Roswell has players acting as janitor Henry Fern, a seemingly simple working man who slowly discovers alarming ties to a plot to revive the Third Reich. It’s up to players to choose what actions Henry takes along the way, leading to their own version of the tale as they try to prevent the conspiracy.
Siliconera spoke with Judah Mantell, developer of Roswell, to learn more about why player choice was so important to the game, and how giving players full agency over the story and gameplay creates more depth, and more personal stories, within the world of games.
What prompted the story of Roswell? Why a janitor with ties to a conspiracy to revive the Third Reich?
I’ve always been a big fan of classic sci-fi, so that definitely influenced the story. The story is primarily an adaptation of the Roswell Incident of 1947. To the uninitiated, the Roswell Incident is considered the epitome of all UFO encounters, and the most widely studied. The whole Nazi element to it sprang from one theory about the incident which states that the UFO crash was a ruse from the Russians during WWII to cause mass panic in the US. According to this, the “alien” bodies that were recovered from the wreckage were actually children mutilated by Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi scientist.
It actually started out as an extremely dark comedy in the vein of the Lemony Snicket’s books, but that quickly became overshadowed with the “too dark to be funny” elements. Some humorous lines stayed in the game as Henry’s sense of humor, but as the story progresses, he starts to lose it (in both senses of the phrase).
So, I kind of put many ideas and people from the accounts (the real-life Roswell mortician, Glenn Dennis, plays a big part of the story) together to form what the game is today.
Basically, Nazi scientists from the future try to use the advanced tech from the crash in 1947 to bring back a new Reich to the world, and Henry Fern gets stuck in the middle of this, with his ties slowly revealed over the course of the game.
You say that player decisions will have major effects on the ending? Can you elaborate on that? What sorts of calls will the player make that will change their lives?
The ending changes drastically based on the choices the player makes over the course of the game. The decisions are more hidden than in most other games. Unlike (for example) Telltale Games, where you get a notification after a tough decision (“Clem will remember that…”), Roswell’s decisions are taken care of more “behind the scenes” so to speak. They’re not dialogue based, they’re action based. How the player chooses to interact with the environment and objects is what’s counted.
What challenges do you face when the players can drastically alter the game’s storyline? How much work goes into creating each branching path?
Playtesting, as you might imagine, is the biggest pain. No matter how many different people try out the game, they will all play differently, resulting in a varied ending, and therefore different bugs. There really aren’t that many branching paths, as the main differences occur in the end. However, with each choice that the player makes, a specific outcome becomes more likely. This does require more work on my part as I have to account for every possible thing the player might do in almost every situation.
How do you create a story that the player can alter? How do you have to think about narrative when it can be seen in fractured ways, in different orders, and in bits and pieces?
The story was actually something that I was extremely indecisive about to begin with. There were certain elements that were not yet set in stone, and that could possibly change over the course of development, so I went into the project knowing that. After having a few close friends play extremely early prototypes of the game and seeing them each play a little differently, I realized that going the “Choose Your Own Adventure” route might be a good idea.
So, I took elements from each of my original plot ideas and put them into different paths the player might take. It ended up working really well. Of course, I had to alter them and re-write them to fit the dialogue and pacing of that path, but I didn’t see that as much of a problem, as it let me work on each fragment as individual chapters, so to speak, which led to a better story overall.
It is a little difficult to think about the bigger picture when you have to work with little bits of the (possible) story at a time, but once everything falls into place, it’s really cool and rewarding to see.
Why put this much power into the player’s hands? What do you feel that choice adds to Roswell? To games in general?
Like I said before, using the non-linear format was a product of my indecisiveness and different players liking different things, so I decided to stick with those ideas and allow the player to decide how to play the game, rather than just having them follow a single path. I tried to make Henry Fern as relatable as possible, and being able to choose what he does furthers this idea.
I see it as a step up from the usual interaction in games. Just like film is a form of passive media and games are a form of active media, adding that extra layer of player choice to an already-interactive medium gives more meaning to what the player does. I think that’s very important for player immersion.
You mention puzzle-based combat. What does that mean? How does that work?
Roswell has elements of many different game genres, a lot of which stem from classic top-down games ranging from Zelda to Final Fantasy to Metal Gear, each with their own take on combat. I always disliked turn-based gameplay, as I thought that it took away from the flow of the game. But, in this case, I felt that action-RPG mechanics just wouldn’t work.
The “combat” is disguised as regular puzzles and work in the same way. “Use the weapon I found here to injure the guard here,” etc. But, of course, if you get caught, you will end up in bigger trouble then if you decide to take a more violent approach. It’s all optional, and you can get past these scenarios by taking a more tame route.
Roswell contains adventure game-like puzzles that have multiple solutions. Can you give an example of these puzzles and how the player can get past them in multiple ways?
They are very logic and item-based. For example, in a few instances in the game, you have to get past a guard. You can either kill him or distract him. That’s just a basic example, but the ways a player can solve things become more difficult as the game progresses and as more ideas are given to the player through narrative or dialogue.
Why give multiple solutions to the same problems?
Similar to what I said before about the branching paths, it allows for a much more varied gameplay between players and a much more personal experience. On a functional level, the way players choose to solve puzzles is one of the major factors in which ending he or she gets. Whether the player chooses to solve puzzles violently or tamely, etc.
The art style seems to be a little homage to Metal Gear. What games inspired Roswell?
Being only 16, I grew up playing the GBA and DS, so I had to go back relatively recently and play the classics such as Metal Gear, Monkey Island, etc. This was cool for me, because I got to look at them from a modern game design perspective and see what makes them the classics that they are, and how I could put that into my own game.
The art style was heavily influenced by both Metal Gear and Zelda, and the puzzles were inspired by many Lucasarts adventure games (Monkey Island, Fate of Atlantis, Sam & Max, etc.). Roswell also has an inventory system that you can pull up at any time to examine the items that you’ve gathered along the way, which was definitely an aspect most prevalent in adventure games.
There is also a life system in the form of “Rebirths,” which I see as a mix of Zelda and Metal Gear. Rebirths are something Henry has from the beginning, but is explained over the course of the game. You loose Rebirths by getting caught or injured. If you run out of them, you die and go back to your last save. The player has the ability to save at any point, so he or she would have to do so strategically.
Throughout the game you have the ability to gain them back, either through drinking Zeta Fluid (Roswell’s Medkits, so to speak) or by stealing them from other prisoners vs letting them free (more moral dilemmas).