Paul Cuisset has been a household name of the French video game scene since the late ’80s. After joining the famous Delphine Software, he quickly became its creative head. Under his direction, the company would rise to global fame for delivering such masterpieces as Another World, Flashback and Motoracer. Flashback won a Guinness World Record for becoming the most commercially successful French game in history. After Delphine, Paul returned to the scene as the founder of Vector Cell, a small indie studio through which he tried to continue his former success by working on original titles. However its main project, the survival horror adventure game Amy, failed and the studio closed down not long after…
Hi Paul, let’s start with the most traditional question: How did you find your footing in video game design?
I started working with computers as a programmer at university. It was in 1985, or maybe a bit before, in 1983. In 1987, I joined the indie video game industry. As a student, I started on those old 8bit microcomputers. I liked to program and I liked games. So my first approach was to create a little paint program. Then a bit later, me and some friends started to work on a small game that we called Tonic Tile [Atari ST], which was kind of Arkanoid type of game. This is pretty much how I started.
Interestingly, you then became associated with Paul de Senneville, the acclaimed French music composer and head of the Delphine Productions record label. Delphine Software International was founded soon after. Can you talk a bit about how you met him and your role in the newly formed company?
Well, they wanted to start a business in video games, which were still very new at that point. A friend of mine, Michael Sportouche, met with them and they talked about their plans to start a company. I was involved with him on previous projects, such as the adaption [for Atari ST] of the arcade game Space Harrier (1988) for SEGA.
I began working for Delphine as an independent developer and I created a game called Bio Challenge (1989). After that, we started working on our second game, the adventure game Future Wars (1989).
So you started, more or less, as a contractor for Delphine. Then you eventually became the company’s co-director.
Yes, I was an outsider at first, but they were a very small studio that had only three to four people initially. After Future Wars, they offered me to work for them full-time as lead creative director.
I see! Let’s zoom in on Future Wars now. It was in fact Delphine’s first major hit under your design direction. It’s a time traveling story of a very unlikely hero: a window cleaner who fights an alien race conspiring against humans. I still remember the initial scene on the window cleaner lift of a skyscraper. I used to play the game stealthily in the early mornings, before school [laughs]. What was the primary inspiration for the story? Did you come up with it yourself?
Yes, the story itself was written very quickly. I think I wrote the whole thing over a weekend. I just wanted to explore various sci-fi themes and I really like the time-traveling idea. I had been reading about the disappearance of dinosaurs, which inspired me too. I thought it would be very funny for the player to discover in the end that the reason for the disappearance of the dinosaurs was their failure to stop a bomb exploding [laughs]. It created a new hypothesis for their extinction, which was a nice joke.
So, I started the whole story from the end and walked backwards to the beginning with the bombs being dropped in different time eras.
And how did you come up with the idea for the main protagonist, the window cleaner [laughs]?
I wanted to have a very simple person. Not a typical hero type: a normal person like you and I. Well, maybe you are a hero [laughs]… I just generally wanted people to easily identify with the hero. So this is why I started the whole story with just an ordinary window cleaner, who has no idea what’s happening and gradually discovers that things are a lot bigger than he could have imagined. I think it was an interesting way to drive the players into a world where you don’t know the rules and you don’t even know how to play it. Because I thought the gameplay at that time was still quite new. So players had to discover all the rules and learn how to apply them by themselves to win the game. The mechanics of the game are also the parts of reality which players experience.
Yeah, it was an amazing game. I am glad I finished it just by myself and experienced it exactly the way it was meant to be. Other successful adventure titles you made at Delphine – Operation Stealth (1990) and Cruise for a Corpse (1991) – also utilized your household Cinematique graphics engine. That brings me to another question: How would you compare Cinematique to the notorious SCUMM engine by Ron Gilbert of Lucasfim, which was developed at pretty much the same time?
Yeah, I also wrote the engine just by myself. I can’t say how exactly those two engines compare from a technical standpoint, but I agree that they are quite close to each other. It was a motoring tool with scripts and the ability to create animations and setup rules for a textual system [verbs and nouns, etc.], which were necessary for the whole [point and click] adventure game.
Have you played Manic Mansion, for instance?
No. But I played some Sierra games on PC – King Quest, the Space Quest series, etc. – and games where you’d have to type in the actual words. When I started working on Atari ST, the first novelty was the mouse. So I had the idea to create a system which uses only the mouse for the game control.
Yes, it is very interesting how you guys had the same immediate idea to use mouse controls in adventure games. That converted the whole genre of text-based graphical games into the point-and-click system – practically overnight – and it’s still going strong today.
Apart from great point-and-click adventure titles, Delphine rose further into notoriety through another genre. Another great talent, Eric Chahi, entered the scene and developed another timeless Delphine classic: Another World (1991). The game was inspired by Prince of Persia and Karateka, Jordan Mechner’s rotoscoped brainchildren. What puzzles me is that Eric also worked on this title pretty much alone. Why was that?
We initially started working with Eric on the Future Wars team. He was the artist on the game and I was the programmer; it was a two-man team only. When the game was released, he had a project of his own. He started working on Another World at home. It took him two or three years to complete it. He just had an idea and wanted to do it alone.
What made him leave Delphine after that?
He was not in Delphine exactly. Because at the time we were making Future Wars together, we were still kind of independent developers contracted by Delphine to create a game. I offered him to work on a sequel to Future Wars, but he wanted to make Another World instead. It was at that time that Paul de Senneville offered me to join the Delphine team full-time. Then I carried on with other point-and-click adventure games: Operation Stealth and Cruise for Corpse.