Beyond A Steel Sky video game storytelling with Charles Cecil and Dave Gibbons
GameCentral talks to Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil and legendary comic book artist Dave Gibbons about new game Beyond A Steel Sky.
Video game storytelling is something that is often viewed as only gaining legitimacy in recent years. In reality though, modern games like The Last Of Us and What Remains Of Edith Finch are underpinned by a foundation that stretches back to the days of text and graphic adventures of the 80s and 90s. While the action games of the day often barely had a story at all, adventure games like Zork and The Secret Of Monkey Island featured a level of sophistication and quality writing that was very much the equal of modern titles.
The adventure genre was dominated by American companies such as Infocom, Sierra On-Line, and LucasArts but one developer outlasted them all, with British studio Revolution Software publishing its first game, Lure Of The Temptress, in 1992 and now gearing up to release the console versions of Beyond A Steel Sky this November. This follows a stint as an Apple Arcade exclusive, in which creators Charles Cecil and Dave Gibbons were heavily featured in promotions for the service and gained the company, the franchise, and the genre millions of new fans.
As co-founder of Revolution Software, Cecil has been making story based video games for over 30 years. Most famously with the Broken Sword series but also 1994’s Beneath A Steel Sky, a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk adventure on which he originally collaborated with Gibbons – who is best known as the artist on the groundbreaking Watchmen comic, as well as everything from Doctor Who and 2000 AD to Superman and Green Lantern.
We recently got a chance to talk to both creators, about not just the console release of Beyond A Steel Sky but the current state of point ‘n’ click adventures games, of interactive storytelling, and why games may have more in common with comic books than movies…
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, and iOS
Developer: Revolution Software
Release Date: 30th November 2021 (already available on PC and iOS)
GC: I’m curious to know how interested Charles was in comic books before you started working together, and how interested Dave was in video games? When the first game came out, for some reason I assumed Dave was just doing work for hire and didn’t realise how involved you were with the whole creative process.
DG: From quite an early stage, it was clear to me that computers were the future. And I remember I bought an Amstrad computer with no clear idea of what I was going to use it for. I was going to do the household accounts or something, but my son, who was born in 1979, was just the right age to play games on it in the days when you had to load from a cassette. So I used to… he immediately grasped how to play computer games, how to pretend he was flying a Harrier Jump Jet when all I could see was an ‘L’ shape of pixels. And because lots of people who like games like comics I made contacts with the games industry and I used to go out and see the editorial of The One magazine and they would give me a big sack full of games that they reviewed and I’d bring those home. And it would be like Christmas for my son and he played him.
So I was very familiar with games in a passive way, and I could see that there was a lot of excitement and a lot of creativity. So when Charles approached me, I thought ‘Hey, this would be a really interesting thing to get into’. And having met Charles and his team, I could see that the name of the game was collaboration, which is what I’ve always liked. And they were a really nice bunch of guys, me and Charles seemed to hit it off from the start. So although I suppose in one way it was work for hire it was a hugely enjoyable experience and as much fun as I’ve ever had doing comics.
CC: Bless you! From my perspective, I’ve always loved Tintin and two things really struck me at the end of the eighties. One was Akira, and just being blown away watching it, and then reading Watchmen, which, again, was incredible. And really realising that the whole of culture was being changed by these seminal works and it was on that basis… I actually got hold of Dave in about 1989, both as someone admiring his work enormously but also with a view to trying to secure a license to do a video game of Watchmen. And as it turned out we were unable to do that but that’s where the relationship, and I would like to say friendship, first started.
GC: Was the original game intended to be a kind of interactive comic book? I never thought of it in that way at the time, even with Dave involved, but I suppose it was.
DG: What I’ve always been interested in is stories and the comic book medium is a great medium – very cheap, very accessible medium – for telling stories. It’s the marriage of words and pictures, the tools that you need to do it are minimal, it’s paper and pencils, really. So I always really prized that about comics, that they were very accessible way of telling stories. And it seemed to me that what the kind of games that Charles does is telling stories as well, not an interactive story, but telling a story through a series of challenges and puzzles for the player to get through, to find out how the story progressed.
And so I’ve always liked the thing you have to do in comics, where you pare down the illustrations and pare down the dialogue to the most effective minimum. You know, you trim all the fat off of it.
And it seemed to me that was what you’d have to do in a game as well. So that was the sort of challenge that I’d met and I’d enjoy before. And we also realised that there was a really good way that we could start the reader on the story by actually making a comic book that you read before you started the game. Something that gave you the backstory and showed you what the characters look like – if you could get past the fact that they were little clumps of pixels on screen; that Foster was actually a really cool guy in a Matrix style long leather coat. So we were able to do those things with it.
And, you know, I’ve always liked that kind of challenge, using quite simple tools and possibilities, but trying to do something complex and quite subtle with it.
CC: To put a slightly different perspective on it… so obviously with Watchmen, you have two primary people in Dave and Alan Moore, and they’re working really closely with each other and they’re creating this extraordinary work of art and both contributing to overlapping elements. And with both Beneath A Steel Sky and Beyond A Steel Sky, initially the deal was working on designing characters and backgrounds, but then it extended to the story and Dave became a very integral part of the whole vision. And that is not what would have happened, I wouldn’t have thought, had we just got a work for hire artist. So it was a quite different relationship.
GC: When Dave mentioned paring down dialogue I thought of the latest game I’m reviewing, which I shouldn’t name, and the way it keeps stopping and starting for these overlong cut scenes, which serve very little purpose except to make you assume the developer would really rather be making movies. Which frustrates me, as does the insistence that games and movies are very closely related, which I really don’t think they are.
DG: I mean, people draw parallels between comics and movies as well. And superficially they are words and pictures, but they’ve got a completely different grammar, a completely different toolkit and I think there’s as many similarities between games and movies as there are between movies and comics, as there are between comics and games. Superficially they’re similar but the thing I particularly like about working on the kind of game that Charles does is the narrative – the story, the plot – are integral to it.
So you are actually doing the same thing and it’s transferring my skills into that arena and my skills – not just to draw things, but to have, as Charles said, story input as well – and to having an overall sense of what’s going on and make suggestions that could be used in the narrative. So I think that is a red herring. And I certainly, if I was playing a game, I wouldn’t want lots of cut scenes any more than when I’m reading a comic.
CC: And I would say that if you’re playing a game with long cut scenes it’s because whoever wrote it doesn’t understand about getting exposition and conveying story through gameplay. And that’s what we do, that’s what we work really hard at in adventures, is telling the story through the gameplay. The old cliché they say in film is show not tell; well, obviously what we need to do is we need to use gameplay rather than show it in a cut scene. And I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that these games with very long cut scenes are being designed by people who 1) don’t understand that the story should be interwoven with the gameplay or, worse, would, as you say, rather be movie directors and make films.
GC: I think it’s interesting there when Dave talks about the grammar of film, as I think one of the central problems is that games have never created their own grammar for telling stories, they’ve just tried to copy other, non-interactive, mediums. But the exception to that has always been adventures games, where for them the story is the game and it’s taken a long time for action games to catch up to them.
CC: Action games tend to have a linear bit of narrative, which reward what you’ve just done and set up the new scene. I think a cut scene that lasts 30 seconds is absolutely fine, but it’s when it becomes self-indulgent and lasts five or six minutes that it destroys the fluidity of the gameplay. But what I would like to say, and this is something else that Dave and I talk a lot about, is that in setting up our puzzles we need the motivation in the world and the motivation of the characters, so that the puzzles make sense, because we are absolutely clear on what those character motivations are.
In particular, in Beyond A Steel Sky, what you can do is you can go in and hack the systems. And in this the humour comes from the fact that Foster is an outsider and you, as the player, associate with him. And he comes into this world full of people who have been brainwashed and have crazy ideas; from their own perspective, they’re not crazy, from their own perspective, they’re quite normal. And that’s where the humour comes from. So it’s not slapstick, it’s just these conflicting ideas.
We try and tell the story as much as possible through the gameplay and through the responses of characters, because if the character says something based on what you, as the player, has done then it doesn’t feel out of sync at all, it feels quite natural. And that’s really what we try and do in the gameplay, to have really quite short cut scenes, which simply do just transition you from one section to another.
But the vast majority of it is within the gameplay itself. And that takes a lot of thought, because we need to make sure that the player has got certain elements of the exposition and to do that we work backwards, and we design the puzzles in a very specific way. And I think that is what the skill is.
And, obviously, films don’t have to do that because the viewer will sit and watch it from the beginning to the end. Whereas players will probably play it in the order that they want but probably in a shorter way. So we have to find a way of interweaving the story into the gameplay, which is very unique.
GC: You’ve mentioned two things there that most games don’t have: puzzles and a sense of humour. In general, games have never been very good at humour but puzzles, in the sense of something you could actually get stuck on, is something that has become increasingly uncommon in all genres. So I’m curious if you ever considered making a literal interactive comic book, with no puzzle element?
DG: What we wanted to do is not really an interactive comic book, but a game that looks like a comic book; that had that same kind of visual crackle to it that, that had that sense of it being drawn by somebody, rather than it just being a sort of a 3D construct without any character and with very predictable shaders and tones and everything on it.
So what we do, particularly with Beyond A Steel Sky was to take my comic book drawings and literally turn them into three-dimensional objects that still retain the drawn line around them. And I think that made it look and feel very like a comic, a comic that I’d drawn. And I think it also… because you’ve got the kind of maker’s mark you kind of care about it, it retains a humanity, and I think that’s what characterises the games that Charles does, is that they’ve got a humanity to them. They’ve got humour, they’ve got jeopardy, but you feel like a human playing them, rather than a killing machine or something like that. So to me it’s that tremendous warmth.
And I think the fact that you care about the characters means you care about the story, means you care about the gameplay. And I think that’s why they work so well. I could also say that I personally understand very little about the details of game writing. So that’s where me and Charles part company, and he watches me do my magic and I watch him do his magic. So I can say to people Beyond A Steel Sky is a great game and not be immodest at all, because I know, from people who know about these things, that it is a really good game. And that’s what keeps the punters coming back.
GC: So are you helping with the puzzles, with the structure of the story?
DG: I think everybody has their own department in which they work, but you have to have the big view of what the thing is about. What’s the basic story you’re trying to tell? What’s the goal of the protagonist? What’s the peril, what’s the success? And you then break that down into what you need.
So one part of that becomes the dramatic story, the order in which events happen, another part becomes what does it look like? In other words, what do the characters look like? What do the environments look like? And then the game playing bit is what do they have to do? So it’s a collaboration in that sense, that we’re each putting different bricks on the edifice, as it were. But Charles has got a better overview than me, perhaps he could illuminate.
CC: You asked about whether there should be puzzles and I’d love to come back to that, because that’s a really interesting question.
GC: Please do.
DG: But just to build on what Dave is saying, what we have is we have the vision for the game and the vision is that we have a society that is created by a benign AI and that AI makes people happy, from their perspective. The gameplay is adventure gameplay but on top of that we have this ability to hack into the system and subvert the world. People believe that if the system behaves in a certain way there must be a good reason for it, and they respond accordingly and do ludicrous things.
So on, on the basis of that, when we went back and talked about the comic book, which Dave wrote and drew, that clearly required a full understanding of what we needed to set up, how we defined what the world was, how we provided the exposition about what had gone before… And this can only happen, and the characters can only be designed, in a collaboration that goes way beyond just simply drawing backgrounds and characters, but it’s an understanding of the vision of the game, of the world, and what we need to convey.
And through that, I hope that our characters then become a lot more interesting. So in the first instance, you’ve got the guy with a colander on his head. These come from the world because, with the wonderful art director Sucha Singh, what we’re reliant on is for the vision in words to be turned into a vision on paper and drawings, which can then be translated into that vision on the screen. So it has to require an understanding and a collaboration that goes just way beyond, ‘This is what we want you to draw. Can you draw us a picture?’
DG: People are always fascinated by collaborations, as to who did what and who did this and what was your job? But in a good collaboration, like we have, there are boundaries that are a bit blurry and you’re kind of wandering into each other’s areas. So you can’t even really define what anybody particularly did. And in the case of Beneath A Steel Sky, the first one, one of the absolute crucial bits of the story we didn’t even have until we got really towards the end of it.
In a meeting, somebody threw out a suggestion and everybody went, ‘Hey, that’s it!’ I mean, I won’t spoil it by telling you exactly what it was… And it was the same in the case of Watchmen, the smiley face that became the symbol of the whole series I drew as a throwaway thing on one of the character’s costumes and then Alan saw it and thought, ‘Hey, we could make this the opening of it!’
And then when we made it the opening of the whole story, we then thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got this cartoony smiley face and he’s got real blood on it. So hold on. That actually is a metaphor for what we’re doing’, but you couldn’t say that I thought of that or the Alan thought of that. The thing that’s wonderful about good collaborations is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And I think that’s the joy of working like Charles and I do.
You throw ideas in, some of what you think are going to be important amount to nothing, others which you think are throwaway really become crucial. So that’s the excitement of it. And when you get creative minds and blur it all altogether you come up with some really weird s***.
GC: My limited understanding of comic books is that there is usally relatively little interaction between the artist and the writer? But it sounds like that’s not your general experience?
DG: It varies. There are two general ways in which comics are created. One is that the writer writes a complete script, which has got all the descriptions and all the dialogue, and then the artist goes away and draws it.
GC: That’s how I thought it was done.
DG: But, if you’re going to do that, it’s a really good idea to have a chat with the artist before you do it and the best writers, who work in that method, have very good visual imagination, so they know what can be drawn and what can’t be drawn. That’s true of Alan Moore. He’s never really drawn much for publication but he’s very good at visualising things.
On the other hand, you can work in what they call the Marvel method, where the writer produces just a plot, basically a shopping list of what happens and in which order, and then all of the layout and all of the breaking into pictures is left to the artist. Now that sounds more free and creative for the artist, but it isn’t always so. ‘Cause it can lead to a bit of wooliness and a bit of a lack of focus. And it ends up with the artist just drawing the pictures he wants to draw rather than the pictures which are crucial to tell the story.
So there are all sorts of different ways to work. I think the way that we worked on the games is more like the Marvel method but with the ability to generate ideas and then review them and then revisit them. So I think that’s the ideal way to work.
GC: Sorry Charles, you were going to talk more about puzzle-solving in video games?
CC: It is very interesting that games like The Walking Dead, which is fabulous – I mean, it’s just so dramatic and beautifully done – but there are very, very few puzzle-puzzles. And what I remember very well back in the nineties was a reviewer coming and saying, ‘Oh, I love adventures. I can’t think of the solution. I go to bed, I wake up in the morning, I try something and it works.’ And I remember thinking at the time that is not the kind of game I want to write.
I want to write a game which is totally logical and that if you sat and really thought about it you could work it out. And that’s why so many people play games together, because then they can look at the logic together. But in looking at the logic, then they will do something that makes sense within the context of the character motivation and the world events at that time, and they will progress.
And, you know, we don’t put in puzzles where you get a monkey and you squash it and it becomes a monkey wrench. I love that. It’s great, but it makes no sense. And the reward comes retrospectively from the fun of a ludicrous outcome from a ludicrous concept and that’s great and I love LucasArts. Those are not the games that we write. We write games that are logical and kind of make sense. And one of the great things that I love… one of the reviews on Beyond A Steel Sky said the puzzles just floated by, because we want to drive the story forward and the player is interacting with the world in a logical way.
They’re manipulating the world, they’re exploring the world and in doing so they solve puzzles and the narrative is driven forward. In other words, the narrative, the story, and the puzzles are totally interwoven because they both make logical sense. And that is what an adventure does – well some adventures don’t [laughs] but this is what the adventure does that other genres don’t.
And you were talking about your presumably first person shooter or whatever it is, where the story is a very linear one. I mean, what we want, of course, is to be able to allow the player, within certain bounds, to be able to go off and explore things in different orders and to be told the story in a different way. And your first person shooter is artfully linear in the way the story is told and, getting back to your first point, that then becomes a lot more like a cinematic experience, because effectively the narrative is a linear one.
GC: I remember another game I played recently and it set up this little riddle, despite not having any real puzzles up to that point. That seemed interesting until the dialogue finished and the character – who I’m meant to be playing as – just mutters the solution out loud. That just seemed to sum up the modern approach in a nutshell.
CC: We have the most wonderful fanbase, who love the fact that we have puzzles that make sense. But the adventure games that we write are a very sizable niche genre. Whereas shooters are mainstream. We have a very sizable niche with, as I say, a wonderful, very passionate audience. And they love the fact that the narrative and the puzzles are interwoven. So, in writing an adventure that is what we would continue to do. So all I can say is we certainly don’t plan to change that.
DG: I wouldn’t be involved with any company that did less than Charles’ company does. You’ll never find my name on one of those so-called adventure games. [laughs]
GC: What also interested me, from what you were saying earlier, is ensuring the game has a humanity to it, in terms of its art style and the sense of humour. I was interviewing a psychologist the other day about avatars and the choices people make in games, but also the fact that – despite being the number one subject of every other medium – the subject of love is very rarely explored by games. I worry that that is an indication of just how juvenile video game storytelling still is.
DG: I think you have to care about the characters in the games. One thing that characterises our games are that they’re very quirky characters. The whole thing of having this kind of post-apocalyptic city, that’s presumably in Australia but has got a huge proportion of people from the north of England – who happen to be living in it with their particular, quirky way of talking – I think that in order to do humour effectively, and just thinking about this has made us smile, you have to kind of love people.
You have to have an empathy for people. You have to have a warmth towards other people and have characters that exude some kind of warmth to the player, because otherwise who cares about them? So I would think that’s one area that love comes into it. And also, we all love a good laugh, I think you can be too grim. I think that plays to the humanity of us all.
CC: We put a lot of effort into the relationship between Foster and Joey, which was very much inspired by a film called Stand by Me, which is about kids – it’s from the eighties – who go on an incredible journey together. And you might say it’s love, you might say it’s a deep friendship, but what we were attempting to do is reflect that through the relationship between the two protagonists. So that element is important to us.
And as Dave says, hopefully we’ll love our characters because they’re just fun and quirky. But to answer the other aspect of what you’re saying, remember that in a film… do you know about the idea of an inciting incident?
GC: I think so, yes.
CC: It’s a film term where something happens that radically changes the life and puts the life of the protagonist into imbalance. And it’s effectively what the film is about.
GC: When Luke Skywalker’s foster parents were killed.
CC: Exactly, exactly.
DG: The call to action!
CC: The call to action, indeed. And that happened, in the case of Star Wars, about 20 to 30 minutes into the film. And by the time that happened we knew who Luke Skywalker was, we knew what his motivations were, we knew that there’d been a call to action which he had refused to take and then when his uncle and aunt are found murdered then he rises.
In a video game we need to really, really quickly create the motivation and also build a level of empathy with the character. And we need to do that pretty much before the game starts, because otherwise players are not going to be motivated to actually work. So that is a huge constraint. And that’s why cartoony characters, and indeed being able to introduce characters through a comic book, is really helpful because it gives us the time to build an empathy and build a backstory and create motivation.
And it’s the reason why Harry Potter as a video game works very well, because everybody knows who Harry Potter is and you can just start straight away. You can give a little bit of introduction to this element of the story, but there’s nothing about empathy because we already empathise. And it’s the reason why so many games have starship troopers or you know, gruff commandos or wizards because everybody knows what a wizard does. And everybody knows what a dwarf does. So you don’t need to create the empathy.
I think to answer your more general question, I think that’s why people see so many video games stories as being slightly facile, because we are constrained in what we need to do, and we need to think intelligently about how to overcome it. And people who don’t just come up with cliché characters.
DG: And of course, the way we set it up with these games is the inciting incident happens towards the end of the comic book intro. So in a little comic book booklet, which people can read very quickly to get on board, we have all the things that Charles is saying there. We set the scenes, we introduce the characters, the thing happens that makes our hero have to get off his arse and go somewhere. And then when you load the game, you’re straight into the gameplay but with the knowledge of what the stakes are and of who these people are and why we should care about them.
GC: Okay. That’s great, I should start wrapping this up, as I’ve still got to write all this up in the end.
DG: Good luck. [laughs]
GC: There was one thing, when you were working on the first game, Charles, did you have in mind that you wanted specifically to create a crossover with comic book media? Did you go out looking specifically for a comic book artist or was that essentially a coincidence?
DG: You better say no Charles or I’ll be very hurt. [laughs]
CC: [laughs] No, what it was…
GC: Was Dave your fifth choice?
CC: What it was, was I think that video game developers have always looked to the other mediums and really respected what they do. And because I knew Dave and I loved the idea of giving it a sort of comic book feeling… and I didn’t think that Dave was going to accept it anyway. And to an extent the project did change and mould itself around what Dave brought to it, because he got involved very early.
So, in the same way that with Broken Sword we worked with Barrington Pheloung, who was the composer of Inspector Morse and much more besides, and again in Broken Sword we worked with an absolutely brilliant layout artists called Eoghan Cahill. So what we are always looking to do, as games developers, is collaborate with people who can bring an enormous amount from a different discipline, provided they accept – and this is vitally important – that actually the gameplay is going to trump everything else.
Because, ultimately, you can have the most beautiful and the best story in the world, but if the game is boring to play then nobody’s ever going to experience it. And Dave was always… we’ve got faxes going backwards and forwards saying, ‘It’s really important that the helicopter is here and that when they go in this is the size, because this is what’s going to happen’. And, again, what Dave was doing in the layouts was trying to make the backgrounds look as good as possible within the constraints.
And that’s absolutely legitimate and right for him to come and question it and say, ‘Well, instead of doing this, why don’t we do this? Or instead of putting this here, why not put this here?’ But the ultimate core gameplay was something that everything else was based around. And, as I say, we have faxes going backwards and forwards multiple, multiple times, looking at the way to best reconcile the optimal graphic look within the constraints of the gameplay itself.
DG: Yeah, I think you always have to be aware, in games or in comics, that you’re doing it for an audience. You’re not doing it just for your own amusement. That can take you a fair way but you have to have the audience in mind. And it was clear to me that we could have the best graphics in the world but the only reason people are going to spend money on this was to play a game. So obviously everything has to build that up.
And I think also, there’s something about, you could do a game that looked like a comic book in the sort of Lichtenstein cliché, biff pow kind of comic book way, and that might be superficially attractive. But the real thing that happens to me when I draw a comic book, that I’m proud of and get interested in, is that I actually enter the world of the comic book and kind of have this feeling of stepping over into the threshold beyond. And that’s kind of what you get with the games.
You find that you’re actually in an active world that you can look around and that has a depth and a kind of conviction to it. So that’s certainly what I would try and bring to it but, yes, number one: gameplay, number two: story, number three: drawings.
Why are there so few comic book video games?
GC: Just to take advantage of your comic book background I guess the obvious question is why are there so few games basic on comics? Or to extrapolate it out further why do games so often ignore cinema trends, despite always seeming so desperate to copy movies in general? We’ve had two billion dollar Jurassic Park films recently and barely a single new dinosaur game. Which seems madness given there’s no video game that wouldn’t be improved by the inclusion of dinosaurs.
DG: [laughs] That’s it Charles, the next game: dinosaurs.
CC: [laughs] Dave, you remember your pterodactyls?
DG: We did have pterodactyls in the game, and that was a little bit of a Jurassic Park vibe going on there, so we’ve already been there and done that.
GC: But more obviously, why are there so few big budget comic book games, given how they’ve been so dominant in cinema for over a decade now? Especially as there are so many concepts rich with potential even in minor characters, like Ant-Man for example.
DG: You’re talking about dealing with Marvel Studios who have got millions, tens of millions, billions of dollars invested in this stuff. So it, it wouldn’t be, I imagine, an Ant-Man game like me and Charles might make. You’re trying to match production values or match audience expectations and all these things that actually, to me, bring the creativity down. I mean, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a game that essentially was, say, an Ant-Man game, there may even be a game where you’re very tiny and you…
GC: No, but that’s it, there isn’t. And yet it seems such an obvious idea.
DG: I don’t think it needs to be tied to a comic book to have an idea like that. Any more than I think that it’s the aspiration of comic books to become a movie, you know, I think it’s nice to have things in their separate genres. So I personally don’t miss adaptations into other media, although sometimes it does seem so obvious that you are surprised, as you say, that no one’s really moved on it at all.
GC: Or there’s the way Warner was doing so well with their Batman games, and seemed poised to really expand out with gaming, and then… nothing. They just stopped making them for no apparent reason.
DG: Well, if I ran it that wouldn’t be happening.
GC: [laughs] Is there any existing comic book characters that you would want to work with?
CC: Well, Rorschach of course. Everybody wants Rorschach. [laughs] No video game would not benefit from having Rorschach added to it.
DG: That would be a cheery thing to play for half an hour!
GC: I always felt they did very well with The Question in the Justice League cartoons. He was a bit of a Fisher-Price Rorschach but he had a certain amount of… not grit but certainly texture to him.
DG: I can see we’ve been talking to somebody who’s a closet deep comic book fan, Charles. To ask me a question about a character like that shows he has knowledge.
GC: [laughs] I know a little bit. It’s actually been a long while since I’ve read a comic. Because all the shops have been shut I guess…
GC: If I could ask just one last, big question, it would be where you see this style of game going in the future? Because, of course, Beyond A Steel Sky started on Apple Arcade as a mobile title, which is very different in terms of audience and technology to a console. I mean, I assume that’s partially because Apple gave you some money….
CC: Well, I think the Apple claim, and there’s no reason to disbelieve this, is that the App Store is the biggest game store in the world.
GC: I’m not disparaging Apple Arcade, I think it’s a very good service.
CC: It’s really great. And, yes, Apple did give us money. Apple are a terrific partner, I’m very grateful to them. And because of Apple we were able to be much more ambitious than we otherwise would have been. And they made it quite clear that while it would have to appear on Apple Arcade first, they were supremely relaxed about it appearing on other platforms.
On console, or on PC or a Mac, you get much higher resolution, you get 4K graphics on the very top end. So, this is a different experience. But ultimately it’s the same, it’s the same story. But as far as audiences are concerned, let me talk about two things just briefly and that is great moments where huge numbers of people have come to play our games.
The first one was back in 1997, when we were doing Broken Sword and approached Sony to ask if they would publish it on PlayStation and they weren’t enormously enthused but they did. And the game got nine out of 10 and extensive coverage in the official PlayStation magazines in the UK, France, and Germany. The UK magazine was either four or 600,000 copies a month.
It was massive. I mean, it was extraordinary. And people generally played all the games on a cover mount. And so, by cover mounting it in the UK, France, and Germany it meant that it went to literally millions of people. And we brought in a huge audience from that.
The other thing that we did was a 12 days of Christmas deal on Apple Arcade and on that one day, where we gave the game away for free, we had two and a half million downloads.
So, you know, we’re a small developer and this gives opportunities for literally millions of people to play our games. But the point about adventure games is that they’re not as visceral but if you sit and play it for 10 or 15 minutes and you’re engaged with the story and the puzzles and the way the narrative and the puzzles are interwoven, then a huge number of people will actually get very engaged.
So for us, Apple Arcade is a fantastic way of doing it because if people subscribe for something else and then come and play the game they discover that it’s a new game not Angry Birds or Cut The Rope or whatever. It actually takes a little bit more effort to get into, but once you do get into it, then you’re richly rewarded. That really helps us bring a new audience. So it works very well for us.
DG: I thought we’d moved into a really exciting space when… I’ve got lots of Apple kit, I love the whole thing, I’m a complete junkie for it. And I always watch the keynote speeches and I knew that we were going to be on this particular keynote speech.
So they say Apple Arcade and the very first thing I see are some screens from the game. And the next thing I see is Charles talking. I think, ‘It’s Charles, he’s on the Apple keynote!’ And the very first words out of his mouth where Dave Gibbons, the legendary comic book artist. I though, ‘Yes, I’m in the heart of the beast! This is fantastic!’
I know there are the diehard people with consoles and have grown up doing that, but I do feel that it’s a chance to reach out and to let’s put people who perhaps wouldn’t normally come across these games, to let them know what’s going on and give them the chance to enjoy it, and then hopefully get more and more into gaming.
GC: What’s the name of that ex-PlayStation America boss who was in the news lately? I’ve been trying to think of his name.
CC: Shawn Layden?
GC: That’s it! I’m sure you saw his comments about how in the future AAA games are all going to cost $200 million. I’m curious where you’ll fit in with all that, does that mean you’ll always need a partner now, like Apple, to make a game that looks this good?
CC: No… as I was saying earlier, we are a niche. So the $200 million is for your first person shooters, sports games, etc.
GC: Because I’d love to see what a $200 million Charles Cecil and Dave Gibbons game looks like.
DG: Me too! [laughs] Think of the royalties on that.
CC: [laughs] It would be great. But they’re completely different games. I mean, we are an indie developer and people accept that there are some rough edges, but hopefully the games that we write have got incredible soul and we can take risks. I guess it’s like an indie film versus a… well, except it’s not, it’s not… it’s quite different. I don’t know what the analogy would be.
GC: I’m glad there’s not one. I’m sick of pretending that games and movies have any particularly close similarities.
DG: Well, perhaps I can make a kind of analogy with comics. As I said at the beginning, it’s very cheap to actually make a comic, it’s some sheets of paper and a pen and a pencil. And you can come up with a multi-million selling thing just from that. Whereas if you started off to make a movie there would be so much money involved that none of the quirky, really interesting stuff would get through. It’d all get evened out and brought back to a more comfortable level.
And I think that the games that we do, they can be quirky. They don’t have to pass some board meeting. They don’t have multiple inputs on them. They’ve got a personal feel, you know? They’re made by a bunch of people who’ve got a quirky sense of humour, who do things very well and very professionally, but don’t have to spend a fortune in order to give you an interesting experience.
So I think that kind of ties it back into why the sort of games that we do here are like comic books because they’re very nimble, very agile, they’re not a big bloated beast.
CC: Dave, you’re brilliant! It also ties it back to the collaboration, because the idea that what you have is just a very small number of people who have a complete overview, which would be impossible in a $200 million project.
GC: That’s very true, that seems a good place to end things. Thanks very much for you time, I know I used up a lot of it.
DG: No, it was a real good chance to get into some areas that we’ve not got into quite so deeply before. So I really enjoyed that. Thank you.
CC: Yes, thank you for asking the non-obvious questions. I have to say, that was great wasn’t it?
GC: Thank you, thank you both.
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