Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eyes Games Interview – The Art of Making Adventure Games

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Niche Gamer had the pleasure of chatting with Dave Gilbert from Wadjet Eye Games and discuss his upcoming game, Unavowed.

Niche Gamer: What is Unavowed, and what fans can expect from it?

Dave Gilbert: Unavowed is best described as an Urban Fantasy, where you play as someone who is possessed by a demon, and you’re freed of that demon six months later. While you were under the influence, however, you’ve committed murders and other horrible things. Since you can’t get back to your old life, you join the Unavowed, which is this secret society that fights evil in New York City.

unavowed-alley

Niche Gamer: You had an unusual path before your first commercial release, The Shivah. How does a garment industry worker become a successful game developer years later?

Dave Gilbert: I had a bunch of different jobs, and I never really enjoyed them. Game development was always just a hobby for me, but during a brief stint of unemployment, I was in NY when the towers fell. I was looking for something to get my mind off of things, and that’s when I found Adventure Game Studio. I made a very small game in a weekend, I put it online and people seemed to like it. So I just kept making more, and then 5 years later, found myself unemployed again.

This time, I had money saved up, so I figured it was now or never, and I made The Shivah. Things were different by the time I made The Shivah, since people actually bought games online in 2006. I kind of joked it that I was doing it as a way to avoid getting a real job. Turns out, I’m still doing the same thing 10 years later. I started in May of 2006, so yeah, very close to 10 years.

Shivah

Niche Gamer: The Shivah was released in 2006 as a competition entry for Adventure Games Studio’s 5th Anniversary. Ten years later, You’re still using AGS on your new game, Unavowed. You’re basically the reference when someone mentions AGS. Are you afraid of finally hitting the limitations of the engine itself?

Dave Gilbert: Last summer, I decided I was sick of AGS. It does 95 out of 100 things right, but those 5 things are so annoying, it made me start trying out Unity in an attempt to avoid them. About six weeks later, I realized that I couldn’t get it to do the most basic things, the things I could get AGS to do in a weekend. It was just so much more difficult to get what I wanted out of it. I might have been able to figure it out eventually, but since Unavowed is kind of an ambitious project design-wise, learning a whole new engine on top of that just compounded the complexity to a point where it would be just too stressful. So I decided to stick with AGS for now. It does everything I need, and the latest unofficial version of AGS fixes 2 out of the 5 issues (laughs).

So it’s a little bit better to use than it was. I just like that it does exactly what I need it to do. It knows exactly the kind of game I’m trying to make, and it gives me the tools to do this exact specific thing. There’s really nothing else out there that does that. I haven’t hit the limitations yet. I know it might happen eventually, and if that happens, I’ll deal with it and figure it out. I’m 10 years into using it, though, and people are still able to play the games I made 10 years back, so I’d say that’s pretty good.

Niche Gamer: You’re making a lot of changes from your previous games: double the resolution, a mute protagonist, multiple origin stories, and gender selection. With this and couple of other small design choices, are you afraid to alienate some of your most dedicated fans?

Dave Gilbert: I mean, the stuff they like is still there. The unvoiced protagonist thing is something that I’m really taking advantage of. It makes the game more flexible, I can add two different genders and branching story paths that would have been impossible if I had to add voice acting to each part. It also means I don’t have to voice every single look description of every single room, which takes forever. I’m not doing it because I’m lazy, I’m doing it because I’ll be able to add more to the game. If you have 3 different origin stories (a cop, bartender and actor) lines of dialogue will change to reflect that. So, I’m having a lot of things changed and I can do that, knowing that I don’t have to voice every single line, twice for male and female. That’s the main reason I’m doing it.

I don’t think it will anger people, because when they play it, they will get a feel for it. I call it Mid-Era Bioware, after Baldur’s Gate, but before the EA buyout, when the protagonist was always mute. It wasn’t that they were silent, they just didn’t have a voice. You clicked on what you wanted them to say, then the other characters would respond. So that’s what I’m going for, and I don’t think it will be a problem. All the main story and character stuff is all there, but since the character is a blank slate, I can double down on all the other characters in the game. I want to make them as fleshed out as possible, so they can carry more of the narrative weight.

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Niche Gamer: Any chance we may finally get that John Constantine/Vertigo adventure game?

Dave Gilbert: (laughs) No, because that’s essentially what Unavowed is. Do you know the story behind this? I was in talks with them to make a game based on Vertigo. They weren’t quite sure which I.P., it could be Sandman, could be Hellblazer. I was kinda leaning towards Hellblazer because Sandman is the product of one guy’s vision, and it was very scary to touch that, while with Hellblazer, dozens of writers have been involved with that. But when I first spoke to them, they approached me as well saying “Well, we wanna do a low-res adventure game”. I was like, what voodoo spell did I accidentally cast for them want to approach me about this?

Just to kind of show them that we were serious and what we could do, I asked my artist to put a couple of Vertigo characters together on a background and send it to them. Nothing came of it, and I posted it a year and a half later on Twitter. I thought: “I’ll post it, just to see”. And it was the most viral thing I’ve ever posted to Twitter. Just one look at that screenshot and I’m like, “That’s what I want to make right there.” And that’s basically what Unavowed is right now. I’m also a big fan of Dresden Files, World of Darkness, I love all that stuff. This is is me finally kinda doing that.

Niche Gamer: Technobabylon’s cast is very interesting: You have a grumpy cynical Texan, a transgender Sino-American woman, even an interracial gay couple with robomantic tendencies. Even so, that diversity is never flaunted or forcefully thrown in the player’s face. Was that planned, or just something that came together when the game was in development?

Dave Gilbert: I didn’t write it, so I’ll just quote what he said on the matter, which is that it was a conscious choice. Gene Roddenberry did it very well on the original Star Trek, where you had Uhura there–she’s black, and it was a big deal at the time. But no one said anything about it, no one mentioned it, it was just there. That’s kinda how he felt about it, like 100 years in the future, all these things that are like hot topics right now, they’re considered no big deal. And that’s where he was going with Technobabylon, it’s just a thing that happens.

Actually for the trans character, I was very concerned with getting things right. We talked to a lot of trans people in real life, and learned a lot of things we didn’t know previously. We made that little exchange where she comes out a lot more effective as a result. But that was really it, we didn’t want to call attention to it a lot, because in that world they don’t. That’s a great thing about Technobabylon, it’s cyberpunk, but it’s not a dystopia. It’s actually a quite pleasant time and place to live. It’s a thing we should try to strive for and I thought it came out really nice.

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Niche Gamer: Interesting. When you have something in your game that might be deemed problematic by a percentage of your playerbase, do you guys believe the creator’s wish are to be respected, within reason?

Dave Gilbert: I think if the creator is worried about that, they should ask. If you have a game about slavery and you’re a middle class white guy, you probably should show it to black people to see how they feel about it. If anything, getting their feedback will make it better, because you can very easily get that wrong. It’s very hard to write that from a place of proper empathy and sensitivity, when it’s really out of your realm of experience. As I always say: If you’re making a game, you’ll test mechanics, you’ll test gameplay, you’ll test tutorials…You also can test story, you can test narrative. So, do that.

(Referring to Unavowed) 2 of the 3 origin stories, I like. There’s one origin story, I don’t think it works. Rather than beat my head against the wall trying to figure out why it doesn’t work, I just quickly put it together and put it in front of testers, “Tell me what you think, I’m out of ideas.” Based on their feedback, just telling me why they don’t like it, helps me figure it out how I can make it better. Yeah, test story, iterate it.

Niche Gamer: Traditional point and click adventure games are becoming more popular again. What’s your opinion about the resurgence of the genre, and from your experience, what is the support from the gaming community like?

Dave Gilbert: Whenever a point and click adventure game does well, I do well. So I definitely benefit from the whole Double Fine/Kickstarter thing. But I also get hurt when the opposite happens. A lot of those games came out, and a lot of them weren’t received very well, or they just kind of came and went–there was a lot of Kickstarter fatigue in general. It actually became harder for me to get press to talk to me, because they were sick of talking about adventure games. So I’m hurt and helped by that. A funny thing about adventure games is that it’s sort of all or nothing. When a high profile adventure game comes out and it’s not received very well, you hear “I always knew I hated adventure games.” When it’s just that specific one that sucks. And that hurts everyone, that hurts all adventure game developers.

So I’m calling Unavowed more of an RPG than an adventure game. Even though there’s no combat, it’s still a very roleplay-heavy experience.

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Niche Gamer: Will Eli have a firecrotch easter egg in Unavowed?

Dave Gilbert: I have to do that now, don’t I? (laughs) You just never know what the hell’s going to go viral, do you? The story behind it: he’s got a flame coming out of his hand, and while coding the position, the first time I tested it, the flame was on his crotch. So of course, I took a screenshot of it and posted on Twitter. And then it got like 400 retweets, and just went all over the place. (laughs) I have to have it now. Maybe. It will be hidden and you will have to find it.

Niche Gamer: So you guys are fully independent, yeah? Funding-wise, you’re mostly coasting on the income of previous releases. Have you ever been approached by a publisher saying “We will pick up your game, we will put it on X platform,” that sort of thing?

Dave Gilbert: Hmm, I used to. I was published once, with Emerald City Confidential, back in 2009. It was an interesting experience, but I prefer doing things on my own. I was once approached by a guy who was more of a businessman-type. He wanted to partner up and and kinda handle the business end of things, while I would focus on the games. It seemed cool but I resisted it, because I didn’t want to give anything up. I’m glad I didn’t, I like knowing that if things are going badly, that I can take steps and try to fix things on my own. I can experiment and no one’s hurt but me. We had a bit of a situation last year, it’s a long story. My wife wasn’t able to work for a while, she was ill. It kinda caught up to us.

This year, before Shardlight came out, I started doing all these things, just trying to bring more money in. “Alright, I just signed up with all these bundles.” That sort of taught me that, yeah, bundles aren’t what they used to be. (laugh) I’ve started doing a lot more, pushing sales on Steam and that kind of thing, trying to bring in extra money. And it’s been working out well and I can do that. Fortunately, since we’re small, we can recover pretty quickly when we screw up. It’s one reason why I like to keep my projects low budget, low scope in general. If we do screw up, we can bounce back pretty fast.

Niche Gamer: How many guys do you have in your studio?

Dave Gilbert: It’s mostly me, my wife, and a full-time Australian artist we work with, Ben Chandler. We also work with various freelancers from time to time.

Niche Gamer: As an experienced developer, what advice would you give to newcomers trying to make their own adventure games?

Dave Gilbert: I mean, it doesn’t just apply to adventure games. When I first started, there was no Kickstarter, or crowdfunding in general–there wasn’t even Twitter. I just sorta made things because I wanted to. I was very aware what I had to work with, which was virtually nothing, and there’s a reason why all my early games were very small and very short. Because that’s all that I was able to make. I did try not making anything that I couldn’t bounce back from if everything went south. Think of every dollar you spend as a dollar you’re not gonna get back, and plan for that. You always have to be aware of that, that your game might not sell and you have to have a contingency plan.

I’m lucky because I’m at a point now where if a game doesn’t sell, I’ve got lots of other games that do. So I can bounce back. But it’s taken me 10 years to get to that point. So, my advice is, start small and start smart. Grow organically, don’t force it; if you have a bit of success, don’t suddenly buy an office and hire people, because your next game might not sell. I just grow very slowly and every time I expand, I freak out. (laughs). So, that’s my advice, start slow, start smart.

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Niche Gamer: What’s your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Dave Gilbert: Beats the hell out of me. (laughs) I wish I had some kind of fancy answer. It’s really just sit down with a notebook, and just write down ideas. Eventually, something clicks and I just have to make that decision, “I want to make this.” It’s funny, it’s not just a silly question. Before I decided I wanted to make Unavowed, I had one of three choices. It seemed like fans were interested in sci-fi, but when Technobabylon came out, it sold pretty much on par with everything else. It wasn’t like making a game sci-fi magically made my game sell more. It sold well because it was a good game. That’s always been my mantra.

The three games I wanted to do were a straight noir story, sci-fi, and an Urban Fantasy. That has always been my comfort zone, because of Blackwell, because of the genre I like. I love Dresden and Hellblazer and all that. And it felt very safe and easy to go that way, that’s why I’ve resisted it. But then I’m like, “You know what? Screw that.” Then double down on that. If it’s my comfort zone, I’m just going to make it as good as I possibly can. I’m going to do more things than I’ve ever done before, which I am. There’s this wonderful quote, which I don’t know the origin of: “There are no bad ideas, just bad execution.” How many great ideas are ruined by just being executed poorly? I decided it doesn’t matter what kind of game I’m doing, as long as I do it well. So that’s what I’m doing. Or trying to.

Niche Gamer: Thanks for your time, Dave, and we’ll be looking forward to Unavowed!


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  • Ben Ruiz

    Great interview. There is a lot of insight for small groups that want to make games, but just a lot of good general info about the point and click genre in today’s medium. I liked Gemini Rue quite a bit, and I think I’ll look at some more of Wadjet’s games.

  • Arenegeth

    “I think if the creator is worried about that, they should ask. If you
    have a game about slavery and you’re a middle class white guy, you
    probably should show it to black people to see how they feel about it.”

    Though that is a good sentiment in theory, in practice it doesn’t work so well in today’s caustic climate.

    The were everyday black gamers, back in the days of the RE5 trailer outrage, saying stuff like: “I don’t see anything racist, it takes place in Africa of course the zombies are black” and “Of course it looks dreary and gloomy, is a horror game and the location is based on Somalia, a real world shithole!”

    Yet Capcom didn’t listen to those black people, it listened to the game industry journalist intelligentsia, whose agenda pushing was at its infancy at the time. Which is why I used the RE5 trailer as an example, to show how far back, the current ‘problematic’ climate goes.

    In more recent times, how many trans gamers in forums, have said time and time again, that they don’t like being made out a big deal in games. And how many, white, usually middle class or above indie game developers, shove them in their ‘progressive’ walking simulators, as much as an owner of a prize winning dog would show of their purebred pup?

    The gaming scene has become so toxic, the lines in the sand have being drawn so hard, between political ideologies, that every gendered character (mostly female) every black character or every other minority is dragged through the mud as a sing of victory or defeat.

    Look what is happening to Nintendo and Link.

    So yeah, if you think talking about minority characters, with actual real life normal (AKA not Marxist agenda indoctrinated), and especially core gamer minorities and getting their OK will avoid you being labeled as ‘problematic’, well you’re wrong.

    ———————————————————————-

    With the political crap out of the way, let me say that Dave Gilbert was one of the few, especially American game developers, that kept the vigil of Adventure gaming burning during the dark years, when people like Tim Schafer thought because he wasn’t making them anymore, they became a German fetish. He will always have the respect of every old school adventure gamer like my self for that.

    And though, the recent adventure Kickstarter Renascence might have turned out in a recession, since quality didn’t follow with quantity. I’m always glad that we still have people like Dave Gilbert being able to produce some great adventure games, without vying for that elusive blue market audience, that doesn’t have the attention span to to solve their way out of a paper basket.

  • Minuteworld92

    ILLUMINATI?

  • Fandangle

    I literally just played through primordia and come on here today and see this?

    All I can say is SEQUEL WHEN?

  • Jack

    Old men, running the world

  • MegaRay

    What will happen if they die? Will the world stop?

  • Nagato

    “Though that is a good sentiment in theory, in practice it doesn’t work so well in today’s caustic climate.”

    There’s no harm at all in approaching and listening to actual people from whatever minority, and taking into consideration their perspectives in areas you don’t have much experience with yourself. If only to ensure that the resulting product will be as authentic as possible.

    Of course, they’d have to be regular everyday people rather than internet warriors and the demogogues in the videogame press.

  • Madbrainbox

    But what’s the point of asking people who have never been slaves about slavery?They don’t even know people who were enslaved.That’s how far removed from the subject they are.
    Find an escaped slave and interview him/her if you really want a good understanding of the subject.

  • scemar

    Exactly the point I was going to make.

    He didn’t say “we ask random people what their opinions are and do as they say ”

    he said something like “if we don’t know how to deal with X element of a story, we’ll get ideas from our feedback from people”

    and that’s actually a very reasonable and logical way to deal with an issue

    don’t know how X type of person would deal with Y because you are not X? then ask an X and they might give you a better idea you might not have been able to come up with on your own

    there are reasonable and normal people out there who can give good feedback to help inspire writers to improve their storylines, and there are crazy people out there who want to control and censor the storylines others are allowed to do
    you can take feedback from the first without falling for the second

  • scemar

    the importance of the engine is something interesting, often it goes under the radar tho
    a good engine can make more things possible, and a more efficient engine can make game making’s workload less and improve dev times
    kind of interesting stuff really, how something like that can affect what creators can do

    and market shifts too, how a single game, a big success, or a kickstarter fiasco, can affect future investment and game creation

    there’s a lot of interesting stuff to take from this

  • Dr. Roswell. W

    >We could of gotten an Hellblazer adventure game.

    And once again, Warner Bros screw the goddamn pooch into a wheelchair.

  • Arenegeth

    Personally, I’d consider talking with people you are trying to represent in your game/story/movie whatever, when you yourself are not part of that group, a default part of research.

    But some people may have lower standards than that.

    But then again, my entire point was that, regardless of any valid input you may get from appropriate sources, you still not immune from your game getting labeled, or generally thrown in with the games used for political points.

  • Arenegeth

    Slavery is also a very Americanocentric Taboo.

    People in Europe don’t gasp if you mention the word ‘slavery’ in front of a black person regardless of context, and the black people themselves don’t freakout either. Even if they actually African, and not slave decent locals. And a form of slavery is actively practiced in Africa today.

    Look up what’s going on in Mauritania.

    And though a modern African American, won’t know anything more about slavery than what you’d read in a history book, they know how sensitive their community can be to certain depictions of it. So if you are trying not to ruffle any feathers, it would be good to consult them.

  • scemar

    funny, a lot of things are very americanocentric and americans don’t even realize it

    and within american media itself there’s the phenomenon of californiation because so many writers and productions are disproportionally from there

  • Madbrainbox

    If you’re trying to not ruffle any feathers then keep away from any hard subjects.

    But if you are always concerned that you may upset some people don’t be surprised when the results of your hard work are shit.

  • Arenegeth

    Though that may be easy for you and me to say, since I agree with the idea.

    The reality is, if you are trying to sell a product you have to be careful how it is perceived by certain aspects of society, if you want any kind of mainstream success that is. Which is why a lot of mainstream movies/games/music are so bland, or outright shit.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think western society will reach a level of maturity, where creators are left to create unhindered, and not having to walk through a sea of eggshells, whenever they try to approach a hard subject.

    Not in our lifetime anyway.

  • Madbrainbox

    I’m reading the Berserk manga at the moment so my opinion on the subject is influence by that.
    It is a true masterpiece because it holds no punches.

  • Galbador

    Nope, earth will only get a new janitor :B

  • Evropi

    Gemini Rue was not developed by them but they did QA and consulted for it heavily, helping fix some of the puzzles, make the map more financially viable to create, etc. I strongly recommend playing the commentary of Gemini Rue if you are interested in it.

  • Evropi

    On the other hand, you should probably be informed about the hard subject if you are going to do it properly.

    How would you personally tackle economic/political arrangements such as slavery, prostitution, racism written into law?

  • Elkhazel

    The blackwell series of games Is such a great experience, would suggest everyone try it.

  • Smug

    Blame “everything is white male’s fault” education and media propaganda

  • Madbrainbox

    As I said above.You need to ask people that have been trough that kind of hell.
    Why ask people that are so removed from the subject matter about it?

  • Alex Churchill

    Primordia would be one of the harder Wadjet Eye games to make a sequel to. What with the whole wildly divergent endings thing, and also with the main character having found out the secret backstory to themselves and their world. Primordia was awesome, but it pretty much stands alone.

    Of course, if he wanted to do another Blackwell and retcon away the ending to Blackwell 5, I’d be most definitely fine with that ;)

  • ProxyDoug

    He could try the Wintermute engine.