Ah, to be young and successful.
Advent Rising is the brainchild of 28-year-old Donald Mustard and his younger brother by two years, Geremy. The Brothers Mustard have been refining their sci-fi epic for more than 10 years—since they were 16 and 14, respectively. Now they have a three-game publishing deal with Majesco, along with an additional handheld chapter of the game for Sony’s forthcoming PSP handheld.
They’re also in the process of signing a contract for both a series of graphic novels and a major motion picture. Donald believes this film cannot be made for less than 100 million dollars, and has thus far refused to let anyone direct whose name is not Steven Spielberg.
Of course, not all is eternally rosy in the world of young entrepreneurship. A quick tour of GlyphX Provo, their Utah-based studio, reveals a mere 15 people hard at work on what is ostensibly a big-team, big-budget action-adventure, full of spaceships and aliens and loads of technical whizbangery.
Donald has not slept in over two days, as revealed by an unshaven face, tired red eyes, and a succession of unfinished sentences. Yesterday, he was in Los Angeles overseeing the recording of the game’s score with infamous musician and entertainment personality Tommy Talarico and an 80-piece orchestra.
Since his prompt return to GlyphX’s studio in Provo, Donald stayed the night to make sure his game was in good shape for its first press showing since E3 in May of 2004. Forget the past three days—from the sound of things, Donald hasn’t gotten much sleep in the past three years. And the results are starting to look pretty good.
Without going into too much extraneous detail, Advent’s story concerns itself with a series of vastly intelligent, highly advanced alien races. As they’ve permeated the galaxy, discovered one another, and formed complex societies, they’ve found that they have many common legends —including, notably, the belief that a race of godlike creatures will one day come to deliver the galaxy. These beings are commonly known throughout the galaxy as humans, of which you are one: specifically, the game’s unlikely protagonist, Gideon Wyeth.
It would be easy to dismiss the plot as the mere ramblings of an ambitious group of young men weaned on Star Wars and Orson Scott Card. And, in many ways, it is—the only difference being, of course, that Mr. Card actually wrote this script himself. “We had spent years getting the general story arc fleshed out, as well as the major gameplay events,” says Donald. “We’re cocky, so we thought to ourselves, ‘Who do we want to bring this story to life for us?’ Having grown up on Orson Scott Card, it was really the obvious next step to approach him.”
Card—who is, in fact, himself a gamer, and actually wrote for the magazine PC Gamer at one point—was impressed enough to jump on board immediately, despite a long history of turning down the many game projects that have come his way over the years. “We’d come in and he’d be writing the first draft and also playing Civilization 2,” says Advent’s Lead Level Designer Cameron Dayton. “He plays games, and he just really got the story. It was a case of, ‘I read your stuff, I love it, I love this and this and this about it and I’m going to focus on those.’ And boom: a bouquet of instant credibility for Advent Rising.
“The problem with science fiction, for the most part, is that it’s about the cool new technology or the cool new gizmo,” Dayton says. “What Card does is focus on a character, and while he’s in this amazing universe with all sorts of cool alien guns and powers, the most powerful and driving point of this is the story. That’s what he’s proven in his novels, and he’s definitely been able to weave that into our story as well.” The story’s details are secret now, but don’t expect everything to be resolved in Advent Rising—the Mustards see this game as the first title in a trilogy.
Play You, Play Me
Advent is primarily an action game, however, and the team is fully aware that a compelling narrative means nothing without gameplay to match. While Donald certainly respects the current high-water marks of story-based gaming (as given away by the image of Master Chief adorning his desktop, as well as a comment that playing though Half-Life 2 was “the single greatest entertainment experience I have ever had in my life”), he recognizes the flaws of everything before Advent. His problems with Halo 2 stem not only from its lack of dramatic tension and its conventional reliance on gameplay–cut-scene–gameplay structure, but also from the inherent limitations of the now standard-issue Halo-style controls.
Along these lines, Advent is going to fairly extreme measures to differentiate itself from the flock of first- and third-person shooters on the market. The game’s control scheme makes use of the second analog stick only for sporadic camera adjustments and, primarily, for switching between enemies via a quick flick in the target’s general direction (GlyphX is actually in the process of securing a trademark for this “flick targeting” mechanic). “When you’re using dual analog sticks to control your character, you can only use two buttons—the two triggers,” says Donald. “Our scheme leaves your thumb free to use every button on the controller to pull off all sorts of awesome moves, like stuff you’d see in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Experiencing the controls in action, we found some truth to these claims. While it’s going to require quite a bit of unlearning, the ability to lock on to a target, slow down time, and launch into a barrel roll while spraying an enemy with a steady stream of hot lead brings something new to the action genre. It’s in many ways a refinement of Enter the Matrix’s control mechanism, with significantly more variety and flexibility. Geremy understands the risk involved in attempting to teach old dogs new tricks. “Traditionally, in games, you either use the second analog stick constantly, you never touch it, or you touch it maybe a little bit. But in ours, it’s almost half and half. And that’s a very non-traditional scheme; it’s something we’ve been worrying about, but we feel it’s an appropriate step in the innovation of control schemes.”
Truth and Consequence
And then, of course, there’s the possibility of solving the great narrative conundrum: truly interactive storytelling. “The decisions you make in the game will very much chart the plot and the course that the story will take for you as a player,” says Donald. “We wanted to have it there just because—well, it’s cool, and it’s the evolution of storytelling. To let people shape what they’re doing, and have lasting effects.” It’s a promise that’s been made—and often broken entirely—by countless developers, but one that GlyphX intends to keep.
“We’re really trying to create capital A Art,” says Dayton. “We’re trying to take the game to another level, beyond just going from point A to B. There’s a scene early on, for example, where the space station you’re on is being taken over. Now, earlier, before this all happened, there was a bar fight; depending on your interaction with the characters in the bar fight, you can now approach them and they will join you—but only if you helped them before.” Donald notes that if and when you play Advent Rising 2, it will remember the things you did and the choices you made in the first game, and tailor your experience accordingly.
And that’s not the only storytelling leap GlyphX is trying to make with Advent. Dayton explains the core philosophy: “The levels we’re doing, they’re all storytelling elements, just as you’d use iambic pentameter if you were doing Shakespeare. And so, instead of sentences and paragraphs, I’m using rooms and hallways to tell a story. Simple cases like, on the space station you run past a video monitor and it’s giving a little bit of exposition about what’s been happening on the planet. Now, you can stop and listen to that to get the whole story, but if you just want to get past it, you’ll just see the one sentence that tells you what you really need to know. There’s so much to it, and stuff like that is happening all over the place.
“I think that notion [of the metanarrative] was one of the most fascinating things to Card—being able to embed story into the visual experience. In his screenplay, it would have little cues like that—people walking by in a crowd, muttering about something, telling you why things are happening. Without us even having to say too much about it, the first draft we got had 3 or 4 different pathways for each of the characters.”
And that’s where it stands with Advent Rising. The action is going to require a great deal of work in the five months leading up to its release, and the story—while intriguing, particularly due to Card’s involvement—is certainly as much about execution as it is about preparation. But despite these reservations, the game shows tremendous potential between its many seams. We leave GlyphX thinking that these are people who really care about what they’re doing; particularly in regard to the tightly knit core group, this is not only their livelihood, but their passion. And we all know that passion goes a lot farther than cost-of-living raises and Christmas bonuses. Oh—and if the financial payoff for the franchise is as titanic as the Brothers Mustard are so certain it will be, that probably won’t hurt either.
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.