Cambridge’s inkle studios is the brainchild of Jon Ingold and Joseph (“Joe”) Humfrey, which began with an adaptation of Frankenstein in 2011 and has grown to include several other titles and several other employees.
inkle’s game 80 Days, released for mobile in 2014 and PC/Mac in 2015, sends players around the world, ideally at record-breaking speed. In the meantime, inkle have also done a beautiful four-part adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery game books, and later in 2018 they’ll release their first 100% original title, Heaven’s Vault, which they call “an archaeological science fiction adventure game.” Ingold answered questions for me via email.
I want to make games that whisk you away, that take you on adventures, that are expansive and vibrant and coalesce to be more than the sum of their parts to even the most casual of players.
This is more of a big-picture question: how do you like to categorize inkle’s games? Are they western visual novels, are they adventure games, something else? All of the above, none of the above?
I don’t think they’re visual novels: that’s quite a strong category, to me, and comes with a lot of assumptions. I tend to call our games interactive fiction, though that brings other assumptions – prose text, for instance, which doesn’t really apply to Heaven’s Vault in the same way.
Heaven’s Vault is more like an adventure game, but we’ve done a lot of work to tweak the format to provide much more narrative momentum than the usual point-and-click formula affords.
So we tend to call them “narrative adventures”. The narrative primacy is crucial: the game system is there to support the delivery of the story, to increase the sense of presence in the world, but no more. So we try to never introduce game-y mechanics that don’t match up to what the protagonist might really be doing – no XP, say, or crafting.
But also important is the “adventure” part. There are a lot of people aiming to prove that games can be expressive and that they can be emotional; I believe those things to be true, but personally, I want to make games that whisk you away, that take you on adventures, that are expansive and vibrant and coalesce to be more than the sum of their parts to even the most casual of players.
Emotion and expression are tools for creating connection and empathy, not targets in and of themselves. The play’s the thing.
The world is as it is – complex, diverse, contradictory, dangerous, confusing, exhilarating, funny, and chock full of people you haven’t met. To claim it’s safe, or monochrome, is usually cruel, but is always a waste of time.
80 Days was originally a mobile game. Why did you decide to release it for PC and Mac?
Partly, when you have a successful game, ports are a good way to make some more money, which doesn’t sound very honourable, but earning money does ultimately let you make other interesting things. I guess we also had this thought that iPhones and iPads might not be very long-lasting pieces of technology; we don’t want our game to be impossible to play in five or ten years time. Porting helps the game to survive into the future!
How much work does that porting create? I’m also curious why y’all added so much new content for that release.
Porting involved building the entire game again in Unity, which was largely done by Cape Guy Games (Ben Nicholson), who did a wonderful job. We added content partly to help the game feel like a fresh release, and partly because we had a lot of stories left to tell!
The game follows some of Jules Verne’s novel so wonderfully, like the drama with Fix, but you’ve embellished that world with such thoughtful stuff and a surprising level of multiculturalism and inclusion. Was that a stated goal of the game or just something that made sense to do in line with other goals?
A lot of the inclusion came from Meg Jayanth, who led the writing for the game. In our first meeting with her about it, we outlined our broad idea of making a steampunk world that wasn’t awful, but we hadn’t really dug into what’s wrong with most steampunk, or how one might go about doing better.
Meg’s first question when we pitched her the game – cautiously asked – was, “And what about the colonialism?” We answered, “Tear it to shreds?”, and Meg said “Yes.” From there we let her develop the world as she wanted to, and she came back with all manner of interesting angles – the positioning of Britain as a tiny country in a vast world and not a hub; the creation of a steampunk that doesn’t use water for desert countries; the inclusion of powerful women but also unremarkable women; so on. I like to think that if we hadn’t have found Meg we would have still gone down this route, but I don’t think we could have hoped to do it so well!
But – to be honest – making a game about the wonder of travelling the world that isn’t multicultural and inclusive would be pretty dumb. The world is as it is – complex, diverse, contradictory, dangerous, confusing, exhilarating, funny, and chock full of people you haven’t met. To claim it’s safe, or monochrome, is usually cruel, but is always a waste of time.
[…]only very few people, other devs included, ever stop to ask – wait, how did you do that?
For Sorcery, y’all preserved the paper and line-art feel of Steve Jackson’s original books. Did you consider any other style of graphics? What was it like to build a combat system? (I love the combat system in that game, by the way.)
The original Sorcery! art is so iconic, and forms such a big part of my own attachment to the original books that it would never have crossed my mind not to include it – particularly the spellbook. And of course it fits nicely with the other visual elements: the “paper” on which the story is told, the “board” on which the game is played.
Also, having constraints is helpful. Knowing we were going to use the line art let us design the game’s look around that, and led to some lovely affordances – like the hand-drawn map with the 3D relief effect, which still draws a real “oooh!” when seen on an iPad.
What was it like to build a combat system? (I love the combat system in that game, by the way.)
Building the combat system was a fun piece of design. We knew we wanted something turn-based, which eschewed the randomness and dice from the original books; something simple and expressive. For inspiration we looked at rock, paper, scissors but also the Prisoner’s Dilemma – they’re both games in which you make simultaneous decisions and the whole “strategy” is based on thinking “based on what X did last time, and how it turned out, what will they do this time?”
Adding the procedural descriptions to the combat was a bit of a finesse that we weren’t sure if it’d be possible to pull off. The text description of each clash ideally flows naturally, while being accurate to the interplay of what just happened in the last attack round. I think these are successful – if only because only very few people, other devs included, ever stop to ask – wait, how did you do that?
I think we were surprised by how well the combat system held up, though: it survived intact across all four books, including facing off against some big boss enemies… the balance of strategy, and luck, and psychology (“This guy’s crazy so he’ll probably just keep hammering at me…”) gave it more longevity than we expected!
Every single decision impacts all the others around and there’s no right answer – but there are lots and lots of wrong ones.
Heaven’s Vault looks like it’s a completely original story, which I think is inkle’s first. What led to that decision? What extra resources does that require from y’all?
(It is a first, although we did a lot of adaptation / development / extension / complete rethinking on both Sorcery and 80 Days. )
We had the sense that, since we had a bit of a platform after 80 Days, it would be sensible to try and make an IP; and to make something we could own completely. Actually doing that has been really, really hard; when there’s no clear “feel” to hit, it’s often felt like everything’s in motion, from the game mechanics to the overall construction of the storyworld. Should Aliya be an orphan, or one of three sisters? Are robots good, bad, evil, indifferent, polite? Every single decision impacts all the others around and there’s no right answer – but there are lots and lots of wrong ones.
We’re at the other end of the process now, finally, and starting to see some rewards from it: we have a world that feels solid and coherent, but also new and unexplored. I really hope that people coming to the game will connect with it, and want to find out what it’s about!
I believe this will also be inkle’s first console release. How does it feel to work with the Playstation folks again? [Ingold and Humfrey met while working at Playstation.] Has anything surprised you about that?
It’s quite nice to have come full circle: Playstation was my first (and only, if you don’t count inkle) industry job, now I’m going back to the same offices in quite a different capacity – I used to be a component of a wider team, and now I’m co-leading that team. So far it’s been a pretty good experience and we’re pretty thrilled to have been displayed at the Playstation booths at PAX East and Rezzed so far this year.
Heaven’s Vault is due later this year. How do you and your team decide on a release timeframe and eventually a date?
We do it badly. We try to match up what releases we know about, along with how much we have left to do. We try not to let projects balloon – because they always want to – but we try not to set ourselves unreasonable targets.
INK AND INKY
[…]it’s mostly just great to see the diversity of ways people are taking the tool and running with it.
What led you to make a new scripting language for your projects?
Ink evolved into place from a few sources. Our first prototypes were for smoothly flowing interactive reading experiences. Joe built the UI design, and created a simple data structure for the story content in the background, in JSON. It was okay, but wasn’t very user-friendly: so we built some very simple proof of concept pieces that way, and I started to think about how to make it faster to write in.
The language syntax of that, ink version 0.1, was completely all over the place; with hacks and shortcuts and whatever had come into my head at the time to get the script to run. But some of the basic ideas were there – paragraph headings were done as titles; choices were bullet pointed, conditions were in little braces (and most of these actually date right back to a BASIC system I built when I was a teenager).
Using the script we discovered a few things: it made writing much faster, but it also significantly improved editing, and redrafting; in particular, it made it easy to split paragraphs up with additional choices, and to hide/show options and text behind conditionals. Structural stuff like that is often fiddly in IF languages, but here it was a matter of a few keystrokes. That was really powerful.
Then we landed our first commercial project, Frankenstein, which involved giving the scripting language to another writer, Dave Morris. That prompted a review of the language; Joe and I rationalised it and wrote up some documentation. That compiler was the first true ink version, and we used it for about ten projects all told, including 80 Days and Sorcery!
At the same time, we started to think about how we could optimise further; and began toying around with the “weave” format, which removed the need to give every section of text in the game its own heading, but instead relied on an implicit flow, where options “dropped through” to the next section below, unless explicitly branching away.
We originally used it just for dialogue sequences, since conversations had a natural beginning, middle and end, and didn’t want to hang around too much – but when we brought Meg Jayanth in to write 80 Days, we realised that weave would provide a convenient way to write a lot of content, quite quickly, without introducing too many flow errors.
Again, it made redrafting even faster, and made branching even easier to alter and restructure. When we finally put together ink 2 – rationalising the language again, and Joe rebuilding the compiler as a “proper piece of software” rather than a shoe-string and sticky-tape Perl script – we took the leap of making weave the core syntax of ink.
So – it’s been a very iterative process, informed by making a lot of big games and seeing what worked!
inky is the [integrated development environment] for ink, is that accurate? [An IDE is software developers use to write code.]
You initially mentioned that other developers are finding ink useful. I’d love to hear about some examples of projects or relationships if there are some you’d like to share.
We try to keep [up] but not everyone tells us what they’re doing!
Bury Me, My Love and Where the Water Taste Like Wine were both built in ink, and the BMML dev is quite active in the ink community. The upcoming Neocab from ex-Firewatch developer Patrick Ewing’s new studio is using it too, and we’ve met up with those guys to see what they’re doing.
We try to offer technical and design support, and to signal boost interesting projects, but it’s mostly just great to see the diversity of ways people are taking the tool and running with it.
Where was the boundary generally between what you liked to work on and what [Joe] liked to work on in terms of the tasks of planning and building a game?
We tend to have quite fluid roles and wear a lot of hats, which is one of the joys of a small team. Overall, we design concepts together, and pull out which elements we’re interested in. Working as a pair tends to stop projects from bloating; we file down each others’ ideas and ensure the game stays focused on being whatever it is it’s supposed to be, without either of us getting too distracted by stuff that’s just fun to make.
Once we’re building, I handle writing – either doing it, or editing it from authors, or both – and narrative design; I do a bit of gameplay logic and AI coding; and core game design (which is mostly data entry). Joe does the software architecture and most of the game code, but he also does the graphic design, art direction and styling of the game, which lets us build very fluid and kinetic interfaces because he owns the whole process from the mockup through to the internal mechanisms. Joe also does most of our sound design.
It sounds like you and Joe follow a lot of “best practices” stuff around planning and documenting your work, and you have an eye on ideas like making your work durable for the future. How have you absorbed those values? Are they informed by your past life in consoles, or do they predate that?
Actually, I don’t think we have any best practices at all; we tend to reinvent everything from scratch and do what seems sensible at the time. Like any new studio, we’ve made quite a few wrong turns too. But the previous experience in a big studio is certainly useful, both for understanding technical and production processes.
Heaven’s Vault will be released for PC, PS4 and mobile later this year.