A self-taught game developer and publisher who has gone on to create some of the best point-and-click adventure games being released today, Dave Gilbert sat down with me at Gamespresso.com on November 4, 2015 to let me into the creative process behind his games and the future of his company, Wadjet Eye Games.
I have always been a fan of games that remind me of my childhood, so it came as no surprise as a few months ago I found myself scouring the web for an adventure game that, while fresh and unique, could touch on the feelings of age-old classics such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Loom. What I came across was a game about “a shy medium and her ghost partner” that PC Gamer described as “grounded in a rare sense of sympathy, written with an eye for minimalism, and showing constant improvements, it’s a game that started out being inspired by the classics but soon proved itself worthy of sitting alongside them.” That game was Blackwell Legacy. And to my surprise, the game was actually only one in a full series of five titles. Picking up a bundle of all five, what followed was a string of glorious days in with five of the best adventure games I’ve ever played.
The narrative starts off relatively short and to the point: a girl and her inherited ghost solve a mystery. However, as the series progresses, not only do the characters get more engrossing, but the storylines become more dense, layered by new revelations and surprises both good and bad. By the end not only did I feel invested in the characters, but emotionally attached as well, which sent me spiraling at its inevitable conclusion. I knew at that point I had to find out more about the developer and what made him tick.
So, with their new game, Shardlight, soon-to-be-released early next year, I felt it was as good a time as any to reach out to Dave Gilbert, founder and CCO of Wadjet Eye Games, to discuss how the studio came about, where he comes up with his ideas, and what the future has in store for his company and the wonderful games they make. His story, as it turns out, is just as interesting and nuanced as his characters and games.
In the frightful days, weeks and months following the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, many of the city’s residents found themselves trying to simply regain their footing. David Gilbert was one such New Yorker. Impacted deeply by the events that unfolded in his city, he sought a way to get his mind off the attacks and their aftermath, and that’s when he found the Adventure Game Studio, a small development tool specifically designed to make graphic adventure games.
In the following half decade, Dave Gilbert began laying the foundation for a successful independent development company, Wadjet Eye Games, and also found a unique niche in the adventure game genre that would come to define the games he has created. A full decade and fourteen games later, Gilbert and Wadjet Eye Games have garnered numerous awards and built a growing fan base that continue to expand to this day.
THE START OF A LEGACY
Dave Gilbert isn’t your typical game developer.
Whereas most developers start with at least some technical experience, or work their way up through an existing company until they gain enough experience to break out on their own, Gilbert started with nothing–not even the basic knowledge of how to create a video game.
“I didn’t have any formal training in game design or programming,” Gilbert explains. “Universities didn’t even offer classes in game design back then, which kind of dates me — but I saw some games made with AGS and thought, ‘Hey, I could do this.’”
Drawn to the Adventure Game Studio through a love of adventure games, which he traces back to 1986 and the Infocom text-based adventure game Whishbringer, Gilbert started exploring the game engine.
Using ideas and characters originated from his own life, Gilbert began crafting prototypes that gave rise to the games he would later publish under the Wadjet Eye Games banner.
“I made a small game called The Repossessor and shared it with the community,” Gilbert says of his first game, a 2001 freeware release about the Grim Reaper searching for the soul of Michael Gower, a zombie running for the mayor of a place called Reality. It was considered one of the better entries in the Reality-on-the-Norm series, a shared universe that spans ten adventure games by different creators, and gave him the confidence to keep going. “People seemed to like it, so I continued to make more.”
Gilbert did just that and people began to notice. In 2003 he created Bestowers of Eternity — Part One, a game centered on a young woman who inherits a family ghost from her aunt after her death. The title went on to be nominated for multiple awards in the 2003 AGS Awards and won two: “Best Original Story” and “Best Non Player Character”.
In 2004 he created Two of a Kind, an adventure game that allowed you to play as two characters with different personalities and abilities, not only unique for its time but also an idea he would back to in later games. Two of a Kind went on to be nominated for even more awards in the 2004 AGS Awards and won for “Best Gameplay”.
Then, in 2006, Gilbert created a unique, small title called The Shivah. Once again, it was nominated for multiple awards, winning “Best Dialogue Writing,” and earned Dave Gilbert a Lifetime Achievement Award.
It was here, at the end of 2006, that an odd kind of fortune struck. Finding himself unemployed, Gilbert decided it was time to take the next step. “I had money saved up and several years of doing freeware under my belt,” he says explaining his reasoning behind moving forward with making game development his profession. “I honestly couldn’t envision doing anything else and there was no better time to take the plunge.”
With this new epiphany, Gilbert went to work developing his latest and most well received idea–The Shivah–into a full-fledged feature making it longer along with voice acting, DVD-style commentary, and extra puzzles. He created a company under the moniker Wadjet Eye Games and, in August of 2006, he released The Shivah through the company’s website and the now defunct Manifesto Games website.
It was the beginning to a legacy that would see thirteen more titles released in just ten years.
A RABBI AND A GAME DEVELOPER
A strong adventure game with an unorthodox setting and characters, The Shivah puts the player in the shoes of a Rabbi, named Russell Stone, who is struggling with his faith. After learning a former member of his synagogue has been murdered, Stone is pulled into a mystery he must solve not only for his deceased friend, but for himself as well. It was here that the core of Wadjet Eye Games was born: excellent storytelling through compelling characters, and the ultimate success of the studio started to take form.
Having to do everything on his own own forced Gilbert to be resourceful with his time and money. “There was no Kickstarter, no outside funding and I wasn’t independently wealthy,” he explains. With limited funding Gilbert worked with what he could. That meant creating intriguing stories and enlisting the assistance of others to help bring those ideas to life. With limited money and limits to the number of people he could bring in, Gilbert had to prune his early ideas, at least for the time being. “I had to keep my projects short and simple in order to finish them, so that’s what I did.”
Some may see it as a limitation, but it was in this simplicity that Gilbert and Wadjet Eye Games found success. Due to it’s unique story and dialogue, along with great characters and setting, The Shivah,went on to garner high ratings and praise from critics and the community alike who focused on those particular aspects. The title came in second in Game Tunnel’s “Sound Award” and third in their “Adventure/Quest Game of the Year” awards for 2006. It’s this success that propelled Gilbert to remaster it years later in The Shivah: Kosher Edition.
Hard earned, that success wasn’t entirely without it’s consequences. Doing everything independently meant there was little room for error.
“I had no idea what I was in for,” Gilbert says. “I was a single guy living alone in an apartment that didn’t cost me very much. My living expenses were very minimal. Even still, it was very touch and go.”
Being an independent developer also meant wearing multiple hats. After designing and developing the game, Gilbert had to switch gears and focus on marketing and sales of his new product, which he admits is harder than he anticipated. “There were many times I would just pray for ten more sales so I could make my mortgage payment that month. It wasn’t an easy time, but like I said I couldn’t envision doing anything else. It was that fear of having to give up and get a ‘real job’ that kept me going.”
As it turned out, that fear, and his passion for game development continually pushed him for a decade, developing seven games in-house and eventually producing six more. “Eventually things snowballed enough that I could call myself financially successful, but it took a few years.”
BUILDING AN ADVENTURE
All these years later, David Gilbert still looks fondly on his inauspicious entry into game development: finding the free Adventure Game Studio, downloading it, and just starting to fool around.
“I have experimented with other engines, but there is something to be said for an engine that knows EXACTLY what you are trying to make,” Gilbert said about AGS. Although there are some that are critical of the game engine, stating it is old and on its last legs, Gilbert sees it in a different fashion. Defending the engine he notes consistent updates, a strong community and, more so, its simplicity and intuitiveness all as strengths of the platform.
“You create a character in AGS, it knows what that is. A character has [a] walk animation, a talk animation. It has an inventory. It needs to react to lighting and tinting. AGS knows this and just automatically creates that for you. I can make a game with it very quickly. I know it very well, so I stick with it.”
Sticking with what works is something Gilbert exhibits on multiple fronts, one being the pixel art in all of his games. Quick to point out that it’s not a limitation of the game engine, “The low-res art is purely a choice. It started off as a budget thing, but as time went on and I’ve done more games I’ve learned to appreciate the style and what we can do with it.”
While each game has progressed artistically throughout the years, the pixel art style continues and Wadjet Eye Games still manages to give each title its own distinct atmosphere. “I know how much work goes into low-res art, how much it will cost to make, how much time it will take, and roughly how much we will earn once the game is done. HD art is MUCH more expensive and I am not confident that the sales will increase to match the additional cost. So I stick with what I know.”
Gilbert freely admits however, he isn’t afraid of is handing off the things he doesn’t know how to do. Music and sound, for example, are things he puts it in more capable hands, with a few caveats. “I know what kind of tone and atmosphere I am trying to create, and I know what sounds good when I hear it,” he says about the aura of his games. “For the most part I just leave the composers to it and give them feedback once they send me their work.”
Of course, all these games would be nothing if it wasn’t for the stories, and that’s something that comes easily to Gilbert. “You write what you know, and you write what you like. I both knew and liked adventure games. So when I decided I wanted to write games, the adventure game format seemed like the most obvious bet!” He goes on clarify, “What I really like about adventure games is the sense of immersion it can give you. You are IN the character’s shoes. The events are happening to you, or you are making the events happen. When done well, there is really no experience like it.”
Explaining the more personal nature he brings to his stories, “Issues or questions that I am struggling with often get turned into storylines, with characters becoming mouthpieces for different parts of the issue,” he says. “Rosa Blackwell, [a reoccurring character in Gilbert’s games] for example, was basically my struggles with urban isolation given a voice. This was made very obvious in the first game (Legacy), and her growing confidence in later games matched mine.”
THE FUTURE, NOW
All of this hard work over the years has culminated and progressed into what Wadjet Eye Games is today: a strong and growing independent video game development company that is evolving and expanding, now with four full-time employees. In just their fifth year they moved into a producing role as Gilbert realized that having his company’s future rest on the fate of a single game at a time was too risky. For this reason, Gilbert admits, “Getting into publishing seemed like the most obvious thing to do… We’d have more games coming out on a regular basis and could spread out the risk a bit more. If one game was a failure, we could weather the loss because another game was around the corner.”
The first game Wadjet Eye Games published was Gemini Rue, which Gilbert admits “fell into [his] lap”. It was divinity in action as the game went on to become their best selling game to date, winning multiple awards, including both PC Gamer’s and Gamespy’s “Adventure Game of the Year” titles for 2011.
This, no doubt, gave Gilbert more courage, as Wadjet Eye Games has now published five more titles, including “Primordia”, “Resonance” and, most recently, “Technobabylon”; each game earning its rightful share of praise and awards. Although each different from each other, all these games have a familiar feel to them which can be attributed to Gilbert’s hand as producer. He admits that he lets the developers craft the game as they see fit, but still passes his years of experience on to the developers. “If I see a developer heading towards that same pitfall, I will insist on making the changes to avoid it. Often this means asking the developers to change things, or add things, or remove things completely.”
It’s a formula that has worked out so far, propelling the company to even greater heights. With their success, Wadjet Eye Games has been able to expand, though still keeps things small and personal, leading to a cohesiveness that shows through each of their games. “Everyone involved with the project is at the absolute top of their game. One great advantage to having a full-time staff is that everyone learns, grows and improves between projects.”
Players will be able to see this compatibility firsthand when Wadjet Eye Games’ next project,Shardlight, is released.
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic future where a plague has stricken the population, Shardlight sees the player take control of Amy Wellard, a mechanic who has contracted the plague and is trying to find a cure before she dies.
Gilbert is excited for the new game. Speaking specifically of the the art, and the game’s artist (and now full-time Wadjet Eye Games employee), Ben Chandler, he said, “His work was good in Blackwell Deception, got better in Blackwell Epiphany, got MUCH better in Technobabylon, and has reached amazing heights for Shardlight.” Gilbert says simply, “The game looks and feels absolutely fantastic.”
Ten years of working together has culminated in this: a company that has grown and evolved together, and a game that is the product of that long running cohesion. “This is not a game we could have made five years ago, because we did not have the experience, confidence, or clout to pull it off. We know what we’re capable of now, and are giving it all we can.”
Giving it all they can seems to be what everyone involved with Wadjet Eye Games has done since the beginning, and it has certainly paid off. With their confidence and talent level rising further than ever before, it’s hard to see anything short of a bright future for the studio.
Dave Gilbert, however, isn’t looking for more praise or awards. “It’s hard to believe we’re almost in our tenth year of doing this,” he confides. “My only wish is to have at least ten more just like it.”