Interview with Noel Bruton from Arberth Studios about Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches

Here at Diehard GameFAN, I’m our token guy that pays attention to Adventure Games. Occasionally I’ll come across something through random Google search or a list of upcoming games from indie publishers that catches my eye. Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches was one of those games. I first saw a brief mention of it on Got Game Entertainment’s website, but there was little other information to go off of. With a little investigative work, I found Arbeth Studios, the developer of Rhiannon and found one of the better indie developer websites out there. Their website had a lot of detail about the game and even a prequel to the title with Rhiannon’s blog. It was a nicely done website as it managed to make me even more interested in the game as all the information was intriguing, but also very vague and aloof. I decided I needed to know more.

Enter my chief of PR, Bebito Jackson who secured me an interview with Noel Bruton from Arbeth Studios. We sat down to discuss Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches and the influences that caused his team to make this game.

DHGF: Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches is set in Wales. You don’t see a lot of Welsh based video games. What made you decide to set a game in this part of the United Kingdom?

NB: The language for the US edition is English, so it’s Wales-based rather than Welsh-based. Wales is ancient and beautiful, rich in soul and legend. Its cultural origins are less diluted by historical invaders than perhaps is the case in England and Scotland. There is a strong flavour of magic and sorcery in Welsh history too. The wizard Merlin is said to come from here – the name of our nearest big town ‘Carmarthen’ means ‘Merlin’s Fort’. The old stories of Wales have never been explored in a computer adventure game that we know of, and that intrigued us, so we thought it might also intrigue other players. Plus, two of the team lives in deepest West Wales, so we have experience to draw on which we might use to hopefully enrich the game.

DHGF: Tell us about the plot of the game

NB: Malcolm and Jennifer Sullivan and their teenage daughter Rhiannon have just begun restoration of ‘Ty Pryderi’ a run-down farmstead in Wales. The name means ‘The house of Pryderi’, which intrigues Rhiannon; so she assuages her loneliness by researching the name’s history, only to find that it is of a nobleman mentioned in the 900-year old legends ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogion’. Soon after, she begins to witness strange and ghostly occurrences, increasing in intensity until they drive her to the edge of insanity – at which point the family leaves the house, asking you to take care of it while the reconstruction continues.

But when you arrive, the builders have also taken fright and abandoned the site. So you start to make yourself comfortable until suddenly, it is made emphatically clear to you that there is a malicious presence in this house and it does not want you there.

You explore – you find out more, coming to understand the lives wrecked by that presence over hundreds of years – you realize you must accept the challenge and rid Ty Pryderi of its ghostly invader forever. Your enemy is the ghost of the legendary sorcerer Llwyd Cil Coed (pronounced “Hloo-id-Kill-Koyd”).

DHGF: It seems like the game is going to feature a lot of Celtic and Welsh folklore like the eleven prose stories known as the Mabinogion. What other piece of Celtic/Welsh mythology can we expect to see pop up in the game?

NBL It’s about men in an age of magick. “Rhiannon” makes no use of elves, nor is the game at all folklorical or fantastical. It’s set decidedly in the present day, although you’ll learn about how the haunting has wrought tragedies in the past.
The specific sections of the Mabinogion we’ve used are the “Four Branches”, four tales that span the lifetime of the legendary nobleman Pryderi, about 900 years ago. The player uses the Four Branches as a resource to understand and defeat the challenge Llwyd has set.

Certainly there’s magick afoot in the game because you’re up against the ghost of a psychopathic sorcerer, but it’s actually all very down-to-earth. It’s not at all like Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter is a bit closer, but even then the magick in ‘Rhiannon’ is very practical and not the wand-waving kind. There is a wand, but you’ll find that your wireless MP3 player, a crowbar and Rhiannon’s Email account are a lot more useful than it.

DHGF: Although Rhiannon is the name of the game and a focal character in the story, it seems like you’ll actually be playing primarily as Jon Southworth. What is Rhiannon’s importance to the game besides the catalyst that sets the events in motion?

NB: That’s not quite right. You don’t play Jon Southworth, you play yourself. Jon is helping you, although he may think he’s helping Rhiannon. Jon has his own role in the story. It seems he is more involved in this than he knows, which is something you will reveal to him.

Rhiannon is more than just one character. She doesn’t realize it because she doesn’t have the perspective that you, the player, will gain – but she is part of a much bigger, historical inevitability. It’s not just that Rhiannon has arrived at Ty Pryderi now – it’s the influences she brings with her and how they fit with those who have occupied Ty Pryderi in the past.

DHGF: The house that is the centerpiece of the game, “Ty Pryderi” is supposedly haunted. Why did you choose to name the house “Ty Pryderi” and were you inspired by any actual haunted houses or unexplained happenings in creating it?

NB: We started with the story. We wanted to do something based on the fascinating legends in the Mabinogion. In there, the central “ËœFour Branches’ legends throw up a character named “Pryderi,” virtually telling his life story. That gave us a story arc that lends itself well to an adventure game. The story has a setting at “Ty”, or “The house of” Pryderi.” It is where Pryderi’s ghost is being confined by a supernatural enemy – but it might just also have been where he lived when the legends say he was alive, around 900 years ago.

We’ve used quite a bit of the house where two members of Arberth Studios live as part of the model for Ty Pryderi. Parts of our house are over 400 years old, and the name of the house is older still, so it looks like there was a dwelling here before records of the area began in the 1500’s.

Tales of the modern-day supernatural are quite common in this part of Wales, like the old witch who haunts the Meidrim road, or the reclusive local woman who seems to be able to travel between two towns faster than a car. And then we fully expect that if normal practice has been adhered to, a horse was buried under our sitting room floor as it was being built, to ward off evil spirits. We’re a quarter of a mile from the road, but visiting children have noticed an “old man” going into the garden, who then disappeared. There’s plenty of inspiration round here.

DHGF: Were there any other games that inspired you or that you looked at while making Rhiannon? If so, what were they and how did they?

NB: The heart of Arberth Studios is my wife Karen. It was her playing “Barrow Hill” that made her think we could produce a commercial adventure game. I played it too – it was an inspiration. At about the same time, we played “Scratches“. Both of these are independent productions, set in a haunted location in Great Britain. Also, Karen’s a long time fan of Jonathan Boakes’ spooky “Dark Fall” games. As well as that, we took some lead from the superb story telling in Benoit Sokal’s “Syberia” 1 and 2. In effect, we’re writing the sort of game we like to play.

DHGF: What about Rhiannon do you think will draw in gamers unaware of Welsh folklore and legends? Especially in America where it will be published by Got Game Entertainment?

NB:”Rhiannon” itself is not a folklorical game. It’s a modern-day adventure where you use your intelligence and deduction to come to understand the nature of a spell laid upon Ty Pryderi and its inhabitants. Welsh folklore apart, there is a universal premise in “Rhiannon”. It is essentially good against evil, but going deeper, the concept of the afterlife always lends itself to further exploration, especially how it may impinge on the modern day.

As for the appeal to Americans in particular… no country on this planet can hold a candle to America for the appreciation of a good story – after all, America gave us Disney, Hollywood, Marvel Comics and much else. And the American appetite for tales of the supernatural is a strong as anywhere. And then of course there is the indisputable American taste for adventure, all of which we’re hoping “ËœRhiannon’ will appeal to.

DHGF: Will Welsh Language and writing be a factor in the game, and might gamers even walk away learning a word or two in Welsh when all is said and done?

NB: It’s widely held that Welsh is not an easy language to understand. There aren’t any modern languages that sound like it, so we feel that if we were to put too much Welsh in the game, it might confuse rather than elucidate. It’s there, in part – our antagonist, the sorcerer Llwyd comes out with a few words when he’s annoyed with the player’s success. Players might learn “Mae diethryn yma” – “there is a stranger here.” We’ve majored on English to play the game and used Welsh sparingly to add to the drama, authenticity and atmosphere.

DHGF: This is Arberth Studio’s first video game. What brought you all together to form an independent game studio, and what made you want to focus on the Adventure genre?

NB: Arberth Studios is a family affair. Karen and I are a married couple and we’ve worked together before on fiction projects. Karen’s the gamer and a meticulous researcher. I’ve been dabbling in programming and composing music for years. The third member is Richard, Karen’s brother – he’s a graphic illustrator by craft. Then when Karen played “Barrow Hill” and “Scratches” in quick succession, she felt that between the three of us, we had all the skills to create a computer game. It had to be adventure, because it’s our favourite genre, having the mix of mystery, intellectual challenge and a wide canvas of potential subjects. And you can go into real depth in the adventure genre, building plot and characters.

I thought the Mabinogion would be a great source for a story premise and then having done some research on game engines, it became clear that Karen was right, it was possible for independent producers to make a game. So we started with the plot and the story. We created an arena, which Richard then modeled in 3D, to render to 2D for the Point-and-click interface. And I learned a game engine’s programming language and started composing musical themes. That was just over two years ago.

We do it because we like it. Richard loves the freedom to design as well as illustrate, Karen likes the research and detail, I love “Ëœstory’, the music and the logic of programming.

DHGF: After Rhiannon, what’s next for development?

NB: We have another project already at the design stage, again a first-person point-and-click adventure drawing on the modern and the supernatural worlds. It stems from a view across a river, looking at a castle. A business venture is failing inexplicably, and that ancient site may have something to do with it. There is an undiscovered history that impedes the present day; and its owners, a wealthy, long-established and closely-knit local dynasty, are not telling all they know.

So there you have it. Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches promises to be an Adventure game mixing mystery, supernatural happenings, and the history and beauty of Wales. Again, you can always learn more by visiting either Got Game Entertainment, or Arbeth Studios. We’ll also have a review up when the game is out for releae.

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