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Interview conducted by Ryan Noble

No-one truly knows the reality of Jack the Ripper’s serial killings in 1888, but Salix Games is bringing a new angle to the past with its game, Dance of Death: Du Lac & Fey. This game merges true history with a new imagination of the events, making the streets of Whitechapel and the interesting characters who walk it come alive once more.

And, I was lucky enough to interview Jessica Saunders, the founder of Salix Games. Before Jack strikes again, let’s get to it…

Ryan Noble: Tell us a little about yourself and your studio, Salix Games… How did you get to where you are now?

Jessica Saunders: I am a 30 something, mixed raced, British woman, who lives in a charming little village with my partner and our cats. I have far too many tattoos and read and watch an obscene amount of sci-fi and fantasy, and when I find the time, I love to play video games. My favourite series is Mass Effect.

It’s been a long road [to get there]. I’ve worked in the games industry for about 10 years now, mainly as a [contracted] Sound Designer on AAA titles. Without that background, Salix would have never happened. My audio background gave me a solid insight into every aspect of video game development, from concept, competition and production to gameplay code, UI, and cinematics.

From contracting, I had the opportunity to meet and work with the UK and EU’s top talent and built up a great network of friends and colleagues. So, when it came to starting Salix I had my little black book of people to call.

RN: How different does it feel to be creating a game as an independent studio, compared to past experiences of the team at AAA studios like Rocksteady and Lionhead?

JS: It’s vastly different. There’s nowhere to hide! I’ve learnt more in my past couple years running Salix than I have in any job or degree. The ins and outs of running a business, the rises and falls of creating a project. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted.

The accountability is all on you. It’s your job to protect your team, you become fiercely protective of them. You realise just how much is hidden and how much money is thrown at things to remove problems in larger studios. Small studios do not have that luxury.

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RN: That does sound like a lot of pressure, but smaller studios also have the freedom to go their own way with interesting concepts and stories. What was it about the events of Jack the Ripper and Whitechapel that made you want to use this time as the setting for your game?

JS: Jack the Ripper is culturally huge. Every Halloween outfits are sold, it’s a silhouette that’s immediately recognisable. But, did you know, that image was created by the press about a year after the murders? So where did that image come from? Many years ago, I read one of my favourite books, “A Night in the Lonesome October”, by Roger Zelazny, which is about Jack the Ripper and his dog, Snuff.

I found out it was based on a bet about making the Ripper the protagonist, [which] I felt the book didn’t really do… and I [wondered whether] it could be done, so I started researching the murders. The answer was no, it can’t be done without either saying either a demon made them do it or making it for “a greater good” – both ideas I found very distasteful.

On the other hand, the more I read about the murders, the more I discovered was untold. And that the least interesting thing about the Ripper case was the Ripper, but rather… that the time [period] and everything around it was amazing.

RN: What was the most interesting thing you discovered in your research of the Ripper?

JS: Just how morbid the Victorians were. They were selling ballads and Jack the Ripper branded sweets whilst the murders were happening…

RN: Oh wow. That is morbid… and so entrepreneurial.

So, the game focuses on the untold stories of the well-known serial killings. Where does the line blur between true stories that we may have never heard and fictional elaborations for a more entertaining experience?

JS: We decided to keep the split as obvious as possible: crime scenes, key people, victims, locations are all as true as we could make them. We didn’t change any facts. That was a big rule for us. No facts were to be changed or bent. We could add things to a scene, but not subtract or change. So, we could add a hidden magic symbol to a crime scene, but not add an item or injury to a body.

All facts about the [murdered] women were also as accurate as we could make them.

Mary’s story is all based of hearsay. So, we took what little info we could around her and made her a believable person. For example, she told people she was born in Limerick, but was reported to speak Welsh. To me, it became important that she then was Welsh, because Welsh is not a common second language, and certainly not [a language that] someone like Mary would pick up. So, it made sense to me to make that her primary tongue and find a Welsh actress.

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RN: That makes sense to me and does sound like an elaboration that would add to the story in a realistic way, unlike these next two fun additions. Hot on the Ripper’s heels are two Arthurian legends, Sir Lancelot Du Lac and Morgana le Fey. Why did you decide to bring these characters into the tale of Dance of Death?

JS: I loved the idea of the man and his magic dog, no-one questions a man walking [or] talking to his dog. We decided to make our dog female and intelligent. We then thought about her being a trapped sorceress. Who would be a good character to have trapped? Morgana le Fey.

So, who could be the man? Arthur is overdone [while] Lancelot is an interesting character [who has] history with Morgana that isn’t often explored… After that, everything just fell into place almost faster than we could write it.

Du Lac and Fey then became a lens in which we could experience the Victorians as a modern viewer, as they sit outside of time as immortals. We could have them with modern beliefs, wants, and practices. They ground the audience against the harsher aspects of Victorian life and give us a window into the world of magic.

RN: There are some big names in your voice talent list, too – like Penny Dreadful and Tudors’ actress, Perdita Weeks; Dragon Age and Torchwood star, Gareth David-Lloyd; and Utopia and Black Mirror actress, Alexandra Roach. How does it feel to have them on board?

JS: It’s incredible to have them on board, all three were our first and top picks for the roles.

Gareth I’ve been a fan of for years. I was amazed when I saw it was him who voiced Solas and knew I had to work with him for this. He has this great presence, whilst not sounding too rough. You fully believe him as a hero, yet he can portray vulnerability and has great comedic timing.

Perdy is a tiny powerhouse. She fully embodied Fey, constantly snacking and just having us in stitches. Her and Gareth worked fantastically well with each other, bouncing off each other brilliantly.

Lastly, Alex came in and stole the show as Mary. She brought this amazing energy to the studio. It was her first video game and she knocked it out of the park. Her accent and performance are just superb [and] she’s fast becoming a fan favourite.

We are so proud of our cast, [with] a total of nearly 40 actors in the end including our walla group [– actors hired to record the extra or background dialogue needed]. Every single recording session was a joy.

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RN: That’s great. With such a powerful narrative at its core, it feels important that the cast is equally powerful. I can’t wait to hear the characters come to life when I play for myself.

On the flip side, the game had a few issues at release, which you put down to time and financial constraints. That must have been hard, but I’m sure people appreciated your honesty and the speed at which you and the team addressed issues. What’s one thing you’d change? And what’s one thing you’re proud of?

JS: Creating and releasing this game is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

If I could change one thing... I’m not sure to be honest. Every choice we made along the way was the right choice at the time. We did the utmost we possibly could with the time, tools, and budget we had. Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time we didn’t know about these things and couldn’t account for them. So no, I can’t say I’d change anything.

Going forward I now know what to look out for, but there are things even the most experienced of developers will encounter that make you scratch your head.

What I am proud of is how my team have handled it. The save game issue came out of the blue for us. Our QA team didn’t pick it up, but it was there, we addressed it, we fixed it. As we will the next issues we come across. Salix is nothing without the people in it, and they are all incredible, and believe in the project. That’s what I am most proud of.

RN: Even the big studios miss things, so I’m sure people understand how it can happen. And I bet your team appreciate your… appreciation. Do you have any advice for someone looking to own their own game studio?

JS: Start small. Pay your staff. Don’t work on a ‘shares-if-successful’ basis. Pay your staff. Hire people who know more than you about their own craft. Pay your staff. Work in the industry for years before you even start to think about starting a studio, if you don’t you will be at a huge detriment. Pay your staff. Understand costs, the hidden costs, and expect to need contractors. Pay your staff. Games are much more expensive than you think. Pay your staff.

RN: So, in a nutshell… pay your staff? What comes next for Salix Games?

JS: Next we plan to localise Du Lac and Fey! We are also working on polishing up some of the game systems through patches and content updates. Dance of Death is designed as the first of a trilogy, we would love to continue it. But we also a few smaller game ideas up our sleeve that we would like to do as well.

You certainly haven’t seen the last of Salix Games.

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Well, a massive thanks to Jessica Saunders for taking the time to answer my questions and to all of Salix Games for their hard work on Dance of Death. My morbid interest in Jack the Ripper has been piqued, so I just might have to check out the game myself.

Dance of Death: Du Lac and Fey is available now on Steam. Will you join me to explore the murders of Whitechapel, too?

About The Author
Ryan Noble
Staff Reviewer
If Ryan isn't watching, reading or playing some form of horror, he's probably writing about it. He used to be an Editor at Indie Game Magazine so he has a soft spot for independent creators, especially when they're creating fear. Whether you're one such creator, or a fellow horror fan, let's speak about spooks on Twitter or email.
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