Talk with Theodor Waern

By Peter Rootham-Smith

Theodor Waern is one of the small team behind The Journey Down, an episodic Adventure with a unique visual style and setting, based on African influences.


GB:   Glad you appreciate the coverage on GameBoomers!


TW:  Wherever I post news, or wherever we get coverage, it’s always a mixed bag of what people think. But for some reason at GameBoomers everyone’s smiling. There are all these smilies all over the place! Positive I really like it. Ana has been so responsive every time I talk to her, every time I’ve sent an email. We’re a tiny company. We’re only three guys. We have to do all the marketing and PR ourselves. We don’t have money to outsource it, so we have to do all the spamming.


          It’s so depressing when you send custom written emails to hundreds of reporters and you get a handful who reply. Ana’s one of them.


GB:   It must be difficult getting the word out.


TW:  It’s so difficult, especially with Chapter 2 of “The Journey Down”. It’s the second part in something that never really made big headlines (Chapter 1 of “The Journey Down”) – and being the 2nd part of something larger, obviously people won’t jump on it with “Wow it’s a finished game”. No they’ll go “I’ll wait until all 3 chapters are done”, which is something we’ve experienced very much. You know “The Dream Machine”? It’s developed by two guys, one of whom is from Gothenburg like we are. So I spent a lot of time talking with him about the ups and downs of this. Their model is similar to ours, only difference being they have even more chapters. They have to go through this between releases more often than we do, so they definitely experienced the same thing. People are always saying “No I’ll wait I’ll buy the whole thing when we have all the parts”. The press say “We’ll cover when the whole thing is done”. And that’s years down the line.


GB:   It’s a difficult trade-off.


TW:  We wouldn’t have the resources to do a big game. That’s the beautiful part of an episodic game. Even if you’re a small studio you can build a grand epic, and everyone wants to make an epic right? More fun with an epic? We didn’t realise what we were getting into when we started it. We didn’t understand the scope of the project in so many different ways. But it feels  great. We’ve come pretty far with Chapter 3 of “The Journey Down”. We see the light at the end of the tunnel – that soon we’re going to have this complete package. And then hopefully it’ll be a lot easier to get press. Press coverage we got from Chapter 2 was very positive. We got very good previews, but it was very limited. It was difficult to reach out. Even those who had been very good press contacts didn’t pick up the news because it wasn’t a complete thing. I’m very happy we’re not going to have to go through that again with our next episode, because it’s going to be complete.


GB:   You’ve had some good coverage on Adventure game websites.


TW:  “The Journey Down” for a point and click game is fairly casual, so we’re aiming for a pretty wide audience. We’re not aiming for the hard core point and click Adventure gamers. But when you get good coverage on Adventure Gamers dot com, it’s pretty niche. There are really hardcore people there who really want hardcore point and click Adventure games. That isn’t what we’re doing. We’re not doing seriously difficult puzzles. We want to have good flow, and also we’re aiming towards iPad and iOS. We’re aiming broader.



GB:   It’s a broad spectrum.


TW:  One thing we decided early on with “The Journey Down” was to design a game we love. This is key to why the game is awesome. To be the most awesome game we could possibly imagine from a development standpoint, and also from a player’s standpoint. If we were players, this is the game we would want to see. And we’re the developers, so this is what we want to build. These are the environments we want to build, this the ambience, this the setting.


GB:   How did you come up with your setting, which is pretty unique?


TW:  The whole African mask thing has its roots in my childhood. When I was very young, only a couple of weeks old, my family moved to Zambia for a while. I lived there for about one and a half years. Obviously I don’t remember any of it, but it’s part of my identity somehow.


          When we moved back home to Sweden from there, my parents brought back with them a lot of Art, a lot of masks, a lot of weird musical instruments like kalimbas. My parents were very musical. They filled our Swedish home with Central African culture. It was super weird. You don’t get this hybrid. When I went to my friends’ houses there was not African culture. They weren’t playing African music. My parents did. That became a part of my childhood and part of my identity.


          Time went. I played “Grim Fandango” and loved that to bits, and at one point when we started tinkering with AGS the thought struck me that “Grim Fandango”, by not trying to be human, becomes incredibly human by not having these fake computer faces. Instead you boil it down to these awesome bones, and you get the raw emotions out of them. I figured that if it worked with these skeletons, this other aesthetic I had been brought up with -- masks -- it could really work there too. You can have the same range of emotions without falling into the uncanny valley of ugly 3D computer generated character faces, which in my thinking really ruins a lot of the magic.


          One of the reasons “Grim Fandango” really resonates with me is because there’s not that in-between layer of fakeness. It just has its own style, and that was something I figured if they could do, that we could do that. It should be an aesthetic which should be relatively cheap to produce and also have an impact of a very unique style. So that’s how we wound up doing that. And then the designs found their way into the background. You get a lot of African patterns, and it found its way into the music too.


GB:   What parts of the game do you work on?


TW:  Being a very small company we do a little bit of everything. I write, and I draw, and I do puzzle design. And I do some of the implementation, some of the scripting. The project started from me doing a lot of drawings, and wondering how I could breathe more life into my drawings. I was doing a lot of digital drawing. It struck me when I look at a picture from “Day of the Tentacle” or “Full Throttle” or any other classic iconic Adventure, it carries with it so much emotion because I bonded with characters in these environments and stories. I wanted to have that feeling. When someone looks at one of the pictures I’ve painted, I want them to feel it’s part of a big amazing story.


          So that’s how it started -- wanting to create a living environment out of my art. Then as I started creating rooms and having characters move around in them, that naturally led to feeling we want to have a story, spin a narrative here. It grew organically. It was... what lies around this corner? OK I’ll draw it, and so on. The design spiralled out of that, came up with characters which would contrast each other in interesting ways. The story came pretty late, while the ambience was first.


GB:   You used AGS?


TW:  We started with AGS for the original freeware release many years ago. The day we realised we were going to turn it into a commercial HD release, we started doing that in AGS but there were lots of technical issues. AGS is built for retro gaming. When you start needing to shuffle a lot of high-resolution data as we do now in “The Journey Down” because the characters are large, there’s 15 frames a second and there’s a lot of animation. It didn’t work in AGS. Too long loading times. We knew already that we wanted to be on iPad. An iOS version of AGS was not even thought of back then. So we figured we’ll build our own toolset, and we’ll make sure it’ll run on both iPad and PC Mac Linux.


          So that’s what we did, and in doing so, we ripped off the AGS editor when building our editor -- because the AGS editor is really good -- but it did have some flaws, and these are flaws that in our editor we improved. For one thing, when you import assets into the editor in the technical pipeline when working in AGS, it’s a convoluted process. Every time you redo a big batch of assets, getting them into the game again is very much of a hassle. When you work a lot with pre-rendered graphics like we do, you deal with a lot of data. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of big pictures that need to be shuffled. When you make a little edit, it would be nice if that change would be just there. This did not work with AGS. It took forever to get the new data into the game. So we built a system with our editor that simply uses the data in the folder instead of packaging it into a big package that takes forever. So that means we could very easily just press the render button in our 3D program, start the game, and see it, instead of having this convoluted slow process. That was one of the main things we wanted to change with the editor.


          Again when you work on low resolution games, retro style stuff, this is not an issue because you don’t have that much data. But as soon as you go hi-res, you need fast data loading. Both when you’re working with it and when you play the game. AGS may well have improved on this aspect since this was long time ago, and AGS has evolved a lot since then. Now there is a sort of iOS support for it, and even some sort of Android support.


          Another issue we had was with video playback. Back then the video playback in AGS was very rudimentary, and didn’t do what it was supposed to do. Again this is a long time ago. They may very well have solved this by now. “The Journey Down” is heavily cinematic. There are films all the time. They’re really long films, big and juicy films. Not being able to have power over their playback in a good way was a huge blocker for us. That was another reason we wanted to build our own engine. That was a long rant about why we ditched AGS. But it was a shame, as in ditching AGS we lost contact with the AGS community, which is awesome. We cling to some of them. There’s something beautiful about the AGS community. I still hang around the AGS forums. There’s a nice idea of camaraderie there.


GB:   Have you had a lot of player feedback to “The Journey Down”?


TW:  We very much do testing. Before launching Chapter 1, we did shed loads of testing, and before launching Chapter 2 we did shed loads of testing. That has very much shaped what kind of game it is. You can’t make a halfway decent Adventure game without constantly testing it on new people all the time. You build, you test, you rebuild, you retest... Without that both games would have been garbage. It’s a central part of our development process.


          What we did on Chapter 2 was every month (the game took one and a half years to build) be sure we had a fully working build, so you could play through the whole game even if there were feeble proxy assets. Then we invited two random strangers that we had never met before, and we put them on Matthias’s couch, and they played the game, talking with each other. We sat behind them watching them play. This we did at the end of every single month. After that test, we tore the game apart. We spent all month tearing it apart. And then we reached the end of the month and we’ve gotta fix it, we’ve gotta fix it... and we fixed it and did another test. This is such a central part of the development that it can never be understated. It’s a central core part.


          As a designer you become blind to your stupidity. You have no idea how stupid your design is. You have no idea how good your jokes are. It can seem funny, but then people are just sitting there saying is that meant to be funny?


GB:   You can have no idea how players can miss the obvious.


TW:  Exactly! For the developer things can be incredibly obvious, but for the player it’s just not there. No matter how much they look they won’t see it. You’ve got to test, you’ve got to test, you’ve got to test. That has been very very very important, and I hope we’ll be able to do the the same kind of testing for the third part of “The Journey Down”. We’re not there yet like a real build through the whole game. We’re slowly getting there. Chapter 3 is a very big game; it’s very large. Chapter 1 of “The Journey Down” was like three hours gameplay maybe, and then Chapter 2 was like five or six hours gameplay, and it looks like the trend is continuing right now. So the project is ballooning and we have to chop it down to make it realistic to pull it off. But it’s a very cool game. It’s going to be very cool.


          As far as player feedback post release we’ve just been overwhelmed by how positive it’s been. One interesting thing is, after Chapter 1 of “The Journey Down” we wanted to do something a little different. So that’s why Chapter 2 has a different tone. It’s visually darker; the theme is darker. The tropes are film noir tropes, like the femme fatale trope. It’s a pretty big shift, which was great for us, as we get to do something different -- not doing the same thing. It was also scary because of worrying... are people going to appreciate this being so different to Chapter 1? In practice people thought it was a nice continuation. And now we’re going to do the same thing with Chapter 3. It’s going to be completely different -- not at all film noir, there won’t be any jazz. Chapter 2 was very jazz. It’s going to be a very different experience. We’ll see what people think of it. But it’s very fun for us. We get to explore new tropes and those kind of things. We’re going a lot more for an 80s type vibe in Chapter 3 of “The Journey Down”, so it’s a real mishmash. I bet if you play through all 3 games in a row, it’s going to feel weird. It’s completely different eras, but still you have the main characters acting exactly the same. They are the core experience. So it should still be coherent. 


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