And now for the epic conclusion to the August Interview! Read Part 1 Here!
VNs Now: From what I understand Rob, some of the music for Cinders was done with live instruments. What went into that decision?
ROB: If you can and need, do. The budget was low and the time restraints were high. Thankfully my girlfriend, Rhian Workman, is a great Clarinet player so I make use of that whenever possible. It just so happened that the soundtrack shaped up to include a lot of woodwinds and the Clarinet lent itself well to a lot of the themes and characters. I wouldn’t have included a Clarinet for the sake of it. I was hoping to have more live instrumentation in the soundtrack but deadlines really put pay to that. Being able to call in favours is great but it involves travelling around the country to meet friends/performers, finding a decent recording space, setting up your equipment, etc. rather than just being able to pay for a day or two with an orchestra/studio/professional engineers, booking a hotel for a night and recording everything in one go.
I recorded a lot of the soundtrack to Tom’s earlier game (which is still in production), ArcMAGI, while I was at university. There was an abundance of talent there so a lot of that uses live players ranging from woodwinds, brass, vocals, acoustic and electric guitar and we even got a group of people together to yell/sing like a crowd.
I honestly can’t wait to be able to finish off that soundtrack. But from that moment I knew how much adding even one well played live instrument brings to the table. It gives the music a spark of life and tiny imperfections; a human touch. Recording was something I’d hoped to do from the very start and it was lucky I was living in the same house as the one who I ended up needing to perform.
VNs Now: Originally the game focused on, you know, CINDERS but somehow her family ascends from their roles as strict antagonists. How did that happen?
HUBERT: The impression I got from first talks with Tom and Gracjana was that they wanted all the characters in the game to have at least minimal ambivalence in them, an internal dynamic that would make them multidimensional. Also, it has much to do with the world the game depicts; it’s all about a formative period, growing up and noticing that almost always things are more complex than we would like to think. Nothing is given, people, their attitudes and ethical stances are all products of their personal stories, determined by circumstance and actions of others which shaped them. To each action there is always a ‘because’. Together with Agnieszka we put much effort into giving every character their own voice and developing their background properly. Personally, I really enjoyed Carmosa as a character and thought about her as this Lady Macbeth-like figure, complex, pragmatic to the point of being irrational and utterly beyond redemption; an ordinary woman turned into a monster by extraordinary conditions.
MULAK: I have to agree; from the start we have talked about the need to create the characters as at least a bit ambivalent and realistic. Had we defined the family by one trait – evil – we would bore everyone to death and made a couple of endings not plausible at all.
So if we wanted the characters to be less than 100% predictable and yet consistent throughout the game – we needed to think up at least a shred of personality for each of them, one that would fit their choices in the story and in turn determine their reactions. And that’s what we did.
VNs Now: Gracjana, from a design perspective, which character stood out to you the most or you looked forward to working on?
GRACJANA: It’s hard to choose one, because it changed a lot during the development process. One of the first characters I wanted to make was Madame Ghede. Actually I believe she might’ve been my first idea for the game. Back then I was really inspired by images of Catrina, Baron Samedi etc., and I really wanted to have someone like that in our story. Also someone strong and misunderstood for what they are, yet still smarter than most people.
The next one was probably the Shady Character. At first he was supposed to be some random guy, but he turned out so fine, he got a much more important role. One could say - the most important one in the whole story. Something just “clicked” into the right place when I started to draw him. At first I really disliked the Fairy, but after we had more ideas for her, making her less bland, I really enjoyed working on her.
VNs Now: If you had to pick a theme the player would take away from Cinders, which one would it be? Why? (And don’t cheat and say all of them!)
HUBERT: It’s about maturity and learning that words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are almost devoid of content. Cinders is growing up which means her world is expanding. In the literal sense she discovers new paths in life that she might take, but she also learns actions are very seldom simply good or evil in themselves because everything has a cause. Take Sophia, for example: a generic antagonist in the beginning who, if played properly, develops into a more nuanced character of a girl suffocated by her family. A designated scapegoat for years, she quickly jumped into her oppressor’s shoes when Cinders arrived and took her place in the chain of suffering. It’s impossible to evaluate her behavior without referring to its causes and that means learning her story. Growing up, i.e. accepting the fact that things and people become what and who they are - that, for me, is the main theme of Cinders.
MULAK: For me the theme would be “your world is what you see it to be”. It is shaped by your actions in a way a self-fulfilling prophecy might work. Carmosa who sees a battle everywhere – gets just that, Sophia loses and antagonizes all according to her own convictions. The fate is going to be there if you believe it to be. If a player sits down to live through a fairytale that is what he (or she) will get.
That is consistent with the game’s system of influencing the outcome, where the player doesn’t have full control over how their choices and actions affect the story. So I guess for me the game is about shaping reality without being aware that you do. About false attributions - claiming the world just is so and often failing to notice our own doing in that. And of course, the opportunity to change the known patterns you take for granted and shaping your world differently.
"B-16?" "YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP!"
VNs Now: Speaking of the crew, you both came into the project more or less in the second half of development. When you were told about Cinders, what were you thinking?
Hubert Sobecki: There wasn’t much thinking involved to be honest. I grew up with an Amiga 500 by my side and making games has always been this childhood fantasy I thought I would never do anything about. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I was told that not only will I have a chance to make a good game, but also work with friends (Gracjana is my high school mate) and tell a decent story in the process, well, I was quite happy about it and simply jumped into it.
Agnieszka Mulak: About two weeks before I heard about Cinders I helped organize a workshop with participants doing a play. The organizer thought up a story about a princess getting rescued by a prince, a dragon slain in the process and so on. When the participants went home I yelled at random people for many minutes at a time because I thought copying the fairytale motifs was… well… WRONG! On so many levels. The princess should fend for herself and maybe even rescue the prince if she had a whim to do so. There are so many possible combinations and outcomes all much more probable than the usual ones… And then I heard about Cinders. I jumped up and down for several minutes, threw myself at them and made them take me in.
VNs Now: Gracjana, talk to me about how you started as an artist because you have dared, DARED, to do art for a visual novel without drawing from the usual inspirations…and, for the record, it is awesome.
Gracjana Zielinska: Thank you! I was doodling all my life, pretty much like everyone else. But it was back in 2003, I think, when I discovered digital painting and wanted to give it a try. I was procrastinating when studying for my first exam session at university, and found an easier method to waste my time with, than having to take out all the crayons, paints etc. Also - easier to hide from the judging eyes of my Parents, who thought it’s a waste of time ;)
I got my first paid commission in 2004, although it was just beginner’s luck and today I’m very ashamed of what I’ve drawn for them, as I was still inexperienced. But it convinced me there are actually people willing to pay for my work and it might not be a bad idea to think about it as a job for life and practice more to become as good as the artists I adore. Well, the latter didn’t happen, but I’m trying :)
VNs Now: Rob, you have composed the score for just about all of Moacube’s work so far. How did that relationship start?
Rob Westwood: About 5 years ago (or thereabouts), when I was only a year or two off the ground, I was scouring a certain online forum for projects that might need some music. On that occasion I found only one that I thought looked promising and that was MAGI. I asked Tom if he would like some music done and that I’d write him a freebie first to test the waters. The rest is history really. We have a good working relationship and we’ve both matured as professionals over that period and learned a great deal of lessons (well, I know I have). My studio has grown a lot since then and the scope of projects I work on is a lot more varied than it used to be, but I will always write music for Moacube so long as they want me. I’ve always been incredibly impressed by Tom’s development skills, knowledge, perseverance, realism, open judgment of my music and the ability to take open judgment back. Since Tom met Gracjana, and formed Moacube, the games have been doubly as awesome and now ridiculously beautiful too.
VNs Now: There are 120 player choices throughout Cinders. What was the process of making those choices not only unique but ensuring they tied together in a way that made sense?
HUBERT: This was almost entirely Tom’s job. He created the entire story structure divided into separate scenes and ‘scripts’ - or text segments. Consequence, causality and consistency in the story are mostly his doing. Me and Agnieszka, we simply had to pay attention and glue those pieces together when we were filling this basic model with textual content and developing the story. But I don’t think that at any given point either of us had a full mental view of all those forks, alternative paths etc. Except for Tom, that is, but he spent way too much time on this game :)
MULAK: Oh, yes, Tom is definitely the one to answer that question.
TOM: It wasn’t really that hard. Just time-consuming. Me and Gracjana decided on the possible endings first, so we had a clear idea on where they story may go. Then, when writing the script, I just added choices whenever I felt it’s necessary. I wrote about it in more detail on my blog, but in short: I wanted to leave all important decisions to the players, allow them for roleplaying different personalities, and make sure that there’s no simply right/wrong choices. Everything was written down in the game’s screenplay, and I also had a list of all the variables we keep track off and when they change.
The Writing Team Assembled
VNs Now: You already have an incredible resume including credits in artistic publications and exhibitions. Now that this project is finished, what is next on your list?
GRACJANA: Thanks! Well, isn’t it obvious? I’m going to work on another MoaCube game! :) I have to say I’m really excited about it, especially from my point of view (artistic). I won’t say much, but my main inspirations for its style were parts of Omikron: The Nomad Soul’s setting and African landscapes. As for some other plans - I’d really love to finish my artbook one day. And maybe some other, personal art
VNs Now: What is the plan for Cinders’ soundtrack now? Would you and Tom consider releasing it on its own?
ROB: I’ve actually had the soundtrack to Cinders planned for a long time. I foolishly decided to add extra bonus tracks to make it worthwhile and now I just can’t put it down. It’s sort of like having to say goodbye to the world a second time. Well, that, and I got a pretty big job that sat itself on top of everything earlier on this year like a greedy child taking all my time. However, I’m now (as I write this) within a few hours of having the soundtrack completed. It will be available for purchase on CD using lots of Gracjana’s artwork and as a digital download. It will also be available on iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify and other online services soon after.
I like to release my soundtracks when I can and the company allow just for preservation purposes. Cinders has been such a lovely experience though that I wanted and needed to put some love, care and serious attention to the soundtrack. It will be with you soon though. It features unused music, a medley/reworking of the themes and some bonus tracks from Tom’s other titles: MAGI and ArcMAGI. The wait won’t be too long and I hope that everyone who enjoyed the music in the game will enjoy the extra tracks on the soundtrack!
VNs Now: You were the first interview I ever did: ironically we talked around this time last year. Looking back at where not only Cinders but Moacube as a whole was at that time, where do you think you’ve grown and where you can you still grow?
TOM: I don’t know where we have grown yet, but I know where we have shrunk — our wallets and bank accounts. The game took way too long to complete and there’s a strong lesson in that. We thought that, as an experienced team, we can avoid the common pitfalls and make the game in a relatively reasonable time. With maybe some slight delays to accommodate for this being our first VN. We were dead wrong.
The coding, the art and general production — oh, we did those well, with only a single deadline missed and not by a lot. The game was technically done in 4 months. But the writing. Man, did we botch on that one. We severely underestimated the amount of time required to write a screenplay for such game, and then the time it takes to actually turn it into in-game text. We also should have hired the additional writers sooner. If we did that, the game would take around 8 months to complete and would be easier to make profitable. As is, we need an exceptional hit for a VN to break even.
So if we want to grow somewhere, that’s it. We want to release more games and quicker. We need that if we are to survive. Our plan is to work on two games at once this time. We’ll see where that takes us.
VNs Now: What, if anything, do you want people to take away from your work?
TOM: Whatever they want really. I don’t like the idea of imposing some messages on the audience. It’s for them to decide what value our work has to them. Sure, we’ve got our ambitions and we want to touch some serious issues with our games, but we also want them to just be entertaining to our gamers. If people play our stuff and find it fun, that’s great. If it also makes them think or touches them more deeply in some other way, that’s even better!