I meet Damjan in a small bar in western Russia. The place is quite dilapidated, and I had to shoot the waiter when he tried to eat my flesh. Otherwise, we enjoy a nice bottle of vodka and a can of spam while we begin to conduct our interview, pointedly ignoring the packs of radiated animals barking down the streets outside in what otherwise is shaping up to be a rather pleasant post-apocalyptic afternoon.
Donut: Right, why don’t you start off by telling you who you are and what you do for The Seed?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: I am Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov, and I take the broader title Game Developer at The Seed since I like to involve myself into different aspects of the game. Mostly I focus on “gameplay” elements, programming the procedural timeline during scenes, adding dynamic elements to scenes etc, SFX and doing the skeleton framework of sci-fi events that lead to the world of The Seed.
“Game Developer” with quotes I guess :)
Donut: So you’re the jack of all trades, master of none?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: I try to be a jack of a few trades, and master at those :) All trades is overly ambitious.
Donut: Haha, sounds about right. So, what can you tell us about The Seed?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Well for us, its our little special diamond that was born out of months of high pressure discussions, brainstorming, long.. oh so long, but pleasurable forum debates, between the teams members. We set out to do something that would change the way we consider books, specifically interactive books. Since most of us started out as modders, we are VERY comfortable with the idea of working within a tight, claustrophobic environment or medium. Some game engines offer wider modding capabilities, but most of them are limited, as is the X-ray engine of the Stalker games, for modders. What we usually do is try to do complex results, as simply as possible, using the least amount of tools and working in the confines of the engine. This, I suppose trained us to work within limited frameworks, doing stuff within the boundaries that weren’t thought possible, sometimes even by ourselves :)
The interactive graphical novel format has much less limits in once sense, as opposed to modding the Stalker engine, since we have next to complete freedom to do anything we want in 2D in the engine we are using. But in another sense, it is still limiting and can easily become a non-video game, if we were lazy. But we love doing this, so we brought all the experience of video games, gameplay rules, balancing, punishment mechanics into a textual format that works like a game, feel like a game, looks like a game, but is an interactive graphical novel.
And it actually motivated us, to do more, work better in the frames and limits of the medium, and see what happens if we don’t take lessons from books, into a game, but the other way around.
Take this example for a better illustration of the idea:
We want to do a FPS interactive novel, how would that work in a textual, graphical context? Well, the whole of the text is narrated from first person perspective, as it is happening. So no easy jumps from difficult situations. If you don’t think well about the choices, you will go through increasingly more grueling experiences. No magical Deus Ex Machina sliding from above, and teleporting you to a normal or safe area.
We retain our style, known in the Misery mod, for merciless realism of sound, events, descriptions. Some of the ethical choices you would have to face, are really fringe and uncomfortable things to think about, and that’s what we mean when we say “bring you to the edges of morality”
We retain the style of Misery, and we expand on it immensely, evolving it even more, since now we have the textual liberty that we didn’t have in Misery.
Donut: So you mentioned how it’s more of an interactive novel. Obviously this is quite the departure from the open world style of Misery and Stalker in general. What lead you to this decision, and how hard was it? I take it there were plenty of disagreements
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Actually we are trying to do an open world graphical novel :) With large, strict causal links, and real effects over the world you play in.
Donut: I should say less open world, but free roam.
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: I agree, more free roam. But when you see the possibilities of branching combinations, you get a pleasant free roam feeling from it all. That’s what we are aiming for anyway. We want different people to have wildly different experiences with the game, and then they can later compare experiences, see what they’ve missed, how someone came to some situation that is more preferable to him, than other.
We are also planning on the actual printed versions of your own personal experience in the world of The Seed. Then you can give your own personal branching choices to a friend of yours, as a noninteractive novel.
Like, “Here dude, look what I went through, what I chose and how I did it”
Donut: So would you say it’s actually more open in the end?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: How do you mean?
Donut: Less limited than say, a Stalker mod or even your own game.
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Well yeah, we intend to do 50 different endings for the kickstarter goal of 15 000 pounds. And these won’t be just minor permutations of the story. These would be completely different experiences, evolved along with the player though the 3 acts.
I am mentioning the goal, since if we overfund to a certain level, we expand on those endings.
Donut: Of course, are any of these endings standard “you’re dead!” endings, is it even possible to really die?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: It’s not possible to die before Act 3 no. You can’t practically “loose the game”. You can either go for a more preferred direction, or a more unpleasant, distant direction. You can take control and direct the characters experiences as much as possible, to explore a certain direction.
Dying would be a show stopper, and we decided to go for a more of a punishment mechanic, rather than “wrong move buddy” and the story ends. This way we can navigate the gray zone of morality even better since “death” in most games is an indicator of doing something wrong. And in the world of The Seed, it’s really hard to see what is wrong. Many times you will have to evolve your own sense of ethical balance, and play in those confines.
Donut: So by the sound of it, there is no ‘good’ ending or ‘bad’ ending per se?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: We are definitely straying away from that, sometimes what you want your character to do, will be a success, sometimes a complete failure. This is grounded in reality, and not morality.
Especially since the social aspect of morality has deteriorated where it isn’t that important to be sociable or friendly, or an altruist. On the contrary, those that are, don’t last long. There are of course reasons for all this that I won’t get into, since they are important plot elements and will be a part of the story in the game itself.
Donut: Of course, so your story can be praised (or criticized) by being very similar to others such as Metro 2033 or Stalker. Your roots in Misery of course play in to this, but how would you say your setting is different than the ones it draws from?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: I’ll gladly answer this question, since a lot of effort was put into world building and subtle sci-fi elements for this story to be very unique. I think after the game is out, and people play it, we won’t get this question asked, for sure :)
Naturally these books and the games have influenced us in many ways, but we try to build upon that, and evolve or even back off and devolve aspects that flow into an original world, a specific, unique experience not covered often, if at all. We draw upon a wider range of media to build upon, rather than just Metro and Stalker. I can just name a few examples: Planescape Torment, Roadside Picnick, The Road, The Walking Dead, Melancholia, Dying of the Light, Game of Thrones.
Donut: A good selection. So what would you say is the most notable part of your game is so far?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Well other than the aspects that I mentioned previously, and the specific nature of the lore and world building, I’d say that the graphical, cinemagraphic aspects of the scenes are absolutely jaw dropping. I say this without a drop of bias since when Nic sent his first scene, post-produced to perfection, having that specific ambient feeling that The Seed delves in great quantities. Ah. Nicolai Aaroe works his stunning, hypnotizing magic on the scenes, and I try to add some movement to emphasize their beauty. For now I’m most awestruck by that aspect I guess. But as we develop further in, we find new things and new ways to surprise each other.
We are also planning some interesting timing of visual transitions of a scene, to correspond with the average readers experience while reading. Audio wise and graphically. Naturally this can’t be overly precise, but there is a trick or two up our sleeves to make that more synced with where you are while reading.
Donut: So what would you say the story is ultimately about? A common theme?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Human struggle, perseverance, the way people adapt to radical change, hopelessness, overcoming obstacles, discomfort, willpower, common themes :)
Donut: So for the last few, let’s move into ‘gameplay’
Many would say it’s more like a novel, or a visual book, what do you think defines it as a game?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: We try to relate, contextually, all the elements for an example of the scene, into the story. So your choice could be a rational one based on what you’ve read OR it could be a conclusion that you’ve made based on what you’ve heard in the scene or in the audio transitions, or a subtle cue in the visual aspect of the scene.
We make everything a part of this world, and it’s really hard to completely call this a “video game”, since interactivity is mostly a string of selections of two branching options, some inventory management etc, but how much you employ yourself to the details of sounds/visual aspects, causal relationships and reason, makes this a full fledged game.
And I’ve seen action games with less interaction than this, casually called video games :)
It might be a more cerebral, strategic maybe video game, and not one where you rely on twitch action decisions.
If you want to have an outcome of a specific nature, for example gain information about the events leading to the present state of things in the world, you will have to think hard, make smart decisions, be observant of all elements of the game, to make the right choice, not right as in “right or wrong”, but right as in, “The choice that you need to do, to get what you want”
Donut: Are things like inventory management a full system or more like standard CYOA games
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: They influence branching, I’m just going to leave it at that
Donut: To top this off, what are you most excited for in The Seed?
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: A disappointing answer I know, but literally EVERYTHING. I can’t wait to start working on the rest of the scenes that Nicolai sends over. I can’t wait to start building concrete situations and expanding on the world. I am dying to start work on the dynamic procedural sound generation aspect of the game, and in fact I’ve smuggled in some experiments before schedule, but don’t tell anyone. :)
I just want to get funded the minimal amount, so I can start work full speed ahead :)
Donut: Er… you know this is going to the public, right? Haha.
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: I know :) but still, everyone that is reading this, don’t tell Nicolai about this :)
Donut: Guys you heard him, not a damn word.
So I think this has been an enlightening interview. Thanks! I’ll be sure to back.
Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov: Thanks Donut, I had fun during this interview :)