Emma Detective Instinct
Image: @TrainDetective

Back in December of last year, we reported on Detective Instinct - Farewell My Beloved, an upcoming train-based ADV/Visual Novel (for Steam) inspired by games like Famicom Detective Club, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and Hotel Dusk: Room 215.

The title is the debut project from Armonica LLC — a studio that was created by a group of American developers who have a passion for Japanese adventure games — and ranks fairly high on the list of our most anticipated titles scheduled to release later this year. So last week, we decided to reach out to one of its developers to see whether we could tease out any more information about the project that hasn't previously been revealed elsewhere on Steam or social media. Over a video call, we sat down with the project's writer, director, and composer Joey Lopes, chatting about everything from the game's ADV/Visual Novel influences to the work of director Alfred Hitchcock, and what else players can expect once the game arrives later this year. You can enjoy this conversation below:

Time Extension: What is the story behind Armonica LLC? How did the team come together? Could you tell us more about who is involved with the project?

Lopes: Sure! So the core team is four people. So that’s myself as sort of the writer, director, and composer of the music. We have two lead artists Harry and Andrew – they’re brothers and they’re both talented pixel artists and 3D artists. They’ve done a lot of work, like freelance work, all over the place — you’ve probably seen stuff that they’ve done before. And then there's our programmer Erik, who is most well-known I think for a lot of the NES homebrew stuff that he does. He’s also super talented. I didn’t meet him until working on this project, but me, Harry, and Andrew we all met on various pixel forums in the late 2000s/early 2010s.

Our larger friend group kind of all went our separate ways when we went to college and years went by, but we reconnected a lot over the Pandemic. So when I got the idea of making a Japanese adventure-style game, like an ADV, I immediately went to Harry and Andrew because I immediately knew they would get exactly what we were going for. And they brought in Erik because they’ve known him for a while and he also is a fan of ADVs. He especially loves The Portopia Serial Murder Case – that’s one of his favourite games. Like if you ever ask him about Portopia, he’s always very happy to engage in a long conversation about that game. So yeah, it was just a great group of people to work on this kind of project with. We were all very quickly on the same page about what we wanted to do.

Time Extension: You kind of answered this a bit already, but why choose this type of game as your first project? Are there any other reasons why you decided to make an ADV beyond the fact you just love the genre and want to pay tribute to it?

Lopes: That’s definitely the biggest reason, but I think, for me, another reason just from a project management standpoint is if you’ve ever tried to make a project as like a hobbyist project with your friends, you’ll know that it’s very, very difficult to get things off the ground. That’s because you can end up in deliberation for a very long time trying to design the ideas behind the game, people can have disagreements about the game, and such and such.

It usually ends up where there will be a very very early period where people are throwing ideas out and it’s exciting, but then it fizzles out because the goalpost keeps moving and the scope is very difficult to understand and it just ends up going nowhere. Obviously, we have a lot of interest in different genres, but when I thought of ADVs, that was one where I felt I could really wrap my head around it and have a very clear goal from the outset about the design regarding the basics of the gameplay and the basics of the story. So right at the beginning of the project, we knew exactly what we wanted to do. It was just a matter of getting it done, right?

Time Extension: Could you talk a little about how you were introduced to the genre? What are some of the main influences on Detective Instinct?

Lopes: In terms of our inspirations, the first ADV-style game I played (like a lot of people probably) was Ace Attorney. I got really into those. I came into it later than a lot of people. Some of the other guys on the team played it forever ago on DS when it first came out, but I first played it when the HD Collection came out.

I was just really taken with the idea of this kind of game that has a heavy story focus, where the gameplay is in service of the narrative — as opposed to the other way around where you have a narrative as sort of a layer on top of the gameplay, that’s supporting the gameplay as an incentive to continue playing. So I loved Ace Attorney and I played most of those games I think it was definitely when they released those Famicom Detective Club remakes on Switch that it occurred to me that I might want to try to make one of these things.

With Famicom Detective Club, in particular, I enjoyed the way that you interact with that game, compared to some other ADVs and other visual novel-type games. Because, I think, in a lot of games you could end up in the situation where you’re selecting cutscenes from a menu. Whereas in the Famicom Detective Club games, you’re given a list of things you can do that are vague, but you have to figure out how to use those to navigate through a conversation. So it makes every conversation like a little puzzle, where different kinds of people have different kinds of ways that you have to interact with them to get through the situation and move on with the story. So that was fun for me, and I thought, yep, that’s novel. Definitely, in terms of ADV mechanics, our game is more similar to Famicom Detective Club in that way.

I should say, though, there definitely are moments – and Famicom Detective Club sometimes does this – where the specific order of commands you do can sometimes feel very arbitrary. So players will just sort of select every option until they find the thing that the game wants them to do. Personally, that doesn’t bother me at all — I actually find that kind of charming in a way. However, I would say for our game, the goal was to retain the feeling of conversations being puzzles that you solve with the command menu, but we wanted to limit the amount of times players felt they had to brute force it.

So I hope, based on the way we designed it, people will feel that it’s fairly intuitive what they have to do to progress, or at least they’ll naturally do what they have to do even if they’re not super thinking about it.

Time Extension: Once you decided on the genre, did you go out and do any additional research into other games in the genre? Particularly the work of creators like Yuji Horii and Rika Suzuki, and things like The Portopia Serial Murder Case, J.B. Harold, etc.

Lopes: Oh yeah. I went and tried to play as many of the ones I could that were available. You mentioned Yuji Horii — I personally actually have not played Portopia yet. It’s one of my blind spots in this genre. But as I said, our programmer loves that game and the influence is there.

Yuji Horii is somebody that I have tremendous respect for. Dragon Quest is probably my favourite video game series of all time, and I think his approach to storytelling in games is something that resonates with me and informs everything that I do whenever I think about video games. So yeah, I think that Yuji Horii is the best of all time. He’s one of the greatest game designers there is.

Rika Suzuki is also another interesting one. I haven’t gotten around to playing the J.B. Harrold games, but I’m aware of their place in the history of these games and I like Rika Suzuki’s work in general. The games she worked on that, I guess, most people will be familiar with will be the CING games, so Hotel Dusk, Last Window, and then the Another Code games. I love all of those games and I personally feel that she and I have a very similar sense of the kind of stories that we’re interested in telling. Like grounded stories focused on human drama and influenced by American mystery and crime fiction.

Time Extension: In terms of the general setup of Detective Instinct: Farewell, My Beloved, how much can you give away beyond what’s already available? Because the way I understand it at the moment is that there is a mystery before boarding the train that may or may not be related to what happens later. Is that correct?

Lopes: That’s basically right. The game takes place in sort of an ambiguous time period. We sort of think of it like the ‘90s or 2000s – somewhere around then. And you play as an American college student who is studying abroad in Europe, with your friend Emma and a professor.

The story begins the night before you’re about to board this luxury train to London, which is where you’ll be flying from to get back home to America. That night at your hotel there’s a man who is seemingly murdered there and you get a brief glimpse of the investigation that is taking place prior to the next day when you board the train. Obviously, that will be important later, but it’s just something that you are tangentially aware of before you get on the train, which is where the real crux of the story happens.

On the train, your friend Emma has this weird experience where she meets a woman who disappears. She talks to people on the train and nobody recognizes the woman ever existed, insisting that she must be mistaken. So Emma comes to you like, ‘I’ve had this strange experience, nobody believes me. Can you help me figure out what’s going on?’ You then try and solve the mystery of what happened to this woman before the end of the three-day trip. And, of course, the situation evolves from there and the stakes become higher as the story goes on. But that’s where it all starts.

Time Extension: Trains tend to come up time and time again in mystery/detective stories. Including famously in media like The Lady Vanishes, Murder on the Orient Express, and even The Last Express (a video game from Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner). What influenced this choice of location for you? What narrative/gameplay possibilities made it particularly attractive to you as the developer?

Lopes: I was really glad that brought up The Lady Vanishes because that was a huge inspiration on the premise of this one. I love Hitchcock. I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. And The Lady Vanishes is one of my favourites from his British period when he did movies like The 39 Steps and Sabotage.

The Lady Vanishes
Image: Gainsborough Pictures/Gaumont-British Picture Corporation

I would say that the story of this game is very much inspired by 20th-century fiction and film. So like Hitchcock and film noir and writers like Raymond Chandler and James Cain – novelists like that. So that was a huge inspiration. But when I was first thinking of the story, I wanted to make just a couple of decisions very very early on to guide my writing a little bit. Because if you don’t do that, you can just wind up, not knowing what to do.

So the first one of these things was that I wanted to do the kind of standard ADV dynamic where you have your protagonist player character and then the “helper character”. So in Ace Attorney, you have Phoenix and Maya. In Famicom Detective Club, you have the protagonist and Ayumi. In Snatcher, you have Gillian Seed and Metal Gear or Ashley and D in Another Code. So it is just something that works very well for ADVs because it’s good to have a character for your main character to bounce off of.

But the other thing that I wanted to commit to was I was going to set it on a train. It was mostly a practical decision because it’s a lot easier to conceive of a mystery when you know exactly what you’re working with, right? You have a limited number of locations. A limited number of characters. A limited number of things that they can do in these locations. And then from there, it’s just a matter of, what is something novel I can do in this very confined environment? So, I figured, as somebody who was writing the story and who had never written an ADV before, I wanted to commit to something that felt doable and that I could wrap my head around without getting too overwhelmed. So I thought, okay, I’ll just commit to the train and we’ll do it from there.

It also ended up being a very nice choice for our art design as well, because we decided to go with this idea of pre-rendered 3D backgrounds – kind of old school ‘90s-style, pre-rendered 3D – and train interiors lend themselves very very well to making pre-rendered backgrounds because you can reuse a lot of aspects of them while still making them visually distinct. And, for us, that just helped our workflow tremendously.

So it’s primarily a practical choice, but once we committed to that, I tried to think of other stories that use trains and one thing that I didn’t really want to do was I didn’t want it to be an Agatha Christie “Whodunnit” type thing.

I wouldn’t say it’s played out, but it’s something that’s done a lot in games and at this point, it’s kind of cliché. A lot of games when they do it, they do it in a sort of like tongue-in-cheek sort of way and the story ends up being kind of silly. There was a Sonic the Hedgehog murder mystery thing recently, right? And there are plenty of other examples of this. Not even just in games. It's such a tried-and-true thing that people do. My goal with this was not to do a sendup of that but to try to tell a different mystery on a train. And when I was thinking of different kinds of mysteries that aren’t really Agatha Christie-like and aren’t really Whodunnits, that’s when I thought of The Lady Vanishes and this idea of a person going missing on a train where only one person remembers the person ever existed.

Time Extension: One of the things that struck us about the game when we first saw it was the expressive characters. Are there any you’re particularly excited about introducing players to? Likewise, do you have any interesting stories about where the ideas for these characters came from?

Lopes: There’s a good spread of different kinds of characters in this game. I think when you make this kind of game, you want the characters to be expressive and memorable. So definitely we tried to inject a lot of personality into the side characters especially. And you can see that in a lot of the materials that we’ve released so far.

There are a pair of really wacky golfers and I had a great time writing dialogue for them. I play golf a little bit myself, so I was able to inject a lot of golfer lingo in there and kind of poke fun at the culture a little bit.

There’s also another character called Monty who has a very charming design. He’s kind of a silly, strange-looking man, who looks very friendly. But the idea behind him is kind of like in Famicom Detective Club where each conversation is a puzzle that you’re solving with different kinds of people, his character came from the idea of: well, what if you had a character that you’re trying to interrogate but for some reason this character doesn’t speak? So, basically, how do you interrogate someone who doesn’t talk back to you? So you have to figure out using the commands you have, how do you get this guy to open up to you? But yeah, he’s just a very charming design. Andrew designed him and he’s very, very memorable. We love him a lot.

I think the character that most of all I want people to see and I’m looking forward to is Emma, though. Because I think the real heart of the story is the relationship between her and the other characters in the game, and I think that’s where I think the most moving parts of the narrative are. So definitely, that’s the big one for me.

Time Extension: In terms of progress, do you have a rough estimate on how much is left to do in regards to getting the game ready for release? You’ve mentioned 2024 as a release year. How realistic is that at the moment?

Lopes: The game right now is playable from start to finish, and has been for a while. So most of what is left to be done is art assets that haven’t been finished yet and just additional polish and UI type of stuff. Unfortunately, it is really hard to say for certain when it will be ready for release because none of us are working on the game full-time. We’re just kind of doing it when we can.

So there’s a lot of art that needs to get made and sometimes we get a ton done in a week and then sometimes we just don’t have the time to work on it a lot. So it’s very, very in flux. But we do feel like it’s reasonable that we could release this year. There’s a possibility that we may look towards crowdfunding at some point to help lighten the load a little bit. Maybe get us to the finish line a little bit faster, but we don’t have anything to announce about that just yet.

But yeah, we definitely think this year is realistic, and that’s sort of our goal, so that’s why we put that on the Steam page. Just to sort of motivate us.

Time Extension: The game is currently only slated for Steam. Have you thought about porting the game to Switch or other platforms? Or is the focus still mainly on finishing the game for PC?

Lopes: Our priority for now is definitely the PC release, but obviously we think this game would be ideal for the Switch and we’re definitely going to explore the possibility of porting it. But a large part of that (and localization also) will depend on how well the game does and if it’s financially feasible for us.

So definitely the best way to increase the chances of a Switch port or localization to other languages is just to wishlist the game on Steam, follow us on Twitter, share it around, and get the word out and that will make it a lot easier to justify doing it.

But yeah, I mean, from the beginning I thought this would be the kind of game I would want to play on Switch. I have all the Ace Attorney games on Switch. I have Famicom Detective Club on Switch. It’s just the perfect platform for these types of games. So definitely it’s in the back of our minds and it’s something we want to make happen for sure.

Detective Instinct SNES
As a pet project, the game's programmer Erik has put together a WIP demo of the first 30 minutes of the game running on real SNES hardware — Image: @KasumiDirect

I wanted to bring this up too as a little thing because I know Time Extension is focused on a lot of retro game-type stuff. I don’t want to overpromise anything, but our programmer Erik – one of his pet projects lately – has been porting the game to the Super Nintendo. So there is a possibility we’ll also explore that further because it’s a super cool novelty.