Agustin Cordes

Nucleosys Digital Studio

Posted by Matt Barton, Philip Jong.
First posted on 18 December 2007. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
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Agustin Cordes
Agustin Cordes is a game designer and the cofounder of Nucleosys Digital Studio.

For more information, visit Nucleosys.

Among the leading independent developers currently producing graphical adventure games is Nucleosys Digital Studio, a company from Argentina founded in 2003 by Agustin Cordes and Alejandro Graziani. They released their first game, Scratches, in 2006. Scratches is a surreal horror adventure in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, and its polished gameplay and enigmatic ending have struck a chord with many gamers who have played it. The game has been a successful release for the company, and many fans are eagerly looking forward to the developer's next project.

Scratches is primarily the brainchild of Cordes, who has recently agreed to an interview with us about his work. Cordes is an exceptionally good interviewee, giving long and detailed responses here that are sure to interest all adventure game lovers. Cordes is a consummate storyteller, but feels that adventure games should not tell stories—they should let the gamer live the story.

In your opinion, what is the most common mistake adventure game developers tend to make? What are some of your pet peeves when playing games from other developers? What did you do to ensure that none of these problems showed up in Scratches?

Well, that may be a difficult question to answer. At least to me, because I tend to be a very tolerant gamer. I have to admit that now I may be more critical when I play adventures, but even so, I can tolerate some things that are universally loathed such as pixel hunting, as long as I overall enjoy the game and the story has grabbed my attention. I can deal with mazes, empty scenes, unintuitive hotspots and so... I definitely like much less obnoxious characters and generic storylines. To me those are crucial ingredients for a good adventure game. I may willing to forgive generic puzzles, even though I also think they're an extremely important element of the genre, provided the game has a well told story.

But I digress. It's hard to pinpoint a common mistake. I wouldn't call any of these things a "mistake". To include a maze is a conscious decision of a designer, and might even be a good decision if the maze has a nice twist to it. Pixel hunting can work well too, if it's justified and requires good observation from the player. Scratches has been criticized for a few instances of pixel hunting, but I believe they were misinterpreted. In most cases, the player had to have knowledge of a certain aspect that required profound observation, such as the infamous key hidden in vase puzzle. Players felt this was a nasty pixelhunt, but in reality there was a solid clue that pointed everyone in the direction of the vase. Problem is, the clue wasn't that evident, and therefore quite some people considered that puzzle flawed. It's a good thing they overlooked this, as I think it may have been our worst mistake in the whole game (it actually was the very first puzzle, and present in the demo!). But I'm still happy with it, I think it had a nice spin to it.

You have commented that certain types of interfaces (i.e., first-person, third-person, 3-D) work better for some types of adventure games and less well for others. Can you elaborate on this insight?

I think it all depends on the theme of the game. First-person is excellent for horror. The atmosphere tends to feel more real, it surrounds you, and you have a better view of the scenes. Precisely, you as the player focus on the environments, and this is an important element in horror games: the more you feel part of the environment, the more efficient scares will be. Plus, certain sequences may only work well for a type of interface in particular. For example, take the crawl through the furnace sequence in Scratches, in which the main character has to slowly creep through a darkly illuminated pipe down to a nasty encounter. Something like this would have never worked well in third-person view. On the contrary, third-person works much better for humorous games, because they're more character based and therefore players can focus on them. You can also see your own character and his or her facial expressions, an important device in the case of humor. This is of course a general idea, and no game is particularly tied to a certain type of interface. It all boils down to the game itself and its needs: in the case of Scratches, first-person was simply the way to go.

How do you prioritize the different elements of an adventure game, such as story, gameplay, flow, and interface, that often compete with each other during the design process? In Scratches, how are the tradeoffs made between these different design elements?

I have discussed this a bit already, and I think that what really matters is a good balance between everything. Puzzle-heavier games may work better than more story-based ones, depending on the environment and premise. However, I might be inclined to say than those adventures with a rich storyline and characters tend to be more memorable and satisfying than plain puzzle fests. Interface should be the first thing you decide in the design process as it's going to define the rest of the game. This makes sense: the design of a SCUMM-based adventure is obviously far more different than the design of, say, a Myst-styled adventure.

In the case of Scratches, we scrapped a complex interface in order to allow players to interact more seamlessly with the environments. In consequence, all you can do while playing is click on objects and expect a response from the character, who automatically decides the action to perform (I'm oversimplifying a lot, of course, but you get the idea). I thought that a rather more complex interface would have gotten in the way, but I'm now inclined to think that, on the contrary, it would have made the gameworld much richer. For instance, allowing a player to decide whether to look at or use an object can make a lot of a difference. It also demands a more involved design. The more you complicate the interface, the more you're going to complicate the design. In retrospective, I think this slight tradeoff would have worked better in Scratches. At least we did stumble into several situations where choosing between looking or using would have improved some puzzles.

What background research did you do for Scratches?

Quite a bit! We don't have any Victorian houses nearby so our entire research was limited to the Internet. This wasn't so bad though as the amount of available information is vast. We stumbled upon blueprints of the era, pictures, stories, styles, etc. For instance, we consciously decided the style of the central house. Wood was more prominent in our first approach, but we then decided for stone as the prominent material, which not only was more akin to style we were looking for, it also proved to be essential to bring that gothic look to the game. Another research included the decision of the physical placement of the house, and the actual town of Rothbury in England seemed to fit our needs. There's a nice background of Victorian houses in there, and even a real eccentric engineer that once lived in the town, just like James Blackwood.

How would you compare what you do when you create a game like Scratches to what horror novelists or movie directors do when they create their works?

I certainly think it's a similar process. Nowadays you can see many games that try to mimic the structure of movies, which I think is mostly because the aspect of story has become very important in the industry, even regardless of the genre. However, this is especially true in the case of adventures, since they beg for a good story or at least a strong background. Now I'm not entirely familiar with the process in movie making, but I'm sure that aspects such as storyboards, scripting, casting and even set or scene designing share many things in common. We had to overview all of these aspects during the development of Scratches. Obviously, designing a scene for Scratches (or any game for that matter) was certainly different than designing the set for an actual movie, but I think the essence is the same: you need to create an environment in which actors or players are going to interact with.

Particularly in the case of Scratches, we did try to approach a certain movie-like feel. The beginning is real slow and attempts to build a lot of suspense. This becomes evident by the few amount of actions that you actually need to perform in order to complete the first day and the soft, mysterious tune that is present during most of your exploring. Actually, the first day might have been too slow, but we took the risk – we knew that things were going to become really interesting in the second one, so we decided to go for it. Once the atmosphere has been prepared and the player (or viewer, in the case of movies) is deep into it, you're free to deliver the first hit!

I'm really happy with these aspects of the game. For instance, I think the furnace crawl and the build-up towards the final climax were very movie-like. The story, environments and especially the music from Cellar of Rats were crucial to achieve this effect.

One of the key challenges in making a suspenseful game like Scratches must have been creating puzzles that would not detract too much from the pacing and tension of the game's story. Did the puzzles in Scratches come easily to you, or did you struggle to find just the right balance between challenging the player and keeping the story moving along?

The most important puzzles came naturally. These are the ones that depended more on the story, such as the uncovering of Catherine Blackwood's body. This was a puzzle that required knowledge from elements of the storyline (where she was buried, at what time, etc) and demanded a bit of a reasoning from the player. Other puzzles were designed after the environments, which was the case in the crypt. I wouldn't say that we struggled a lot with these puzzles, but they did require some more planning and balancing. There is quite some contrast in this regard. Some puzzles were devised years ahead of the actual completion of the game, while others were imposed or rather dictated by the inclusion of environments and obstacles for the player. Overall, we are very happy with the puzzle design for Scratches. They are difficult puzzles, but being always consistent with the story and environments.

There are many great inside jokes in Scratches, many of which would probably only be funny to experienced adventure gamers. What is your ideal audience for this game? How much prior knowledge of the genre do you think a gamer would need to fully appreciate Scratches?

The jokes and references are secondary to the game, obviously, but I'm sure they produced more than one smile in gamers. An experienced adventure gamer would probably enjoy the game a bit more than a newcomer, but not only because of the jokes. Like I said, the puzzles are decidedly difficult and were aimed to experienced gamers. However, this doesn't mean that a newcomer won't enjoy Scratches – on the contrary, we have heard from many people who never even played adventures that were very happy with the game. Of course, liking suspenseful and scary games in order to enjoy Scratches is probably a must!

The protagonist in Scratches seems better developed than those in most adventure games. Did you worry that creating a male player character might turn off female gamers? Should adventure games try to create protagonists as "blank slates" for easy identification with gamers, or is it better to have an interesting and multi-faceted character with his or her own motives and drives?

This is an interesting question and something we pondered a lot during the design phase of Scratches. I'm inclined to agree that, at least in scary games, creating "blank" protagonists is probably a wise idea. This is often the case, as we can see. In this regard, Scratches was a bit of an experiment as Michael is certainly a well developed character, far from being a downright blank. We wanted to add a psychological side to the scares in the game, in a sense that gamers had to be identified with Michael and his predicaments. In a way, Scratches played like a first-person game with the character of a third-person one. This actually caused some upheaval, as many gamers felt confused by this. Particularly, a few puzzles depended on what Michael had learned, and not necessarily the knowledge that players gathered. This is quite uncommon in first-person games.

As for the decision of including a male protagonist, we didn't even consider the consequences. We wanted to make a Lovecraftian game, which simply begged for the classic disturbed male character. Surprisingly enough, many female gamers seemed to have enjoyed the game!

As an indie game developer yourself, how fair or unfair do you feel about the press' current coverage of adventure games from indie developers? Should games from indie developers be judged on the level as games from top-tiered development studios? Why?

As you can probably tell, judging by the many diverse opinions on the issue, this is always a difficult question. On one hand, it is true that the independent developer has much less resources at hand and obviously a lesser budget as well. This is undeniably going to have, to some extent, an impact on the final product. On the other hand, I would say that indies have less pressure and have much more creative freedom in their projects than financed developments. Plus, there are some really good indie titles out there.

If I was being held at gunpoint and had to give a straight answer, I would say that yes, all games should be judged at the same level. With some criteria, that is. I mean, it's perfectly fine to mention or even give a certain indie game a lesser score because its graphics are poor, but it's certainly not fair to massively bash the game just because of the graphics.

Gamers who have finished Scratches may speculate about several unresolved ambiguities in the game. Without spoiling any of the game's secrets, could you perhaps tell us whether you intended to leave some gaps in the story for players to speculate about? Are the answers actually hidden in the game? Do you eventually intend to spell everything out conclusively, perhaps in a sequel? Were you striving to achieve something like the "unreliable narrator" concept from modernist literature?

Absolutely, everything was intentional. I always like to be clear about this because many gamers felt like we simply ran out of ideas at the end. On the contrary, the ending of Scratches was the very first thing devised in the story. The rest of the developments in the storyline (such as the predominant African theme) were designed keeping that final sequence in mind. As a matter of fact, the initial ending of Scratches (which to this day still hasn't been revealed!) was slightly longer and more conclusive. As the game evolved, we felt that ambiguity was very important in this story, and a dramatic ending was going to be out of place. So we exchanged closure and drama for a more vague outcome, which allowed gamers to better fill in the gaps and come up with their own theories. This proved to be a fantastic idea as the amount of discussions that originated were absolutely wonderful. Our very best experience with the project has been taking part in these discussions and interacting with the fans.

In retrospective, I believe the ending that made it to the final game was a good decision. It was controversial alright, but it managed to achieve a persistent experience. To this day, there are many gamers that still wonder about the story and the environment of Scratches, even though most of the story has been revealed by now. The mystery remains... I personally think this ending was more appropriate because it also had a decidedly "Lovecraftian" feel to it.

As for the question of whether everything is actually hidden in the game, yes, this is really true. Some of the hints are more obscure than others, but everyone should be able to deduct the whole story from hints present in the game (which was actually the case for some people). Particularly, the very first book you find while exploring the house, which is Milton's diary in the living room, can be taken as a chronological description of the events that took place in it. Yes, believe it or not, that book is roughly telling the whole story!

Finally, I definitely agree with the notion of "unreliable narrator". We consciously intended that and that is indeed the case with Michael; some of his assumptions turn out being wrong in the end. You just can't rely entirely on him, that is, what he saw and what he told. He is, after all, a somewhat unstable fellow... so there you have yet another uncertainty in the story!

You have mentioned that the premise for Scratches came to you in a dream. Have you also experimented with mind altering substances in an effort to stimulate your creative juices?

No, all the stimulation I need are bad horror movies and junk food. It's the ideal combination to come up with some nasty nightmares. The worst mix I ever did was Italian horror with Mexican food. Not for the faint of heart!

What can we look forward from you and Nucleosys over the next 5 years?

I would love to say eternally sunbathing in a Caribbean beach with dozens of beautiful women around us and drinking Margaritas but, from the looks of it, we'll probably keep developing lots of games. We can only hope they will be as satisfying and memorable as Scratches. But they will be certainly adventures!

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