'Gone Home', 'Dear Esther', 'The Stanley Parable' and whatever their names are... they all concentrate on telling a story. Especially the strong narrative focus makes these indie games intriguing for many fans of the adventure genre. '4PM' is a new indie project in a quite similar vein and developed in the UK by Bojan Brbora from Serbia. We interviewed him on Skype to talk about '4PM', classical adventures, Steam Greenlight and other topics.
Adventure Corner: Hi, thanks for taking the time for this interview!
Bojan Brbora: Sure!
Adventure Corner: So, you'll be releasing '4PM'. Is it your first commercial game?
Bojan Brbora: It is my first commercial game. I also made a small game for Android, a tilt game called 'Outroll', but that's for free. So yeah, '4PM' is my first bigger game. Mainly because two years ago I didn't know anything about programming, 3D, Unity or anything like that. Back then I was a cinematographer but I also played games and got interested in a mix of the two and creating an interactive story. However I was kind of frustrated by the stuff that had been done. Sure, there were some interesting examples there. For example 'Gone Home' was pretty good. I also enjoyed 'Heavy Rain' but I thought there weren't enough interactive elements in it. For me the mechanics simply have to fit more to the story.
4pm is the final project for the National Film and Television School
So two years ago I decided to come to the UK because I found out about a masters course at the National Film and Television School which dealt with Game Design. It felt like a good mix for me and so I started doing that. I sat down and learned for a year. Then I decided to do this ambitious thing for my final project. Of course I didn't want it to be just walking around and interacting with stuff. I wanted story, characters, music, voice-overs... the full thing! But I didn't really know how difficult and ambitious that was and when I got more into it I thought “oh my god, this is so much work for one person”, but through certain sets of techniques, almost cheats, I managed to actually make something.
AC: Before we get deeper into it, can you tell our readers a bit more about the story of '4PM'?
BB: I'm not going to spoil what it is about but the basic story is, you wake up in this apartment and by looking at the shadow and the mirror you realize that you are this woman. You don't know who she is and have to find out more about her, right at the beginning she seems to have a drinking problem and there's something going on with her dad and mom... but you're not quite sure. Then you sort of go through her day, which begins at 10 am. There are several scenes that happen at certain times of the day, with the last scene ending at 4 pm.
AC: What inspired you to do this story?
Rooftops as inspiration
BB: I've spent a lot of time on rooftops with photography and filming stuff. Maybe it sounds a bit like a cliché itself since a lot of stuff happens on rooftops in games, but I think the right rooftop with the right sunset and the right story can be really cool. So I thought about what would happen if two strangers meet on a rooftop, and then we sat down and further developed the story. In the UK, like in many countries there's a huge problem with alcoholism. It's not something that is talked about a lot in games at least and I know people who have problems like that in their families. I thought it's a serious topic and something that is worth doing in a different way, I didn't want to do it all sad and depressing. You see the stuff that happens and know that it's rough but at the same time it's interesting and almost funny in a dark way.The consequences however, are obviously very serious and dangerous, depending on what path you decide to choose.
AC: What games inspired you besides obviously 'Gone Home'?
BB: I'm a huge fan of first person games,games like 'Half Life', 'Deus Ex' and 'Thief' used to be huge parts of my life. I also like 'Mass Effect', I liked the characters, how you can relate to them and how you get really emotionally attached. I like how fluid the experiential storytelling is in first person games. For example in 'Half Life' you get a lot of the story from the characters and how they respond to you. So you get the story naturally and feel like you're part of it That was the main inspiration.
AC: How interactive is '4PM' going to be? What can the player do in the game? Can you give us an example?
Here we have to find our way through the club with too much alcohol... (a screenshot from the prototype of '4PM')
BB: Each scene is slightly different. The first scene in the apartment is more focused on exploration and getting to know the protagonist. For example you look at her items, hear her talk to herself in the mirror, then you listen to the answering machine... stuff like that. And then there's this scene in the Club for example. It's like a flashback. Basically you have to get a drink and dance, but you're feeling sick and then you only have 45 seconds to get to the toilet but you don't know where it is. If you don't make it to the toilet you throw up and have to try again, if you succeed you meet this guy and then it builds from there. Then there's a scene in the office where, because she's an alcoholic, you have to sneak out of the office and get a drink. You know it's some sort of stealth mission... you have to go through the cubicles and hide from your boss. But the point is that all of the mechanics stem from the story and are an important piece of storytelling. It's not like the mechanics were first and the story is built around that. First I had a story which I developed with my writer and then I thought about what mechanics would feel natural within the story. There are a few cut-scenes here and there but I've tried to keep them as rare as possible so it feels more like you're actually playing the story and not just watching it.
AC: Is it for example possible to choose what to say?
BB: Up to two thirds of the game the story is pretty linear. But then there's a branch and depending on what you do, it can lead to three different endings.
AC: What makes games in general an interesting medium for you?
BB: For me games are a difficult medium but at the same time very interesting. It might be the only narrative medium that is still evolving and you can do your own thing but also bring stuff from other media and apply them. I like what Quantic Dream is trying to do but I think that, especially with games like 'Beyond: Two Souls' and also with my one, the problem is that in the end it's all coming down to a story people have to be invested in. Narrative driven games are really hard to do well. For example from my point of view 'Beyond: Two Souls' didn't have a strong enough story. It feels more like a mix of American blockbusters and TV-shows. That's fine with me but if I'm not invested in the story then the game doesn't offer much.
AC: How long is the game going to be?
A short half an hour experience
BB: That depends on a few factors. If you go through it perfectly, I think it's around half an hour. But there are several moments where you can fail or you can go back and see what happens if you go a different paths. Maybe then it can go up to 40 minutes. There are a few commercial games out there which are fairly short, like 'Thirty Flights of Loving' or 'Dinner Date'. They are very good games but it's very risky because people will probably raise doubts if it's worth the money and good enough. Essentially, because my story is short and because I have to complete it in time, this is the only way I could have done it. I'd rather have a really good half hour experience than a boring three hour experience. This is not a get rich project, it's a project to release, get support from people and get my name out there so people know what I'm doing.
AC: And when do you think it's going to be ready?
BB: The estimated release is in the first half of this year.
AC: On Steam Greenlight the description says that it's an Adventure. Why did you decide to go with that category?
BB: The thing is, when you submit your project on Greenlight, the categories that are available to take are all very classic game categories like Arcade, Shooters, Simulation. The only category that was close enough to my game was Adventure. Personally I wouldn't say it's an Adventure Game but it has elements of this genre. It's more like an experiential Drama.
AC: I'd say that's close enough, yeah.
BB: I saw that some of the games released on Steam have that Indie category which unfortunately is not available on Greenlight.
AC: Well, from what you describe it feels like a modern adventure.
|'Gone Home' as inspiration|
BB: I don't see many games which deal with contemporary subjects that are relatable and try to make an everyday situation interesting. That might be a reason why people have reacted so positively to the game so far. A similar thing might be something like 'The Walking Dead' maybe, it does a pretty good job but to be honest I was wondering why do we need yet another zombie game. In a way that's one reason why I enjoyed 'Gone Home' so much, finally a game which is not about zombies (laughs). No but it's a very natural story and in some way it's something that can happen to anyone. If you can make an interesting interactive experience out of an everyday situation, I think that is exciting and it hasn't been done that much. With more relatable stories like this one, maybe people who usually don't play games might try it out. To evolve, games also need people from outside to influence them.
AC: These days there are more and more Indie developers who make games that are not quite like typical adventures but in a way close enough... maybe like your game '4PM'. Do you think that there's a chance that this might bring new life to the genre, a genre that in the past few years has often been considered dead?
BB: Well, I was a big fan of the classic point and click adventures, for example 'The Dig'... you remember that game?
BB: It's amazing how many people actually don't know 'The Dig'. It's a great game and I also enjoyed the 'Monkey Island' series. Unfortunately, I think adventure games have gone out of fashion. Luckily we have Steam and Kickstarter so people can bring them back. We'll always love those games and a newer example I also enjoyed was the new 'Broken Sword' game but at the same time, the genre has stopped evolving for quite some time now! The stories have changed but basically the way you interact is still the same. To really engage I'd say the genre needs to step up and mix with other genres!
So the whole first person approach, it has really blown up now. Except for 'Myst', in the 90s there haven't been that many first person adventure games. For a long time it came with a huge financial and also creative risk. However now the situation has changed. It's easy enough to do and the tools are there and you can make a small first person adventure and see how it goes, even third person 3D adventures are much easier now than they used to be. I'm hoping that these new experiments will create something new, but to be honest I don't really believe it has to be one genre. So I'd say yes, adventures will come back mixed with other genres.
I think now we're getting closer and closer to a point where the technology is easy enough to use even for people who don't have 10 years of development experience. Of course you still need the high skills but with tools like Unity you can come from a different field, spend six months learning and then create something different.
AC: It's amazing what you can do with one or two years of learning experience!
BB: Well, games are perhaps the hardest media simply because of the complex technical side. I spent eight, nine months on '4PM' including working on the concept. In the end, the product is very small compared to the amount of time you spent making it. It means a huge sacrifice for me both socially and financially. If '4PM' doesn't do that well I probably won't be able to continue doing it, because I will have to do other things to survive.
AC: And how big was your team?
Parts of the '4PM' soundtrack were done with players from the orchestra of Royal Academy of Music
BB: It was me developing it and doing all the technical stuff, designing the game. I also had a writer who worked with me on the dialogues because I'm from Serbia and English is not my first language. I had two composers. I had a producer as well but in the end he became busy with another project and so I had to do that as well, and yes, a sound designer helped out a lot too, essentially though, it's a one man project with another four people chipping their bits.
AC: Did you look out for additional funding for '4PM'?
BB: There had been a few offers before but they weren't that good in terms of how much they would own of the final product. Obviously as soon as you talk to a publisher they want to decide on what the game is going to be, make some creative decisions and change a lot of stuff. The current situation of the game is that it's about 70% done and basically and there is a play through. Some interactions, bugs and stuff still have to be fixed. Right now I'm preparing to do a Kickstarter which is supposed start in the next few days. This is so I can get some extra money to be able to finish the game off properly and release it on Steam in a state which will make me proud. So yes, we're looking for funding but I want to keep this thing as independent as possible and keep it small. This is a project I basically started on my own and so I want to finish it on my own.
AC: Let's say the Kickstarter goes extraordinarily well. People would probably ask for stretch goals, additional scenes and stuff like that... would you do it?
Soon on Kickstarter!
BB: If it does really well, then I'd buy a speed boat (laughs). No, I would probably change some of the assets but the problem with '4PM' is, if I started stretching out the story and the gameplay, it would feel unnatural and stretched out. It was written and conceived as a short experience and at this point I can't change the story. But maybe – and this is not set in stone – our stretch goal would be that backers are investing in our next project, which is in the concept phase, but I can't talk about it right now. If '4PM' goes live and does well, then I can talk about the other projects too. It's in a similar vein but longer, bigger and it's got more features. But of course we want to handle it in a way, so the community won't feel cheated.
AC: So this Kickstarter for '4PM' seems a bit like a test run for your next project?
BB: Exactly. The thing is that only a few days ago I had no idea what the perception for '4PM' would be in general, which is also why I put it on Greenlight, to test out and see what people actually think about it , that was also a really good test of PR.
AC: How's it going on Greenlight so far? (Additional information: '4PM' has received enough votes an will be available on Steam!)
Greenlight was a huge success for Bojan Brbora and his game
BB: Amazing! The first day I put it on Greenlight I already had 7000 unique views. 3000 votes “yes”. It was one of the best days in my life and I thought „oh my god, people actually get what I'm doing!“ You know, I was expecting to be in the voting process for months but it went so much faster. It's also amazing how many different languages have been involved. When I was making the game, I was making it in English. I thought there wasn't enough interest to add different languages. But after putting it on Greenlight, there was a huge Russian outcry. I did some research on subtitles which made me realize that it's actually not that difficult. So I changed the information on Greenlight and added Russian. Then there were many people from other countries who said they could do other subtitles and I thought why not. If we can make a subtitle system then it's not that difficult to introduce other languages. In return more and more people from other countries will be able to enjoy it. Then there's this thing with Linux, because there are some Linux users on Greenlight. I looked into it and Unity is actually pretty amazing for Linux. After talking to developers I gave it a go. I really want to give the community as much as possible. And again, that feedback has been extremely positive, sure there are a few people who don't like it but that was to be expected.
AC: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
BB: I'd like to thank everyone for being so great! And I want to thank the Internet (laughs). At first I was afraid what the reaction would be but then was pleasantly surprised. People have been very supportive and its why I'm doing this and why I want to get it finished, polished and do as much work as possible. Thanks to everyone who is supporting me and the rest of the crew. I will not let you down!
AC: Thanks a lot for the interview!