Cambridge studio Ninja Theory made a splash early on in the PlayStation 3's lifespan with Heavenly Sword, a game published by Sony that blended melee combat and surprisingly deep characterization.
With its next game -- the first since that title -- the studio co-founder and chief designer Tameem Antoniades hopes to amp up the drama, which he sees as integral to the game as its core gameplay. To this end, he's brought in Alex Garland, writer of the tense zombie flick 28 Days Later.
Here Antoniades discusses the process integrating the writer with the game team, as well as how to strike the correct gameplay between balance and story, adapting the Chinese Journey to the West myth into a contemporary game story for a Western audience, and how the current generation, emerging technology, and the state of the independent studio landscape is affecting game development.
What was the creative process for this IP? Obviously, it's based on the Monkey King stories that have inspired a lot of media, but how did you arrive at this?
Tameem Antoniades: It's partly the relationship we set up between Nariko and Kai in Heavenly Sword. I read the forums, and a lot of players really responded to that. They really care about this secondary character, which was great.
One of my favorite games of old was on the Amiga, Another World, also known as Out of this World, yeah. In fact, I spoke briefly to Fumito Ueda once during a conference, and he said it was that game that inspired him to make Ico.
And so I actually quite like the idea of having a secondary character and to see how it would affect gameplay and story. I see those as equals, story and gameplay. They're both as important as each other. They both support each other.
Relationships between characters can really bring games to life, in a way. Just one solo person going through an adventure, it can feel very canned. It doesn't have a sense of realism.
TA: Yes. And I think that's partly why in movies you have all these secondary actors to play off. Otherwise you've just got this lone guy, and the only way he can really tell you what he's thinking is by actually saying it. That's not believable for a guy to run around just talking.
So, yeah, I think dramatically it's really important to have that secondary character, especially like a game Enslaved where the Monkey character, he's actually a loner. He doesn't like people. He doesn't speak much, so he needs someone to kind of bring it out of him.
Did you look at any of the other adaptations? There's everything from Dragon Ball to what Damon Albarn did. There's a huge variety of adaptations for this material. Did you look at any, or did you just go straight from the legend?
TA: I read the original book, and there's this one particular version, the Arthur Waley version. That's the one that's actually considered the best. I was just blown away by how cool it was, like so much imagination -- a 400 year-old book, and so rich.
In the UK, there was a TV series of Monkey, a Japanese TV series that was aired. Everyone over 30, say, remembers this show, and there's a real cult following behind it. In fact, we had the monkey character in our first game, Kung Fu Chaos, as one of the characters. [laughs]
And I did go to see the Damon Albarn show as well, which I thought was just phenomenal, really phenomenal. It's interesting that when it gets adapted; it never gets adapted closely to the source, so I wasn't that concerned with staying true to the source. It's more loosely based on it.
It's interesting because very often with Western developers, people concentrate on Western myths, not Eastern myths, so it does add a difference. Do you find that that allowed you to be freer because people aren't maybe as familiar with the source material?
TA: Yeah. Basically, it seems like we're treading old ground. I'm talking collectively we as an industry. A lot of our games are based on the same mythos and influences that we grew up with -- Blade Runner, Aliens, Lord of the Rings. You can pretty much count them on a hand, and that will cover about 80 percent of games out there.
I do like Eastern cinema, Eastern movies, because they've just got a totally different perspective on it, which I find refreshing. I would never have read Journey to the West if it wasn't for the fact that we were doing Heavenly Sword and I was doing research and finding out about the mythical Chinese world. Yeah, I loved the fresh perspective.