| ||And Then There Were None - Lee Sheldon and Scott Nixon interview
by Laura MacDonald - posted on September 26, 2005
"Ten little Sailor boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine."
What does that mean to you? If you scratch your head and say, "Uhmm� Agatha Christie?" you'd be right. And if a well-versed fan said, "Wait! That's wrong. Her book has ten little Indians!" they'd be right too. This particular line is from the first game ever based on Christie's novels, with a plot adapted from perhaps her most famous book, And Then There Were None.
The prospect of working with such an impressive license was enticing enough to attract Lee Sheldon, noted Hollywood writer-producer and game designer, to help create his first new adventure game in five years. And Scott Nixon, art director and game designer for AWE Games, pulled out all the stops for the chance to work on the game. What they faced was the challenge of designing an accessible game for Christie fans new to gaming, but still provide an engaging adventure for experienced players. For a glimpse into the process, Adventure Gamers went to the source and talked with both Lee Sheldon and Scott Nixon about this highly anticipated game. As for the sailors, we'll let Lee explain that new twist to this classic mystery tale.
LM: It's a real pleasure to meet with you both! Could you tell us your roles in the development of this game and some brief background info?
LS: My name is Lee Sheldon. I am the designer/writer for And Then There Were None. I had a career in Hollywood for a few years as a writer/producer and worked on shows like Star Trek Next Generation, Charlie's Angels, and Cagney & Lacey. I have been doing games for the last eleven years. I started out with Sanctuary Woods in Victoria, British Columbia. I did The Riddle of Master Lu there and have worked on 17 games since then. For the last five years or so I have been concentrating primarily on massively multiplayer worlds. Though I started out on adventure games, I haven't done one in a while. So it is nice to sort of get back to my roots. I have also written a book called Character Development & Storytelling for Games in an effort to get a few more people to be thinking about the kinds of things they "should" be thinking about as they create games.
SN: I'm Scott Nixon and I am the project director. I started doing games while I was still in my last year of high school. I worked for Capstone, which was a company based out of Miami. These games were license-based titles and Wolfenstein clones. After that I was with Microprose, where I worked with Civilization II. Then I went to n-space in Orlando and worked on PlayStation games like Danger Girl. In 2000, I got a call from James [Wheeler, president of AWE], who I worked with at Capstone and is also a good friend. He told me he was doing a start up and asked if I would be interested in coming down. I was and joined AWE that year. We came down here with only one project lined up and nothing set up after that, so it was pretty scary. But surprisingly, we have gotten a lot of work since then. We actually ended up turning away a lot of projects.
LM: What drew each of you to work on And Then There Were None?
LS: I have been reading Agatha Christie for years and have a number of her books in first edition. I have been a mystery writer most of my life, because whatever I've done, there has usually been some element of mystery. So when DreamCatcher approached me, it seemed like a pretty good fit. I was personally very interested in working on an adaptation of Agatha Christie and choosing which book we were going to do. I am happy that we stayed with this one.
SN: My mystery background started a little later. I really got into Agatha Christie back when David Suchet played Poirot on the A&E shows based on her books. She was my bridge into mystery writers for sure. Now I am into them incredibly, the classics and the contemporary stuff as well. This game came to my attention when our executive producer James Wheeler had gone to E3 or one of the other trade shows. When he came back, he casually mentioned that The Adventure Company was looking for a group to do And Then There Were None. I freaked out and totally lost it.
We had been working on kids' titles since our inception in 2000. So I thought it was a great opportunity to branch off and do an adult title and one that I had incredible interest in. When James brought it up, I am not so sure he thought it was something that anyone here would be interested in. But as it turned out, there were several people who were really excited about it. So we put together a demo in three days and sent it to The Adventure Company. We didn't even know it was going to be And Then There Were None; we just knew it was going to be an Agatha Christie title. Fortunately, they decided to take a chance and go with us.
LM: Scott, when I first found out you guys were going to make the game, I was a little surprised. AWE has an excellent track record, but it is built around kids games and cartoon-styled graphics. Obviously that is a very different graphical style than what you would expect in a game based on this license. Is that why you felt the need for a demo?
SN: I don't think there's such a huge difference, other than graphically. It's more complicated and convoluted; certainly there is a lot more to take into account. The animation, for example, must be more precise. As far as the engine goes, the way that we work, it's not that big of a departure doing an Agatha Christie game. They are all adventure games and we had done adventure games before this. It sounds like they're polar opposites, but they aren't really that far apart. Now, some of the cutscenes for None were done out of the U.S. A couple of them — not many, but some were. But it has worked out well for us with this game.
LM: This is a unique license. And the holders of the Christie license are notoriously selective about who and how they allow the Christie properties to be used. How was it working with them?
LS: I met with Chorion last summer after I had created a sort of pre-design document. Yes, I found them to be very protective of their license. But on the other hand, if you remain within the "style" of her books, I found them to be remarkably open about changes. I have in fact made some changes to what is one of the best-known mystery novels ever written. And I've made some major changes. This is the first time in ATTWN where there are eleven people on the island instead of ten. I changed the identity of the murderer. Because I felt like with one of her other classic stories, like Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or even The ABC Murders, the solutions to these mysteries have become almost archetypal now. They have been used so much in other works that people are very aware of "who did it" in books or stories like that. So I was allowed to change the identity of the killer as well. And they were enthusiastic about it. I was very pleased. I am really hoping that only purists might get a little annoyed with some of the changes. I think it still ends in the style and spirit of Christie.
LM: Regarding your plot changes, I believe there is or was a submarine in the game?
LS: Oh yeah. Agatha Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard, who oversees the estate, and I really liked this one change to the story, but none of the women in the room agreed. It involved an excursion to a shipwreck on a mini-sub. I had this whole sequence where you could put one together, go underwater and travel to a wrecked ship. It made sense, since this is an island noted for its shipwrecks. However, that got voted down, for not being in the style of Christie. The actual phrase they used was "Boys and their toys!"
But the mini-sub still makes an appearance of sorts in the game. So that one idea got turned down, but that was a small thing compared to the larger things I was allowed to change in order to make this story a game as well as a story.
LM: What about the expectations of fans versus accommodating newbies. Any compromises?
LS: We have been true to the style and spirit of her novels. I think the fans are going to love the fact that they can now tramp all over this island. We made the island bigger and added more things, because this is a game. It was originally pretty confined. I have added to the story by including elements from the history of the Devon coast, which includes pirates and shipwrecks all along that area. Adventure gamers who really don't know Christie will enjoy this game because it's still an adventure game and it follows the conventions of an adventure game. If I have any concerns, it would be because it is so story heavy. I usually like to do stories non-linearly, because I think that is the best way to play games. But because I wanted to follow the orders of the murders and everything, it sort of forced me into a linear path. And the cutscenes, cinematics, and longer dialogues are necessary simply because it is based on a novel and a lot of that novel is people talking to each other. So I tried to find ways around that. If this were a game I was doing from scratch, I wouldn't have done it that way. So I think the newbies are just going to like it because it's a pretty good adventure game. The fans are not going to be too upset because� I would be very surprised if they can tell every place where Christie leaves off and I begin.
LM: Scott, from a design viewpoint, what will be attractive to both sides? People who love Agatha Christie and her stories and also regular adventure gamers?
SN: As far as the fans go, I don't see how you could have made this game without changing certain things. If the killer hadn't changed, one of your prime motivations would be gone. You would have been in the room with the killer right at the beginning of the game and you would be looking at the screen saying, "It's that person, I know it is." I would think you would be very frustrated.