Video games and literature have an interesting history together. There have been many stories adapted from their novel counterparts into playable experiences going so far back as MUD text adventures based on Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and point-and-click adventures based on titles like Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Even shooters and action games have seen their share of adaptation, such as Assassin’s Creed’s elements of medieval lore or the full adaptation of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 into various successful first-person shooters.
Now, in 2017, Daedalic Entertainment aims to make their own mark with a novel-inspired title in the form of Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel of the same name, written by Ken Follett. The game evokes a medieval world of harshness, violence, hopes, dreams, nature, and civilization as the characters of the Kingsbridge priory and village seek the means to live their lives among the events of 12th century England. GameWatcher caught up to Co-Writer and Creative Lead Matt Kempke, who was happy to talk about the challenges of taking on a novel-to-game adaptation, the reasons behind certain aspects of the game, and what he hopes to see out of the release of Pillars of the Earth.
GameWatcher: Daedalic is known for a variety of different story rich adventures. What drew the team to Ken Follett’s bestselling novel Pillars of the Earth?
Matt Kempke: As of recent, Daedalic Entertainment reached a partnership with a German Publishing company known as Bastei Lübbe. They hold a lot of rights for a lot of good books and have a special relationship with Ken Follett. You see, Follett originally had a hard time finding publishers for Pillars of the Earth because it was a medieval drama and he was known for thrillers at the time. Bastei Lübbe was the one that put their faith in Follett and his work. They published it first. Flash forward, the boss at Bastei Lübbe and our boss were looking at what sort of story-driven thing we could approach together. At Daedalic, we were already into Pillars of the Earth because it is a very rich novel in its character-driven and world-building aspects, so when we realized that we had the opportunity to work with Ken Follett on a Pillars of the Earth adventure game, it was very exciting for us. It presented a big and new challenge because it’s as epic as A Game of Thrones, but without the magic and dragons – it’s a tale that spans about three or four decades. Follett was into the idea too, so we’ve all come together on this and we’re all pretty excited about it.
GameWatcher: So where does this game pick up the reins of the original Pillars of the Earth lore? Do we need to have read Follett’s novel in order to jump in here and understand it fully?
Kempke: No, that’s not necessary. I think of it a bit like The Lord of the Rings. I myself saw the movies without having read the books. My friends who had read the books told me they got so much out of the films because they already knew the books. They knew where the films hinted at things that were explained in much more details in Tolkien’s novels and they felt more engaged, but I enjoyed them too for what I saw. I would say that what we’re doing with Pillars of the Earth is similar. Of course, as a game, there’s another huge difference. We start at almost the same point as the novel and go through the characters’ story arcs, but we’re doing it in an interactive way, so there were things we had to change or add some things to give the players a place to play in and make decisions.
GameWatcher: There are a great many characters in Follett’s novel, quite a few of which serve big parts. The game follows Jack, Aliena, and Phillip in particular. Of course, Jack, Aliena, and Phillip play big roles, but how did you decide to focus in for the player’s role on these three characters among the many?
Kempke: After we read the book, we started making a list of possible playable characters. It would have possible, and definitely easier, to focus on one character, but we wanted to translate a theme of fates intertwining from the novel. You’ve got these three characters – Jack, Aliena, and Phillip – and also another major character, Tom Builder, and they start out at very different places. You might wonder how their storylines will connect and how they’ll end up in the same place at the end. For that to work, we needed multiple playable protagonists and those particular characters provided a deep tapestry of plot points to work with towards that objective of translation.
GameWatcher: As a video game, there are ways to play with the lore a bit. As you mentioned, there are certain points of this particular journey where paths can deviate from exactly how they happened in the book, which brings up the question, how faithful did you need to be to the source? Can we go far off track or does this game follow the book pretty faithfully for the main beats?
Kempke: It follows the novel to a certain extent. The ending in particular was a point of interest for us. The novel arguably has three different climaxes, which is hard to handle for something like this. So we played with it and reworked it a bit. There are also points we had to manipulate that deal with character motivation. Once the player starts moving around the game world, we have a goal to ensure that they feel invested in the things that will happen. In the end, it’s fashioned in a way that’s build towards creating emotions and responsibility. For instance, at a certain point Phillip might be responsible for a thing that affects Aliena negatively. The realization of that will weigh on the characters and we want it to weigh on the player too. It works in other ways as well. Anyone who has read the novel will probably remember the death of a pretty important character near the middle of the book. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that with the interactivity and consequences we’ve given to the player and their choices, there might be a way to save that character. The basic set-up is the same as the novel. All the classic plot points will be there, but the more you move into the game, the more complex it gets.
GameWatcher: Tell me a little bit about where the game aspect comes in for Pillars of the Earth. Is this a point-and-click? Are we talking similar to previous Daedalic adventure game styles or is there something that sets Pillars of the Earth apart gameplay-wise?
Kempke: In some ways it’s classic and other ways it’s completely different. We’re using the same engine from previous games and the same art team is working on this project as well. One thing you won’t find here is classic puzzles in the traditional Daedalic sense. You won’t be trying to use all your items to figure out how to fill the hole in the bucket. Instead, we come up with difficult situations to which the player must respond. Once you know a problem, it’s on you to go around, gather information, understand people around you, and gain knowledge of their possible connection to the problems. Once you have that understanding, you can start to solve the situation. It’s a bit like the Telltale-style of progression, but with more exploration involved.
GameWatcher: Can you speak to the art and visual directions of the game. Obviously you only had descriptions to work with through the original novel. How did the team go about giving shape and color to the world Follett describes in his novel?
Kempke: Some of our artists, like Lead Character Designer Simone Grünewald, have been working with Daedalic for many years. When they sat down to come up with the visual style of Pillars of the Earth, the biggest challenge was to make it animation-friendly, serious, and create a style, especially for the backgrounds that looked less cartoonish or childish than some of our previous projects. We needed to develop a visual style that could properly convey and transport the emotions we’re trying make the player feel. You don’t have dragons or magic here, so what do you have? In my opinion, you have a world that is pretty much developed through nature, so nature plays a big role in our style. We looked to classic paintings a lot to inspire the style. They are things that go in a romantic direction sometimes, but also instill a sense of bleakness because that is another thing that’s strongly connected with the Middle Ages. We start at the backgrounds and build this world around that idea and then fill that world with characters that fit with the background’s theme and are easy to animate. One of the directions we went with was to eliminate character outlines because we felt they added a cartoon air to the characters. We balanced it by giving them floating elements and detail that added life and conversely added depth and panic when violence happens and they bleed.
GameWatcher: This game is to be broken into 3 different major installations, each featuring eight chapters of the story. What influenced the decision to break it apart as opposed to bringing the whole story together in one place?
Kempke: Almost entirely that it is so huge. This is not something that’s going to be so easy for me to say again: This is, by far, Daedalic’s biggest game. Each of the three parts are as big as the first Deponia game, if not bigger. The puzzles have been reduced in a way that makes it more accessible and it might not have as much overall playtime as a classic Daedalic game. However, from a production value standpoint, speaking to art, animations, and music, our version of Pillars of the Earth is easily about three times as rich as any classic Daedalic game. In the end, we wanted to break up that process into parts, not only so we could have a bit more of a cushion in time and production as we worked through the series, but so players could get in and play along as early as possible.
GameWatcher: It feels like this is a rare thing; the adventure game based so directly upon a novel. One must wonder, when Pillars of the Earth is finished and released, will you continue this style of game? If you could, is there another novel you would enjoy extrapolating into a video game world like this one?
Kempke: There are so many other novels I would personally love to adapt and to make into a game. It’s a complex creative process where we find ourselves analyzing why we fell in love for the source material and then attempt to recapture and recreate that soul. We would definitely like to do something like this again. We are in love with storytelling games. We’ve been doing these adventure games for such a long time and we always aim to improve upon them. My co-author Kevin Mentz and I are almost always thinking forward to how we can do the next big thing better and more interesting. Pillars of the Earth feels like the next big evolutionary step for the Daedalic team and particularly for Mentz and me in how we put a game’s story, puzzles, and progression together. That that evolution gets to use a story as fantastic and well-known as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth as the basis is all the more exciting. It is my hope that this can lead us to other great novels that we might be able to expand upon and translate in a successful point-and-click type of game and adventure.
Pillars of the Earth aims to be a direct adaptation from novel to point-and-click adventure in a manner we have not seen in a long, long time. Even further, Matt Kempke and Daedalic seem ready to prove that they can bring a value to this kind of game that stands above much of their back catalog. Lofty goals indeed, but their take on Pillars of the Earth is striking nonetheless. It would seem that a gorgeous and powerful journey awaits players no matter what when the first installment arrives, slated for August 2017 at this time.
To find out more about the Pillars of the Earth game, check out its Steam page.
To get the latest news on Pillars of the Earth and follow its development, be sure to follow Daedalic Entertainment on Twitter and Facebook.