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Interviews

Lee Sheldon: One-on-One with JA

by Randy Sluganski
November 17, 2006

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We recently had the opportunity to interview Lee Sheldon in person during a press party for the release of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Those unfamiliar with Lee’s impressive body of work need only read our previous discussions with Lee here, and here and here.

Lee is currently the game designer for Murder on the Orient Express (and also for And Then There Were None) and will also contribute his talents to future Agatha Christie games.


JA: How close did you work with the Christie estate for Murder on the Orient Express, the second game in the series?

Lee Sheldon - click to enlargeLS: I created a concept document so that they would know I was going to mess with them again and then Dreamcatcher sent the document to them and they came back with some questions. A couple of them I agreed to and a few others I said, ‘No and this is the reason I don’t want to do it,” and they agreed. Obviously, the problem with working with books that are this well known is that you’ve got to make some changes, particularly if you’re putting the book in the box as we are, so that people will be surprised and I did that in And Then There Were None and some people liked it and some people didn’t, but that’s okay. In this game, it’s even harder because it’s a very famous solution and I had to find a variation on that and it had to still be in the spirit of Agatha Christie because I hate adaptations that cop an attitude that say oh, it’s a 70’s television show so we’re going to make fun of it while we’re doing it. I worked on a game based on The Wild, Wild West and I was more faithful to the original material than was the movie and I got reviews that said that this story is better than the one they ended-up with in the movie and I like that. So I’m trying to stay faithful to Agatha Christie because I respect the material and my major job is to translate that material from a medium that basically allows people to sit around and talk like we’re doing and translate it into something that is supposedly an action medium. Even adventure games, as far as I’m concerned, are visual and need to be visual and have some action in them.

JA: How do you think Dame Agatha Christie would judge these games if she were alive today and part of the computer generation?

LS: If she were alive today and in her twenties, I think she would like it because I’ve taken a lot of things that she does in her books and translated them into what a player can do. I think that I’ve been very respectful with Poirot and at the same time I’ve made him a hint system. So he is in there and he’s being Poirot and I know that there was some grumbling in a few of the early previews asking why they couldn’t play as Poirot? Well, I said, the reason for that is that most of the fun of Poirot is seeing what he is up to, watching how he acts and solves things. I’ve always thought the more interesting player/character was the ‘Watson’ character rather than the Sherlock Holmes character and in this case I invented Antoinette, a new character that is actually an amalgam of two characters from the book: Poirot’s friend who runs the Orient Express or is the director in Istanbul and a young soldier who is in both the book and the film right at the beginning who sort of shepards Poirot to Istanbul. I try to not just make somebody up out of whole cloth, I try to find some source in the book for the player/characters.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: Does the Christie estate have final say over your product?

LS: I don’t actually know. They asked for a couple of changes. I was happy to do them, they didn’t interfere with what I was doing. There was one change which they asked if we could handle the original solution in a way we had done in And Then There Were None. There was sort of a coda that you could go back and solve a puzzle and see the original solution and I said “That was necessary in that game because you couldn’t really add onto that solution, because somebody did it.” In Murder on the Orient Express, there’s already a first solution in the book and the movie which is the thing that appears to be going on, there’s the second solution which is Poirot unraveling what is really going on and I said, “All we’re doing is adding a third solution that builds on the first two.” I’m paying homage to her and staying in her spirit, yet there are going to be surprises and no matter how well you know the book you’re going to be surprised by the ending.

JA: One of the assumptions that I believe is incorrect, is that everyone who plays this game has already read the book. But the truth is that Christie is probably not as popular as she once was as today’s generation is just not familiar with her books. For that reason, would you advise someone to read the book and then play the game, or play the game and then read the book?

LS: I think that’s true. All I was doing was making sure that the people who haven’t read the book – and it’s included in the box with the game – and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll read it, but it is there and they can at least thumb through to the end to see what’s going on.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: So you would rather that they play the game first and hope it influences them to read the book?

LS: Sure, I have nothing against literacy. The people who are just going to play it as an adventure game and are not interested in Agatha Christie, I’m perfectly happy with that also. They will be equally entertained. As a matter of fact, I think the Agatha Christie buffs, just like the buffs whenever you adapt something, will come after you. When I was doing Star Trek Next Generation, there were people out there who knew so much more about what I was doing then I did who would come after me so I dealt with that and I still try to be as faithful as I can, but it’s still me. I’m not Gene Rodenberry, I’m not Agatha Christie, I have my own sensibilities. I bring a certain sense of humor to it that may not fit exactly with them but it’s my sense of humor and I have to do it, I have no choice. I have done adventure games and neither Agatha Christie nor Gene Rodenberry have so I have an idea on how to make interactive what was simply passive in the original stories.

JA: Speaking of buffs, one of the things that struck me upon re-reading the book were the many idiosyncrasies of Poirot. For example, in the book as a matter of decorum, he interviewed the first class passengers first and then the remaining passengers.

LS: There’s another thing in the book that presented an amazing problem for our voiceover work in that there’s people from countries from all over the world on the train and all these accents and all these prejudices that people had of each other. For example, when they’re snowbound in what is now Croatia, the Greek doctor on board says, “No, you don’t want the police here. If only these were Greek police,” and you have the American lady who is pontificating about American culture and how it should be extended wherever possible as people would be happier. We have the German chef, the English people and I’ve tried to play that for some humor for while it may be stereotypical in some ways, it’s also very accurate in how people judge each other.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: The book has instances that would be considered racist in today’s society. Characters claim that Italians always kill with a knife, Latinos are hot-tempered.

LS: Yeah, but given the time in which they were written, that was the way they were expected to be written. Now, I don’t think an audience would go for that and so I do bring a certain sensibility to it. One of the other things is that she very deliberately wanted to take her English readers minds off the fact that there was a war going on during several of her books – World War II. I brought that into And Then There Were None and I wouldn’t be surprised if is shows up again in one of the later ones are set during the war as it gives me fodder and now I have an historical perspective on it and I can find things I can do with that. The Christie people have been very open in that aspect allowing me the latitude to expand these and to bring a more modern sensibility to them.

JA: Are there any Easter Eggs included in the game that maybe give hints as to future titles?

LS: There’s actually an Easter Egg in the promo trailer where Antoinette is in the baggage car and there’s three casks: vinegar, olive oil and honey and the honey is from Shipwreck Island which is the island from And Then There Were None. There’s also a reference that I insisted be in the game – because people have a tendency as they’re developing to cut out things they don’t understand – so I insisted that this be in there. There is a moment when Ratchett is talking to Hector the secretary and they go through a tunnel, it’s right in the dining room sequence, and there’s something written on the window and unless you’ve seen other mysteries set on trains you won't know what that is. But it’s a reference to a very famous one.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: Did you happen to play The Last Express in preparation for this game?

LS: I did. Actually I ran into Jordan Mechner (developer of The Last Express) in Germany this past spring when we were both speaking at the same conference and I said, “Jordan, we need to talk. I’m doing a game on a train and strangely enough it’s the same train,” and so we talked about the cars, how they were all alike and how cramped everything is and how do you get angles in there and so on. It was a lot of fun, I always like to meet other designers and sort of share war stories with them.

JA: As the game progress and you collect enough clues and evidence, does the case actually solve itself or does the player have to propose a solution?

LS: Here’s the difference between And Then There Were None and the Murder on the Orient Express games: in And Then There Were None, the whole premise is that nobody figures it out so I had to try desperately to find someway that the player could get clues and actually figure out who it is and there are clues in there. In Orient, we’re following the investigation, we’ve got an actual detective, there are clues to all three solutions and you can figure it out.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: What kind of research did you do to ensure the authenticity of the 1934 game period?

LS: Thank God for the internet! When I was doing Ripley’s Believe it or Not! we didn’t have the internet and I had to go look at books and horrible things like that! I wanted to find some way for them to communicate with the outside world. Ham radios were around at that time, so a ham radio is in the game. I researched the political situation in Yugoslavia at the time. There had just been an assassination, the first one actually caught on film and then the killing of the assassin. That didn’t actually make it into the game but I researched that for quite awhile. I obviously, because this is the first Poirot we’re doing, wanted to make sure that we were chronologically correct. The Poirot television series took a lot of the stories and put them all into the same period when they weren’t. All I’m doing is saying ‘Alright, And Then There Were None was set in the 1940’s, so the 1940’s it is, we’ll bring in the early stages of World War II.” This game is set in 1934, this is where Poirot was at that point, there’s a mention of some of his earlier cases but they are chronologically accurate. I knew what was happening politically during the year, I knew what was happening scientifically during the year because I had to design my puzzles accurately. I am very, very strongly of the belief that all of the puzzles have to be contextual. They all have to either help character, help story or define period, they’re not anachronistic in any way. At one point you have to go to a hut in the wilderness outside the train so I did all the research on what was happening in the hills of Yugoslavia in 1934. I knew exactly where we were on the map and what was going on in that particular part of the country. One of the things that I did is that I compressed the time so that anybody who looks at this will say, my gosh you can’t get from Istanbul to Belgrade that fast by train even today and that’s true, but that’s a story convention that I don’t think more than a few people will notice. If it’s a period piece it has to be accurate, don’t make stuff up.

Murder on the Orient Express screenshot - click to enlarge

JA: Lee, thank you for your time and for your continued support of JA and the adventure community.

LS: Thank you Randy.

 

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