With the exception of Telltale's The Walking Dead, I've never played a point and click game. So when I had multiple fellow writers at TechRaptor express their interest in Shardlight, I knew that it was something worth checking out at Playcrafting's Fall Expo.
Unfortunately, I just wasn't able to find the developers at the expo. And I was really disappointed, too, because the trailer showed what looked like a really compelling story to me.
Thankfully, Francisco Gonzalez graciously agreed to do an interview over Skype and I was able to find out about Shardlight. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic games (or as Francisco likes to call it, a post-cataclysmic game), and so it had me hooked on that concept alone. Here's my interview with Francisco about his upcoming title.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_ciFhL-KnQ
TechRaptor: [Shardlight was one of the games that a lot of people at TechRaptor were interested in. I'm sorry I wasn't able to make it to your table at Playcrafting's Fall Expo.]
Francisco Gonzalez: It's okay. There was a ton of people. I left that expo feeling incredibly overwhelmed and tired. That was my first presentation in any way, shape, or form. Well, not just of the game but just of an expo of that magnitude. And then I ran off to another thing afterwards.
TR: I couldn't find [your setup]. I looked around, I looked for anything that said Shardlight, and for one reason or another nothing caught my eye.
FG: First of all, I just want to say thank you. I'm very humbled that you and your staff were interested in the game. That's really cool. It's very humbling and very nice to know that people are interested. And yeah, I actually- once I got there I was kinda kicking myself because I actually had a poster made which I have framed on my wall but long story short I had to get two versions because I screwed up the first version's measurements and it didn't fit in my frame. So I actually have a spare poster in a tube here that I - it occured to me too late that I should have brought it along and put it up on the wall. All these people had banners and stuff. The only bit of advertising - I was wearing a black t-shirt that said "Shardlight" on it.
TR: So, all I know about your game is [some] of our staff said [to] check it out. I'm getting a general post-apocalyptic kind of vibe. [Aside from] the stuff in the screenshots and the trailers I know nothing else. It seems to be sort of a point-and-click kind of game similar to the vibe of the old King's Quest [games] but set in a post-apocalyptic setting. Is that accurate?
FG: That is 100% accurate. It is a point and click. It is a two-click interface, in fact. It's left-click to interact and right-click to examine.
TR: No keyboard, nothing else?
FG: No keyboard, nothing else. Yeah.
TR: Is that done just because of the medium you're working with within point-and-click where that's really common? Was that done with the intent of you going to mobile for a touch interface or is the fact that would work really well with a touch interface just incidental?
FG: It's incidental. Wadjet Eye [Games] has ported their other games to mobile. Eventually Shardlight will be ported to mobile. I've been making point-and-click adventure games since about 2001. When I first started just as a hobbyist the program that I used [was] Adventure Game Studio. The default template is kind of that old Sierra Kings Quest style thing where you have different icons for look and walk and touch and all that stuff. In the course of making games I've just come to really like a more minimalist UI because... you kind of fall into the trap as a designer somettimes [where] you really want to have a lot of interactivity in your world because that's basically what makes or breaks an adventure game is how much you can interact with the world. And if you have a bunch of icons like "hand" for interact or whatever. How many adventure games actually let you talk to inanimate objects, right? So if you click on just a chair or something in a two click interface you can look at it and you get a description. I generally find that if you're not gonna do a genuine response for everything you'll pretty much get the character saying or the narrator saying something snarky like, "Why would you talk to an inanimate object?" or something. That constantly telling you, "No, no, no" when you're trying to explore - I think having more icons and more interactivity in that sense kind of takes away from that. I'm actually considering just going with a one-click interface for my next game but I haven't quite figured that out yet. And I'm sorry if that was a bit rambly [but] you touched a nerve of a design.
TR: That's fine. That's why I like to do spoken interviews because you may not have written that. What you talked about there is what you're passionate about. And apparently it's clicking stuff.
TR: Which makes sense 'cause you've been making adventure games for almost 15 years so I guess it's natural! Now when you say you're gonna try and go with a two-click system and context-sensitive stuff what immediately springs to mind for me is The Walking Dead Telltale game. Have you played that?
FG: Yes, I have.
TR: I'm one of those people [who really enjoys] diegetic interfaces. A diegetic interface would be something like the Metro series of games—you have stuff like an air filter and when you look at the [timer] for the air filter you actually look at your watch rather than something floating on the screen like a digital HUD. That's a diegetic interface. So, The Walking Dead game in sort of trying to do a diegetic interface thing they have the option to turn off the ability to have icons of what you can click on. But the problem they encountered—a good early example was at the beginning of the game when you have to get out of the handcuffs you would think naturally, "Well, I have to click on the keyholes [for the handcuffs]" but the actual [place you have to click] was in the middle of the chain for some reason. So the whole idea, "We'll turn it off and go for [a more] immersive experience," doesn't work when they do that really poorly. My [next question] would be if you're going for a minimalist interface—do you have a failsafe or something to respond to that potential challenge? You know, everybody has that, "How did I miss that? I've got to be a complete idiot," kind of thing.
FG: Right. Well, the thing you want to avoid - especially at making games at low resolution like we do - is pixel hunting 'cause no one likes pixel hunting. But yeah, when I talk about minimalist interface it's really more just like you don't wanna have a clutter of icons. The way I like to handle it is you have your mouse cursor and when you hover hotspots you get a little tooltip at the bottom saying what it is and that's how you know. It's not like you're just clicking blindly and hoping to find something. I like to make it very clear what it is you're looking at. A lot of games do this thing - especially mobile games, I've noticed - where if you hold down a button or something it will highlight all the hotspots in the room.
TR: That was gonna be my next question, are you gonna have something like that in the game?
FG: Uh, well, not on the PC version. I don't know if maybe in the mobile port they'll implement that. I like to make sure that everything is visible and everything is clickable. To me it seems like if you need to use that feature it's not well designed. Because it should be clear either through using colors or brighter colors or shining a light on something or somrething like that within the background to indicate what you can click and what's an interesting hotspot and all that stuff. I think that should be done at the design level.
TR: Ah, so like that classic thing that you would see in cartoons as a kid where a bush looks a little different—
TR: —and you know intuitively something's gonna pop out of a bush.
FG: That always bothered me so much watching cartoons. Not quite so blatant but yeah, something like that.
TR: I really like the design with the sort of like "muskateers" and stuff like that going on. I gather the blond woman in the red cloak - that's the main character, yeah?
FG: Yes. Amy Wellard. That's the Player Character.
TR: What's her general motivation?
FG: So the thing about Shardlight is that it's really hard to describe the story and not spoil the story but at the same time make it not sound really generic. There's tons of media that's like, "Oh, it's post-apocalyptic, yeah, whatever. Oh, oppressive government, we've heard that eight thousand times before." I like to think that there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in this game that will set it apart from your traditional post apocalyptic story. The basics I can tell you - and apologies if this sounds generic - I say [this game is] more post-cataclysmic because we're really only focusing on this one city where bombs have fallen. We don't really know about the rest of the world - if the rest of the world has been destroyed or anything. For [the] purposes of this game we're in this city that has been bombed, [it's] in ruins and there's also a plague that has started called Green Lung which is causing the majority of the population to die. The government has reforemd and they call themselves The Aristocracy. [They] dress in the manner of 17th century French Aristocrats. One of the interesting things that our artist did was if you notice the screenshots there's a lot of sort of brown and yellow and green in a lot of them.
FG: But he used blue very sparingly to sort of symbolize technology and the government. If you see blue stuff it usually either means it's one of those two things.
TR: Having just said that—because I have your [webpage] up now as we're talking—literally every instance of blue is like, "Oh, technology, technology, technology, technology."
FG: Yeah! But to go back to the description, there's a big class divide. There's the rich and there's the poor and Amy is one of the poor. One of the things that the government has set up for the poor is a vaccine loterry in which they take on jobs that are either dangerous or undesirable for the government in order to enter into the vaccine lottery and if their number [is] called they get a dose of vaccine against Green Lung which only lasts for a month. Basically that's the situation you find yourself in. Amy starts off [dying] of the plague and she's doing a vaccine lottery job [and] she sort of gets roped into a bigger, behind-the-scenes sort of thing and she discovers the government is concealing information from the public and other wacky hijinks ensue. [laughs]
TR: [Who was involved in making Shardlight]?
FG: Well, Ben [Chandler] and I actually came up with the idea back in about 2013 before either of us got hired on full time and I was working on the game that I released before this that Wadjet Eye published which is called A Golden Wake. That got published [October 2014] and around that time we had already kinda started working on Shardlight and we kinda figured it was just gonna be another published thing but then Dave [Gilbert] hired me as the full-time designer and now it's an in-house game.
TR: So they hired you and they just picked the project up wholesale?
FG: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. I had told Dave about it a while ago and he was very interested in it. It was more like rather than, "Oh, well, we'll publish it" it's gonna be like, "Well, okay, now you're gonna work for us and we'll just take Shardlight and [just] keep working on it and instead of publishing it we'll just put it out as a 100% Wadjet Eye game." But yeah, Ben and I kind of came up with the basic story and stuff. I did all the writing and the design and [most of the] programming. Ben did all the character art and animation and stuff. We have another guy Ivan [Ulyanov] who does the character portraits. He's worked on character portraits for several other Wadjet Eye titles. And then we have a musician, Nathaniel Chambers, who did the music for Primordia. He's doing the soundtrack for it.
TR: Now, I could be perceiving things wrong, but generally looking at your picture and looking at the main charcter I'm gonna guess you probably didn't base Amy Wellard on yourself.
TR: What inspired you to create the character? Girl, light hair, probably about as opposite of you as possible. Where did she spring forth from?
FG: Well ... I don't know. She just seemed like a good character for the world. And I mentioned A Golden Wake. That was a game where it was it like 1920's real estate agent. It was all very middle class, white guys all over the place. So I was like, "You know what, I wanna do something different. Let's go for something different, something interesting." I've never done a game with a female protagonist before. [It's] not like I sat down and said, "Okay, I definitely want to do a game with a female protagonist". It wasn't done out of a sense of like, pandering or anything like that. It just seemed like a natural, interesting thing to do. That's kind of just where it came from.
TR: So no specific person [is] your inspiration for it or anything like that. The idea popped into your head and you just kinda rolled with it?
FG: Pretty much, yeah. You basically subconsciously write yourself into every character anyway. Her look kind of evolved... it just happened. I pretty much designed most of the look of the characters before. I would do the little base sprites and then Ben would take them and paint over them and make them his own look. I kinda came up with the basic idea of what the people were dressed like so I figured, you know, she's wondering around the post-cataclysmic thing [and] it'd be cool for her to have a cape and a hood. We kind of just little by little went evolving and ended up settling on a red cloak.
TR: Aesthetics aside, is there a particular reason that she wears her cloak or is it a mark of her station for her job? Is it just [meant] to protect against the elements?
FG: Yeah, it's pretty much just protect against the elements. She puts up her hood and she puts on a mask whenever she goes [into] a dangerous area. She has this nice little animation of her taking it off and putting it back on to sort of denote where she feels safe and where she doesn't.
TR: So [how] she's wearing her cloak is an indication of whether or not an area is dangerous or not.
FG: Yeah, pretty much. Just a little bit of worldbuilding.
TR: The screenshots and the trailer [don't really have any pictures of menus or interfaces.] How minimalistic is your interface?
FG: We have a dropdown menu [where] if you move the mouse cursor to the top of the screen it drops down and that's basically where your inventory is kept. And then there's a big menu button and that's where you access the menu. You basically have the whole play area open the whole time.
TR: What inspired the name [Shardlight], and does it have anything to do with ... in one of the screenshots, there's [what looks like] a glowing plant for a chandelier. Are those related? What's going on with that?
FG: [laughs] Okay, do you want honest answer or do you want me to make something up that sounds good?
TR: Let's go with "make something up that sounds good" and we'll go from there.
FG: [laughs] Okay, well I'll explain to you the sort of science behind the shards real quick and then I'll tell you where the title came from. If you've noticed in the screenshots - especially in the main screenshot where Amy is kind of standing there in the wastes facing the camera and there's a big shard hanging in the foreground - the idea is that these are shards of uranium glass. Uranium glass is an actual thing and it glows with UV rays and so the idea is that with the bombs falling the atmosphere has kind of been depleted so the sun's UV rays come in a lot stronger which also is part of the reason that she puts on the hood when she's out in the more exposed areas. And so they don't have a lot of access to electricity so they use these shards to light things and that's their means of artificial light. The title just kind of came across because Ben had done some backgrounds and was like, "I don't know what to save this as. I'm just gonna call this folder 'Shardlight'," and I was like, "Okay, sure."
TR: [laughs] There's your name.
FG: The more and more we thought about it the more and more we thought, "That's actually a pretty cool title, so... we kept it."
I'd like to thank Francisco Gonzalez for taking the time to speak with me. Shardlight looks like it'll be a really interesting title on the thematic premise alone. Consider my interest piqued. If you're into point and click games (or just games with a good "the world has gone to hell" kind of story), then Shardlight may very well be the sort of game you want to look into.
The screenshot used to make the header and bottom bumper images were provided courtesy of Wadjet Eye Games.
What's your favorite point and click game? Do you enjoy post-apocalyptic (or post-cataclysmic) settings or are they not really your thing? Let us know in the comments below!