Interview with a Developer: Javier Cabrera of Cabrera Brothers, Creators of Cypher
Recently I interviewed Javier Cabrera, of the Cabrera Brothers. Their latest game, Cypher, was one of few commercial text adventure releases in the last several years. Cypher is a cyberpunk adventure that will appeal to any fan of the Blade Runner or stories set in similarly futuristic urban environments.
Cypher is constructed in Unity 3D and has a distinct graphical element that also separates it from most text adventures of today.
The Cabrera Brothers site is a testament to their game, and features all of the information about the different collector edition packages you can get featuring DRM copies of the game as well as digital hint books and other goodies.
GameSkinny [GS]: Why did you choose to use Unity rather than a text adventure engine? Did you have to create your own parser?
Javier Cabrera [JC]: Amanda! Thanks for the interview and sorry for the delay, it has been crazy around here lately. Actually, we went for Unity3D because we were already making another game with that engine; one that’s in production right now and we’ll be launching for iPad/PC/Mac next year. When your team consists of only two devs, working on a single project can make things difficult over time, so you need to change the mood a little, just to get the creative juices going again, and since Unity3D was our weapon of choice… well, it was not a difficult choice. It was kind of crazy now that we think about it in retrospective because we made the first and only 3D commercial text adventure.
GS: Why a text adventure?
JC: Text has always been a good part of the gaming industry. Today every game has 3D animations and visual effects, but the best games, the ones we remember, the ones we used to play when growing up were text-only (or involved text as a big part of their game design) so the choice was natural to us.
Cypher started as a “choose your own adventure”, only we didn't use Unity3D for it but jQuery mobile and was going to be an iPhone exclusive instead of a PC / Mac game. We worked on Cypher for a week or so and then dropped it because of work. The game slept in that dark place where unfinished projects go when we devs get busy with other stuff. After six months we decided to dust it off and give it another shot, this time we had Unity3D around since we were making the new game and thought “hey, why don’t we do something with it this weekend?” That weekend became four months pretty soon and Cypher was born.
JC: Believe it or not, the movie BIG was a huge inspiration for Cypher. For those of you who don’t remember the movie, it was a Tom Hanks flick in which he played a text adventure as a small kid. “The Cavern of the Evil Wizard” was the name of it and when I saw it back in the 90’s my heart skipped a beat. The image of a graphical text adventure
stayed in my unconscious for a long time.
Then we saw Blade Runner (in Spanish!) around '98 or so. Another epiphany. Then I saw Johnny Mnemonic, read Neuromancer, played Sega and Nintendo games and was deep into the Cyberpunk world, but the text adventure stayed there too, see? Something was growing inside my head until one day at office I was working late on some web design and was all alone.
Somehow Infocom’s The Lurking Horror found me. It has been one of the best text adventure’s I’ve ever played. It basically screwed up late office hours for me because walking down that hallway in the dark became impossible for me. It has that 1980s feeling that you don't find around anymore in games or movies. Hackers were anti-social nerds back then, not hipsters. The game fired up all those memories that accumulated in the back of my brain during all those years and before I knew it, I was typing a short draft for Cypher.
GS: Was choosing to make Cypher a text adventure partially due to nostalgia? The game does have a certain Blade Runner quality in tone and theme, and text adventures are considered a tiny bit old fashioned.
JC: You got it: it was mainly because of nostalgia. We wanted to bring something we used to love and couldn't find on the shelves back into our lives. You can’t fight time no matter how hard you try. Kids growing up today with Gears of War and The Last of Us will know this fact somewhere down the line tomorrow when they are 45. They will have PlayStation16 and XBOX 3000 in their living rooms and the games will be something strange for them again. They won't get as excited as they used to. They will look back and remember how cool the games they played in their youth used to be. How great those series and movies used to feel. There’s only so little we can do about it when we grow up; one solution is making our own games and movies. Since making movies is almost impossible, we went for games. That’s why you’ll see a Blade Runner / Akira vibe on Cypher; our own little time machine.
Cypher is not old fashioned though. You have graphics, sounds, digital feelies, puzzles and other bits that will help you immerse into the world of Dogeron Kenan (the main character of the game). While there is a text parser in the game, everything else runs on a 3D engine, so we think it is far from being an old fashioned game, though it is a text adventure for sure.
GS: Rock, Paper, Shotgun said that the pricing was “brave” because in the last few years interactive fiction is traditionally priced either free or extremely cheap. Why did you choose the $15 base price?
JC: It was not only brave, but crazy. Like they say, most text adventures are free nowadays and no one would ever think of a commercial text adventure at $15, especially with iPhone text adventures being under a dollar.
But Cypher is different, so we had to charge it different. There’s a huge production value behind Cypher, anyone who bought the game can tell you that. From visiting our website you already know Cypher is going to be something you'll enjoy and remember for the rest of your life, not only because of the story but because of the graphics, sounds and overall atmosphere.
Cypher has been called “the evolution of text adventures” and I think that is a very accurate description. The game is not your usual “you're standing in a forest” kind of setting. You drag yourself through sewers, fight cops, jump off buildings, get into a firefight in a Yakuza nightclub, talk with prostitutes for information, walk through a crowded Japanese market and other bits of the gameplay I don't want to spoil.
GS: What is your response to people who believe the text adventure is dead? What do you think it still has to offer gamers?
JC: I say they're nuts. Genres never die, especially in gaming. We see it happen in movies all the time. Just until a few years ago everyone could be quoted saying small frogger-like games were dead. Now look at Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, etc.
Text adventures are no different.
They offer a style of gameplay you don't get from any other genre since with text adventures you use your own imagination to see the locations, characters, etc. It is not a “passive form” of entertainment where you sit back and let the game events unfold. With text adventures YOU are there. It is YOU who move through the world and talk and run and shot and jump and take all the important decisions. It is you in your mind who gets to see all the action, and it’s different for every player. At the end of the day, those memories will stay with you like an old dream you have once had. It’s beautiful and no other form of entertainment can get close to interactive fiction in terms of reality. Interactive fiction has a lot to offer in the future and we can only hope to see more games being developed.
GS: Do you believe there is political or anti-corporate commentary in Cypher, and if so, what is it for you?
JC: Cypher has a very political anti-corporate commentary indeed. The city of Tokyo has been renamed NeoSushi City after the NeoSushi corporation, who saved not only Japan but most of the planet from an impending doom when an asteroid collided with the moon and the resulting dust almost killed the entire race upon entering earth’s atmosphere. In the game, people become disappointed about how the politicians reacted during the “cracked moon” crisis and chose to be represented by the corporation who saved the planet so they end up granting those corporations with a huge amount of power over their lives. Somewhere down the line, giant corporations will try to get into politics and I have $50 bucks here that says Google is going to be amongst the first ones to give it a shot.
GS: The choice to have the right side of the screen dedicated to visual additions and to have a consistent and appropriate soundtrack are among the most celebrated aspects of Cypher. Why did you choose to do this rather than a more traditional black and white text adventure?
JC: Carlos and I are artists in what we do. We like to think things from a different angle. I write, design and code and Carlos does art production. We never do stuff like everyone else does. It is just boring for us. We saw the opportunity to have the screen divided anywhere with Unity since it is a 3D engine and we thought “hey, why don't we make it vertical instead?” That’s how many of the design decisions happened. Curiosity.
When we make a game, we are also having fun, we are also “playing”. It is not about making documents and having meetings, it is about sitting down and talking about what would be “cool” for the game. It is about having fun with what you're doing and trying new stuff. You can't make a game if you are wearing a tie and go for the usual approach because “everyone else is doing it”. If you can't jump off the cliff, better stay at home.
GS: Is there a Spanish language version of Cypher, and if not, is that in the cards?
JC: We speak Spanish ourselves and the game is English-only, what a shame! ;-) A Spanish version of Cypher may see the light someday but not right now. We simply don't have enough time since it does not only entail translating the text, but there’s a lot of coding involved in the equation too, and we rather focus our time on our next game (which, will be translated to Spanish for sure).
GS: What did you do with Cypher to get around a lot of the traditional text adventure problems of battling with the parser? How important are the printed guides that you include with the game?
JC: We never tried to solve any problems with Cypher but to provide a new experience for new and old players of text adventures. The parser was done specifically for Cypher so it is limited to the game interactions; through after the first couple of screens people get used to the commands pretty quick and get to finish the game without problems, something that didn't happened with most text adventures where you had to battle with the parser during the entire experience and never got used to it enough to get through the end. That was a big aspect of it. We wanted people to finish the game. In that aspect, we think the parser worked pretty good for us. Of course, you can’t avoid having some of the players frustrated either because they are used to today’s games or because they are big interactive fiction fans and were expecting us to come up with the perfect technology that could be used for other text adventures, but it doesn't work that way.
We never wanted to solve any existing problem with Cypher, we never sit down and said “hey, let’s make this one the king of text adventures” or tried to set a standard. We made a fun adventure you can play on a Saturday night with friends and have a ball, that’s all.
One guy was just telling me the other day how he played Cypher at the airport and people kept asking him what game was he playing because they saw him so immersed with his little netbook. That’s a pretty good compliment and something other games struggle very hard to accomplish.
With text adventures this happens immediately. Printed guides are essential for the game. You need to use them to solve some of the puzzles and to know the world background; but beyond that, they give the game a certain 1980 atmosphere you won’t find in today’s market.
GS: What do you hope gamers take away from playing Cypher?
JC: We hope they enjoy the genre, have a great time and find our job interesting. We worked really hard on Cypher and I believe it shows. Right now some magazines are giving Cypher the title of “one of the best 30 text adventures of all time” and we couldn't be more proud of it. A new version of Cypher is in the pipeline too, only it's not going
to be a text adventure but a full graphic adventure.
GS: What projects are you working on next? Will you continue to make text adventures?
JC: We are not going to make a new text adventure for the time being. Maybe in the future. Right now we are working with Carlos on a horror graphic adventure and have a second part of Cypher in the pipeline. Hopefully, we can share more about all this pretty soon. We can only say the horror adventure is that it’s going to be released for the iPad, PC, Mac and Linux.
Visit the Cabrera Brothers site here to learn more about this innovative game and to grab your own copy today.