Rewind a few months to late August. It’s Gamescom. The
second full day of the show, to be precise. The previous day spent covering the
opening press conferences, beginning at stupid o’ clock in the morning in a
different country entirely, has rather taken its toll. As has the first evening
of reconnecting with PR contacts in a most sober and professional fashion. In
short, I’m desperately in need of a bit of down time.
The searing lights and pounding bass of the show floor are
playing merry Hell with my besieged brain, and the constant assault of shiny,
next-gen particle effects, explosions, and shiny, next-gen particle effects
bursting out of explosions is having a rather discombobulating effect. But then
I step into the small, unassuming booth housing Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse. And ye gods, does it turn out to be exactly what I need.
A promising start
After a minute or so’s quiet, coffee-nursing contemplation,
I’m joined by Charles Cecil, head of Revolution Software and Broken Sword 5’s
lead designer. Bounding into the room with a giddy, slightly side-tracked
enthusiasm, full of apologies for his (marginal) late-running amid offers of yet
more coffee, he’s the binary opposite of the over-slick, over-rehearsed,
PR-spouting producers one so often runs into at these things.
He’s also, with his beaming, utterly informal demeanor, the
binary opposite of what you’d expect from a man attempting to relaunch a
17-year-old point-and-click adventure game series after a seven year break,
without a publisher, at a big, shiny, 2013 game show full of particle
effects and explosions. Over the course of our meeting, "Brilliant!" is to become his unofficial catchphrase. He shows no hint of stress, exhibits a bounty of
energetic excitement, and has nothing but the happiest things to say about his
game and the process that’s brought it about.
Because that rather unique process seems to be the crux of
success for the Broken Sword relaunch. Now free of the trappings of an ‘old’
games industry reliant on publishers and boxed product overheads, Revolution
are free--by way of an incredibly successful Kickstarter bid and the joys of
digital distribution--to do things entirely their own way. And it seems that
arrangement suits Cecil in ways that stretch way beyond the simple matter of
“I wrote my first game for the ZX81”, he explains, as we
discuss the creative and community-driven advantages of going it alone. “And in
those days you sat at desks, and you talked to people and you hoped that they
liked it. And it was really fun. And then we got removed as publishers and
retailers came along.
“Not to criticise them. That’s just the way of the world.
But it got to the extent that retailers, their job was to deal with the public,
and publishers primarily were dealing with retailers. That’s why they didn’t
like public shows, because it wasn’t their job. It was the retailers’ job to do
it. And as developers we found that really frustrating. When people bought
games and didn’t have good feedback, they’d write to us. And we’d get furious,
because these are the guys that you need to support. These are your fans”
A new beginning
Indeed, looking back at things with the 20-20 hindsight of
merry, modern Steam-users enjoying the first wave of an indie gaming
renaissance, it’s easy to see the broken logic of a system that so staunchly
separated consumers from the creators of the product they were buying.
Particularly given that said product wasn’t merely a functional item, like a
can opener or a carburetor, but a very human, very crafted, narrative
entertainment product touching a great many lives on a very personal level. Surely
everyone in that chain of supply, from developer, to publisher, to retailer, to
player, benefits from a close relationship between its two extreme ends?
“Well, everyone except some
publishers”, Cecil continues. “We worked with Virgin, who were brilliant. But
some publishers hate the idea of developers getting close to their audience,
because then they have the ability to bypass the publisher. But I’m not out to
bash publishers at all. We’ve worked with publishers and we continue to do so.
But the big thing [with Broken Sword 5] is that we’ve funded this ourselves, so
we’re the ones in the driving seat. And that’s what’s so exciting”
And with Revolution in the
driving street, the developer can now travel a very direct route to the fans
whose near two-decade enthusiasm for Broken Sword is the sole reason that we
even have a new game to talk about. As we discuss Broken Sword old and new, it
becomes clear that the immense, worldwide goodwill towards the series is
something that crept up on Cecil, initially taking him slightly by
surprise--perhaps as a result of that old developer/player disconnect he now
decries--but now a fundamental part of how Revolution makes its games. Because
Revolution is now very aware that its games are in fact the players’ games.
“Do you remember the goat puzzle?”, Charles asks me,
referring to the legendarily obtuse conundrum in the first Broken Sword, which
charged hero George Stobbart with escaping the horns of an angry goat by way of
abstract use of farming machinery.
“That one is quite infamous. But I didn’t realise how much
feeling there was until I started talking to our community. I had no idea at
all, apart from the fact that some time back I was in a taxi, and the driver
turned round and asked ‘So what do you do, Guv?’ And I said ‘I write video
games. Probably nothing you’ve heard of’. He said ‘Go on, try me’. So I said ‘I
wrote a game called Broken Sword’, and he said ‘So you’re the bastard who wrote the goat puzzle, are you!?’ And I
wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be flattered or not”
And via fandom, the influence of that notorious 1996 puzzle
stretches even further. As we discuss the surge of interest in Broken Sword 5
that, at Gamescom, led a host of journalists to rearrange schedules in order to
see it (Cecil’s appearance at the show was announced decidedly late in the
day), he explains how a charming historically-minded adventure game now has a fanbase as
hardcore and dedicated as that of any franchise you could mention.
“Well it’s extraordinarily flattering. I mean it really is flattering. And what’s also lovely
is, talking about the goat, the fans came up with The Order of the Goat [a
Broken Sword 5 pledge club, joined by adding an extra $7.77 to Kickstarter
donations]. And it’s like, ‘Guys!’ This girl, she created loads of moulded
goats and started selling them on our behalf! And then a week ago a whole lot
of Order of the Goat people decided that they were going to come to York!
[Revolution’s home town] On a pilgrimage! Some guy flew over from Sweden, met
up with a girl from Essex who he’d never met before, but they’re both Order of
the Goat people, and then a bunch of them just came up to York. And it’s just
brilliant! It’s brilliant!”
But doesn’t such a close relationship with a dedicated
fanbase pose rather a double-edge sword? After all, when you invite your
players to have such an open, equal-footed relationship--Cecil will happily be
a Facebook friend of any fan, and is “delighted” to reply to messages--surely
you risk opening the floodgates to the dread curse of internet entitlement?
Particularly with a Kickstarter-funded game, on which you effectively open up
Producer credits to the whole world for a nominal fee.
Apparently not in Broken Sword 5’s case. It seems there’s an
unusual amount of mutual trust going on here. The series just seems to attract
a more benevolent sort of fan, for some reason:
“So we also have 15,000 fans who backed it, who are just
brilliant. I announced that the date had to move because we had a significant
redesign--we agreed to put in new sections and new characters, and in truth
what that allowed me to do was to strip out all the weak bits and add
considerably more stronger bits. And that would have been a good few months. So
rather nervously, in one of our updates I said to our community, ‘I’m really
sorry but it’s going to be a few months later’. Half said ‘Well we didn’t
really believe the date anyway’, and the other half said ‘Well take as much
time as you need’. And do you know, people have been absolutely brilliant. We have tried to keep in touch. That was
the key thing.
a real pleasure to be able to work directly with our fanbase. They’ve given us
a lot of feedback on what they like and what they don’t like, and in many cases
it’s been very valuable and gone straight into the game. I’m terrified for the
moment if they turn, but I think we’re close enough to finishing the game now
that we’re not going to disappoint. And I’m really proud of the game. I don’t
think anyone’s going to think that we haven’t delivered.”
A hand-made tale
So why the distinct lack of gnashed teeth and frustrated
demands? Perhaps there’s just something about Broken Sword that attracts a more
sedate, thoughtful type of fan. This is, after all, a resolutely narrative,
character-focused series driven by whimsical personalities, deep mythology and
a profound love of historical fiction. Not to mention a delightful,
hand-crafted feel. For all the complex Templar conspiracies found in the
early series, this is no over-glossy, high-fallutin’, Assassins’ Creed-style Hollywood
epic. The Broken Sword games, particularly the more traditional 2D ones, have
always had a much more intimate, human vibe than that.
Charles shows me a scene from the new game. The combination
of movie-quality painted backgrounds and cel-shaded character models is a
beautiful sight to be hold. Being a SNES stalwart, I’m particularly taken by
the insane amount of parallax going on.
we’ve got 6 layers there”, Cecil clarifies. “And thank you for noticing. Do you
know what? I live by Yorkminster, and every time I walk past I’m
amazed--because everything is in very specific layers, you’ve got the roof in
the distance, and you’ve got three layers--you walk past and everything just
looks like a cartoon. It’s brilliant.
have what I would consider to be really talented layout artists from the
cartoon industry. And the interesting thing is that they’re used to drawing
things very quickly, because in a cartoon of course, you’re looking mainly at
the characters. Whereas in a video game, an adventure game, actually you’re
examining the background, so you need to put a lot more work into them. Do you
know The Illusionist? One of the girls who was one of the lead designers on
that is working in-house to do this stuff”
The personal vibe of Revolution’s design process continues
as Cecil takes me through one of the character-based puzzles, in which George
must negotiate a particularly spiky Parisian waiter. Given that a late-arriving
French journalist has just walked in, he’s eager to explain the character so
that his depiction of such an archetype doesn’t cause offense.
“What we say is that [our characters are] archetypal, not
stereotypical. There’s a very important difference. So, how much more
archetypal can you get than a mix between Jean-Paul Sartre on one hand and
Serge Gainsbourg on the other? So this is our ‘70s view of every Frenchman.
They’re intellectual, they’re incredibly sexy, and they’ll put you down at any
“Remember, I first went to France in 19… probably 69, and
France was very different then. So this is my vision of France, where there
were pisoir, everybody smoked Gauloises and Gitanes, and they wore different
perfume, and they walked differently and they dressed differently. That’s when
I really loved Paris. It was so exciting. I was about seven, and I said to my
mother, “Where’s the toilet?”, and she said “Go and ask the policeman”. I said
“What do I say?” “Ou est la toilette?” And it took me 10 minutes to build up
the confidence. So I have a great affection for France, and Paris in
By this stage it’s clear that the development of Broken
Sword 5 has been a warm, collaborative, utterly people-driven project,
literally and figuratively kickstarted by the fans, fuelled by their vision of
the series just as much as Revolution's, and, on the development side, entirely
underpinned by the personal talents, interests and experiences of its
designers. From this point on, the interview--as these sort of interviews often
do--freewheels down a long path filled with interesting tangents.
We discuss the comparative narrative merits of Monk and
Herge’s Tintin in relation to Revolution’s desire to create a persistent Broken
Sword world populated by ongoing character relationships. We go over the
apparent discovery--and subsequent loss--in 1944 of the gospels of Mary
Magdalene, Judas Escariot and Doubting Thomas, and the bloody, middle-ages feud
between the Christian Gnostics and Orthodox.
We discuss the Gnostic interpretation of Lucifer as the God
of Knowledge, and Cecil’s red-wine fuelled chat on the subject with the Dean of
Yorkminster (“I have to say that she was great. Though she’s always avoided me
since then, I’m not quite sure why…”) We go over Cecil’s early morning
infiltrations of non-public historical sites on research holidays in France. We
cover a great deal of ground, all of it fascinating, all of it very personal,
and all of it, in some way, fuelling what Broken Sword 5 is all about.
I step out of the appointment feeling rested, reinvigorated,
and ready for the rest of the day. And more to the point, thoroughly excited
about a game I already had high hopes for.
Charles Cecil. Bloody nice chap, making a
bloody nice game in a bloody nice way.
The first half of Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse is out
now, with part two due in January 2014. It’s available on Steam, Mac, Linux and
PlayStation Vita, with iOS and Android ports to follow.