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INTERVIEW WITH DIDIER CHANFRAY, PART 1 : LITTLE BIG ADVENTURE / RELENTLESS TWINSEN’S ADVENTURE
Didier Chanfray, designer of Twinsen and owner of the LBA’s licence.
(Note : original version in french available here)
Oftenly in the shadow of his illustrated partner Frederic Raynal, Didier Chanfray is no less than a skilled veteran of the French Touch, having worked on the design of games of legends, like Alone in the Dark™and Little Big Adventure™ (LBA) / Relentless Twinsen’s adventure™ (US).
Graphic and Game Designer, consultant, teacher, CEO, Didier Chanfray has had several hats, in a career rich and plural, knowing all the facets of the industry. From the joy to the pain, from a game’s success’s glory to the cruel closure of studios in a highly competitive market, Didier Chanfray has known everything, and today, opens his mind to us, with no tabou.
Man of conviction and character, pragmatical, Didier Chanfray got back the rights of the LBA’s license; He is now his only owner, and the Guardian of the Sendell’s Temple. This acquisition had allowed the return of the 2 first adventures on modern stores such as GOG or Steam, thanks to a partnership with the publisher DotEmu.
And you know what? Little Big Adventure is our subject of today !
In a worldwide exclusivity, Gameforever has the huge privilege to present you A Little Big Interview with the Master, result of near than 2 hours of discussion without any tabou, in the joy and the good vibe! We gonna have the opportunity to chat with Didier and make the point on his career but more especially to talk about the LBA’s saga et its future; because yes : the world of Twinsun has not said its last word !
Our Interview will make the rounds of the license, and will be cut in 3 parts : starting from the story of LBA1/2 and their return on our actual platforms, to the project so-awaited and hoped by all a community of fans for more than 20 years : LBA 3.
Didier Chanfray - 30 years of work : summary
[GF] : After 30 years in the videogame’s business and a course of Jack-of-all-trades, what is your feeling about your activity ? Are you still enthusiastic or, maybe, tired by the industry? To make it simple : how is your mood about your work?
Didier Chanfray : That’s a very good question ! I’m still enthusiastic ! I’m actually working part time for the Research, in the heart of the LabEx IMU – University of Lyon, who regroups a thirty of laboratories on the theme of the City of Tomorrow (approximately 600 reseachers)
I’m doing prototypes of playful hybrid devices (real models, Board game, App, VR, AR…) who create datas who next, are feeding the Research. So i’m using the illusion of Game (mechanics, UX, design…) in order to make the people having the desire to play these devices. Like a video game, we are seeking a maximum of commitment of the Player. These hybrid games are, in fact, measuring instruments who are, in the end, a little bit disguised, but we may measure things who can be very different : whether it could be contamination, VeloV’s using (ABR : the free-service bike’s network of Lyon, France), the tramways… It can also concerns the speech of the people (example : with the game of my company, |i]Robospectif[/i]™, who is about the autonomous vehicule’s theme.
In fact, i’m in the mood who have always feed me: to explore, to invent things to do with games. It’s joining a little bit the question about the videogame’s industry. The industry, you see, have always been a totally messing battle. It remains complicated to fund and it is still very risky to regroup your investment. And in fact, it’s quite tiring. For now, I’m pretty busy and satiated by my mission with the researchers : it’s avoiding me to think about it to much
I am also “Head of External Relations” at Gamagora training (ICOM – Lyon II’s University), where my objective is to put the students in the videogame’s ecosystem.
I also work in some schools by doing some Game design’s workshops : this training activity is with my company, DC EURL ! So I don’t put all my eggs in the same basket, you see ? (laughs) !
Apart from LBA1/2’ and Time Commando™’s selling, who are entrusted to the excellent publishers DotEmu and GOG, and apart of some very rareful missions as advisor, I do not have missions in the world of entertainment right now. But it could come back.
Little World Studio’s logo, created in 2004.
In 2004, in Lyon, we have created, with my partner David Chomard and some old buddies of No Cliché/Adeline software, the independant studio Little Worlds, with our own funds, and an initiale ambition to create original games with a high cultural and technologic value. Nevertheless, in order to survive, we quickly felt in the cycle of service agreements : we made a lot of products under licence.
Asterix Brain Trainer™, 2008, was inspired by some aspects of Dr Kawashima's Brain Training™
Cosmicrew™, 2010: a fully playable and online multiplayer game.
Despite our efforts to develop our own games, we never really could drive them at good point.
I remember of an action/adventure game, who was called Little World, an ecological and militant fable, which has not necessarily been exploited the way I would have liked.
There has been too Cosmicrew™ too, a surprising competitive multiplayer game…Too bad !
Color Cross™ is a puzzle video game published by Rising Star Games Limited™ and released in 2008 for the Nintendo DS™. Its gameplay takes the principle of Picross™ by adding an additional difficulty: the player must place the blocks in the right location but also assign them the right color.
Over the course of services, the team had become very successful and recognized for its efficiency. With a paltry budget, we were able to offer an honest solution to our customers. But under the economic rules in force in France and faced to a globalized service’s offer, we had little chance of surviving for long.
The poor financial results began to pile up. Fortunately, in 2015 the German publisher BIGPOINT showed interest in the skills of the team, and made a takeover offer. The Little Worlds Studio story was closed without loss or fuss, which isn't bad already. Personally, I left the compagny in 2011 : I needed a break, after doing several dozen productions.
Little Big Adventure: birth of a legendary game
3D illustration of Little Big Aventure: Twinsen on his Dino-Fly
[GF] : Let's get to the heart of the matter: Little Big Adventure! If today you had to explain to a young player what Little Big Adventure is, what would you say to him?
Draft sketch for the game box. Drawing by Didier Chanfray
It's an adventure / action game, which took ideas from quite a few games that we love (ABR : the creators of LBA). For example, there is, an RPG influence, in the evolution of the character, in the objectives of the quest, but it is also a feeling of living a storyline with twists and turns. So yeah, it's not a classic Role Player, but what I mean is, that LBA took a lot of different influences in the end.
Fighting, running, being discreet: it's up to you to choose your approach carefully
LBA has one thing that you wouldn't do at all anymore nowadays : to choose your behavior. Today, if you want to "choose your behavior", that's completely contextual. While there, depending on your mood, you could do things differently and that impacted the flow of the game. It wouldn't be like that nowadays : you wouldn't understand that kind of mechanic, but that's really here the basis of the gameplay.
Final cover of the first Little Big Adventure (1994)
So what is about LBA, in one sentence? (pensive) I would say : to have the feeling of freedom and also, from my point of view, it’s considering that the player is going to experience something that will make him grow, and will make him reveal to himself... For me, anyway! (laughs)
[GF] : LBA was created in 1994 under somewhat specific conditions. The team had left Infogrames after the first Alone in the Dark. This was Adeline Software's first project: a structure in which you were only 4 at the beginning. I understood that this leaving, after Alone in the Dark™, had been done after somekind of difficult internal situation?
What were the first difficulties for you to overcome in terms of project, organization, logistics, (etc.)? Was there - perhaps - a desire for revenge to be taken?
There are plenty of questions! (laughs)
To resume: I already have left Infogrames normally. I just quit, in the simplest way, so about that, it's pretty clear. Well, afterwards, what I regret is that I did not party with them when there were at Infogrames during the following years. I missed that (laughs)! I have fond memories of those years and had great colleagues. What I mean, is that for me, there was no feeling of revenge. We had accumulated several years of experience at Infogrames and a furious desire to simply move forward.
The extremely innovative visual rendering was an agglomeration of home-made technologies
[GF] : The game was still a small cluster of lots of little technologies!
It is true ! As I told you, LBA is above all a jewel of technology. It’s often the technology that makes the difference in a video game. It’s still true in modern productions. Our production line was fairly simple: a code’s part in the assembly language, proprietary file formats, a "world builder" and homemade 3D and real time modeling / animation tools, supplemented by market software (3DS Max, Softimage, Photoshop, etc.). Today, you have very handy engines that integrate all the mods you need, but the danger is that you will no longer differentiate from other games.
The Adeline Software logo, which we discovered in music during the opening of LBA 1 and 2.
The 4 founding members of Adeline Software. From the left to the right: Laurent Salmeron, Didier Chanfray, Frédérick Raynal and Yael Barroz
[GF] Furthermore, you were a very small team !
Yes. During LBA1’s time, we were four in the beginning! Yael Barroz, Laurent Salmeron, Frederick Raynal and myself. Then we upped to 6, 10, and then, 12.
The LBA Team (almost) in full strengh! Philippe Vachey, composer of the game, is missing on the picture.
In addition to a very large playing surface and a large number of characters modeled in 3D, LBA benefits from numerous cutscenes, all carried out in-house
[GF] : When we do the point about the elements that constitute the game, we realize that it has a very large number of landscapes, hand-maded, modeled and animated characters.
Added to that, the homemade technology, the physics management, the game design, the production of a lot and very complex cutscenes ... When we resume it with your forces and the time limits imposed, we may wonder: did you do all the development of the game in a crunch situation?
[ABR] : “Crunch” designates a contemporary practice of development in video games, where teams work for long periods with extremely large hours to finish their project
I remember (pensive)… Actually, no, we didn't have what you might call an “extreme pain”. Sure, a few strokes, but nothing extravagant. In terms of delivery, there was no delay. At some point, it's really important to feel good with the team about that. The production took place, I believe, over 16 months. The tasks were well distributed between us. There has been a gradual ramp-up. We “cut the fat” quite early in production (an expression which means that we made the right decisions in order to be not in a red-alert at the end). I remember we had a great coding tool. This was really super important, because you needed flexibility to put the game together. In that way, you could code and try the game without recompiling, and therefore without pissing off the programmers! (laughs)
More seriously, it was something that we had noticed in our previous productions: it was boring, we had to stop everyone to integrate the latest resources. Therefore, we had the tools developed to simulate the game. It was a bit of a feat. In this way, we could start coding the scenes, doing the level design, without having to stop everything to test.
Preparatory drawing for the famous Hamalayi attack
[GF] : If my information is correct, you did, all by yourself, all the character models and their animations?
Yes, for the first LBA! (laughs) Well… Excepted for “Joe” the Elf! It was Jean-Jacques who modeled and animated it. He had invented this character supposed to represent the bug of the game. He came back regularly in the scenario. (ABR: Jean-Jacques Poncet is credited as screenwriter on LBA1). For LBA2, I had 2 very good reinforcements : Polo and Nono (Paul-Henri Michaud and Arnaud Lhomme).
Draft animation for the Twinsen’s attack, by Chanfray
Yaël (ABR : Yaël Barroz, in charge of 2D sets and graphics) was in charge of almost all isometric sets. She used a 3DS MAX / Photoshop process to make the “tiles”. She also used a tool that put the whole level design together, a bit like Minecraft, but with our own blocks… She had some reinforcement for the sets of the polar island at the end of production with Jean-Marc Torroella.
All the characters and vehicles were produced by D. Chanfray taking into account the limits of the mobilizable polygons. The sets are made by Yael Barroz
Preparatory drawing of the site area
The game deals with totalitarianism and violent arrests.
[GF] : Precisely, I wanted to talk about the scenario and the lore of the game! (laughs)
LBA deals a lot, in its screenplay and in its lore, with the question of oppression, dictatorship, fascism. Was this choice just a gimmick to support the gameplay, or did the team want to convey some political messages as well?
(Note : the design of the antagonist, Dr. Funfrock, is a reference directly inspired by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the chairman of the far-right party at this time in France, Le Front National / The National Front)
Both of them. It did take a credible opponent in a story denouncing all forms of totalitarianism and personality cult, but it turns out that Twinsen was mostly an anti-hero to begin with. He's a maker who doesn't know that he's a maker in the story. Do you know what I mean ? That was one of the big foundations who were built on the principles of gameplay. So he wasn't a superhero. He was a guy like you and me, after all, and he had to go above and beyond in order to fight and restore freedom and justice, to say it quite simply.
The dictatorship was certainly embodied by this stereotypical guy, and that’s a little easy, but the good find were the clones. You could hit them in unlimited ways. There was no limit of violence as if it had been humans. They were clones, they could be exterminated without compassion, so there was no problems (laughs)!
It kind of legitimized the action that you had on screen, actually. Also, the dreamlike aspect (talking animals, cartoon design) went against most of the action games that there were at this time: mostly fighting games, pseudo realistic warfare or zombies, and Frederick wanted to take the opposite way. The main principles of game design were starting to be clear. Then the lore composed itself.
The Twinsun Planet, surrounded by its two suns and a belt of frozen mountains at its center.
For example, Fred explained to us that there would be 2 suns, because there was no day and night cycle in the game. So, started from that : how do you justify that the planet is caught between two suns on its poles? (laughs)
Physically, it's stabilized, it still spins around, but there is no night and a permanent sunset at the equator. And then, why two hemispheres? That's level design: you start to divide the world to make you want to explore a world that has remained inaccessible for a long time in the game. But also because it fits well with the story of a small planetoid : there are 2 poles, 2 hemispheres, islands, seas, mountains… It looks like the Earth, but it is not the Earth.
Starting from that, I also decided to do the reverse of everything: that is to say that there is no ice at the poles (since there are the suns), so I told to myself that it would be cold at the equator (laughs)!
We also have this mountain range in its center, which marks the border between the two great regions. And from there, the idea was not to do a classical South to North migration, but to tell a story where people from the North would be forced to migrate to the south (laughs)!
There is no deliberately imagined political message in LBA, but we speak of totalitarianism and the harm it causes, with our own very westerner cultural references from "Western Europe", and our recent past full of crappy examples like this. There is an important scene for me: when you are alone in front of the char on the island of the citadel, at the beginning of the game. I am from the generation who knew Tien An Men. Therefore, you can, if you want, go and fight the soldiers at that point, but it's wasted.
So, yes, there is a world that may seem childish, for sure: you can talk to animals, for example, that kind of stuff, but even if it is not strictly politicized, there is still indeed a message. We are talking about a theme: that taks about freedom, of regaining your freedom.
The famous snowboard descent!
[GF] : The first Little Big Adventure was in isometric view with heavy use of perspective lines. Is there an influence of your training as a surveyor in the design of the levels?
What I really like to do in a game is the level design, the organization of the playing field. Does it have to do with my training? Yes and no. In reality, the isometric view is a projection which has no perspectives and no angle. The lines are parallel to each other. It works well in video games, we know it since the 80’s. When I was a land surveyor, I worked on topographic surveys in the mountains for ski resorts : maybe it helped me with the drawing of plans, with all the implantation of space, etc.
[GF] : Speaking of that, isn't Twinsen's little snowboarding scene a nod to your experience of planning in a mountainous area?
Yes, absolutely, but there is also Fred who loves surfing (laughs)! We had some great outings !!!
[GF] : Indeed, it's true that we see the 4 founding members in the mountains on your first group picture!
Yes, it was during the first week at Adeline, it started well (laughs)! We had just signed the contracts ... (Pensive) Besides, we were not unhappy. Because it was not us who took the financial risk, it was the Delphine group. These were not yet the constraints that I experienced afterwards, like when I created my box. There, we were pampered.
[GF] : So you were employees?
We were employees, and we practically only managed the creation. I have rarely known that. We were relieved of everything else by other people whose job it was. It was a great comfort for us. We still managed recruitments, supervision ... That is normal. We were also well aware of the overall budget not to be exceeded, but what I mean is that we didn't have to worry about end-of-month payrolls and all the administrative hassle of a company.
The return of LBA in 2014 on Android and IOS with the publisher DotEmu was the opportunity for the duo Chanfray / Raynal to reform!
[GF] Let's go back to the port of LBA on mobile and tablet that you co-developed in 2014. At that time, you witnessed the evolution of players and the codes of modern video games, which had to be taken into account to adapt LBA on tablet and mobile… With hindsight, what conclusions do you draw from this experience?
So, about the mobile version... First, for me, there is one essential thing at the beginning, when you start to make a game : it's the format.
So then, you have a lot of differences in approach, especially with the interface, depending on whether you are on a PC, on a console, on a mobile, but also in the ways of doing things.
On mobile, it's very different. In addition, there is an evolution of young people and their use of games, which is different. So we tried to do something else. Personally, I hate mobile games that have a transcribed stick: if you use it, it means it's not the right format, because in this case, you don't really use its specificity.
In this regard, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sébastien Viannay very much, who contributed a lot to re-programming all of this for this new version!
(Note: Sébastien Viannay was a programmer in the original Little Big Adventure team. He developed a patch on his own during the 2000s, making the game compatible with Windows 98 and Windows XP operating systems, and reworked on the code of the tablet and mobile version of LBA)
LBA has benefited from a new interface with these new mobile adaptations
With Fred, we really looked at the interface and added some stuff. Overall, we have simplified the game: by showing in particular where to search, by indicating the trajectory of Twinsen's ball… We even lowered the level of enemies, finally (laughs)! We also worked on finding the way and controlling Twinsen…
[GF] : The Famous control tank !
That's it ! Today, people don't understand how you can control a guy like a car (laughs)! With reverse gear, you go backwards : only the "beep" is missing (laughs).
That dates from Alone, you see: when you back up, when you make this movement (he mimics the movement) : you are actually afraid.
I didn't think it would be possible to play on a mobile. I'm not talking about the tablet version, but about playing on a mobile phone. On tablet, I think it's pretty good, as a system. But on mobile, I think it's still difficult. I tried on an old iPhone: I had a hard time, but I managed to finish the game. I wanted to see if it was possible, there you go! (laughs)
Promotional images for the game's release
[GF] To end this first part of the interview on the first Little Big Adventure… This game, alone, captures a large community of fans, and we can be amazed to see some of them write new scripts (like the past of the Dino-Fly), attempts remakes with current engines, to perform speedruns of the game ...
As a co-creator of this game, how do you feel when you see that this game, created 26 years ago, still generates as many creations and content?
We don't understand, with Fred ... It wasn't calculated, honestly. In the beginning, we tried to put everything we had in us, but after that ...
You know, about the process of creation : I've met it a lot of times in my career. There have been good products, and not so good products. Some good experiences, and some, not so good ... The creative process is rarely the same for every project. It depends on the people, on the context. I am not superstitious, but I just think the alignment of the planets has been good. And I really thank the Delphine Group, which left us free and took care of the rest on the side. We were a small team too, we were close. I don't know what it's like to work in a team of 150 people, I never had to. But when I see all these fans doing remakes, I think it's great, even crazy! There's a guy named Greg who's doing a really cool thing ... but also a lot of other guys who can't be thanked enough.
After that, each of us has done a lot of other things since this time, with, sometimes, some good products. But personally, I haven't done a game that touched people's hearts so much since then. You know, the question has often been asked about the reasons for the game's success ...
Also, i think that what was another determining point, was the location. It made the game travel a lot. And I really find that the French, English, German voices, in short, all the voice acting in fact, is really successful until the point of being part of the aesthetics of the game in the same way as the music or the artistic direction.
LBA has been translated into Portuguese too. From there, the game traveled to Brazil and all of South America. It’s a universal story, in fact. The quest for freedom and justice speaks to all countries.
Also, LBA was also made to run on Mr. Nobody's computer. It's not like the big stuff that comes out today, where if you don't have the last machine, you cry because nothing's going on. (laughs) Anyway, at the start, with Fred, we had that reasoning, because we didn't have any big machines ourselves… So it had to run really well on ours! (laughs)
All this to say that, ten years later, the game has had a second life. The emergence of computing on other continents meant that we suddenly had lots of new fans in Argentina, Peru, Brazil, the Middle East, India… The game was also released in Japan! (laughs)
We sold 500,000 “full price” units of LBA 1, I don't count the “small prices” because I don't have the numbers (classic EA collection, + Bundle of any kind even sold in gas station, box cornflakes…) : in fact, it's not quite bad! (laughs)
[GF]: Last question : If we refer to Frederick Raynal, who gave the anecdote about it during a Live Twitch (the Freeman's Speedrun of the game), LBA1 was, originally, planned for the Super Nintendo. Are there traces or visuals of this version?
I vaguely remember the idea of a porting, but I don't think we have been done much on the study of this project. I don't remember any assets in a SNES’s format .
We let you rest, before attacking the second part of the interview, devoted to Little Big Adventure 2!
To read : Reviews for Little Big Adventure 1 (french)
To read : LBA 1: the Test, by Twinsen Threepwood (french)