INTERVIEW: The artisan philosophers at Cubus Games

The subject matter, mood and scope of interactive fiction has been evolving and expanding for some time now, with digital gamebooks regularly leading this advancement as they utilise the available technology to tackle content in a manner unseen (or impossible) in earlier print-based products. One of these innovators is the indie studio Cubus Games, based in Barcelona. Creators of The Sinister Fairground, Deadman Diaries, Kyle B. Stiff’s Heavy Metal Thunder series, Dave Morris’ Necklace of Skulls and Paul Gresty’s The Frankenstein Wars, Cubus have defined their output by a commitment to mature storytelling and a willingness to explore immersive structures and visual design within every one of their games.

The Frankenstein Wars recently received an enthusiastic 4-star review from us, so we asked Jaume Carballo and Quim Garreta from Cubus about their creative and technological processes, their past and future projects, and the true nature of horror.

 

What’s important to Cubus Games when deciding to develop an idea or proceed with a project?

(Jaume Carballo) Each project that we decide to develop is different from previous ones. We believe that it’s important to improve and change, to tell a story in a different way every time. And, of course, it’s important to tell a good story with the appropriate ‘wrapping’: a good design, mechanics that fit the concept, and a good art section: music and illustrations.

(Quim Garreta) Also, it’s very important that everyone in the team feels very comfortable, involved and excited about that project. It’s always so demanding, so we have to do our best from the very beginning right through to the end. Otherwise, it won’t work.

 

So how do you balance artistic/creative aspirations with a need for ongoing commercial success?

(QG) With an axe! 🙂 We fight each other fiercely in order to convince the rest of the team about the greatness of ‘my great idea’ versus ‘your not-so-bad idea’.

(JC) The ‘great idea’ is mine and the ‘not-so-bad-and-sometimes-really-bad-ideas’ are those from the other team members… Now seriously, even we (or some of us, or is it only me?) have in mind some very artistic projects (almost experimental). When working on a new product we’re realistic, knowing that what we’re going to put into the market must be marketable. It’s true that with the ‘indie explosion’ and the possibility to make games without a deep knowledge of programming, some great experiments have seen the light and found their own market. To create and market a game is difficult and to do that with a piece of art could be even harder. Ok, if you create a very good piece of ‘experimental interactive art’ maybe you will generate the needed expectation to make a difference and draw media attention, but what makes a company survive is sales, so this balance is, as you suggest, very important: make games interesting for the media so that they publish reviews and help with marketing, but keep in mind that it’s the users who will pay to play the product, helping your company to survive.

(QG) It’s really hard to envisage the commercial success. There is no secret formula at all, although there is a huge list of things that you must do very well to create a good product. This is the first step when beginning the looong journey to success.

(JC) I actually have the secret formula (in the form of an experimental interactive piece of art) but the team never listens to me…

 

Can you tell us about your work with cultural institutions and how that form of interactive storytelling correlates with your digital gamebooks?

(JC) After launching our first gamebook, The Sinister Fairground, we realised that it would be easy to use the same concept of a gamebook but in real places such as castles or museums. Call it real-world context experiences, non-digital RPG adventures, the trendy word gamification (make processes that are not a game to become a game)… or all together. We explored the subject, made some contacts with museums… and finally decided to participate in a hackathon for Barcelona’s museum of water (Museu Agbar). The funny thing is that we won with an interactive storytelling concept (a kind of visual gamebook). This gave us some visibility in the media, so since then we have been combining the digital gamebook apps with cultural experiences for cultural heritage…

(QG) …and beyond: we participated in the HOAX project, a trilogy of artworks by Ziggy’s Wish in partnership with Psychosis Research Unit (Manchester) that extends its reach from the arts sector (graphic novel, stage musical, narrative app) into the health sector in order to act as a mental health tool. The HOAX Our Right to Hope narrative app is a world-first health-research study that seeks to decrease both public-stigma and self-stigma around mental health. It has been one of the most interesting projects we’ve worked on.

 

 

Narrative Resilience Technology – can you explain this concept and provide some insight into the creation of HOAX Our Right to Hope and the narrative techniques implemented?

(QG) We would define the Narrative Resilience Technology as the unique combination of story, psychology and gaming – at a very high level.

(JC) Or you could define it by the use of storytelling (Narrative) via digital products (Technology) to empower people (Resilience). But a board game is technology too, so I’m not sure about the ‘Technology’ issue. Anyway, It’s fun that everything simply started with a tweet from Ravi Thornton, the director of this project. She was looking for gamebook creators and we offered our services. We met and instantly we had very good chemistry. Ravi Thornton is a writer, the winner of some prizes, so she knew very clearly what she wanted from us. She’s sensible and kind, and professional, so it was great to work with her and her team. The project was big, a transmedia project based on a graphic novel, a theatre dance play and an app – and we made that app. Also, the app has several parts, each one unlocked via codes that people receive when buying their tickets for the play, after attending the play… so it was pretty interesting in terms of development. Also, this project was part of a mental health study, so the user finds some questionnaires between the story – that was another thing we had to implement. The app tells part of the story of Ravi’s brother, Rob, using short pieces of dialog (like text messaging) and some interactions. Each character that appears in the app has their own avatar – drawings of their faces – with several types of facial expressions. That, and the fact that the story is about Rob failing in the despair of schizophrenia and killing himself made the story deeply emotional. It’s a kind of interactive piece of art, and we’re very proud and grateful to have been part of it.

 

How does a small company like Cubus go about PR and general promotion, and what have you learned via marketing and consumer feedback that has directly influenced current or future projects?

(QG) You can imagine: working really hard, learning through trial and error, improving little by little and persevering even though there are really hard moments… One of the lessons here would be that nobody will do PR and MK better than yourself, because nobody will love your project more than yourself. Also, you must have a really good product to catch the attention of the media, to get good reviews (from the bloggers but also the users!), and to get noticed everywhere you can. It’s not easy to start, it’s not easy to grow, and it’s not easy to continue… but we believe in our project and we love the adventures we’ve been living since this journey began three and a half years ago.

(JC) What I’ve learned is to delegate the not-so-funny-stuff to Quim, that’s why he leads on those boring subjects (and why I’m only answering the funny questions here.) Then I learned something else: Quim could establish a PR and MK agency, because he’s really good at it.

 

Cubus has released a number of well-received games during the time it has been in business. What has noticeably changed during these years – professionally and personally?

(QG) Professionally, it’s been continuous growth (almost) from scratch. We began not knowing anything about the apps world. Also, it was the first time that we had entered into the ‘videogame business’ as designers and developers. Our team was a creative team, with a technical background as software developers, and also an artistic background as illustrators, designers and musicians…

(JC) and philosophers!

(QG) …but it was not enough: we had to evolve into something more versatile to face the new challenges Cubus was handling. We started as a B2C company, but now we have a hybrid model: B2C (narrative games) and B2B (interactive adventures and gamification).

Personally, it’s been a challenging adventure from the very beginning. We’ve been to lots of events, courses, talks, meetings, workshops, beta-testing sessions, hackathons… we’ve met lots of interesting people, indie devs, book publishers (with no results in the publishing industry though)… we’ve talked to lots of very kind bloggers, journalists, interactive fiction fans… we’ve worked with several authors, writers, illustrators… So for us it has been a pleasure. Hopefully it has helped us to become better persons and open our minds.

(JC) It has been (and still is) a hard journey. You have to put so much energy into this organism to make it move forward, that you end up exhausted. The good part is, with all that we’ve learned: the good moments; seeing your games out there, alive, and realising that real people are playing them; to see the media interested in what you do… it’s a bittersweet sensation as it’s something that you do enjoy, but it makes you weary at the same time too. What makes it all possible is to have a team supporting you in both the good and bad moments, to know that you’re not alone walking through this desert, because there are moments when you really feel that this is not a journey but a 40-day marathon. You start this adventure having the pleasure of a holiday in mind (HA!) and then soon realise that it’s something much more like the pilgrimage of the penitent: it’s long, hard, and you’re constantly stalked by circumstances that punish and torture you (too dramatic?) It’s a test for your mind, to know your limits before you give up (the good news is that we didn’t give up).

 

 

Are there any gamebook genres that you’re yet to explore and would like to – aiding your mission statement to ‘expand the boundaries of interactive fiction’ – and would they then correspond to finding a broader audience? Are there other technological or creative ways to expand those boundaries that are currently under consideration?

(JC) It’s weird that we haven’t yet explored the epic fantasy genre, with it being the genre that started the role-playing game industry (we grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings RPG’s) and also gamebooks (if we consider the initial Fighting Fantasy title, The Warlock of the Firetop Mountain, as the first commercial success in this genre). Anyway, after Inkle’s awesome adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! it’s hard to make something relevant in this genre and escape from the ‘what-a-gamebook-is-supposed-to-be’ issue. Also, even though we love epic fantasy, we prefer to explore other possibilities, like drama. Something like HOAX has precisely shown us how drama and the problems and troubles of ‘average nowadays people’ fit perfectly well into the interactive storytelling field. There are already so many sorcerers and warriors out there looking for treasure or ready to save the world. Maybe it’s time to look for other kind of heroes… Anyway, we’ll have to study if that’s actually marketable. In terms of creative ways, I’m trying to convince the rest of the team…

(QG) With an axe! (lol)

(JC) …of the great field we have in philosophy and psychology issues, but that looks too artistic and weird (lol). Technology is something we try not to think about when brainstorming new ideas (anything is doable in terms of technology, so that’s not an issue). At the end, technology shows its importance and every idea must be ‘doable inside technological limits’ and if that means that is easy to implement and we can use some features already implemented in our previous engines, the better. So we think without technological or creative constraints, to stop any thinking inside technological constraints that limit our creativity (sounds weird, right?). It looks like a time waste, but the experts say you should call it ‘process’.

(QG) I think the broader audience is a must for any creative mind that not only works for him or herself, but for the people. I mean, the challenge here is really hard to achieve: you want to create something beautiful for you, but at the same time you want to share it with other people and make them love your creation as well.

About expanding the boundaries, I think our CulturApps (interactive adventures for cultural heritage and beyond) started somehow to make us explore new ways to tell stories. We did it using digital gamebooks apps that ‘connect’ the user with the real world using beacons (mostly used in marketing and shopping so far). Obviously, VR is another awesome way to tell stories…

(JC) No, it’s not!

(QG) …and even traditional ways (such as board games) are really appealing to us as well. So, we have lots of possibilities to explore still!

 

Do you have any plans, or general interest, in developing games on other platforms (ie PC or console) to reach new consumers using different hardware and interfaces?

(JC) Consoles look too far away, but now that we’ve been able to make The Frankenstein Wars in Unity, the possibility to develop for Steam, for example, is there. The challenge here is that when you develop for a touch screen device you have to keep in mind this interface, that’s different from using a mouse or a pad. We don’t see our next game in the PS4 store, but Steam looks nearer.

(QG) Yeah, definitely. We’re always thinking about and are open to other platforms, digital or non-digital. We would love to make some experiments in that direction. Hopefully we can tell you something about it in the following months!

 

You’ve accurately described The Frankenstein Wars as a ‘meaty, choice-intensive story’ – how do you successfully balance choice and story in interactive fiction without one diluting the other?

(JC) That’s a good question. Interaction must be relevant and persistent, so if you start from a linear plot your story will suffer; the interaction level will break it, making it weaker. So the point is that you have to ‘think interactively’ from the very beginning, incorporating interaction to create the story (or the stories, or the alternative sequences of the story, or a mix of these points) not to break your story, which can be simply done by placing the traditional ‘good alternatives’ versus the ‘bad alternatives’. Nowadays more and more IF games tend to forget the, let’s say, Fighting Fantasy way of doing things (the typical way of doing so), where obstacles appear via bad decisions, enemies and death (the lethal formula is: you make a bad decision, so an enemy appears and kills you). Only a couple of chapters in The Frankenstein Wars are based on this formula (the chapter inside the church and the one inside the catacombs under Paris) and even then there’s a way in the chapter under Paris to die and still go on (in the form of a lazaran). At the end, you’ll know that you’ve balanced the interaction/story elements well when testing the game: you’ll have the feeling that there are a good amount of choices, that they are relevant (not because you die when making the wrong decision, but because you build the story while making these choices) and that the story you’ve built is ultimately good. In the case of The Frankenstein Wars, Paul Gresty did an awesome job, placing some really dramatic choices and therefore creating a very good story with them.

 

 

The Frankenstein Wars is a very polished product with a wealth of great content. Tell us about some of the unexpected challenges that arose during its development.

(QG) Time was running out! Concurrent projects affected the writing process, so there was a delay. If the writing was delayed, so were the illustrations. And so was the music. And so was the development… And time kept running out! The game mechanics were already defined for the KS campaign, but then it was not easy at all to match them with the narrative. It was really hard, but also exciting! (Paul Gresty did a great job with the codification of the text, btw!)

Rafater was not able to change his schedule because he was already very busy on other (big) projects, so we had to decide – before receiving the final text – where his illustrations had to be placed… and make no mistakes!

Hey, and what about the eight maps? Beautifully crafted in-house as well, it was really hard to find the best way to use them through the story. A crazy job by Jaume here, making the gamebook-flow switch beautifully between text and map modes.

Finally, testing. Testing took more time and iterations than expected (typical). Time was running out, remember? But testing was crucial to balance the gameplay, to adjust the soundtrack, to fix bugs, to make improvements… I’m very happy to have spent that much time and effort on test iterations.

I think it was a great job by the team. Very proud!

(JC) I think it was Jon Ingold who said that when working in a text-based video game you have to start with the story and later create the other elements (mechanics, GUI…) to make them fit. We followed that process with our previous gamebooks, which are adaptation of already existing gamebooks in other formats, but with The Frankenstein Wars we created and iterated the engine while Paul was writing, so we could gain time. This caused extra work later, but like Quim says, time was running out and we had to adapt to the circumstances. The testing sessions were really important in this case, due to this working process.

 

The music and sound effects in The Frankenstein Wars were also impressively evocative. Is this all generated in-house, and how difficult is it to match sound with mood?

(QG) Thanks for your kind words. Yes, it’s all generated in-house and I’m the composer, but notice that everyone in the team is a musician! (with different tastes in music, btw). There is no scientific method at all; it’s all about inspiration, work and magic. The good thing about creating the music for The Frankenstein Wars was the fact that I had a long time to think about the whole OST, come up with tons of musical ideas, gather fragments, melodies, arpeggios… I recorded all this stuff gradually whenever something came to mind (during work sessions or not) and then selected only the best tracks. My obsession was to match the music with the mood of the story, and boost the dramatic power of Paul Gresty’s narrative. I was quite impressed by Paul’s story, so for me it was a big challenge to create music as good as his text.

Certainly, it was really hard to balance and match sound with mood. It took us lots of iterations, improving our audio engine and testing again and again every part of the story, every episode, every situation… I’m very proud to say that we invested so much time in this process, because we believe each iteration made The Frankenstein Wars a better player experience.

 

The Kickstarter for the third Heavy Metal Thunder game, Slaughter at Masada, recently failed to find funding during its one-week period. What is the current status of the game and what knowledge was gained from this unsuccessful ‘All in 1’ campaign?

(QG) The game is in standby due to the lack of financing for the artwork but also for further development. For this reason we launched the ‘All in 1’ campaign: we needed some fuel. As you say, we had to cancel the campaign because one week was not enough to reach the goal. What we learned: it’s impossible to prepare a Kickstarter campaign in just a few weeks. Also, many other questions came to our minds. We had to withdraw and rethink the strategy. Meanwhile, we have to focus on other projects.

 

 

Many of the Cubus releases have a dark edge, containing disturbing threats and horror. Is this intentional or coincidental?

(JC) That’s Joseph Campbell’s fault! There’s no ‘hero’s journey’ if there are no obstacles and threats, and these elements are usually perceived as ‘horror’ (the feeling created by opposing forces in your path, making your goal harder to reach). Even something so apparently innocent like Little Red Riding Hood’s tale is full of horror: the wolf eating the grandmother and later attacking the poor little girl. There’s no place for innocence in a story, even if it’s a child’s tale. Someone told me that Brandon Sanderson, writer of the Mistborn series, says that we have to start thinking outside Campbell’s monomyth; even Mistborn fits pretty well inside the hero’s journey. That’s because the monomyth is not an artificial construction, is not a plan created by a single mind, it’s something linked to the ‘collective unconscious’ in terms of Jung. Both the Jungian archetypes and Campbell’s hero’s journey are full of plenty of magic and horror elements: monsters, creatures… obstacles that threaten your life and initiate change, and change is usually perceived as something ‘bad’, something that imbalance your average life; it’s a moment of crisis you have to adapt to and resolve.

But, retaking your previous question about genres we haven’t yet explored, I think ‘true horror’ is one of them. There’s darkness and horror elements in all of our games, but we haven’t yet launched a true horror game. That’s because true horror is very hard to achieve via text (ironically, it’s so easy to do via images and sound.) The ‘innocent days’ when people were scared reading Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker… are gone. The monster scares no more, in literary terms (it’s still scary in terms of [some] films and videogames). The best horror books aren’t about preternatural monsters, but about misery: the horror inside the human mind. Stevenson showed this concept so well in Jekyll & Hyde, where Hyde is not a monster but some kind of personification of a Nietzschean being inside the ‘average doctor’.

Even Regan, the possessed girl from The Exorcist, scares due to the changes she suffers. It’s not ‘the monster’ inside her that scares, but the girl herself talking about sex, her bad language (and her voice) and her violent masturbating acts. What scares is the innocent girl becoming so violent. If you think about the monster inside her, that’s not so scary (it’s normal for a monster to be violent). We could compare, for example, the stories of Dracula and Carrie. Both characters have preternatural powers, however, the Carrie approach is very interesting; the preternatural being trying to fit inside the social environment and finally unleashing her despair in a violent vengeance using the best weapon she has: telekinesis. Vengeance is a very human feeling and we can perfectly understand Carrie when she kills everybody (you empathise with ‘the monster’). On the other hand, the romantic approach of Dracula, with the monster, the castles, the cemeteries… is harder to enjoy nowadays for the mainstream (even as a book that I enjoy so much). Maybe because it’s a metaphor about science versus darkness (the good guys are led by scientists while Dracula is an ancient being surrounded by darkness) and nowadays we know that science finally brought us to Auschwitz. So when thinking about true horror, the approach in terms of a gamebook must be more related to what we would call a psychological thriller or a mystery, rather than a horror about monsters, because we are the monsters.

One of the scariest books I’ve read is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, because it’s very focused in the unknown; the book itself is physically an unknown device, weird and strange. I think Danielewski approached this brilliantly. That’s also why Year Walk by Simogo is a brilliant horror video game: you’re always walking in the unknown and, until the end, you don’t understand what happened there. Weird and great.

 

Finally, what’s next for the industry overall – how far ahead do you plan as a business to meet the desires of future gamers or the evolving requirements of clients?

(JC) Wish we had the crystal ball to know that! People tend to think that the industry evolves so fast that it’s too hard to predict if in five years everybody will play using a pair of glasses or via a chip inside their brains… but virtual reality existed in the 90s (maybe before?) and nowadays it’s still something for the (near, I suppose) future. Augmented reality has made Pokémon GO a hit, but it’s technically still too young. Remember the LaserDisc or CD-ROM? Technology is weird and it’s hard to say what will appear and stay, and what’s hype that will soon be forgotten (maybe that chip in the brain will make virtual reality obsolete?). On the other hand, we see new games appearing, which look like Super NES (or NES) video games (it looks like there’s another 16- and 8-bit revival happening) or adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, which are so fashionable nowadays. And gamebooks, of course! Who would’ve thought that in 2017 people would still be talking about gamebooks? In the late 90s gamebooks were dead and buried!

What we know (or what we think we know, or we think is good to think) is that there will always be room for good games and good stories, that video games will always exist like cinema or books (even if it’s Netflix and eBooks), and that the industry doesn’t actually evolve too fast (OK, iOS 11 is here and it will break a lot of games that will not be playable on iPhone X, but who cares?). So we don’t plan to make a virtual reality gamebook (that would be pretty stupid, by the way) or an augmented reality experience for museums, because it’s hard, expensive and unnecessary. We prefer to evolve with calmness (keep calm and evolve), step by step, so our gamers and clients know what to expect (our next game is a geolocalised, augmented-reality-survival-horror-FP-shooter set in the Sagrada Familia – didn’t we tell you that?).

(QG) We have to keep an eye on the future, but the reality of game studios like Cubus is that we will face an ongoing struggle to survive the videogame jungle in the short term! Nobody said it was easy… 😉

(JC) Amen, bro!

 

Thanks to Jaume and Quim for providing their valuable time, and also for their detailed and very thoughtful responses. Visit the Cubus Games website to learn more about their excellent digital gamebooks and to stay up to date on future releases.

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