Mar 1, 2012

The Steve Ince Interview

From Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Sword and Revolution Software to So Blonde, The Whispered World and Juniper Games, Steve Ince has been there to help adventure games evolve and show everyone else just how crucial the role of a games-writer can be. Without further ado then, here's the gnomic interview with the writer, artist and game designer responsible for more than a few (adventure and non-adventure) classics:

I understand you started working on games as an artist on Beneath A Steel Sky. Is this actually true? 

Yes, although there were better artists and animators already working there.  The image below is one of my paintings.  I also animated a number of other sprite anims, including the steam in the power room.

But what drew you to it? Was it the apparent quality of the game? The genre? The medium itself?

I was based in Hull at the time and Revolution had its offices there.  Someone I knew told me that Revolution was looking for an artist and I got an interview.  After some test pieces and a meeting with Dave Gibbons I got the job.

I didn’t actually know any specifics about the project or even that Revolution were based in Hull, so it was a really fortunate set of circumstances.

You've also had a rich history in the Broken Sword series all the way from producing and drawing concept art for the original, to doing almost everything for Sleeping Dragon and managing the remake. Any thoughts on the series? Any particularly interesting anecdotes perhaps? Any, uhm, news?

Firstly, I didn’t do “almost everything for Sleeping Dragon”.  While I had a hand in a number of areas, the vast majority of the work was done by a team of talented people, as is the case with all the Revolution games.  It’s always a pleasure working with such people.

The best thing about the Broken Sword series is the way that it’s still vibrant after all this time, which reflects the care and attention that the team put into making it.  It’s also been a great experience for me in my growth as a game developer/designer/writer – so much of my career has been involved in the series it’s hard to imagine I’d be the person I am without my involvement with these games.

I have no news to tell you at this time.

Could you briefly describe the design and production process of Broken Sword III? What were the key choices that had to be made? Were you happy with its reception? Any regrets? Any particularly proud moments?

Like most adventure games, it started with the germ of an idea, which was then built upon through a number of iterations that developed the structure of the story and gameplay in parallel.  Once the high level structure, plot and gameplay objectives were in place we were able to detail up the various sections through a further iterative process.

The key choice that defined how we approached the design and implementation was that of going with direct control 3D, which came about after the direct control version of BS1 worked so well on the GBA.
The game received a number of award nominations and was given best PC game by The Independent (UK newspaper) so I’m more than pleased with the reception it received.

No real regrets, but in hindsight we perhaps should have taken a different approach to the crate puzzles.  Although, considering the small percentage of the overall gameplay they constituted, I do think some people made more of their significance than was really the case.

What about In Cold Blood? It was quite a departure. Do you feel its innovations were succesful?

Yes and no.  I think that overall it was a strong game with a good story.  But I do think that the difficulty ramped up too quickly at the beginning and the artwork and camera angles didn’t always make it clear what was taking place.  Some people loved it while others were less enamoured.

What do you enjoy the most when designing games? What are the major challenges of such an endeavor?

I love the interactions between characters and working out how to make that work in the best way as gameplay.  Adventures, of course, are one of the best types of game in which to maximise this.  The biggest challenge is not letting the characters run away with things – it must always be driven by the actions of the player.

Do you have a certain way of designing games?

I like to work from a broad view in order to get a grasp of the game’s vision and then work up the details from there.  Usually, this is a very collaborative process, which is a huge benefit because everyone involved gives perspective on other people’s ideas and helps to refine initial ideas into more complete puzzles and gameplay.

How about the challenges of writing for games? Or working on dialog and English translations as you did for The Witcher 2 and The Whispered World?

Game writing is an evolving aspect of developing for games.  It’s part of what I enjoy about game development – there’s no time to sit back and take it easy.  The way we view the role of dialogue is changing along with the development of character and voice acting.  We’re doing things now we could only dream of back in the 90s.  The chance to think in terms of character story arcs, sub-plots, sub-text, etc. just wasn’t an option back then.

When I work on games like The Witcher and Whispered World, I’m asked to give a little polish and life to the translation.  The translations are often very good but they can be a little dry and lack the necessary character voice to give the actors something to get their teeth into.  The biggest frustration is being unable to change the number of lines in a conversation.  What works fine in another language in three lines will often work better in two lines in English, say.  This means I have to be creative about how I tweak the three lines to work best.

Sometimes it’s about adapting the lines in a way that the flow of the scene is more natural or better paced.  Sometimes I have to almost look through the translation to the sense of the original scene.

Care to share a few words on your book about writers in video games? 

Writing for Video Games was published in 2006, which seems quite a time ago, now.  I was approached by the publisher who read an article of mine online and liked my style, which is always very flattering.  The book covers a broad, high-level look at writing for games and tries to place the writer in the context of game development for those who are unsure how this works.  It is not about teaching people how to write but how writers can look at their own skills and adapt them to the games industry.  For writers already in the industry some of the book will be stuff they already know and have experience with.

And did you draw upon your writing experience when working on And Then There Were None? It was a grossly underrated I believe and one adventure I sincerely loved.

I had a very minor role on this game.  I was simply asked to do some minor script editing to ensure the British feel of the English used.

You've also worked on So Blonde. The only one of your games I haven't played. Well, should I?

Everyone should play So Blonde.

I’m pleased with the story, characters and dialogue on this game and the Wii/DS version.  The main character goes through a genuine development arc and although she starts out as a whiny spoilt teenager she quickly grows into someone much more self-sufficient.

You've been walking down the independent route via Juniper Games for quite some time now, but what exactly is Juniper Games? And why did you decide to go for it?

Juniper Games is really just a label under which to develop some personal projects, not all of which have come to fruition yet.  It’s not a company or a studio (yet) but it enables me to compartmentalise my projects somewhat.  It’s a way of separating my freelance writing and design work from self-developed projects.

Mr Smoozles Goes Nutso was the first Juniper game and a pretty brilliant arcade adventure too. Are you happy with it (and I do mean both from a creative and a commercial point of view)?

Thank you.

Creatively, I’m happy with it, commercially, not so much.  It got a lot of great reviews and was even Game of the Month at Game Tunnel, but people just didn’t buy it in the numbers I’d hoped they would.
I’ve been toying with the idea of creating an iPad version with voices but so far the tools aren’t available for me to convert it easily.

And now you are working on some games aimed at children, right? 

I’m developing ideas for Star Sweet and Honey Heart, which is going slowly because I need to get a number of things working right before I can push on in earnest.  However, the videos got some great response from people and kids loved them, so I’m really encouraged by this and may well be able to release a demo of sorts in the next few months.

Whatever happened to The Sapphire Claw: Serpent Eyes? 

It’s currently on hold.  I want to return to it at some point but I don’t know when that will be.

Any thoughts on adventure gaming and its current state?

If you look at the broader spectrum of adventure games – casual adventures, new platforms, etc. – the adventure genre is in a great state.  I think that the trick for developers is to create new games with a wide spread of platforms in mind.  Revolution has proved that the touch-screen devices are perfect for adventures.  Double Fine has proved that there are plenty of people willing to crowd-fund the development of quality adventures.

What about the future of gaming. Could we expect something artistically interesting? 

I hope so.  I have ideas of my own but when I’d get the chance to take them further I don’t know.  I’d like to do something that utilises my recent experiments in digital painting.

Do you believe that games could matter they way other mediums do in politics, culture etc? The new intro to Broken Sword was, after all, deeply political.

I don’t see why not.  We might need punchier, shorter games to have the impact that a hard-hitting film would have, but there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be done.  The trick is in making the game fun at the same time as delivering a deep message.

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  1. Blog Narrator3/1/12, 4:51 PM

    A most excellent interview dear Gnome, thank you and mr. Ince for this gem.

    Also an ingenius anti-edlerly device you've fitted on your front door :)

    1. Thank you dear Narrator. And, uhm, I really had nothing to do with the device. It's most obviously he work of agents provocateurs.

  2. I had no idea who Steve Ince was until now. Great work!
    I do like the art design of So Blonde as well.

    1. Thanks my friend! Time to give the games themselves a go then :)