CYPHER – The Cabrera Brothers Wanted To Tell A Story

Pitching the idea of a neo-noir text adventure to someone like Acitivison would be absurd. Who the hell would want to play a game that required users to delve into interactive fiction, without any true gameplay elements, demanding players type out instructions to progress the story?

Javier and Carlos Cabrera believed they could bring it back with their independent debut CYPHER. Rather than just a blank screen with text, they added a unique cyberpunk art style along with audio cues and a moody soundtrack to deliver a text adventure for a new generation. We caught up with Javier to discuss the development process, their motivations and the future for this dynamic duo.

Was this your first game? If not tell me what else you have worked on and what your role was on the project.

CYPHER wasn’t our first game together. We did some other games that never came to light because we were just kids playing with code and stuff. CYPHER is our first game together though since Carlos has a lot of published games by his own already. He has worked as concept artist and art director for some of the best companies in this industry. Just to list a few of his games: Mazes of Fate for Nintendo Gameboy Advance (and Nintendo DS), F.E.A.R, TimeGate Studios’ Section8, and lately, Aliens Colonial Marines. Carlos also worked on Natalie Portman’s Black Swan (remember the transformation at the end of the movie? Carlos did the concept of that!). Carlos did all the art you see on the game.

Me? This is my first game and I’m excited as hell. I’ve been a web design slave since 1999 and counting. I have the scars to show. Some of my clients have been featured in CNN Money, TechCrunch and even the super bowl commercials (so I’ve had chances to see my work everywhere!). Since my background includes web development, I was able to tackle on Unity3D (C#) for CYPHER. I also did most of the music in the game and wrote the story and designed the website and the feelies.

What was the inspiration behind CYPHER? Give me some ideas from movies, literature, comics, games? I can tell there is a heavy influence from Blade Runner just from my time with the game for instance.

1980, the cyberpunk era! We wanted to bring back cyberpunk! Blade Runner, Cyborg (Jean Claude Van Dame), Robocop, Akira, Ficcionario, Moebius, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Fifth Element, Nirvana, Exitenz, and many, many more. We can’t still understand why there hasn’t been more cyberpunk games since the 90’s. Now we have CD Project with their Cyberpunk game, which will be a huge hit and we can’t wait to play ourselves. We can only wish there are more indie developers out there working on new cyberpunk games! CYPHER takes influence from different movies, one is Blade Runner of course (mostly on the trailer, since the game has little to do with androids).

Moebius (Jean Giraud) was perhaps the first artist to show us cyberpunk as we know it. His work was, in big part, what influenced William Gibson (I bet not many know that) and what influenced Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner culture on the big screen. If you can find some of the comics and artworks Jean did about this genre, you will find the seed of Cyberpunk.

Why a text adventure? Why did you want to bring this genre back so badly?

There was a time when text adventures were big in the commercial scene, they used to sell more copies than games with actual graphics on screen. The fan base for those was huge! We felt it was time to bring back interactive fiction to the commercial scene. A platformer was too common and graphic adventures seem to be everywhere now (Telltale and Wadjet Eye are some of our favorites!). All what Carlos and I wanted to do is to tell a story, Dogeron’s Kenan story (CYPHER’s main character) and found text adventures were an exceptional way to do it under a relatively short time frame (one year of development).

We explored every option out there (inform, TADS, etc) and while they are great engines to create your own text adventure (inform parser is beautiful) they don’t have popcorn. We love popcorn. We want popcorn. Unity3D has popcorn and we used Unity3D to make a game you can play on a Saturday night with some friends and have a ball. Of course, there is a downside too. Unity3D can’t handle screen readers and some of the players are vision impaired. It wasn’t long until some of these guys wrote us and it won’t be long until we come up with the exclusive version of CYPHER we are working on just for them. They will play something they have never played before.

People L-O-V-E-D the idea of CYPHER. They just went nuts. You won’t believe the kind of support we had from the IF (interactive fiction) community. Players from all over the world wrote us saying they want more CYPHER. No one thought it was possible to come up with a commercial text adventure and actually make a dent in the gaming industry on 2012. A commercial text adventure? Can you imagine someone making this kind of bet? And we bet it all. A year’s salary, time, hope, life, everything. Worked pretty darn well if you ask me.

Right now, we are working on two projects. One is the vision impaired version of CYPHER. The next… well, I can’t say much, but its not going to be a text adventure, since we want to move into something more ambitious.

How was it marketing this to English audiences when you don’t use English as a primary language?

Carlos and I have worked with US based customers since 1999, so it was only natural for us to market CYPHER to English audiences. I have personally worked with people from Japan (I think Carlos have a Japanese client too somewhere) France, Canada, US and even Ukraine over the years. We felt right at home marketing CYPHER! RockPaperShotgun, Kotaku, PCgamer and TheVerge were the first ones picking up our story. The rest was all done by players. If people like it, you don’t have to market a game. It markets all by itself!

Tell me about the process of translation – I know there were a bunch of issues at launch – tell me about the hectic schedule trying to fix those up. Do you think this hurt the game’s reputation?

The translation issue was, in part, a pain. We sent the game to a non-native speaker and we paid a high price. The guy was okay for quick business translations, but not for something as big as a text adventure. It is not his fault though. It’s ours. We dropped the ball there. After the launch, some players told us about the grammar issues and we quickly hired a new person who took care of the project in 24hs. He didn’t have the proper time to clear all the inconsistencies in the first patch since CYPHER is not a short game so we had to rush in another update on the same week to address most of the issues. We took the opportunity to add support for more resolutions (netbooks, mostly) and some new descriptions to the world of CYPHER while we were at it.

Cypher Art

Steve Jobs once said “mistakes will be made in the process, and that’s okay, because it means decisions are being taken.” He’s right. We made mistakes, yes. But we moved forward too.

It was a hell of a lesson for us. This is our first game and we are nothing but a couple of guys from Buenos Aires trying to do what they love. The gaming community saw this and was really supportive about the whole issue during the first week. Of course, we also had some people angry at us too (and with reason!). We issued a formal apology on the very first update and kept working on making CYPHER a better game. They understood the situation and were behind us all the way which makes us really proud as gamers. It was amazing and surprising at the same time: people we never heard about or have any relation with offered their services and time for free! Lawyers, doctors, professional copywriters, musicians, sys admins, designers, programmers, some high profile developers… I mean, it was incredible. There are no words to describe the feeling of having hundreds of players writing to say they not just loved your product, but were backing you up 100%. We are still overwhelmed by this warm feeling of community we haven’t felt in a long time. We gamers are not as selfish as some people say we are.

Those weeks should have been hell for us, but they were two of the most amazing weeks we ever had.

Digital feelies were important to complete the game – tell us how they came about.

At home, we have this little notebook laying around somewhere with a hand drawn map of the eye of the beholder and other games we used to play when growing up. Before games were considered games, you needed to map things out to know where the heck you were going. We really believe the yellow arrow behind the character you need to follow is killing the very core of what makes video games fun.

Big companies are responsible for this. We gamers are smart! Don’t treat us like idiots! We can figure things out on our own. On screen tutorials are okay, but having the game solved for us is not. With CYPHER, you need to think things through. You need to solve hard puzzles some people will quit after 20 minutes of gameplay. The rest won’t. The rest will keep going until they crack the code and beat the game because they are champions of the universe and masters of the galaxy. Only the brave and the bold can sit at Odin’s table at Valhalla. Some players finished CYPHER four times in a row. That’s how crazy people are for old school action in games. We are sick and tired of seeing doors “glow” in the dark. I mean, do you remember the first time you realized Pac-man could reach the other end of the screen by going through the tunnels? It was like WOW! Look what I just did man! I came out the other side!

Now imagine what would happen if you put a yellow arrow, blinking and glowing and moving in each one of these tunnels. That’s what they are doing. They are killing all the fun.

You can purchase CYPHER via the official website for $14.99 USD.

Written by Stephen Heller