Farflame interviewed Benjamin Widdowson, about the cyberpunk game Sense, which is currently on Kickstarter. It is also not an RPG, but a horror game, but we felt there still would be interesting for our visitors, given that it is set in a cyberpunk universe.
RPGWatch: Could you shortly introduce yourself? How did you get the idea to found a studio and start developing cyberpunk game?
Benjamin Widdowson: I am Benjamin Widdowson, a concept artist for video games and co-founder(with my wife) of SUZAKU. We decided to start our own studio when I was laid off from a long-term contract after almost 4 years. The situation was not good, and I have honestly had a terrible time finding studio work. Aside from occasional freelance gigs I just couldn't seem to break in, so my wife told me to basically put up or shut up and gave me 6 months of free rent to do everything I could to get a game made. Sense wasn't exactly born there though.
RPGWatch: Could you shortly compare world of Sense to the world of Blade Runner or Shadowrun? Are there some notable differences or different focus? For example, do you have races (elves, orcs etc.) like in Shadowrun?
Benjamin: Sense follows a more down to earth and direct approach to the scifi and cyberpunk genres. I spent a long time thinking about what would get us to the specific points in the future. In my mind 2083 in the Shirotech universe is a potentially realistic outcome of our current world. While there are no races other than human, there is at least one fully aware android /AI, though I cannot say whether or not she will make an appearance in the first Sense Game. Other than that, the only thing that one could argue is unrealistic is the paranormal aspect. I for one believe firmly in ghosts, spirits, and the like, so in the world of Sense many factors have strengthened the paranormal.
RPGWatch I noticed somewhere that it took 5 years to create story of your game. Could you describe the process a little? Did you do some extensive research about different themes? Why so long?
Benjamin: Most concept artists have an IP (intellectual property) that they develop over a long period of time. Mine is called Shirotech. Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow is my favorite IP in any genre, so about 6 years ago I started developing a world with character, mecha, and gun designs heavily inspired by his work. I would write pages of notes about companies or organizations and have sketchbooks full of stories and alternate history. So far, I have four fully fleshed out but mostly unwritten stories in the universe. The biggest of which is Sense. It was less about a time where I felt ready to do something, and more like God and the wife saying "Now is the time, ready or not". Maybe I would have waited another 10 years to do anything with it in other circumstances.
That said, I am a huge fan of horror and have had some life-changing experiences with the paranormal that really pushed me toward this title first and foremost. Originally Sense was actually about a girl in 2090 Japan, the more I worked on it though, many of the themes and ideas felt too cliche and derivative. Even though the core inspiration for the story, the general characters, and the ideas haven't changed much. A few things led me to re-writing most of the synopsis, a 30 page document, in a single night. My wife, who is from Hong Kong, and I were talking about the narrative early on in the actual game development and I felt stuck. She then just said "Why does it have to be about Japan." I thought I was being an ass when I said "what makes Hong Kong so scary". That was the spark right there.
RPGWatch: I noticed different options when examining objects in game world. How linear is the game? Are there different solutions to tasks, or some side quests, or branching narrative?
Benjamin: Obviously, the demo is just a slice showing you what we want and are thinking currently. Some design decisions, like the QTEs came down to "how do we make this work for the demo, in time to relaunch the kickstarter". We really racked our brains as a team to find solutions that worked for what we wanted. I can't say for sure but for the QTEs specifically I am looking for any better option to add difficulty and death to the game. Of course, that will affect many other aspects, but no matter what we choose to do for the gameplay we intend to have a ridiculous amount of branching paths, secret and hidden lore, and alternate endings. Narratively, there will be a semi-linear story. There is a beginning middle, and (good) end that you will be driven towards. However, there is plenty to find, see, and explore. We want the player to actually experience the ghost story.
RPGWatch: Is there some cyberspace that we can access (or hack) and explore? Or at least different visions because of your cybernetic eyes?
Benjamin: Though I cannot say exactly how the player will "experience" the cybernetic eyes, I can say that it will be an element. It's actually just incredibly hard to figure out how to make it work gameplay wise and visually haha.
RPGWatch: Are you not afraid that horror or monsters in 2.5D game may have lesser impact compared to FP or isometric horrors? Or do you aim more at atmosphere (spooky locations) or more subtle psychological horror?
Benjamin: It wasn't so much about being afraid, but in so many words yes? In my head I saw the build I made as a literal piece of interactive concept art for a fully 3d survival horror game. That's why the original demo was so heavy on the "proof of concept" idea. We got such positive reactions to my art, which given my employment issues was tremendously uplifting and awesome to see. I felt like I would be cheating the people that believed in me and the project, due to the visuals, if I moved away from the 2.5D visuals.
My job as a concept artist is to show atmosphere and feeling and tell a story in every image. Therefore, I knew that choosing the 2.5D painted visuals would be difficult but I consider it an exciting, I guess you could say honor? If people feel what I'm trying to show them in every location, if they react to the atmosphere I am painting myself, than I succeeded and damn if that isn't the best part of the game for me.
RPGWatch: What do you like the most on cyberpunk genre? What would you like to see in Cyberpunk 2077 if you look forward to this game (or other upcoming cyberpunk game)?
Benjamin: For the past 15 to 20 years at least, cyberpunk has been populated by a consistently far left political slant. However, I've never exactly seen the punk movement as specifically leftist. To me punk is about counter-culture, anti-corporatism to a strong degree, and a healthy dose of almost libertarian anti big government rhetoric. Therefore, I always wondered if a cyberpunk world could be crafted where a mega corporation was actually run by good people trying to make the world better, while the government and certain interest groups caused the bulk of the problems. Shirotech as a company kind sprang out of that line of thought. I love that cyberpunk CAN show very divisive and hyper-political issues in so many different lights and it still works within the framework of the genre. I love that every bit of a good cyberpunk story is about looking deeper than the surface, be it a robot arm or a grizzled old blade runner.
As far as Cyberpunk 2077, I am incredibly excited, and also worried. I have little faith in the AAA industry, but a lot of faith in CDPR specifically. So I guess ask me again after E3. The thing I want the most in the game is definitely a create-a-character with a boob slider.
RPGWatch: It seems that Sense will be funded. Would you like to create RPG similar to Shadowrun in the future? Or some kind of adventure/RPG with skills?
Benjamin: Probably not turn based, no, but I do love Shadowrun! It's just not my design style or something I could wrap my head around, way too many numbers and considerations. BUT! An action adventure RPG with skills and skill trees? Hell yes. In fact this is a good time to point out that Sense's post launch sales will be funding SUZAKU's next game. Wink wink nudge nudge.