A few days back, Time Gentlemen, Please and Privates dev, Dan Marshall of Size Five Games, revealed just why his ‘xciting upcoming cyberpunk crime caper The Swindle had gone eerily quiet for a few months. Fearful that the XNA language he’d been working with might not be supported by Windows 8, he started from scratch in Unity. In this second half of our chat, we cover the game itself – how important stealth and gags are to it, its ‘retrospective’ approach to storytelling and why it’s more Grim Fandango than Day of the Tentacle. Also Dishonored, because Dishonored. Also Hitler, because Hitler.
RPS: What can you tell us about the game itself now, in terms of what we didn’t already know? We didn’t find out all that much before you sort of went dark on it.
Dan Marshall: Yeah, there was a lot still to do. It’s kind of shifted over the last year or so. The idea was always originally that you could do what you want, in terms of you can either be gung-ho or you can do it stealthy, and I think the focus has kind of shifted to a stealth game now. Stealth was much more fun than the gunplay stuff. It’ll still have the running and shooting elements, but that stuff is a bit up in the air.
The stuff that’s really solidified over the last year is more sort of plot stuff, and the universe has kind of come together. I don’t want to talk too much about it, but the universe has come together in terms of why the main guy in The Swindle is doing what he’s doing. I’m doing some kind of trendy hippy indie stuff about that, trying to innovate in a few ways in terms of storytelling, how you tell a story like that when the player’s completely in control.
So if you go through and shoot everyone you see, how that affects the plot and what backstory gets revealed as result of that. And if you go through and you’re really stealthy or kind of nice to people and don’t kill them, what that reveals about the character that you are.
RPS: So it doesn’t affect ongoing and future events so much as it does the backstory – it dripfeeds different information about what’s gone before based on what you do now?
Dan Marshall: Yeah, because I’m kind of interested in telling a story but in a more Valve-y way. It’s not so much what you’re told in speech and subtitles, it’s what you see in the background and how the music tells you thing, and the sort of flashbacky cutscene moments that are actually flashforwards. Because the whole game’s told from a sort of retrospective point of view. So the stuff that’s really changed over the last year is that sort of stuff.
[Note – Dan wanted to explain the story system in more depth after this interview, so see below for more on that]
It’s a shame, because obviously the XNA version was quite far along, and some of the stuff that was going in was really nice. Guards would adapt to your playstyle a little bit – if you were getting a lot of headshots they’d start wearing helmets and adapting to how you played quite nicely, things like that. So it’s a shame to have lost all that.
RPS: Well, stealth seems to be in vogue again, if Dishonored’s as popular as it’s looking like being.
Dan Marshall: Is Dishonored quite stealthy? It feels like they’re doing a similar thing, in terms of you can be violent or stealthy if you like.
RPS: Oh yeah, if you’re Jim Rossignol you can be a murderous psychopath, but from what I played a few months back it seemed like there were maybe more possibilities and permutations if you went for stealth.
Dan Marshall: That’s basically how The Swindle plays, in that I do what I do in every stealth game, which is that I sneak my way in really ,really well, do what I’m supposed to do then shoot everyone on the way out anyway. Then I realise that everyone’s dead so I go back to investigate the other routes that I could have taken. ‘Oh, there’s an air vent up there, I could have got in that way…’
RPS: Yeah, I did similar in the Dishonored preview, touring all the stuff I’d missed after I’d already created merry hell.
Dan Marshall: I never seem to spot these really wily, clever routes either. I sprint through a courtyard and hope no-one sees me.
RPS: Presumably now you’ve got to work hard to program for people with a completely different mindset to you, who will be looking for all the stuff you’d never notice yourself?
Dan Marshall: Yeah. There’s no AI yet in the Unity version, whereas in the XNA one I’d got to the point where you could shoot lights out and they wouldn’t see you, things like that, so there’s a lot of work to pick up on. But we’ll get there. That’s the other great thing about Unity, is that it’s got an asset store where people have already done the legwork for you. So rather than writing an entire AI behaviour tree system, it probably just makes sense to chuck some $50 and use theirs.
RPS: It’s that simple, you can just buy Stupid Guard Routine #21 and drop it in to your game?
Dan Marshall: Yeah. That’s kind of how it works. It’s great because there’s quite a lot of stuff that I’d spent weeks on in the XNA version and I’ve now basically gone on the asset store, bought it, dropped it in and it’s running beautifully. So, it’s been a horrible, horrible time, but…
RPS: Are you interested in the Windows 8 app store stuff at all, if the new version of the game proves to be welcome on it?
Dan Marshall: Well, I’ll put it wherever. I’m more than happy to. Hopefully now with Unity it’s not going to be a problem. And from what I’ve seen of Windows 8 it looks fine. It’s not the Windows I’m used to but I’m sure it’ll work and take off and stuff, and I’m more than happy to support in any way I can, it’s just that it didn’t feel like I could uniquely focus on Windows when the future of what I was doing was so uncertain.
RPS: So you feel better now on a personal level, as well as having solved it in a practical sense?
Dan Marshall: Yeah, I feel better and I think the game’s going to be more successful as a result. I think it’ll be an easier sell, because it looks prettier, it plays better , it’s got more features and that sort of stuff. XNA was always a worry because we did Privates in XNA and it just didn’t run on some people’s computers. It’d run fine on a shitty old 486 or something, but it would struggle on a top of the range PC. So I think Unity’s kind of helpful in that way, I’m a bit more comfortable that it’s going to run on all sorts of computers with different operating systems.
RPS: Everyone’s kind of expecting The Swindle to be a comedy game, because that’s your history – is that the wrong impression of it, then?
Dan Marshall: I think it is. It started out funny, and it’s not serious – it’s still cartoony. But it’s not all bum jokes and swearing like Time Gentlemen, Please. It’s funny and it’s silly and it’ll have moments in it, but it’s a more deadpan, refined sense of humour. I kind of described it ages ago as being more like Grim Fandango. You don’t cry laughing at that like Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle, but it was farcical enough that it had that underlying humour to it. So The Swindle is going to be a very different sort of funny to Time Gentlemen, Please.
RPS: Is that a conscious reaction against the world’s perception of you and your games? “I don’t just want to be the funny guy!”
Dan Marshall: No, it just fits the tone of the game. Time Gentlemen, Please was very easy to write because it was basically just, uh…
RPS: The horrible things you say in the pub?
Dan Marshall: The horrible things I say in the pub. And it was just stupid, there were no rules. It was a fourth wall-breaking pisstake of the old Lucasarts game, so there was an anything goes approach to writing, whereas this is a universe that has rules and suddenly having Hitler turn up in the middle of it might not make sense.
RPS: Just put him in some DLC.
Dan Marshall: There’s always space for Hitler.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Bonus sort of footnotey thing in which Dan Marshall further explains his intentions for The Swindle’s storytelling system:
“I suppose what interests me as a designer and as a storyteller is why you’re a thief. What’s your justification? I don’t want to force that on the player and overtly explain why he’s doing what he’s doing . I am interested in the player justifying their actions to themselves, on whatever level.
So at its most basic you like seeing your bank balance going up, and that’s why you’re out nicking. But then you might notice the Universe of The Swindle is some sort of Orwellian demagoguery, and the guy running it, he’s rubbing you up the wrong way. Is that your motivation? Are you alright stealing if it’s from a morally-grey benevolent dictator? What side of the fence do you fall on? What if you’re saving lives by stealing, would that do it? Can I make you steal from this guy over here but not that guy over there, even though both guys are entirely pretend?
The Swindle’s plot isn’t in your face ‘here’s what’s happening’, it’s more ‘here’s a Universe, what story are you telling within it?’”