Interview by Leigh
I’ve always liked my adventure games, and much like everything else, the spookier and more mysterious the better. Many moons ago I picked up a copy of the point and click first person adventure game Scratches by the now disbanded games company Nucleosys. The game has an incredible atmosphere, a Lovecraftian flair and a great amount of depth for a title from a small developer, with much of the praise going to one of its lead designers, Agustín Cordes. Scratches is also cited to be the first adventure game to be developed in Argentina (thanks wiki). Overall the game was well received by most and, like many other players, left me with an insatiable hunger as other similar titles just didn’t quite reach the same level of quality as Scratches. Nucleosys shut down and my hope of another title capturing the same magic was violently dashed … Until 2010 that is, when Cordes was back with an intriguing advertising campaign for a new game through his newly founded company Senscape. In 2013 the Kickstarter for Asylum was launched which promised to be everything you loved from Scratches and a whole lot more! Ambitiously, Senscape also Kickstarted a licensed project titled “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” prior to the official release of Asylum. Now we’re pleased to have the man himself here on Games vs Play to talk about video games, horror movies, science fiction and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the impacts these elements have had on his life.
GvP: Thank you for agreeing to an interview with Games vs Play. Please tell us how your career as a video game designer began?
Agustín Cordes: Well, it’s been a while by now, that’s for sure. Makes me feel terribly old just to think about it! You see, I’ve always wanted to make a horror adventure game, which would become Scratches, but it was only until I played Dark Fall by my friend Jonathan Boakes that I was really inspired to pursue this dream. I even left a full-time job to do it, and I’m very happy I did. That was around 2003, almost exactly 15 years from now.
GvP: It has been cited that the first game to inspire you to make video games was Sierra’s King’s Quest series. What specific elements of King’s Quest spurred you to create adventure games professionally?
Agustín: Yes, undoubtedly I originally found my true calling after playing King’s Quest back in … I don’t know, around 1987, so a long time back then! One of the aspects of Sierra’s first graphical adventure that struck me is that it felt like that an animated living or interactive book. As I happened to be an avid reader myself, I was enamored with its concept. Also, the ability to freely explore an exciting virtual world with seemingly no boundaries was very inspirational.
GvP: It is evident that you are more than familiar with the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and the cosmic horror genre. What was the first Lovecraft story you had ever read and what is your favourite Lovecraft story?
Agustín: Indeed, I’m extremely fond of Lovecraft and his penchant for slow-burning atmospheric horror. The first book I got was a compilation with four of his best stories: “The Call of Cthulhu,” The Whisperer in Darkness, “The Color Out of Space” (which is the very first one I read) and At the Mountains of Madness. These truly remain some of my favorite stories, but if I had to pick one, that would have to be The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
GvP: Science fiction reading has also been one of your many recreational loves from authors such as Phillip K. Dick and Christopher Priest. What draws you most to the science fiction genre and do desire to make games with a sci-fi setting?
Agustín: Sure, I’d love to write a hard sci-fi adventure one day. In fact, I came close to do one instead of Scratches in 2003. Imagine how different things could have turned out then! But for now my focus remains on horror. The thing about sci-fi that I really love is the speculation, the concept of analyzing the behavior of people in alternate realities or timelines, or simply utterly atypical scenarios. But just as well, I also enjoy the more introspective type of sci-fi by authors like Priest or Ballard, in which its the inner landscape in ourselves the subject of study.
GvP: You are a games designer, games programmer and also dabble in some digital imagery. What is your favourite and least favourite involvement in the video game creation process?
Agustín: I truly enjoy the overall process, but I’d say the part about managing the company is the only thing I dislike the most. I find it to be a sort of necessary evil. It’s just not related to the process of creating something, which is what I love about game development. On the other hand, my favorite part is possibly the storytelling itself and communicating the game to our fans. I always feel like I’m playing along with them in advance when I do the promo for Asylum.
GvP: I also enjoy the masters of the Italian horror genre such as Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento and the old Hammer Horror films. What films are your favourites and how does it influence your game design?
Agustín: Well, there’s so many to mention! Of Fulci, The House by the Cemetery is the one that left a very lasting impression on me. I think that movie is the reason I love basements so much, haha. There’s also The Beyond and Zombi. I just really love Fulci’s approach to filmmaking. In the case of Argento, it would have to be Suspiria or one of his early giallos. I couldn’t tell if these movies have influenced directly in my game design process; maybe they do in the overall mood I try to evocate in my games.
GvP: During your development of Scratches, what was the most important thing you learnt while constructing the game?
Agustín: Phew, I’m not sure I can pinpoint one specific thing. I feel like I learned a huge deal about game design and development in general. Maybe it’s learning the importance of receiving criticism, but know how to distill all the good and bad things they may say about your game while trying to remain true to your vision. As in, willingness to make all the necessary changes, except those that would betray your original idea. And also, be ready to sacrifice things you may have initially liked in favor of a better game — in my case, that was completely changing the ending I had in mind at first, which resulted in a much better game.
GvP: Tell us about your upcoming release, Asylum?
Agustín: Asylum is a proper follow-up to Scratches. A similar atmospheric adventure game that strongly relies on storytelling and subtle horror rather than jump scares. The execution and game mechanics are fairly similar as well, but that’s about where the similarities end — Asylum is far more ambitious and sophisticated both in terms of storytelling and technology than Scratches. Even after all these years, I haven’t discussed its story that much; it’s simply about an ex-patient from the Hanwell Mental Institute returning to this mysterious building to seek clues about his past. As was the case with Scratches, this simple premise evolves into a twisty and dark story that should keep you busy for a long time to come. We’re very happy with how the game is turning out to be.
GvP: Asylum has undergone a games engine change. Can you tell us more about the reason for the change?
Agustín: At first we began building our own engine, back when Unity was in its early stages and nothing like the powerhouse it’s become today. As years went by, we realized our in-house effort just wasn’t enough to produce an ambitious game like Asylum (we would have needed way more budget and time). So we tried Unity, as it seemed a good fit for the project, but after a while we weren’t satisfied with the results. In general, the graphical quality and things such as lightning weren’t as detailed as we hoped for. Also, the in-game 3D characters seemed flat and lifeless. A few tests with Unreal Engine 4 afterwards and we were convinced that was the right tool for the game. And indeed, Asylum is already a much better game thanks to UE4.
GvP: Tell us about your other upcoming game “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”
Agustín: Alas, its Kickstarter campaign wasn’t successful, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen with this project. We’ve got our hands busy for a while anyway, so its status is on “permanent hiatus”. I’m not ruling out the possibility of revisiting the project someday, but that may not happen for a long, long time to come — if ever! The game would have been a super-faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s story with the assistance of renowned critic S. T. Joshi and official input from the Lovecraft Society. We poured a lot of love and soul into that project, but it wasn’t meant to happen.
GvP: What are your greatest hurdles for releasing these games?
Agustín: Focus, I guess. It’s challenging to keep working on these big projects for such a long time. Paradoxically, not having enough time is the other hurdle! Fortunately, it’s something we love doing — every day brings a different challenge, and it’s a great feeling when the game finally starts coming along together.
GvP: You have voiced that you’d like to be a full-time writer. What would you like to write?
Agustín: Either horror or sci-fi for sure. Funnily, I’m about to publish an anthology of short horror stories with other authors (in Spanish for now, I’m afraid), so that may be another dream coming true after game development.
GvP: I missed the Kickstarter. How can I buy a copy of Asylum prior to its launch?
Agustín: It’s just not possible for now. The most immediate thing you’ll be able to do next is wishlist the game as its Steam store page is about to go public, but we’ll be reopening orders and maybe the ability to get a few exclusive rewards like in Kickstarter when the game is closer to completion. That could be happening a few months from now.
GvP: Thank you very much for your time! It has been an absolute pleasure. One last question … In H.P Lovecraft’s works there are cosmic gods of pure horror. Which Elder God do you most associate?
Agustín: Thank you for the interview, I enjoyed doing it! As for my Lovecraft elemental, so to speak, maybe Yog-Sothoth. I wouldn’t know why, though, I just love his style!
You can now wishlist Asylum on Steam, and don’t forget to keep an eye on Senscape for more details about its upcoming release. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!
Image sources: All images from Asylum - Asylum Kickstarter; At the Mountains of Madness cover from Astounding – Wikipedia; Scratches cover – Wikipedia; Dunwich Horror bed-time story courtesy of Agustín Cordes.