Recently I gave a little talk to games dev audiences at Subotron in Vienna, and Gamelab in Barcelona. The idea of the talk was to first establish some strong design rules I learnt from authors like Terry Pratchett and George Orwell - keep it simple, make it speak - and then to develop a science fiction world using those principles which might form the basis of a future game. As I did this I realised that video games were going to destroy humanity.
For those that requested it, here are the notes and attached powerpoint. For those that didn't request it, feel free to take a look, but note it's probably better live.
As always, feedback, thoughts and counter arguments very welcome.
This is a two-years-belated follow up to my post-release discussion of what worked and what didn't in The Swapper. What went right is here. These were my thoughts at the time.
Some reviews of the game reflected the concerns I had in advance about my work's shortcomings. Some reviews, if I may be perfectly honest, let me get away with more than I think I deserved to.
For this postmortem I am going to take quotes from this review as a way to bring into relief some of the narrative approaches that didn't work so well. It is quite an entertaining read. Is The Swapper just the "video game equivalent of a circle jerk between fucking spacemen"?
It is my constant fear that once we as artists step beyond a certain level of obscurity of presentation, or once the intention of a work is so open-ended that it is hard to see how it could have been inspired in the first place, we are just being obscure for the sake of it.
Is The Swapper one of those games?
I wholly understand people who didn't like the story for reason of obscurity. Why is it necessary to hide these ideas away behind the fiction? Why did we choose not to have a text at the end of the game which explained everything in detail? Why didn't we have the balls to pick a particular world view and present it coherently, rather than all this open discussion without clear conclusions?
In developing The Swapper I thought about the critical reception of games I'd worked on and other games in the genre, and figured less was more. I didn't want the flabby diary entries that slowed the pace of Penumbra; I didn't even particularly want to use voiced characters. I wanted The Swapper to be an exercise in minimalism and efficient use of language to convey and engage people in a complex topic. The shorter the script the better every word had to be, and if that's also the perspective amongst the critics then all the better.
The result is undeniably not as accessible as, say, an Uncharted game, and that is not necessarily my desire. The Swapper can be dry, difficult and obtuse, and it needn't have been that way.
Is Integration of Gameplay and Narrative in The Swapper Really a Success?
Reviews have commented on how good it is to play a game where the gameplay and narrative are so seamlessly integrated. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I think we really faile don this level.
When I started on the game most of the puzzles - as well as the general station layout - were already implemented to an alpha standard; so when a review says something like 'It's clear The Swapper was designed from the ground-up to explore topics in philosophy of mind' I'll take it as a complement, but not really a deserved one.
What I think has happened is this. I made it my goal to develop a narrative which took the concept behind the Swapper device as a cornerstone of the action. This, it seems to me, is really the bare minimum: any story which didn't address the ramifications of the use of that device would just be a sci-fi story arbitrarily bolted on to a thematically independent set of gameplay mechanics (it'd also be missing a wonderful opportunity to explore something fascinating). It's like making an action game whose story is concerned with political intrigue: the two just don't mesh, and each element ends up being redundant (even destructive) to the ambitions of the other.
So The Swapper has at least a consistent central mechanic, and I think this accounts for any positive feedback we received in this area.
This doesn't change the fact that "the puzzles themselves[...] don’t necessarily do a lot to reinforce the themes and concepts[...] they’re just fun dynamical exercises using the game’s mechanics and physics."
Except in so far as the puzzles test your brain there's really no connection between what you do in the game and what the story is doing. There was nothing we could do about that by the time I came on-board, but the point still has to be made: this game did the bare minimum necessary to be a reasonably engaging sci-fi. Let's put up with it for now, and keep looking for something better.
How Big Are the Plot Holes?
There are plot holes and/or 'ludo-narrative dissonance' all over The Swapper. Here's a small list:
How do the security orbs work, because the player seems to be able to go anywhere they want just by picking up enough of them?
What happens to clones when they disappear?
How do the clone grids (the white reset light) distinguish clones from players?
How do clones gain independence?
How on earth did anyone ever navigate this station without the Swapper?
Some of these issues come down to the unavoidable facts of making a puzzle game. The station, at one stage, was to have a lot more broken infrastructure (catwalks, ladders etc) in the visuals which would help explain how people previously navigated the space. The security orbs, of course, are ridiculous as a genuine security policy, and so our policy was to refrain from explaining any of that and hope people would suspend their disbelief.
Others of these holes I had solutions in mind for, but left out the detail because I wasn't convinced that the exposition necessary to fill the hole was any better than leaving it be. For instance, clone grids were supposed to be security measures installed throughout Theseus and its excavation sites following widespread adoption of the device and a major industrial accident of some kind. The idea was that it would be madness to allow people to create clones willy-nilly, and so these grids are used for population control: they identify active brain processes and vaporise any biological matter that doesn't exhibit such activity. The same goes for clone independence - this is plausibly explained by some kind of metal or other barrier that severs the links between original and clone.
These explanations might basically work, but if they take a paragraph to explain here they no doubt would have taken longer in the game itself. Further, it would be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that that scrap of text exists in the game wholly to provide fictional justification for a necessary gameplay device. If what you've got is a bit naff maybe it's better just to let people make up their own minds?
What do you think?
Like all the games I've worked on, The Swapper was a learning process, and I hope you can see some of the lessons in play more recently in The Talos Principle.
Okay, so both these projects were already announced but I was too busy writing them to say anything about it.
I played The Masterplan in early access six months ago, and instantly bought into its world. It's a top-down heist game with real-time pause and a tactical stealth focus, and central to the whole thing is the hostage-taking mechanic which enables you to control rooms and implement on-the-fly tactics like having the bank manager rob his own bank, or having the clerks form a human shield between you and the cops.
I ran into the Sharkpunch team deep in the snow at PAX East, and couldn't resist the chance to offer them some help with the writing. It's such a charming little game, it deserved better than second-language English - plus the entire script is less than 10,000 words, so it's not a great time sink.
Since coming onboard I've tried to make the world feel more consistent. A simulation game like this, where most of what happens is player-driven, turns not on the cinematics or the linear text, but the authenticity of the world you are interacting with. It doesn't need to be real, it just needs to make internal sense.
To that end I've been using flavour texts to build out the sense that you're in a 70s crime caper, recruiting a team, scoping joints and pulling off the impossible. Right now we're working on implementing more dynamic in-game speech. It's silly stuff, but the world comes alive when the characters in it react in unpredictable but logical ways.
Finally, the whole game is bookended with some more traditional linear plotting which was already hinted at in the original teaser. This is not a story-heavy game, but it wouldn't be a crime caper every detail went to plan.
Having gotten Talos out the door in December last year I was all ready to take a bit of a break, and then come back and start something completely new. As ever, things did not work out that way.
Croteam collared me in January. They'd been working on extra-hard Talos DLC puzzles for who knows how long and contrary to their intentions throughout that development they decided the DLC needed some kinda story.
Not blown away by the thought of churning out more Milton, more Elohim Jonas and I immediately set about generating plot pitches which would expand on the original world without simply following in its footsteps. We wanted a new challenge.
Pitches we discarded included the game being set in the distant past when the system was still being developed, with researchers commenting on and interpreting your every action; a secondary server with all the same rules, but completely different archive information, resulting in very different versions of ELOHIM and Milton; and one where far future beings discover the system and begin to explore it.
Without spoiling anything, the pitch we went with provides us huge flexibility in terms of the sort and tone of material we deliver. It gives us a world that fits within the original game's religious and science fiction mythology, but which resolutely has its own identity. Most importantly for me, it lets us explore completely new ideas about how to interact with the game.
Road to Gehenna is ambitious (overly so: the script is around the same size as that of the original game). I haven't undertaken a follow-up to one of my own games since the Penumbra series eight years ago because I want to keep moving forwards (the same reason, more or less, that I didn't work on Amnesia), and so Gehenna we have consciously designed to be experimental. We wanted to explore new ideas in a safe environment so that when we inevitably come to Talos 2 we will be able to raise our audience's expectations once again.
Story was fully implemented a week or two ago, and we are now in final bug-hunting. Road to Gehenna will arrive for computers and other toys in the next month or two.
Okay, congratulations me for failing to write anything here for ages. The reason I will give for this is that I am somewhat Autistic-spectrum inclined and I only have enough room in my brain for one obsession at a time. Nevertheless I shall endeavour to formulate some form of update.
The Talos Principle is almost done. The guys in Zagreb are applying final polish, and next week we complete the voice work. Sigils of Elohim, the Tetris-like minigame we're dishing out free, is out now. In case you're not familiar with the game, it's a first-person philosophical puzzler, set in a synthetic world. Or, as I've been selling it to my non-gamer mates, a game where you get to argue with the devil.
This is usually the part where I put my money where my mouth is and try to predict how the game will be received. I'm happy to say that, like The Swapper, Talos is at the very least a sound puzzle game. I'm not worried about scoring sub-70s. Beyond that, well, I'd say this is a looser game than The Swapper - it's a much bigger world, so that's only natural - but it also does something that none of my previous games have: it lets me write an involved interactive dialogue. It is my great hope that that dialogue will excite people. It is, I think, fairly unique.
A 2014 release date should be confirmed very shortly, and it'll release on Win, Mac, Linux, PS4 and Shield Tablets.
In other news, my brain has mostly been consumed with political philosophical research.
I have gone through a bit of a journey over the past ten years: from not really thinking about anything very much, to realising that and embracing philosophy. I searched frantically during my BA for solid ground on which to base my moral assumptions, and found none. Perversely this left me right back where I started: an individualist, who recognises that the system we live in is broken and resolves to do everything in their power to get the better of it.
Now I'm not ready to say yet that my ethical outlook has changed. I am still dubious of absolute moral systems, dubious of anyone who claims there is some authority outside of ourselves. What's changed is that I'm now better aware of the broader picture, politically and (most importantly) historically. I never understood the value of history in school; now I understand perfectly that history provides us an irreplaceable point of reference for how human existence can be - it enables us to identify the assumptions, the invisible shackles, that underpin our way of life today.
Supposing there is no absolute morality, the need for a sound political framework becomes even more pronounced. We are all, more or less, rational animals. It may only be our own sense of reason that provides authority to claims about how we should behave, but that needn't mean the output is any less authoritative.
So my next project is going to be aimed at replicating this journey on a massive scale. I want to pull our perspective out from the subjective, close-up one we take in every day life, and show how our political society is shaped by usually invisible forces on this grand scale. I want to explore what happens when we are all individualists and consumers who give in to these forces. And I want to construct a framework for how individualists might nonetheless find value in working towards a fairer society. And that is what I have mostly been thinking about.
Now, to lighten the mood, some excellent games I played recently. The Escapists - Excellent isometric prison-break sim in Early Access. Plays like a minimalist, freeform Prisoner of War. Keep up appearances by attending exercise, rolecall and jobs; while simultaneously preparing for your escape by gathering weapons, digging tunnels, forging alliances, stealing uniforms etc.
Invisible Inc. - I was always going to love this one. The new isometric, turn-based stealth game from Klei, it boasts their usual high level of support, and I think is now my favourite of their releases.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter - A lot of positive things already said about this one, but they're worth re-enforcing. It's a uniquely beautiful world, not only for the fidelity of the graphics, but the architectural design itself. The plot is shamelessly pulp fiction, and somewhat predictable for it; but the real narrative punch is delivered by the mechanics themselves and the inventive ends to which they're put. This game takes you on a journey like no other.
So the day's finally come. Your studio has been politely informed by the publisher that all successful games have a story written by a dedicated writer now and (perhaps using these tips) you've found yourself one. What now?
Not all jobs start out like this, but it's still common enough for a writer to wind up in a room full of people who have never worked with a writer before, who had no hand in hiring them, and really would quite like to get on with making their game now. I hear you. A writer's job is to understand the project's particular requirements and to support the team (some more from that perspective here).
This being said, there are also some good practices for teams engaging a writer that will make everyone's lives a lot easier. These are, of course, ideals, and subjective ones at that - not every project will be able to support all of them.
This is the guide to how to get the most out of your writer, or how to work out why they're sulking.
Know what scale of narrative your team can support, and be clear about it
Writing is not intrinsically valuable, in the context of game development. Some games are simply better without it, others are better with only a little of it. A small amount of good writing is better than a lot of bad writing. Know what you can support, and make this known to your writer at the outset so they can consider it and plan accordingly.
If you want your game to be 3D and story-driven, both you and your writer are going to have to work a lot harder to implement the narrative than if it's to be 2D and abstract. For the story to work well you need someone at the top who is overseeing every element of the experience - level design, object placement, visuals, voice work, the lot. This is your narrative designer. Now, that person might also be your writer, but they might just as well be your creative director or team lead. What matters is that someone is in that role, because otherwise you're going to end up with a bunch of disjointed elements, an incoherent narrative and a writer in a sulk.
Be aware that story is a two way enterprise
Story is rarely something that can just be bolted on at the last minute to good effect. As much as your writer should come onboard and work towards the framework you have, some give and take will make for a more cohesive product. Yes, your writer could bend over backwards to shape the story to your every specification - but absolute rigidity here due to schedule or budget or whatever is just going to close off fruitful avenues.
Of course, sometimes budget or schedule does force the issue. That's fine, it happens - but in those cases it's extra important that you be clear with your writer from the get go what those restrictions are so they can do their best within them (or flat out turn you down if it's completely bonkers). No one wants a sulking writer.
The more fluid the story development, the better
It's an unfortunate fact that often enough good stories are developed in a quite different order to how many studios order their internal development. In level design, for instance, altering the layout of one level needn't have repercussions for the layout of other areas. You can happily design the big budget levels and art assets , sign off on them, then rehash the intro.
In story, rehashing one scene can have radical impacts on others. In fact, redrafting is central to producing a strong story. This is the reason that the fear of god will come over your writer when you start talking about building the pivotal scene for your vertical slice, before you finish planning the main plot arch. Any section of the story that's locked down early is like a tetris piece that doesn't dissolve. You can work around it, but that high score will be much further away. For these reasons you'll get the best narrative results when you schedule development in a way that leaves story-sensitive elements as open as possible, for as long as possible. Obviously there is a balance here.
You may also want to ensure that your writer is available throughout development, so that when you make changes to the game design on the fly they can make appropriate updates to the story. Sure, you could just book your writer for two months at the start of the project to write the script and knock it off the list, but this will scare them no end. Things will change during development which will put their writing out of context, and their reputation will depend on whether or not you pick up the phone to have them correct it. Some of the work I'm most proud of has been at the end of a project, where I'm entrenched with a team doing crunch time, keeping pace with their design changes, and developing creative solutions on the fly.
Writers want to collaborate with you, not be used as a service.
Give your writer some space to write
On most of my projects I have had teams who gave me a brief and told me to ask if I needed anything. This is great because it gives me the freedom to experiment with what works, and to spend the time where I think it's needed. On some projects I have been more directly managed, and which works best is really dependent on the nature of the job. On FTL, for instance, where I'm just producing independent text events to populate particular sectors of space, I don't need space to plan or redraft because for once the kinda work I'm doing is well-suited to a factory-line approach.
On projects where the role is more involved - a full narrative design role - it could be quite restrictive to have someone else decide what you're working on today. Sometimes designing a character will give you ideas for a dialogue scene that you just have to write while it's fresh. Sometimes you won't really know who the characters are until after you've finished the plot. Sometimes you'll just write something bad in order to get to something good. Provided your writer has a good idea of the scope of the project and the writing budget they can use some freedom to best deploy their skill set. You don't need to sit on them to make sure you hit your production deadlines, you just have to be clear with them what you need and when - and a good writer will deliver it.
Header image is from Hitbox Team's narrative design write up, which is itself a wonderful primer for how to make those big, story-driven games we talked about earlier.
Hello all. I will be attending E3 next week, Mon-Fri. I'll be showing off the new projects I've been working on with Croteam and nDreams for the very first time.
If you're there, I'll be largely entrenched at the Devolver/Croteam RV outside the main event. I don't know yet if this caravan (for that is what an RV really is once you remove the American glamour) is an advantage or not - will it be more chilled out? fewer booth babes? less like attending some kinda cross between an arcade and a strip joint? I've never been to E3, so who the hell knows.
We'll also have a second Croteam stand somewhere indoors which is walk-up and play, details on that as they emerge, and the nDreams team will have their own section where they're demoing the VR project privately.
If you're there do spin by or drop me a note in advance. If you're not, eyes on the internet for some major reveals in the coming week!
I had a hankering for a management game the other day, so I hit the Steam tags list and what do you know: there is no such thing as the management genre any more. Evil Genius - you thought that was a management game, didn't you? Wrong - it's now a 'base builder simulator' with 'realtime pause'. Prison Architect? That's a 'sandbox' 'prison sim'.
Has the management game rebranded itself in the past decade? Certainly as a genre its hayday seemed to come in the late 90s, but like the adventure genre it's enjoying a contemporary comeback. Perhaps games like Tropico 5 (it's a 'dictator sim') are trying to distance themselves from the free-to-play model that rose from the ashes of the great management sim crash of the noughties?
Still craving that management vibe I picked up and played the whole way through Tropico 4 to find out. It really is a classic management game, and that crystalised a few thoughts for me.
The first is that Tropico, like the Theme Hospitals and Rollercoaster Tycoons of the 90s, has little endgame. In Tropico, the core game is the first half hour or so of any level. It's when you're struggling to make ends meet, having to find creative solutions. But then the economy starts ticking over, you go into profit, and beating the level becomes a matter of hitting fast forward and waiting until you have the cash to buy whatever it is you need to beat the mission.
To some degree this is to miss the point of a game like Tropico. Here I am, sitting back in front of a vast autonomous city that I have built from scratch, with the sun setting over the harbour - the point of my endeavours quite clear stands before me. I never have the conviction to build something impressive in Minecraft, but Tropico's mechanics give me just enough of a lead to forge ahead. It's like the world's best paint-by-numbers kit.
But I think this observation also clarifies how the genesis from management genre to free-to-play occurred. Eventually, most of these games boil down to waiting for a counter to tick up so you can buy whatever it is the game tells you to, and start all over again. Mechanically the key difference between those games and the free stuff that's all over the AppStores today could (very bluntly) be reduced to the presence or absence of a fast-forward button.
So what should we do? Well, I'm not suggesting the guys at Introversion should stop what they're doing and go back to the drawing boards. But I do think these observations suggest one or two ways that we could reclaim the management genre and make it new again.
Obscuring the Stats
If one of the key problems in traditional management sims is that they devolve too quickly into stat tracking, why not deliver those stats in different body-paint?
What if to assess a potential staff-member's skills and happiness you had to interview them and make up your own mind? What if instead of purchasing a training upgrade you had to learn the skill yourself and then teach it to your staff? What if the number of goods you've sold today isn't delivered through some menu, but comes in a written report produced by one of your staff, where accuracy is dependent on their experience and can be checked against your own counts?
By humanising the way that players interact with the core management systems we can add drama, and cut back on repetition. A real business that presses the fast-forward button and makes no changes ultimately goes out of business because it doesn't keep up with the times. By making the numbers fuzzier we could make human reaction an essential element of maintaining your profits.
Mixing Up the Endgame
Most management sims make some effort to throw spanners in the works. This only makes sense. If I can just tick over economically and nothing gets in the way of that then there really is no endgame. A lot of games (Tropico and SimCity included) go for natural disasters, but I think this is missing a trick.
What you need is something which radically upsets the dynamics of your society. Natural disasters are too one note - handling them is damage limitation. Fires and floods are bad, end of, and are solved with sufficient emergency services. What would be more interesting, and more of a challenge, would be a disease that wiped out half the male population, or a scandal that means half of all parents refuse to give their children a vital inoculation, or the invention of cat memes halving everyone's attention span. We need disasters that can - through clever on-the-fly solutions - be converted into strengths. We need to re-involve the player's high-level strategic brain, not just continue to exercise the low-level tactical one.
As I write this I realise there are certainly going to be examples of these ideas already out there. Indeed, Tropico 4 plays around with some of these ideas, if not quite making them radical enough to make a significant impact on the flow. Still, it seems to me worth saying. A game which stops throwing new challenges at the player is a game that stops doing what it says on the tin. And I'd like to see the resurgence of the management genre - whatever you want to call it these days - continue well into the future.