Interview with Frogwares Games Lead Narration Designer, Sergey Ten.

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories”

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The game development studio Frogwares was founded by Wael Amr and Pascal Ensenat in 2000 in Ireland. But after studio’s Kyiv office was launched in 2000, it became the company’s development centre. The Sherlock Holmes adventure game series was also created here. The current project being developed by the studio is the open world game The Sinking City, based on Howard Lovecraft books.

The Sinking City is a game of investigation and mystery taking place in a fictional open world inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The player steps into the shoes of a 1920s private investigator who finds himself in the city of Oakmont Massachusetts, New England. A city suffering from unprecedented floods of clearly supernatural origins. A city trembling on the brink of madness.

Can you survive this beleaguered town and untangle the mysteries responsible for its tragic situation or will you be driven beyond madness yourself?”

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Hi. I'm Sergey Ten. Nice to meet you.  

Hi, Sergey First off, let me thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk with us, especially with your busy schedule.

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Could you please tell me what your role is?

I'm the lead narration designer at Frogwares. Basically, me and my team, we do everything that's connected to the story of the game, answering the "what happens in the game?" question. Scenarios, characters, side quests, lore development, also supporting all the other teams in the company, providing them all the needed information regarding the plot and the setting of the game.  So, for example, if a concept artist has a question like "what happens in this location I'm creating right now?" or the animator asks "how this character should move and behave?” we're the one to give the first answer.  

So how do you know how to answer those questions?

It requires a united clear vision from the narrative team (there are currently two other narrative designers besides me) on the theme of our game and the setting - our city of Oakmont. Oakmont is a fictional original city set in the existing Lovecraftian country. The decision to make an original city opened a possibility for us to be really creative of what should be inside it and how the things in it are going. As soon as the lore and the vision of the city and undergoing events were settled and approved, it became quite easy to answer all kinds of questions. Just follow the general line and keep the vision and atmosphere in mind. In this way, we don't constrain other team members' creativity and preserve a solid base.

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How did you come up with the idea for the game?

The idea for the free investigation, open-world game set in the Lovecraftian country of Massachusetts was brewing in the company for some time after the production of "Sherlock Holmes" Crimes and Punishments" and an early prototype was developed to be a proof of concept. It went really well and after we released "Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter" we were quite sure of what we will do next.  We always wanted to get out of the constraints of linear games and try something bigger and with more freedom for players to investigate. And the Lovecraftian setting gave us the freedom to do all kinds of investigation scenarios, without the requirement for them to be entirely realistic, like in previous our games.

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Is there a plot that will tie all those scenarios together?

Yes, definitely. We have a connected main storyline along with side quests.

Could you tell us anything about that?  

Well, not to spoil the experience, I'll try to be as vague and intriguing as I can. We follow a story of a private investigator that gets inside a city that's way harder to leave than to enter. During the course of his investigation, he will find out ancient secrets that the city holds, reveal plots and conspiracies of a secret society that protected it and, finally, find out what caused the Flood and all the strife. And, of course, learn some things about himself and his impending madness. Also, he will dig out people's dirty secrets, face unspeakable horrors and do some really, really nasty stuff to himself and others, to uncover the truth (of course if the player is willing to do so). Classical Lovecraftian stuff, we stay true to it.

Being fans of the tabletop game we love the Sanity mechanics, will there be an element of that in The Sinking City?

Yes, there will be such a mechanic in our game.

Do you play the tabletop games? If so which ones?  

Yes, we play regularly. Me and the other narrative designer, Antonina, we are seasoned game masters and we run Lovecraftian campaigns set in Oakmont almost every week to all willing members of the team. And there are quite a lot of them. We used to run Chaosium's CoC 7th edition, GURPS 4th edition Horror (Kenneth Hite did an awesome job on that) and now we're running d20 Call of Cthulhu.

So you have a great amount of tabletop experience then, do have you got any favourite adventures?  

Personally, we like to create our own, rather than using existing ones. This way it also turns useful for the game, as we improve our skills and the best scenarios that we create can even make it to the big game.

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So who would normally run as the keeper?  

The narrative designer. Other team members take up the roles of players.

What other tabletop elements will we see in your game?  

The exact mechanics are in development right now, but, personally, I think yes, there will be other RPG mechanics in our game.

Is there anything your particularly proud of you could share with us?  

Well, for the narrative design work it's hard to show something before the game is released, except the texts.  There are some characters, scenarios and plot twists I'm particularly proud of, but I don't want to spoil it. But there is one thing that I participated in and I think is awesome. It is our custom dialogue writing tool for Unreal Engine 4. I took part in designing it and it is proving to be quite powerful and flexible, giving us more than we expected for it to give.

How so?  

That comes naturally when several enthusiasts are working on a task. Someone proposes a basis or states the problem and in the course of solving it, we find something bigger than we expected. This is the wonderful thing about working with a team. You don't have to think about everything on your side, you let the Hive Mind do it. The tools that we use to create the game are very powerful.

To give an example, I can create a portion of a city, populate it with bystanders, create NPCs, script a middle-sized quest, write and implement branching dialogues with automatically generated voices all in a matter of days. Without any deep knowledge of the engine and without the need to write a single line of code.

Will there be the ability for players to make their own adventures?

Yes, I think we are aiming for it. We are willing to give our tools to the players.

So why would a player want to play The Sinking City, what sets it out from the crowd?

As I mentioned before, there are several things that are the game-changers for our game. First is the concept of free investigation. We want the players to think for themselves, plan their actions, choose their own way to conduct an investigation, opposed to how investigation games were made before. That's why we also introduced the open world, for the first time in our games. We want the investigation to be non-linear and for the player to devise himself what he should do next, make his own choices and feel satisfied when they prove to be right. Or end up in danger if not. The other thing is the atmosphere, the setting and the city itself. There are not a lot of Lovecraftian video games out there, but there is an audience. A very dedicated and welcoming one. That's why we put an emphasis on our lore and setting and go to great extents developing it. We know there are people that appreciate it.

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We also introduce combat, which is unusual in a game that focuses on investigation and could serve really well to convey the feeling of danger, alienation and hostility. But, as an RPG player and game master, what satisfies me most about our game is the narrative choices that you make during the scenarios.

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With the current video game trends being Aliens or Zombies. Why did you choose Lovecraft?

First of all, we chose Lovecraft because we love his creations. There is a deeper meaning behind his works, something that crawls inside your brain and stays there after you shut the book. Of course, now there are all kinds of horrors out there and among them, there are quite astounding ones, but Lovecraft's horror still stands out. Because it reminds the reader of the futility of human life, the existential dread that everyone has to cope with as soon as they grow up old enough to understand it. The feeling of being a very, very tiny and insignificant part of the Universe. And of course, the mysteries, the unexplained, the uncovered secrets. What was there on Earth a million years ago? We can make assumptions but we can never be sure. What depraved depths an isolated human mind can reach?

Lovecraft is all about that and it has its own thrilling beauty. And you can find both zombies and a lot of aliens in his works if you want to.

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One final question, if you were in my shoes and could ask one question what would it be?

The question is "Will the game be representing emotionally the experience of playing a tabletop role-playing game with the modern visuals?" and the answer is "We're doing our best to achieve exactly that."

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Do you have any other parting words for all the gamers out there? 

Games were created to give us the possibility to live thousands of lives and believe sincerely in each one of them.

It was a pleasure to speak with you.

It's a pleasure speaking with you too.