Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Francisco González - Grundislav Games
Interview by Chris Picone, 03 May 2018
Please note the following abbreviation:
AGS – Adventure Game Studios
Francisco González, the one-man game-making machine, joins me to talk about his studio Grundislav Games, his impressive portfolio of adventure games, his time with Wadjet Eye, and upcoming game Lamplight City.
CSH: Tell me about Grundislav Games. Are you a one-man studio?
Francisco: I am! Grundislav was my high school nickname (it’s supposedly the ancient Germanic form of González) so I used it as my online handle, as well as an identifier for a studio name. In the past, I’ve just made games doing mostly everything myself, except for music and voice acting. When I made adventure games as a hobby, I’d find people to help me out on the internet. Nowadays, it’s mostly the same, although I work with a casting director to hold auditions and find local (NYC) talent to come record at a studio. I’ve worked with a few actors repeatedly, but I always try and bring new
people onboard for a bit of variety.
CSH: I am incredibly jealous of your talent. I’ve been writing stories and developing game systems for years but have found myself debilitated by my complete lack or artistic talent (I can’t even draw a reasonable stick figure). Now, I have to ask: Why adventure games? Why pixel art?
Francisco: I grew up playing the classics from Sierra and LucasArts, and always wanted to make my own! I fell in love with the adventure game design of talking to people, solving puzzles, collecting items, etc, and always felt it was the best medium for telling stories. As far as pixel art, in addition to just really liking the look of it, it’s easiest for me to produce as a one-man show. There’s definitely something to be said for nostalgia contributing to the staying power of pixel art, but I also think it’s a perfectly valid art style and shouldn’t be discredited because of the low resolution.
CSH: Couldn’t agree more. Ben Jordan was your first Adventure Game Studios (AGS) game, right? Was it also your first ever game?
Francisco: It wasn’t! I started playing around in AGS in 2001 and made my first game for a community series called “Reality on the Norm.” The idea was that every game took place in this wacky village, and there were community shared assets like backgrounds and character sprites, all done in a very simple style so anyone could contribute, regardless of art skills (or lack thereof) The first game I made was about a pirate named Hooky McPegleg who comes in search of “The Lost Treasure of Reality on the Norm” (the game’s title). I made it in a few days, and it was a lot of fun!
CSH: Fast-forwarding seventeen years: You have quite a few games behind your belt now. Care to tell us a bit about each of them?
Francisco: The Ben Jordan series are 10 free to download and play adventure games (8 originals and 2 remakes) about a young college graduate turned paranormal investigator. Each game is a separate case, and takes place in a different part of the world, where Ben investigates real life local legends and/or folklore. I started the series in 2004 because I wanted to see if I was capable of sticking with a long-term project. All in all, it took me 8 years, but it was a great learning experience for all disciplines of adventure game design!
A Golden Wake (AGW) was my first commercial project, and one that’s very personal. I mentioned I grew up in Miami, and I’ve always been fascinated by the odd history of the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, which was a crazy time when people migrated south in droves and all sorts of shady characters and mobsters were using the South Florida area as a playground. I thought this would make a great backdrop for an adventure game, so I decided to make one set against the founding of Coral Gables, America’s first planned community. You play as a real estate agent named Alfie Banks who comes to get his piece of the pie, but soon finds himself overwhelmed by everything. It’s very much a slice of life/rise and fall story, and not your typical adventure game about a mystery or saving the world.
Shardlight was my foray into the dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre. Originally, I had the idea to make another historical adventure game set during the Black Plague, but after chatting with fellow game designer and artist Ben Chandler, we reshaped the idea into a future post-apocalyptic setting ravaged by a disease. We decided to team up and make the game together, and came up with Shard light. It’s a story about a young woman named Amy who’s dying from said disease, and who starts off doing a job for the “vaccine lottery,” trying to see if she can win a dose of vaccine. She soon becomes involved in an underground plot to overthrow the corrupt government known as the Aristocracy, while also finding out about a mysterious figure of legend, and overall just trying to make the world a better place for herself and her loved ones. Also, there are fops.
CSH: I understand you developed Shardlight while working for Wadjet Eye Games but left soon after even though the game was quite successful. What can you tell us about your time with Wadjet?
Francisco: Working with Wadjet Eye was a great learning experience. The studio had also published AGW, so I was more or less left to design the bulk of the game on my own, with some input from Dave Gilbert as we got later into production. After AGW was released, Dave hired me on as a full-time designer to develop Shardlight, which Ben and I had already pitched to him. He was more involved in that project, playing builds and giving notes more frequently, but I still had an enormous amount of creative freedom. Learning how to work on a team and listen to input and feedback from others was also a very enriching experience. Unfortunately, it’s a niche market, and having two full time employees wasn’t feasible, so I was let go after Shardlight’s release. But I will always be grateful to Dave for getting my foot in the door and letting me make this my career.
CSH: What did you do for work before you became a professional developer? Did your experiences have any influence on your games?
Francisco: Immediately before, I had been working as a Spanish interpreter for four years. This meant that I would translate for people in legal disputes (trials, depositions, mediations, etc.). While it was interesting work, it soon made me incredibly jaded and cynical about things like insurance fraud and the legal system in general. I haven’t quite harnessed those feelings creatively and put them in a game yet, but maybe someday!
CSH: That sounds awfully similar to Mark Yohalem’s backstory – you two should totally team up and make an adventure game about Ned Kelly, or Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade. Seriously though, you’ve also made several other games as part of other collaborations. What can you tell us about those?
Francisco: They were a lot of fun! And also challenging because we were working to a deadline. Thankfully, everything managed to turn out okay. I worked on a couple of games for competitions on the TIGSource forum. The first was a game called “Little Girl in Underland” for the Retro Demakes competition. I did the programming, and Erin Robinson did the art, design, and writing. It was a silly cartoony demake/Russian parody of American McGee’s Alice. Later on, I worked with Edmundo Ruiz on a game called “Back Door Man” about a male prostitute and his night out on the town, which was for an Adult/Edutainment competition. On that one Edmundo did the programming and I did
everything else. We were a little pressed for time so we weren’t able to make one of the episodes as complex as we wanted (two of them have several ways to solve them and have multiple paths) but in general I was happy with it, and it was well received.
CSH: You also have a collection of “mixed, random” short games on your website. There are a few interesting titles there, what’s the story?
Francisco: A lot of those games were made while I was taking breaks from the Ben Jordan series, and were fun little methods of decompressing. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t run on modern machines, which is no great loss, but they were fun to make. Especially “The Easter Bunny’s Splendiferous Adventure” which isn’t so much a game as it was just a reason for me to animate the Easter Bunny’s head exploding in a horrible gory mess (you don’t want to know).
CSH: Most of those games seem to have been made for the “MAGS” competition. What actually is that, and what does an experienced developer get out of entering such competitions?
Francisco: MAGS is the Monthly AGS competition, which has been going on since the early 2000s. It’s pretty much a game jam, where a topic is chosen and participants have one month to make a short AGS game incorporating the theme. I entered a few of them, mainly because they were good practice and a fun challenge. And despite being called competitions, they were all done in fun, so it was a nice community building activity as well. I’ve gotten to know and meet a lot of great people through the AGS community.
CSH: You seem to dabble in a variety of genres. Do you have a favourite? Where do you get the inspiration?
Francisco: I seem to have gained the reputation for being the “history” guy, so I guess I like historical fiction the best. At the very least I always like incorporating some sort of real world historical elements into my games. I’m most inspired by the Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword series, and their ability to weave history into their stories.
CSH: What about other mediums – have any books or movies influenced your work?
Francisco: Definitely! A Golden Wake was inspired by Glengarry Glen Ross and There Will Be Blood, and Shardlight was very much inspired by Children of Men and V for Vendetta.
CSH: There’s a question I ask in every interview, and I ask it again now: Making games is a process of learning as much as creation, a fact which the progress from the Ben Jordan games to Shardlight and the remakes of the first few Ben Jordan games make abundantly clear. You’re almost finished developing your most recent game. What mistakes did you make and what will you do differently next time, knowing what you know now? Are there plans to remaster any of your other games?
Francisco: At this point, having been so immersed in the project for so long, it’s tough to gauge what the mistakes are. Usually that’s something you realize once the game has been out for a while and you get player feedback. However, my current project did teach me several things about art and about writing characters. I had a wonderful narrative consultant who edited my writing and pointed out weaknesses. Hopefully I learned from that and can apply it to future projects. As for remasters, I’ve thought about it, but at this point I want to focus on new ideas. Maybe someday I’ll go back and revisit old projects.
CSH: I always save the best for last: What can you tell us about your upcoming game, Lamplight City?
Francisco: It’s a detective adventure where it’s okay to fail. It’s inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, and is set in an alternate steampunk-ish “Victorian” past. You play as a former police detective turned private investigator who begins hearing the voice of his dead partner, and is desperately trying to find the man responsible for his death so the voice will go away. There are 5 cases to solve, each with multiple suspects and leads, and it’s entirely possible to get everything right, accuse the wrong suspect, or completely mess up and declare the case unsolvable. However, the game will continue and the story will change somewhat based on your choices.
CSH: Tell us a bit about the main character?
Francisco: You play as Miles Fordham, a middle-aged detective who is currently having a very rough time. He feels guilty about his partner's death, constantly hears his voice in his head, and has no idea if it’s a ghost or if he’s just going crazy. He tries keeping himself busy by taking cases under the table from his only friend in the police department, but has no idea how long he can go on, especially since the only way he can quiet his dead partner’s voice is by taking a sleep medicine which hinders his abilities. All this is putting a strain on his marriage and relationships as well. As the player, you get to choose how Miles gets out of this mess or digs himself an ever-deeper hole.
CSH: Lamplight City is due to be released very soon – next month, I believe. What’s next on the cards?
Francisco: Not quite next month, but I’m hoping to have it out in the summer. I already have an idea for my next game, but for now I’m going to keep my cards close to my chest. I will say that it’s something I haven’t seen done too often in adventure games and I’m excited to take a crack at it. It’s set in the same world as Lamplight City, but is a completely different genre, so it’s not a sequel as much as it is a spinoff.
Thanks for the talk, Francisco! You’re a very interesting guy. I stumbled on Shardlight in a Wadjet bundle, loved it, hunted you down to see what other games you’d made, played through Golden Wake and am now working my way through the Ben Jordan series. Can’t wait for Lamplight City – not long now!