Developer Interview with James Dearden

We did an interview with James Dearden, the creator of Technobabylon, about his game, game development and games in general. Here's "the full on James story!":

1. Tell us a bit about you:

I'm recently 36, and was born in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. My childhood followed my parents' government work around the world, so a lot of different schools and a lot of different cultures went into shaping my outlook.

James Dearden

2. What were your favorite game or games when growing up?

I think it's impossible to pick just one, so I'll narrow it down to three:

  • Tie Fighter; after our PC got a sound card, this game was a brilliant mixture of atmosphere and challenge
  • X-Com; still replaying it to this day
  • Space Quest IV; I didn't get around to 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 until much later, as Kuwait was not an easy place to find games after the Gulf War, but IV was a great introduction to the series, and what got me hooked on adventures.

3. When did you start making games?

My first attempts were around 1997, when I was 10.

4. What made you start developing games?

Partly the lack of availability of games where we were on posting, and partly to spite teachers. The school rules prohibited us from installing games on their computers, so I got them to agree that games would be alright as long as we made them ourselves. They didn't think we'd push through with that, but in not too long, we had some fairly solid Snake knock-offs coded in BASIC.

5. The last game you made was Technobabylon. Why did you decide to make that game, what was your inspiration? How did you come up with the idea and story?

Originally, Technobabylon started as a test project for getting the hang of adventures in Adventure Game Studio (AGS). Previously, I'd made a puzzle game and a turn-based strategy, so figured that I ought to use it for its intended purpose. I think the initial section of being trapped in a single-room apartment with nothing but an internet connection took its influence from my living situation at the time in South Korea. Narratively, I think a mix of Ghost in the Shell and Paolo Bacigalupi were big influences on how the story went - especially with all the airships.

6. What are your characters based on in the game? For example real life experiences and people, movies, games etc. Who would you be in your game?

In a way, I think that the three main characters reflect elements of myself, which was an approach I took to make writing their dialogue more natural.

For Latha, I wanted a proper adventure game protagonist, who has no concerns about taking everything that isn't nailed down to help her achieve her goals. I also thought "who doesn't tend to be represented in games?", and opted for a character of Sri Lankan heritage.

Dr Regis is moralistic, with a personal code of right and wrong, but manipulated by his personal demons. His "old fashioned" outlook (despite being born in the 2030s) is a way to allow the player to ask questions about the world they're unfamiliar with, since Regis hasn't been keeping up with the times.

Dr Lao is a technophile who believes in the ideals of the city, but is also able to appreciate that some things warrant changing for the better.

Arguably, the city itself is a character. I put it on the East coast of Kenya near the equator, partly as a thought to where I was born, and partly because it's a good place for space launches as an industry.

7. How would you describe the style of your game?

In terms of style, I'd say it's leaning into nostalgia, the kind of thing that people remember playing in the early nineties in what some would consider the apex of adventure games. It also has the benefit of quality-of-life features added in after decades of research and upgrades that are now available, like a resolution bigger than 320x200, and not needing to manually mount a mouse driver whenever you want to play. Visually, we drew on a lot of sources, but anime like Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass gave us a lot of style cues. Games like Beneath a Steel Sky served as a consistent visual touchstone to keep us grounded in the style of pixel art we were aiming for.

Story-wise, it's a post-cyberpunk adventure - the difference with cyberpunk being that the characters are working for/with the authorities rather than against it, and there's an element of optimism to it rather than the absolute doom of cyberpunk.

8. Did you experience any challenges in the development of the game?

The biggest was probably a continuing theme of my life, moving around a lot. I was following my wife's work between the UK and France, so a lot of Technobabylon was built in hotel rooms throughout Paris. In fact, if you look at the skyline in the game, some buildings might be recognisable as bits of La Defense, on the outskirts of the city.

9. What are you most proud of about your game/what do you like most about the game?

For me, an adventure game is not simply about telling a story in an interactive manner, but making the player feel smart by overcoming obstacles. Based on what we've seen of people playing it, I think we've managed to hit the balance of making it challenging without becoming unplayably frustrating. Building hints into the game organically (i.e. talking to your partner), and letting players put what they've learned earlier into practice are big parts of that. There are puzzles in it that people still fondly remember and talk about, like the android personality-swapping.

10. Is there anything you think could have been better?

When I look back at it myself, I feel like I might have written some of the dialogue differently. It's the kind of situation where, in isolation, it seemed okay, but as part of the bigger picture and with the benefit of hindsight could be cleaned up.

I would probably also add a hotspot-finder, to show players what was interactable. Pixel-hunting may be a staple of the genre, but isn't so popular any more!

11. Are there any Easter eggs in the game?

Plenty - some are personal, like Newton's location in Kenya, or the date that the game is set being my 100th birthday. Others relate to the AGS community, such as the "blue cup" motif that appears in many AGS games. Also to a couple of Wadjet Eye's other games, including adverts for "Blackwell Legacy: The Movie"

12. Are you planning on making more games? What will your next game be about in that case?

I've got a few on the go at the moment, including a follow-up to Technobabylon, though that's taken a number of different forms over the past few years as my technique has improved. There was a bit of a bump in development generally due to health issues, but now that I've got the use of my left side back more consistently, that should speed things up.

As well as Technobabylon, I've been working on other projects as "learning exercises" for getting to grip with what Unity can offer, similar to have TB started as an AGS test project. One is "Tommy Hurricane and the Pirates of the Third Reich", an adventure game that could best be summed up as "Monkey Island meets World War 2", with a style aiming for something like Telltale's. "Retro" is a moving target, and much as it boggles my mind, there are now adults with fond childhood memories of the mid 2000s and its games.

A big thank you to James, for taking the time to answer these questions. It was interesting to know more about him and his game. Looking forward to more games from him in the future!