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Interview with Scott Frost on Awaken

Developer:Qwato Interactive Studios

[Editorial Note: This interview has been originally conducted for Just Adventure and published here with site owner Randy Sluganski’s permission.]

Death… Could it truly be the end? Can something so intricate, so complex as a human being simply cease to exist? Or is there more to existence than the mere act of drawing breath? Millions believe in the final judgment that is to come after life as we know it comes to an end. An ancient prophecy of divine punishment and eternal bliss… The answer for all mortal suffering, the ultimate justice, a piece of the incredible plan that is so complex that it cannot be comprehended by the human mind.

Millions more believe in reincarnation. The return of the immortal spirit to the realm of the living in a new shell… A cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that can only be broken when the spirit sees past the illusion that is the mortal world. A tremendous journey to realize we are all part of something greater, an all-encompassing entity, the ultimate and only true consciousness, Brahma.

Despite our beliefs, despite our struggles to understand the deeper meaning of life, what if the truth of human existence had been known with unfaltering certainty millennia ago? What if it had been kept hidden for all these years?

Currently under development by Qwato Interactive Studios, Awaken draws inspiration from the 19th century Victorian high society. The era saw a curious interest in mummified Egyptian corpses. It was not uncommon for a British aristocrat to invite guests for a mummy unwrapping. The quasi-ritualistic process offered a way to experience a spiritual connection to the ancient corpses.

Awaken proposes that five mummified children were found during this period. Yet they were far from the heart of Egypt. They were not hidden within an awe-inspiring pyramid. This was not the glorified preservation of a pharaoh. The children were found in an extremely humble makeshift tomb. It almost seemed like an accident that they were mummified at all.

After the initial discovery, the five mummies were transferred to the Americas. They seemed to be once again lost in time. Their incredible secret was hidden. What they had been guarding was unknown. The truth of their existence hidden from the mummy traders of the 19th century, the children had disappeared for a second time. Perhaps they had been diminished to little more than a footnote in some travel log.

But how can the greatest truth be kept hidden forever? These ancient mummies, these Children of Light could not be farther from ordinary. They held the key to the ultimate mystery. They were the guardians of the gate that kept the very secret of human existence. The time might be at hand to finally definitively answer questions asked millennia ago. But you cannot let this sacred truth, this hidden power to fall into the wrong hands. It is time for a journey. The core of your being, your very soul must embark upon a path that could lead you to the only secret that is worth knowing.

Awaken is without a doubt a rather ambitious undertaking. The game not only features a highly interesting storyline and intriguing setting, but it also intends to merge together key aspects of several well-known games. Putting the emphasis on the storyline, Awaken intends to challenge players to explore its unique setting and take advantage of several distinctive game play mechanics. The game will be accessible through the Internet, allowing players to join the experience with no installation requirements.

Scott Frost, the director of Qwato Interactive Studios, has provided us detailed information about their upcoming project. Even as development efforts continue, here’s your chance to gain some insight into this remarkable project:

[Ugur Sener]: What can you tell us about the story behind the game? Can you provide any details about the setting?
[Scott Frost]: “During the 19th century a new form of entertainment emerged in Victorian high society. Local surgeons would draw large crowds to their homes to perform mummy unwrappings.

Eager to experience a macabre connection with the eternal Egyptian corpses, people would flock to witness the unwrappings. Some believed the corpses held medicinal properties, capable of curing all human disease.

While the phenomena continued, the mummy import business raged throughout Europe. As was common, most of the shipments were never tracked and eventually disappeared from record.

One shipment was sent to an unknown destination in the Americas. It contained the remains of five mummified children, discovered in a remote makeshift tomb, far from the heart of Egypt.

Hidden as they were in death, they would disappear once more...

Now, amidst the chaos of modern society, the truth of human existence has been discovered. This truth possesses the power to forever change our world, our beliefs, our fate. Demi, a deformity born of loathing and despair, will stop at nothing to ensure that it does. He seeks out these Children of Light; ancient sentries to the gate that will unlock this truth.

You must be the first to locate the Children of Light. Use all of your abilities to stop Demi and his disciples from unlocking their power. Your only guide through this torment is Ari’ana; a deity who haunts your sub-conscience. Her reality will become the dreamscape from which your soul must Awaken.”

Awaken was originally born years ago as a point and click adventure game combining 3D characters and objects composited with 2D photographs of hand made miniature models. In 2002, we spent over a year building the core engine and shopped it around to all the major publishers in the US, as well as many European publishers. If you can name them, we have talked to them. Without a previous AAA+ title under our belt, we were told the product was “too niche.” Although “creative and very cool looking”, it would not be able to become a cash printing machine. It was considered to belong to a dead genre and the content was not mainstream. We heard this from almost everyone we spoke with. Maybe they were being kind to us, but we really thought we had developed something that nobody had seen before.

The original DirectX demo is still available here if you (or your readers) want to download and play it. - just grab and save the install.exe file. There is a readme.txt file as well.

Since the story is the most important aspect of Awaken, we decided to scale the concept way back and slash our development budget by 99.9%. Welcome to v.2.

We set the following guidelines as part of our newly defined scope:

1. Weave the world of Awaken into a user interface that combines these inspirational elements:
- the simplistic top down pixel and tile design of The Legend of Zelda.
- the rich fiction of Zork.
- the environmental discovery process found in Myst.
- the dark adult edge of Trilobyte’s 7th Guest and 11th Hour.
- the anticipation of the puzzles from Google’s Da Vinci Code quest.

2. Create a free to play game on the internet that lives entirely within a cross-platform compatible web browser requiring no client installation on the user’s machine.

In addition we want to create a multi-player experience in the less traditional sense. We are firm believers that the people who come to play Awaken will be looking for a casual game they can hop in and out of at any time. They will probably not be looking for a game where they have to spend hours working with other players to accomplish objectives and goals. That said, we are providing areas within Awaken that are like large chat rooms. So for instance, if you enter a building and there are other characters inside, you will be able to chat with them about what they are experiencing. We are hoping that as characters get engaged in the world, they will take on the persona of their souls and help feed the fiction for other players. As far as this fiction goes, no topic is really off limits. This is an adult oriented game, therefore, we are expecting our players to let loose. Granted, we’ll be on the lookout for any racial hatred, but pretty much anything else is fair game as long as it feeds the fiction.

Overall, it is a single player experience, but we have provided places where multiple-players can come together and interact. In addition, we are working on a future system where users will be able to create their own cults. These cults will have special meeting places in the world where they can bring their cult together to talk about whatever they like. Cults can either be members only, or open to the public. In addition, there are methods for recruiting any player to a cult. The bigger the cult, the more powerful it becomes and certain characteristics about each soul will change based on that.

We are hoping to launch beta of “Chapter One. Verse One.” in Q4 2006. In the meantime, users can register their souls as http://www.Awaken.net.

In addition, we are using the following technologies and contractors for development:
- SwishMax for SWF development and coding by our lead programmer Elmar Bloss
- Adobe Photoshop
- Final Cut Pro
- Lightwave 3D
- Pro Motion for sprite development
- Textwrangler for PHP development
- MySQL for the database backend
- Soul Artwork by Rebecca Dell Conway
- Music composed by Steven Gutheinz
- Trailer Narration by Jim Greulich
- Pixel Artwork by Mick Hanrahan

[US]: What kind of characters will players be controlling? What does the "resurrection" process entail?
[SF]: You have a soul. This is the fundamental concept of Awaken. When a user begins the experience, they are tasked with creating a custom soul that is unique to them. The soul is created based upon attributes and characteristics similar to human essence. These attributes are defined as follows:
- Physical - That which makes up the perceived physical state of a human.
- Logical - That which defines the ability to think and reason of a human.
- Emotional - That which defines the sensations and experiences of a human.
- Spiritual - That which defines the beliefs, morals, and ethics of a human.
- Mortal - That which defines the conceptual understandings of life and death of a human.

There are a total of 64 character types in all that a player can choose from. For our beta launch, we will probably have close to all 64 of them created at a player level, but will only have a small selection available that physically match the on screen avatar that you would walk around with. We are hoping to have all 64 avatars created in the months post beta launch. Most of the characters were created in the vein of goth, but our character artist Rebecca Conway has done a fantastic job of giving each soul its personal identity. We are hoping that users will enjoy her artwork as well as that of our pixel artist Mick Hanrahan.

The resurrection process is simply the ability to log back in where you left off. Because we are developing a web based game, we are taking great care to ensure that anything we can know about a soul can be tracked and stored at the database level.

[US]: How will the players be able to shape their characters? Will the game include strong role-playing elements?
[SF]: As users move through the Awaken experience, the composition of their soul’s attributes will be challenged and evolved through their actions, interactions with other characters, and the decisions they make. It is a model based upon analysis of psychological research. Although it includes traditional elements such as strength and armor, these are not humanistic qualities that can evolve and mature. Users can gain experience as well as money for upgraded items and increased levels of human essence. The journey will pose fundamental questions about their existence and constantly engage them on an emotional level through what we call “emotional stray clauses.”

Once a soul is created users have the option to post their soul into the ‘tomb of souls’. The tomb of souls is a global portal community that captures information regarding each soul: where it originates, what it looks like, and the essence it contains. The tomb of souls is a tool to track users and allow them to search and find others around the globe with similar interests.

[US]: What kind of challenges can players expect to face during the game?
[SF]: While there are no true hack’n’slash or twitchy trigger elements to Awaken, we are planning some navigational challenges to moving characters through the world to avoid the badasses as we like to call them. When a badass is encountered, we take care of the fighting for you. The outcomes and results are randomized based upon pre-defined algorithms that take several factors into account. Any rewards from the encounter are automatically added to the soul’s inventory if there is room.

These items will invariably be used to progress the plot forward, but at the same time, you must decide which items to carry and which ones to drop. It will be interesting to see statistics on the types of items that users are carrying around. We want to make all of these statistics transparent and available for everyone to see. So for instance, we can find out how many people stopped to look at the dead dog. We can see how many people are carrying a knife versus a chain. This kind of data can then be used as we develop future chapters for the game.

Each chapter in the world will also present a different final puzzle that must be solved before proceeding to the next chapter. They are essentially mind bending games designed to test a soul’s mental skills and patience. We tried to select puzzles that are difficult, but not impossible. After all, what’s the point in playing a game if you are not challenged by it? Will people get frustrated? Absolutely. But there are also those out there that will find the puzzles too easy.

[US]: Can you give me some details about the game's interface? How will players control their characters and interact with others?
[SF]: Awaken is a 2D top down tile based world exploration game. It hearkens back to Zelda, but also incorporates a Zork style command prompt, with 7th Guest style pop up animations and shock scenes. Think bloody head pops up with shrieking woman…nice! Almost all of the interface and command options are presented on one screen. We have tried to maximize real estate in a compressed flash interface screen. The challenge for us is to make it look good while conserving bandwidth for graphics, sound, and music. It is not easy, especially when trying to design a game that can scale as the user community grows.

[US]: What can you tell me about the game's overall atmosphere? How do you expect this to be communicated in a multiplayer setting?
[SF]: The best way to play Awaken is in a dark room with your speakers turned way up. The mood we are trying to create is a dark one. Since it is often times difficult to display pertinent details at the pixel level, we rely on sound and graphic descriptions to create the imagery we want.

In addition, our composer Steven Gutheinz will be creating some beautifully haunting music for us to set the right mood. Steve is definitely the most talented young Hollywood composer out there. If I was in the film business, I’d have him score every single movie I made. I feel privileged to have him as part of Awaken.

We are hoping that as players move through the experience, they will undoubtedly add their own flavor to the stories and descriptions. For instance, there is a diary in the first world that contains a registry of entries. Those that find it, can write their own answers to a question posed, or their own random thoughts. We hope that these kinds of items will also add content to the world for people to explore, and just make them think.

[US]: What kind of environments can players expect to explore?
[SF]: We’ve started off with a pretty elaborate tile set for the first few chapters, including your traditional environmental elements and multiple building styles and types. The ultimate objective is to basically imagine this large town where a lot of random people from all over the world have come in search of answers. People sleeping in cars, tents, little encampments begin to sprout up. All the while, people are searching for the Children of Light. When one is found, others will try to steal them away. So it becomes this never ending cycle of treasure hunting.

As far as specific environments go, you have your run of the mill swamps, dead forests, scorched earth and water elements. Since we are trying to manage CPU memory, we are somewhat limited in Flash as to how complex we can make the environments. We will definitely be relying on the tile set, the fiction, and photo-realistic pop ups that give visual clues and detail.

[US]: Will the game have a distinct beginning and ending or will it be an ongoing multiplayer world?
[SF]: It will definitely have a beginning and a projected story path with several endings already in mind. However, we are hoping that if we can build a community around Awaken and make it last, we will be able to provide many new chapters. If this becomes the case, we may eventually weave fan fiction into the world of Awaken to create a more inclusive environment for our end users. We really want the fans to help shape where the story goes and how things unfold because ultimately, it is their world and we are just opening up the doors to let them in to see for themselves.

As far as the chapters go, if Awaken proves popular, we are developing our engine to be able to produce new chapters every two weeks. We are hoping to shave this down to about a week’s time because people definitely want to experience new things. When we officially launch (post beta), we plan to have 3 chapters available.

Adventure Lantern thanks Scott Frost for sharing detailed information with us about Qwato Interactive Studios’ upcoming project Awaken. Based on the information provided by Mr. Frost, Awaken certainly looks like a very promising game. Exploring the game’s world as a spirit and seeking the Children of Light can make for a very interesting and engaging experience. Having the opportunity to exchange observations with other players could enrich the game. Allowing players to directly contribute to the evolution of the game’s world could make Awaken a very distinct and ever-changing virtual universe.

Unfortunately, before we can dive into the game’s world, we’ll have to wait a little longer. In the meantime, you can take a trip to the official Awaken Web site and register as a soul waiting for resurrection. The official site can be found at: www.awaken.net. You can also take a look at the teaser trailer for Awaken. The trailer is available through the game’s official site as well as YouTube.