Pack Your Bags!
An Interview with Waël AMR of 80 Days
Frogwares is a development studio “…dedicated to creating high-quality, graphically rich and immersive games for adventure gamers.” In this, they have succeeded splendidly over the years, bringing us thrilling adventures based on historical literature: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy; Journey to the Center of the Earth; and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Silver Earring.
With the imminent release of Frogwares’ latest game -- 80 Days, based on a novel by Jules Verne -- CEO Waël AMR provides tantalizing details about this innovative adventure.
Why do you think that Jules Verne’s stories have served so frequently as inspiration for adventure games? Why do you think developers choose NOT to follow the original Jules Verne stories with strict accuracy?
Jules Verne games have been done only by French developers (as far as I know). He is a part of our French patrimony and brilliant enough to be remembered 100 years after his death. On the other hand, a story needs to be modernized and adapted for its heart to remain intact. In 80 Days, for example, it would have been hard to make the player settle for the usual trains and boats. We know today that much more varied travel is possible; which asks us to reinvent the means of transportation, and so on.
In the game’s opening sequence, we learn that Oliver Lavisheart was sent away to America to the So Strict Secondary School. Was this a reform school? What did he do that caused his parents to send him away?
Well, you have to play the game to the very end to understand it. Oliver is very different from his parents; they would not agree about what Oliver should do in his life. He wants freedom, and they want tradition.
Was there a thematic or philosophical reason for having Oliver wear disguises in the game? Or was it just for fun?
The story was written by Aurelie Ludot, who is a woman, and women like to change their clothes, even several times a day.
To change your clothes is to change your personality. Oliver has a wide personality -- sometimes he is naive, sometimes selfish, sometimes ironic.
Also, wearing a disguise is another way to sneak around. Instead of using brutal force, you use a nice trick.
What is your opinion of pop culture? Why did you elect to use references to pop culture in a game that takes place in a historical period well before the advent of modern pop culture?
Pop culture is fine, it’s fun, it has a kind of superficiality that I like after work -- when I play a game, for example. Pop culture puts me in good mood and helps me to feel better.
I wanted the game to be funny and, knowing our age and references, I thought it would be okay to have this kind of pop revival. Also the game is colorful and pop might be the most colorful period of time our civilization has known.
Being anachronistic is not a problem I believe; otherwise we would have had to do a complete revival of the 19th century.
There is a lot of humor in 80 Days – some of it reminds me of the British style of absurdist humor/satire. At one point, you even hear the names of the cast of Monty Python as they are called over a paging system. Does the game contain this style of humor because Oliver is British? Or did this style of humor suit the game and game world for other reasons?
Well, at the origin of the modern music there are the Beatles. And at the origin of modern humor there is Monty Python. They are, unfortunately, both English, but we have to admit it: they are the best. Their sketch with the Hungarian Dictionary (My Hovercraft is full of Eels) with John Cleese and Michael Palin causes me a violent laughing crisis. Also, the Holy Grail provokes a general collapse in our family.
Coming back to 80 Days, I would not dare to say that our humor is at this level, but the American writer for 80 Days, John Zakour, is an accomplished joke writer and I believe he did some excellent work for the American players.
There are many nationalities represented in the game – which is appropriate since our hero does make a trip around the world! But there are instances in which colorful characters appear in locations where they are unexpected – for instance, the Scots in Cairo. Why did you choose for the gamer to meet these particular characters so far from home?
The main idea was to show that people are the same -- whatever their accent and their nationality, they can be at home anywhere. We wanted to show in parallel with the story that human values are the same. If you are surprised to see Scots in Cairo, which is literally the first hour of the game, you won’t be surprised to see them in the next location. This holds true for various nationalities in general, but the Scots thing is special. It is a running joke in the game; the Scots are like the small gnomes that help you and ask a lot from you. Just like in the Russian tales -- sometimes good, sometimes bad.
There are so many fun innovations in 80 Days – including the unusual puzzles, locations and characters. Did you have innovation as a primary goal when you first started designing the game? And in particular -- how did you come up with the ideas for the unique vehicles in 80 Days?
We wanted to do 80 Days, but we couldn’t do it in point and click because it is a race. So we made the decision early on to do the game in 3D. Then everything followed logically: vehicles, large environments, huge levels, many characters, pop music dances, colorful scenes, etc….
The inspiration for the vehicles is Jules Verne. The one tire is an invention which existed in the early 20th century; the chopper is a reference to the American bikers and the freedom of the road; the flying carpet, well, is something we came up with during the production. Aurelie, the game designer, proposed it and we made some attempts and it worked. We spent hours driving in the cities; it was very fun.
Why did you decide to make the game in full real-time 3D? Was there anything about working in 3D that surprised you? Is it easier to create new kinds of puzzles and challenges when working in real-time 3D?
As I said previously: for the story itself, we couldn’t imagine a race in 2D or 2.5D --we needed dynamism.
The amount of work was three times greater and the surprises were numerous. The game is not perfect, but it’s unique and inspires emotions unknown in the genre. We were not expecting this at the beginning, but when we began to see the results, we intensified our efforts in the puzzles and the dialogs to have a good result.
The work was hard. For the dialogs, for example, you have free cameras, which allow simple or complex movement, interesting but long to create. There are 91 dialogs and we did all of them three times to get a perfect result.
The graphic work took a huge amount of time too. The technology is ten times more complex to create and use. But it was worth it.
Why was the decision made to use an autosave feature instead of allowing the gamer to save wherever he would like?
Due to the time challenge, we were afraid that people would forget to save and find themselves in a situation in which they would have to replay a big part of the game after meeting a Game Over. That wouldn’t be pleasant. So we thought about using checkpoints. There are 68, and if you play 20 hours, it means there is a save checkpoint every 17 minutes, which is not a big time space between saves.
In a game like 80 Days -- with a huge game world, requiring the input of many artists -- how do you ensure that each artist has a consistent vision and uses a graphical style that is consistent throughout the game?
Well we use management methods of a certain type -- making meetings, adding steps to the process to be sure that information is well transmitted, etc…. This is not very interesting for your readers, despite being fascinating when it’s your work. Also we went to the different locations to take some photos. It does cost a lot but allowed us to have a perfect result.
The music in 80 Days is a significant departure from the quiet, atmospheric music we’ve often come to expect in adventure games. What were you trying to achieve with the music? Also, I’ve never seen a game with production numbers like the ones in 80 Days. Can you tell us how the ideas for these musical extravaganzas came about?
The music is connected to the pop style. It’s fun and the dances at the end of the levels give the feeling you have in a musical that everything will be fine. It took a big effort, working with singers on one side and choreographers on the other. But it was very fun to do and forced me to leave the office and my screen a few times. I can’t complain.
Having played a few hours into the game, I can already see many things in the large game environments that a gamer would miss if she were playing the time-sensitive Adventurer Difficulty level. Were you hoping that everyone would eventually play or replay the game in the more leisurely Tourist Mode?
Not specifically. If people love the game, they can replay it. If they just like it, they play the way they want. I believe we deliver a product and people can do what they want with it; they can play it once or ten times. We often see people replaying Gabriel Knight because there is just no game of that quality anymore, and I’m sure they discover new things every time they play. 80 Days is a game with a rich content and allows replaying.
Did you yourself visit any of the locations that are in 80 Days? (Creating a game that takes place all over the world would be a great excuse for a world tour.)
Well, I must admit I went to San Francisco, but it was on the border of the Game Convention 2004 in San Jose. And I went to Japan, in Kyoto, one week, and I strongly believe Yokohama in the game is the best city level. We sent other teams to Cairo and New Delhi. It was fantastic, because to visit a city in order to recreate a part of it gives you a new vision of the elements, streets, building architecture, people.… You have to catch the essence of the culture and the exact elements at the same time. It is certainly one of the most interesting parts of this job.
A year from now, what would you like people to remember about 80 Days?
That it is a good game -- maybe too ambitious, and with a long learning curve. But something out of the ordinary, and still definitely an adventure game.
A First Look at 80 Days
by Becky Waxman
80 Days starts off with a fast-paced dialog between two
unlikely people – a white-haired, British aristocrat and his muscular,
irreverent nephew. The nephew, Oliver Lavisheart, has just returned from
the “So Strict Secondary School” in America, where he thinks he has
learned all about freedom.