Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book

Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book

Written by Eric Hauter on 7/26/2021 for
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When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the video game industry was sent quietly spiraling. Games were delayed and schedules were rearranged as developers and publishing companies – pushed out of their offices – tried to learn how to work remotely. Perhaps the only industry that struggled more to figure out how to continue forward was the film industry; after all, you need quite a large crew together in one place to make a film.

But one company had to learn to overcome the troubles afflicting both industries. Wales Interactive makes interactive films – hybrid experiences that fall somwhere between feature films and video games. And so, Wales Interactive suddenly found itself innovating in some rather unexpected ways. The final product of all of this war room innovation, Night Book, releases on July 27.

Of course, Wales Interactive is accustomed to packing a lot of work into a short period of time. It is hard to believe, but Wales Interactive has only been publishing its interactive film games for five years. Wales’s first interactive film, The Bunker, was released in 2016. Since then, the films have come in rapid succession, steadily improving on playability and overall cinematic quality.

Interactive films can perhaps best be compared with the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the '80s. The films start in the same place for everyone, with basic characters and settings being conveyed in the opening scenes. But before long, the player starts making choices for the characters, and the games go spiraling off in unique directions, depending on the options the player selects. During your first playthrough you might see a supernatural thriller, for example. The next time through the game you might see a slasher film. You just never know where your choices will land you or the hapless characters you are controlling.

Though Wales Interactive still develops and publishes traditional video games (it released Maid of Sker in 2020, for example), the company has become almost synonymous with interactive films. Over the last five years, production has increased to the point where Wales is at the forefront of interactive film publishing. During the pandemic lockdown alone, Wales Interactive has released The Complex, Five Dates, I Saw Black Clouds, and now Night Book, scheduled to release on July 27 on PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac OS, and iOS.

Night Book is actually the second interactive film Wales Interactive has produced during the pandemic in association with Good Gate Media, an interactive film production company owned by film producer John Giwa-Amu. Of course, neither of these releases were initially planned. The two companies were hard at work collaborating on several different films when the pandemic lockdown hit. “We were planning a whole slate [of films] with Good Gate,” says Wales Interactive co-founder David Banner, “not just making one film. And the lockdown changed plans of what we could do.

“Rather than mourn that we couldn't do those scripts, John would come to us and say, 'Well, we can do this [instead].' We worked together to work out what we could do. Not saying, 'Oh, we can't do it,' and using excuses. We kept being creative and experimenting in different ways.”

The result of these brainstorming sessions was Five Dates, an interactive romantic comedy in which the player goes on a series of Zoom-style dates. Five Dates was filmed remotely, the result of Wales Interactive and Good Gates “shipping iPhones around the country to do things as quickly as we could, being reactive to the circumstances,” according to Giwa-Amu. The game was enough of a success that Wales Interactive and Good Gate started considering how they could iterate on remote production to step up the quality.

The two companies quickly realized that in order to film an interactive feature with cinematic cameras, they would have to get creative. At the beginning of production for Night Book, they packed up complex camera kits and sent them out to the actors. “It sounds very prosaic, but I've never seen a box of so carefully labeled minutia of camera equipment and different bits and bobs,” says Lightman. “We set them up so that anyone could basically pick them up and go, "Oh, 1A with 1B, that goes together. And suddenly they’ve built a camera. Our DOP [director of photography] Evan Zissimopulos did an incredible job. Even I could have set it up.”

Of course, in this case, the people that would be setting up and using the camera equipment were the actors themselves. This led Wales Interactive and Good Gate to seek out some very cooperative performers.

“Usually if an actor comes onto a film set,” explains Night Book director Alex Lightman (Tear Me Apart), “they wait around, they go through their hair and makeup, they get walked to set, they get told where to be. Someone else turns the camera on. Someone else lights the scene. Someone else calls action, someone calls cut, they do their thing and they walk away. In this case, they did all of that themselves. And no one else was there to help them. It was really, really intense for them.

“Teaching them to remotely set up a camera that they'd never seen before was a challenge. And everyone's got different levels of understanding of tech equipment and cameras and lighting. So it took a lot patience, I think, from all sides.”

John Giwa-Amu elaborates, “We didn't know how they were going to react to this. You know, generally it's my job as a producer to come and look after actors in a way, to protect them from things that I don't think they're going to be comfortable with, such as setting up a camera. So, we didn't know how people were going to react. But actors like Colin Salmon (Resident Evil, Krypton) were just really brilliant. Julie Dray (Avenue 5, Crashing), the lead in Night Book, was incredible with these kinds of things as well.”

The actors were acting in their own private spaces, running the complex camera set-ups, sound equipment, and lighting, all on their own under remote instruction from Wales Interactive and Good Gate. This do-it-yourself work ethic even extended to set design. For actor Mark Wingett, playing a character obsessed with demons meant decorating his own home to look like one of those crazy-guy-can’t-stop-drawing rooms you see in movies.

“We had a production designer, Zahra Mansouri—who is amazing—who would make all those things and then ship them to the actor. And then she would sit on one side of Zoom while he was on the other and direct him to where she wanted him to hang things up. He was in the spare room in his house for a day before we shot, hanging all these up himself,” Lightman explains.

Still, Wales and Good Gate found that the performers working on Night Book were absolutely up to the challenge. “Making interactive movies is not something a lot of actors have done,” Lightman says. “So I think they were very intrigued by the format. And as you know, we were in a pandemic, we have to do [unusual] things. We didn’t really have to go searching very hard. The [actors] that went for the film were up for it, very willing to just go for it.”

Still, directing a film over Zoom does present its own challenges. Lightman explains, “I think there are certain things that as a director get removed from your toolkit over a Zoom call. As someone who's managing people, you use a lot of your nonverbal communication skills to communicate. And obviously, like, those disappeared. You can't make yourself look smaller or more powerful, or give someone a reassuring pat on the arm. You just can't do it. So, you're very much relying on all your verbal communication.”

Once the pieces of film starting coming back from the team at Good Gate, it was up to Wales Interactive to start assembling them into a game. For this, they use WIST (Wales Interactive Scripting Tool), a self-developed interactive film planning and assembly tool. Wales Interactive co-founder Richard Pring explains, “WIST allows writers to actually create these interactive stories. It allows them to play them through as [one would] a Choose Your Own Adventure-type book. So literally, you can play for your own scripts, before you actually start writing it, so you can test out the flow.

“We've realized over the years – and we want to create more and more interesting, more dynamic interactive movies – but you actually need a bit of programming knowledge to create them. Things like variables systems, weightings for choices, tracking how choices matter – like if you pick up the key earlier on in the interactive movie, it can track that down the way.

“Or, as we do quite a lot in our interactives, especially with the ones that have done with John, tracking relationships. So, tracking how I interact with people. If I'm an asshole to you, is it tracking that through [the game] so you get a realistic response later on down the line? WIST allows you to create really interesting interactive films, and that plugs straight into the actual technology we use to publish them as well.”

WIST also helps Wales Interactive be certain that it has a piece of video to plug in for every possible scenario – a lesson the company learned the hard way fairly early on. “Our first interactive film was The Bunker,” says Banner. “It was all done; it was all filmed and in the can. And we were assembling it in the old way, before we had WIST.

“And then we realized there was one massive scene that was missing, of [the main character] escaping the bunker. It was forgotten. The actor was Adam Brown, who was one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, that's what he's famous for. And he'd gone. We couldn't have him back; we'd paid him his money, he's been filmed. So, we had to return to the bunker where it was filmed with one of the guy's wives dressed as Adam and his wife kind of quickly did the thing. Her hair was short, she kinda looked like Adam from the back.”

Due to Wales Interactive’s implementation of WIST – and its partnership with Good Gate Media - that sort of thing is no longer an issue. “We actually don't have so much of that now, because working with John – they obviously capture a lot of that before we go into the production process; what's actually needed."

Night Book is not the only announced game produced by Wales Interactive and Good Gate Media. An interactive film version of the video game classic Deathtrap Dungeon has been announced for 2022, and it is continuing to push forward the technology used in the development of interactive film.

“My objective as a producer is to always add as much value, as much sparkle and bang for the buck, to something,” says Giwa-Amu. “We wanted to create Escape Room meets Game of Thrones. But we knew that we were not going to have a new 5 million pounds to spend every 45 minutes as they do on Game of Thrones. So how could we do a three- or four-hour Deathtrap Dungeon without completely collapsing the bank? So [we thought of] using the Mandalorian tech, which is what we did with a different provider. We assembled the team, hired out a space in BBC Studios, and went about our way testing; not only the backgrounds and how they'd be rendered in and the creature creation and all of that, but also the gameplay, because in these things you're always looking at what's going to keep the audience coming back.”

A demo for Deathtrap Dungeon is now available on Steam.

Wales Interactive and Good Gate Media are excited to continue working together, pushing the medium of interactive film forward, taking on new genres and expanding the technology. “What we've changed – between us and the likes of Good Gate – is bringing in better writers, better directors, better production, better actors,” says Banner. “[Our approach] is not looking at it as a gimmicky sort of thing. It's looking at it as a way to tell a story in an interactive way. And we are not using 3D graphics. We're using live action. And so that is quite exciting, because there are ten interactive films on PlayStation, and eight of them are Wales Interactive. And of course, we're accelerating with Good Gate; we are not just doing one.”

Richard Pring elaborates, “That's what's been so exciting. Every single one of these is something new; we get to experience something new. It might be something you've seen similar in film, or maybe similar in games, but putting the mediums together in a new and interactive way – it's just really exciting for us.”

Night Book releases on July 27 on PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac OS, and iOS.

Gaming Nexus would like to thank Wales Interactive, Good Gate Media, and Alex Lightman for their participation in this story.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book Inside the Pandemic-Defying Creation of Night Book

About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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