Interview

King Art games may only be a small studio, with 20 or so employees, but the success of their playful fantasy fable The Book of Unwritten Tales, and its exceptionally cute furry offspring The Critter Chronicles, has made this German developer one to watch for every adventure game enthusiast. The studio are currently riding high on a successful kickstarter campaign to make BattleWorlds Kronos, an innovative looking turn based strategy game, but it’s their new episodic point and click adventure game The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief that I recently spoke to producer and writer Marco Rosenberg about.

Little does Zellner know that he is about to star in his own murder mystery

Founded by two school friends, Marc König and Jan Theysen, King Art Games rode the social gaming wave, cutting its teeth on browser based flash games such as My Fantastic Park and My Free Zoo. But the studio finally got the chance to prove itself creatively with The Book of Unwritten Tales, a comedic point and click set in a fantasy world that lampooned everything from The Lord of the Rings to World of Warcraft (the latter in a hilarious scene in which you have to wean a wizard and a merchant off an MMORPG set in our world). The game was incredibly well received by the adventure gaming community, and is probably the closest the genre has gotten to the charm, quirkiness and wit of the old Discworld games. “It happened naturally” Marco told me over the phone from Germany. “The company grew until we had enough people and experience to create a game like The Book of Unwritten Tales. For Jan and Marc it was like a dream come true.”

The Raven, like Book of Unwritten Tales, pays homage to a larger genre and plays with its conventions in a very self reflexive way

Not ones to rest on their laurels, they are now hoping to reach an even larger audience with their new adventure. Set in the 1960s, the game stars a good-natured, homely Swiss constable named Anton Jacob Zellner who gets wrapped up in an international manhunt and murder mystery. “We wanted to make Zellner as likable as possible”, says Marco who co-wrote the game with Jan Theysen. “He’s an ordinary guy who stumbles into an adventure and wants to prove he is capable of more than a desk job.” His desires are somewhat hindered in this regard by Inspector LeGrand, a French detective and leader of the investigation, who insists Zellner stays behind, whether it’s because he wants him out of harm’s way or out of his way is unclear.

What is certain is that LeGrand has a history with The Raven, after supposedly shooting him and ending his reign years ago in Paris, and is now feverishly pursuing his old nemesis at the cost of his career and his sanity. This interesting bit of backstory is beautifully laid out in the form of a free interactive web comic, styled like the opening credits of The Pink Panther or Catch Me If You Can. “We wanted to put an emphasis on who the Raven is from the start and deepen the character of Legrand”, Marco commented on the side project that adds so much more to the game than a simple trailer ever could.

This luxury cruise ship has got it all: sun, sea, and murder

The game opens on the Orient Express, an exotic location seeped in mystique which has been aptly used by Agatha Christie as well as Hitchcock (not to mention by Jordan Mechner in his masterful point and click The Last Express, where in claustrophobic confines you are introduced to the game’s eccentric cast. These include an overbearing English Baroness and her war veteran butler, a bumbling professor of Archaeology, a methodical German doctor, an arrogant Austrian violinist, and an elderly crime writer named Lady Westmacott, whose novels Zellner is obsessed with.

“The reason we chose to release in episodes was to build in cliff hangers and create an opportunity for the community to discuss their theories”

The Raven is strongly influenced by the books of Agatha Christie, with Zellner filling the shoes of Poirot complete with curled moustache and balding pate. Indeed the presence of Lady Westmacott, who finds herself enjoying observing a real murder even more than writing about fictional ones, amongst the game’s cast of eccentrics is a nicely reflexive touch. Marco, who oversaw the voice recordings at OMUK’s London studio (which will also be handling the recording for the new Broken Sword game) tells me she was a pleasant discovery: “she had done an audio guide to a museum impersonating Agatha Christie recently, and it was like she was there in the room.”

The quality of the acting is helped no end by producer Nordic Games excellent localisation of the material, which is an often neglected area of the development process. Given the reliance of the genre on dialogue and story, localisation can make or break an adventure game. By focusing on doing it well, King Art, like their compatriots at Daedalic Entertainment, have proven they are passionate about their games and deserve a large audience in the Anglophone world.

when you get to a certain age a well stocked medicine cabinet is essential

When you get to a certain age a well stocked medicine cabinet is essential.

Split into three parts, the first of which, entitled The Eye of the Sphinx, is being released on PC, MAC, and Linux on July 23rd (with the other two following on 27 August and 24 September and also set to appear on consoles), King Art hope to harness the Episodic structure that has worked so well for Telltale Games to grow an audience around the title. “The reason we chose to release in episodes was to build in cliff hangers and create an opportunity for the community to discuss their theories”, says Marco. With a month between each release the forums are sure to be ablaze with speculation.

The story will also alternate between the police investigation and The Raven, allowing players to experience both sides of the coin. “The Raven’s story will start a little earlier in Zurich station,” says Marco of episode two. “But otherwise it runs parallel”. Strong hints were also dropped during my conversation that there may be more than three episodes in the works if the game is successful, and although the story is currently set in stone, future episodes may allow the writers to adapt the direction of the narrative based on player feedback. With the studio’s ambitions steadily growing a narrative experiment of this kind doesn’t seem beyond them.

The cliffhanger at the end of part one will certainly leave you desperate for more, and this is almost certainly down to the quality of the writing and character building, which fully invests you in the story. Jan Theysen and Marco Rosenberg shared writing duties and have honed draft after draft to produce a tightly wrought narrative. “Everything we’ve added either advances the story, widens the world or defines the characters”, says Marco. The depth of the characters means it really is very hard to determine who exactly might be on the side of the Raven. It seems everyone is hiding something.

Even Inspector Legrand is not without moral wrinkles, driven as he is by a self-centred personal rivalry with The Raven (the perfect contrast to Zellner’s mild mannered attitude, which leads to all manner of problems). The Raven, like Book of Unwritten Tales, pays homage to a larger genre and plays with its conventions in a very self reflexive way. However they never stop at pastiche. Both games have a heart and soul of their own thanks to clever and atmospheric writing and charming art direction.

Battle Worlds: Kronos looks like it will be an interesting addition to the turnbased strategy genre

Battle Worlds: Kronos looks like it will be an interesting addition to the turn-based strategy genre.

King Art are currently riding the high of a successful Kickstarter campaign to develop an innovative looking turn based strategy game called Battle Worlds: Kronos. “Work began on Battle Worlds: Kronos long before we started The Book of Unwritten Tales“, says Marco. “But no producer was interested in it. We learned a lot about Kickstarter and it was a great experience to see the number of backers increasing each day.” King Art have already proved that with a good deal of care and commitment a success can be made from a commercially unpopular genre, and with any luck they can achieve something very similar here. “We love the [adventure] genre”, affirms Marco. “We want ours to be amongst the very best on the market.” No arguments here.