[Interview] Indie developer Seb Burnett talks Bertram Fiddle, Kickstarter, and Victorian murder mysteries
A recent indie game has found success with an unusual formula: mix together a Kickstarter, one bumbling Victorian explorer, an episodic murder mystery, and more bad puns than you can ever imagine.
That game is Bertram Fiddle, an indie point-and-click adventure from Rumpus Animation, and it's quite possibly one of the finest point-and-click comedy murder mystery adventure games set in Victorian London you will play today.
Bertram Fiddle follows the eponymous Bertram Fiddle, a "leading Victorian Explorator." In the first episode, A Dreadly Business, Fiddle attempts to bring to justice Geoff the Murder, a serial killer terrorizing London (who also mistakenly kidnaps Fiddle's dog Foofy). With the help of the loyal one-eyed manservant Gavin, this brave yet graceless hero must navigate the stinking alleyways and stuffy parlor rooms of the city to catch Geoff.
One of the most striking features of Bertram Fiddle is how honestly fun of a game it is. In an era where AAA game developers often obsess over realistic atmospheres that are gritty and washed out, or add violence to raise the emotional stakes, Bertram Fiddle just aims to be a good time. It has both a sense of joy and a carefully polished feel about it - an intelligently written game that delights in how bad its own puns can be (see below).
The Steam trailer for Bertram Fiddle Episode 1: A Dreadly Business
In the whirlwind following his Kickstarter's successful fundraising, I spoke with Seb Burnett, Creative Director of Rumpus Animation and the main driving force behind Bertram Fiddle. Episode 2: A Bleaker Predicklement was officially a go, just under a year after the game's debut. Burnett and his team are hard at work again creating another thrilling tale for their brave adventurer.
The Game of Bertram Fiddle
Michael Falero (MF): Who is the intended audience for Bertram Fiddle? The first episode, A Dreadly Business, seemed to share elements with the quintessential Pixar movie, where the visuals and story appeal to a younger set while the humor of the writing and dialogue entertain the parents.
Seb Burnett (SB): I'd like to think Bertram could be for everyone. The visuals are cartoony, but in a slightly dark and twisted way. We put a 12+ rating on iTunes as there are a couple of references to smoking, violence and a couple of slightly risque jokes. But we were being over-cautious I think. I'm happy for my six year old daughter to play it. But it's up to parents to decide what is suitable for their own children. The humour is typically British and quite gentle. I didn't want to fill it with rudeness for the sake of it. And our biggest fans are players who remember playing the original Monkey Island games and who are in their 30s.
MF: Do you think there’s a significant audience out there for games that rely primarily on humor and sincere storytelling? It seems many modern adventure games either go for as much grit and realism as possible, or else they’re concerned with being witty and ironic.
SB: I think there is room for all sorts of games. We like making funny stories and that is what we've tried to do - although as humour is subjective it is quite tricky making something EVERYONE will find funny. We've made the story and world that we wanted to and hoped people appreciate it.
Looking Back on Episode 1, Looking Forward to Episode 2
MF: What sort of player feedback did you get from Episode 1, and how will that feedback figure into the changes you’re planning for Episode 2?
SB: Most feedback was positive. People love the world and characters, especially Gavin. The biggest criticism we've had, which I agree with, is that it is too short. The original story was longer but we had to cut some scenes because of budget. Episode 2 has more scenes, more puzzles and more characters. A Dreadly Business was the first game we ever made so we've learnt a lot and are going to make A Bleaker Predicklement so much better!
Episode 1: A Dreadly Business debuted in December 2014 to positive reviews, with coverage by the Guardian newspaper, IGN, and IndieGames.com. It also maintains a "Very Positive" Steam rating on 127 reviews; players praised its art style, polished animation, and engaging story. Many also noted the relative ease of the game's puzzles and its overall length, running somewhere between one and two hours of gameplay.
Talking with Seb, it becomes clear that Bertram Fiddle is a character who is very close to his heart. Seb is involved with nearly every part of production: writing, illustrating, animating, and directing the series as part of the small team at Rumpus.
MF: You’ve said in previous interviews that you’ve been developing the character Bertram Fiddle for a long time, long before this project. What are the major sources of inspiration for him? He seems to be more Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes, and we even see the contrast when the latter shows up in Episode 1.
SB: Yes, he first appeared in an animated film I made as a student about ten years ago. He's the stereo-typical bumbling British Explorer/Detective/Eccentric. Like Peter Cushing in At the Earth's Core. He has a strong sense of right and wrong (which may not be right or wrong) and doesn't like to try new things - but is driven to explore! As a Victorian Explorator he can literally go and have adventures anywhere and I've got several other episodes planned. He just needs to catch Geoff first. Bertram is also semi-autobiographical and I put a lot of my own life into his stories. Although I'm not saying what bits.
MF: It’s hard not to compare any modern point-and-click adventure game (including Bertram Fiddle) to the classic Sierra games like King’s Quest. In what ways does Bertram Fiddle differ from those classic titles?
SB: As we're just a small team we can't compete with the sheer scale of those original games, but they have certainly inspired us. I made some decisions along the way (which some may not agree with) to not use a dialogue tree and use as few cutscenes as possible. I wanted to keep the gaming flowing as much as possible. In hindsight though, it needs more choice and branching narrative options, but we're gong to remedy that in the next episode.
Bertram Fiddle's Kickstarter Success
MF: As part of the Kickstarter for Episode 2: A Bleaker Predicklement you announced a partnership with the German game developer Deck13. In what ways do you hope the partnership will improve upon what you’ve already done in Episode 1?
SB: Deck13 are great. They've helped us promote Episode 1 in Germany and we decided to partner with them at an earlier stage this time as they have much more experience than us with puzzle games. Bertram is my baby though and I've warned them I may ignore all their suggestions, but it is good to have someone to offer advice.
In his pitch for the game's Kickstarter, Seb details how the money would serve as an investment to expand the scope of the series. With the help of backers, Bertram Fiddle could afford full-time animators, more background art and improved (nay, "puzzlier") puzzles. And over the course of a month, the fans came through for him. Here's a Kicktraq breakdown of the project's fundraising:
MF: Finally, your Kickstarter reached its stretch goal of £28k, meaning that the character Emmelina Snoopsworth will be getting her own adventure. What can you tell us about that planned expansion? Is Ms. Snoopsworth a no-nonsense detective who’s allergic to punny humor?
SB: Emmelina is getting her own quest. It isn't a full-blown adventure, exactly, but will be a section that relates to the overall story that Emmelina investigates on her own. Our idea, at the moment, is that there is something lurking on the moors and it is up to Emmelina to bring a stop to it's reign of terror. She's fast becoming one of my favourite characters. As an "investigatative" reporter for The Evening Burble she won't stand for any nonsense and is more than a match for any man. Especially Bertram.
Seb and Rumpus Animation have set a September 2016 release date for Bertram Fiddle Episode 2: A Bleaker Predicklement, with planned support for PC, Mac, iOS and Android devices. While fundraising is now over, you can still check out the Kickstarter page, as well as the Bertram Fiddle website and the game's pun-tastic Twitter handle for more information about the series.
Kickstarter images courtesy of Seb Burnett.