Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil is one of the leading lights of the UK video game industry. During a visit to Bradford Animation Festival this week to deliver the opening talk, he spoke to Mark Butler about revisiting past classics, ambitious plans for new games, and how the self-publishing revolution saved his company from catastrophe.
Charles Cecil MBE, co-founder of Revolution Software and creator of the beloved Broken Sword series, is a fascinating man.
In private, he’ll unexpectedly dish up anecdotes about eating dinner with Al Pacino and playing tennis with Jonathan Ross (it transpires he’s on the board of the BFI). In public, his insights into his company’s iconic back catalogue, and views on the shifting nature of the games industry, provide a thoroughly engaging opening to this year’s Bradford Animation Festival.
He speaks of how Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired his first ever adventure game, coded on a Sinclair ZX81 back in the early ’80s. Given this Indiana Jones influence, perhaps it’s no surprise that he would go on to make globe-trotting thrillers revolving around ancient artifacts and mysterious secret orders.
He speaks enthusiastically about the virtues of 2D (“a very effective way of communicating graphics and gameplay to an audience”), gender depictions in gaming (“all of our games have always had strong women”) and the importance of gameplay above all else (“everything else has to support that – from the narrative to the graphics”).
It was the traditional point-and-click adventure that made Cecil’s name. There was Beneath A Steel Sky – a compelling cyberpunk collaboration with Dave Gibbons, the co-creator of Watchmen – and the million-selling Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars, an iconic hand-drawn thriller “born over a bottle of red wine”.
In recent years, the ability to self-publish to mobile platforms has revitalised Revolution’s fortunes as a developer, moving them away from the shattering legacy of an unfair publisher-dominated system to one where they are fully in control of their creative endeavours and distribution – a shift Cecil hails as “phenomenally liberating”.
Having successfully crowdfunded Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse via Kickstarter, with impressive sales and reviews following suit, the Revolution chief feels adamant that small and medium-sized developers now have the freedom to dictate their own path.
“The old-fashioned way is gone forever,” he says.
Sitting down with him shortly after his talk finishes, I’m keen to discuss both Revolution’s gaming legacy – and the firm’s plans moving forward.
Hi Charles. It’s the 25th anniversary of Revolution Software next year. Have you got anything special planned to mark the occasion?
“Is it really? Well…the answer is clearly no as you can probably tell! I honestly hadn’t thought about it.
“Since we finished work on Broken Sword 5 I have been thinking about the next game, however. I want to do something really intellectually interesting, as well as creating a great gameplay experience. I’ve been spending a long time thinking about it.
“I want to see us have a renaissance: new game ideas that tell a new story in an interesting way. Perhaps be a bit experimental.
“I do have a few ideas, but none are concrete enough to talk about just yet.”
There was talk of doing Beneath A Steel Sky 2 at some point – but that seemed to have been ruled out over the past year?
“Beneath A Steel Sky was very much of the time at which we wrote it – giving a poke at William Gibson and the cyberpunk genre. What we were trying to do was write a serious story that tapped into the ideas of cyberpunk, but slightly mocked it at the same time. A sequel would absolutely have to be of the contemporary age.
“One of the main reasons we haven’t done it is that Dave Gibbons would have to be a major part, and finding time for both us and him to be free is difficult. We’d love to do it at some point – but it’s not top of my priority list just now.”
Your classic games retain an enthusiastic following. Broken Sword 5 received almost double its Kickstarter target – and received huge support from numerous fans and journalists. What do you think is the enduring appeal of Broken Sword in particular?
“Let me tell you a story. When we finished Broken Sword 1, the senior management absolutely didn’t want to commission a second game, despite its success. They showed me this 3D game called Creature Shock, and said: ‘this is the future’. Perhaps those were wise words, because in the short term it is important to exploit technology and make the most of it. But in the long term you lose something.
“Those games were interesting at the time, but now they’re long forgotten. The classic look we went for, and the strong story, has far more longevity.”
As a 12-year-old boy whose only previous point-and-click game had been Monkey Island, I remember being bowled over by the thriller aspect, the polish of it, and how you could actually die pretty grisly deaths! Were you motivated to make a more ‘serious’ adventure game?
“In the late ’80s, the adventures that were particularly successful were produced by Sierra: games like King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry. But what happened was that they took themselves more and more seriously. Tim Schafer pointed out that he actually started designing games as a response to that.
“With our first game, the objective was to write a serious story, but have humour. We went down that route, and LucasArts went down the other – which was slapstick. It’s great to grab a monkey, squash him, and get a monkey wrench to use, but we like logic – and making puzzles that are relevant to the protagonist at that particular point in the story.”
You say that, but you weren’t averse to slightly baffling puzzles yourselves. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive you for that blasted goat…
“Ha ha ha! The reason the goat puzzle came into existence was that at that time a very vocal minority had mastered the language of adventure games very clearly, and would complain that games were too easy and could be raced through.
“Totally naively I put the goat puzzle in to stop those kinds of players completing it so fast. Obviously however, it also stopped mainstream players in their tracks.
“But then people remember! I was in a taxi in London a few years ago, and as London cabbies do, the driver turned round and said ‘so what do you do then?’ I told him I made video games – something that usually led to a deafening silence at that time – and he said ‘oh, I play games. You made any I’d have heard of?’ I told him I wouldn’t have, but upon being pressed I finally cracked and said ‘Broken Sword‘. He turned round and said: ‘Are you the bastard that wrote the goat puzzle then?!’ I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted, or proud.”
You managed to get Inspector Morse composer Barrington Pheloung to do the music for the game, which seemed a real coup at the time. How did that come about?
“Remember during the talk when I mentioned serendipity? Well, I used to play cricket with Barry! It was in the late ’80s. He used to call himself ‘the panther’, and fielded in the slips.
“I got back in touch with him a few years later and he came to York. He’d fallen in love with this girl who was obsessed with adventure games, and they’d just married. His wife Heather actually plays the games, notes down musical cues and then he composes. They work on them as a team.
“I wouldn’t have actually known anyone else to ask!”
One thing that really marked out Broken Sword as special was the story. You’ve spoken before about writing in video games, and how there are very few genuinely good video game narratives. Where do you think the industry is going wrong?
“What’s kind of interesting is that when EA were feeling very flush, they had huge sums to pay Steven Spielberg to come and write for them. But the big planned project was cancelled. Then there’s Peter Jackson with Halo of course, which came to a juddering halt.
“The received wisdom was that video game writers were incapable of coming up with great stories, so we’d have to turn to the film industry to get the right people. But what they failed to realise was the very real constraints of the medium.
“Firstly, there’s empathy. In film, you can wait a third of the story before having an ‘inciting incident‘. But in games, you need that to happen right at the beginning, or even before the game starts.
“Secondly, you have things like the relationship between the antagonist and protagonist. With a classic Star Wars movie, you spend a third of the time with the villain. The audience gasps at ‘Luke, I am your father’, because they have that relationship. In a game, when the villain is just some figure with a weird helmet you’ve seen glimpses of occasionally, the audience would laugh.
“Thirdly, there’s the use of privileged information: information the audience has that the protagonist doesn’t, or vice versa. In a horror film, the audience knows that the killer is in the house, but the characters don’t. That creates real dread. In a game, however, you can’t really have that – because then the player would act in a way that wouldn’t make any sense for the character at that moment.
“We have this extraordinary medium that’s interactive, and it throws up both opportunities and challenges. If you don’t understand these and how to handle them, you’ll never write a great video game story.”
Speaking of great stories, one of your PlayStation era games – In Cold Blood – is now something of a cult classic. Given what you’ve said both in your talk and in our conversation, I sense you may view it as something of an ambitious mis-step?
“So many people like that game. I actually looked at reinventing it for mobile – but unfortunately the assets were in a bad state. It had a really good story and the gameplay almost worked well. We had so much to consider at that time we were thinking of going back to it.”
Would you consider a remastered version now?
“What I want to do now is look both forward and back. It’s a wonderful thing as a small developer to go back to your back catalogue. We would have been bankrupt if we couldn’t have self-published to smartphones.
“Under the old model we would lose money while the publishers made millions. It was unsustainable. We were saved.
“What Kickstarter showed us was how many people are passionate about our games. Now we’re in a really good place again.”
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse is out now. Bradford Animation Festival continues until Sunday November 22. For more information, visit the official site.
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