the game stay in the same historical setting as the book? I'm pretty sure at least one Agatha Christie story has been filmed set in more recent times. Even Shakespeare has been brought up to date. I wonder what you think about this 'updating'?

Lee: The game is set in the original period in the days leading up to the beginning of World War II. I've added more elements of that than the original novel. Certain unusual objects may show up, but they are almost entirely authentic, including a mini-sub the women in my Chorion meeting wouldn't let the player take a ride on. Mathew and I were all for it. It must be a sex thing. In general I'm not a big fan of direct updating (although I don't mind a more subtle homage). It feels to me a futile attempt to attract an audience that really doesn't care anyway. Leave it in the time period. I love exploring the culture and mores of the past. If the audience doesn't get it, well too bad. As soon as I said that I thought: "Marketing may have a different view there, Lee." True, but I'm not in marketing. I get to be a purist.

Rosemary: Lee, you must know that Adventure Game fans are always looking out for ways and means to lure more players into the fold. Are you mindful that an Agatha Christie murder mystery could do this? If so, how will the game cater for both new players and experienced adventurers? It must be difficult getting the balance here.

Lee: Yes. I think there is a pretty obvious crossover between adventure game players and mystery fans. And Agatha Christie is the best-known name in mysteries period! We've had some discussions about whether we'll implement a hint system, and how that will be done. I'm in favor of integrating hints into the game world, nudging the player when she is beginning to wander astray. Another thought is to include an easy version, almost a way to simply walk through the story. I have my doubts about that. What's to stop them from just buying the book? If they bought a game, they should expect some GAMEPLAY. This is all still under discussion.

Rosemary: Last question. It's a general one about adventure games. After a slump in the genre or game type (see I've read your book), there seems to be a bit of a turn around and we're seeing more adventure games on the market at the moment. And there are some promising ones in development too.:) Do you have any comment or explanation for this turn-around?

Lee: Cycles. Everything goes in cycles. Although adventure games still aren't commanding the segment of the market they used to. If we can get off the idea that mechanical puzzles that are extraneous to the story and pretty pictures are all we need to make an adventure game the market may grow. I remain a hopeful sceptic. ;)

Rosemary: Thanks Lee. I don't need to tell you that I'm looking forward to the game!

Lee: Thanks, Rosemary. I am too, actually!

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2005. All rights reserved.