Back in 2007, Cambridge-based developer Ninja Theory was inadvertently forced onto a pedestal as one of the studios championing the PS3, with their ambitious exclusive, Heavenly Sword. Three years later, they’ve had plenty of time to reflect on their pursuits as they go multi-platform for the first time.
Their latest project, Enslaved, continues their principle of engaging players through meaningful storytelling and characters, thanks, in part, to some humbling-input from screenwriter Alex Garland. Following his session at Develop 2010, we sat down with creative director and co-founder, Tameem Antoniades, to talk about media influences, drama in games and why game developers aren’t recognised in the same way as other creatives.
Heavenly Sword received mixed reactions from press and consumers. What was most overlooked about the game?
Tameem Antoniades: At the time when we did Heavenly Sword, we were one of the first studios to tackle next gen, so I think we actually achieved a lot of landmarks in that game, like the lighting system, we could do close-ups of facial performances. That was the first time performance capture had ever been done in a video game, and I think it was the first time in the world it had been done with multiple actors at the same time, in games or movies. James Cameron was actually on set when we did that, and [Weta Digital] used King Bohan as an example of what they could do because they were pitching to him for Avatar. So, technically, there were some real breakthroughs that were made, and some aspects of the game maybe didn’t live up to those breakthroughs. It’s a shame that, in my opinion, character actors and facial performance still hasn’t reached that level that we achieved back then across all games.
Sony owns the IP for the game, but if given the opportunity to make a Heavenly Sword sequel would you take it?
TA: I don’t know. I would say “never say, never,” but we’ve kind of moved on now.
You’ve previously worked on Xbox and then PS3, Enslaved is your first multiplatform title. How has this transition affected the studio?
TA: It’s been positive. It’s meant that we’ve focused more on the creative challenges of making the game, the story, the gameplay, rather than the technical changes of producing brand new tools for a brand new machine, and then trying to fit the game around that. So a totally different approach and we totally welcome it.
Enslaved is based on the ancient Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Why was this novel ripe to be adapted into a video game?
TA: I think there’s a reason that novel’s survived 400 years and continues to be adapted, it’s because of the characters. Monkey is a cool, antiestablishment, anarchic character and Tripitaka is totally the opposite. Forcing those two together, with a headband, on this perilous journey is just a good adventure.
There have already been many interpretations of this story, including an opera by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett and the 1980s TV series, Monkey. Have any of the previous interpretations influenced Enslaved?
TA: Yeah, I suppose so. My main reference is the TV series because that’s what I grow up with. So Tripitaka is a woman as far as I’m concerned – in the book it’s a man, and the guy’s name is Monkey, as opposed to Sun Wukong. So to me he’s always been Monkey, that’s his name, not the Chinese name. In that regard I wanted to make it look back to that TV series, introduce elements from the original book. And everyone seems to adapt it in different ways, so I felt free to do something totally different with it.
Enslaved appears to have a strong focus on puzzles and the co-operation between Monkey and Trip, similar to ICO or even Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom. Was this a conscious reaction to the literature?
TA: We wanted to make a buddy game before we decided to that Journey to the West was the wrapper for it, because Another World – one of our favourite games on the Amiga – had that relationship and you felt for a non-playable character. I wanted to do that again in a way.
Due to the reliance on co-op, have you had to spend more time on, and consider more carefully, Trip’s AI?
TA: Yes. When you’re doing a game where you’ve got to protect another character and you’ve got to work together, it stands or falls on the AI of that other character. So that is actually our primary focus in this sense, because you don’t want it to devolve into a frustrating escort mission. She has to do smart things, she’s not got to put herself in danger, she’s got to help you, and if you don’t have that right you’re done for.
Story and cinematography are given pride of place in your games. How have your storytelling techniques evolved since Heavenly Sword?
TA: We used to have cutscene characters and game characters, and our cutscenes were real-time, but they were rendered onto Blu-ray. Now we’ve got just one character for cutscenes and gameplay, so we can do close-ups and things during gameplay. The cutscenes are running in real-time and we can transition better between cutscenes and gameplay. And we use a lot of environmental cameras that are quite cinematically placed.
You’re also a believer that it’s the story that should drive the game, rather than the gameplay.
TA: I totally believe that. I’m not apologetic about that either. One of my favourite games is Resident Evil 4. When you finish that game and you start playing the challenges, stripped away from the context of the story, stripped away from the atmosphere, it’s just bare. It’s not fun anymore. Somehow, if you can get the story and gameplay right, they both elevate each other.
We got the sense from your talk that Alex Garland has radically shifted your game design philosophy.
TA: Alex has changes the way I look at games and he’s changed the way everyone that’s worked with him has looked at games. It’s not about cutscenes, it’s about drama. It’s about how you introduce tense, drama, atmosphere, moment by moment while you’re playing a game. That the rules of drama apply within gameplay, which is something we didn’t do in Heavenly Sword. But we very, very much focused on that with this game.
Garland worked on the script and you said he’s even worked on level designs. Do you have any background yourself in film or theatre?
TA: No, I don’t have any background. My background was a programmer, and then designer, and then creative director. I’ve not be exposed to the film side at all until we did Heavenly Sword and now Enslaved. I couldn’t ask for better teachers.
You also collaborate with Andy Serkis and Nitin Sawhney. How important is it for you to work with talents from outside the games industry?
TA: I think it’s more a case of working with the best talent you find in their field. And that’s what we strive to do. I think if you what to make something successful – and I don’t mean sales success, I mean successful as an experience – you need the best people you can. I can teach Alex Garland about games development and the intricacies of that. I can’t teach a game developer to write like Alex Garland. So that’s the approach.
Performance-capture has become a common practice in game development, helping to shape characters. What has performance-capture helped you to do in Enslaved that you could not do previously?
TA: What it help with Enslaved, having more experience, is to tell stories through the performance of the faces, so [players] can know what a character’s thinking regardless of what they’re saying. I think that brings a more sophisticated tool set for storytelling. It’s less patronising to players. We know how to read faces, so we don’t have to spell everything out. It just makes things better.
In today’s market, how much do audiences value a developer’s pedigree?
TA: I don’t think the majority of the audience give a toss about your ‘pedigree’, they care about the game. There’s maybe a small group of people. We’re not superstars, so we don’t have that big following. I think you get judged on the game that you make. You don’t get judged on the names that are associated with the game either, you get judged on whether the game works.
When will mainstream audiences begin to attribute the same cachet to game developers that is afforded to novelists, musicians and filmmakers?
TA: Probably not for a couple generations. There’s a technological barrier that’s difficult to see behind. When CG’s in films, people dismiss it as “the computer made it,” they still do. When they look at Avatar or Gollum in Lord of the Rings, [the creators and character actors] don’t win the awards, they don’t get appreciated, it’s the computers acting. And that perception is going to die when the people that make those judgements die, so it’s probably going to take a long time.
Actually, I think you get a lot of mutual respect from people who work in other mediums, like filmmakers. They really appreciate the effort that goes in. Other creatives really appreciate and the gaming generation appreciates it. But if you want to go for recognition, I don’t think games are the place.
We ask because people often mistake the publisher for making a game if only their logo is on the cover.
TA: I think that if a game is successful, then people will say “oh, it’s from the guys that made this…” I think that still holds weight.
You’ve worked with both Microsoft and Sony on original titles. How would you describe their treatment of independent developers?
TA: That’s really broad. I think it changes from developer to developer and I don’t think, because you’ve got different people working with each developer, there is a universal answer to that. But I think there’s a general trend for more collaboration and respect. I think in the old days, developers were [treated] like talent was in the old film industry where they just get totally shafted. I think that’s not the case anymore. At least, mostly not the case.
What’s it like being an independent studio in the current climate?
TA: It’s good. Happy to have the independence, happy to be creating cool stuff. You can’t ask for more. The kind of games we do are very high-end, so the barriers to entry are very high which means there’s not many people actually doing them. There’s enough demand for these kinds of games, so I think we should be OK.
Has it been harder for you to hired people, particularly graduates, or offer students work experience?
TA: I wouldn’t have thought so. We did an internship programme this year for animators. We got eight animators in, rented a house for them, paid their wages, got our leads to teach them, and they did amazingly well. We kept a few of them, and we want to expand that. So I think if you make an effort you will find the people you need. Half of our studio is from Europe and all over the world, and practically no one is from Cambridge, where we’re based. So I think you can draw talent from everywhere.
Enslaved arrives on PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 8, 2010.