Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Dave Gilbert has been independently making adventure games since 2001, and founded indie studio Wadjet Eye Games in 2006. Wadjet Eye creates beautiful, reflective, compassionate stories with diverse characters and a strong sense of emotional authenticity.

Dave Gilbert excels at using supernatural events to speak to something truthful. Click To Tweet

Zoya and Claris caught up with him at GDC and asked him about storytelling, game design and the nature of genre fiction.

How has your craft changed since you started making games?

I was living in New York when the towers went down. That was when I started making games. I was between jobs, took my laptop to a cafe and made a game, and decided I didn’t want to do anything else.

My games were shorter and smaller in scope then. I just wanted to get them done, and I couldn’t hire contractors and I knew that would be necessary [if I was to make them bigger]. I had to make a lot of concessions in the beginning. As time went on and we got more money coming in, I was able to relax more and think more about the craft of things and spend more time editing and changing.

We never used Kickstarter, it didn’t exist back then and we don’t do it now. It’s all self-funded and that gives me a lot of freedom. But also, I do have a family and I have to make compromises.

Do you find yourself drawn to a particular kind of subject matter?

Yes. Blackwell was an urban fantasy. My fans wanted me to make a sci-fi game and I felt I should do it, but it just wasn’t in me. I wanted to go back and do more urban fantasy. That’s what appeals to me: I’m a big fan of Dresden and Buffy. Ordinary people going through extraordinary things appeals to me, and urban fantasy is a good setting for that. It allows me to tell a more personal story, I live in a city and it feels close to home. I want to take what I learned from Blackwell and do something bigger and better.

I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone. I want to make it darker. Click To Tweet

Less Law and Order, less offices. Less spaces as backdrops, more places you can actually explore. More Dresden, more Hellblazer, more World of Darkness, or Vampire: Bloodlines.

Another tradition of “unusual & uncanny things happening to ordinary people,” comes from Lovecraft’s work. Interestingly, those stories usually feature rural settings. How does an urban setting change it?

I don’t think one is better than the other, but I’m writing from my own experience. People resonate more with a game that I put a lot of myself into, dig some things up from my past and put them into the light. A lot of Blackwell [draws on] issues that I was dealing with in my own life and expressing those things in these other voices. If something comes from the heart … anyone who lives can tell a story like that.

Is your work informed by a sense of nostalgia?

Not really. I mean, I can’t avoid being inspired by older adventure games, and we do have pixel art. But that’s not nostalgia, it’s about budget.

It’s very backward to always rely on nostalgia. Click To Tweet

It is a factor in those games but it’s more about how we remember them than how they were. That’s why I don’t go back to play them for inspiration. There’s this narrative that “adventure games are coming back”, but I’ve been hearing that since The Longest Journey in 1999. Adventure games haven’t gone anywhere. People still make them, they’ve been making them [all this time].

You can’t think of [adventure games] as one thing. Every medium has its own genres. You have to think about what works for the story you want to tell, not what works for an adventure game. And the way we consume games has changed so much since the 1990s that it doesn’t make sense to try and do the same thing.

How do adventure games relate to traditional literary and filmic genres?

What adventure games do very well is putting you in the shoes of someone else: you are driving the events of the story, or the events are happening to you. That is where they excel really well. You’re not reliant on mechanics; there are cinematic games where you’re a fighter and you make things happen by smashing someone in the face, [whereas] adventure games allow you to explore things in other ways.

How have technical changes in the past decade affected your work?

We consume so much now; it’s so easy to consume. If I need a book for a flight it’s not even a problem, I just get my phone out and have a book five minutes later. We consume things so fast now. If you don’t get someone’s attention right away they will move onto something else.

You’re only stuck on a puzzle in an adventure game if you want to be, because you can look things up on the internet. I struggled for hours on a puzzle in King’s Quest in the 1980s, now I wouldn’t last ten minutes [before looking it up].

If you have to go outside of the game to enjoy my game, I’ve failed. So I don’t like [overwrought] puzzles. If the player has to leave to look something up, it’s not fun, it’s just busy work. I focus more on making it immersive and enjoyable. [The question is] how to make this fun, rather than what kind of puzzle can I throw in here because it needs a puzzle.

A recent topic we’ve been discussing at Silverstring is the difficulty of designing branching narrative. How has this come up in your own work?

I love branching stuff, but it’s really hard to design. I want to do that with my next project. The problem with it is… as a writer you have a story in your head, and there’s always the real one that you have in your head, how it’s really supposed to go, but we’re including these other ones because [we value] branching stories.

If you have multiple endings, there’s always one that’s the canon one for you as the writer. Click To Tweet

You’re telling this story for a reason, there’s a point you’re making, and if you branch it has to be true to that. That’s the danger of branching narrative — if you have an ending where lots of bad things happen, for one person that’s the ending they get — is it true to the rest of the story?

How do you stay focused on these ideas that you want to keep at the centre of a project?

Blackwell was a story about urban isolation, the characters and the people that are affected in different ways by that. You can’t get too specific with a theme. Epiphanies’s theme was, what if your personal realisation could be manufactured? It was about realising that it’s okay to try and fail. Everything comes from that core. I remember that this is what it’s about, and if I deviate from that — if a character doesn’t have an epiphany — I haven’t told the story the way I wanted to. If you’re exploring a certain theme you’re going to deviate and go around corners as you explore it. Sometimes I look at my notes and remember that I wanted to do one set of things, and it just morphed as I worked on it and it changed, and that’s just how it works.

Editorial note

The brackets here indicate that this word was changed to be brought in line with our house style guide as regards ableist language. This decision came after much deliberation, and with the original spirit of the speaker’s statements in mind. In future we will notify interviewees in advance that some terms which are in common vernacular usage may be edited in this way. We’ve updated our style guide to reflect this policy.