Without Charles Cecil, adventure games as you know them probably wouldn’t exist. Co-founder of Revolution Software and creator of the Broken Sword series, Cecil helped evolve the adventure format from its text-heavy roots towards the cinematic model favoured by the likes of Life is Strange and Telltale’s library. Here, Cecil discusses Broken Swords‘ origins, the changing face of the adventure game, and how player communities kept the point-and-click genre alive.
Today, Broken Sword is regarded as one of the most beloved adventure game series ever made. Since the first entry, Shadow of the Templars, was released by Revolution Software in 1996, five distinct outings have taken players on fanciful journeys to exotic locations, chasing mythical treasures or long-buried secrets, with protagonists George Stobbart and Nicole Collard often pursued by mysterious forces and shadowy organisations. Always focussed on story-telling and puzzle-solving, the games evolved from point-and-click 2D animated experiences to interactive full 3D worlds, becoming a staple of gaming history along the way.
However, Broken Sword’s roots go back further, to 1990, and creator Charles Cecil’s frustrations with the adventure game scene of the day. Working at Activision at the time, Cecil founded Revolution alongside Noirin Carmody, Tony Warriner, and David Sykes, and set out to disrupt a stagnating genre.
Changing the Game
“There was a big transition because companies like Sierra were beginning to lose their way,” says Cecil. “Roberta Williams, who clearly is a very, very talented writer and game designer, was taking herself through King’s Quest much too seriously. When I wrote Lure of the Temptress, that was very much sort of a knee-jerk reaction against that. Tim Schafer, I’ve subsequently read, said absolutely the same thing when they founded LucasArts.”
Lure of the Temptress was Revolution’s first title, released in 1992. A historically-inspired medieval fantasy with a wicked sense of humour, it was followed in 1994 by Beneath a Steel Sky, which took an opposite path, presenting players with a dark cyberpunk future. Both utilised Revolution’s ground-breaking Virtual Theatre engine, which allowed non-player characters to walk through scenes independently, creating more realistic game worlds, and gave players intimate control of character actions.
While both games were hits, they were dwarfed in popularity by Revolution’s third game, the original Broken Sword. The game was ambitious, both narratively with its globe-trotting conspiracy fuelled plot centred on the Knights Templar, and technologically. Shadow of the Templars featured high-quality animation, evocative of the works of Don Bluth, and boasted cast recordings in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian – an impressive feat for the time.
“Every time we write a game, we try and look forward within the context of the technology and any constraints,” Cecil recalls. “Broken Sword was very much a CD game, so it had a full score and it had full voices.”
The original Broken Sword is perhaps best remembered for its puzzles though, something Cecil worked hard to balance for players. While still wanting to present games with a more approachable tone than the earlier Sierra games that Revolution had been a reaction to, he also didn’t want to go too far in the other direction, and rely on farce as a shortcut to excuse nonsensical progression through the story.
“All the games that I’ve written, I’ve tried really hard to make the puzzles logical within the motivation of the character of that time and within the context of the world. That’s a really hard thing to do,” Cecil says. “I think that games that don’t have that constraint because they’re slapstick are able to come up with fun and silly puzzles much quicker than we come up with puzzles that have to be justified by the motivation of the character.”
“I would like to think that the style of adventure that we’ve written has probably aged better than slapstick ones, because I think we probably appeal in our gameplay where the gameplay or the puzzle’s not contrived,” he continues. “I don’t want to be in any way negative about the wonderful LucasArts games which we all grew up on and I thought were fantastic, but I do think that our more logical puzzles probably appeal more to a contemporary audience.”
Before Broken Sword, adventure games’ popularity and success was in large part dependent on format. While some earlier efforts were ported to console – Maniac Mansion and Kings Quest V appeared on the NES, for instance – the point-and-click interface made the genre inherently better suited to a mouse-and-keyboard computer environment than using joypads. Through much of the 1980s and into the ’90s, this wasn’t a problem: the nascent home gaming industry wasn’t overly dominated by any one platform, allowing players to gravitate to where the games they wanted to play were. However, everything changed with the advent of the PlayStation.
While Cecil is keen to highlight that the original PlayStation was “obviously extraordinary and phenomenal, and Sony are a terrific company”, he says that the console “actually summoned the demise for 10 years of the adventure, because games were sold through retail.”
“If a game wasn’t stocked by retail, then no people buy it. As PlayStation became more and more successful, so the number of PC titles being covered reduced and the number of adventures was virtually zero,” Cecil explains. “We were being told by retailers and publishers that the adventure was dead and we’d been told the PC was dead.”
Although all but the fourth Broken Sword game, 2006’s The Angel of Death, would be released on console, the PlayStation’s release was a juggernaut that shifted the entire market. Yet while adventure games in a broader sense evolved to encompass the likes of Tomb Raider – still story-based, but with a greater emphasis on action – and the point-and-click sub-genre became more niche, it never disappeared. One of the saving graces, Cecil says, was the passion of the fanbase.
Bleating Mad Fans
Cecil recalls the player groups that have sprung up out of sheer love for the games – the secret Order of the Goat party in York, a gathering of fans named after one of Shadow of the Templars’ more notorious puzzles, with attendees coming from across Europe; the player who wrote to Revolution with something of a eulogy for his late grandmother, who he played Broken Sword with after school as a child; the woman who so enthusiastically wanted to support the Kickstarter that helped fund the development of Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse that she donated 50 handmade goats to offer as backer incentives.
“People talk about toxic [player] communities. Adventure communities, our community is just lovely,” he adds. “They are diverse, both in terms of gender and nationality. They become friends because of their shared interest in Broken Sword. It’s a community that has a common interest which we happen to be the producer of, but that these are people who are friends with each other in their own rights, so clearly we have a great deal of interest in what they’re doing.”
Beyond the fans, the camaraderie between traditional adventure game developers also helped keep the genre alive, while the rest of the games industry was focused on increasingly elaborate console titles.
“There’s a terrific community amongst the developers which makes it a really terrific and a really lovely and wonderful industry to work in. It should be obvious, but as adventure developers, we are absolutely not competitors with each other,” Cecil says.
That sense of community at all levels gave fans something to rally around.
“I remember when Broken Sword II came out against Monkey Island 3. In Europe, Broken Sword II actually beat Monkey Island 3, which was fantastic, but what scared me was the thought that people would buy one rather than the other,” Cecil says. “What they did instead was bought both, because people who love adventures will buy adventure games. The whole scene has become – particularly in the UK now – an incredible one, because everybody bends over backwards to help each other. We know perfectly well that if somebody buys a Team 17 game or a Sumo Digital game, they’re not going to not buy a Revolution game. They’re more likely to buy a Revolution game!”
Revolution’s latest, the aforementioned Broken Sword 5, launched in episodic form in 2013 and most recently arrived on Nintendo Switch, where Cecil hopes it will reach a whole new audience. If its impact is anything like its predecessors, players could still be talking about it decades from now and hosting their own parties based on it.
“The thing about an adventure game is that it is niche, it will sell a fraction of what a first-person shooter does, a fraction of a football game, but 10 years later, 20 years later, people remember those adventures,” Cecil says. “They remember the stories, they remember what went on.”