First posted on 01 June 2007. Last updated on 01 March 2009.
Agatha Christie is an acclaimed British novelist whose fictional works are considered to be among the bestselling literature of all time. Her most famous body of works is her series of mystery novels written between 1920 and 1976. Among these are 2 crime fiction classics—And Then There Were None (1939) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Now, new and old fans of Christie can enjoy her works on a brand-new medium. Under a license negotiated by The Adventure Company, AWE Games has been granted the rights to adapt the Agatha Christie novels as adventure games. To date, Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None and Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express have been released with accolades from both fans and critics. We are privileged to have the opportunity to interview Scott Nixon, who is the project director in charge of developing the Agatha Christie series at AWE Productions. In the interview, Nixon speaks on the art of creating a game adaptation, his collaboration with Lee Sheldon, the challenges of developing games based on licensed works, and what holds in the future for the Agatha Christie series.
- When did you join AWE Productions?
- I was working at n-Space in Orlando in 1999 when I got a call from James Wheeler, who was starting up a game company near my hometown in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I've known James since I was fifteen years old, we worked together at Capstone Software in Miami for a number of years, so it wasn't a difficult decision to come down and work with him again, although I loved working at n-Space.
- How familiar were you with Agatha Christie's body of works prior to the project? Among all the Agatha Christie novels, which novel was your favorite? Why?
- I was a fan of mystery novels in general. I had read more P.D. James than Agatha Christie at the time, and I blame the excellence of the Poirot TV series for that. Before we were even approached I already owned the entire BBC Poirot series, and most of the movie specials. I had already seen the Ustinov version of Evil Under the Sun and the Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express. I believe I had read, at the time we picked up the license, only 5 or 6 Christie books. My favorite book of hers was (and remains) the ABC Murders.
- Who made the decision on which Agatha Christie novels would be adapted as games? Why was And Then There Were None (also known as Ten Little Indians and originally as Ten Little Niggers) chosen to be the first title and Murder on the Orient Express to be the second title to be adapted? How many games was AWE Productions contracted to develop for The Adventure Company with the Agatha Christie license?
- We were approached with And Then There Were None with an already complete design doc written by Lee Sheldon, so we had no say at all in that choice. For the second game we were asked our opinion, but ultimately it is The Adventure Company and Chorion (Chorion is the license holder for the Christie catalogue) who make those decisions. I can't really comment about how many games we were set to develop, although I'd like to!
- Aside from the novels, what other materials did the design team use as reference or inspiration for developing the games?
- For And Then There Were None, we used architecture books as reference. Lots of Frank Lloyd Wright and general 30's art deco stuff. We have a shelf full of books that were acquired for that specific purpose. For Murder on the Orient Express, we were lucky in that there is an extensive train museum just outside of Miami that has, among many other things, an original Pullman car - the same cars used in the original Orient Express. They even had a locomotive that very closely matched the one we needed, so our reference was that museum, several books on the Orient Express, and of course the Lumet film.
- How much departure from the novels would the player find in the game adaptation? What were some of the changes to the stories that had been proposed initially for the games but were dropped subsequently in the final builds?
- Well, Lee Sheldon handles all that, but one instance I can think of is that originally, in And Then There Were None, there was a one-man sub that you were meant to pilot out to sea to retrieve an essential object. Chorion thought that was too far off the mark - the sub still remains in-game, but you can only use it in an indirect way.
- How was Lee Sheldon recruited to do this project? How did the collaborative experience with Sheldon differ for you between the first and second game?
- Lee was brought on by The Adventure Company before we were attached as developers. I expect his vast experience in television, movies, and adventure games made him an obvious and desirable choice. As far as communication goes, in the first game we had very little. We were under quite a lot of pressure, and the development schedule was very tight. We had to make a lot of decisions on the fly and live with the consequences. For the second game I think we felt more confident in our ability to get the game done, so we had more leeway to indulge in faithfulness to the design document. We also had more back and forth on issues that cropped up mid-stream. I think this is a constantly improving process.
- What development tools (for graphics, sounds, scripting, etc.) were used in the production?
- Our engine was developed in-house, so all scripting and graphics were handled proprietarily. We used Miles for sound compression, Bink for video compression, and Granny for character animations.
- What game assets that had been developed for And Then There Were None (engines, artworks, soundtracks, etc.) were tweaked and reused in Murder on the Orient Express?
- Well, the engine was an upgraded version of ATTWN's engine, the animation system was re-written and various other sections were improved. All music for MOTOE was done from scratch, so there is no replaying there. The only thing eagle-eyed players may find familiar is a certain goat...
- During the production period, how close did the design team work with the estate of Agatha Christie? How demanding was the estate in approving new contents for the games that did not exist in the source novels?
- Most of that was handled in preproduction while the design document was being written. I think Chorion felt more comfortable with us for the second outing and didn't feel they had to scrutinize every aspect of the game. I could be wrong about this, but if so, they didn't find much to complain about, because we never heard from them!
- Both games in the Agatha Christie series boasted a strong voice cast, including the famed David Suchet as the voice of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, who also played the same role in the UK production of the TV series Agatha Christie's Poirot. How was Suchet recruited into the project? Who were the other notable members in the voice cast? How was the experience for you working with Suchet?
- Everyone involved in the project had that question at the forefront of their minds from the word go. Suchet has become so intertwined with Poirot that it is, at this point, hard to imagine someone else taking over without being constantly compared to him. It was a Catch-22, because you worry about someone coming in and doing a Suchet impression instead of a unique rendition of Poirot, yet the more the voice strays from Suchet's version, the more people will wish it was Suchet doing it! Mike Adams (Producer at The Adventure Company) was very keen on getting Suchet on board and really worked at it. It was fairly late in the game when we found out that an agreement had been reached, and we all heaved a collective sigh of relief, because we knew his voice would not only define Poirot, but would be an impetus for other voice actors in the game to really step up and compete! I think Vanessa Marshall did an excellent job as Antoinette. She had to be strong to spar with Poirot, and I think she captured the character beautifully.
- What similarities and differences in gameplay can the player expect from And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express?
- The single biggest difference is that there are no unnecessary puzzles in Murder on the Orient Express. We think that was an experiment in And Then There Were None that didn't go down too well with most people, so it was excised. Also, I think the idea Lee had of using Poirot as an oracle of sorts was great, surely no character in relatively modern fiction is better suited for that task.
- What kind of puzzles can the player find in the games, including time sensitive puzzles?
- There are no timed puzzles in the game, although there are puzzles where time is a factor - I can't really explain that any further without giving it away, but I can say no puzzles have a time limit. The other puzzles run the gamut - at one moment you are fixing the heat on the stranded train, and the next you are desperately trying to escape a makeshift prison. There are also more standard, single screen puzzles, a safe that must be cracked, and, of course, alibis that must be broken.
- How similar or different do you see, in both style and play, between AWE Games' Agatha Christie series and Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series?
- I think the Agatha series has more in common with the Lucasarts/Sierra style of adventure games than with Nancy Drew. From the Nancy Drew games I have played, it seems to me they developed a very successful template and have stuck with it. While I don't espouse reinventing the wheel, I do think that, as a developer, I would get a little bored by their engine constraints. One of my favorite parts of working on games is the start of a project. We spend a week or two discussing what worked and didn't work in the last title, and what improvements can be made - both improvements that the player will notice and ones that are invisible in runtime. We try and streamline production as much as possible so our next dev cycle can have a larger percentage of time spent on content creation. I admire what Her Interactive has done, they found an untapped demographic and their games cater straight to it. They are bestsellers without fail. I think the success of a particular Nancy Drew title really comes down to the game design, story and characters. I loved Blackmoor Manor, but didn't really like Shadow Ranch. As their execution really hasn't changed much over the course of their games, that discrepancy must be attributed to story and design - in my opinion.
- How enjoyable will the games still be for Agatha Christie fans who already know the storylines from the novels, including the identities of the murders? How much replay value will there be once the player has solved the games for the first time?
- It really isn't much different from watching a movie version of a book, which I often find more exciting than watching a movie I know nothing about. You come at it from a different angle, and you enjoy seeing the characters brought to life and comparing them against your own personal visions. I don't think it detracts from the enjoyment of the game at all. You will know things the character doesn't know, but that can be interesting too, a well known cinematic trick is letting the audience in on things the protagonist doesn't yet know to create tension. It really works both ways. As far as replay value goes, as a rule adventure games don't contain a whole lot of replay value, but as there is a challenge issued to you at the start of the game by Poirot which you can either accept or decline, you may be interested in seeing if you can complete the game on its 'harder' level if you went through it the first time at the easier setting.
- What can fans look forward to seeing in the future for the Agatha Christie series? What can we expect from Scott Nixon in the next 5 years?
- Well, I'm not privy to that knowledge, but I can certainly tell you that I hope it continues, with each iteration improving on its predecessor in significant ways. I love working on these games, each new one presents a unique set of adaptation challenges, and finding inventive ways to tackle those challenges is both frustrating and delightful at the same time.
- Thank you for the opportunity to interview you, Scott. We look forward to learning about future projects from AWE Productions.