Interview with Cesar Bittar and Katie Hallahan, from Phoenix Online Studios

Being in the waiting for the next two chapters of “Cognition”, the excellent, episodic adventure game from Phoenix Online Studios, we seized the opportunity to secure an interview with two of the studio’s members, Cesar Bittar (CEO, designer and producer of “Cognition”) and Katie Hallahan (head of public relations and producer of “Cognition”) (Distinguised in the center of the photograph above, with Vitek Goyel on their left and Weldon Hathaway on their right).

RQ: Can you give us some information regarding Phoenix Online Studios and how it ended up creating its first commercial PC game?

CB: We’d wanted to do it for a long while, but the pieces came together in 2011 after going around and trying a few different things. We sort of stumbled into Erica Reed and from there, we took it on, decided to do the Kickstarter, invested money from our pockets and decided to jump in. It’s been exhilarating, scary and awesome all at the same time.

KH: We acquired some assets from a game that had fallen through from another company, Khaeon, and the artwork had been by Romano Molenaar. His work is just amazing! We took those assets and created an entirely new story, keeping really just the look and name of the main character, Erica, and repurposed the other art assets for the story of Cognition.
RQ: Up to now, the first two episodes of “Cognition” have managed to built an intense story, with many twists, thus preparing us for a great third chapter and a strong finale. What are your expectations on the gamers’ reaction towards those next two episodes?

CB: I’d like Cognition to stay with players for a bit longer than after the credits roll, and therefore, I hope the story serves it purpose and gives people something to talk about, especially in how exist in the middle of a big grey area regarding morality. Some people will have very defined thoughts, and some people won’t know how to feel, and if we manage to pull that off so that people can discuss it in forums, then I think we’ll have done our job. Obviously, we want them to be thrilled as well, and their breath taken by the time the final sequences take place.

KH: Each episode really has its own unique feel, I think. Episode 1 introduced Erica, her coworkers, her powers and her world, showed us what kind of game this was going to be. In Episode 2, we escalated that and started to really ramp up the stakes on what Erica is facing. Now in Episodes 3 and 4, we’ll be delving into the fuller story of what’s going on here
RQ: Should we expect to see other characters, like John McCoy or Samuel McAdams, having an extended role in the upcoming third and fourth episodes?

CB: Yes, we’ve been setting them up for a reason. Both of them have a larger part to play in the story. McCoy’s big episode is 3, and McAdams will be very prominent in the last one. How? Well, you’ll have to play it. 🙂

POS pic1What does the story hold for John McCoy?

RQ: What do you believe to be the pros and cons of having a female protagonist in an adventure game? Was there a specific reason that you choose Erica as the main character?  

CB: Erica was sort of chosen for us. When we took the project, the character already existed. I think it was great, we had been writing for Graham for a long while for The Silver Lining, and so a female character was a good change of pace. I think both genres are good to tell a story, and Erica is definitely a very strong female character, the equivalent of someone like Jack Bauer from 24. I think that female character’s way of thinking is more complex than us simple males, and therefore it’s easier to make them more vulnerable. In a story that is so emotional, it makes my life easier.

KH: I love Erica, I think she’s a great character, and also a great female character. For me, stories for me come together come together around who the main character is, and that might be male or female, but I don’t see it as pros or cons based on their gender. It’ll affect the story, but that’s different. I think as long you’ve got a well-written and interesting main character, you’re on the right track. And even if Erica was somewhat chosen for us, I really enjoy how she’s developed—she’s not a woman in a man’s world, and being female isn’t what defines her.  

RQ: Can you clarify us Jane Jensen’s role and participation in Cognition’s scenario? How would you describe your collaboration with her?

CB: Jane is our Story Consultant. She was there when we were discussing the story initially and she helped shape it, make it focused. We had two different themes we were working on and we were trying to make them both work, and so, at the end, she made us just choose one and go with that, which turned to be the post-cognition power, which was the easy one to expand upon.
Jane reads every treatment for every episode, and also reads every final script and writes a bunch of notes and suggestions on everything. It’s great because we get to be mentored by someone who really knows her craft. To me, it’s a dream come true as Gabriel Knight is my favorite videogames series.

KH: It’s great working with Jane—obviously there’s the ‘dream come true’ angle, like Cesar said, but she’s also got a great eye for details, and for keeping things focused. Working with her has really reinforced the old writing adage of making every word count—don’t add things you don’t need, and make sure the things you have in your writing, or game design, are all there to support your story and characters.

RQ: Cesar, you recently wrote on Facebook about the “finale of Season 1” of “Cognition”. In the relevant questions that were submitted to you, the answer was that a second season of the game is something that Phoenix Online Studios would very much like to work on. So, what does this imply about the conclusion of the first season? Is there a chance we will come across a cliffhanging end, or there are many things that the story could expand on?

CB: This story will have a proper ending, but we are leaving a thread open which is what any expansion on Cognition would be about, and that’s the lore on the whole “psion” element of it. There are a few ideas already where we could take a second season, but that’s only depending on the overall success that the first one has.

KH: There’s a lot of potential in Erica and the world we’ve built around her. I’d love to be able to do more with it!  

POS pic2Erica is the “chosen one” for the creators of her world

RQ: What do you consider your greatest gaming influences and how do you think they come across in “Cognition”?

CB: Obviously, Gabriel Knight is one of my biggest influences for this game, and I think it comes across in almost every way. It’s no coincidence that I came to Jane and asked her to be a story consultant for this, because everything about it felt like a distant cousin to Gabriel Knight. I also like games that give you a bit more than just the regular mechanics –I love “powers” and “abilities” in a game, and so I really like the power of Cognition because of that.

KH: Old school adventure games in general are a big influence for me—GK, and King’s Quest in particular. But as far as newer games, adventures like Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, and The Longest Journey are big influences, games that have really carried the genre through the ‘adventure games are dead’ period and showed that there was still a lot to be done yet with adventure games.
RQ: Gaming aside, as a writer, name three great sources you drew inspiration from for “Cognition”

CB: Seven, Dexter and Perfume: The Story of a Murder by Patrick Süskind

KH: Dexter, 24, and Veronica Mars.

RQ: Do you think that an adventure game with a well-written scenario can surpass another game which, in comparison, features better graphics and music? Would you like to name us the three best scenarios in adventure games for the last 3-4 years, according to your opinion?  

CB: Yes, it can. Nothing will ever be more powerful than a great story. I recently played To The Moon, and that had me in tears by the end of it. Another example is The Walking Dead, which, doesn’t look bad, but it’s not also the best looking thing ever, but the story packs a punch and the choices you have to make are simply devastating. Heavy Rain did look phenomenal, and the story was simply awesome.

KH: Walking Dead and Heavy Rain especially—they both put you on the edge of your seat with the situations you were in, and it wasn’t about the graphics (although, yes, Heavy Rain did indeed look beautiful and benefitted from that as well). You were emotionally invested in those stories and characters. Both games had me clutching my controller with sweaty hands at points!

POS pic3There is a given estimate for Jane Jensen from “Cognition” makers

RQ: During the first two episodes of the game, we noticed that some decisions lead to different paths in the game, which get joined again shortly after.
Are you an advocate of games’ multiple endings too? Do you see them as a way to give the player the opportunity to express his own desire about how the story should end or that’s something that the writer should decide about?  

CB: As much as I like to give choices to the player, unless you plan to take choices into the sequels, the ending should be always something left in the writer’s hands. I personally feel that you don’t mess with endings, because people have been working so hard to get to them, and if there’s something that you are planning to be the right ending, then that’s what your players should see. I also think that if something huge happens like the death or not of a character, then it should never be something that affects your sequel. I’d personally feel cheated if I choose to kill a character, and then the sequel tells me that wasn’t “canon”. Well, it was canon for me because it’s what I experienced from the hands of the developer, why did you make me believe something and then change it on me?
KH: Myself, I like the idea of multiple endings, though there are different ways of implementing them. You can have the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ endings, where you either did everything right, or the ones where you screwed something up, so you still complete the game, but things aren’t perfect. King’s Quest 6 is a great early example of that. Then you’ve got games where the ending is the same, but the players’ paths to that ending are different.

RQ: What is your personal opinion on Steam Greenlight? Isn’t it a bit unfair for games like “Cognition” to have to wait in order to get on Steam, whereas other don’t? Is “Cognition” near to achieving its entrance on Steam?

CB: Cognition is oscillating among the top 50 games there. I think that greenlight is a good system, but there’re definitely things about it that should be improved. First, the adventure genre is still a niche, and we might not sell the same amount of copies as a first person shooter, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be on steam, especially since most downloadable PC sales happen there. Second, greenlighting games that have no release date is not a very good thing — they may get cancelled in the next year, for whatever reason, and they would have only managed to take the place of a game that has already been released. Anyhow, I know there are a lot people waiting for Cognition to be released on Steam and so we are doing everything in our hands to get it up there. As a matter of fact, you can go over to here and vote yes for Cognition 🙂

KH: Greenlight is a good idea, but the system does need some refinement to really work to its best potential. Steam’s been rolling out changes that have improved its effectiveness, but I think it still has a ways to go. People have estimated that you need around 60K votes to be in the top 10, and for most indie developers, that’s a HUGE amount of votes to try and get, especially if you’re just starting out. And in the meantime, if you sell even half that number, you’ve done really well with your game. It’s a constant fight to get votes and maintain your position, and while the exposure you can have on there is good—like I said, it’s a system that hasn’t reached its best potential. But yes, we’re hanging in around the top 50 mark, and appreciate any and all yes votes!

POS pic4Fans of “The Silver Lining” are definitely waiting the closure of the story. When are we going to see it?
RQ: Our final question. “Cognition” was the first game to be funded on Kickstarter. How do you see the continuation and evolution of the phenomenon, bearing in mind the funding success of “Dreamfall chapters”, as well as the emerging success of “Asylum”?

CB: I guess we were one of the first big names to be funded on Kickstarter. I think KS is a great platform for indie projects. I can only hope that all the projects see the light of day so that the community continues to trust Kickstarter as a viable option for us.

KH: I think it’s great to see so many adventure games coming back via Kickstarter. KS has been a boon to that genre and to indie games in general. I think part of that return is also due to the evolution of what’s in vogue for games in general—people are wanting more from the story aspect of their games these days, and story is front and center in adventure games. It took a backseat for a while when graphics and speed, etc, were seeing huge innovations, but now gamers aren’t just looking for what they can do in a game but how it can make them feel. And adventure games have been waiting in the wings to come back for a while now, so Kickstarter is a fantastic way for these games to find a way to be funded, and for gamers to have a more direct say in what games they want and are willing to support. The next few years are going to be interesting as we see more and more of the Kickstarted games being released!

RQ: Thank you very much for the time you spent in order to answer our questions. We wish you every success in your future plans!

CB-KH: Thank you too for this interview and the hospitality in your site!


Ο Μάνος δε μπορεί παρά να νιώθει ευτυχής που ασχολήθηκε ενεργά με την gaming αρθρογραφία στα χρόνια 2009-2017, οπότε και του δόθηκε η ευκαιρία να γράψει reviews για κάποια adventure games-διαμάντια, όπως "The Whispered World", "Monkey Island 2-LeChuck's Revenge" (Remastered Edition), "The Book of Unwritten Tales 1&2", "Grim Fandango" (Remastered Edition), "Gabriel Knight-Sins of the Fathers" (25th Anniversary Edition), "Night of the Rabbit", "Memento Mori 2", "Day of the Tentacle" (Remastered Edition).

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