We had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Charles Cecil a few weeks back for a short interview. It was such a joy to listen to the stories from the beginnings of Revolution, to reminisce on the golden age of Adventure games and have a look at how much we’ve advanced, learn more about Virtual Theatre and get useful tips.
Read on or watch the video to see what we found out!
Articy: Charles, thank you for joining us today! For our viewers who are not very familiar with your work could you shortly introduce yourself?
Charles: My name is Charles Cecil, I am the founder and the main designer of adventure games for a company called Revolution, founded in 1990 but I actually go back to 1981 when I wrote my first adventure game for the Sinclair ZX 81, we had a 1k of memory.
Articy: So you’ve founded Revolution in 1990 and you were sharing the market with other iconic companies like LucasArts and Sierra Entertainment. Can you share some of your fondest memories of what we call the golden age of Adventure Games?
Charles: Sierra I saw as our main competitor because I knew very little about LucasArts; LucasArts was only just before us. So Sierra I felt were taking themselves much too seriously. If you take games like King’s Quest and its King Graham of Daventry and it’s this ludicrous view of Medieval England none of which had any authenticity whatsoever. King Graham of Daventry, you know Daventry is a place where jumbo jets land, it’s not the place where there was a kingdom. I think had I known more about LucasArts I would have been really scared because LucasArts were also, Tim Schafer once said that they were responding to the fact that Sierra was taking itself too seriously in the same sort of way. So we were both going down after the same objective and that was to create humor in our games, but obviously they were going down the slapstick route and we were going down of the idea of a serious story but ludicrous situations and Sierra fell out of favor quite quickly and obviously LucasArts came to prominence because they are brilliant. But one of the amazing things about Adventure Games is that we don’t compete with each other because if somebody buys Monkey Island 3 which came out at the same time as Broken Sword 2, they’re not going to buy one and not the other, they’re going to buy both because they love adventure games. So I don’t see them as competitors, I don’t see other developers as competitors either, because we all get along very well, we share ideas. Because ultimately if the industry grows and adventure grows in particular then we’ll all do well. But to answer your question, so I founded the company in 1990 with 2 programmers and Noirin, but the two programmers were based in a city called Hull. And I was working for Activition at the time and I wasn’t very rich and I had a 386, a pc 386 which was so wonderful, it was my pride and joy, and I played flight simulators on it. I lent it to the boys, it was worth an awful amount of money, I think I bought it for 1500 pounds, and that was in 1990 so that was several months of wages, it was a big big thing. They had to promise to look after it and we wrote a prototype and we were going to present it to Mirrorsoft who was our publisher at the time and I told the guys that when they drove down, I would meet them in London, but they had to wrap it up and strap it in like a child, they had to look after it. So they did, they strapped it in and that was fine and they drove down and everything was fine, I would have a glass of wine and then we’d have dinner and we talked about what we were going to do, drank a bit too much. Woke up in the morning and I looked out and somebody had smashed the car window to steal the car radio and suddenly I realized I’d forgotten to unpack the PC. We hadn’t backed it up, and my heart sunk, that was going to be the end of Revolution. I went down and I ran down to the car and the radio had been stolen and in the back still strapped in was the PC. Had that not happened, Revolution would definitely not exist, so a little bit shaken I went and I gave the presentation. I remember there was somebody called Bob Jakobs from Cinemaware and Cinemaware were writing amazing adventure games, they were the absolute stars at the time. I gave the presentation of Lure of the Temptress to this room and I finished and it was silence and I looked around and then somebody started clapping and then everybody started clapping and then people stood up, clapping and then they queued to come and talk to me. It just was an amazing feeling, it was like we’ve arrived, we’d written our first game and it’s going to be good, it’s all going to be alright, but had the PC, had that 386 been taken, that would have been the end. So I’m not sure if that’s a good story, it’s a story of potential woe.
Articy: Beneath a Steel Sky was launched in 1994 and now 25 years later you are working on the sequel Beyond a Steel Sky.
Charles: I don’t normally call it a sequel though because it’s so different from the original, it is the spiritual continuation.
Articy: When tackling this type of project, how did the approach change with the added experience of the many years between the two titles?
Charles: So what I wanted to do is to reintroduce this idea of what we called at the time “Virtual Theatre”, it was the idea that characters walk around in the world and talk to each other and their motivations change based on global events or things that happen so the weaknesses of virtual theatre in Lure of the Temptress were twofold. The first is that when you gave your helper character instructions all you could really ask them to do was things you couldn’t do yourself. So we had to come up with a long list of reasons why you couldn’t push some breaks or lift this thing up or sneak past this or watever. And secondly the characters would walk around and you could sometimes wait quite a long time for them to come back, you didn’t know where they were, you could go looking for them, but if they were coming around here and you went around here then it made it even worse, so what actually ends up happening is you just sit and wait it just got a bit boring. That was for Lure of the Temptress, for Beneath a Steel Sky there was one particular puzzle where you could go in and you could change the authority of one of the characters and it meant that he couldn’t then take the elevator which then opened up opportunities because he gave you his card which meant that you could go do things and that felt really exciting, but we never really made very much of it. Then when we went on to Broken Sword then there was no Virtual Theatre whatsoever and the big change I guess is the ability to use Unreal Engine, which we love, which gives us the opportunity to create a very rich 3D world. But rather than a massive great game world what we have is like arenas where every character has a function both in terms of narrative, but also in terms of the gameplay. So as you go around talking to these, you learn more and more about a situation and as you do so, so the solution to the puzzle, the things that are blocking you from progressing, hopefully become clearer and clearer and that means it’s really worth it. It’s not a case of using the porcelain goats on the window and it smashes, it’s a case of coming up with logical puzzles in the world and the more you explore the world, hopefully the clearer the solution will become, because I love the idea of writing adventures where nobody actually needs hints and people play at their own pace. That’s very much the vision for the game.
Articy: Speaking of the Virtual Theatre, can you tell us a little bit more about how that works and does it influence the development process in any way?
Charles: It does, it’s quite a complex development process because there are so many permutations but what virtual theatre creates is an arena in which you have characters that are motivated and you need to learn more about what those motivations are. In the simplest example you’ve got these really vicious birds with razor sharp beaks and they love food so if you can give them food then they’ll behave in a certain way, but they can become very aggressive but they are afraid of loud noises. So once you know one of those, when you come across a puzzle then on top of that the humans are much more complex and they tend to have human emotions so the way to determine that is to talk to them and find out what they need. Droids tend to have something in between, they have human character but they behave in preset ways so what you do is you go into the world and you learn how these characters are motivated and what you’re going to have to do to change those motivations. One of the powerful ways of doing it is to go and subvert the “internet of things”, the computer system which we call Minos and you can actually move commands around and unexpected things then happen and characters then respond to those unexpected things. That’s really quite a powerful tool because we give the player quite a degree of scope to change the things within the world, but then we need to make sure that we’ve accounted for all the potential outcomes that come from that. It’s exciting and I hope it works, the people we’ve showed it to so far appear to be very excited so we’ve got great enthusiasm and also we have a lot of experience with writing stories so hopefully the stories and the puzzles will interweave well, because one of the things I always say is an adventure game should have a story that’s driven forward by the puzzles, you solve the puzzles to move forward, but conversely those puzzles are bound into the story so they make sense. If you find yourself coming to an adventure game and it’s really obvious that there’s a blocker that’s got nothing to do with the story, it’s just simply there to delay progression then you break that sense of immersion whereas if you come across a puzzle that is interlinked deeply with the story then you get a satisfaction of solving that puzzle knowing that it’s going to drive forward the story within the context.
Articy: If you were to give one single piece of advice to someone who is at the beginning of their career developing games, maybe even adventure games, what would that advice be?
Charles: You have to write a game and if it’s in a game jam, then great. Game Jams are wonderful, 4-5 very passionate people, 2 days writing an adventure game using all the tools in the world, use anything that you can. Before you would judge somebody by their qualifications now you judge them by what they’ve produced. If you’ve written a game it shows: you have the ambition and the drive, the organization and the creativity, all these things come together – write a game! What I like to say is that angry birds could have been written by 4 students or the prototype could, because the physics engine which is by far the most complex part of angry birds was public domain. So a really good artist to draw; a really good game designer to design the things and the first two levels could have been written in no time at all. That’s I think really the only advice, have the drive and the ambition to create your own games!