First posted on 28 July 2009. Last updated on 28 November 2013.
For more information, visit Enter The Story: the world's largest adventure game.
Have you ever sat there reading a book or watching a movie, and thought, "I wish I was there, I'd like to talk to those people, I'd like to explore that world." Well, now you can.
- - Enter The Story (by Chris Tolworthy)
Enter The Story is a visionary game project created by Scottish indie game designer Chris Tolworthy. The cleverly named project is both a campaign and a game. It is a campaign to make better video games, turning (as the developer proclaims in his own manifesto) the "world's biggest ideas" and the "world's greatest stories" into the "world's biggest adventure game". It is also a series of adventure games based on classic literature that are interconnected to form a larger game. This allows the source material to freely influence both the visual style and the gameplay mechanic of each title to which it has been adopted.
The first game in the series, Les Misérables: The Game of The Book, has finally been released in January 2009, after nearly a decade in development. Since then, the developer has announced a number of sequels: Dante's Divine Comedy (second game), Hesiod's Genesis of the Gods (third game), and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (fourth game). A new story is then scheduled to be added every 3-4 months. Any gamer who has purchased a game will get all previous games in the series for free.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Chris Tolworthy about Enter The Story. In the interview, we asked him about the inspiration behind his games, the history of their development, and the challenges of adopting classic literature into video games. We also asked him about his own personal goal to pursue an altruistic cause to end world poverty that, like his games, is both visionary and admirable.
- How did you come to the idea of adopting classic literature to "making the world's largest adventure game"? Was the minimalist style in your game used only for the economy of time, or was it used for other creative reasons?
- Good question. There are four main reasons for using very simple character art: time, flexibility, subject matter, and branding. Let's look at each reason in turn:
Time: In one year, using some other graphical style, I could add one story. Using this style I can add two. This would be the same if I had tons of money and could employ people: whatever can be done with regular graphics, this way we can do twice as much. This game is not like other games. I'm not interested in the graphics. If I could, I would have made it a text adventure, but I'm afraid there is strong resistance to text adventures, so this is the best compromise. Because of the kind of game it is, spending extra time on graphics would not add much to its value. But adding more depth to the story will make a big difference. The real benefit of this won't be obvious until there are three or four stories in the game.
Flexibility: I need an art style that can handle emotion. That is hard unless the graphics are extremely high quality - which would greatly add to the cost of the game. But simple graphics allow people to imagine the details in their head, in the same way that people imagine the details when they read a book. I'm trying to make this game as much like a book as possible, except it's a book that you can explore and interact with.
Subject matter: this game deals with spiritual, abstract topics. I want a minimalist style for the same reason that the Good News Bible uses Annie Vallotton's minimalist art. These are universal archetypes, not actual people. Also, the game has a back story dealing with spirits. When you look at a person you are looking through their outward appearance and seeing their spirit. So it seemed appropriate to draw them in a ghost like way.
Branding: The white characters and pale backgrounds make the game distinctive, and instantly recognizable. Kind of like 'The Simpsons' are yellow, or like a modern artist will have a distinctive but non-photographic style.
Of course, I'm learning all the time, so the style may change a little. For example, in the second game the backgrounds are a little less minimalist, and some characters can now change their facial expression. All of these are in response to user feedback.
Finally, there is a fifth reason that is less important, but matters on a technical level: plain white sprites make the animations much smaller than otherwise. They probably cut at least a third off the size of the game, which is helpful for download times, storage costs, speed, etc. It's not a good reason on its own, but it is a benefit.
- How worried are you that adopting stories from the Bible in your game may offend religious believers?
- I think it depends on how it's done. I was thinking of something like Hanna Barbara's 'Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible' cartoon. But I agree that I would have to be extremely careful. I would not attempt this for several years, and would steer clear of the major figures - e.g. the gospels, or Moses. But I used to be extremely interested in the Bible. I'd love to do a story where you meet Noah for example - he lived for hundreds of years after the flood, and was still alive at the tower of Babel (or was it his son Shem? I forget.) I bet he had some amazing stories to tell. I love those books where they uncover the real location of the Garden of Eden, that kind of thing. Or I'd love to illustrate the events in the book of Revelation, exactly as it is described, word for word. Or maybe I'd stick to apocryphal books like Enoch and the Testament of Adam. Either way I would be very careful and would not even attempt it for several years.
- To what extent is exploring the classic stories in your game an endless process? Are these stories destined to always have a logical ending when the game ends?
- In one way they are endless. I don't have a pension, so I intend to do this until I die. I've never been happy with the concept of retiring. I think people should find work they enjoy, and do it better and better until they drop. I love discovering classic stories (right now I'm reading Monmouth's history of Britain, and you can bet I'll add that to the game sooner or later!) This is my dream job: keep on reading and discovering amazing things, then incorporate them into the game. I'll never stop discovering new stuff, so I'll never stop adding to the game.
Also, the games are linked by a back story that is endless. The back story is tied in with the real world (this will become clearer in the third story, 'Genesis of the Gods' (based on Hesiod's 'Theogony')). As long as the real world has unfinished business then the game back story will remain unfinished. I'm not going to invent new villains to defeat or imaginary challenges to overcome: the back story involves real world challenges, the things that philosophers have wrestled with for millennia. But hopefully done in a fun and accessible way. It is, after all, a game!
Having said that, when you buy a story you get the whole story, not just a chapter. For example, Les Miserables begins at the beginning (where Jean Valjean is first imprisoned) and ends at the end (where he dies) and includes all the major events in between. I believe in giving people value for money. When someone buys a game called 'Les Miserables' they should get the whole story of Les Miserables. The same goes for all the stories. They can be played as standalone stories, in any order (as long as you ignore the back story – I've designed it so the back story does not interfere with the main story. By "back story" I mean the stuff that happens behind the scenes, and shows how the stories are all linked).
- What profiles of gamers and non-gamers are you targeting in your game? After all, classic literature may not be to the average gamers' taste.
- Short answer: People who like books.
Long answer: Excellent question! This comes to the core of why I'm confident that I can make a full time living at this, because I'm aiming at a huge market that is currently not served at all. I'm aiming at all those people who like stories but would never go into a games shop.
I'm not aiming to serve the needs that are already served by EA Games and all the rest. I can't compete with them, I don't need to compete with them, I don't WANT to compete with them! I started this game because nobody was making the kind of game I wanted to play.
Think of the people who you'll find in a typical game shop: they're mostly young, they mostly want action or escapism. That's not my target. Now think of the people you find in a typical book shop: that's my market.
Of course, there's a lot of overlap. Plenty of people who like action games also like a more serious read. But if you look at the web site of any established game developer, they're aiming for adventure and fun. Me? I'm aiming for discovery and thought. I'm aiming for people who enjoy reading. I'm aiming for people who'd love to read Greek philosophy and classic epics if only they had the time. Well, I'm offering those things in an easy and fun way.
- How much had your game' core idea changed since you first named the project 'Cartaphilus Young'? What changes had you made over time, beyond graphics and puzzles?
- The big change was the two crises of 2007. First, the feedback I was getting was that I had to change the game graphics. The previous graphics were very rough, so I could create stories quickly. I was confident that when people had played the game they'd get used to the graphic style and that wouldn't be a problem. However, game testers (the kind who had experience with selling games) told me that people simply would not look at a game with poor graphics. Like it or not, people are bombarded with hundreds of new games all the time, and one way they decide what to look at is by the graphics. A game with rough graphics would not even be looked at, no matter how good it was in other ways. So I had to re-create all the graphics.
The second big crisis of 2007 was the memory leak I found in the old version of SLUDGE (the game engine I was using – I think it may have been fixed now, but I didn't have the skills to fix it myself). It meant I had to change game engines (I chose AGS, as the safest option) and rewrite all the new code. Each game engine works in its own way, so this required rethinking a few things. For example, AGS is strongly built around rooms that have particular properties, but in SLUDGE you create rooms yourself. In the SLUDGE game I had code that would generate new rooms for endless cities, caves and forests, but that would need to be radically re-thought for AGS, and given the new time constraints I decided to drop them.
The real changes between the old game (starring Cartaphilus) and the new game (starring Peri) were in art style, and scale. I now use high quality backgrounds to attract people, and minimalist characters so it doesn't take me years to animate them. And as for the scale, to get it out in time I restricted the first release to a single story (Les Miserables). The original plan was to have several thousand locations and Les Miserables would be just one part of it, but now the game will expand in stages, one story at a time.
The long term result will be the same (except for having a female star – I figured that people like watching females more than watching males): there will be thousands of locations spread across time and space. In the first game that was more obvious from the start, but in the finally released game that maybe isn't so obvious at first.
- Speaking about Monster World, what classic comics will you like to adapt to your game?
- Gosh - hadn't thought. I just know how much I love those old British comics. :) Frankenstein is the obvious one. And a bit of Edgar Allan Poe. Probably not Dracula - my monsters would be sympathetic, and Dracula just doesn't really fit. I can certainly sympathize with him and see things from his point of view, but I think he's wrong. And while it would be easy to do a comedy version of Dracula, I think he really deserves the serious treatment. Frankenstein's monster, on the other hand, is a gentle and misunderstood superior soul (well, he WANTS to be gentle, anyway), so fits perfectly into my plans. While Poe's stuff is short and weird, so that would be good as well. I'm going to enjoy finding more stuff to add.
- You are an avid LucasArts fan, judging from your own fan site The Zak McKracken Archive. Which LucasArts fan games are your favorites? Why?
- Fan games? I liked 'Escape From Delirium' – anyone remember that? As for other fan games, I have a lot of respect for the work put in by the guys who did 'Between Time and Space', and a lot of the others look fun, but to be honest they don't appeal to me. I haven't played them all, so I could be wrong, but all the ones I've played deal exclusively with the fun aspect. Now games have to be fun, don't get me wrong, but I like games that are more than that. I want to see a story deepen, I want to see connections with the real world, I want to see new mind expanding ideas. I don't just want to see someone overcome some crisis. That's just me. Like I said, I liked the fan game 'Escape from Delirium'. It was a bit too serious and pretentious at times (like me!) but it tried to do new things in a new way. Another fan game that really impressed me (there's no sign of it being finished yet, I only played a private demo) is 'Zak McKracken and the Lonely Sea Monster'. The author has focused on the fun, but he continued the original theme – try to throw in as many New Age ideas as possible and connect with the real world wherever possible. I know I'm unusual, but I want games that are fun AND raise new ideas AND connect with the real world.
That's why, of the original LucasArts games, while I like and respect Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones, etc., I really only have two favorites: Zak and Loom. I found Zak easier to relate to (since it starts in the real world) and it covers a greater range of ideas. But I admire Loom for trying something a bit deeper and more spiritual. Using the music from Swan Lake was an inspired move. It's no accident that my own game uses classical music where possible. I can't praise those two games enough. There's an intelligence, a love of life, an optimism, a purity there that I don't find in other games.
- You have expressed an interest in making classic adventure games, à la style of LucasArts or Sierra of yesteryears. What classic adventure games are you interesting in making or remaking?
- I plan to do unofficial sequels to Zak and Loom, but without using any of LucasArts' trademarks or copyrighted ideas. For example, Zak might be mentioned but not by name. I might take a chance and have Annie appear, as for me she's the real star of Zak. I'm not really interested in the characters of Zak or Bobbin Threadbare (star of Loom) but I'm very interested in the ideas they raise and how they could link together and go further. So in short, most gamers would not even realize these were sequels, but diehard fans would recognize familiar locations and plot threads.
Incidentally, on my Zak site I reprinted the April Fool Zak sequel from 1989 (http://zak-site.com/fun.htm#sequel). My "sequel" will definitely include those scenes and ideas, or something very close. That idea really appeals to me.
- What tools do you use to make the artworks in your game? How do you create the distinctive "watercolor" effect in the graphics?
- Trial and error mostly. :) I have a number of different techniques and use them in different ways on different images, and see what works best. The most common technique is to create the desired full color background using different pieces of copyright-expired art and photographs that Flickr people have kindly let me use. I then duplicate layers in Photoshop Elements and use different overlay methods (the drop down list that includes 'dodge' and 'burn'), doing this selectively so that, for example, floors become pure white. I also brighten images, make the farthest detail black and white, etc. I make frequent use of the 'stylize-diffuse' and 'smart blur' filters and changing levels. I recently discovered the excellent free Xero plugins (http://www.xero-graphics.co.uk/freeware.htm) – these are by far the best free plugins I've ever found, and Xero deserve as much publicity as they can get. So in Dante I use these a lot, especially when creating the mimimalist characters.
It's a real challenge to get the backgrounds looking minimalist enough so the characters don't look out of place, yet bright enough to retain the beauty of the original images. In Dante I've tended to err on the side of maybe too much detail, but I think as people get more used to this as the style of the game then they'll be more forgiving. I hope.
- Admittedly, your goal to adapt classic works from major literary figures, from Dante to Shakespeare, is lofty (but admirable). How do you answer your potential critics that such works must not be tampered, even if this is to the benefit of a modern audience?
- Most of Shakespeare’s stories are adaptations of other people’s stories! So there’s nothing wrong with adaptations. But I try to keep as close as possible to the original text. When I create a game I simply go through the book and adapt it chapter by chapter. As far as possible all my puzzles are based on ideas in the original book. So my 'Dante's Inferno' is a lot closer to the book than EA Games' Dante's Inferno that changes Dante into a warrior with a giant scythe!
Although I stick closely to the story, I would find it boring to only give the straight text, so my games always give a different twist. For example, I show 'Les Miserables' from the point of view of a minor character who dies early on. In my 'Divine Comedy' I show other points of view as well as Dante's, and they don't see things the same way. Really, what I'm doing is what theater directors do when they put a Shakespeare play into a modern setting. It's the exact same story, but presented in a new way.
In a nutshell, when I adapt a game it’s all about the ideas. I love games about ideas.
- You are selling your game in part to finance your personal research and studies into "the economics of poverty". What is this research project? How do you intend to convince others to adopt your cause?
- Thanks for asking! To cut a very long story short, about a hundred years ago the ideas of Henry George nearly changed the world. His book, "Progress and Poverty" was incredibly popular. Numerous Nobel Prize winning economists support its basic message: tax unearned income more, tax earned income less. It sounds simple, but its implications are revolutionary. One of its most famous supporters was Winston Churchill, and he campaigned for it tirelessly until a man called Hitler came along and distracted him.
Henry George's ideas almost changed the world, but they were defeated because they appeared to take money away from the most powerful people, the big land owners. I've had a good look at the theory, and I think it can be adjusted so that it benefits land owners as well as everyone else. If I can do that then the idea will sell itself: a fairer tax system creates more wealth for everyone, and a fairer world is simply a byproduct. How will I convince people? By showing them that they can make more money this way. That's my goal, to show how this can work. To bring back one of the greatest economic ideas ever, but without its Achilles heel. Its time has come.
But to do that I need time, and the ability to concentrate. Sometimes I'm working on some detail of economic theory and I lose track of time – literally days can go by. You can't really let that happen if you're an employee for someone else. But if I create a game that only has a release every three months, then I can afford to take the occasional day off, or week, or month, and concentrate on economics. That's my plan.
- How do you want your game to influence how gamers perceive as interactive storytelling? To what extent is your game a model for the future of adventure games and interactive fiction (no need to be shy to blow your own horn!)?
- I have a dream...
I dream of games that deal with every kind of story, not just the shallow or superficial (there's a place for that of course) but also stories that deal with the real world and with the greatest and most important ideas. One day game shops will be as diverse as book shops.
I dream of games as the first place people go for a story. After all, if you're reading Harry Potter don't you want to explore Hogwarts and talk to Hagrid? Or if you're reading Shakespeare and can't get into it, wouldn't it help to become part of the story and see how you would deal with the challenges of the story? To do this we need games that are simpler to create. I want to show that it's possible to tell any story in a game, and it's possible for one person to make such a game in just a few months.
I dream of games that are based on stories. Not action, not violence, not amassing points, but darn good stories. Games that actually follow and respect the story, they don't just twist it into yet another platform game or shoot'em up.
I dream of games that link together to make a huge and ever expanding world bursting with stories. Where you can finish a game, and come back to it years later and find that new parts have suddenly appeared! (In my game, later games can add new rooms to old games, even though the old game has not been updated and hasn't left the user's hard disk. Yes, it's magic!) So it's just a huge world where anything can happen.
I dream of games that form a relationship with their players, with regular releases just like magazines or TV shows. People discuss what happens next, they feel involved. But unlike magazines and TV shows, you can get inside the story and become part of it! And because the games are made by one person, in real time, they can quickly adapt later episodes according to player feedback.
I dream of games where the whole world can get involved. Most games are sold individually, at a high price. As a result, most people do not see most games. I hate being the poor kid who can't afford to play the game that everyone else is talking about. In my game anyone who can find $14.99 can have ALL the games. I want to show that "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" can be just as profitable as games that restrict access.
(This also answers to the problem of piracy. Aim stories at people who think deeply, who don't think it's right to steal. Make the game into a relationship where they keep coming back to your site. And make it cheap and easy enough that piracy just isn't worth their time. Do that and there's no need for DRM.)
Nobody makes games like this. I think they should. I'm not claiming to be the world's greatest game developer – I have a lot to learn! But nobody else is doing this, so I'm just showing that it's possible.