Feature

Alone In The Park Impressions: A Low-Key Indie Adventure

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jun 07, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Described by creator Katharine Neil as delivering "slow-paced, low-octane gameplay that will have you fully reclined on your chaise longue," Alone in the Park takes players on an atypical adventure through a national park full of odd characters and humorous encounters.

Originally developed as a browser game, Alone in the Park is a clever mix of a text adventure and graphic adventure that will be available on PC, Mac, Linux, and iPad on June 15. Told from a first-person perspective, the game follows the protagonist on a trek through Spiegel national park as she searches for pieces of a secret map. Players wander across a barren map of the park by clicking and holding their mouse, which causes a dotted line to trace their movements, similar to the traveling sequences in the Indiana Jones films. Various landmarks are sketched in as the player discovers them, some of which can be further investigated, revealing objects and characters to interact with.

You'll collect a plethora of items while searching for the missing map pieces, but your interactions with the world are more about unfolding layers of the story than solving puzzles. That's not a bad thing, as Alone in the Park's main appeal lies in its writing, which is composed mostly of your encounters with the game's characters. Dialog is handled by simply dragging items and pictures of NPCs from your inventory to the onscreen character, at which point the conversation plays out on the left-hand page.

Each character you come across embodies a humorous stereotype: an extreme sports-loving rock climber, a flaky spiritual healer, etc. The protagonist exhibits the most well-rounded and relatable personality, which is slowly fleshed out by her irreverent descriptions of the characters she meets and her responses during conversations. Whether I was trying to fan the flames of passion between a business-obsessed yuppie on a fishing trip and a gothic LARPer or appease a particularly shrewd child who the protagonist is irrationally afraid of, the three- to four-hour narrative (not to mention the particularly humorous theme song, performed by Neil) provided a decent amount of chuckles.

To learn more about Alone in the Park and what it's like being an indie developer, we spoke with Katharine Neil, who shared her thoughts on her inspirations, the current state of gaming, and her upcoming projects.

You mentioned that you're a former triple-A developer. Where have you worked, and what made you decide to create your own indie studio?
"Studio" is a bit of an optimistic word for what I'm doing – but yes, I am trying these days to work on games independently, outside the constraints of the mainstream industry. I've worked in a few different places, starting out at Melbourne House in Australia, then briefly at Eden Games and Hydravision in France and a couple of stints at Tantalus back in Australia. Nothing very glamorous I'm afraid, though racing fans may remember Le Mans 24 Hours on Dreamcast – I was the sound designer for that.

It's been my goal to work independently for quite some time. It's not because I don't enjoy working on teams (in fact I really miss that aspect). Primarily, it's about having the space to hone my craft as a game designer. These days designers in large studios can find themselves working on quite a narrow range of specific tasks. Not only that, they have to sign IP clauses in their contracts that make it very difficult for them to work on personal projects in their own time. While this scientific management approach to running teams may be an efficient, risk-mitigated way of creating quality games, I question whether it's in the best interests of the designers themselves, in terms of their professional development. In my case, I'm hoping that having the freedom to take a few creative risks while exploring a variety of genres and design tasks will help me mature into the kind of designer I aspire to be.

Alone in the Park is an interesting blend of text adventure and graphic adventure. How did you settle upon the format?
It was mainly a practical decision. I'm not an artist, so the challenge for me was how to bring a game to life with minimal art. At the same time, I'm not an especially big fan of text adventures because I find the lack of visuals disorienting; I find it hard to understand where I am in the game world and how I can interact with it. So I had to find a way to use text but still cater to intolerant people like me, basically.

Are there any text adventure/graphic adventure games in particular that inspired you? Any works from other mediums?
I really enjoyed the Phoenix Wright series in the way they managed to update the adventure genre, though of course that's quite different to what I've done. It was really Touch Detective (also on DS) that gave me the idea to integrate the conversation system with the inventory. I liked the elegance of the way all items and conversation topics are lumped together and simply treated as "memories" that the player character can talk about or use depending on the context. I use the same idea: Conversation topics are either photographs or items in your inventory.

Alone in the Park is about exploring an ordinary national park and interacting with normal(ish) characters. What made you choose a realistic setting and characters?
I used the "go with what you know" principle. I've met some interesting and even strange individuals in my time, but never any elves or military commanders or what-have-you. I think other media – TV, film, books – do a good job of showing that you can get good mileage from the odd little moments in everyday life without always having to aim for the extraordinary. That's especially true for comedy, I think.

The NPCs epitomize different humorous stereotypes. Are they based on individuals you know in real life, or are they more amalgams? Which character was the most fun to write?
Most characters are amalgams of individuals I've known. I would never dream of naming names, of course, but if you waterboarded me, I would eventually give in and reveal about two or three names of real people that have inspired each character. In the case of one particular NPC, some of the dialog contains direct quotes from real life (luckily, the person concerned is unlikely to be a gamer).

I think I had the most fun doing Wayne, because I ended up using him as a vehicle for some rather poor taste double entendres and it amuses me to think that I might get away with them. I'm simply too under-the-radar to be the subject of a twitter pile-on. Obscurity has its benefits.

The character you play as also has her own personality, which slowly surfaces as she shares her thoughts on characters and situations. How much of the narrator is based on your own personality? Or did you write her as a separate, fictional character?
She's fictional, but yes, you're right – her voice is quite similar to my own. It was just easier to maintain consistency of style that way. I'm not as damaged as her in real life (I hope), but I did channel some of the less-positive aspects of my personality into her and exaggerated them. So in that sense I'm either refreshingly self-aware – or appallingly narcissistic.

You also wrote and performed all of the songs and vocals for the game. What is your musical background? Is it a hobby you decided to put to good use, or have you played professionally? The theme song was especially hilarious.
I consider myself to be a survivor of the conservatoire system, where I studied piano and composition, and then electronic music. I eventually had what I guess you'd describe as a bit of a breakdown, and I've been one of your classic underachievers ever since. My piano lecturer would say to me that nobody would take me seriously as an artist if I always played the class clown (imagine that said in a dramatic Romanian accent). I probably should've taken that as a sign that I was more suited to a life of arsing about than performing Mozart concertos.

Coming Up Next: Neil discusses her future projects, next-gen consoles, and her thoughts on the future of the industry...

Do you have any plans for a sequel or another adventure game in the same style as Alone in the Park?
Yes, as a matter of fact I do have another adventure game in the works. It's in the same format and using the same player character, but it's a bit more ambitious in narrative scope and visual presentation.

The narrator finds herself tangled up with the events surrounding the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN on the Franco-Swiss border. I've lived in France for the last few years, and it's given me the opportunity to observe some strange and sometimes hilarious things about European things (I call this phenomenon "Euroweird").

The game is a bit science fictiony with '60s overtones, and one of the main themes of the game is the monstrosity of computing and technology – how grotesque and frightening it was before we tamed it and turned it into benign little iPods. And I'm planning on revisiting my old Moog patching days and making some outrageously over-the-top prog synth rock for the soundtrack (think Emerson Lake & Palmer, Tangerine Dream, etc.).

On Twitter, you stated your next project is going to be action-based. Can you tell us anything about it? What the premise is or what platforms you intend to develop for?
Yes, actually my current project is very different – in fact, it's going to be completely wordless. It does have narrative, but the story's structure and the way it is unlocked will be quietly unusual.

The setting is a distorted apartment building in which time, space, and narrative are interlinked in surprising ways. The core gameplay is top-down action where you have a single weapon, which you use to interact with something that I'm currently describing as a sort of "time jelly." I've managed to rope in an excellent graphic novelist/animator to collaborate with. We will probably be making an announcement about the project with a bunch of details in the coming months. Oh, and it'll be for PC.

Have you been following the announcements of the PS4 and Xbox One? What do you think of them so far?
I've been on the road the last few weeks and less online than I usually am, so I've missed a lot of the discussion. But from what I've heard there's some reason for small, emerging indies to be optimistic about getting games onto the PS4, but not so much on the Xbox One. Developing for console as an indie isn't something I've really considered as a possibility yet – it just seems so intimidating. I have memories from the bad old days when it felt like a huge, expensive undertaking, with badly documented APIs and tools. And lumbering great development kits that pumped out hot air (on rainy days I used to hang my jacket over my PS2 development kit to dry, which was handy).

When you consider the future of the industry and where game development is headed, what excites you most? What worries you most?
It's exciting for me that indie gaming is finally a thing, no longer just a dream. There's an audience now, it's educated and curious, and it seems to be growing. Gaming culture is becoming more diverse. 

But I'm worried that we won't be seeing game development itself becoming as diverse (I'm talking about the commercial industry here). Not when your typical aspiring developer now seems to need a bespoke game-development degree and the ability to undertake unpaid internships in order to get a job. If that had been the case when I started in the industry, I wouldn't be talking to you now. So I think that's one of the downsides to games becoming cool and arty – now game development is seen as a glamour job; and as we all know, glamour jobs are like catnip to white middle-class kids with trust funds. And generally frustratingly hard for the rest of us to access.

Anything else you want to share with our readers?
Yes. Wear clean clothes, brush your teeth and shower at least once a day. Anyone you date who demands more personal grooming than that really ought to be paying you.

Alone in the Park will be available on PC, Mac, Linux, and iPad on June 15. Learn more about the game at the official website.