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IG@FG: Chuck Carter on ZED, VR & Bringing Players To Tears

We speak to Zed lead Chuck Carter on designing for VR, his history with Myst and bringing players to tears.

When you write it down, you realise that Chuck Carter is having one hell of a career. He began his journey in the video game industry at Cyan where, working alongside Robyn and Rand Miller, he created many of the iconic environments in Myst. He then joined Westwood Studios where he worked as an artist on the Command & Conquer series, contributing to many of the studios biggest hits. He moved on and after a year at Smart Bomb Interactive (now WildWorks) where he worked on some Snoopy games, he joined Vicarious Visions where he spent a few years managing artists on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. All being told, Carter has credits in more than 25 published game titles as well as providing digital art for the likes of Babylon 5, the BBC and National Geographic.

Chuck with James Earl Jones

In 2013, Chuck needed a change. He put the big studio life behind him and started his own company – Eagre Games – in order to “make the games he would want to play”. 5 years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, his first project ‘Zed’ is nearing completion. Described as a game that “encourages exploration and involves navigating a dream world that changes around every corner”, Zed is the tale of a man coming to the end of his life and suffering from dementia who is navigating his dreams to piece together scattered memories in order to leave behind a lasting legacy – a story book – for his granddaughter. Since starting the project, Carter has attracted a publisher – Cyan, the very same company with which he began his game development career – a technical partner in the shape of Sky Map Games and the vocal talents of Stephen Russell (famous for ‘Nick Valentine’ in Fallout 4 among many, many other roles).

I discovered the game ‘Zed’ while researching indie games for our big bumper “60 Indie Games To look Forward To In 2019” article and was blown away by the premise and the art style employed, so when the opportunity arose to speak with Chuck Carter, I jumped at the chance. Here’s our conversation in full;

FingerGuns: Where did the inspiration for ZED come from?

Chuck Carter: The first game that I saw that actually got me interested in games was called The Manhole. It was Cyan’s first little project they did back in 1989, I think. I started to create my own little worlds based around that concept. They were all click adventures where you click on one image, then the next, so on, like Myst. I came up with this idea called the Magic Shop and I always wanted to do that at some point – but life got in the way. I got a job with Cyan working on Myst then went to a bunch of other game companies working on a bunch of other games. I’ve always had that idea of exploring a series of worlds in the back of my mind. So, A number of years ago I met an illustrator when I was in the navy who was a phenomenal and hilarious person. He was an artist, he did children’s books, a lot of magazines, a tonne of stuff for National Lampoon. He turned out to be something of a mentor for me. A number of years ago I heard he was dying so I wanted to go and visit him. When I got there, at the time, I didn’t realise he had dementia. He didn’t exactly remember who I was. He would show glimpses of knowing who I was here and there in our conversations but I saw this man who was really frustrated, who had had this really rich, artistic life who had been reduced to not remembering much of anything, much less how to do his artwork. I was happy to get a chance to see him and he remembered me more later in the weekend. He passed away not much longer after that. That possibility of being able to share that experience in a game really stuck with me. When I started working on ZED, I thought this would be a good opportunity to incorporate that idea into the people and the characters’ minds that you’re exploring and that’s where it all originated from. Looking back on a life you can’t remember and wanting to connect up those memories in order to finish something. That part of the story comes from my friend.

FG: Obviously, from that story, you understand the effect that dementia has, not just on the sufferer but those around them like friends and family. Have you had to be careful about how you’re creating this story given the real world impact of dementia?

CC: We are aware of it. Through the narration in the game, the dreamer is essentially split into 2. There’s the realistic and ambitious side of his personality who lived his life more for his career than his family and then the other, regretful side of his life that wishes he’d spent more time with his family and had taken things slower, that wasn’t quite so ambitious. These 2 sides of the personality are having a conversation throughout the game while other family members come into it. There’s light shone on his wife and son but the family members involved here are primarily his daughter. We try not to go into too much detail about his waking life. We’re more concerned about using his dreams as a way of putting together the fragments of his memories to help him finish this children’s book. In some ways, it’s unrealistic. Dementia and Alzheimer’s… they tend not to work quite like that but we wanted to use it as an impetus to be able to get this story out. We touch on Dementia through the dreams in some of the more physical aspects of the dreams. People who know people with Alzheimer’s will know about the confusion and the being unable to remember very simple things mixed with the moments of lucidity. Because you’re in this man’s subconscious, we don’t worry about what’s outside of these dreams per se.

FG: How would you classify the genre of ZED? I’ve seen it described as, for want of a better term, a “walking simulator” and also a puzzle game. Does it fit those categories or fall between them?

CC: It falls between those categories. There are puzzles in it. There’s nothing particularly difficult. It’s more about exploring. We’re more concerned with ZED allowing people to explore these environments that range from a child’s bedroom to some real fantastic landscapes and cities. […] There’s no puzzle solving per se. In order to move through the game you have to find artefacts and fragments and these are representational items which help you connect memories, so that’s where the puzzle part comes in. The rest of it, as far as a walking simulator goes, I wouldn’t classify it as that. If you’ve ever played Dear Esther, which is one of my favourite games that people call a Walking Simulator, it’s actually a beautiful narrative. Yes, you get to explore but the story pulls you in to that and it becomes something that’s not just a Walking Simulator. It becomes something more. We look at ZED as something more. We’re telling this story of this dreamer and it’s a very compelling story. By the end of it, people who’ve played it so far have been bought to tears by some of it. We had a comment from one of the guys at Cyan who cried near the end of the game and again at the end of the game. You do get emotional. We do push you and pull you into his life and to the things that happened in his life. Not all of them were pretty. There’s a lot of difficulty in his life and we want to try and convey that. We have Steven Russell who did the voice for us who is absolutely phenomenal. Steven played Valentine in Fallout, he’s in the Thief games – the guy’s everywhere in video game voice overs. He brings such a humanity to the character that you forget you’re in a game when you’re listening to his voice. I’m not shooting to make ZED a Puzzle or Walking Simulator. It’s an expression of this man’s life and we’re using a game format in order to tell that. We’re using the technology to tell a story. It’s definitely not Myst-like in a lot of ways but it does have some of the same sensibilities because I helped create half the visuals in that game so I do draw from that in some degree but it’s nothing like that.

“By the end of [Zed] , people who’ve played it so far have been bought to tears by some of it”

SD: ZED is your first foray into VR. Has that thrown any unique challenges your way or something you’ve not come across before?

CC: It has. My tendencies as an artist, and having worked on some substantial games in the past, is to make worlds. I love world building and like to make really big worlds. In VR it’s a lot more difficult to make a big world that’s going to be highly detailed so that when you go exploring in the nooks and crannies you can find all kinds of cool stuff. Zed is a made up of a lot of smaller environments in some cases – not all of them – but there are smaller environments that allow for a closer examination of where you’re at. That’s been the biggest challenge. To create these small spaces that all you, as a player, will be compelled to look around and explore things. We think the narrative explores that but the environments tell a story too. With VR we get to tell a story that’s very intimate with the environment. You pick up things, you can look at things very closely, you can get a real feeling of what this person was like simply by looking at things or squatting down underneath a table. That’s proven a challenge because you can do that in VR while that’s not something you can necessarily do in a standard PC game. While we’re doing this for PC and eventually Linux and Mac and hopefully on the consoles, VR is a big part of it as well. So there have been these restrictions on how big we can go to make sure the frame rate we need to hit to make it a more enjoyable experience while adding all that detail without breaking the bank visually.

FG: You mentioned some of the environments there. One of the standout moments from all of the trailers so far have been the environments, especially the walk with the cogs and the red and white striped building. Where are you drawing inspiration from for these buildings because they are stunning.

CC: Pintrest is my friend. I’m always looking at stuff. There’s some amazing work out there. I collect things on Pintrest and I’m always looking, finding something I like, you’re inspired by it, then finding something else. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten lost in Pintrest, but I’ve wasted so much time on there. It’s like kitten videos to other people. That’s what Pintrest is to me. There’s also an artist named Shaun Tan. He’s a children’s book author and artist who’s done some things like ‘The Lost Thing’ which is an absolute wonderful book and video. He has this sensibility about cities. The way he designed and drew his cities, while we’re not copying anything because there’s a strong difference between the 2, there’s this feeling about his work in particular that really struck a cord. While I was creating these things for ZED, these buildings and cityscapes, I started to look into how he was expressing his work with that sense of scale. If you play that particular section you’re talking about in VR, it’s really amazing. I can go and get lost there. I’m adding additional pathing so people really can get lost in there. So, inspiration, we started with Shaun Tan’s work as a starting point, the emotional concept drawing me to his work, then reflect a little of that sensibility on the work that we’re doing on ZED.

“If you’ve ever played Dear Esther […] the story pulls you in and it becomes something that’s not just a Walking Simulator. It becomes something more. We look at ZED as something more.”

FG: ZED also signifies a reunion for yourself with Cyan Worlds (who are publishing the game). Is that like a homecoming for you or is it a very different place to when you were developing Myst?

Zed Myst

Chuck with Rand Miller and the Myst Team

CC: It’s a very different place than when we were developing Myst. Back then I was just an employee at Cyan. We were really just figuring out what we were doing back then. We didn’t really know. But now… It’s funny. This is something I’ve learned to trust Rand Miller on. When he says ‘something is going to change because of what you’re doing’, I tend to believe him. He was right with Myst. If I’m remembering this correctly, on the first page of the business plan he wrote “Myst will change the way people play video games and people will go out and buy CD-ROM players” or something along those lines. He had this very forward thinking statement in the business plan that proved to be very true in a lot of ways. He sees VR now as that new frontier which will excite players into buying a new platform to play a new game or a series of games. He might be right. I’m just going to trust that he knows what he’s doing with this. He was right that first time and our relationship was good back then. Going back to working with him again, it’s at a different level. Now I’m creating a product and Rand is helping out with that. It’s almost a full circle but it’s really great to be back working with someone I worked for so long and very closely with back on Myst. Now, working again with Zed, 26 years later, 27, maybe? That’s a long time. No, 26 years *laughter* later it’s different and interesting. We’re still feeling out this relationship but he’s very excited about what we’re doing and that’s very infectious. I’m very happy to be back working with him now.

FG: Eagre Games is your own studio, a studio that you formed yourself several years ago. This is very different to your positions working on games like Command & Conquer and Myst. How have you found taking the step from being part of a larger studio into leading your own studio and project?

CC: Almost any artist will tell you that, when they’re working on something, they like to inject a little bit of themselves into it. I’ve been really lucky. At Westwood Studios I always had that opportunity to put my own sensibility into it. Westwood was kind of like a wild frontier. The Command & Conquer games, Tiberian Sun, Red Alert, all the other games I worked on while I was there – there was no super, overlying structure, there was no art directors for the most part. It was a producer that would tell you ‘We need this, this and this’ and then divided us into cinematic teams which is where I was at as well as game play teams, designers and the programmers. They gave us a lot of latitude to play with ideas and I think that’s what made Westwood so much fun and their games so good. They really did allow a lot of freedom for the creatives that worked at the company to express themselves. As I got later into my career, I worked on other teams then everything tightened up where we have a very strong set of concepts where you had to follow a specific look and feel to everything while being part of a very big team. It became more difficult to really go out and express yourself. I ended my career at big companies managing artists at Vicarious Visions where I managed around 35 artists there. It came to the point through, in the last 4 years or so, that I really wanted to do something for myself. I’ve had this idea, the Magic Shop, and obviously meeting my friend where these 2 things seem to fit together really well so I said “I might as well give this a go and be the creator on this”. But it’s very small. Pretty much all the environments have been built by me. There’s a couple of guys at Skymap games who are our technical partners now on the project. They’ve been absolutely wonderful in doing what they’re doing but the whole point is that I got the chance to make my own thing, how I see it. That alone is more rewarding than anything else I’ve done in my entire career. Even though the hours are much longer and I’m not making any money yet, so barely enough to get by, living in my office – literally living in my office right now because everything has to go towards the company – but it’s worth it. It’s a labour of love and I’m finding that I enjoy my life now more than I have in a long time working on this game. I’ve got other games that I want to do after this that I think will be just as challenging and is some ways, knowing what I know now, might be a lot easier to do. I’ve found good collaborators to work on these things who’ve got great ideas. As an example, Rand and everyone on the team wanted to look at the ending of ZED and something we could have done a little bit differently. Rand Miller came up with a couple of things and I came up with a couple of things and we put our heads together and we’ve come up with an absolutely beautiful end to the game, even more so than what I had originally envisioned. Being able to collaborate is a great thing and owning my own company means I get to pick and choose who I collaborate with to make things even better.

FG: How are you feeling about the gaming landscape in 2019, especially around the element of VR continuing to expand while on the other hand, a portion of indie developers are struggling to find their audience?

CC: You look at it and it’s a very crowded field. You look at the number of games that go up on Steam daily and there are a few bona fide hits that rise above the rest of them. It’s everybody’s hope that you’ll be the game that’ll rise and get some attention and be able to make a mark in the industry. The thing about indie gaming though is that there’s such a range. There’s people doing very simple games, pixelated games to highly detailed, complex games like ZED, with 3D characters (although ZED is all high detailed environments. There’s no characters per se), to extremely well developed character arcs and stories and graphics and everything else. What’s nice about the indie game environment, even with this kind of restriction with their being so many of us and the struggle to find success is that it’s the only place you can really go out there and have a way to express an idea. If you have a really good idea and you have some technical background and you surround yourself with a decent team, it’s a great landscape to express these ideas. All we have to do is hope that other people agree with you and that “yeah, it’s a great idea” and will hopefully buy your game and see the value in what you’re trying to express. While it’s a large field right now, there’s a lot of developers out there, it’s what you make of it. It’s really how you market it.

FG: My last question regarding ZED: Where do you hope the game goes within the next 12 months?

CC: Well, I hope the game is successful, obviously. I hope it touches some people’s lives. We’re talking to some groups like non-profits and charities that are very deeply involved in research and foundations for Dementia and Alzheimer’s. I feel very humbled by the fact they’ve found some of the stuff in our game to have value. We hope we touch a lot of different people with the story and to try and find a new way to tell a story. Zed, for me, is a new and unique way to tell a powerful and meaningfully story. Hopefully ZED will open up that door and allow us to go in and tell more stories. That to me is more important than anything else. From a financial standpoint, we have a number of investors that have helped us stay alive over the past few years and I want to make sure they’re taken care of. That’s top of my list.

You can wishlist Zed on Steam here. To keep up to date on development, you can follow Chuck and Eagre Games on Twitter or join their Discord server.


IG@FG (or ‘Indie Games @ Finger Guns’) is a new irregular feature exploring the world of indie games. To keep up to date, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Sean Davies

Ungrateful little yuppie larvae. 30-something father to 5. Once ate 32 slices of pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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2 Comments
  • January 10, 2019 at 18:43
    Seth

    Wonderful!

    Reply
  • January 10, 2019 at 22:34
    Dawn Taylor

    Wonderfully detailed interview, thank you!
    Just one minor detail: can you, please, correct Stephen Russell’s name?

    Reply
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