The production of a videogame is a process that is often misunderstood. Film and television have become so ingrained into society that we can watch ‘making-of’ videos with full size sets and rigging, actors repeating scenes over-and-over and computer wizardry in action for special effects and yet still be swept up in the will to suspend disbelief for hours at a time. Videogames aren’t so transparent. We might occasionally get a behind-the-scenes look at an Assassin’s Creed motion-capture set or commentary from the voice actors of a new Mass Effect space opera, but these are the elite. More often than not the more interesting stories come from those titles which you may not think twice about.
The Perils of Man is one such title. To the casual observer it’s simply a point-n’-click adventure videogame with an interesting look; one of an overwhelming large number on iPad. And yet, were the development team at Boutiq to put out a ‘making of’ trailer The Perils of Man would have a very different story to anything you might be imagining.
“We were approached a little bit more than a year ago by a big insurance company in Switzerland.” Offers Mike Huber, Game Director on The Perils of Man. “They said: ‘hey you guys, we love your work as an animation company. Could you do a game?’”
And with that, Boutiq had a whole different challenge ahead of them. The studio had developed a reputation for delivering punchy CGI trailers and shorts that are of a standard easily comparable to Hollywood productions despite the relative lack of public awareness – Boutiq may produce animation of a quality that is on a par with Pixar, but it’s certainly not on the same scale – and yet here they are being asked to move from passive to interactive without even the merest suggestion of how the transition could be made.
“We were inspired by their approach… we decided from the get-go that if we were going to do this is would just be an entertaining game. We wanted total freedom, so we said ‘if we do this, we want to do the story and the whole idea.’ We wanted it to have a darker tone, so we went back to them and said ‘this is our idea: imagine there’s a world where some people can predict every single thing – every single risk – what would a world like that be?’” Adds Huber.
The Perils of Man tells the story of Ana Eberling, a young girl attempting to solve the mystery of her father’s unexplained disappearance. Ana discovers a machine that can analyse the algorithms of time, revealing your potential future and thus giving you the opportunity to change it. A central conceit of the videogame is the ability to ‘timewalk’ to historical locations and important landmarks of invention.
“One of the mechanics that we’ve built in – playing to the whole concept of ‘risk’ – is that eventually in the story Ana discovers the basement: a secret laboratory in which her grandfather, a scientist, invented this technology that lets you visualise the world of risk. How things were connected. Because in risk engineering it’s never one tiny little thing that causes a catastrophe, if that happened we’d all be dead!” Proposes Nathan Ornick, co-founder of IF Games and producer on The Perils of Man. “It’s always a combination of things: this went on and this thing here should’ve stopped it, but now you get this thing here and it all has a cascading effect. A chain of events that leads up to something terrible. And so being able to visualise this – seeing some of the things that might cause these problems – is analysing the world of risk. To be able to see it [Ana’s grandfather] invented these goggles.”
With the use of these goggle the videogame switches to a first person camera, making use of the 3D world within which The Perils of Man’s story plays out, and the player is given the opportunity to examine the environment. In an example given to Electronic Theatre a candle burning will be glowing to suggest there might be danger. The player can then interact with it to gain knowledge of the risk and subsequently remove the goggles and counter its potential hazard.
“The puzzles are there to fit along with the story and the narrative. It’s not a game that is a bunch of puzzles with a little bit of story to string it together; we wanted to make it very intuitive.” Offers Ornick. “We’ve built the game so that there are always several channels of puzzles that you can be solving, otherwise it can get frustrating. But if you’ve got multiple things to figure out you can just go on to something else and maybe in the process think about the other puzzles.”
The videogame features all of the expected staples of the point-n’-click genre, such as hotspots that show areas of potential interaction, item collection and combining, interaction with artificial intelligence (AI) characters and an indirect control of the player’s on-screen avatar, but The Perils of Man also features plenty of unique touches that set it aside. Its characters are bright and colourful and its environments are bursting with incidental detail. It’s a believable world despite its cartoon styling simply because everything feels like a natural, cohesive part of the whole.
“Something we wanted to do with the visual stuff is to have a fluid camera as much as possible. One of the things I hate about adventure games is when you’re in a room and you can do some stuff in that room but then you want to go to another room, and it’s like… wait. Load. And you never feel like you’re in the world.” States Ornick.
Boutiq’s specialist videogame development studio, IF Games, has countered this by creating a smooth scrolling world. As the player moves from one room to the next the camera automatically pans, keeping your on-screen avatar in the frame but revealing the landscape ahead. It’s a simple system that has been used before, but still feels fresh here on a tablet.
“Adventure games on the iPad – or a tablet device – in a lot of ways is a very intimate way to live in the game.” Suggests Ornick.
And this is likely to be the most self-aware analysis of a project a developer would ever offer their own product: The Perils of Man is limited by the hardware upon which you play it, but not by the imagination that has gone into setting the scene and building the story that you will experience. And all of this, from the simple idea of building a videogame around the ‘world of risk’ to the character of Ana, has been created with the silent backing of Swiss Re, the insurance company that prompted a sudden change of direction for an established animation studio.
“Even though the game has been developed for an insurance company, this never comes into it. The word ‘insurance’ just isn’t part of the game. It’s not branded in any way.” States Ornick.
“There are a lot of brands out there that step outside of traditional advertising. I mean, in Hollywood there’s a lot of branding going in movies that’s really subtle. There’s branding there but you just don’t know it.” Adds Huber.
The Perils of Man has an interesting story to tell, but is also in and of itself and interesting story. It’s a videogame of subtleties in that the player must explore on-screen in order to find the root of Ana’s troubles, but away from that world is a much bigger story of inviting innovation in areas where there previously was no thought to even consider it. The Perils of Man is set to launch on iPad later this month, and you can be sure that Electronic Theatre will keep you updated with all the latest details from IF Games.