Lee Sheldon: One-on-One with
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?
LS: 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
understand – so I insisted that this be in there. There
is a moment when Ratchett is talking to Hector the secretary
go through a tunnel, it’s right in the dining room sequence,
and there’s something written on the window and unless
seen other mysteries set on trains you won't know what
that is. But it’s a reference to a very famous one.
JA: Did you happen to play The
Last Express in preparation for this
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
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
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.
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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