Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert and Francisco Gonzalez Talk Adventure

There’s never been a better time for fans of point and click adventures. The rise of Kickstarter has given way to revivals of old classics, and thanks to GOG you can play those classics in top form. Telltale and Quantic Dream have revitalized the genre with a new, more cinematic approach, and we’re even seeing exciting new titles from Japan and Europe (though not always with the best translations). But this genre revival isn’t a new thing. It’s been alive and well, especially in the indie scene, for years now.

Dave Gilbert and Francisco Gonzalez have both been working on old-school point and clicks for over a decade. They both started making freeware titles using Adventure Game Studio back in the early 2000s, and both earned awards for their work – Dave for Bestowers of Eternity and Two of a Kind, Francisco for several entries in his Ben Jordan series. Dave founded Wadjet Eye Games in 2006, and has since made a living on critical darlings like the Blackwell series and Gemini Rue. He’s even built enough clout to publish other developers’ games, which is where Francisco and his company Grundislav Games come in. A Golden Wake is Grundislav’s first commercial adventure, and it’s quite the undertaking – a deep, fascinating look at the real estate boom that preceded the great depression. It seems like a perfect fit for Wadjet Eye’s brand.

I sat down with Dave and Francisco to discuss their bodies of work, their history with the AGS engine, and their thoughts on the current state of the genre.

[Hardcore Gamer] Dave, what are you doing? Didn’t anyone tell you that Adventure games are dead?

[Dave] I think journalists have some sort of clause in their contract where they have to mention that every time they cover our stuff.

But honestly, it’s funny you say that, because when I started doing this with The Shivah back in 2006, I was really just putting off getting a real job. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have named it “Wadjet Eye Games.” But here I am, eight years later, and it’s my livelihood, and we’re doing pretty well. So they’re still alive, from what I can see.

I’d say Wadjet Eye’s games have done a lot to revive them.

[Dave] Well you’re welcome

Nah, I wouldn’t be so hubristic as to say that. I would say that we started doing it at a time when the opportunity was there for someone to do it. We just happened to be those people. Some attempts had been made at commercial games before, but the market just wasn’t ready. Digital distribution wasn’t yet a thing, the tools weren’t there. I happened to be in a position where I had money saved up and I could just do it, and I took advantage of all that was available. That’s mostly where I came in.

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Wadjet Eye went for a more retro style than contemporaries like Daedalic. What made you decide to go with that?

[Dave] There was really no aesthetic choice behind it, it was just something I was used to. I knew how to work with that kind of art style coming from my freeware background. Mostly it was a budget thing. I had very little money to work with back then. I think I spent two or three thousand dollars on the first Blackwell game. I spent eight hundred on the second one. It was pathetic how much I had to work with, and I knew that with pixel art you can really get a lot of bang for your buck. A really good artist can make some very good art in a short amount of time for a very reasonable price, if you stick with a low-res style.

I kept using it because I’m familiar with it, and it works within the budgets I can set for myself. I know what I can get out of it. If I went HD or went higher-resolution, I’d have to spend a lot more money and a lot more time getting it made. But low-res, I know how much it’ll cost and how much I’ll be getting. So I’ve stuck with it purely for budget reasons, more than aesthetic ones.

I don’t even think of it as retro, because you can do so much more with pixel art than you could do back in the day. Calling it retro is a little silly. It’s just another tool in the toolbox

[Francisco]It’s a lot more practical too. A lot of people work in teams, but all of my games are solo projects. To do a game of bigger scope with high res graphics would be so time-consuming that I’d never get my games finished. It really is a practical concern.

[Dave] When I was doing the first Blackwell game years ago, I really wanted to make it higher-resolution. It took four months just to get one set of animations and one background done. That obviously wasn’t going to work.

[Francisco] And if you are working on a team, some artists work faster than others – a lot of complications come into play.

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Even if you do have a big budget, I think resolution affects what you can do. If you compare the original Broken Sword to Broken Sword 5, the low-res 2D animation is a lot smoother and more detailed than the HD, 3D stuff.

[Francisco] Broken Sword 1 also had the luxury of animators from Don Bluth’s studio, and they did traditional cel animation, not just for the cutscenes, but also the in-game animations. You could really tell. It was very fluid – I guess you could say it had more soul.

[Dave] And the sheer amount of effort that went into everything. I don’t know if you noticed this, but the interesting thing in Broken Sword 1 and 2 is that when the characters stop walking they’ll actually stop walking. Their legs will move into the right position. I can’t imagine how hard that was in traditional 2D animation, from all the different angles. It blows my mind how much effort they must have put into that. Whereas if you play one of my games the character just stops.

It’s pretty amazing the sheer level of detail they put into those games. Of course, I think they had much bigger budgets back then. One thing I have noticed, and I’m a little jealous of, is that with 3D models, while it’s a lot harder to make them, once you have them you can do a lot more. You can show them from any angle. It takes a lot of the grunt work out. I was told a development story from one of the Sam and Max games. They were in a nightclub and someone just suggested “you know, they’re standing around, they should start dancing.” And someone just animated them dancing, because it was a 3D rig and they could do that really quickly, and in a couple hours they had it. In 2D that’s difficult because you have to get it from all the angles – it gets very repetitive. So it has its advantages, but it’s not something I’d know how to do.

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You’ve both worked pretty extensively with Adventure Game Studio. How would you compare AGS to other adventure engines that you could be using? What drew you to the engine?

[Dave] There were so many other games being made with it. This was back around 2001, which is a long time ago… I saw a bunch of games being made with it, and I tried it, and it was very easy for me to pick up and use. These days I just use it because I’m so familiar with it, I really know how it works. I can’t compare it to any other engines because [under his breath] I haven’t used any other engines. I know it’s started to show its age a bit, not just in terms of making the games – which is a drain – but playing them…

it’s not as compatible with modern hardware as it could be. There’s a lot of issues that I just can’t fix, because it’s AGS and it works certain ways. I get complaints about certain things, like “why can’t I change the resolution from within the game? It’s 2014. I should be able to do that.” Which is true, and all I can say is “sorry, it’s an AGS thing, I can’t fix that.” And it’s frustrating, but are those issues worth going to another engine, learning how it works, and spending six months getting up to speed when I could take those same six months and make an entire game? So I keep using AGS because I know exactly how to make what I want with it.

[Francisco] My answer’s pretty much the same. I was drawn to AGS around the same time. It had a bit of completion – there was one called “scramm,” which was supposed to be the new version of scumm – it was supposed to do all these great things, and it never got released. Not even a demo version. There were just people waiting around on the forum for something to happen and it never did. So AGS was really the only engine that was not only available, but had people making games for it. And they were good games!

It was easy to use, too. I have no coding experience whatsoever and I’ve been using AGS for the past 13 years or so. I don’t do anything too complex. It’s easy for anyone who has no background in coding to pick up and learn. It’s showing its age, but ever since it went open source a few years ago people have been tweaking it, discussing that resolution problem and other things like it. Hopefully it’ll get there someday. Since it is purely a volunteer project it’s not being worked on as quickly as it would with a dedicated team.  But like Dave said, the time that it would take to learn something else wouldn’t be worth the hours I could put in making something with a tool I’m familiar with. Plus I’m an old man who hates change.

[Dave] My wife is a professional programmer – unlike me she actually went to school for it and everything. She’s worked on and build engines, and even she’s impressed with AGS. It’s a good, well-documented tool. It does a lot. For this specific thing, there’s no other engine better.

[Francisco] And it was all done by one guy, which is very impressive.

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Many of your projects are one-man shows as well

[Dave] Francisco’s are, yes. I hire art and music, though I do all the coding myself. My wife helps out with programming sometimes – she helped a lot with resonance, she did a lot of programming on resonance. It was pretty complex, which is why it took five years to make it. I’m bad at art, so I don’t touch it. Francisco’s a great artist, so he does it all himself.

[Francisco] you’re very kind.

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  • Neil Q

    There’s never been a better time for point and click adventures? Better than the King’s Quest/Space Quest Sierra On-Line era, and the Lucasarts Monkey Island/Indy era? Dang.

    • Geoffrey Graeme Thew

      All of the old classics are still available to play (some better than ever thanks to GOG and Steam), and we’ve got amazing new stuff from wadjet eye, telltale, and other great developers. So yeah, I’d say times have never been better.