Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches

GameBoomers talks to Noel Bruton, Game Engineering, Arberth Studios

By Inferno 


1. How did you become interested in creating an Adventure Game?

There are three members of Arberth Studios. One of the team, Karen, is a died-in-the-wool gamer. She was playing text-based adventures on the Sinclair Spectrum back in the early eighties and she has played countless adventure games since. Like many expert gamers, she has developed a set of preferences of the types of features she wants to see in a game. Karen and I are a married couple, so over the years, she’s converted me too. It was different for Richard, Karen’s brother – he came to it relishing the opportunity to use his graphical illustration skills in a more creative way than his usual work tends to offer.

Adventure games are attractive because they offer a platform for exploration, challenging your mind. Adventures don’t just test the player’s acuity or agility – they’re much more subtle - they test assumptions, objectivity, logic, lateral thinking and other components of the personality and intellect. In an adventure, the potential for reacting to a situation is much richer than simply accelerating away from it or blowing it to bits. 

From a storytelling point of view, the adventure genre has more versatility than other genres, we feel.


2. Do you consider yourself a writer or a programmer primarily?

We all take a part in the creation process, but we all agree that story comes first. We have a game design methodology that starts with simply collecting attractive and exciting ideas. Then we sift those into a premise, from which comes a story and character outline. Once you have those, you can start thinking about plot. Then you need somewhere to set the plot, an arena if you will. Once you know what the arena looks like, you can design the scenes and only then can both the graphic design and programming start.

The programming language is just the syntax in which you express the story. Without story, the programming has no context. You have to think ‘writer’ before ‘programmer’, or indeed before ‘artist’ or ‘researcher’.


3. Which influences have you utilized to craft your project?

If we’re talking influences as opposed to research - for the gaming itself, without a doubt Karen has taken as her influences Jonathan Boakes (Dark Fall, The Lost Crown), Matt Clark (Barrow Hill), Benoit Sokal (Syberia), Nucleosys (Scratches) and a dash of Nancy Drew. We also drew from an exercise Karen and I undertook a few years ago into trying to better understand ‘magick’.

Richard cites his influences for his graphics in this game as primarily contextual – the game is based on an existing location. But he leans heavily on his background in interior design, using everything from Victor James Martinez backdrops to Joseph Hoffmann furniture pieces. He has ambitions for giving more expression to that panoply for future games, to call on more esoteric images.

For the music, the others have allowed me to follow a soundtrack approach, so it’s mostly chapter and character theme-based rather than atmospheric incidental; and I have to admit influences of Michael Nyman and Donald Fagen (I love unpredictable chords), with a little bit of flower-power rock for one episode and the movie ‘Brassed Off’ for another.


4. Can you tell us which part of the creation process you liked the most? The least and why?

For Karen – most, the research into the richness of the game and the details in all the game’s guiding texts. Least, the stress on those occasions when we could not easily make one another understand what individuals felt was needed.

For Richard – most – creative freedom, in collaboration with the others and seeing his still frames come alive in the game context; least – re-rendering scenes over and over again until we got them right

For me – mostly the process of turning a few notes into a musical piece and the joy of how a bit of coding makes game components suddenly add up to more than their constituent parts. Least – when computers don’t do what they’re told to or make too much of a song and dance about it. Very Irritating, Some Technologies Are.


5. Why "Rhiannon"? What can you tell us about the story?  

We have used as our basis the core tales of the Welsh legends known as the ‘Mabinogion’. These are the ‘Four Branches’, and although they cover many themes and topics, one common thread running through them is the life of the nobleman Pryderi (“Pruh – derri”). Even as a baby, Pryderi suffered at the enmity between his father and the psychopathic sorcerer Llwyd (“HL-oo-id”), and this carried on throughout Pryderi’s life, getting rather nasty at times. But Pryderi (and his mother Rhiannon) ultimately humiliated Llwyd and the pair reached a pact to take no more revenge during their lifetimes. Our story extrapolates that Llwyd stuck to the letter of that agreement and is now instead taking his revenge after the death of them both.

This spills over into the present day, at Ty Pryderi (“the house of Pryderi”), a run-down Welsh farmstead recently occupied and being restored by the Sullivans, Malcolm and Jennifer, and their teenage daughter Rhiannon. Lonely as she is at having moved to the country, she starts to research the history of the name ‘Pryderi’ – and is pulled into a ghostly battle her parents cannot witness. This drives her to the edge of insanity, causing the family to vacate the house.

You arrive, ostensibly to take care while the builders continue the restoration – but they too have taken fright and left. Soon, Llwyd makes you acutely aware that you are not welcome. Gradually you discover the damage this malicious spirit has done throughout history and you determine to resolve this 900-year-old disturbance once and for all. You will discover Llwyd’s motivation and turn his magick back on him – and you will do it via your deduction, your comprehension of your foe and your use of 21st century realities.


6. What was the deciding factor in creating this project for the Adventure gaming community, as opposed to having it geared toward another genre?

It’s where we came from and it’s what we know. And adventure gamers are who we want to appeal to. We can’t imagine this story being told in any other genre.


7. I have found that many legends and myths of folklore lend well to creating a truly interesting interactive experience, and tend to create a basic formula for adventure gaming; please tell us how Rhiannon fits into this formula. 

Although we have gleaned our premise from Welsh folklore, our players are 21st Century people. All of history and legend is theirs to call upon. Myths and legends stretch the imagination, while present-day reality brings it back into check. There is an obvious tension between the two, and it is this tension that excites the modern-day interest in myth and legend. The formula, if there is one, can be distilled from that dichotomy. Should I use a crowbar, a frequency analyzer or a spell to solve this problem? It is that range of possibilities that lends legend to adventure gaming. The balance that must be struck however, and the one we’ve aimed for in ‘Rhiannon’, is that at the extremes, the range does not dip into the corny or fantastical, but retains a substance and foundation the player can use. To modern-day eyes, legends are off the chart as weirdness goes. OK, suspend disbelief – but not too much.


8. How much research into the history of the area was involved?

I read the Mabinogion throughout, looking for a story, which I found in the feud between Pryderi’s family and Llwyd, as told in the ‘Four Branches’ legends. Karen found the Ogam script and converted it to puzzles. Kirlian photography, the work of Masaru Emoto, pyrotechnics, the audible electromagnetic spectrum, a bit of botany, the history of the late 1960’s and Edwardian industrialism all play a part and had to be researched. We had to invent a manufacturer for all the technology to be used and a couple of magazines to be read by Jen Sullivan.


9.  From a technical aspect, how user-friendly will the gaming level be in your opinion? Will Rhiannon be geared more toward the "advanced Adventurer" or will it be an experience that even a beginner will be able to enjoy?

Again, Karen’s influence shows. Pretty much everything is point-and-left-click. Right-click an inventory item to examine it close up. There are no long conversations. There is nobody to meet with. You are not prompted with a list of possible things to say. You play alone in the first person (which can be a bit creepy and unnerving, our players are finding). You are presented with the evidence and the clues and then it’s up to you.

You can’t end up with a bloated inventory of meaningless stuff, because although you’ll interact with nigh on 200 items, you can only take an item to inventory if you have already witnessed where you can make use of it. The puzzles are logical and practical – at Karen’s insistence, we’ve tried very hard to avoid the “You-do-WHAT-with-the-WHAT?-When-would-you–EVER-do-that?” phenomenon you see in some games.

There are some subtler challenges though. You are dealing with magick, so archetypes and symbols may be in order, rather than the real thing. You will have to think laterally. If the beginner is free of assumptions, they should be OK.


10. Is there an in-game help system? Will there be any "extras" in the game that can be "unlocked," such as "Easter Eggs"? 

There is a computer in Rhiannon’s bedroom. That’s been her lifeline, because she uses it to exchange Emails with Jon Southworth. He is still sending Emails. Check there for where to look next, especially in the earlier chapters. In addition, others have tried to defeat Llwyd before. They have left clues around the game arena that you can make use of to give you a little nudge now and again.

We’d have liked to put in Easter Eggs and so on, but the Beta Test currently underway is beginning to show that this is a pretty substantial game, time-wise – and we’ve been aware with some other games in the past that you can have too much of a good thing. Perhaps we’ll do that in a future edition.


11. Are you planning a sequel?

We have another game on the drawing board already, and ideas beyond that. We’d like to move to the next project, of course, but we’re prepared to see how ‘Rhiannon’ is received. While ‘Rhiannon’ stands alone as a complete adventure, there are potentially other dimensions to the story. It’s like any work of art – which brush stroke is the last? There is always the possibility for one more. We could explore further and we would have liked to have had the time to include Easter eggs and so on – but we had kept our players waiting for twenty months since we first announced production and we had to release sometime. Perhaps there is scope for a sequel to open up those other dimensions.


12.  What advice can you give to gamers who are interested in project creation for Adventure Games?

First know what you want to achieve. Are you trying to make a commercial adventure or are you doing this recreationally? There is a very big difference between the amounts of commitment and the level of quality required by either end of the scale. We were lucky – all three of us were similarly motivated and we kept each other going. It has to keep being fun even after the novelty is over. Be aware of the time it will take. To finish a game will eventually require a production schedule. Sooner or later, it will be stressful.  

Know what skills you’ll need. You can’t avoid graphics, modeling, programming, sound effects or music.

Read up on story creation. Years ago, I read Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ for a thriller novel I was writing and although McKee’s ideas have been panned a little (notably in the movie ‘Adaptation’), they still have a lot to offer. There are lots of books now that specialize just in game design.

There are plenty of game engines, some of them open source, so there’s help to be had with the technical side.

The big one is motivation. To do something on this scale, you've got to really want it.


copyright © 2008 GameBoomers

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