Interview with Alan Thorn (Eng)

We are very proud to introduce the first in RuNet interview of Alan Thorn, professional game-programmer and creator of "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok" adventure game:

Alan ThornQuestTime:
It’s not hard to find out, that you are not only game developer and writer of professional books about game programming, but interested in mathematic. We'd like to know a little more about it. Do you teach mathematic?

Alan Thorn: Not exactly. I do not teach mathematics in any formal capacity, such as at University or a school. My contribution to mathematics education has been through my books, whenever I need to explain or discuss mathematical concepts that are relevant to games programming, subjects such as vectors, matrices, and algebra. I am happy to consider myself a life-long student of mathematics and ‘mathematical thinking’. One of the things that I love about mathematics is that it is both a very abstract and a very practical subject: learn the theory and then discover the potentially limitless ways in which that theory can be applied. Mathematics also requires us to confront complex problems by deconstructing them into smaller and more manageable units. This problem solving strategy lends itself very well to game development. For this reason, I have found mathematics and mathematical thinking to be a valuable tool when making video games.

Your development company is called Wax Lyrical Games. How did you think of that name, and why do wax and lyrics stand together in it?

Alan Thorn: The name ‘Wax Lyrical Games’ is based on the English phrase or idiom ‘Wax Lyrical’; a phrase that is not often used nowadays, at least not in my experience. To Wax lyrical about something means to ‘speak with energy or enthusiasm’ about it. Speaking is a form of expression, and thus the name ‘Wax Lyrical Games’ refers to a company that wishes to express itself and creativity with a passion through the medium of video games.

What do you think about modern adventure gaming industry? What interesting directions/ feature come out, and what kind of games do players like most (humor, horror, detective games), and what are the ins and outs of game development today?

Alan Thorn: That is an interesting and very broad set of questions that I cannot hope to answer here with anything like completeness. But I will do my best to give a brief answer to each separately.

What do I think about the modern adventure games industry? Varied is one word that I would use to describe it. In using that word I am referring to the many differences between gamers and their tastes, and in developers and publishers and their games. There are some developers who are especially vocal and confident with their opinions about the games industry: some have claimed that adventuring gaming is now undergoing some kind of revival and rebirth, and some have claimed that it is stagnating and fading. I do not make any of these claims because they rely on the idea that the adventure gaming industry is heading in one particular direction. I see that idea as a generalisation. The adventure games industry is a complexity made from many gamers, games, developers and publishers. And because of their great variety, there is not much that I can say about them together that is true, for each has his or her own direction. I work on this basis instead: I make the kinds of games that I would like to play myself, believing and knowing that there are many other people out there who also share my tastes or who might develop such tastes by trying out my games or similar games.

I can enjoy all kinds of genres: humour, horror, detective, sci-fi, fantasy etc. But what I personally enjoy most in adventure games is solitary-exploration, and I try to include this aspect in the adventures that I make. These are games in which the player finds themselves wandering alone and lost through abandoned or semi-abandoned worlds, filled with strange devices, doorways, and secret-passages. Success in these games depends not so much on the player’s ability to communicate with other characters (because there are none), nor on the ability to collect and combine many different objects, but on their ability to decipher, to explore and to escape from a world left to them by some previous civilisation or people. It is a formula that began perhaps with Myst, and was continued in some ways by others, including: Shivers, Lighthouse, Rhem, Schizm, Zork, Alida, and now by Baron Wittard.

Finally, on the ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’ of contemporary game development, I would say this: It can be a risky industry, like many industries, financially speaking for new game development studios. On the one hand, Rhem 4: The Golden Fragmentsit is easier than ever before for people to make their own games. Many engines are available for game development: from Wintermute and Unity, to Torque and the UDK. These tools can save developers a lot of work at varying costs. But on the other hand, this increase in the accessibility of game development also means that more game developers are competing for the attention and custom of gamers. This often means that a successful game developer must be prepared to be a lifelong student of game development: always willing to learn new things and new technologies and new ways to improve.

QuestTime: It goes without saying, that creating a mystique atmosphere in computer game is not easy. Especially in adventure games. To show in the game something mystique you need to balance between visualization and accompanying sounds and music. What is required to keep this balance correctly?

Alan Thorn:
Atmosphere can indeed be created by a combination of sounds, music and graphics, but I think it can also be created through a lack of them too. For example, an unseen and unknowable terror or force can often be more frightening than a tangible and clearly visible menace. Over-exposure to an evil creature during game play can quickly transform it from an evil menace into a banal and an almost ridiculous being. So, being careful not to over-compensate and not to over-use sounds and graphics can be just as critical an issue as deciding when to use them. I think the question of whether to ‘leave out a sound or graphic’ has an important bearing on the balance that must be created for horror games.

QuestTime: Tell us, please, a little more about your experience in game programming. Do you, in most cases, work alone on game projects, or somebody assistance you?

Alan Thorn:
I have been programming since around 15 years of age, and I have been working as a freelance game developer since 22. Throughout most of my freelance career I have worked alone rather than as part of a team, though I can enjoy both ways of working. The 13th Doll and Baron Wittard have been exceptions to working alone however: the 13th Doll is created by a large team of volunteers, and for Baron Wittard I worked in collaboration with one other developer and a friend, Marlies Maalderink. Marlies and I distributed the work for Baron Wittard between us: I worked on programming, sound effects, writing, designing and 50% of the graphic work. Marlies created 50% of the graphics, the game website, and she also co-designed the game and worked on some of the game scripting. Two musicians, Ran Kirlian and Mike Mcloone also created some musical scores for the game.

QuestTime: Which of the books you wrote on game development was the hardest one to write? Why?

Alan Thorn:
All of them presented their own specific challenges, but the book Cross Platform Game Development was especially challenging to plan and write. This was in part because it tackles the issue of game development on many different systems, namely Windows, Linux and Mac. It tackles not just the issue of how to create a game that runs on different platforms (a cross-platform game), but how to work on different platforms to create cross-platform games.

Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok. Inner GardenQuestTime: Why do you accent on mystical/horror adventure games (“Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok"; your participation in "The 13th Doll" project)? Have you ever thought of making detective or humorous games?

Alan Thorn:
Certainly, I have thought about it, and my next game will not be mystical/horror in style. I enjoy making games in the sci-fi/horror genre, but I now feel like a change. Not because I dislike the style, but because I want to try something different. My next game will represent a change in style from horror/thriller to a gentler sci-fi/exploration style.

QuestTime: What do you think about opinion, that style of “Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok” is a mix of “Myst-like” quests and horror-adventures? What other games do you like (means – games of other studios), and do you have any favorite inventory-based quests?

Alan Thorn:
I would agree that Baron Wittard is a mix or a blend of the Myst-style and Horror-style; it features some of the things that I love most about those styles of game: abandoned environments, logical puzzles, first-person perspective, and high-contrast graphics. I can and do however enjoy games outside of the Myst adventures too. I have enjoyed many different adventure games, including the Space Quest and Police Quest series, the Tex Murphy games, Realms of the Haunting, Normality, Bad Mojo, Rhem, Day of Tentacle and others. Day of the Tentacle features, perhaps, one of my most cherished inventory based puzzles (spoiler ahead). The scenario in which Lavern successfully warms a defrosted hamster using a jumper; a jumper that had been shrunk in a washing machine set in motion by her friend Bernard many years in the past.

QuestTime: What kind of puzzles/quest tasks do you like most (logical, combinatorial, plotline-based)?

Alan Thorn:
I prefer ‘object-manipulation’ puzzles: that is, the kinds of puzzles that involve the player having to work-out how a machine operates, or how a code can be deciphered, or how to lower a bridge or open a door, or how to power a generator. These puzzles are solved not typically by use of objects in an inventory or by conversation with other characters, but by scanning the environment for clues, and reading diagrams, or listening to messages and translating languages. In short, these puzzles are solved by gathering information and then trying to make sense of that information; trying to see how it can help you overcome your obstacle. Of course, preferring these puzzles does not mean that I dislike combinatorial or plot-based puzzles per se. I can and do enjoy such puzzles; but I have an especial fondness for the ‘object-manipulation’ style, and that is why those puzzles will continue to feature prominently in my games.

QuestTime: Mystique component of "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok" is based on Norse tribes' (Vikings and Normans) ancient folklore. What do you find most interesting in mythology of those people?

Alan Thorn:
Norse Mythology provides a fruitful ground for developing horror/thriller stories. It is full of bloodthirsty and vengeful creatures, as well as pensive and benevolent creatures. Two characters from Norse Mythology have a particular hold on my imagination, though I cannot entirely explain why: they are Fenrir and Loki. Loki was never used in Baron Wittard, but Fenrir is the game’s main antagonist. I might make use of Loki in a future game.

QuestTime: From documents and personal letters of baron Wittard it becomes clear that he is “hard to handle”, very complicated person. How would you yourself describe him?

Alan Thorn:
Baron Wittard is a hybrid character in that he is the fusion of two different people; or at least, he is the fusion of two people, as I imagine them to have been. The first is the famous Modernist architect Le Corbusier, who was often utopian in his books and writings on city planning. He imagined the ‘Radiant City’ in which the streets, houses, and pedestrian ways were very carefully regulated and arranged, just as the ‘Utopia’ of Baron Wittard represented his ordered vision.
The second person in Baron Wittard is the Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was neither an architect nor a thinker that is generally described as Utopian. But his philosophy of the ‘Superman’, of striving for greatness is something that Baron Wittard shared. Nietzsche’s photograph features in Wittard’s apartment, beside the chessboard on the table.

Is there any meaning from the mythology or/and cabbalism side to the signs, that must be found on the territory of “The Utopia” complex (to compile the code for a safe) in "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok" game?

Alan Thorn: Not as far as I know. I wanted to include a relationship like that in the symbols around the Utopia, but I decided against it. This was to avoid confusion, since many other symbols that appear in the game do have a relationship to Norse Mythology and Viking culture.

On the second floor, in “Viking’s museum”, everyone can find a strange paper with coded symbols (brackets and dots). Later – the similar code was used by a game publisher for a contest (concours) about the game. Is there any use of it during the gameplay?

Alan Thorn:
Ah, the secret code. There is a history behind that. I used that code at primary school. I shared the code among friends so that our communications could not easily be read and understood by parents or teachers. It felt exciting for us to do that, even though our communications rarely contained top-secret information. (Spoiler Alert) The Viking Museum contains a book whose first page features a message using that code. This message can be decoded by using the alphabet grid that appears outside the doorway of the Kid’s Kingdom. The message mentions the name of one of Baron Wittard’s relations, and thus it is a clue for the Family Tree safe puzzle in Wittard’s Study. Decoding the message however is not essential in that it is possible to complete the safe puzzle using some trial and error and on the basis of all the other clues in the game.

QuestTime: Lets imagine – what would protagonist of "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok" game see, if he would enter the portal after Fenrir?

Alan Thorn:
The portal is the Well of Hvergelmir and it leads to the realm of Asgard, one of the nine worlds of Norse Mythology. It is the home of the Gods and its ruler is Odin. I have never been to Asgard myself, but I suspect that human life could not exist there, at least not as it exists here. I suspect the protagonist could never travel beyond the portal and return; but I could be wrong about that. Maybe future games will show us more 

Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok. Wittard’s ApartmentsQuestTime: Did you use any images of real-life places while creating locations for "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok"?

Alan Thorn: Yes, almost all the locations in Baron Wittard are based on real photographs that we took of abandoned places, some in the Netherlands and some in the UK. Taking the photographs was a fun experience and an adventure in itself, and they proved important in helping us achieve realism in our graphics.

What game puzzles from "Baron Wittard: Nemesis of Ragnarok" you can categorize as hard tasks, and what game puzzles you can categorize as easy tasks? Are there any feedbacks from gamers on the horse chess movement puzzle?

Alan Thorn:
Ha Ha. I received a lot of feedback regarding the puzzle difficulty in Baron Wittard, and it seems that most reviews for the game are agreed with many gamers: Baron Wittard is a difficult game overall. During the creation of Baron Wittard, many gamers mailed me to express their hope that Baron Wittard would be difficult, and I did not want to disappoint them. I would classify the Chess Puzzle (In Wittard’s Apartment), the Amulet Puzzle (Final Puzzle), and the Coloured Windows Puzzle (In the Interior Garden) to be among the hardest in the game. I consider the easiest puzzles to be the Chocolates Puzzle (In the Second Floor Apartment), the Memory Puzzle (In the Observatory) and the Coin Exchange puzzle (In the security office).

Tell us a little more about the "The 13th Doll" project: about ideas, plot, process of creation and your participation, please?

Alan Thorn:
The 13th Doll is a volunteer-based effort to create an unofficial and non-commercial sequel to the 7th Guest series of adventure games. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to comment on the plot, story or design of the game, except that it will be faithful to the original games: it will feature the character of Henry Stauf, will be a first-person pre-rendered game, will be set in the original mansion, and will feature many brain-teaser puzzles. My contribution to the game was in the field of programming and graphics: I programmed a selection of puzzles and I was the main artist for the laboratory location on the first floor of the house. The 13th Doll was a fun project to work on and its development still continues though I am no longer an active member of the team. I wish the current team every success and I look forward to playing the completed game in the near future.

Have you ever faced with inexplicable, mystical phenomena in real life?

Alan Thorn:
No, I must admit that I have not. I know many people that do claim to have experienced supernatural phenomena, and I am interested to hear their experiences, but I have no first-hand experience.

What do you think about “the quest genre – is very conservative line of computer games”?

Alan Thorn:
By Quest Genre, I assume that you mean ‘Adventure Genre’. The question as to whether adventure games are conservative depends on the definition of ‘conservative’, I suppose. If Conservative is taken to mean: ‘lack of blood, gore, violence, bad language, and sexual content’ then perhaps many are, in comparison to some other games in other genres, such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Bioshock, and others. I see nothing wrong in that per se, depending on the game. There have been some adventures however that appear to have made some deliberate efforts to be gruesome or ‘non-conservative’; adventures such as: Harvester, Phantasmagoria and Bad Mojo. Overall, I really enjoy the adventure genre for its variety: for its potential to provide games for different people with many tastes and backgrounds.

Besides the participation in "The 13th Doll" – do you have any plans for creation adventure game?

Alan Thorn:
Yes, work at Wax Lyrical Games is already underway on an exciting new adventure game (not a horror, I promise). But the game is still in its early stages; so much so that I am not able to confirm many details at the moment. But it will be, perhaps as expected: first-person, solitary exploration and in the style of Myst.

What would you like to say and wish to quest-lovers?

Alan Thorn:
I would very much like to thank adventure gamers and quest-lovers for taking the time to read this interview and for their continued support of independent games and for their interest in my work. I am in regular contact with many gamers, and every day I receive messages from players of Baron Wittard who have comments to share with me about their gaming experience. Many are complementary, and some are critical. I take them all very seriously and use them to learn and continually improve. I hope gamers enjoy Baron Wittard, and I hope soon to unveil information on my next project. Until that time, I send quest-lovers my kind wishes. Happy gaming.

Thank you for the interview, Alan!
We wish you good luck and happiness, and will wait for your new game-projects!

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