Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hitman Blood Money: Some Belated Respect For its Storytelling & Decision Making

Hitman: Blood Money isn't a game with a great narrative. It's actually a game with next to no overarching story at all, and that's one of the things that's great about it. Following recent discussion on the dificulty of providing believable decision making in games I was overcome with the urge to pick Hitman up again - it's one of those few games I desperately wish I'd completed. Outside of that series it's very hard to find a true 'plan and assault' type game these days - the likes of Thief, Rainbow Six and Project IGI have given way to more prescribed experiences like Splinter Cell and Crysis - but I was surprised by just how much Blood Money drew me in.

I go on, perhaps too much, about how providing a meaningful interactive experience - ie my job - doesn't necessitate good writing. Shit, the blog's named after just that observation. But Hitman really succeeds in hammering that home. Here's a game where missions are largely unrelated jaunts into the central character's memories; a central character whose unique personality trait is that he hasn't got one; and whose exploits don't revolve around anything more complex than bringing bad guys down to room temperature - and yet its world and the stories within it are infinitely more engaging than most million word epics.

The key, of course, is in the dynamic nature of it all. Sure, your interactions within the world are limited and - for the more interesting ones - predefined. Certainly the way the AI discovering a murder will barely interrupt the party feels feeble against the otherwise plausible, real world scenarios. But even so: those scenarios and the freedom of choice provided within them are simply breathtaking even four years later.

One utterly key point for me are the locations of those scenarios. With few exceptions, they are all familiar and believable. The opera house, the suburban household, the cruise ship... what's incredible is the depth of these relatively small spaces. Action games tend to do very little with their environments and end up reusing assets - we blast through each area so quickly there'd be little point in providing more detail. In Hitman, the joy is in exploring, observing and planning, and this allows the environments to become characters of their own. The tour party taking snaps outside the vineyard walls, the boozed up couple making out around the corner, the playboy in the hot tub and his secret sex dungeon - these elements play out believably and dynamically, and manage to not only provide gameplay opportunities, but to wrap those opportunities in lavish narrative detail. Forget Spore - each of Hitman's levels are true virtual microcosms.

Within these worlds, the more regulated assassination solutions - loading the stage pistol with live rounds - are pared by the more flexible abilities - stealth, explosives, multiple approach points. This means that while ultimately our stories may 'only' be about knocking people on the head inventively, they are at least true stories.

If we could apply this sort of thinking to something more *ahem* thought-provoking than dressing up like a clown and poisoning the cops' donuts just think what we could achieve.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About: No. 9 - 7

This post continues the countdown of the commercial releases I hope are going to do fascinating things with interactive narrative over the coming year or so.

The story so far:
15. Privates
14. The Old Republic
13. I Am Alive
12. Brink
11. Kinect
10. The Last Guardian


Developer: 2K Marin    Lead Designer: Jonathan Pelling   Release: 2011   Format: PC, 360

WTF is it?
The long-awaited and controversial FPS reboot of the classic turn-based strategy series. Plenty more details here.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- I think the new format is actually going to work. There. That's my official line and I'm sticking to it. I'm a staunch PC gamer and a huge fan of the original series, but the idea of mission areas so huge they can't be 'completed', of tactical retreats and more than just run & gun gameplay... these elements promise to keep alive the spirit of X-Com - which, for me, was at its core about the on-the-fly dramas generated by your pixellated men.
- 2K Marin have proven their writing credentials with Bioshock 2 which, to my mind, was actually tighter scripted than the original.
- Five bonus points straight away for being set on earth in the 20th century.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- Given their only full product so far has been an (overly?) faithful sequel to a game of drastically stripped back ambition I'm reserving judgement on 2K Marin's ability to deliver a full and inventive vision with new(ish) IP.
- The setting is Fallout and Bioshock's love child.
- It's not turn-based. But I'll get over it. 

8. Subversion

Developer: Introversion Lead Designer: Chris Delay Release: Done when it's done    Format: PC, 360(?)

WTF is it?
Maybe I should have just bitten the bullet and labelled this a list of procedural games - although if it was, Subversion would be right up the top. The latest from 'the last of the bedroom coders', Subversion is almost more X-Com than XCOM - control a squad of corporate infiltration operatives in a dynamically generated city.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- While there'll be room for the developer's touch (hand crafted elements crowbarred into the game world), the environments and missions are fresh for every player, allowing for some truly unique experiences.
- The studio are famously candid about their development process, and things are sounding good.
- Introversion proved with Uplink and Darwinia that they care about telling personal stories from within a unique and malleable gameplay framework.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- Darwinia + and Defcon didn't really do that at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

7. Journey
Developer: thatgamecompany   Creative Director: Jenova Chen   Release: 2011   Format: PS3

WTF is it?
Officially announced at E3 following a leak, Journey is ex-student developer thatgamecompany's adventure style follow up to PS3 download hits Flower and fl0w, and the studio's fourth project. Based in a huge desert environment, the game touts the developer's usual emphasis on minimalist visual style, combined with a new and perhaps more traditional exploration-based central mechanic and a multiplayer aspect that's still shrouded in secrecy.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- These guys care about emotional engagement. After speaking with Jenova at last year's Develop I can confirm that, while it's anyone's guess whether or not they'll achieve their lofty ambitions, they're certainly shooting for the right goal posts.
- With what at first appears to be a more traditional adventure / platformer I'm interested to see if this turns out to be a more meaty offering than the studios' previous vignettes. We've seen they can pull off simple and evocative ideas with elegance, but a more complex offering can only be a fascinating prospect.
- The mutiplayer aspect is a sort of massively singleplayer concept: a singleplayer adventure in which you may stumble across other players and choose to work in tandem. From a scripted vs dynamic narrative perspective this is a valuable avenue of enquiry that's been touted for a while but rarely delivered upon.
- This will mark thatgamecompany's first foray into a more explicit narrative. Flower was not without its arc and sentiment, but Journey looks to be focusing on a far more immediate plot.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- It's hardly a problem, but the studio has a very iterative approach to development: expect the final product to look very different.

No. 6 - 4 coming soon.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About No. 12 - 10

This post continues the countdown of the commercial releases I hope are going to do fascinating things with interactive narrative over the coming year or so.

The story so far:
15. Privates
14. The Old Republic
13. I Am Alive

12. Brink
Developer: Splash Damage   Lead Designer: Richard Ham   Release: Summer 2010   Format: PC, 360, PS3

WTF is it?
The next evolutionary stage in the Enemy Territory lineage of narrative/objective driven competitive FPSs from London mod-scene outfit, Splash Damage. 

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- As regular readers will know, I get inordinately excited by procedural or otherwise non-scripted story experiences. Just as BF1942 was one of few competitive games to truly capture my heart, the Enemy Territory games combine unpredictable, player-generated tension with pre-authored plot and atmosphere. Ace.
- Brink will mark Splash Damage's first foray into new IP. I have half a feeling I'm seeing writer, Ed Stern, in the pub tomorrow tonight: I'll ask him how things are progressing, but I'm sure he'll have some tricks up his sleeve.
- There's emphasis being placed on a Mirror's Edge style movement system. Interesting. 

What's a little bit disquieting?
- The biggest single concern I can raise at this point is that Splash Damage as an online shooter outfit have unparalleled experience in the genre. This will guarantee a polish final product, but with great polish often comes limited scope. This may be Quake Wars without the Strogg. 

11. Kinect (Project Natal) 
Developer: Microsoft   Release: 4th November 2010   Format: 360

WTF is it?
Microsoft's big hype response to Eye Toy and Playstation Move, Kinect's big trick is skeletal mapping - it knows the difference between your foot and your dog. Unless either your dog or your foot has been in an unpleasant accident. Plus we no longer have to argue over how to pronounce Natal. 

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- If we're generous in believing the hype, Kinect will be the first truly applicable camera-based interface, touting an analogous leap in fidelity to that of the Wii remote versus Motion Plus or PS Move. ie It ought to actually work.
- Lionhead's flagship demo, Milo, did more than just rehash some mini-games: it looked to be trying to deliver on Molyneux's long-standing goal of delivering emotive interaction with AI characters. 

What's a little bit disquieting?
- Need I say more?

10. The Last Guardian
Developer: Team Ico   Creative Director: Fumito Ueda   Release: 2010(?)   Format: PS3

WTF is it?
Riffing on themes from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a third-person action / platformer that develops especially on the relationship between the protagonist and his horse in the latter.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- Quite simply, it's the next project from probably the most recognised developer of artistic commercial video games in the world.
- By moving the emotive interaction from being with another human being to a somewhat sentient animal, Team Ico may be very cleverly sidestepping the uncanny valley and focusing on modelling a relationship they can actually deliver on in full. 

What's a little bit disquieting?
- I'm ashamed to admit that, due to lack of hardware, I never completed either of Team Ico's previous offerings - part of the reason this title only makes No. 10 in my personal wish list. I do wonder, however - particularly in reference to Ico - whether I ever would have. To my mind the studio do more with their visuals than with their gameplay, certainly when compared to someone like indie upstart Ice Pick Lodge (guess who you can look out for later on).

No. 9 - 7 coming soon.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Spelunky: A Review, Sort of

In a past life I worked as a journalist for a number of websites, including Video Games Life and GameShadow. This one time recently I got the urge to write up a review of a rather excellent, free game called Spelunky. This is it.

To call Derek Yu’s Spelunky an addictive game is to undersell it massively. It is addictive – in the friendly, ten-minutes-during-a-coffee-break kind of a way - but it’s so much smarter than that.

Spelunky is Rogue meets platformer, but that’s still failing to pin down its charm. Drawing unapologetic influence from NES era side scrollers by way of Indiana Jones, basic play is, well, basic. Run, jump, bop enemies and collect treasure.

Where the game innovates and ultimately soars free of genre trappings is in the level design. The game is made up of sixteen stages across four distinct worlds, each taking a couple of minutes to complete, and every one is generated procedurally. That’s a good thing, because you’re going to be replaying them a lot.

The way Spelunky takes advantage of this fact is genius. In addition to the platforming fundamentals, your spelunker comes equipped with limited bombs and ropes, which can be used to traverse the trickier landscapes and to blow new routes into the entirely deformable terrain. In the same way that a game like Hitman gives you a toolset and an objective then leaves the solution up to you, Spelunky enables almost limitless invention within its rule set. It also provides more than enough hilarious and sometimes poignant ways to cop it.

The final piece of the puzzle is the quality of that rule set and, indeed, Spelunky’s world design. Every enemy, every item is tweaked to open up challenges, prolong interest and – most importantly – generate stories. The damsel is, perhaps, Yu’s crowning achievement. A retro princess in need of rescue, her kisses grant lives if you can get her to the exit in one piece. The catch? If you’re carrying her you can’t carry anything else. You’re cornered into a constant weighing up of value, a juggling act as you decide to set her down to collect that golden idol, only for her to run off, forcing you to drop the idol and hurl yourself over the cliff after her. The mechanics are deeper still – she can be tossed like a weapon, but has limited hit points; if she dies she can still be sacrificed at an altar in exchange for items, but you get better items if she’s still alive; there’s even a brothel where you can purchase kisses, but woe betide the man who crosses the shop keeper and dashes off with her under one arm. The entirety of the game is crafted around putting the player in these situations, and it’s only because Spelunky’s logic is so natural that it works at all.

Handcrafted elements mix things up – perhaps the lights are out and you need flares to get around; maybe the dead have risen from their graves. Since there’s no in-game information you’ll still be enjoying that sense of awe and discovery hundreds of plays in. Have you heard about the black market and the ankh of resurrection? You will. In time.

I want to tell you about the design flaws, but there aren’t any. A couple of bugs niggle, but even these are consistent and become another part of the challenge.

Spelunky, ultimately, is about being chased into the shop by a freaked out caveman with a bomb stuck to his face before realising that if the explosion doesn’t kill you the shopkeeper will. Spelunky is diving off a cliff face to save a falling damsel, before impaling yourself on a spiky pit of death just in time to see her trot merrily through the exit.

Spelunky, impossibly, is a game whose extreme and long-term challenge is from a bygone era, yet a game that somehow renders death just as valid an ending as success. It’s the decisions you make and the stories they generate that really count, and Spelunky’s stories are as honest as they come.

A procedurally-generated platformer with limitless possibilities, Spelunky is challenging, inventive and oddly affecting.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Fantastic Gonzo Games Fringe Piece: Nomen Ludi

UPDATE: Blog regular, Habour Master, points out in the comments that this was fiction inspired by a true story, thanks fella. I don't know if that makes me pleased I didn't buy it as straight documentary or sad most of it probably didn't happen, but either way it's still a great piece of writing.

This is just lovely. Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing writes about recalling a nameless adventure game from his youth, tracking down its title online, and then pursuing its creator through the wilds of Surrey to get to the sinister secret behind why the project was never completed.

The two criticisms I'd level - and these are mighty subjective - are that the piece's direct relevance to interactive media is pretty tenuous; and that the documentary type reportage seems just a little too neat, a little larger than life. I don't mind being lied to for a good story - having all the lies in the right place is more often than not precisely what constitutes a good story - but I'd rather we were more upfront about it.

But ignore that. It might be that Nomen Ludi is written with rare precision and sympathy. It might be that it keeps developing in ways you didn't expect and closes with smart underplay. It might just be that the story's set in the town I was born in. Regardless, there's a lot of reading to be done on the web, and I'm usually pretty selective, but this is the most fun I've had since the Planescape Torment Vision Statement. I dare you to start reading and not finish:
"My first recollection was a flashback at the airport, triggered by a scent: the same carpet deodorizer my mother used to use when I was a kid. Transported away from the echoes of Heathrow's PA system and the hubbub of waiting travelers, I found myself back in my old bedroom. A child sat at at the machine, intent on the controls. Deja vu crept over me."
 And later:
"From: srward@XXXXX.demon.co.uk
To: rbeschizza@XXX.com
Subject: GAME
Yes, I see your emails on the amstrad page. Well done. You figured out something about that old thing. Good for you. We never even sent it out to the duplicators, so I have no idea how you got one. But you know what. It's none of your business. This was nearly 15 years ago now and its all put to rest. " Read more
I hate to think how many emails Mr Ward is going to get after this.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About: No. 15 - 13

It's not a top ten list! Seriously though, it kind of is, even though there are fifteen games on the list (I think... last time I checked). This blog will continue to be about the pretentious / thought-provoking [delete where appropriate] arty, narrative-oriented things it has been for the last month, but everyone deserves to get excited about some big games sometimes :-)

So. These are the fifteen commercial games that I think are going to do the most important things with interactive story telling over the next 12 months or so. I hope you'll spot some surprises, because otherwise what's the point?

PS I'm bullet marking for your sanity rather than mine. Give me a blank word doc and I'd give you 10,000 words on this lot.

15. Privates

Developer: Zombie Cow Studios   Lead Designer: Dan Mashall   Release: Summer 2010   Format: PC, 360(?)

WTF is it?
A 2.5D shooter financed by the UK's own Channel 4, developed by the Ben Here, Dan That chap Dan Marshall, and aimed at teenagers who don't know enough about STDs.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- It's a thoroughly British comedy from the guys who made the excellent (though very point n' clicky) Time Gentlemen, Please.
- It's edutainment that actually has a chance of being both educational and entertaining. Seriously, this could be the first cool example of the genre ever produced.
- Developed using part of the budget Channel 4 legally has to devote to educational programming, it's a toilet humour shaped flagship for video games as a fully fledged element of mainstream culture.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- Nothing, save for the fact that Privates' existence and financing is probably doing more for games than the game itself will. It is about 'BRITAIN- land of Hope and Glory-holes' after all.
- Oh, and there's a reasonable chance it won't make it to Xbox Live because - oh noes! - it's got genitals in it. Also that article I just linked to is headed 'Xbox joysticking unlikely for game set inside vagina'. Which is either very funny or very sad. I'm hoping it's both.

14. Star Wars: The Old Republic
Developer: Bioware   Lead Designer: James Ohlen   Release: Spring 2011   Format: PC

WTF is it?
Legendary story-driven RPG developer Bioware's first foray into the MMORPG.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- It's being billed as the first MMORPG to focus on providing a narrative experience as complete and atmospheric as a singleplayer RPG.
- To my mind, since the original KOTOR, Bioware's games have advanced in presentation but fallen behind in the complexity of their interactive story telling. Perhaps other players are just the twist the formula needs to do something exciting.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- It's still an MMORPG. Time will tell whether the attention the devs pay to the story will be matched by the players, or whether affairs descend into another grind party.
- "It has more story content than every single other BioWare game that's come before put together." As soon as a game's lead designer starts talking about word count as a selling point I get a little scared - though I'll give Bioware the benefit of the doubt.

If you don't mind my utterly shameless link exchanging, and you're a fan of online space games, you could always take a look at Battlestar Galactica from browsergame specialist Bigpoint. They'd love for me to helpfully inform you that they also do online games in other genres: fantasy games, sim games and - inevitably - a farming game. Whew, marketing is hard.

13. I Am alive
Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai   Lead Designer: Unknown   Release: 2011(maybe)   Format: PC, 360, PS3

WTF is it?
Darkworks' maligned and delayed apocalyptic survival-FPS, now in Ubisoft hands.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- The plausible disaster movie scenario (a major earthquake in Chicago) puts the narrative emphasis on actions we can all identify with - finding loved ones, pooling resources, in-fighting with other survivors - rather than on salting space slugs.
- It's now in the hands of Ubisoft Shanghai, who proved their competence with Splinter Cells: Pandora and Double Agent.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- It's seen massive delays, changed studios and largely gone off the radar. If it weren't for this statement at the start of the year I'd be issuing a very stern VAPOURWARE ALERT.
- Since the premise wasn't established by its current developer who's to say how closely Ubi will stick to the script? There's a good chance we'll be looking at a uniquely framed shooting gallery.

No. 12 - 10 coming soon.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Power of Interactivity: Everyday the Same Dream - The Film

I'll try to limit myself to no more than one Molleindustria post per month from here on out, but this short film adaptation of Everyday the Same Dream by Patryck Senwicki and Tamas Kiss is too interesting to miss. If you haven't already, I'd recommend as a little experiment watching the film first, then playing the game, but, you know - your call.

Having watched the film through - and having played the game that inspired it some time ago - what strikes me is not that the film is made poorly, but that the game is so much more effective. This pleases me no end. We spend a lot of time in this industry comparing to other mediums our ability to express, evoke and explore emotion and meaning - usually (and I think quite rightly) unfavourably. The opportunity to directly contrast the same story in two different formats is a rare one.

Clearly to some degree the impact of the film is lessened by having played the game first (hence why I'm interested to hear from anyone who watches the film beforehand). It's very hard to judge the film in any sense other than the objective - it's polished, and faithful, but it's hard to say if it's any good at expressing the game's themes.

Very often, I feel, the 'art' in 'art games' could be easily divorced from the games themselves - Braid's gameplay and story both deal with the theme of regret and looking back, but does the gameplay itself really bring that much to the message? It's a topic I discussed briefly in reference to Ceramic Shooter: Electronic Poem, and I think it applies across all mediums - if a piece of art is better appreciated through any format other than its own, then what purpose does it serve?

This is why I particularly hope that the reason I get more from Everyday the Same Dream: The Game has nothing to do with when I first played it or how well made the film version is. I hope the truth is that the sense of routine and the thrill of breaking it is simply more immediate and more evocative in an interactive environment. I hope it means we've found an 'art game' that needs to be not just written about, but played.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

"How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 3

This is part 3 (of 3) of an article that was originally printed in the IGDA Writers SIG Quarterly, discussing the specifics of writing for indie games. Part 1 - Why Big Budgets Are Overrated (Sometimes) - here.

NB Penumbra spoilers throughout!

What Independence Really Means for a Games Writer
Creative Freedom
There are, of course, natural advantages granted to the writer of indie games. At a recent roundtable another scribe suggested that in our line of work "It's not how good you are, it's how good you're allowed to be."

Without the 'shackles' of a hundred strong team forging ahead without you, it's possible to adapt as you progress to a far greater degree - and that goes both ways. If a puzzle design suddenly has to change three weeks prior to gold it's a straightforward enough process to wade back in and wrap that part of the story around a new structure. Vice versa, when there's only one level designer, there's only one person to upset when you make a change to the script.

Further, the smaller studio has less to lose, and therefore can afford to gamble on left field conceits. [Major Penumbra spoilers coming up in this paragraph] Imagine pitching to a large publisher the idea of the player character going insane; developing a caustic alternate personality; trying to rescue a damsel in distress who'd really be happier left alone, and inadvertently murdering her in the process; and then contradicting his own climax and getting killed off. Might be a tough pitch. At Frictional, the first thing laid down was that the protagonist wasn't going to save the day, or get the girl - and that the antagonist would never be a pantomime villain. [Spoilers over]

Of course, while there's the potential for almost unlimited freedom, it's a fact always tempered by a necessarily limited scope - you can do only a fraction of what you'd like to. I distinctly remember one fantastic bug (which I have a feeling may actually have shipped). It was a dramatic moment where the player's alter ego begins to display human emotion: a corpse is supposed to fall from scaffolding, frightening him. Of course rather than fall, the corpse would get confused about which way was down and decide to float eerily up into the air before getting stuck in the ceiling. Altogether less effective. Clearly games suffer issues like this every day, but when you have one programmer, who's got an entire game to complete and polish by next Friday, it becomes a lot simpler just to scale back and remove ambitious efforts than to spend the time fixing them.

Community Support & Reputation
Perhaps the thing that most defines independent development, if not writing for it, is the community. The reason Penumbra: Overture happened at all was the incredible online and in print response garnered by the initial tech demo. Half the reason the second game was so much better than the first was players following the link at the end of the game to leave us their thoughts.

There's a lot of good will amongst the gaming press for what independents are doing. Most every single sale of Penumbra was down to glowing coverage and word of mouth, and perhaps there's something about an underdog story that helps to secure that praise not so much in the face of, but even because of the rough edges and bald patches.

In summary...
...it's my belief that character is something that can be communicated in a video game regardless of budget or status. Writing for indie games is not more (or less) of a challenge than any other form of interactive narrative - you have to work within your unique limitations and fight hard to secure the emotional impact you need.

With the right tools, you can give players an experience that will be affecting them long after 'Game Over' has faded from the screen.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Hey Baby: Playing with Sexism

Update: Lots of new ranty fun to be had with a positive, feminist read at The New Statesman and a somewhat less considered response at The Rights of Man. If anything, I suppose it reconfirms for me the lunacy of our society's value system - that such radically opposed positions can arise from precisely the same facts indicates we've screwed something up somewhere.

Hey Baby is not a good game, but it is a good piece of interactive expression - and that's what this blog is all about. An incredibly basic Unity-developed project, you control a girl walking the streets suffering cat calls from leching men at every corner. Your methods of interaction are either a polite "Thank you, have a great day," or a Mac-10 to the face. Actually playing the game won't get you anything much more than you can get from that sentence apart from, perhaps, a more immediate sense of just how slapdash the whole affair is. And that's important.

The game's prompted some decent ranting that I'm not going to weigh in on, largely because I hold very firm beliefs on that topic and this shouldn't degenerate into an argument about sexual dominance as it has elsewhere. It's also prompted more than enough 'meh's. Costik - usually on the money - over at Play This Thing says:
"Mildly cathartic, perhaps, but one wonders at the mentality of someone who spends this much effort creating something without injecting anything remotely like, you know, actual gameplay."
I certainly agree more could be done with the premise. I'm always a little shocked when female friends relate their horror stories, largely because this sort of behaviour doesn't tend to happen when there's a male friend around, and - regardless of where you sit on the 'they should just rise above it' line - it's very hard for a lad to even imagine how fast approaches in a bar or whistles on the street can get unpleasant. Perhaps a game could bridge that gap quite effectively.

Sticking to the release in question, however, I'd argue this in no way represents wasted time on the part of the developer. While it's very much a one trick pony, there's a very clear message here - 'Men often act in idiotic ways; here's an equally idiotic response'. And here's the thing: it may well be it's impossible for a game (even a more complex game) to fully communicate to a boy what it's like to be a girl; if that's the case, Hey Baby at least manages to communicate how we (the male gender) sometimes make them feel without even realising it.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Pathologic Dev Surprise Announcement: Cargo!

Ice Pick Lodge - developer of the most famous never-heard-of-game ever made, Pathologic (seriously, it's PC gaming's go-to large scale art game, is there really anyone who cares about games and hasn't played it yet?) - has announced Cargo!. Ordinarily I wouldn't just repost news, but I'm so excited by this nugget that I can't help believe you won't be too.

I'm so captivated I've posted ALL the screens, despite the fact if I hadn't I could have been down Clapham Common reading Jasper Fforde a clear five minutes sooner and therefore avoided my lit agent's wrath when she finds out I haven't finished my research. Anyway, what's really interesting is the radical change of tone Ice Pick Lodge are shooting for this time around. That and the Q4 2010 release. For a studio renowned for dark, adult themes this is a fascinating twist - and I can't help but think a good one. From the press release:
"Our world is beginning to drift apart in all directions, like balloons. People, buildings, mountains, trees and entire islands rise into the sky. Items with weight become the most valuable on the planet. But there is hope! FUN, the magical extract of concentrated happiness, returns weight to items."
I don't for a second believe the studio will abandon their ambitious and mature approach just because they're not overtly dealing with death and disease anymore. In fact the blurb reminds us of just that:
"Ice Pick Lodge CEO Nikolay Dybowski describes their determination 'to transform video games in to, essentially a new form of art, deserving to take its proper place among literature, cinema and drama.'"
Full blurb over at RPS.

Pathologic, for me, remains Ice Pick's finest hour. 2009's The Void was lush and better polished - and not having finished it yet I shouldn't really comment - but Patholigic just seemed to combine game world and artistic sentiment more completely. Cargo, I hope, might mark a refreshing and more approachable middle ground - a valuable and coherent experience that doesn't need emo theming to express what's important.

One thing's for certain: Ice Pick Lodge is the only studio on the planet making full price games that might still be being picked apart in class rooms a hundred years from now.

I Heart HAWP

Far too much theorising going on around these parts recently - let's cover something FUN. I've been watching "Hey Ash, Watcha Playing?" religiously since its first episode... Christ, this time two years ago. It's hilarious, smart and - amazingly for a games-based TV show - never cringeworthy.

I suppose a two year old show that's rocketed from being a one off bit of silliness between a Destructoid writer and his professionally inane sister to one of the most popular shows on the web isn't exactly news, but the latest show is so sharp it really deserves a bump, even if half of everyone is already watching it. The Ballad of Bullet Bill follows the tribulations of Mario's familiar foe, and is most certainly worth 1m52s of your time:
But the truth was soon clear, though I denied it with all my force,
I was worthless and pathetic: even goombas can turn course.
I've been through Zero Punctuation and Consolevania stages, both refreshingly cynical voices that ultimately fell to their own ruthlessness. HAWP has managed to be consistently relevant over the last two years, but most crucially - in an industry whose commentary is so often polarised by the toothless mainstream and the pretentious underground - it provides an essential middle ground that can poke fun at everyone.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

"How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 2

This is part 2 (of 3) of an article that was originally printed in the IGDA Writers SIG Quarterly, discussing the specifics of writing for indie games. Part 1 - Why Big Budgets Are Overrated (Sometimes) - here.

NB Penumbra spoilers throughout!

The Indie Team: Good Things Come in Small Packages
Integration: Keeping to the Story
During development, it wasn't uncommon that we might say "Let's put a dragon at the end of this level, and have him quote a Shakespeare soliloquy at the player," and 24 hours later it would be in-game. Sadly the dragon was cut for budgetary reasons, but the point is that such a fluid dev process is a core advantage in writing for indie games.

A video game writer's greatest complaint is often this - we don't get integrated into the team fully, or quickly enough. When you've got a three year project and a 100 man team, you can see why. When your core team consists of four men and a roster of contractors it's much easier to stay on the pulse.

In games, more so perhaps than in any other medium, every member of the team can make or break the story. The static art has to match the tone of the voice performances, which have to match the dialogue, which has to reflect the gameplay - and vice versa. When everyone knows exactly what they're aiming for - and confirmation is on the other end of MSN - you've got an instant head start over larger productions. What's more, an eight hour game only needs one narrative designer, one writer, and one voice director - when they're all the same person it's a lot harder to get tangled up.

When the Game Costs Less than the Marketing Budget
Though they often go hand in hand, diminished budgets aren't something that define indie development, and I don't want to go on about scraping together the pennies. All the same, finance is clearly a relevant topic. Frictional's first game was self-financed, and therefore on a genuine shoe string, while later projects were publisher backed. I think you can notice the change in the games - Black Plague has more professional actors, more voiced dialogue, and the story is told far more directly. With the increased assets we were able to let loose a little bit, before inevitably reigning back, accompanied by sighs of "Why did we think we could animate a golem for €3.56 in loose change."

Learning Not to Rely on Visuals...
...or why you don't need characters to create character. I won't deny it's a bit of shock as a writer when you realise you're going to have to craft emotionally engaging characters without ever showing the player another living soul. It's doubly unsettling when your next project is set in the 18th Century, and you're not allowed to rely on radios or computer terminals; but that's another story.

To some extent you can rely on in-game prose and evocative voice acting and to tell a story. Initially it's somewhat like that dream where you realise you're standing on stage and forgot to get dressed. Without a character onscreen emoting the words it's like your writing's been stripped down to its particulars for up close scrutiny.

Character models aren't the only area to suffer. Even on a series as story driven as Penumbra it's still, in my experience, been the narrative that's first to see cuts. Words may be cheap, but cut scenes and graphics are not. As a result, when it's time to triage and it's the end of level boss or the sexy intro sequence that's facing the chop, it's always that lavish opening that hits the cutting room floor.

The character design process was haphazard at times, though they all began in the same place. I would write a faux interview with each of the characters, a proof of concept to help demonstrate voice, which the rest of the team would then feedback on.

It seemed to work. Eliciting that emotional response from the player was key, and I feel it's something we nailed pretty effectively. We were careful to ensure the character relationships were never predictable. The psychotically threatening miner devolves into a defenceless child, his previous aggression reframed as harmless temper tantrums. The damsel in distress turns out to have been a lot better off without the player's intervention.

...Or on Pre-Release Testing
Though perhaps not unique to indie games, another obstacle to be hurdled (or at least quietly tucked under the carpet to form a suspicious looking lump that we'll blame on damp) is the difficulty of finding decent feedback on the story. Gamers know a lot about games. PC gamers know a lot about bugs. Few know anything about allegorical rhetoric.

For a complex, story driven game, that can pose a problem. Those testers who proved reliable were also volunteers, and focused on bug hunting. The rest of the team spoke English as a second language, rendering even proofreading an impossible luxury.

As a partial saving grace, the series was released episodically - by that I mean the intention was to release three episodes over 12 months, while the reality was two episodes and an expansion in 18. However we did manage to harness the community and retrieve, if not in depth criticism, general feedback which, along with the reviews, went a long way towards making Black Plague a considerable improvement.

Part 3 - What Independence Really Means for a Games Writer - here.