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.