Agustín Cordes is a developer from Argentina with a really twisted mind (some of his tweets and Facebook status are among my favorites). He is the creator of Scratches, a cult adventure game and the first one ever to be made in Argentina. After successfully funding his kickstarter campaign earlier this year, he is working in an even bigger adventure title: Asylum, a psychological horror adventure inspired by H. P. Lovecraft and set in a massive, decaying mental institute. And now he answers our questions!
1. How long have you been making games?
It's been 10 years since I'm doing games for a living (I dare not use the word "professionally"). However, I used to program silly little games during my childhood, a sort of Interactive Fiction wannabes with ASCII-based graphics. The only way of achieving progress was to input the exact sentence that I had in mind, otherwise the game would crash back to DOS. Eventually I forgot how to solve them myself.
2. Where do you find ideas for your games? Tell us something about your creative process.
Lots and lots of reading. Truth to be told, I'm not reading these days as much as I wanted to, but most of my creative background comes from the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, J. R. R. Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and more recently Christopher Priest. Movies are also to be blamed, of course, more specifically 70's horror such as Hammer Films and then Italian horror from the likes of Lucio Fulci. In fact, I often cite House by the Cemetery as one of the movies that most influenced me. But sometimes everyday happenings can trigger ideas that may evolve into actual plots. Just in case, I always take note of things that come to mind, even those that may seem painfully trivial at first. For example, when I was a kid there was this creepy old man staring at me with his big, glassy eyes every time I went to school. I couldn't imagine getting close because he terrified me, so I always crossed the street unnecessarily as I feared he would grab me and do something. That memory stuck with me for many, many years, and only now it has inspired me to write a short tale.
3. What is your favourite story about Scratches? (It could be related either to the creative process, production or final release of the game).
Well, my favorite moment was hands down when people were finally playing the game and I was enjoying their reactions. I loved reading countless of theories, long discussions about the vague ending that some loved and others hated, and sometimes even take part in them. Engaging people or stimulating their minds with a cryptic mystery was the best possible outcome I could have hoped for Scratches, and this may be the main reason why Asylum came to be. A particularly interesting story, though, was meeting Cellar of Rats (the composer of the memorable soundtrack) and how he became involved with the development. He was the one who suggested moving from a slideshow-based presentation to 360 panoramic rotation, so he was truly instrumental (pun intended) in the creation of the game. Now, the first Scratches teaser took place in a dark attic and was slideshow-based — this was very well received by many fans of the genre, who seemed genuinely excited about the title and encouraged me to quit my job and dedicate full time to game development. But then a few months later we released the second teaser with the panoramic view, considerably better graphics, surround music and actual story. In short, a far cry from the first teaser. Curiously, this teaser was met with colder reactions and barely made any splashes in the adventure community. I'm still not sure what happened, but I have lots of fond memories from that period. It was a time of exciting discussions and plenty of ideas that gave form to Scratches.
4. Asylum got funded on Kickstarter, congrats on that! And well, we heard at one of your talks that there is a really special story about one of your backers. Could you tell us that story?
Thank you! Yes, that's a fun story — we tried to make our higher tiers interesting and wacky without hampering the experience of the lower ones. Thus, the people that had to settle with smaller pledges would still have access to loads of content, but those who had the means to support with more money would receive a wacky reward in return. The highest tier ($10.000) was called "Unique Inmate" in that one and only one backer would become an actual character in the game modeled after him or her. This is an important character that happens to be involved in a few puzzles, but I honestly didn't think anybody would pledge that kind of money. So one day we receive the pledge from someone calling himself "Sultan", and I was like "get out of here, you can't be a real sultan!". I was fearing the pledge was phony, which happens often, but in the end he was someone actually called Sultan who wanted to become this raging maniac. And you know, he's a very laid-back, cool kind of guy, so turning him into an inmate of the Hanwell Mental Institute was quite a challenge for us. But, he's thrilled with the results and we couldn't be happier.
5. In terms of narrative design, what are the main differences between Scratches and Asylum?
They're both similar in their approach to storytelling and slow-burning horror, but Asylum is clearly more polished and let's say "friendlier". Scratches had a weak first day, with barely any plot developments and an excruciatingly slow pacing. The design was a bit uneven as well, sometimes requiring players do certain tasks in a very specific order. I think Asylum improves a lot these aspects: the first moments are more engaging and dynamic, and the plot moves much quicker than Scratches. It's still a very moody experience, challenging, and certainly much slower than your average horror game, but I learned a lot since Scratches and I'm taking care of remedying those past mistakes. That said, the type of twisty, multi-layered and slightly inconclusive story will be right up the alley of fans of Scratches. I'm anticipating loads of interesting discussions and theories, as the plot can be interpreted on many different levels. I think we're all going to have plenty of fun with this game.
6. Concerning your games, what is the most interesting feedback you have received from users?
There's been lots of things I loved to hear. From people telling me how much they enjoyed the story, and how they're still trying to figure out the mystery, to how scared they were to even think about that frightening basement. There was criticism too, about the puzzles, pacing and "hammy" aspects of the writing, which I appreciated and paid much attention. One of the most interesting things said about Scratches is how people became so attached to Blackwood Manor, that in The Last Visit (an additional chapter in which a reporter goes back to investigate the mansion after many years) they were disheartened to see it vandalized and teared apart. They really felt as if they spent three days inside that house, and they owned it for a brief period of time. The most incredible thing anyone ever said about the game, though, is a fan that told me how her whole family, who was a bit estranged back then, used to sit down and play together. The experience was so enthralling to them, that it helped mend bridges and they were more united in the end. Powerful stuff, especially when you keep hearing these days how games are "mere" diversions.
7. If you have to choose three and only three game developers to follow their work closely, which ones would you choose and why?
Sadly, most of my favorite developers are no longer focusing on adventures or narrative-driven games, such as the Legend Entertainment troupe or Infocom implementors. As for current developers, well, that could get me in trouble with friends, but let's give it a try: I always keep an eye on what Rhianna Pratchett is doing because she's an excellent writer and has a wonderful approach to storytelling, even though she's not working on the type of games I enjoy the most. Then Dave Gilbert, who seems to have a never-ending stream of great ideas and with each new game he shows remarkable improvement. He also has a keen eye for promising projects, such as Resonance or Gemini Rue. Finally, I'm always looking forward to whatever Josh Mandel has to offer — he has a fresh sense of humor and puts great attention to detail. Plus, he's a Legend guy!
8. Are you a heavy gamer? What games are you playing now?
I used to be a heavy gamer, yes, often investing dozens of hours on much more titles than I care to admit. I'm proud of a few achievements, such as beating Thexder after hundreds of plays (and being sorely disappointed about its lack of ending), and completing Zak McKracken without a walkthrough. These days, though, I don't have much time and I'm finding myself playing more and more iOS games, which I take as a distraction rather than an engaging gameplay (though some are downright fantastic). The last time I spent many hours playing a PC game was with Fallout: New Vegas, so it's been a while indeed.
9. One last random question. If you had the possibility to ask something to any fictional character, who would it be and what would you ask him/her?
I would confront the only... being in the world that can possibly know the truth. He has to know, after all he went to its darkest depths and came back to tell the tale. Well, he came back as a stinking bag of gooey ectoplasm, but that's besides the point. Dammit LeChuck, what IS the secret of Monkey Island?!
*We Ask Indies is an initiative by Beavl, an Argentinian independent game studio putting some teeth into videogames. You can check all the interviews here (caricatures are made by amazing artist Joaquín Aldeguer!).