What was your inspiration for making Spirits of Xanadu?

Shooting an enemy in Spirits of Xanadu with a pistol

Allen: A big inspiration is classic sci-fi films such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Alien. Those films had a huge impact on the premise and setting of the game. We wanted to evoke 2001’s mysteriousness and atmosphere together with the emotional and human elements from Solaris. Alien’s influences are apparent in the corporation present in the game, which is similar to Weyland-Yutani as they put utmost priority on the mission with the crew being relatively expendable.

Outside of the that, System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are major influences on how we’ve developed the game. Similar to those games we’ve put an emphasis on an interactive world with environmental story-telling. You can read e-mails and notes from the crew on their computers and if you see a piece of paper laying around you can pick it up and read it, among other things. You can flush toilets, push chairs around, shoot lab beakers, etc. Nearly every object in the game is more than just a static prop and can be interacted with in some way. Finally, like System Shock, the story is told through audiologs left by the crew.

Lee: We were both keen to make a game which caught something of the atmosphere of classic sci-fi films and games so we started from the same place in terms of inspiration.

As well as the influences Allen has already mentioned, I also drew a lot of story elements from sources linked to the city of Xanadu itself – Marco Polo, the Silk Road, the Chinese legend of Journey to the West and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Despite the suspicions of a number of people, however, I drew the line at Olivia Newton-John!

What steps did you take to guarantee a solid story in Spirits of Xanadu?

Playing an arcade game in Spirits of Xanadu

Allen: We tried to make the game as immersive as possible. Lee provided the game with a strong script and characters so all we had to do was have the game world match it. Delivery is an important part of story-telling as well, so we hired voice actors to voice the audiologs. In addition we have incidental text scattered around the ship that helps develop each character beyond that of the main story. So while you’re exploring the ship you’ll come across personal e-mails and notes, and you’ll be able to search their quarters to find out what kind of person they were. Each character has various hobbies and traits and personality quirks that set them apart and make them unique.

Lee: I think we both worked really hard to tie the story and gameplay together as closely as we could. Everything on the ship has a reason for being there and none of the gameplay is gratuitous – it can all be justified in terms of the story. I really wanted the plot to feel integral, not just something bolted on to give the game a bit of colour.

How do you ensure that gamers will enjoy playing Spirits of Xanadu?

Looking through office drawers in Spirits of Xanadu

Allen: We’re gamers so we’re making a game we think is fun. Adding multiple enemy types and minor stealth elements allow for more variety in the combat. Then there’s the story, which can be approached by the player at their leisure. The story is meant to fit in with the world and not feel ancillary, which we think that leads to a more enjoyable and immersive experience. Couple that with the interactivity and openness of the game we think we’ve done a good job and people will enjoy playing it.

Lee: One of the things I really liked about Allen’s games even before I started working with him was how personal they felt – he makes the games he’d like to play. While making Spirits of Xanadu, we never discussed what’s popular at the moment or how we could tailor it to get the biggest audience. I think that’s sort of patronising to your players – you should trust them, or many of them at least, to enjoy the same things you enjoy. If you don’t work like that then I don’t think your heart will really be in what you do anyway, and that’s got to show in the final product.

It was also important to me that investigating the deeper story shouldn’t be compulsory for players. Not everyone wants to read through text and listen to audiologs so I wanted it to be clear that they weren’t necessary in order to progress. Players who just want the action and puzzle elements can ignore everything else and still complete the game. Those who do delve into the story might discover something extra, however…

Describe an effective method you have used to write game text and dialogue.

Blood smears on the ground in Spirits of Xanadu

Allen: Lee did all the writing so I’ll let him answer this one alone.

Lee: For many years I wrote short stories and I find that most of the techniques needed for game writing don’t really differ. In particular, you have to practice a lot, edit a lot and avoid dumping information on the player (games are especially prone to this).

I also think it’s very important to keep things brief when writing for games, remembering that a lot of players won’t want the gameplay to be interrupted for too long. Although there’s a lot of incidental text in our game, I made sure that it’s never longer than a page at a time.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in a small team of developers?

Playing basketball in Spirits of Xanadu

Allen: The advantages of working in such a small team are that, aside from a few freelancers, we don’t have to rely on anyone else but ourselves. I handle the programming and modeling myself, while Lee focuses on the story and additional design of the game, as well as testing it and making sure it’s playable. We’re really proud of creating something like this by ourselves. The satisfaction from that is real fulfilling.

Main disadvantage is the practicability of some features. I’m the sole programmer and in order to get this game done in a reasonable time frame a lot of features I’ve had to cut or tone down. The art style was also chosen for practical reasons, as I’ve had to do most of the modeling myself. If we had a full-time artist we could go for a more ambitious art-style. Maybe next game.

Lee: Well we’ve been really lucky in that Allen and I share similar tastes and ideas about the sort of games we want to make. We also really like each other’s work and are both very open to feedback and constructive criticism. I think this sort of relationship is essential when you’re working in a small team and if you have it then the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that you can maintain a really tight focus on how you want the game to feel which is especially important in something story-driven. With a big team of people it’s easy for that vision to get diluted or muddled.

A disadvantage would be that you have to work within certain limits. It’s almost impossible to create a sprawling open-world MMO with cutting-edge visuals, for example. But then we never really wanted to make a game like that in the first place.

How is a game’s success determined?

Shooting an enemy with a shotgun in Spirits of Xanadu

Allen: If it’s fun and people enjoy it. Or if I had a great time making it and learned something from its development. If either of those are true I will personally consider it a success. I don’t want to understate how much satisfaction I get from fans though. Game development gets frustrating at times, but the fans have a way of making it all worth it. It’s always great to see Youtube videos about the game and watching them enjoy it firsthand.

Lee: I feel exactly the same. I do this because I enjoy it and I hope others will too.


About Allen

Allen Trivette is a two time collaborator with Lee Williams. He has a passion for story-telling through video games.

About Lee

Lee Williams is a two time collaborator with Allen Trivette. He has a passion for story-telling through video games.

About The Author

Andrew Ehrensperger

I'm Andrew, a Russian-Canadian dude living in Switzerland. I enjoy playing video games (obviously :P) and writing. I speak English, Russian, German, and I'm learning Spanish. My first console was either the GameCube or the Xbox. Both of them are terrific, but now I'm more of a PC gamer. I don't have a favorite game, but I spent over 2500 hours playing Garry's Mod and almost my entire childhood playing TimeSplitters: Future Perfect.