The wisdom of crowds
Cecil - pictured below, on the right, talking to lead developer Nina Roussakoff - wrote his first game in 1981. "We had 1k of memory," he remembers. "And it felt like an extraordinarily exciting thing to be doing.
"I was at university, and I wrote this game. We had things called micro fairs where you would talk to your community and would hear what they like and what they didn’t like. I remember one particular young man saying, 'I love your adventure games, but I convinced my wife that I could buy this computer because it would be educational for our son! When she saw how appalling your spelling was, she realised that it was all a façade.' My spelling was terrible. I was in big trouble. But it was the joy of actually meeting people, and hearing what people liked and didn’t like."
For Cecil, that interaction was lost in the following years, as developers became distant from their audience. But then thanks to the internet, social media and Kickstarter, the relationship between creators and the gamers has become strong again. "Tim Schafer went to Kickstarter for Broken Age. And it was clear that everything had changed," he says. "Broken Sword 5 was the beginning of that era for us. We did a Kickstarter, and we started talking to our community. It was absolutely amazing."
He continues: "Someone wrote and said, 'When I was 10, my grandmother bought me Broken Sword. We played the game together, and after school, I would run back home, and this defined the relationship.' And then other people started doing the same thing. I realised that adventures are an incredibly important niche. This man and his grandmother… They solved puzzles. They experienced the story together. It’s extraordinary and powerful.
"So we did a Kickstarter, and people were ecstatic, because we were responding to their comments. That was what it was all about: engaging with your community. We’d consult them, and we’d share the journey, and they’d be part of the journey. That was what Broken Sword 5 was all about."
Switching things up
Now Broken Sword 5 is coming to Nintendo's handheld console. "The point about the Switch," enthuses Cecil, "is, obviously it’s called the Switch because you switch between portable touch-screen, and the device you plug in. To celebrate that, we wanted to get it so that actually people can play it both at home and on the go.
So the assets are all in 1080P, which is obviously a higher resolution than the [handheld] screen. But it means that when you do take it home, you get the full HD resolution! You can play it as a slide-and-touch game. Then the moment you touch the joy pad, it turns into a different control system. You can have a choice of which way you do it – it moves absolutely seamlessly between the two."
And the team have added unique content for Switch gamers too. "This is the ultimate version. It gave us the opportunity to add extra audio where we thought it was necessary. And we’ve added extra content which unlocks 10 bonus movies," explains Cecil. These movies were created especially for the Nintendo Switch version and are unlocked as play progresses. Including interviews with the team, they explain the creative processes behind key parts of the game.
"They're curated, designed specifically to support the gameplay you’ve just passed. So when we play the first scene, it talks about the way that we drew that first scene. Later, it talks about the history. It’s elements about the game."
Fortunately the team had no trouble converting the game to Switch from its previous versions. "We have our own engine," says Cecil. "Developers who were using Unity ran into terrible trouble. If you remember it laboured for months and months. When we first started writing, there were no engines, not as advanced as the engines now. So at the time, it was the right decision to write our engine - and today that gives us super flexibility."
History in the making
In the first Broken Sword, an American comes to Paris and meets a young journalist who almost gets killed in a conspiracy involving the Knights Templar – which could be the start of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
"Except that The Da Vinci Code came five years after Broken Sword," chuckles Cecil. "Our fans are absolutely convinced that a young Dan Brown must have played Broken Sword because of the similarities. While I’m very happy for others to make that claim, it wasn’t me that made that particular observation! But it’s kind of interesting that Indiana Jones, the Broken Sword games, The Da Vinci Code – they dance around the same sort of subject matter."
Broken Sword 5 once again begins with George and Nico in Paris, where they witness the robbery and murder of an art gallery owner. Catching the perpetrator will take them to London, Spain and California, and reveal an ancient mystery involving the Gnostics. "What kicked off the enthusiasm for the history of this version was that I’d learned about a group called the Cathars, who were part of a group of what are called Gnostics," says Cecil.
"Gnosticism is a very ancient Christian sect. [Cathars] were quite populous in the Languedoc and there was a very, very brutal crusade against them in the 13th century. In the Council of Nicæa, they were declared heretical – the order went out to destroy them all. The Gnostics were sidelined, and the Cathars were ultimately destroyed in a place called Montségur, high in the Pyrenees."
But in the 1930s an Egyptian farmer dug up some Gnostic manuscripts, documents whose importance was not realised until the 1980s. "It’s absolutely fascinating. You can get this sort of insight into the early Church, and the schism that was happening at the time of Jesus," continues Cecil. "The Gnostics believed in God, which is the gentle God that feeds your soul, but then also Lucifer as the bringer of light, the bringer of enlightenment, and that there is this balance between this desire for knowledge and humanity on the other side. So a lot of these ideas play out in this game."
As well as the historical story and the mystery, the Broken Sword games are also famous for their two lead characters, George and Nico.
"I’m very grateful for somebody who lectures in film theory called Robert McKee," muses Cecil, who went to see one of the American consultant's movie talks. "Everything he said resonated really interestingly with videogames. We always had two characters, because when you want to convey the story, the exposition, it’s a lot better to do with when two people are talking to each other, rather than internal monologues! So all our games have had two characters."
He continues: "We’ve always had strong female characters. Because regardless of what you think now, in the ‘80s women were depicted in the most horrid way in videogames. They were hugely over-sexualised. But today - I recently judged a BAFTA panel, and the majority of the finalists were women. It’s an extraordinary re-balance. But in the early days, it was hideous. So we’ve always had a strong female protagonist. And what we want is, we want to create two protagonists that can talk to each other, and that there’s a tension that creates humour and drives the story."
Look to the future
One question that fans always want to ask is about the next game. Will we see a Broken Sword 6 on mobile or Switch before too long?
"We are writing a new adventure game, which we’ll talk about at the beginning of next year," says Charles Cecil, cryptically. "It isn’t Broken Sword 6. It’s not going to come soon, I’m afraid. I think it’s probably better to do them fairly infrequently, but regularly enough that people stay interested in the series."
But he's more than happy to muse about what future instalments of this franchise might bring.
"When we write Broken Sword 6, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a German location," he says, since we are sitting in Cologne for this chat. "It's genuinely a real pleasure visiting Germany. The German videogame writers and developers are so passionate about the art form. They’re very well-read. It’s always great talking to Germans. A really exciting, interesting German location is long overdue. I guess the hint is: we’re writing a new story, but it’s not going into production straight away. And you can expect a German location."
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse heads to Nintendo Switch on 21 September 2018 for £24.99.