Friday 21 February 2014

What Did FTL's Use of Slavery Say to You? (Video)

In December I did a short talk at the annual IGDA/BAFTA Games Writing Panel, along with cohorts Andy Walsh, James Swallow and Ed Stern. The theme was something to do with the unique demands of interactivity on story, and after reading this post I decided slavery in FTL was the ideal topic. I was interested to think and talk about the creative and moral responsibilities we have as game designers who put out products with unsavory events therein, and how interactivity blurs those lines.

There's some further discussion below, but for now here's the full vid. Apologies for unprofessional lighting / camera angles etc. You can download the slides here.

So it's worth noting first that in front of a crowd I play things up a bit, including how chaotic development really was, because when I say anything positive about anything that I've worked on my first instinct is to immediately self-deprecate.

The truth is that the extent of FTL's planning was largely a factor hidden from me, occurring as it did in the years Justin and Matt were working away at the game before I came onboard. There wasn't no plan; there just wasn't the sort of extensive pre-production narrative design that laid out exactly what we were shooting for that I obsess over on other projects.

Here's what Justin said to me after watching the vid:
"While it's true that the overarching vision of the "story we wanted to tell" was not planned or scripted, this was not something that was due to lack of time or planning - it was entirely intentional. You may recall all the times you wanted to add more focused storyline or mini-stories that take place in events but we consistently tried to hold you back. In retrospect I wish we had made things more ambiguous and abstract. The fact that players could end up with a single crew member, wondering if this person would really want to continue the mission (while not a specific scenario we predicted) was the type of experience that we knew would only be possible if we left a lot of things unsaid."
Matt writes:
"I, like Justin, also wish we were a little more ambiguous with everything by the end. I went digging for an email or something where I voiced my original vision. This snippet with a friend is the closest I could find:
August 8th - 2011 (~5 months into development)

Anton: feel kinda bad murdering them
me: they aren't necessarily supposed to be menacing
me: they aren't supposed to be evil
Anton: oho, cause they seem to engage me without any warning every time...
me: it's a political conflict that you're on the other side of
me: that doesn't make them evil
me: you could be evil
While I think we could have done more to bring this kind of ambiguity to the fore, it warms me that FTL has this kind of philosophy at its core. In the talk I say something like, "As game designers... we have a responsibility that the options we provide the players deliver a coherent message", and this is what I'm talking about.

Matt writes:
"Part of me would argue that our message is coherent: the player's situation is terrible and war is horrific which can drive someone to do morally questionable things. And through the beauty of an interactive medium, the player experiences it first hand. But part of me would say that we specifically set out not to have a message. We just present a series of systems and choices to the player, and they are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices without judgement from the designer."
The moment that you write an event for a game like FTL, you're taking some kind of political or ideological stance. Even if your objective is Matt's and Justin's - to present an amoral world and let the player make sense of it their own way - that in itself constitutes a stance of a sort. It says that politics, war and morality are very complex topics, and that decisions in such circumstances are rarely black and white. It says that you are the only one that can decide how you will behave. At the very least it is probably not the sort of stance you would take if your philosophy was one of extreme pacifism, because pacifism just isn't a viable path in that game.

For this reason, the conclusion of my talk was that it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game like this without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement - when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn't undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile. I'm pleased to say that I think FTL does some of that; but the point of the talk was that we can probably all do a little more of it.

There, I said something nice and I self-deprecated. Everybody's happy.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Plot is Gameplay's Bitch: Most Popular Posts

So here, because I saw another, better blog do it and it seemed like an easy way to generate content, is a quick rundown of the most popular posts on this blog from the last year... or so. This said, I've just noticed that when RPS does it it's a collection of other people's writing on their blog, which now makes me feel a bit self-conscious. I guess I'll just throw some classic interviews to help assuage my guilt.


1. FTL Advanced Edition Announcement - In case you missed it, more FTL, more Chris Avellone, more platforms. I have been playing this for the last four months. Out of fairness, I should mention this post is at the top mostly because Subset linked here from their announcement, so don't expect rocket science.

2. The Swapper Postmortem: What Went Right - The second part of this is still coming at some point. There are some announcements to make before then.

3. Little Inferno & Plato's Allegory of the Cave - I was hot off a Greek philosophy module and raring to go.

All Time

Technically the Ir/rational Redux walkthrough is the most popular post on this blog, but that's mostly newgrounds traffic.

1. What I did on Which Projects - I have literally no idea why this is the most popular post I have written. While I think a large part of my audience is probably people interested in the trade, I wrote other posts far more cynically targeted at you guys. Maybe if you clicked that link before you can tell me in the comments why? My best guess is it got picked up somewhere high traffic largely at random.

2. 10 Tips for Becoming a Games Writer - Like this one, right? I wrote this fully hoping it would pull in some hits (and do some good, naturally), and in fact most months it still nets more clicks than any other single post - but still not enough to pip the top spot.

3. A Voyage to Ice-Pick Lodge - I think the odd times that RPS picks me up probably contribute about a quarter of my all time clicks, and this was one example. It is, also, one of my favourite stories.

4. Top Indie Stealth Games - This is a bit out of date now, but it's still a sound list of 7 great stealth games you can play right now, despite what some of the text may tell you.

Top Interviews

1. Brian Mitsoda - He of 'Vampire Colon The Masquerade Hyphen Bloodlines' and Dead State, which is almost upon us despite being only just announced via the medium of time travel available to you by clicking the link.

2. Zachtronics - They of SpaceChem and Ironclad Tactics.

3. Chris Avellone - Enough said.

Honourable mention: Brendon Chung on Quadrilateral Cowboy. One of my absolute favourite developers, a fantastic game that's almost out, and this deserves your clicks right now.