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Today, Technocrat Games founder James Dearden takes us behind the scenes of the development of Technobabylon, and explains why it took took five years from concept to completion. This well-received indie cyberpunk game captures the look and feel of classic point-and-click adventures, but adds its own unique spin to the genre.
Technobabylon began as a practice project made in Adventure Game Studio (AGS) in 2010. I was working overseas, being extremely antisocial, and I decided to get cracking on something I could do with minimal human contact. At this point, I'd made three other games using AGS - a puzzle game, a “lander” game, and a turn-based strategy. This was the first time I'd tried to use AGS for its intended purpose: to create a 1990s-style adventure.
Like many AGS users, my formative experiences in gaming involved classics like Beneath a Steel Sky, Fate of Atlantis and Broken Sword. I've always loved games with a great deal of narrative to them, and the most unique thing about games is their interactivity. By giving the player agency in the plot, games allow storytelling in a way that no other medium can.
So before I get started on a big adventure, I thought that I'd better have a practice run at how this whole “adventure” thing worked. After a few weeks of tinkering and applying anything I could remember from ten-year-old art lessons, I had a one room “escape” game, which involved trying to get a young woman out of her room. I also had a better understanding of how AGS operated. Putting it up on the AGS forum for people to try, I started to get a surprisingly positive response.
Today, 'room escape' is almost a sub-genre of its own, and my short narrative involving freeing a young woman from the studio-of-the-future seemed to resonate. Part 2 expanded the number of characters, and gave a larger perspective on the setting as I started to play around with vaguely sci-fi worldbuilding concepts and introduced the society that she was part of. This proved even more popular, and I began to receive e-mails asking for more details of the setting, and where the story might be going. That's when I resolved to sit down and plan out a plot that actually went somewhere. Four and a half years later, we have Technobabylon as a full-length adventure.
Technobabylon was released for PC in May 2015 by indie publisher Wadjet Eye Games. The game is set in Newton, an independent city-state on the Horn of Africa, in the year 2087. Thanks to advances in computing and mind-machine interfacing, a new subclass has arisen amongst young people spending much of their lives hooked into the communal-dream that represents the internet -- known as the Trance. Those with more worldly concerns live in cities coordinated by benign AI controllers – not rulers, merely the apparatus to ensure maximum efficiency on behalf of the governments.
Players experience the game from both sides of this society – firstly as Latha, an unemployed Trance-addict who finds herself targeted for assassination by forces she never knew existed. Secondly, as Dr Charlie Regis and Dr Max Lao, agents of Newton's police agency CEL, working directly under the command of the city's AI Governor.
This is the background for an early-nineties styled point-and-click adventure, with homages to the classics of cyberpunk and science fiction in all forms; film, literature, anime and especially the games that came before it and that it seeks to capture the feeling of.
What Went Right
1. The Plot
I've always been a big fan of science-fiction in books, films, TV and games. It allows for limitless possibilities, and the potential to explore not just technology, but also human nature. For years, I've had little flashes of thought about what would make a good plot for a sci-fi story, and made little notes here and there for later. Technobabylon represented a kind of critical mass – I'd finally come up with enough small elements to knit together into a bigger narrative.
When it came to planning the game out, a large part of my focus was devoted to worldbuilding. Even if elements were never going to be directly mentioned in-game, I felt it was important, to know what was going on in it; things would affect how a character would behave, what they might say or think. Fortunately, games allow for the possibility of the player picking up a lot more of the extraneous world-detail than other media since you are able to explore at their own pace.
Once the world of the story was built, I began to construct the plot from smaller ideas I'd had before. Concepts like “Is it kidnapping if someone steals fertilised embryos?” and “what if the players are working for the all-seeing supercomputer running the city?” became parts of the structure, and refined to work together. Sometimes, I'd have to drop an element when I realized “oh, hang on, that was in Deus Ex/Neuromancer/Ghost in the Shell.” In the end, a plot took shape which, while recognizably drawing elements from cyberpunk, asked enough of its own questions and followed a new path.
I am a terrible artist. I'll admit that quite freely, and after making the first three parts of Technobabylon as episodes, I'd realised that this was going to be my biggest obstacle. I'd relied on pixel-art as a means of simplifying things to such an extent that I could cover my artistic deficiencies. I can make 3D models, but these wouldn't fit the style of early-nineties adventure art. So, I realised I'd have to outsource this. As my mother would say, “if at first you don't succeed, hire someone else to do it for you.”
I'd seen Ben Chandler's work in his own games, and he's a skilled artist, particularly when it comes to the retro. I sent him an e-mail about whether he'd be interested in joining in on this project, and in response I received a completely-redone version of Technobabylon's first scene, in a much nicer and cleaner style of pixel-art than I was capable of.
At the time, Ben's own weakness, he told me, was perspective, which led us to a fortunate opportunity to compromise – I would construct the scenes in 3D using Blender, and he would apply his talents to make them look not only like they belonged in the early nineties, but that they were oozing with anarchic style.
Adding background details and glowing neon, with a healthy dose of urban decay, Ben knew exactly what each scene needed to make it look like it had come straight out of the golden age of cyberpunk. It took someone else's talent to make it look like the game I'd envisioned!
3: Wadjet Eye
Technobabylon made it to retail in large part due to its publisher, Wadjet Eye Games. The first time I'd heard of Wadjet Eye was reading PC Gamer's review for the Shivah, after which I (along with others, apparently) had confused its designer Dave Gilbert with legendary Monkey Island designer Ron Gilbert. I was impressed that games in this style were still being made and released, and that people would still play and appreciate them. The company went on to publish Joshua Nuernberger's Gemini Rue – from there, getting Wadjet Eye onboard with the project became my “unrealistic best-case outcome” for when I finished developing Technobabylon. As it turned out, this ended up being the case before the full game even got underway.
I got to meet Dave Gilbert in 2012 at AdventureX, a gathering devoted to point-and-click adventures in London. I was able to showcase a demo of the latest re-re-remake of the game's first section I'd engineered for the show, and asked Mr Gilbert what, in his opinion, it would take to get Wadjet Eye to support the project. Among his suggestions was improvement for the art, which led me to get Ben Chandler onboard, and in fact helped seal the deal.
At the time, Ben was also doing the art for Wadjet Eye's Blackwell Epiphany, and was soon to become their first full-time employee (besides Dave and his wife, Janet). From his privileged position, he was able to help my case for what Technobabylon could become, with their support. By AdventureX 2013, we were coming up with an arrangement before I'd even gotten beyond a demo of the new version of the game.