WORD/PLAY: From Shooter to (Interactive) Novel – An Interview with Misery Dev. Ltd.

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In our ongoing series WORD/PLAY we look at the fusing of literature and games. The link to the the written word is almost as old as the videogame itself, and recent developments both on the side of literature and the videogame have shown that the relationship between the two media is as vital and strong as ever.

Imagine that you were part of an international team of enthusiasts who have just finished the acclaimed overhaul of a notoriously complex and beautiful First Person-Shooter... were would you go from there? For Misery Dev. Ltd., they behind the MISERY mod for S.T.AL.K.E.R., the unlikely answer was: you try your hands on an interactive novel. The developers do not think of this move as a departure from their true and tested strengths, though: No matter the format, The Seed, which is currently looking for money on Kickstarter, is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, with a focus on atmosphere and complex, dynamic systems. We talked with Nicolai Aarøe (creative director) and Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov (game developer) about this unusual project.

Could you say a little something about the team behind The Seed? You got to know each other working on the Misery-mod for S.T.AL.KE.R, haven’t you? Who are the people working at Misery Dev. Ltd.? (Like, what is your individual background, and how do you work together? Is it mostly remotely or do you have by now shared office space?)

Damjan: We work remotely, met remotely, and function very well remotely in fact. Misery was a remote project between a very large international team of people, now we are a smaller team, but more compact and agile in that sense. We've met in person in Poland already, and frankly we simply continued what we had previously to work on. We felt very comfortable with each other, since working on Misery previously has made us get to know each other very well. My background is in different types of media, I published a video game magazine for a while, made a cute game with my wife for iPhones. I've worked with sound a lot, so that's why what you will hear in The Seed will have great depth, both in audio quality and how the sound is procedurally generated in a multi layered way, and most importantly, how it is related to visual events on the scene. For example, smoke moves faster, or rain changes direction when wind blows harder. I am making a whole timeline of events that are random but orchestrated to a certain extent, events related to sound that affect the graphical world of The Seed, too.

So, let’s talk about The Seed: could you give the readers the elevator pitch of what it is all about and what differentiates it from, say, other interactive novels?

Nicolai: The Seed opens up the world to you in a novel format. But even after a few minutes of playing you will feel the struggle of surviving this world. You read the illustrated novel and within each chapter, you are having a visual portraying of your surroundings, including motion graphic and stereo sound.
In each chapter, you will have to make a choice. Not a simple one, but a hard one in a moral grey zone. And it will never be obvious to you where the best outcome lies as one decision always involves for something to NOT be chosen. This is one of the most important factors of the game and the Construct 2 engine will analyze your personality with each choice you make. Then add inventory management and navigation priorities to your gaming experience. 

Going from a mod for a first-person shooter to an interactive novel is obviously a rather surprising and peculiar shift. How did you get there? What were your reasons for doing so? Do you think, for example, that the format of the interactive novel offers possibilities that a shooter wouldn’t? Maybe also in the context of you being a smaller studio?

Damjan: We started off with the idea that books could be treated a lot more like games –  they could include all the classic elements that our ultimate game would have:

We started off with the idea that books could be treated a lot more like games.

Punishment mechanics, immersion, first-person perspective. At the same time, we wanted to start creating a very complex and unique desolate world for our future video game intentions. We all want to start working on the ultimately immersive 3D first person game, but we consider The Seed the best way to start building that world.

We wanted to start a massive, unique world that is probable, immersive and unique at the same time. We worked a lot on building a subtle sci-fi lore background for events and content to be written around that. Without revealing too many details of the story, we can say that some aspects of the realism of our game world have simply been confirmed by scientists as correct, others have been researched into hell and back for exactness. For example, consider the microbiological consequences of having an almost completely sterile world. The only remaining pockets of bacteria and viruses are exclusively in and around the small bands of people who are still alive. This is a specific type of setting, definitely not your post-apo-western, and definitely a big transition. Humanity has been reduced to an almost minimum, barely alive quantity. Air has constant particle pollution because of the sterility of most flora, people almost always struggle to scavenge food that is still edible. On the other side, processed food that is predominantly sterile would remain so for a longer period of time, just because of the consequences of the absence of most bacteria.

Are you readers of interactive novels? Are there any particular ones The Seed is inspired by?

Nicolai: We are – or rather, we were... But interactive novels never really lived up to our expectations and the potential that this category really has. We don't want choices where the outcome is obvious to you, we want choices that are hard to decide on. Where the outcome is a true balancing act, a dilemma, and truly a hard moral choice. 

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Some potential backers expressed concerns about the fact that in an interactive novel, writing will obviously be much more important than in a S.T.AL.KE.R.-mod, and so far, there has not been much proof of you delivering in that regard. How would you respond to those concerns?

Nicolai: We plan to publish a sample of the game, but we are a bit hesitant since people may think that what we show is all the game has to offer. In addition we don't want to reveal much about the plot at all. But it is very likely that we will respond to this concern by proving our skills with a sample release. 

Obviously, there is a lot of “Zone fiction” around already, from Roadside Picnic onwards. I take it as granted that you are inspired by those works of fiction, but could you specify just how? For example, do you take inspiration only by the general ‘idea’ of the setting? Or do you also look into how the Strugazkis (or other writers) create a sense of place and space? Or, to put it differently: do you look at their narrative techniques and their style when writing for The Seed?

Nicolai: We don't look at their narrative techniques as we have our own very well defined already. We don't want to copy other people’s work, but indirect inspiration is something that no creative person can or should deny. The world of The Seed is very unique in the sense that we have several world elements and aspects that have never been seen before. And while underground shelters might be a classic elements of post-apocalyptic books and movies, we are moving away from that with the very first chapter of the game. You will be delighted to see that we are featuring sceneries that have never been touched before by any authors (that we know of).  

How does the writing process work? Do you have one main writer, or is it more of a collaborative effort? Also, how does the writing tie into the bigger creative process? Is it comparable to how writing works in ‘usual’ game development or does the writer have a different /bigger role in The Seed?

Nicolai: We have a team of writers that all are deep into The Seed’s lore and world. A couple of main/basic chapters form the overall plot and the rest of the team branch this scenery in a variety of ways. We are very strict about the narrative technique and put a lot of effort into coherency. 

One thing that stroke me as peculiar is that you call it a ‘2D interactive novel’. I’d like to talk about space in more detail in a second, but how did you end up with that description? Could you imagine a 3D (or 1D) interactive novel at all? Or how was that meant?

Nicolai: The "2D" is there to stress that people should not expect a 3D game from us this time around. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. MISERY mod is a 3D, immerse FPS and it would be the obvious choice for us to continue on this path. 3D interactive novels, on the other hand, may seem like a product of the future, but they may in fact be closer than you think. Maybe we could even be pioneers in this genre if our company is allowed to expand. There is so much potential in this genre that deserves to be realized. 

I like to talk about space in this series, because it’s one of the most obvious differences between literature (which was for a long time considered to be a ‘temporal’ medium above all else) and videogames, which usually are thought of as a ‘spatial’ medium. In fact, giving a sense of place is something that is thought to be pretty difficult in literature, because you really have to rely on the imagination of the reader… Any thoughts on that? How do you evoke a sense of space, or place in The Seed? I take it that there will be navigation, but you also have very advanced graphics for a format that uses visuals usually often as a mere illustration of the text – how are the two intertwined?

Nicolai: This is one of the more potent questions I have had so far. We have come up with the following catch phrase about the game:  "Rendered by the most powerful graphics engine - your IMAGINATION". And this is very much true in the sense that there can never be a more potent sense of space and visual appeal than the one that your brain is able to generate itself. We put a lot of effort into our artwork and each act will feature more than 200 sceneries in total. But these are mere boosters for your own mind.

"Rendered by the most powerful graphics engine - your IMAGINATION".

How many times had you read a good novel and then seen the movie afterwards, and you came out very disappointed by the limited depiction of what you had imagined? I heard this so many times and experienced it myself. This is the reason why books as a medium, physical or digital, will never die. And this is the reason why we want to raise the bar for what is possible to do with this medium.

Imagine playing The Seed in bed with the lights out, your quality headphones on, and the rain and wind in your ears. You play the game, and after a while it stops raining in the story/plot. Then the rain in the artwork stops, too – not only the sound, but also the visual effects. Imagine doing this just before you close your eyes for the night… your imagination will take over from there. Any FPS game, ANY, will have a limited map size and borders that you cannot cross. A story born from your imagination will not. 

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Another interesting thing that you seem to try with The Seed is the use of more ‘systemic’ elements, like a dynamic soundscape, even dynamic weather. In a way, you seem to aim for a unusuall middle ground: one extreme would be the sense of a highly complex, living, breathing ecosystem that was one of the most fascinating aspects of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games; the other extreme would be ‘static’ interactive fiction and interactive novels, a format that is very often barebones when it comes to dynamics. (Interactive fiction is, after all, often limited to the famous ‘garden of forking paths’, but only rarely track variables etc.) Can you talk a bit about how The Seed is designed in that regard? Did you find yourself limited by the format when trying to implement such elements?

Nicolai: To a degree, I answered this in the question before this. But I'd like to state that we needed a medium that allows us to do whatever we want to do with it. And in the end, all game engines have their limitations. For the MISERY mod, we took the X-Ray engine of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series to the max, and subsequently felt as if we have had squeezed this lemon dry.
You see, we are new in this industry as independent developers and we have very limited budgets to work with. But we are known for our creative minds, our creativity and conceptual story telling – and people appreciate this. Thousands of gamers download the MISERY mod whenever we release a new update.
But with this new project, we can tell (and portray) the story of The Seed exactly how we want it to be. FPS games are predictable in the sense that after a while, you know EXACTLY what this game has to offer and what tools the developers work with. With our interactive novel, you will never know how the story, contents or challenge may evolve. 

We are witnessing a sort of renaissance of interactive fiction, thanks mostly to Twine and similar tools. Some of the games done with it, like Horse Master, even use the systemic elements to good effect (and, in the process, do blur the lines between game and literature even further). Do you follow that ‘scene’? Are there any Twine games or other works of interactive fiction you particularly like?

Nicolai: Yes, I believe that this is a genre that deserves its comeback and I am delighted that we are in the middle of it all. But we are very focused, and we try not to let ourselves be too much inspired by other people’s work. Everything featured in The Seed will be original – the story, plot and mechanics have been in our heads for a good while. So, we like to think of this game as unique by not comparing it too much with others. By doing so, we make sure that people don't think that they should expect a product such as title "X" from company "X". 

Modding was one of the cornerstones of the success the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games experienced. Could you imagine allowing mods for The Seed? Or even opening up the use of the engine to other people?

Nicolai: Releasing the technical data for others to mod The Seed is more than likely. We have built our reputation through modding the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, so it would resonate well with our approach to the industry if we shared The Seed’s technical data. Why not give back, when we have been given so much through the years?
As a modding team (and now company), we were allowed to grow through modding – and who knows what talented people will be able to do with and through our standalone game? I love that concept.

I know that it’s proper etiquette to be modest, but screw that: Are there any aspirations to push the envelope of what is possible in and with interactive novels with The Seed? What future direction would you like to see the interactive novel headed into? Do you maybe even think that there is the potential for the format to get out of the ‘niche’ it is currently in (at least in the Western hemisphere), and if so, what would it take to do get there?

Nicolai: If we are allowed to dream for a minute and not feel obliged to work with what we have at our current disposal...  We want The Seed to grow from an interactive novel to an open world 3D game. To accompany that, we would love for the setting to be adapted into a movie at some point. But we need the ladders to be built from the ground up, starting with what we are capable of doing now. 

Your game is set in ‘Eastern Europe’, and post-apocalyptic fiction (and sci-fi in general) is often used to comment on the present state of things. Is that ‘critical aspect’ present in The Seed? And if so, have the recent developments in Eastern Europe changed your feelings about what you wanted to comment on?

Nicolai: We would very much like to not capitalize on real life crisis and circumstances. So we put an effort into not building on any current situation. But we observe relevant matters and watch the news like anyone else. Hard real life facts, as cruel as they may be, must be put into our game if we want to aim for realism and authenticity (which we are).
"The Event" in The Seed takes place in August 2015 and Act 1 starts out in 2026, so obviously we have to build our world around the current situation as much as possible. 

I like to end each interview in this series with the following question: Could you name both a book and a game dear to your heart that you think more people should read/play, and could you say in one sentence why they should do so?

Nicolai: (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat with the MISERY mod is the obvious choice here, so I won't say that)...
The Road (book and movie) –  to experience how atmosphere can be as important as the plot itself.
Heavy Rain (game) – to witness how well thought-out moral choices will linger on in your mind 10x more than any FPS kill.

Thank you for your time, and best of luck for your campaign!

The Kickstarter campaign for The Seed is still looking for backers. Also, you can find the rest of the articles in the WORLD/PLAY series right here.

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