Carsten Strehse

Silver Style Entertainment

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 27 February 2010. Last updated on 03 June 2010.
Have an opinion? Leave a comment!

Carsten Strehse
Carsten Strehse is the Creative Director at Silver Style Entertainment, developer of Simon the Sorcerer.
Carsten Strehse
The concept art shows the new look of Simon in Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd Even Want Contact?!

All images are courtesy of Benjamin Bezold, The Games Company © 2009-2010.

The Simon the Sorcerer series is currently going through its second revival. After the release of the original 2D game (Simon the Sorcerer) in 1993 and a sequel (Simon the Sorcerer II - The Lion, the Wizard and the Wardrobe) in 1995, the series went on a long hiatus, until 2002 when it made the jump to 3D (Simon the Sorcerer 3D). In 2007, Silver Style Entertainment brought back the series yet again in a new 3D style (Simon the Sorcerer 4: Chaos Happens). Finally, in 2010, the German developer returns to continue the same 3D style in a fifth game for this venerable series.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Carsten Strehse, Creative Director at The Games Company's in-house development studio Silver Style Entertainment, about the latest Simon the Sorcerer sequel. In the interview, Strehse speaks about his thoughts on the long running series, the evolution of Simon as a beloved character, why he favors the new 3D style for the sequel, and the fine art of crafting the humor for a game that bears the whimsical title, Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd Even Want Contact?!

How do the 3D graphics in Simon the Sorcerer 5 serve to enhance the game, as compared to the earlier games in the series that use more traditional 2D graphics and animation styles?

Honestly, the old Simon games are great and have a unique charm. If there's something one might criticize, it's the staging, which is rather static, at least measured by today's standards. From a graphical point of view, our 3D characters provide many more possibilities of telling the game's story and letting the characters appear much more alive: Not only can we show the characters from several viewing angles, but also use a lot of sophisticated character animations that just couldn't be realized in a 2D game. However, regarding the backdrops, we've chosen to retain the charm of the traditional, hand-painted Simonesque graphics.

How has the character of Simon changed since his early days as a witty and sarcastic teen? How well has the character held up over time?

Simon has developed splendidly indeed – by his standards: While still sarcastic and smart-aleck, he now has his girlfriend Alix to clear away his empty pizza boxes and go shopping for him.

Apart from that, Simon's colossal ego parallels the current zeitgeist where everybody's seeing a chance of becoming a superstar, more than ready to blindly diss anybody who doesn't share this assessment. In so far, Simon is at least as amusing as all those wannabe superstars and top models on TV who regularly bring joy into our hearts with their plain dimwittedness – except that Simon is that crucial little bit smarter, as well...

How do you answer the criticism that bringing aliens into the game represents a significant genre shift for the series compared to its fantasy roots? How does bringing in science fiction themes open up possibilities for the subjects that the game is now able to explore and lampoon?

We expanded the Magic World by combining fantasy, fairy tale, and steampunk elements. So, for example, Simon doesn't cruise through space in a classic high-tech science fiction spaceship, but in a space-proof wooden pirate ship, a steam-powered parrot sitting on his shoulder. We believe this is an inherently consistent expansion of the Simon universe.

By the way: Fantasy and science fiction are often not that far apart; take Star Wars, for example: Luke Skywalker is nothing but a paladin who saves a princess from a stronghold (the Death Star) while fighting a black knight (Darth Vader).

A common frustration in adventure games is that players can hit a seemingly impassible dead-end in trying to solve a set of puzzles and eventually give up on the game. For full-length adventure games, it can be hard to put a game on hold and remember what has been done well enough to pick it up later. How will the hint system in Simon the Sorcerer 5 operate to lessen these potential frustrations for the players?

We want players to fiddle with the puzzles, not with the control scheme, that's why we completely forego classic pixel hunts: All interactive objects are highlighted at the press of a key.

Casual gamers could put down the game and pick it up again even years later without a problem: Using our quest book, players always have an overview of what they have accomplished so far and of the next tasks at hand. Should they get stuck somewhere in the game, they can use our help system, which is available for every puzzle. It's arranged in three levels and provides just the right amount of help for all tastes, ranging from simple tips to complete solutions of the puzzles.

A common critique of adventure games is that they do not offer as much in variety and replay value as other genres, since they generally require the players to progress through the game by solving puzzles in a deterministic way. To what extent will the variety in puzzle-solving in Simon the Sorcerer 5 encourage players to explore the game multiple times?

We gave our favorite sorcerer's apprentice several possible solutions for many puzzles in the game. For example, he can win a psychotic magic hammer over to his side by using brutal, devious, or even friendly means – the latter being a real premiere for the Simon series.

Apart from that, Simon is given a psychogram at the end of the game that depends on the dialog choices and puzzle solutions chosen, attesting the appropriate form of insanity.

What is your approach to crafting the humor in a game series like Simon the Sorcerer? How do you try to set up the dialog, situations, and sight gags to keep the story amusing?

Introducing humor to video games is like cooking a Bolognese sauce: You'll get a harmonic whole only by harmonizing punchlines, characters, and gags with each other and letting them simmer. Accordingly, the gags were often not quite funny enough right away. By correcting, intensifying, and periodically fine-tuning the particular characters and situations, we put the finishing touches on the humor used in the game.

Contrasting with other long running series such as Monkey Island or King's Quest, what are the differing traits that have made Simon the Sorcerer such an enduring series? What type of niche does the series fill for the adventure game playing audience?

With his ego, his pubertal manners, and his mean jokes, Simon is a timeless character people can identify with. There's a little bit of Simon in each of us, and when we have a really bad day, we would love to be able to dish out just as jauntily as Simon does. That's why it's great fun to live out our own mean sides on our home PCs and enjoy Simon's vicious jokes.

What are some of the challenges faced by Silver Style when developing a game in both German and English? To what extent do the different localizations affect design choices in the game when thinking about how well the humor and cultural references will translate?

Regarding humor, we made sure that our references came from the abundant pool of pop culture spread worldwide. Star Trek, Star Wars, or Pirates of the Caribbean are all elements equally well-known and well-liked in Britain, the U.S., Germany, or Finland.

Concerning the translation, we took great care to not only transport language and meaning – which would definitely not be good enough for an adventure game – but find fitting English counterparts where required for gags to work. Actually, the humor in the game is not exactly the same in the German and in the English version, but is adapted to the respective language and cultural background in many instances.

The earlier Simon the Sorcerer games employed an interface that would present the players with a large list of verbs to choose from when interacting with the world. The later games greatly simplified the interface down to a single verb used to direct the interaction. What were the merits of each approach? Why was the decision made to take the latter approach in Simon the Sorcerer 5?

We want players to occupy themselves with the content, not with the user interface. Honestly, the verb interface doesn't really add to the gameplay, except to provide a lot of interaction possibilities that just don't work.

With a simple interaction model, players can completely focus on the puzzles, without the parser telling them what the correct verb is.

By the way, it's also true that a verb interface actually allows for some slightly more differentiated actions, but the difference really isn't that significant.

What is your preferred method for dealing with cut scenes and non-interactive narratives in adventure games? How will these elements be handled in Simon the Sorcerer 5? How can a balance be struck between letting players sit back to watch an entertaining scene play out and keeping the players interested by engaging them with puzzles and dialog options?

For the most part, cut scenes are short and the result of a successfully solved puzzle. This way, the player is rewarded for his cleverness, and cut scenes remain part of the game flow.

Given that Simon the Sorcerer 5 is the second title in the series developed by Silver Style, what are some of the lessons you have learned as a developer from making Simon the Sorcerer 4 that you are able to apply to this game?

The most important lesson learned was that in the fourth part of the series, Simon was somewhat better-behaved than he should have been. So in the fifth part, the humor is snappier and more twisted. Our favorite sorcerer's apprentice is at his best and doesn't spare his beloved, his friends, or even the endless reaches of space...

• (2) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink