“I was in a London taxi about five or six years ago,” says Charles Cecil, co-founder of Revolution Software and director of 1996 point-and-click adventure Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. “The driver turned round and asked me what I did, which is of course what taxi drivers do. I told him I write videogames, thinking this would shut him up. ‘Oh yeah?’ he said. ‘Any that I’d know?’ I said, ‘No, you won’t know my games.’ We stopped at a set of traffic lights.
It's an undeniable classic, but Broken Sword doesn't make our list of the best PC games to play right now.
“He said, ‘Go on, try me.’ I said ‘Broken Sword?’ He sat there for a moment and said: ‘Are you the bastard that wrote that goat puzzle?’”
That goat puzzle is one of Broken Sword’s defining set pieces and one of the hardest puzzles to ever grace the point-and-click adventure genre. It’s one that, for better or worse, makes the first Broken Sword stand out from its competition - both then and now - and moments like this perfectly exemplify the lasting impression Cecil’s games, not least the adventures of American tourist George Stobbart and ambitious French journalist Nico Collard, have had on generations of players.
Before the partition of Africa, Cecil’s mother was born in British India before moving to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. In her adult life, she moved to London in the ’50s, married, and gave birth to Cecil in 1962. Sick of London’s industrial, smog-ravaged conditions, Cecil’s mother convinced her family to move to Africa, thus between the ages of six months and two years old Cecil lived in the Congo.
In response to the assassination of Congolese independence visionary Patrice Lumumba - the first democratically elected leader of the Congo - revolution swept the country and Cecil describes he and his family’s time in Africa coming to a “swift conclusion”.
“All the whites on the other side of the Congo were lined up and shot, so we had to get out,” he says. “The only problem was my mother was just about to give birth to my little sister, so it was a very harrowing time and a very harrowing journey.”
It’s a fascinating story and one which might’ve shaped Cecil’s ability to craft such powerful tales in later life - even if he was too young to recall the minutiae of early childhood in The Motherland. Either way, Cecil began writing videogames two decades later when he designed his first titles for the Sinclair ZX81 - Inca Curse and Espionage Island - in 1981. He recalls friends at the time playing Pong, however marks Space Invaders as the first game that piqued his interest and thus prompted him to pursue a career in the field professionally.
By 1990, after working for a variety of publishers and developers in the interim - including Activision, where he managed its European Development Studio - Cecil co-founded Revolution Software. The studio’s first titles, Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky, were a success both critically and commercially and Cecil thereafter set his sights on an Egyptian-themed, hieroglyphic-inspired third project - such had been his desire for a number of years.
A dinner meeting with publisher Virgin Interactive in London’s King’s Cross followed. Sean Brennan, Virgin’s COO at the time, had backed Revolution’s previous projects wholeheartedly, but after hearing mention of Egypt dismissed the idea on the spot. “Egyptian games don’t sell,” Cecil was told, and that was the end of it.
Later, Brennan mentioned he’d been reading the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault's Pendulum which featured the Knights Templar and as the conversation developed, it became clear this particular group’s rich history could make for an interesting adventure game. At the time, Cecil admits he didn’t know all that much about the subject matter, but it in turn made for very interesting research.
The result was of course Broken Sword. Interestingly, the story sculpted from said research is similar to that of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code - as many a Broken Sword fan has keenly pointed out since. Cecil jokes that while he’d never make a direct accusation, he’s delighted to believe the fans who genuinely think the book - that’d go on to spawn a blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks - might’ve borrowed from Revolution’s revolutionary point-and-click adventure.
Lighthearted comparisons aside, what makes Cecil’s research quite so important is the attention to detail that’s weaved meticulously throughout his work. While the Knights Templar are the main antagonists in Broken Sword - and Nico and George the heroes - central location Paris itself plays as much of an integral part in relaying the game’s sophisticated and complex narrative to its players. In fastidious preparation, Cecil visited the French capital and in-person on several occasions (it’s a hard life), and had friends translate entire texts on the Templars into English.
His research became so dedicated that family holidays for years to come became centred on whichever location he wished to interpret next in his games. “Believability is key and is preferable to out and out realism,” says Cecil, but arriving at believable interpretations of landmarks and themes can only be achieved by way of such devotion.
This attitude extends to what makes all point-and-click games tick: puzzles. “If we were doing slapstick puzzles, and it was about ludicrous combinations that you make people laugh over, they would be much, much easier to design,” says Cecil of striking the appropriate difficulty balance when crafting the central tenet of his favoured genre. “We’ve created a rod for our own back in that our puzzles, the way we judge them, make [us ask] do they support the story absolutely?
“Within the context of the story, do they feel logical and believable? Do they fit and do they conform to the expectations of the characters at that particular time and are the characters motivated? What we can do is design these puzzles in our heads, put them on paper, and then have other people read through and check them. Then I’m afraid it’s a very expensive process because we implement them. You do then have a degree of latitude because of course with the voiceover you can direct the player if necessary and can give them hints.