Clifftop Games, Faravid Interactive, and Raw Fury have just delivered Whispers of a Machine to us, a self-proclaimed "sci-fi Nordic noir" that tells the story of a cybernetically-augmented detective called Vera. On top of this, and perhaps most important when describing the gameplay, it's an adventure game as well; a point-and-click, if you prefer. We got the chance to talk with Joel Staaf Hästö, programmer & founder of Clifftop Games, and Petter Ljungqvist, lead artist & founder of Faravid Interactive, about the game, and it turns out that discourse around AI was a big inspiration for the title.
"Whispers of a Machine is a Sci-Fi Nordic Noir that tells the story of Vera, a cybernetically augmented detective in a post-AI world, who investigates a string of murders and unravels a dark conflict over forbidden technology," Hästö explained. "The idea for the game started around a discussion about AI, and in particular AI singularities and the potential danger of an AI superintelligence. Could there exist a future in which humans voluntarily reversed technological progress due to the inherent risks to our survival, and what would that future look like? We started fleshing out a world around this idea, filled it with characters, created a playable proof of concept, signed with indie game publisher Raw Fury and then off we went!"
We also asked about the choice of an adventure game medium to tell this story, since we've seen similar themes discussed in Deus Ex as well, a series that's known for dabbling in action and RPG genres before.
"First and foremost, we wanted to tell a story, and we think adventure games still is the prime genre to do that for indies these days," Hästö added. "Additionally, both of us had experience with traditional point and click adventures thanks to our previous releases, which made us comfortable with deviating a bit from the standard formula in Whispers of a Machine."
This led on to discussions about the genre in 2019. There have been famous examples like Thimbleweed Park in recent years, but for many the point-and-click/adventure genre is a sign of times gone by, a genre which saw its heyday with LucasArts gems like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. With so few big examples to choose from these days, how does Whispers of a Machine stay relevant to modern audiences with changing tastes and expectations?
"Every couple of years, people say that adventure games are dead, but we think they are doing great! It's just that the rest of the game industry has grown out of proportion," Hästö explained. "Quality point and clicks come out on a regular basis and Unavowed proved in recent memory that point and clicks can even be legitimate hits today. Sure, the big budget productions have stagnated somewhat after the peak of the Broken Age Kickstarter in 2012, but the indie scene is still very much thriving."
"Adventure games are in a good place! As in most genres, indies tend to drive innovation, so as long as indies thrive, the genre thrives. This is not a type of game that requires big budgets or mainstream appeal. There is a dedicated audience, and as long as they are around, developers like us will be!"
"As for what we have done to stay relevant in terms of mechanics; primarily Vera's cybernetic augmentations come to mind, and how they interact with the three personality traits (Assertive, Analytical, and Empathetic) that Vera can cultivate over the course of the game. The decision to link the augmentations to Vera's personality was rooted in an attempt to create a more personalized experience."
"To shortly summarize, Vera will unlock new abilities based on her dominant personality, giving her different tools to solve problems, while also adapting the story to this particular version of Vera. This creates a more tailored experience and encourages replayability. We wanted to combat the common weaknesses of more traditional point and clicks: that they tend to be linear experiences that neither adapt much to player actions, nor provide much incentive to return to the game after the first playthrough."
Returning to Deus Ex, this is something that Hästö says "has definitely been an inspiration. We have a lead character who is referred to as a (special) agent, who wears a black trench coat and uses cybernetic augmentations. Anyone who has played both games will make that immediate comparison. But beyond superficial similarities, the games are quite different, and the common elements they share do not stray that far from their much older cyberpunk ancestors. Continuum, the Canadian sci-fi tv-series, may actually have been a larger influence on the augmentations in Whispers of a Machine, especially concerning the crime solving aspects of them and how they are visualized. "
What's more is that the team behind the game has plenty of experience when it comes to the genre, which helped to produce not only the game itself, but the voiceovers that bring the story to life.
"Whispers of a Machine is a joint effort of Clifftop Games and Faravid Interactive, headed by Joel Staaf Hästö and Petter Ljungqvist, respectively," the pair told us. "Before Whispers of a Machine, Joel made Kathy Rain, released in 2016, and Petter made The Samaritan Paradox, released in 2014. Joel has been a game developer since 2009 and a full-time indie dev since 2015, and Petter combines part time game development with a teaching job and the raising of two small boys. The collaboration that would become the basis for Whispers of a Machine began before either of our previous games were released: we advised each other and bounced ideas back and forth during the development of both our solo games, which established a working relationship that continued onto WoaM after Kathy Rain's release."
"We had been discussing making a game together for years at that point, and after Kathy Rain was released, we started talking more seriously about what kind of project we could like to make, which eventually resulted in Whispers of a Machine. Near the end of the production we were lucky enough to be joined by adventure game veteran Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games to help out with the direction of the voice overs, following the successful partnership we had in Kathy Rain."
While most would associate the genre with PC, despite other examples like Thimbleweed Park making the slightly awkward jump onto consoles, Whispers of a Machine does in fact branch out onto mobile devices.
"The mobiles were certainly quite important, and that's why we chose to sim-ship Whispers of a Machine on both mobiles and PC. For the genre, PC is clearly the most lucrative platform, so mobiles had to come second, but we had them planned from the beginning, and the game has been optimized to play smoothly on them."
Lastly, we couldn't help but touch upon the cyberpunk aesthetic too, something that has of course been popularised once more by CD Projekt Red's upcoming RPG Cyberpunk 2077, although this genre and style isn't actually something that either developer wanted to focus too much on.
"Aesthetically, Whispers of a Machine actually tries to avoid the most common cyberpunk stereotypes. We don't have any rainy neon cityscapes, bartenders with spiked hair and metal arms, or slums filled with scrap. We wanted Nordsund to look familiar and distinctly Nordic, but at the same time different, even outlandish. But to cite some direct inspiration for the visuals, the Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag's work comes to mind," Ljungqvist explained.
Whispers of a Machine is out right now for you to try on PC and mobile devices, and joins the likes of Thimbleweed Park in the new school of adventure games. We might not see that many of these experiences anymore, but there is still talent in the point and click space looking to fuse the older style of gameplay with new features, whether that's an interesting and unique style or the use of future technologies to change how you investigate.
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