Joshua Nuernberger talks to Niall Gosker about going it alone on the cyberpunk, retro inspired adventure game Gemini Rue

Combining the past and present to make the future is a daunting and ambitious task yet, when done successfully, it often yields the best results. Adventure games, which were quite popular in the eighties and nineties but faded quite a bit at the turn of the millennium, have still remained a constant fixture in gaming’s agenda.

Gemini Rue, from American developer Joshua Nuernberger, blends the old and new to great effect, illustrating the power of simultaneously looking back while drawing on contemporary sources.

Speaking of his first interactions with the genre, Nuernberger says, “I played a few adventure games growing up, in the 90s albeit, mostly from the Sierra and LucasArts catalog. Games such as King’s Quest and Space Quest. But what really captured me for the genre was after I played The Secret of Monkey Island.

“I couldn’t recall at the time whether any other video game gave me such an experience of joy, empathy, and involvement in a story and characters in a digital world. From that point on, I knew I had a desire to make video games, specifically adventure games.”

Gemini Rue, released originally in 2011 to a great reception and again earlier this year on iOS, turned out to be the culmination of that creative desire. It tells a gritty, cyberpunk tinged tale of the future.

Nuernberger credits some of the inspiration behind the game to both classic and modern influences, ranging from Blade Runner to Lost. “A lot of various pop culture went into it, ranging from TV, anime, book, game, and more. Lots of science fiction and film noir.”

As the sole individual behind the project, Nuernberger worked in a rather unique scenario where, for better or worse, he had only himself to rely on. “From idea to reality, it took about eight months to get a working skeleton in place, then about two years total to get a fully-fledged, playable game.

“Then, another year to smooth out the edges and to make it presentable. So about three years total. As far as working on it alone, it helps to build things in layers and to have a solid work ethic. Otherwise, you can get lost in the production aspect and lose sight of the ultimate vision.”

Nuernberger’s design process is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s philosophy regarding short story writing: to work towards a certain effect or experience and then construct the framework, which allows for that to be imposed on the reader, or player in this case.

Speaking of it he explains, “I didn’t think of designing it as an adventure game per se. What more concerns me is the experience the player goes through, not the set of puzzles, characters and dialog trees that are going to be incorporated in the design of the gameplay.

“These experiences, however, just happen to be within the set of adventure game genre mechanics. Besides that, the aesthetics of the game pull from different contemporary and more classic sources [such as film noir and cyberpunk] giving a more heterogeneous mix to the atmosphere of the game.”

Many of the game’s mechanics are certainly wrapped in an older cloth, but not for superficial reasons. “I would say it’s also conscious of adventure game tropes, so it doesn’t particularly embrace those for nostalgia, but simply adapts whatever is necessary to tell the story.”

Games aren’t Nuernberger’s only passion. His interest in illustrative work has had a great impact on his creative process. “I like working from a visual standpoint because when something looks right, in terms of atmosphere, it can set the bar for what the game is trying to achieve, even extending into the gameplay realm, wrapping up the player’s entire experience.”

It’s no surprise then that Gemini Rue feels like such a cohesive whole, the harmony between its presentation, writing, and gameplay all combining to make an atmospheric and striking experience.

Gemini Rue stands in very sharp contrast with the more accessible adventure games that have gained massive popularity in the last few years, favouring narrative momentum over puzzle solving, with Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead a prime example. Nuernberger gives his thoughts on adventure games from the polar opposite design philosophy.

“The element of choice in The Walking Dead is very appealing. Figuring out what choices and permutations thereof are significantly affecting the narrative in ways that other games don’t really offer. But as far as from a gameplay or experiential standpoint, I didn’t find it particularly striking.

“I really like Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero. In terms of gameplay it’s very minimalistic, if at all, yet it encompasses so many interesting and varied narrative and visual devices that it’s a joy to simply be present in.”

Nuernberger partnered with Wadjet Eye Games to publish Gemini Rue in order to help it get more exposure. They’ve become something of a haven for retro-infused adventure games and it’s comforting to know that there’s a larger entity willing to help independent developers in realising their visions.

Now might be the best time for fans of adventure games since the golden years. The market is big enough and players enthusiastic enough for these two very distinct branches of the genre to exist side by side. Should creators remain as fruitful as they have been recently, the prospect of another adventure game lull is very unlikely indeed.