Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Irrational Investigator Demo Released!

I stopped development on the Irrational series some years ago, because I got sick of designing logic puzzles. However, I was very proud of the demo we put together for Investigator. It moves the gameplay of Redux into a more graphically and world-driven environment, and massively polished the accessibility. I genuinely think it's worth a play.

Thanks again to my contributors, Mikko Tarmia, Martin Camargo and Chris Burrows.

It's my hope over the coming years or so that I can turn out some new indie games of my own. I currently have a functioning demo of a school management sim, and I'll keep you posted as things develop.

It's here if you fancy playing Investigator it's at: https://t.co/WyG4Fv9GDW

On Masculinity & Refusing to Seek Help

This is the second part of an ongoing series describing my experiences with learning about psychology and going into therapy. Here I talk a bit about how old ideas around masculinity can prevent men from seeking help.

Asking for help was fundamentally incompatible with the identity I had drawn up for myself

I'm not going to go into detail about my childhood (but yes, I'm afraid a lot of it does come down to your relationship with your parents, school and peers), but I'm going to say that it was a fairly traditional masculine environment, by which I mean a culture which explicitly embraces the moral philosophy I highlighted in the previous post as problematic. A culture which denies the validity of feelings and the fundamental equality of people. A culture where the moral ideal is the strong, competitive, stoic male; and the inverse is the weak, the emotional. This dichotomy sets up a further moral ideal that encompasses the other two: the ideal of winning over the world.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

On Psychological Health & Talking Therapy

Disclaimer: I'm writing the words I would have wanted to read some years ago. I know this will be obvious to some people, but it wasn't to me. Also I apologise if I slip into being too absolute. If you ever feel like I'm telling you what you ought to think or do, please forgive me, it's not what I intend, I just got over excited.

Two years ago I started going to talking therapy (I went for one year). I went privately because I was offered highly targeted, formulaic options on the NHS (eg addiction therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy etc), and I figured that the problem I was trying to overcome was more complex and integral than this set of behaviours or that one. I may have a substance abuse problem, and some people may only have a substance abuse problem, but for a lot of us the problematic behaviours are symptoms of the bigger picture.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Two Painters

Two master painters are in a forest clearing setting up their canvasses and easels. The sun is slicing through the thick foliage, illuminating a  scene they are each determined to capture before it fades.

The first painter looks out and sees the trees: the moss on the trunks, the sun glancing off the dew-covered leaves, the great cracks and rivulets running through the bark. The painter takes up their oils and begins to paint.

The second painters looks out and sees the forest: a great dark mass, split by shards of white from the sky. The painter takes up their pencils and begins to draw.

Some hours later they each sit back and breathe a deep breath, before turning to examine the other's work.

The first painter has focused on a handful of trees, which are presented in great detail. It is possible to make out the individual leaves, in which there are reflections of all the others.

The second painter has drawn the entire forest in a more abstract style. Individual trees are hardly discernible, instead there is a black clump stretching in all directions, delimited only by flecks of white sunlight.

The first painter looks at the abstract drawing, and then at the second painter, and there is something that the first painter doesn't say to the second. What they don't say is, "Your trees are merely a black pencil smudge, whereas mine are a full reflection of the real trees before us, and I therefore insist that you make your trees more like mine in order to improve your picture."

And there is something that the second painter doesn't say to the first. They don't say, "Your forest only has three trees in it, whereas mine is a full reflection of the real forest before us, and I therefore insist that you make your forest more like mine in order to improve your picture."

No, they don't say those things, because it would strike them as ridiculous. They didn't come to the clearing together so they could go home with two copies of the same picture. One of them sees the trees, while the other sees the forest. They came to the clearing together so that for a short while they could see both.


In other news Subnautica finally comes out 23rd January 2018 on Steam. It's actually going to happen this time. I can't wait. It's been over two years.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Necessary Bi-Annual Update to Prove I'm Not Dead

Recently I have been continuing to work on Subnautica, taking some time away from games to focus on some other things, and been constantly, morbidly, but productively fascinated by Trump. Once I have something more interesting to report, I'll do so. That is all for now.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

A Change in Circumstances

Around 8 years ago I had just two games to my name: Penumbra: Overture and Black Plague. I was working fulltime for www.gameshadow.com as editor/content manager, my first job out of uni, and desperately hoping I could find a way to support myself with creative writing alone.

That didn't happen, and in late 2008 I was let go. It was exciting, but difficult, because for the first time I faced the reality that if I couldn't make enough money in the immediate future to pay the bills from making video games I would have to do something drastically responsible, like become a barrister, or a civil servant instead.

Fortunately, and partly due to wonderful people like Gordon Rennie and Andy Walsh supporting me, I was already in touch with a fledgling games writers' agency called Sidelines. It was an offshoot of what remains one of the UK's best (IMO) video game recording studios, Side, and signing up with them secured me work on a bunch of AAA projects such as Driver and Binary Domain. While those two games are the exception in so far as they were actually completed, that string of AAA work from '08 - '12 kept me busy and kept the bills paid until such time as my work on games like FTL and The Swapper was drawing enough attention that I could be more selective about the projects I took on, and stop worrying so hard about what came next.

Now Sidelines Agency is closing its doors, but it's not completely tragic news. Sidelines was always a part-time operation run out of Side's main offices, and their central business continues anon (I was there most recently casting for Elohim in Talos). Further, they will continue to recommend writers to clients, just without taking commission or spending on marketing of the service.

Anyway. They asked me to update my freelancer bio, and I include it here, because why not? You can read it after the break.

Disclaimer: My availability is not super high right now, but it's always good to make contact with people making exciting stuff.

Friday, 9 September 2016

What is moral right and wrong?

The blog's been quiet for some time. There are reasons for this. I'll get to them in time, but I'm going to start us back up with some philosophy.

There are some major questions in philosophy that have been around as long as people have. What is morality? What is the self? What is god? What is free will? What is existence made of? How should I live my life? Depending on your perspective, these questions have either been answered long ago, or are just as open today as ever they were.

I have believed roughly 2-3 different answers to these questions at different times in my life, and changing my beliefs has been a rare (roughly every decade or so) but thoroughly enjoyable and unexpected experience every time.

While it would be poor inductive reasoning on my part to suppose that the answers I have now to these questions will remain so, I believe two things which I think make it worthwhile spelling them out anyway. First, like changes in scientific consensus, changing in philosophical belief doesn't undermine the authority of the process. When we replace newtonian physics with subatomic physics, we're not saying Newton got it completely wrong, we're saying he was on the right track, he just didn't consider some fine print. Second, I feel I have resolved some internal frictions in my philosophy which existed before now, so I feel like now is the time.

So, here is the first in what may become a series of my personally held convictions about the major philosophical conundrums. Because ti seems wrong to do what I do without ever spelling them out.

What is moral right and wrong?
There are two broad answers to this question. One is to deny the existence of moral right and wrong. The other is to accept its existence, and then try to explain how it exists, and why that account means we should behave in certain common sense ethical ways.

I have long held a relativist position, for many reasons, including lack of evidence for god, and causal predetermination. But the greatest argument for moral relativism is a simple counter. I can imagine a person who - for whatever psychological/genetic/causal reasons, simply loves to murder people, and cannot be convinced otherwise. I can find no good reason why this person ought to feel guilty. I can find no convincing way to explain to this person that what they are doing is wrong. I can find no explanation of what this person could do in order to become a good person. And I cannot, on a simple common sense level, understand a system of ethics which condemns someone as evil while simultaneously recognising that there is nothing they or we can do about it. If some people are just inevitably evil then the motivational power of an ethical system is thoroughly undermined.

It's precisely analogous to my favourite argument against god. Some popular religions would have it that not believing in the one true god means you're a bad person. Yet, using every intellectual and emotional capacity available to me, I am not able to believe in god. If god exists, it follows that god built me in this way, and is then hell-bent on punishing me for god's own doing. That cannot be perfection. In fact, that sounds like exactly the kind of fiction a fucked up, guilt-ridden narcissist would create.

All this being said, I have always had a strong moral compass - or more accurately a strong emotional reaction to unfairness and contradiction, and this has been hard to integrate with my philosophical beliefs.

One way to cash out on this is to be thoroughly emotivist. To accept that my strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness are merely preferences which carry no more authority than my preference for vanilla over chocolate. This perspective, however, carries some unfortunate side effects. It renders moral behaviour meaningless. It means there is no meaningful moral discussion to be had, no social progress to be made, just changing tastes. Most importantly, it means I have no reason not to screw you over if I think it will benefit me in totality. It means we are all pretending to be moral, while really looking out for ourselves.

Where can we possibly go from here?

This is my suggestion (and certainly not mine originally). It's a form of compatibilism between authoritative morality and a scientific understanding of the world which denies the possibility of an actual moral authority. Here we go.

I suggested above that an essential ramification of moral relativism was a selfish, individualist perspective. This was a lie, but a lie I tried to internalise for over a decade. It's a natural enough assumption, in our particular culture. If there isn't a set of rules telling me I ought or must treat people with a certain moral respect then why on earth would I choose to do so? If everyone thought like me, wouldn't society collapse?

We live in a world which functions on the myth of individualism. We are told from day one that we are in competition with others, for jobs, for relationships, for money, for happiness. We are sold products which turn entirely around making the individual more attractive, more intelligent, more successful. We HAVE to be out for ourselves, because no one else will be.

The joke is that individualism relies on non-individualistic beliefs. The lure of professional success is nothing without the social recognition which comes with it. Looking good is worthless unless something good comes to you because of it. Money is only worth what other people will give you for it. Yet we're encouraged to ignore these facts; to pretend that money is worthwhile in itself, that 'success' will make us happy, that conforming to cultural beauty norms is any less arbitrary than conforming to local linguistic norms.

I always prided myself on being able to step out of these cultural dogmas, but I was wrong - they coloured most of my life in ways I am only just recognising. Most relevantly, they coloured how I interpreted moral relativism.

I grew up (like a lot of my readers) in an environment where the pervasive existential narrative is a scientific and economic one. Humans are understood as essentially selfish. The world is understood as essentially meaningless. Life is understood as a struggle to beat the competition. Against this backdrop, I assumed that in the absence of moral authority, it was my obligation to get the most for myself.

This perspective is false, but self-sustaining. If you understand the world in this way, and you discover that there is no moral authority, then of course you will go out and be a dick to people. You will say to yourself, "Wow, how fantastic, finally I can be myself, do whatever I want, free from authority," and then you will go out and treat people like objects.

But it may just be that you do that, and then realise that that didn't make you happy either. You may do it and realise that actually you weren't being selfish at all, you were still letting someone else tell you what to do, you just didn't realise it - because you were letting your environment define you as this machine that doesn't care about others except in so far as they help you out.

You may realise that being TRULY selfish would mean abandoning that pervasive conception of what a person is, and what the point of life is, and opening up to the fact that we are all in this together. That we are all one. You may realise that in the absence of authoritative morality and purpose rather than having no direction, you are free to choose for yourself. And you may realise that if you can choose from an infinite set of possibilities, it will be much more fun to choose something that is not dickish.

So this is how I now render compatible my logical scepticism of authoritative morality with my strong moral conviction. My morality is not authoratative in the way many moral philosophers would prefer that it was. I will never tell anyone they are a bad person, I will never eliminate them from consideration for a relationship of some kind because of something they've done in the past. I will not guilt myself out for things that I have done in the past.

But at the same time, I will not accept that my moral intuitions are mere preferences, like vanilla over chocolate. Moral intuitions are the result of a complex series of reasoning which draws on verifiable facts about the world. While it's not the case that there is any one correct moral system, it is the case that there are huge overlaps between us in what makes our lives good, and that these overlaps are not a zero sum game. What makes life good is not money or things, but people and relationships - be they close to us, or increasingly in the modern world, far away. We can talk meaningfully about how we can behave to maximise our chances, and we can agree to sets of rules which work towards these goals.

But most importantly, if you decide the rules aren't up to scratch, I support wholeheartedly you efforts to disobey and change them.

Monday, 21 December 2015

10 Years of Interactive Entertainment

I had to look up the start date of my first project. Thomas at Frictional games emailed me in September 2006 offering me unpaid work on the Penumbra series. My word-for-word reply at the time sheds light on just how long ago this really was:
"This certainly sounds like something I would like to be involved in[...] I'm on MSN with this email..."
That means September 2016 will be my ten year 'professional' writing anniversary, but my games industry anniversary has been and gone. My first taste of development was in the QA department at Lionhead Studios on Black & White 2, way back in April 2005. I remember skipping my university exams that year to take the job, and receiving a curious email from university admin inquiring remarkably softly why I hadn't attended. I told them grades in the first year don't count towards your final degree beyond 50%, and I already had that through coursework, so I prioritised work experience. They were surprisingly cool about it.

Lionhead Studios made me want to be a professional writer. Up until that point I had been cold contacting dozens of studios every week, looking for work experience, placements and QA work. I'd studied computer science with the intent of being a programmer; I'd studied business to keep production a valid option; and I was toying around with LD tools as well. What I actually wanted to do of course was to be a games designer.

Lionhead showed me how big games development usually works. On my second day there I was caught in my lunchbreak trawling the company servers, reading every Lionhead design document I could get my hands on. During my second month there a group of other QA guys started complaining there was no story to the game. They were right. There had been I think a conscious top-down design decision to focus on mechanics rather than narrative, and the story was bare, uninteresting and contrary to the world in front of you. So these QA guys put together their own text-based story - it was basically just an opening crawl setting up the world and your mission there - and pitched it to design.

I was so jealous. I had always been a writer, for as long as I can remember. I'd just nine months ago quit my computer science degree in favour of English & Philosophy. Compared to QA, production, design, everything, writing was the one area I actually had solid, bankable skills, and here I was being outmanoeuvred by these other QA guys.

Now as it turned out the game had already hit text lock and the new story never went in - but it gave me all the inspiration I needed. If Lionhead's QA department was just a text-lock away from successfully pitching a story for a AAA product, then if I could get to other teams at just the right time I could succeed where they failed.

From this point on everything became about games writing. I started emailing very different teams, targeting those I thought would be open to taking a gamble on me, those with games that suited the sort of story I could produce. From that point on I have basically been looking for the same set of magic words that Frictional first uttered to me:
"It has always been our goal to give [the game] good and creative [story], but unfortunately we are at best mediocre writers."