Friday 19 October 2012

Ir/rational Investigator Heads to IGF 2013

This is, of course, no guarantee that it will actually arrive there. All the same, 3am this morning marked the deadline for this year's Independent Games Festival, and the Ir/rational team were unsurprisingly working up to the wire. It's been worth all the ball-ache of learning about ad-hoc dev profiles, text blitters and orientation bugs because finally we have a decently representative vertical slice. Finally we know where we're going with the game, and we can show people. I shall do so...!

Rick's Office - serves as the HQ, and highly adaptable - the room reflects progress in the story.

The game map. The first episode will feature 3-4 such map screens, each with unique locations and characters.

The tone of the game is tongue in cheek.
So we've currently got about 20 minutes of gameplay. Over the next couple of months I'll be designing the remaining puzzles (the rough plot is already in place) with a view to releasing the first episode Some time in Q1 2013.

You can read more about Ir/rational Investigator at Steam Greenlight. Although Imre of Bossa Studios had a play the other day and said it was a "great idea, but shakey implementation" - so don't get too excited, because he knows his stuff!

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Interview: Blendo Games on Quadrilateral Cowboy

Brendon Chung of Blendo Games has been responsible for some of the smartest, most varied and distinct indie games of the last few years, including Gravity Bone, Flotilla, Atom Zombie Smasher and Thirty Flights of Loving. I caught up with Brendon at PAX last month where he was exhibiting his new game, Quadrilateral Cowboy.

So, to start us off, tell us a little about your new game.

Sure. It's a cyber-punk 20th century 1980s low-tech hacking game.

Excellent. I've played it, I love it, it's I think my favourite game here. So your games, more than most, are incredibly varied. You've done a turn-based space sim, a zombie strategy game, more surreal things... and now you're doing a first-person stealth hack'em up. Is that a conscious decision on your part to try to nail as many genres as you can, or is it just the way it happens?

I'm not trying to nail as many genres as I can, it's more me trying to get out of my comfort zone. I'm a big fan of when people get out of their comfort zone and do something they're not used to doing. I love seeing when dramatic actors do comedies, I love seeing when comedians do dramatic roles. So for me, that's why. Flotilla was my first turn-based strategy game. I thought - I might as well give it a shot, see what happens.

So there's a theme across a number of your games and it's certainly got a surreal feel to it. How much of that is because you want to have control of your world, how much of that is to give you leeway in the gameplay, is it your style, is it just the way it comes out - tell us what goes on behind that.

So these are just things that I'm interested in like when I read books or watch movies... Woody Allen or the Coen brothers, they influence me a lot in that they have these worlds that are real, but at the same time be wildly fantastic about them.

OK. We talked yesterday about the writing. You said you wanted to keep the text in the new game minimal if even non-existent outside of the computer terminal system that you use; but I got the impression that you like to write, even if you like to keep it out of the games. Tell us a bit about your relationship with the writing.

Yeah, so I love reading, I was a film major in college and writing was one of the things I most enjoyed doing. But then when I play video games I am the type of player that skips past all the text bubbles and cutscenes because if I want to read a good story I will pick up a good book. So I feel like games are best served when  you're interacting with them, not reading pages of text. Although I will say, Planescape: Torment - best game ever made.

I love in that game because they didn't have that detailed animation it was prose, right? You know, "So and so looks at you with a steely gaze and says...". Seems very strange nowadays. So playing Cowboy, you've obviously got a world that functions according to a set of rules, and I love that because it makes the world feel more thorough. It feels real because everything functions independently, you put some stuff int he level and then it goes off and does its stuff, just like in the real world. How do you go about conceptualising that world and what do you think the game rules bring to the game? 

Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone are very narrative based, very experimental in terms of story. This one's the opposite of that. It's about really high player agency, letting the player run around a simulated cyber-punk world. I was kind of inspired by... Recently I've been a simulation kid. Games I've really liked have been Day Z, Dwarf Fortress, and those are games where it's just pure simulation and they let people be creative within them. That's something I want to support.

I went to the Erik Wolpaw and Tim Schafer talk earlier today about gameplay vs story and someone asked Tim, "How do you feel about games that express their meaning through mechanics rather than pre-authored script?" and he was kind of quite dismissive about it.

In what way?

Something like: "When I interact with a piece of art I feel like I'm communicating with another person, and if all I have is a bunch of mechanics and no pre-authored story then there's no communication." It sounds like you're saying the opposite and I think I'd probably be on your side. Um... that's not really a question...

*Laughs* Yeah, what games I feel excel in is interactivity, and being able to crunch a billion numbers behind the scenes. So an authored story is a form a lot of media can do, but player generated stuff - that's what's so unique to video games. 

Well done, it's almost like I fed you that. One more question . Stealth. I love it, I think you must enjoy it.

Thief is my favourite game of all time. Next to X-Com.


I like that it makes you roleplay a certain type of character. I think a lot of games now you're some muscle-bound guy and have 20 guns strapped to your back and that's fun, I enjoy that. but I like having variety in my gameplay, so when I played Thief I suddenly played this guy who had one hit point and a guard just looked at me the wrong way and I would drop dead. I'm hiding in a corner and I'm breathing shallowly and hoping he doesn't see me. There's something wonderful about that experience.

Good answer. Brendon, thank you.

You can keep up with Blendo here, and Quadrilateral Cowboy right here.

Monday 1 October 2012

Guest Post: Speech v Silence - Why Less is More

Hi there. I’m Will Swarbrick. I used to write stuff for Gamer's Guide to Life, SystemLink, and a few bits and pieces that are forever lost in the wastelands of the internet. Before my new life as a History student in the Midlands commences, and in a bid to make a break in this topsy-turvy industry, Mr. Jubert has kindly given me the opportunity to discuss something of a growing concern; as scripts for games balloon and burgeon, dwarfing their cinema counterparts, story and narrative is becoming a greater focus for game developers - but story isn't all about speech. Sometimes, the best narratives are those crafted with complete silence.

The brilliant Critical Path series has contained within its star-studded vaults enough groundbreaking philosophy and astounding psychology (as well as a healthy dose of pomposity) to make any gamer duck and cover for all the ideas flying over their heads. However, one video stood out for me. While previous talking heads spoke of the importance of extracting real emotion from players, Joseph Staten, Director of Cinematics for the Halo series (not to be confused with Joseph Stalin, Director of Mass Murder for the USSR) came out with:

"I don't want to play a game that makes people cry[...] I wanna make a game that makes me go 'Yeah! Did you see what I did to that guy! That was so good'. Maybe it's challenging to make you cry...but games that make you jump up out of your chair and beat your chest - when was the last time a movie or book made you do that?”

The man has a point. Roger Ebert's dismissal of games as an art form by asking the question 'Has a game ever made anyone cry?' seems to have struck a nerve with the gaming community, and now the great gold rush is for a game that grabs your emotion gland and forces those salty tears to stain your controller. While there are a plethora of brilliant games that can manifest a lump in your throat, just spamming a cinema screen with pictures of dying puppies and Instagram'd sunsets is enough to get the waterworks going and probably evoke a numinous experience or two. Staten’s point is that games are a unique medium, with the ability to summon up a greater range of emotions than your average silver screen flick. To make you, in this example, sad because of the actions of others seems facile in comparison to conjuring others feelings games are inimitable in creating - such as unadulterated joy or fist-bumping success from your own actions and decisions, from saving the known universe.

But it goes further than that - unlike the fixed and eternal stories in the cinema, players of video games don't need to be guided and channelled through a set narrative. The finger-slicing scene in Heavy Rain sure was a brilliantly sickening and horrific piece, but felt more like a slightly interactive movie than a game. Often, the best narratives and strongest feelings stem purely from the player's free will, without the guidance of a linear fable. Mass Effect 2 was a game I struggled to get involved with for the same reason friends adored it; the world was thick with story. It was far too heavy with speech - jogging around the cityscapes of outer space, it felt like I was wading through a sea of deafening dialogue. Every few steps I was ambushed by a sidequest here and a dialogue tree there, barely able to move for the various narratives that blocked my path like a paperback Snorlax. There was no space for my imagination to sprint free and start to pilot my playthrough, for me to attempt to suspend cynical disbelief and imagine myself as part of this world - I was simply being ushered through futuristic corridors without any real input of my own, spare for the choice between a snarky response or a kind reply.

Oddly enough, it was Limbo, a game tightly glued to x-axis, that offered me the most freedom. There are no sweeping monologues or tomes of text - not a whimper or a whisper. Not a single word is uttered during the whole experience, and it's all the more engaging for it. Why is there a gargantuan spider chasing a hungry-eyed boy? Why do a group of kids attempt to spear our hero? What the hell happened to the hotel? By providing a springboard for an active imagination to roam, the game allows the player's mind to fill in the narrative gaps and blanks.

Could any linear narrative capture the magic of Skyrim when stumbling across a giant swiping at a dragon as mudcrabs nibble away at his toes, before your Thu'um stains the sky charcoal as bolts of lightning stab all those below? Could a planned and penned quest evoke more emotion than John Marston being abruptly ambushed in the middle of the desert, a volley of revolver shots scorching the landscape with piercing roars, only for all to fall deathly quiet as your attackers bleed onto the dust? Or, hey, jump in a Police Cruiser in GTA IV and become a vigilante to see my point. These personal moments are so unique and unexpected that they hit much harder than normal narratives. Sometimes, all that's needed to tell a great story is whole lot of atmosphere and a pinch of imagination.