Interview: Tapping In with CYPHER’s Cabrera Brothers

The independent game development scene is just such a treasure trove of intrigue. While the mainstream is content to keep going through the motions, the indie crowd in their indomitable fashion keep pushing the envelope. Interestingly enough, as much as it appears to be a relentless march into realms unseen by the industry cartographers, sometimes the strangest things are the most familiar.

Enter the Cabrera Brothers and their debut independent effort, CYPHER: Cyberpunk Text Adventure. Alex Connolly, working for the elusive GrE zaibatsu, contacted Javier and Carlos to get intel the other corporations would stop at nothing to acquire.

So here we are in 2012 and, for some reason, two brothers in Argentina decide to create a text adventure. How did this idea germinate and, moreover, why such a game?

Carlos: As far I remember, Javier pushed the idea of a text adventure, and as an artist I prefer a more visual experience — my ideas of a video game have more power in the visuals than in the game design. I worked with several games companies in the past and learned that a game without a good game design and story is just a package of visual effects and shaders. That’s the reason I always trust in the talent Javier has as a game designer and writer. When he threw the idea over the table of a text adventure I instantly loved it! I thought “the right amount of graphics and a full Javier’s story? We need to do this!”

Also, we’ve always had that vision of delivering a game for mature audience; for the office worker, the parent, that forgotten audience that deserves to relax after a day in the office via playing forgotten games. That audience that still plays adventure games in an era of first person shooters and tower defense games. We are that target too, maybe that’s the reason why we used, in an ironic way, a 3D engine to deliver a text adventure.

Javier: CYPHER was supposed to be a weekend project but it turned into a full production after we saw the potential it had, making players really believe they are immersed in NeoSushi with just a few images and sounds. That’s something you can’t do with other genres, no matter how many 3D assets you throw in there for the player to kick around. You know you’re looking at the screen and you’re at home or at work. But when you read… when you read, you’re transported into a whole new world. It’s happening inside your head, all around you. You smell it. You feel it. You remember how it was many years after. I mean I can still hear the clock in Sherlock Holmes’ office at Baker Street in my head and I have never been there. Immersion is what games are all about. We can’t compromise immersion for better graphics.

Thematically, CYPHER seems to wear its inspiration on its sleeve. What makes cyberpunk so appealing to you guys?

We grew with that mindset. Cyberpunk movies especially are burned into our consciousness, so it’s very difficult to detach. I remember when I saw Akira for the first time, it was previously advertised in the news as ‘The new bloody cartoon from Asia, parents watch out!’. And when finally we caught it on VHS, it captured our imagination. Such a real world, a tangible world! I enjoy the themes of cyberpunk so much that I’m constantly sketching concepts for and of CYPHER’s world in my free time.

What were the cultural influences that you and your brother revelled in during your younger days that fed into CYPHER? Is there any particular distinctly Argentinian or South American perspectives or aspects of life that helped in forming the vision required for such a project?

There are so many we can only name a few! Blade Runner, Cyborg (YES, Jean Claude Van Damme made a cyberpunk flick!), the original Total Recall, Robocop, Terminator, Horacio Altuna’s comic book Fictionario… hell, the list is just too large to fit on the Internet! From Argentina the only thing you need to build a cyberpunk story is the inherent bureaucracy, political instability, and how the government seems to be present in every aspect of daily life, whether you like it or not. Cyberpunk was, at some level, a capitalist communism, and we think the next game will depict this a bit more in depth.

It’s interesting how a text-adventure is literally at the opposite end of what we’ve come to expect from modern game design. The writing in most games feels utterly ancillary to the more apparent, tangible aspects like interface, asset and character design, along with the usual bombastic trappings of a medium constantly reaching for that kinetic ‘cinematic experience’. Even more so than point and click adventure games, a text adventure strips back all interaction to a parser and — most importantly — the player’s imagination. Do you think modern day audiences, particularly those who never had any experience with the golden era of text adventures, are receptive to this style of game within the medium?

Carlos: We have amazing feedback from young people that never tried a text adventure in their life and loved CYPHER. We have to remember they grew up with 3D titles, never knew the “diskette era.” Seeing their positive reaction to such a game and such a genre is telling — maybe suggesting younger gamers might benefit from branching out of their gaming comfort zones. We are talking a lot about this for our next title because, though we imagined our prospective audience was going to be mature gamers with experience in text adventure gaming, having uninitiated players in the mix is a pleasant surprise.

Sure, there’s always the allure of picking up the dependable triple A blockbuster for gamers, but as the players grows up, attitudes change and it’s only natural to want variety as much as dependability. Something different is usually a good thing. You can’t play with the same toy all your life.

Javier: You don’t have to be 45 to enjoy a text adventure though, that’s for sure. CYPHER is being played by a mature audience, true, but we also have a lot of young players having fun with it just like Carlos said, and on some level, they are enjoying the game even more! For the old dogs out there, it’s like reliving the 1980s all over again. The text, sounds, rain, cyberpunk, futuristic Japan, 1950 slang, blade runner, the girl with the four breasts. It’s candy. Who wouldn’t want to eat candy? For the younger audience is discovering something new they didn’t even knew it existed. We even got a guy telling us he never heard the word cyberpunk until he played CYPHER. Introducing new players to the original ways of the gamer-samurai is an obligation for every developer.

Was CYPHER always going to be a text adventure game, or were other genres or sub-sets considered?

CYPHER was first going to be a Choose Your Own Adventure book for the iPhone (that’s right!) but then we decided going after Apple and their huge market was a bit of a long shot, so we moved CYPHER to a more appropriate platform, the PC; and since we now had a normal keyboard as an asset? Well, the choice was really easy.

It seems like CYPHER would be one of those tough lessons in the creation of fictive balance. Crafting a narrative that gives the player enough in the way of orientation and “world” to satisfy and hold the intrigue, but also keep from becoming verbose to the point of killing the flow. Where did you find the sweet spot in writing a text adventure?

In the action! Take, for example, the first scenario in CYPHER. Initially, it’s about first escaping your apartment, then about trying to stay alive until you find who’s behind the assassins that are constantly coming after your head. You even get to infiltrate into one of the world’s most secure facilities; the whole story is about pace, so you never get bored with it!

It also helps that this isn’t a traditional ‘save the world’ scenario. As an adult, you have a very limited time in your hands to spend with video games and we didn’t want to rehash the same old story. Some scientist with delusions of grandeur is trying to take over the world, someone’s daughter got kidnapped, an evil plan is in process, there is a virus eating people’s hats and somebody has to stop it. No, we wanted something different. We wanted to be the bad guy. The criminal. The one who actually has fun in stories. The mad scientist is always the one having the best time. The hero is always beaten up, serious and bitter.

In CYPHER you play as Dogeron Kenan, and he is no hero, he’s a criminal. A low life. A thug. All he wants is to get the passcode out of his head before the Retrievers get lucky finding him. If he has to break a few knees to do so, then that’s what he’ll do. CYPHER allows you to be the bad guy in the movie. This is the kind of game you can play on a Saturday night with friends sitting next to you throwing ideas at the screen and have fun without thinking about what will happen to the rest of the world. The process of writing CYPHER was easier after we took away the responsibility and burden of saving the entire planet.

Speaking of the ‘world’, what was the pre-production of CYPHER like? Was it a case of having a story arc prior to location and characters, or more building a world and then growing the story from that? Or both?

Dogeron Kenan is the main character and he was the first thing we created before building the whole story. The setting was easy, we knew cyberpunk and what a dystopian future looks like from books, movies, etc. But the characters are what make a game live and breathe. Having interesting ones are what make a great experience, so we decided to make a whole lot of them that players could relate to. The main story of CYPHER takes inspiration from many sources but it ends up being something unique (those who finish the game will understand what we mean about this). You can have different levels of cyberpunk, with CYPHER depicting quite a close adherence to original formula.

Take the city of NeoSushi. We heard people say that Japan would never rename Tokyo to something so silly like NeoSushi. Well, that’s hardcore cyberpunk right there. Naming a city after a corporation is old school cyberpunk, where a city (or a whole country) could belong to a single company. In the story, NeoSushi was a cat food company, but we never got into much detail about it on the final version of CYPHER. I guess there will be more about the corporation’s origin in the next game.

It’s been a long time since the inception of the theme or themes, and we’re alleged to be quite far along the post-Cyberpunk era. What do the Cabrera brothers think of Cyberpunk across all the mediums today? Is it time for a resurgence, given that many of the books and ideas touted in the early days tried to envisage the lifestyles and technology of today? Was it speculative fantasy, or are we simply too immersed in gadgets and interconnectedness today to see we really are living in some form of the predicted technocracy?

Good question! Today we speak through cell phones, send texts messages to someone on the other side of the world, have video conferences, touch screens, glasses that darken in the sunlight, cars parking all by themselves and augmented reality is around the corner. I think we are already living in a cyberpunk world! Everyone loves to think and imagine about what cool stuff there will be in the future, but since we have all these new gadgets today people don’t see the future like we did back In the ’80s. A cell phone is not exciting anymore. There are holograms out there. It seems the world has reached a point where technology is not perceived to be as amazing as it used to be. We just had to bring the magic back. We can’t live in a world without cyberpunk. The day technology becomes mundane, it will be a very very sad day.

Finally, where to from here? You’ve alluded to further fun in the neon and smog of NeoSushi, so a sequel or are fans going to be taken far beyond what we’ve seen in CYPHER?

At this moment we are organizing a manhunt to catch and reprimand the makers of that horrible Total Recall remake. After that is done, I think fans can expect more from NeoSushi (a LOT more) and the best of all is we aren’t afraid to explore new genres with this IP either, so you can guarantee you will be playing CYPHER again!

Great work, guys. Thanks for your time and best of luck for the future…that dank, dark, wonderful future!

Big thanks for having us, Alex! Hope the readers enjoy CYPHER!

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CYPHER is available DRM-free for PC and Mac directly from the official Cabrera Brothers website.

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