Detective Storytelling: Mografi Founder and Developer Joe Russ Talks Jenny LeClue
Finding indie games to interview is not too hard- they are not in short supply. The fun part is finding the ones you are excited to interview and learn more about. Jenny LeClue: Detectivu is one of those exciting games I stumbled upon thanks to the Twitter feed of Alex from Polygon Treehouse , a developer I interviewed recently for their studio’s game Röki.
Joe Russ, founder of the studio Mografi in 2005, was able to answer some questions for Gameumentary and talk a little about his studio’s upcoming game, Jenny LeClue: Detectivu.
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Could you describe Jenny LeClue and what sets it apart from other games like it?
Jenny LeClue – Detectivu is a narrative adventure game about relationships, detectiving, choosiness, and an epic tangled mystery.
Jenny is a brilliant young detective, but nothing exciting happens in her small town of Arthurton, and she longs for real adventure. But she gets more than she bargains for when her mother is accused of murder. Jenny takes on the case of a lifetime and begins an unexpected, dangerous journey to uncover the truth. It’s also a coming-of-age story about the blurred lines between right and wrong.
What sets it apart… I’d like to think the art style and the strong focus on narrative depth and character driven gameplay sets it apart from other games. We are trying to make it feel like an animated movie that you play, with a cinematic sense of camera work and character animation, which is very ambitious for just a two-person team. We are also experimenting with social story choices and the idea of a story within a story, as Jenny is, unknowingly, the hero of an ongoing series of YA books the author has been writing (poorly).
What was the inspiration for Jenny LeClue and how did that shape the development of the character and plot?
Jenny LeClue came out of an idea I had a few years ago for a short animated web series. The premise was a send-up of crime procedural TV shows, with each episode only lasting 30 seconds. From the start I had this idea that our lead would be Jenny LeClue. The spelling of her name has changed as the idea evolved, but it was always this Nancy Drew / Veronica Mars type of sharp witted young detective. That initial version was about the character and the absurd pacing. So the idea started as a seed and slowly grew, expanded, and evolved in the back of my mind over a period of several years. This went on until it didn’t fit into that medium anymore.
So Ben, myself and a few others developed the larger world of Arthurton, it’s inhabitants, and the overall story that took place there. And what we came up with, that rich story world felt like it could be best explored within the framework of a game rather than a web series. I want the audience to be able to spend more time with the story and characters and still have that sense of discovery, fun and adventure. A game felt like the right fit for the scope of the project.
What inspired the choice in the handmade art style? There definitely an almost innocent child cartoon flair, but it seems to also have just enough of an edge to appeal to adults as well.
Well, I’ve always loved strong, angular shapes. And color. Lots of color! Also, at the time I developed the look of Jenny LeClue I was doing a lot of shiny, hi-poly, photorealistic 3D work for commercial clients. I did’t find it creatively fulfilling so I was making a few style frames in my spare time of what Jenny’s world could look like. I was also getting really obsessed with the rectilinear symmetry and framing in Wes Anderson films. This way of taking dimensional space and making it feel very flat, graphic and designed, yet still creating a sense of depth through movement and parallax. So the look I came up with was both a reactionary style in response to the overly smooth and realistic 3d work I had been doing and an incorporation of my interest in these very graphic, curated compositions of Wes Anderson films.
Choice is a big part of this game. How far do you push this theme and how does it affect not only the game but the players?
We are experimenting with this idea of story authorship and how choices act as influence. The game is a story of many influences. Influence from the author and Jenny, who both think they are in control of the story. And between the player and ourselves, the developer, who also think we are in control of the story.
So we have player choices that effect each individual play through, and define the kind of detective Jenny will be. But we are also experimenting with social story choices. These will be tallied globally, and then Ben and I will use these choices to effect the way we write Volume Two of Jenny LeClue. So the players have an influence on us in a way that permanently effects the story going forward.
For example, let’s say at the end of volume one there’s a choice to save Jenny’s best friend or a cat from an oncoming bus. If the majority of players picked to save the cat, then we would write Volume Two with the idea that Jenny’s friend was hit and possibly died in the accident. This would ripple through our planned story and would change Jenny’s path and the world around her going forward in a permanent way. For me, that’s a pretty exciting creative space to explore!
What are your favorite aspects of the game so far?
I’m very proud of the atmosphere we’ve been able to build as well as the sense of life we bring to the characters. Breathing life into both a world and characters is hard work! And there may be a deceptively light flair to the art style, but the game takes inspiration from horror and sci-fi stories as well as mystery classics. So I’m very proud that we’ve been able to create an atmosphere that is both eerie and fun! Lastly, we’ve really tried to create a genuine depth and nuance to the characters, something I hope players are pleasantly surprised by.
Do you relate to any character in particular? If so why?
I relate a bit to all of the characters. But Jenny and the Author resonate with me the strongest. They are both creative problem solvers. Both are flawed. Both have attitude problems. Though they each have unique goals. The author wishes to create, and Jenny to uncover.
What do you want people who play this game to get out of it?
I hope people find the world and the characters engaging. We are trying to craft characters that maybe be rendered visually 2D, but hopefully have some real depth and substance to them. One of the themes we are exploring is that no one person is just good or bad… that everyone is a blend. Sometimes the most interesting characters make selfish and difficult choices even with good intentions.
People are complex, contradictory creatures, and there is something good and something bad in us all that we must face. It’s a very human struggle that we can all relate to. I think everyone can identify with that struggle in choices large and small. And that’s something I’m interested in exploring. And that’s something I hope resonates with players and makes Jenny and her world feel even more immersive and real.
Do you have a history in game development?
This is our first big game! Before Jenny I made a few mobile apps, but I’ve mostly worked as a director and motion designer. Ben has worked as an actor and director as well as motion designer.
What do you see for the future of your gaming studio?
Hopefully more narrative driven games with touches of sci-fi, mystery, and horror!