Prodigal Benjamin
Date of interview: 07.03.2006.
Interview with: Benjamin "Trisk" Johnson
Interview by: DeathDude
Interview about: Prodigal

First, congratulations on your results from the AGS Awards and Prodigal winning Best Story - must have been quite the feeling when you learned of your nominations for Prodigal.

Yes it was! Although, I was hoping it would happen‚?¶ As Prodigal was nearing completion, we all had the feeling we had made something special.

Was Prodigal the first game you ever worked on? If so, when you started putting down your ideas, did it turn out how you were expecting it to be or were there some challenges along the way that made it difficult?

It was the first "complete" game I've done, yes. However, I actually did make several levels for Serious Sam and even Doom, back in the day! The Serious Sam levels were even published by Croteam; although I wasn't paid for it, my levels were an exclusive pack in with Serious Sam: Gold Edition. I was promised a couple of free copies of the game, but I never even got that. :/

How did the idea of Prodigal come about? Was there any specific goal you had in mind when you thought up the idea?

Prodigal had a very strange start. I had actually downloaded the Sierra AGI game creation tools called "AGI Studio." I thought the idea of making an old adventure game was kind of cool, and I wanted to make something scary.

I started making a couple of areas and a character, but was quickly buried by the lack of adequate documentation on the AGI language. I'm not much of a programmer, so I would have needed more than they gave me. I was really bummed, and started looking around for an alternative.

AGS was an instant win for me. The documentation is thorough and very clear, and after a quick two-room test game, work on Prodigal began. In hindsight, I do not think AGI would have been able to be very scary. It is just too old.

Why did you choose to implement comic book style graphics in the game during certain scenes, was there any motivation or was it just trying to be different?

Well, after a month or so of working on the game, I sent a build to one of the AGS forum users. She played the game, then gently told me it kinda stunk. It needed more punch to illustrate some of the more poignant scenes. I immediately thought of the Sierra games, which I was trying to emulate, and their close-up cutscenes.

So I posted a request for an artist on the AGS forums. Edgar Rocha immediately offered to help. Looking back, I still can't believe my luck! His art is unsurpassed in the AGS community! He sent me some Marvel comics mockups he'd drawn, and I was blown away! I originally didn't really tell him any of the story, just carefully described what each scene would include. He'd send me the black and white images, and I'd color them, animate them, and put them in the game.

When the game was about half done, I sent him a build, and he came back kind of going "Holy cow! This game is awesome! Don't you have anything more I could draw? And wouldn't it be cool if I added some art to these scenes?" How could I refuse?

What were some of the big challenges you faced when you began to put down your ideas?

I'm not much of a coder, so figuring out how to make complex things happen would often take me days. Remember the room in the Cliff Dwellings where there is a board you have to walk up? It seems simple enough, but the player has to be able to walk ON the board, and BEHIND it as well. AGS really is 2D, so there really isn't a BEHIND. It took me a loooong time to figure out how to get the engine to differentiate between when Jacob was on the board, and when he was behind it.

The idea of using a cult as the main enemy in the game was interesting to see, was this inspired by something you had read or something you had seen, or was this just something you came up with when you began to think up ideas?

The story was pretty much completely written by my brother. I realized early on that I wasn't going to be able to write a very good story, so I asked him to come up with something cool. He started out pondering the screens I had made early on, asking himself why Jacob was there, what he was looking for, and who was trying to stop him. From that he got the inspiration to start crafting the whole story of Mike and the Demelza.

We then spent months mapping out the entire Prodigal 1 and 2 storyline. The cult's history goes all the way back to Alexander Demelza, but the exact connections won't become apparent until the sequel.
The cult of Demelza is, in my mind, sexist, racist, and pretty nasty. We'll learn much more about them in the next game. By the way, "Demelza" means "Fort on a hill" in old English.

Indeed as it's been shown, the story of Prodigal was very solid and engaging, was it difficult for you to write or did it just come along easily?

I couldn't have written a story like that to save my life! Nathan, my brother, came up with it, and then we'd talk about it and figure out ways to improve it. Many, many hours went into the story, as well as storyboarding the cutscenes. Nathan had the idea for the ending very early on, but it took him a while to figure out exactly how to pull it off convincingly, so that was probably the most difficult thing for him to write. The story was still being tweaked even as the closing cutscene was being made. We had a disagreement over which cliff hanger the first game should end on‚?¶Nathan won.

How did you meet the other team members who came to work on Prodigal?

Well, I already told you about Edgar, and of course, my brother. Peter Thomas, who did a couple of songs and a bit of consulting work, was a regular on the forums. He critiqued my intro movie, and proved to be savvy on the art of story telling, so I asked him to take a look at various parts of the game and tell me what he thought of them. Usually his insights were very good. He also did the drum track from the Cliff Dwellings, as well as the sonic weirdness that plays while Mike and Jacob are talking at the end of the game.

Andrew Edmark, my webmaster, answered my plea for a webmaster and has been really cool about keeping the webpage updated and such. A few weeks before release of the game, I found out he is big into stage acting and such, so he looked at some of the dialogues and helped spice them up. He did great! I hope to use him for ALL the dialogues in the next game.

My beta testers answered the call from the forums. Splat44 did a good job, but was the only guy out of that bunch that really contributed. It's hard to find good beta testers!

Are there any games from either the freeware community or commercially that influenced you in the development of Prodigal?

Oh yes! Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within was a big influence. From that I got the idea of doing a story that had some historical research added into the fiction. The World Walkers are a fictional Cherokee tribe, for instance.

Doom 3 was my mentor for sound design. I would spend hours just listening to the weird creaks and chugs and groans, and get ideas for Prodigal.

My biggest influence, however, is undoubtedly Realms of the Haunting by Gremlin. Prodigal's working title was "Realms of Darkness" in honor of that game! When people think of the old live acted FMV games, they usually think of something ghastly like Ground Zero Texas or Night Trap. There actually WERE several FMV games that were made infinitely better because of the live acted cast, and Realms of the Haunting was one of them. I still love that game, even today!

If you could change anything about Prodigal right now, what would it be and why?

When I started Prodigal, it was on AGS version 2.62. In order to put in the flame animations from Steve McCrea's Fire Plugin, I ported the game up to 2.7. That proved to be a BIG mistake. 2.7 had many crash bugs that weren't the fault of Prodigal, but of the AGS engine. All of it was stuff I couldn't fix. CJ (The creator of AGS) worked most of them out, but it created some negative feelings toward me and toward Prodigal, even though they weren't my fault.

Which part of the game took longest to develop for?

Probably Ulisigi Ela. Creating all the "jiggling shadow" animations took a loooong time, and I was starting to get really burnt out. I was doing 90% of the game myself, working 10-14 hours a day on it for 11 months. I had been recuperating from an illness during that time, so it filled the time I was out of work nicely‚?¶but it also started to control my life pretty heavily. Toward the end I had to stop several times just to keep from going insane.

What sort of game would like to develop for in the future, if you had the choice in terms of style and genre?

The sequel to Prodigal, of course! If you mean non-adventure game, I love FPS's, so I'd love to get hired on at one of the companies that does those games, but that is more than likely just dreaming.

Are there any other projects, which you are working on or plan to, in the immediate future?

Right now I'm working on a "proof of technology" demo of Prodigal 2. Edgar and I are working closely to develop the art style and make things look more consistent. I can't say too much, but I will tell you this: One building that I've been rendering has over 2 times more polygons than the entire original games' 3D scenes‚?¶COMBINED!!!

The music for Prodigal was varied and really added to the mood of the game. When it came down to get music tracked down in game, did it come about easily to your ideas or were they any challenges?

Well, the music for the most part was intentionally minimalist. I wanted most rooms to be accompanied with ambient sound layers that were thick and moody. When there was music, it was to convey a specific emotion or add tension. I would take the music tracks and run them through an EQ filter in Adobe Audition which would remove all the mid ranges, and leave only the highs and lows. This gave the songs a claustrophobic feel that added to the tension.

Getting the Shadowplay song was an amazing stroke of luck. I was searching through a listing of indie Goth bands, trying to find something haunting and evocative for the closing credits of the game‚?¶and I happened upon them. I was blown away! The music was so perfect! I emailed them but didn't have much hope that they would agree‚?¶and for 3 weeks I didn't get a response, so I was looking at other bands. Suddenly I got an email from one of their guys saying I was welcome to use the track! I just about jumped through the ceiling I was so excited! I can't thank them enough for letting me use "Alone." It really ends the game off with a professional touch!

As for the ambient sound, there is a story for each track. Whether it was walking down onto a swamp to get the frogs at the beginning, or running around my yard with the microphone trying to find a perfect rain sound during a spring shower, or even the "moaning wind and chimes" sound that plays in parts of Ulisigi Ela that I got by complete accident. Making sound was probably my favorite part of the game, and the part I'm most proud of.

Any advice you wish to impart on up and coming developers, based on your own experiences of developing?

Making a game is hard work, but stick with it! The sense of accomplishment you get when you finish makes it worthwhile! Also, in playing some of the other freeware games out there, I'd like to suggest that people recognize when they can't tell a story, and get somebody else to help them! It can do wonders for your game to get somebody creative to flesh out your ideas.


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