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.

Aaron: Nope.

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 background.

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 more casual?

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 different directions?

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 prefer.


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 about it.

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 context?

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 roles.

Aaron: We fight over who gets the girl. And I’m not talking about our characters. It’s me and Chris, actually fighting.


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 discussion.


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. Interviewer.

Chris: Yes. However, those windows to the past will also determine her future. Have you ever seen Marnie?

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.

copyright © 2009 GameBoomers

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