Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All looks to take classic puzzle adventure gaming and ally it with a memorably grimy backdrop referencing a whole range of crime fiction influences. It’s a title that’s not short of ambition, even if it doesn’t quite manage to pull it off in the end. We talked with Djamil Kemal from development studio Lexis Numerique about what inspired the corrupt streets of Metropolis City, the benefits of episodic gaming and the process of creating brain-twisting puzzles that sometimes even he couldn’t solve.
Strategy Informer: Red Johnson’s Chronicles: One Against All seems to have quite a mix of influences - obviously the film noir element, but also ‘70s blaxploitation movies, and even Soviet propaganda. Were there specific works in other mediums that influenced the art design of the game?
Djamil Kemal: Basically, it wasn’t something specific, it was more memories of what we experienced when we were kids. For instance, you mention the blaxploitation shows. We loved Starsky and Hutch, so Saul the snitch is very much inspired by Huggy Bear.
As for the posters, you’re right about the Russian influence, but also U.S. propaganda from the ‘50s and ‘60s as well. Even at the end of the 19th Century, you had posters telling you iridium was great and people were wearing necklaces made of it. So things like that.
So the universe is a mix of film noir, like the classic Humphrey Bogart movies, but the setting is also inspired by the original Metropolis by Fritz Lang: this city with very high walls, where people are all crowded in.
The clothing is very much inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s fashion, but we also have some influence from the manga world. If you look at the way we designed the cars, buses and things like that, the shapes are very rounded. It’s a mix of ‘50s United States and Japanese design. So it’s a collage.
Strategy Informer: Is it particularly important for an adventure game to create a distinct and memorable world?
Djamil Kemal: Yes. Our DNA here at Lexis Numerique is two-fold: firstly, to build stories, and secondly to tell them in an original way. And to do that we need to create emotion. We can’t do action or football games, but we do want to attract the player to the world, and to do that we need to do something quite deep, even if they don’t see it.
The world is very coherent. We even thought about the way people drive or use public transport in the city - things that maybe we won’t actually use in the game, but that make the player feel things are coherent and original. Even if it is a collage of influences that come from other universes, we want the whole thing to feel unique - which is hard.
Strategy Informer: The game doesn’t shy away from violent imagery and incidents, as well as adult themes. Was that part of capturing that authentic noir feel?
Djamil Kemal: Yes, and that is also one of the reasons why we wanted to have some quicktime events. Usually in adventure games, you don’t have them. They’re not just there to bring adventure and rhythm to the game, but also because the central character Red Johnson is very ambivalent. He’s a good guy, but sometimes he is very violent, and we wanted the player to experience that.
So when Red needs to hit or threaten someone, it’s you controlling it, and that’s why we introduced the QTEs.
Strategy Informer: In the very first scene, Red kills a would-be assassin in cold blood...
Djamil Kemal: In the first game, he looked and seemed very innocent, a good guy, and the more you get to know him the more it becomes clear that there is a lot of noir inside him. This is explained across the whole story, which will be in three episodes, and we really hope that things you experience in either the first or this second game will take on whole new meanings when you play the third one.
Strategy Informer: Episodic games seem to be a good fit for the adventure genre - it’s an approach that Telltale Games have been using with the likes of The Walking Dead - so was Red Johnson’s Chronicles something you planned as a trilogy right from the start?
Djamil Kemal: Definitely. We really take the price into consideration as well. For many years, developers - including us - complained about piracy. We don’t believe that, when it comes to piracy, people are bad or they want to rip us off. We believe that games are way too expensive. It’s really hard to afford $60 a game right now.
So digital distribution enables us to do two things: firstly, original games, and secondly to sell smaller games at a very reasonable price point so people can decide if they want to get into the universe or not. We really wanted to sell Red Johnson’s Chronicles at a low price, and that’s the reason we decided to do it episodically.
If we had done the full game - all 50 plus hours of gameplay - at a $60 price point, we would probably have only reached the core adventure game market, so episodes allow us to reach a broader audience than that.
Strategy Informer: Is it difficult to balance that desire for a low price point with budgeting for, say, the game’s motion-captured animated cut-scenes?
Djamil Kemal: It’s important that the price point doesn’t have an impact on the overall quality of the game, so for us it’s an investment. It is a risk for us, but we really invest in the long term. We didn’t make much money on the first game, so hopefully it will pay of for us with the following episodes.
Strategy Informer: The first game only appeared on PSN, but One Against All has also come to Xbox Live. Is it vital to be on as many digital platforms as possible?
Djamil Kemal: Yeah, being on as many platforms as possible is really important for helping us reach the break-even point. And we also want to reach as many different kinds of players as we can. If you play games on your iPad, for instance, you may not be the same kind of player as someone who is gaming on an Xbox 360. So for us it is very important.
Strategy Informer: There’s quite a variety of different puzzle styles in Red Johnson’s Chronicles. How do you approach creating them during the design process?
Djamil Kemal: We really wanted the puzzles to be totally integrated into the adventure. For example, we loved the Professor Layton series, but we wanted to approach it in a different way and for the puzzles to be very much part of the adventure itself.
So we had two teams, one working on the scenario and one on the puzzles, and then we would mix the teams and for each situation we would ask them to find something that would drive the game’s plot forwards.
Strategy Informer: Adventure games became almost infamous in the late ‘90s for the difficulty and obscure logic of some of their puzzles. How hard is it to get that difficulty level right?
Djamil Kemal: It is really, really hard. That’s one of the key points we had to work on. It was important for us to create a logical universe. In the game all the puzzles are based on elements that you are used to interacting with in everyday life. So, if you find a tape recorder, you know how the buttons work and how to use them. As the game is not in a fantasy setting, it’s easier for the player to work out a solution.
But we still found that for any given puzzle, some players will find it way to easy while others will just find it too hard. It’s impossible to find a fully balanced solution, so what we worked on a lot was the help system. There was a puzzle that I actually asked be removed from the game, because I thought it was impossible, and then it turned out from the 50 people who play-tested the game I was the only one who couldn’t actually complete it.
Strategy Informer: The help system does take quite a different approach, whereby you don’t just buy hints but you get them from Red’s sidekick Saul...
Djamil Kemal: Totally. It’s a game in the end, which is why we have a ranking system at the end of each puzzle, but we didn’t want to have a help system that was just some form of interface, so it was important to have the hints come from someone who was also part of the scenario, interacting with you and helping you move on in the adventure.
Strategy Informer: From a design point of view, what sort of different interface approaches do you have to take for an adventure game played with a controller over a mouse and keyboard?
Djamil Kemal: Well, you can scan and select within a 2D environment in a similar way to using a mouse, but with a 3D object what do you want to do in a game about investigation? You want to be able to look all around it, so having analog sticks drove those puzzles that are based on examining all the angles of an object, and designing for a controller thus has a big impact on the way we approached the puzzles themselves.
Strategy Informer: There’s a PC version of Red Johnson’s Chronicles in the works. Will you then be looking to change the way the player interacts with the game for that platform?
Djamil Kemal: To be totally honest, the PC version is a port. We are currently looking at whether we have to change the interface or not, but the easiest and fastest solution will be for the game to keep the same puzzles but manipulated by the mouse. It’s something we are currently taking into consideration, but haven’t taken a firm decision on yet.
Strategy Informer: Lexis Numerique has previously released games on WiiWare. With the launch of the Wii U on the horizon, is the second screen in its controller something that interests you as adventure game designers?
Djamil Kemal: In theory, yes, but to be totally honest it is really hard to work on a Nintendo platform. Not because of technical reasons but we feel that Nintendo just doesn’t push its WiiWare and other digital games. They do blockbuster-style games like in previous eras, but if you look at what is happening with WiiWare at the moment for instance, there no proper marketplace, making it really hard to check out the latest releases.
For us as developers, we need to know that the company releasing a new system are going to push digital games heavily, and what we have seen with WiiWare doesn’t make us think Nintendo will.
Strategy Informer: The adventure game’s popularity seems to be undergoing a renaissance, with several high-profile Kickstarter-funded games in the works. Is that approach to getting a game made something Lexis Numerique are looking into?
Djamil Kemal: Yes, it’s something that we are currently considering. We’re really amazed with the way that some of the guys from the old-school of adventure development are using Kickstarter, so it’s definitely something we are considering heavily.