In 1998, Tex Murphy: Overseer, the fifth title in the Tex Murphy adventure game series, left its bumbling detective hero dangling from one of the longest cliffhangers in gaming history. Tex and Chelsee Bando, the woman he had been pining for through three games, finished their first date and shared that all-important first kiss. That’s the moment when Tex’s luck turned, and it appeared that Death would have the last dance. Adventure games went on the decline soon after Overseer was released, and fans of the series never learned what happened to Tex and Chelsee, despite the ominous “To be continued…” that promised to answer all of their questions.
Fifteen years later, game writers and designers Aaron Conners (on the right in the picture above) and Chris Jones, the latter of whom played the detective from the very beginning, are getting the unique opportunity to wrap up that very loose end. Jones and Conners are hard at work on the sixth game in the Tex Murphy series, Tesla Effect, a project that came to life thanks to—you guessed it—a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $600,000 in donations. Jones and Conners talked to the Gameological Society about Tex’s humble beginnings as a character in a backyard film project, how “Wolfenstein 3D” and flight simulators served as inspiration for the game design and what compelled them to dust off Tex’s Fedora for one more chance to save a post nuclear world.
The Gameological Society: The Tex Murphy character came from a movie that you did called Plan 10 From Outer Space, right?
Chris Jones: Yes, that’s correct. That’s what we’d do in the summer is make backyard movies. A lot of the guys who actually worked on this project were guys that I grew up with, and that was our summertime activity. We hit a point where we were working at Access Software and basically were getting burned out on some of the games we were doing. So we said, let’s make a movie again for fun, just to break it up a bit, and that’s where we started developing the Tex Murphy concept. We made a movie, but it was an absolute disaster. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We kind of hit a point where we threw it together, and people looked at it, and it was awful, but there’s some elements here where we might have fun with it if we took them to a game environment. So that’s really where the idea started from, our disastrous experience making this movie.
Gameological: Was it easy to translate a detective story into a point-and-click adventure game?
Jones: Actually, when I was growing up, I loved Humphrey Bogart movies, and I loved detective movies and the appeal of film noir. So building a concept around the idea that you’re going from many different locations and talking to suspects, I thought it fit the point-and-click adventure concept perfectly.
Gameological: Who created Tex?
He was less like Deckard from Blade Runner and became more like Bogart.
Jones: Actually, it was myself and a friend of mine I grew up with, Doug Vandergrift. He worked on the script, and we came up with the concept. When Aaron came in, he really started to give the character skin and life and a lot more depth. When we were building the character originally, games were much simpler then, and you didn’t really have a chance to construct a more believable world, script, dialogue. Those things weren’t critical. When we got to Under A Killing Moon, we needed someone who had some real writing experience, and that’s where Aaron came in.
Gameological: So Aaron, when you came on board, how developed was the character, and what did you add to it?
Aaron Conners: I think the way the character had been developed by Chris and the games was more influenced by, like, Blade Runner, a little more science fiction. When Chris and I started to work together, we realized we both had a lot of interest in the classic film noir movies and detectives. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or just organically developed that we took Tex in a little different direction. So he was less like Deckard from Blade Runner and became more like Bogart. There was also quite a bit of humor in the games already, but we really wanted to incorporate that and make Tex a little more bumbling than in the previous games.
Gameological: You’ve got the detective story, the comedy, and the sci-fi on top of all that.
Conners: Those were all things we were interested in, and we felt it was a pretty fresh combination of elements. There still has never been anything done quite like it.
Gameological: Going back to the first two games, Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, how different were they from when you made the jump to Under A Killing Moon?
Conners: There were two really big differences. One, obviously, was the full-motion video, and we could do a lot more because we were on a CD-ROM. We were on floppies previously. The other part of it was that my writing style and the way I designed the story gave it a lot more structure. For example, we divided Under A Killing Moon into days, and the days had pretty clear entry and exit points. It had a very structured layout to it that was very different from Martian Memorandum and Mean Streets. Players also had a very good sense of how they were progressing in the game.
Jones: When we designed the first two, it really was more of a point-and-click universe. You would have the character in the room, but you, in essence, would just click on objects in the room to get the information as to what’s in a drawer. As for what is visible on screen in the later games, it was really a 3D virtual world now. You were responsible to look under things, and move things, and move around the room from a first-person perspective to find things that may not be obvious when you first walked in. The reason that we liked it so much is because we felt that it made you step in the role of a detective—that this is the way a detective would work.
The other part was the writing and the way the character was created. He wasn’t a perfect game character. He had lots of flaws. He wasn’t the brightest guy in the world, but it’s that “idiot savant” nature of the character and the vulnerability of the character that has made him very popular with a certain group of people. They like that differentiation. They like the fact that he feels like a real human being. They like the fact that even in this dark, bleak, post-atomic world, there’s still that black humor that comes through.
Gameological: Were there a lot of detective games when you started working on these, or did you just try to do your own thing?
Conners: There really wasn’t a whole lot out there that was particularly inspirational for us. The things we were inspired by were more technological, I think. I remember [Wolfenstein 3D] was a huge inspiration for us because of the fact that you could move through a 3D environment. At the time, that was very novel, and games were very much 2D, point-and-click. So the fact you could actually move through this environment, even though it was a very bare-bones, scaled down world, was very cool.
The other game that really inspired us was The 7th Guest and the quality of the graphics. There was nothing else that at that level at that time. So we went to our programmers and said, we want the 3D movement of Wolfenstein, but we want it to look closer to the quality of The 7th Guest. That became the bar for us with Under A Killing Moon. Even though it is dated, I feel like it’s still surprisingly good when you consider what other games were out there at the time.
Gameological: And like you said, a lot of the inspiration for the character came from movies.
Conners: For some of the comic stuff, one of the movies that was a huge influence was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the Steve Martin-Carl Reiner movie. We really felt like that had such a great tone to it. It was silly, but there was also a compelling story to it. That was a big influence on us, and we mixed in a little bit more of an edge to it than that movie had. Indiana Jones movies were a big inspiration as well. We really took it from a lot of different sources.
Gameological: How hard was it to write a story for this kind of game?
Conners: It wasn’t so much that it was difficult because I was having so much fun doing it. We started out with kind of a basic outline of a big story, and it ended up being way too big. I think we ended up cutting it down by about 60 or 70 percent from the original goal. We fleshed it out together. Chris and I would talk and toss out ideas back and forth, and I’d go off and write some dialogue or come up with some new characters. There was no template for it.
Gameological: Did you, Aaron, write the puzzles, or did Chris come up with them and ask you to work it into the story?
Conners: We shared the design responsibilities. We always kind of thought of it a little bit like The Beatles and their song writing. Chris and I were like John and Paul. We would come up with the puzzles and try to outdo each other. There was a bit of friendly competition with whoever could come up with the most clever, coolest puzzle. We would come back in and say, “Okay, I thought of something last night. Here’s the puzzles. See if you could solve it.” We would run the puzzles by each other the same way John and Paul would play their songs for each other. It was very much a shared experience, and we would always consult each other, but there were very clearly puzzles that Chris designed and puzzles that I designed.
What we pulled out of that was, we shouldn’t be in the flight simulator business.
Gameological: Chris, you were also working on flight simulators at the time. Were there any techniques from working on the flight sims that translated over to the new games?
Jones: We were competing at the time against some pretty big players—like, Microsoft Flight Simulator was huge. What we pulled out of that was, we shouldn’t be in the flight simulator business. The competition’s pretty stiff. We started with a flight simulator called Echelon, and we tried to build a story around it. I think it was successful, and people enjoyed that they weren’t just flying—they had a purpose and were moving around. I think what we really got from that was how to open up a world and how to make it feel like it was more than just the sum of its parts. This isn’t just about Tex Murphy solving this case. This is about a whole world that exists out there, and that’s where having more objects in there that you could look at made that future world take shape. [It made] people feel like they had stepped into something more than just a game.
Gameological: Chris, you played the character of Tex from the beginning, right? Starting with the movie?
Jones: I was. It was an interesting evolution. When we first started out, it was, in essence, “We need a character to walk across the screen,” and I would get on the treadmill and just walk on it. They would just use my images for the Mean Streets game. It wasn’t because I did anything special. It’s just because we were working on the story, and we needed someone. I was convenient because I was there every day. The same thing happened with Martian Memorandum.
I just kind of became the character because I was around and the least expensive actor we had. I’d done movies and stuff, and I had a primitive concept of what I needed to do. The role of Tex, I think I can handle pretty well. We just brought in a lot of talented people around me that really helped keep the level up.
Gameological: So what makes Tex so endearing to the player?
Conners: Like Chris said with Martian Memorandum, there was very little acting that had to be done. It was just a face and an avatar that walked around on the screen. Under A Killing Moon really required him to act and be in scenes and show emotions and evoke humor and drama and all these things. Honestly, I don’t think it was something he ever aspired to at all. It was just something he kind of got roped into, and there was no easy way to transition out of it. Even when we did Under A Killing Moon, we didn’t understand how big it was going to be in terms of the amount of acting involved.
As the writer, I was blown away by how good he was naturally. When he was on screen—when he got in front of the camera, something would happen to him that doesn’t happen when he’s not on camera. He just had this natural ability that came out, and the one thing that I’ve always loved is, he will ad-lib a lot of stuff. He’s gotten inside the character so much. If Chris didn’t have the natural ability, I don’t think Tex would have been a character that anyone would have cared about.
Gameological: As you’re moving into Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive, and Overseer, you also had some famous actors like Michael York, Kevin McCarthy, and Barry Corbin. Did you come up with the roles for these actors or just reach out and ask if they would like to play certain characters?
Jones: We got lucky. We got Margot Kidder. We got Russell Means. We got James Earl Jones to do a voice. That was just lucky happenstance. Margot Kidder was in town to film a role, and one of the persons we worked with asked, “Would you be interested in having Margot Kidder in this?” And we were like, “Yeah.” That was really kind of the first step in bringing in big name actors. James Earl Jones was interested in it because his son had heard about it. We just happened to approach his agent, and because of his son, he said, “Sure, I’d be happy to do that.”
Then with Pandora, we actually set out for characters for Tanya Roberts, Kevin McCarthy, John Agar, and Barry Corbin. Basically, we knew that we wanted to get some name power in here. We knew we wanted to get some actors that would add some gravity to what we were doing. One of the dreams I had from early gaming on was, can we create what I would call an interactive movie? I know it feels like a dirty word, but to me, it was, can you build the story so that it has multiple paths and so the character can play it in different ways, and not just the ending but the experience of playing the game is different enough that they really do feel like each path that they go down offers something unique and interesting? I think on the next one, that’s where Aaron’s forte really came through on Pandora—to be able to put these paths together in a way that we could really call this an interactive movie.
Gameological: Aaron, when you sat down to write Pandora, did you know for sure who Barry Corbin was going to play, and did you write it accordingly?
Conners: What happened was, we would write the story, and I would come up with the characters, and we would start looking for the actors. We didn’t have the luxury of going out and getting the exact actor that we had in mind for something because our budgets weren’t crazy. I work for EA right now, and we spend more in a month on any project we’re working on than we spent on our entire game development budget on these Tex Murphy games.
So for us, it wasn’t practical to go out and spend three times the budget for the rest of the game on an actor because the actor alone was not going to be enough to sell the game—even though you saw a number of games come out during that time period where that’s exactly what they did. They went out and got Christopher Walken or Karen Allen or some other actor and then gave them a million dollars or two million dollars to just be in the game, and the game itself would just be thrown together. I honestly believe that’s one of the reasons that whole genre of game tanked because you had people who felt like it was enough to put a name actor on it.
Gameological: Other than Tex, is there one character who stands out in your mind as fun to write or to work with?
Conners: There was a character named Delores Lightbody [in Overseer]. She was played by an actress who was just a hysterical lady, and she brought so much to the character. I always try and write well for the characters, and I try to get a lot of humor in there, but what makes the difference really for me, a lot of times, is the portrayal by the actor—that they’ll take what I wrote and totally bring it to a new level. That’s some of the stuff I like the best.
As far as our name actors, really all of them brought something amazing, but I single out Michael York because he was just such an amazing, consummate actor. He had pages of dialogue and had several scenes that were really, really long, and he came in, and he knew them word for word, backwards and forwards. In fact, our casting director just told me recently that [York] told her that that role was one of the favorite roles he had in his whole career, and I was just blown away by that.
Gameological: What prompted you to do another game, and was Kickstarter your first option?
Jones: Kickstarter was our last option. [Laughs.] Ever since we sold the company to Microsoft, we tried to launch it several different ways, and we had some progress at times. There are a lot of people out there who really liked the character, but what we ran into for the first five, six, or seven years was that adventure games are dead. They’re never going to come back. So there was really no way to get the true momentum. Then we looked at the option of doing it as a casual game, which is basically the cousin of the adventure game but smaller. But every time we would try to do some design work that way, it just seemed like we would come up and say, “I don’t think our fans are going to like this very much.” [Laughs.] We can’t get the [Tex Murphy] spirit into a casual game.
Kickstarter was our last option.
Then we thought, with the success of some of the others on Kickstarter, “Okay, we’ll give this as a try as a last resort.” You need more money, and these other guys had some luck so we’ll see whether we can pull it off. We put the campaign together, and we have a lot of great fans out there—a lot of great people who really helped us keep the momentum to keep our goal. When we started out, we said we need this amount of money and a lot of people said, “Wow, good luck with that. That seems like too much.” But our fans, God bless them, they hung out there, and they really basically got the message out on all the airwaves. Through their testimonials and the fact that they were so in love with the game, they really helped us get over the hump with that.
Gameological: When did you come up with the idea for Tesla Effect?
Conners: The evolution is that after Pandora, we had a story direction we wanted to pursue, and we got sidetracked for a bunch of different reasons. Overseer ended up being kind of a retelling of Mean Streets. It did further the story a little bit because we had a framing device in the story of Tex and Chelsea going on a date together after Pandora, during which time Tex tells her the story of his first case. So we were still moving things forward chronologically, but the game was really about what had happened early in Tex’s career.
All the time, we had this other story that we started fleshing out and researching and discussing. It was something we were really, really excited about, but we knew we would need time to really develop it. The schedule we were on for Overseer was really truncated to the point where we knew we couldn’t really do the story we wanted to. Then, like Chris just said, it was shortly after that that Microsoft bought our company and decided adventure games weren’t profitable enough to go on with. So that story became our Smile album from Brian Wilson. Chris and I for years would talk about new things related to the research of the story, and it got to the point that we were so excited about the story and developed so much that we said, “God, we’ve got to get this out there.”
It wasn’t so much all through the years that we always wanted to bring Tex back. It wasn’t like, “I really want to make a new Tex game” or Chris really wanted to get back in front of the camera and play Tex. It was that we had this story that we were so passionate about and that was what motivated us to bring him back.
Gameological: I imagine, too, that you wanted to give the fans some sign that Tex was okay or at least give the character some closure.
Conners: Oh, absolutely. We weren’t really tuned into our fans at the time we were doing the games. We were just making and releasing them, and people were playing them. The internet didn’t have that much of a presence in the early ‘90s, so it really wasn’t until you started getting into the mid- to late ’90s that forums started popping up and people started to connect with each other via the internet. So we didn’t really have a connection to our fans until after we didn’t make the games anymore. We had all of these fan sites that popped up over the years, and people came out and connected with each other because of their shared affection for these games. They created some really strong communities.
They all eventually moved into one community, which is The Unofficial Tex Murphy Web Site, and it has a membership of tens of thousands of people. When Chris and I became aware of this, we were really curious because it seemed like there was still this ongoing passion for the character, and as we got to know some of the people, we realized just how important the games were to these people, like you, who were younger when they first discovered them. As we began to understand the depth of their attachment to the franchise, that definitely became our number-one motivation for bringing him back.
And secondly, we were really horrified that we left him on a cliffhanger. It became personal. These really, nice, sweet people who love our character—and we just completely crushed them with an unresolved cliffhanger. Those are all motivations for us to bring him back.
Gameological: Where are you on the new game?
Jones: We’re about 98-percent done with the filming. Some of the humorous scenes, we haven’t shot those yet. We’ll go back and do that in the next couple of weeks. The major stuff is all wrapped and done, and the levels are coming together. When I started out with the Kickstarter, I had no idea I would allow the game to get to the size that it had gotten to. It is much bigger than we had originally anticipated. We’ve added more stuff, more characters, but I really want to do this in a way that’s going to be satisfying to the people who’ve been patient and the people who’ve supported us. So this game has really gotten a little bit bigger than I anticipated, and it takes a little bit longer to finish, but I was really happy with the performances.
By bringing in Adrian Carr, who’s been our director since The Pandora Directive—he did an incredible job getting great performances out of people. I feel like the level of acting and the level of humor and the story dynamics are probably stronger and better than we’ve ever done, so I’m very pleased with that. I think the paths we have in the game—there are three major paths, and they are differentiated even more than Pandora so the experience of playing those paths will feel more unique than Pandora did. I thought Pandora was great that way, but I think here, you feel the experience of being on these different paths more so from the beginning, so it does feel like its own experience. I just feel like it has a lot of depth. I love the locations. I’m very pleased with how everything is looking at this point.
(Photo of Jones and Conners: Adventure Classic Gaming)