Arriving on the adventure
game scene, (seemingly) from out of nowhere, developer Sam Clarkson of
Areo has created an unusual series of episodic crime/mystery games. Called
Casebook, the series allows
the gamer to assume the role of a rookie crime investigator who is
partnered with the formidable, brooding, Detective James Burton. In terms
of the gameplay, the episodes are poised right between the casual and
adventure genres. They feature full motion video, a medium that was
abandoned for years after initial experiments, but that seems to be making
What led to the creation
of this intriguing series, and what can we expect from it in the near
future? Find out as GameBoomers talks to Sam Clarkson.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your
background? What made you decide to develop a series of full motion video
episodic crime adventures?
A: My background
involves film and television work. I made several short action films
before working as an editor and digital compositor on documentaries made
for 'Animal Planet'. My colleague Luke Reid has a background in
Information Technology and in 2006 began work on the Areograph concept
(photography based game environments). After a few years of R&D the
Areograph technology was ready and we formed our games company and began
work on Casebook.
We never set-out to make
an FMV game. It was just a natural direction to take given that
Areograph produces photo-based crime scenes. Cartoon characters would
look out-of-place in a realistic environment, so we opted for video
Episodic seemed the way
to go given that we wanted Casebook to feel like an crime show on TV.
Also it was our first game we'd ever made, so keeping it under 6 hours
of gameplay made it far less daunting to create!
Q: Were you a gamer
before this project and if so, what genre interests you most?
A: My love for games really began with my Amiga
500 and 'The Secret of Monkey Island'. The huge potential of interactive
narratives has stuck with me ever since and I feel lucky to now have the
opportunity to contribute to this field... So you could say the
adventure genre is dear to my heart. In fact I was lucky enough to have
dinner with the Larry Ahern (co-creator of The Curse of Monkey Island), when I was in
the US recently. Monkey3 is in my opinion,
the greatest comedy adventure
game of all time, so it was a pleasure to
pick his brain and hear about the creation of a classic.
Q: What is one thing
you wished someone had told you about developing games before you started?
A: Nothing! Being
totally naive has been a blessing. If we had known what a massive
challenge it is creating a six-part season of games using a totally new
technology we would have been overwhelmed and have given up before we
But if I had to come up
with something specific I would say that there's a basic concept that
applies to all creative endeavours: Communicate as effectively as
possible. It's amazing how often you think people understand what you
mean and then days, or even weeks later, you discover that there was a
misunderstanding. It would have been nice if someone had said to me on
day one: "Hey Sam, assume that no one understands what on earth you are
talking about and do everything you can to clarify your vision."
Q: What important
lessons did you learn making the first episode to make the second one
A: Well because
'Kidnapped' was the first in the series and the first game we'd ever
made we learnt a huge amount. The main lesson was that playtesting and
bug-fixing takes far, far longer than we ever thought it would. From a
game design point of view we realised that EP1 was too linear and we
worked on the structure of EP2 to encourage some backtracking to past
crime scenes. From a storytelling perspective we wanted to play it less
safe, so we made EP2 a more dark and mature episode, with more of an
emphasis placed on Detective Burton - who fans are really responding to.
Q: Can you tell us
more about Detective James Burton’s background? Was he a character that
you carried around in your head for a while before creating the games? By
the end of the season, will we know him well, or will there still be
plenty of mystery surrounding him?
A: James Burton's background is hinted at somewhat
in the free 'prequel' Episode 0: 'The Missing Urn'. His uncle was a
Zoologist, so he grew up with a general knowledge of animals and thought
he was going to pursue a career in that field, but he also had family
connections in the field of Law, so ultimately he ended up taking that
path. However his love for animals still remains and he often uses
animal analogies when speaking to suspects. In fact, I think he sees
himself as the hunter, and the criminals his prey.
James Burton will be taken on a personal journey in
Season 1... we will see him succeed greatly and fail miserably, and as a
consequence, we'll see him grow from these experiences. There is a major
shift for him mid-season where his career takes a knock and he will have
to find new ways to get the job done. By the end of the season, I hope
that players will have taken this journey with Burton and he will feel
like a friend, but still with a sense of mystery around him.
Q: Can you tell us
more about actor Julian Temple: how he came to be cast for the part of
Detective Burton and how he has contributed to the development of the
A: We originally conceived Burton as a woman, but
when we auditioned actors none of the actresses really 'clicked' in the
part. So we started auditioning guys, and eventually Julian Temple (who
now plays James Burton) walked through the door and that was that.
Julian took something that existed as an idea in the minds of myself and
the writer and made him a living, breathing reality... it was, and still
is, very exciting to watch him perform.
What I like about Julian's acting style is that he
doesn't act - he just believes... he lives in the moment, he listens and
he responds. Something that not enough actors do. He comes from a
non-acting background, so he approaches it intuitively, and thankfully
his instincts are always solid.
He's contributed to the character in the sense that
he allows parts of himself to shine through - his strength and his
venerability - while still acting as a man who is really nothing like
Q: How do you select
the actors for the series? How difficult was it working with children in
the first episode: Kidnapped?
A: We do the standard auditioning process. We send
out scripts and character summaries and then see all the appropriate
talent. Sometimes we find the right person almost immediately, other
times it can be extremely difficult. Right now we are casting Ep4 and
it's proving to be quite a challenge. The characters are very specific
and we are running out of people to cast from our small population.
As for the children in EP1, the hard part was the
casting. I saw about a dozen kids and combined different boys and girls
until we were satisfied that they were the best choice and looked
somewhat like siblings. The kids were a pleasure to work with and they
took direction better than most the adults. I thought it would be
uncomfortable for the kids to be tied up and have their mouths taped,
but the kids thought it was great fun. They even taped my mouth up,
which made directing somewhat of a challenge.
Q: Do you draw on
real-life cases when writing the stories for Casebook?
A: Kidnapped was inspired a little by a real life
case where a crook used a homemade ladder to kidnap a famous man's
children. Ultimately he was caught because they found pieces of wood
missing from his attic, the pieces which he had used to construct the
ladder. However, the main background story for EP1 comes from a popular
children's story. The kid's in 'Kidnapped' are called 'Harry' and
'Greta', so I'm sure people can guess the fairy tale.
Small aspects come from real cases, but nothing
really specific. We did read some forensic case studies at the start
which informed us somewhat, but we mainly draw our ideas from films. For
example 'Episode II - The Watcher' was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's
'Rear window' and Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant'.
Q: How is the process
of filming sequences for an episodic game different than (for example)
filming a television episode?
A: There are two main differences. Firstly we have
to make sure we have most of the game mechanics sorted out first,
because once we've shot the footage we are stuck with it and it has to
match the game's structure closely. Also we have to be very careful
about our film sets, because not only do we film the drama in them, we
also capture the sets themselves for in-game use. So it's crucial that
the evidence is precisely where it should be and that it remains
Secondly our FMV scenes do not tell an entire
story. They are just one aspect of the narrative and make up roughly a
quarter of the overall game experience. So it can be quite strange to
create a script which is essentially incomplete until it is integrated
into the game. So this takes quite a bit of planning and a lot of
hard-work from our writer and the level builder.
In terms of actually shooting the footage it is
almost identical to normal television. The only real difference are the
POV (point of view) scenes where we use a specialised wide-angle lens on
a purpose built camera to film Burton as he lays down the objectives to
the player. This allows the player to look around within the frame...
it's a small detail but it adds to the immersion. We are working on
making these POVs better all the time and EP3 has one amazing climactic
sequence that I'm really proud of, all seen through the player's eyes.
Q: Where do you find all those intriguing objects
and props that we get to photograph and analyze during the game?
A: Well the great thing about Areograph is that we
can use real-world props rather than having to rely on artists to dream
them up - no disrespect to 3D artists, but everyone knows the saying
'truth is stranger than fiction', and I've got to say, half the odd
things we find in junk shops we would have never thought of creating
from sheer imagination.
Q: We’ve noticed that
many of the characters in the Casebook series are highly educated and,
well, quirky. Do you purposely write this type of character into the
games, and if so, why?
A: The reason our characters are all quirky is
because our writer is mad and he couldn't write 'normal' people if he
tried. But Honestly, I don't think we purposely sat down to design
strange characters, we are simply attracted to things that are a bit
warped... a kind of skewed reality. It's also amusing to see Burton
dealing with all these odd suspects.
Q: The game is
currently an adventure game by design and a casual game by ease of
gameplay. Do you see yourself adding any complex puzzles in the game to
appeal more to the seasoned adventure gamer or adding more hidden object
type props to gain a more casual following?
A: We have been listening to the criticism from
adventure gamers and we are working on making the minigames more
challenging in EP3. It's a tough balance though. We want to make it
challenging enough for adventure gamers without alienating casual
gamers, and we also don't want the story to grind to a halt because
someone is stuck in a mini-game... because with Casebook, story comes
first. Hopefully this balance will be struck in EP3.
In regards to adding more 'hidden object' style
gameplay, I already feel like the whole game is a hidden object game
anyway, but hidden objects within a context: Forensics. Every crime is
riddled with hidden objects, which is why I think Big Fish liked our
game and wanted to distribute it. We have plans to introduce a few more
specific 'find the object' style objectives in future episodes too.
Q: Who writes the
music for the series? Why was the decision made to not have music playing
during the crime scene investigations?
A: At Areo we all wear many hats. The soundtrack
in EPs 1&2 was created by our producer/level builder/programmer... and
musician Evan Sunley James. He has become too busy to keep up this many
roles and the music in EP3 is being done by a new guy.
We opted for no music while in the crime scene
environments because it felt incongruous next to the realism we strive
to create with the Areographed sets. Personally I find music in these
situations eventually becomes repetitive and I prefer ambient sounds...
but I can appreciate that some players prefer ongoing music.
Q: Has anything about
the development process or the way gamers respond to the game surprised
A: Casebook was designed with casual gamers in
mind so it was somewhat of a surprise to see adventure gamers embrace
it. It sounds silly, but it never really occurred to us during
development that we were making an adventure game, we'd been so
preoccupied with discussions about Casual games, episodic models and all
the filming stuff, that the fact that the game had many classic
adventure game elements was never really dwelt upon. Now it is
abundantly clear to me that we have a game that can straddle both
The really pleasant surprise has been how much
people have embraced the stories and how much people enjoy watching them
unfold. As the film director, this makes me very happy, seeing as this
is the part I have the most impact on... but I just never knew how
people would respond given that we are not dealing with a television
audience, this is a computer game after all... but then, why can't the
two overlap? It feels about time they did.
Q: Are there any other
game ideas that you are considering after the first Casebook series? If
the season is a success will you be focusing on a second?
A: If there is a demand for more Casebook episodes
then we will keep making them. [Shameless plug ahead] It's up to the
fans now. We've created something that we think is worth playing, but we
need the support of the gaming community to continue making them... so
please check out the demo and if you like it buy an episode [end of
In terms of other games we have several more in
mind, but first Casebook needs to be a hit. We are currently developing
an outdoor version of our Areograph technology which could allow for
some truly amazing outdoor environments in future games.
So watch this space...
Q: Will Episode 2: The
Watcher be released on BigFish
games? Is Episode 3: Snake in the Grass still on target for a
release date in May 2009?
A: EP2 will be going through BFG's Quality
Assurance process over May. It can be a long process, but it should be
somewhat faster with EP2 seeing as it uses the same game engine.
In regards to EP3, it has fallen slightly behind
schedule due to all the time we spend playing Wii Bowling... so expect
to see it sometime in June 2009.
Q: We enjoyed the
recent release of
The Missing Urn -- a free
Casebook mini-episode. Why did you decide to release a standalone
mini-episode, rather than demos from each episode?
A: I've never been a huge fan of the 'slice of
pie' style of demos, I'd prefer just to get a smaller pie. The demo
'slice' frustrates me because you only get to experience a small portion
of what the game has to offer and then when you buy it you have to play
through that same section again - which is just really annoying.
So we decided it would be really cool to create a
smaller episode from scratch which served several purposes: You get to
solve an entire case, which makes the 'demo' a rewarding experience, and
it also meant we could expand the world of Casebook - which is why we
made it a prequel to EP1, which allowed us to give some background for
Burton. I like to think of it as a 'demo' for Season 1. If you like the
free episode then you will certainly enjoy the rest of the season and we
won't have spoiled any of the plot from the main episodes.
Thanks for asking all these great questions and
thanks for all your ongoing support GameBoomers.