First posted on 13 June 2008. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
All images are courtesy of Łukasz Pisarek © 2008.
For more information, visit Łukasz Pisarek Website.
Many adventure game fans might recognize the name Detalion as that of a developer of surreal, Myst like games—most notably Reah: Face the Unknown and Schizm: Mysterious Journey. In truth, though, this small game company was short-lived in comparison to the collaboration of the individuals from the Polish city of Rzeszów who had created these games.
- The following interview was originally conducted in part in Polish. It was translated to English and edited.
All of the founders of Detalion first met in the early 1990s while working at the Polish game developer and publisher L.K. Avalon. With the release of ambitious adventure games titles such as A.D. 2044 and Reah: Face the Unknown, they had established themselves as a very capable creative force, both in terms of imagination and craftsmanship. In 2001, while working on Schizm: Mysterious Journey, 6 individuals—Danuta Sienkowska, Robert Ożóg, Łukasz Pisarek, Roland Pantoła, Maciej Miąsik, and Krzysztof Bar—came together to create their own game studio—Detalion—to continue developing adventure games in their own style. However, after successfully releasing 2 titles, securing funding for new games became difficult. Part of the team decided to focus instead on undertaking outsourcing work for other companies' game projects, under the name Detalion Art.
Finally, in 2006, Detalion Art was contracted by the prolific City Interactive to develop a new adventure game of its own. The project was led by Łukasz Pisarek and Robert Ożóg. In 2007, City Interactive proposed to the team to officially become a part of the company. The team agreed, and soon after that both Detalion and Detalion Art ceased to exist. A few of the original members had already gone their separate ways some time before the acquisition, but some had decided to stay behind with City Interactive. The first adventure game project born from this cooperation was to be Art of Murder: FBI Confidential.
We are pleased to be granted an opportunity to interview Łukasz Pisarek, co-designer and story writer of Art Of Murder: FBI Confidential at City Interactive. In the interview, he speaks about the development history of Art of Murder: FBI Confidential, his past experiences in the gaming industry, and his own adventure game design philosophies.
Check out our gallery of concept art from Pisarek's games sent to us by Pisarek himself!
- How does Art of Murder differ from your previous games? What are the most important goals you want to achieve with this game?
- In AoM we decided to go back to the old style of narration, to create a game where the story is the most important part of the game and the gameplay is entwined with it. In games such as Schizm, the gameplay was dependent upon puzzles and complicated logic riddles, which served as breaks during the exploration of mysterious worlds. The riddles were not necessarily connected with the story, and they could be seen as neatly designed "gates" secured with a code, which had to be broken to move forward.
In classic adventure games such as AoM, riddles cannot be abstract. Even if they do not always refer to the main story, they are always connected with the character's current situation. This creates a specific relationship between the character and the riddles, which the enthusiasts of this type of games like so much, namely, solving riddles and completing missions. The player is drawn deeper into the story, which presents him with new challenges and engages him in new difficulties. The author of such a game does not want to give the player even a moment of rest, and his mind is rather focused on guiding him with a firm hand to the very end.
- What process did you go through in designing the main heroine's appearance and persona for Art of Murder? What were your particular inspirations for this character?
- At first, there was the story: an inexperienced and young FBI agent embarks on a mission which is almost beyond her strength. Against a cunning murderer -- a symbol of unimaginable evil -- Nicole Bonnet at first appears to be someone who is weak, who does not have a chance to beat him. The heroine was given a name (which changed a number of times) and a personality. We wanted her to be pretty so that people would look at her with interest and liking throughout the game. Her clothing in the different locations of New York was supposed to highlight her ambition to be an excellent law enforcement officer and, at the same time, to make her seem alienated in the shabby building in the Bronx. We agreed on a certain type of beauty which she was to represent (usually long discussions are held at this stage and we often resort to photos to define it). After that, some ideas were transferred to paper and repeatedly changed by our artist. Finally, a 3D model was created, which was also debated, and perfected.
- Art of Murder is your first venture into the thriller subgenre. How did you find writing a story about serial killers and conspiracies? What opportunities and challenges does this subgenre present to a game designer?
- The main difficulty is to create suspense. It is more difficult than in a movie because it is the player who is in charge of time in an adventure game. Time, or very often the lack of it, in thrillers is one of the most important factors, which keeps your heart pounding.
Riddles or missions to be completed in a given amount of time, when the character's life is at stake, are accepted by adventure game players as long as they do not appear too frequently.
The only thing we are left to build suspense with is the atmosphere: we do this through dialog, graphics and music. The feeling of emptiness, which is so liked by adventure game designers, works perfectly in this game as it strengthens the sense of loneliness and danger.
- Art of Murder seems to possess not only a gritty, sombre, and sometimes even naturalistic atmosphere, but also large doses of humour (and not only dark humour). How do you describe the tone you are aiming for in this game?
- Taking into consideration the atmosphere, the game can be divided into 2 parts: the dark and pessimistic New York and the optimistic and full of light Peru. This contrast was intentional; it reflects the heroine's need to run away from the nightmare, which she obviously does not achieve completely.
- The story of Art of Murder contains numerous references to pre-Columbian American culture. How true are the game's representations of the period art and culture to the available historic data? How much artistic liberty was taken with these historic references? What background research have you done to authenticate these references?
- In the game, the references to pre-Columbian culture are of a loose and general nature. The game presents a situation typical of explorations in South America. Legends are an inspiration for numerous expeditions, which though given a scientific structure, still possess this special tint of adventure.
In designing this game, I read through several books on the history and exploration of South America. These topics are so fascinating that they can suck a person in completely and you can easily forget about the entire world around you. In the case of our game -- we merely focused on giving the storyline a feeling of realism and helping it avoid typical story flaws rather than trying to set the plot in some kind of specific historical context.
- What is your general philosophy behind puzzle design in adventure games? What type of puzzles do you prefer—logic based or inventory based?
- As I have mentioned before, the gameplay in games such as Myst differs a lot from the one found in classic adventure games. Logic riddles give a chance to neatly design their interface and are for the most part independent from the gameplay. As the player is able to see them on full screen, they require a lot of graphic design. Preparing a riddle itself can be a very challenging task, the author of the logic riddles in our games always says that there are a limited amount of types of riddles which can be used in a computer game, and the rest are just variations and modifications. The difficult part is integrating them with the story.
Inventory-based riddles integrate perfectly with the story. They enrich and diversify it and additionally introduce humour. At the same time, because they are related to the logic of the entire game, such riddles are often more difficult to implement into the script and to test. Another issue connected with them is very often shortage of ideas.
Personally I like realistic riddles, that is, ones which seem natural in a particular place, although their solution does not necessarily need to be obvious. However, this does not always work out. From this perspective, inventory-based riddles are more to my liking.
- How did you get into the gaming industry? How has the industry changed since you began? How happy are you with these changes you witnessed? What were the most important lessons you had learned through years of game designing?
- An old school friend of mine came by once and asked me to prepare a graphic design on the computer, although I had no idea how to do it at that time. He nagged me for some time and kept increasing the difficulty of the task until it turned out that we were working on an adventure game, one of the first games of this type for the PC in Poland.
This first game was made by the two of us (plus the author of the soundtrack), and it was based on a script that had been written earlier. The main team who created Reah and Schizm comprised 6 people, but it was supported by a team of actors and text writers, as well as sound designers. In Detalion, it was a team of almost 20 people who worked on the subsequent games.
The tendency to increase resources is obvious. The creation of games is now supported by professional outsourcers, localization and animation studios. Products are developed; there is a demand for quality and lowering of costs. On the other hand, the industry is still very small in Poland and almost everyone knows one another. There is a lack of universities and schools where young people can develop their skills in this field, and consequently the training process is based on gaining experience while working with more experienced colleagues.
Due to the fact that until now we have mainly worked in small teams, we did not have any difficulties with communication and formalization of tasks, which is a very common problem in big corporations. The most important values have always been the team -- the members' talent and their readiness to cooperate, and the enthusiasm the people were ready to summon up.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that in order to survive in this business you need to adjust your vision and crazy ideas (without which games would be boring and deprived of character) to the expectations of a wider audience.
- Your portfolio of adventure games reaches as far back as the early 1990s. You have co-created a number of third-person adventure games in the style of the classic LucasArts and Sierra games. At that time, the scope of such projects was much smaller and the games were released only in the Polish market. How do you value those experiences now?
- I started in 1994 and while I was working on the first game, I was pretty much learning how to use the computer. It brings a tear to my eye when I think of those times. I consider them as a test of my character, which may sound funny. Sometimes when it gets hard, I wonder if today I would be able to venture so much as I did in the old days. I hope I would.
- The final years of Detalion's history were filled with uncertainty and turmoil. What difficulties (financial or otherwise) did the company face? How has your team's work changed since becoming part of City Interactive? Can you tell anything about your future projects?
- We were ambitious game designers and we really wanted to stay like that; we wanted to realize our own ideas without compromising our dreams. We put all of our effort into executing with the highest quality and promptness for the projects we were working on and so we did not have too much time to search for alternative tasks. For a developer studio, the period between the completion of one project and the beginning of a new one can be deadly due to the lack of funds to support the team, which is exactly what happened.
By becoming a part of City Interactive, we first and foremost gained stability. We carry out our own projects, but we do not need to worry that with the last stage of the project we will run out of money. City is an international publisher and the largest Polish game developer headquartered in Warsaw, and we can afford more hardware and software than a company such as Detalion could ever hope for. We can fully utilize the resources and experience of the people who work here. We feel the support of others; we know that there are other people who try and take care of our problems just as if they were their own. City Interactive knows how to create great games and sell great games.
- You had worked with acclaimed author Terry Dowling on writing stories for some of your games. Did you deliberately search in other media for a special kind of author to collaborate, or was this just a chance encounter?
- After we finished Reah, before we later handed over the gameplay and text to the appropriate people, we had the feeling that there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty about it. The conclusion was that a professional sci-fi writer should take care of the story from the very beginning. When we had a general idea about the worlds of Schizm, an outline of the story and a graphic conception, we began to search. Luckily for us, when it turned out that the cooperation with one of the Polish authors would not happen, Terry, who was actually playing Reah at that time, contacted us. It turned out very quickly that he would gladly take up a new challenge.
He certainly did not have an easy task, since writing a story for an adventure game is something completely different from writing a short story or a novel. Terry soon realized this when being in a distant position in Australia he tried to adjust his narration to the gameplay, which was being created in Rzeszów.
When it comes to games like the point and click adventure games we've created, the story writer should also be the author of the gameplay, as the two are closely connected.
- What kinds of books, movies, computer games do you enjoy? What are the inspirations (including arts and beyond) serving your own artistic drive?
- I like historical and sci-fi books and also books written by P. Dick -- it is a separate genre for me. I also enjoy detective movies and strategic games.
Everything which is connected with the world of plastic arts is an inspiration for me, especially the old art, perfect in both technical and visual aspects. Sometimes, it is a movie or a true story read on the Internet.
- If you had an unlimited budget and absolute creative control, what would be the adventure game project of your dream? What innovations would you like to try out in such a game?
- It would be a combination of something I really liked in our earlier games, namely the creation of fantastic worlds like Schizm with the story integrally entwined with the detective-thriller style of gameplay. I would have a lot of characters, motion-capture style animations and a detailed representation of the material culture of a given civilisation, as well as busy and crowded streets, an environment full of life -- perhaps even a non-linear story to some extent.
- The short-lived Detalion Art had done some contracted works for the German adventure game Overclocked (in background art) and for the Polish role-playing game The Witcher (in level design). How did these experiences differ when compared to working on Detalion's own game projects?
- Outsourcing is mainly an opportunity to look at yourself and your own work from the perspective of professionals, who have an established idea and expectations. It teaches you humility. It is seldom that you cannot learn or find out something new about yourself.
Working on the backgrounds for "Overclocked" for the House of Tales company was very interesting mainly due to the personality of the author and the interesting story the game told. We became certain at that time that when it comes to gameplay, point & click is the direction we want to follow.
The outsourcing required for the game Witcher was, on the other hand, an opportunity to observe from a close perspective a large production. However, outsourcing cannot be compared with working on your own game. What I thrive on is the freedom of creation, the awareness that in every stage there is something which has not yet been decided -- something which still needs to be shaped and formed.
- Your team has developed a reputation of designing phantasmagorical, fantastic worlds, such as those in Reah: Face the Unknown, Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Mysterious Journey II: Chameleon, and Sentinel: Descendants in Time. Many of these realms look like creations from some mad architect's dream. Are you proud of filling so many innocent gamers' minds with the surreal? Which works of art or art styles served as your inspiration?
- I think we take pride in this. At least I do, and I feel responsible for making this surrealistic contribution to Detalion's games. I remember that while developing a concept, when we tried to explain to one another what we had in mind, we communicated using not only our own drawings, but we also resorted to Gaudi and Art Nouveau, among others, and to Simmons' "Hyperion." Truth be told, the whole of art history is full of magic and inspiring place for me.
- What advice can you give to a young aspiring adventure game designer? What skills do you think are the most necessary to survive in the reality of today's game industry?
- Plan your games well. Do not try to do everything on your own. Remember that in order to realize your ideas you need the support of other people.
Try to find people who managed to accomplish at least one whole project. It is easy to find those start things, but those who have successfully completed a project are few.
If you manage to find money, you can be certain that you will run out of the resources sooner rather than later. Play games and analyze their structure. However, open your mind to great art and avoid shutting yourself away in the ghetto of games and mass culture.
Do not lose your hope. Cherish your dreams :)