Beyond Pixels: Francisco González Talks Rosewater, and the Development, Design and Future of Adventure Gaming
If you’re an avid adventure game player, chances are you already know who Francisco González is. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s an indie developer who focuses on creating point-and-click adventures; some of the most interesting in recent times, in fact.
“You might know me from my freeware series Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator, or my commercial releases A Golden Wake, Shardlight, and Lamplight City,” González tells us. Although he was born and raised in Miami, Florida, he's speaking to us from his current home in Brooklyn, New York.
Where It All Began
But where did his affinity for video games start? You don’t become a prominent game developer overnight, after all. And ironically, his first game experiences weren’t even with adventure games.
“Some of the earliest video games I can remember playing are Omega Race and Pitfall on
the Atari 2600. I used to love playing Marble Madness and Rampage at mall arcades, and later got a Sega Master System and NES. I mainly played those until I got my first PC in about 1992, at which point I discovered adventure games via Hugo’s House of Horrors.
“Something about the stories and puzzles in adventure games caught my attention more than other genres, and it was around the time I played King’s Quest V on NES — yikes — that I started thinking how cool it would be to design an adventure game of my own. I had absolutely no programming experience, so it took a while until I was able to make that happen.”
On the Origins of the Adventure Game Species
So began González’s game development journey, starting with a passion for playing games and evolving alongside his growing curiosity about how they are actually made.
“When I was in high school, a friend gave me his copy of Klik and Play. It wasn’t an engine made for adventure games, but I was able to create a facsimile with keyboard controls for movement and very rudimentary point and click functions,” González says. He even went so far as to make a short fan game called Monkey Island 2.5, which was — by his own admission — terrible.
Soon after, he went on the internet and was excited to learn that some people were working on an engine similar to LucasArts' SCUMM called SCRAMM. While that project never saw the light of day, he joined the online community and got to know a few people there. After initially getting his feet wet by dabbling with different game-making engines, things really started to take shape for González around the year 2000.
“I was a freshman in college and decided to search for ‘adventure game maker,’ which led me to find Adventure Game Studio. Unlike SCRAMM, this engine could make adventure games in both the LucasArts and Sierra style, and more importantly, it was available to download.”
It was early days for even adventure game development, and there had only been a handful of games completed using Adventure Game Studio at the time, several of which were made by Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw of The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation fame, according to González. “It was very inspiring to know that actually making a fully functioning game in this engine was possible. So I downloaded AGS, played around with it, made some games, and never looked back.”
González kept at it and has gone on to create many well-received adventure titles over the years. His games lean more towards being grounded in realism and he doesn’t shy away from tackling thorny issues in them, so we asked him what some of his influences were.
“I’ve had many,” he says, “but game-wise, I think I’ve probably been most heavily influenced by both the Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword series. Specifically, the way these games blend history and fiction. Most of my games have some elements of the real world in them; whether they’re set in a real place and feature actual historical events (A Golden Wake) or are pastiches of historical elements like the French Revolution (Shardlight) or the Industrial Revolution (Lamplight City).”
"I felt that setting it in an alternate 19th century didn’t mean I got a free pass to gloss over the ugly parts of history."
Lamplight City is González’s most recent release and is set in a Victorian-era United States where the Revolutionary War never happened, but instead of using that to avoid dealing with prevalent contemporary social issues, he embraced the opportunity to explore them.
“I felt that setting it in an alternate 19th century didn’t mean I got a free pass to gloss over the ugly parts of history. Even though the timeline is different and, for instance, slavery was abolished much earlier in this world, it still existed. Classism and racism are still very prevalent, as they were in real life. People are still afraid of losing their jobs to technology, even if it’s steampunk machines in this world instead of the mechanized looms of ours. It would have been a disservice to ignore these facts and romanticize the time period even more than it already has been.”
Turning away from his games, González tells us what the day-to-day is like for him. “I’m lucky enough to be able to do this as my full-time job, and I mostly work solo, so it’s not necessarily a typical situation,” he makes clear.
“My workday more or less consists of me coming down to my basement office, sitting at the computer, and working on something for most of the day. Sometimes it’s drawing a background, doing an animation, writing dialogue, or coding a section of the game. I have the luxury of being able to switch disciplines, so if I get tired of one thing, I can work on something else. Generally, I try to focus on getting the game built and coded first because I don’t think it makes sense to do art first for a section that might end up getting cut or majorly changed.”
The idea of being an indie dev only ever gains traction as the years go on and the tools to create video games become more accessible to those with smaller budgets, but is creating video games as an indie developer for a living really the dream life?
“There isn’t really anything glamorous about it. Honestly, it can be a pretty lonely experience, and the end result certainly isn’t fame or fortune. There’s a lot more frustration involved than most people probably realize. That being said, I still love it and wouldn’t trade this career for anything else,” González exclaims.
“I absolutely think there is a future for adventure games”
Traditional point-and-click adventures have a long lineage, being on the gaming scene long before many other genres we have today, so what is it that makes them so alluring still?
“The main thing I enjoy about designing point-and-clicks, and I say this because I rarely play them anymore, is being able to explore a world,” González says. “The sense of discovery, through exploring locations and interacting with characters, is one of the best parts of the genre, and I think that’s what has lasting appeal. The narrative aspect of adventure games is what I think keeps them relevant. So many other genres from FPSs to action platformers have adopted these elements, adding compelling stories and characters. The presentation may have changed slightly, but they still have appeal. Just look at Detroit: Become Human or Until Dawn. They may not fit into the category of ‘traditional’ adventure games, but they’re as close as we’ve seen from AAA developers.”
The Point-and-Click Outlook
Wondering if they are propped up by fans’ sentimentality for the classics of yesteryear, we ask González whether he thinks there is a future for these types of games.
“There is definitely a subset of fans who lean into the nostalgia and think that if you don’t feel frustrated because you can’t figure out how to bang two items together to make something to get you through a locked door, then it’s not a real adventure game and is too easy. I would respectfully disagree, as I think sticking to that same design is why the genre became stagnant.”
González continues, clarifying his stance. “This isn’t to say that the traditional design of inventory puzzles should be completely discarded, but given the reputation that the genre has gotten as being full of frustration and moon logic, moving into more modern design theories focusing on character and story is, in my opinion, the way to go.
“And yes, I absolutely think there is a future for adventure games, just like every other genre,” he adds. “It just needs to evolve.”
González streams the development of his games on Twitch, so we broached the topic, curious to find out more.
“Streaming, while not without its issues, is a win-win scenario for me. It helps connect with the audience and shows the behind the scenes of the development process, and also keeps me focused on what I’m doing. If I know I have an audience, I won’t get distracted by social media. My streams don’t get a wildly high number of viewers, and it’s mostly the same core group, but we get a few new people every now and then.”
Due to be released in 2021, Rosewater is what González is hard at work on at the moment. He tells us all about it.
“Rosewater is a point-and-click Western adventure set in an alternate 19th century. It’s the same setting as Lamplight City — a world where the United States of America, here known as the Commonwealth of Vespuccia, never declared independence, and has made great steam-powered technological advancements, along with the discovery of a mysterious force known as ‘aethericity.’"
According to González, you control a former bare-knuckle brawler called Harley Leger as she arrives in a town called Rosewater. She’s out to make a name for herself as a writer, and an everyday assignment at a local newspaper soon turns into an expedition to find a missing fortune. “The bulk of the game involves the journey with your five travel companions, and your relationship with them will affect the trajectory of the story.”
You might be wondering if you need to play Lamplight City to understand what’s going on in Rosewater, considering they’re set in the same universe.
“Playing Lamplight City is not a strict requirement, although many of the references to the world will be richer if you’ve already experienced some of it. Rosewater is not a direct sequel, so all the relevant world information will be presented in the game.” Great news for newcomers, then.
There’s no doubt that González conceived a fascinating world with Lamplight City, so it bodes well that the Commonwealth of Vespuccia is making another appearance in Rosewater. Interestingly, González actually came up with the idea for Rosewater while he was still developing its predecessor.
“I spent so much time creating the world and the alternate history that I began thinking about other areas of the country I wanted to explore,” he says. “Lamplight City was very much an urban claustrophobic industrial setting, suitable to the 19th-century detective story. The complete opposite of that was rural wide-open spaces, and naturally, the most period-appropriate setting that applies to is the Old West. So I got it into my head that I wanted to make a Western in this world, bolstered by the realization that there are very few point-and-click Westerns, and even fewer that are not comedic parodies, which is a very handy unique selling point.”
Even though González creates almost every facet of his games himself, his girlfriend Jess Haskins is his Rosewater writing partner. “She was the script editor on Lamplight City, and on Rosewater she’s doing the same, but also taking a more active role in helping me write the encounters and vignettes in the game’s second act.”
He’s also pushing the musical boat out on this project. “I’m also working with composer Mark Benis again. This time around, we’re going slightly bigger, using some live instruments, which I think is going to make the soundtrack sound even more amazing than the phenomenal job he did on Lamplight City.”
Things take a relatably existential turn when we ask González who he is off the clock. “An excellent question,” he says. “Sometimes I think it’s gotten to the point where I’ve become a very one-dimensional person.
“At any rate, during normal times, I enjoy traveling and seeing different parts of the world. I also like playing games that are not adventures, like Assassin’s Creed, XCOM 2, and several others, although I have been playing more narrative-centric games like Until Dawn and Sam and Max Save the World with my girlfriend. I like watching movies with friends, going out and socializing.” He pauses. “Pretty much everything I haven’t been able to do in the past year!”
“I get frustrated when people think I’m making adventure games solely to try and copy the games of the past.”
González goes on to discuss what the future holds for him after Rosewater is out in the wild.
“I always like to have at least one idea for my next game in my head,” he tells us. “I think it comes from my time making the Ben Jordan series, where I knew there was always another game in the pipeline. Now that I do this for a living, having an idea for my next project is even more important, because while none of my commercial games have been massive hits, they’ve done well enough to allow me to continue making games. Eventually, sales start slowing down, so if a game does okay and I’m well into production of the next one, there’s enough room to not freak out about income and having to get another job. All that said, I have two projects I’m interested in tackling. Which one I decide to do first depends entirely on how successful Rosewater is.”
Before our time with him comes to an end, González talks to us about something that peeves him: the fact that just because his games have a traditional pixel art aesthetic, people tend to think he’s trying to simply remake the classics when he’s actually trying to create his own original works; evolution rather than imitation.
“I get frustrated when people think I’m making adventure games solely to try and copy the games of the past. I’m not trying to make a love letter to the genre or make people think they’re playing an old game they remember fondly. I want people to play my game and enjoy it on its own merits. I admit it’s somewhat hypocritical, considering I shamelessly lifted the aesthetic of the first Gabriel Knight game for Lamplight City, but in general the reason I stick to low resolution and pixel art is because that’s as good as I can manage with my available resources.
“I realize this is something that’s not going away,” González continues. “And people will always say ‘Hey, that reminds me of Monkey Island!’ but it still irks me. It’s one of the toughest things to let go.”
You can subscribe to Jump Chat Roll on your favourite podcast players including:
Let us know in the comments if you enjoyed this podcast, and if there are any topics you'd like to hear us tackle in future episodes!