Ninja Theory's first game, Heavenly Sword, made headlines for a few reasons: it was PS3 exclusive, looked good, starred latex-lips Andy Serkis and ever so nearly smashed the proverbial ball out of the park. Ninja Theory's next game, Enslaved, isn't a PS3 exclusive but multiplatform, heading to Xbox 360 as well. Enslaved does, however, have Andy Serkis, plus the temperamental talent of big-bucks novelist Alex Garland, best known for The Beach - book and screenplay.
Tameem Antoniades, co-founder of Ninja Theory, spoke at Develop Brighton about the gargantuan effect Garland had had on Enslaved; not only has he co-written the game, but he's now credited as a designer. With a game that's shaping up to the multi-award winning Uncharted 2, a hotbed of hot-headed Hollywood talent, Antoniades can be forgiven for looking a little fraught. But we peppered him with questions nonetheless.
Eurogamer: How intimidating is Alex Garland?
Tameem Antoniades: [Laughs] Um, he's intimidating because he knows his stuff. And when he knows that something is wrong our agreement was that we're allowed to say. If it looks like bulls*** then say "bulls***". So, yeah, it can be intimidating at the beginning, but his attitude was to be as open, honest, collaborative and non-judgemental as possible, so you're totally comfortably in that environment. So, yeah, it can be intimidating at the start.
Eurogamer: What happens to a project when people like Andy Serkis and Alex Garland come on board - does it raise the stakes?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes it does raise the stakes because you don't want to do a bad job. When you've got talent like that on board you want the game to live up to their expertise. And you go into every project setting a level of ambition, your goal that you're trying to hit. And you've got to do everything in your power to hit those goals. It's more of a case of getting the best people as you can to try and get that - to nail that. The worst is if you fall short. My attitude is that now I am less likely to fall short.
Eurogamer: Did you work harder on Enslaved then you did on Heavenly Sword?
Tameem Antoniades: No, I wouldn't do that. Actually, Heavenly Sword was really tough for a whole slew of reasons that weren't to do with creative - they were to do with technology, the whole PS3 announcement and things around that. This was comfortable development where the tough part was on the creative side, and that's a good place to be.
Eurogamer: Could Alex Garland have made Heavenly Sword a better game?
Tameem Antoniades: Yes, it would have been. He's got something that as game developers we don't have, which is this keen visual eye for storytelling. So undoubtedly, yes. Not only does that kind of approach make the story hold up, it actually improves gameplay. If you can hit the mark, the game stops being a collection of animations, gameplay moments and story moments, and it can transcend and become this experience that you just immerse yourself in. And that's the objective. Honestly I don't know if we're going to hit that - you never know when you're developing. But that's what we're trying our best to do.
Eurogamer: Is it true that you met Andy Serkis because your brother did his mortgage?
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, it's absolutely true.
Eurogamer: And you had coffee with him and that was that?
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah.
Eurogamer: How much did Alex Garland cost?
Tameem Antoniades: I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate me telling how much - what the deal terms were. But I'd say that his primary motivation on this project was he wants to work on a videogame. He could certainly be earning a lot more money working in films. For him it was a curiosity: something he wanted to get out of his system.
Eurogamer: What portion of the game's budget went on Serkis and Garland?
Tameem Antoniades: When you've got names that come on that above-the-line cost as we call it, we go to the publisher and it's up to them whether they think it's worthwhile or not.
Eurogamer: But what percentage - did you go out on a limb and bet everything on them?
Tameem Antoniades: No, no I don't think so. Our attitude is to do the best we can. Lindsay Shaw the actress: she's never worked, she's 19, she isn't famous, but she was really good when we did the casting - she was just an amazingly good actress. Names won't necessarily sell more units. It might help with publicity but it's not like movies where you hang the movie on a name.
Eurogamer: What was it like having Andy and Alex working together - did they clash heads?
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, but it was a healthy clash. I'd say it was more exploratory. The dialogue is the framework in which the character emerges, so it was more a discussion about who that character is and how he's going to emerge, and once we'd done a few scenes, Andy was quite complimentary. He said, "It works really well off the page - the scenes work really well." Alex has got that art down to a tee in terms of allowing the actors to fill in the gaps.
Eurogamer: It sounds like you've put a lot of effort into Enslaved's video - all 80 minutes of it. But games last for several hours. Heavenly Sword's gameplay fell short, to be frank - is the same happening here?
Tameem Antoniades: No, not at all.
The game is much more varied, it's much more fun. It's easily the best game we've done by a long way. There isn't going to be any problems with that aspect. The storytelling... Our objective was to break away from cut-scenes telling the story as much as possible, so a lot of the story happens in voice-over. We got the actors back in, we wrote a full VO script, Alex would look at the whole game and write scripts as we were playing it and the actors would go over the game and ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] over the game footage. It never feels like there's a story in the cut-scene and then there's a big void of gameplay where there's nothing happening, which Heavenly Sword could be accused of doing.
Eurogamer: On stage, you showed a video comparison of Andy Serkis in real-life and his character Monkey in game. You were drawing attention to the face and how the animation was captured, yet there appeared to be a marked difference between the two. Having spent so much time and expense securing Serkis, why doesn't the engine appear to match up?
Tameem Antoniades: No, no, it can, and actually what you saw was from a couple of months ago, and we're continuing to refine those moments. It's down to the artists on his face to nail it.
Eurogamer: Are you going to be working with Andy Serkis on your next game?
Tameem Antoniades: I don't know, actually. I don't know. We haven't really talked about it, to be honest. But he's definitely someone I would love to work with again.
Eurogamer: Is he a personal friend now?
Tameem Antoniades: Yeah, well we've been working together for like four years, maybe five, and we spend a lot of time together: six weeks in New Zealand, four weeks in LA. He's a great guy and I really like him and consider him a friend.
I was actually invited to be an extra in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
Eurogamer: There have been numerous games recently that focused on film-style storytelling: Heavy Rain, Uncharted 2. But it's wasted on gamers, isn't it? They want Halo and Call of Duty.
Tameem Antoniades: Just look at the music industry. Most music is utter, utter trash.
Eurogamer: Are you calling Call of Duty "utter trash"?
Tameem Antoniades: No, no I'm not! But a lot of music is not stuff you or I would probably want to listen to. The musicians that define the music industry, the people like Tom Waits, Muse, they're the landmarks. The most we can wish for is to have, at some level, the game remembered, because games are so disposable; after a few weeks on sale they disappear. The only way you can achieve any level of staying power is to affect people. With a lot of games, people won't remember them a couple of months after playing them, and that's a damn shame. You don't want to spend years working on a game for it to be forgotten and traded in for an equally similar game, so we have to make our games different.
Eurogamer: Enslaved is based around the relationship between Monkey and Trip. Will they be romantically involved?
Tameem Antoniades: I'm not going to say. Part of the fun is...
Eurogamer: Are they going to kiss?
Tameem Antoniades: I'm not going to say. You've got to play it to find out! That's part of the fun.
Eurogamer: When you have that rather obvious set-up, how do you keep people from assuming the inevitable will happen?
Tameem Antoniades: That's more of a story challenge. Alex is one of the smartest men I've ever met and he's definitely not about following the crowd. His stories are often quite dark and explore dark aspects of humanity and of self, so the story does take quite a dark turn as you play through it.
Eurogamer: What control will players have on the story?
Tameem Antoniades: No control whatsoever: it's completely linear. We've done that so we can shape those emotional moments, because we know where the story is going.
Eurogamer: There's an upgrade system in the game we've not heard much about. Can you shed some light?
Tameem Antoniades: Collecting orbs allows Trip to upgrade Monkey. You'll be able to upgrade combat and purchase new abilities like counter. There's a combat awareness ability that allows you to see what the enemies are doing, so they'll go red when they're attacking, blue when they're blocking. There are upgrades to the staff blast weapon. There's an RPG-like element to the game. And Trip collects equipment as well, like the dragonfly to scan areas. She can pack machinery too, which you can use in puzzles.
More on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
To celebrate the PC release of Ninja Theory's breezy adventure, our original review plus the verdict on its DLC expansion.
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Face-off: Face-Off: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Complete analysis of Ninja Theory's Unreal adventure.
More footage from the full game.
Eurogamer: New film IP is often met with excitement and success, but new game IP has to struggle against the Call of Duties, Halos and FIFAs. What's that like for you, particularly as you're looking to launch between them all in Q4?
Tameem Antoniades: Coming out when all these great games are coming out as a first instalment of a new IP is, err, tough. It's something we don't have any control over as developers, and all we can do is make the best game possible and keep our focus on that. There's nothing else we can do. The landscape's littered with great games that have not worked [commercially] - ICO, Stranger's Wrath - so I don't have any presuppositions that Enslaved will.
As for films working better as new IP - it's an interesting question. Movies get worse as the franchise goes on and games get better. I've never actually encountered that problem because we've never worked on a sequel. There's a counter to that actually, and that's TV series. They actually get better over time, like Dexter.
If there ever is a sequel for Enslaved, and I'm not supposing that there will be, then there's an opportunity to serialise it. The original book came with an enormous number of chapters, only half of which I think were ever translated into English, and they cover a seven-year journey. So there's lots of material to draw on.
Eurogamer: This year, Microsoft has Kinect and Sony has Move. What does Ninja Theory think about those?
Tameem Antoniades: I've never really thought about it, actually. The game we're doing doesn't have those systems in mind. I haven't actually tried them out, so I don't know how they work. At this point I don't see how we can apply it to our games.
Eurogamer: You've not looked at it because it holds no interest or because you're too busy?
Tameem Antoniades: I'm a healthy sceptic.
Tameem Antoniades is co-founder of Ninja Theory. Enslaved will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on 8th October.