Terrifying Prince Charles and making the first Welsh game on new-gen

Infinity Runner is a first-person auto-runner game, pitched up somewhere between Mirror’s Edge and Temple Run, I’d say. It’s set on a space station and, sometimes, your nude player-character turns into a werewolf who can wallrun. I’m a fan of this entire concept. But do you know what I’m an even bigger fan of? National artistic advancement.

This is why I’m excited to say that Infinity Runner, upon its release on 22nd April, will officially be the first game on new-gen made entirely in Wales. And if you want to quibble and say that a remastered port doesn’t really count, I’m happy to report that its developer, the presumptuously-named Wales Interactive, will have a brand new game – the intriguing Soul Axiom – out later this year, all but certainly securing their accolade for good.

What does it mean to bring an entire nation’s contribution to a medium up to date? What has that got to do with His Royal Highness Prince Charles? And what is Wales? I posed all of this and more to WI’s Managing Director, Dai Banner:

– Hello, Dai. What is Wales?

It’s the lumpy bit stuck onto the left side of the UK – I like to think of it as England’s beer belly. Here’s three facts about Wales, can you spot the one which isn’t made up?

– Tom Jones is our king.

– There are more sheep than people.

– It’s compulsory to play rugby.

– Trick question – they’re all true. Infinity Runner will be the first Welsh game to come to Xbox One – how has the country reacted?

Obviously the Welsh public have been uncontrollable in their elation and I’ve already seen first-hand Infinity Runner starting to influence Welsh culture. Only last week on a night out in Cardiff I saw a naked man running through the main street hurdling benches and sliding under cars, obviously this gentleman must have been a huge fan of the game and chose that night to pay homage to the lead character in Infinity Runner. In all seriousness, it’s a big deal to be the first game developed entirely in Wales to make it to Xbox One. Our aim is to put Wales on the game industry map and with us making the step up to the console market we’re doing just that. We are an ambitious, multi-award winning games studio whose pedigree continues to rise and Infinity Runner is an important step in establishing ourselves on the world stage. We are actually planning on releasing our second Xbox One title later this year, it’s a sci-fi adventure thriller called Soul Axiom, its already starting to turn heads on the indie gaming scene, keep an eye out for it in Q4 2015.

– Dylan Thomas. Manic Street Preachers. That lady off of Big Brother. Wales has a proud history of artistic excellence – what does Wales Interactive bring to the table?

I like to think we are continuing that proud history of artistic excellence and evolving it into the gaming field. We pride ourselves in being an unshackled independent developer making our own ideas exclusively from our Pencoed studio in South Wales. This includes all writing, design, programming, art, music, marketing and we even publish our own titles. We’ve actually won the BAFTA Cymru Games Artistic achievement award for the last two years now as well as the overall best game award. In fact we’ve won 20 awards to date – these accolades are really flattering and it’s great to get recognition for all the hard work we put in as a team. We don’t get too carried away with it all though because these awards don’t pay the bills – but they are a good indicator that as a studio we are on the right track of establishing ourselves as a player in the games industry.

– Your games often involve running away from scary things. Is Wales a very terrifying place? Or are you all just very physically fit?

On the contrary it’s actually a very nice place to visit. I’ll put my Welsh tourism hat on now: Wales has beautiful beaches, breathtaking mountain scenery and friendly Welsh people who won’t mug you, why not come and visit our welcoming land? But first of all unleash the beast and buy Infinity Runner, due out on Xbox One 22nd April 2015…at £4.99 it’s a steal!

– Do you think you make particularly “Welsh” games? If so, what defines them?

I don’t think our games are distinctly Welsh as we have to make games that appeal to international audiences. But we are developing a distinctive visual and narrative style as a studio which we are becoming known for and it’s that style which is winning fans and making us stand out in the crowd. That being said there is a Welsh language version of Master Reboot, our first sci-fi adventure game which we adapted specially for its launch in 2013. It wasn’t just a straight translation either as there are certain modern words that don’t exist in the language, for example the Welsh Title of the game is “Enaid Coll” which translates as “Lost Soul”, Master Reboot didn’t directly translate so we adapted the title. The same can be said all throughout the game. Did you know Welsh (Cymraeg) is the oldest language in Britain, dating back possibly 4,000 years? The last line of the Welsh National Anthem is “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau” which means “May the ancient language remain”. We are doing our part to keep the language going for another 4000 years by bringing into 21st century and featuring it in a video game.

What our Welsh background also gives us is a strong company identity and we are becoming known on the global game circuit because of our celtic identity (you can’t go wrong with a dragon for a logo). Last year saw us exhibiting our titles in the US, England and Japan, and we’re always proud to fly the flag for Wales. We’ve actually just got back from this year’s GDC San Francisco where Soul Axiom was chosen by Microsoft to be featured on the Xbox One showcase stand. We were not only representing Wales this time as we were one of only four UK companies to be chosen by Microsoft to be featured on Xbox One at the show, it’s a humbling thought to think we were representing Great Britain at the event. On a tangent I have to name drop here about an unusual visitor that came to our studio last July – none other than his Royal Highness Prince Charles popped into our office! The Prince of Wales took a look at our latest titles and had a good chat with the team. It was a pleasure to meet him and we felt honoured for him to take time in his busy schedule to come to see us. As he watched one of our team create a character for one of our games the Prince remarked: “That looks terrifying”.

– When idiots like me try to do impressions of the Welsh accent, it comes out sounding Indian. Does that make me double-racist?

Let’s just call it a grey area. I’m from the Rhondda Valley (and still live there) so my accent is 100% authentic, although Rich, the co-founder of Wales Interactive, on the other hand is from Devon and his impression of a Welsh accent is also very dubious. Let’s just say like your own attempts his efforts have a definitive Indian flavour. Obviously, I always tell him his impressions sound perfect – he who laughs last and all that.

– Your other upcoming game, Soul Axiom, places you into a series of disconnected, puzzle-laden locations, each seemingly being generated artificially around your character. Is this perhaps a comment on the vain metaphysical construct of gaming itself, and the medium’s inherent need for a suspension of disbelief that can, at any moment, be collapsed by the simple, defiant act of looking away from the screen? Or is it just set in a futuristic bit of Wales I’ve never been to?

The mainstream games industry is still driven by realism but our philosophy when making games is not to be limited by what’s perceived to be real. We have the tools to do anything we want so if we want to have a giant whale floating in the mid-air then why not. We’re trying not to be creatively limited but we still have a story to tell, something to say. Soul Axiom explores the premise of uploading of memories and saving of souls digitally to a server. The game takes place inside Elysia, a social network-type system that allows users to upload their memories and experiences, creating a sort of virtual self.

You play as one such agent, sans memories. This concept really allows our imagines to run riot as games designers but there are still environments and characters in the game that are influenced by real world locations and people. We have developed a simple low polygon look combined with bespoke shaders that establish our unique visual style that we’re becoming known for in our adventure game titles. The narrative is very important in Soul Axiom, too – it’s a puzzle exploration game, and over 8-12 hours you have to find out who you are and what’s on Earth is going on. We love making games and as creative people we like to experiment. True originality doesn’t come from following the crowd and what we are doing when developing different genres is really improving our team’s skills and understanding what it takes to make an entertainment title.

Rich and I are the Game Directors for all our titles and we ultimately decide what games we are going to make. We always want to make titles that firstly interests us, secondly challenge us as games designers and Soul Axiom does that on a number of levels. We actually wrote the first draft of the Soul Axiom’s design doc & story together over a year ago now and it’s always really exciting to see your ideas make it from the page to full production.

– Rarebit is a famous Welsh dish. Do you have any “rare bits” (hidden areas, I guess?) in your games? (I’m sorry I’m struggling to come up with a good connection here)

You know Rarebit is basically Welsh cheese on toast with some extra goodies used to embellish it? Well this is a lot like our games, a tasty bread gameplay base with delicious visual topping and for that extra kick we always sprinkle hidden achievements, easter eggs and special secret locations into the mix. A big part of our titles is the discovery element and we do like to add replay value so adding “rare bits” is a very important of the games development process for us.

– Edrych, dwi’n siarad Cymraeg! Fydd bron neb yn gallu darllen hyn, ond roeddwn i eisiau dweud gobeithio chi’n dda a phob lwc efo’r gêm

Diolch yn fawr iawn!

– Which Welsh celebrity, living or dead, do you think would be the best at your games? Actually, just dead.

I’m going to go for children’s writer Roald Dahl, probably not many people are aware that he was actually born in Cardiff. As a writer he blended the marvellous, the magical and the macabre, something we try to do in our games. I personally loved his books when I was growing up and as an author he reinvented children’s literature. We’ve reinvented a few gaming genres ourselves over last couple of years and I’d like to think he would have been a fan of our games.

– Dai, thank you.

Image of Prince Charles by Dan Marsh

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