How Broken Sword broke the Da Vinci Code code

GDC Online 2011: Series director Charles Cecil details the process of writing engaging games that merge modern-day drama with historical fact, like his own Broken Sword adventure games.


Who was there: Revolution CEO and Broken Sword series director Charles Cecil gave a presentation at the 2011 Game Developers Conference Online on the potential of gaming fiction based in historical fact.

Cecil's approach to storytelling is spiking serious stories with humor.
Cecil's approach to storytelling is spiking serious stories with humor.

What they talked about: Cecil launched into his talk by explaining his approach to adventure games, which focuses on serious stories with humorous characters and situations. He originally got into the genre wanting to offer a counterpoint to Sierra's serious efforts, he said. He also expressed relief that LucasArts hadn't tried its hand at the same formula at that time, as their efforts would likely have intimidated him greatly.

Cecil started with a celebration of 1981, calling it "a truly great year," what with the first launch of the space shuttle, the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, ketchup being counted as a vegetable in US school lunches, and the debut of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He showed the audience the clip of the film's iconic boulder scene (or rather, everything in the scene leading up to the boulder's debut), saying it was a perfect model for adventure game designers.

Cecil talked about the 1981 debut of the ZX81 computer with its 1kB of memory, and how Raiders of the Lost Ark served as his inspiration for his first adventure game, from publisher Artic Computing, the simply named Adventure 'B.' Clearly, the marketing of the game was wanting, but Cecil emphasized that the game itself was embarrassing as well. Despite that, Cecil said fans have come up to him since the game's release and gushed over its story, even if most of the details they pointed to were imagined by the player rather than included in the original text adventure.

Cecil returned to Raiders of the Lost Ark as a model, saying the plot could tell everyone what they needed to hook them in half a minute. The ark is a relic of enormous value with mystical powers, with an abundance of details to flesh out the mythology of the item. What's more, there's a background of conspiracy behind the ark and its history, which creates a web of themes that link together nicely to attract the audience's interest, and give modern-day villains a reason to pursue the item. For Indiana Jones, the ark would make the Nazi's armies invincible, which was reason enough for the adventurer to pursue the item himself. All of that together laid the groundwork for a perfect adventure game, something Cecil would use as the basis for Broken Sword.

Fast-forwarding to the actual development of Broken Sword, Cecil said the game was conceived with the game's publisher a full decade before Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code. Cecil pointed out that Brown has very serious lawyers and he would never suggest there was any plagiarism whatsoever, but added that he's happy to hear other people suggest the same.

As for his own approach to design in adventure games, Cecil said he finds that medieval history is often stranger than fiction, and leads to extraordinary ideas. He tries to ensure the locations he visits in games are aspirational, like the cathedral of Notre Dame with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Cecil said he loves Paris and hopes his passion for the city translates to the game, since he attempts to translate his love of its history into the games he makes. Broken Sword also features the catacombs of Paris, full of 6 million Parisian skeletons sorted into "beautiful" patterns.

Cecil said he discovered quickly that when writing historically, an author has to take sides. While he depicted the Knights Templar fairly negatively, Cecil said he loved what the group originally stood for. To reconcile that with the need for villains in Broken Sword, he changed the game to portray the Knights Templar as a group that was originally commendable and pure, but became a corrupt and evil force in the world.

As for what he has learned from writing adventure games, Cecil borrowed from screenwriter Robert McKee to describe his games as multilinear. One of the things Cecil attempts to do is give players the illusion of freedom by giving them tasks that they can accomplish in different order (like collecting the three separate pieces of a treasure map). He also tries to make sure players have multiple objectives, something they're trying to achieve immediately, and something that's on the horizon (what Cecil called a "10-minute goal"). He also talked about maintaining an expectation gap. If people get what they expect with any frequency, Cecil said audiences tend to get very bored.

Cecil then talked about the notion of "privileged knowledge," which works in films to create tension. For example, in a slasher movie, the director may show the killer lurking in a closet as a potential victim searches the house. In the movie, that works to raise tension because the audience can't control the victim. Once the audience is put in control of the victim, it doesn't make sense or build tension to give them that privileged knowledge because they would never open the closet door then. Privileged knowledge can still be used in games, Cecil said, but it has to be done in such a way that the player's actions are never free enough that they could behave in an illogical manner.

Getting back to Broken Sword, Cecil talked about the game's critical and commercial reception. Originally released in 1996, the game averaged reviews in the high 80s. It was the first and last time in Cecil's life where he told the publisher it would be ready when it was ready. That worked for a year before the publisher cracked down, but for a time, he had the time to get the story right instead of meeting milestones. Cecil said the first of the four Broken Sword games was the best of them, specifically because they had time to get the story right before worrying about a release date.

Cecil singled out the DS version of the game, saying working with the touch screen was fantastic despite his initial skepticism. It also helped make the game fresh for the iPhone version, which he said averaged a 91 review score on Metacritic. The game was released in early 2010 and has done well enough that Cecil can now self-fund future games. It has also helped reestablish a direct link with his audience, he said.

Bringing the talk back around to The Da Vinci Code, Cecil said the book and film were his boogeyman. The film "captured the zeitgeist of the modern age," Cecil said, combining spirituality with a mistrust of organized religion. While he credited Brown's story with a number of masterful strokes, he was less than thrilled about the notion of the Priory of Sion, saying it had absolutely no foundation in truth. Having read up on the concept before making Broken Sword, Cecil said he had considered using the notion in the game, but skipped it because there hadn't been a shred of truth to it.

What Cecil is after is the next zeitgeist, the same way Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Da Vinci Code anticipated the public fascination. However, Cecil said there are a limited number of historical subjects worthy of the same treatment, and it's extraordinarily tempting to go down the road of the supernatural once the well of ideas starts running dry. Cecil referred to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, saying the 700-year-old knight at the end was a bit of nonsense, leading to a Metacritic average of 71. As for crystal skulls and aliens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cecil's only comment was that the Metacritic average was 55 percent.

Finally, Cecil showed a fairly crude 13th-century map of the world used to sail around the known world, calling it a metaphor for the game industry.

"As long as you've got a map that makes a little bit of sense, you can go to amazing places."

Quote: "If you can't get excited by your subject matter, then I suspect that you're not going to be able to get your audience excited, either."--On the importance of developers caring about the focus of their games.

Takeaway: Cecil said that movies and games can learn a lot from one another, but techniques in one cannot be blindly applied to the other. Developers need to take care when adapting one to the other if they want to properly re-create their vision and share it with the audience.

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