Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Richard Cobbett - Author, creator of Nighthawks
Interview by Chris Picone, 21 September 2018
Recently, Richard Cobbett – long-time gaming journalist and game writer for the Sunless series – teamed up with Wadjet Eye Games (developer of the recently released point-and-click Unavowed) to create a new text-driven vampire RPG called Nighthawks, which is on Kickstarter right now! The game looks pretty damn promising, so I hit Richard up for a chat about his inspiration, as well as some or the decision making behind the game’s design, including combat, vampire powers, character development, social interactions, and the dreaded “save-load dilemma”.
CSH: Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, tell us a little about yourself?
Richard: Well, I’d say probably most folks know me from my games journalism days – well, years (18 or so, to be more accurate), when I wrote for places like PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Edge, IGN, Eurogamer… a whole ton of them, living and sadly dead. A few years ago I somewhat-accidentally slipped into games writing with a guest gig on Sunless Sea and then pretty much just refused to leave. Since then I’ve mostly written things with a heavy story focus, like The Long Journey Home, Silent Streets, Not Tonight, and of course, Sunless Skies.
CSH: That’s an impressive journalistic portfolio, from a gamer’s perspective. Are you ever not writing? What do you do for fun?
Richard: Heh, honestly, I’m pretty quiet. I always enjoy making things, playing games, reading books on weird and wonderful subjects, and alternately making a fuss of and annoying my cats. I also pun, relentlessly, shamelessly, and without any chance of stopping. In terms of inspiration, it tends to come from folklore, mythology, and more practically, from having a long history of seeing a whole hell of a lot of games that may not have been great, but had great ideas. A lot of my starting points are things like “Okay, that almost worked, but…”, trying to combine journalistic deconstruction with creativity. And puns. Obviously. Many puns.
CSH: While looking for the Nighthawks website one evening, I stumbled across an apparently famous Edward Hopper painting with the same name. The artwork was strikingly nocturnal and a thought occurred to me – is this where the title came from?
Richard: Yeah, the name is definitely inspired by the painting, which has been my iPad wallpaper for years. It’s such a wonderful image that hints at so much. However, as often with these things, it actually just started as a codename. The first build of Nighthawks was ‘Project Nighthawks’, because everything sounds cooler as a project, and I needed something. But I never found anything I liked better, so Nighthawks it remained.
CSH: So far, you’ve been trickle-feeding us lore through your Kickstarter updates. What else can you tell us about the game? Who are the main characters?
Richard: Nighthawks is set in a modern city where vampires have been exposed to the world, and both they and human society are trying to figure out what happens next. You play a regular, broke vampire who starts out in a shitty hotel on the wrong side of the tracks, and Nighthawks is about your slow rise to glory through the ranks over the course of about three years of game time, and the part you play in those big decisions. You’re not any defined character beyond that. Actually, aside from name, you don’t make ‘you’ at all, but rather your Sire, choosing the traits that came through the blood. This is to make it as easy as possible to role-play whoever or whatever you want (within the limits of the fiction), even if you’re someone who games don’t typically offer a chance to be. This is a crucial part of the Sunless games, and one I’m proud to be continuing. Everyone deserves to be a badass vampire!
And of course, there’s plenty of others out there too, including Madame Lux, the vampire stage magician, Maze, a con-artist turned cult-leader, former pirate queen Inez… I like to design NPCs who could carry a whole game on their own, and Nighthawks is very much a game about stories rather than expansive lore. Whether you treat it as a power fantasy or a tale of personal horror is up to you… though most players will likely land in the middle.
CSH: Beside the Hopper painting, what were some of the other key inspirations behind Nighthawks? On your Kickstarter page you mentioned World of Darkness, and the “masquerade” in particular seems obvious, but I think I’ve also detected a hint of True Blood, and some more obscure sources, maybe Forever Knight or Legacy of Kain? In what way do have these sources of inspiration helped shape the game?
Richard: Vampire: The Masquerade is obviously a huge one, and in particular 2004’s Bloodlines. Our world is very different - we don’t want to tread on White Wolf’s toes! - but it’s definitely true that without Bloodlines there would likely be no Nighthawks. Along with Anne Rice, it’s also arguably the series that defined the image of the ‘modern’ vampire in peoples’ eyes, both in itself and in the franchises that likely took inspiration from it, such as the Underworld series. Other big ones for me including Being Human and Ultraviolet (the British TV show, not the terrible movie), which chimed with my personal interest in the social side of vampire life and what a horrible experience it probably would be.
In terms of games, the Sunless series is obviously huge, along with just about everything from Bloodnet to Legacy of Kain to Vampyr. I cherry pick a lot. For instance, Quest for Glory IV has one of my favourite game vampires in the form of Katrina, the antagonist whose evil plan is rooted more in loneliness than anything else. A lot of the time it’s a case of looking at what I don’t like rather than what I do, and figuring out ways to improve it, especially when it comes to life simulation, but I think there’s endless inspiration to be had from the games of the past that weren’t necessarily huge AAA releases even at launch. Most recently, I’ve been replaying the Yakuza games courtesy of 0 and Kiwami, and remembering how much I love their ‘side-stories’. They’re definitely on my list.
CSH: On your Kickstarter page you also mentioned a few surprising sources of inspiration, including Fallout and Baldur’s Gate – where do they fit in?
Richard: Fallout and its ilk are primarily an inspiration for their freedom and focus on choices, with mechanics that allow you to do interesting things rather than just follow a path. Baldur’s Gate 2 offers the basic structure (though it’s more complex!) of building acts of the story around general Objectives rather than a dedicated path - the challenge being something like paying your hotel room bill or impressing an elder vampire, with the stories you encounter being means to do that which also bleed back together through choices.
CSH: How did the collaboration between yourself and Wadjet Eye come about?
Richard: I suggested it, pretty much. I’ve known Dave for years, and we’ve been looking to work on something together for most of it. He’s one of the writers in the industry whose work I respect the most, so he was a perfect person to act as exec producer and sanity checker.
CSH: We all need a sanity checker. I can’t help but notice that many of the screenshots are reminiscent of the point and click genre - has the gameplay or concept changed any as a result of the collaboration?
Richard: Not really. Dave was very much into the concept as designed. The art style and interface are designed around allowing us the most freedom and responsiveness possible, and you just can’t beat text for that, while still looking lovely with 4K animated backgrounds and other fun additions like our huge character portraits.
CSH: Budget normally drives a lot of the developmental decision-making, but with 4K animation at your disposal, why have you opted for text-driven gameplay?
Richard: Text is very underrated. It allows for more freedom than any graphical system, which is particularly irksome when playing a modern RPG that more or less boils down to just walking to an arrow and beating up anyone standing next to it. It also allows for wonderful responsiveness to player decisions and builds. In our game for instance a regular player might go to the opera and just get “You hear opera in the background.” A player with a more Cultured background would get “You hear an acceptable performance of Bizet’s Carmen.” That’s a tiny, tiny example, of course, but a good demonstration of how the experience can mould itself around you rather than forcing you into a set role. It also makes it endlessly easier to do fun things like NPC scheduling, life simulation, and social interactions than a graphical system would be able to. It doesn’t hurt that much of my past work is text based, of course, so I can prove that I have some form there!
CSH: Okay, down to business. I’ll start with what must seem like a random question, but it’s an issue with CRPGs that’s long been a bugbear for me. Inventory management is typically an afterthought in RPGs and the main issue appears to be trying to juggle realism with convenience. Is there a way to make inventory management a useful feature that actually serves to enhance the game instead of being just an interface option? And what inventory management system will we be seeing in Nighthawks?
Richard: Honestly, this is a huge issue, and tough to answer succinctly! Nighthawks isn’t really an inventory driven game though. You’ll have things like weapons and armour, cash and so on, but it’s primarily a favour-driven economy, with objects there to be picked up, used and disposed of rather than taking up space. Where possible, I’m trying to stick with what a regular person could reasonably carry with them and conceal in a coat, and you’ll usually be solving problems in more direct ways than messing around with pencils and newspapers to poke a key out of a door and so on. (You’ll never be doing that one of course, because I hate that puzzle and anyone who implements it should be fired into the goddamn sun.)
CSH: Death by solar oblivion seems like an extreme reaction to poor puzzle design, but if that’s the world we live in, that’s the world we live in. How do you plan on evading the same fate? What makes a good puzzle, and will we be seeing any in Nighthawks?
Richard: A good puzzle for me feels like part of the environment, and tells you something about it rather than just being an obstacle in your way. Nighthawks is really more about ‘problems’ than puzzles though - dealing with situations, and the consequences of those actions, using both regular choices, the friends at your disposal, and your cool vampire powers.
CSH: As a text-driven “life simulator”, I expect that Nighthawks will be more of an adventure or story-driven RPG than a “traditional” (read: combat-based) RPG, but “skill in fighting” was mentioned explicitly in your updates. How will combat work in Nighthawks?
Richard: Short answer, I don’t know yet! I have three different combat systems designed on paper, and one of my big jobs post-Kickstarter will be implementing them. One is a little bit inspired by card driven things like Slay the Spire, another one is more of a Numenera type approach, another is more traditional dice and mechanics focused. And I may come up with another, better, idea when I start playing around properly later this year.
CSH: In that case, Nighthawks must be chock-full of non-combat interactions and encounters. How do you plan on making them all varied, interesting, and meaningful? Without combat to break up the story, how are you controlling pace and tension?
Richard: Largely by making it part of the systems. If you don’t raise suspicion and stay out of dangerous situations, you’re likely to be able to avoid a lot of trouble. We don’t assume that you’re JC Denton with fangs. On the other hand, make waves, and the world will push back. The nature of the story and the factions within it then just have to push you into interesting situations and let your choices control the flow, within an escalating series of events that perhaps make you shelve early moral qualms in the name of personal gain.
And away from combat, social interactions can be just as varied and interesting! A dinner party of ambitious vampires can be just as dangerous as a knife-fight in the alley. More so, because the average mugger probably just wants your wallet, not your humiliation and death so that they can move in and legitimately claim your turf.
Honestly, I’m not even super interested in combat. In most RPGs, I like the ability to throw down where necessary, but I’d probably press a button to skip most trash mobs. If I can beat up three kobolds in this part of the cave, let’s just assume I can probably handle the other three a bit further in. Nighthawks depicts a wonderfully dangerous lifestyle, so absolutely combat is important. But it’s not going to be the kind of RPG where you’re constantly thrown into fights, unless you’ve done something to make people hate you.
CSH: Another bugbear for me is supernatural beings and magic in CRPGs, which very rarely seem to be integrated into the setting effectively. In a recent update, you mentioned that you won’t be including werewolves or many of the other tropes that tend to get bundled along with them these days, in order to avoid dilution. What are your thoughts on magic in CRPGs, and will magic make the cut in Nighthawks?
Richard: I love magic. I always play as a mage! However, I tend to find it pretty boring in games. Magic should be exciting, dangerous, dynamic - the cheat codes of reality. Instead, it’s typically predictable, ordered, and mundane. The original Dragon Age for instance planned to make it more like my favoured style, with most people never having even seen magic, but ended up backtracking because they needed mages as enemies and so on.
In Nighthawks though, I’m keeping magic fairly restricted. Some vampires have abilities - you’re one of them - but most don’t, and they’re typically variants of mental powers rather than fireballs and lightning and so on. My aim is that they feel like your ace in the hole - powerful but expensive weapons at your disposal, but ones that you think carefully before using. Is now the time? Should you save that ability for a later encounter? Do you risk being caught using one? That’s the closest we have to a masquerade here - hiding the fact that you might have the power to do things like hypnotise, or talk to the dead, or turn into mist.
This also ties into the setting. Much of the appeal of urban fantasy is the interplay between reality and fantasy. You should feel like this is something that, just maybe, could happen, as opposed to something more fanciful like a portal to Hell opening up or whatever. The more you add, be it showy magic effects or multiple supernaturals, the further you move away from that grounded sense of place.
True Blood is a great demonstration of that, where vampires went from being a big exciting presence in the world to everyone pretty much just shrugging and going “Werepanthers now? Okay, fine, whatever. At least it’s not that fire elemental that dropped in last week. That guy was such a dick. Didn’t even tip.”
CSH: Yeah, I think that was about the point I stopped watching that series. A pity, the first few seasons were fantastic. Anyway - In many (most?) modern RPGs these days, character development seems to be almost irrelevant – if player characters even have weaknesses, they can usually rely on their party mates or some other intervention that negates their limitations and allows that character the ability to interact with every aspect of a given game. I suppose there are advantages in that you normally only need one playthrough to experience everything a game has to offer but I feel like the core roleplaying experience is diminished in the process. What are your thoughts on this, and what will we see in Nighthawks?
Richard: Pretty similar, really. I’m taking the basic stance that you should be able to do almost anything, which isn’t the same as being able to do everything. Your build won’t define you, but it will likely mirror your approach to the game, in a similar way to how a smart rogue player is going to prioritise upgrades to being sneaky and backstabbing rather than randomly deciding to start wielding a greataxe. Characters won’t like you because of your blood origin as well as your decisions, your skills will be improvable, but you’ll probably want to be smart about where you spend your time and upgrades.
The danger of being too restrictive is that if you end up locking off choices and the all-important first play of the game feels too limited. My intention is that it’ll feel open and freeform, but then you’ll go back with a different build and realise just how much more there is to explore and choose and experience when you try a different approach.
CSH: How will Nighthawks deal with “inconsequential death” and the “save-load dilemma”? It’s an issue in most CRPGs, but I expect it would be even more pertinent in a vampire game.
Richard: Good question. My current thinking, though it’s not carved in stone, is that the game will auto-save at the start of each game day (and on quitting), so that there’s more incentive to play through the failures rather than save-scum to a perfect adventure. Death should be a threat, but it won’t be happening all the time. For instance, if you’re fighting some guy in the street, he’s probably more interested in taking your wallet than killing you. You can build up a certain amount of damage before you’re at serious risk, and it’s largely on you if you head out when you know that one punch too many will likely take you out, versus spending the time to go get some hospital treatment or avoid the whole fight.
Failing that, I’d like to finally do an Iron Man mode where you actually get a robot suit.
Richard, thanks very much for your time and insight. You’ve been an absolute dream to work with. I wish you all the best with your Kickstarter campaign, and I’m looking forward to being fang-deep in your masterpiece.
You can find links to the Kickstarter below, as well as the game’s website, and Richard’s freelance writing website.
The Nighthawks Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/753131002/nighthawks-the-vampire-rpg-0
Richard’s website: http://www.richardcobbett.com/
Nighthawks website: http://www.nighthawks-game.com