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.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Postal III Returns With a Video: There is a god

Postal 2 is one of the most underrated games of all time. Far too few saw through its puerile (though honest) window dressing to the technical and design excellence beneath. AI was uniquely reactive, the game system more consistent than any GTA has thrown up; on a design level the freedom of interaction and cunningly volatile world were constantly involving.

Postal III was almost definitely dead. Their website was only getting more schizophrenic. Announced back in 2008, I can't say it's ever looked very likely to be as exhilarating and ground breaking as its prequel, but I'm trying to hold the faith, and screens of badger-guns help, as do new videos.

They're pretty crazy. Also required viewing is this bat shit insane dev demoing the game a while ago.

Friday 20 August 2010

My Games & MY Games: What I Did on Which Projects

Wouldn't it be lovely if MobyGames had a feature for studio leads or staff themselves to add detail to their credits? If someone's credited as a writer that could mean almost anything. If I'm reading about a level designer, I'd love to know exactly which levels in the game they designed.

Following on from discussion in this post, I thought it'd be worth the time to list the projects I'm involved with and to spell out exactly what responsibility I held on each. Quite apart from allowing me to feel better about the credit that I'm taking, I hope this might prove an interesting exposé for anyone interested in the practical role of the narrative designer, not to mention useful for anyone thinking about sending a contract my way.

Fairly briefly, and in order of least to most creative control, these are the major projects I've worked on, how I was credited, when I did the work and what that work actually entailed.

Amnesia (PC), 2008, 2009 - Uncredited (as far as I know, and by request)
I worked on Amnesia during pre-production. All Frictional had at the time was a setting and gameplay, and I produced, among other things, a document detailing plotting, setting and character concepts, and some gameplay mechanics. When Frictional ran into publisher dificulties they went right back to the drawing board and returned with a full (and very different) narrative design, which is when we (amicably) parted ways.

Driver: San Francisco (360, PS3, PC), 2010 - Not sure what the credit will be yet (better be one though)

I was part of a team producing in-game dialogue to a rough brief. My dialogue will make up around 10% (at a guess) of the total. The style and character were obviously set beforehand, but there was no concrete style guide, allowing for reasonable flexibility within the confines of a predefined bark script (in which every character has the same type of lines, triggered by preset events). The deadline was extremely tight and barks are never easy, but I hope my characters more often than not bring a smile rather than a cringe.

Hydravision Survival Horror (DS), 2009 - Cinematics Writer

This was a last minute job during Alpha. All levels and most assets were in place, the story set in stone. There were around ten one-minute-long cut scenes, each with variations dependent on player character. I was delivered a doc setting out exactly what story information had to be communicated in each, but was free to improvise within that and within the established style of the franchise. It was challenging to write good dialogue when little attention had been paid to the plot itself, but I hope my penchant for dark humour and philosophical observation shine through, particularly towards the end.

Lost Horizon (PC), 2009/10 - English Script Adaptation
The 100,000 word script for this one was written in German and translated into English, my role being to polish it up. Every line was delivered in a spreadsheet, so while I had reasonable freedom within each line, the gist had to remain the same and I had no control over the overall story or puzzles. The translations tended to be grammatically sound but very stilted, and I'd say that I quite significantly rewrote the majority in a consistent style that I felt appropriate. That style - a tongue in cheek, silly sort of feel - was to some degree my own, but also significantly defined by the nature of the game and the plot. I was also in the studio for the voice work, though I wasn't directing and had no involvement in casting.

Penumbra: Requiem (PC), 2008 - Written by
The guys at Frictional decided to take a very different approach with this expansion pack. Gameplay was to be entirely divorced from narrative, meaning I had no control over the physical lay out of the levels, puzzles weren't narratively justified, and my main story telling tool was to be voiced notes. The overarching 'plot' of Philip exploring his mental demons was my own, changed from the original concept of Howard exploring the Shelter and gradually going insane, but 'plot' is in quotes because when you can change an entire story without actually adapting any of the levels you know there's not going to be much involvement. I felt as if the Penumbra story was largely over, and it was a bit of a shame to go out on this note - this game was no small part of my reluctance to be involved with Amnesia.

Penumbra: Overture (PC), 2006/07 - Written by
This was the first game I ever worked on as a narrative designer - I wasn't credited as such simply because at the time I'd never heard the term. A three game plot outline was in place, though detail was very sketchy and really only the very broad strokes and the setting made it to the final game. Plot in place for Overture was actually very minimal - Philip travels through the mine to find his father - and my biggest contribution was the introduction of central antagonist and plot driver, Red. All the other story elements in the game were either developed from ideas the guys at Frictional had in place, or originated with me, and I had (mediated) control over every element in the story, from note content and placement to visual design and level layout. I was also involved in game design discussion, and I cast and directed all three games in the series.

Penumbra: Black Plague (PC), 2007 - Written by
Following feedback from Overture I had greater confidence and experience, and with the cancellation of the third episode I was also tasked early on with overhauling the plot. As a result, Black Plague remains the game that I most cite as representative of me as a narrative designer. The plot and level design were a result of a high level pitch I produced which was then discussed in detail with Thomas [Grip, Lead Designer], from which he drew up level designs. Every character - save for Philip and Howard - and plot twist was my own work, as were the original ideas for the sanity effects and the ways in which the player can interact with his alternate personality, Clarence. Outside of narrative concerns I was a staunch supporter of dropping combat altogether, and I also contributed some broad puzzle concepts.

Unannounced Hydravision Action / Adventure (360, PS3), Ongoing - Narrative Designer
If and when this project sees release, I truly hope it will take over from Black Plague as my calling card. The guys I'm working with had a scenario, plot outline and two player characters in place, and while the scenario and one of the characters were both outstanding, I've entirely reworked the plot and created the cast from scratch. I'm unspeakably excited about the potential for this project.

ir/rational (PC), 2009 - Written, designed and developed by
Finally ir/rational is, fairly obviously, the game over which I've had the most control. Because, you know, I made it. While it could be argued that I was limited by my meagre programming ability and time contraints, ir/rational best demonstrates the style of writing and topics that interest me, as well as my game design ability. For better or for worse, ir/rational provides me no excuses - ir/rational is a 'Tom Jubert game'.

Monday 16 August 2010

Achievements: How Two Rights Still Make a Wrong

I was out in Angel on Wednesday for a regular games writers' knees up with lovely people like Rhianna Practhett, Andy Walsh and Jim Swallow, and found myself having two conversations with the excellent inventor of the 'untweet' (enough people untweet someone's breakfast report and it disappears for ever), Terry Chilvers, that I was sure I'd left behind in another life. The first was the old console vs PC argument, in which we quickly established that if good, fun, AAA is your thing, stick with your black box; if experimental, meaningful, cutting edge experiences are what you're about, then you can't afford to miss the likes of The Void and The Curfew.

The second was achievements. I recalled sitting next to some Sony guys at a Develop conference a few years ago and being a little taken aback by their admission to largely playing games for GamerScore nowadays, and it reminds me that our industry is still very much polarised by those who see it as a new form of expression, and those who see it as a time sink. 

Pro No. 1 - More Players
The first benefit of the meteoric rise of achievements is - to my mind - the simple encouragement it provides for players to play more games. As noted by a satire like Armor Games' Achivement Unlocked (my thoughts on that here), achievements are an incredibly sharp and effective application of player psychology. I am, most likely, no more thrilled about a legion more thirteen year old CoD players joining the ranks than you are, but ultimately more players - no matter what they're playing - is a good thing for our industry moving forward. 

Pro No. 2 - More Ways to Play
The other, oft-neglected purpose to which we can set achievements is in guiding players into enjoying a game in new and inventive / emergent ways. Online games in particular tend to see the development of player-pioneered gameplays - eg the rocket jump - and a cleverly designed set of achievements such as those in L4D2 can open up ways of playing that a tutorial simply couldn't cover. My favourite implementation of this was a game Jim mentioned - whose name I've forgotten, Jim if you're reading help me out here? - in which every achievement was themed around failure: blow yourself up with a grenade; kill the president's daughter... 

And the Inevitable Con
While there's plenty of good that can be done with achievements, for me they fail to outweigh to big drawback - that achievements are encouraging players to regress in their expectations of interactive entertainment.

Achievements insist implicitly that players 100% a game. They insist that players see a game as quite literally a 'game' - a challenge to be overcome. They break immersion. Finally, they draw out addictive behaviour.

I love a good, AAA romp. Sometimes I want to switch off my brain and blow some shit up. Same applies to film, music and literature. What I desire most of the time, though, is for interactive entertainment to be smarter, more mature, and more valuable a way to spend time. The principle of someone sitting on the sofa with a huge bag of Doritos playing GTA IV for 36 hours straight just for the GamerScore is one I find reprehensible - it puts our industry firmly back in the 'games are for geeks' stereotype of yesterday. That some players genuinely buy awful games just for the low hanging fruit makes me sick to my core. To be clear, I don't believe everyone is like that, but I feel there can be no doubt that the sort of beautiful, singleplayer experience provided by something like Braid is largely antithetical to the concept of achievements and the mindset they breed.

My position is largely summed up by Terry's observation in the pub: achievements are exactly what a non-gamer would expect games to be about.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Free Games: The Smartest Satires on Kongregate

With the recent discussion around the news that Gamestop has acquired major independent web game portal Kongregate - and a bit of a dearth of exciting new content to talk about - consider this another rare (but hopefully valuable) foray into cheap list territory. I'll be honest - the marketing type deep down inside of me is demanding I put the word 'free' next to the word 'games' in the header just for the SEO.

Anyway, the site's emphasis on independent development and short, free games has been responsible for encouraging both the hopeless and the technically proficient yet creatively stilted developer to turn out clone after clone to either disappear into the ether or to waste hour upon mindless hour of lunch breaks the world over. The exciting side effect of this has been the ungodly rise of the video game satire, and a steady drive towards more intelligent, rewarding content. Games like World of Goo - with genuine, sharp, witty subtext - are few and far between, and while AAA titles occasionally poke fun at their own medium, they're usually far more concerned about polishing the very mechanics they're taking the piss out of. Satire is a crucial element in art, entertainment and throughout culture. Unlike film, we're yet to be comfortable enough in our own clothes to start burning them.

It's unclear yet how the site will change under its new overlords, but in the meantime this is a non-exhaustive list of some games-talking-about-games you should grab while you still can.

The Idle RPG - Not the first and sadly not the last game to satirise the grind and cliche of the trad RPG (there's something very perverse about cloning a game that's already taking the piss out of copycats), but certainly one of the best. 

:the game: - :the game: and it's more polished but less edgy sequel is about what's shit about games (and culture) as a whole. A little bit like those oh-so-hilarious road sign posters, it takes a simple 2D platform and finds increasingly inventive ways to pervert the norm and have it comment on soemthing. It's hit and miss, but also the game here that most deserves to be in the history books. 

There is Only One Level - Only just about edging its way into satirical territory, There is Only One Level takes :the game:'s idea of using one environment over and over again and takes it in the other direction: sod commentary; how many radically different challenges can we provide using the same geometry combined with forty years of varied platforming mechanics? 

Upgrade Complete - Armor Games are a funny lot. They produce a whole shit load of polished, cynically addictive games, then make a game taking the piss out of them. Almost every game these days - indie or otherwise - is forced to include some level of RPG-like progression. On a psychological level it's incredibly sound practice. On an I'd-like-to-get-something-more-than-a-time-sink-out-of-my-games level it's utterly reprehensible. Upgrade Complete realises that. 

Achievement Unlocked - As above, expect with achievements, like. 

You Have to Burn the Rope - This one did the arty circle rounds some time back, and it's been variably interpreted as satirising the linearity of games, their myopia, and even its player's motivations. Regardless, it's essential. 

You Only Live Once - Another 'It does what it says on the tin' job. Only having one life raises to my mind some interesting questions about the unreality of video games, and the possible ceiling to suspension of disbelief. Most important for me, though, is the genuine sense of failure it can provide, and how shocking a feeling that is in the context of a medium where we're conditioned to expect nothing but success.

Thursday 5 August 2010

The Curfew: What It Means for Games

So, the first episode of The Curfew - Channel 4's free, political micro-game, developed by LittleLoud and scripted by Kieron Gillen - is out. After talking briefly with Gillen and C4 poster girl Alice Taylor, I was really interested to see what came of the project (not to mention drawn by the opportunity as a developer to critique a journo). It seems a bit crazy 'reviewing' an interesting free game that takes twenty minutes to play through, but it's certainly worth discussing its ambitions and delivery. There are three elements which really stand out as noteworthy for me. 

Broad Appeal
The Curfew's mechanics, presentation and content are all geared around appealing to a broad, casual market. This isn't really best viewed as a game at all, rather it's a tool for encouraging political awareness that just happens to be interactive.

The main thrust in this direction is the removal of free movement. Combined with the simple point & click interface and use of live actors on CG backgrounds, the game sacrifices complexity for the almost-guarantee that your nan won't get stuck at any point. These sacrifices are, for the most part, not detrimental. The simplicity of the game's puzzles wouldn't bore unless stretched over a greater time frame; the subtleties of the unique dialogue system make up for the lack of options; and linearity is not something I would often begrudge.

I can absolutely see the reasoning behind the live actors, as well. The archetypal video game writing doesn't always mesh well with the real world looks, and performances are really quite awkward in places (though most of the central cast are yet to claim much air time), but I know from experience that acting and direction in these sorts of projects isn't easy, and cheaper development plus a visual style more familiar to C4 viewers can be no bad thing. For sure the three minigames in this installment are roundly atrocious, but they're also short and forgiving.

The game's ideal audience seems firmly in the casual teen / young adult arena, although C4 are pursuing significant broadsheet coverage in addition to telly slots. I suspect it still relies too heavily on unspoken videogame logic to be palatable to those of a certain generation, and while I hope it will encourage a whole new audience to take games seriously, it may prove a tough sell. Ultimately, though, the project's true success will be in demonstrating to the triumvirate of Farmville players, CoD kids and parents that interactive entertainment can be approachable and intelligent.

The Educational Aspect
The Curfew is one of a number of games Channel 4 has funded with money the station is required to spend on educational programming. The success of The Curfew, therefore, will affect more than just Channel 4's funding allocations - it makes a statement about what games can be in our society.

The game's message is... blunt. "Appreciate and protect your rights: don't allow government scare tactics to infringe upon them". Government propaganda is where Gillen seems to find most pleasure, and the assorted ads and TV spots are entertaining, if lacking subtlety. The truth is that he could have pulled right back and allowed the inventive and intelligent world design to speak for him. The gamification of society, the citizen ranks and censorship are all sharply developed and presented, and it's telling that the most interesting environment of the entire chapter is the Smiley Burger fast food joint where we're allowed to witness and engage with the world rather than simply be told about it.

It is, perhaps, far easier to identify the educational merit in the team's previous historical offering, Bow Street Runner. However, while there's hope further chapters might engage more thoroughly with the issues being thrown about, it feels like the real intention of the project was not so much to dissect the topics of liberty and government as it is to spur involvement and conversation amongst an audience that otherwise might see politics as irrelevant.

While the broadsheet readers are unlikely to find the same level of political commentary here they might expect from competing film or literature - this is no 1984 - this is no small step in the right direction. I've written before about subtext in games - or lack thereof - and everyone involved ought to be congratulated for daring to produce a game whose central selling point is not its visuals, nor the number of guns it has, but its heartfelt and topical message.

The Dialogue System
For me, The Curfew's greatest success in gameplay terms is its dialogue system, which forms a focal point of the entire experience - although anything that isn't a dialogue tree automatically gets points in my book. The goal you're set is to interview the four characters in order to establish who can be trusted with the vital data capsule in your possession. Dialogue outside of main interactions is standard fare, and even the central conversations - in which you're able to ask a series of three questions - are simply presented.

Despite this, you may be surprised just how much the experience is rejuvenated by the need to actually consider which questions you ask based on genuine, common sense considerations. Gone are endless euphemisms for 'Tell me more', there are no transparent 'good', 'neutral', 'evil' paths; it's all a case of directing the conversation in order to work out who's reliable. Asking the boy whether he's used tags (a sort of virtual message board) before, you're required to justify your question - if you just wanted to know a bit more about the world you lose points; concern over his expertise wins them.

The system isn't brilliantly explained - it's unclear why asking probing questions gains their trust, or to what end you'd want it - and once you get the hang of it it's pretty straight forward stuff; but it never felt unfair. The simple fact that the dialogue system presents a challenge renders it (potentially, if the complexity was scaled up) more engaging and more real than any we've seen in a Bioware product.

In Closing
Reading back through, I've raised a lot of negatives that perhaps make it sound as if I didn't enjoy The Curfew. I did. More important, though, is what it represents. It represents the beginnings of interactive entertainment as an accepted form of intelligent expression. LittleLoud, Kieron Gillen and - perhaps most of all - Channel 4, deserve all the support we can give them.

Monday 2 August 2010

Vigilante Geek Justice

Quick one this. Since I started tweeting (BTW, follow me, natch!) I've barely had time to read a thing on it - and I'm only following 50 people; I think that's going to prove my cap. This said, I'm thoroughly glad I got on there for a number of reasons:

- A* for networking (with studios, other writers and, of course, the ever lovely consumer)
- Posting little things that aren't worth a blog
- Not talking about what I had for breakfast
- Finding things like this

Bitch_Slap_Vengeance's reddit post is now numbering in the thousands of replies as he documents blow by blow his attempts to reclaim his stolen computer using Logmein to take control of the PC in the thieves' home - this was just so worth a blog instead of a retweet. So far he's got everything including MySpace details, and has wound up going on a 'wardrive' to identify the culprit's house. Quite what he must have looked like cruising through a dodgy neighborhood with that thing strapped to the roof I don't know, but time will tell.
"wardrive #3 update BIG NEWS 6:34 PM (day 3) update 12: I've been outside their house. I know where they live. I will claim what is MINE."
Check it out.

Incidentally, while I'm on the topic of Twitter, here's the observation that finally made me realise it was 100% worth getting sucked in: if you want to get in touch with someone important, email, LinkedIn or any other option is very direct; with Twitter, you can reply something intelligent to something that person has said, meaning they'll get familiar with your name as it pops up in their feed, and you're more likely to garner a response because of the casual nature of the enterprise - it's networking in a can.