How Live Action And Player Choice Are Being Used To Create Something Unique In Hush: Crane
We chat with the co-founder of the studio behind Erica and the new Hush: Crane about their unique development style.
With Erica, Flavourworks introduced a new way to make games by using film-quality live-action footage, with real actors, in order to tell its story. The studio is back again with Hush, a brand-new crime noir story sporting the same live-action format as the 2019 thriller Erica.
Hush's first chapter, Crane, is now available, following a hitman named Bambi and his run-in with a femme fatale from a rival gang. It's only ten minutes long, but it's the first in what will be an anthology of stories all set in the same city during the same night.
Player choices will change the overall story, but rather than having major impacts in the heat of the moment, the choices here will instead ripple not only through the rest of the individual stories, but through the other separate stories as well.
While Crane is the first of the Hush anthology, there are plenty more stories to tell in this crime-ridden city. GameSpot recently spoke with Jack Attridge, creative director and co-founder of Flavourworks, about Hush, Erica, and why live-action storytelling is at the core of the studio's vision.
We discuss how Flavourworks approached development on this new title, from the initial idea to its current Galaxy Store exclusivity. We explore why the team sees Erica as a "project zero" rather than a "first game," what lessons the team took from Erica and implemented into Hush, and how the game approaches key mechanics like player choice and heavy action sequences.
This interview was conducted via video conferencing and edited for readability and clarity.
GameSpot: Walk us through Hush and its first chapter, Crane. How is it different from Erica?
Jack Attridge: It's really an extension of what we planned to do with Erica. My background is in game design and also in filmmaking, and when I started this studio I wanted to do something that stood out in this space: marrying film and games in a way that was more progressive than the old FMV formula. We really took contemporary game design into consideration, while making sure that there's a real cohesion and harmony between the film and game elements. We also built the Touchvideo technology from the ground up to be able to achieve that.
We're building a team, building a studio, talking to publishers, investors, and lawyers, all while building a technology from scratch. It's like building a train track while the train is going; figuring out all of these unprecedented problems is the exciting place to be for me, rather than working on a tried and tested formula. Erica was our first project, and it did a lot of what we wanted it to do while bringing millions of players, but we saw it as "project zero," where Hush is "project one."
Hush, for me, is really taking some of the lessons learned from Erica and using them to refine our storytelling capabilities through the technology, and to do something that was quite different tonally. Erica was a thriller, while this is more of an action-noir with romance mixed in. Hush is technically a guilty pleasure love letter to noir tropes, something like Sin City. The way that story is told, you're spending five minutes with one character, then ten minutes with Bruce Willis, then ten with Mickey Rourke, etc. It's telling separate and different stories about the city, and I love that idea.
It occurred to me that this approach could solve one of the problems with interactive narrative, namely the idea of "choice" and "consequence." When you're making choices in a game, you want to see them pay off as consequences. The thing that gamers have a sixth sense for, is that sometimes those choices are more shallow than others. Obviously if every choice mattered you'd be branching the game off to an infinite degree; Erica for example was serious in its branching and multiple endings. Normally though, the first ten minutes of a choice-heavy game are usually the most branching parts of the game that set up a precedent for how the game will play out, but after that the player sort of takes the game's word for it. At some point they actually have to tell a story and tell you the most important parts of it.
What I realized is if I took a character on a journey for ten minutes, while I'm riding the subway or before I go to bed, if my character dies, or a love interest dies, or I do something there's no coming back from, I don't have to have that choice ruin the entire experience if the next 20 minutes of the game in a completely different character's story. For me, it became less about a singular antagonist like in Erica and more about this nocturnal city with a lot of crime going on.
The first story is Crane, and it takes place during the same night as the rest of the Hush stories. You're playing a character named Bambi, who is a hitman for a gang and ends up in a Romeo and Juliet-type situation with a femme fatale in another gang. You're driven to a point in the episode where you have to choose between love or loyalty, and then you'll get a couple of dramatically different endings depending on your choices.
With every game we want to push the technology more, so with Crane what I wanted to try and do was an interactive shootout in live action. Knowing that live-action gives you different leanings in terms of gameplay; in games we're so focused on things like traversal, whereas in film I can do a close-up of lots of water, get all of the nuances of the bubbles, ripples, etc., and get a different sort of aesthetic. So in this firefight you're not so much worried about how good you are at aiming, instead you're looking at the guy through the bullet holes in the table you're hiding behind. Film gives us a lot of freedom, and it's all running on a mobile phone.
You're exclusive to the Samsung Galaxy Store at the moment. What thought process went into going exclusive there? What about the Galaxy architecture, or even Samsung themselves, appealed to you?
While we're big fans of Apple--we released Erica there and we have more projects coming there in the future--we hadn't brought Erica to the Galaxy Store in part because it was a massive game. On PlayStation alone it was 40 GB, which is huge, and we didn't want to compromise on quality. We said "we'd rather you wait for another game, which trust me will be a good thing."
One of the technology breakthroughs we've had is a sort of game-streaming system, that means you can be playing while content is being downloaded to you, and then you can decide whether or not the content stays on your device or is deleted. That's been a very big plus for us, as it solved one of the worst problems with using live video: the size of the files. We wanted to get Touchvideo working on Android, so we thought we'd try the streaming technology and Touchvideo together to prove we could get it working on that platform.
The Galaxy Store folks loved what we did and were really keen to give us support. We can also gather data on what people like and don't like about it through analytics and the end survey, and it allows us to improve the game before launching the game in full. In terms of the broader release of Hush, we haven't made any decisions on that yet but I imagine the goal will be to try and bring it to as many people as possible.
Getting back into making a "game" versus an "interactive movie," do you find development costs to be higher, lower, or around the same using your format, as opposed to traditional development?
Neil Druckmann, who directed The Last of Us and has been a great support to our studio, once said that the sequence in Uncharted 2 where you're trying not to fall out of a collapsing building cost just as much to develop as the photo booth scene from The Last of Us Left Behind with Ellie and Riley. Animating high emotions in games is usually very costly, with only a handful of games able to pull it off whereas animating an action sequence is the bread-and-butter of 3D despite being super expensive in real life. Erica and even Hush, as non-live-action games would have likely cost far more, but now we're our own worst enemy and we like pushing the needle by adding shootout sequences to Crane, and it's like doing one of the harder things in filmmaking, and then making it interactive.
There are some other benefits, like the quality of props and costumes, that save us on things like rendering costs and other areas. On the flip side, there are some disadvantages that don't surface in games: For example, I can't have an option that would result in my character getting a black eye, because then I'd have to shoot every scene after it twice, once with and once without the injury. We are rather obsessed with scene transitions, camera cuts, and how they can impact the flow of a scene, so adding a layer like a black eye would make production far longer.
Hush is an episodic story, with Crane being the first. Do you know how many episodes there will be, or is the story still being fleshed out?
The story is still being written, but I think our plan will most likely be that rather than release each 10-minute episode separately, we'll just release one full experience under one game. When that game launches you'll choose which story you want to play in any order, and the idea is despite them being different characters in different stories, the choices you make will affect the other stories. The events in Crane won't have a major impact on the story, however. Instead we've employed smart and subtle ways the events of previous stories will surface. Perhaps you'll overhear something that references a prior episode, or you'll see a ticker scroll on a TV that mentions events you played through. Every story echoes into one another without completely shattering each other. You're free to roam while inside the stories themselves, with Crane being a more modest episode among the rest due to it being our first one, but that's the kind of experience we want to bring to people.
Depending on the order a player chooses to experience these stories, could the passing references to other stories also work to tease or hint at events that will take place?
There's a little bit of teasing in Crane, though people won't know what to look for or which characters to expect to pop up somewhere else at the moment. On the surface it's Bambi's story, but that world is considered deeper than that, like there may be a rival gang that gets a focus in a future episode that's only mentioned here.
You mentioned that each episode is only about 10 minutes long, what went into that decision?
We wanted each experience to be bite-sized, rather than a full 2-3 hour story arc. One of the biggest problems in games is I could take a vacation just to play games, but if these were games I'd previously started I'll have no recollection of where I was or what I was doing when I stopped playing it before. I'd be halfway through storylines with no thought on how to proceed, so not only am I stuck but I'm also disoriented. Erica was only a 90-minute playthrough with 300 minutes of content, so you only had to play five or six times to see everything, but even then you'd play through the first 90 minutes, have to play through the first 10 minutes or so of the game again, then start to branch to new content. With each episode being shorter, people can go through the motions each time with less friction between finishes. "Quality over quantity" is how we look at it.
Say I play through the 10-minute Crane episode and somehow he dies when I'm finished. Meanwhile, there's a scene in a separate episode where Crane and a new protagonist cross paths. Will there be some sort of save game analysis that will know what happened in one episode and apply it to another?
Absolutely! We'll be echoing the reality of things that happen in each episode, but if the events of one episode happened before Crane, then you may find yourself interacting with characters that you know have died, they just haven't gotten to the part of the story where they died yet. That story idea echoes a sort of Pulp Fiction-esque non-linear approach to storytelling, where some characters will come back later in the movie.
Could you also then have a situation where the player doesn't know where in the story an episode plays out until the very end? For example, at the end of the third season of Lost, we didn't know the episode was showing a flash-forward until Jack meets Kate at the end. Could Hush explore a similar idea?
That's an interesting idea, and the truth is I haven't decided yet. The way I envision Hush right now is a sort of vista of the city, and each light in each building is its own story. You can tap them in any order, and when you tap in it might give you the title of the episode or the time of night it occurs, since they all happen on the same night. However, if we just turn that timer off, it could either get incredibly confusing or incredibly intriguing, and we'll have to walk that tightrope. The flexibility of this format is what makes me so excited about it, I genuinely don't think anyone has done anything like this before.
There are multiple endings to each of these episodes, but given the flexible nature of the game, is there one ending permutation that the studio considers to be "canon" or the "correct" ending?
You can imagine how much I've thought about this--and the whole space, to be honest--for the last few years. We have a "gold standard" book of guidelines for how our games tick and what we want to avoid. For example, you'll play games where based on the choice you make, completely unrelated things in the reality of that world will change. It's like the world is tailoring itself to you rather than your choices creating a butterfly effect. We're very much "butterfly effect only;" we can't change the color of these walls because you said you liked blue rather than pink, there has to be cause and effect.
With Erica, there's multiple paths where you've seen a scene unfold, but you could have seen it from the beginning, halfway through, or the end, and from either this door, that balcony, or hiding in that cupboard. Perspective and timeline, everything you know and don't know leading up to it, all color your reading of that scene. When we branch, we don't want people to just see something different for the sake of it, we really believe in coherence across the entire story. There are coherent "canon" events that happen, but the player can absorb them from different places and at different times. There are moments that are cause-and-effect, but the moment there's an established "canon," then I feel like the other paths lose integrity and merit. The belief at Flavourworks is, if it can be done as rigidly as a movie, let's not make it.
Even though all of these episodes are separate stories happening on the same night, will there be a point in the story where they converge? Is there an inflection point or endgame that each story leads up to in its own way?
It's possible, I don't want to lean one way or the other while we're still writing the story. I think the important thing is that while you're playing through the stories, you're sort of writing them yourself. Everything is compatible with everything else, but sometimes that might mean an opportunity is closed off to you because the two characters that had to be there for it to happen are unable to be there at the same time because of the ripple effects of previous episodes you have created.
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