GZ Interview: Executive Producer Ken Embery Takes GameZone into the Shire to Visit The Hobbit

Executive Producer Ken Embery Takes
GameZone into the Shire to Visit The Hobbit

By Michael Lafferty

"We think gameplayers will appreciate the fantastic look of
the game and the quick entry into the action"

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." – so begins the
opening chapter of arguably one of the most important pieces of fantasy
literature of the 20th century.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkien was first
published in 1937 and since then has enthralled generations, proved the focal
point for a genre to weave stories around, and in general, was a very good read.
Written for his children, the tale of Bilbo Baggins gave way to a more adult
series of books, beginning with The Lord of the Rings.

There have been attempts in the past to capitalize on the books
with games, but until the past several years, there has never truly been the
capabilities to bring the story to life in an interactive manner as currently
exists.

With the release of the critically acclaimed films based on the
Tolkien trilogy, and video games that mirrored the onscreen action, it stood to
reason that soon someone would release a game based on Bilbo’s amazing
adventures to discover the ring, and to the cave of Smaug.

On November 11, Vivendi Universal will be releasing a
multiplatform adventure called The Hobbit. Boasting interactive
three-dimensional environments, the game is a combination of action-adventure,
role-playing and puzzle solving.

Ken Embery, Executive Producer at Vivendi Universal Games took
GameZone on a tour of the Shire.

Question: The Hobbit is the pivotal story in the entire saga
of Middle-earth. Tolkien, by all accounts, began the tale on the back of a paper
he was supposedly grading. It was a tale intended for his children and yet, it
came to be so much more. With that is mind, does this game carry that same
flavor in terms of being suitable for children and yet, carrying the themes and
adventure that have also appealed to adults?

Ken: We made it our goal to stay as close to the story
and appeal of the book as possible, while still creating a game that was fun and
exciting to play. We think we achieved that goal. The game has something for
players of all ages—it’s highly action-oriented with a good balance of combat,
exploration, character interaction, and puzzle-solving. Plus, all the memorable
scenes from the book are built into the game in one way or another.

Q: In creating a game based on Tolkien’s works and
Middle-earth, what were the most important elements to keep in mind? Are there
any rules that you had to adhere to in making this game?

Ken: The privilege of working in Mr. Tolkien’s
Middle-earth does come with major responsibilities to the license, including
some quite challenging rules for the game designers. For example, one rule was
to "avoid gratuitous violence." In order to make sure we met this requirement,
our developer, Inevitable Entertainment, had to really think outside the game
design sandbox to make instances of required combat (such as boss encounters)
reasonable
and necessary. For example, it’s reasonable and necessary
to fight very obviously evil enemies to save your friends, but you don’t
always
have to fight to progress in the game. In fact, sometimes you might
do better to avoid combat.

Q: Everyone has ideas of what Middle-earth is, or looks like.
From the artwork of the Hildebrandt Brothers to the recent movies, this is a
land that has had numerous interpretations. Where did your inspiration come
from? How did you come upon a design for Bilbo, Gandalf, the ‘unexpected party,’
Gollum, Smaug and the rest? What game engine did you use and what did it allow
you to accomplish in regards to the look of this game?

Ken: Inspiration came from a very broad collection of
artists, most of whom would fall into the categories of ‘fantasy’ or ‘comic
book.’ One thing we knew we did NOT want to do was echo the look of all the
other Lord of the Rings related games that were starting development at the same
time we were. We wanted to create something unique, and define our own whimsical
style. Designs for Bilbo and all the other characters came from a long
collaboration between the developer (Inevitable Entertainment), VUG and
representatives of Tolkien Enterprises. The engine used is a proprietary
creation of Inevitable, and allows us to present a rich tapestry of graphic and
particle effects and a ton of AI characters interacting on screen at the same
time. For example, during the Battle of Five Armies sequence, it elegantly
renders a war between Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Wargs and Goblins.

Q: Are there any other playable characters other than Bilbo?
Does this game have multiplayer capabilities?

Ken: The Hobbit is a single-player game which sets you
firmly in the furry feet of Bilbo Baggins. There are no other playable
characters, although you interact extensively with all the other popular
characters from the book in a combination of gameplay, storytelling page-turn
scenes or gorgeous, pre-rendered movie sequences.

Q: How closely does this game follow the adventure outlined
in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again? Obviously to recreate the entire book
would result in a game that was huge. Were any shortcuts taken?

Ken: The arc of the game follows Mr. Tolkien’s story as
much as was possible. You’re absolutely correct. There are places in the book
that, if recreated in entirety, would result in a huge and, frankly, less active
game. If you’ve read The Hobbit, you’ll remember there was a great deal of
history and scene description, and not a lot of action in many areas. We took a
few shortcuts by presenting such areas in narrated "page-turns", so that the
game sort of ‘hurries through history’ until you reach another point where Bilbo
can become active again. We also added a few detours and side-trips for Bilbo to
improve the overall balance of action and story, but otherwise followed the book
quite closely.

Q: Of course, when following a book, people would expect that
you can only go from point A to point B in a rather rigid way. There is a
beginning to the tale, and an end to the tale with predetermined stopping points
along the way. Obviously such a linear path is not conducive to replayability in
a game. How have you dealt with that?

Ken: Although the story itself is obviously linear, we’ve
provided lots of side-quests, secret chests of goodies and other hidden items
that are not part of the main path, and some of them really improve
Bilbo’s skills and abilities. All the secrets and goodies you find are displayed
on an end-of-chapter "Summary Screen," so unless you’ve been a very diligent
explorer you may not have found them all. Finding all the items in the game is
something that we think will provide quite a bit of replayability.

Q: Does this game feature an original soundtrack? If so, who
is responsible for that portion of the game? Does the game feature vocal acting
and narration? What kind of sound were you going for in this
regard, and how did you realize it in the end product?

Ken: Yes, the game has an original soundtrack, composed
by RedNote Audio (formerly known as Slackmates) from Raleigh, North Carolina.
This soundtrack includes recording in Seattle with a full orchestra. We went to
Los Angeles for our narrator and voice actors, and used many of the finest
character actors in the business. Our plan was to integrate the audio into the
events of the game, so you’ll find that here and there Bilbo will make
exclamations that may provide you with clues as to what to do next, or you’ll
hear an ominous musical theme begin as a hint that danger is nearby. As a whole,
we feel that we succeeded in providing a rich and varied audio canvas – -the
music is sweeping, the voices are top cabin, and the sound effects integrated
with the action.

Q: What is your history in regards to Tolkien’s works?

Ken: Everyone on the team has read The Hobbit, and most
have read the Lord of the Rings trilogy more than once. A few of us are even
well-read enough to know what the runes in the game manual translate to. No
matter what our level of experience with Tolkien’s literature, we all find it an
extremely exciting license to work with, and of course, we work hand-in-hand
with Tolkien Enterprises representatives to keep us on track with its exacting
standards.

Q: What aspects of this game do you think will have the most
impact on gameplayers initially? What posed the greatest challenge in making
this game?

Ken: We think gameplayers will appreciate the fantastic
look of the game and the quick entry into the action. But, the most impact will
come from simply being Bilbo Baggins in his first ever "grand adventure!"
Of course, this was also our greatest challenge – how to make Bilbo a hero that
consumers would really enjoy playing. Working with our Tolkien scholars, we
figured out many ways that Bilbo could be heroic without disturbing the main
storyline, and implemented them in ways that made sense within the Tolkien
universe.

Q: This game is porting to many different platforms. Are
there any fundamental differences between the ports? Which was the toughest
platform to code for and why?

Ken: There are no substantial differences between the
platforms, although I should note here that the GBA version was not a
port and thus is extremely different. All platforms presented unique and
challenging technical problems. The PS2 probably required the most thought and
effort.