Wednesday 29 December 2010

Southbank Uni Story Design: The Best Bits of Theory

So, my first semester teaching interactive story design on the Game Cultures BA has come to a close. It's been a fun experience, and it's reminded me that writing is an ability unevenly distributed, but that that's no bad thing. With this being a compulsory module on a cross-discipline course, it's inevitable only a handful of the 25 students would have a natural passion for the work. I tried to be up front with everyone, and despite my coming away with a reputation as a harsh marker - best piece of student feedback was "Tom's great, but the difficulty curve may need some balancing" - I seem to have made friends and even, god knows how, developed a bit of a reputation.

There were some fantastic mechanical concepts that arose from the coursework. Watch this space come the new year for a special guest blog from my top student - who is a genuinely intelligent, laugh out loud writer - but in the mean time I've collated a small handful of some of the more far reaching ideas. To be clear, what I'm presenting here are not the best overall game concepts - as we're oft reminded, an idea is only as good as its implementation - rather, these are the individual mechanics that seemed most challenging on a theoretical level: the ideas that might change the way we think about specifically interactive narrative.

The Indictment - The Rorschach Test
by Matthew Davie
Matt's narrative design pitch was based around a psychiatrist's drug induced nightmare world, populated with spectres of his patients. He has to come to terms with how he has helped - or perhaps failed to help - each one of them, therefore getting to the bottom of his own psychosis.

The way he interacts with these patients is through Rorschach tests - the iconically ambiguous images whose interpretation is supposed to indicate a patient's mental state. The idea would be that certain cards could be matched to certain patients, their emotions observed and then manipulated accordingly. A guy hints at his hatred of hospitals? Anger him with a related image and force him to make a mistake.

For me the idea still needs some more pragmatic development, but the theory behind it is one I'm excited by. As long as we rely on dialogue as a method of NPC interaction we tie ourselves into necessarily scripted and linear relationships. The idea of using more real world skills - like empathy and emotional direction - to illicit useful responses is a fascinating one, as some soon to be released projects are already aware.

Falling Through Nightmares - The Voice of the Epsimite
by Joshua Condison
Exploring a psychological battlefield was a bit of a theme this year, and while "...and then he woke up" is something writing courses often try to throw out, personally I was ecstatic there were as many students taking Psychonauts as a direction as there were Far Cry. In all fairness, Josh's take on the subject positioned the nightmare firmly in the real world: every night his central character dreams of falling through a city of his greatest fears, only to wake and discover the Epsimite sleeping pills he's been taking have caused him to carry those fears into reality, the actions he takes in his sleep becoming increasingly violent as the game moves on.

During the day we follow the protagonist through his mundane existence, only instead of controlling him the player now takes on the role of the pills, manifested as a malevolent alter ego. Stacking shelves in the supermarket, a voice in his head encourages him to pop a can into his jacket pocket; things escalate rapidly. These battles of will are represented on screen in a Heavy Rain style, and by having the player embody both the protagonist and antagonist, I think Josh was trying to bring to the screen the character's sense of internal conflict: that on the one hand he needs these pills to function normally; but on the other the reality they buy for him is a thin shade of what they seem to promise.

Floating - The Early Decision Point
by Sarfraz Hussain
Floating is largely your run of the mill dystopia featuring a kick ass girl in the lead - who appears as the header image for this post. It does have an interesting weapon / power up system whereby a mysterious item called the Warpus draws form from ideas and emotions around it: the protagonist's angry outburst is what weaponises it in the first place, and concepts perceived in the game world - eg a set of roller skates - will empower it to take new forms - eg wheeled vehicles. This is, however, ultimately just clever body paint for the pick ups.

What's fascinating about Saf's idea is that early on in the game the protagonist's mentor is taken by a government agent. Actually, no, that's still standard practice. What is interesting is that the player is then given the choice: revenge or forgiveness? His decision will not change the direction of the narrative, but it will subtly alter the nature of the information he's given regarding the government agent he'll spend the rest of the game tracking down. Essentially, choosing revenge will result in texts and characters painting a saintly picture of the man the player has vowed to destroy; choosing to forgive will mean he's rendered the bad guy.

What Saf's trying to get at here, I think, is that many decisions are rashly made, and that any decision can begin to crack when you analyse it with hindsight. When the player reaches the conclusion they're given the opportunity to change their mind, and this seems to suggest that a person is always able to make their own decisions - and that in the context of Saf's dystopian vision it is not so much the government that's to blame for screwing over the people, than it is the people for accepting their government's decisions.

RPGs are often keen to give us many seemingly far reaching decisions to make, but it's rare we're truly forced to live with them - once we've travelled to the next area their impact on us is all but gone. There's something very engaging about the idea of making an entire game reflect on the nature and import of just one, catastrophic mistake.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Stories in Unlikely Places No.2: Tribes: Vengeance

Tribes: Vengeance is one of the most subtly subversive multiplayer games ever made. Not a lot of people know that.

This is the second in a series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing games which don't just further the art of interactive narrative design, but do so either from unexpected places against unlikely odds, or despite their continuing obscurity. No serious spoilers.

Released in 2004, Tribes: Vengeance was a prequel, the third game in a series that was itself a spin off of Dynamix' mech-game, Earthsiege. Incidentally, that series simultaneously demonstrates that our industry is ridiculous, and constantly, brilliantly evolving. It goes...

Metaltech: Earthsiege
Earthsiege 2
Starsiege: Tribes
Tribes 2
Tribes: Vengenace.

I'd buy Vengeance: Metaltech any day.

But back to the point. 1998's Tribes was startlingly advanced in every sense other than the narrative one. It was a pre-1942 Battefield; the game that did huge outdoor arenas, massive player counts, and on-foot vs vehicle teamplay before anyone else had graduated beyond Quake deathmatch. It was a technical and design marvel.

But it still centered around blowing shit up.

In the hands of a pre-Bioshock Irrational - known at the time for System Shock 2 and Freedom Force - Vengeance still centered around blowing shit up, but the studio's masterstroke was to bother explaining why. With Tribes, Irrational proved beyond all doubt their ability to deliver in whatever genre they set their sights on - their vision of online carnage more than lives up to the series precedent and yet they've never returned to it - but it was the blindside of the singleplayer campaign that quietly redefined the playing field.

Vengeance pits you as five different characters on opposing sides of a space cold war, separated by generations. There are two timelines, set 20 years apart, and you play them in parallel, so the events occurring in the past give you new insight on what's going on in the present. You are simultaneously the Imperial Princess captured by the tribals, and the daughter she's yet to give birth to. The story sees the characters fall in and out of love, make and avenge any number of murders, and instigate and quell all out war.

Frankly, the writing isn't as sharp as we've rightly come to expect half a decade later:

Just get on with it, you tribal dog.


That's probably the best line in the first half hour. No, In case you can't tell, Vengeance stands out for me for its epic, multi-protagonist narrative structure.

We spend a lot of times in games writing bemoaning the aping of cinema; we should be our own medium with our own strengths and weaknesses. What I think a lot of games writing could learn from is dramatic structure. How often do you play an action game whose story isn't realtime? It's rare to see so much as 'Two months later...' let alone a game as bold as Vengeance. It's not that realtime is always bad, it's just indicative of a general lack of faith that we rarely try anything better suited to telling a story. Another question: how often do you play a game confident enough in its storytelling that it will keep you in the dark about huge portions of its narrative until it deems fit to bring you into the loop? Cinema has these tricks down pat, but we're still learning how to do them. Irrational pulled it off ages ago.

In Vengeance you play as both mother and daughter, and the hindsight provided by the one character renders seemingly righteous actions by the other as tragedy. And right there, there's the reason Vengeance is special: it's a tragedy. That shouldn't be a rarity, but it is. This is a game about love, and politics, and perspectivism, and hatred. It's a game which is entirely linear not because it lacks narrative ambition, but because this enables it to tell an intricately crafted story of a fashion I'd argue Bioshock never even approached. It's a game assured enough to let your motivations in the present only be explained later by your own actions in the past. Even Rockstar - in Red Dead Redemption - look amateur in their attempts at the same.

But there's something else. Let's look at the story premise again, because it's so obvious, and so smart, as to be almost invisible.

The Tribes series - and online shooters in general - have always been about people fighting one another for no real reason. How do you make a story out of that? Simple. Irrational's story is about how people fight one another for no reason. And they prove that to you. In gradual, tragic detail.

Perhaps that Vengeance was a multiplayer game whose strongest asset was its elaborate, story driven tutorial was what damned it to the insulting sales and mass exodus of players and publisher immediately following release. Perhaps Vengeance's singleplayer didn't redefine storytelling in the same way the original game did multiplayer. But it should have done.

This is a game which, if any ever did, deserves another look while its gameplay remains palatable. Because unlike its visuals, its story is timeliness.

Buy Tribes Vengeance at
Buy Tribes Vengeance at

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Theory Behind In-Game Failure

As a topic for theory, failure states aren't new. If you're providing the player a challenge, the traditional way to handle his failure to live up to that challenge is a


followed by a discretionary amount of replaying from the last checkpoint. To a certain degree I'm sold on this concept. Particularly in these days of casual, persistent and console gaming, developers are always seeking ways to avoid those ugly words,


and allow the player to proceed without breaking the fiction (see my discussion on Bioshock's Vita-Chambers). Sometimes this cuts short your options: if you're escorting an NPC how do you handle that NPC's potential death? Invulnerability? Branching story lines? Massive text redundancy?! Sometimes a good old fashioned


is all you need.

On the flip side, I love games that incorporate player failure not just into their fiction, but into their gameplay. In fact I think they're far more rewarding experiences. I believe this on the basis that its not just challenge that is central to good drama, but failure. With that in mind, in order for failure states to be meaningful they need to be incorporated into the both the game's fiction and, more importantly, the world of the game's mechanics.

I see three ways in which failure is modelled:

1. Game over
2. Forced fails
3. Gameplay incorporated

Game over (yeah, line breaking for 'game over' is getting annoying now) definitely qualifies as a failure, but in most cases it's mechanically unrelated to everything else in the game. You step back in time and turn that failure into a success in order for the narrative and interaction to continue.

Forced fails are when the story demands the character strike out, and the game forces the player to embody this. There's a time and a place for this, but clearly as soon as you're scripting player action to reflect the story, rather than the other way around, you've given up a core tenet of interactive narrative. In both game over and forced fail, failure acts as a barrier to interaction rather than a part of it.

The better approach, as I see it, is the smaller scale stuff that's handled by the game mechanics. That's things like getting shot, taking too long, or making poor decisions. These are things which, combined, might lead to a Game over, but which can usually be taken on the chin. I played a lot of RTS and management games when I was a kid, and I think one of the appeals of those genres is that game over is far rarer than in action games, and that failure is Incorporated into the flow. Messing up in Theme Hospital doesn't make the level unplayable; you don't have to redo the half hour since the last check point. What it means is having to hire new specialists. What it means is having to stare at the monstrosity of a Bloaty Head treatment machine you just built when all your patients are dying of Broken Hearts. What it means is being punished proportionately, in a way that's cohesive with the fiction and the game structure, and in a way that forces you to work harder to overcome your self-wrought challenges.

What it arguably means is a far truer interpretation of interactive drama.

Of course, there remain sticking points. How do we tell a story which revolves entirely around a protagonist's failure, but keep the player motivated? How do we tie this approach not just into the gameplay, but more thoroughly into a complex narrative?

I'm going to go play Theme Hospital (well, its open source clone) and think about it some more.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Environmental Narrative Panel: Vid, Write Up & a Note on Subliminal Signposting

Last week's panel discussion on environmental narrative went well. We had a full house (though didn't stretch to standing room only like last year), no one shouted or cried, and I even got a word in edgewise.

I also met Joel (aka Harbour Master), who was sportsman-like enough to train it into London, say hello in the pub, and then beetle home and write the whole event up practically before I'd sobered up. I was aiming to draw my own conclusions from the evening, but frankly he's done it for me.

For my tuppence worth there are a couple of topics I'd like to pick up on.

A Writer Writes Across the Board
The talk, and Joel's write up, begin with a quote from Jim:
Which of you are writers or want to be writers?” Many hands went up, including mine.
How many of you want to be writers for games only?” Only a few hands survived.
Don't limit yourselves.”
It's a small thing, but since it was so centre stage I wanted to chime in: I don't think you need to write in different disciplines to be a good writer. 

I'm sure it can help. I'd be surprised if there were many writers who didn't want to write in different disciplines. But if you love just one medium I don't see any good reason to pursue any other. Unlike the other writers on the panel, I didn't come into games from another industry: games are what I write. Certainly I'm interested in pursuing prose fiction, but if it came down to it, interactive narrative is what really floats my boat. That's no bad thing.

The Validity of Thematics & Subliminal Story Telling
I kind of abused the topic to my own ends so that I could discuss tying narrative / artistic meaning into gameplay, but Jim and Rhianna very much went down the more solid "the environment art can tell a story" route. Question time at the end raised an important query:
"One member of the audience suggested that all of this “environmental narrative” simply washes over the player, that as it is not part of the actual gameplay, it ceases to be important. The clever subtext is all but lost."
Now this riffs on something I discussed in class a few weeks ago: the questioning of the validity behind thematics. McKee says:
"An IMAGE SYSTEM is a strategy of motifs, a category of imagery embedded in the film that repeats in sight and sound from beginning to end with persistence and great variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal communication to increase the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion."
In English this means: "Use symbolism and repetition to engage the audience on another level." This is precisely what environmental narrative often is, and it's a technique that's common to all artistic expression I can think of. But does it just pass us by?

Two examples spring to mind. The first is games' frequent use of signposting. In most titles, a load zone is indicated by a particular piece of art. It might be a door with a release valve; it might be a yellow arrow on a corridor wall. The point is, when you see that sign I don't think there's a logical process in your head which goes: "This sign means there's a load zone, therefore I won't go this way until I've done everything here." I think you just learn by habit (the same way you train an animal) and avoid that door.

The second example is one Jim gave at the talk.

In the image above - with the visible pier supports and the beached ships - the environmental narrative is telling us that the Combine - Half Life 2's big bad guys - are so powerful that they've dried up entire seas. Great. Problem is I never would have picked up on that in a million years when I was playing through. I'm sure some people would, but I'm sure plenty are like me.

If that's the case, how much of our (writers across all mediums) thematic work is actually adding to the fiction, and how much of it is just creative types wanting to feel clever? The scary word is 'subliminal'. While the load zone example above would seem to support the idea that some simple things can be understood subconsciously, 'subliminal' itself - despite the popular controversy around its use in advertising - quite literally means below the senses, ie undetectable by the human mind on any level.

Clearly Half Life, Bioshock et al are better for not being set in grey corridors. But I suppose my question is just how much of that time and effort to weave complex stories into shooters is wasted below the senses; and don't games like Hitman make greater use of these techniques by having the nature of the environment actually feedback into gameplay in more ways than just waist high cover?

Monday 29 November 2010

Why Zombies as a Genre Are Here to Stay

I heart zombies. Not just in a geeky, B-movie kind of a way (though props to Zombi 2), and not just from the perspective of a horror video game writer (because I don't really consider myself that) - but mostly because for any kind of writer it's a premise overloaded with potential for character exploration.

Unlike World War 2 or modern combat or comic books or Westerns, Zombie fiction in both cinematic and interactive entertainment is a stayer. This is why.

The image above - beyond any excuse to picture Milla - represents everything that people get wrong about developing a zombie fiction. Sci-fi environs, super ninja bitches, mad scientists... Resident Evil (by turn both the games and the films) misses the point.

I've never particularly had any desire to write horror as a profession. Before the Penumbra games it's not something I'd ever even attempted. It's always been a genre close to my heart, though, for one reason: it puts human nature under the microscope. To some degree, perhaps, that's what all good fiction does. But the reason that stories like Alien, The Thing and Dead Ringers are truly great horrors is that they take real, everyday characters - even when those characters are in fantastic circumstances - and put them under pressure. In GCSE chemistry, if you want to learn about a particular substance you put it to extremes: you heat it, or you cool it, or you spin it around really really really fast until it's all dizzy. Then you wait and see what happens.

Good horror - particularly zombie horror - works the same way. You take ordinary people, expose them to extreme pressure, and see if they wind up killing one another. Alien argues that everyone has different potential: that the cute blonde tomboy hides cowardice that will overrule even self-preservation; and that the hero of the story might actually have tits. The Thing shows us that rational human doubt can overpower anything; even a strong friendship.

Sometimes film - and often games - get this wrong. Games are great at developing tension and fear. Better, I'd argue, than any other medium. But how often does a zombie game use this to explore themes within its characters? We all know Dead State is heading in the right direction, and we're probably familiar with Dead Rising's blatant Romero-esque critique of consumerism, but how often do we go beyond that?

As a genre, zombies have only been around for a few decades. The concept originated with Voodoo-related catatonia, and Romero and his ilk imported it to Hollywood in the 60s. This means that the five year fad that began with Stubbs the Zombie and L4D (a game which captures the rumour mill and camaraderie, but none of the suspicion or character progression) really marks the first time that zombies have truly been road-tested on an interactive level. What zombies allow us to do as writers is to introduce a whole host of useful mechanics - mechanics zombie games often exclude - and to have these feedback in unique ways on the story:
- Where did the outbreak come from (room for government conspiracy and social critique)?
- What do you do when you / someone else gets infected?
- How do you treat other survivors when they might be your best survival tool or your greatest threat?
- What happens to morality in a world where violence is around every corner?
- How quickly and in what ways do society's rules break down?
- What is there to pursue beyond survival in a world beyond the brink of revival?
- What rights do the zombies themselves have?
- Without a social structure to tell you what to do, what happens when people have to think for themselves for the first time in their lives?
- Where is your god now?
- Is a katana really the best weapon?

Zombies are uniquely interesting for precisely these topics. You'd be hard pressed to find a good Z fiction that didn't centre on at least one of these ideas.

As both a writer and a consumer, I'm fascinated more than anything else by humanity and by honest (even when scary) appraisals of it. I'd argue that zombie games provide us that opportunity and much more beside; any time someone says to me that zombies are just the latest fad, I figure they've been playing too much Resident Evil.

Unlike WW2, or Tolkien, or Vietnam, zombies always have new places to go; but what they tell us about ourselves should always be a little too close to home.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

4 More Free Web-games...

...because free web-games generate hits. And also because, just like commercial release, or XBLA, or the AppStore, there's a shit load of shit obscuring the good stuff. In short, I've played a lot of shit so you don't have to.

This is a follow up to the 'Why free is the Future' post I put up an indiscernible amount of time ago, and these are the games that basically made the grade but I didn't have time to include. They're still guaranteed better than 95% of the stuff out there, and I'm going to try to be more critical this time.

It never ceases to amaze me how many truly talented programmers and artists there are out there who're content to turn out clones.

The Company of Myself
The Company of Myself is a pretty trad make-copies-of-yourself-to-complete-the-game game (though I love that we're now inventive enough with our mechanics that that can be a genre). It combines that mechanic, though, with a very personal story. It's not a fresh perspective - guy loses girl, moans a bit - but it's one that, while pervasive, will never be less than relevant. Braid-lite, maybe.

Little Wheel
A bit like Loodon, Little Wheel is perhaps stronger in its aesthetics than its gameplay (which is simplistic point & click). It's beautiful, and the narrative is touching in a self-consciously-designed-to-tweak-the-emotions-of-a-broad-audience, Disney / Pixar kind of a way. but then the fact I'm even making those comparisons can't be a bad sign. Not truly interactive, but worth a crack.

Time Kufc
Yeah. This one's kinda fucked up. Hence the oh-so-clever name. There are a lot of games that play with the idea of time travel as a gameplay mechanic these days, but for me Time Kufc remains the game which has most coherently tied that mechanic into the narrative. A standard platformer with rewind / restart mechanics, you navigate a seemingly endless labyrinth in pursuit of... well... yourself, I guess. Past and future incarnations of yourself guide or taunt you, and the game's unnerving in a Cactus kind of a way, without entirely abandoning comprehension.

Gateway II
I can't claim the puzzles in this one don't have their flaws, but it's worth persevering and resorting to a walkthrough if necessary. You guide a a box-like character through a series of rooms, entering and existing what appear to be different streams of reality. There's a lost-girl plot in there somewhere, but all told this reeks of imperfect implementation of an ambitious idea that winds up thoroughly playable.

Friday 19 November 2010

Why Free is the Future: 5 Must Play Free Games

I was giving an interview to a journo from Moviescope magazine today, for a piece he was putting together on the interplay between interactive entrainment and film. His controversy-generation angle (because, seriously, sometimes we all need one) was "Are games Film 2.0?". Clearly the answer's 'no' - games may have taken some of film's audience, but they never will nor should replace any other industry. However, I think one of the insights he found most interesting was my stressing that just as cinema has Hollywood vs art film, games have AAA vs indie scenes. It's something even studio execs within our industry often fail to recognise.

A crucial corner of that scene, naturally, are products like Braid, and Darwinia, and Limbo. It's indescribably fantastic that important, artistic, independent games can now turn a profit for the first time in our industry's history. Those games wouldn't exist, however, were it not for their short, free, web-based cousins blazing the frontiers.

Let's celebrate that.

A simple, olde worlde take on Britain, and a tale of carnival freak redemption, this point & click is simple, short, but wears its heart endearingly upon its sleeve.

Take a Walk
A snail's pace Canabalt, the music stops jarringly every time you screw up, reinforcing the value of that often overlooked element of video game design.

Don't Shit Your Pants
Interesting stuff can sometimes be satirical, and satirical stuff doesn't always avoid toilet humour. 'Don't Shit Your Pants' concerns itself with nothing else, but is nonetheless a very smart take on the text adventure. A 'survival horror game' which sees the player standing outside the loo door and having to type his way to the bog while avoiding the titular, the game successfully rips trad IF for its often ludicrous inaccessibility by making something so mundane seem quite such a challenge.

I Can Hold My Breath Forever

An underwater platformer that pits your desire to explore against a tight oxygen countdown, this is a touching tale of with predictably a slightly nonsensical ending that I'd interpret as commenting on the blind draw of true friendship.


Aether is one of the earlier projects from the professional indie darlings behind Super Meat Boy. It's a rambling discussion of childhood seen through the cartoon perspective of a child exploring the universe on the back of a giant sling-shotting blob thing. Of course it is.

Friday 12 November 2010

London Writing Panel Appearence: Interactive Story Telling for an Interactive Medium

The IGDA has just announced a new games writing panel that's going to be held in London the week after next. It's going to star some of my big name games writing mates and - less spectacularly - me. Official blurb at the bottom of the post, my unofficial blurb immediately below.

Environmental Narrative: Interactive Storytelling for an Interactive Medium is kind of a sequel to a talk we - Jim Swallow (Deux Ex 3), Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord), Andy Walsh (Prince of Persia) and I - turned out last year. Despite the atrocious press photo from the event that's the header for this post (I'm the one with the terrible hair and evil eyes yammering away while everyone else stops and stares in disbelief), the thing went well, and we're back. It was rammed last time around - a mixed audience of games students, professional writers from other mediums, and developers in other disciplines - and I'd argue the pub trip afterwards is a great networking opportunity.

It's being held the evening of 23rd November at London South Bank University. Incidentally, it was this event last year that brought me to the attention of the Game Cultures BA guys at LSBU and landed me my current lecturing job.

Hope you're able to make it, and if you are rocking up do drop me a note beforehand and come grab me in the pub - be good to put some faces to some names.


Time: 23 November · 19:00 - 21:00
Location: Keyworth Theatre B, Keyworth Building, London South Bank University
Keyworth Street ( easiest tube is elephant and castle. Take South Bank University exit
London, United Kingdom

Environmental Narrative: Interactive Story Telling for an Interactive Medium
Hosted by LSBU's BA (Hons) Game Cultures course

Following last year's packed event, the IGDA London Chapter and IGDA's Writing SIG will be presenting a talk at London South Bank University on the evening of Tuesday 23rd November. A panel composed of well-established videogames experts will be focusing on how AI and environment can tell story in games.

Entry will be free and the panel will be followed by both a formal Q&A session and an informal trip to the pub. We hope you can join us.

The panel will be comprised of experienced games writers -

Tom Jubert (Driver: San Francisco , The Penumbra series)
Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword)
James Swallow (Deus Ex Human Revolution, Battlestar Galactica)
Andrew S. Walsh (Bodycount, Prince of Persia )

Thursday 11 November 2010

Die2Nite: Free Keys for the New Web-Based Zombie MMO

I was contacted a little while after posting that fascinating interview with Zombie / RPG hero, Brian Mitsoda, by someone else with a Zombie RPG. Die2Nite is developed by French outfit, MotionTwin, and began life at

The French iteration has been running for a while, and had some positive write ups. I've not gone too far into it yet, but the core mechanic seems broadly familiar: spend action points in the text and image driven web interface, develop your character and equipment, and await the inevitable zombie onslaught that arrives at midnight. Each online shard only houses 40 players, which is a conceit that appeals to me - tighter games with the ending in sight, without losing the co-operative progression of an MMO.

So, I've got a bunch of beta keys to give away. For some reason, the guys at Motion Twin think I have enough readers to actually shift ten keys!) First come first serve, just drop a note into the comments telling me why you'd survive in the zombie apocalypse when everyone around you is muttering disconcerting things about brains, and either include your email address or drop me a mail to the usual place if you'd rather not publish it.

I'll be interested to delve into the game more once I'm not quite so busy - will it be a dramatic, multiplayer experience, or another shallow time sink?

Ah well, at least it's got zombies.

Saturday 30 October 2010

A Descriptive Exercise & Plot Treatments

Just a quick, silly one, this. A large part of my job revolves around improving my technical writing ability. Another around finding any excuse not to do whatever work I've set out for myself. Ask any writer - more dishes get done, more Hollyoaks gets watched, more joints get smoked when you've got a deadline looming.

Lucky, then, that writing exercises exist to serve both needs. It's increasingly popular for a developer to commission three or four narrative designers to turn out a couple of days' worth of plot pitches - one page documents developed according to a brief which outline a proposed plot / scenario / gameplay. These are then discussed by all parties and the strongest goes on to be the basis for the project moving forward.

I've been hired via my agency, Sidelines, to do just this for a new racing / action game. So it was that, yesterday afternoon, I conked out for twenty minutes and wound up doing a writing exercise which resulted in the short 'story' below. I love dialogue, I love character, I love jokes. I am rubbish at description. Ayn Rand, however, fucking loves description. She will happily run three pages describing a room and the psychological makeup of its inhabitants:
"Francisco, in shirt sleeves, stood in the middle of his twelve foot square living room, with the look of a host in a palace. Of all the places where she had ever seen him, this was the background that seemed most properly his. Just as the simplicity of his clothes added to his bearing, gave him the air of a superlative aristocrat, so the crudeness of the room gave it the appearance of the most patrician retreat..."
Sitting almost exactly where the photo above was taken (that's my laptop screen bottom left), I set about pastiching Rand in describing the scene before me. What you'll find below is that. Halfway through I showed it to Roxy, the flatmate I describe, and she decided it needed a twist.

The result is, I hope, an entertaining and most importantly a physically expressive read. Personally I find the style a little over the top, but it's delivered something I'd never ordinarily write for myself, and that in itself is something an aspiring writer can always value.


Roxane sat head in hand, deliberating over what the muted blues and greys projected from the screen before her could tell of the status of her existence. The haphazardly evolved mesh of wood surfaces, stainless steel cabinets and laden shelves that made up the kitchen was just one arbitrary dissection of the great warehouse space around her. Dull afternoon light made its way through the broad frosted glass frontage behind, the paper-clad bulb suspended from the high angled ceiling doing little to affect the understated illumination that made the space seem to go on forever. She was not so much dwarfed by the open plan expanse as encompassed by it, a seamless element in the naturalistic lifestyle it represented. A reassuring amplifier scratch filled the soundscape briefly with promise of more organised tones to come as she plugged the auxiliary cable into her laptop and mused staccato over the first track. With the air of someone for whom creativity was production, and production life, she stabbed the play button and set to work.

Then a huge velociraptor crashed through the glass, its three tipped talons scraping lines of cement dust from the tiled floor. Its gait was broken only momentarily, the creature seeming to rebound off the awkwardly positioned counter that split the kitchen in two so that it turned to face her. The predator could not have stopped moving for even a second, and yet there was an imperceptible moment when the two locked stares; this leathery forgotten husk of violent history and its contemporary prey, the latter helpless in her superior understanding of what was necessarily to come. Roxane's ability to move the minds of men had served her and her kind far better than the monster's instinct ever had it and its, but for this moment all else was irrelevant. Art and music and love and understanding could not stop her crying out as the jaws closed around her neck.

In the next instant she had, like, this huge shotgun, you know, like out of Goldeneye. She made that pump action noise not because the chamber wasn't loaded but because it sounded fuck off cool. It was even in time with the music. Then she blew the motherfucker's head off. It was like Rambo, only with a hot French bitch and more dinosaurs. And everyone lived happily ever after.

The End

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Stories in the Most Unlikely Places No.1: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

This is the first in a (potential) series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing games which don't just further the art of interactive narrative design, but do so either from unexpected places against unlikely odds, or despite their continuing obscurity. No serious spoilers.

Sands of time was shockingly good. A reboot of an ancient licence, it was handled by an internal development team who up until the previous year had been best known for the N64's Tonic Trouble, and in the six months between announcement and release screens of hack & slash combat had done little to demonstrate any sense of ambition was at play.

Writing aside for a moment, Sands of Time reinvented platforming in a way (arguably, of course) only Mario 64 and Tomb Raider had done in recent memory. The natural grace and stunning agility of the Prince's movement was both sumptuous and rewardingly challenging. Even the combat - though overused and far from nuanced - was at least satisfying in a way every iteration since has failed to grasp.

But let's talk story. That Jordan Mechner - the original PoP's youthful auteur - had only one post-Prince credit to his name has since become moot. When that game is the much-overlooked Last Express, and when his work since has included the Disney iteration of the franchise and award-winning documentary Chavez Ravine, it's easier to see why the project was such a success.

Mechner was brought on as Creative Consultant, and then Writer / Designer, and it's clear from the very first screen that the man meant to rinse the opportunity for all its worth. Unlike a mind-bogglingly large number of even contemporary releases (I'm looking at you, Bioshock) Mechner understands enough about interactive story telling to give the player control immediately, even in the framing device.

And what about that framing device? The Prince steals into Farah's bedroom and proceeds to tell hear a tale unlike any she has heard before. Every level in the game proceeds as a thread of this story, even the Game Over screen is flicked away with a casual, "Wait, that's not how it happened." By the time he finishes his story (and the player the game) we understand just what he's been through and lost, and why it's so vital she believe him.

Despite its innovative rewind mechanic (ultimately a quick-save gimmick, but one so useful and so integrated into the fantasy that the term hardly seems fair) it remains the dialogue and the characters that really mark the experience out as something special. In an industry where gruff talking space marines and broody ninja bitches continue to rule the roost the down-to-earth backtalk...
[after Farah has accidentally shot the Prince during a previous fight
You go ahead. I'll cover you!
Please don't. You're liable to hit me. 

...and resentful bitching...

I'll just ask the first Sand Creature I run into, "Could you direct me to the baths, please?" Well, thank you. "Don't mention it, I used to be a bath attendant back when I was alive... "
...remain a breath of fresh air. The relationship is plausible and fun enough (albeit in a very Hollywood fashion) to invest in, and I genuinely was made to care about the conclusion (of the story, not the inevitably rubbish boss fight) in a way few platformers have managed before or since.

It speaks volumes to the timeless quality of Mechner's writing that no sequel has achieved the same heights. Ubisoft demonstrated startling ignorance of what made the original great when they went all emo with Warrior Within - dislodging Mechner in the process - and even managed to lose much of what made the platforming so sublime in the 2008 reboot-reboot. I appreciated the return to a more likeable hero with first Andy Walsh's 2008 script and then The Forgotten Sands interquel, but it's proved too little too late.

The Sands of Time remains a very personal favourite for me, not to mention a surprise outsider. It plays as well today as it did seven years ago - but it reads even better.

Thursday 14 October 2010

GAMESbrief Guest Post: The Ship Dev, Outerlight, Dead in the Water

The guys who made Agatha Christie simulators The Ship and upcoming Bloody Good Time (a game I was actually excited about) have all but gone under.

Bad ship-related puns aside it's real sad news. Chris Peck, co-founder of Outerlight, is the last man standing, and he's spoken very candidly about how big publishing is antithesis to innovation, and how the true home in the future for people-who-like-more-than-just-blowing-shit-up (ie us) is in digital distribution - if you can magic the financing.

Full thing over at GAMESbrief.

Friday 8 October 2010

Flash Fiction for Interactive Types: An Open Challenge

I love flash fiction, both as a writer and a reader. Trending at around 100 - 1000 words, it exists in a sweet spot between the short story and the poem; a compressed form requiring the utmost discipline in a writer, without quite descending into the quagmire of interpretation that tighter pieces have to deal with. It's a non-commercial form that fits a short attention span society and rewards sharp ideas implemented efficiently.

It agrees with me.

What's the interactive equivalent? Clearly we have a lot of short form, non-commercial games out there, but I wonder if they quite hit the mark. Even a ten minute game like ir/rational requires as a minimum a good week or two of solid work to produce, and it contained significantly more than 1,000 words.

The interactive fiction community turns out some fascinating experimental shorts, though they still ask a lot of both designer and reader. One of the joys of flash fiction is that the barrier for entry is very low, but the technical ability required for success remains very high. Variety is everything.

I rather like the idea of the short form dialogue tree. Anybody can knock up a 1,000 word dialogue in MS Word or HTML, and polish it to buggery and back. It would ask only about a minute of its player's time. It would give us, as designers, the opportunity to explore a multitude of high concepts and ideas unpalatable to larger projects. As consumers we could be far more experimental in our interests.

Above all else, the reason I love flash fiction is that its brevity encourages risk taking. Where it's nigh impossible to pull off a commercial novel without, say, a plot, and challenging in the extreme to implement a crazy idea throughout without it becoming gimmicky, flash fiction provides an outlet.

Could it do the same for interactive writing?

You'll find a very bad example of the format here. It'll be familiar to players of Black Plague - it's a vaguely Kafkaesque computer program, inspired at the time by a frustrating phone conversation with BT.

I know we can all do better. As soon as I get some time I'll be dying to have a go at producing something more ambitious. In the meantime I'd love for you guys to have a crack. It might take you as little as an hour, and if you do produce anything you'd like to show off please post it to the comments, or email me. If it goes well maybe I'll throw the same exercise at my BA kids and see how they get on.

Thursday 30 September 2010

Free Game From Majesty of Colors Dev: The Day

The Day is a ten minute game from Gregory Weir (The Majesty of Colors) over at the often excellent Armor Games. I'm fascinated by ways to tell an interactive story that's relevant to the player specifically. Cut scenes don't cut it, and often alternate endings and branching narratives provide purely arbitrary differentiation between a number of otherwise linear paths. I'd be tempted to argue The Day goes someway to resolving that issue. It's ostensibly a JRPG / trading card game, but clearly if it was just that it wouldn't be featuring here - so go take a look before I start deconstructing it.

Spoilers ahead.

Which ending did you get, then? The game can be played in two different ways - you can follow the rules, or you can break them and explore. If you elect to simply play the trading card game you'll wind up with a distinctly indistinct experience. If you drop what you're told to do and explore the forest you'll discover a more sinister (though far from inspired) truth about the nature of your idyllic existence.

I suspect there's something going on here around the gamification of interactive experiences. The game seems to say: "We're so hemmed in by objectives and completion that we may be missing what games could really be about - a more personal and meaningful exploration."

This, of course, would be a message better communicated if the 'true' ending wasn't also intimately tied to traditional video game play styles. Hints are dropped heavily throughout, and it takes only a cursory level of familiar RPG exploration to find the route into the forest.

All the same, I appreciate the fact that the game's making a bolder approach to the sticky topic of alternate endings. It's brave to allow a player to complete the game without ever getting an inkling that there's more going on here, and on the flip side the implementation of the 'true' ending - with its switch from tinny RPG music to something more involved, and the increased visual detail - is strong enough. More than anything else, I like that there is little sign posting here regarding what ending you're shooting for. There's no 'good, neutral, evil', there's no 'Are you sure you want to go down this path, you may not be able to turn back'. It's a branch based both on subconscious player psychology (is he an explorer or not?) and on a conscious decision whether to go down the path if and when it's discovered.

In short: flawed, but more please.

Author Recognition
It's also worth noting that Armor (along with Kongregate and the other portals) allows you to look up the other games produced by any given developer. Weir, for instance, produced the must-play The Majesty of Colors, the interesting How to Raise a Dragon, and some other stuff that's now on my to-play list. Finding rewarding games isn't always easy, and producing them is even tougher. Support talented indies by remembering their names and checking out their back catalogues.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Steve Wiebe Reclaims Donkey Kong No.1 (Go Watch His Documentary)

Steve Wiebe, the underdog of 2007's skewed documentary King of Kong, has reclaimed his title and beaten Billy Mitchell's world record with a Donkey Kong score of... I don't know, a lot. Like, 1,064,500 a lot.

It stands to reason that retro gaming - and score competition in particular - is very much antithesis to what truly excites me about games; but that's not to say I won't thoroughly enjoy getting the hell beaten from me in SFII, or trundling on through Super Mario Bros. 3 on Virtual Console.

Beyond that, though, King of Kong is well worth a watch. I love games fringe - anything that takes our medium beyond the confines of the specialist press and £300 hardware is good news. The film follows Steve - whose commitment, flare and subsequent failure in most things in life render him impossible to dislike - as he fights adversity and foul play to beat antagonist, Billy Mitchell, to the Donkey Kong world record - a record Mitchell later reclaimed [not a spoiler, it's implicit in the header!] It's very much a character piece, and beyond a little nostalgia and the constant reminder that people who play video games are all weirdos, it may as well be about fly fishing or ultimate frisbee.

It's also a very biased film. It's part of a growing movement over the past decade towards perverting documentary into something closer resembling soap. I wouldn't suggest this was a work of fiction, but I'd be surprised if a few scenes weren't restaged, certain clips carefully edited. It's a little insulting to our intelligence as an audience but - provided you approach it in the right light - it does make for a very engaging little film. I recommend you check it out.

If only Steve would stop thanking god for his success... No Steve, it's all on you, mate.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

My New Job: Teaching and Things...

I have a new job. Starting 28th September I'll be teaching the Story Design unit on the Game Cultures BA at London South Bank University.

It's going to be an interesting challenge - coming up with a complete syllabus has been tough enough.

Many people in the UK are on the cynical side when it comes to higher education, and many people in the games industry are on the cynical side when it comes to games degrees - I'd have to say that I often count myself among both. It's easy to trade in pipe dreams and £1 pints so before anything else I'll be fascinated to sit in on a few classes and get to understand things from the inside.

About a year ago I was approached to put together a games writing text book, which I passed on the basis I didn't have enough experience. I didn't want it to be another book about writing written by someone who's never written. (Despite that good natured jab both McKee and Freeman are on the course.)

One reason I'm choosing to take up the mantle now is that this is pitched as a practical course, and regardless of how long the odds are of breaking into the industry, let alone into writing, I think I can help. Having written games for four years I'd not say I knew enough to write a text book to rival the best academic resources; but I do hope that my experience can translate in the classroom.

I'm going to be running the course with as much hands on work as possible - workshops and critique groups holding equal weighting to lectures on classical drama construction, indie and AAA deconstruction and practical work on industry codes and methods.

Because this is just one unit on a larger game design course I'll be running it as much with a view to training up producers, artists and engineers in how to work with a writer as how to write at all, and I'll expect the standard to vary wildly. There'll be artists there who haven't written since Year 10, and guys who do it every day. If I'm completely honest, it's the latter that really excites me - chances are there'll be one person on that course that completely blows me away. Perhaps more than anything else, I want to be in a room of passionate young games developers and learn something myself.

Of course, I also just love to be on the stage.

You can download my draft syllabus here. The key areas are the assessments, programme and reading list. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday 10 September 2010

Adapting Games From Books: An Exercise

Lined up by my ever industrious agent, Sidelines (check out their ad in the latest Develop, p.25), I was packed off yesterday to go pitch for a new AAA project that's based on a very famous line of books (and spin off comics, films, breakfast cereals most likely). A pitch is effectively a job interview, though works quite differently - it's largely about the dev team selling the game concept, with the narrative designer then pitching their ideas for how they'd like to develop it.

It reminded me of an exercise I like to do. It's widely referenced in indie circles that games struggle for imagination, but it's a difficult situation to escape. Just as if you've spent an entire career writing horror it'd be hard to switch into romantic comedy, the commercial games we produce are done so in the context of thirty years of shooters, platformers and dialogue trees. It's difficult to think outside of the language and tools imposed on us.

This exercise is meant to combat that.

The idea is that, rather than trying to pull an entirely new game mechanic from thin air, we take something wholly unsuited to traditional video game archetypes and work out how we'd render it interactive. Let's think, for instance, about Sophie's World. Clearly we could take the central characters, we could take the world and some of the dialogue, and then insert ten hours of third person platforming.

This would be rubbish.

So the first thing we do is work out what makes Sophie's World Sophie's World. What can we strip away to provide us flexibility, and which elements are central to the thrust of the licence? Well, it seems to me like the alternate world concept is pretty core, and it's easy to point at Sophie as well. More crucial, though, is the focus on historical academic philosophy, on free thinking and open mindedness. It seems to me, in fact, that a game which loses Sophie but succeeds in interactivising (not a word!) philosophy would make for a truer Sophie's World game than the platformer that looks and sounds right but revolves around jumping on people's heads.

So now we're seeing a picture of what the gameplay has to deliver, and what strengths we can play to. Exploration is something we do well, and thought experiments are something central to understanding critical thinking, so let's say we're looking to explain and test understanding of utilitarian ethics (chapter 21). Instead of a dull monologue we can put the player and two NPCs in a cave attempting to find their way out. He discovers a small tunnel, but his fat friend goes first and gets lodged. He's left with two options: do nothing, meaning he and the other NPC will asphyxiate, but the fat guy will survive; or use the dynamite to blow their way out, saving the two but taking the life of the one. Ongoing dialogues can provide him moral theory to inform his decision, and it is his action, his decision, which demonstrates his understanding of the philosophy.

I've never seen a game like that.

What other books would make for impossible traditional games? Something like Tristram Shandy - a deconstruction of writing - arguably has an interactive form in something like :the game:. What about Anne Frank? Is that a survival horror stealth game? Would that successfully translate the utter terror and the lunacy of the time and place? Perhaps we need something more leftfield - a persistent world with non-recoverable game over. And how would we capture a romance without resorting to rescue the princess or abstraction?

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The Interesting Bits of PAX (And Stuff That Happened in Broadly the Same Timeframe)

Words feel like a finite resource today. You know those days, where Yahoo eats ten years worth of emails, including those cringey ones from when you were sixteen? Yeah. But since when did PAX need an introduction anyway?

5. Colonial Marines is back on
Maybe sort of with some very naff screens. Aliens as an interactive franchise is great because it's one of few film licenses that actually converts well to the medium staple of men with big guns; and yet it's a franchise which, at least in sporadic iterations, has shown immense intelligence and ambition. Perhaps more exciting, though, is the thought that if Colonial Marines can come back from the dead, so can Obsidian's RPG.

4. Portal 2 co-op screens
I'm not really keeping up with Portal 2. I'm gonna play it. Any information I glean between now and then is just spoilers. But they're SO CUTE.

3. Telltale's Back To The Future Eps
The adventure genre's right. The writing team is right. The license is ripe. The important actor's back. Will it recapture the feel of the movies entirely? No. Is Back to the Future, as a property, one of the most interesting mainstream adaptations out there? Definately.

2. Outerlight's long awaited dificult second album
Scottish dev Outerlight did something incredible. Four years ago - at a time when medium budget and high concept were somewhat more mutually exclusive - they released an innovative multiplayer game. Even today, that's a rarity. It's unclear how much Bloody Good Time will riff on The Ship's fragile espionage mechanics, but when your other most anticipated mutliplayer title is really just a modern indie take on X-COM you realise this might well be something worth watching.

1. The Witness: First Footage
Not really a competition, I'll be honest. Kotaku has the vid and write up of Jonathan Blow's next project (pictured in the surprisingly gorgeous header image), demoed anonymously amongst the other indie offerings. It looks to be a game of naturalistic exploration and puzzle solving. More importantly I love that despite (seemingly) superficial points of familiarity, The Witness might be the sort of thing that we could dream up if we'd not been hemmed in by forty years of Space Invaders and someone said, "What do you think you can do with this?"

Some other things that happened were a new Dwarf Fortress visualisation from Tim Denee (not as loveable, to my mind, as his previous one, but still a lovely way for ASCIIphobes like me to appreciate the game); and Fluidity (which I was mostly interested in because someone compared it to a cross between Wetrix and LocoRoco, which reminds me of being twelve and loving Wetrix because it was like what would happen if you turned Tetris upside down and poured water on it.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Thanks & Here's a Game I Found

The first rule I learnt in viral marketing was "Never ask people to digg/reddit/twitter etc." Actually, Twitter didn't really exist at the time, but still: provide the call to action, stick a button in there, but don't fish - because the web's smarter than that. I'm bad, sometimes, at following the rules.

Posts like my recent interview with Brian Mitsoda are, to my mind, a large part of what this blog is supposed to be about. I get to talk to someone I really respect, we cover some theory and support an exciting new indie game at the same time. I want interactive writing to have a louder voice, and this looks like one way to go about it.

Of course, Wordle (thanks GAMESbrief) has a different concept of what this site's about:

Glad 'game/s' are big, 'narrative' and 'character' made decent showings, though I really use the word 'really' too much.

Back to the point, I'd love for fantastic content like Brian's interview to receive the hits it deserves. To that end I'm going to tip you off on a great free game just as soon as I've reminded you that you can follow me on twitter (@tomjubert) or retweet things you think are sweet; sign up for RSS or use blogger's crazy 'follow' thing on the right hand side; tip off your mates on interesting content with your blog, digg, reddit etc (with the button that ought to be somewhere more obvious) or even by word of mouth; and above all else use the comments to say the interesting and insightful things I know you're full of. The blog's been running for three months now and apart from realising I should have built it in Wordpress I'm real chuffed with it, and in particular with the support it's found with you lot.

Thank you.

So I owe you a free game tip off, huh? Here's the long awaited English version of Memory Reloaded - a throw away yet inventive piece of interactive political commentary.

PS Lost Horizon's got a demo out, is up for pre-order, and has simply the cutest pop up box art.

Monday 30 August 2010

Brian Mitsoda Talks Vampire: Bloodlines & Newly Announced Dead State

I first heard Brian Mitsoda's name attached to an interview he did with Rock Paper Shotgun back in 2009 (meaning I've just had to google 'rock paper mitsoda', which makes me smile), discussing one of the games that most influenced my career, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Brian started out in QA at the infamous Black Isle, before taking on writer's responsibilities and moving over to Obsidian. In his own words his 'cancelled project resume is stunning', and despite working on an early version of Alpha Protocol, Bloodlines remains his only narrative credit. Brian and new wife Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda founded small independent DoubleBear in 2009 and have since been working on a zombie RPG that more than registered in my list of games I'm excited about last month.

Hi Brian, thanks for talking to me today. First up, we have to do some Bloodlines chat, and in particular tackle the Malkavian character who, as you know, was no small influence in my character design on Penumbra: Overture. The Malkavian was a taut combination of nonsense poetry, startling insight, hilarity and depravity. To what degree was he (or she) based on White Wolf's existing template [Bloodlines is based on a table top property], and from where else did you draw inspiration?

I read most of the source material – all the core and clan books. While I might have written the majority of the Malkavian dialogue, the idea to have Malkavian-flavored responses came from Chad Moore (who also wrote a few characters, including Strauss). One of the things I wanted to do with the Malkavians was not just make them “crazy” because I think that’s too easy. I wanted them to tap into the Malkavian “insight” – somewhat like having ESP without really knowing why you know these things – and also make them sound like people that would make you uncomfortable, rather than be over-the-top zany.

People tend to make madness hilarious, and I wanted to try to get into the head of someone without impulse control or rational thought patterns. Sure, sometimes they could say things that were amusing, but if you were to actually have a dialogue with someone who spoke like a Malkavian, you might first think they were weird or putting you on, then you’d be a bit creeped out, and finally you’d try to find ways to get out of the conversation because you had no idea what this person was capable of. They were usually some of the last dialogue I did to finalize characters, so at the point I was writing them, I was probably a bit out of it myself from deadline stress and lack of sleep. Whenever I have a chance to do mental illness in a character, I want to portray it closer to reality than comics or movies – it’s just a cop-out when a character’s motivation/antics are hand-waved because “they’re crazy!”

Bloodlines embodied, for me, a very Fallout vibe, in so far as it took the now entrenched western RPG template and without drastically changing the mechanics pushed the boundaries beyond what they could arguably handle. As anyone who played the game out-the-box will know, it was a rough edged diamond. I know you've said that game overpromised, but would you really rather be working on a Dragon Age where arguably the biggest advancement over the past decade has been the engine?
Well, working on successful games is nice because you have the money to keep the lights on for the next game, but I loved working on Bloodlines, despite all the problems and challenges we faced and its lack of (immediate) success. It was a smaller team and I think we felt real ownership over our contributions. That’s something you don’t really get on larger teams and it’s somewhat a trade-off for large scale projects – you either get better compensation or more control, but rarely are you going to get both. Some people want stability and a small piece of a gigantic machine to work on, and that’s fine. I’d much rather work on projects where everyone knows everyone and where we don’t have to have several meetings to decide on the color of the hero’s shoes. I don’t necessarily think every project should be the most ambitious ever, but it would be nice if more games took some risks. I completely understand when projects with $50 million+ budgets play it safe, though it would be nice if there were more $500,000 projects that made you felt like you were playing something unique.

I often feel a little as if I've walked into my role as a writer without too much formal training - on the job or otherwise - and I've learnt my trade by trial and error. It must be very different starting out at a studio with a couple of experienced senior writers. How did you learn to write games, and how would you see things ideally?
Good question...  I didn’t stumble into my job so much as pursue it and get really lucky in regards to the projects I was assigned to write to. I trained as a fiction writer, then worked on becoming a screenwriter, then applied both to the very demanding and frustrating realm of game writing. Game writing is really exciting from a gameplay/story perspective, considering it (ideally) reacts to the way the player is making choices in the game. HOWEVER, my biggest problem as a game writer is making sure every possible path through a dialogue/character arc is top-notch and memorable, which is like coming up with a screenplay with ten times the good lines per character. You’ve got to pay attention to the flow so the player doesn’t feel like any one path is the “boring” path or that the character isn’t acting out of character to close off a logical path of dialogue. You run the risk of putting in too much reactivity and bloating your dialogues to the point that 1 out of 100 players will actually see a line of dialogue. It’s really a balancing act, and if done right, it is both good dialogue and good design. It’s a challenge and it’s a form of storytelling I feel is still in its infancy. There are simple ways of building reactivity that would be easy for more teams to implement. Ideally, people would pick a few important ways their game could respond to player choices and throw in some simple story branching/reactivity to reflect that, but since games and cutscenes/VO takes so much time and money, I understand why so many companies go the linear gameplay with cutscenes route.

Okay, let's talk about Dead State [previously known under codename, ZRPG]! The reason I'm excited by the project is you guys seem to really know what should make a good zombie experience. It's not about explosions and mad professors; it's about the small scale, that-could-be-me tales that put human nature under pressure to see what comes out. Though maybe some explosions help too. You guys move fast, can you give me a quick run down of your goals and where the game's at now?
Dead State is coming along pretty quick these days, because honestly we have an amazing group of people working on the game – I’m really excited for players because I’ve seen what they’re going to experience. The quality of the work the team is turning out pleases my manager, designer and gamer sides, and that’s just such a good feeling to have when you’re working on a game. Really, if you’re following the game right now, go onto the forums and thank the team in advance – you’re going to love what they’re doing.

Our goals for the game are lofty, sure, but we’re designing around our limitations, so if people interpret our goals as “the most ambitious game ever” it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors. We planned this out carefully and thought of the easiest way to implement our systems with tech that had already been used for another game, so we’re not trying to go to Mars here.  Our main concerns are that the combat is fun (rather than “good for what it is”), the game is reactive, the characters are memorable, and that players each have different experiences. We want them to be able to go through the game again and have a different set of challenges and different interactions with the characters each time. We picked a setting that allows for a lot of structural freedom – the world’s falling apart, law is what you make it, and morality is based on survival. It’s a really easy contrivance to make the game bend to the player’s whims and for dramatic situations to arise.

You guys are really into the indie community, open development thing - you're posting design updates to your forums every week. You talked about the morality system recently: no ethics slider, no bonus powers, lots of possible scenarios. You make it sound like a lot of elements of the game are procedural - is that the case?
We’re hoping that subtext, subtlety, paying attention to your surroundings/allies is going to be enough for people that they don’t need it popping up in the middle of the screen as a floating number. Most of the game is dependent on your decisions and how you’re leading the other survivors. It’s not a very linear game, though there will be certain blocks of time that events may occur. How you respond to those events, that’s up to you. There are also areas and NPCs you’ll discover at different times and it’s still up to you in regards to how you want to deal with them. We do have an end to it all, but I imagine each player is going to have a different journey there and even a different end to their game. We could fall horribly on our face in this regard, but again, I think we’ve got a solid system in place and it’s going to allow for a narrative freedom that players may find kind of novel.

Okay, let's try and get into some theory. I've been thinking a lot about the difference between providing the player agency, and providing the illusion of agency. As game designers our job traditionally is to pull the wool over players' eyes, but sometimes it's difficult to do convincingly. Take, for instance, the scenario where a player's decision looks like it has in-game repercussions but in truth - should the player reload and go down both paths - it's just a cleverly disguised spot of linearity. Is that somehow analogous to real stunts vs CGI in the movies (provided it looks real it may as well be)? Or is there some value to be found in simplifying interactions in favour of true open ended narrative?

Quite frankly, if we didn’t simplify certain interactions, we’d be writing thousands of lines of dialogue to anticipate player whim. You have to control it. The best way to do this – figure out the decisions that are the most important, that are going to divide the players into certain camps and write the branches to react to that. There are a lot of little flavor replies in most of my dialogues, but every once in a while there’s something where I anticipate the player trying to game the system and respond in a way they didn’t expect. For example, when the player decided they’d had it with LaCroix in Bloodlines, they could say they weren’t going to work for them anymore and they’d get dominated. If they “joined” the anarchs, they could report to Damsel, but they were still working for LaCroix (conveniently) so that we didn’t have to do an entirely different set of dialogues.  There’s ways of managing scope, the writers just have to be creative and use the designer side of their brain.

Finally, let's talk a little about being a writer, because I often find I'm considered a writer first and a games developer second - as if it's in some way an external skill set. I love the fact that as a human being we can be as well, if not better represented by our writing as we are by anything we might say or do. What do you feel your 'style' is, and do you get adequate opportunity to express it in our medium?

Hmm... what is my style? Tenacious sarcasm? Reticent optimism? Self-flagellating ego? That’s a tough one.  It’s a hard sell in most gigs where participants are looking for ultimate, unfailing triple-A badass, but fortunately I’ve got the freedom in my current role to create something that doesn’t make me lose sleep at night. Most writers, as I’ve come to understand, are mercenaries, hired to turn out whatever is asked for them. It’s probably not ideal for them but I feel very fortunate that I’ve been given the chance to write some really incredible parts in my career. I don’t think I’ve had to compromise much, or I’ve refused to, to the detriment or benefit of my career. Up to last week I’d say writers/publishers were underestimating the intelligence of our audiences for good reason, but now I feel like maybe we haven’t been giving them the benefit of the doubt. I think writers need to express more complexity and depth to their audience as time goes on – you can only ride with training wheels for so long before you wonder why they’re still on there. We really hope to deliver a game that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence and expectation of the player, and I don’t really think that’s a huge risk at this time in game development.

Brian, thanks for your time, and best of luck on Dead State.
DoubleBear will next be appearing at PAX, 3rd - 5th September 2010.