Burning the Midnight Oil
Chris Jones, Aaron Conners
and 3 Cards to Midnight
An interview by flotsam
Mention Tex Murphy
to an old time adventure gamer, and you might well get a response
something like “those were the days” or “they don’t make em like that
anymore”. Well, they were and they don’t, but they do still make em,
despite the rumoured demise of the adventure genre more than once.
Like the genre itself, old
adventurers never die. The team behind a number of the Tex games, Chris
Jones and Aaron Conners, have teamed up again to establish Big Finish
games, whose first product is the soon to be released:
3 Cards to Midnight.
GameBoomers was fortunate enough to get
some time to kick back with Chris and Aaron and reminisce about the old
days over bourbon and a Llama light, and look ahead to the future.
GB: Let’s get the
obvious matter out of the way first – this is not a sequel to Tex is it.
Chris: Or is it?
GB: But we do get
Chris as a private detective?
Aaron: It’s the only thing
he’s good at.
GB: Were you
tempted to make it a sequel? Or did the radio theatre episodes
sufficiently fill that space?
Aaron: We’ve always wanted to
continue the Tex series. Radio Theater was as much for our own enjoyment
as for the fans, but it didn’t come close to “filling the space”.
Chris: When we started this
project, we were looking for a way to appeal to the new gaming audience
and provide a new type of experience for them. We were looking for a way
to be successful in this new market and also bring some pluses from our
Aaron: And coming into a new
situation, we felt like we should start with a new IP (characters,
settings, etc.) rather than try to bring Tex back without the proper
resources to do it right.
GB: Just between
you and me, did Tex find the artifact and get Chelsee back?
Chris: You’ll just have to
wait and find out. Actually, going back to your last question, Radio
Theater was in part a tester to see how many people were still
interested in Tex’s continuing adventures.
Aaron: And it turns out there
were quite a few. We have every intention of letting you find out for
yourself if Tex finds the artifact and gets Chelsee back.
GB: Storyline was
a big part of the Tex games, and Big Finish games promises to create the
very best story driven games. How do you make sure the story isn’t
overwhelmed by the rest of the product?
Aaron: Well, first off, we
START with the story, rather than tacking it on to some sort of random
gameplay. And everything we put in the game – gameplay, puzzles,
interface – all has to complement the story or it doesn’t go in.
Chris: Honestly, we wouldn’t
be interested doing games without an interesting story to build on.
GB: It still needs
to be a game though, so what was the approach to the interactive elements
of 3 Cards to Midnight. Were they adjuncts or a main player?
Aaron: We took a look around
at the games that were successful recently in both the adventure and
casual game spaces. It became clear that the casual market is HUGE and
actually starting to merge with the adventure side. We came up with an
idea that we think bridges the two extremes very well. The gameplay is a
combination of puzzles and a simple concept that requires brain power –
though how much brain power is up to you. And, most importantly, the
game is built around a story that we would hold up against any adventure
game produced in the past 10 years.
GB: So what can we
expect from the puzzles – are we looking at something cerebral or a little
Chris: The gameplay is
definitely cerebral, but the most important thing was to integrate the
puzzles and game mechanic deeply into the story and also to give players
the opportunity to bypass puzzles so they would stay immersed in the
story and not get frustrated.
GB: And how long
will it take the average player?
Aaron: In our usability
testing, it’s been 7-8 hours.
GB: I understand
there are alternative endings; will they be determined by the gameplay or
are they more straightforward than that?
Aaron: They are certainly
influenced by the player’s choices and gameplay skill. It’s not as
complex as, say, The Pandora Directive, but the player really does
control their own destiny.
GB: That should
help the replay value. Was that the main reason for the different endings,
or was it a desire to explore as a writer how the plot might go in
Aaron: The different endings
don’t change the plot at all – the narrative throughout the game is the
same – it’s just the resolution that changes.
Chris: However, there IS a
significant replayability factor in the gameplay. It’s tied to the three
levels of difficulty.
GB: There are
different difficulty levels as well. How does that work?
Chris: We want people to enjoy
it the first time through and there’s a lot to experience. For that
reason, players can choose an easier difficulty level and skip any
puzzles that seem too tricky at first. Then, in part because the story
is so deep and rich, we think people can replay, pick up some of the
subtleties of the story and also take on the puzzles they skipped and
enjoy some fresh gameplay.
Aaron: It was important to us
to offer “scalable difficulty”. Not all players think or play the same,
so it doesn’t make sense to offer one level of difficulty. And, as Chris
said earlier, we want people to get immersed in the story and not have
the gameplay take them out of it by being too frustrating.
GB: Going back to
history for a minute, I remember playing Guardians of Eden and thinking
the plot was one of its stronger points. Given you have an obvious focus
on story, writing books or screenplays would have been an obvious
attraction, so what took you in a gaming direction to start with?
Chris: We like games. It really
became an obsession for us to figure out how to bring stories to games
at a level on par with TV, books or even movies.
Aaron: I’ve dabbled in other
forms of writing but I find the interactive element in games makes it
the most challenging and rewarding medium to write in.
GB: Radio would
actually seem to be a perfect medium – no distractions, just the voice and
the story. Any plans to revive the audio theater?
Chris: We would if we didn’t
have any other creative outlets, but we really love combining the
interactivity with the storytelling.
Aaron: As we said, Radio
Theater was a gift to ourselves and Tex’s fans – kind of a stop gap
because we had no other outlet for Tex at the time. But if there’s any
way we can bring Tex back to the “monitor screen”, that’s what we’d
GB: What were the
games in your formative years that shaped how you ultimately approached
developing your own games?
Chris: Checkers. Tic-tac-toe.
Aaron: I always loved board
games. I started making my own board games when I was a little kid and
kept at it right up until I came to work for Access. I played Pacman,
Asteroids, Donkey Kong, etc. when I was in high school, but that was
Chris: I didn’t really play
video games. I was more interested, at least conceptually, in things
like Dungeons and Dragons, anything with something meatier than just
falling objects that you blew up.
GB: I have to ask
– any truth in the rumour do you think that Microsoft acquired Access
Software just to get exclusive use of the word Access in a software
Aaron: It’s all true.
Chris: No, actually, they
branded their product after we had created our company. They were lucky
we didn’t sue THEM.
GB: Back to 3
Cards to Midnight, you have said on your website that the inspirations
were things like The Usual Suspects and The Twilight Zone. As a
psychological thriller, is there any Hitchcock in there?
Chris: Of course. And Bernard
Hermann in the soundtrack. All the stuff we love. The psychological
intrigue is always a Hitchcockian element. There’s scenes at motels,
there are birds...
Aaron: I think any good
psychological thriller – at least in a video game or a movie, a visual
medium – will be compared to Hitchcock, the same way fantasy stories get
compared to Tolkien.
GB: Like a good
Hitchcock movie though, the maker does get in on the act. Do you both have
“on screen” roles?
Chris: Yes, we both have cameo
Aaron: We fight over who gets
the girl. And I’m not talking about our characters. It’s me and Chris,
GB: I note that
whilst the game is originally for download, a boxed edition might be
available later. Can I suggest you make it a collector’s edition and
include the Tarot cards – they look quite wonderful. They were designed
especially for the game weren’t they?
Aaron: Yes they were, by an
excellent artist named Brian Johnson.
Chris: Who, incidentally, was
the Art Director for the Tex Murphy games.
Aaron: As for the boxed
version, you make an excellent suggestion and we will give it some
GB: What is their
purpose in the game? Rather than telling the future, they seem to be
windows to the past?
Aaron: Well said, Mr.
Chris: Yes. However, those
windows to the past will also determine her future. Have you ever seen
Aaron: The cards represent
Jess’s [the main character’s] memories. Each card is connected to a
location where something significant happened in her past...or will
happen in her future.
GB: Speaking of
the future, can you give as a sneak peek at 3 Cards to Dead Time? Any
little teaser you can share?
Aaron: It will be really good.
Chris: Well worth however many
pounds it costs.