From one of the artists behind seminal ’90s puzzler Myst, comes Zed, an ethereal adventure set in the deteriorating mind of a grandfather desperate to finish one last project for his grandchild. With Zed now on Kickstarer, we speak to creative director and Eagre Games founder Chuck Carter about his start on Myst, how to take an idea from concept to completion, and what players can expect from this latest project.

ONLYSP: Tell me about yourself and how you got into making games.

Chuck Carter: “Back in the ’80s I worked in newspapers. I was an editorial illustrator and art director of a couple of different newspapers in my twenties, but then I moved to Spokane, Washington in about 1989. After I got there, I saw this little game called The Manhole – a Cyan project that Robyn Miller had drawn – a very Myst-like game, essentially exploration. I had been dabbling with 3-D back then and doing some stuff for newspapers using computer graphics. I thought that was an interesting way to tell a story, so I started playing around with some of my own ideas.

“At some point after about a year or two working on my own stuff I met Rand and Robyn Miller who both lived in Spokane as well. The fact that we were so close to each other meant that we got to know each other really well – and they were telling me about this big secret project they were going to work on but couldn’t really say anything about until they got funding. When they finally did, by both Broderbund and SunSoft, they asked me to join and provide the other half of the artwork to Robyn’s for the game Myst – that’s where I got started at.”

ONLYSP: 3D art was more of a passion project for you then? You didn’t have any professional training or tutoring?

Chuck Carter: “No, I’m self-taught, totally. Back in late ’80s there really wasn’t a lot in terms of 3D packages out there. I did find a couple, which I started teaching myself what to do with, but I found applications for it in some news graphics. I could take an object, rotate it, and draw over it in Adobe Illustrator at the time – Photoshop wasn’t around quite by that point. The 3D stuff then lead me to more advanced packages, which let me start doing renderings and I got really into that and working on a Macintosh.

“Companies that were making these packages at the time started using my images on their boxes, so I developed a broader passion for the whole idea behind it and even started doing a game called The Magic Shop, where I used 3D worlds with 3D images for the rooms so I could put a camera in there and take pictures – much like we did in Myst; so I’d started playing around with that even before I knew what Myst was.”

ONLYSP: Myst is obviously this legendary game which everyone loves – How do you feel about its legacy? Is it something you’re really proud of?

Chuck Carter: “Yeah, I don’t think it really occurred to any of us that it would do as well as it did. I do remember one thing about a two-or-three page business plan which Rand had written – essentially just a few paragraphs and graphics. But in the first paragraph, Rand said, ‘Myst will be a game which changes the way people play games forever.’ I thought that was a little optimistic, but it turned out to be very true. Working on the game, being a part of it, and watching where it went was pretty amazing. I’m still astounded by the amount of people who come up to me and say, ‘thank you for Myst‘ or ‘the last time I played with my grandfather on a game was on Myst when I was a kid.’ There’re all kinds of stories people come up and tell me – I’m very proud of my part of it.”

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ONLYSP: Can you tell me a little bit more about some of your other previous projects? You mention on the Kickstarter that you’ve worked on around 25 so far?

Chuck Carter: “When I left Cyan right after Myst was produced, I went to Westwood Studios [Command & Conquer, Dune] and worked on a couple of different games – the biggest one being something called [The Legend of] Kyrandia – doing a lot of pixel art, backgrounds and animation, a little bit of everything. That was my first taste of a game outside of the Myst genre, more of a typical adventure game. Then I worked on a couple with a few companies who, I guess the best way to describe it, wanted to jump on the coat-tails of the Myst thing and hired me to help out with some things. Typically, they’d run out of money at some point and I’d have to go off and get some other job. During this time I was also hired by National Geographic and worked with them on a retainer basis for a number of years back in the ’90s.

“At that same time, I was also doing work for Netter Digital, who were doing all the special effects for Babylon5, so I got to do a lot of background painting and animation for that – that was pretty cool.

“Then about ’98, I started at Westwood Studios again and was put right on [Command & Conquer:Tiberian Sun, so I got a chance to work on the Command and Conquer universe. Most of my career has been primarily cinematics work, so a lot of backgrounds, environments.

“There’re a lot of different games I’ve worked on throughout my career and they start blending together after a while. Probably the most fun I had was on one of the projects, Dune: Emperor. I got a chance to take the cinematics and do whatever I wanted with those – that was a lot of fun.”

ONLYSP: On to your current game then. To make use of a tired phrase, what’s the elevator pitch for Zed?

Chuck Carter: “You are in the dreams of a dying man who has Alzheimer’s. He’s struggling like hell to finish one project for his granddaughter and you have to help him make the connections to remember what he’s actually doing. That’s the whole gist of the game. You do this through a series of puzzles, which are along the lines of having to fix devices that reconnect the neurons in his mind. It’s a whole series of worlds, dreamscapes, that come out of his mind.”

ONLYSP: How did you arrive at that high-level concept, is it an issue that’s close to you?

Chuck Carter: “The funny thing is that as you get older – I’ve been in this business for close to 25 years now and I’m going to be 60 next year – I start seeing friends of mine get older and suffering in different ways whereas some seem never to age. But I do have a friend and mentor of mine who’s about 25 years older than I am, and he’s going through dementia right now; he’s suffering through Alzheimer’s – just the early stages. He was a phenomenal artist, and to watch him struggle when I talk to him now to remember simple things that we’ve done is heartbreaking. So I started thinking, ‘what are the dreams of somebody like that?’

“Are they reliving childhood dreams, are they current dreams? Any number of things that I feel would be concerning to anybody who’s starting to go through this – what is it like to lose your memory, lose your mind, and still have things that you want to do in your life? How do you deal with those issues?

“It seemed like an interesting way to do a game, to help someone remember, to find those pieces and put them together.”

ONLYSP: What inspired the game’s visual style?

Chuck Carter: “A lot of the game, as far as the look and the feel, reflect my own dream symbolism. A lot of things you see are big, floating objects. I’ve had these in my dreams all the time. I get to a point where things are very surreal, or they can go very realistic. Once in a while, you see an artist’s work that speaks to you because it’s very familiar – there’s a guy named Shaun Tan, he’s a children’s book illustrator who’s phenomenal. He’s based in Australia and has this kind of vision that’s amazing.

“Another artist, John Harris – them, along with my dreams, and I’m an avid searcher on Pinterest. There’s a lot of stuff online with amazing artists’ work that you can use to generate ideas. Sometimes I’ll see one little image that will spark an entire chain of events in my head that leads to entire levels.”

ONLYSP: Can you expand a little bit on your process? How do you take that inspirations on turn it into a reality on-screen?

Chuck Carter: “For instance, the Shaun Tan stuff, in the level that’s currently our demo there was something about one shot of a row of houses in his book The Arrival. It had them all lined up and had this orderliness to it – that was the impetus for that whole world, that one image.

“That meshed really well with a lot of what I dreamt about as a child: walking into a neighbourhood and everything changing around you – you turn around and the street you were just on is gone.

“So I started using that piece of art from his work and thinking how it work within this level, how the style could help me establish a look. What I’ll do is sketch it out on paper, some ideas, try to flesh out what the map might look like. Then I’ll start building things in 3D; I’ll just go right into the program and start knocking out models.

“At first they’ll be very rough and I’ll arrange them, move them around and put them in some kind of order. Then I’ll run a camera through it and see what the feeling is like and play with the lighting. The process starts with the art, then it goes through sketches, then it goes through 3-D. Then I test all that and eventually start building individual models when I find a direction that I like and start putting the whole thing together.

“Sometimes you might start with one thing and it might not be working, but there’s a seed of another idea in that process and you start following that.”

ONLYSP: What programs do you use?

Chuck Carter: “For most of my 3D I use a program called Modo. It’s a company based out of the UK called The Foundry that publishes it – and they’ve got an awesome toolset that outputs directly to Unreal Engine or Unity.

“I use Zbrush a lot, Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects – I’m pretty versatile in a lot of 3-D programs, but Modo is the primary one and we’re using Unreal 4 as our game engine.”

ONLYSP: What can you tell me about the overarching story of Zed? Are there characters in the game that’re represented onscreen?

Chuck Carter: “The characters are never represented onscreen; you don’t actually ever meet The Dreamer physically, per say, but you will meet aspects of his personality through different types of narrative and narration. We’ll have things like, you might come to an area and instead of him talking an animation sweeps across a wall and tells a bit of the story. There’ll be things that you have to trigger with exploration in different parts of the game – there’s basically four levels with three different smaller sub-levels that’re part of those four.

“With such a small team – character animation, we just don’t have the manpower for it right now. There will be life in the world, there will be things in the world.”

ONLYSP: You’re working with Joe Fielder from Bioshock Infinite and The Black Glove. Was the narrative fully formed by the time he came onboard, or has it been a collaborative process?

Chuck Carter: “It was finalised prior to him coming onboard and as things start to progress, the collaboration will occur. I’m open to new ways of doing things, and, as we start working on it together, I think a lot of people have a lot to contribute, no matter what team member. A lot of the guys that I’m working with are coming up with ideas for puzzles on a regular basis, some of them make sense in the world, some of them don’t, but I give them a big framework and everyone has a chance to add into it. That helps make it a much richer game.”

ONLYSP: What can players expect in terms of gameplay – how would you describe the core loop?

Chuck Carter: “It’s not just a walk-a-bout as some people have said. We don’t want to give too much away, but the gameplay essentially involves reconnecting this person’s mind so that he can remember what he has to do for his granddaughter. So the gameplay could involve fixing things – in the demo we have a couple of levers and buttons, but the puzzles in the final game will be much more intricate and will have you actually having to think through how you’d fix an object. You’re not just pulling things but putting it back together so it all works.

“As well as a lot of environmental things that you have to trigger to get from A-to-B, and trigger something which will open up another opportunity to trigger other things. It’s a matter of finding these things in the right order.

“There are a number of levels to the puzzles. It’s hard to describe in one sentence, but most good games aren’t stuffed with one puzzle concept. I think they work with a variety of concepts which help enrich the game experience and force you to look around.

“Really, my philosophy behind any of this is to make the environment fun – make it the second character in the game. You’re living in this environmental construct that is a character in so many different ways, that’s alive around you.”

ONLYSP: What in your opinion makes a really great video game puzzle?

Chuck Carter: “I’ve been playing games for a long time, and for instance the DOOM puzzles – I’m a big ID fan – and I like that searching around looking for the key, that’s a lot of fun for me. The Myst kind of puzzles, personally, there was a lot more involved in going through books and such, and I felt like I was standing still too often. I’d rather have people moving around and discovering things. Those are games I enjoy, I just got through SOMA, The Talos Principle, and AntiChamber which has some really cool stuff in it.

“Each game comes at it in a different way, and I don’t really judge things just by the puzzles but how they engage me and keep me wanting to play. If I play a game for half an hour and I’m bored, think they haven’t succeeded.


ONLYSP: Is Zed quite an open experience, or a more linear one?

Chuck Carter: “The one level we have right now with the platforms, that’s going to be a lot more open than it looks initially because a lot of it will expand – you don’t even see half of the walkways as you start playing it, as you keep moving you’ll see more of those growing up.

“The rest of it’s fairly open-world. You’ll be able to go on rocks and through tunnels, large open areas with grass and a couple of forest. A little bit of everything, there’ll be a much more open city that you’ll be in at some point in the game. That ability to be able to wander around at will and not be pushed linearly is going to be a big part of the game.”

“Really, my philosophy behind any of this is to make the environment fun – make it the second character in the game. You’re living in this environmental construct that is a character in so many different ways, that’s alive around you.”

ONLYSP: You’ve said on your website that you like to create ‘beautifully immersive’ games, how’re you immersing players in Zed, and how are you balancing its more fantastical elements to still make them believable?

Chuck Carter: “You can do some really strange looking things in any game when you’re building an environment, but if you make it too alien, it ceases to become familiar and that in some ways makes it difficult to identify with and immerse yourself in it. If you put enough stuff that you’re familiar with personally in there, a door is a good example.

“When you start putting things that people can look at and identify with in an environment, then it becomes much more immersive because you can actually go outside and see similar things.”

ONLYSP: Why Kickstarter?

Chuck Carter: “We have some needs as far as optimisation goes, and to help complete some of the final tasks – we want to hire a couple more people to help us with some of the art for instance. Kickstarter seemed the obvious choice to raise a little bit of money.

“One of the advantages of living in Maine is that we don’t have a whole lot of expenses as far as the company goes – this helps us make the game for a lot less than if I was living in say New York or California.

“Kickstarter not only helps us market the game, because it’s a good way to get the word out, but it’s a good way to raise the capital to keep us going.”

ONLYSP: In a perfect world, what do you hope Zed can achieve?

Chuck Carter: “Ever since I started this game, people keep telling me it looks like Myst, or reminds them of Myst. I’m not trying for Myst – I think probably my art style is what people see when they play the game.

“If people at the end of this compare it favourably to, or that they had the same kind of experience as with, Myst, that’s awesome. Myst was a seminal game of it time, and we’re not trying to be the spiritual successor to it or anything, that’s Cyan’s thing. But if we can have a Myst-like experience where people play and remember it, and are immersed in it in a way that leaves them with some impression after they’ve stopped, I think we’ve succeeded.”

Eagre Games are aiming to get Zed into testing by the end of 2016, and published by Q1 2017 on PC, MAC, Linux, and VR systems. Their Kickstarter is nearing its goal with a few hours until completion, and offers a digital download of the game at the $16 reward tier.

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James Billcliffe
Lead Interview and Features editor. Eats, games, and leaves. Tweet at me! @Jiffe93

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