Charles Cecil : Adventure game genius, national treasure, international man of mystery
When Charles Cecil was 18 months old, a Congolese soldier pointed a gun at his head and, for a few terrible seconds, looked certain to pull the trigger. A year before, his father had taken a job in the newly independent Republic of Congo overseeing the local office of a multinational company. Back then, it looked like the beginning of an exciting new life, but revolution was brewing and white expatriates were beginning to bear the brunt of anti-European fervour. Cecil, throwing stones from his backyard one morning, had caught the soldier on the leg as he passed. If it hadn’t been for the frantic remonstrations of the family’s gardener, he may have paid with his life.
Cecil’s heavily pregnant mother fled the country with her son – a gruelling journey involving river boats and tiny mail planes, which last year was recounted in her fascinating memoir, Drums On The Night Air. After recuperating in Britain, the family moved to Nigeria for a while, before settling back in the UK. All this before Cecil was ten.
It’s unsurprising then, that, on becoming a game designer, he would choose to create adventures. In the famed Broken Sword series, hero George Stobbart travels the world getting into desperate scrapes with exotic enemies and enigmatic secret societies. Surely this must have come from Cecil’s formative experiences in Africa? He laughs when we put forward the theory. “It would be lovely to think that wouldn’t it?” he says. “But yes, I’m sure some of that time affected me, and may well have given me that love of telling adventure stories.
“One of the most vivid memories I have is of going to Paris in the late ’60s, when I was seven or eight,” he recalls. “We stayed with my uncle, a Portuguese communist who’d fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and was such a romantic hero. And what was lovely were the smells of Paris, the Gitanes [cigarettes] and the way people walked differently. One of the important things about writing engaging games is to avoid cliché – draw on the poignancy of real experiences. The reason Paris figures so heavily in the Broken Sword games is because of those days, staying with my uncle and listening to his astonishing stories.”
It was in the early ’80s that Cecil first discovered technology. While attending Bedales School in Hampshire, he took an interest in mechanical engineering and later spent a year working for Ford on an industrial sponsorship. There he met Richard Turner, a fellow geek who had just disassembled the ROM of the ZX81 and written a book about it. Turner also owned a TRS-80 and, having played all of Scott Adams’ text-based adventure games on it, set up his own software label, Artic Computing, to begin coding similar titles for Sinclair’s range of computers. Cecil agreed to help, writing text-only titles like Inca Curse, Ship Of Doom and Espionage Island.
After Artic, Cecil spent two years as a development manager at US Gold and then at Activision, before getting into creating adventure games again. This time, he set up Revolution Software with three partners, Tony Warriner, Dave Sykes and Noirin Carmody. The first game was the ingenious Lure Of The Temptress, an Arthurian adventure, following a peasant boy named Diermot as he sets out to rid his kingdom of an evil sorceress. The game used a mechanic that Cecil referred to as ‘virtual theatre’, in which NPCs were able to freely wander the whole world, communicating with each other and interacting with objects, rather than taking up the usual static positions. It had something else central to the success of Revolution’s titles: wit.
“An important thing about writing engaging games is to avoid cliché – draw on real experiences”
The company’s next title, Beneath A Steel Sky, took a new direction. While working at Activision, Cecil had contacted comic-book artist Dave Gibbons about licensing Watchmen as a video game. The two stayed in touch and when Revolution was set up, Gibbons and Cecil started discussing game concepts. “He got involved very early and brought his own ideas,” says Cecil. “He hand-drew the backgrounds, then they were painted and scanned in. He was hugely influential.” The result was a darker, cyberpunk-theme romp with Kafkaesque undertones, but again, an everyman hero and a clever sense of humour kept the tone light.
From then, it’s really all been about Broken Sword, the adventure series that explored ideas of Templar conspiracies years before the Dan Brown novels (it was inspired by the Umberto Eco novel Foucault’s Pendulum). There have been four instalments, as well as director’s cut editions for Wii, DS and smartphones, and the popularity is still there – the iPhone editions of Broken Sword I and II have seen over five million downloads. Cecil puts the success down to a set of simple structural archetypes he’s always followed.
“The story, the location and the puzzles need to be interwoven together at every stage,” he says. “You come up with the story first, of course – the locations, the characters – but then you work out how the narrative can be moulded at the very highest level to work in terms of a game.”
It looks as though this will be a busy year for Revolution, which remains a four-person company, with a network of freelancers – a very modern set-up. Although Cecil won’t confirm it, the company is believed to be working on a new Broken Sword for iOS and maybe PSN and XBLA. “We’re totally embracing HD technology,” he says. “In terms of gameplay it’s innovation rather than revolution. A lot of gamers felt the original bits in Broken Sword: Director’s Cut were quite old-fashioned and preferred the new sections, but we don’t want to alienate our original fans. We want the games to feel contemporary, lively, but they will be unabashedly 2D. And our new game is looking absolutely fantastic.”
And it’s not the only project he has in mind. “Dave Gibbons and I keep talking about writing another adventure together and we have a design that’s quite well advanced,” he reveals. “It’s a science-fiction adventure, but very much drawing on the idea of interactive comic books and how gameplay can be moulded towards a more dynamic visual style. We keep starting it and then something else overtakes us. We’ll do it… one day… soon…”
Awarded an OBE last year, and having spent time helping to craft the BBC’s Dr Who Adventure titles, Cecil has also become more than another veteran British game designer – something akin to a national treasure. Gaming owes a lot to a gardener in Leopoldville, Congo, who in the early ’60s confronted a soldier to protect a little boy and the vast adventure that lay ahead of him.
Original Sketch and Still from the Intro video of ‘Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars’.
The Revolution team would like to wish you all a very happy and successful new year.
2011 has been a watershed for Revolution. The two Broken Sword games have been downloaded by over 4 million people this year. Strong sales have allowed us to self-fund our next adventure game which will be completed around the middle of 2012. This is an exciting opportunity for us and we thank you for your support throughout the year which has allowed us to do this. Once we’re sure of the completion date, and have decided on the name, we’ll let you know. Thanks for your patience.
We are proud that Revolution was named as one of the world’s top 50 development studios by Develop – given how small a team we are, we were delighted. Charles was honoured to be awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). We are sad that Eoghan Cahill, a layout artist who drew many of the layouts for the original Broken Sword game, passed away this year – he will be greatly missed. On a trip to Paris a few days ago, Charles climbed Notre Dame and took this photo, a view similar to the one Eoghan used as the basis of the opening for the original Broken Sword game.
We wish you all the very best for 2012.
Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars CoverArt Restoration
Broken Sword: The Complete Collection Announced!
Wondering what Christmas present to buy a loved one? Worry no more.
Revolution Software are proud to announce that, for the first time ever, all four Broken Sword games are finally available together in one edition.
“The Shadow of the Templars and The Smoking Mirror are available for the first time in their stunning new Director’s Cut editions, alongside spectacular 3D adventures The Sleeping Dragon and The Angel of Death.”
This release includes:
Broken Sword – Shadow Of The Templars: Director’s Cut,
Broken Sword – The Smoking Mirror: Remastered,
Broken Sword – The Sleeping Dragon,
Broken Sword – The Angel Of Death.
The games can be purchased directly from Mastertronic or at Amazon.
*Complete refers to the collection being complete as of now, not that there won’t be any new Broken Sword games in the future…
Broken Sword Custom Soundtrack Artwork
Hope any fans of the Broken Sword game series enjoy these. I made these a while ago for the soundtrack collection i posted on a forum but forgot about them until l found them in the bottom of a folder on my laptop.
Feel free to use on your own itunes albums, like or reblog.
A big thank you for the countless emails and tweets I have had about this particular release and of course to the ScummVM team for implementing the external audio files I have created – allowing my enhancements to be released for your enjoyment.
To install, extract the music from the zip file and copy it to your Beneath A Steel Sky folder on your hard drive. Make sure you have the latest daily build of ScummVM from their website or version 1.4.1 or later (when it is released). For best quality (although not mandatory), start the ScummVM program and select Beneath A Steel Sky. Now select [Edit Game], switch to Audio tab, tick the ‘Overide Global Audio Settings’ and set Sample Rate to 44kHz.
Congratulations to Charles Cecil for his recent MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) award.
For those of us who have known and worked with Charles for many years, in my case since the mid-1980s, it was with great pleasure that we learnt of his news.
From developing games, beginning with 1981’s ‘Adventure B: Inca Curse’, through to the modern Broken Sword series, as well as engaging with industry issues and championing the UK development sector abroad and at home, Charles has made a significant contribution, and this was recognised as “Services to the Computer Games Industry”.