Cardboard Box Entertainment
First posted on 07 March 2008. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
|Jan Kavan is a musician (and an accomplished cello player) who lives a double life as an indie game designer.|
All images are courtesy of Krystod Eavlice and Sean Drummy, Tri Synergy © 2008.
Ghost in the Sheet a dark comedy, point and click graphical adventure game from CBE (Cardboard Box Entertainment) that tells the ironic tale of a nameless man's life as a ghost. In his afterlife, far from a quiet and peaceful eternal rest, he is instead commanded by his boss in the afterworld to work to investigate a series of mysterious occurrences at Sector Omega, an industrial complex where strange haunting is happening. Who says that there is no work after death?
Created by Jan Kavan and Lukas Medek, a duo of creative indie developers from the Czech Republic who had recently joined forces, Ghost in the Sheet was originally planned to be released as a shareware game online. Due to an overwhelming positive feedback from the adventure fan community about the game and its development (including a beta version), CBE approached publisher Tri Synergy, known for providing independent developers with publishing solutions for North America, and successfully stuck a deal to publish and distribute the game in retail.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Jan Kavan, lead designer at CBE about Ghost in the Sheet. In the interview, he speaks of the inspirations behind this otherworldly project, the distinctive dark humour that he instills into his game, his experience of learning as an indie game developer, and what gamers may expect from playing this unique game.
- The premise for Ghost in the Sheet is certainly out of the ordinary, in that you play as a spiritual entity with special powers working as a supernatural sleuth. How does this unusual concept come about?
- Haha, if I told the truth, nobody would believe me but here it goes anyway: It was late august 2006 and I was quite depressed about Destinies. We've spent incredible amount of time with Laura MacDonald designing this huge game and after three years of struggle for publishers and funding I felt so drained. That night I was chatting with Lukas Medek (graphic designer of Destinies and Ghost in the Sheet) over Jabber and the conclusion was to make a little (max 6 screens long) game. Originally Ghost in the Sheet was meant to be a horror game based on the common clichés you see in modern games and it was to be released as freeware.
As soon as we together started to work, we realized there was no looking back. First of all, we had to think of the game's basic premise. Almost everyone loves ghost stories but having a ghost as the main hero is sort of a reversed approach. Our big problem was with the ability to pass through the walls and ceilings as it was too far fetched. Very often are ghosts (especially in kids stories) are depicted as these amorphous whimsical beings wrapped in the sheets so we've decided to use this idea and suddenly our ghost started to get the real shape.
I was thinking about ghosts in general and suddenly the old TV series Randall and Hopkirk came on my mind. At that time, I was sure I want to base gameplay over paranormal skills because one of the things which I really like in games in general is the ability to do something I can't do in the real life.
The game grew into proportions we never wanted it to grow and suddenly there was something way bigger than 6 screens long game.
- The theme of an afterlife is popular among fictional works. The movie Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death) presents a romantic, ethereal vision of life after death, whereas the game Grim Fandango explores the droll irony of the so-called otherworld. What is the approach you have taken in Ghost in the Sheet to exploit this theme?
- In Ghost in the Sheet I've tried to break the common conception that you'll get any rest after you die. Quite the contrary - you get an even worse boss than you probably had in the real life, with no vision of freedom. Now think – how would you react to that? You could be angry, but being angry for eternity is just too much work and besides what would it help you? So you become cynical and skeptical to everything. That's the main mood of the ghost although he still is a likeable hero in a way, that his morale leads him to do the right things. On the other hand he – being dead – must necessarily have a different perspective on life. So when he sees someone falling to his death, he, instead of being shocked, dryly comments "welcome aboard amigo".
- It is easy to find adventure games, from Monkey Island to Broken Sword, that rely heavily on light slapstick humour. However, it is less common to find adventure games that feature genuinely dark humour. Why does this gap exist? How strong is your intention to explore this gap in your game?
- It was very strong for the aforementioned reasons, but I did not actively think: "What's missing in the market?". I tried to be true to Ghost in the Sheet and his poor condition which lead to this dark humorous mood of the whole game.
- As a videogame soundtrack composer, you had contributed to some of the greatest adventure game titles of the last years. How did you end up making the transition from a musician to a game developer?
- Well, I wouldn't say I am that famous video games composer. :) I contributed to Barrow Hill or Dark Fall 2, of course Destinies, Ghost in the Sheet and some little tracks here or there but I am still waiting for my big RPG to make music for. :) As a composer I have more success with my contemporary music which I usually couple with my cello playing. In truth, I was trying to create games for years. I make my living as a programmer and teacher at music academy in Brno so I am competent in both spheres. I've worked on other games which sadly will never see the light of this world (Hidden Rooms etc.).
Currently I've finished sound design for the charming and beautiful Tale of Hero by Future Games. It was very hard work as I've made all sounds original (most of the material was live recorded by my own equipment). There were some catches like the sound of ice masses and a few other things. Overall, I'm really happy with my contribution there as I've learned a lot from many hundreds of sounds I've made for that game.
So to put it shortly – I'm trying to be around game development a lot because I love this work.
- Creating a virtual world, where the player can feel immersed in it, is far from being a simple task for a game designer. How is your experience working with Lukas Medek, who is in charge of creating much of high resolution background and beautiful animation artworks in Ghost in the Sheet, to create this immersion?
- Lukas is a prodigy, who with every month of doing visuals gets so much better. I was recently looking at his very first graphics he made for Destinies and I had to laugh (And if we publish this he could pull a Gordon Freeman and crack my head apart with a crowbar.)
I'm looking forward our next production which will be many steps higher above the Ghost in the Sheet – especially in terms of animations. We've made also a team extension but that's all I prefer to say about it for now.
- Ghost in the Sheet is your first game working as a lead designer. What have been the greatest obstacles you have met so far while learning a whole new trade?
- This is not true. Although it was my collaboration with Laura MacDonald, I've already tasted the bitter taste of this in Destinies. It was an experience which definitely helped me working on GitS. Also a two man team is just enough to keep motivated.
- To what extent was it different to compose music for your own game than someone else's games? Were you able to express yourself more freely? Were you even more demanding of your own works? What sort of music did you compose for Ghost in the Sheet?
- Great thing about making music for your own game is the fact that you can also game-design the music! I knew where the music belonged and where it required change. So this definitely is a big plus. Also, I used some principles like dynamic generation of certain music objects composed into the soundtrack which would never be allowed by traditional game designers. I am always demanding and never happy with my own music, but I've learned here to say STOP and get on with it.
For Ghost in the Sheet I used diverse music ranging from epic orchestral soundtracks to chamber live-cello played music (Letter to Larisa), completely crazy tracks (Rats!) or ambient dynamic soundtrack which uses drones and strange sounds with music objects fading in and out to create unsettling atmosphere.
- What were your greatest influences for the different creative processes behind Ghost in the Sheet: visuals, sound, and storytelling?
- Sometimes I just wrote a piece of music and it brought me ideas or I got the idea in my head and had to tweak story because of it, or Lukas came with the idea and I had to put it in without opening any plot holes. Many puzzles arose from the visuals and one of the main elements arose from a graffiti pun written on the factory wall in one of the early renders. It's unfortunately untranslatable.
- There is a unique charm about small production indie games that are often created simply as a labour of love and far from being a commercial venture. What is your personal experience with developing Ghost in the Sheet as a small, independent game project?
- It was very rewarding and refreshing experience. It also motivated me to go on with development. I'd probably quit game industry already after the Destinies marathon.
- Initially planned to be a downloadable game only, Ghost in the Sheet is now being released by a top-tiered game publisher, thanks to the strong support from the adventure game community. What has been the feedback (both good and bad) from the community of fans who have played an early version of the game?
- So far the feedback is very positive. I got many emails of happy gamers and this easily outweighs all negative emails. We had 5(!) rounds of beta testing and a lot of feedback from that went into the game.
- How was the experience cooperating with Tri-Synergy to publish your game? What lessons did you learn about dealing with an established game publisher as an indie game developer?
- The people at Tri-Synergy are simply awesome. They supported the ideas from the beginning and offered invaluable help without which the game wouldn't be where it is. One example for all – in the early version of the game there was a diary from one of the nasty characters in the game.
I hired a translator to translate the game into slang (but avoiding the coarse language and excessive swearing). Unfortunately as I learned later from native speakers, it was very heavy – so heavy it would push the Teen rating to Mature.
I got feedback on that from Marita (from Gameboomers) followed by very similar comment from Tamra Nestler, who personally helped me by translating the diary in the way that it sounds as I wanted but without any offensive language. They had a very unique and personal approach which helped us through the whole process of getting the game on the shelves.
Simply said – I very soon realized that Tri-Synergy deeply cares about the game which is very rare and kudos to them for that!
- What do you think is the essence of the gaming experience in Ghost inthe Sheet? Ultimately, what will the gamers experience from your game that is truly unique?
- Essence is in discovering a dark secret of a huge proportions using your paranormal skills which you learn as the game progress, meeting funny characters, discovering their fates and finding lots (and I mean LOTS) of buckets.