Neil Gaiman’s ghost video game ‘Wayward Manor’ prizes puzzles over dialogue

Nov. 08, 2013 | 10:54 a.m.

The prolific Neil Gaiman is well known for his work in fantasy. His writing has won many awards including the Newbery Medal, the Nebula Award and the Carnegie Medal in Literature. (Jennifer S. Altman/Los Angeles Times)

Gaiman's first book was his 1984 biography of the British band Duran Duran. (Proteus)

In addition to writing for many British magazines (sometimes under pseudonyms), Gaiman wrote "Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion" about the books by Douglas Adams. (Simon & Schuster)

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Gaiman collaborated with illustrator Dave McKean on three graphic novels. "Violent Cases," about a young boy's experience being treated by an osteopath, was released in 1987. "Signal to Noise," about a filmmaker suffering from terminal illness, was first serialized in a British magazine, then released as a graphic novel in 1992. And in 1994, "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch" was published. The graphic novels paved the way for Gaiman to work on "Black Orchid" for DC Comics. (Escape Books; Dark Horse Comics; and Vertigo)

Gaiman made his mark in fantasy with "The Sandman" comics, which ran from 1988 to 1996. The stories chronicle the adventures of Dream, who goes by many names, including Morpheus, and rules the world of dreams. (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Gaiman's first novel was "Good Omens," published in 1990. The comedy was a collaboration with fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett. (Guild Publications)

In the four-part series "The Books of Magic," first published in 1990, Neil Gaiman explores the magical places and elements in the DC Universe through a young character who has the potential to be the greatest magician in the world. (DC Comics)

Gaiman picked up writing the Marvelman comics (released as Miracleman in the U.S.) after Alan Moore finished his run, but the publisher folded before Gaiman could finish his planned storyline. (Eclipse Comics)

Gaiman's 1993 comic book miniseries "Death: The High Cost of Living" was a spinoff of his Sandman series. The books followed Dream's older sister, Death. A film version is in the works, with Guillermo del Toro reportedly attached to the project. (Vertigo Comics)

Gaiman wrote the teleplay for the 1996 BBC Two television series "Neverwhere," set in a magical realm called London Below. He also wrote a novelization. (BBC Books)

In 1998, Gaiman and Charles Vess release the storybook "Stardust." The tale was then released as a traditional prose hardcover in 1999. It was then adapted for the big screen in 2007. (Avon Books; Paramount Pictures)

Gaiman's "American Gods," published in 2001, became a bestseller and earned Hugo and Nebula awards. The story followed mythical gods from across the globe who were transplanted to America when their believers immigrated. "Anansi Boys," a spinoff of "American Gods," was published in 2005, debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on "American Gods" has been announced for 2013. (William Morrow)

Gaiman's Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker award-winning 2002 novella "Coraline," about a girl who finds a secret doorway to another world in her new house, was made into a stop-motion film in 2009. The film was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. (Harper Collins; LAIKA)

Gaiman and his friend Dave McKean cowrote the screenplay for the 2005 film "MirrorMask," about a young girl from a circus family who finds herself trapped in a fantasy world. (Jim Henson Company)

Gaiman and Roger Avary cowrote the script for the Robert Zemeckis film "Beowulf." (Paramount Pictures)

In "The Graveyard Book," published in 2008, Gaiman told his own version of "The Jungle Book." The story follows an orphaned boy who grows up in a cemetery, raised by the ghouls and beasts there. (Harper Collins)

Gaiman's two-part Batman story "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" was published in 2009. (DC Comics)

Gaiman wrote an episode of the long-running time travel series "Doctor Who" titled "The Doctor's Wife," about the Doctor's relationship with his only steady companion. The episode ran in the show's sixth season, starring Matt Smith as the titular character, and was well-received by fans and critics. (BBC)

The first Neil Gaiman-authored video game may not have many words from the celebrated fantasy writer. But that’s exactly the way Gaiman wants it, said Matt Korba, co-founder of developing studio the Odd Gentleman.

“Wayward Manor,” initially unveiled this summer and due in 2014 for the PC and Mac, puts players in control of a ghost on a haunting spree. When the L.A. studio and Gaiman first began discussing the project, said Korba, Gaiman had an early request: no lengthy in-game cinematic sequences.

The story, requested Gaiman, would be told via player actions rather than scripted, plot-heavy moments — what the gaming industry refers to as “cut-scenes.” This, said Korba, is when he knew the collaboration would work.

“From the start,” Korba remembers, “Neil said, ‘We’re not telling the story through cut-scenes.’ Like, ‘That’s boring. Nobody plays games to watch cut-scenes.’  This is a match made in heaven.”

Korba said he’s found that “a lot of people who want to get into games from Hollywood think it’s all about that cut-scene.”

Korba spoke Thursday at GDC Next, a game developer-focused conference held for the first time in Los Angeles. He showed work-in-progress scenes from the game, which he said will be equally inspired by old Hollywood whodunits and vintage screwball comedies, and shared insight on how the studio and celebrated author are splitting creative duties.

Set in a vast 1920s mansion, the goal is simply to scare everyone out of the house, one room at a time. Much of the game has the player observing the house guests, interacting with the environment to try to discover what makes each one tick. The player, in the role of the ghost, may possess objects in the mansion and use them to drive the inhabitants to the point of insanity.

The basic story, in Korba’s words, “is not necessarily the most original idea that exists,” but by using a simple conceit the studio allows the player to explore the game world at his or her own pace and gradually discover the little yarns that accompany each character. A maid, for instance, displays near-OCD-like behavior at the site of the slightest mess and a grandpa is so afraid of the dark that he will wildly shoot at unseen noises.

Korba described what may happen if the maid and the grandpa are in the same room at the same time. The player in that instance will want to break items to spook the maid and send her into a cleaning frenzy, while flipping the lights on and off to frighten the grandpa. The elder may even end up shooting the maid, but that’s fine, as the more puzzles the player solves, the more paranoid the residents. The more frightened the characters, the more items in the house the player can manipulate.

“The mechanics are very much based on story,” Korba said. “We have a puzzle based on jealousy. We have a puzzle that’s about being afraid of the dark. We have a puzzle that’s about a love triangle. All of the mechanics the player discovers are little story beats. That’s the thing that we’ve being going back and forth [with Gaiman] to come up with. When you mix in the different characters in different rooms, you get stories that emerge from them.”

Gaiman in promotional videos for the game has cited film interpretations of “Blithe Spirit” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” as spiritual inspirations. They’re “crazy, mordant, funny, playful, weird things,” Gaiman said in describing the works, which touch on supernatural elements in a gleeful manner.

“We like that chaotic comedy style, slapstick,” echoed Korba.

Early concept art for "Wayward Manor," a game authored by Neil Gaiman. (The Odd Gentlemen)

Early concept art for “Wayward Manor,” a game authored by Neil Gaiman. (The Odd Gentlemen)

The tone of the game is certainly lighthearted, looking a bit like a board game sprung to life. Featuring art by comic artist Chuck BB (“Black Metal”), characters boast exaggerated features and round, peg-like bodies with tiny legs. If they weren’t fully animated they wouldn’t look out of place in a vintage toy shop.

That’s likely no accident, as the game was partly inspired by real-life playthings. Korba said the 6-year-old studio regularly designs its game levels first by using Legos. While most of the collaboration with Gaiman is done via Skype, Korba said the small studio had some initial brainstorming sessions using only the little plastic bricks.

“A lot of this stems from board games,” Korba said, adding that Gaiman described the Lego creations as “a little story machine.”

While the Odd Gentleman’s credits are few — the silent film-inspired “The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom” and the as-yet-unreleased “Phineas and Ferb”-inspired mobile game “Agent P DoofenDASH” among them — Korba said the studio has regularly taken meetings with Hollywood studios, most of which haven’t gone as smoothly as their pairing with Gaiman.

“Often, they see themselves as the guy who knows story,” Korba said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to touch the game play. You guys do your thing. Here’s my story idea. That’s what I do best.’ That’s not something we’re interested in.”

Gaiman, continued Korba, “wasn’t interested in just being a writer-for-hire. The two of us have gone back and forth. Neil influenced the design. We influenced the writing. The mechanics have influenced the writing. “

In fact, Gaiman’s touches might appear somewhat subtle to the casual player. “Wayward Manor” currently has characters speaking via text boxes, but the eventual goal is to have the script unfold only through play.

“We’re really trying to tell the story with as little dialogue as possible,” Korba said. “We want to tell the story through puzzles.”

- Todd Martens | @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex


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