Stonewall Penitentiary
 
Interview with Christopher Brendel 
by Danyboy
May 16, 2006

 

You wake up.  The last thing you remember was lying in bed at home.  But you aren't home anymore.  Looking around, you quickly establish four things: you're in a prison; your clothes are missing; your hands are tied; and you can't remember how you got here.

So begins Stonewall Penitentiary, a gritty "whodunit" mystery thriller adventure game by the creator of Lifestream and Shady Brook.

In Stonewall Penitentiary, you play the role of William Thane, a middle-aged man down on his luck. You, along with six others, are trapped in an abandoned prison, held captive by a psychotic killer obsessed with justice.  You must find a way out before you are all killed.  But there's one small catch: one of you is the killer!

Christopher Brendel is an independent developer and the founder of Unimatrix Productions.  He wanted to make computer games since he was eight years old and he got his first taste of gaming at this age. Through the years, he has spent most of his free time learning about the process of creating games.  Two years ago he decided to turn his interest into a side business and he began development of his first game, LifestreamLifestream was released in 2004 and his second game, Shady Brook, was released in 2005. This interview was done so that it will help us learn more about his latest work, a thrilling adventure game, Stonewall Penitentiary.

As you know, the story is one of the most important things in a game. Can you tell us a bit more about the story in Stonewall Penitentiary, and what gave you the idea for it?

Early in my life, I became obsessed with mysteries.  I loved the traditional “whodunit”, because on top of the story was an obscure puzzle that you, the viewer, could solve.  In a traditional murder mystery, there are several rules: there must be a group of suspects, one of which is the killer; they must be in an enclosed environment or location; and there must be a logical solution to the puzzle, shown via hints throughout the story, so that a careful observer can figure it out before the end.  As I was always fond of this genre, I felt it was time to pay tribute to it, given that there are far too few games out there like it, in my opinion.  One thing I wanted to do from the onset, however, was update the “whodunit” to a present-day climate.  In other words, I took some traditional horror and thriller elements and added them in to give the story a more real-world feel, as opposed to the more classical feel of, say, an Agatha Christie book.  The story of Stonewall Penitentiary represents my take on a modern-day “whodunit”.

What was the most interesting thing you learned when you did the research for the game ?

I was quite shocked to learn that the layout of prisons is not standardized. I had expected most government-run facilities to be laid out in a similar manner; but the actual floor plan varies greatly from prison to prison.  This actually helped me in the end, because it allowed me to design the game’s prison in a way that best suited the story, while still keeping things real.

What was your role in the development of the game and is there anyone else involved in the project?

You name it, I’m doing it.  Right now, I’m the only developer involved in Stonewall Penitentiary.  The game engine I am using was made by a third party.  The story was written by me and co-written by Liz Zivney, a wonderfully creative individual.  Then there are voice artists, of course.  Last, I'm lucky enough to be working with a very talented composer, Steve Veach.

Why have you decided to change the name of the game from Awaken to Stonewall Penitentiary?

This was due to legal reasons.  The name Awaken is trademarked by another developer, who is working on his own (quite different) game.  Awaken was always only meant to be a working title, and so I had no qualms changing it to Stonewall Penitentiary, which better represents the game anyway. 

I really like the plot idea of being trapped with several characters, one of whom is trying to kill me!  Can you tell us what drew you to a location like an abandoned penitentiary?

I needed an enclosed location, and I wanted that location to have a sort of terror in and of itself, instead of just being a backdrop for a murder mystery.  My original idea was an abandoned institution, but I later decided that, thematically, a prison made more sense.  I can’t say much more without revealing too much of the story, except to say that the prison itself has its own rich history…

From what I read on your website we will play the role of William Thane.  Can you tell us a bit more about this character?

Will is a nice guy who happened to make a mistake in his past that cost him everything, including his family. Now he has little left.  Driven by guilt, Will – guided by players – searches through the prison to find an escape for himself and the others.  Through the course of the story, we’ll learn more about what happened to Will to make him this way.

Can you tell us more about our fellow inmates?

Don’t trust any of them.  What they say may or may not be the truth.  Take everything with a grain of salt and don’t accept anything unless you can actually see it with your own eyes.

What do these other people have in common besides the fact that they’re all prisoners?

The only other commonality is that they all live in the fictional Californian city where the game takes place, Tunitia.  At least, that’s all they think they have in common…

Will there be many places to explore or will the game be pretty much restricted to a few rooms in this prison? The screenprints show the prison to be a dreary place, understandably, but will there be any flashbacks or cut scenes that will be in brighter colors, as a counterpoint to the prison atmosphere?

The entire prison is explorable.  The prison itself is fairly small, as it is a prison geared toward the mentally unstable and only holds a few dozen inmates.  In addition to this, there are a series of flashbacks – some playable, others only during cutscenes – that will contrast the prison’s atmosphere.

What are our goals for the game? to escape? to thwart the killer? to save the others' lives? all of the above?

When I began writing the story for Stonewall Penitentiary, I asked myself how I would react if I were really in that situation.  I had to admit, that my only thought would be to escape.  As such, that is the player’s only goal: find a way to save yourself.  Everything else is trivial.

Adventure gamers enjoy how the music contributes to the atmosphere of a game.  How will the sound track composed by Stephen Veach fit in with this game?  Has he worked on any other games?

I am quite excited about the soundtrack, because this will be the first time a musician has created a score specifically for my game.  Steve Veach is a newcomer to the gaming genre, but he is a veteran in other media.  I am working closely with Steve, and we are taking a minimalist approach to music in Stonewall Penitentiary.  The most important thing in the game is the atmosphere, and so – more often than not – you will hear the sounds of the prison in the background, as opposed to music.  Certain locations do contain music, however, where it can enhance the spine-chilling atmosphere and tense mood even more.  Steve has already completed a few tracks of the soundtrack, and I must say that it is superb!  The music itself is a blend of orchestral and synthesized instruments, giving it a true cinematic feel.

Will everyone be pleased with the level of difficulty and the variety of the puzzles?

I certainly hope so!  The puzzles vary greatly so that nothing feels monotonous.  Hopefully, the level of difficulty will be just right.  In the game, there are inventory-based puzzles, manipulation puzzles, sound puzzles, and visual clue puzzles, along with several other kinds of challenges.  There are no sliders, but there is one small maze (although not exactly...).

Are there any timed sequence puzzles in the game?

There is one, yes. However, a very generous amount of time will be given to complete it.

Are the saves unlimited?

Yup.

When we have finished the game, will we be satisfied that the conclusion is a good end to the story?  Or will you leave us wanting more and looking forward to a sequel?

The game has a definitive end, one way or another; there will not be a sequel.

Does the game have multiple endings?

Maybe.

Are we going to be able to buy the game online from the website?

This depends largely on whether or not the game is published commercially.  If I decide to market the game on my own, as I did with both Lifestream and Shady Brook, then yes, it will be available for purchase on my website.

When will the game be released?

As of now, I am anticipating an October release, though this is still subject to change.

If you were a salesman for your game, do you have just a few words that will intrigue adventure gamers enough to purchase the game?

This is not your typical adventure game.  In most adventures, you walk around collecting objects, causing things to happen.  In Stonewall Penitentiary, things happen to you.  Lights go out.  Floors collapse from under you.  People die.  Instead of thinking like a gamer, you will have to place yourself in the role of William Thane and think how you would actually try to escape, as you fight a losing battle against time.  And all the while, the killer could be anywhere...or anyone.

What's your favorite part of the game?

Sadly, my favorite part of the game is the one part that I will never get to enjoy: the mystery.  Stonewall Penitentiary has an outstanding cast of suspects, each one suspicious in his/her own way, and figuring out who is the killer will be a blast!  Remember, clues could be anywhere…

Is there anything you'd like to talk about that we didn't ask you?

No, I think you’ve about covered everything!

Chris, what will you be working on next?

After Stonewall Penitentiary, I’m going to take a bit of a break.  After making three games in a row, I definitely need one.  But after that, I will begin work on a science fiction epic game titled The Alpha Report, which is going to be loosely based on a short story I wrote in high school that was published locally.

Chris, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you and learn more about Stonewall Penitentiary.  There is always so much that goes on behind the scenes in the development of a game and knowing a bit about it only adds to the player's appreciation for a great adventure gaming experience.  We wish you the best of luck with Stonewall Penitentiary!  I know I'm looking forward to it!

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