Interview: Phoenix Online Studios On Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, A Compelling Murder Mystery
Welcome to the next eGamer interview where we’ll be taking an in-depth look at Phoenix Online Studios’ indie adventure game, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The game, in a nutshell, is a murder mystery story centered around FBI agent Erica Reed, who has a strange ability to see the past of objects she touches. If you want to know more, be sure to read the interview. We recently got in contact with Phoenix Online Studios’ Katie Hallahan, who was kind enough to give us this interview as well as jointly answer our lengthy questions with CEO and fellow game designer Cesar Bittar.
Check out the full interview down below if you’re keen.
eGamer: Thank you, Phoenix Online Studios, for taking the time to do this interview with us. We like starting off with a little introduction, so could you tell us a little about yourselves and your studio? What notable projects have your team members worked on before?
KH: I’m Katie Hallahan, the PR Director for Phoenix, as well as one of the designers of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. Cognition is our first commercial product, but before that we developed The Silver Lining, a King’s Quest fangame (available for free at our website, www.tsl-game.com) that has a rather interesting history. We’ve released 4 out of the 5 episodes of that game, and we’ve worked on it for about ten years now, including overcoming two cease & desists in that time.
CB: I’m Cesar Bittar, CEO of the company and also designer and producer for Cognition. Phoenix Online was born of the idea of making great games based on story and characters. We certainly love the adventure genre and so you are going to see a few games like these coming from our repertoire in the future. We’re definitely always open to collaborating with others, as is the case with one of our current projects, Jane Jensen’s Moebius.
eGamer: For those who are new to the project, can you tell us what Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller is about?
KH: Cognition is about Erica Reed, a Boston FBI Agent, with the mysterious power of post-cognition, which lets her touch things and see visions of the past. She’s also haunted by the death of her brother, Scott, three years ago at the hands of a killer who was never caught. Erica is always hoping she’ll someday find the man who killed Scott, but she’s getting nowhere with her search. In Episode 1: The Hangman, she and her partner John McCoy are called to the crime scene of an unidentified man who was hung in a very brutal manner. As they investigate this murder, Erica finds clues that are being left behind that only she can uncover due to her power, and now she also has to figure out who knows about her and what she can do, and why they’re leaving these clues for her.
CB: Although many might see Cognition as a complete departure from our work on The Silver Lining, it actually has a lot of the same touch. The emotional connection to the characters is I think what mostly defines Katie and myself when we are writing, and so, the story of Erica is a lot like Graham’s in The Silver Lining, an emotional roller coaster.
eGamer: Now for my trademark question. What would you say is the biggest reason to play Cognition?
KH: It’s a great mystery that will hook you in, and Erica is a really interesting and complex lead character. We’ve plotted the mystery and her development carefully for the four Episodes, and every time we give you answers, we make sure they come with a load of new questions! There are a number of twists, you don’t always know who you can trust or what’s really going on, but there are always clues to follow and leads to investigate to uncover the truth. Erica’s a great character—she’s tough and stubborn, intelligent, dedicated, but she’s got her flaws. She can be kind of a bitch to people who don’t really deserve it, and she finds it very hard to open up to people. She has a lot of scars from her past and they’re very relevant to what she’s going through now.
CB: If you like stories based on character development, this is a story for you. If you like to watch shows like Dexter or the recent The Following, you’ll find yourself right at home. And aside from the story, if you want some great mechanics to play with, Cognition also has them. Most people have said that the Cognition power and how they work separate this game from other adventure games our there, and so I would recommend that you try it and see how awesome it can be. We have a demo that can be downloaded from our site at www.cognitiongame.com for you to give it a go and decide for yourself!
eGamer: For a little bit of background, tell us how this project came to life? What was your vision for Cognition?
CB: Cognition was passed down from the idea of a project when we started working with Romano Molenaar, the Art Director for the project. Then the project completely came to us, and we took the inspiration of Romano’s Erica and added a story to her. We wanted to make it gritty. Katie and I are fans of a number of the same shows, and also a few games like Heavy Rain, and so we knew we wanted to go all the way there, and not hold back. The result is something very gritty, but at the same time very emotional, and the world of Erica Reed is a very interesting one to explore.
eGamer: Can you give us a solid overview of the gameplay?
KH: It’s classic point-and-click adventure game for the most part. You talk to people, follow up leads, investigate crime scenes, collect items, and so forth. There are a few time action-like sequences, but they’re kept fairly simple and adventure-gamer-friendly. The biggest added gameplay feature is the cognition interface, and how you use Erica’s powers on the environment and people around her. With post-cognition, she can touch items or people, and she sees a flash of the past—something that happened in this place, or something that person is remembering. She also learns new ways to use it that are more involved: projection, for example, involves using three items in an area that were there when a certain event happened, and using them to recreate that memory. Regression is the ability that lets her interact with people’s memories—she not only sees what they remember, she can help them recall things they thought they had forgotten, too. It’s really an interesting twist on interacting with the game world and in searching for clues to solve this mystery before her.
CB: Like I said before, a lot of people seem to love the Cognition interface. I particularly like a puzzle in Episode 1 where you have to reconstruct a person’s memory to help him remember a detail that is vital to the investigation. Through questioning and the use of Erica’s ability, Erica goes through a very complex, multi-step puzzle that is as every bit satisfying to solve as it is to explore.
eGamer: What were your major sources of inspiration for Cognition? What helped bring it to life?
KH: Obviously, we’re adventure game fans, so the Sierra games of our youth were huge inspirations. But for the genre and general mood of Cognition, we were particularly inspired by, as Cesar said, Heavy Rain, Dexter, and also shows like Fringe, and 24. We’ve got a similar look and feel as the recent The Walking Dead game, too, which we love–although Cognition was already well into development before we’d seen any images from TWD, so that’s more of a happy coincidence.
CB: I will always look at things that emotionally involve me in a story. I also like to have a bit of a challenge even if minimal. So there are games out there that will always inspire me such as Dreamfall, The Longest Journey, The Walking Dead, and recently, I played To The Moon and that will stay with me. For Cognition specifically, I think it’s not hard to go back all the way to Seven to find the root of all inspiration for something like this.
eGamer: The point and click adventure genre is thriving right now, especially in the indie scene. What would you say Cognition is doing to make it stand out from the pack? What makes it unique?
CB: Being able to connect with the community is very important. And Cognition has always been a “community” project from the beginning with our Kickstarter campaign that raised almost 35 thousand dollars. The fact that is episodic, allows us to read what people want, and to really act on it for future episodes. I think that being affected so much by what we read from the community is something that will make Cognition very special. I like to say “we are here, listening, talk to us”.
KH: Gameplay-wise, the cognition powers are definitely what makes us stand out. I also think we’ve put together a very strong story and compelling, complex female lead protagonist—and while that’s something you see more of now, Erica still stands out from the crowd. I also think our production values are very good for an indie game. As well, we’re one of the first successful video game Kickstarters from before the Double Fine Adventure to release our product.
eGamer: What can you tell us about the story of the game?
CB: Cognition’s story was penned one furious night of writing after discussing the story over and over for weeks. I particularly always like to give stories some sort of meaning, and Cognition’s heart of the story deals with some fundamental deals with concepts that can be morally grey. It questions good and evil, and everything in between. It’s also a story of letting go, as Erica’s obsessions with her brother’s death, who is killed in the introductory sequence to the game, will haunt her through the whole series to the point where we even get to question the choices she make.
eGamer: For those who are new to it, tell us, is Cognition episodic? Is each episode a completely new story, or do they follow on traditionally, and/or tie together?
KH: There is an overarching story going that stretches through all four Episodes, but each one also has a contained story that focuses on a specific serial killer, which is where each episode gets its name.
CB: Cognition episode 1 and 2 can seem stand alone in their own way. Once you reach and beat episode 3, you will see how they are not :)
eGamer: How does each episode differ in gameplay and scope? More specifically, what changes or improves across the episodes in terms of gameplay
KH: The gameplay is the same from one episode to the next, although we do add to Erica’s powers. In Episode 1, she starts off with regular post-cognition, and then she learns regression and projection. In Episode 2, she learns Synergy, which is used by combining inventory items that have been in the same place at the same time. The story in each episode focuses on Erica’s pursuit of a specific serial killer, but also moves the larger story forward, and as we get further along, the game will focus in more on that bigger storyline as it builds up to the finale.
CB: As I said before, because we get the chance to talk to our fans in between, we are able to improve on areas of the gameplay. We are also looking for balance between story and puzzles. Cognition episode 1 was a very long episode and therefore, I think that made it suffer from not being “tight” enough. Episode 2 is tighter and therefore shorter, and even though some people have mentioned it’s a shorter experience, I think we hit a sweet spot with it, where we don’t let it wander and things continue to progress. On the subject of actual gameplay, every episode introduces a new “power”, so things are always fresh.
eGamer: When can we expect Episode 3 and 4 to be released? Alternatively, when will we be seeing more information?
CB: We are trying to keep them apart by weeks. Right now, we are dealing with both Moebius and Cognition so it’s hard to pin down a date, but I’d like to see Ep3 around end of March. We are going to do the playtest for the game this week, and from there it’s just polishing it all the way until it’s bug-free.
eGamer: I know you may be playing this a bit closely to the chest, but can you tell us what features we can expect to see in Episodes 3 and 4? I wouldn’t mind a little teaser.
KH: There will be some new powers you’ll get to use in those Episodes, although not in the way you might expect!
CB: In fact, there are two variations of Erica’s power in episode 3. One of them allows Erica to fully go into somebody’s subconscious in the past and therefore, we’ll get to play as a new character. It’s also a very different episode in feel. It’s a bit more akin to a murder mystery of the likes of Laura Bow. And I like that every episode has its own life, and its own voice. The 4th episode is all about resolutions and therefore is a very tense ride. I just finished writing it and I think people are going to be very thrilled by it.
eGamer: Purchasing the season pass of the game gets you access to all four episodes, the third and fourth still being in development. Tell us, will the series end at episode four or does the possibility exist to continue it? Would you want to, or is there a definite end in mind?
KH: There is a definite end for the story arc of these four episodes—which we’re calling “Season One” for a reason! There isn’t a set plan for a Season Two, it will depend on how Season One does, but we’re very interested in continuing Erica’s story. We’ve had some ideas of what we could do with it next, and there’s a lot we could do with both Erica and her powers.
CB: We built Cognition always having in mind being able to expand on it, so depending on how well the season does overall, we’d love to be able to come back for a new season. The “psion” lore of Cognition was created so that we can build upon it, and so there are many possibilities of where we can go next.
eGamer: Cognition has picked up a few indie awards on notable outlets, particularly getting renown for being a great adventure title. That’s awesome! Can you tell us a little about your journey to achieve this?
CB: Yeah, it’s awesome, and I’m very thankful to the community and the press alike that it has been received so well. As the head of the company, there’s nothing that makes me happier than see the work of our team being recognized. Our journey started with The Silver Lining, we’ve been doing this for a while, and we’ve learned to work as a team. Phoenix has the best team in the world, and one that works extremely hard to get things done the right way. We also listen to the community, what people want, we’ve learned from mistakes in our past, and I’ve never been shy from reading what people are saying, because I take it as a responsibility to make things better. So I think somewhere in there is the formula to a good recipe and one that I hope we continue to use through our next products.
eGamer: There are awards, and there are your personal thoughts of course. What are you most proud of with Cognition thus far? And what are you most excited about to show fans in future episodes?
CB: I think the intro is very good, I hold it very close to my heart because I wanted to have something very intense and we managed to pull it off. Then there are obviously very special moments through the game where the graphics, the atmosphere, the music, the puzzles all come together for a very gratifying experience. One of these moments is Robert’s memory puzzle in Episode 1. Another one is the end puzzle to Episode 2. For the future, I think that the whole “heart of the story” section we are going to reveal in Episode 3 will be very exciting, especially because how we are presenting it to the players, that’s one I hope we can pull off the way I imagined it in my head. For Episode 4, ask me later, once we put it together a bit more :)
eGamer: What’s in store for the future of Phoenix Online Studios? What comes after Cognition?
CB: We are working with Jane Jensen on Moebius. After that, we’ll be looking around for other projects to work on. And of course, we want to cater to our The Silver Lining crowd, so aside from wanting to finish the last episode of The Silver Lining, we have started to talk about The Endless Forest, which will be a fantastical adventure very similar to TSL. It was actually part of it, when TSL was a bigger beast, and we took it from it, and have been working on a original story for it. I think it’s going to be very cute, in a melancholic kind of way. Aside from that, I also have a sci-fi opera I’ve been working on for a while that questions the meaning of the soul in a debate between science and the spiritual. It’s called Corridor 9, and it starts a few characters that all play a very important role in the story.
eGamer: Did you guys make the lead character a female because a women’s “intuition” is superior to a man’s?
KH: Haha! No, it’s coincidence, that saying “a woman’s intuition” didn’t even occur us until someone mentioned it in a review once. Erica was set as the main character before we’d decided she was going to have this supernatural ability, and “intuition” was just a good word to use for it in the first part of Episode 1, before Erica herself really knows to call it. At that point, she knows it’s not normal, but she can’t control it very well, and she only knows one way to use it. We didn’t want her calling it “post-cognition’’ at that point, so we went with intuition instead.
That brings our extensive interview to a close. I hope you enjoyed reading through it, and that it at least got you interested in this game. It’s certainly looking promising if you’re up for an intriguing adventure game that will keep you busy and entertained. We’re currently playing through the first two episodes, and hopefully a review will be out soon. We can’t exactly give an estimate yet, but we’ll get there as soon as we can. I’d like to thank Katie and Cesar once again for taking the time to do this interview with us, as well as wish them all the best for the development of the next episodes. Keep an eye out.