Wednesday 26 May 2010

Writing For Indie Games; or "How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 1

This article was originally printed in the IGDA Writers SIG Quarterly

NB Penumbra spoilers throughout!

There's something about a team of fresh, undiscovered talent, combined with comically low salaries, that really brings out the best in people. So far, the Penumbra series has received widespread critical acclaim, been nominated for a Writers' Guild Award, and marked Frictional Games as a studio to look out for. But writing for indie games isn't just about bodging together a story out of limited resources (or starting sentences with the word 'but'). As is so often the case for the filmic equivalent, it's also about the opportunity to provide a genuinely inventive and touching piece of (interactive) storytelling; or alternatively a passionate, yet no less complete, shambles.

This post mortem looks at the specifically indie aspects of games writing, as experienced during my time with Penumbra.

Why Big Budgets Are Overrated (Sometimes)
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Without particularly setting out to, I've ended up quoting Plato, really early on. Let it be known I cringed while doing it. Tight purse strings, though, certainly have their guiles. I can't count the number of great elements that went into Black Plague as a direct result of not being able to do it the traditional way. Not having characters on screen lent the game a real sense of isolation. Substituting green DOS text for a lavish final set piece made for an eerie and uniquely low key ending to each game. Every piece of narrative had to be designed with extreme limitations in mind, which made imaginative story telling techniques an everyday necessity, rather than an ideal.

One of the best received narrative techniques we developed was to do with the alternate personality the player character develops towards the beginning of Black Plague. We had no way to produce any flashy cut scenes, character models or bespoke graphics, but needed some dramatic moments in the game to develop the relationship. As a solution, we used the assets we already had in the form of the game engine and scripting tools to represent the character's presence onscreen. Unseen teleports and level geometry that shifted moment to moment produced a disorienting atmosphere for this malevolent psychosis to revel in. Later on, the player is tricked into murdering his only friend in the game when she is morphed into the shape of an enemy. It's all very guerrilla: using cheap tools to deceptive effect; combined with convincing voice acting it proved to be everything we needed.

Learning to Promote and Rely on Tone
Just as minimal resources encourage innovation, there's something very athletic about refusing (OK: not having the option) to rely on lush visuals to inject interest into a plot or relationship. Being forced down to the very basics of the craft means doing your best to get the very basics right.

Having the writing support the tone of the game in a far stronger way is the first step. Of course, Penumbra has always had dark, atmospheric scenery and better than average lighting effects, and these help to set and maintain the mood; but any tonal demands that go beyond "Everything's a little bit grimy and hard to see" have to be conveyed through the writing, because you haven't got facial expressions or dramatic visual stunts to support you.

Voice: The Final Ingredient
Yet it's voice that ties the whole narrative experience together. We talked a lot about emotional response and philosophy during development. We wanted, in Penumbra, to do more than scare players, or even entertain them: we wanted them to care for the characters, to be conflicted, to feel guilty. A lot of that is set up by the plot and character arcs: NPCs' motives are intentionally hard to read, their reactions volatile, while the player's own in-game movements affect them in significant ways.

A lot, meanwhile, was down purely to a reliance on fantastic voice performances. Without the wow factor of mo-cap and lip sync, you place your trust in the actors' abilities to bring characters to life. As ever, recording was done to a budget, though Black Plague and Requiem benefited enormously from the very positive feedback earned by Overture and the resultant stretching of purse strings.

Almost all actors were sourced via The developer submits sample scripts and character sheets, and upwards of 50 actors upload audition tapes for each part. It's a low cost way of finding the right performance, and once you have your cast it's a simple matter of live directing over Skype while they do the lines in a recording studio local to them. Required re-takes tend to be part and parcel, and my experience with the actors and actresses was 90% outstanding.

A typical session would involve a complete read through of the script, with the actor taking notes as I talked them through what was going on in each scene, and their character's motivations. This was an essential stage - the personalities in the series are not the usual contemporary square pegs; most are insane. This makes communicating emotion in the performance essential, a goal at least partially achieved via ludicrous direction such as "Imagine you're a puppy who's being scolded for shitting on the carpet". It seemed to get the job done.

To some degree, I think the use of voice only is liberating. It seems to recapture that freedom of imagination granted to the prose reader, while avoiding the all too familiar pit falls of dodgy animation and the uncanny valley - your interaction with characters in Penumbra is 100% human.

Part 2 - The Indie Team - here.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Planescape: Torment Vision Statement!!!!!!!1

NB. Please note: the exclamation marks in the post title are ironic. But only just. The '1' was a genuine mistake.

I don't know how the public existence of such a document has eluded me for quite so long, but via a tiny reference in a recent RPS post I'm led to another RPS post in which the excellent Kieron Gillen says the same thing - only that was way back in 2007.

The thing we're talking about is the Planescape: Torment vision statement, hosted at - a 47 page PDF from 1997 (two years before the game was released) - outlining, well, everything. It's informative, hilarious and fascinating. The original RPS post was regarding a similar document Irrational Games has been publishing for Bioshock, which any other day would have raised an eyebrow, but to my mind is really rather overshadowed. Still, Irrational's new blog occasionally has some interesting insights so it's worth a trawl at some stage. While I'm on the topic, thank god the '2K Boston' label is under the ground - let's pray Illusion Softworks manages to ditch '2K Czech' in time for Mafia II.

Anyway, the doc itself includes stuff like this:
Designer: The brief story summary's below, followed by a list of all the cool shit we plan to include in the game.

Mort: “Sheesh. Can this guy write any more text? I'm already bored, and I’m fucking dead.”
Planescape has long been held as the go to exemplar of good games writing, so much so I was forced to dig it out, patch it up (hi-res graphics hacks et al) and replay the opening chapters to see if it really stood the test. It really, definitely has. I haven't played it since I was about 13, and it's depressing that modern RPGs have, if anything, stepped back from the sophistication, subtext and all round brilliance we already had over ten years ago.

One of the interesting things in the design doc (which is, in all, fairly close to the final product) is the irreverence paid to the content, and the emphasis on combat. I remember Planescape as a funny game that took jabs at other RPGs, but I also remember it as a game with more focus on a mature and touching story than on hitting orcs with big sod off swords.

I'm often asked what the best way is to prepare for a career in games writing. My default answer is ability, practice and perseverance, but writing a best-selling novel doesn't hurt either. From now on I'm going to start recommending reading things like this, and the Van Buren (Interplay's cancelled Fallout 3) level designs.

You have seen the Van Buren design docs, haven't you?

Sunday 23 May 2010

Free Online 4x: Neptune's Pride & Storytelling w/o Writing

Neptune's Pride is a free, web-based 4x game from Iron Helmet Games, a new startup from ex-Irrational man, Jay Kyburz. It plays like a simplified GalCiv, combined with Planetarion's MMO structure, and while it's not the most groundbreaking game, nor perhaps immediately apparent why it's appearing on a narrative-focused blog, it's certainly scratching an itch for me.

I've been waiting for a realtime diplomacy game that I can stretch out over weeks or months for ages. Chances are a hundred of you (okay, three of you) will be only too happy to point to something that's been around for ages that I've missed - and please do so, I'll be interested to check them out - but for me this is the game I hoped Defcon's office mode would be.

I like the idea of making one or two key decisions per day. I like the idea of waking up to find my fleet has arrived after a two day journey. On top of nailing my general need (and preference) for low time sink games, that focus on realtime really helps me to commit to the gameworld. Whenever a game forces me to sit through something it could quite easily have automated, I feel more as if I'm taking part in something real, something larger than myself. In Neptune's Pride I quite literally am. Eight teams battle it out, with the emphasis being on trade and underhand tactics, played out via the in-game messaging system.

The reason I'm bringing the game to your attention at all (apart from, you know, it's decent and free) is the way that diplomacy versus other players affects your personal story. I find procedural and co-op narrative experiences fascinating, but most of the games I've talked about or worked on so far are very traditional, scripted affairs. A game like Neptune's Pride manages to do away with linear story telling, and leaves the writing up to its players.

As you can see from the screen above, I'm currently pretending to be a newbie player and trying to pit the major powers against one another, while trading (carefully controlled) tech with both of them. Because I'm a git, but also because that's kinda the implicit goal of the game. Given that it's real people on the other end, I'm actually feeling a little guilty, and that's interesting. As narrative and/or game designers, by replacing AI with human beings we:

1. Render decision making 100% real because the player's treatment of other players can have any plausible consequence, within the game's internal logic
2. Integrate an additional seam of consequence: real-world impact on those other players

This reflects on previous discussion regarding decision making in games, but it's something Jason Rohrer beat us all to with the release of Sleep is Death last month (which, incidentally, is another whole blog post, but for now it's pay-what-you-like, so go get it). By replacing NPCs with real people, story tellers with other players and game designers with friends, Jason's pursuing a fascinating thread in narrative design that may yet put a lot of writers out of work.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Argument For Game Over

I've written before about player mortality, suggesting 'Game Over' is an anachronism we can replace with cleverer, narratively justified mechanics (in most story-led games; there are always exceptions). It happens that I'm no great fan of Bioshock's challenge-reducing vita chambers, but that's precisely the approach I'm talking about. I'm not the first person to say as much, but today is the first time I've seen a reasonably convincing argument against.

Via the excellent Grand Text Auto (an amalgamation of narrative-focused blogs, founded by the guys behind Facade, well worth a read) I came accross Peter Mawhorter's The Incoherence of Reincarnation. In it, he argues against the theory that mechanics incongruous with the game world or story are necessarily a bad thing.

Modern thinking would tend to suggest, as I have, that any mechanic which breaks the story or world (eg player death or dialogue repetition) is incongruous and should ideally be better integrated into the story. Mawhorter suggests the inverse - that provided a mechanic is clearly signposted as being 'extra-diegetic' (ie outside of the story) it can be forgiven by the player. The parallel here is with something like chapter headings in a book, or time compression in a film. When we read the words 'Chapter One', or when we see a five minute business meeting in a film that represents an entire afternoon, we understand implicitly that this is not intended to be taken literally as part of the story. It's a necessary concession to the medium's limitations.
"The [incongruous mechanic] in a game setting is completely unimportant to the story, and in fact can effectively be considered extra-diegetic. Critically, when the player tells a story of the in-game events (say, to a friend), the [incongruous mechanic] usually doesn’t feature in it."
On this interpretation, it could even be argued that attempting to justify these extra-diegetic mechanics within the game fiction is potentially disruptive. Bioshock's vita chambers bring to the fore a shaky element in the fiction that - in the form of a Game Over screen - would safely have resided in the background. Psychologically, removing repeated dialogue in RPGs wouldn't be affecting character behaviour, it would be affecting character behaviour presentation... and it'd be affecting it negatively.

It's definitely a perspective I can buy into. On one of my unannounced console games not too long ago we discussed how to handle NPC companion death, with the design team busting their guts to find ways to either keep the NPCs alive at all costs, or to somehow handle their deaths without excessively branching the narrative. The solution was simple.

Game Over: keep the fuckers alive next time.

Monday 17 May 2010

Heavy Rain & Decision Making in Games

Since playing Heavy Rain and Bioshock 2 I've been thinking a lot about decision making in games, and how it affects emotional engagement in the narrative. So much, in fact, that I wrote a sprawling blog post, got myself a bit confused, and had to start all over again. This post, therefore, is not a hard and fast rule, but an exploration of the options open to us. My conclusion, I think, is that we need to step back into the stone age.

There are a host of problems with decision making systems in modern games, and most of them have been documented extensively. Western RPGs, for instance, tend to flounder for their binary handling of the moral compass:
"There are very rarely clear-cut good and bad decisions in real life, and as a modern day RPG, we wanted to reflect that." - Matt Hickman, Producer, Alpha Protocol
Decisions as polar as Bioshock's harvest or rescue options just aren't living up to the potential interest of the context. Playing as someone thoroughly evil might be a valuable perspective, but there's no real decision making going on here - the game might as well come on two discs, one with the good ending and one with the bad. Another common issue is that the motivation to immoral action is generally personal gain. In the majority of games it's viewed as unfeasible to have one path be radically different or more challenging than another, so we're never punished for being good, rendering the decision to be evil unreal. With no small thanks to Bioware, today's games are infatuated with exaggerated, over simplified ethical dilemmas. Don't get me wrong - Bioware's early work revolutionised decision making in games, and I'm grateful for it. I just wish it had moved forward in any sense other than the aesthetic over the past ten years.

Heavy Rain's been criticised for its decision points being largely irrelevant to the overarching plot (the fantastic Emily Short has that more than covered). This is an approach I find very interesting. One of the first things I learnt as a game designer was that the illusion of freedom is often preferable to freedom itself. Unfortunately, as gamers we're encouraged by the inherent challenge presented us to test the mechanics, to play them to best effect - as a result we quickly see through Heavy Rain's tricks. This is another problem - as long as decisions are presented in the context of a challenge to be beaten there will always be ulterior motives rendering that decision unreal. This is, surely, the biggest problem we face - how to encourage players to inhabit their characters, to commit to the game world and to make decisions as they would in real life.

Lewis Denby picked up on this issue after a recent talk at GameCamp (which, incidentally, I'd never heard of - why not?!), and elaborated in his GameSetWatch column. He asks why some players are resistant to fully engaging with the fiction before them.

I'd argue that as long as games render decisions made within them unreal, players will never fully bond with the story.

Heavy Rain's clever trick is to free the player of gameplay-relevant consequences to his decisions. We tend to view decisions very much in terms of how they affect our progress - loot, new companions, new areas - and quite rightly so, but should this really apply to an experience like Heavy Rain? Is there any reason why, for the most part, short term consequences - a hug from a loved one, a telling off from the boss - shouldn't be reward enough? Well, yes - we rightly demand that our actions carry greater meaning - but regardless, Heavy Rain frees us from the video game mechanisms of trial and error, risk and reward, and in doing so explores a rich and unfamiliar landscape where decisions are based on our emotional whims rather than our objective need for more paragon points or a new shotgun.

The bigger issue for David Cage's interactive movie is that the only really meaningful story branches arise as a result of player skill, as opposed to player decisions. There's a special section in hell reserved for games with multiple endings arrived at arbitrarily. Arguably gaming's greatest strength over other mediums - and presumably the reason we provide players agency in the first place - is that the narrative can be as much about the audience as it is the artist. Heavy Rain's endings entirely failed to move away from that win-lose / happy-sad dichotomy. Until our decisions in games affect not just our objective progress, but our subjective experience, those experiences will never be fully relevant, they will always keep players at arm's length.

How do we fix it?

I don't think the decisions we make in games need to be real world decisions. They don't need to be about whether it's steak or macaroni for tea. They do, however, need to be modelled as if they were real world decisions. The world in which they exist can be fabricated, and it can be limited, but within those limitations it has to be plausible, consistent and comprehensible. It has to be real.

How many times have you been forced to reload an RPG because a decision you made had unpredictable consequences? It feels unfair because the game is asking you to make what looks like a real world decision, but is following its own, unreal rule set. More and more I'm beginning to think of storytelling in modern, commercial games as analogous to learning French from a phrase book. You can communicate, you can fool people into thinking you speak the language, but you don't truly understand it the way you would if you'd started with the grammar and worked your way up. Likewise, games such as Mass Effect 2 do a fantastic job of pulling the wool over our eyes - they create a world that looks like a real world, and they give us interactive dialogues that purport to be real conversations. But when the simplified mechanics behind the decision making structure fail to live up to that promise we're disappointed, we end up reloading.

In games like Spelunky or Weird Worlds, our methods of interaction are severely limited - but within those limitations our decisions are 100% real. I've talked about it before, but to my mind, even without the narrative window dressing of more 'advanced' games, those decisions are a lot more interesting, a lot more immersive than any I've made about whether to give back or keep for myself someone's lost ring. Because games chose a long time ago to run before they could walk - because they chose to show us glimpses of a complex freedom they had no hope of truly providing - we've ended up in an unwinnable position; an unwinnable position that alienates players from their characters, and makes it very difficult to move forward without first moving back.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Lost Horizon Voice Recording

While these days we see plenty of interviews with writers, and narrative themed postmortems, I still sometimes feel like the actual process of writing a game is kept under wraps. One of the things that I want to do with this blog, therefore, is to expose some of the work that I do on a daily basis (to the degree NDAs allow, natch).

Not long ago I finished up a week of studio work, recording dialogue for Deep Silver & Animation Arts' upcoming point n' click, Lost Horizon; it also marked the end of the project (for me, for now) and the completion of almost 100,000 words of in-game text, taking around three weeks to record in total.

On Lost Horizon I was hired as as the English script writer. The game is developed in Germany, in German, with the text then translated into English and proof read. I then do a treatment, adding back the flourish that's been lost in translation and ensuring the characters remain consistent. My text is then proof read again and delivered to the recording studio, and it's also used as the basis for translation into all other languages. This process is actually split into three batches over 12 months, allowing the cost of writing / recording to be spread out, and for three alpha / vertical slice builds to be created. The unappealing alternative is having to wait until the last minute to actually see and play a complete product.

While I've directed and cast previous games, both roles were handled by Side UK this time around, the studio having been arranged before I got involved. Incidentally (and in the interest of full disclosure) my agency, Sidelines, is actually an offshoot of Side. This meant that at the very least I didn't have too many problems finding my way to the central London location.

My role behind the glass was to make on-the-fly edits, provide additional direction, and to brief the actors - and therefore to know the game and characters inside out. Whenever I'm writing, the more information and documentation I can gather about a game the better; but it is, ultimately, a poor replacement for actually being able to play the thing. Fortunately that's precisely what I was able to do on Lost Horizon, and it really does make a difference. For each batch I would play through the section in question, tackle the script, and then play through again once the English voice had been recorded and implemented in order to recommend pickups. It's impossible to get everything right first time in the studio, no matter how well prepared you are, so the fact that Deep Silver had budgeted for re-records for the odd line that ends up sounding out of place was a real advantage.

In total we used around ten union actors to voice approximately thirty characters, most of whom were bit parts. The central character, Fenton, is a lovable British rogue, and he had the vast majority of the lines. As the actor settles into the role things begin to go more smoothly and after a few days the target pace of 60 lines per hour (pretty swift) was well within reach. I'd be lying if I said at least some of the direction didn't boil down to "Adam, could you give it a bit more Roger Moore raised eyebrow, please?" and later simply "Brow!" but, well, it's just that sort of game.

Side UK is one of London's best located studios, and probably the studio that most specialises in video game scripts. Phil Evans, the director, doesn't just work on a lot of games, he understands them. Without that understanding there's a huge margin for error. Knowing whether Fenton needs to sound pleased with himself or not based on whether the object he's talking about is in his inventory or on the ground makes the difference between a well-voiced game and a fail. That's why it's important to use a studio that understands the medium, and to most definitely have your writer in the room.

Lost Horizon is a lovingly produced homage to the Indiana Jones adventures of yesterday. It is not a $20 million project. The fact that, despite this, no expense was spared on the writing and the voice recording is a real credit to Deep Silver and Animation Arts. On a larger project these areas will make up only a fraction of the overall development cost - there's no longer any excuse not to get it right.

Ceramic Shooter: Electronic Poem Combines Narrative & Gameplay Like a Pro

Theta Game's Ceramic Shooter: Electronic Poem is in many ways the game I wished Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez and Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter had been. It's an anti-shooter: a top down, constant firing scroller with a fantastic score in which your objective is to avoid shattering the dribs and drabs of musical notes, poetry and images that pan down the screen - and it integrates narrative and gameplay in as smart a fashion as I've seen. Sort-of-widely-reported last month as being criminally overlooked, it clearly wasn't widely reported enough - it still has barely more downloads than I have fingers and toes on its official site, and less than 1,000 at it's biggest portal. It's a ten minute play, well worth it, and if you don't I'm about to spoil it for you. Oh, and don't do what I did first time and try to shoot everything. Best bet's to stay in the middle of the horizontal axis, carve left to right, and if / when you've had enough, watch the rest of the game here.


The poem itself is nothing desperately ambitious, but why need it be when the vision is so coherent? The moment where you disobey your orders, turn on your boss and are able to bring colour to the world is as dramatic a switch as I've seen, foreshadowed smartly by Kavita's kaleidoscopic name displayed tantalisingly moments before. It's an intelligent piece of gameplay / narrative integration that leaves you literally shooting down your enemy's words, and it's the core of this game.

The way in which the poetry manages to instill the gameplay with meaning, integrate with the graphics and reflect the tone of the soundtrack demonstrates the very best of the multifaceted approach only the interactive medium is capable of. While each element is simple and familiar enough, the tight interplay left me with a fantastically rich experience. I can even forgive that elements of the soundtrack are arrangements of Kei$ha's Tik-Tok. Who am I kidding? I love that track - but I prefer Theta's version.

I'd make just two criticisms. For one, the end game boss seems disharmonious with the otherwise inventive and unpretentious whole. Either ideas ran out, or there's something very obscure at work here. Secondly, and more damningly, it's disheartening to realise that even in a game which puts so much stead in having story and gameplay inform one another, the two remain at odds. With the poem being so tough to complete on a single playthrough, and the poetry itself not fleshy or involved enough to reward repeat plays, it comes as no great surprise that the youtube playthrough has had five times more hits than the game itself. Obviously a large proportion of that will be people checking out the game before deciding to download, but it does make the point - if we can't make interactive poetry that's not better enjoyed non-interactively then aren't we kind of missing what we're shooting for?

"Playing a Tim Schafer game is an education in game writing." - Ubisoft's Clancy Writer: Richard Dansky's Save Game

Richard Dansky is the Manager of Design at Red Storm Entertainment and the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft. You can hit him up at

Awaking one morning, you discover a rogue worm hole swirling about where your sock drawer used to be. The vortex begins to expand, and you realise you have only limited time before you're sucked in. With no idea what's on the other side, and being the conscientious sort, you decide to pack some essentials. Shunning supplies, goods for trading and fears of personal safety, you bundle up your games systems of choice and that handy inexhaustible power supply you picked up at a car-boot sale last Thursday.

As you stare at your games collection, you first make a grab for a game that could, if necessary, entertain you for the rest of your life.
Ignoring the critics and the agonized howls of my thumbs, I reach for Dynasty Warriors V. For all of its faults and what may be a lack of ambition, what it does – make you feel powerful – it does extremely well. There's enough unlocking to keep my inner obsessive-compulsive satisfied for a good long time, and besides, I could never get tired of listening to Wei Yan's Cookie-Monster-gone-berserk dialogue.

Reaching for a second box, you make sure to select the one game you hold most dear.
Into the bag goes the Ghost Recon Gold Pack, complete with Island Thunder and Desert Siege mission packs. I'm a huge fan of the original Ghost Recon's gameplay, the mix of tactical puzzle and FPS action, and I very much enjoyed getting to play with its dynamics in designing the mission packs. The trick, of course, will be ignoring the frantic campaigning from Splinter Cell: Conviction as I make the selection of GR, and making sure that Sam Fisher hasn't somehow managed to infiltrate the bag when I wasn't looking.
Realising you have time to collect some more cases, you pack up the game you think best to represent gaming to whoever you might find on the other side of the worm hole.
I'd snag a copy of Civilization. For my mind, it's still the finest example of the gaming loop out there, and the most addictive. And really, if I'm going to show anyone what gaming is about, the game that produced more cries of "just one more turn!" than any other seems like the way to go.
As the space in your bag diminishes – and you begin to wish real-world bags were as large as they are in RPGs – you prioritise the title that's been most influential in your career.
That's where Grim Fandango goes into the bag. Playing a Tim Schafer game is an education in game writing, and Grim Fandango was the first one I stumbled across when I moved from tabletop RPGs to video games. Just seeing how he worked the economy of language while still providing deep characterization gave me something to aim for in my own work.
As the vortex continues to grow it begins to eat into your desk. Teetering on the edge is a game box. Frantically, you smash open the case, and snap the disc in two – this is the game so bad you can't risk it coming with you.
I'm a firm believer in the notion that no game is so bad that you can't learn something from it, even as a negative example, but Ultimate Civil War Battles' only redeeming quality is the fact that the disc could potentially be used to decapitate a zombie chipmunk, Sean of the Dead-style. I don't demand much from my Civil War strategy games, but I do expect them to get straight which side was which. So I snap it in half, then I snap the halves in half, then I snap those in thirds before proceeding to jump up and down on the sparkly fragments. After all, you can never be too sure.
Finally, your bags are full – admittedly that's mostly due to the space taken up by the inexhaustible power supply. The vortex swallows you up, and you're deposited heavily on the ground, just beside a familiar looking sock drawer and not an awful lot else. Let's hope you chose wisely.

Selected Softography
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Ghost Recon: Island Thunder
Rainbow Six 3
Rainbow Six: Black Arrow
Far Cry
Cold Fear
Dark Messiah of Might & Magic
Blazing Angels: Secret Missions of World War II 

Studio / Career History
White Wolf Game Studios – Developer – 1995-1999
Red Storm/Ubisoft – Designer/Writer – 1999 - Present

The Save Game interview format was originally developed for as an antidote to the objective rather than emotional language with which we usually discuss interactive entertainment.

Interview conducted August 2008, first published at, May 2010.

Friday 14 May 2010

Ergon / Logos & What the Hell to Do With It

Ergon / Logos is a text-based game from Paolo Pedercini in which progress is constant, words and sentences flying past the screen with crucial decision junctures flicked between with the mouse. It's six months old now, but it was somewhat overshadowed by his own (also excellent) Everyday the Same Dream at the time (which, incidentally, won The Experimental Gameplay Project's Art Theme Contest, quite rightly beating my own ir/rational in the process [which, in strangely circular fashion, actually looks quite similar to Ergon / Logos]). With the source code available the possibility of modding the game with an all new narrative is an interesting one indeed.

The original is described by its designer as being,
"A meta-platform game based on the stream of consciousness of an egodystonic homosexual hero, but it fails miserably and becomes a piece of non-linear kinetic visual poetry written by a teenager obsessed with post-structuralist French philosophy."
I don't know what 'egodystonic' means ('thoughts in conflict with desires' - thanks Wiki), but my interpretation of it is as a commentary on the absurdity of established video game logic. In the narrative, the player guides the hero through familiar video game tropes (jumping, collecting treasures, bashing enemies) while the hero himself delivers a postmodern commentary on the realities of these contrived mechanics. Eventually and unavoidably the aesthetics flip and the hero descends into some kind of mental breakdown. The title is (I assume) from Aristotle, meaning literally something like Task / Reason, and could thus be interpreted as highlighting the ever-present contradiction in mainstream video games between the actions we are expected to perform and the (arguably more interesting) motivations behind them.
Regardless, the Ergon / Logos framework represents a fascinating opportunity to produce a text-based game that's accessible, fresh and fast paced. Doing so has been on my list for a while, just after starting this blog, buying a flat, and (Stewie Griffin voice) finishing that novel I've been working on.

One challenge is coming up with an artistic concept to wrap around a piece of technology. In all my other projects I've either been working with mechanics broad enough to support a variety of approaches (Penumbra) or developing new mechanics to support what I want to say (ir/rational). Ergon / Logos' abilities and limitations are specific enough to demand a more bespoke approach. As I see it they are:

- Use of formatting as a major tonal toolset
- Branching
- Time pressure
- Looping

In short, using the framework to produce a straight text adventure would be fun, but hardly taking advantage of what's on offer. Currently, I'm really interested in the idea of looping. Not only can text be shown to turn back on itself, but it can join other streams of narrative midway through. To my mind this suggests the possibility of a revisited narrative, an exercise in perspectivism. How does the same story change given a different context or angle of approach?

The (Not So) Humble Indie Bundle

Since my first post was all thinky and depressing, it's only right my second be shameless promotion. It'd be shameless self-promotion if I had anything of my own I was allowed to talk about, so count yourselves lucky.

Way back in 2006, Frictional Games released their Penumbra tech demo and I sent them a cocky email suggesting what they really needed for awesome commercial success was an unproven, undergraduate writer from the UK with a penchant for dark humour and philosophising. We released a trilogy that sold just enough to keep itself afloat and then, once the games arrived on Steam at a healthy discount, enough to finance a new project called Lux Tenebras. The Humble Indie Bundle is the latest development in that saga, and with over $1 million in sales it's fantastic to see things really taking off for the developers involved. Even before the figures came out I knew something big was afoot - games writers don't tend to get royalties, but I do get remunerated in fan mail, and it's doubled over the past ten days. I don't know where I'll find the time to answer that additional one email per month, but it's a nice problem to have.

With the pay-what-you-like concept and the announcement that most of the games (Penumbra included) are now going open source, it's reassuring to see the indie community consistently demonstrate a real grasp of marketing and how to turn a profit in today's something-for-nothing web culture.

As of right now the offer has another 1 day, 5 hours to run. Given its success I wouldn't be shocked if the expiry date wasn't extended again, but all the same it'd be best to get in quick.

While we're at it, Thomas and Jens at Frictional are gearing up for the release of their new IP, Amnesia, with a 20% discount on pre-orders if you mention my name. Or just turn up at the site at all. But feel free to mention my name anyway. From the alpha build I've played I'd say the most exciting new element in the formula is the use of dynamic light and shadow as a gameplay mechanic in the truest survival horror vein. Born from the ashes of Lux Tenebras, Amnesia's narrative is much less the Penumbra: Black Plague +1 I wanted to create, and more of an experiment with the way the player relates and adds to a more passive story. I'm not involved for that reason, but I'll be very interested to see how their approach works out.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Endearing or Titillating?

The only way I learn things in life is the hard way. It's appropriate enough, then, that my first post be about something I screwed up. I'm going to discuss an interactive dialogue I produced and the controversy it promoted, so if you'd like to come at it clean, why not take five minutes and have a play first. As an (assumed) gamer, I'm really interested to hear your unbiased thoughts.

Spoilers ahoy. 

The Dialogue
Some time ago I produced a dialogue tree using hyperlinks in MS Word. It featured Ethie, a young, very dim girl whose mental condition, it transpired, was down to the local apothecary routinely issuing her rohypnol-like 'medicine'. It alluded to, but didn't make explicit, topics like date rape and sex trafficking. Before the player discovers the more sinister truth behind the scenario it also featured some jokes. It can conclude with the player failing to discover anything untoward; discovering the the apothecary's lecherous ways but failing to make the connection with the 'medicine'; or unravelling the truth, dealing with the apothecary, and observing the decimal point in Ethie's IQ move one spot to the right.

Every couple of weeks I go out with a bunch of non-games writers on Brick Lane in East London. We do writery things like read stuff, swap notes, and try to pour drinks without the barmaid noticing. After six weeks' drying out, my laptop had finally recovered from the glass of water I poured over it and I figured I'd celebrate by mixing things up with a bit of Ethie. I didn't particularly expect anyone to 'get it', but I was genuinely taken aback by the violently negative reaction it received.

"People say I get in the way a lot. I don't know why. I try to stand in nice, quiet spots, but somehow I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can we still be friends?"

The Response
Where I'd tried to write Ethie as endearingly daft, my friends saw Carry On style humour. Where I'd written genuine gratitude, they saw sexual inequality. Where I'd tried to segue from humour into darker drama, they'd seen perverse gratification.

"I just feel… clearer, better about myself. And it's thanks to you."

I don't for a second believe that this isn't to some degree down to the (mixed gender, age 30 - 50) group's prejudices. One friend's response before he'd even read the dialogue was, "Is this a writing or a video game circle?" despite his comfort with every other medium from poetry to screenplay. Someone else suggested the objective of helping Ethie couldn't be a true motivation for the player because she wasn't a real person, which is really so ignorant as to be insulting, not to mention a direct attack on fiction as a whole.

I also fully realise that I could have handled the writing a lot better. The light-hearted jokes were a risk given the context. A more believable, dramatic tone would have worked a lot better. Having Ethie's personality manifest a lot stronger in the 'good' ending would have gone some way towards better representing the gender as a whole.

Finally, I suspect there are plenty of implicit assumptions we make as gamers that render dialogues like this much more sanitary territory. We know our objective is to help Ethie; we know the game won't let us indulge in date rape; we're accustomed to unpredictable changes in tone as we wander around a game world at will.

The Real Issue
What scares me, though, is that I suspect the real problem here is how conditioned I've become to accept characters, gameplays and scenarios that would be abhorrent to a non-gamer. I know I'm not the only PS3 owner to have used Heavy Rain (as grown up, story centric a game as we tend to get) as a way to entice non-gamers into the medium. Looking back on it though - with Madison's early near-rape scene and later gratuitous, interactive stripping - it's easy to argue that parts of it were a truly vile experience.

My entire career is centred on a drive to lift interactive narrative into a more mature, balanced and valuable place. If I've simply had a good idea in Ethie that I've implemented badly, that's a cock up I can live with (or ideally correct).

What scares me is the possibility that I've been so boxed in by the established video game convention of damsels in distress and player empowerment that not only do I fail to recognise a vile piece of writing when I see it, but that I'm the one producing it. 

Download EvangelistaFinal.doc