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Thanks to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, more eyes than ever are focused on graphic adventure games. Known for its brain-teasing puzzles and interactive storytelling, the genre is currently experiencing a surge in popularity it hasn’t felt since the 1990s. This is also thanks, in part, to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, which is where independent developer Phoenix Online Studios turned for its latest project, an episodic mystery called Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.
Like The Walking Dead, Cognition features a branching storyline, a comic-book art style courtesy of artist Romano Molenaar, and gory subject matter. As psychic FBI agent Erica Reed, the player must track down a serial killer who has taken her brother as one of his victims. GamesBeat recently chatted with Cognition’s co-directors, Cesar Bittar and Katie Hallahan, as well as industry veteran Jane Jensen (Gabriel Knight, Kings Quest, Gray Matter), who worked on the project as a story consultant, about their writing process and why detective stories make great adventure games.
GamesBeat: Cesar and Katie, how did you two come up with the idea for Cognition?
Cesar Bittar: [Cognition] was handed down from another company to us. They had a very complicated, nonsense plot going on. We sort of took some of the stuff that they had and we fixed it and completely revamped it into a whole new story. Back then, we had two different stories going on. We actually brought them to Jane and [she said], “You guys, just choose one, because if you try to do both it’s just going to be too [confusing]. So, we decided to go with the story that we could develop in the long-term, which was Erica’s powers.
GamesBeat: Jane, how much input did you have in Cognition’s story line as a consultant?
Jane Jensen: Well, they sent me the first draft of sort of a plot outline. Cesar’s actually funny because he’s a very, very convoluted, complex plot writer. So, a lot of times I just had to say, “You guys are trying to do too much in this episode. Let’s focus, cut it down. What is the primary thing? How do we get this twist ending to work?” So, it was really more of a mentorship. But I like to think that I had a good influence on it.
GamesBeat: Jane, a lot of the games you write, like Gabriel Knight and Cognition, are detective stories. What is it about that genre that attracts you?
Jensen: Well, actually, the idea for Cognition, the basic theme and plot of it, came from Cesar and Katie. One of the reasons why I agreed to be part of it was because it was a really good mystery story. The games we’re working on now are also in the same genre. I think, for me, it’s really important when I work on an adventure game that it feels like the interactivity and the puzzles are very, very tightly integrated to the story. So, I mean, unlike something like Myst or The 7th Guest, where you just run into these random puzzles that don’t really have any true integration with the story, the mystery genre really allows you to do that because that’s kind of what a mystery is. It’s an investigator of some sort who’s trying to find clues and interview people and figure out what’s going on. So, that all translates really well into puzzles.
GamesBeat: How difficult is it to create a coherent story line when you’re collaborating with multiple people?
Bittar: Well … I’ve been working with Katie for a while. We discussed all the seeds of the story that we had and then I kind of came along with the idea of “let’s do something with the cognition power,” let’s do something with the power of the mind. Then at that point, once we had an initial outline, what we started to do was “I’m going to take the first episode. Katie, you’re going to take the second episode.” That way, obviously, we read each other’s work and we comment and we give ideas, but then each one of us owns a little piece of the full work. That way it’s easier for us not to try to fight over what gets in it.
Katie Hallahan: Yeah, we’d be stepping on each other’s feet too much.
Bittar: When we brought it to Jane, we were aware that she was going to have an influence in it. I tend to be very protective of my work, but once I decided to do this I said there’s a reason we’re bringing it to her, so that she can help us go through the threads of stories and make it … take whatever is really strong and keep that. That’s exactly what Jane did with our work. I mean, I’m very glad that we did because, as she said, I tend to convolute things too much. Getting some perspective on the story and what really matters on the story has been Jane’s biggest contribution.
GamesBeat: Do you think gamers are ready for more mature, more in-depth storytelling in video games?
Jensen: I think there’s been a revival in interest lately, from my point of view anyway, over the last year or so in adventure games in general, and more open-mindedness about them. So, it’s great to see something like The Walking Dead do well. As for how much of a real shift it is, I think that remains to be seen.
Bittar: We’ve had [mature storytelling] for a while. I remember the first time I saw a game that really grabbed me and I went “wow” was with Jane’s own Gabriel Knight 1. Back then, I don’t know that we expected to see that kind of storytelling in a game, and she came in with that story and wowed everybody. I think we’ve had that kind of storytelling before. It’s nice to see it really be recognized again.