[Interview] Talking Liberated with Piotr Gnyp

Written by Abram Buehner

Introducing: Liberated Switch Interview

At PAX East 2020, I had an opportunity to swing by the Walkabout Games booth and see Liberated. It’s a fascinating title that blends together comics and games in a revolutionary way. Its stark aesthetic, punchy mechanics, and tantalizing concept really spoke to me, and Liberated quickly became one of my favorite games from PAX.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Piotr Gnyp, head of business development at Walkabout games, about Liberated in depth. Without further ado, please enjoy our unabridged conversation.

As a huge fan of both games and comic books, the manner in which Liberated fuses the two really appeals to me. It’s a novel approach to storytelling and not something I’ve really seen before. What was the inspiration for combining these different mediums?

We’ve always been fascinated by the unique dynamics of graphic novels, which are very unique–you can have thrilling, exciting, fast-flowing comics, and slow-burners as well. And the interesting thing about [it] is that you achieve it without real motion, on a static page. What if we applied it to games? What new ways of telling stories would it open for us? 

We clash the dynamics of video games with the still frame of graphic novels. At its heart, Liberated is a tale of opposing forces in any layer – conceptual (dynamics vs stillness), narrative (freedom vs oppression), and visual (black vs white).

Something that has always interested me about comic books – and books in general – is their pace. Largely, it’s determined by the reader, unlike other mediums. The audience can take in the information in a nonlinear way if they want, looking ahead to later panels for a sneak peek. They can dwell on the art and then move to the text. By contrast, video game storytelling is typically a more scripted affair. Was this a tension the team addressed when developing Liberated? On a macro level, were there other design challenges that arose from this new approach to storytelling in games?

When you’re reading a comic, sometimes you just can’t avoid spoiling something to yourself by looking at a later panel. It’s part of the comic book experience, and we kinda-sorta applied it to our game. To avoid story spoilers, all the new pages start blank. But not really. Sometimes you can see some shapes or shadows. This way, we can tease you just a bit, without really spoiling anything. Then, as you progress, we fill these pages with pictures adjusted to the pace of your reading. It’s a huge advantage of the digital form of the graphic novel.

As for other challenges, we put a lot of effort into balancing the story and gameplay. Comics are a surprisingly dynamic medium. You don’t linger too long on a single panel, you keep moving from one to another. So, we couldn’t have long stretches of either gameplay or story. You’ll notice that, when you play Liberated, you play for a couple of minutes, read, play, read, play–it’s a moving affair, far from traditional video game design.

It seems like there is an industry-wide push to make games feel more “cinematic,” for as loose as that term has become. It would seem to me, though, that Liberated may stand as a refreshing counterpoint to this trend, by pulling from comics which are inherently static. Would you consider Liberated to be a cinematic experience, or does the overarching, hybrid design give the game a distinct flavor?

While designing the new formula, which is Playable Graphic Novel, we took the best things from all of the media, but not in equal measure. You can see several cinematic portrayals of narrative scenes, with film-like camera movement and direction, but these still exist within our comic book frame. They’re mixed with beautiful hand-drawn still frames, which are the primary vessel for the story. To make this vision complete, we’ve added the video-game school of managing player emotions and testing his skills. 

Speaking about the game thematically now, I’m always fascinated by the creation and world building of dystopia. In Liberated, allusions are made to real-world issues such as state surveillance. When the inspiration comes from reality, how heavily do you draw on our actual world? Do you take core concepts from reality and then deviate, or do you attempt to imagine a practical future?

We take inspiration mainly from our contemporary world. It’s 2020, we live in cyberpunk. If you read the newspaper headlines, they look like short descriptions from sci-fi novels from the 80s or the 90s. “Malware locking out hotel guests out of their rooms for ransom”, “Bitcoin influencing world economy”, “Hackers meddling with elections”, “Cyberwarfare spreading out to the world and hitting the biggest logistic company”. These are real!

Of course, we all read Gibson, Stephenson, Dukaj, or Morgan. We watched Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, Matrix or Ghost in the Shell. We loved Mr. Robot and this new TV Show – Upload. 

Taking from all of this, we’ve created our fictional City in which we combined all of the above. In that way, we can tell a universal story without pointing fingers.

Liberated’s themes and tone stand in stark contrast to your previous game, Mad Age & That Guy. What motivated the team to take this turn?

We love to try new things!

Finally, how would you describe the relationship between narrative and gameplay in Liberated? Is the game designed to emphasize one of the two, or are they fairly harmonious and equally important?

If we wanted to make a graphic novel, we would have made a graphic novel. If we wanted to simply make a game, we would’ve done just that. But we had this other idea of combining both, and you can’t disregard one in favor of another. Both are equally important, but in the end, they have to work together to create this consistent new thing. 

What we can tell is there will be two difficulty modes for two types of people who might be interested in Liberated: Reader and Player Modes. 

Thank you very much to Piotr Gnyp for his time. Liberated will launch for Nintendo Switch on June 2nd.

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