The adventure game genre has, for a long time, seemed like a dead one – but it’s seen a resurgence. Games like Telltale’s interactive dramas, Double Fine’s original and resurrected LucasArts adventure IP’s, Wadjet Eye Games’ Resonance and the Kings Quest reboot have put the focus pack on adventure games.
Classic ones have always featured well-defined characters, imaginative worlds, and often illogical puzzles. When they’re done right, they’re funny, charming and engaging. They’re a genre of games I grew up with – having spent much of my youth stuck in Sierra and LucasArts’ brilliantly inventive worlds.
And I’m not alone. Two South African gamers are making the sort of game they grew up with, the sort of game they wish was still around. It’s a point and click adventure that – at first glance – looks like it could have come from LucasArts themselves.
We chatted to Louis Du Pisani and Graeme Selvan from Robot Wizard, developers of a new South African made adventure game called Jengo.
“Jengo is a point and click adventure about (real world gamer) Jeff who finds himself lost in the Pixelverse, a land of forgotten game characters,” says the game’s synopsis. The universe is falling apart, and it’s up to our unlikely hero Jeff to save it.”
To me, it looks like it’s more than just inspired by LucasArts – to the point where it possibly crosses past homage. (The protagonist’s name is also spelled completely wrong)
Creative Lead Louis says that’s not quite the case, though they do harbour a great deal of love for the genre, and for one of its biggest masters.
“When Graeme and I discussed making a game back in 2009 we instantly agreed on making an adventure game purely for the love of the genre,” Louis told us. “When we make game design decisions for Jengo, we look at all the adventure games we’ve played to pinpoint what worked and what was frustrating about them.”
They’re not just trying to crib what made those games so good though.
“Tone wise this game is quite different to Monkey Island and its LucasArts peers purely based on the protagonist Jeff and the world we’re creating. Art wise I have a massive respect for guys like Peter Chan and Bill Tiller but besides the artwork being 2D I think it’s all quite different. The quirkiness of 2D art however is the visual charm of these kind of games and the LucasArts people were the masters of it. So in short, we pay homage to the Adventure game genre and not any individual titles.”
And though it’s got more than just nostalgia driving it, it does aim at to bring that old adventure game feeling back.
“We want to give people the feeling of those old school point and click adventures,” says Graeme.” When I look back on my childhood gaming memories, the Lucas Arts adventures stood out as some of my best gaming memories. I really do love it when people look at our game without any form of encouragement and arrive at that conclusion, it’s been our goal from the start so we must be doing something right! “
It may look like a classic Point and click adventure in stills, but it won’t really look or feel like one when you actually play it.
“While our game has that old school look, it certainly won’t play like one. We have spent a lot of time working on our UI and our animation system, we definitely are getting a lot more frames into our animations than any other point and click I have played recently,” Graeme asserts.
So it’s a game made with old adventure game sensibilities – blending a worthwhile narrative with sometime illogical, mind-bending puzzles. That, however, may not really resonate too well with modern audiences who didn’t grow up with these types of games. The game, however, isn’t really being made for those people.
“I’m treating this like writing music,” says Louis, former Knave bassist and vocalist, now with The Drift. “We’re making a game for ourselves – otherwise how could we be genuine to the project? So we’re making a game for people like us, lovers of the genre and if we manage to switch on some people in the ‘modern audience’ then that’ll be a pleasant bonus.”
Like the games that inspired it, it’ll feature comedic writing, which is a tricky thing to pull off. It’s very easy for things said in the name of comedy to come off as offensive, or to use cheap and nasty jokes. That’s not the intent here, obviously – but it’s something its developers are aware of.
“A sense of humour should not be neutered because of selective online outrage or activism,” Louis says. “We’re also not making this game for the easily offended nor the morally bankrupt. Repression is regression in this case – so again, we’ll make the game we want to make with jokes that make us laugh.
We won’t aim to offend nor will we dilute the content. Our content is not about making jokes about dead babies, it’s a game about an old-school gamer in a gaming world that pokes fun at retro gaming tropes, so we’ll go about it as such. “
Graeme, who’s largely handling development duties, agrees.
“We are making the game we want to make; If we worry about what everybody thinks our game may never see the light of day,” he says. “Our goal right now is to maintain our vision and focus on producing something we can be proud of, right now that’s going swimmingly.“
One thing that struck me is that in the game’s marketing material, there’s a poster that features scantily clad women, which seems to, perhaps aptly, borne of the lad culture that was so prevalent in the 90’s. It was something I had to ask about; if the team is perhaps worried that the art sends the wrong message.
It doesn’t just exist so that they can have a picture of a woman with her tits out, assures Louis.
“I think it all comes down to context,” he says. “The woman in the poster is meant to be a ‘bombshell’ character that forms part of our game’s folklore, who is the ‘object’ (and we use that term with a sense irony) of admiration of one of our other NPC characters. Was her character made purely for marketing? No. She’s integral to the story. What would Roger Rabbit be without Jessica Rabbit? A character without motivation.
It’s still quite a while out, but it’s shaping up nicely. Because of how the team is structured, and the burdens of horrible things like day jobs, the game will be released in episodes.
“There are “a total of 5 chunky episodes are planned to tell our pretty elaborate story,” Graeme says. “While we would absolutely love to push out the game in one finished product it’s just not practical for us, we are a small team that work on the game in-between our day jobs and weekends. Getting it into gamers’ hands is a pretty big deal for me, the sooner we can do that the better.”
Yes, like many local developers, they’re in this for the love of games. Though it’s a relatively young industry at the moment, that’s very rapidly changing, and Robot Wizard wants to be a part of that change.
“It amazes me how many passionate developers we have here. It’s unfortunate that our local industry is not bigger to be honest. I think it’s partly due to South Africa not offering game development degrees, most of the people I meet are self-taught game developers. Our dream is to fit in locally and fit in well. I envision Robot-Wizard growing the industry in their own way, by employing and empowering local developers. Hopefully in a few years’ time it won’t just be Louis and I making a game! “
I also had to wonder what the hell a Jengo is.
“We battled with a title for a long time,” Louis says. “It was when we decided to add a folklore element to Jeff’s story that we landed on ‘Jengo’. Tone wise I’ve always enjoyed Spanish/Mexican folklore so that was our departure point. Jeff is a gamer, ‘game’ in Spanish is ‘Juego’, so we just worked our way from there… “
Ethics disclosure: I have known and worked with Graeme, one half of Robot Wizard for years – as he works in video game PR locally. He’s also a bit of a knob.