Saturday, 31 July 2010

Short Story: The Day The Dolphin Spoke

Way back before I decided it might be fun to write games, my medium of choice was the short story. It was how I learnt the trade, it was the format I studied at university, and it remains a creative escape for me when all the stuff I'm supposed to be getting paid for just feels like too much hard work.

'The Day The Dolphin Spoke' is what happens when you're finding excuses not to do the work you ought to be doing and end up reading philosophy papers about the qualification of dolphins as 'people'. You sit down to write space marine dialogue and for some reason you end up with this.

'This' is a first person monologue, the style being something of a pastiche of Michael Crichton / old school sci fi. Centrally it's concerned with asking questions of self-awareness, rationality and the human belief structure - and somehow making that more palatable than it probably sounds. It's also about talking dolphins. If you're at all interested to know what my writing looks like 'naked' - ie without the creative direction imposed by everything from publishers to marketing to the budget - this is the place to be.

It's around 10 - 15 minutes' reading, and I hope you enjoy it.

Update: Damn, my old marketing manager would kill me if he knew I'd posted this without an extract.
   What you have to understand is that we weren't really trying to communicate. Not fully. Our grant was to automate existing communication, it was monkey work. The thing was, our program worked better than we expected. It was a joke, really, that first question. Quinton tapped it in after one too many espressos.
   //Can you understand us?
   The dolphin watched us for a second, from the murk at the far end of the tank, and then slowly, deliberately, swam over and nosed the pedal we installed so she could tell us when she was hungry.
   White mice are smart enough to hit a button when they’re hungry, it’s not really intelligence at all, just habit. We draw a line, in animal biology, between instinct and intelligence: the latter indicates self-awareness. When a dog sits because you told it to it’s not that it understands; it doesn’t have a thought process which runs “If I sit I will be rewarded”. It just has a natural instinct that prompts it to act in ways that have previously proved advantageous. The difference between a person and an animal, it’s held, is that a person has an interim stage between motivation and action, and we call that stage 'the self'. It’s the bit that looks at the motivation and decides how best to act.
   It’s the bit that bothers to say “I am”, as opposed to just getting on with being.
   Thing was, she wasn’t asking for food: she'd just been fed. This was a response. It was an answer. It wasn’t until days later that we figured out what was going on in the code...
Read more

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Hollywood Model of Employment & Individual Culpability


The recent consideration I've been giving to the projects I've worked on and my role within them has encouraged a regular topic of discussion between myself and GAMESbrief's Nicholas Lovell to resurface in my thoughts: that is, the idea that the current model of permanent 100+ man teams is dead, and that video games as a medium should be moving towards the project-by-project freelancing approach of the film industry.

The arguments in favour of such an approach are plenty:

1. Eliminate costs associated with employee downtime between projects
2. Eliminate post-project redundancies, rendering both staff and the PR department significantly less grumpy
3. Hire a bespoke team suited to each project and scale it up and down as the schedule dictates
4. Reward talent by pursuing those with proven credentials, and don't get lumped with salaried dead weight
5. Freedom for everyone to work on more varied projects
6. A possible compromise for unpaid overtime (ie higher day rates and time off between projects)

The ideal system would be for publishers and/or developers to maintain a small core staff. A group of 1 - 20 trusted, talented individuals (perhaps with a leaning towards production experience), ensuring the studio always has permanent personnel who are invested in the company and can ensure external hires work to the standard required.

Following this, if the studio already has a concept or property, the appropriate hires can be made. "We think cell-shading is the way to go, let's have a chat with the art directors from Mad World, Wind Waker and XIII." Alternatively, the Hollywood model allows for greater autonomy on the part of experienced staff. While talent agents for such trailblazers are already starting to pop up, a more industry wide adoption of this approach might empower - for instance - a talented programmer to approach a publisher with an astonishing concept for a new AI routine, and for that publisher to finance his personal research with a view to providing a growing team as and when the routine has been proven and a game is ready to be built around it. On a more obvious level, a designer and a writer could pitch a project to a studio in just the same way as a director might approach Pathé with a screenplay.

Culpability
One of the main draws of this system for an individual developer might be increased public and industry recognition of his or her talent. In the next month or two there are two games coming out that I'm connected to: Lost Horizon and Amnesia. What's strange about these games is that on one my name will be in the credits as the writer - despite the original script being by someone else - while on the other a great many people will assume I was the writer when in fact I haven't been involved.

When Amnesia arrives, it's going to be an interesting experience discovering what a Penumbra game looks like with someone else behind the keyboard. Naturally I'm a part of this industry because I want to be involved in developing fantastic, important games; but at the same time there are few creatives who could honestly claim they don't hope for some kind of artistic identity in their work, some stamp of their involvement. If Amnesia arrives to rave reviews it's only right that Mikael Hedberg should take credit; if things don't go so well it'll be disheartening that very few players or critics will realise why. Full credit to journos like Lewis Denby - who do their research and credit appropriately in their articles - but while it's very common to read something like, "Mauro Fiore's cinematography in Avatar is his best work to date," in a film review, it's incredibly rare in games.

In Lost Horizon, while I hope I've added a distinctive flavour of my own, the script is ultimately originated by another writer. While I was involved in the voice direction, I wasn't sitting in the chair, and I had no say over casting. If and when Lost Horizon receives praise, it's right that I should take only partial responsibility - but it's incredibly difficult to ascertain who's culpable for what.

My dream is of a model where key talent (department leads etc) are recognised for their triumphs and successes by the press, the audience, and by the industry. While most developers remain salaried their studios will remain cautious of talent poaching, but with an employment reform developers would be free to deliver, along with review code, a short document highlighting the central talent and their roles, so that critics can credit appropriately.

There are arguments against, of course. Speaking with Craig Pearson of PCG UK, he pointed out the potential damage a bad review under this system could do to a career. It's the problem games writers complain of non-stop: that good writing implemented badly reflects badly on the writer through no fault of their own. There's also the question of who deserves this elite status as a front of the box credit.

There's no denying these are problems, but they're problems every other industry seems to handle, and I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I dream of the day when someone plays a game and says, "Well, I can see elements of what Brian Mitsoda brought to the latter stages of Neverwinter Nights 2, but it's clear his style is more coherently implemented in Vampire: Bloodlines, and this game continues that confidence of expression."

Hey: a man can dream, can't he?

Update 29/07/10: Brian Mitsoda writes a friendly hello and suggests one possible drawback of the Hollywood model is typecasting of freelancers as developers rely more and more on their previous work to secure new jobs. He also points out that, contrary to what's suggested above, of all the very talented people on NWN2 he wasn't actually one of them. My fault.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

New From Molleindustria: Inside a Dead Skyscraper

I know, I know: more Moleindustria. What can I say, when you've just had an interview go up on RPS in which you plug your blog, and you realise it'd be quite nice for any newcomers if there was a fantastic, free indie game on your front page that hasn't already been covered by the fantastic chaps over yonder, Paolo Pedercini's usually a safe bet.

Inside a Dead Skyscraper would be thoroughly ruined by reading pretty much anything about it, save for this paragraph and the quote below it. The experience is being billed as an interactive music video. It's a concept I'm all in favour of: new ways in which to enjoy and combine music and interactive entertainment; approaches which, rather than awkwardly ignoring the radically different formats we deal with today, are designed around them. Paolo puts it rather well in the game FAQ:
"Ideally, [the game] is meant to be a critical answer to the proliferation of rythm games 'a la Guitar Hero. These karaoke-derived products simply capitalize on already successful music[...] An alternative approach to the musical game form would link the independent music and independent games scenes. Indie music games could promote unknown bands to the multi-tasking, hyperactive, interaction-addicted new generations. They could enhance the listening esperience while being autonomous works as the best music videos have been done in the last 30 years."
  That's your lot, SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT. Go play the game, why don't you, it has my official you-absolutely-won't-regret-the-three-minutes-it-takes-you sticker. But do come back.

So, that moment ten seconds in, huh? And again when you finish? Put aside the great aspirations this project has for interactive music as a whole and those revelations alone are worth the price of admission.

If I had one major criticism of the experience, it would be that the jump - or the initiation of the dream state - comes too soon. The impact, the liberating dichotomy of the two worlds, could have been far greater with just 30 seconds of trite greyscale fetch quests first.

I'd be interested to hear in what order you experienced the game, and how that affected what you came away with. Personally, I did a good minute or two of aimless flying, figuring given what this was meant to be there probably wouldn't be an awful lot more to it: the ace had been played when I escaped the building. I flew over the top of the second tower, observed the frozen people and assumed they were pointing up at me, and then landed on the third tower. It was only then that I realised what the gadget did, and I flew back to read the thoughts of the other peds. It was then, a good 5+ minutes in, that I found the plane. I restarted to read the rest of the thoughts, solved the red balloon 'puzzle', and finished up.

Discovering what people were thinking was fantastic, though if he didn't constantly surprise me I'd guess Paolo and musician / World Trade Centre photographer, Jesse Stiles, had taken a little influence from REM's Everybody Hurts video. But the thoughts seemed to reflect on the - somewhat familiar - themes of the song, as well as working towards an understanding of the gameworld itself.

And when that understanding hits. Wow. Playing through again, I was actually surprised the plane is there from the very start - I'd expect it to be spawned later to encourage exploration. I can only imagine the impact of finding the plane ten seconds after launching off detracts from the experience massively. As it was, I spent a good time exploring first, and the moment of revelation - when you understand the people aren't just static, but frozen in time, when you understand why you're there in the tower in the first place and the nature of the world you now have to return to - was spectacular.

I'm absolutely in love with the art style, especially with the truly liberating flying / swimming animations and the way the gadget when activated is brandished almost as an afterthought by the character - a truly laid back fantasy that only reinforces the oxymoron of the conflicting worlds.

Most of all, though, I'm impressed with how sharp and dramatic a story the game tells through its cunningly simplistic interaction and narrative structure. That this is done within the context of furthering the relationship between music and games doesn't just tip the balance, it crushes the scales.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Amnesia Previews & My Predictions

As some of you may have noticed, Amnesia previews have started coming in thick and fast. If you don't know already, Amnesia is the new IP from my chums over at Frictional Games, the guys who - by taking a punt on me for Penumbra: Overture - gave me the break I needed to kick start my career as a games writer.

There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight in this post regarding the game. The first is that the early previews - based on a couple of hours' code from the beginning of the game - are roundly positive and that now's the time to pre-order. I realise previews are always roundly positive, but still. They're being - to my mind - positive about the right bits.

The second is that, not being involved with this game, when Amnesia comes out I'll be interested to see if the experiment Frictional is attempting with their narrative structure is pulled off. Part of the point of establishing Plot is Gameplay's Bitch was to be as candid about development as possible, and while for what I hope are obvious reasons I don't particularly want to say an awful lot about Amnesia before it comes out, I certainly don't want to be left in the "Me too" / "Told you so" camp once the game's released. To that end, let me tell you a little about...

What Concerned Me
To put the following comments into context, I should state that I was involved briefly with Amnesia back when it was known as Lux Tenebras. Since then everything bar the setting and familiar Frictional gameplay has changed, and while I have played the first few hours of the game, I'm commenting largely from a theoretical standpoint based on design work and discussion between myself and Thomas (Grip, Frictional Co-Founder).

The story-telling approach Frictional is adopting on Amnesia is very passive (the story itself, that is, rather than what it demands of the player). Their objective has been to instill the game world with a history, diminishing almost entirely active, present tense story in favour of allowing the player to discover that history and to construct his own picture of events. To put that a more graspable way, there'll be lots of written notes, SS2-esque overheard dialogues, and a twisting character backstory to unravel. There will be (at least from what I understand) less of what we pursued in Black Plague in terms of tying puzzles into the active narrative.

Frictional's objectives in this are to provide a less hand-holding experience, to allow the player to digest the story at his own pace, and to allow him to personally contextualise his in-game actions rather than relying on NPCs. These are admirable goals, and I hope their experiment pays off, but I have my concerns. The reason I was proud of Black Plague was precisely the better job we did of justifying the puzzles and the game progression, and of placing the story emphasis in the present tense. It's my feeling that the relative narrative weakness of Overture and Requiem stems from their reliance on passive story, and that Amnesia may reawaken those issues. I know when I stated my concern that Amnesia was a Requiem, rather than a Black Plague follow up, Thomas disagreed. September will tell.

What I Think Will Work
What I do know for a fact is that Amnesia will prove the most polished, and the truest Frictional game to date. The central goal of the writing in their games has always been two fold: to drive the player through the world, and to reinforce the threatening atmosphere established by the visuals and expertly employed by the gameplay, making Frictional's releases some of the most frightening games ever made. While I fundamentally query how successfully the former can be pulled off, Mikael Hedberg is an experienced writer who cut his interactive teeth on the in-game descriptions in Black Plague, and so the latter will I hope be delivered on in spades.


When Amnesia hits the shelves on 8th September 2010 it'll be very interesting to watch the critical reactions: for a game whose narrative will ostensibly look and sound like an iteration of what was begun with Penumbra, will reviewers even identify the shift in approach?

Despite my concerns, I'd thoroughly encourage you to support indie development and to pre-order Amnesia from the Frictional store. It's guaranteed to be a fascinating experiment and the most confident expression of Frictional's horror credentials to date.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Unannounced Ubi Project is Driver: San Francisco!

Update: Driver: San Francisco is now scheduled for release early 2011.

A short and fun one, this. The second project I've been involved with that will see release this year can now be revealed as Driver: San Francisco. The trailer is particularly whizz bang, but if anyone can teach me how to make YouTube videos embed in skinny Blogger columns without going off the edge of the screen you know where the comments box is :-)

For those that don't know, I'm represented professionally by Sidelines, an agency dedicated to providing experienced video game writers and narrative designers. Do check them out if you're not familiar already, their audio arm - Side - recently won a Develop award. I was part of a Sidelines writing team including Dean Wilkinson (Little Big Planet), Iain Lowson (Wheelman), Gordon Rennie (Rogue Trooper) and James Worrall (GTA 3), personally developing and scripting more than 30 in-game characters.

Check out the previews for a fuller run down, but the central Big Interesting Shiny Thing is the frankly bat shit crazy 'shift' mechanic. When Driver's released in November this year it'll mark the first of my AAA projects to hit the shelves, but when I first saw the pitch I would have sworn it was out of left field: in a twist I thought might have been reserved for an in-game reveal, series protagonist Tanner is in a coma dream in which he can posses the drivers of other cars. The monstrous amount of dialogue I produced was for the incidental barks of the terrified passengers in the cars you take over. It was Fun. My favourite was, I think, the car salesman who's torn between screaming for you to watch the paintwork and trying to point out the finer features of the ABS.

The tone verges on dark humour in places, so it was right up my street. It's not ideal that I've not seen any more of the game than is in the trailers, but I hope the writing is well implemented and that the gameplay lives up to the promise of this debut footage.

Lost Horizon Previews & Artistic Subjectivity

I realised this morning that although I've been doing this job almost four years and worked on nine (nine!) games, the unfortunate fact of long development times means that I've still only had three released, all in the same series. It's strange that in my head I've worked across a load of different genres and formats, on everything from browser-based MMOs to AAA console fair, when all you guys know me for - quite fairly - is Penumbra.

That's about to change. Lost Horizon (trailer) is the new point & click from Animation Arts, the guys behind the Secret Files games, and ahead of its 20th August release date, hands-on previews are flying in.

The Good
The game itself is a beautiful thing of hand drawn backgrounds and cunningly implemented action, set within a tongue in cheek adventure movie. Expect the first reviews to be arriving in the next few weeks, but in the meantime here are some choice preview quotes:
"Lost Horizon just doesn't seem to have a weakness at all and this is one title where I can’t wait to get my hands on the full version!" Twitchy

"The story so far seems to be quite interesting[...] it has a kind of Indiana Jones charm to it, think wartime bars, cabaret singers, and a similar brand of humour. Characters are genuine and believable with some good voice acting." Game On
While I couldn't in any sense call Lost Horizon a 'Tom Jubert story' - in the sense that I only produced a treatment of the original German script, and wasn't involved in casting - I do hope there may be some identifiably me-ish elements to it. While the broad and, sometimes, downright odd humour is not strictly my style - games writers can rarely afford to pick and choose their projects to perfectly match their voice - I do hope lines like "True British workmanship: we can make an indestructible crate, but we can’t make trains that run on time" bring a personal note to the English version of the game.

The Bad
Of course, nothing is ever universally successful, and in keeping with my genuine intention for Plot is Gameplay's Bitch to be as candid as possible, it would be remiss of me not to also quote the only bad preview I found:
"This point-and-click adventure, which has been in development and getting genre fans excited for some time, features – quite honestly – some of the most atrociously bad dialogue I’ve seen in a game for ages." Beef Jack
The Interesting Subjectivity Bit
I could sit here and explain how challenging it is to work within the limitations of a polish job, but the funny thing is I think both the resoundingly positive previews and this one excessively negative example are probably all correct, in so far as art / entertainment is subjective. Lost Horizon is an unapologetic Indiana Jones homage. It's also a game that - quite consciously - doesn't always strive to avoid traditionally ludicrous puzzle scenarios. It won't appeal to everyone. I think Greg Giddens of Resolution Magazine nails it when he says:
"The audience this genre appeals to is specific, and the majority may find the pacing too slow and the experience too dull for their liking. It’s an inherent issue with point and click adventure games that is rarely countered, however, if you can embrace the genre’s style, Lost Horizon will pull you in with its interesting and well rounded characters."
There is such a thing as good and bad when it comes to writing and art: you can try to deliver something and fail. In all other senses, though, what is considered 'good' writing tends more so to be writing that appeals to those with the louder voices: the critics, or the academics, or sometimes the mass market. Writing, in truth, is only as good as the reaction of the person reading it.

No game save for ir/rational has captured exactly what I would do given a blank slate and a budget - that's a luxury reserved for studio founders and novelists. With Lost Horizon I just hope that given the scenario where the player has to manufacture a no-photography sign by drawing a banned symbol onto a camera poster using a bottle of ketchup, the appropriate response, for better or for worse, is:
"Some might say using ketchup to manufacture the 'banned' symbol was unnecessarily convoluted. I say 'Do YOU see any red felt-tips around here?'"

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Develop Conference & Twitter

Might be things are looking a little quiet around here right now - that's because I'm down in Brighton for Develop 2010. This'll be my third year, and the first year I've actually managed to hit every day. 2007 I was off to graduation on the Thur (very hungover after a night out on the Starbreeze guys, my folks were pretty shocked when they got to Southampton only for me to call and say I'd woken up in the Walkabout, Brighton, and I might be a tad late), and last year I was off to China the same day.

In related news I'm currently trialling Twitter, so if you're at the conference do give me a shout (@tomjubert, rather inventively) and if you're not, why not follow my various drunken attempts to woo Tim Schafer.

Lots of fun news to write up when I get the chance regarding various projects - watch this space.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About: The Top 15

This post completes the countdown of the commercial releases I hope are going to do fascinating things with interactive narrative over the coming year or so. I hope you enjoyed the ride, and do let me know what you think.

The story so far:
15. Privates
14. The Old Republic
13. I Am Alive
12. Brink
11. Kinect
10. The Last Guardian
9. XCOM
8. Subversion
7. Journey
6. Fallout: New Vegas
5. Portal 2
4. The Witness

3. Cargo!
2. ZRPG

1. LA Noire
Developer: Team Bondi   Creative Director: Brendan McNamara   Release: Q4 2010   Format: 360, PS3

So it is, the No. 1 spot - and congrats to Octaeder for guessing it spot on. I love indie games for their (sometimes naive) ambition, and they've dominated the top half of this list, but when I really thought about what deserved to make the top of the podium, LA Noire turned out to be the game that I feel strikes the best balance between broadening the ways in which we tell interactive stories; providing an engaging, polished experience; and actually having half a chance of delivering on its promises.

So why does this game's success intrigue me more than the ebullient collection of prospects further up the page? If I've excluded GTA V and Mafia II, why should what is essentially GTA: Noir get so much as a mention?

It's all about that balance. Behind the familiar GTA framework lies a game not so much concerned with drive bys (though I'm sure there'll be a touch too much of that for my liking) as with crime investigation and human interaction. Where Red Dead and Bully proved to be straight up relocations of the GTA format, LA Noire's extended (and at least once rebooted) development cycle has brought the game far closer to a genuine pursuit of more than just the film noir aesthetic. On a thematic level it's a game about interrogations, deceit and human flaws, but that's something that carries through into the gameplay.

While crime scenes are by no means procedural - we're still dealing with a more complex iteration of old school point & click mechnics - we're promised the angles will quickly open up. Find the murder weapon and the receipt in the abandoned vehicle, question the shop keeper successfully and harass your suspect into a confession. Or follow him home and give his wife some grief. Or just wait around and see if he comes back for his car.

More important are the interrogations. We've heard every game with pretty pictures for the last ten years claim mastery of the uncanny valley, and while Team Bondi's unlikely to deliver on that one, it's moving facial animation in an absolutely essential direction: towards emotional communication. An interrogation can be affected by anything from the clues you've collected to the style of your approach, but they key element will be your ability to read the characters.

That Team Bondi expects us to be able to tell whether or not we're being deceived at all is a unique and crucial step forward; that we're expected to do so not from what characters say but from how they say it renders this an exciting experiment indeed.


Honourable mentions & closing comments
There's a host of fast approaching sequels that promise to deliver compelling narrative experiences that didn't quite make the list. Games like Mafia II, GTA V and Mass Effect 3 are bound to be great, but they're unlikely to do anything worth writing about. Conversely, more elusive efforts like Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Spy Party are just too obscure right now to really consider seriously. Deus Ex: Human Revolution I just plain forgot about.

Looking through what's coming up, though, I realise that while I've been grudgingly writing yearly previews for various outlets for some time, I really feel this year like things are finally looking more positive. While a great many of the projects listed clearly fall into our industry's traditionally glass-is-half-full position of "I know it's a game about elves and explosions, but there's also some good story in there provided you don't blink", they're doing so in increasingly interesting ways. The indies, on the other hand, are growing year on year in their level of professionalism, scope and - perhaps most importantly for interactive narrative as a whole - commercial prospects.

Of course, I've tried to level reasonable doubts here, rather than produce the usual homogeneous and unrealistically optimistic video game preview, and some of these titles are bound to fail in their delivery if not their ambition. But that's OK. Those that fail will still open up the playing field for later attempts, and the double edged sword of gaming's continuing (though diminishing) ignorance of good story telling is that while a great many gems are overlooked, at least as many - such as Cryostasis, The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil from recent years - will end up coming from absolutely nowhere to entirely redefine what we can expect from our medium.

Who says its such a bad thing to live in interesting times?

Thursday, 8 July 2010

GAMESbrief Guest Blog: Rumours of Keith Vaz’s Malevolence Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I'm a guest blogger at industry analyst and ex-collegue, Nicholas Lovell's, GAMESbrief. He and I are, by all accounts, at polar ends of the industry - I'm at the creative end, passionate about games as art and pretentious theory stuff, while he's a money man who works out how to keep us all in business - creative merit sometimes comes second. This said, we cross over quite often - his focus on the business side is a result of his genuine passion for good games, while I'm more than aware that maintaining creative output can only come from a good handle of the financials. My occasional posts on GAMESbrief are a product of that, and you may like to check out my latest rant in support of parliamentary scapegoat, Keith Vaz.

Read GAMESbrief here.

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About: No. 3 - 2

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
9. XCOM
8. Subversion
7. Journey
6. Fallout: New Vegas
5. Portal 2
4. The Witness

3. Cargo!
Developer: Ice Pick Lodge   Release: Q4 2010    Format: PC

WTF is it?
Ice Pick Lodge's radical departure from the morbidity of Pathologic and The Void, Cargo! (damn these people and their ugly punctuation) looks to be a (slightly) more traditional action adventure in a world based, quite literally, around fun.


What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- Ice Pick Lodge are, to my mind, at the forefront of the small list of developers producing truly ambitious, coherent, meaningful experiences in full commercial development.
- The new thematic direction is a surprising twist that would tend to knock a game into Nintendo territory. That the studio's reputation guarantees there'll be more here than meets the eye makes this all the more fascinating a prospect.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- We don't know too much about the game yet, and it's due very soon indeed.
- So far, Ice Pick's games have tended to gain polish and lose complexity as they move forward. Cargo! seems unlikely to entirely shift this direction, but let's hope it can find a comfortable balance between accessibility and artistic merit.

2. ZRPG
Developer: DoubleBear   Lead Designer: Brian Mitsoda   Release: Done when it's done   Format: PC

WTF is it?
ZRPG is the code name for the first project from Brian Mitsoda (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines) and Annie Carlson (NWN2: Storm of Zehir). It's a lowish budget zombie RPG that - unlike Resi and its ilk - focuses on the realities and the human struggle of the inevitable undead apocalypse, rather than the headshots. I kinda hope you've never heard of it, and more so I kinda hope you won't forget about it.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- With time at Black Isle and both its offshoots (Obsidian and ill-fated Troika), Brian Mitsoda's writing credentials are second to none. (Incidentally, his Malkavian character in Bloodlines was no small influence on Red in Penumbra: Overture, and it's well worth playing the game back through with that class if you didn't the first time.)
- Zombie games always get zombies wrong. Zombie films were never about the zombies, they were about what you do when your best mate gets bitten. They were about where you'd hole up if it came down to it. They were about taking humanity and putting it under the greatest possible strain just to see what we're really made of. ZRPG gets that.
- And, yes, it's far enough up in the list that it has to have procedural something. In this case, I don't know quite how dynamic the whole game will be, but the intention is to provide a world that players aren't trying to 100%. Companions are voluminous enough that their deaths are acceptable losses, but valuable enough that you'll never feel happy about it. Decisions are of the real, everyday variety, rather than the 'Save the elf for the reward or kill him for the loot' approach. In short, it's exactly the zombie game we've been missing all these years.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- While visually the game's reassuringly scaled back, on a technical level it sounds like a huge undertaking for even a large team. For what has so far remained a largely two man band let's hope this doesn't prove another STALKER.

I'm such a tease: I'm saving the number one reveal for a fresh post. It'll be a big one, so I hope it's worth it, and I really hope it comes as a surprise. Answers on a postcard - there might even be a prize if anyone gets its right.  Watch this space.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Holiday Over - Now: Cultural Identity

So, you may have noticed the blog's been a little quiet over the last week. That's not because I've been avidly watching England be almost as shockingly bad in the world cup as France - it's because I've been in Sweden, and I'm just not the sort to sit down at a a laptop while I'm on holiday.

Given Sweden's entire population is smaller than London's, its flourishing games industry is something of a miracle, so naturally there's been some business going on as well, but for the most part I was staying with Swedish friends for a week of healthy eating, exercise and extreme left wing politics - not my thing at all, which is why it's been such a valuable break.

As much as I enjoyed my time, however, I can't say that getting back to the UK and our more cynical, less sheltered world view wasn't something of a relief, and it reminds me that in terms of cultural identity games are still very much in their infancy. When we look at other artistic mediums it's often very hard to separate a work from its creator's national identity - important topics are tied intimately to their creator's voice, and that voice is necessarily a product - to some degree or other - of the creator's background. Even traditionally lowbrow Hollywood output is inescapably American.

Games, on the other hand, exist in a faintly ludicrous middle ground where appealing to the US market is often paramount. This results in surprising (though impressive) syntheses of culture such as the American hyper reality of the British-developed GTA series, or the multicultural minefield of the Penumbra games (a Swedish series written by an Englishman, paying homage to an American writer, who in turn was pastiching English literature).

With these things in mind, it's important we heap praise on initiatives that reward games with cultural identity, such as the Nordic Game Program, and snap at the heels of MPs putting the kybosh on similar efforts in the UK. What's more, we should better recognise the few games that offer such cultural insights and realise that good stories and fun gameplay aren't the only things that can be valuable about an interactive experience. If you've not done so already, you might like to check out the following:

Theme Hospital - Developed 20 minutes from where I grew up in good old Surrey, England, Bullfrog's wry tannoy announcements and casual dismissal of the NHS could not have been more self-deprecatingly middle class Britain.

Beyond Good & Evil - Despite featuring an American-voiced central character in an alien version of Venice, Jade and BGE could not have been more French. From her garish green lipstick to her punky, counter culture problem solving, Ubisoft IP generator Michael Ancel clearly knew how to trick a US audience into enjoying something distinctly European. I can forgive that the game's named for no reason whatsoever after a groundbreaking piece of philosophy.

The Sims - While the Hollywood excess of the Halos of this world may comfortably represent typical US output, it's surely The Sims series that most represents the American (and, perhaps, Western) way of life. Consumerism and soap opera at its absolute best.

Cryostasis - A middling survival horror with an unambitious but structurally inventive narrative whose Ukrainian developer relishes its Russian folk tale origins.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Some Upcoming Games I'm Excited About: No. 6 - 4

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
9. XCOM

8. Subversion
7. Journey
6. Fallout: New Vegas
Developer: Obsidian   Lead Designer: Chris Avellone   Release: 19th October 2010 Format: PC, 360, PS3

WTF is it?
The first major follow up to Bethesda's mixed series reboot moves the action back to the west coast and, more importantly, puts development back in the hands of one of the series' original bright lights, Chris Avellone and his team at Obsidian.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- Avellone, along with a number of Obsidian staff, was a key player on Fallout 2. I often feel that modern RPGs (Fallout 3 included) have scaled back the complexity of their interactions in favour of polish, so a slight return to the more slapdash, frontier territory of yesterday would make for a welcome change.
- Obsidian has proven with projects like KOTOR II and Neverwinter Knights 2 that they know how to write. That'll be a relief for those who found the Bethesda's efforts to be strong in every area other than the most important one.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- If Obsidian have a reputation for one thing other than well-written sequels, it's for rushed and poorly polished sequels. Not necessarily their fault, but even Alpha Protocol - their first new IP - failed to break the cycle.

5. Portal 2
Developer: Valve   Lead Designer: Eric Johnson   Release: 2011   Format: PC, 360, PS3

WTF is it?
It's the only straight sequel that's made the list, that's what it is. Portal 2 was, from inception, a conscious decision by Valve to release a full progression of the formula, rather than go the episodic route. As such it's featuring new gameplay systems (including the paint gun from Tag, whose indie dev team has been brought into the Valve fold), co-op, and a host of schizophrenic GLaDOS sub programs.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- Er... it's the sequel to one of the most touching, threatening, hilarious and inventive games of all time. And it's from Valve. And it's got new shit. And it's done when it's done. This is the only sequel (not counting Vegas above since it's an entirely new dev team) in the list because it's the only sequel I can't imagine being happy just doing the same thing over again.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- Kim Swift, the lead designer on the indie hit that later became Portal, left the studio last year.
- For all the brilliance of writing Portal displayed, in terms of delivery it was rarely a game that introduced anything new. But then, when the content is this good I guess that can be forgiven.

4. The Witness
Developer: Jonathan Blow   Lead Designer: Jonathan Blow   Release: Late 2011   Format: ?

WTF is it?
The designer's difficult second album. Mostly just technical info floating about at the moment, but he describes it as "An exploration-puzzle game on an uninhabited island." With programming input from indie game advocate and ex Spore developer, Chris Hecker (check out Spy Party), I'll be watching this one with interest.

What's mind-bogglingly intoxicating?
- I'd argue Braid had its flaws, but they weren't quite enough to get in the way of its invigorating combination of temporal platforming and attempts to integrate philosophical musings into the gameplay. Jonathan Blow has proven he's one of the foremost supporters of games as more than 'mere' entertainment - not only that, he's proven he can deliver.

What's a little bit disquieting?
- I'm going to go out on a limb and say I found Braid's in-game text a little pretentious. But that's hugely subjective, and at the end of the day I'm just glad games like Braid not only exist, but can shift serious copies.
- The screens look quite a lot like Myst.

Watch this space for the top 3 coming soon...