“We make the kind of games that we’d love to play. They are small games, but crafted with passion and care, as if we were videogame artisans,” laughs Pendulo Studios’ writer Josué Monchan when asked to define what it is that makes Pendulo stand out from the crowd. “Paraphrasing Jane Austen,” he continues, “our games are just “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.”” As an introduction to the Madrid-based developer -– point-and-click adventure game auteurs and the minds behind the million-selling Runaway series and The Next BIG Thing – Monchan’s statement rings sincere and true.
From an outsider looking in at least, Pendulo’s catalogue of games have an ingrained identity to them -- whether it’s the superb cartoonish look of its now highly distinctive art style, or the playful humour injected right under the skin of typically edgy themes and issues –- that speak for a studio largely dismissive of current gaming trends, but rather a studio that does what it does for the love of making games. Pure and simple.
Their latest, Yesterday, is described as an 'original and dark thriller' set in New York City that unfurls a mystery in which beggars are disappearing off the streets of the Big Apple and strange Y-shaped scars present themselves in the palms of seemingly unrelated people. With police ill-concerned about the plight of NYC's degenerates, it's down to young and rich heir Henry White (one of three playable characters) to investigate the disappearances. As Monchan explains more succinctly than we ever could, “Yesterday is a story about our era, and it has the word CRISIS spelled all over the scenario, the sceneries and the gameplay. It’s all about the moral decay of our society, the morbidity, the insanity and the sickness that pollutes our society. People live in the street and die because of economic decisions and we’re all so comfortable living among lies that it takes either a fool or a hero to unveil it.”
Heavy stuff, indeed, but as Monchan elaborates, it was the challenge of taking on a heavier-handed game both thematically and tonally that ultimately led the team to Yesterday. “The idea of Yesterday came precisely when we were finishing Runaway: A Twist of Fate, which was our darker game so far, even if it was primarily a comedy. The style [in Yesterday] has changed considerably from our previous releases. Even if it's cartoon all the way, it could be called 'pain cartoon'; lines are broken and cut-edged, colours are not so bright, the shapes not so round... It's as if the de-constructed narrative had influenced the visuals. Yesterday still has the graphic Pendulo touch, but this time it's been twisted, tortured, crooked. We have already proved that we have a knack for humour but, [can] we succeed in making a real thriller with a dark meaning? We are 100% sure that we’ve done it.”
That dark thriller, however, doesn’t entirely dismiss humour out of hand. As Monchan reveals, the satirical-branded humour that has proved so consistent across Pendulo’s portfolio is still very much alive and well, unlike many of Yesterday’s more unfortunate cast. “We’ve kept it, but it has changed a lot too. It’s not a funny kind of humour anymore, if you get my drift. It’s dark, sarcastic and bitter. From perverted clerk Albert (“10% cheaper if I can watch”) to cynical amnesiac John (“Don’t stop: my brain’s got lots of free space for your story.”) There’s a lot of black humour throughout the game.”
And with it, like all great adventure games, Yesterday isn't just your average run-of-the-mill story with a few, cursory puzzles on top. Instead, it's wrapped up in a mystery so complex and deeply-engrained that it leads Monchan to reference everything from the island-hopping TV show Lost, Watchmen, Philip K Dick novels and Chris Nolan’s Memento as inspirations. Sound implausible? Allow him to explain; “Nothing is what it seems at first sight. Think of it as a Lost sort of narrative, where the past memories of the characters influence the present and the future, and add different layers of truth that do not seem to match,” he informs us assertively, tantalisingly.
“In that sense, we’ve coined a brand-new language that mixes games, cinema and graphic novels: viginettes appear over the background transforming it and breaking the narrative, already broken by numerous flashbacks. Alan Moore’s wonderful Watchmen was very helpful for us in that sense, though we also used Philip Dick’s novels and films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento in order to manage multiple perspectives and time deconstruction. And of course, Lost again, but there’s one point where Yesterday is better than that wonderful show: at the end, you really understand what has happened!”
And yet the greatest challenge lay, rather surprisingly, not in concocting a multi-stranded narrative wrapped up in mystery, intrigue and shady characters; or indeed ensuring each of the four alternate endings –- described as “the icing on the cake for players” by Monchan -- remained believable, consistent and true to the tone of the story. In fact, it wasn’t anything to do with the construction of plot at all, but instead that which most players take for granted in point-and-click adventures: the puzzles. For the team previously attuned to the habit of designing brain-teasers in order to raise a smile (from monkeys that drink beer, to old men who believe that a ping pong table is a Cadillac), accounting for a switch in the feel of the game was something that took a bit of getting used to. “We were so used to making puzzles that worked because they were funny, so we had to get rid of a lot of absurd puzzles that came to us out of habit,” Monchan recalls, probably not too fondly. “I mean, changing the narrative tone, the cinematic language and the graphic style has not been easy, but how does it translate to puzzles and gameplay? With a lot of sweat!”
“Eventually, we've explored new ways to pose obstacles to the player, and we're happy with the results. [The result is] we've changed the game mechanics and ergonomics a lot, in order to adapt it to the modern player. Our agile interface needs just one click (or tap, depending on the platform). All transition moments have been cut, saved games are generated automatically and frustration has been removed from the equation thanks to two different tools that help the player if s/he gets blocked.”
With what promise to be sound improvements and general enhancements across the board implemented by the 12-person studio, Yesterday certainly seems to be shaping up to be a truly memorable, confident and engrossing adventure for players to be enveloped into. The question remains in our mind though: has Yesterday got what it takes to become Pendulo's next big, million-selling trilogy?
With so much effort and energy poured into its diverse cast of characters (including Satanism expert John Yesterday, tough-nut Sam Cooper and tormented soul Pauline Petit), its multifaceted labyrinthine storyline and indeed the gameplay mechanics, a Part 2 and 3 can't be too far away... “Yesterday tells the birth of a hero. If it were a TV series, it would be the pilot episode,” Monchan tells us, more truthfully than we had anticipated. “John, Henry, Samuel and Pauline get caught in a plot that they can't escape from, so their story has just begun. If players like the game, then we'll be happy to spend another year or more in their company...” Whether it gets the three-chapter series the studio so deserves (and why wouldn't it from the looks of it), one thing is for sure: we'll be backing them all the way.