[I'm entirely unsurprised when going through this again that I used the word "Avuncular" to describe the ever-avuncular Charles Cecil. Bless him. The interview happened as he was revealing Broken Sword 4, and written in an optimistic and I don't think Sam and Max had shown their face yet.]
The Adventure is dea… okay, let’s try again. The number of articles which started exclaiming the death of the most point-and-clickery of genres has gone far past saturation point. Especially because, increasingly, it’s just not true anymore. It’s arguable that Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon was a major stepping stone towards the interesting adventure mini-revival of this twelve months (Looking back at Fahrenheit, and looking forward to Dreamfall and Broken Sword 4). Brilliant, yet far from perfect, Broken Sword 3 (As it’ll be known for the rest of this feature) was an attempt to co-develop for both consoles and PCs, while trying to master the vagaries of direct controls and real 3D. There was a lot to learn for developers Revolution.
It was a long time coming. “Broken Sword 2 was the last of the 2D point and click adventures,” explains the ever-avuncular Charles Cecil, “After that, it was clear that it had to move to 3D. People were expecting 3D.” People had done great 3D real-world games with the tech, but it wasn’t good enough. “In an adventure you expect a better quality of graphics that were able to be delivered by a PC or – frankly – than a PS1,” says Charles, “ One of the strange things was that when we talked to Virgin about producing Broken Sword 1 on Playstation, they laughed at us. In fact, when we went to Sony, they laughed at us. Because it was assumed that only 3D would work… and, in fact, the game was very successful on Playstation and was never released on budget. In fact, it’s one of the few games where it costs more now to buy a second hand copy than one new. Which is extraordinary. Playstation owners get really cross that they can’t buy it. I don’t blame them, frankly… but we can thank publishers for that.”
So they played the waiting game. “We deliberately held off for a number of years, as we wanted to wait for a point at which the graphics would look good enough to be acceptable,” explains Charles, “We skipped a generation, skipped a couple of years until the PC had caught up.” At which point, go-go 3D world and a whole mass of new problems to face. “The move to 3D was really quite profound,” says Charles, “It required a change to the direct controller and the change to 3D. The great thing about the change to 3D really was that you could be a lot more cinematic. Obviously, in 2D you can have sprites at a certain angle – and a fair range – and they still look right. But beyond a certain point, you can’t. By being able to move the camera around on certain planes it gave us huge opportunities, but we had to learn to be able to do that.”
While not wanting to just be an arcade-adventure like Tomb Raider, there was a definite urge to have more than just the use X object on Y thing puzzle to go along with the direct-control of a character. “We also thought that it should have more of a repetitive gameplay element – which is where boxshifting came along,” adds Charles, mentioning one of the oft-mentioned criticisms of the game “I think box-shifting was extremely legitimate within certain contexts, but we over-used it – and also used it at inappropriate points.”
Also important for them was to keep visual coherency between games, rather than the constantly shape-changing Guybrush Threepwood. Having just done the process again for Sumo Digital’s artists – who developed BS4 with them - Cecil can see the line. “I drew up a style-guide, and realised that a lot of what we did with BS3… well, to be honest, a lot of it came from BS1 and 2,” Charles adds, “I’ve always looked closely at the screens and worked with the artists. The important thing is to remember that artists are prepared to realise that they’re so engrossed with their work they need someone to come and comment on it. We had very good artists – as we do here, with the Sumo guys. They respect that if you have a good eye, you can bring something new to it. I think we set the bar extremely high in terms of the animation, the facial animation and the expression.”
While generally pleased with the adventure-important quality of the actual narrative, Charles can’t help but pick on its problems. “If you were to go back at the end of Broken Sword 3 and asked someone to say exactly what happened… well, some people may find it hard to do,” he sighs, “And that’s a weakness. You need a flash of realisation at the end of what was going on. While Broken Sword 4 may come across as more complex, at the end I think it’ll be a lot clearer". In terms of comparing all the games though, Charles thinks there's two different aspects. "Every time I write a new broken sword it’s an incredible challenge," he says, "We’re not just simply changing the mechanics. We’re also bringing up a completely new story. It’s not really a sequel – it’s a completely new story. The disadvantage is that it’s an awful lot of work. We’re not simply cashing in on the franchise. The advantage is that people don’t just see it as a sequel. If you’re doing an RTS, it’s pretty bloody hard. C&C… it was really good. Warcraft? Warcraft II? Absolutely brilliant. I haven’t played many RTS recently, but how do you keep building on? Everything is incremental there. It’s very hard to come up with ideas. What we do is come up with a completely new story, and reinvent it all each time."
The actual background material of the Broken Sword games are based on esoteric history which adds context to the whole game. However, in the case of Sleeping Dragon, it wasn’t quite right. “One of my biggest regrets with Broken Sword 3 was that while the Voynich Manuscript is an enormously exciting topic, we didn’t tie it into the gameplay,” explains Charles, “So it felt a little superfluous. Like a superfluous add-on, which it shouldn’t have done. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t see it earlier. I saw it later in development, but you can’t go back because if you start tinkering with chunks of gameplay and story then that has an enormous knock-on effect.”
The denouement annoyed him in other ways. “In hindsight, I think the ending’s too hard.” Of course, he’s always been questioning his endings. “One of the interesting things with Broken Sword 1 was you finished the game when you threw some C4 onto a barrel of gunpowder. And that worked well, as you sat back and watched the explosions. It was very satisfying,” he recalls, “Broken Sword 2 ends when you arrive and you automatically put the third shield in. You don’t do it as a character. That was a big thing I learnt from that –you’ve done all this stuff, and you want to be the one who does this final act. By all means have an incredible cinematic animated sequence after that, but you have to be the one who triggers it. That’s the climax of your gameplay, and if you don’t, you feel cheated”.
It’s interesting to note that, compared to many of the people we interview for this column, Charles seems to be a little overcritical to his game. “I think the move to 3D worked very well, visually,” says Charles finding something to enthuse about, before qualifying the unalloyed joyous outburst “On the PS2 the load times were too long, but it looked stunning. The technology worked. I think the story was strong and the puzzles were generally quite good. We are, generally speaking, very, very critical, and the elements we haven’t talked about are very good. We got 87% in PC gamer and 9 in Edge. And some people would say that’s too high a score, and maybe they’re right and maybe they’re not right... but it got very well reviewed,” Charles grins, “I’ve been concentrating on the critical, negative things but there was an awful lot to be proud of.”