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.
GamesBeat: What do you think goes into creating a strong character in an adventure game, especially a game with a female lead?
Jensen: For any character, male or female, I think it’s important to have … it’s cliché to say a flawed character, but to really think about the good and the bad and make sure that both are present, and it doesn’t just become a glossed over icon of perfection. Just to keep it as natural as possible, especially when it comes to dialogue, but even what the character does and how they relate to other people in the plot line. I have a thing for working with wounded characters. Gabe definitely was lazy, and he was fatalistic and a lady’s man. I think Erica also is a very wounded character. The very first thing you see in the prologue is this devastating thing that happens to her that makes her very tough and very bitter in a way. She’s a full-bodied character for sure.
Bittar: We also made the joke that Erica has a bit of Jack Bauer thrown in to make her really bad-ass. But speaking about the actual flaws, she has a really, really great power, but it also becomes a hindrance to her. Then there’s obviously what Jane was mentioning, which is she loses her brother at the beginning of the story. That is something that she’s obsessed with, which is her drive to continue, but it’s also something that she’s really obsessed about. The story of Cognition in many ways is about letting go. I think that’s what Erica is facing in this particular story, learning to let go of a lot of things.
GamesBeat: Recommend a strong character in a video game that you didn’t work on.
Jensen: Well, I really like Hector from Telltale Games, which is a funny game. I think that’s a really fun character.
Bittar: I will say Baron Von Glower from Gabriel Knight 2. [He’s a] really, really strong character, even though he wasn’t one you actually played. He’s one of my favorite characters in video games.
Hallahan: This is probably one that a lot of people would say currently, but in playing The Walking Dead recently I know everyone’s favorite was Clementine. But I really loved how they did her, especially because you’ve got this 8-year-old kid and yet she’s very fully realized. She’s got a lot of dimensions to her and she changes. They made a kid character who was strong and who wasn’t annoying, which would be really easy to fall into. I definitely enjoyed her in that game a lot.
GamesBeat: What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into video game writing?
Jensen: Usually, when people ask me that, they ask me how to become a game designer. My suggestion is to get an undergraduate degree either in computer science or creative writing or English or art. Usually, most game designers end up coming up through some other part of the company, like either a programmer or an artist or QA. It’s just hard to become a game designer. I guess there are some programs now specifically on that, but I don’t know how easy those graduates find to get directly hired into a game designer slot. But just to practice your own writing as much as possible with short stories and other means before you get that opportunity to do your first game.
Bittar: Like Jane said, it’s a really tough position to get into. In our case, we had to really do our own company so that we could write the stories that we wanted. I think that one of my recommendations would be if you can get a small team and do a small indie game. Make sure that it’s good, that it’s great storytelling and great game play, but don’t go too crazy with it. There’s a huge indie audience out there that will recognize great stuff.
Jensen: It just seems like from my time in game companies that it’s the most coveted position. A lot of people who are inside the company want those positions, so that’s why I say it more often goes to somebody who’s already been with the company and has proven themselves and has maybe submitted three or four game proposals and is eventually given a shot. So, those positions don’t often become open to the public.
Bittar: Everybody wants to make a game, everybody has an idea for a game, and everybody wants their idea produced. So, it’s really hard to define. In our case, I have ideas, Katie has ideas, and then we have a bunch of other people in the studio that have ideas. They’re all great. So, just hiring somebody to write ideas for us when we already have so many in the team, it becomes hard.
GamesBeat: What do you think is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Jensen: Oh, wow. I, personally, have always bristled about the sort of formulaic “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” which I kind of had handed to me a bit when I started writing for Sierra. I mean, I definitely see the value in plot arcs and the positive and negative, and all that sort of technical stuff. I do use it. But just to become that sort of formulaic is not something that I find really valuable as a writer.
Hallahan: I don’t know that I can think of a specific piece of advice. I can remember a writing teacher I didn’t really like all that much. But I think that was because I wrote science fiction and fantasy in his class and he didn’t really get it. So, every time I went there, he would kind of keep asking me, “But why can’t this just be in a normal setting?” I was like, “That’s not the point.”
Jensen: The other one … is “write what you know.” Because there are plenty of amazing writers in the world that have written science fiction and fantasy, and all kinds of stuff that isn’t what they know. For example, there’s a really great British mystery series, it’s written by a woman who lives in California or something. So, I think to be limited to only writing stuff that’s contemporary, realistic, is set in your neighborhood, is just too limiting for me. I frequently have scenes that take place in places I’ve never been or characters who have professions that I know nothing about that I’ve got to research. But that’s what Google is for.
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