Interview with Paul Cuisset about Flashback
This interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott in the Fall of 2019. It was transcribed by Anym, a member of the Stay Forever community. The full audio can be listened to here (starts with a short German intro, the interview itself is in English). Excerpts from the conversation were used in our podcast about Flashback (in German).
Stay Forever: Hello Paul!
Paul Cuisset: Hello.
Stay Forever: We’ll be talking about Flashback. Can you describe in one to three sentences what type of game Flashback is in your own words?
Paul Cuisset: Flashback is an adventure-action game. It’s a platformer and it was created in 1993 and it was originally created for the SEGA Mega Drive, but was released on both Amiga and PCs at that time. You play the role of Conrad, a young agent of the GBI, who has been captured and they erased his memory. So he’s trying to find his memory back and discovers that there is an alien conspiracy that wants to conquer the solar system and he will try to destroy what is called the master brain, the brain that controls all the aliens that are trying to invade the planet.
Stay Forever: Let us walk through how the game was developed. Could you move to the point where you were when the idea first came about?
Paul Cuisset: So, the company was called Delphine Software. It was a company based in Paris. My role at the company was creative director. We were approached by a company called U.S. Gold, an English company. They had the license of the movie The Godfather and so they wanted us to think about a game adaptation of the movie. So, I started thinking about this. And they also proposed us to work on a new console, that would be really soon, the SEGA Mega Drive. At Delphine, we used to work on adventure games, point-and-click adventure games, like Future Wars or Operation Stealth, so the move to console was really interesting. I proposed to shift the story into the future, because it was the time of sci-fi movies like Blade Runner, Terminator and I was a big fan of these movies and they said: “OK, let’s have a try! It can be interesting.” We started to work on the animations and the technique that we would be using for the whole game, which is the rotoscoping: We are filming a character and then we draw over with a paint program. And after about six, seven months, maybe a little more, we had the first demo, the first level of Flashback more or less. So we went to them and showed the game and they just stared at it! It was really far from the license, so they told us: OK, it’s not possible for us to continue with that license, but we love the game, it seems really interesting, so you are free to go on your own and do the game that you want.
Stay Forever: Do you know why U.S. Gold approached you? Did they want to have an adventure game, like the games Cruise for a Corpse or the other games you mentioned, Future Wars? Did they already know about Another World? That wasn’t out there.
Paul Cuisset: No, we used to work with them on previous games, we released Cruise for a Corpse for them, so I think they felt that it would be interesting because we used to do something that could match the franchise of The Godfather. So I think that was the reason why they proposed us to work on this.
Stay Forever: Did they expect you to make an adventure game?
Paul Cuisset: No, because it was a console game. So, we would not have the same interfaces and it couldn’t be a point-and-click game. So, I told them that it would be a more action-oriented game. They knew about that. It’s just that the shift into the future was so far that it just couldn’t match much. The idea at the beginning was that you have these mafias in the future and I think the story could be transposed, but of course the universe and the art direction couldn’t be the same, so we just went very far from the original idea.
Stay Forever: Did they pay you for this first milestone?
Paul Cuisset: Yeah, they paid us and they continued to work with us. We’d release the game together as a co-production.
Stay Forever: Ah, OK, so they were still involved.
Paul Cuisset: Yeah. And they found the title! I think today something like that would be very difficult, but at that time it was just: “OK, no, it does not fit. No problem, let’s continue. You have a cool game. We want to have it, so no problem.”
Stay Forever: So, you were totally free now. What do you do next?
Paul Cuisset: It was quite a challenging project, because we had a lot of animations and a lot of frames and the console was limited in memory. So we had to develop a lot of things to be able to compress everything. Flashback was one of the first games that would be using the 24 megabits of memory. At that time, the cartridges were limited to 16 megabit and SEGA said to us: “OK, we’ll have the 24 megabits, but you’ll have to wait several months.” And we just couldn’t wait for that, so we retro-engineered the cartridges itself and we built our own board, so we were able to have a 24 megabits cartridge. I think they were quite amazed when we sent them a demo with a 24 megabit cartridge that we made ourselves. So we had to face a lot of challenges. I wanted to keep the adventure aspect, so we put in the inventory and the cutscenes in order to tell the story and it was a fairly creative approach because we did not have a lot of examples of how the game could be so we had to invent our own standards. That’s why the mapping of the controls is a bit strange maybe for today’s players because they don’t fit the standards as well. For instance, you press a button to jump. In Flashback it’s different because you had different jumps and so we had to map different movements in some specific ways and it was just experimenting.
Stay Forever: This was your first console game. So did you look at other Mega Drive games in order to have some inspiration about how things could be done there and how the controls would work?
Paul Cuisset: We started before the console was released in France, so we just didn’t have any references. The manual of the console itself was basically a big book with all the registries and registers and an explanation about what they do, but it was very difficult to understand how the machine was working because it was so different than the computers. The Atari and Amigas we used to work on. So we had to experiment a lot to understand how to do things.
Stay Forever: Did you have a Japanese version of the console or did you have some kind of devkit?
Paul Cuisset: Yeah, we had a devkit. It was a kind of console. It was attached to a PC. Of course, we did not have a C compiler. At the time, Delphine were using C, but we didn’t have any compilers, so we had to write all the game in assembly machine language. The game editor was created on Amiga. At the time at Delphine we had Amiga 3000, quite like a PC machine with the hard drive and it was a very effective machine. So we did all the editing on the Amiga: animations and the scripting and so on. And we wrote a player for the Mega Drive and that was written in assembly language. The environment was quite difficult to use. When we wanted to create a version of the game for testers or for publishers and so on, we had to write the EPROMs and that took time. When something fails, you want to reuse the EPROMs, you have to erase them with ultraviolet light and that takes quite a lot of time. So it was a very interesting experience.
Stay Forever: So, because you did part of the development work on the Amiga, this enabled you to put out the game as an Amiga game first before it came out on the Mega Drive?
Paul Cuisset: Yeah, just a matter of timing, because we had to submit the game to SEGA and we had to wait until the cartridges are printed. That took about three or four months, so in the meantime we finished the Amiga version and then we were able to release the Amiga version before the game came out on Mega Drive. But in fact it was finished first on the Mega Drive.
Stay Forever: When you look at the credits of the game, you wore many hats during development. You are credit with story, with programming, with sound effects, with video effects and of course with overall direction. How did you go about developing the game and how was your workday? Could you describe a typical workday? Did you just switch from video editing to programming to direction?
Paul Cuisset: The game took around two years to develop. So, I had the time to switch. At the beginning, when we started the project, I began to write the engine, so the tools on the Amiga and the animation system. And then after that we had new programmers coming into the team and some of them began to write the console version. So, I switched to the level design and the story. The story was quite fast to write, but I did all the level design with the Amiga. I wrote a tool where I could sketch very quickly how the game would behave and the design, so I was able to draw the collision maps of the character and the enemies playing together. So, we did a lot of iterations on the gameplay before the artists came in. I also worked on the sounds, because I had chosen some effects and placing them, for the video also. It was a small team. For that time it was not a small team, but we were nine or ten people working on the project, so everybody was doing a lot of things. It was just not possible to have just one job in the team. You just had to switch from one thing to another, also because we used to work like that. I started working in video games and we were two people: one artist and one programmer. So, I took the habit to do a lot of things and I like to control everything myself, so it was not an exception on Flashback.
Stay Forever: Who worked with you in this team? And how was the situation in the team? Did you have, like in a modern games company, one big room and everybody is working at their workstations or did you have small office spaces?
Paul Cuisset: Yeah, we had a small office space. It was not very big. I think it was something like 35 square meters. We had some artists with us, programmers and the sound design was done in the Delphine Studios because we had the chance at the time to be a part of the Delphine Group which was at the beginning a record company, so there were studios that we could use and sound engineers and musicians that worked with us, but for the game itself we were, I think, ten people: four, five programmers and the rest artists. The main technology was to capture all the frames for the animation and for that we used to film some artist, some guy who would do the move. At that time we did not have the possibility to hire actors or mo-cap studios and so on, it was not existing, so when we needed a move, just asking someone if he wants to do the movement. We went out with a small camera and just filmed him doing the moves and then the artist had the tape machine, because at the time it was tapes, and we used transparent papers that you put on the screen and draw the frame one by one: Pausing the video, drawing the frame, going to the next frame, drawing the next frame and then all these transparents were used on the Amiga to draw over with a program that was called Deluxe Paint. They put the transparent paper on the screen and were just drawing inside. That really took a lot of time, but the result was so great for that time. I knew that there would be a lot of problems because it was not possible to have so many frames for the animation, because it’s not only the main character, it’s also the enemies and everything was done like this. So you just had to develop a lot of background code to compress everything in real-time and being able to have that kind of animations.
Stay Forever: And you did choose the art style. Was this in collaboration, because obviously Éric Chahi did something similar at about the same time? Was this like you liked that or was this a Delphine thing? Because it doesn’t come as a natural choice for a game for the Mega Drive.
Paul Cuisset: We wanted to do something different because the Japanese games at that time were on the opposite side. Basically they used big sprites and few frames of animation. We wanted to do something different. The first thing we wanted to try was the animation and Éric did it also with rotoscoping. Prince of Persia a bit before did it, too. And we were fond of the two games, so I think it came quite logically. We did some experiments ourselves. When the artists showed me the results, I was so amazed. I knew that we had to sacrifice everything for those animations. It was very obvious. That would be the difference, because as I told you we started the project as a license for a film, so the idea also was to do something like a movie, basically we wanted to have something that was more cinematic and also we wanted to tell a story so we put in the different elements that could be used to tell the story, so an inventory, the character ability to talk to people and so on. Even the design of the game and the levels are story-driven.
Stay Forever: One thing that intrigued me is that Delphine being a record company also. I visited Delphine in the early 2000s and I had to walk through the record company to go to the development team and there was golden records, platinum records by Richard Clayderman on the walls. Was it like that in the 90s and 80s, too?
Paul Cuisset: Yeah, it was the same. The president of the company was Paul de Senneville. We worked with him very tightly. In fact, he started the company because one of the friends of Paul, which is Jean Baudlot, which is the guy who composed the music for the game, he was fond of video games and the music of the time that you could make on the Amiga with the soundtrackers. He wanted to create music for this and that’s how the company started.
Stay Forever: It’s quite a peculiar way to start a video games company, coming from the music side. When the game came out in 1992, it was relatively seldom that flip-screen games came out still, so single-screen games where you had no scrolling because in 1985 when Super Mario Bros. came about, everybody was like: “Sidescrollers are the new thing. We all have to make are sidescrollers.” Why did you choose to have the fixed screen?
Stay Forever: It was mainly a technical problem, because as explained we had to decompress everything and we also wanted to have much more detailed arts in the background, so we chose to have fixed screens because it was very complex to have a big environment that would scroll. We were using so much horsepower to decompress the animation frames that it was not possible to do the same with the backgrounds and we saw that Prince of Persia could do it.
Stay Forever: So, it’s an artistic choice and not a gameplay choice?
Paul Cuisset: It’s more a technical choice, in fact.
Stay Forever: So now we’re twenty years later and the game is still very much loved by lots of people and you’ve started to revisit this in the 2010s and right now, just shortly before we’re conducting this interview you have released two new versions of Flashback that’s the Android and iOS versions for mobile devices. Do you think that the game is well-suited for mobile devices?
Paul Cuisset: It was quite a challenge to port it to mobile devices because was intended to be played with a gamepad, so using the touch screen is something quite different, but I like challenges and I think it was interesting as a game design exercise to make the switch, but of course it does support the gamepad, so if you have a bluetooth gamepad, you can play with it. You have also a virtual stick mode and we added a new mode which is the touch mode, where the gameplay is different, also added some improvements, because a lot of people at the beginning of Flashback can be lost. There is no indication what to do and where to go, so I added objectives and tutorials and so on. Also, the rewind function: If you die, you can just use the rewind and go back in time several seconds and restart from that moment, just before you die. There’s quite a lot of changes, but the important thing is that all of these changes can be disconnected if you want, so you can play the original version if you want. When I tried to play the game as a gamer some years ago, because I just forgot completely how to play the game, it was quite frustrating sometimes because it was very punishing. So I had the idea to put in this kind of functionality: If you die, you just rewind. Of course, it makes the game a little bit easier, but it’s not bad to remove the frustration when you die.
Stay Forever: So that’s about it. Thank you very much for you time!
Paul Cuisset: You’re welcome! Thank you very much to you, too!