Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Hitman: Absolution: In Support Of

 I played Hitman: Absolution this week. Like everyone else I was disappointed by the radical departure from the original gameplay format, but I wasn't entirely distraught. I enjoyed myself. If the stealth system were separated out from the disguise system, and the balance struck a little more in favour of larger levels, I think the rest could have been quite palatable. More than that - these vignettes of blending into train station crowds, hunting nuns in cornfields and stalking cops on rooftops bring dashes of dynamism and variety to a formula that, dare I say it, stands to benefit from it.

Absolution also got me thinking about Hitman's oft-fraught relationship with narrative, and about how the bland cutscenery of the last two games seems to be missing the point. I love IO and I love these games - and I want to formulate something constructive. To do so I'll ask a simple question:

What is the point of Hitman's Narrative?
The narrative design in a game is there with one purpose, which is the same purpose as every other element in development - to help deliver an interactive experience that focuses on the controlling idea. The controlling idea is what the project is about. It's a description of what the end-user experience should be.

Hitman's controlling idea (its point) is plain enough: to be an expert assassin; to explore, understand and violently participate in a living world. By focusing on realistic environments, psychological judgements (or understanding of AI routines if we're being cynical) and calculated subterfuge over blind Rambo-ism, Hitman is, more than most stealth 'n gun games, a simulator. Albeit a simulator with a dark sense of humour.

How do you usually plot a simulator?
Usually not with cutscenes. The more popular alternative is simply to avoid plot altogether. A plot supposes some artificial linearity - some element of the game that isn't simulated, but locked in - and that would be opposed to the very concept of what a simulator is. Silent Hunter, SWAT 4, the various brilliant flight sims - they don't force you on a particular path. They give you enough background detail for context, then let you go off and create your own tale.

I'm not sure this is where Hitman's going. For one thing, Hitman is different from some other simulators in having a protagonist with a personality (sort of) and - so the argument goes - therefore you need a character arch, and a plot, and cutscenes... we know where this ends up. For another thing - and it seems strange to admit this - but I just can't imagine Eidos biting the bullet and accepting that they may not need a plot. Hitman is a AAA game, and AAA games have stories now!

So if we're committed to putting something in between the assassinations (and it is surely the assassinations that are at the heart of Hitman) what should it be?

How else could you design Hitman's narrative?
How about this: Career Mode. I'd argue that if we want anything from Hitman's narrative, it would be something that supports the simulation feel of the core gameplay. What's cool about 47 is not, I think, what he does when the people he works for betray him and he's left with a genetically engineered little girl to protect. What's cool about 47 is that he's a professional. A cool Hitman story would focus on that.

What would a year in the career of a Hitman be like? What would fill the gaps between the hits? I think there would probably be a bunch of the things you'd expect - upgradeable, explorable hideouts, collectable weapons, a currency based on mission success... You'd also want to make greater use of some other elements from earlier Hitman games - Blood Money's procedural newspaper articles could be developed into something that gave us a sniff of the larger world.

What might turn out to be particularly useful are those little vignettes from Absolution. A career mode would need something more than a few management elements to deliver the sense of being 47. We'd want to see just a little of the pain-staking preparation that goes on behind the scenes. So perhaps we'd have some side-missions: a trip to the blackmarket weapons dealer, a hit on a potential witness, a scouting mission on local police patrols. If we were really clever we'd have these develop and overlap in unexpected ways: perhaps on the scouting mission we'll spot the weapons dealer entering the police station. Depending on 47's actions he may come home from his next mission to find them knocking at his door.

What I suggest is that by building up this little web of fiction we could bring another layer of detail to Hitman's world. Instead of breaking from the core missions for another video of 47 being betrayed and not being caring about it, let's use that time to tell a different sort of story - one which reflects the core themes of the gameplay experience. One which makes you feel like a Hitman.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Ir/rational Investigator Heads to IGF 2013

This is, of course, no guarantee that it will actually arrive there. All the same, 3am this morning marked the deadline for this year's Independent Games Festival, and the Ir/rational team were unsurprisingly working up to the wire. It's been worth all the ball-ache of learning about ad-hoc dev profiles, text blitters and orientation bugs because finally we have a decently representative vertical slice. Finally we know where we're going with the game, and we can show people. I shall do so...


Rick's Office - serves as the HQ, and highly adaptable - the room reflects progress in the story.

The game map. The first episode will feature 3-4 such map screens, each with unique locations and characters.

The tone of the game is tongue in cheek.
So we've currently got about 20 minutes of gameplay. Over the next couple of months I'll be designing the remaining puzzles (the rough plot is already in place) with a view to releasing the first episode Some time in Q1 2013.

You can read more about Ir/rational Investigator at Steam Greenlight. Although Imre of Bossa Studios had a play the other day and said it was a "great idea, but shakey implementation" - so don't get too excited, because he knows his stuff!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Interview: Blendo Games on Quadrilateral Cowboy

Brendon Chung of Blendo Games has been responsible for some of the smartest, most varied and distinct indie games of the last few years, including Gravity Bone, Flotilla, Atom Zombie Smasher and Thirty Flights of Loving. I caught up with Brendon at PAX last month where he was exhibiting his new game, Quadrilateral Cowboy.

So, to start us off, tell us a little about your new game.

Sure. It's a cyber-punk 20th century 1980s low-tech hacking game.

Excellent. I've played it, I love it, it's I think my favourite game here. So your games, more than most, are incredibly varied. You've done a turn-based space sim, a zombie strategy game, more surreal things... and now you're doing a first-person stealth hack'em up. Is that a conscious decision on your part to try to nail as many genres as you can, or is it just the way it happens?

I'm not trying to nail as many genres as I can, it's more me trying to get out of my comfort zone. I'm a big fan of when people get out of their comfort zone and do something they're not used to doing. I love seeing when dramatic actors do comedies, I love seeing when comedians do dramatic roles. So for me, that's why. Flotilla was my first turn-based strategy game. I thought - I might as well give it a shot, see what happens.

So there's a theme across a number of your games and it's certainly got a surreal feel to it. How much of that is because you want to have control of your world, how much of that is to give you leeway in the gameplay, is it your style, is it just the way it comes out - tell us what goes on behind that.

So these are just things that I'm interested in like when I read books or watch movies... Woody Allen or the Coen brothers, they influence me a lot in that they have these worlds that are real, but at the same time be wildly fantastic about them.

OK. We talked yesterday about the writing. You said you wanted to keep the text in the new game minimal if even non-existent outside of the computer terminal system that you use; but I got the impression that you like to write, even if you like to keep it out of the games. Tell us a bit about your relationship with the writing.

Yeah, so I love reading, I was a film major in college and writing was one of the things I most enjoyed doing. But then when I play video games I am the type of player that skips past all the text bubbles and cutscenes because if I want to read a good story I will pick up a good book. So I feel like games are best served when  you're interacting with them, not reading pages of text. Although I will say, Planescape: Torment - best game ever made.

I love in that game because they didn't have that detailed animation it was prose, right? You know, "So and so looks at you with a steely gaze and says...". Seems very strange nowadays. So playing Cowboy, you've obviously got a world that functions according to a set of rules, and I love that because it makes the world feel more thorough. It feels real because everything functions independently, you put some stuff int he level and then it goes off and does its stuff, just like in the real world. How do you go about conceptualising that world and what do you think the game rules bring to the game? 

Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone are very narrative based, very experimental in terms of story. This one's the opposite of that. It's about really high player agency, letting the player run around a simulated cyber-punk world. I was kind of inspired by... Recently I've been a simulation kid. Games I've really liked have been Day Z, Dwarf Fortress, and those are games where it's just pure simulation and they let people be creative within them. That's something I want to support.

I went to the Erik Wolpaw and Tim Schafer talk earlier today about gameplay vs story and someone asked Tim, "How do you feel about games that express their meaning through mechanics rather than pre-authored script?" and he was kind of quite dismissive about it.

In what way?

Something like: "When I interact with a piece of art I feel like I'm communicating with another person, and if all I have is a bunch of mechanics and no pre-authored story then there's no communication." It sounds like you're saying the opposite and I think I'd probably be on your side. Um... that's not really a question...

*Laughs* Yeah, what games I feel excel in is interactivity, and being able to crunch a billion numbers behind the scenes. So an authored story is a form a lot of media can do, but player generated stuff - that's what's so unique to video games. 

Well done, it's almost like I fed you that. One more question . Stealth. I love it, I think you must enjoy it.

Thief is my favourite game of all time. Next to X-Com.


I like that it makes you roleplay a certain type of character. I think a lot of games now you're some muscle-bound guy and have 20 guns strapped to your back and that's fun, I enjoy that. but I like having variety in my gameplay, so when I played Thief I suddenly played this guy who had one hit point and a guard just looked at me the wrong way and I would drop dead. I'm hiding in a corner and I'm breathing shallowly and hoping he doesn't see me. There's something wonderful about that experience.

Good answer. Brendon, thank you.

You can keep up with Blendo here, and Quadrilateral Cowboy right here.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Guest Post: Speech v Silence - Why Less is More

Hi there. I’m Will Swarbrick. I used to write stuff for Gamer's Guide to Life, SystemLink, and a few bits and pieces that are forever lost in the wastelands of the internet. Before my new life as a History student in the Midlands commences, and in a bid to make a break in this topsy-turvy industry, Mr. Jubert has kindly given me the opportunity to discuss something of a growing concern; as scripts for games balloon and burgeon, dwarfing their cinema counterparts, story and narrative is becoming a greater focus for game developers - but story isn't all about speech. Sometimes, the best narratives are those crafted with complete silence.

The brilliant Critical Path series has contained within its star-studded vaults enough groundbreaking philosophy and astounding psychology (as well as a healthy dose of pomposity) to make any gamer duck and cover for all the ideas flying over their heads. However, one video stood out for me. While previous talking heads spoke of the importance of extracting real emotion from players, Joseph Staten, Director of Cinematics for the Halo series (not to be confused with Joseph Stalin, Director of Mass Murder for the USSR) came out with:

"I don't want to play a game that makes people cry[...] I wanna make a game that makes me go 'Yeah! Did you see what I did to that guy! That was so good'. Maybe it's challenging to make you cry...but games that make you jump up out of your chair and beat your chest - when was the last time a movie or book made you do that?”

The man has a point. Roger Ebert's dismissal of games as an art form by asking the question 'Has a game ever made anyone cry?' seems to have struck a nerve with the gaming community, and now the great gold rush is for a game that grabs your emotion gland and forces those salty tears to stain your controller. While there are a plethora of brilliant games that can manifest a lump in your throat, just spamming a cinema screen with pictures of dying puppies and Instagram'd sunsets is enough to get the waterworks going and probably evoke a numinous experience or two. Staten’s point is that games are a unique medium, with the ability to summon up a greater range of emotions than your average silver screen flick. To make you, in this example, sad because of the actions of others seems facile in comparison to conjuring others feelings games are inimitable in creating - such as unadulterated joy or fist-bumping success from your own actions and decisions, from saving the known universe.

But it goes further than that - unlike the fixed and eternal stories in the cinema, players of video games don't need to be guided and channelled through a set narrative. The finger-slicing scene in Heavy Rain sure was a brilliantly sickening and horrific piece, but felt more like a slightly interactive movie than a game. Often, the best narratives and strongest feelings stem purely from the player's free will, without the guidance of a linear fable. Mass Effect 2 was a game I struggled to get involved with for the same reason friends adored it; the world was thick with story. It was far too heavy with speech - jogging around the cityscapes of outer space, it felt like I was wading through a sea of deafening dialogue. Every few steps I was ambushed by a sidequest here and a dialogue tree there, barely able to move for the various narratives that blocked my path like a paperback Snorlax. There was no space for my imagination to sprint free and start to pilot my playthrough, for me to attempt to suspend cynical disbelief and imagine myself as part of this world - I was simply being ushered through futuristic corridors without any real input of my own, spare for the choice between a snarky response or a kind reply.

Oddly enough, it was Limbo, a game tightly glued to x-axis, that offered me the most freedom. There are no sweeping monologues or tomes of text - not a whimper or a whisper. Not a single word is uttered during the whole experience, and it's all the more engaging for it. Why is there a gargantuan spider chasing a hungry-eyed boy? Why do a group of kids attempt to spear our hero? What the hell happened to the hotel? By providing a springboard for an active imagination to roam, the game allows the player's mind to fill in the narrative gaps and blanks.

Could any linear narrative capture the magic of Skyrim when stumbling across a giant swiping at a dragon as mudcrabs nibble away at his toes, before your Thu'um stains the sky charcoal as bolts of lightning stab all those below? Could a planned and penned quest evoke more emotion than John Marston being abruptly ambushed in the middle of the desert, a volley of revolver shots scorching the landscape with piercing roars, only for all to fall deathly quiet as your attackers bleed onto the dust? Or, hey, jump in a Police Cruiser in GTA IV and become a vigilante to see my point. These personal moments are so unique and unexpected that they hit much harder than normal narratives. Sometimes, all that's needed to tell a great story is whole lot of atmosphere and a pinch of imagination.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

From Inside the PAX10 - Part 2/2

This is the second half of my post-PAX report. You can find the first half here.

Saturday - PAX Day 2
Saturday is the big day. That's the word going around the stands. The word is not wrong. Everyone is here. Surreal experience of the day goes to a certain gaming website that conducts a video interview. The interview is with their dolled up female presenter, who has the questions fed to her by the sweaty chap behind her. Perhaps she knows loads about games, perhaps the PAX10 is just not her area of expertise - but I worry the real reason she's being fed the lines is that the website thinks gamers are really here for the T&A. They won't be satisfied by thorough journalism! No, they want boobs!

Aside from this, I have a chance to check out some of the other games in detail, and am consistently thrilled to be sharing our part of the room with some of the most cutting-edge indies on the planet. A few stand out for me.

Octodad is a charming adventure game where you manipulate objects in 3D space not unlike (though rather better than) the interaction system in Penumbra. The physics gameplay is different and engaging, but it's the character and the potential of the adventure that excites me.

The Bridge I only play for ten minutes at the start of the day, but being set up nextdoor to us I'm watching it out the corner of my eye all day. If anything it gets slightly more 'Wow, that game is beautiful' comments than we do. We hang out with the game's developer, Ty Taylor, for most of the rest of the show and try to learn his secrets.

I'm also looking forward to playing Monaco, but that dream is quickly replaced by another - to play Brendon Chung's surreal, first-person stealth hack-em-up, Quadrilateral Cowboy. I've long been a fan of Blendo's games (Flotilla in particular) and Cowboy is by far my Most Must Have of the Show. It looks like Gravity Bone or 30 Flights of Loving, and plays like a surreal cross between Hitman and Uplink. Look at your map, find the infiltration points, complete your mission and get out. The twist is that every element in the game aside from movement is controlled via a command prompt on your in-game laptop, and success requires crafty coding and perfect timing. The game, for me, seems to be about establishing a limited but consistent set of rules, and then letting the player work everything else out. It's gorgeous, it's engaging, it's smart and it's fresh. Highlight? Pushing my beetle-like robot through a small hatch, testing the robot controls until I find the one for 'Jump', then watching through the glass window as the thing hops comically across the room and lands on the documents I need.

I had a chance to talk to Brendon later in the show, and I'll have the interview up in the coming weeks.

By the time the expo floor closes I'm doing my best to rally the indies to a single pub. This turns out to be far more than I can chew, and we end up going with Cypher Prime (Splice), Ty (The Bridge), Mango Down (Catch-22) and some others to a beer house round the corner, and then to the sitting-room-only pub where my bouncer story goes down. We bump into the Gearbox team, I get a bit drunk and rant-y about war games and bringing in writers who know nothing about games, and then we all get a bit more drunk and go to a club that closes at 1:30am because Seattle has backwards drinking laws (Olli, my boss, has already had to go home because he's 20).

Sunday - PAX Day 3
By midday on the last day I'm chest-deep in PAX-Pox - the generic flu thing that 80,000 gamers from all over the country import to Seattle each year - but I'm still finding new bits of the show, like the entire floor of PCs, or the competitive gaming. I head to the Penny Arcade Q&A and feel like what I'd guess a non-gamer must feel like walking into PAX - all the talk is around PA in-jokes and tabletop gaming, and it becomes clear to me just how vast Penny Arcade now is.

Otto and I also go to the Eric Wolpaw and Tim Schafer writing talk. They are excellent and funny, but something stands out. When asked how he'd deliver an engaging experience through mechanics alone, without the use of pre-authored narrative, Tim was nonplussed - if there's no author's hand at work, he says, how can we connect and communicate anything? I don't think I was the only person in the crowd who disagreed, and I'm sure on consideration he might redress that view, but the point was made - small studios are still where it's at if you want to do new things.

Once the show clears up I hook up with Brendon, Zach et al and head out for dinner. It's an absolute thrill to spend time with some of the devs I've most respected over the years, and it's over all too quickly. Once they shoot off I join Olli and Otto at the Indie Megabooth after-party at an Irish pub downtown. I meet a crazy man who works on a submarine, talk efficient cut scene narrative with Olli and Ty, and generally wind down. The boys have to shoot off to the airport around 1am, and I'm due to fly home tomorrow afternoon.

Monday / Tuesday - The Biggest mall in America
My flight out of Seattle, of course, is delayed by a couple of hours, meaning I miss my connection and spend 24 hours in Minneapolis. Everyone at the airline keeps apologising, but while I would have liked to get home it does mean I get at least one day of sight-seeing in the US - and on the airline's money too. I arrive at the rather nice hotel, order two pints of beer in plastic cups because it's 11pm and the bar's closing, hook up with a couple I meet outside who happen to have come from a tabletop convention, and we drive to TGI Fridays, which we're told is the only local bar still open.

The next day I go to the only tourist attraction within walking distance (and it takes quite some convincing for the hotel staff to let me turn down their free shuttle) - the biggest mall in America. The advertising is not inaccurate  There is an entire indoor theme park in the middle of the thing. I eat the local speciality (beef burger stuffed with American cheese), having failed to convince them to serve it anything other than well-done. I sample about 20 chilli sauces. I get on Facebook and complete dares set by my flatmates. Then I head to the airport, spend my $12 airline meal vouchers on the largest McDonalds meal money can buy (only $7, but HUGE) and settle in for the long flight home.

PAX was eye-opening for me. Sitting at home most days turning out script I'm somewhat cut off from video game culture. I don't know who plays my games, or why they like them, if they do. I aimed to spend PAX networking with the big boys, but instead I was drawn, at every moment, towards the indies. I've no great passion for cosplay or the latest wargame or having a mohawk shaved into my head so I can skip the Far Cry 3 queue. This, quite obviously in retrospect, puts me in a rather small minority at PAX.

What was great about the show was that I never felt that way. Hanging out with the indies, learning what people think of our game, and being re-enthused to develop ground-breaking product was what PAX was about for me - and it delivered in spades.

Friday, 14 September 2012

New Release - FTL: Faster Than Light

As of today (and until 21st September) you can buy FTL direct from the developer for the low, low price of about £6.50. I strongly urge you to do so.

With the cash they raised from kickstarter, the chaps at Subset have dramatically increased the scope of the game. I've helped them to develop a galaxy full of alien rogues, fast talking Slugmen and drunken pirates. They've added a host of new player ships, weapons and gadgets, and have been honing the product to perfection over the past 6 months.

I think it really is quite a game, and I hope you do to.

You can also pick up the game on Steam.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

From Inside the PAX10 - Part 1/2

A bouncer outside a sitting-room-only Seattle cocktail bar tells me politely that he's going to tell me what he thinks of my country. He shows me the letters 'SW17 9BB' tattooed on the inside of his index and middle fingers. He raises both fingers at me and says, "That's what I think of your country."

It turns out the bouncer has had some bad experiences at a certain London Art college and likes the idea of permanently swearing at its postcode. This has nothing to do with PAX, except to say that the exhibition was as much about learning about the culture that keeps all of us in business as it was showing off The Swapper.

PAX is long, so I will do my best to be brief.

Tuesday - Arrival
On arriving at airport I learn 2 things: check-in now closes 60 minutes before departure, and English people need a visa waiver to go to America. The flight leaves in 65 minutes, and I don't have a waiver. I ask the attendant if I'm going to make it. He says it's 50:50. I do the form on my iPhone, get bundled through customs, then wait 45 minutes to board the plane.

16 hours later I arrive at our team's lodgings. We have a three bed room in a hostel in Chinatown. We are doing this thing indie. I go to bed.

Wednesday - PAXDev Day 1
My first face-to-face meeting with Olli (Team Lead, Art, Code) and Otto (Level Design) is when they wake me up at 1am, just off their flight. I mutter something and go back to sleep.

8:30am we get up, get breakfast, do some work, then head to PAXDev. We see much what you'd expect, on a smaller scale than we expect, and I'm almost thrown out for not wearing my badge. We do some food and drinks and head to bed.

Thursday - PAXDev Day 2
We wake up and discuss what sessions we fancy today. We pick a few out, and then spend the entirety of the rest of the day working. We make a few fixes to the text for the PAX build, then the guys set about getting it stable for the show tomorrow. On the other side of the table, I'm frantically working on integrating art into the Greenlight build of Ir/rational Investigator for its announcement the same day.

By 7pm I've got the page live, and the boys are still ironing out bugs. After this they have to go to Target to buy a PC case (it's too much hassle to bring the PC from Finland - and the guys are too hardcore - so they've brought the components and are building onsite), and get to the convention centre to check out the setup for tomorrow.

I head to Indie Drinks at the Ray Gun Lounge - what looks like it will be a nice little bar attached to a game store once it's finished. The night's hosted by the excellent Bootsnake Games, who will go on to look after me / get me into parties / light my cigarettes for the rest of the show.

Here I also meet Zach Bath of SpaceChem fame. He is louder than you might expect, and a very decent chap indeed. His new real-time card game, Ironclad, looks like a great core concept and has a charming civil war style. More importantly, he later gets me in to a huge Popcap party in a Mercedes garage.

Friday - PAX Day 1
PAX begins. We sit in the hostel breakfast room, Olli still finishing bits and bobs, my eye on the clock. It's a 25 minute walk to the convention centre, and the show opens in half an hour. We resolve to get a cab, then walk the best part of halfway just looking for one. We arrive (it's HUGE), dash through the crowds, and are messed around on the door for five minutes trying to get our passes. It turns out Enforcers (volunteers here are called Enforcers) are all-powerful, and of varying competencies.

The PAX10 have a rectangular booth of ten widescreen TVs, right at the front of the indie staging area, and at the heart of the expo floor. It's awesome. 9am ticks by, marking the start of the press hour, when the journos can play the games in peace and quiet. No one shows up.

10am marks the incoming tsunami. At first the gamers trickle in. It looks manageable. You wonder if that's it. Then, before you even realise, there are 30,000 people in the room and a queue's forming. I drag myself off to the HAWP panel - one of the few I absolutely have to see - and queue half an hour to sit in a half full theatre. It's worth it.

The rest of the day is a blur of demoing the game, working on our spiel, getting to know the guys, giving interviews and attending talks. I expect to have my eyes opened somewhat, and I'm not disappointed. Some of the things that surprised me:

- People queue up 3 hours to play things like Halo 4. I get why people like Halo 4 - but I really don't understand why they'd be so excited to play the new one. Aside from Fireaxis' Xcom (which I never did play) all the exciting stuff for me was in the Indie Megabooth.

- In America, jaywalking is a real thing, there are a lot of stupid rules, and no one rolls their own cigarettes.

- Competitive gaming is quite big in America, it turns out.  There one massive room at PAX that's just full of thousands of people watching a handful of people play League of Legends, while a couple of commentators go at it. I am finally out of sync with what's cool with the kids.

- I am not as good at Smash Bros as I used to be.

- I have never seen so many so fat people in all my life.

The day goes well. We give a bunch of interviews, the game is never without punters in line, and almost everyone says it looks beautiful, which makes my job rather easier. We're also getting some useful criticism. At 6pm there is one free drink and two massive turkeys for exhibitors, followed by extortionate hotel prices. I'm lucky enough to bump into a couple of Sega US marketing types - let's be honest, probably the same guys who were shooting down any risky ideas on my ill-fated Sega project - but they were very friendly and gave me free drinks tokens, so any ill-will was wholly repaired.

Olli gives a PAX10-themed talk at 7pm, and then we hit the pub with the Bootsnake guys. We go to the Elephant & Castle, which amuses me because not only is it an English-themed pub named after the part of London I teach in, but because that part of London is something even the university tries to distance itself from (despite obvious geographical limitations). I also get told off, for the first time, for smoking my e-cig inside, which surely spells the beginning of the end. After the pub we hit a magazine party upstairs, it is horrible, but somehow we score VIP passes, skip the half hour queue at the bar, down our bottles of beer, and leave. Tomorrow is the busiest day of the show.

Watch this space for part 2, coming soon.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Project Announcement: Ir/rational Investigator

This is probably the biggest day in my career to date. It's certainly the most exciting. Today I'm announcing (and bringing to Steam Greenlight) Ir/rational Investigator, a commercial follow up to Ir/rational Redux, arriving (with any luck) on iPhone and PC in 2013.

Right now I'm sending out blurb and trying to get the game in front of as many people as possible - in the future I'll be documenting development a bit more and talking candidly about using drag and drop packages to develop for iPhone, the approach we're taking to the story and writing and the perfect storm that allowed us to start work on this game.

In the meantime, for the main info, trailer and screens you can visit Greenlight. I hope you like what you see.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Appearance: PAX Prime 2012

So PAX is disconcertingly lurking just around the corner. I say disconcertingly because I was still writing the script for The Swapper PAX10 demo this morning, because I have no idea what to expect, and because I have a super-cool announcement due to go live right in the middle of it all. To start the week off, though, I'll be having my first face-to-face meeting with the chaps at Facepalm Games when they get off their late flight and come into our shared hostel room in the dead of night. I lead a professional life as ever.

Of course on top of all the work I'm supposed to be doing, there's just far too much awesome stuff going on. I feel like a young girl going to Hollywood. I want to see live HAWP, and the Penny Arcade guys doing their stuff, and Tim Schafer talking Double Fine Adventure, and just about everything else there is to see.

I'll be at PAX Dev from Wednesday, and then manning The Swapper booth Friday - Sunday. I cannot wait. If you're at the show, do swing by and say hello - and if all goes to plan check back here on Friday, 31st August for an announcement about which I'm very very excited.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Stories in Unlikely Places: Conker's Bad Fur Day

Things change fast around here. One minute we're making platformers about plumbers, the next we're doing high resolution first-person shooters, and then before you know it we're doing platformers again, only different.

Conker's Bad Fur Day both fell foul of that particular fact, and embodied it. One of the very last games to be released on the N64, it looked for all the world like the last of the old guard Nintendo platformers. In 2001 we were beginning to move beyond the cartoon simplicity that had satisfied us for so long - more adult, and lavishly detailed experiences like Silent Hill were drawing audiences away from the Gamecube and toward the PS2 - and Conker languished in the purgatory between hardware cycles. It sold 55,000 copies.

But Conker was a sign of things to come. It played like any other Rare platformer (and, I'd say, was the best of the lot at just that), but it was radically different in tone and style. It was rude. It was self-referential. It took the piss out of games, films and itself in equal measure. In short - it was way ahead of its time.
I is gonna stick my big fork right in your ass!
Were you parents related? Like before they were married?
The game follows Conker who, after a particularly heavy night on the town, winds up on a fateful trajectory that will see him become the King of the Land. While that story sees him do all the usual things - collect keys, jump on bad guys, solve puzzles - his priorities throughout have more in common with those of Animal House than Banjo or Diddy Kong. Conker would fuck those guys up. He might even wave his squirrel bits at them.

Throughout the game you can just feel the guys at Rare letting loose with not only their many years' experience with the genre, but their love for it. Of course, this is also the last cute-animal-platformer Rare released on console (barring re-releases and the construction-focused Nuts & Bolts) and so it's most interesting to observe the criticism of the form that's ever-present in Conker. From keys that refuse to be collected to boss battles that are literally the crappiest part of the game, there was a sense that Rare was looking to what games were going to become rather than what they'd always been content to be. Their switch from Nintendo to Microsoft came one year later.

Looking at the game today, it's not quite as sharp as it once was, because Conker was one of the first AAA games to try to break out from being just the sum of its parts. It suffers because we've gotten so much better at doing that. This said, it's still a game which chooses to, at one point, put a cartoon squirrel in the middle of an animal-based Omaha beach landing. It's still a game where the princess, instead of baking you a cake, calls you on your cell and gives you shit for not coming home, before donning leather and joining you in a Matrix-inspired lobby shootout.

Better, the Xbox remake still looks fantastic. If you've got one in the cupboard / are of an emulation disposition then I'd unconditionally recommend you play it. It's a vital and always entertaining part of history that only 55,000 other people have shared.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

I'm on the Unlimited Hyperbole Podcast

This week another brave soul has sat me down for an hour and grilled me - this time it was Joe Martin's turn.

The topic of this season's Unlimited Hyperbole is horror in games, and Joe's cut down about 60 minutes of me going on about just about anything, to just over ten minutes of fairly sensible chat about the development ethos on Penumbra, my favourite horror game (L4D2), and what I'd like to be doing with interactive narrative (more and less at the same time).

Do take a look.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Project Announcement: PAX10 Nominee, The Swapper

This is one of my favourite parts - getting to talk about something new. When that something new is already winning awards and is looking in good shape it's even better.

The Swapper is a 2D puzzle platformer with a certain sort of psychological, thinky tone that should explain why I'm working on it. More than that, the found-object-based visuals (clay, bits of bicycle etc) are just beginning to come together after months of narrative design work. It's Helsinki-based Facepalm Games' first game, and it's as solid a puzzle explorer as I've seen.

Another major reason I got involved was The Swapper's enviable status as one of the seven games to be backed by Indie Fund. I can only figure that those guys know their stuff, and that they conducted a far more thorough due diligence than I ever could.

It's been a lovely, tight script for me to have a crack at. At around 6 hours playtime we're only shooting for about 3,000 words of short, high-value text logs and dialogues. Combine that with a game editor that lets me  redraft text and test it on the fly and there's just no excuse for every word not being right. The game's concerned with the metaphysical and ethical ramifications of a device that clones people and lets them swap between bodies. I like that sort of thing, don't you know.

We've just begun the writing process, and the game world is taking on detail and meaning. At the end of the month the game's won us an exhibition spot at PAX Prime (31st August 2012), so we'll all be jetting off to Seattle to show the thing off. It's going to be my first experience of the US show circuit, and I'm looking forward to - for once - being able to come face to face with the people who play our games - and with any luck watching them have fun.

The game is due in 2013, and you can read more and check out screens & trailers in the official press release over at the Facepalm blog.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

ir/rational Redux - Postmortem

My word. It's done better than I expected.  In under a fortnight...

  • ir/rational Redux is just about to hit 100,000 plays on Newgrounds
  • 300,000 plays web-wide
  • 4.11/5 stars user rating on Newgrounds
  • 6th highest scoring game this month
  • 40 pages of user reviews and comments

Play Session Stats
But let's look at some play stats rather than a bunch of self-congratulatory ones. Just under 50% of everyone is quitting out in 1-5 minutes. This sounds high, but doesn't particularly surprise me - I know the second I saw a massive page of text in a Flash game I'd consider quitting out; and if you make it past that to the second or third puzzle you're going to realise quickly enough whether or not the game's for you.

Once past the 5 minute barrier, though, there's a dip in the drop out rate and if you stay longer than 5 minutes chances are you'll stay longer than 10 too. I've got you hooked.

The average playtime for those that play past the first couple of puzzles is 15m-26m. This is great, because it means most people who play on, finish the game, or at least spend 20 minutes trying and then rage quit on level 7 or level 9 (difficulty spikes, bad design).

- 28% of everyone who lasts more than 5 minutes spends more than half an hour playing the game.
- 3% of the same take about an hour.

This are invaluable numbers when it comes to thinking about what's next for the concept. The biggest and most obvious hurdle is this - when you can't just adjust a value and give the bad guys twice as much HP, how do you manage the difficulty curve for a game which takes some people ten minutes, and some people 5x that?

Flash Marketing
I've learnt very quickly about flash game marketing during the last fortnight. Reddit is your friend, lover and guardian angel. My day 1 post on there - no doubt aided by my shameless credit name-dropping - immediately put me about 10,000 clicks ahead of everything else on the site. This in turn got me a daily prize and into the Hot New Games list. The clicks and good reviews I scored from there got me onto the front page. I'm now off the front page and the hot new games - and clicks have dropped off quickly - but the game should pick up again any day when it makes it onto the Best Games This Month list.

Netting some good website write-ups helped, especially when they came in the first week. Due to the way the portals feature games, you're better off with 50,000 plays in week 1 than with the same (or even more) spread out over a number of weeks.
"[I]t contains nifty logic puzzles, darkly amusing writing from Penumbra scribe Tom Jubert and has been reduxed so hard it looks and sounds brand new."Rock, Paper Shotgun 
"No doubt the central premise of ir/rational Redux could have come off as incredibly dry, but overall this is a supremely engaging work. A unique brand of dark philosophical humor is present throughout, and the puzzles manage the right balance of posing a challenge to advanced logicians, while remaining welcoming to the novice."JayIsGames
"The conclusions you have to reach are sometimes obvious, but the challenge of the game is figuring out how to reach them. While the game does take a brief, stupid side turn into the politics of video game censorship, most of the puzzles are amusingly high-minded."
"I can guarantee you've never played a puzzle or escape the room type flash game like this before so you are in for a treat."
A special shout out also needs to be made to Jay of JayIsGames for buying me the full version of the Clickteam game maker package so I could release the game unbranded. Massive compliment - that man knows his flash.

What I Learnt About Designing Games
(Or a list of all the crap I did wrong)

Difficulty & Designing Logic Puzzles
I approached the puzzles from the wrong direction. I started with a story, and tried to come up with logic puzzles that fed into it. As a result they feel crowbarred in - while they sit nicely with the story, the difficulty curve is all over the place, and worse: what makes those puzzles difficult is the way I've programmed the solutions, rather than the logic itself.

In the next game I'll begin with the logic, building complexity slowly, and set the game in a scenario more flexible in the opportunities it provides for puzzles.

Art is Important
I know, obvious, but I've been genuinely surprised by how polished people are finding the game - because behind the scenes, of course, it's all over the place. What's key here is this: this is essentially the same game I released three years ago, only with pretty pictures. The difference in response, though, has been massive. Good art is important.

How to do Flash Right
I've learnt a bit about the nitty gritty of Flash development as well. Don't get me wrong - I know nothing about Flash itself, but I know a bit more about alpha transparency and file compression and in-game ads and analytics. 
  • I know how to make a Flash game that's less than 18MB now (use as little alpha transparency as possible, use a non-lossy image format, don't store your text as image files, compress everything!). I also know you can make a successful Flash game at more than 5x the usual file size.
  • Implement Mochi for ads and analytics
  • Don't release buggy games
  • Don't use drag and drop software unless you really can't program (in which case do use it)
  • Do come up with a great idea and implement it to at least a mediocre standard.
  • KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

And What I Learnt About ir/rational as a Concept
The single most positive part of this whole experience is the sheer volume of player discussion and feedback. There is something fundamentally strong about this gameplay concept - it makes people feel smart, and it makes people want to talk about the game. I'm certain it's performing far better than it otherwise would simply because people are talking about it so much. On Newgrounds there are games with 3x as many plays as ir/rational, but with less than half as many comments. This game is a viral marketing gift. End of.

The other thing that players are really appreciating is the originality of the thing. I remember being in my early teens and discovering PCGamer magazine, and a new value in games: 'innovation'. Nowadays it feels a bit old hat to talk about it, but if I had a penny for every review along the lines of "I've never played anything like this, 5 stars" I'd have... well, more than the $100 dollars the ads have earned so far. There's a lot of clones and fluff on Flash portals - doing something smart and different picks you out from the crowd, even if you don't implement it that well.

What's Next?
I'm currently working on a development of the ir/rational DLC concept. Only very different. I'll know if it's going anywhere in a month or two.

You can play ir/rational at these fine places:

Monday, 9 July 2012

ir/rational Walkthrough

The much requested walkthrough for ir/rational. I'm glad enough people are playing it to highlight how all over the place the difficulty curve is!

I've also included the logical symbol form of each argument (however you may find mistakes and changes here and there in those - they're just from my notes).

Sunday, 8 July 2012

'Ask Me Anything', Monday 9th, 8pm EST

In the wake of ir/rational's modest success on newgrounds, and a sprawling reddit post that's mostly far too complementary, I was asked by the community to turn up for an AMA. I agreed, and then googled 'AMA' and was relieved to find out it's just reddit's term for a Q&A, and not some kind of perverse internet webcam thing.

As such, I shall be online for an hour or two from 8pm EST, Monday 9th July (that's tomorrow, and it's also 5pm West Coast and 1am UK). If anyone turns up I'll be answering questions on six years of games writing, ir/rational, Driver: San Francisco and other past projects, and just about anything else anyone cares to ask.

Hope to see you there.

UPDATE: You can find the AMA here.

ir/rational Redux Released!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the suped up version of my old text-based logic game, ir/rational, is finally finished and has arrived on Newgrounds!

ir/rational Redux is half graphic novel and half logic puzzler. You find yourself in a locked room (inventive, huh?) and seek to escape - the challenge is not so much in the escape itself, but in proving deductively why you should bother at all. It's designed to introduce people to philosophy and a rigorous way of thinking, but also to challenge people's brains in fun sort of a way.

This version remains largely the same as the original in gameplay, but features entirely new visuals and sound, courtesy of Martin Santana (aeclipse mattaru) and Penumbra's Mikko Tarmia respectively, and a host of bug and polish fixes. Thanks to those guys it really is the game I meant to make in the first place. This is what it once looked like:

Right now the game's under community judgement at newgrounds, and if it gets enough votes it'll go onto the main site! 3 hours down and it's on the front page with over 1,000 plays! I hope you enjoy it, and if you do I'm sure you know what to do.

I hope taking the game into the browser and sticking it on a portal will win it a broader audience than the boring old .exe. However, it was always my hope that the core gameplay on show in ir/rational could really reach a far broader market. These sorts of puzzle are the sort of thing I'm sure could be added to the likes of soduko, crosswords and angry birds as a key component of commuters' pre-work iPhone entertainment, and this Flash release is very much a testing ground. If the game scores some good clicks I'll start looking at the options for bringing an all-new version to iPhone - if anyone in that sphere is interested in discussing things I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Silent Protagonists: A Unique Opportunity

I'm not the only person who wonders whether silent protagonists in games have overstayed their welcome. On the one hand, it's easy to see why they're so popular. Ever since Half-Life we've been convinced that players can better inhabit a virtual identity when there's no pre-scripted personality with which to compete for expression. Without a strong protagonist to make decisions and harbour motivations we can leave the player to fill in those gaps. Perhaps your Gordon Freeman wants to save the world, perhaps he's just interested in surviving the various unlikely scenarios he finds himself in. Maybe he's just shy.

Avatar's are also cheaper and 'easier'. With an unspeaking central character we don't have to worry about whether the player is standing on the other side of the room talking to a wall during a dialogue, nor do we have to take control away from them to prevent as much. We don't have to worry about whether the player knows who's speaking, or think about breaking to third-person. This is definately a view I've come to question.

What do avatars achieve?

I'm certain there are good contexts for avatars, and less good ones, but from experience it seems as if uncharacterised protagonists have simply become the default for first-person games. That should worry any writer, because often enough its results would seem ridiculous to anyone not bred on its rules.

Do avatars really help players to identify with their character? How does something like The Witcher 2 (where players are given control of their character's decisions, even though Geralt very much has his own personality that can't be overwritten) compare with Mass Effect 3 (where lines are written much more neutrally) and Half-Life 2 (no control and no dialogue)?

For me, the presiding feature isn't so much about character as about control. I don't feel like I'm competing with Geralt for expression in The Witcher, and I feel closer and more involved with his story than with Gordon's. I'm pleased to say that game mechanics have more say over my emotions than script delivery. Personality isn't something we're accustomed to being easily able to change in real life; the same is not true of the decisions we make.

In avatars' defense

However, the silent protagonist has a place in the grand scheme, and that's the point I want to make here. I'm currently working on an indie game that I hope to announce in the next month, and on that we began with an assumption of a silent protagonist, assessed it, and decided it fit nicely with what we were trying to do. There's a minimalist tone to this game, the soundtrack is ambient and the NPC dialogue un-voiced; but further, questions of identity and independence are central to the narrative. A silent protagonist (or, perhaps, one who can't / won't speak through most of the game) sits well with those ideals.

What struck me, though, was this: how many other narrative mediums offer this sort of flexibility in stylistic choice? Could you make a film in which the central character never speaks? Perhaps, but I think you'd struggle.

We talk a lot about the limitations of games as a narrative medium - lower quality visuals, player autonomy etc - and not so much about what makes it uniquely exciting. Silent protagonists may be over used, but they have a time and a place. I think it's pretty awesome to be in an industry that allows us to try crazy stuff like this and to discover just where that time and place is.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Beefjack Has Slow News Day, Interviews Me

Not about anything particular, you understand, but in more of a desert island discs kind of a way. I talk about The Hunt For Red October on Gameboy, and the most embarrassing moments of my career. Also features a photo of me either getting over-excited about dialogue systems, or coming down from a 24 hour rave - I don't recall.

It's over there.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Max Payne 3: Worth Writing Home About?

Bias Disclaimer: This is very much written by someone who played and loved Remedy's original games. Max Payne 3 isn't a bad game, but it's not quite the Max Payne 3 I wanted.

Max Payne shares a lot of similarities with Die Hard's John McClane. Like Brucie's signature role, Max was a fresh take on an old genre, and like McLane Max loses his hair as he chalks up more victories. Sadly they also both forget who they are in their later instalments, their new directors instead adopting a kind of generic modernism that does few favours for their aging heroes.

First, though, what has Rockstar gotten right? A great deal, for sure. In terms of gameplay, they've fairly precisely captured the first two games. This is still Max Payne as far as shooting stuff very slowly goes. If anything, in fact, I'd argue they've been too thorough - but more on that later.

More important, for me, is how Rockstar have developed and delivered a new take on Max's storytelling. The exchange of New York for São Paulo is a success. I'm not so staunch in my traditionalism that I'd want to say you can't do noir outside of American cities, and the unlikely pairing of a bald, bearded Max donning his Hawaiian shirt for the first time with the vibrancy and filth of the favellas is one that feels apt for a character who gets his kicks from being alone against the world. Sadly the on-screen buzz of this new Max is short-lived: the game never really never really changes, Max never really seems to hit rock bottom or kick into gear, and it's quickly clear this will be a long, single-note shoot fest.

Rockstar haven't done a bad job of filling the gaps with something interesting, but they have not filled them with Max Payne - or at least, not in his best light. The new approach eliminates the comic book panes of Remedy's originals in favour of long cut-scenes, constantly overlayed with what are presumably alcohol-induced visual distortions and glares which I suppose accurately depict alcoholism in so far as they made me feel sick and annoyed. This more immediate presentation is used to create a gritter, more real urban environment and protagonist, and Max has some fantastically dry, self-loathing bad-assery to deliver - but little else. He takes his own failures so much in his stride that it's hard to really feel like he cares about anything. Perhaps that's realistic, but it's not interesting - in fact it gets quite boring after a while. You never really see Max hurt, so he has nothing to come back on, no stake to invest.

The other characters, as well as the central plot thread, lack the personality and personal importance of the originals'. No one stands out like Vladimir Lem or Mona Sax (the women here are all gunfire-drawing airheads), and Max isn't out for revenge on the people who killed his loved ones or destroyed his life - he's doing a job because he's got nothing better to do. It's just so hard for anyone involved to care.

Sense of Humour
Salt to the wound is that the focus on cinematic realism necessarily winds in the oddball side that was so central before. Who doesn't remember the Pink Flamingo Theme Park, or the self-referential Dick Justice serial about a cop who takes revenge on his wife's (Sharon Justice's), killers? These were bits of narrative design that made Max Payne not just another shooter for me; but they were also a nod from the developers to say that they knew Max was a bad joke, and it was that that prevented the game itself from being one.

Perhaps what most surprises me about Rockstar's Max, though, are some features that feel glaringly early-noughties. A joy of Max Payne has always been the almost pornographic level of detail applied to the weapons and firing animations. Here that same detail is applied, but little seems to have been improved outside of polygon counts. When killed, enemies' hats and helmets fly off as if the final bullet has severed an invisible chin strap. GTA's dynamic Euphoria animation system produces odd results when examined up close. Rounds fired often look larger than the gun barrel they came from. Bullet wounds look like crap - you can usually still see the clothing texture beneath them - and visual damage to Max remains even after healing, meaning Max saunters into cutscenes sporting slews of open chest wounds. Bullet cams are uninspired. The bosses are horrible (you kill one by dropping roof tiles on his head).

It's difficult to forget that games have moved on since 2003, and combat in Max feels far simpler fare than something genuinely contemporary like Arkham Asylum The Darkness 2. The damning conclusion is that at times Max Payne 3 feels a bit like GTA with less driving and more bullet time, and that these days that's not quite enough.

Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 0 out of 2
(Scoring explained here)

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Project Announcement: FTL

This is a great announcement to be able to make. For the past 6 weeks I've been working on FTL - the bridge combat roguealike that's charming everyone. Let me tell you a bit about how I got involved, and what I'm doing.

I first read about FTL some six months ago in PC Gamer, tore out the page to remind me to look it up, and then forgot all about it. Then I played the limited time onlive demo and was blown away (apparently it was the most played game on the service during that period). FTL captures all the good stuff: the ordering crew on suicide missions to fix vital components, the MORE POWER TO ENGINES and the transporter catastrophes. It also tells a randomly generated tale drawn from a vast library of pre-scripted events with different options and outcomes. In short, I wanted me some of that, so I got in touch.

Around the same time Justin and Matthew were making headlines for netting a cool $200,000 from a $10,000 kickstarter campaign, and were in the process of expanding the game's scope and hiring a writer.

The new hangar screen, and the Federation Cruiser.
Working on FTL has been fantastic, mostly because I'm already so sold on the game and the guys' ability to pull it off. I've been developing the alien species (like the rockmen you see in the header image) and we must have doubled the number of events since the demo (which - I feel bad about this - are being pain-stakingly hand-coded into the game by Justin). The aim is to make each sector in the game feel special, with hidden paths and unique events for replayability. We want players to keep on exploring the galaxy long after they defeat the big boss because it's just such an interesting place to visit.

All this being said, the reins are very much with the chaps: they seem to know what they want, and I'm trusting that their top-level view is sound, because I don't have much of one.

Here I've managed to beam two of the deadliest aliens - a Rockman and a Mantis - onto the enemy ship. Then it catches fire and I have to race to bring them back home before it blows.
As much as anything else it's been fantastic to get right back into a decent indie project. I've had a couple of cancelled AAAs over the past few years which is always a bummer, and while I've been involved in a number of other indie things - on Cargo! A Quest For Gravity and my own ir/rational - it's been nothing big enough to compare to working on Penumbra: Overture some six years ago. With FTL we have limited resources, a tough schedule, and thousands upon thousands of words to write. It's great to know they'll be going toward a good end.

The beta for kickstarter donators (why aren't they called donars, incidentally?) is right around the corner, and you can keep up with development at the project blog. FTL should be out in a matter of months.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Incoming Transmission

You arrive at the beacon; the shattered hull of an alien ship floats peacefully in the shifting tides of a nearby asteroid field, being drawn inexorably toward the sun at the heart of the system. Nothing else happens.

Then, a distant blip on the scanners that keeps on expanding. It grows closer, larger, until it has enveloped the entire system. The ship is rocked by a shockwave, but the shields hold. You check your star charts - everything has changed. Your journey has become longer and harder, carrying you through uncharted systems and alien empires you've never set eyes on before.

You power the jump drive. This is going to be fun.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Old Games Journalism & Diablo's Grind Problem

Thinking about some of the backlash around Diablo 3 recently - without having the somewhat masochistic urge to play it myself - some thoughts started to slot together around objectivity in video games criticism, and the ways in which we judge and award certain mechanics.

It seems to me as if, awesome a pursuit though it is, New Games Journalism has not achieved widespread adoption (not that Kieron was necessarily seeking as much). If the emphasis in games criticism were on subjective response then the Gamespots and IGNs of this world would be giving games like Diablo a far broader spectrum of scores that reflect opinions like Walker's, rather than the full house of scores in the 80s and 90s it's currently sporting. No, games criticism tends to make some claim to objectivity.

As long as we're treading this path, objectivity needs some rules, and top amongst them must be that a critic's job is to report the actual quality of the actual game. When he awards a game 90% it's because the game was good. Obvious enough.

In order to do that, reviewers tend to avoid referencing (explicitly or otherwise) anything that isn't common to their audience (or a decent chunk of it). Tractor Sim can't be a great game because I grew up on a farm and found it enticingly authentic. Unless, that is, I run Sim Tractor Fan and can safely assume my audience shares those interests.

Critics also tend not just to report their subjective response; they identify it, analyse it, and report the facts about the game which causally underpin it, so that they can explain to an audience with similar tastes what it is about the game that they will or won't appreciate.

When we consider what it is about a game that contributes to its quality the interesting thing that crops up is that it can't be anything that isn't relatively unique to this game. When the first talkies were made their dialogues were rightly praised for all the obvious reasons. Years later, when almost all films feature speech, it would be ludicrous to praise a film for doing so. This is not, of course, to say that the dialogue contributes nothing to the film.

I'm going to argue that there are techniques in games that are analogous, and there are techniques that are still on the cusp of familiarity. We would no longer praise a game for simply featuring physics; but we're still at a stage where a game's physics may be such a step up that it makes sense to laud them critically. Presumably there will come a time when no more advances can be made in that area.

The techniques I have in mind, though, are exemplified by Diablo 3, but also by a growing number of other titles, not to mention the vast majority of successful Kongregate games. Levelling up, RPG elements, character progression... whatever you want to call the steady grind of selecting and unlocking new toys that's a part of everything from Saints Row to Infinity Blade to Farmville - I'm arguing their critical heyday ought be over.

These systems are powerful models of psychological manipulation. This in itself is no problem - manipulation is what we do in games. But these mechanics are so effective - and hence so widely used - that just like using physics in your game, their critical impact ought to be zero. If this game can be rendered engaging in just this way, what can we really say about Diablo 3 other than that it's the same sort of thing with prettier graphics? What is there in Diablo beyond the grind? Why should this sort of entertainment be identified as anything that's even vaguely unique to a particular game?

Diablo was a great game. It did something other games hadn't done - at least not so well. Diablo 3 doesn't exist in the same environment. The major publications may be tied to an objective way of doing things that promises to tell people how fun they'll find the game rather than how much the reviewer liked it, but that need not mean they must award five stars to any game that entertains regardless of how it does so.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Games Are Stories: The Final Word?

This post originally published at GAMESbrief.

Nicholas Lovell argued recently that 'games are not stories'. As much as he's obviously after a sound-bite the TV chaps will lap up, he justifies a slightly more considered version of the statement with reference to the (true) fact that story tends to be less important in games than in mediums like film or literature. I think Nicholas overestimates slightly how important story is to those other mediums - surely script in those areas is often just as susceptible to the whims of various directors, editors and actors as it is in our own - but I take the point. A movie, no matter how Hollywood it may be, begins with a script. A game, almost always, begins with gameplay and setting.

That's interesting in itself, though. I've never come onto a job where either of those two were particularly up in the air - it's always a sci-fi mmo, or a desert shooter, or a zombie RPG... The setting, it seems, comes in the same breath as the core gameplay. I'd argue that this suggests an alternative take on games - that, in fact, they revolve centrally around their narrative contexts, that these are chosen to work in harmony with the mechanics and that every scrap of work done after that decision is t its best when it works toward both of those goals.

There is a reason that we play cowboy games, and football games; and not precision clicking tests or abstract tactical challenges. A random coloured shape serves all the mechanical purposes of a heavily armed nazi, but we prefer it when our actions in games carry weight and meaning.

I'm reminded of the various discussions that go on around games being fun vs not-fun. It's supposed by some that games need to break free from being fun in order to be important; to be what games are supposed to be. Others say fun is the whole point of games - why would we want to play anything else? Both sides seem to miss the point - a game needs to be entertaining. Like any other creative medium, if we wanted the bare facts we'd look elsewhere. But fun is just a subset of entertainment; not-fun games canstill be entertaining.

I think when we try to argue whether games are or are not about 'story' we end up talking about writing, and opinion is predictably split. Some love cutscenes, others hate them. That's not one we need to solve. But we should be careful trying to claim that games aren't about story, because without story we'd still be playing stuff that looks and feels like tic-tac-toe.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Writing & VO Direction: My New Video Demo

So a couple of months back I was approached to write and direct a character trailer to show off the technology and know-how at Cubic Motion, Wave Studios and 3Lateral. The result is due some further polish, but is mostly complete, and is embedded below for anyone interested.

The character was in place before I began, and he's not the sort of chap I would tend to jump at the chance to write for. Let's say he's Binary Domain rather than Penumbra. So the script I produced was in some sense coming from that place. It's about this traditional video game brute who sees and feels threatened by the rise of the more complex, nuanced characters around him. Ultimately he takes comfort in the thought that people like him will always pervade; there will always be room for the big dumb action hero, and provided we have alternatives why on earth would we want things any other way?

There are a couple of audio picks I'm not sure about, but the guys at the various studios involved have turned out a great result. Hope you enjoy it.