When Nancy Sinatra started recording James Bond’s “You only live twice” theme song back in 1967 she was asked to match the “elegance of the Oriental sound” John Barry had composed, a striking pop song that would later on become one of the most covered Bond themes of all times. It was a nightmare at first for her and Barry needed to use over 25 takes to complete the final song.
For Brendon Chung it probably wasn’t such big headache to come up with Gravity Bone‘s peculiar storytelling, repeatedly praised for its solid narrative, but transforming Citizen Abel into one of the most famous and long-lived agents in gaming history may take longer. Many of us thought we would never see him again, but like most good spies… he didn’t die, he just went undercover.
Maybe Citizen Abel was living once for his life… and this second time for his dreams, maybe the other way round. The thing is that however you put it we all get to play with Mr Abel once again, and maybe, just maybe, get to see him die a second time.
Brendon didn’t get to tell us how it all ends, although a few of you already know… however, and right before the global release, we got to ask Brendon about Thirty Flights of Loving…. and a few other things.
aqnb: Hi Brendon, we ALWAYS start with an easy one…. you seem to have a fixation with exploding black birds… you did not have a traumatic experience with a crow during your infancy did you?
Brendon Chung: No traumatic experiences, no. I love birds and I do not condone bird-related explosions.
About the Chungverse…
aqnb: The Chungverse explodes and becomes a universal reality more or less when Pandemic Studios shuts down… how was it to jump onto the “indie” developer wagon all on your own?
BC: It was terrifying to start Blendo Games. The economy was in a bad state, I had no business experience, and I had never sold a game on my own. But digital distribution was on the rise, and I had a lot of years practicing making games under my belt, so I felt it was a good time to jump into the independent development pool.
aqnb: What can you tell us about the growing importance of soundtracks in your games…?
BC: Music makes a big difference in the experience, and can often completely change the tone. I often find it helpful to work backwards with music. I’ll start with something I find interesting or compelling in some way, and then tailor the game to fit that specific track’s tone or pace. Secondly, I try to select music that I feel is underrepresented in video games. I like being surprised when I play something, and I hope that others get the same feeling when they play my work.
BC: I’m accustomed to using pre-existing music, so it was a new experience for me to have Chris Remo making the soundtrack. I’m not used to using words to describe music I’m looking for, but fortunately Chris had a very good idea of what kind of music would work well for the game’s world and tone. Once the tracks were placed into the game, the game had that little moment where all the sequences clicked together.
About Citizen Abel…
aqnb: At the end of Gravity Bone we get a glimpse of Citizen Abel’s personal story… looks like you got inspired by the convulsive 20th century Latin American history… or what came through your mind?
BC: Games often focus around the hero saving the galaxy, stopping some catastrophe or ending a supervillain. One of my main tenets for Citizen Abel is that he’s basically a guy with a job, and he takes pride in effectively carrying out the parameters of that job. In the fantasy-fulfillment video game world I suppose some might view that as selfish or mundane, but I think it’s a pleasant change from end-of-the-world scenarios.
aqnb: For your upcoming sequel we’re also expecting that same cinematic 60s & 70s spy movie essence. What have you prepared for us in Thirty Flights of Loving to improve over GB’s storyline?
BC: TFOL has similarities to Gravity Bone, but I think people will be pleased with its narrative surprises and its approach to characters. If you enjoyed Gravity Bone, I think TFOL will be right up your alley.
aqnb: At the same time providing the character with a single “final death” enabled most players to empathize with Citizen A. in a unique way, could you keep this key ingredient in a longer game?
BC: I think that storytelling in games is still in a very early stage. We’re constantly seeing people create completely new narrative methods – it’s a really great time to take risks, seeing what sticks or failing gloriously. I view Gravity Bone and TFOL as short stories, and it’s been fun experimenting with this specific format.
aqnb: and in terms of gameplay dynamics… are guns still not an option in TFoL? What else can we expect?
BC: You’ll handle unexpected ‘weapons’ in TFOL. I’ll leave it a mystery as to what they are!
aqnb: another easy one… Which game tutorial did ever actually proved to be useful for you?
BC: I love reading about the development histories on any creative medium, not necessarily just games. There’s a fascinating aspect of starting with some intangible kernel of an idea and somehow ending up with a final, beautiful piece. Someone once described it as jumping out of an airplane with nothing but a needle and a silkworm – I agree with that wholeheartedly.
And back to the Chungverse…
aqnb: You’ve repeatedly underlined the importance of making the player think and let him/her connect the key dots in the game. Is solving narrative puzzles much more rewarding than a record number of kills? Can both ideally be combined in a FPS?
BC: Story is something that games sometimes struggle with. It’s easy to over-explain everything and leave nothing to the imagination, and it’s also easy to impede gameplay with clumsy or obstructive storytelling methods.
I like to make the storytelling a natural part of the gameplay itself, and as minimal as possible. This often results in a fairly loose storytelling, which works for some people and not for others. When in doubt, I try to err on letting the player figure things out on their own, and let them fill in the details.
aqnb: and where lies the perfect balance between an extensive & compelling game narrative and a nonsense shooter without a story backbone? Your favorite engaging FPS from the script point of view?
BC: I don’t think there is any one perfect balance. Different things appeal to different people. As long as the storytelling is clear and doesn’t get in the way of gameplay, I’m pretty happy. In terms of works with linear storylines, some games I feel do a particularly good job at this are Another World and Half-life.
aqnb: One last question…. There certainly is a lot of room left to innovate with new formats and game dynamics but in terms of narrative style.. what can you guys still experiment with?
What I’m most interested in at the moment is player-generated narratives. That is, give the player some game systems and let the interaction between those systems & the player result in the stories. There’s something amazing that happens when you give the player tools to create their own stories, their own moments that are unique to only themselves.
I’m so excited about this narrative style because it’s something that takes full advantage of the game medium, and is unique to the game medium. Take Dwarf Fortress or Day Z: these titles are amazing for the dynamic stories they tell, stories that only exist because the player created them via interaction, gameplay, and consequences. We’re looking at the direction games are heading toward, and that excites me.
aqnb: Thanks a lot Brendon.