The Open Casebook

GameBoomers Interviews Developer Sam Clarkson

By BrownEyedTigre and Becky


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 a comeback.

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 instead.

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 started!

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 better?

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 character?

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 himself.

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 consistent throughout.

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 you?

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 crowds.

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 shameless plug].

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.

copyright © 2009 GameBoomers

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