First posted on 15 February 2007. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
|Jonathan Boakes is an independent adventure game developer and the creator of Dark Fall.|
All images are courtesy of XXv Productions, Shadow Tor Studios, and Wild Boar Productions © 2007.
As an adventure game developer, Jonathan Boakes stands as elite for his achievements in the eyes of many peer developers. He single-handedly produced and published commercially the adventure hit game Dark Fall: The Journal under the studio XXv Productions which he also founded. Before this, he had already received recognition as a creative artist working with other forms of digital media, including photography, television, and film. Born in 1973 in Kent, UK, he previously studied photography and film at West Kent College in Tonbridge. It was not until 2001 that his passion for adventure games finally compelled him to begin another career as an indie game developer, but only after a brief stint as a sushi chef!
Today, he describes himself as a self-employed writer, a games developer, and an interactive media creator. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with the multitalented game designer. In the interview, Boakes speaks of his interests in digital media, his trials and tribulations as a solo game developer, the current projects of his game company, and what life holds for him in the future.
Check out our photos of Boakes as well as our gallery of concept art and screenshots (including 5 previously unpublished exclusive images) from Dark Fall, Barrow Hill, The Lost Crown, and Destinies!
- What are your first memories of playing adventure games? What elements of the adventure genre most attract you as an adventure game designer?
- My earliest memories of playing an actual adventure game would be Mystery of Arkham Manor, on the SpectrumZX. I discovered the game hidden away in a bundle of low budget Spectrum titles, which also included early flight SIMS and space shooters. The latter didn't grab my imagination, which is surprising given that I was 13 at the time, but Arkham suggested that an actual story would unfold to reward your adventuring efforts. My memories of the game include sleeping in the Arkham village Inn, exploring the nearby cemetery and questioning locals in an effort to solve the mystery.
I guess it's that explorative aspect that most appeals, both as a gamer and developer. Entering a virtual stage, meeting the players and getting involved in the screenplay is something you can't do in a purely action orientated game, in which the story (more often than not) revolves around you. Most games, from any genre, feature at least some narrative, but I feel the adventure genre keeps storytelling high on a list of essential features.
- You have also worked extensively in other media, including photography and film, both before and after becoming a game developer. Which works from these media are you most proud of? How have your experiences in other media prepared you as a game developer?
- Photography, and film studies, are the most useful qualifications/prior experiences. Building worlds in 3D is a hard, complicated, process, but it can all be for naught if you don't know where to position the camera. In the first games, which used the 90 degree point and click for movement, the aim was to work as cuboid as possible. It would be very difficult for a gamer to get their bearings if that angular turn was disrupted. This affected the overall photography and construction of the game, but, there was freedom in the close-ups, puzzle screens and cut scenes. This is where I was able to have a little more fun with the camera angles and experiment a little.
In terms of film, I have directed three short films, but have more experience in television. Unlike film, television moves very quickly, with smaller budgets and a dedicated crew. Natural and technical events often caused us to think fast on our feet: corners needed to be cut, last minute production changes implemented, quick rewrites undertaken in uncompromising environments or the sudden and almost magical inclusion of ingenious ways to solve problems. My experience in television has left me with an open mind and an open attitude to changes in production, both of which are essential in independent game production (which offers less luxuries).
In terms of pride, I would say I am still impressed by my black and white landscape photography. Capturing the English countryside (both the positives and negatives) was a challenging and often topical activity. As well as trekking across miles of rural farmland in all weathers, the work also required that I infiltrate several industrial farms, and record the barbaric methods employed in the early 1990's. Many of my photographs were printed in the newspapers, as well as forming the ugly backbone to a London exhibition. I'm hoping to publish some of the photographs online, to coincide with the publication of my next game. It will be interesting to see how my early black and white landscapes contrast with the new ones.
- For a brief period in your early career, you grew disillusioned by the commercialization of digital media and quitted your job at an online content production house. How had this experience affected your later pursuit to become a commercial developer of both games and other digital contents?
- No, not at all. Rather than 'disillusioned' I would say 'disgusted' by the 'new media' houses of London, in the late nineties. To be honest, creating endless banner adverts selling tat to gullible people really wasn't what I was looking for, post graduation. There was no room for creativity or imagination, and the design briefs were often simplistic to the point of insult. I wouldn't say it is entirely the fault of the employer as many of Britain's Universities aim to create readymade employees rather than artists. The 'art' in Digital Art is practically nonexistent. A lot of course work was centred on pleasing a particular client, with actual corporate sponsorship affecting the choice of client and product. This was purely conditioning for what was to come. My first work placement in the world of digital media was not a pleasant experience.
On one occasion, a large media outfit asked me to source digital images for a well-known car insurance/break down firm. They were very specific in what they wanted, and what they didn't want. The negative list included the words “no ethnics, no homosexuals, no disabled”. So, it was bye bye to that well paid and secure job and 'hello' to independent life and insecurity. I have never regretted the decision. In fact, last year the 'new media' outfit slashed it's work force by 1000 and has since gone into liquidation.
My career decisions have not affected my output, as I still enjoy a healthy relationship with those I worked with prior to graduation. I still produce material for BBC serials and science fiction, as well as contribute to the production of both independent games and film. My desire is to retain as much creative input as possible (which isn't the same as creative freedom), without losing my autonomy.
- Dark Fall: The Journal was the first full commercial game you developed. What led you to make the difficult decision to become a one-man development house, considering the current cost of game development?
- First and foremost, Dark Fall entered production because I wanted to make a game. I was working in London, at the time, turning large dead fish into desirable sashimi for cholesterol aware businessmen, so found I had a lot of free time in between restaurant opening times. Both myself, and a friend, Philip Philippou, had been playing adventure games together since 1995, so wished to contribute something ourselves.
The aim was to create a small game to distribute to friends and family, with an English setting, sensibility and classic ghost story styling. Obviously, the story is very important to an adventure game, as I've said above. So, Dark Fall began it's life on paper, as a short story. After receiving positive feedback, I began the long, slow (but very rewarding) process of building props and locations to serve as Dark Fall's main location, the haunted train station and hotel in Dowerton. Working strange hours, both early mornings and late nights, definitely affected the atmosphere of the game. The isolation and loneliness of a late night work session is a very distinct experience, and one which made it's way into the game.
Funding the project myself could have been a problem, but I made good choices when it came to software and usage of assets. I had learnt aspects of Director (multimedia package) at University and Strata3D was mere pence in comparison to industry standards like 3D Studio Max. Adapting the original story to suit the budget was also a wise move, and one that I had learnt when working in low budget film and television.
Styling a new adventure like the point and click games of yesteryear seems like pure folly to many short-sighted gamers/reviewers. What they fail to understand is that some people actually like those games! Building my own game was a dream come true, but was only affordable when pitfalls and fanciful ideas were located and avoided. As it is, Dark Fall still stands up very well. The fact that it was reviewed alongside huge commercial games is testament not only to the appeal of the actual game, but the taste and independent thinking of certain gamers and reviewers.
- Dark Fall: The Journal was published under your own label XXv Productions, but Dark Fall II: Lights Out was published by The Adventure Company. What were the challenges working with a third-party publisher? How lessons had you learned about the game industry as an indie game developer?
- I produced Dark Fall II independently, once again. The production was funded by myself, partly from royalties following the publication of Dark Fall: The Journal. The only major difference was not knowing where/when the money would appear. As an independent it was up to me to get the game noticed, sold, packed, posted and paid for. A third-party can distribute a game to stores (which is a huge difference) but you also rely on them to market and represent your work accurately and successfully. I can't say that was always the case, but I have no complaints at this time. My only complaint, which I made at the time, was in terms of payments. Quite often, and my experience is no singular case, publishers do not stand by the contractual obligations. Shock horror! The downside to financial insecurity, when producing a game, is that the production suffers. Which is exactly what happened with Dark Fall II, or Lights Out as it is also known. I believe matters have changed, for the better, in recent times, so I look forward to working with publishers again in the very near future. I wouldn't let my previous experience affect future plans, given that new people and new situations become apparent each week.
- The supernatural is a common theme in your games, a theme that admittedly wears thin in the sea of adventure games that have used the same premise (the "haunted house" syndrome). How worry are you that your games may unfairly fall into this pigeonhole? What do you avoid telling yet another cliché tale in your games?
- The 'ghost story', by and large, is a cliché. With no proof of actual supernature we are left with a slim portfolio of possible evidence, which means some stories are re-told over and over again. This can be accomplished creatively, take Japan and Korea's reinvention of the gothic, revenge tale, often in the style of an M.R.James classic. The pale faced vengeful ghost has been a staple of horror cinema for several years now, but finds it foundation in superstition and the writing of James and Dickens.
Games, such as Monolith's F.E.A.R, include narrative aspects and ghostly characters which can be directly linked to films such as The Ring, or Edwardian ghost stories like 'A Warning to the Curious'. Being part of that cliché is not a problem for me, as I love the material. It's a genre that tends to feed itself, rather than diminish it.
I find fear a very intoxicating sensation, one which can stay with me for days afterwards. The quick hit of an action scene can get the adrenaline pumping, but the feeling is desperately short-lived and fades very quickly. Fear is much less reliant on visual, which is why I think many smaller games utilise the ghost story. Much can be achieved with basic visuals and good sound effects. Whereas a sci-fi extravaganza requires that it must be visually splendid, eye-popping and gorgeous. Or, a humanity SIM dictates the need for hundreds of characters, complex AI and realistic settings. A simple ghost story, well told (or re-told) often needs little more than a shabby rundown location and almost complete isolation. This is achievable whether your budget is huge or nonexistent.
Writers, artists and developers have been recycling the 'classic ghost story' since the term was coined. A recent trip to London meant I was able to take in Drury Lane's production of The Woman in Black. It's a simple theatrical affair, featuring two cast members, few props and a crackling BBC sound effects record. The actors bob up and down on chairs to simulate horse riding, the silhouette of a tree suggests a landscape and ghost itself is only seen for no more than a few seconds. The show has been running, continuously, for 15 years in a major London Theatre. Susan Hill, the writer, has often stated that her story was heavily influence by the ghostly tales by M.R.James (specifically 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad') and Dickens. The ghost story was already clichéd in James's time, yet we still read his stories and new productions of his work appear each year. I highly recommend The Woman in Black to gamers and ghost story developers: http://www.thewomaninblack.com/. The 'education' area is particularly interesting and useful. Susan Hill believes there are ingredients which make up a classic ghost story, which include 1: A ghost, not a monster. 2: An isolated house or setting. 3: Adverse weather conditions, or a crisp moonlit night. 4: A sceptic who gradually finds their belief altered by events. You could say these 'ingredients' are a basic formula, but they can be used in creative and ingenious ways.
The only real downsides I can see, when it comes to there being so many ghost stories in games, is that the actual ghosts tend to get badly represented. The 'haunted house' PlayStation games introduce good ghosts, but have them turn malevolent far too quickly. More often than not a ghost is included, in the narrative, to add a quick jolt of fear in an otherwise lacklustre screenplay. The ghost could easily have been any number of nasties, from werewolves to the PlayStation favourite, the zombie. I personally feel that if you are going to write a ghost story, you should put the ghosts first, and not drop them in as an afterthought. I recently finished the PC version of Prey. A highly rated game all round. Midway through the first chapters I was attacked by a group of ghostly 21st century school girls singing the plague song 'Ring a Ring O'Roses'. After completing the game I have no answers as to why the ghost girls were there, why they attacked me and why on earth they were singing a medieval folk song!! I guess the writers/developers thought it might be 'cool' and 'scary'. Instead, it stuck out as a clear example of how badly ghosts are used in modern storytelling.
- Do you believe fans and critics should take into consideration, when making judgments on the merit of a game, that the game is developed by a single individual on a limited budget as opposed to a top-tiered development house on a multimillion dollar budget? Why?
- I would say 'yes', they should. Film reviewers recognise an independent production, especially those not in the English language. In fact, there is an alternative press and festival scene, which recognises the material, rather than ignore it.
I fear there is a risk of homogenising the games industry, which would leave us with, say, 10 large game studios churning out the same formulaic budget busters. In my experience, I have actually found that the larger games often compare unfavourably with their independent counterparts....not in the realm of the whiz and bang...but in the realm of story telling, longevity and stability. A game which aims/aimed to be the brightest and prettiest dates very quickly, and can often be a pain on the eyes when viewed later. (There are exceptions, like the Looking Glass titles Thief 2 and System Shock 2, but both those games also feature strong stories and gameplay quirks).
If a low(er) budget game has to focus on story and stability then I see no problem with that, as both the gamer and creative team will benefit. The only real judge of an independent game is the individual, or team, who produced it. If they managed to achieve their goal, complete the game and keep their vision of the piece intact then they are the victors. A pricey, buggy, poorly written movie tie-in is of no use to anyone, regardless of what certain reviewers might say.
- You have a habit of posting publicly detailed journals of your games in development, including concept art, illustrations, partial renderings, unused test clips, and other tidbits that are traditionally considered confidential by other game developers. Why do you choose to make this information public? How much of these postings are primarily for your own enjoyment (perhaps even as a cathartic process) in addition to the enjoyment of your fans?
- I hope fans, if the games have any, enjoy any assets and text that I make available, but I think it is fellow developers, and potential developers, that find my scrapbook oddments interesting or useful. More often than not, I feel some have learnt from my mistakes rather than my triumphs. It is much harder to pinpoint a potential problem in a forthcoming production, than a positive. So, any previous experiences have to be useful. In terms of the data that I have published, much of it is behind the scenes or unused concepts and ideas. A recent move to the craggy coastline of Cornwall found me desperately searching through old back-up CDs for old projects, only to find that the CD-R's had deteriorated beyond readability. This was heartbreaking, given that some of the material was unique. So, an online scrapbook made sense, as it's spread across several servers, with assets downloaded to many machines across the globe. Eggs and baskets spring to mind.
I've also met a lot of people via my online material. Some are curious individuals, looking to say hello and comment on my work, whereas others are new developers looking for advice on software, weblinks and introductions. I recently conducted a talk at a London University on writing Interactive Fiction. It wasn't for the benefit of the Digital Arts Dept, but rather the English Literature students, curious about alternative mediums and publishing opportunities. I don't think these opportunities would arise if I only produced the expected 'game' website with the all too familiar "screenshots", "links" and "buy now" buttons.
- Both Dark Fall: The Journal and Dark Fall II: Lights Out had been well received by fans and critics. In retrospect, however, what could have been improved in these games?
- Good heavens! Of course they could have been better...given more time, hindsight and a larger work team..... But. As they are, I am more than happy with them. I learnt an awful lot during both productions, which were very different experiences, which I hold close. I am taking much of the experience into my future projects, for better or worse.
If I had to pinpoint one aspect that could have been better, I would have to say Dark Fall 2 needed to be much tighter and drawn in. The fact is, the game was always supposed to be much larger than it turned out, but a lack of funds meant slimming the project down. Important elements were dropped, while bridging aspects of the narrative with new information. It meant the overall game was patchier than I would have liked, but it just about holds together. The situation could have been avoided if I had chosen to produce the game independently, and free from publisher pressure. A deadline is a deadline, regardless of workability, and that can never benefit a complex, yet humble, creative production.
Something I do wish I'd undertaken, was a Dark Fall 'Add On' pack. I'm a big fan of the 'add-on', as it shows the original game is robust and open to additional material. The Bloodmoon add-on to Morrowind is actually my all time favourite game. Dark Fall's technological backbone, Macromedia's Director, is open to including additional casts, sounds and movies. So, the game could have been extended in any direction. I would love to expand the setting and take in the Hotel's forecourt, the nearby village and pub. I still have plenty to ideas planted in Dowerton, so expect to see some of them appearing in future games.
- After Dark Fall II: Lights Out, why did you decide not to continue on your own but to work in partnership with Matt Clark to develop Barrow Hill under Shadow Tor Studios? How was this experience working with a partner different from that working by yourself?
- Working for another developer was a hugely refreshing and enlightening experience. I was formulating ideas for my next game when I met Matt Clark, who was interested in creating a game of his own, so we chatted at length about the process of low budget independent game production. Matt was working in London's Theatres at the time, as a lighting designer, so we both had lots to teach each other. I've never had much experience of backstage, and Matt needed an intensive course in 3D production and scripting Lingo (code that runs the game).
After some conceptualising, Matt came up with the story for Barrow Hill, which entered production immediately. My role was mostly support, but I did help build some of the locations that appear in-game. Working, using and featuring the county of Cornwall was a big bonus. The landscape was inspiring and provided the backdrop required by Matt's screenplay. Being able to drop everything, and set off to England's most westerly county to produce a game is not something that everyone gets to do, so I was more than happy to help out where I could. At the same time, I was helping Lanthra Productions (later re-named Wild Boar) with conceptual work for 'Destinies', a third person fantasy themed game with big ambitions. The two projects offered hugely contrasting briefs, which kept the graphic design work fresh and interesting.
The experience of NOT having to write any of the dialog or story was a huge relief. Rather than hide behind the LCD screen, I was free to roam the countryside, photograph new textures (for the 3D models), record sounds and film the ever-changing weather. To be brutally honest, after producing two games I think I may have lost heart in the work and genre, so Barrow Hill provided the perfect refuge while I got back to enjoying the process, rather than feel bogged down by it.
Since then, Barrow Hill has gone on to great things, like the BBC review, as well as a New York Times feature and the game fully localised into 6 languages. It never ceases to amaze me how these small games go on to ascend to heights never dreamt by the original developer. It's a unique and life changing experience, especially for those who operate as individual one-man-band developers.
- Your latest game in development is The Lost Crown. How is this game different from Dark Fall for adventure fans who have played either game from that series? What kind of puzzles can gamers expect in The Lost Crown?
- Firstly, there's a lot more puzzles. Which I think is a good thing. Secondly, they are of a very mixed variety. As well as my usual combination style puzzles, gamers can expect some interesting, and alternative ghosthunting, detective work and good observational skills. Each day, which begins in the misty town of Saxton, presents new challenges and quests, each building to reveal one large enigma. Where is The Lost Crown, and does it exist at all?
The puzzles, for the most part, are fully integrated into the world, with logical solutions should they apply. Others are a little more surreal and challenging. I have made efforts to use pretty much every screen to tell the story or suggest a puzzle. I think there was too much tooing and froing in Dark Fall II. Leg work is all very well, but it is right to expect some reward. So, The Lost Crown (or TLC as I like to think of it) will be a compact creature, with plenty to do, see and interact with.
Another major difference, which I should mention, is the inclusion of visible characters to talk to (I hear some people moaning, towards the back), and play. There were characters in Dark Fall (6 talking characters in fact), so it's not a departure from my usual writing or style. The only difference is that you'll be able to see them! Well, I say "see them", some of course will be supernatural in origin. You'll have to perfect those ghosthunting skills to see those characters….and once you have, you may wish they had remained invisible.
- What third-party development tools do you use for scripting, graphics, and sounds in The Lost Crown? What tools do you have to develop ad hoc to handle special design needs in The Lost Crown?
- Well, I rather fancied a change from the node based exploration of the Dark Fall's. I'm not saying that The Lost Crown is totally 3rd person, as it's not, but I did like the idea of presenting a screenplay rather than offer up another non-linear ghost fest. It's amazing how the dynamic, and pace, of a game changes when you choose a different perspective. There's an almost pastoral quality to many of the scenes, which harks back to that early landscape photography, which I produced in the nineties. In fact, in terms of atmosphere, and content, I describe The Lost Crown as 'melancholy pastoral lament'. Watching the almost puppet like characters interact with the real world, frozen in time, is an uncanny experience.
I'm using a technique nicknamed 'Digital Decoupage', in which photographs (and photographic characters) are combined to suggest a slightly surreal version of our world. The effect is both realistic and strange, not unlike the work of the early surrealists or cubists. The technique has, of course, meant me photographing hundreds of locations around the country for use as game locations. My favourite is Polperro, which doubles as the Anglo-Saxon town of Saxton. Polperro, like many Cornish fishing villages, is a compact little beast, with winding ancient streets, dark vaulted crypts and dense, almost suffocating, woods surrounding the outskirts. It really is the perfect adventure location, making it a pleasure to write for, and film. I could have built a 3D location, for the adventure, but what would be the point when a fully realised version is just waiting to make its adventure debut?
The Cornish countryside has also provided much in the way of research material. If not learning the quirks of parish church design, I am looking for ghosts in unlikely settings. I'm a member of This Haunted Land, a group of paranormal enthusiasts searching to the existence of supernatural activity. I'm not actually a 'believer', myself, which you may be surprised to hear. Part of my enjoyment in attending the ghosthunts, and vigils, is to learn about the science of paranormal investigation and experience the unique dynamic of attending such esoteric events. I say "dynamic", but more often than not, there's a distinct lack of dynamism, or movement at all. Rather than run around corridors being pursued by a spook, we tend to find ourselves propped up against a cold wall, sometime between 1am and 3am, with no booze, fags or titillation. Now, call me old fashioned, but I much prefer sitting by a roaring fire, in a warm pub, sipping Benedictine and dreaming up ghastly ghost stories. Joining This Haunted Land has opened my eyes to just how tedious and mundane ghosthunting really is. Some of this experience will make its way into The Lost Crown, but I will be including some more frightful and exciting sequences to balance the well-intentioned investigations. Gamers will have the option to wait and experience activity, or move on and try new techniques and experiments.
- How different is the development process in The Lost Crown as compared to Dark Fall, creatively speaking? As a developer, what are the pitfalls you have learned to avoid in The Lost Crown given you have encountered in Dark Fall?
- Don't rush things! A story like The Lost Crown needs to develop at its own pace. In between production on the game, I have been working on other games, building websites for colleagues and moving into graphic design. The story which drives The Lost Crown evolved from an initial idea to explore M.R.James 'A Warning to the Curious'. The story is a childhood favourite and wonderfully chilling tale of revenge and retribution. James wrote very compact and clear stories, which makes them ideal for inspiration. I'd add the ghost stories of Daphne Du Maurier and JS Le Fanu to the list of influences too, but also need to include modern writers such as Robert Westall, who was a big influence during my childhood.
The Lost Crown is very much a modern piece while maintaining the devices employed by traditional ghost story writers. It's a very distinctive style. I would describe the game as 'very English', which can be read as a good or bad thing. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's probably the most English game ever written. There's a pace, and atmosphere, to the game which I haven't seen before. I think producing the two Dark Fall games, (while being involved in other projects, including adventure games) has enabled me to slow down and take stock of what I have and what I wish to produce. It is definitely true that The Lost Crown could not have been made by first time developers, or those looking to spin out a quick title.
- How do you describe the current state of the adventure genre? Is the genre still at a crossroad?
- I have no idea. I gave up trying to answer that question (or the dreaded 'are adventure games dead') a while ago. There doesn't really seem to be much point in answering, does there? I'm making an adventure game, I am in pre-production of a third Dark Fall, I have provided voice material for three other games in the last 12 months, I am helping to develop ideas for two other games by fellow independents and continue to pop into the very popular adventure forums. So, is the genre at a crossroad, or are people waiting for someone to say "yes, it's back, it's great, it's better than ever" or "no, our new game is much better, it's action orientated, so rush out and buy it so we can get rich"?
I'm happy to continue producing adventure games as I love doing so. Maybe at some point I'll have a craving to throw together a mad shooter with zombies, prostitutes, drugs and....ooooohhhhh......swear words!! You never know. The thing is, there's quite a lot of those, so what would be the point? For now, I'm content to offer up something a little different, alternative and distinctly English. Some people enjoy the games, I get my electricity bill paid, I move onto the next project, so all is well in the world.
- What can we expect from Jonathan Boakes in the next 5 years?
- Well, after The Lost Crown, I am hoping to move into production of Dark Fall 3. I'm not saying anything about the game, at the moment, as there's nothing concrete to lay foundations upon. The story is written, but needs additional puzzles and expansion. The project will present new challenges for me to tackle, and a steep learning curve. I guess that's what makes me excited the most. I like...no, I require, that there's a something to learn with each new project, and Dark Fall 3 will be quite the struggle.
After that, I'd like to look into setting up a small school/production house, based down here in Cornwall. The plan is to offer tutorship, equipment and boarding for budding digital artists and developers to expand their ideas and knowledge base, while working towards a joint project (maybe even an adventure game!). At present, the idea is just that, a dreamy idea thought up on a cold November night. But, back in 2001, Dark Fall started it's life in much the same way. So, you never know.
- Thank you for the opportunity to interview you, Jonathan. We look forward to hearing more about your future projects, games or otherwise.