Crafting Insanity – An Interview With Agustín Cordes

You’re driving along a mountain road, the sun setting far off in the distance as you come around a sharp right turn. It’s serene, almost worthy of a painting, hardly the kind of thing you were expecting.  A bird arcs through the sky, a softly reassuring gesture from Mother Nature that everything is in order.

There’s a sign on your right, Hanwell Mental Institute, next exit. You don’t want to go there, but you’re driven onward by a need to know. As you arrive, your hands grip the wheel tightly for a second before releasing.

You’ve arrived in Asylum, the latest game from Agustín Cordes - the man behind the cult horror adventure game Scratches – and his new company, Senscape.

The setting of Asylum is Hanwell Mental Institute, a “Frankenstein of the many asylums we researched” as Cordes calls it. “The blueprint though, the distribution of rooms, is based on an actual blueprint.” The front is based on the very real Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts, for example. This passion for accuracy is clear, as he cites the development of the building itself as the most time consuming aspect of the whole development process during our conversation.

The devil’s in the details when it comes to the setting. Asylums make for some of the most frightening locations for horror movies and video games. Everything from The House on Haunted Hill to Shutter Island are set in Kirkbride-inspired buildings, all spires and soaring arches, their beauty intended to help in recovery.

Watching their Kickstarter pitch video, loaded with references to everything from The Ring to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s clear that the team at Senscape are well versed in all the famous haunted hospitals and macabre institutions that horror movies draw on so liberally.

Films like Session 9, which itself takes place entirely in the now demolished Danvers State Hospital, have been making the rounds in their office. Other, lesser known, films like 2004’s Madhouse have also served as research material. The “tunnel of the damned” in Asylum, an underground passage that you might also recognize from this most recent season of American Horror Story,  was inspired by Madhouse in particular.

Senscape’s research hasn’t been entirely blood and guts though. Cordes also mentions the classic anti-establishment film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a powerful inspiration, “especially to research the behavior of the inmates and how they interacted.” Both the novel and film escape the shock tactics of the average “asylum” flick, focusing instead on the insidious ways that power is exchanged and dominance is asserted inside institutions.

It’s a fresh take on a setting that’s been already been extensively probed and prodded, something that Cordes is familiar with from his work with Blackwood Manor, the setting of his first game, Scratches.

“On paper, Scratches seemed very clichéd,” Cordes says. ”It was the typical ‘horror author who moves to an old mansion to work on his novel.’ But the moment you entered the house, the story progresses, and you begin to feel that it’s a very atypical ‘haunted house.’”

It starts during your first night in the house, the titular scratches echoing throughout the halls. Slowly, as the player starts to investigate the house and its former owner, the layers of the mystery unravel, unleashing a terrible secret by the end.

Cordes is confident that Asylum will play out much the same way, only better. “We are going to play quite a lot with the minds of the player,” he says. “The whole game gets very surreal at times and we have some truly unexpected twists in the story that will turn any assumptions you have about the game upside down.”

Scratches, released in 2006, had a schizophrenic reception. Erik Ottosen at Worthplaying.com called it “a work of art in the horror genre,” giving it a 8/10, praising the game’s audio and pacing, while Ryan Davis over at Gamespot (before he moved to Giant Bomb) gave it a 3.9, stating that “very little actually happens over the course of the game, and most of the time you just feel like you’re trapped inside a really boring house.”

Cordes is the first to admit that Scratches had issues with pacing. “The major lesson I learned from Scratches was not giving enough hints or tips to the player about what to do next,” he says. “Basically, I put them in this game world and let them be. Do what you please, go where you want, I’m not going to tell you what to do next. Some hardcore adventure players love that, but I did find that it made for a slow-paced experience at first.”

The reviews reflected this, as more niche adventure gaming outlets ate the title up, giving it a range of near perfect ratings, while more mainstream sites were quicker to ding the title for its more traditional, and at times glacial, pacing. Blackwood Manor, for all its creepy ambiance  can seem a little too empty at first, something that Cordes hopes to fix with Asylum.

“So what I’m doing this time, with Asylum, I’m gradually opening the game world up,” says Cordes. “There will be a point where they have the ability to see all of Hanwell in any way they want, but not from the very first moment. It will gradually open so that when you’re ready to tackle more challenging puzzles and situations, you’re already familiar with the environment.”

Currently more than halfway through a Kickstarter campaign (their goal a delightfully devilish $100,666) and already successfully Greenlit on Steam, Asylum is very much a game for adventure fans, who have already proven themselves to be an audience with some serious sway.

“I don’t think enough credit is being given to the genre,” Cordes says, “Not only is it ancient and has a huge and very strong community that’s been producing free games for decades now, it may be the reason behind this Kickstarter madness.”

Madness indeed. Already there have been two investors in Asylum at the $10,000 level, which earns them a unique plot-driven character in the game and an all-expenses paid trip to Argentina to eat Argentinian BBQ with the team.

“I’m speechless with this sort of thing, the huge dedication of fans of this genre,” Cordes admits.

His dream reward though? Something far more sinister than delicious smoky meats.  Cordes says, “I wanted to take the top pledgers and arrange a visit to an actual abandoned asylum, but not only is it impractical to arrange a trip for so many people, also trying to get permission to visit a run-down asylum wasn’t realistic, so I decided to desist with that.”

For now though, Cordes and the rest of Senscape have to descend into the depths of terror before they can crawl out into the sunlight of success. Will they make it through the process in one piece? Only time (and Kickstarter) can tell at this point. They’ve been at this for four years, and, as Cordes says on their Kickstarter page: “Asylum will get finished one way or another; the question is when…”