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Interview: Revolution's Cecil On A Career Of Storytelling

Interview: Revolution's Cecil On A Career Of Storytelling

April 28, 2010 | By Lewis Denby

April 28, 2010 | By Lewis Denby
More: Console/PC

[Charles Cecil, the adventure game legend behind the acclaimed Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky, talks to Gamasutra about his 30 years as a storyteller, his work on the new Doctor Who video game series, and how "point-and-click isn't broken."]

Charles Cecil's influence in the games industry as a storyteller is longstanding. He's the founder and managing director of UK-based Revolution Software, with credits that include Beneath a Steel Sky and the Broken Sword game series -- two highly admired and acclaimed properties in the adventure game genre.

He's also just announced that he's working with the BBC and Sumo Digital on a series of videogame adaptations of the TV series Doctor Who.

Cecil has been making games for 30 years, hugely acclaimed ones for 20. He's clearly confident in his abilities as a designer, and has a lot to be proud of -- but there are times when he sounds as if he can still barely believe he's actually doing this.

Here, we find out about his relationship with the adventure genre, as well as his new Doctor Who game series, the opportunities of independent development, and the Minesweeper-based game he revealed, then went silent about, last year.

What is it that's attracted you to the adventure genre? Because you've basically built a whole career out of it...

Charles Cecil: I think that the whole idea of interactive narrative from a creative perspective, from a theoretical perspective, is actually fascinating. What we are doing is obviously pioneering a totally new form of entertainment, in the way that, if you think of other entertainment media -- television has a lot more to do with film, and obviously books and plays -- we have something quite extraordinary. And what I find fascinating is that while there are clearly huge opportunities, there are also great constraints.

The opportunities are clear. Well-written videogames are incredibly compelling. What I think is quite interesting is that there was a period at one point where it was felt that people from outside the industry could write much better stories than we could, and so scriptwriters were brought in, and actually what everybody failed to realize is that the medium inherently has constraints. Like the way that we build empathy with characters is much easier, because in a non-linear medium it's all about looking at a character, and building an emotional bond with them -- an empathetic bond -- and then experiencing their emotion through that character.

But clearly if you're controlling that character, then the relationship is different. Yes, there is an empathetic bond, but it's also much more associational. And that's why, certainly in our infancy as an industry, there's this sort of emphasis on licensed characters, because the great thing about a licensed character is you immediately inherit all the empathy that the character built in whatever medium it's come from.

But the thing that's quite interesting -- and this is what I try to play around with quite a lot -- is in a film, or in any linear medium, you would have a disconnect between the information given to the audience, and the protagonist, so you create tension. The example I rather like is that, in a slasher move, you know the slasher is sitting behind the tree waiting for the teenage girls who are skipping along. They're wandering around, they're thrilled because they're going about, y'know, whatever they're doing, and there's an incredible tension created in the audience because you know that there's something waiting for them, even if you don't quite know what.

In a game, obviously, you can't quite do that to the same extent, and so I think it's fascinating how you create the disconnect, and I think it's important to create that disconnect, because it allows a certain level of tension.

In terms of adventure games, obviously you've rebooted some of your IP on the iPhone, and also the Wii and the DS...

Slightly more than rebooted...

Of course, sure...

[Broken Sword:] Director's Cut has considerable additional content...

You're absolutely right. But in terms of working on different platforms on a genre that's traditionally associated with PC gaming, what sort of a future do you see in these other formats?

Oh, I think if you actually play it on the DS and on the iPhone, the tactility of it is absolutely wonderful. What we decided was that the point-and-click wasn't broken, so why change it? So fundamentally, a lot of it is very similar. But the ability to actually feel the screen and to play the game through the tactility of touching the screen with your finger or with the stylus -- I think it adds a lot. I think it's very exciting, and I had absolutely no idea it would work as well as I feel it has done.

Part of the reason, of course, is that we were very happy and very prepared to just throw everything out and start again with the interface. And, universally, people have said that the interface we've come up with is infinitely better than the one that Monkey Island did. And, I mean, I think that's a fact. It is.

And it's interesting, because Monkey Island was very ambitious, and very, very good, and I love what they've done with the art. But clearly that was a group of people who were probably scared to make brave decisions. They were happy to commission vast amounts of art so you could see what went before and what went now, but sometimes you just need somebody who's gonna sit there and say, "well, actually, it doesn't work very well, so let's throw it out and start again."

And I think if you look at companies like LucasArts, who I admire enormously, their attitude towards fans who wanted to do tributes to Monkey Island is very, very different to the way that we handle it. But again, it's because ultimately we are a very small group, and we make a decision, and I think probably time will prove that we were right to be very relaxed in the way that we allowed people to create products as long as they didn't commercially exploit them -- and that's a line that I've been very clear that cannot be crossed.

But beyond that, we see it as very flattering. Broken Sword 2.5 -- I mean, great! I really admire the guys that did that. We provided them some sprites and stuff, but the rest of it they did absolutely by themselves.

You mentioned that you don't think the point-and-click is broken. A lot of people have said it's a dying genre, and then people have argued back and said it's not... do you think it needs to make significant changes to stay relevant as it moves forwards?

Oh, yes, it does. Look at something like Professor Layton, which is very simplistic, but it's much easier to play. I think point-and-click in the old sense... I have to say, I think point-and-click on iPhone actually works really, really well. But what I was quite pleased about is that one of the criticisms people made of the [Broken Sword] Director's Cut is that the new material felt very contemporary but the old material felt a little bit old-school. A couple of people said that, and I was thrilled, because it means that, actually, according to these people, we've successfully reinvented the point-and-click to feel contemporary.

But I think as an interface it's perfectly relevant. I think obviously what people expect is different. In Broken Sword we had more close-up screens and more mini-games, and of course they were absolutely relevant to the gameplay, and I think they improved the overall feel of it. Part of what our next game is going to be is a partnership with [Watchmen co-creator and Broken Sword artist] Dave Gibbons, so it'll be very comic book orientated. And I think there's a lot you can do with comic books as well, particularly if you want to keep your memory footprint quite small so you can download stuff through Wi-Fi or mobile.

And this next project with Dave Gibbons, is this the Minesweeper-based one?

No, no ... Absolutely nothing to do with that.

Okay... Because this kind of went off the radar for a while.

Yeah, I know, I need to get back on it. The reason I haven't done anything is that, over the last year, we finished Broken Sword: The Director's Cut on DS and Wii, we've done Beneath a Steel Sky on iPhone, we've done Broken Sword: The Director's Cut on iPhone, I consulted to Disney on a really nice little game based on A Christmas Carol, and obviously I've been working with the BBC on Doctor Who. So there just hasn't been time to do anything else.

And I'm a great fan of One Big Game [the charitable publisher responsible for Chime, and also involved in this project], and I started down that road, and then everything went crazy, and everything's still crazy. I will - at some point very soon - return to it. I think it's a great idea, and I'm really excited by it, but I just haven't had a moment spare, not one moment, as you can imagine. I mean, that's a lot of stuff going on, a lot of it in parallel.

And I suspect your work with the BBC on the Doctor Who games is your current priority, especially with the announcement.

Yes -- except that, actually, we've been working on that for a year. Over a year. So, you know, we're a long way down the road on that. I've got a few more months on that, but in the grand scheme of things we're definitely towards the end of that project.

Do you want to talk a bit about your involvement in that, and tell us about the games?

Yes, I will do. I'll have to be a little bit careful. I was approached by the BBC just over a year ago, and they were keen to reach an area of the audience - particularly males, younger males - who were not watching so much television. They feel that it's absolutely vital that they continue as the BBC to communicate with them. Their remit is to educate, to entertain and to inform.

And we came up with this idea - well, it was their desire to do a Doctor Who game - for an adventure game that was every bit of the top quality - I mean, it looks superb - that was highly accessible - so it had a simple interface - and that was true to the brand, in that you know the Doctor wouldn't go around shooting things, you know. We've been very, very sympathetic to the brand's values, because obviously it's a very powerful brand and very important to the BBC.

...That's all you can reveal?

That's probably all I should reveal. Otherwise I'll get shot.

Okay, in that case: Today's obviously been all about indie games, but it's primarily been about the business of indie games.

Yes, definitely.

In terms of the creative side, then, what do you find exciting about the indie scene?

Well, what I find exciting is that, like it was in the early 80s, you can have one boy or girl or two people sitting in a bedroom, and they can come up with something that really is amazing, and that they have passion about, and that could be hugely successful. We were getting to the stage where the barrier to entry and the risks were so high that, ultimately, there was no indie scene. Now there's a thriving indie scene, and it can only grow.

I've been working now on games for 30 years, and so I guess I'm seen as a safe pair of hands. Now, a 16, 17, 18-year-old with passion and talent can blow everything apart and come up with something amazing, and I think that's very refreshing, and I think it's great for the business.

[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him.]

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