Witcher, Skyrim and Fable – Feeling like a part of the world

I’ve been revisiting Witcher 3 recently, specifically the Blood and Wine dlc. It really is rather good – if you haven’t downloaded it I’d highly recommend you do, and if you haven’t played Witcher 3 go do that right now. No spoilers here though, so maybe you could read on first…

I used the word ‘revisiting’ in the first sentence very specifically. Playing Witcher does feel like visiting somewhere. To use a gaming cliche, it feels like a living, breathing world. But there’s nowhere near the level of interactivity of Fable 2. What’s that? I get to talk about Fable 2 some more? Well ok then…

Fable 2 is, hitherto, my favourite example of feeling like part of a gaming world. I’ve written about it before, repeatedly. Sorry. You’re able to use various emotes, from posing to growling to farting, which the people of Albion respond to in different ways. Some of them find burping disgusting, some find it funny. And depending on how you’ve behaved on your travels they may have a different response altogether. And if you’re fat they might call you Pie Eater. I love it. Witcher doesn’t have this though. On the surface, Witcher seems to have more in common with Skyrim than Albion. 

I find Skyrim to be a frustrating place. At the beginning of the game the responses you receive make a sort of sense. You’re a nobody and by and large people are standoffish towards you. But my character pursued the mage guild quests. He worked his way up the ranks to become the Dean of Winterhold College. The Dean. The head honcho. The wielder of the largest wand. His staff most definitely had a knob on the end. And yet. The way people greeted me, even in the college itself, didn’t change. I was still being hailed with the same stock lines about my honeyed words, being looked down on as a stranger. Skyrim is so immersive in many ways and really jarring in as many others.

The Witcher, like Skyrim has a pool of stock reactions with which the populace greet you. Every now and then there’s something a little more personal, but by and large there’s distrust. Fear. Hatred of the outsider. The lines may be better acted, but it seems similar to Skyrim. Last night I wandered past a village, and the whole populace were dancing around a fire. Some kind of fete was going on. I stumbled down the hill, eager to take part, but I couldn’t. Geralt doesn’t have those verbs. In Albion my hero could have danced around the fire, but Geralt and the Dragonborn have to look on and wonder. 

But then I realised. Geralt feels much more a part of the land than the Dragonborn does. And it’s very much because he is an outsider. He is sneered at by passers by, called the Butcher of Blavikenand much worse. And he always has been. He looks distinctive. Word spreads. He is a mutant and people have their opinions of that sort. Because Geralt feels like as much of an outsider as the player does, the world of Witcher 3 feels real.

Ok, I know I promised no spoilers, but since starting this piece I’ve played a little more and there’s something from the main quest that’s pertinent. So skip the next para to avoid SPOILERS.

There’s a moment when Regis asks Geralt whether, if he could start from the beginning again, he would want to become a Witcher or whether he would rather live a normal life. And the player gets to choose the response. It’s a great question and cuts right to the heart of this topic. Is Geralt satisfied with being the outsider? Is the player? Cursed to hear the same petty insults wherever you go, to never be allowed to join the dance… It’s probably the longest I’ve thought about a response in Witcher? The answer? To me, Geralt would want to be a Witcher again. He still feels like a part of the world, even if he is apart from most of it. And he gets to hang out with some pretty nifty sorceresses, so it’s not all bad.

End of spoilers.

It’s the synergy of player feeling and character feeling which enhances what is already an excellent game, and it’s in part the lack of that which has left me slightly cold (ahaha) about Skyrim (full disclosure: I’ve completed the main quest and more beside, and started a second character – so it’s not entirely without merit!).

Fable 2 and Witcher 3 are my favourite examples of immersive game worlds, but please recommend some more to me – it’s plainly something I respond to!

@BornToPootle

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Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.

@BornToPootle

VR and Forum Theatre

In Chekhov’s The Seagull a young, snobby playwright bemoans the old traditions of theatre. New forms, he calls out for. New forms he (spoiler) kills himself for. I think it’s time to take this naïf’s clarion cry into the videogame community.

I spoke on a previous episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast (plug cough splutter plug) about VR game The Circle and the exciting possibilities for roleplaying (in the purest sense of the genre) it presented. I’ve also written about games being more analogous to theatre than film. Now I get to combine the two topics!

I went to see a new play on Friday – Cathy, produced by Cardboard Citizens at The Pleasance (now touring). The first half of the evening was fairly standard: I sat in the audience and watched an interesting and affecting play, a sort of updated version of Cathy Come Home. It was a moving and provocative piece of work. After the interval however, there was a slightly different second half.

In fact the play had ended at the interval. The second half of the evening was thrown open to the audience to suggest different ways the main character could have behaved. This was a play about a mum and daughter (weeks away from GCSEs) being evicted and then falling through the cracks in the housing system. The challenge was thrown to the audience to try and spot the moments where Cathy could have done something different, tried another option.

Suggestions were tossed out for debate, from small delaying tactics when dealing with unruly landlords to names of charities and support groups to contact – there were a commendable number of people from said organisations in attendance. And then the extra twist. The play restarted. When an audience member had a suggestion, all they needed to do was shout ‘stop’, pop down to the stage, and take on the role of Cathy. The other actors would then react to the new direction of the scene. This isn’t something new – it’s called forum theatre – but it was my first time, despite training and working as an actor for a number of years. 

It was fascinating, and I was reminded more than once of Tim Schaeffer’s observation that writing adventure games is all about imagining the protagonist is drunk (see Shitfaced Shakespeare for a more literal translation of this on stage). Some alternatives sputtered an failed, others provided a glimmer more hope than that of the scripted drama. It was a piecemeal choose-your-own adventure. Kitchen sink drama where you could save and reload.

No one tried anything ‘dramatic’ – taking an estate agent hostage for publicity, going on a murder rampage – but that reminded me of my experience with The Circle. I was an actor playing a role. I could react how I liked and sometimes the world might react, sometimes everything would carry on just the same. Much like life.

In the brief demo of The Circle I tried at EGX I played as a trans woman recovering from a traumatic experience. I was effectively stuck in my flat in front of my computer and unable to move around. What was so exciting about that proposition wasn’t the immersive email replying, but the ability to get angry, in character, with the content of the email I was reading, and physically fling the empty bottles of beer surrounding me against the wall. In the demo that made no difference (apart from the most fundamental difference of course – my individual experience of the game), but when it’s complete it may impact on what happens later. If someone comes to check on me, the invalid, they’ll find a collection of smashed beer bottles. What will that do to their interactions with me? Or do I want to hide the evidence and collect the shards in the bin? The developer has big ideas in that direction.

So could this be a way for VR games to go? I really hope so. The games unveiled for PSVR so far all seem fairly standard. An amalgam of the usual suspects – a few Duck Hunt style target shooting titles, driving, shoot ’em up… Casual, if that’s a descriptor that suits. Isn’t this the time for role playing games to shine? True role playing, where you can try a scenario (whether it’s storming a castle or trying to claim benefits) in any way you see fit and have the immersive VR world adapt around you?

VR has yet to convert me, but if developers can harness it to bring us true roleplaying rather than a collection of reskinned novelties then maybe I’ll start to pay attention. Maybe there’ll be an upsurge in games actually about something more than instant gratification. Maybe we’ll have the new forms Konstantin raved about.

@BornToPootle 

No Man’s Game

I find myself on an undiscovered planet, bathed by a sickly yellow sun. The atmosphere is hazy, and all around me pustulant trees rise in the murk. 

I start to explore, keeping a watchful eye for indigenous wildlife. It doesn’t seem like the kind of planet where friendly creatures gambol and frolic.

As I crest a rocky ridge, a strangely unnerving vista comes into view. The pustulant trees, evil green globules attached to the rock by fleshy stalks, stretch off into the distance. Standing sentinel among them are other growths. Giant mushrooms, tower over the trees. Instead of a stalk, the cap sits atop a mass of tentacles. For a moment I think they’re moving, but perhaps it’s only a lone explorer’s imagination playing tricks. 

I hear a cry. There’s something alive here, but I can’t see it. Off in the distance, half hidden by a low hill and cluster of tentacled mushrooms, an ancient crumbling spire rises through the yellowed air. Some species made this place home long ago.

Toxic rain starts to fall as I set out for the ruin. My shielding will not last long and I’m forced to run through fleshy stalks and tentacles. 

The spire belongs to some kind of temple. Words crawl over the cyclopean ruins. My shielding has almost been burned away by the toxic rain so I don’t get a clear look. But I saw the word ‘Interloper’ repeated among many strange words I don’t recognise. I have the sense that the words may appear different depending on who’s looking. Were they speaking directly to me? Warning me?

I crash through a dilapidated archway and into the base of the spire. The pattering of deathly rain on stone is deafening. The cry comes again. Something is out there.

There are no stairs up the spire, but rotten floors have given way. I clamber up, floor by floor until I’m inside the cupola. Round windows look out, portholes on to this alien world. 

From this new vantage point I can see globulous trees and tentacled mushrooms stretching away in the toxic mire. Nothing can survive here, surely. I find myself feeling sorry for whatever species created this temple, wondering what elder gods it was meant to appease. It didn’t work.

The cry comes once more. I inch round the cupola and there! High in the sky, wheeling over this forsaken landscape are three creatures. They ride the currents on bat-like wings. They’re huge but far away. As they soar and circle I try and get a better look, try to see what kind of monster can call this place home, but it’s no good. They fly away on their ragged wings. 

Perhaps it’s just as well.

Or:

Landed on a new planet. A few trees. Another ruin. Nothing good to mine. No interesting animals. Toxic, so didn’t stay long. Waste of time.

No Man’s Sky – you get out of it what you put in.

This post relates to a discussion of narrative in games on the podcast I co-present. If you’re interested head here or look up The Conversation Tree Podcast on iTunes.

@BornToPootle

The Punchdrunk of Videogames

Hitman Theatre

On the debut episode of the new podcast I’m co-hosting (plug plug plug) I briefly touched on how the game Hitman reminds me of immersive theatre legends Punchdrunk. I’d actually written an article about the subject a few weeks beforehand and forgotten to publish it! Have a read below, and if you haven’t played Hitman or seen it in action, have a quick look at my attempt at a one-try, limited time mission, then read on:

I had the great pleasure of seeing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man a couple of times when it was on in London. It was a revelation – truly immersive theatre. A building had been stuffed with interesting, weird, David Lynchian things going on for me (and a lot of other people) to explore as we fancied.

The first time I went, I entered through the main space, masked and anonymous of course, then found a door and started exploring. Within minutes I was lost in labyrinthine corridors, hearing snatches of conversation that piqued my interest but didn’t quite deter me from my wanderings. Then I happened upon a red-draped room with a black and white tiled floor. Some kind of party was going on. Music started to play and the whole party segued into a strange, lurching, leering dance routine. I was hooked.

When I returned for a second visit, I knew the lay of the land. I followed specific conversations at specific times. I came to understand at least some of what was going on. I knew that if I reached the feuding couple at the right time, I’d be able to witness their fight through the medium of dance. Downstairs in the orgiastic party I would see the temptations being thrust at the ‘hero’ of the piece. It all connected, but I had to pick and choose. It wasn’t possible to take it all in, to explore every option.

I’ve just experienced something very similar in a videogame. There’s a case to be made that Punchdrunk has many similarities with games anyway, from the themes of exploration and the player/visitor’s own agency within the world to the creation of a fully realised location that you can inspect from every angle. Some of the (dare I say it?) Walking Simulator games give a similar feel. Wandering around Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, tugging at threads and seeing where they lead is definitely close. But one game has come even closer to replicating that experience: Hitman.

I hadn’t played a Hitman game until a few weeks ago. I’m not really a stealth afficianado so always put the series in the ‘not my kind of thing’ category. Then, after seeing  ‘let’s play’ videos and hearing endless praise on the Idle Thumbs podcast, I decided to take the plunge and try the latest in the series for myself.

And it’s brilliant in so many ways. Unlike Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture and its ilk, Hitman presents a busy, bustling alive world. That’s not a criticism of EGTTR, by the way – that game specifically presents a beautiful, heartbreaking loneliness. Rather, it’s what brings Hitman closer to Punchdrunk’s theatrical exploits.

Stroll into the Paris fashion show in the opening episode and you’re an inscrutable, blank-faced guest – much like the masks Punchdrunk guests wear. Over the buzz of conversation you might hear an interesting titbit, an argument perhaps, or furtive whispers. So you follow where the voices lead, through grand corridors and off-limits backstage areas. You see the glamour and how the glamour is created.

Of course you’re not allowed in all areas, so you must track down disguises, further anonymous masks, to avoid raising eyebrows and drawing attention. This show isn’t about you after all. This show stars Novikov and Margolis, you’re simply an anonymous onlooker tugging threads, following stories.

Live, immersive theatre has its perils. What if a member of the public dashes through the middle of a scene? It’s the same in Hitman – you can blend in perfectly, behaving just like whatever mask you’re wearing should behave before sneaking away unseen, or you can run through the middle of a crowd disrupting for just a moment the illusion of a living world. In theatre the show must go on, and so too in Hitman.

The big difference is that in Hitman you’re not there as an observer and occasional minor participant. The closest I came to being personally involved in the story at The Drowned Man was being taken to one side by a performer, led by the hand down a secret passageway and having a one-on-one interaction while my fellow visitors wondered why I’d been singled out. In Hitman, you’re there with a purpose. It’s not look-but-don’t-touch; it’s look-then-touch-swiftly-and-viciously. The show will go on if you do nothing, but you’re there expressly to stop the show. To disrupt the perfect theatrical evening. Agent 47 is a heckler. A troll.

Returning to being singled out at The Drowned Man, that came about because I knew it was coming. It was on my second visit, so I knew someone was going to get picked and inveigled my way to be in the right place at the right time. Just like how I now know how to find the Sheik at the Paris fashion show and be in the right place at the right time to infiltrate the auction of secrets. Done well, immersive theatre has immense re-visit value. That’s something games have known for a long time and brings particular depth to Hitman.

Hitman may not (so far, at any rate – we’re only a few episodes in) have the Lynchian weirdness that Punchdrunk conjured up, but I can return to it again and again, finding new secrets, different pathways and strange characters every time. And where Punchdrunk’s storytelling revolved around visceral bursts of dance, Hitman relies on swift flares of violence before a sheen of normality, however fabricated, descends again.

Films and videogames are often compared, and of course one is often remade as another (seldom well *koff* Hitman *koff*). But perhaps we’re missing a trick. What if theatre and games are closer siblings than film and games? What experiences could that lead to? It’s surely no coincidence that Hitman’s marketing revolved around an interactive theatrical experience.

So what theatrical tie-ins should we expect? And which plays are begging out for the game treatment? Why is it that games seem to be the one medium Shakespeare hasn’t yet breached? Maybe Assassin’s Creed: Dunsinane will be the next instalment in that series. Or how about Hitman: Verona?

For more on games, check out The Conversation Tree.

 

A Sketch and A Podcast

I’ve got a couple of exciting developments to report, which makes a nice change!
It’s an oft-used mantra that creativity comes from adversity. I haven’t really noticed a direct correlation in that for myself, other than a bout of songwriting while I was deeply unhappy in my late teens/early twenties. However, that’s all changed!

Like many of my friends, I’ve been bemoaning the recent political developments in the UK. So much so, that I put pen to paper and wrote a few topical/political sketches and songs. After a couple of non-starters I sent some sketches over to NewsRevue.

If you’re unfamiliar with NewsRevue, it’s a theatrical topical sketch show at the Canal Café Theatre that has been running for two decades. Every couple of months the cast and director are refreshed, and sketches are chosen on a weekly basis, or more often depending on what’s going on in the news. I even had an unsuccessful audition for their cast many moons ago! If you’re London-based I’d recommend heading down, it’s always a fun evening.

Anyway, the first bit of good news I’ve got to report is that one of my sketches was used. So now I’m a performed comedy writer, which is pretty cool. Just one sketch for now, but it’s a nice boost in what’s been a relatively unsuccessful year writing-wise.

On to the second exciting thing – I’m co-hosting a new podcast. You’ve no doubt noticed that my most recent few posts have been about videogames. Well rather than hijack my blog to be primarily about games, I’ve set up The Conversation Tree Podcast with my partner in crime Lydia Palmese.

We’re both narrative junkies and will be focussing more on analysis than reviewing per se. We’re particularly interested in how games reflect society and vice versa and will be looking at mixture of old, new, and upcoming titles. Given that we’re avid cinema-goers we’ll also be tackling films in the same vein to a degree, and even some of the odd events we pootle to around London town.

You can find the first episode of the podcast here or over on iTunes. Over the coming weeks I’ll work on getting it up in a few more places besides. You can also follow @TheConvoTree on Twitter if you’re feeling sociable (as well as my @BornToPootle account if you haven’t already). New episodes will be up every fortnight and feedback is more than welcome. We’re both new to podcasting, so tips will be gratefully received.

How on earth do you write a game?

Notebook next to laptop, ready to write a game

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m part way through making/writing/developing a game for the very first time – doing everything from the art to the coding to the VO myself. So just to manage any expectations: the title of this post is a genuine question. I don’t have the answer…

I’ve written for a fair few different media up to now; not with massive success, I’m the first to admit. I’ve got a completed novel that’s done the agent rounds (dig into the previous articles if you want to read up on that process), other novels at varying stages of completion, short stories, a couple of play scripts gestating, an experimental TV episode, even a few scenes for a rom-com film script. All of these share one key feature (other than lack of publication): they’re not interactive.

Even though writing for the stage is very different to writing a novel, there is that lack of interactivity tying them together. When a play is performed the actors and director will of course find different things in there, in just the same way that a novel will tickle people’s imaginations differently. They all begin, have a middle and have an end. The actions between the beginning and end are utterly predetermined.

There are exceptions – the Alan Ayckbourn play that changes on the toss of a coin; Fighting Fantasy style adventure books; Punchdrunk-style immersive theatre… But that’s not the kind of territory my writing has taken me into so far.

So. I repeat my question. How on earth do you write for games? And I’m thinking here of narrative-driven games more specifically.

Maybe the big con is the illusion of non-linearity? Some games don’t try to escape the linear – I’ve been playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order and the Uncharted trilogy recently and they’re fairly straightforward. Cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit, cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit and so on and so forth.

Alternatively, there are games like the Walking Dead where choice forms the central interaction (well, choice and quick time events). This is more the style of game that I’m interested in making, so I’m going to ponder a little deeper.

There’s a trick in this kind of game, which isn’t a criticism – I absolutely adore Telltale’s style and what they’ve done for narrative games. Having replayed a couple of their titles, the impact of the choices is sometimes less than may be imagined. Huge SPOILERS coming for The Walking Dead Season 1…

Whatever you do as Lee, whoever you sacrifice or save, the game will still resolve in pretty much the same way. You’ll go to the farm, then the coast. Clementine will be taken. Lee will get bitten. Clementine will wind up on her own. That said, the emotional journey Lee and Clementine (and the player) take will be different each time as the choices change.

This is interesting, and starts to move the narrative technique away from other media to a degree. In writing fiction, one of the big lessons is to ensure thatthe plot spirals out of the characters’ actions. If in a game the characters can take various different actions but the overall plot remains the same then how does this work? Why doesn’t everything feel contrived in Telltale games and their ilk?

I think the answer is a combination of a few things: firstly, on initial playthrough the player can be unaware of which actions are causing which consequences. So there’s the potential for pulling the wool over a player’s eyes. There’s a great example of the opposite happening in Witcher 2, by the way. Half way through the game you get to choose between following Roache or Iorveth. This takes Geralt and the player to a radically different area – a whole massive chunk of the game and narrative won’t be accessed by players who only play through once. Well done CD Projekt Red! Both options are well worth playing through, if you haven’t already.

I digress though. The second point to consider is which choices the player is given. And how that fits in with the various levels of plot. Is The Walking Dead a game about a man finding a young girl alone following a zombie outbreak, falling in with a group of survivors and doing what he can to protect the girl and the group? Or is it about the relationship between the man and the girl? The plot for the former is set largely in stone, with a few minor tweaks along the way. The latter though is completely mutable and up to the player.

Firewatch (which I’ve written about before), created by some of the team that worked on The Walking Dead, is an example of this to the nth degree. The plot is utterly unchangeable, and there isn’t really the illusion of choice about it; instead the interaction hinges on the relationship you build with a voice on the other end of the radio. Having chosen the protagonist’s backstory at the beginning you then get to decide how this affects his social interactions. At the end of the game you’ll have a character that may feel completely different from someone else’s, but will have gone to all the same places and ‘done’ all the same things.

Last thing to consider – the quality of the writing. Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands is worth a mention here. Playing through, it felt like the choices were fewer and for the most part less dramatic than The Walking Dead, but by gum it’s great fun. That’s not to detract from The Walking Dead of course, which also features top quality writing. Tales… just elevates things even further. I wouldn’t really have cared if it wasn’t at all interactive – I loved the characters, the premise, the dialogue, the acting (another big plus). And it features the very finest gun fight in the history of everything – without a single gun.

So perhaps linearity isn’t necessarily as old hat as I thought. This is good news, as the game I’m making features a straightforward objective – the protagonist has to escape a ship that’s crashing – but how they achieve that could vary. The main interaction is in three branching dialogue scenes with different characters in our hero’s way, and the options chosen will lead to success or failure. It’ll all be over in a few minutes, but hopefully will be worth a replay to see what other options lead to. Also, worth mentioning that I am in no way comparing the quality of what I’m working on to the games mentioned above. Mine is a doodle that those developers could knock out in half an hour. But it’s a start.

Where the trick lies is remembering all the standard narrative plot structure stuff and lacing the interactivity around that. It’s not something I’ll manage this time around, but definitely useful for the future.

@BornToPootle

Writing a Game

A controller for videogames

You may have spotted that I’ve been banging on about games for the last few posts. That’s because I’ve been playing a lot of games. In fact I’ve been doing a lot more of that than reading books. And I’ve been thinking about how narrative works in games. Which has led to the obvious conclusion of trying to write a game.

So that’s what I’ve been up to.

And will be up to for a little while, because my joyful enthusiasm for writing a game has been met with the actual reality of writing a game.

Because games have code.
And graphics.
And sound.
And all kinds of other shenanigans, as well as the, y’know, fun bit of writing some frippery.

But I’m giving it a go and will post the result here when I’m done. First off though, here’s a few initial thoughts.

How the arse does one start making a game? The good news is that there are a shedload of tools available for free these days. Including some pretty impressive pieces of kit. Like the Unreal Engine.

That’s the engine that games like the next Shenmue and Psychonauts sequels are being built around. It’s bona fide triple A. Also, hurrah for Psychonauts 2! So, being a rookie game developer, the engine responsible for massively ambitious games seemed like the very best place to start.

Yeah. Right.

There are plenty of tutorials knocking around (of varying quality – one was by a chap who had no idea how to use it, but decided to upload a tutorial anyway. Weird), but I swiftly realised that it may have been just a tad ambitious. Particularly as I was missing the most important thing: an idea.

Stupid, huh? I wouldn’t start writing a novel or short story or play without a decent idea of what I was trying to accomplish, so how on earth could I start fiddling around with game design without a plan.

So I had a bit of a think about the games I’ve enjoyed the most recently – Life Is Strange, Witcher 3, The Stanley Parable to name a few – and what common themes I could glean. I’ve also, while looking for some light relief, been trying Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s a standard linear shooter; very well put together, but I really have struggled to engage with it as it’s so… well… linear. So there’s the answer: I wanted to make something with options and choice.

An idea formed, and after a frank discussion with myself about my art skills (C at GCSE was bloody generous) I settled on an engine called Gamemaker Studio. There have been big games made with it – Undertale and Hotline Miami for example – but it seems a bit easier to get to grips with. There’s also a massive tutorial community on YouTube which is great and much needed.

And so for the last few weeks I’ve been teaching myself the basics of coding, getting increasingly lost in ‘if’ statements, plus learning about pixel art. And somewhere in there I’ve written a load of dialogue and recorded half of it in a variety of silly voices.

Watch this space.

But don’t hold your breath.

@BornToPootle

 

Scary Games Vs Scary Films

Scaredface

Such scare. So fear.

I’m a big horror fan.

That’s a meaningless statement really. You might reasonably think that I have seen all the Saw films, beaten a path to anything Wes Craven and have a stack of Stephen King novels on the bookshelves. Only one of those is actually the case (King – what a writer!).

Instead, I went through the obligatory video nasty phase as a teenager/early 20-something, got caught up on Japanese and Korean horror films and have fallen in love with more recent(ish) efforts like Kill List and The Babadook. The horror genre is a varied thing, with much to offer. Including games.

I’ve tried my hand at a couple of horror games of late, and I’m not sure what to think. Not because I didn’t find them scary. Quite the opposite, actually. Possibly they’re too scary. Or is it something else?

The only film I have ever left because I was too scared was Return To Oz. I was 4. Jesus, that scared me. I finally watched the whole thing just a couple of years ago, and was pleased to find that it’s still creepy as all hell. But since then, I’ve never left a horror film unfinished, be it Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead (though I should have left part way through the turgid remake) or A Tale Of Two Sisters. But the two games I’ve played recently? I don’t think I can finish them.

Which games am I actually talking about? Alien Isolation and Soma. Both sci-fi horror, both high production values, both really high on my must-play list last year. And I really like both of them, to a point.

Warning – there are some spoilers ahead, more for Alien Isolation as I really haven’t got that far in Soma

Alien Isolation looks great. It sounds great. And for a long time it’s a fun horror experience. Being stalked through a (sort of) empty space station by a seldom-glimpsed iconic monster is a real thrill. It’s pretty much exactly what I hoped for, even if a lot of my playing time was spent looking out from cupboards.

AlienIsolation

Cupboard simulator 2014

But, as in the film Alien, there are androids. Not one bumbling-then-oh-shit-he’s-evil android, but a whole load of them. And the hero, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, starts to pick up a few weapons to deal with them. Never much ammo though. And that’s when things started to go downhill.

The alien isn’t killable. Not with the weapons, at least. You can drive it off with a flamethrower, but it’ll keep coming back. Fine. The androids though, them you can kill. It takes a bit of off effort, but they go down eventually. And so the grind began. Sometimes I killed the androids, sometimes they killed me. And suddenly all sense of fear has gone, replaced with something different: stress.

By the time I’d stop-started and died-killed my way through a room full of androids and dropped down into an alien hive I felt exasperated rather than exhilarated. And now here’s something new – killable little facehuggers. And the grind continues. I’d trade all my weapons for a good cupboard to hide in…

So far in Soma it’s a similar-ish experience to early Alien: Isolation. No weapons whatsoever and unknowable beasties patrolling desolate corridors. I’m in. I’m hooked. And then suddenly I’m more stressed than scared and the illusion gently crumbles. My character is perhaps forever stuck hiding around a corner as a monster traipses back and forth ahead. My character isn’t too scared to move, he just can’t be bothered. He’ll stay listening to the creepy sound effects and having a good time that way.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s something about being able to die and retry that spoils horror games for me. In a film you’re stuck. It’s going to carry on no matter how scared you get, it has a momentum that you can’t stop.

The last chunk of Kill List for example, down in the tunnels in the dark, disoriented and being chased by people neither the audience or main characters quite understand, is thrilling. What about Pulse? There’s a ghost woman walking in ghastly slow motion towards the main character, stumbling in slow-mo. It’s weird and horrible and unnerving as holy hell. But what if the character bungled their escape, and instead of the film ending they had to try it again. And again. And again. The fear would dissipate. It would become stressful. Then annoying.

There are alternatives though. Bioshock managed its horrors brilliantly – there are moments of the first game that I remember as clearly as any great film scare. It’s certainly more action-centric than Alien or Soma, so a slightly different vibe I suppose. I enjoyed Until Dawn recently – the idea that there was no do-over, no reloading if a character dies worked well, adding to in-the-moment tension without becoming merely stressful.

So what horror games can you recommend that don’t trade fear for stress? Layers of Fear looks intriguing…

Maybe I should just get better at games. That’s probably the best answer.

@BornToPootle