One week ago I came within a gnat's whisker of getting blown up. I was due to fly out of Moscow's Domodedovo airport the day of a major terrorist attack. The more hairy business by far was meeting Nikolay Dybowski (Founder, Lead Writer) and Aleksey Luchin (Programmer, Translator) of Ice Pick Lodge (Pathologic, The Void).
***UPDATE*** Snaps here
Friday 21st January 2011
5:30pm - The friends I'm staying with insist on taking time out from their recording session (check out
their version of Donizetti's / The Fifth Element's Diva Song at 27m10s
) to chaperon me to the irreputable central-Moscow bar where I'm meeting the guys.
5:50pm - I meet Nikolay on the way, he explaining candidly that a mistake on his part - the common games industry one of moving to posh offices then realising you can't pay the bills - has left the core team of seven or so working from a flat in the Moscow outskirts.
6pm - OGI Club is good. They have a free cloakroom and free music and expensive vodka. Although everywhere in Moscow has both the former and the latter: it's -15 degrees Celsius outside. Nikolay is the quieter, more intense of the pair (as you might expect of Pathologic's creator); he opens every sentence with your name yet rarely looks at you, and you know that when he does speak it's for good reason. Alex is a talkative multilingual; passionate and eloquent.
6:20pm - The guys spell out in no uncertain terms that they'd love me to take a pass at the English script on Cargo
, their next release. Specifically they're talking about a batch of arrhythmic poetry inspired by (seemingly oxymoronically) both Marat/Sade
. I order a Baltika beer to avoid the vodka and the guys order more Russian food than I know what to do with.
6:40pm - My vodka avoidance doesn't last long. Alex is out due to a recent operation, so Nikolay pours out two shots from a half litre carafe then watches patiently until I down mine. He refills our glasses and the process repeats. Our first toast is mine: to Ice Pick Lodge, and making some of the most exciting games ever made.
7pm - We talk about the tribulations of getting good stuff into commercial games. This covers my claim that a lot of my job involves sneaking good writing into games while convincing the publisher it's just about blowing shit up, and Nikolay's efforts to allow children to die in Pathologic by officially considering them midgets. The guys seem genuinely surprised and pleased to hear that there are games writers who care about art.
8pm - I have eaten a lot of dumplings and steak, and about ten large shots of vodka. We have not yet talked any business. The guys suggest relocating to their 'HQ' in Kuzminky. On the metro Nikolay starts singing "What shall we do with the Russian sailor". We also buy a £2 pack of cigars flavoured with cherry and talk about Cargo. The game is based heavily around Airat Zakirov's (Founder, Lead Programmer) physics and vehicle customisation engine; it's smaller in scale than the studio's previous output; and it's at least sort of aimed at kids.
9pm - We arrive at the HQ, a two bed flat 45 mins out of town where we find one man hard at work on delivering the beta, and the studio's intern (and Alex's girlfriend), a cute and inordinately shy girl called Nisa. I call my friends and when they hear which part of town I'm in they ask if I trust the guys I'm with and whether anyone's asked to 'borrow' my passport.
9:15pm - We decide it's best I look at the game before we start drinking the homemade absinthe. Over a cup of chi I play through the opening level of Cargo. Large sections of the story are filled in by Nikolay and Alex as I progress. The core game seems like a simple (if sumptuous) explore 'em up, and I only get limited time with the vehicle design system, but the snippets of allegory arriving in my ear give me hope for the final script: this a world where the gods have replaced imperfect humanity with a race of altruistic ubermenchen, who turn out to be mindless midgets that must be kicked ad infinitum. They would ideally like me to do the work while I'm here in time for their deadline in two days. I explain this may be pushing it but that I can do it to a higher standard once I get home.
10:15pm - We celebrate our collaboration with sambuca. I try to suggest we light it in our mouths like we did when we were 18, but we do it the proper way, burnt in the glass with a coffee bean. We have entirely failed to discuss rates, deadlines or any kind of logistical concern.
11pm - Home made absinthe comes in three different flavours. Against my better judgement I sample all of them while someone goes out to buy sugar so we can make traditional cocktails.
11:30pm - Against all the odds I think I am outdrinking the Russians. Alex's post-op fears have gone down with the absinthe, and Nikolay has started swaying and telling "It's bloody cold in Russia" stories. My favourite involves a man who runs to the shops at midnight in Siberia and is terrified when he hears the devil's hooves clanking behind him. He gets home and realises the clanking was coming from his sock-clad feet which have frozen solid. "The funny thing is," says Nikolay, "he had to have them amputated two weeks later."
Saturday 22nd January 2011
12am - Having finally worked out how to do the absinthe cocktails properly (stick the sugar lump on a fork, douse it in booze, then melt it with a lighter over the glass) the drinking games begin.
12:30am - We talk about Ice Pick's next project (Cargo's deadline is in the next few weeks). It's a kind of bildungsroman charting the lives of a large number of characters over a great space of time. This alone makes it fascinating. There's unsubstantiated talk of applying the dynamic interaction of something like Minecraft to narrative. There's also reference to a great play as central inspiration. And I could tell you more - Ice Pick is the only professional developer I know not to bother with NDAs - but I'm not going to.
1am - I have missed my last metro. The guys insist I don't get a cab and sleep on the sofa bed in the main room instead. By way of bargaining they produce a Russian copy of the Penumbra trilogy and get me to sign it (I wrote something naff like "Fucking relieved you enjoyed the games"). They also tell me about the only Penumbra easter egg that I'm aware of, hidden somewhere deep inside The Void.
1:30am - Everyone apart from Nisa and I has fallen over at least once. I decide now is the time to discuss logistics. I try to extract Nikolay from conversation but everyone joins in and it turns out Ice pick has an open business policy anyway. I look around the flat and ask straight up whether Ice Pick can afford to pay for the work. Of course they can. They ask my rates and I tell them it's probably best they just make me an offer. They ask again, I tell them, and they gawp and offer me half in a pleading kind of voice. Developers don't negotiate with me enough.
1:40am - I wind up telling the guys that it's studio's like theirs that make me want to stay in our industry and that it would be an honour to work with them. We agree that I'll do the requested scripts for a small set fee and take a full playthrough of the rest of the script on a royalties basis. I do not necessarily expect this approach to prove profitable. We shake hands and drink some more.
2am - Alex and Nisa go to bed (they live here), Nikolay walks home, and I'm left on the sofa bed in the half light of the glowing computer screen where a lone developer continues tapping away at the beta.
2:15am - Nikolay inexplicably crashes through the front door, produces a sleeping bag and lies down on the floor next to the sofa bed. I check to see if his feet have frozen over. They have not.
5am - I wake up to hear Nikolay singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor" in his sleep.
11am - My alarm goes off. I am not as hungover as I should be, something Alex swore last night would be down to the absinthe. Everyone else is comatose. I shake Nikolay, realising this is the first business meeting I've had where I end up sleeping with the CEO. He wakes up and insists on walking me to the metro.
11:30am - Nikolay explains that he remembers agreeing to collaborate on Cargo but that he has forgotten the terms. I remind him. He seems a little surprised, but happy all the same. He tells me he'd like to meet again before I leave in a couple of days. I suggest coffee this time.
Monday 24th January 2011
10pm - After some haphazard communication I have agreed to meet Nikolay and Alex in a bar in the centre of town. I dimly recall something about coffee but put it from my mind. I meet Alex and a bunch of other Ice Pick regulars, but no Nikolay. Turns out he's not answering his phone. Alex tells me he's glad we've reached a compromise on the writing. I ask him what compromise that is. He tells me it turns out he's not bad at writing arrhythmic poetry and that it's a shame we won't be working together but hopefully next time. I have sad face and confused face in equal measure.
10:10pm - I sign a man's chest.
10:15pm - We establish that Ice Pick's internal communication is not of the most consistent and that I am probably still working on the project. I resolve to get in touch with Nikolay once I'm home.
10:30pm - One of the guys looses his wallet, I've not yet had a beer, and the evening starts losing its gusto.
10:45pm - Alex walks me to the metro, talking about an indie project he's just about to kick off. I try to draw some last minute action points so that something actually gets done. We shake hands and I say goodbye to Ice Pick Lodge.