Cognition interview

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller Interview with Katie Hallahan

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller was a game that left us with with as many questions as it did answers. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to speak with Katie Hallahan of Phoenix Online Studios about the game and their studio!

Tell us about yourself!

I’m Katie Hallahan, PR Director for Phoenix Online Studios. I’m also one of the designers of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, and also of our King’s Quest fangame, The Silver Lining.

Katie Hallahan, PR Director for Phoenix Online Studios
Katie Hallahan.

Can you bring us to the early beginnings of Phoenix Online Studios and shed some light on how it has evolved into what it is today?

Katie: We’ve got quite an interesting and unique backstory, actually!

Way back in 2000, a group of King’s Quest fans got together who were not at all satisfied with the series ending with Mask of Eternity. Sierra was closed, adventure games were supposedly dead, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and make their own sequel! There was a lot of passion, but unfortunately, no one really knew how to make a video game, and this was all volunteer work, done in people’s spare time, so it was hard to make a lot of progress. In 2002, Cesar Bittar and Richard Flores took over as the project directors and that was really when production on what would become The Silver Lining began. Myself, I joined in late 2002 as a staff writer and became co-designer not too long after. And then we spent the next eight years learning how to make a game in our spare time! Along the way, we also received not one, but two Cease & Desist orders from the IP holders. The first was in 2005, from Vivendi, but our fans proved how awesome they are by rallying to the cause—they sent letters, signed petitions, emailed, called, you name it, and in the end, we were able to work out a fan license with Vivendi!

We kept working on the game—in 2009, we decided to make it episodic, and then as we were getting ready to finally release Episode 1, we ran into C&D Number 2, this time from Activision, as the IP had changed hands. So when we first came to them saying we’re ready to release, they had no idea who we were. But amazingly, lightning struck twice, our fans came to our aid again with an incredible show of support, and we once again were able to work out a fan license agreement. And then we finally released Episode 1 in July 2010!

Episodes 2-4 were released over the next year and a half, and meanwhile, the directors started talking about making the move into commercial games. In 2011 a lot of pieces fell into place to make that jump possible. In March 2011, a few of us were very lucky to be invited by Jane Jensen (who had played The Silver Lining, and was impressed by it) and her husband Robert Holmes to visit them at their beautiful farm. It was a fantastic weekend, and of course we spent a lot of time talking about Sierra, Gabriel Knight, Gray Matter, and the possibility of working together on a project. A few months later, in June 2011, we met with Khaeon Gamestudio at E3 about some really great art assets they had from a game that hadn’t been completed, but they felt the art was unique and could be used for something.  Cesar and I wrote out a completely new story that reused some of those scenes and characters, most notably FBI Agent Erica Reed. Jane agreed to be our Story Consultant, and in October 2011, we launched a Kickstarter to get funding for the game! A month and a half later, we had raised a little over $34,000 (which was quite a lot for a Kickstarter in the pre-Double Fine days!), and in January 2012, we began full-time production.

Cognition Episode 1 - Erica Red and John
Erica and her partner in crime(-fighting), John.

Tell us about your latest game, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller.

Katie: Cognition is a point & click adventure game, starring Erica Reed, a Boston-based FBI Agent with a mysterious power and a tragic past. She has the ability to touch objects and see visions of the past–very handy in her line of work! However, three years ago, she lost her brother Scott to the Cain Killer, a serial killer who targets siblings, and who was never caught. Now, the case has been closed, with the Cain Killer believed to have died, and Erica’s on a new case with her partner, John McCoy, the only person who knows about her ability. Her life is a bit of a mess—her inability to save her brother Scott still haunts her and her “intuition” is getting stronger and harder for her to control. This new case quickly proves to be very different when Erica starts finding clues that were left very specifically for her, things that only she can find because of her post-cognition powers. This gives Erica a much more personal mystery to solve: who knows about her, and how? And what do they want with her?

Cognition is a 4-part episodic series, and each episode focuses on a different serial killer that Erica needs to track down. In the first episode, The Hangman, the player investigates this brutal hanging—finding clues, following leads, interrogating witnesses and trying to uncover who the victim was and finding some surprising answers. You also learn different ways to use Erica’s power over the course of the first episode, which we continue to expand on in later episodes as well. And by the end of the first episode, the case becomes extremely personal when people close to Erica are put in danger. She’s determined not to let what happened to Scott happen again—even if it costs her life—and this is a theme that builds through the series as she gets more and more wrapped up in the case.

What motivated your team to create a game like Cognition?

Katie: We love point & click adventure games, so sticking with what we know and love

The Phoenix Online Studios team at the Game Developers Conference.
The Phoenix Online Studios team at the Game Developers Conference.

was a no-brainer. TSL was point & click, and we all grew up loving the P&C adventures from Sierra and LucasArts. The emphasis on story and character is right up our alley, and overall, we’ve been thrilled to be part of the adventure game renaissance that’s happening now.

As for the genre and style, both were heavily decided on by the look established by Romano Molenaar, our Art Director for the project. He’s an incredibly talented comics artist who’s worked on Batman, Birds of Prey, The Darkness, and X-Men among others, and he had done the art on the assets we acquired from Khaeon. They had a great comic book style, and a gloomy noir look that we loved, so keeping that look and going with the graphic novel style and cel-shaded characters was an easy decision.

The art also naturally affected the shape the story took, too. Erica Reed was established as an FBI Agent in those assets, which we kept as well. From there, Cesar and I drew inspiration from TV shows, movies, and games we’ve really enjoyed that had similar atmospheres: Dexter, Fringe, Heavy Rain, and 24 were high on the list. Some twisted Saw-like traps and a touch of procedural elements like you’d see in CSI, and we had Cognition!

And I think after working on a King’s Quest fangame for ten years, we were ready to throw ourselves into something more adult, honestly!

Why have you chosen to release Cognition episodically?

We were originally inspired to try the episodic structure based on the Telltale model–Cesar used to work there, in fact. We originally conceived of The Silver Lining as a single, whole game, but then considered if it was possible to split it up into pieces, and found that it actually made a lot of sense and we easily had five episodes built into the story already. It didn’t much tweaking to fully adapt it, and it was really perfect for TSL in the end. Since that work was all being done in our spare time, we might still be working on it now if we hadn’t decided to break it up into episodes and had those more manageable deadlines to work with. Since that worked out so well, we right away wanted to go the same route with Cognition.

Episodic is great for a lot of reasons. You get to build the story arcs in a way that allows for multiple cliffhangers and hooks. The multiple releases give you a multiple opportunities to bring attention to the game, rather than only having that magic of a release day once and that’s all. You have the opportunity to factor in feedback on the earlier episodes into the later ones. And in the case of a commercial game, the sales from the previous episodes can help fund the later ones.

Personally, I also love the idea of building to a finale of a story over time. Everyone gets excited for finales.

In what ways do you feel Cognition innovates within the point-and-click adventure genre?

Katie: Erica’s powers of post-cognition are the really new aspect in Cognition, and it’s been a lot of fun working that into the design. We’ve put a lot of effort into not just developing what powers she has, but in using them to support the puzzles and the story, give the player a new way to interact with the setting and characters. At the same time, just because Erica can see the past doesn’t mean she easily gets access to all the answers. Erica’s power of regression, for example, allows her to interact with someone’s memories; Episode 1 has a fantastic puzzle Cesar designed where you need to help someone remember a particular evening in order to find a vital clue he’s forgotten. So Erica needs to dig into his past using her investigation skills in addition to her powers to help him remember.

As well, we’re one of the few companies using the episodic model, which is still new. I think we’ll start seeing more games that use it, though, especially after the success of The Walking Dead.

Cognition - The Wise Monkey
Catch Erica Reed in action in the second installment of the series, The Wise Monkey.

What does the future hold for Cognition and Erica Reed?

Katie: A good question! We’re getting great reviews and feedback on the first two episodes, and working to take that feedback into consideration as we finish up Episodes 3 and 4, which will release in the coming months. We love Erica, her story could definitely extend into more games in the future, but our focus right now is wrapping up Cognition. We’re planning to launch the series on the iPad this month, and we’re very excited for that.  And of course, we would love to get the game onto Steam!


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