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Interview With Andrew Nelson, Titanic's Producer


January 16, 1998
 

Cyberflix produced the CD game Titanic, Adventure Out of Time, a year before James Cameron got his hands on the story for the movies. It is a classic story and one that translates into many formats. The meticulous research conducted by the design team provided data for the divers that found the ship in the icy North Atlantic, a case of art leading fact. I talked to Andrew Nelson about what it was like creating the CD game.

How would you like the opportunity to dive down to the Titanic with a group of French researchers out to find the sunken steamship? If you were Andrew Nelson, that invitation came to him as a reward to his creative direction of the CD-ROM game, Titanic, An Adventure Out Of Time. Ever since I heard that Cyberflix would be doing a game based on the legendary Titanic tragedy, I have wanted to ask at least a dozen questions about the choice of the subject and the development of the compact disc. The game is a faithful rendering of the legendary ocean liner with all its dignity and luxury. It uses a proprietary technology called Dream Factory developed by Bill Appleton, Cyberflix's CEO, and was the basis on which the company was founded in 1993. (Bill created SuperCard for the Macintosh). Andrew Nelson is the writer/producer member of the Cyberflix team that put Titanic together. He has been with the company since its inception.

What experience best prepares one for involvement in the creation of a CDRom like Titanic, Adventure Out of Time?

Nelson: Patience and, to, use a word that's often overused, imagination. Because you are inhabiting and moving in an artificial environment that is responding to you in real time, you have to really IMAGINE yourself in 1912. Perhaps a better word is "immersed". Our researcher provided us with pictures, photos, images, artifacts, even etiquette books from that era. We bathed in them.

What is there about writing for a CDRom that is different from writing for other performance material?

Structure and pacing. You may have created this world, but you cannot tell the user the order in which to perceive it. Therefore the traditional devices for building tension and drama don't work in an interactive environment. In the Titanic it was the imposition of an external threat (the sinking), one over which the interactive user had no control, that provided the tension. It was one of the reasons users could not "save" the ship despite a strong desire to do so.

The Titanic, An Adventure out of Time, is certainly a dazzling CDRom. Recreating the magnificent ship that is such a distinctive part of our history as a nation must have involved some weighty decisions. From a designer's standpoint, what were the considerations that went into the selection of this particular event as the focus of the story?

Titanic was perfectly suited for an interactive drama with larger than life events affecting the world in which the user "lives". Our time has forgotten that, to the Edwardians, the Titanic wasn't so much luxurious as technically notable: she had electricity, telephones, the latest life-saving gear. To the man on the street in 1912 the Titanic was a symbol of modernity, a fetish. Lastly, as a monument to human hubris the Titanic has interesting parallels to our age, especially when I hear the words "unsinkable" applied to the Internet and the Web.

The 3D world of the Titanic is authentic in every detail. The ability of the player to maneuver the 360 degree environment imparts a feeling of really being there in that atmosphere. What part did "Dream Factory" play in the design?

The immersive qualities of Titanic are due to Dream Factory's ability to plunge users within a 3D environment. Bill Appleton, CyberFlix's president, has been working on these tools for a good part of a decade. This is just the latest extension. There will be even more improvements in our next release, Red Jack's Revenge.

There obviously is a good deal of research attendant with the project. Was that conducted in house and how much of it fell to writers?

All of the research was gathered by Bill Broyles, a freelance "world building" specialist. He made extensive use of sources via the Internet and the Library of Congress' online photo department which gave us access to both footage and still photography. He also dealt with museums and outlets in Northern Ireland, England and Halifax in Canada. Most of his intercourse was conducted over the Internet. Many of the images used were never even printed on paper, they were downloaded as bytes. In a few more years that will be so common a practice no one will comment on it. (If I had stock in photographic supply companies I would sell now.)

Cyberflix works exclusively with Dream Factory, the proprietary software created by Bill Appleton. Titanic is the most sophisticated by far. You have been on board since Cyberflix began. Has the program changed since Jump Raven, Lunicus, and Dust?

Yes. Like all software Dream Factory or DF is under almost daily "development". We are now working on DF 5.0. Titanic and DUST were built in DF 4.0. The biggest difference between the two are faster cuts and edits as well as a larger screen. Most noticeable for users will be the introduction of much smoother animated 3D characters in the next release of RedJack's Revenge.

These technological advances will be liberating for writers as the characters can have much more complex actions, which, heretofore, would have to be communicated through dialog. We'll retire the rigid head shots -- what we call "doing a Dan (Rather)" soon enough.

The main character (in the role of a British Intelligence Agent) is required to discharge his orders before the ship meets with disaster. The element of time is inherent in the CD. What makes this scenario appropriate and why did you choose it?

The Titanic is all about time. It deals with time on many levels. Don't forget the Titanic all takes place as a flashback in the user's mind. Your game experience consists of trying alternative paths and making alternative choices of a past the narrator wants to change. These are things we all think about in relationship to past experiences. It's the what if's in life that have the most regret. "What if I had told her I loved her?", "What if I had caught the plane?"

The visual elements in this CD are outstanding. How did you go about dealing with the graphics people to see that you got what you needed?

The graphic artists were great. I was worried at the start, thinking artists more accustomed to William Gibson than William Morris would be bored by the Titanic. No way. They rose to the challenge. Michael Kennedy, Alex Tschetter and Paul Haskins did the textures and "finish" work on all the sets from wire models built by Zygote, a fantastic bunch of modelers in Utah. Bob Clouse and Billy Davenport did a lot of the 2D and interface design.

The development of characters by combining photography and animation is unique to Cyberflix. What are the advantages of using this configuration and what are the drawbacks?

The way we animate our characters solves a space problem. Using more traditional methods such as QuickTime video, we could use only 7 to 10 detailed characters as video takes up more disk space. To answer that dilemma, Bill created HeadShop which gives you compression rates that allow you to have 30 to 40 characters in a CD. When you get that many, you've got a city practically. Moreover, Dream Factory characters can have practically limitless dialog responses and retain a memory of your actions. The drawback is a certain "Monty Python" quality that bothers some people. However you grow accustomed to it. Look for this problem to be eliminated in Red Jack.

The game's characters in Titanic, Adventure Out Of Time, have an interesting capability. They are able to retain the memory of having encountered the player in a prior meeting. How did you go about enabling this feature?

Because DF allows writers to get into the heart of the programming and rewrite dialog on the fly. It's easy to build on an initial response, test different scenarios and then correct them. For example, changing a greeting from "good afternoon" to "good evening" based on the game's internal clock. It is still artifice, and the talent comes by insuring the artifice seems natural.

What would you say to writers who are thinking about writing for interactive media?

It's a difficult field. Both because the industry is undergoing a shakeout at the moment and because pay scales are nowhere near what they are in Hollywood. That said, at a revolution's start you have a lot more ability to do the things you want to do, and that is what's going on in multimedia at the moment. The people here now are creating a language of interactivity for the future, much the same way film pioneers did at the turn of last century.

What are the writer's job descriptions at Cyberflix and what is the best way to qualify?

There really isn't a job description, it's just people doing what they do. That's the only way I can describe it. It helps to be able to shed blood and tears and be patient with the programmers (who say the same thing about writers).

Thank you, Andrew. I've had some entertaining hours with the Titanic, and I am sure I will have many more. We'll be looking forward to seeing RedJack's Revenge. Put a note in your daytimer to come back when it's ready.



Gloria Stern is a game design consultant and the director of The Virtual Classroom, a distance learning program for creating new media. She is the founder of The Mouse Trap and Two By Two. Her web activities include reviews, live chats, a Q & A column and Gamasutra interviews.


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