Interview: Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games

With the release of Blackwell Deception, we look to the head of Wadjet Eye Games, Dave Gilbert, for some insight about the future of the studio and the Blackwell series of adventure games. Thanks, Dave, for our brief chat, and we’re looking forward to your next project!

What are some of your inspirations from the adventure genre? I’m definitely sensing a little LucasArts style here, especially when it comes to the aesthetic. I’m new to the series, so forgive me if that’s been said!

Definitely Gabriel Knight. The idea of a supernatural conspiracy set around real-world events really appealed to me, and Jane Jensen (the designer behind Gabriel Knight) did it so well. The concept of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria being a werewolf might sound silly on paper, but play Gabriel Knight 2 and you can almost believe it happened that way. Blackwell was my attempt at creating something like Gabriel Knight. In fact, Rosa’s last name was originally White as an reference to Knight. When I decided that was lame, I changed it to Black and then later Blackwell.

As I’ve written more games, I’ve become more inspired by authors that I like. Lawrence Block is probably my biggest inspiration. His mysteries are less about “whodunnit” and more about a case study of the victim. I find myself doing the same with Blackwell. Every game has ghosts that you need to save, and you do so by delving into their lives and trying to find out more about them. Learning how or why they died is usually just incidental.

How many Blackwell episodes are you planning to release?

I have six planned, although that number can grow depending how things go.

Why, despite the obvious budget constraints, did you decide to choose the retro throwback pixelated look? I’m a huge fan and it’s a breath of fresh air to revisit what I feel was the heyday of adventure gaming.

Well, you answered your own question. The pixel art style is cheaper and quicker to produce, especially where animation is concerned. I originally attempted to make the first Blackwell game at a higher resolution and it failed miserably. If I didn’t bite the bullet and downgrade the art style, I’d still be making it!

Who’s more fun to write lines for: Rosa or Joey? Joey’s got a sharp tongue about him, but Rosa is quite the well-rounded and believably written character. I’d have to say my favorite quips come from our favorite apparition.

I like writing lines for both! Joey is probably the more “funny” of the two, but most of the humor comes from the way they play off each other. It was a bit dodgy in the first game because they didn’t really know each other and I hadn’t really found their voices yet (especially Rosa), but by Convergence I had a better handle on both of them.

Is it hard to balance good old-fashioned puzzle solving with weaving the complicated tales you have woven in Blackwell, or does the story seem to progress naturally as you focus on offering challenges to players?

It’s definitely a challenge that all adventure game designers face. You want to tell a good story, but the very nature of the genre forces you to throw up roadblocks. If you make the puzzles too easy, the player feels cheated. If you make them too hard, the player feels frustrated. No matter how easy you make a puzzle, there will always be someone who gets stuck on it. Having a real-world setting like Blackwell just adds to the challenge. In a fantasy game, you can totally justify having a magical door that can only be opened by collected twelve Bagels of Power, but when your game is set in the real world (as real as it can be with a ghost like Joey around, anyway) such a thing just isn’t possible. So when I design a puzzle, I always try to think of a natural obstacle and a natural way to get through it.

If the gameplay gets in the way of the story, you can also have the opposite problem. Often I will have an plot beat that I think is terrific – and if it were a book or a movie, I might be right – but once I put it into the game it becomes nothing more than a cutscene, or forces the player to do something that they wouldn’t intuitively do on their own. The first Blackwell game definitely had this problem – I was so focused on telling a story that I forgot to make a game. Now, whenever I found myself designing a scene like that, I will often rip it up and start over. It’s hard, because sometimes I am forced to throw away some really nifty ideas, but it makes the game a better playing experience overall.

How did the idea of using psychics to weave this tale come to you? I have to admit it’s pretty creative.

A few years ago, a friend of mine called me up to ask a very strange favor. A TV news program was doing a piece on phony street psychics and was looking for someone to go in with a hidden camera. She knew that I was making the Blackwell games and would “probably think it was cool.” She was right! So they outfitted me with a button cam and had me go in to see this psychic and try to get scammed. It didn’t take long. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the gist was that my aura was weak and that I needed some kind of energy work, and she would need to light a special candle to meditate on the problem. The cost? Two hundred bucks. I told her I’d think about it, and left feeling very proud of myself. Unfortunately, I had aimed the camera about one inch too far to the left and had recorded her wall the entire time. James Bond I am not. But the experience stuck with me, and I eventually used it to form the story of “Blackwell Deception” – which has a street psychic as one of the antagonists.

You’re well-known for your indie publishing gigs, but enlighten us a little: what are you doing when you aren’t hard at work on the Blackwell games and your other treasure trove of projects?

Enjoying life with my new wife, Janet! We love to walk, explore the city, try new restaurants. We go hiking when the weather is nice. Our lives are pretty simple.

It’s clear your love for NYC has been incorporated into Deception. What is it about New York that inspires you so?

New York is an interesting place. It’s so iconic. You see it in films, books, comics, television – it’s everywhere. You can live your whole life in some small village, but take one step into New York and it’s like you’ve been there before. There’s something very inspiring about being in the middle of all that. That and the bagels. Sorry, rest of the world, but your bagels suck.

What are the ultimate goals you hope to achieve through heading Wadjet Eye Games?

We’d like to make a push for other platforms. Just making games for the PC alone is so self-defeating these days. Once we finish our next round of projects we are going to try porting our games to the iOS platform. But honestly? All I want it to keep doing this! It blows my mind that I’ve been in business for five years making these little games. It’s almost like the universe hasn’t caught on that I shouldn’t be doing this. I hope it never does.

What’s the next project we can expect to see from you?

We’ve signed up to publish three other games, like we did with Gemini Rue. One of them is almost complete (just needs the voice acting and the final touches) so you should be hearing about that soon. But as for me, I love working on Blackwell, but I don’t want to get burnt out by it. So I’ve decided to take a break from it and work on something entirely new. It’s only at the “cool idea” stage at the moment, but I’m fleshing out the design every day and I’m hoping to start production in a few months.

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