Almost a decade ago, Runaway: A Road Adventure was cited as one of the games that helped catapult the genre back into an era of relative prominence. Its slick visuals, offbeat humour, and unapologetically traditional point-and-click gameplay felt like an ideal blend of old-school genre conventions and modern-age production values, and its worldwide popularity blazed a trail for others to do the same. We no longer had LucasArts, Infocom, Legend, or Sierra, but with up-and-coming international developers like Pendulo Studios emerging on the scene, the sky once again seemed the limit.
Indeed, the genre prospered and thrived to an extent in the years to come, and Pendulo itself became a mainstay, releasing two Runaway sequels and a re-imagining of its Spanish-only Hollywood Monsters (The Next BIG Thing) before moving in a darker, bolder direction with the gritty thriller Yesterday. There seemed to be no stopping Pendulo, but as we've seen many times already, not even a successful track record and a skilled development team offers any guarantees for tomorrow. In tough economic times, publishers are even less willing to finance new adventures, particularly high-risk original IPs, and when Pendulo went looking for partners for Day One, they came away empty-handed. Once a beacon of new hope, Pendulo became the latest in a depressing line of studios to face an uncertain future without investors.
Or maybe not so depressing, just with a different type of investor. Like several other high-profile developers of late, Pendulo has turned to crowd-funding to finance their edgy, satirical thriller about a man facing his last day alive. Requesting €300,000 by September 7th through Gamesplanet Lab, the campaign still has a fair way to go to reach its goal. But we're intrigued by what we've seen, so we nabbed Pendulo's art director Rafael Latiegui to discuss both the game and the challenges facing adventure developers today. (And stay tuned after the interview for some exclusive pics from past Pendulo titles!)
Pendulo Studios - 18 years of adventure
Adventure Gamers: You've managed to make five games in English and several more in Spanish either on your own or with publisher funding before now. So I guess the obvious question is: why do you suddenly need crowd-funding to develop your next adventure?
Rafael Latiegui: Simply because we didn’t have any other choice. The global crisis and piracy have had quite an impact on sales, and therefore publishers are not able to put up the same amount of money for a game as they could a few years ago, so that means the budgets of our previous games have grown smaller and smaller. At the moment, we just couldn’t find a publisher that wanted to get involved in a new game, so we had to knock on the last door available: crowdfunding.
AG: Your fundraising campaign jokes (or maybe doesn't joke) that publishers wouldn't be interested in Day One because its subject matter would "scare the kids". But the adventure genre isn't really a children's genre anyway, the demographic generally skewing much older than that. Is that really a legitimate concern?
Rafael: It’s not only a joke, but a sad truth. Most commercial adventures depend on family friendly retail shops, like Wal-Mart or Carrefour. They don’t have any problem having a gory AAA title, but not a small adult game… and unluckily, adventures these days are small games from a commercial point of view. With crowdfunding, though, we do not need to depend on those sellers: the only people who can decide what the game will be like are Pendulo and our crowdcreators (in other words, the people who raise funds for the game).
AG: Whether it scares the kids or not, Day One seems to be at least as dark as Yesterday, if not more so. Is this trend towards grittier, more mature games something we can expect to see continue from Pendulo?
Rafael: The truth is Day One will not really be that dark… More adult and deeper perhaps… but not as dark as Yesterday. Using Hitchcock as an example, Yesterday is more like Psycho, while Day One will resemble The Man Who Knew Too Much more.
AG: It seems like lots of comedy actors tire of simply being funny, or think they can earn more respect with serious roles. Is that basically true of Pendulo as a studio? Why the shift away from the more blatantly comic-style games like Runaway?
Rafael: We want to make both comic and adult games. We love comedy and we’ve proved that we are able to provide good comedies to the adventure scene for 18 years. But ever since the third Runaway, we’ve been wanting to try a thriller and more adult topics. That’s what we did with Yesterday and we’ve had such a good time that we want to stay on that path.
AG: What's the public reaction been to this change in tone? Or is the fact that you're now campaigning for funds an answer in itself?
Rafael: As far as we know, players like this shift, and reviewers do, too. What Adventure Gamers wrote in your review is a very good example, and it shows a common opinion: Pendulo is not restricted to comedy anymore, and people want more. Unfortunately, people and funds are not always synonymous…
AG: So tell us about Day One. We know that Ethan Grant has one day to live, but gets a stay of execution (so to speak) by a mysterious benefactor who wants him to go to Paris. Clearly he's a pawn (or about to become one) in someone's scheme, which is an intriguing premise that could lead anywhere. So where does the story go from there?
Rafael: As you’ve said, Day One will play to the “pawn in someone’s scheme” topic… but there’s a bit more to it that I can’t tell just now… We can’t start spoiling the game before it’s even made! On the one hand, we’ll have this noir plot about Ethan trying to solve a riddle in order to save his life… if he even can. On the other, there will be this plot that talks about crisis. What happens when you realize that the life you’ve led has been absolutely pointless? That the dreams that you had are not true at all? That your life is nothing but a lie?
AG: Your games have traditionally involved lead characters that are a bit edgy, if not downright unlikeable. Is that true of Ethan as well? I could see how finding out you have only a day to live would put a person in a bad mood.
Rafael: Yes, but actually, it can be the other way round. Let’s say that Ethan is not what you’d call a good person. Well, the events in Day One may offer him the chance to redeem himself… or not. That will be a very interesting path to investigate, not only for us as developers, but also for players. The duality between Ethan, the hard-nosed guy used to winning, and Ethan, the dead man walking, can lead to many complicated decisions.
AG: Why do you favour these rough-around-the-edges sorts of protagonists for your games?
Rafael: Some of the best characters around have an edgy aspect, even in the adventure genre. For example, you have Guybrush from the Monkey Island series, Al Lowe’s Larry or Deponia’s Rufus… If they were real people, we wouldn’t be their friends at all… they’d be insufferable!!! Funny, yes, but from a distance!
AG: Your games have also been known for some wacky puzzle solutions. That can work well with pure comedy games, but typically not so well with more serious games. Has your design philosophy changed along with your storylines?
Rafael: Yes, and that’s something that you can already see in Yesterday. Day One will be similar, though this time we will ask our crowdcreators (the game’s fundraisers) if they want more difficult puzzles or even different difficulty levels. This time, they’ll decide (or should I say “you”?)Continued on the next page...