Monday, 28 February 2011

This Month I Have Mostly Been...

...doing lots of work, and getting interviewed.

Interviews
Moviescope magazine (the film industry's Edge) got in touch to discuss the relationship between the two mediums, and I'm quoted extensively along with industry cohorts Andy Walsh and Alex Garland, and my agency's (Side / Sidelines) Creative Director, Andy Emery. There's a whole paragraph about this very blog, and I say intelligent things like,
"Any time a game is released and is successful and doesn't involve ninja bitches with tits the size of this room it's a good thing."
Go read.

There are only a couple of points that sound a touch out of context, and that's probably down to me getting overexcited rather than any quoting tomfoolery on the part of the mag. My discussion of celebrity voice talent sounds like I'm more down on it than I am because I was following up on a positive point; good thing there's no connection made between me and Side in the article because they have a lot of big names come through their recording studios.

There's also a bit where I say programmers and artists see writers as a threat. What I meant was that a dev team can see a writer as a threat if they come into the studio and start trying to dictate design. It's more a point about understanding the limits of your role as a games writer than it is about programmers hating me. In fact they've always been completely lovely.

You can catch up on all my latest interviews at www.tomjubert.com/interviews-commentary

Work
Between blogging, and networking, and filing tax returns, I also do a bit of writing, and I've been filling my time with a bunch of smaller jobs recently. I've been working as part of a team on the English version of Sega's Binary Domain, interesting for its voice control mechanics; and on dialogue for a sports personality in an upcoming wii / kinect / move training game. In the latter I was researching the sportsperson in question and adapting the text around their personality, but that's fairly familiar stuff for a games writer who's often working with someone else's IP.

As far as the Ice-Pick Lodge stuff goes, I've had the full script through and the last I heard was that they were hoping to deliver by the end of the month. Of course, since I got the script they've stopped replying to my emails.

Finally, I've just started work on a more significant project that'll keep me busy for the next few months. It's still closely under wraps, but I can say that it's a Facebook RPG of a very different nature to what you'd probably expect. I can't say in all honesty that this is a game that's likely to see a lot of crossover with my Penumbra audience, but I'm hoping I'll be able to bring some level of edge to proceedings. Casual and social games obviously are often antithesis to what I believe makes games exciting, but as a platform through which to introduce a far broader audience to interactive narrative I couldn't be more passionate about them.

Monday, 21 February 2011

A Criticism of H.O.M.E.'s "The Case Against Homosexual Activity"

What's about to follow has nothing to do with games. It is, instead, an academic piece of philosophy evaluating the logical validity of an interesting piece of anti-homosexual theory I read. Given my recent write up on Infinite Ocean's philosophy you'd be forgiven for thinking the blog was taking a new direction. Maybe it is a bit, but not much. Long story short, I'm as passionate about philosophy as I am about interactive art, and I have a blog, so it seems like the right place to put it.

Again, this has nothing to do with games.

So. A few weeks ago I was writing a piece of fiction where I had my protagonist facing off against a homophobe. I wanted my bad guy to put up a fight, so I researched some common anti-gay arguments and came across the 'Heterosexuals Organised for a Moral Environment' website. I'm sure they appreciate the irony of the acronym.

I've written up a critique of their essay. HOME's original essay is 5,000 words, so I've made up...

The Long Version - About ten pages, very academic, plus some jokes and spelling mistakes on my part
The Short Version - About four pages with all HOME's unnecessary rhetoric taken out; less entertaining, but, you know, shorter. Still has spelling mistakes.

In the interest of full disclosure I should say that I am straight, that I fiercely oppose irrational discrimination, and that I consider myself an atheist moral subjectivist. The latter is a poncy way of saying I think morality is just another religion.

I've written to HOME to give them the opportunity to reply. All considered comments extremely welcome.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Interview: Rhianna Pratchett on Games Writing, Diablo Lust, & Not Entirely Hating David Cage

Rhianna Pratchett is probably the highest profile freelance narrative designer in the UK. Starting out at the hallowed PC Zone, she was invited to be the story editor on Beyond Divinity (2004), and has since worked on major titles like Heavenly Sword and Mirror's Edge, and defined the anarchic humour of the Overlord franchise. On a personal level, Rhianna was one of a posse of writers who took me under their wing in the early days, and have continued to be supportive influences in my career to date.

Alright Rhi. Before we start, let's make a pact not to talk about how writers need to be better integrated into teams earlier in development. We always complain about that. Deal?

Deal.

The first time we met was at Develop 2007. I saw that you, Andy (Walsh) and Jim (Swallow) were giving a talk, and I dropped you an email to see if I could exchange booze for career advice. Then Starbreeze wined and dined us (emphasis on the former), I wound up wandering Brighton 'til 5am looking for a hostel, and I was late for my graduation in Southampton the next morning. You've never apologised for that, have you?

Oh button it, Jubert. It was summer! Plus you got a great introduction into the UK games writing scene *and* a free dinner. Think of how many beer-fuelled games writing rants that led on to.   Totally worth it.

Tell us a bit about the early, post-Divinity days of your career. Was it difficult finding work? How was the climate different to the one I entered eight years later?

I utilised some of the contacts I’d obtained working as a games reviewer on the late, great PC Zone magazine. A lot of it was just down to fortuitous timing. I ended up doing level dialogue work on a couple of small licensed games via a script and game design company called International Hobo. I met them through joining their forum after I’d greatly enjoyed one of their previous games – A very underrated titled called Ghostmaster. I then work on Stronghold Legends after I mailed the developers (Firefly) letting them know that I was setting out my stall a script-writer. I had good connections to them because I’d been a big fan of the Stronghold series and it just so happened they were in the market for a wordsmith. I guess it helped that I had quite eclectic tastes and I started small, so I wasn’t going knocking on the doors of Valve, Epic or any of the other big boys. 

My big break was definitely Heavenly Sword and again industry networking came into play. I’d met the Creative Director (Tameem Antoniades) at a screenwriting workshop, where I chatted to him a little about Heavenly Sword as it had just got some industry coverage. I then met him again at a London IGDA lecture where he was talking about the process of getting Heavenly Sword a publisher. We bonded over JD and a mutual dislike of the obnoxious fellow who ran the screenwriting course. Booze and hatred cements a lot of ties in this industry. Tameem talked to me about how Ninja Theory were about to enter their second round of writer testing as they’d been unable to secure one. I put myself forward; four months later got a test via Sony, then got an interview and the rest is history.

It’s difficult to make a call on whether it was easier back then. There weren’t really people like me around to ask for advice (well, there were, but they weren’t as visible as games writers are these days.) Consequently, I sort of had to make it up as I went along and learn on the job. So there’s a lot more information out there (books, interviews etc.) which is undoubtably helpful for wannabe games writers. However, the economic climate makes job searching hard for everyone. Belts have been tightened everywhere and some places still consider a writer a luxury, rather than a necessity.

Whenever we do talks and interviews I tend to differentiate myself from you guys as being very into indie - partly because I am, and partly because my AAA credits aren't nearly as impressive. Is it fair to do that? Are you into the whole art game scene, would you be keen to work for a smaller, more experimental developer, or is the big stuff what gets you going?

You also differentiate yourself from us with your varied collection of hats and facial hair! But I think we’re all in it together. Working with a small developer can be just as interesting and challenging as working with a much larger one. In fact I’ve had some of my most positive experiences working with small studios, such as Triumph who I did Overlord and Overlord II with. Larger companies can sometimes mean that there are more layers of people wandering into the narrative kitchen and fingering all the pies.

I’ve had some hugely diverse projects, which has been wonderful and I don’t regret any of them. Even when things don’t go the way you want, you always learn from it. The titles I choose to work on aren’t really about status, but about whether the project grabs me as both a writer and a gamer. I’m pretty open to whatever direction that comes from.

What interactive stories have excited you recently, and what are you looking forward to?

I’ve just got a PS3 so I’m stacking up a fair few games to play on that, including Enslaved and the original Uncharted. I’ve just started on Batman: Arkham Asylum (yes, I know I’m a little behind.) It took a little while for the gameplay to ramp up, but the story telling and performance capture is fantastic. Hats off to Rocksteady.

I’m really looking forward to Diablo III, not especially for the story, but because I’m searching for that obsessive *need* to play a game, that I felt with the first two titles. I nearly lost a boyfriend due to my excessive Diablo playing. In retrospect I should’ve ditched him and stuck with the game.

We have a love/hate relationship with David Cage (it's tempting to say I love him, you hate him, but I know it's more complex than that). He suggests, however, one future for game narratives is for the designer to be closer to a stage setter, with characters and stories behaving dynamically according to rule sets rather than a script. I think that's a long way off, but I do believe in the idea. Even if we have to simplify our dramas, ala The Marriage, it seems like the only way to really deliver on what games as a fiction medium can do. It's incredibly hard to fool a player into thinking he has freedom with traditional branching / linear narrative. Do you feel there's mileage in the idea behind procedural story?

I don’t hate Mr. Cage, I’m very glad that games like Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit exist, although I find the preoccupation with sex and ‘titillation’ scenes in his games verging on creepy. The differences in how Ethan’s shower scene is depicted (in Heavy Rain) versus the way Madison’s show scene is depicted, is a good example of this.

I’m certainly interested in his suggestion for the future, but like you I think that’s quite a long way off. Is he suggesting that designers become writers? I think it’s probably more the case that writers should become designers, since being a game writer is about so much more than the ‘word bits.’ It’s about creating a world, atmosphere, tone and narrative logic. It’s like being part writer, director, cinematographer and set designer all rolled into one.

Finally, can you either give me a controversial sound bite I can take out of context and use as a header, or give me any juicy details on something you're working on now?

I’m pretty sure that you’ll find a controversial sound bite somewhere in this! Sadly I can’t give any juicy details about what I’m working on now, otherwise bad men will come and kill my pets. The best I can come up with is that they are both great projects, both franchise games (which is rare for me) but I don’t think people are going to be too surprised about my involvement. 

Right, "Playing Diablo nearly lost me my boyfriend" it is. Cheers Rhi.

You can find Rhi's official website right here.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Challenge of AAA Writing, or Why Tom Can't Get No Respect

This is a guest post by Mark Seymour, the top student from the Story Design module I taught at Southbank Uni last year. Here he talks a bit about my classes, a bit about the role of the writer in games, and lots about Dead Space 2 and how narrative design in AAAs isn't all it could be. Read and learn how to complain about everything and still sound like a great guy.

There really is no celebrity game writer culture, is there? No King or Bukowski, no Coen or [David] Simon or even an Alex Garland. It’s not like film or literature where (s)he who holds the pen has the power to draw in an audience based on name alone. I watch a Call of Duty trailer and tick off a mental checklist:

1. Multiplayer
2. Nazis and/or Russians
3. Gratuitous violence
4. NPC with a moustache

And as long as at least two of those are satisfied it’s a preorder and another tropical island paradise for Activision. Show me a trailer for the Transformers movie, though, and I’ll switch off. Story and character are more important than moustaches, AC-130’s and detachable limbs when it comes to cinema but in games it’s usually an afterthought and for the majority of gamers, that doesn’t really matter. Look at World of Warcraft.

Speaking of Alex Garland, by comparative standards Enslaved boasted some of the better AAA writing of last year; its story didn’t feature an awkward sex scene where neither character took their clothes off and at no point did anyone enter monologue and say something like: “I’d have to kill that giant laser-beam vomiting robot by shooting its glowing orange weak spots” ala Alan Wake (how do you go from Max Payne 2 to that?)

But by eschewing dedicated games writers Ninja Theory ensured they had a claim to fame they never could have had by employing an industry specialist. A fame firmly embedded in another medium altogether.

So if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 12 lectures with Tom Jubert it’s that games writers aren’t always on the receiving end of much respect. (Ha, thanks mate, what a legacy that is; knew I shouldn't have told you to write about what you learned - TJ)

In one of the final lectures we listened to a panel of writers recount tales of woe from their own works. Judging by their accounts, both Rhianna Pratchett and Andrew Walsh had a hard time with Mirror’s Edge and the latest Harry Potter game respectively, both having substantial parts of their scripts annihilated without their approval.

Maybe its naivety but I can’t imagine anyone taking Thomas-Anderson’s There Will be Blood script and altering the film’s denouement so Daniel Plainview repents and spends his fortunes helping his disabled son live a better life. People respect his storytelling ability but that doesn’t appear to be the case in the videogame industry. Also, a world without "I drink your milkshake"? Horrid.

That’s not the only thing Tom taught us, and I don’t think he intended to leave that mark, but in the context of story driving gameplay and not the other way around, it seems to me like respect is a hurdle that needs to be conquered.

Lectures weren’t all doom and gloom though. In fact compared to the stress of the 3D level design and 3D character modelling and animation units we studied in tandem with writing, Tom’s lectures were a welcome opportunity to actually talk about some games as well as listen to the writing and ideas others were working on.

Lectures were split into two halves; the first hour dedicated to Tom’s unbridled love of Planescape and the second our own writing. Planescape aside, we studied titles like Bioshock 2 and Everyday the Same Dream to see how they told their stories without employing the conventional cut scene. With our own work – a 3500-word document split between script samples and a general overview - we were encouraged to ditch the tired old cinematic and explore more inventive avenues of storytelling. And it’s not until you sit down and give that a go for yourself that you realise it’s actually damn hard and that the cut scene exists for some very good reasons, not least of all because it’s safe and reliable.

I tried my hand at interactive dialogue, another weary method of storytelling, and while that was a tactical choice to sidestep the cut scene and ensure the man marking my work was slightly appeased, I had a tough time finding ways to tell a story via gameplay and speaking to others on the course, they did to.

It came as no surprise that the indie titles we looked at, by comparison, boasted the lion’s share of the interesting ideas, but having just finished Dead Space 2 there are certainly AAA games with a few ideas of their own. Dead Space takes some of the most artificial game tenets (the HUD and cut scenes predominantly) and ties them neatly into the narrative design. Protagonist Isaac Clarke wears a super high-tech space suit that incorporates the life gauge into its design. When angry Necromorphs begin tearing his kneecaps out of his armpits, the life gauge on his back estimates his chances of survival to an exact measure, all in typical last-generation fashion. The life bar is still a life bar but at least in Dead Space it has been weaved into the lore rather than popping up as an inexplicable red hue around the screen.

Elsewhere, 95% of what could be intrusive cinematics occur with the player in full control and are projected in front of Clarke’s face, again as part of his suit’s repertoire of science-fiction usefulness. By tying mechanics into story, fighting an endless barrage of zombie Mr. Tickles in space becomes a more intense and believable affair, there’s no respite (unless you pause) and without a screen adjourned with endless statistics the world and the horror within takes precedence.

That said Isaac Clarke is still partial to the odd observational comment, the kind of remark that makes you question what the average IQ of people playing videogames is. Thank you for reaffirming the sudden, distinct and total removal of light from the scene, I hadn’t noticed.

Dead Space is far from perfect but the lesson learned from trying to invent creative ways of telling a story is it’s an immensely difficult and risky process and it’s one that doesn’t happen too much.

But as is so often pointed out, this is an industry still riding through relative infancy. The situation now – from the perspective of those who treasure narrative over shooting half Russian half Nazi zombie alien monsters in the face – for the most part is far from idyllic but I’ve come away from these lectures with a little bit of hope that one day, I’ll be able to play a fantastic AAA behemoth title without being reminded of something as glaringly obvious as all the lights going out.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Voyage to Ice Pick Lodge: Bombs, Bolsheviks & Homemade Absinthe

One week ago I came within a gnat's whisker of getting blown up. I was due to fly out of Moscow's Domodedovo airport the day of a major terrorist attack. The more hairy business by far was meeting Nikolay Dybowski (Founder, Lead Writer) and Aleksey Luchin (Programmer, Translator) of Ice Pick Lodge (Pathologic, The Void).

***UPDATE*** Snaps here. 

Friday 21st January 2011
5:30pm - The friends I'm staying with insist on taking time out from their recording session (check out their version of Donizetti's / The Fifth Element's Diva Song at 27m10s) to chaperon me to the irreputable central-Moscow bar where I'm meeting the guys.

5:50pm - I meet Nikolay on the way, he explaining candidly that a mistake on his part - the common games industry one of moving to posh offices then realising you can't pay the bills - has left the core team of seven or so working from a flat in the Moscow outskirts.

6pm - OGI Club is good. They have a free cloakroom and free music and expensive vodka. Although everywhere in Moscow has both the former and the latter: it's -15 degrees Celsius outside. Nikolay is the quieter, more intense of the pair (as you might expect of Pathologic's creator); he opens every sentence with your name yet rarely looks at you, and you know that when he does speak it's for good reason. Alex is a talkative multilingual; passionate and eloquent.

6:20pm - The guys spell out in no uncertain terms that they'd love me to take a pass at the English script on Cargo, their next release. Specifically they're talking about a batch of arrhythmic poetry inspired by (seemingly oxymoronically) both Marat/Sade and Lock/Stock. I order a Baltika beer to avoid the vodka and the guys order more Russian food than I know what to do with.

6:40pm - My vodka avoidance doesn't last long. Alex is out due to a recent operation, so Nikolay pours out two shots from a half litre carafe then watches patiently until I down mine. He refills our glasses and the process repeats. Our first toast is mine: to Ice Pick Lodge, and making some of the most exciting games ever made.

7pm - We talk about the tribulations of getting good stuff into commercial games. This covers my claim that a lot of my job involves sneaking good writing into games while convincing the publisher it's just about blowing shit up, and Nikolay's efforts to allow children to die in Pathologic by officially considering them midgets. The guys seem genuinely surprised and pleased to hear that there are games writers who care about art.

8pm - I have eaten a lot of dumplings and steak, and about ten large shots of vodka. We have not yet talked any business. The guys suggest relocating to their 'HQ' in Kuzminky. On the metro Nikolay starts singing "What shall we do with the Russian sailor". We also buy a £2 pack of cigars flavoured with cherry and talk about Cargo. The game is based heavily around Airat Zakirov's (Founder, Lead Programmer) physics and vehicle customisation engine; it's smaller in scale than the studio's previous output; and it's at least sort of aimed at kids.

9pm - We arrive at the HQ, a two bed flat 45 mins out of town where we find one man hard at work on delivering the beta, and the studio's intern (and Alex's girlfriend), a cute and inordinately shy girl called Nisa. I call my friends and when they hear which part of town I'm in they ask if I trust the guys I'm with and whether anyone's asked to 'borrow' my passport.

9:15pm - We decide it's best I look at the game before we start drinking the homemade absinthe. Over a cup of chi I play through the opening level of Cargo. Large sections of the story are filled in by Nikolay and Alex as I progress. The core game seems like a simple (if sumptuous) explore 'em up, and I only get limited time with the vehicle design system, but the snippets of allegory arriving in my ear give me hope for the final script: this a world where the gods have replaced imperfect humanity with a race of altruistic ubermenchen, who turn out to be mindless midgets that must be kicked ad infinitum. They would ideally like me to do the work while I'm here in time for their deadline in two days. I explain this may be pushing it but that I can do it to a higher standard once I get home.

10:15pm - We celebrate our collaboration with sambuca. I try to suggest we light it in our mouths like we did when we were 18, but we do it the proper way, burnt in the glass with a coffee bean. We have entirely failed to discuss rates, deadlines or any kind of logistical concern.

11pm - Home made absinthe comes in three different flavours. Against my better judgement I sample all of them while someone goes out to buy sugar so we can make traditional cocktails.

11:30pm - Against all the odds I think I am outdrinking the Russians. Alex's post-op fears have gone down with the absinthe, and Nikolay has started swaying and telling "It's bloody cold in Russia" stories. My favourite involves a man who runs to the shops at midnight in Siberia and is terrified when he hears the devil's hooves clanking behind him. He gets home and realises the clanking was coming from his sock-clad feet which have frozen solid. "The funny thing is," says Nikolay, "he had to have them amputated two weeks later."

Saturday 22nd January 2011
12am - Having finally worked out how to do the absinthe cocktails properly (stick the sugar lump on a fork, douse it in booze, then melt it with a lighter over the glass) the drinking games begin.

12:30am - We talk about Ice Pick's next project (Cargo's deadline is in the next few weeks). It's a kind of bildungsroman charting the lives of a large number of characters over a great space of time. This alone makes it fascinating. There's unsubstantiated talk of applying the dynamic interaction of something like Minecraft to narrative. There's also reference to a great play as central inspiration. And I could tell you more - Ice Pick is the only professional developer I know not to bother with NDAs - but I'm not going to.

1am - I have missed my last metro. The guys insist I don't get a cab and sleep on the sofa bed in the main room instead. By way of bargaining they produce a Russian copy of the Penumbra trilogy and get me to sign it (I wrote something naff like "Fucking relieved you enjoyed the games"). They also tell me about the only Penumbra easter egg that I'm aware of, hidden somewhere deep inside The Void.

1:30am - Everyone apart from Nisa and I has fallen over at least once. I decide now is the time to discuss logistics. I try to extract Nikolay from conversation but everyone joins in and it turns out Ice pick has an open business policy anyway. I look around the flat and ask straight up whether Ice Pick can afford to pay for the work. Of course they can. They ask my rates and I tell them it's probably best they just make me an offer. They ask again, I tell them, and they gawp and offer me half in a pleading kind of voice. Developers don't negotiate with me enough.

1:40am - I wind up telling the guys that it's studio's like theirs that make me want to stay in our industry and that it would be an honour to work with them. We agree that I'll do the requested scripts for a small set fee and take a full playthrough of the rest of the script on a royalties basis. I do not necessarily expect this approach to prove profitable. We shake hands and drink some more.

2am - Alex and Nisa go to bed (they live here), Nikolay walks home, and I'm left on the sofa bed in the half light of the glowing computer screen where a lone developer continues tapping away at the beta.

2:15am - Nikolay inexplicably crashes through the front door, produces a sleeping bag and lies down on the floor next to the sofa bed. I check to see if his feet have frozen over. They have not.

5am - I wake up to hear Nikolay singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor" in his sleep.

11am - My alarm goes off. I am not as hungover as I should be, something Alex swore last night would be down to the absinthe. Everyone else is comatose. I shake Nikolay, realising this is the first business meeting I've had where I end up sleeping with the CEO. He wakes up and insists on walking me to the metro.

11:30am - Nikolay explains that he remembers agreeing to collaborate on Cargo but that he has forgotten the terms. I remind him. He seems a little surprised, but happy all the same. He tells me he'd like to meet again before I leave in a couple of days. I suggest coffee this time. 

Monday 24th January 2011
10pm - After some haphazard communication I have agreed to meet Nikolay and Alex in a bar in the centre of town. I dimly recall something about coffee but put it from my mind. I meet Alex and a bunch of other Ice Pick regulars, but no Nikolay. Turns out he's not answering his phone. Alex tells me he's glad we've reached a compromise on the writing. I ask him what compromise that is. He tells me it turns out he's not bad at writing arrhythmic poetry and that it's a shame we won't be working together but hopefully next time. I have sad face and confused face in equal measure.

10:10pm - I sign a man's chest.

10:15pm - We establish that Ice Pick's internal communication is not of the most consistent and that I am probably still working on the project. I resolve to get in touch with Nikolay once I'm home.

10:30pm - One of the guys looses his wallet, I've not yet had a beer, and the evening starts losing its gusto.

10:45pm - Alex walks me to the metro, talking about an indie project he's just about to kick off. I try to draw some last minute action points so that something actually gets done. We shake hands and I say goodbye to Ice Pick Lodge.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Stories in Unlikely Places No.3: Cryostasis

Crostasis is an ambitious Ukrainian development whose limited implementation belies its thorough understanding of how to tell a creepily effective tale.

This is part of a series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing the games that further our understanding of interactive narrative. No serious spoilers.

This column thus far has found itself focusing exclusively on older games whose narratives were under appreciated when they first came to bear, so with that in mind I present you Cryostasis - a 2009, Condemned-style survival shooter that probably looks like it's not especially worth your time. The game positions you as a scientist stumbling across the wreck of a Russian nuclear research vessel grounded in the arctic, your goal being to discover just what went wrong, and why the hell everyone's a zombie now.

The first example of the metered approach to design that Action Forms applies throughout the experience is in the ranged combat: it's rubbish, but that's because this isn't really a shooter, it's an atmospheric game of exploration. Its USPs sound exciting but prove to be much more stripped down than they might have been. Modelling temperature as a crucial survival resource could have been inventive, and the moments that mirror Dead Space's haunting zero G scenes - where you fight your way out into the blizzard, surviving moment to moment on the fleeting respite of a hot air vent or partially destroyed cabin - are atmospheric and rewarding; but for the most part all this marketing talk just means the health bar's replaced with a thermometer; med kits with fires, heaters and even desk lamps.

Of greater narrative interest is the MentalEcho ability. Cryostasis builds most of its challenge around environmental puzzles, many of which revolve around the protagonist's ability to embody the mind of a dead guy, go back in time and change his actions in the past in order to effect the present. Again, this has some really inventive gameplay applications (eg posses the stuffed polar bear that's locking your path, then go back in time and save it from the captain's hunting rifle, leaving the path in the present day clear), but they're completely linear and for the most part it's 'Go back to when this guy broke this ladder and, you know, don't.' However, much like games such as Tribes: Vengeance or Second/Sight, less demanding gameplay and a more linear narrative can allow the creative wiggle room for some serious story fireworks.

Cryostasis relates three different, interrelated tales. The first is the most minimal: the active story of the protagonist. Frankly beyond the opening and the conclusion this story amounts to 'Guy trudges through boat, reads some shit.' The next is the eerie Russian fairytale of hero worship and lost faith that acts as foil to the core thread: the discovery of just what went on on the ship in the previous weeks.

These flashbacks tend to be non-interactive, you a ghostly spectator to events whose catastrophic outcomes have already unfolded. The story itself - of mutiny and fate - is nothing too out of the ordinary, but the structure is captivating: too few are the games which understand that the audience often needs a perspective broader than the confines of a corridor and gun barrel. Gradually the scraps of correspondence, scenes of tension in the crew quarters, altered histories and allegorically deformed sailors come together at a single, crucial point in time; finally a point where your actions may have an impact that reaches beyond the next locked door.

Also you fight the god of time. But that's enough of that.

The conclusion is satisfying (that alone is a rarity), delivering on all the dramatic loose ends the devs have sewn throughout the last eight hours, and even the end credits are touching and wistful for the experience you've just shared.

Not that I'd guess it was an inspiration, but there are definite Penumbra vibes at work here: the atmosphere of isolation; the focus on survival, exploration and puzzle solving; and the philosophically inspired backstory. That and the rubbish combat. The developer's site is down as of right now, and they've not been very chatty since this game's release and the formation of a phoenix dev team.

I for one would like to give this game a last breath of life.

Buy Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason at Amazon.co.uk (£6.99)
Download Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason at Amazon.com ($3.25)