In roughly mid-2008, I decided it was time to finally realize my ambition of becoming a commercial indie developer. I had been developing freeware point and click adventure games for the past 7 years, and found myself dedicated to completing an 8-part series which I knew had to be completed before starting any new projects, if only for my own peace of mind. In the meantime, I began brainstorming ideas for the next game I would do, the one that would be my big break into the commercial scene, the one that would put me on the map and make me a comfortable living doing what I wanted. I may not have made the perfect adventure game, but A Golden Wake taught me some very valuable lessons, as well as got me started on my ideal career path.
POST-MORTEM: A Golden Wake
In about 2009, I began thinking about what sort of game I would do after completing my freeware Ben Jordan series. I’d had a few dud ideas, including one about a trilogy of games where the same story was told from the perspective of three unlikely protagonists: a wealthy socialite, a freelance artist, and a male prostitute, all set in my hometown of Miami, Florida. Upon reflection, it dawned on me that these games were really more style over substance, focusing more on the fact that the protagonists came from walks of life not often seen in adventure games instead of the story itself, which, though not fully designed, didn’t strike me as anything special.
So I went back to the drawing board, preserving some ideas from that failed project, namely the unorthodox character professions and the real world setting. I drew some inspiration from Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell series, specifically Blackwell Convergence, in which a key plot point involved some obscure yet fascinating local New York history. Having always been intrigued by the history of Miami, specifically its establishment and growth in the early 20th century, I began doing some research into the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. From there, things snowballed: I would make my game about a real estate agent who tries to make it big in the 1920s. I figured it would be my chance to do historical fiction, set in a time and place not commonly talked about, with an unusual protagonist. It had all the makings of something interesting, and so I began to design what would later become known as A Golden Wake.
I think where A Golden Wake succeeds the most is in establishing a sense of time and place. I spent a lot of time researching the era, from the clothing to the architecture to the music to the slang, and really wanted to get it right. I took heavy inspiration from L.A. Noire, which, for all its flaws, did an excellent job of making you feel like you were in 1947 Los Angeles. I wanted anyone who played the game to feel like they really were in 1920s Miami, so my goal was to make the game feel as authentic as possible.
One of the biggest tricks was getting the manner of speech right in dialogues. Obviously, people spoke differently back then, but cramming some slang word or phrase in every single sentence would make it feel artificial and forced. I decided to limit it as much as possible and take a “less is more” approach, with the main indulgence being main character Alfie Banks’ proclivity to exclaim “Horsefeathers!” when upset. The mobsters in the later half of the game also tend to speak with a fair amount of slang, although I tried not to make them the sneering caricatures from Looney Tunes. All in all, I think I struck a decent balance, as several comments regarding the game praised it for its authentic feel.
The music was also something that really shines in the game. I worked with Pete Gresser, who had done the scores for the last 3 entries in my freeware series Ben Jordan: Paranormal Investigator, so having a good working relationship and ease of communication was extremely helpful. We were both excited about the prospect of getting to do a 1920s jazz influenced score, which I also felt would add significantly to the game. In the initial phases, we spoke about having a live clarinetist on the score, but in the end we decided against it for both time and budget reasons, opting instead to use a fully digital score, albeit with a sound library specifically designed for jazz and era-appropriate instruments. This attention to detail really brought the score together and boosted the game’s atmosphere.
THE NOT SO GOOD
In constructing the story for A Golden Wake, I wanted to be as historically accurate as possible. The result was a narrative that wove actual events into the story of Alfie Banks and his rise and fall in the real estate world. However, one issue with the game’s story was that I stuck a bit too close to historical events, at times putting them ahead of Alfie. For example, the story begins in 1921, but major events such as the incorporation of the city and the first big hurricane didn’t occur until 1925 and 1926, respectively. As a result, there is a large jump in the narrative of 4 years during the game’s second chapter, which I think many players felt was jarring. Also, Alfie himself wasn’t as well-developed as he could have been. There are multiple ways this could have been solved, from expanding upon the relationship between him and his brother, to adding a rival in the real estate office for him to go up against, but ultimately I made the history of Coral Gables priority #1, which resulted in Alfie’s story being somewhat lacking. Interestingly enough, this was one of the more polarizing aspects of the game. Some players loved the story and Alfie, while others found both bland and boring.
The game’s difficulty was another point which wasn’t as balanced as it could have been. In trying to stay grounded in reality, I made the puzzles as logical as I could, which resulted in most of them being extremely easy. On the other hand, I wanted to try something outside of the box with the idea of the persuasion puzzles and Seller Intuition. This system went through some major tweaks, and while they turned out much better than originally executed, they wound up becoming more of an exercise in trial and error than a rewarding puzzle. The main issue was avoiding having the correct answers seem extremely obvious, and thus removing all challenge from the puzzles, but in the end the challenge of figuring out the best answer became somewhat muddled.
All in all, I’m proud of A Golden Wake. I knew from day one that it was going to be a hard sell, and not a game for everyone, but I was given the opportunity to get the game out into the world, and ultimately accomplish what I set out to do. During the process of researching the game, I remember feeling genuinely excited about the idea of telling this story and virtually roaming the streets of 1920s Miami. To see it all finally come together was an absolute treat. Despite its flaws, my vision for the game was kept intact, which I feel is the most important thing of all. I’m grateful to Wadjet Eye Games for publishing it, and to everyone who played it. It was a fantastic learning experience and a great stepping stone for what will hopefully be a long career of adventure game development.