Monday 25 April 2011

ir/rational Upgrade: Call For Artists

Last year I released my indie-sentence-logic-philosophical-dark-comic-text-adventure, ir/rational. It was picked up by some nice people and saw some reasonable downloads.

I'm currently in the process of completing a second personal development, as well as converting ir/rational to flash and giving it a lick of paint. One of my goals on the original game was to include some kind of visual reference, be it graphic novel style scenes, dynamic backgrounds, or just some simple sketches between levels to add flavour. It's something I'd like to add to the new version.

If anyone would like to volunteer to turn out between 3-10 images I'd to love to hear from you - you'll have full control over style and workload. The game has always been not for profit, but this particular project (unlike many indies) does at least give you the opportunity to play through the full game in advance of signing on, and the guarentee it's actually going to get released in the next month or so.

If you're interested, mails to the usual place.

Thanks a lot.

Friday 22 April 2011

Cargo: A Quest For Gravity is Out Now!

In typically unceremonious (not to mention entirely unmarketed) fashion, Ice Pick Lodge have finally released their latest title, Cargo: A Quest For Gravity. It's £15 on Steam. I provided Ice Pick a treatment on elements of their script, and you can read more about that elsewhere in the blog. For now, though, I recommend you go buy Cargo - these guys deserve all the support they can get (plus I might get paid).

Tuesday 19 April 2011

GLaDOS is Here

My impressions of Portal 2 so far (no spoilers).

The first five minutes are very promising indeed. The 'art appreciation' and the other interactions you're asked to perform are inventive and provide context for the story - even if some of them are a touch predictable.

The rest of the game is... less of a jump forward in narrative than I was hoping. Gameplay? Sure: there's more of it, it's more complicated, tick that box. But the original Portal held some of the sharpest, funniest, darkest writing we've seen in any game... well, ever, and I wanted that format to be built on.

The reality is that this game (up to where I am, what I'd guess is at least 2/3 though) uses that exact same structure: enter a test chamber, listen to your handler (in the first game, GlaDOS, here a number of characters), complete test, listen to handler, head to next test. In short, the Portal series already had strong character nailed down - I wanted to see that level of intelligence applied to a plot.

Sure, there's more going on here, but not a whole lot. You have two overarching objectives throughout the game, and they're basically the same one - the rest of the time it's finding excuses to put you in test chambers. You learn a lot about the facility, but nothing really surprising or meaty. The environmental clues that made up the bulk of the plotting in the first game return, but they worked better in the more minimalist original whose three hour playtime made the slightest sign of life or chance for escape seem big and important.

I wanted Portal 2 to affect me in ways beyond laughing. I wanted to be told a story, or to be taught a lesson, or to feel the drama. The heavy emphasis on comedy, and the fact characters are almost always talking about things entirely unrelated to the plot relegates their role to flavour rather than content.

Now, I've not finished yet. And I'm not saying this is not a GREAT game. It is. It remains superbly written, polished, intelligent, and bigger. But for me, Valve are refusing to push the bar in the one area I really want to see them try.

Monday 18 April 2011

Why Game Endings Suck

An oldy but a goody. The reasons game endings suck (for the most part, naturally) has been documented before, but I wanted to think about it from a specifically narrative perspective.

So. Game endings suck because they're often the last thing developed, there's no budget left, everyone's exhausted and most players never see them anyway. It strikes me that there are two main things wrong with that picture: why do most players never see the end, and why is no one talking about story?

First off, I'm a big proponent of shorter games. Reviews spend a lot of time stressing how much value you're getting, and I can understand that, but by reducing the equation to "10 hours' playtime = £30" we're in danger of promoting bad design. It's been written about before, but frankly I would take 3 hours of Portal for £50 before I'd pay a tenner for 100+ hours of RPG grind; and I'd take 20 hours of Mass Effect 2 over 40 hours of Dragon Age.

Take a look at Uncharted 2 (I know, not a PC game?!). It's got some of the highest production values I've ever seen in a game, yet it still feels the need to pad out its playtime with cardboard cutout baddies with ever increasing hit points. The result is a denouement that lacks the spectacle, script and fun of the rest of the game - for the sake of an extra hour or two of guff. It's a vicious circle: players demand more mid-game content, that content gets diluted, fewer people bother getting to the end, and so more attention gets paid to the mid-game.

But apart from cutting all the filler, how do we succeed in delivering a satisfying conclusion in a medium where most of our audience never gets to the end?

- Don't have an ending. Some of the strongest narrative experiences are generated dynamically in games like SimCity or The Sims.
- Have lots of endings. Games like Weird Worlds or Atom Zombie Smasher encourage short, one hour game sessions, yet manage to maintain an unfolding sense of drama as multiple playthroughs are completed.
- Force the ending. Short of letting go of the controller, you pretty much cannot play Heavy Rain for more than seven or eight hours with seeing the conclusion.

Ultimately, though, I think there's a key problem with the way we're looking at the ending: we're looking at it from a gameplay perspective, not a narrative one.

What meaning does an 'ending' have within the concept of gameplay? It's not an absolute thing - most games encourage further play after they've officially ended in the form of new challenges, multiplayer, or plain pissing about. Perhaps it ought to be looked at as a question of scale, of increasing spectacle; but then games always increase in scale and spectacle as a matter of course - they seem to be able to up the ante throughout the experience, but so often fall flat when that spectacle is asked not to continue rising, but to reach a peak. It's that peak that late development often struggles to surmount.

But that peak's also responsible for the embarrassing-we-still-have-to-talk-about-it end of game boss. It genuinely numbs my brain that so many intelligent and well made games are still content to reduce the conclusions of their dramatic stories to pumping a big blue guy full of bullets. But when you look at a conclusion in a gameplay context, what choice do you have? You can't just throw more baddies at the player, but you can't throw no baddies at the player, so you need to deliver something different. Like, I don't know, a big orange guy with a glowing bald spot.

If we take another look at this from a narrative perspective, though, perhaps we need to ask "Why have a gameplay-related close at all?" I hark on about tying gameplay and story together, but if doing so in this case means taking all those fantastic, polished mechanics that worked throughout the game and throwing them out for big blue balls with his 1,000HP over there, what's the point?

An ending is a story concern. I think that if we as developers learnt to trust the gameplay and the narrative to do their respective jobs then delivering more of the same in the case of the former could be rendered satisfying by applying the time and budget to ensuring the latter imbues that gameplay with conclusive meaning. Portal's final boss - from a puzzle gameplay perspective - was rubbish. But the story lifted it to a satisfying conclusion. The endings to the first two Penumbra games were the elements I was most proud of, but they used the gameplay in only cursory ways.

One of my favourite tips when I was learning to write was "Start at the start, and keep writing until you're done." It sounds bloody stupid, but what it means is that you don't need to worry about artificially constructing lead ins and outs to your story. If you just worry about writing it then those things will take care of themselves.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Is Art a Modern Religion?

This is another one of those 'WTF does that have to do with games?' posts. It's about questioning the value of art. You can find more philosophising here.

I'm due to go back to school. Starting September I'm aiming to enrol on the Philosophy MA at King's College, London. Somewhere at the back of my mind a doctorate is calling. For now, though, I'm very happy writing games and this course will just be a part-time thing to keep my brain alive. With that in mind, I'm trying to get back into gear by turning out some essays. This is one. Some notes before we start:

- I have a BA in philosophy, but I've never studied any aesthetics. I may be saying things that are painfully obvious, or got debunked centuries ago.

- If you're already au fait with objective and subjective values, and with art being the latter, you can safely skip to 'What is art?'

- This essay assumes the reader accepts religion as false. Some of the arguments are based on this belief.

- There's a too long, didn't read at the end.

On with the show!

Is Art a Modern Religion?

Art bares remarkably many of the hallmarks of a religion. Is its value something we've been conditioned to accept unquestioningly?

Defining the word 'art'
Clearly the word itself, 'art', is one whose definition has never ceased to be turbulent. For the purposes of this discussion I'll use it to refer to any thing, manmade or otherwise, which can be considered valuable beyond any practical purpose. This would cover - as I see it - anything that's ever been considered 'art', including music, photography, video games; a car chassis, a woodland clearing, or a building.

There's usually a further conversation to be had over which of these emotive things carry artistic value (often the painting or the opera), and which are 'merely' aesthetically valuable (eg blue wallpaper or a shiny watch strap). This is not a distinction I'm concerned with right now. For now when I refer to art, I refer most specifically to that pursuit a great many great people have dedicated their lives to creating, promoting, and assessing: the creation of art for art's sake.

Already, I think, we've hit a number of telling notes. We know that art is something which people - often unquestioningly, fanatically and otherwise to their own detriment - consider to be of utmost importance in their lives. Art is something we are all intimately aware of, but struggle to pin down. It is something we fight over (albeit in a far more subdued way than religion). Art is something on which we attempt to proliferate our own perspective at the expense of opposing movements. It is something which pervades every element of our society, be it the Dali design on Chupa Chups lollies or the carefully choreographed cutlery on a fine dining table.

Art is perceived as a 'real' value
Obviously I'm not seeking to question the existence of the things which we call art, in just the same way I would not seek to claim it impossible that someone called Jesus said some persuasive things at some point. Clearly paintings and books exist. My concern is the perceived value behind those things - namely, is there any true value to them, or like god is that value an invention of the psychethat makes the world a bit more bearable?

Art is something the most of us would take for granted as being in some intrinsic and timeless way fundamental to human existence. Specific examples aside, its value as a whole is something whose reality tends not be open to question. Crucially, therefore, artistic value is something with the ability to propel us through life in directions entirely unsupported by any rational facts.

Monday 4 April 2011

How to be a Good Freelancer

This post originally went up at GAMESbrief to promote their new freelancer database.

Sorry for the header.

In promotion of his new freelancer database, Nicholas Lovell asked me to share what I know about freelancing for anyone who's maybe looking to make the shift. I've been contracting as a games writer for almost five years, and relying on it as my main source of income for the latter half of that time. Over the years it's more often than not been running a good business - rather than any direct correlation between ability and job offers - that's kept me in work.

Securing Work
- Network. I'm not going to repeat all the usual advice. You know how to network. A lot of the jobs aren't sitting on bulletin boards; they're sitting in the bar waiting for you to buy them a pint and tell them about the fascinating / appalling lecture you've just seen. I'm also going to include obvious stuff here like get your name out there, maintain a professional website, blog etc.

- Research standard industry rates for your services, and be confident pitching them (ideally only once you've seen a full brief for the project). Be prepared to engage in and even encourage negotiation. In my experience many devs don't always bother; whether that's a business etiquette thing or a case of it being easier just to get quotes from a bunch of freelancers and chose the best, I don't know. Either way it's a shame, because very few of us are in this industry to make our millions: usually if someone comes to me with a project I want to work on we're able to find a rate and schedule that keeps everyone happy.

- Always meet face to face as soon as possible. There's no great psychology in observing that people form better connections when they've sat in a room together complaining about the red ring of death for half an hour while the tech department finds a new Xbox.

- Stay in touch. Develop an address book of people who might send work your way (either now or in new roles in the future, ie almost everyone). If you publish a new game, start a relevant new endeavour, or have anything valuable to say, send them a note. I wouldn't do this more than a few times a year, if that - spam is bad - but lots of people will hopefully consider you a genuinely valuable contact, even if they don't necessarily send you a fantastic job immediately.

On the job
- Under promise, over deliver. It's an old freelancer thing, but it'll save you being the dreaded British builder who always winds up charging 100% more than he quoted. Adjust your guarentees against how good you are at estimating workloads. You'll have to use judgement on when a client is looking for a lower quote, but most of the time if you can develop a reputation for delivering on time, and even early, you're golden.

- Find the balance between the client's expectations and your own expertise. What you think the audience wants and what the client thinks don't always coincide. You've been hired to do what you're told, certainly, but you've also been hired to make their game as strong as you possibly can. Learn to let go of the small battles, justify your decisions when you hold your ground, and be prepared to be overruled without losing the smile. You're all on the same team.

Finally, always keep the producer happy. Always, always deliver on time. Stay one step ahead of the needs of the developer. Stay in contact as much as possible. The company hires you because you make life easier: they get to know what they're getting, when they're getting it and how much it's going to cost. You probably cost more than an in-house equivalent would, so you're the one guy who can't get away with deadline slippage. Producers are often overworked. They have a dozen other freelancers like you to manage. If you're the one guy they never have to hassle over a deadline they're going to hire you again.

Friday 1 April 2011

Ice Pick Lodge Snaps

A while ago I documented my haphazard time over in Moscow with Ice Pick Lodge. I've since provided them a script polish, and Cargo - as far as I'm aware - is now all but ready. I know the guys must at least have gotten past the big shifts because Alex had the time to process and fire over the snaps from the trip. Here they are in all their glory, in case you don't believe me.

 This is shortly after I arrived in the bar. You can smoke inside!
Nisa (Ice Pick's intern) and I in the HQ kitchen. It took about twenty minutes to convince her to pose for this.

That's an absinthe cocktail sitting on the table. I think.

Alex and I. Aren't we gruff?

I signed a man's chest. In a bar. With actual people watching.