Telling Stories: John Warner on The Fall
With dystopian sci-fi game The Fall released on Xbox and PlayStation systems this month, we spoke to John Warner, co-founder and director of Over The Moon Games about the past, present and future of the series
Indie games tend to have a better hit ratio than the big guns when it comes to telling a good tale, take the likes of To The Moon, Journey or Braid as prime examples. To that list we can add The Fall; having been previously released on PC, this disquieting story about a lone astronaut, unconscious on a strange planet and under the protection of his robotic AI suit was latterly ported to Wii U [reviewed here] and is now available on Xbox One and PS4 digital shopfronts. To say much more about The Fall’s premise could potentially stray into spoiler territory so instead we spoke with director John Warner about his sombre little masterpiece.
The Fall's story feels like something that could have come from the pen of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. How much were these (or other such 'hard sci-fi' writers) an influence on the game?
I wish I could tell you that they were a bigger influence, but the truth of the matter is that they weren't a huge inspiration, at least not in a direct sense. To be fair, those guys contributed so much to science fiction that I'm probably not aware of how much they've influenced me exactly. As far as direct inspiration, both my writer Calleb Allard and I are really interested in philosophy and ideas that have to do with thought; what consciousness is, what a person's identity is and how it functions. To me, a story that is in some way about ‘waking up’ is a perfect fit for a robot, because robots are a perfect icon of unconsciousness. I'm sure much of sci-fi was inspired from a similar place.
As a short, episodic game, the brevity of story-telling very refreshing - a less is more sort of thing. In this regard what are your thoughts on video games as a medium in telling stories?
It's a strongly debated topic. Personally, I really, really, really like brevity and purity of purpose. We actually had content in The Fall that we removed because it wasn't a good fit. I think that a rich, meaningful story in any medium is one where the person is given a succinct set of experiences that fit together well so that when they reflect on their experiences, it's easy to create a rich and rewarding sense of meaning. The more noise you add, the less it's possible to do that. As far as videogames in particular, I think that because games centre on interactivity, that should be the main vehicle through which ideas and meaning are conveyed. In The Fall, we tried to design our game such that most of the puzzles required a type of thinking that had to do with breaking rules, finding loopholes, or in some way stepping outside the bounds of the system. My hope was that having players engage in that sort of thinking might open them up to the themes in our story.
In terms of gaming influences, were there any particular titles that motivated The Fall, either in the mechanics or the aesthetics?
Limbo was my first inspiration because of how beautiful I thought it was, but also for how simple it looked to produce content for - when you're an indie developer, that sort of thing is very important. Super Metroid was next – that game has an amazing feeling of exploring an alien world that I wanted to capture. However, I wanted more depth of exploration as opposed to platforming challenges, so I drew some inspiration from Monkey Island 3 – as adventure game puzzles go, that game was incredibly creative. I wanted to capture its unusual use of items and bizarre locations. Lastly, we needed, I think, a little bit of action to add some tension and break up the adventure gaming, and so I took inspiration from Blackthorne, an old Blizzard game, for their side-scrolling cover-based system.
The Fall packs in a lot; puzzles, platforming, even some combat. How did you juggle these aspects in order to not over-complicate the game?
It comes down to making sure that the challenges are separated in space and time – so you're not having to deal with combat when you're solving puzzles. I try to think of each type of gameplay as a psychological state that players are in and I try to make sure I can bring them into the state and let them out again so that they can focus on what they're doing. Trying to solve adventure puzzles while struggling with a combat cover system would be painful, I think.
Having released your game on all three major consoles now, what has been your experience of these companies embrace of indie games?
Everyone has been great really. All companies have been friendly, supportive, and willing to help me through their system. I think that there's an interesting challenge for them in opening up to the sheer amount of indie games that are being produced lately. I suspect that the consoles may be moving towards a somewhat ‘shotgun’ approach – throw a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks. People that I talk to at the various consoles seem to believe in myself and my fellow indies, but ultimately, nobody has a crystal ball and nobody knows what will sell, so I get the feeling that they've chosen to be kind, supportive, and excited as a general rule. It sure as heck can't hurt. I really don't know what their strategy is of course... but I'm grateful for the new opportunities.
It’s been hinted that there will be two more games in this series. If so, have you always had the over-arching story in mind and to what extent?
Yes, our plan is to make a trilogy. We did have an over-arching story in mind, yes, but we've also kept some room for us to change it as we go. The fact is that over the course of development, The Fall will no doubt evolve and change in ways we didn't expect. I'd say we've got a solid enough plan such that the story should feel quite cohesive when it's done, but it's open enough so that development isn't a mindless uncreative grind. Our goal is that each instalment should surprise fans and feel fresh, because we'll be in a creative state when we make it.
You originally secured funding for The Fall via Kickstarter. How did you find the process and will you be using it for future episodes?
The Kickstarter process is long and stressful – I found planning to be difficult and iterative, and the actual campaign itself is quite an anxious month. When you run a campaign, you're always wondering if there's something you could be doing better to bring in a few extra dollars in. I had to pay really close attention for opportunities and be willing to grab at anything that floated by. It was a little nerve-racking and I wouldn't want to enter that process again if I didn't have to but I'd recommend it to anyone who needs a leg up. In truth, I'm still tempted sometimes to make another campaign for Part 2 but again, if I don't need it, I can avoid the stress and use my time more effectively elsewhere.