First posted on 06 April 2007. Last updated on 13 December 2009.
|Lee Sheldon is an acclaimed writer and the designer of the Agatha Christie adventure game series.|
All images are courtesy of Suzanne MacGillivray, DreamCatcher Interactive © 2007.
Lee Sheldon is an award winning writer and a triple threat in the truest sense. His past and current works span across television, books, and video games. As a scriptwriter, his television credits include (amongst others) Charlie's Angels, Quincy, Cagney & Lacey, Edge of Night, Snoops, Another World, and even Star Trek: The Next Generation. As a book author, his works include the fiction novel Impossible Bliss and the reference text Character Development and Storytelling for Games that is part of the Course PTR Game Development Series. As a game designer, however, Sheldon is best known to adventure fans for his works in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!: The Riddle of Master Lu, Dark Side of the Moon, Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, and many others.
Most recently, Sheldon has been recruited by The Adventure Company to design an adventure game series based on the licensed works of Agatha Christie. Today, the games Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None and Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express have been published and are well received by both fans and critics. We are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to interview this media legend. In the interview, Sheldon speaks of his works in television, his philosophy in game design, the challenges of adapting the Agatha Christie novels into adventure games, his other current projects, and what holds for him in the future.
- You began your career in television and had since achieved critical success in television, books, and video games. Who had been your mentors to the biz early in your career? Who had most influenced you as a fiction writer and a game designer?
- I was lucky to have two pairs of mentors while I was a writer and producer in television. The first were Ron Austin and Jim Buchanan, a team of producers who were also writers. Ron was a director as well. They were one of the producing teams on the second season of Charlie's Angels. I had only written a couple of scripts for a Hanna-Barbera animated show when I met Ron at a mutual friend's house. He and Jim gave me a chance to write a script. Over the course of two seasons I wrote five for them, then two more for another producer after they went on to other projects. They took the time to gently teach me a craft I thought I already knew pretty well. I didn't. But they did, and I was able to learn far more than I thought possible.
My second pair of mentors were Bill Link and Dick Levinson, prolific award-winning television writer-producers, who looked over my shoulder as I wrote and produced Blacke's Magic. They not only taught me about writing, but producing as well. Producing is all about making choices. They taught me not to be afraid to choose; that if I made a wrong choice, to admit it, learn from it, and move on.
- From Charlie's Angels to Star Trek: The Next Generation, your television work spans decades and across many genres. Which television work do you consider to be most representative of your career so far in this medium?
- Other than one episode of Charlie's Angels called "Rosemary for Remembrance", probably the shows that are not so well known these days. Blacke's Magic and Snoops to name a couple. But by far the most representative of my work would be the daytime soap opera Edge of Night. In all of these I was writing with the most amount of creative control I ever experienced.
- I was trusted. In my opinion there is nothing better for a creative person than to be trusted to do the job he has been hired to do. Far too often we are second-guessed; forced to limit our work to fit the imaginations of others. On these shows I was allowed to let my imagination soar. Sometimes the result fell to earth with a thud. Sometimes it became something very special.
- How have your television works influenced how you design games? Conversely, how have your games influenced how you write for television?
- In television I was always experimenting with new ways to tell stories. Most of these experiments went unnoticed to everyone but me. Also, because I was, for the most part, a writer of mysteries I learned to concentrate on details, and to fill plot holes. Episodic television taught me to write to strict milestones; to know when I'd worked on something enough and move on. Daytime television taught me how to weave complex stories with dozens of characters, stories that lasted for months. This was especially helpful when I started working on massively-multiplayer online games.
Other than a few months in the beginning of my game career, I haven't returned to television. I haven't been tempted. I expect I'll write a movie some day; but after over two hundred produced episodes as writer and hundreds more as producer or story editor, there isn't much more attraction for me in TV.
- How (and with whom) was the decision reached to choose And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express as the first Agatha Christie novels to be adapted? How long did it take you to develop the design documents for the games?
- When Annette Béchamp, the Director of Editorial and Licensing for The Adventure Company contacted me about doing a game based on an Agatha Christie novel we quickly decided And Then There Were None would be a good first choice. Its setting was dramatic, yet naturally limited in scope. This gave us a manageable world in which to set the game. And we knew the challenge of adapting a Christie book would be difficult enough without worrying about tackling one of her iconic detectives like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Chorion Ltd., the owners of the license to Agatha Christie's work, agreed. Of course after ATTWN it seemed like a natural next step to add a familiar face to the second game.
I wrote a full first draft design document for ATTWN in about two months, maybe a bit more. The design document for Murder on the Orient Express was written in one month. I would have liked more time, but we were under extremely tight time pressure. Luckily I am used to that. On Edge of Night I wrote approximately five hundred pages per month. The design documents for these games have averaged five hundred pages plus.
- From a designer's viewpoint, how do you inject a nonlinear gaming experience into a strictly linear construct of an Agatha Christie novel?
- I'm not really in the business of shoving square pegs into round holes. While I think, given time, these games could be entirely non-linear, it would take much more time and preparation. Particularly with our first two novels, the plot moves are quite well known. In ATTWN you have people being killed according to a linear nursery rhyme. Could I have juggled the order of the rhyme based on what the player chose to do in the game? Sure. But I'm not sure it would have added all that much to the experience.
It also makes the game logic harder to track for the developer. And since I'm in Indiana, AWE is in Florida, TAC is in Toronto and Chorion Ltd. is in England, communication can be difficult. These things are hard enough to do without adding additional challenges. I settled on what I call a "python" structure for the game where there are non-linear sections tied to sections in the novels, but the transition points between these sections follow one another linearly.
- How closely did you work with the rights owner Chorion Ltd. and the estate of Agatha Christie on the games?
- Chorion Ltd. and Mathew Prichard, Dame Agatha's grandson, have been tremendously understanding and helpful all along the way. I remember how nervous I was when I first met with them in London to tell them I wanted to change the identity of the murderer in ATTWN. I felt such a well-known solution (particularly since the book was packaged with the game) would undercut the mystery and surprise. I knew that I would meet objections from fans; but Chorion Ltd. and Mathew not only understood, they approved.
They have helped decide which books we should do; and how many liberties I could take in adapting them. They've advised me on whether or not something I want to add is in keeping with the spirit of the books. They've given me background material and even made suggestions on ways to make dialog more "British."
- Which parts of the novels did you find most difficult adapting? Why?
- There are several challenges in adapting them. Since the first two books take place in strictly confined settings, I tried to find ways to open them up like the additional train cars and the section of forest in MOTOE.
Next the structure of Christie's mystery novels is very much one character asking questions of other characters. As soon as the plot moves forward, more questions need to be asked. To cut conversations out and turn these into what adventure game players think of as typical puzzle adventures would not be true to the books. So I try to make the conversations as interesting as possible. I'm flattered that several reviewers think almost all of the dialog is copied directly from the books. In fact no more than 15-20% is. Some is altered from the original. Much is brand new: Lee forging Agatha's style.
These games are investigations. To help find other forms of gameplay I'm always asking myself what would the detective do? This is why I've added fingerprinting, making casts of footprints, eavesdropping, shadowing other characters, etc.
In MOTOE of course I not only needed to be true to the spirit of the book, but to Christie's most famous character: Hercule Poirot. I was very proud when one of the first things David Suchet said to me after reading my words was that I had found Poirot's voice. The actor who has played the character more than any other should know.
Finally of course there are the endings. I'll talk about them in answer to the next question.
- When adapting popular works such as the Agatha Christie novels, how do you maintain the mystery and suspense in a game that otherwise may have been lost because of the popularity of the works among its audience?
- First, since a novelist can pick and choose precisely what she wants to reveal to her audience and when, video games cover more ground and can be more flexible in how things are revealed. The island in ATTWN the book is a rock with a house on it. For the purposes of our game I expanded the island, adding a promontory, a couple of new beaches, an aviary, an abandoned fishing village, even goats.
These elements were not added simply to give the player more to do, regardless of whether they fit with the story or the setting. All were culled from a sentence here or there in the book, or from my research on that section of Devon coastline. The additions of the screening room, the bird statuary and certain other interesting features of the house were all suggested by the book.
Remaining true to the spirit of the books is essential, especially since I felt we needed to alter endings to maintain the mystery and suspense. Even though I changed the identity of the killer in ATTWN, the motive and the theme of justice and retribution remain intact. MOTOE was even more challenging due to its classic, well-known solution (again the book is included in the game box). Here I did not devise a new solution, but built on the two solutions Poirot expounds in the book and the film. To simply pick another murderer would not have been in the spirit of the original ending.
- Your book Character Development and Storytelling for Games (published in 2004 by Course Technology) draws many parallels between a fiction writer and a game designer. How true is it that a game designer differs from a fiction writer only in the canvas (i.e., medium) on which the art (i.e., content) is crafted?
- It's very true. But I would add one addition. Consider not only the canvas, but the tools as well. We paint with different tools in games than we do in film or drama to realize similar emotional effects. Right now writing passive media is akin to painting in a single medium such as watercolor or oil. Writing for games is to create a collage using many mediums that might at first seem to be in conflict, but when the entire work is perceived there is a harmony—a synergy—that can be achieved.
- If you can summarize the conclusion of your book in a single sentence, what will it be?
- Build upon the lessons of the past to create the storytelling of the future.
- Of television, books, and games, which medium is the most difficult to develop content as a writer? Why?
- For me it's games, no question. Creating the collage that becomes a game requires a number of different skills, in some ways skills that are alien to most writers: giving up some control to your audience; structuring story so that it can work no matter what choices that audience makes; working with technology that is still limited in the tools it can give storytellers when compared to film; trying to write for an industry that has paid lip-service to storytelling without understanding that as much attention must be paid to it as is paid to gameplay; educating players to the fact that they don't need to settle for amateurish storytelling simply because they're playing a game; and teaching them that story does not have to get in the way of gameplay, or be segregated from it. There are probably another hundred challenges I could add!
- In the past, you had been involved in a number of game projects that were unfortunately canceled or abandoned for reasons beyond your control. Among these were 20,000 Leagues: The Adventure Continues with SouthPeak Interactive, The Gryphon Tapestry with Imaginaria, and Uru Live with Cyan Worlds. Which canceled games held the most heartbreaking experiences for you? Why?
- Well, out of the ones you mention, both 20,000 Leagues and The Gryphon Tapestry. I did some of my best work in 20K along with the team who originally developed it. I brought it to Southpeak, then had to watch helplessly as the project was cancelled.
The Gryphon Tapestry in 1999 was my first chance to work on an MMO. The management team, Imaginaria understood and believed in their project. Much groundwork had been laid before I was even hired. Our design was innovative in so many ways: a narrative-driven world that was not static but ongoing; true multiplayer quests; NPCs that had lives of their own and relationships with each other and the players that were affected by player actions; no player death; instancing (we called our instances story spaces--if a group found themselves in a scary graveyard at midnight, they were the only ones there, not so they wouldn't need to fight over loot, but because it made the story spookier); a unique system of rumor and gossip; flashbacks to bring players up to speed on quest progression and story... The project was cancelled for lack of funds just as we were receiving our first enthusiastic responses from players in the closed beta. I am working very hard and refining these ideas in a new MMO I'll mention below.
Two other projects that I wanted to add were adventure games I was working on at Sanctuary Woods when the company went out of business in 1996: The Siberian Cipher, a sequel to The Riddle of Master Lu that focused on the mystery of Tunguska and a world-wide conspiracy in the last days before World War II that I think Ripley's Believe It or Not! now own the rights to; and Sideshow, my first chance to create a game from the very beginning. Still, years later, I get very few opportunities to create something new. Almost all of my projects were started before I was hired, or based on material from another medium. I retrieved the rights to Sideshow and a couple of other ideas from Sanctuary Woods. It is one game I would really like another chance to make.
- Over the years, what lessons had you learned about working with developers on high risk projects?
- Get the money up front! And stock options are usually just paper. I was lucky in one regard when I entered the games industry. I'd been a freelance writer, or had worked on several TV shows that didn't last very long, so I was used to watching projects vanish. Still I was naïve. I didn't realize that in the games industry companies can vanish just as quickly. But I still don't mind taking on high risk projects.
For example I remember an interesting one I was helping to develop for JoWooD a few years ago that Atari eventually passed on. There was no risk involved in a consulting job I did for UCLA on a fascinating virtual world based on jazz clubs that flourished in Oakland, California in the 40s or 50s. But the uniqueness of it was so very cool I jumped at the chance.
Since I need to be excited and challenged about the ideas behind a game I often find myself turning down a project that won't help me grow as a writer and designer.
- Live action Full Motion Video never succeeded in bringing the level of interactivity and realism to video games that the technology had intended. Temujin: The Capricorn Collection and Dark Side of the Moon were among your earlier games that experimented with this technology. Why did Full Motion Video ultimately fail as a multimedia platform in video games? In hindsight, was it just a passing fad or an immature technology ahead of its time?
- In my opinion it was a victim of technology and of hype. Southpeak's engine is by far the most sophisticated and flexible FMV engine built to date, yet it ran sluggishly on even the highest-end systems of the day. And by that point in time, 1996-98, FMV was already being tainted by "games" with a lack of legitimate gameplay and numerous technical issues. I think gamers would have been willing to accept the limitations of FMV, just as they accept limitations in animation today, if the hype hadn't promised it would be as good as movies. It was easy to compare the games to motion pictures and see that the quality of the image was not even close.
- As both a creator and a consumer, what do you believe to be the major reasons for the dwindling popularity of adventure games over the past decade? How must the adventure genre evolve (such as into action/adventure/role-playing hybrids) in order to succeed in the future?
- I try each time to try new things in the games I design, adventure or otherwise. Agatha Christie games are not puzzle games to me, but detection games relying on the things detectives do to solve crimes in such stories. Some gamers understand this, others don't. Also, while I hate making generalizations, I don't think the new generation of gamers is all that interested in the more cerebral challenges of adventure games.
These days adventure games are in a similar niche to "art" films. The major movie studios all have divisions to produce or pickup independent films whose subject matter may be considered too original or cerebral for mainstream audiences. Adventure games are developed the same way as these independent films on equivalently lower budgets and do not attract the interest of "AAA" designers who are producing our current blockbuster games. We're also constrained by the fact that most adventure games are developed on and for PCs, whereas consoles are the current hardware stars in gaming.
On the other hand small independent films can break through to the mainstream. Little Miss Sunshine and Borat for example are runaway hits, and because their budgets were so much less than Superman Returns say, that means a lot more money for the people who made them. And Then There Were None has done very well as a PC game, not just an adventure game. There is an audience out there, if they can be reached and entertained.
- Which adventure game (not of your own) is your favorite? Why?
- I'm a big fan of Trinity, Brian Moriarty's Infocom text adventure, and Tim Schafer's Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. All are wonderful realizations of unique and exciting visions.
- Which of your own games (excluding Agatha Christie) are you most proud of? Why?
- Ripley's Believe It or Not!: The Riddle of Master Lu from 1995 is still probably the game I'm most proud of. My co-designer and producer, Francois Robillard (the fiendish laboratory puzzle was his) and the entire team were not only incredibly professional and dedicated, but very relaxed and fun to work with. Egos were at a minimum. And I think that sense of fun is there everywhere in the game. For me personally it was my first "adult" game; my first attempt at non-linear storytelling; my first chance to work with FMV; quite a few firsts actually. And people are still enjoying it today thanks to DOSbox, so we must have done something right!
- The Adventure Company has confirmed that a total of 5 games will be adapted from the Agatha Christie novels under the current license. Have the remaining titles been already chosen? Are you already committed to the next Agatha Christie sequel?
- Yes, the remaining titles have been chosen. I'm signed up for the next three; and I'm currently working on the next title. I can't tell you what it is, but I will say that I'm again exploring a few new directions for adventure games.
- What are your other current projects? What can we expect from Lee Sheldon over the next 5 years?
- I'll shortly return to work on a project called The Great Wheel for the Nintendo Wii that I did some early work on last summer. It's being developed by Hidden Path Entertainment, a recent start-up by some former Microsoft alumni.
As I mentioned earlier I'm also in the early stages of development of a virtual world called Londontown, where I hope to put into practice a lot of the ideas I began working on as far back as The Gryphon Tapestry. A lot of people, primarily those working on the current crop of MMORPGs have told me that I'm crazy to try and create a narrative-driven virtual world: it can't be done and nobody will play it. That's the kind of challenge I enjoy. I'm already having a great time leading the team that is designing it.
Finally, I'm working on a virtual world for 4th-6th graders called Quest Atlantis developed here at Indiana University where I'm a professor. We've just received a substantial MacArthur grant to fund our next stage of development. I'll also be consulting on still another virtual world, but I don't think I'm allowed to give details on that yet.
So you can expect to be seeing quite a bit from me over the next five years. I hope people will enjoy playing these games as much as I enjoy making them!