Not So Nutso - Interview with Steve Ince

Interview by Gordon Aplin (October, 2006)
Steve InceSteve Ince is a freelance writer and game designer with a love of creating online comic strips. Steve spent eleven years working with Revolution on games such as Beneath a Steel Sky, In Cold Blood, and the very popular Broken Sword series: Shadow of the Templars, The Smoking Mirror and The Sleeping Dragon. He was also a script editor for Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None.

As an independent game developer he has recently released Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso based on his comic strip Mr. Smoozles, and is currently working on Juniper Crescent - The Sapphire Claw. Steve took time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about computer games.

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Gordon: Hi Steve. Thanks for making the time to talk to us. First up, what is it about comic strips and computer games that attracts you?

Steve: Hi Gordon. I like writing, particularly dialogue, and I like drawing. Comics were an excellent way of combining the two. I originally started out wanting to write and draw superhero comics, but when I started creating shorter comic strips I realised that I enjoyed working with humour and characters so much more. Games were a big extension of this, particularly with adventures — working with the interaction between characters, looking for ways to develop the art and so forth.

Gordon: Yes, Adventure games are ideally suited to humour and character interaction. How did you first get involved with creating games?

Steve: I was in the process of changing careers and someone told me that Revolution was looking for an artist. At that point I had no computer art experience, but was given an interview and took my portfolio to show Charles (Cecil) and Dave Gibbons, who were working on Beneath a Steel Sky at the time. Although I got the job, I had to learn how to use the software very quickly and prove I could do what was required. I was initially employed as an artist, but I swiftly moved into other areas because I had an interest in everything. Basically, the variety of work involved in making a game appeals to the creative in me.

Gordon: What were some of the games that influenced you?

Steve: Well before I joined Revolution there were two games that I loved to play on my C64 — Beamrider (which was just a simple shooter, but very addictive) and Staff of Karnath, which has actually had a big influence on Nutso. Then, of course, there are the classic games like Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Final Fantasy VII, The Longest Journey, Half Life, Doom, and many more. I play a wide variety of games and demos and everything has an influence of sorts.

Gordon: I skipped the C64 so I missed those first two games. What was Staff of Karnath about?

Steve: It was a game that took place in a house which had an isometric look and some excellent sprites — some of the best animation I'd seen at the time. You had to wander around the rooms finding 16 pieces of a key, which you had to place in the basement one at a time. Some of the rooms had specific puzzles or dangers and in one of them the time sped up so you had to be quick in there as you only had a set time in which to complete the whole game — four hours I think. It was very hard, but very addictive.

Gordon: I just might google for that one. I'm pleased to see you also liked the Lucas Arts classics, what is it about those games that attracted you?

Steve: More than anything it's the sense of fun. Too many games are taking themselves too seriously. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we're playing games and loading up the first part of DOTT will give me a great perspective on this. Grim Fandango, too, with it's brilliant dialogue, really sets me in the right mood sometimes.

Gordon: Rosemary and I still fire up those games occasionally and we just know we are going to have fun.

Steve: I'd love to be able to create a game that people play again like that.

Gordon: We still forget how to do some of the puzzles too. Speaking of fun, the Broken Sword games certainly captured the imagination of adventure fans, why do you think that is?

Steve: Attention to detail, an engrossing story, strong characters, a combination of serious and fun interactions. George is an everyday sort of guy who is thrown into a series of exciting and dangerous events and rises to the challenge. There's also the sense of conspiracy that gets people intrigued and hooks them. The fact that the games blur the line between fact and fiction also helps hook people, too. In a gameplay sense, the puzzles were always designed to be logical within the game's setting. In another sense, it has a completeness to it. The first one in particular was really a good match of setting, style, characters, dialogue, interaction, puzzle, etc.

Gordon: I would agree with that. And the blurring of fact and fiction didn't do Dan Brown any harm.

Steve: Certainly not, though I think George is a better character than Robert Langdon.

Gordon: Now we could get into a comparison between the two, there are some similarities. The Templar link, George and Nico, Robert and Sophie .... Do you think Dan Brown played Broken Sword?

Steve: I read both Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons and there were places in both where I felt that he had, though it's difficult to actually put my finger on why. There was just something about the interplay between the two main characters and the setting that just seemed to say, "Broken Sword".

Gordon: Now if we could only get the people who enjoyed the books to 'discover' adventure games.

Steve: Unfortunately, their first point of contact would likely be the Da Vinci Code game, which is not very good from what I've heard. That would turn them off for life.

Gordon: You should read my review ... they loaded it up with unnecessary combat which wasn't a feature of the book or the movie. Clearly they misjudged their audience.

Steve: Don't you feel that this is done a lot with games which are based on licenses? The strength of something like Buffy or The Simpsons comes from the characters not from action, yet the games that are created from these licenses are primarily action games. This is why we never get a good Batman or Doctor Who game — they handle them wrongly.

Gordon: Absolutely. Rosemary and I have often discussed this. I have a brochure here for the game Brady Bunch Kung Fu ... it's priceless. I think that they only see one sort of game that sells to teenagers, so every game has to be the same.

Steve: Some kind of blinkered thinking. I don't know if you saw the latest Dr. Who series, but some of the episodes, particularly with the Cybermen, were excellent, but would be perfect for an adventure not an action game.

Gordon: We're still watching the latest Doctor Who here. I have always thought it would make a great adventure game series. Back to Broken Sword for a minute, The Sleeping Dragon still had a great story, great character interaction but seemed to have a more 'action' feel. Were you surprised that this change in emphasis wasn't embraced by all?

Steve: No, whenever there's a change like this there's going to be those who react against it and for perfectly valid reasons. People play games that suit their mood or disposition and if a game's style doesn't fit that they will not embrace the change. With that game leading on the consoles it seemed natural to develop a style that suited the consoles more. Unfortunately, we neglected to make the PC interface as strong as it should have been.

Gordon: My problem with the emphasis on consoles is that it inevitably seems to change adventure games into action games and that is not something I support.

Steve: I have no problem with action, but I think it's maybe got to be a clear action-adventure, like In Cold Blood.

Gordon: I think the fans of Broken Sword 3 were looking forward to a game that was similar in all respects to the first two. I don't mind a little bit of action but I hate the repitition when I fail the action sequences.

Steve: I can see how that would be frustrating.

Gordon: I could chat like this all night but we'd better move on. What are the three components you think make a successful adventure game? You don't have to limit yourself to three.

Steve: If I knew that I'd be rich. Seriously, though, strong characters that drive the story are a must. This is why The Longest Journey, Gabriel Knight and Sam & Max are so popular and they have such different characters. I like to think that adventures work best when the gameplay and story are well-integrated. If you feel the puzzles and interaction are advancing the story or working towards doing so it feels much more rewarding. Adventure games should feel like a partnership between the developer and the player. Puzzles should offer a challenge, but should never be so difficult that play grinds to a halt and causes the player to feel frustrated.

Gordon: I agree. Puzzles needn't be obscure. I think feedback is important — this is where clues can be provided.

Steve: Yes. A developer doesn't necessarily have to make puzzles easier for an easier game setting, just provide more clues.

Gordon: I like the idea of a partnership between the developer and player and I feel this most in humorous games like in the LucasArts classics and, if I may say so, in Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso. Is it just that sense of fun you mentioned?

Steve: It's a big part of it, but it can work in serious games, too. It's about establishing a feeling between the developer and the player which basically says, "this is the game and how it works and I'm not going to screw around with you." It's about not killing the player without warning, or throwing in puzzles that are out of context. It's about giving a vision to the player and keeping to that vision. Yes you can build and develop that as you go through the game, but do so in a consistent way. It's about trust. "I've set you this puzzle and it may be difficult, but the solution is to hand somewhere."

Gordon: That's like what I said in our last editorial, about being on the same wavelength with the developer. The game's internal logic must be consistent so that the puzzles make sense within the context of the gameworld.

Steve: Exactly.

Gordon: When I play an adventure game I think of the creator/s and I quietly thank them for a good puzzle. How do you set about creating puzzles for us poor adventurers, especially as we're a diverse bunch. Some are first time players and want it easy, and then there's the veterans who want a greater challenge?

Steve: Sometimes it's finding a balance by creating a mixture of easy and difficult puzzles. This allows you to vary the tempo or pacing of the game, too, particularly if the gameplay and story are well-integrated. Sometimes it's not about making the individual puzzles difficult, but layering them on top of one another, or have more than a single strand of puzzle taking place at the same time. If the player has a number of objectives to reach and obstacles to overcome and these things overlap and intertwine, they really have to think about the larger picture and approach things logically. For me, I like to build things organically where possible. The puzzles almost grow out of the way the game's story is developing. I hope this makes them feel more natural and makes sense.

Gordon: Yes. The multilayered approach allows the player to have something to be working on, an obstacle to overcome, even if it is not the main one, so progress is made. A single, almost impossible puzzle is like a dead end.

Steve: That's right. If it's something that requires a different train of thought it can really stump the player. The goat puzzle in BS1 is a perfect example. It also illustrates the partnership ideas.

Gordon: Ah yes, I remember that @%#! goat!

Steve: The solution to this requires the player to do something that they wouldn't have done previously, which kind of stretches the partnership. If they don't make that connection they grind to a halt. One of the Playstation magazines was still receiving letters about that puzzle five years after the game was released.

Gordon: Yet the puzzle made sense in that the goat was tethered and it only took a bit of trial and error to see how it could be overcome.

Steve: But many people failed to make the connection because they were thinking they had to use an inventory item or something similar.

Gordon: That's true, I think I exhausted my inventory before I hit on the solution. Moving on again. How big a step is it to go from being a member of a team creating a game (with perhaps someone else's ideas and vision guiding it) to being out there on your own creating your own game?

Steve: The biggest step is getting people interested in your game. I have a number of game designs at different stages, but getting publishers interested is nigh on impossible. One difference is that I was always having to make sure that any ideas fit someone else's vision. When I work on my own stuff I know the vision much more thoroughly and the characters and situations are my own to develop as I see fit. Having said that, I'm currently working on the story and design for an adventure game which is being developed by another company. Their vision and the way they work really gells with my own thoughts and working processes and it's going very well.

Gordon: Your own vision allows for that organic process between the characters and the situation to come up with the unexpected that you can run with because it absolutely fits, even if you didn't plan for it.

Steve: To a certain extent, yes. With Nutso it was easy because I was designing and implementing as I went, though within an overall plan. When you work as part of a larger team, much more needs to be planned in advance in order to schedule the work. Sapphire Claw is something in between. Although I have no idea when this will be made.

Gordon: Can you tell us anything about the game you are working on with the other company?

Steve: Not at this time, sorry. The game hasn't been officially announced, so it would be wrong of me to say anything. I do think you'll like it, though.

Gordon: We knew you were working on Juniper Crescent then Mr Smoozles popped up (as he is wont to do). How come?

Mr. SmoozlesSteve: I was waiting on some publishers to come back to me on Sapphire and thought I'd see if I could come up with a different type of game. It just grew from there. For quite a while I was splitting my time between the game and writing my book.

Gordon: Ah yes, I'm looking forward to your book, Writing for Video Games. Might even review it. Steve, I won't hold you up any longer. It's been really great talking to you, thanks for your time.

Steve: It's been a pleasure. Thanks Gordon.

Gordon: Cheers Steve, catch up with you again.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2006. All rights reserved.