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Interview: Dave Gilbert On Adventures, Blackwell & Pixels


Dave Gilbert is, I like to argue, the unsung hero of the resurgence of the adventure game. When things were quiet, he was industriously creating interesting, professional projects in the then-low-key world of Adventure Game Studio. With the likes of Gemini Rue and Resonance he and Wadjet Eye Games have become more prominent, and soon his long-running Blackwell series comes to an end with Epiphany. At GDC this year I caught up with the developer for an impromptu chat about growing up, pixel art, and saying goodbye to loved characters.

RPS: My first knowledge of you guys was The Shivah. I played that when that came out and I thought it was something really interesting. It was a really special game because it was saying something that wasn't normally, you know, it was just discussing a topic. It was exploring an area that gaming has never touched. When was the last time gaming covered someone’s being a lapsed Jew?

Dave Gilbert: [laughs] It's hard to say, The Shivah's a game that seems to be more talked about than played. When I wrote it I had just spent a year in Asia where there were no Jews anywhere. It was the first time I was ever consciously aware of that. I'm not very religious – I haven't been in a temple in God knows how long - but it was the first time I was culturally very aware of it. They were like, 'Oh, you're Jewish?' and they don't know how to react about that. People felt very weird about that so when I came home I just thought, well, I don't know quite how I feel about it, but I want to explore it in some way, and that was kind of the result. It's not like I had anything really deep to say about it. I just wanted to explore it. I don't think there are any answers really.

RPS: For me, in a time when adventure games had faded, it was showing how they could be used as an interesting voice. It was just you then, right? It was just you and AGS [Adventure Game Studio]?

Dave Gilbert: The original one was just me and other people did the art and music. But other than that it was pretty much all me. Obviously I didn't do all the voices, but yes, it was pretty much just me.

RPS: Can you explain how different your company is now to back then?

Dave Gilbert: Well, it's me and my wife now. I actually met her at GDC in 2007 so that was cool. I guess we've grown in terms of we've tackled bigger and more ambitious projects, we're a lot more confident with the tools and what we can make so we tend to make bigger games. We're full time. When I first started it was like, alright, let's see how long this lasts, and now it is my livelihood. This is the thing I do, this is who I am.

RPS: What did you do for a living before?

Dave Gilbert: I was working in the Garment Center. I was just doing shipping for a garment manufacturer in midtown. It wasn't terribly exciting, I wasn't terribly good at it, I didn't particularly like it too much either. I stuck with it because I couldn't really think of anything else to do. I was making games for fun, but one day I just decided I need to shake things up. I need to do something different and I went to Asia to teach English in Korea for about a year. Then I left that and, what do I do now? I had a lot of money saved up and figured it was now or never. Because I like writing game, so why don't I go for it? So I did, never expecting it to really last long.

RPS: It still feels very small-scale for you then, in terms of the production? It's still low-key?

Dave Gilbert: Yes and no. It's still just me in a café for the most part, but it's hard to say. I wouldn't say it's as low key as it was because back then it's more like, alright, I'm just doing this until I can't do it any more. But now I've got something at stake. This is our livelihood. We now have a kid. We moved to a more expensive apartment. Now there's a lot more pressure about. Got to keep in business, got to keep money coming in. So now I've got to think that way. So there's a bit more pressure these days, but it still beats getting a real job. I wouldn't have it any other way really. Because it's more the pressure is there because I'm always worried about having to stop and I don't want to stop. I like doing this.

RPS: There are obviously these indie stories, companies where they switch overnight from being two guys in their bedrooms to millionaires. When you've been working incredibly hard at the same business for many, many years, is there a sense of frustration that you haven't had that overnight success?

Dave Gilbert: I don't know. Usually when someone has an overnight success, it's usually not quite as overnight as you might think. They've been working, they've been making other games before. You can't make something that popular without having done it before, so it's just this is the game that took off. I'd like to think that it was really Gemini Rue that really put us on the map, but we just sort of... The way I approached everything was that I never wanted to do something that I couldn't recover from. Our early games were always criticised for being fairly short and they are because I wanted to make something that I was sure I could do. I knew I could create this and it came out and we earned money from it, we're able to stay in business and earn our living. So I'll try something bigger next time. At this point you have a bit more clout and a long tail, so we can do something bigger. Blackwell Epiphany is the largest game I've ever made.

RPS: I hadn’t realise it was going to be larger than the other episodes of the series.

Dave Gilbert: It's easily twice as long as any of the others, bar the last one. It's just more ambitious than any of them. But I wouldn't have been able to do that five years ago because I couldn't really take the time because we didn't have that nice long tail that was earning money for us. 2013 was a year we coasted a bit because we had a baby and we weren't producing as much, but fortunately, 2012 was a very good year so we were able to do that for one year. Can't do that for two years. We're getting this game out now and we've got two other games lined up after that. We're just trying to be a lot smarter and more efficient about it because I can't work until 3am any more. It's just impossible. If I'm up past eleven it's a miracle these days.

RPS: Because of the kid? My wife's just got pregnant so I'm about to discover what it is...

Dave Gilbert: Congratulations! How far along?

RPS: Just eight weeks, very early. So yes, I'm about to discover al this stuff this year about the lifestyle changes it brings about.

Dave Gilbert: It's definitely different. Suddenly, like I said, there's a lot more at stake now.

RPS: Has it changed what you want to write about?

Dave Gilbert: I don't know, because there's a little girl in Blackwell Epiphany and, I'm not going to spoil anything, but I conceived and wrote most of the character before I even knew my wife was pregnant, and it might look weird to someone playing the game now, knowing I have a baby daughter. But I don't know if it would change what I want to write about, so much as that it gives me more life experience to draw from. There's just more - if I have a dad character I'll be able to relate to him more. That kind of thing. I don't think it will change anything. It's not like the stuff I wrote about was so violent and raunchy anyway.

RPS: Yes, you're going to have stop doing all those sex slaughters now.

Dave Gilbert: Yes. All those bodice rippers. All that swearing and cursing and sex that are in my games now... I don't think it will change anything.

RPS: So I’ve never been sure – the low resolution art. Is that a defiance thing?

Dave Gilbert: That's purely a budget thing.

RPS: Is it? Unity isn't inaccessible. Are you not tempted to go...?

Dave Gilbert: 3D art? I know nothing about it. It would look horrible if went on to Unity and used 3D assets. It just would look horrible. I know nothing about it, it's just a learning curve getting 3D art to work well. I know Phoenix does in with Cognition. I only played part of the first game, but it's taken them a long time to get to that point, and to make it look good they needed a bigger budget. I can get the low res art done cheaper, quicker and a good artist can make it look really, really good. So I stumbled into that, kind of by accident. Now I'm associated with it and Ben's [Chandler] art is amazing so it does give it a nice... I think the problem with low res art or pixel art is when it's used as a crutch. 'We don't want to be bothered to do real art so we'll make it low res.' No, it's not old school, because you can do more things with pixel art than you could do back then, you can do so much more.

Transparencies and alpha channels and all these things that I don't know about. The great thing about pixel art is it can, how do you explain it? It's more like your mind fills in a lot of the details when it's done the right way. When it's done the wrong way it just looks ugly, that's the case with any art. I thought about, actually if I was ever going to do a higher res game I would go to Kickstarter just to see if people really want it, because that's a big risk. If you up the resolution it quadruples the budget, time. I'm not willing to really risk that, because, again, it's my living and I don't want to risk that.

RPS: Do you not think that there's a limit to your audience because of it? If there are some people who won't go near it because it doesn't look like a modern game?

Dave Gilbert: I'm sure there are, but each game seems to sell better than the last one, so it's hard to say. I know that there will always be people who think pixel art is ugly, no matter what, but if I up the resolution with the budget and expertise that I can probably get, it would look so much uglier. The games that we have done in higher resolution tend to look cheap. People always say Puzzle Bots, Emerald City and Da New Guys looks cheap, even though the resolution's much higher, animations much smoother. You just notice all the flaws. It's easier to cover that up with low res, you're not covering up something, it's just that you don't need it. It doesn't need to be as fluid and as smooth because it's small. With something that's really big you just notice all the more imperfections so it's hard. I won't say it's defiant exactly, just more that this is what works for us and I know how much we can earn from that, I know how much we can spend and what kind of time we can put into it to get the result I want. So I stick with it because it works.

RPS: Okay, I was thinking about Blackwell coming to an end and that feels like, that's almost like your arc, your personal arc. Well, you're not a ghost, but...

Dave Gilbert: Yes, actually, it is!

RPS: Oh it is? You're a ghost?

Dave Gilbert: It is my personal arc.

RPS: Ah. Okay, so tell me how?

Dave Gilbert: I started it with Blackwell. It's kind of the first game – I mean The Shivah I originally made freeware, but the first Blackwell is the first game I ever did knowing it was going to be commercial. I pretty much made all my mistakes. I look at it now and all I see are things that are wrong. And I feel like I've taken those lessons, put those into Unbound, put those into Convergence. I feel like I've learned progressively with each one and I feel like Deception, especially, was the – I can't find as much wrong with Deception as I can with any of the other games. I feel like everything I learned I put into effect there and I really like the results. Visually, it took a step back, but Epiphany is that times ten. I just feel that it's just more ambitious, it's longer, it's everything I really wanted to do, but was not able to do. If you want a sound bite, it's the Blackwell game that always existed in my head, but I never could quite make happen. So I look at it and I'm like, yes, this is what I always wanted it to be. It's like I finally got to that point and now I'm ending it.

RPS: Why are you stopping at that point?

Dave Gilbert: There's some other reasons. No matter how good Epiphany is, it'll still be tied to that first game which I'm not as proud of as I am now. I feel like I can do so much better, so I want to break off from that and do something new. I don't know if that makes sense, it's more like I want to start something new without any, I feel like I really need to...

RPS: To sever the tie.

Dave Gilbert: Yes, it's more like I want to do something new, but the Blackwell games are waiting. And also it's time. I know that I could stretch it out as long as I wanted to, but I know I'll probably get sick of it before the fans do. I originally had two more games in mind, but the sixth game that I had in mind, I was thinking about it, it's not a good enough idea to sustain and entire game. So I took those elements and put them on number five and expanded it. I figure, okay, I'm going out with one big bang instead of stretching it out, so I'm going out as explosive as I can. Not literally, not to say that it ends in an explosion, although maybe it will. I feel like it will end much stronger this way. Put everything in it, it's like everything's going into it and this is why it's taking so long and why, if it doesn't kill me first, it will come very close, but it's almost done. It's very close.

RPS: Do you not think you'll miss the characters?

Dave Gilbert: Oh yes, oh yes. They've been part of, they've been in my head since 2002 because I started, I don't know if you're familiar with the Stories of Eternity, the Freeware game that kind of started it?

RPS: No, sorry.

Dave Gilbert: It's awful! It's an awful game, but it's - I first came up with the idea in 2002, I wrote this short story that kicked it off, I wrote the Bestowers in 2003, and then I put it to the side. Released the first Blackwell game in 2006, so it's been twelve years since I first came up with the characters. So it's weird to say goodbye. I'm going to miss it, I am. Because it is such a core part of the company. It's kind of the foundation's always been Blackwell. Blackwell's never been like the super blockbusters, but they've never been bombs. They're always reliable. I know I could sell a Blackwell game and we'd stay in business. Now, not so certain! But I don't want to string it out anymore. I just can't. I know that with each game it's getting a little harder to get there and I just know I can't stretch it out anymore. I feel like it's a good place to end.

RPS: Do you have ideas in mind for games that will become the next arc?

Dave Gilbert: I might not do another arc. I'm going to try to stick more with stand-alone games because I feel they just – people are a lot more responsive to them. And also, the Blackwell games have been eight years of my life. Not 100 per cent, obviously I've done other stuff. My original plan was, great, I thought, I can totally get a new game out every four months! I don't know what the heck I was thinking, no way, but I just know that it's not possible. I would like to do a more stand-alone game rather than start off with a franchise because who knows? You just never know where what's going to happen. I know that whenever I see, ‘yes, that's the first part of a series’, I'm always very sceptical. It's the weird pleasure when I'm proven wrong, but I know that if I announced a new series, even though I've already finished one, it took eight years so would you want to get invested in something? Do I want to get invested in something that's going to take that long to finish? And usually, my answer is no. I'd rather do something stand-alone.

RPS: Say you created a stand-alone game, a self-contained plot, and by the end of it you're moving on to the next thing and you can't, those characters keeps going on in your head, is the potential for sequels something you rule out, or would you do it?

Dave Gilbert: It depends on the game. I know a lot of people really want a Gemini Rue sequel, when I think that story was pretty well told. I once asked Josh about it, the developer, who's like, 'Yes, I have some ideas that could work if I wanted to'. He's in grad school now so he's nowhere near ready to even think about that. I told him, we’ve got Ben now, so we're happy to help him out if he wants to do something.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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