Earlier today I got to write a preview piece on the upcoming adventure game Stone. However, I also got a chance to talk with Greg Louden, who is taking the role of writer, director, and programmer for the game. He gave me some insight into Stone's development, as well as his favorite movies, what exactly "stoner noir" is, and the joys of Australian slang.
TechRaptor: Well I guess we can start the easiest way. Stone. How did that start, how did that come about?
Greg Louden: Good question. So basically it's the debut of this new company, Convict Games, and the goal of Convict Games, of which I am the founder and I wrote, directed, and programed on Stone, the plan was to create high impact and alternative story games. The other thing with Convict is that we're an Australian company. I'm chatting with you from Helsinki, but the company is founded in Australia. And yeah, basically we knew we wanted to do a high impact story and something that was alternative, we knew we were an Australian company so it was natural for us to want to tell an Australian story, and them myself, like, I know a lot of others that love stoner noir, the genre, but I'm also a huge fan of hip-hop so, uh... I kind of decided it'd be amazing to have not just a game with another dude, but like a game with The Dude or a similar character. So I love The Big Lebowski and from there blended in some Inherent Vice and some other different games that I love, like Grim Fandango and I loved Firewatch as well. So from there we just created this new type of game, this game that I've been really wanting to play that hasn't existed, this hip-hop stoner noir as you put it.
So yeah, that's kind of the genesis of Stone in that sense, and then in terms of the visual style and the story and all those things, I think for me stoner noir is much... it's a romance, it's a comedy, so I also knew that I wanted to make the game that makes you laugh, and to kind of challenge you. Stoner noir and noir in general is also quite dark, so I think Stone is a game-- we're not afraid to go into darker territories as well, but yeah. That's kind of the genesis of it all.
The art style, and the fact that it's anthropomorphic, that came from two things. I think number one was that I think it's a great metaphor, as you can have I think a bigger impact because people aren't impeded by the fact that it's just people in there. The second thing was that in games we need to model and animate and create everything, so why are we always modeling and creating, like... what we are now? Why don't we create and model more interesting and kind of unique worlds. That was something the team and I at Convict Games took into account, I found this brilliant concept artist and visual director, from Moscow actually, this amazing Russian artist who does this really gritty and urban style. I told him the idea of doing an Ozzie stoner noir. He was super excited because he liked The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice as well. Then I told him it has to be a koala and he kind of freaked out, but we managed to make something really really cool. So yeah, that's the longer answer to your question, but hopefully it helps you understand the genesis of Convict Games, Stone, and why there's a koala.
TechRaptor: While I was playing Stone, the small demo, there's a ton of licensed music. Well, I think in the demo there was like five or six songs, but you said there's more.
Greg: Oh yeah.
TechRaptor: How do you go about getting all that?
Greg: Yeah so that's a big scene I knew from the outset as well. We're a really small team where everyone is working remotely. I'm in Helsinki, Ivan is in Moscow, our animation is from Melbourne. Our musicians are the same. I essentially just found really cool up and coming music that I liked, and I contacted these great musicians and said "hey would you like to be involved in a game?" We obviously negotiated and set everything up and, essentially, I just got this huge collection of different genres. So Echo, that was the techno club you were in, that's a really cool Finnish DJ named Ilkka S, the music in the trailer that I think you saw, and also in the game a couple times, that's Ryan Little, who's like a North Carolina based hip-hop producer that I found. Its just been me finding music that I really liked then just being brave enough to reach out to these musicians and saying "hey do you want to be in this Ozzie stoner noir game?" I've been really lucky and really humbled by that everyone is just like "heck yeah let's do it, this is fucking cool." So its been really great and its complicated, its a lot more work, but I think it adds so much personality to the game. It's not just hip-hop and techno, we also have house music that you heard, that's one of my friends, we also have some stoner rock, which is a bit of a U-turn in the game for players but its really really cool. So yeah, a lot of research, some connections, and a lot of friends that are musicians that are willing to collaborate.
TechRaptor: You've called this stoner noir a couple times now. I'm going to be honest, I have not heard the term stoner noir before. So can you give me a quick run down on that?
Greg: Yeah. So a stoner noir is essentially a modern twist on film noir. So film noir started with films like The Big Sleep and Long Goodbye and all these sort of classic detective noir stories. In those detective noir stories usually the detective smokes, he drinks, of course it can be she as well, and they're just characters in general. In recent times, particularly in the 90s, actually 20 years on now The Big Lebowski came out and that was a big twist where they actually removed the detective and just put in a stoner, or kind of a slacker, who essentially goes on this journey without really knowing what's happening. It also kind of continued in novels. So some of the references of people like Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which was also a film. So essentially it's this genre where you take the traditional detective tale, and then you twist it to contemporary times. For me as a story teller I found that a lot of this stoner noire was always traditionally rock based and it had throwbacks to the 70s, but myself, I wanted to bring it to now. So if The Big Lebowski is like listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival in 70s music, hip-hop stoner noir they're listening to trap music, they're listening to like "brick in a washing machine" techno. So it's kind of like this side genre of noir. Does that answer your question? Did that make sense? It's kind of like an off-beat genre where it's pretty much a detective, but the detective is a slacker who likes to drink and other things as well.
TechRaptor: That made perfect sense to me.
Greg: Okay, cool. So you have a lot of cool movies to watch if you haven't seen The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice or all these other ones.
TechRaptor: I have seen The Big Lebowski at least. So there's that. What other movies though? You've mentioned Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, is there anything else that really influenced the game?
Greg: Yeah, I think a lot of different cinema. As we've kinda chatted, there's even a lot of classic films in there that I've kind of selected and chosen that have been public domain, so they're essentially just waiting to be used and... yeah! In terms of other films, I really liked The Long Goodbye... I think comedies in general, like even The Hangover. It's probably a bit of a twist for you but The Hangover... essentially Stone wakes up with a hangover, Stone waking up on his phone, and the camera is zooming in slowly. You can kind of feel the migraine in his head. So I think even stuff like The Hangover has been influential. There's a few other films that have been influences, but I don't want to say because that'd be a spoiler. So yeah, but I think those are the ones off the top of my head. When you play through the full story I think you'll find a few more influences. Even movies like Friday, the classic Ice Cube hip-hop sort of film, thats been influential. A lot of books, like I really love reading and I love writing, so I really wanted to take some of those writings that I see in books and these really memorable lines that make you laugh and you want to read them again. Stuff like that has been really inspiring to me as well. Last but not least, Tarantino. So I think Coen Brothers, Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson. These three kind of classic American film makers, but I wanted to do the Ozzey twist. They wouldn't know what I know I guess.
TechRaptor: Now you mentioned the movies that you pulled out of public domain. When I was playing the demo you can literally sit down and watch TV or watch a movie. How much work goes into that?
Greg: Yeah, so there was some research. It's pretty easy online to find a lot of these materials, and I think a lot of them... I kind of discovered back when I was in high school. I used to watch all these old detective films and stuff like that, and just these film classics that, once they reach a certain period of time they're open to use, the copyright has essentially moved on. So there has been some research to double check that they are truly public domain, but otherwise it's more a case of just of choosing and curating. Another thing you haven't seen is that Stone starts very... like, it jumps from location to location, but at the beginning of act 2 you essentially have the old town map, which is like the suburb you're in, and you can chose to go to the cinema. You can just watch a movie in the cinema as well, or you can watch movies at home. So there's more than just the TV there as well, which is pretty fun. But yeah! Some research, curation... I love movies as much as I love games and music so it was just a case of watching the films and deciding if they had like a resonance and connection to Stone. I think all of the films do in their own different way, and there's... yeah, five of them at this point.
TechRaptor: So does that mean you're the person who sits down in The Darkness and watches the entity of, what was it, Casablanca that I think they played in that game?
Greg: [Laughter]. Yeah, well, I love Casablanca, I watch all different movies. But yeah, in this case, I knew a lot of them already. So it was more a case of being if I haven't seen this film or even-- [unfortunately, the connection cut here for a few seconds, causing Greg's words to become garbled and I'm unable to transcribe it accurately. I believe he was saying how he picked movies that fit in with the noir genre]. What I liked is great stores that have great worlds that you dive in and just learn so many different things. I'm hoping Stone offers that to a lot of players as well, that they find new movies they haven't seen before, that they find new music to listen to, read different things, learn different slang, and all these other little things.
TechRaptor: And speaking of learning things, I learned a lot of Aussie slang in this so far.
Greg: That's just the beginning, it gets deeper!
TechRaptor: Oh no.
TechRaptor: How much Aussie slang am I going to be learning in this game?
Greg: Well the good news is that there is going to be a glossary in the extras, of the key terms so you can essentially read and find them. But there's not, like... For me I saw Mad Max with some friends here in Helsinki and it was hilarious because there's a lot of words in Fury Road that are just Australian slang but people didn't know, and they assumed it was like... sci-fi apocalypse sort of dialogue. I think a lot of the time you just get it. Like when Stone says "yonk" you're like "oh, that's years." It's just, um... yeah. I love it when I see a film and I just learn about different things, so yeah. You'll learn some and I think you'll, hopefully, you can use some in your own vernacular and have fun and show them to your friends.
TechRaptor: I am going to make it my goal to use "yonks" in completely unrelated things now, so thanks for that one.
Greg: [Laughter]. Good!
TechRaptor: My editor is going to kill me, but it's happening.
Greg: It's going to take yonks to do that.
TechRaptor: Jeez, uh... When I was playing the demo there was... When you got between parts it said "act whatever, chapter whatever". Is this going to be an episodic game, or do you get everything in one go?
Greg: You get everything in one go. So the game is roughly six acts, and everything is going to be there from the beginning. It's told in chapters because, I think, it's a natural point where obviously if you want a break you can pop out. But the second thing is that is just adds a transition and a narrative punch to it all, and it's also a chance to kind of use a few more words to set the scene. Like, [act 2]. Before you even get in the scene Cockie's like "get out Stone". You already get the vibe and, uh, obviously Alex would rave so it's a... It's a story telling mechanism, but yeah, you get everything out of the gate. The whole game will be there and, yeah. Everyone is going to jump in and I think the story is going to surprise a few people, but that's a great thing. Its got some really nice messages.
TechRaptor: Cool. Speaking of these chapters, acts, and all that. The transition screens, the title screen, they're like bright highlighter pink. I actually kind of enjoyed that, like I think it's hilarious. So to bounce off that, what's the goal with the art design even just outside the characters, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to transition screens?
Greg: Sure, yeah. I think it comes down to how modern in a sense, different. I loved pink, I think ever since The Sex Pistols cover. It just kind of pops and it feels very punk and rock 'n' roll. When we were defining Stone as a character one of our artists gave Stone pink flip flops, we call them thongs, but flip flops in the US. As soon as we saw that we were like "this is really bold and really cool" and it feels very different to other games. 'Cause I think other games can be afraid to use the color were as we're just going to embrace it.
The second thing with the visual design is, traditionally in games subtitles can be really hard to read. They're usually very small and sometimes they're off sync and there's too much text. That was just something for me, as I realized that there was going to be a lot of slang and there was going to be the sort of writing that I want people to be able to see the word. So in the bar there's "shamus." A shamus is an old old old term for a detective. It's kind of... It's like a joke in film noir films, and even The Big Lebowski has that joke. So I've kind of taken it over. It was important to me that the subtitles would be clear. Once we knew that and once we knew Stone wears pink flip flops and so on, it was natural that it became pink.
The production design, like the actual concept art with Ivan, the goal was to make it alternative and very cool. So a lot of the characters have tattoos, the production designers are making a lot of story telling. So every item in the flat, the drum machine, the TV, the cigarettes, the bottles, the couch, where it is, why is it there, like we really thought about all these details and how it'll communicate the story.
A lot of the time you progress, I like to just put the audience in situations. Like you don't even know who Cockie is, and she's already angry at you because of something you did in the past. You'll find that out when you play the game. It's stuff like that. It's so important that the art and the story and the world all connect so the audience just get it instantly when they're there. They're like "Okay. Stone is a bit of a rough guy, but you can tell he likes this sort of thing. He's also with that artist, Alex." So yeah. I guess that's a brief summary for you, but the art style and the boldness of it all is there from the beginning. We just want it to be high impact, be provocative, be fun.
TechRaptor: Speaking of the subtitles, sometimes I'm given the choice, like do I want to be the "soft detective" or the "hard detective." Will this lead to different situations in the game or will it basically be one story straight through?
Greg: It's one story straight through, but you do effect the journey. So it was very important that we had a message that we could try to get in, but along the way you can twist a conversation. It's important in story games that you have some interaction. So rather than just being talked to all the time I really wanted you as the player to kind of interact and you can test Stone and see how he adjusts to situations. I don't want to give the full sentence, I want it to kind of surprise you. So you didn't expect him to say that and that sort of thing. So yeah, there's one straight story, but you can really flavor it. With Cockie in particular, she remembers what you said. You were being a hard ass to her, so at the end she said "fuck you Stone." If you did soft touch she's like "Okay, yeah, next time Stone." So she's a bit softer, and when you go back to the bar, as soon as you walk in she'll be like, if you were angry, "oh God it's you again." Whereas if you're nice she's like "oh mister polite, welcome back." So there's that sort of experience, but the overall beginning and end is the same. It's not a choose your own adventure, it's an adventure you can flavor I guess is a way of putting it.
TechRaptor: Awesome. So Stone. What is it coming to? What consoles and-- obviously going to PC...
Greg: PC and Mac
TechRaptor: And a release date?
Greg: Coming out this Autumn, this fall. Yeah that's been the plan with us. Where it's traditional to, like, there's a game you're really excited for and you wait a long time. For us, we'll be out pretty soon.
TechRaptor: Awesome. Well, I'm glad I don't have to wait long then. Alright, well thank you for giving me a look at Stone, I'm really glad I got to see it.
Greg: Thanks so much Sam.
TechRaptor: No problem. Thank you for talking too.
Greg: Yeah, of course, its been my pleasure, and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it and you had a few laughs. That's always the best thing I think. It's a hard thing to pull off, comedy games, but its always nice when you get a few laughs because I think too many games are too serious.
TechRaptor: Well, I agree with you there.
We'd like to thank Greg for taking the time out of his day for this interview.