What comes to mind when you think “live-action” and “video games”? For some of you, this idea will take you back to the lofty days of early video games and FMV (full-motion video). Perhaps the infamous Night Trap. For most people, the only real experience they have had with a story they can interact with are from Netflix specials of varying quality, such as the novel, if flawed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch or the downright bizarre Bear Grylls – You vs. The Wild. Most of these experiences are cartoonish and clumsy, with even the more serious attempts like Bandersnatch never fully exploiting the potential of this kind of storytelling.
For Jack Attridge, co-founder of Flavourworks and director on the company’s 2019 hit Erica, interactive storytelling in this medium isn’t a gimmick or a fun quirk. It’s a lifelong passion. Bringing cinema and video games together to create experiences truly unique in their approach and delivery, all whilst pushing artistic and technological boundaries within both fields. After the success of Erica, Flavourworks is moving onto its new title: Hush. Hush promises to be an upgrade on Erica in every department. For NME, Attridge spoke about the technology of Erica, improving gameplay in Hush and the future of interactive cinema.
As with all creative endeavours, the journey from inception to release for Erica was one built on passion, commitment, dedication, and heaps of good timing. Before Erica was announced at Paris Games Week 2017 as part of Sony’s conference that year, Erica started out on touch devices, as Attridge explained.
“The very first thing that happened with Erica was that we built a demo for an iPad. For touchscreen. What I had in my head was a user interface akin to The Room by Firewood Games. Marrying that with a branching narrative experience. Then I gave a pub demo to one of my old bosses from Rebellion, who was then working at Sony. He told me that Sony was looking for something like this, and asked if I wanted to come in. This was a few months later and, honestly, I couldn’t even remember showing him it!”
Sony ended up loving it, Michael Denny, the VP at the time, said it was the best pitch he had seen in years. They then flew us to San Francisco to meet Shuhei Yoshida, who was the president of PlayStation, so he could play the demo and make sure we weren’t lying about how it works. He gave us a poker-faced nod, the thumbs up and a challenge: how would you bring this to the living room?”
It was this challenge – transitioning away from mobile devices to console hardware – that led to some interesting mechanical thought processes, but ultimately presented a challenge in ensuring Erica’s approachability stayed intact.
“With the DualShock controls, we were originally playing around with the idea of using gyroscope controls. It’s something I think is really interesting, games like Dreams and Tearaway use gyroscope to great effect, but in the end, we thought it was a little too advanced for some players and for me, I wanted to make sure we made something that my sister or my dad could play.”
“Part of my game design philosophy now is to make sure we make games for everyone. With video games, there are a lot of layers of abstraction. That means that we as gamers get used to having one stick move a camera whilst one stick moves the person. But that stick doesn’t have an association with walking in real life. If you have never seen a controller before you couldn’t possibly imagine that those sticks are meant to make you walk.”
In the transition from mobile to consoles, Attridge decided to still incorporate touch controls within Erica, whether by using the touchpad on the DualShock 4 or by downloading the accompanying Erica app to use as the input device. Attridge cleverly utilised the prevalence of touch screens within the modern world and partnered that with relatable, real-world actions to ensure that all players, whether seasoned gamers or not, could join in the story. As soon as Erica was released, the metrics proved how effective this model was.
“At the beginning of Erica, it opens with a zippo lighter. We don’t tell the audience how to use it but that sequence has a 100 per cent success rate because they know how a touchscreen works, because they’re everywhere, and they know how hinges work in the real world because that lighter is a model from the real world not a layer of abstraction. For the same reason, we don’t want buttons at the top of the screen, even when there’s a dialogue choice it fills a space in the world, so it’s all a part of the environment.”
Erica, and all of its real-world assets throughout the game were made possible thanks to Flavourworks’ decision to make an in-house engine, named “Touch Video”, rather than relying on an established engine like Unity or Unreal. While, on the surface, the decision to create a bespoke engine looks like much more effort, in the long run this process actually ended up freeing up Attridge’s programming time on Erica, in a way that traditional video game processes do not allow for.
“With the touch controls, what we were doing was circumventing weeks or months of programming. For example, making an interactive book that has to be modelled and programmed; just turning the page of a book is a lot of work! If you put the effort into animating that book then it’s kind of game dev practice to litter that book throughout the game. Because you don’t build a mechanic unless you’re going to use it over and over again. For us, everything interactive was bespoke. It would take me roughly 15 minutes to film that book opening, tune it to the game engine and then boom – now we have a book mechanic. I can then use that mechanic to open a door, turn a handle, pull a trigger on a gun, and more. We build a few of these systems underneath that we can then film hundreds or thousands of different contexts and then reuse that code and those tuning tools each time. That means we have absolute freedom, not having to rely on copy-pasting a mechanic all the way through the game. It’s been an escape from that language of game design.”
This freedom shined within Erica, leading to good overall sales, praise from industry veterans like Cory Barlog and Hideo Kojima and the financial ability to expand and start working on new projects. Before any new projects could start, however, Attridge wanted to make sure the environment he and his team worked in was as good as it could be.
“The first thing we wanted to do after Erica was to make sure we created a better working environment for people, because people make games and greatness comes from people who are being treated well and fairly. Erica was project zero for us, we were building a company at the same time as building a game engine, building a team and building a genre. It was an overly ambitious first project. So now we have processes and structure in place that have helped create a much more sustainable and positive work environment.”
The next step is to understand what could be improved upon with Erica. Making engaging, meaningful live-action video games is somewhat untested ground. A lot of processes and decisions made in Erica needed to be fine-tuned, starting with how often a player is tasked with making a choice. This is a process that Attridge has thought about extensively, and has aimed to solve with Flavourworks’ next title – Hush.
“The important thing for us is that we don’t want you interacting every 5 minutes, because by the time you get to that choice you have forgotten you are playing. You lean back into viewing mode, whereas when you’re engaged you’re leaning forward. The moment you’re leaning back too far and you have forgotten you’re playing a game, you could potentially not be in the mood to play anymore. You’re not always in the mood to play, sometimes you just want to watch, so our goal is to keep the viewer’s minds in that playing state. If you’re absent for too long it breaks the flow and decision-making is less organic, especially if a choice is not meaningfully integrated. So in Hush the player will be engaged every 10 – 15 seconds so that they are always engaged and ready.”
Hush will also present its narrative in a more distinctive way than Erica. Whereas Erica was one story with multiple branching decisions and choices, akin to a choose your own adventure storybook, Hush will feature a series of short, 10 minute stories that all take place on the same night in the fictional city of San Rosa. Attridge frequently compared the experience to Frank Miller’s Sin City. The first story, titled Crane, presents two lovers, both alike in dignity as they share an intimate moment before separating back to their respective gangs. The immediate jump in production quality is apparent early on, as each scene is beautifully shot in 4K, with transitions between scenes, a part of FMV game making that is typically clunky and cumbersome, presented smoothly and elegantly. This is in part due to a bigger budget, alongside technological leaps forward with the Touch Video engine, ensuring that every act the player makes is as meaningful as it can be.
“With Crane, every single interaction pushes the story forward. It’s never something like “walk from one side of the room to the other.” It’s always something that feels interesting, different and important. They’re all really enjoyable moments that the haptics brings to life, from intimate character moments to spinning the barrel of a gun. Then halfway through this episode, depending on the pathway you take, you can get into a live-action gunfight. To do that we have 3D photogrammetry objects in real-time partnered with live-action video where the environment is being shot apart. You’re hiding behind a table with holes being shot through it.”
This is the most intense part of this initial story. Decisions are being flung at you left and right. Whether to duck for another point of cover, to peak out and shoot, to hunker down and pray. All decisions gamers would normally make with an avatar with no severe consequences. But with Crane, the very fact that this is a real human being presented to
you psychologically raises the stakes astronomically. Then on top of that is the very real threat of failure. Unlike Netflix’s Bear Grylls – You vs. The Wild, where no matter how hard you try, you can’t actually get Mr Grylls to fight an alligator to death, a wrong decision in Crane will get you killed and that ends the story. That’s it. You move onto the next story, with the echoes of that failure ringing out on news feeds across San Rosa in the other stories being told that night. It’s a fascinating way to innovate on the technology and storytelling capabilities the Touch Video engine can offer. This technological improvement has also been applied to the backroom processes of creating this game, to ensure that the high fidelity filming of Flavourworks’ projects never results in bulky download sizes.
“We have also been looking at the technology behind these experiences. Erica, for example, was 40GB as a game on PlayStation because it’s HD video and there’s lots of it. Every time you engage with an object it’s filled with thousands of frames of fidelity. It’s not like you swipe and it plays a clip. Everything is tactile and simulated physics with multiple layers of design. This resulted in a massive file size. What we’ve done with Hush is implement a small download size and then stream in the footage as you play. This allows us to create more without fearing the download size becomes unsustainable. That was a real breakthrough for us with regard to our back-end technology.”
Crane will be released to Samsung Galaxy owners free to play. The roll-out of this first story is something that Attridge is cautious to get right, and he wants to make sure as many people as possible have the opportunity to try it out once it is ready for general release.
“With Crane, we’re putting it out there to get people’s thoughts and show people what our technology is about. It’s not going to be there as a piece of marketing for the bigger thing as the full release of Hush is a while away. When the stories are completed we will not be staggering the release of them. I don’t want to call them episodes because they can be played in any order with different characters portrayed across this one city. When it releases it’ll be just like buying a game, but the sections within the game are broken down non-linearly.”
The future for Flavourworks, Hush and the technology as a whole is an intriguing one. Attridge hinted at other projects the team is working on, ranging from in-house games like Shackles, a horror title that Attridge tells me will follow a more linear story and explore the touch technology within lighting and sound, through to paid partnerships with 5G providers and European television broadcasters. Attridge showed how the engine can be applied to more traditionally passive artforms. Attridge showed NME the engine working alongside a classic action movie, making the fight scene seem more dynamic and kinetic. The most impressive part was seeing the engine’s educational capabilities when paired with a children’s tv show, making the characters and scenes interactable. Our children and our children’s children have and will continue to grow up alongside touchscreens, so it only makes sense that the shows they watch evolve beyond bad CG remakes of Noddy to something that can both keep them occupied whilst helping them improve dexterity and grow intellectually.
“The thing that drives me on every project is wanting to work with amazing people. Wanting to show them something they haven’t seen anywhere else. When we started the company we asked ourselves “what can we do that isn’t already being done?” I like to think about it like Pixar, though I wouldn’t compare ourselves of course. But when they made Toy Story they mastered rendering plastic. Then Monsters, Inc it was fur. A Bug’s Life it was translucency in leaves and foliage. Finding Nemo was water. Each story pushed the technology forward. If you go to make a Pixar-type movie now, a lot of the groundwork for this technology exists thanks to the work they did before. There are already devs out there making amazing platformers and traditional shooters, what we want to do is make something that is different. I am really grateful to be able to do that.”
Crane is available to play for free now for all Samsung Galaxy owners.