Naughty Dog meets Tale of Tales

[Have had this interview sitting on computer for months. Nobody wants to buy it. Must smell bad or something. Richard Lemarchand is co-lead designer at Naughty Dog. They make Uncharted, which has lots of jumping in. Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey are from Tale of Tales. They made The Path and wrote the notgames manifesto. Found myself in the same room as all three. Tried to shit-stir. They all made friends.]

*

I wanted to get all you guys together because the presentation you did together [at GameCity] was very good at highlighting your separate approaches to game design. But I wanted to ask about the differences and conflicts that might arise between independent developers and huge commercially mega-successful developers. Richard, your focus would be on accessibility so as many people could enjoy it as possible, but Tale of Tales would be more of a niche. Would you all agree with that?

Michaël Samyn: I totally disagree. I think it’s the opposite.

Richard Lemarchand: And I also think it’s the opposite.

Michaël: Shit. We’re going to agree on everything!

Richard: [laughs] All right then, I disagree! I couldn’t disagree more!

Michaël: No, I think it’s like Richard was saying during the talk. I think [Naughty Dog] have an audience to deal with. So they work for the expectations of this particular group. While we are working at least for an undefined group. Our ambition is to reach out to people who have already decided for themselves that they didn’t like games and so we wanted [to say] ‘Yeah but maybe you’ll like this’ – and that happens. We get these kind of responses. You know, “I don’t like games but I would play yours.” That hasn’t really paid off commercially yet [laughs] but there could be other reasons for that, a particular style, et cetera. So I would say yes, obviously the group of players Uncharted reaches is much, much larger but I would think they’re more homogenous than the kinds of people we reach.

Richard: I mean, there’s a sense in which what you say is correct. I think Naughty Dog are a bit different as a triple-A game developer because we have deliberately tried to reach a broader audience, broader than many other triple-A games might try to reach. And this has been part of Naughty Dog’s philosophy since the very early days of the company. It’s why they went to such lengths to playtest the Crash Bandicoot games and polish off the sharp corners of the experience in those games. We’re famous for saying we do a lot of playtesting and of course it also is reflected in our emphasis on storytelling. We’ve wanted to bring a broader more general audience to videogames through the mechanisms of storytelling. It’s good to reach people through their emotions, I think, and it’s kind of reflected in the fact that we hear quite a lot from gamers that their family members will sit and watch them play an Uncharted game in the way that they won’t for other kinds of games. So in that sense we’re going for a broad audience. But I think that Michaël and Auriea are right in that the gaming audience has very specialised tastes and when you’re making games for that crowd it’s very important to think about those tastes. But there are all these other people who don’t yet play videogames who could be getting so much out of this amazing form.

Auriea Harvey: So therefore we don’t really have to think of a specific audience. But we think of people.


Some elements of Naughty Dog will be thinking of that audience in terms of a market. Does Tale of Tales think that as well and want your games to be commercially successful?

Michaël: It depends on the project. There are some projects that are more like research. Not that we don’t want to show them – that’s part of the research, to show them too. Things that we want to explore. Things that we want to do. And then there’s other projects, like The Path as the main example… where we do feel, “OK, this has potential to speak to a lot of people.” So we do thorough playtesting and see what we can do to achieve our goals in terms of what people feel when they play. So it depends. It’s not so black and white, where indies don’t care about the market and triple-A [developers] are concerned only about the market.

It’s not black and white but I wanted to see if any of you felt that difference. Because it’s a strong sentiment among indies that they are less concerned with commercialism.

Auriea: Well, yeah. But you kind of can’t help it [laughs].

Richard: I gotta say I take issue with the suggestion that at Naughty Dog we think first about the market.

No, I don’t mean it that way. Because as a developer you want to make a good game anyway, right?

Richard: What we think first about is the player. You know, human beings who are going to pick up the controller of something that we make. And all of the good game designers that I know think in this way. I think any time you try and second guess the human beings that might be interested in the thing you’re making in any commercial way you’re onto a losing [streak].

I’m not suggesting that the creative components of a studio would think that way but perhaps the marketing ends of a company?

Richard: Well, of course. If you work in a marketing department then your concern is with communicating to a potential audience that you have something they might be interested in.

That’s what I mean. Big developers will always have people employed to do that but indie developers maybe less so?

Richard: Everyone has the possibility of doing that though. When you think about a band like the Smiths who went from being a small band in Salford playing in working men’s clubs in front of maybe a few dozen people to – in just a few months – being the biggest band in Britain. They went about that not through Marketing in any formal sense but through something that’s a very important related concept – which is word of mouth and finding your audience, finding people who might be interested in your music, who share your values. In the case of games I think it’s just the same. I think that’s why indie games are so exciting right now. All of a sudden we have evidence of the fact that there are people out there who share a certain kind of values about what games could be and who are interested and who have, you know, a pound or two to spend on it. It’s like the breakout success of Sword & Sworcery EP. The fact that that went from being a side project for Capy to being this enormous hit on the App Store is testament to the idea that the audience is there and that it’s important for creative people to learn and understand how to relate to it.

Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog shows off some of his oft-praised hand gestures

You brought up music during your talk, when Richard described Tale of Tales’ work as the equivalent of punk music. It feels less like punk to me and more like ‘New Age’.

Michaël: I would describe it as Baroque actually [laughs].

Auriea: No, we’re definitely more Baroque.

Richard: Yeah, Cactus is punk.

Auriea: Anna Anthropy, definitely.

Messhof is punk.

Richard: Exactly, yeah yeah yeah.

Auriea: I like this.

Richard: Whereas you guys, I didn’t mean to draw that direct connection.

Auriea: No no no, we didn’t mind.

Michaël: We’re actually post-punk.

Richard: That’s more like it.

Auriea: New Wave!

Michaël: Actually, we’ve cleared it up… [This happened when] Frank Lantz once said that Doom is rock ‘n’ roll. And I picked up on that and said “Well, if Doom is rock ‘n’ roll then The Path is punk.” And then somebody in the comments said, “No no no, you’re wrong!” – because, you know, geeks – “According to this definition, you should be post-punk!” And that’s when we learned we were post-punk.

As long as you’re not post-pop-punk-rock.

Auriea: Oh no, let’s not go down there.

Okay, let’s move on. Some of the observations recently made about Uncharted are that it’s sometimes more like an interactive movie. That it sometimes takes control away from the player.

Auriea: We get the same comments though.

I don’t think it’s necessarily meant as a bad thing.

Michaël: In a way, I think in Uncharted it’s almost a revolutionary thing. Not so much the interactive movie kind of thing but the fact that it’s linear. And it really takes you through an entire story and it’s almost like you can’t do anything wrong. I think that’s quite rare to do that kind of thing. The only strange thing about it is that every once in a while you have to stop and shoot a hundred [bad guys]. Which is just weird.

Auriea: That’s the thing I kept saying when I was watching and playing. I was like, “Why is the shooting in here?” Because everything else was doing it for me. Then all of a sudden: “Why is he – oh, okay we’re gonna shoot something.”

Michaël: Not just the shooting though but also –

Aureia: No, I wanted to take the shooting out of it, literally. Because it seemed to me that in most games I’m always complaining that a [company makes a] shooter and they sort of smear art on top of it. You know, like Bioshock or something where it’s like an excuse for the shooter. Your game totally didn’t feel like that to me at all. It felt like this was a genuine experience –

Michaël: A story. You want to tell a story.

Auriea: I even love the action parts where he’s half falling out of some plane and you have to climb. I thought that was really cool. But then every so often you would just get the feeling like, “If they would just take the shooting out of this part” or “Oh no, somebody’s gonna show up and I’m gonna have to shoot them, right? Right!?”

Richard: No, I understand that and there are other people who feel like you as well. But we’re making a game for a certain audience, we kind of talked about this this morning.

Auriea: Yeah, I know. But I think it’s an interesting game – that’s the only reason I was disappointed [laughs].

Richard: The way I see it, the shooting – which has a relationship of course to the traversal and the way you take cover in the world and the other combat elements – all of that stuff is very richly game-like in the way that we formally define games, like we talked about this morning. Because there’s a win condition and a lose condition and there’s this compact but rich set of rules that allow you to make strategic choice in this space. And that adds up to what I think of as a kind of ‘carry signal’ for all the other stuff that happens in the game – the atmosphere and the story. It’s a way that we can sort of bring our audience of videogame players who have grown up engaged in these kinds of play activities along with us as we take them on this emotional journey through this sequence of events. And I’m interested in the potential of this kind of approach because I think already we’re starting to see games like… we were talking [earlier] about that match-three levelling game… Puzzle Quest.

Auriea: And Dungeon Solitaire.

Richard: Right, these games where you have this very rich game-like core mechanic with this wrapper of RPG progression built around them but it’s really very new and very revolutionary. That’s just one example of the kinds of things you can do when you use ‘game’ as a carrier signal for all this other rich stuff that we associate with the arts.

Michaël: But would you say that you’re step-by-step trying to move away from that? Because I see that in your evolution as a designer. Like you’re trying to educate your audience to stop wanting all that.

Richard: Well, it depends. I wouldn’t like to speak about – yet – about the kind of things Naughty Dog will do in the future –

Michaël: I’m just extrapolating.

Richard: But [within] the industry as a whole… I think that many people were surprised by how little combat there was in LA Noire, for instance. The emphasis in that game shifted towards the experiential, towards exploration and this rich interaction with the characters in the game, which in a way I think signals a trend. And of course indie games like Sword and Sworcery EP, like Dear Esther by thechineseroom and lots of other cool games are continuing to explore this avenue of inquiry.

Parts of Uncharted 2 were directly inspired by Tale of Tales' walking-through-a-cemetery-simulator, The Graveyard. No, really.

Michaël, you sound like you were trying to tempt Richard to the dark side there for a second. To get rid of all the core mechanics.

Michaël: The thing is when we started with games… we felt this great desire within the game design community to do exactly what we wanted to do with games. They wanted it to be what cinema was for the previous century. We want to tell the stories, we want to be culturally relevant, we want to appeal to all sorts of people, have all sorts of genres. I think that… maybe we wanted to see things that were there that maybe weren’t there. But also there were games in that period – I’m talking early 2000s – there was Black and White, there was Ico, there was the earlier Silent Hill games. There were all these games that were pulling in that direction and I think it just didn’t catch on quickly enough. It felt like the games industry said, “That’s it! We’re going back to gamers.”

Auriea: But they kind of had to because it was a new console generation. Nintendo always does it’s thing, while PS3 and Xbox were duking it out so they had to have their sales, so everything suddenly got really conservative again. And we were sort of really disappointed by that.

Richard: But I think that’s how it goes. Like the tide, it rushes in and then it goes out again and then it rushes in…

Michaël: Maybe.

Auriea: Yeah, but the PS2 generation was just getting really interesting. I mean, you had Rez, you had Shadow of the Colossus –

Okami.

Aureia: Okami didn’t really do it for me but I loved it for other reasons. It just seemed like things were getting very interesting and then when the new consoles came out it got really conservative and stuffy.

There’s a different focus emerging recently of other types of games, mostly on social networks, which are removing all the extraneous narrative and just focusing on a psychologically arresting core loop. Zynga’s games, for example. I wanted to get your feelings on those kinds of games.

Michaël: Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m very curious to see how the triple-A industry will respond to it. Because on the one hand of course there’s panic… so I wonder if they’re going to start copying those things and move towards gaming and become this mature gaming thing. Or if they’re going to say, “Well, if they are doing that then we don’t have to care about it.”

Auriea: That’s kind of how I see it. That’s interesting and everything but that’s just some people who like that stuff but there’s other people who hate that stuff.

Michaël: Everybody likes games, that’s fine. I don’t think this is a new generation of gamers at all – these people have always been playing games. It’s a ‘new generation’ of Facebook users and there happens to be games there [laughs].

Auriea: Because they’re like, “Oh, Aunt Suzie is doing this thing. I’ll try that too.” Why not? That’s great. But –

Michaël: But we do that at the coffee table too when we pull out the Scrabble board.

Aureia: – and eventually Facebook is going to die.

Michaël: And we’ll all go back to Scrabble! [laughs]

Auriea: Games may or may not move on from that. Those games may move onto a different format. Who knows? The only thing that’s for sure is that Facebook will disappear at a certain point. Those people will either pick up another game or they won’t. Most likely, they’ll be like, “Well, that was interesting” and move onto whatever they going to [move onto to]. They’re not terminally invested in it, I think.

You all said in the presentation earlier that all of these types of games can live together. That there’s room for every type. But is there any kind of game you would just like to see less of?

Michaël: That’s a personal choice anyway. You could see less of anything you don’t look at!

I mean that you would actually like to not happen anymore at all. Like, imagine if you were to adopt a really despotic attitude…

Auriea: Oh, I would love to be despotic! I would get rid of war simulations. Not necessarily RTS’ like historical recreations and stuff like that but you know, I could get rid of war as a sport.

Michaël: Extrapolated from that, I would get rid of any game that uses more than symbolic representation. Representation and game structure should be divorced.

Auriea: That’s much larger [laughs].

Michaël: Because I think in games before computers and early computer games it was like that. You had abstract tokens and it was all about the structure of the game. And you could focus on that and get your experience there. Now if you take a pawn, suddenly somebody dies. And it comes with all this baggage of, you know, humans dying. And it shouldn’t because the result now is that people are still playing them as games when – as you saw at Eric Chahi’s From Dust presentation – when you die it [can be] funny. But death is not funny! And so, I would probably get rid of that.

Nathan 'Laughs in the Face of Death' Drake

As somebody who helps make a game in which an awful lot of people die, how do you feel about that Richard?

Richard: Yeah, it’s quite complicated subject matter. I would like to see fewer of any kind of game that degrades human beings. And I think that there’s too much suffering in the world in the early 21st century and not enough culture that elevates people. I think that game design has a great opportunity in all of its forms – both formal game design and in a broader sense of experiential videogame design – for helping individuals who are struggling in their basic human circumstances, whether they feel shitty about themselves today or whether their social and economic circumstances are really oppressive –

Michaël: You mean like all of us?

Richard: I mean like all of us! [laughs]

Michaël: The 99% [laughs].

Richard: I would like to see fewer games that aren’t helpful in that way and more games that are.

Auriea: Yeah, more games that are beautiful. I mean, I don’t want to get into some sort of la-la-land situation were everyone’s like, “Everything’s lovely, let’s join hands.” … To keep talking about cinema seems redundant but you see very interesting films about war that are not just gratuitous… you know what I mean? There’s usually a point [to those films]. And I guess with games I never see that point. That’s what I guess you mean about degrading human life.

I’m guessing there are no fans of the ‘No Russian’ sequence of Modern Warfare 2 in this room then.

Auriea: No, nothing of the sort.

Michaël: Actually, that is an interesting situation. I think all of the more mundane shooting around it I would forbid first. Because that’s kind of tricky and perverse. And that’s kind of nice, I like perverse.

Richard: I was very interested in the player’s reactions to the No Russian scene… what I mean is that how people behave in the game when they’re put into that situation I think is really interesting.

Michaël: You can’t play the victims of that, though.

Aureia: See, that’s the problem with it. You can only be one [side]. Like, you can’t be the victim of that? Maybe if they’d done that then it’d have some sort of redeeming value because then you would think about that differently. I mean, they always want to put you in a position of power. As if. You know what I mean?

But isn’t that what a lot of games are about? Being empowered?

Aureia: Yeah and that’s dumb.

Michaël: That’s brilliant that you say that because that’s actually not been my experience with games before videogames. Games tended to be more like an excuse to be socially together with another person.

Aureia: Yeah.

Michaël: I mean, some people play competitively of course but those are nasty people – you don’t want to play with them! You want to play with nice people who don’t particularly care whether they win or lose but they –

Aureia: They just want to be with you.

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Filed under Failing to sell articles in spectacular fashion, Indie

I Want To Be NowGamer’s Blogger

Hi there! I saw the job advert competition on NowGamer and immediately knew it was mine for the takings.

“Love games?” it asked.

And how!

“Got a voice?”

A regional one!

“Then you need a blog on NowGamer!”

OK! What do I do now? A web-log post of no more than 1000 words on a games related topic? Easy. You’re reading it. But maybe I should be introducing myself first.

My name is Malachy and I want to write a bout games. It is a dream job competition. I love games as if they were my auntie Nell, who has taken care of me since my father died of exposure while digging for turf out in the bog. I love games this much. I love Mindjack and also The Halo 2. I love games so much that I am willing to write all about how great they are for none of the money, even though I have a first class degree in Neuroscience and Writing (it’s true!) and have written for many web-logs before. All I want is the exposure. Even though my dad died of exposure and I have an intense fear of it. That is how much I have love for games.

Anyway, introductions over! The games-related topic I have chosen is…

Indentured servitude!

Wow big words I know. But how is that a games-related issue? Well, I’ll tell you how. Lots of games have tackled this issue. Remember that bit in Mass Affect 2 where you go to the shiny planet run by Alan Sugar and everyone is playing the Stock Exchange and you go into a bar and there is a girl there who has not paid her debts and she has gone into indentured servicitude to pay them off? That is important! It is what they call in games an “ethical quarry”. Do you help the girl by convincing someone to buy her? Or do you tell her what she’s doing is wrong for her lifestyle choices and to become a better person? Who knows!

Selling people is against many laws in lots of countries, unless people sell themselves, which Auntie Nell says is legal "on the continent"

Mass Affect 2 also has lots of funny looking people being racist to each other. Here, the blue lady is calling the helmet lady a "quarian" - a derogatorish term for someone who often gets themselves into ethical quarries.

On the one hand she will be working for nothing. On the other hand you will have called her stupid. It is a very difficult choice series. But if you think about it, it isn’t very nice to exploitify someone just because they owe you money for, say, some turf.  And it is also not very nice to call someone a stupid for only being desperate, even if on the outside it looks like they are really really stupid. She is in trouble! You should be nice and help her! You can also get Paragon points for freeing the girl, which makes Commander Shepard more handsome.

But this is not the only game that deals with in-dentist’s servitude. My favourite game ever is Bioshock. It is a very intellectuist game about shooting mutants in the face. And guess what! It has a whole big thing about slavery running through it the whole way! This is called a THEME. In my Neuroscience and Writing degree (first class it’s true!) I learned that THEMES are very important things in games and not just in books. The THEME of slavery in Bioshock is very complex and there is no easy way to describe it or “deconstructualise” it, as literary people might say. But I will try.

SPOILER! RED ALERT! SPOILER!

Oh my God it's so scary I love it

Bioshock is also a game about "objectivism", which is a philosophy that believes only the main objectives of a videogame's mission should be completed and never the optional objectives because they are parasitic to enjoyfulness.

The whole way through Bioshock you are playing a game where you choose to kill or save little girls. It is like a side game but it is a good one because it gets you more mutant powers. This is another example of an ethical quarry. But near the end you discover that actually you have had no control at all over what you are doing and that the man who you trusted is actually a sneaky American pirate who is controlling you through hypnotists! Oh no this isn’t good, you might say. But actually it’s really clever! You see, the main baddie is called Andrew Ryan and the whole time he has been saying “A man chooses, a indentured servant obeys” or something like that. And then you see it’s true! He was a little bit right the whole time. Which is scary. The whole time you were doing something you thought you wanted to do, and something you thought was in your best interests but actually it turns out you were being exploited and manipulatated! That is a clever THEME.

So there you have it. Too very interesting examples of indentured servitude in games, or as my hispanish Neuroscience and Writing professor that I met on the internet would say, “los video juegos”.  I hope you have learned something about games by reading my web-log because I have had lots of fun writing it. I also hope that NowGamer consider me the right person for the job competition because I would love to write more about games for absolutely none of the money.

Thank you, NowGamer!

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Filed under Ethics, Ethics! Ethics? Two for a pound. Get your ethics here., Work!

Why ‘Time To Pretend’ is the Greatest Song You Must Never Listen To

[Sunny day out. Contemplating drinks on the doorstep. Got no work to do. Both good thing and bad thing. Like life. Contradictions make my stomach feel unsettled. Great. Can’t drink now. Article follows…]

It ends with the image of a man choking on his own vomit, for one thing. But then, you do not hear that bit. You never really hear any of the words. From the moment the first few beats of MGMT’s most popular track bubble up unstoppably from silence, your faculties of negativity and scepticism dissolve. Music that is so undeniably hopeful, that the heel of every happy-drunk hero at the bar taps and turns in quick succession. Yes, you’re at a club. Why wouldn’t you be? Even if that normally bothers you, it won’t tonight. Because the unconstrained happiness of a hundred people flowing onto the dancefloor like milk into a bowl, matching the tune with lipsticked and non-lipsticked o-shaped mouths, is an infection. Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! There’s a cheer in the air. But it’s hard to make an O shape with your lips when you are smiling this much – just like you can’t whistle and smile and the same time. That’s not how lips work. You can have one or the other. But you’ve made your choice tonight. Tonight, it’s O shapes all the way. Tonight, you join the happy people, this nutty bowl of Cheeri-os.  Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!

You sing and you sing. But you must never, ever listen. You are happy and you want to stay happy. The lyrics to Time to Pretend are not happy. They aren’t exactly sad either. They straddle the line of ambivalence, a line that in the real world would manifest itself as a single yellow line on a Central London side street, in that it makes everyone feel ever-so-slightly negative even though nobody agrees about precisely what it means.

At the beginning, it sounds like an unashamed celebration of youth, fame, money and success.

“I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life /
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars /
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”

The entire song can be read like this, as an unapologetic chorus of success and all that success brings. Heroin and all, there is nothing to be sorry about because it is “our decision” to live fast and die young. It’s a celebration of autonomy and the triumph of the ambitious individual over a life of menial jobs and a bleak future of shitty nights out down at the school disco after your shelf-monkey work shift, trying desperately to pull off knee high socks.

This triumph of fame and fortune over an everyday life in the lyrics explains the music’s bounciness then. Oh wait no it doesn’t ha ha I set you up it was a lie. The yellow-line ambivalence finally leaks in quietly through the next few lines (but only if you’re listening, and let’s face it – Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! – you aren’t).

“Yeah, it’s overwhelming but what else can we do? /
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Forget about our mothers and our friends, /
We were fated to pretend.”

But what else could we do, man? We were fated to pretend. MGMT seem to want you to think that personal autonomy had nothing to do with chasing success. Success is a train that drives itself. Like the DLR line. There’s no fucker at the wheel, getting paid absurd amounts of cash because of the poor air quality. You decide one day that this is the train for you, you get on and it just goes whether you want it to or not, unstoppable and unmanned. This is your “morning commute.” The only decision you get to make is whether you get off near Canary Wharf and climb to the top of Citibank like King Kong, swatting down all the other bankers buzzing around you, or whether you get off in Blackwall and hang out in the Marina with all the bohemian boat-owners, making art, darling.

MGMT chose the Marina. The words “fated to pretend” is the giveaway. Art is about pretending. And an artist is just a person who makes things that aren’t real seem real. Artists are pretenders and successful artists are just the best at it.

This makes a lot of art seem like a con. But some art is also lovely. Like this song for instance. Time to Pretend goes quickly from a celebration of a rock and roll lifestyle, to being a selfish fame-chase with the excuse that: “We had no choice, man. Fate made us do it.” And in no more than a few beats it hits us with the hurt and the ambiguous tone of the lyrics becomes all the more serious, in total contradiction to the upbeat tones hammering away in clubs all over the world.

“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms /
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world /
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home /
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.”

Listed here is everything that could ever be important to any human being who has suffered a loving family. Childhood, a sense of home, a sense of belonging, genuine companionship, your brother, your sister, your mum, your dad, unconditional love and liberty.

“But there is really nothing, nothing we can do /
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.”

To sacrifice one happiness – your family – for another happiness – success, is among the hardest decisions an average person could ever make. With difficult decisions like these, people engage in a curious (but sometimes ultimately necessary) self-imposed mindfuck. They tell themselves that they had no choice. No decision after all. They were fated to pretend.

This decision – whether it feels like one or not – is both empowering and crippling. The last few lines reveal the pragmatism that now affects the mind of the successful.

“The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce /
We’ll find some more models, everything must run its course.
We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end /
We were fated to pretend.”

Though it reads exactly like it, these lines are not delivered as tragedy. The mind of the success-chaser is already made up. The DLR has departed. And maybe there really is no way out now. These lines are delivered matter-of-factly, with a youthful (if messy) death as the final and foreseeable end but not necessarily a sad one. This is the verse that is sung unapologetically. Fame has a heavy price and the famous do regret the loss of all that was once simple and normal, the loss of family and real friends. But this fare: it is non-negotiable. If it must be paid, then it must be paid. Having learned of all the things the successful sacrifice, it becomes crass to judge them as selfish or self-indulgent. Things are much more complicated. Time to Pretend is not a celebration of fame, nor is it some simple excuse-laden floor filler. It’s a complex and frank plea for empathy, an open letter from the “successful” to all the regular people left behind, stacking shelves and serving drinks and having Sunday dinner with their family.

The choice between one form of happiness and another form of happiness is never an easy decision. You can’t whistle and smile at the same time. You can only have one or the other.

(Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!)

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Filed under Essays, Music

Ten Games by Political Alignment

[Election held. Referendum on changing the voting system. Voted ‘Aye, why not?’ Nation voted ‘Shut up, Brendan.’ Sulked home to play games and daydream of better tomorrow. Discovered tomorrow does not belong to me. Belongs to someone named Gideon. A curious turn of events. Article follows…]

Politics is a dirty business. Just look at those elections out there. Filthy, just filthy. Luckily for us, games have absolutely nothing to do with politics, right? Wrong. There’s loads of politics in the games you play. Just laying low, waiting to pounce on you like a tax avoidance activist hiding in the clothes rack at Topshop. Some games are so thoroughly politicised that you could never be forgiven if you misinterpreted their alignment. Handy then, that we’ve highlighted some of the most blatant acts of propaganda.

Half-Life 2 – Authoritarian

"Baton" is a French word. It means "Oh, fuck. A baton."

Gordon Freeman. The clue is in the name. The clue is also in every time some cycloptic alien starts babbling about “the one free man.” And every time those angry people in gas masks offer you a lead salad. If you thought the story of military resistance against an oppressive collaborator government was enough to prove Half-Life 2’s democratic credentials, the absolutely rigid, inescapable corridor shooter formula should make you reconsider what the game is really about. Overtly, it’s about the struggle for freedom. Underneath, it’s a story on a train. It’s a gorgeous, futuristic train but it’s still stuck to the same tracks every time you play. You might think you’re breaking free of the combine. But who’s really in charge? The game, that’s who. Now, pick up that can, you pleb.

Medieval II: Total War/Empire: Total War – Imperialist

He posed like this for 16 hours to get this picture right.

It’s possible to play Medieval II, or any of the Total War series, as a pacifist. A relaxed and tender leader. Playing as England, you could send diplomats to everyone and keep kissing hands and licking boots as if they were drenched in delicious Hoi-sin. Of course, what silly fellow would do that? The game isn’t called Total Peace. It’s called Total Kill Everybody Not Wearing a St George’sFlag Innit. It starts with nicking a little bit of Scotland. Then pinching some of Ireland. All necessary for a robust security policy, you understand. Before you know it your expansionist greed has you invading Marrakech, chuckling like a spice-crazed lunatic. The map MUST be red. Just one more region. Just one more. Those Imperialists, they weren’t evil or greedy. They were just misunderstood. They just had OCD.

Abe’s Oddysee – Environmentalist

Did you know? 'Abe's Oddysee' is an anagram of "Be a seedy sod."

In Oddworld, there are only two political parties. One is the Glukkonservatives. The other is Green Party. By establishing a clumsy Mudokken called Abe as a hero, Oddworld Inhabitants put the ‘mental’ firmly into ‘environmentalism.’ Those Glukkon fast-food corporations weren’t as ‘armless as they seemed (har har – they had no arms, like). They were well on their way to making animal life on Oddworld extinct and were about to embark on some seriously nasty business against all those Mudokkens. That is, before Abe stepped in and sabotaged all their machinery – obviously a massive metaphor for PETA activism. A petaphor, if you will.

Minecraft – Libertarian

If you say so Johnny Boy.

“We’ll do what we like, and we like what we do,” in the words of latter-day prophet and objectivist Andrew W.K. Minecraft follows this tenet. Not to Darwinian extremes, thankfully. But still with the requisite amount of survivalism. By placing blocks around you can make anything you want within the confines of physical reality. In singleplayer no other humans exist, so nobody but you is going to come to harm. Thus, no government middleman is gonna come out and tell you what to do. Hurrah! Liberty! Ah, but you must always be aware of those out to get you. In this way, the Creepers represent the destructive looters of communism. Simpering into places they don’t belong and spreading their destructive beliefs. Those dirty reds. Those dirty, green reds.

Red Faction – Socialist

Subtle imagery.

Those dirty reds. Those brilliant, dirty reds. Dirty because they’re bloody hard at work down t’pit. On Mars. Breaking their backs for their exploitative corporate masters who shank them for everything they’re worth and rape from them all political or personal power. Parker, the player’s character, is most certainly an Arthur Scargill character, taking on the might of Marsy Thatcher. Yeah. Workers unite! Solidarity! In the end, Parker and the Red Faction win. Just like Arthur Scar – oh… wait…

EVE: Online – Anarcho-capitalist

ISK is an acronym. It means "I should've known."

“We’ll do what we like and we like stealing everybody’s money so let’s do that,” in the bastardised words of investment bankers who listen to latter-day prophet Andrew W.K. There must be a Venn diagram of that demographic somewhere. I know it exists. It’s certain. It can’t not exist. Oh! Oh, I know! Add another circle to the diagram for people who play EVE: Online. The central section would be a devious place. A wretched hive of individualists and profit-making swankypants’ with twenty glossy Mercedes’ each. They wouldn’t be kind people, that’s for sure. But hey, it’s fun to hear about them picking each other’s pockets as they infiltrate enemy corporations and fly around null-sec space getting blown up by ever more expensive lasers.

Super Mario/Legend of Zelda – Royalist

Hey you, turn that crown upside down.

Save the Princess? Okay, hold on here ‘til I shine up the ol’ coat of arms. There, now I’m ready to risk my life for somebody whose only claim to governance is that they were born in a frilly pink dress. Assuming she is actually in this castle, I will undoubtedly be given a commendation of faultless chivalry. Perhaps I will even become romantically involved with the princess. Just like in the fairy tales they show on BBC these days. Alas, I am nought but a lowly plumber/village pleb. She will never deign to marry me. In fact, she seems to get kidnapped quite a lot. If this isn’t some form of Stockholm syndrome, I am beginning to suspect Bowser/Ganon is being ritually wheeled out as the old “constant external threat” card. Kings, queens and despots have been using that one for millennia. Save the Princess? Screw that. The people wait with bated breath until the day Ollie Cromwell guest features in a Nintendo title.

Assassin’s Creed – Nietzschean

And you'd be right, Fred. You'd be very right.

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” This is the wisdom Machiavelli imparted to Ezio Auditore in the late 1400s. Then he swan dived off a bell tower. Oh wow, you’ve just learned history! But more than that, you’ve also learned the mercenary credo of 19th Century mad bastard Freddy Nietzsche. He ruled that ethics is for silly people and that whoever wanted to get ahead should be prepared to do anything. And that’s exactly what you do in Assassin’s Creed. To complete the game, you must be prepared to do whatever unseemly, amoral deed is required. That includes listening to some Allah-awful hogwash conspiracy theories. And forgetting everything you ever learned in school about when planes and tanks were invented. Forget… forrrrrrget… have you forgotten yet? “Forgotten what?” you say? Excellent. Whatever you do, don’t read this paragraph back.

Worms – Nationalist

Earth worms.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. What’s another word for scoundrel? That’s right – ‘worm.’ No, don’t try and argue. I’ve looked it up in a thesaurus. What’s another word for ‘thesaurus?’ That’s right – ‘don’t argue.’ Those worms certainly wouldn’t. They’d be too busy prancing about exclaiming about the dangers of explosive sheep in a Welsh accent. Or the perils of bananas in a Caribbean accent. Or beaming themselves up with teleport devices in a Scottish accent. These are all nationalistic stereotypes obviously. Of which these worm-scoundrels are all fiercely, insanely proud.

Metroid – Feminist

This is the only nippleless image of Samus on the internet.

So you’ve navigated your way through screen after screen of nasties. You’ve shot up a seriously rude Pterodactyl looking S.O.B. who’s been squinting at you all night. You’ve put a missile into that soggy Mama Brain and jogged merrily out of an exploding facility. Finally, the big reveal. Who is Samus Ar – OH MY DAYS IT’S A LAYDEE. Well… chuh. I guess. Why couldn’t it have been a woman this whole time? Metroid is the videogame equivalent of that riddle about the brain surgeon who turns out to be a woman, making you feel like a massive presumptuous pillock. And then you go look for pictures of her on the internet. Although, maybe you wouldn’t. Oh heavens, I’ve been presumptuous again.

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A Letter to the New Statesman

[New Statesman had job opportunity couple months ago. Unpaid. Annoying. Wrote email to comment section and editors. No response. Nick Clegg now suddenly against this carry on. Lot of hypocrisy floating around. Even left-wing magazines out to rape youth. Must flee country. Letter follows…]

From: Brendan Caldwell
To: comments@newstatesman.co.uk
CC: jbernstein@newstatesman.co.uk,
mhasan@newstatesman.co.uk, selmhirst@newstatesman.co.uk
Date: Feb 03, 2011, 14:59
Subject: Internment

I am disappointed to discover that your magazine has recently advertised for an unpaid intern. Has the New Statesman editorial staff suddenly had a collective attack of explosive amnesia? Or did they always have an exploitative attitude towards the youth?

Internships like this restrict the best jobs to those who can afford to spend months without being paid. And – as you should know – unpaid work for a profitable, non-charitable company lasting longer than three weeks is against minimum wage legislation.

Considering the opinions of several NS journalists on poor social mobility in the UK and their sympathy for the youth movement, what sense does it make to exploit young people’s desperation for good jobs? Kinda hypocritical. Aye. I went there. Wanna fight about it? ‘Course you don’t. What you want to do is publish this comment as a demonstration of transparency.

Failing that, would you kindly pay your workers?

Brendy Caldwell,
Northern Ireland

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Filed under Damn youse, Politics

Masochists Stole My Picturebook

[Wrote a piece for Eurogamer recently. Subject was masochism. The tame kind. Not the sexy kind. Some elements left unexamined. Attempted to let it go. Took a shower. Hated self. Took another shower. Unclean feeling remains. Article follows…]

*

“It’s just not a single axis is the thing,” said Adam Saltsman. “There’s definitely this – I feel – completely invented idea that there is a ‘challenge axis’. And the ‘challenge axis’ has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.

“I actually think that there’s two axes.”

Who is Adam Saltsman, you ask? And what the fiery Dickens is he talking about? He’s only the creator of Canabalt. “So what?” So what!? Hey. Fuck you, pal. You ever played Robot Unicorn Attack? Yeah. Well, just thank your lucky Saltsmans that even exists, okay?

He spoke of difficulty. To define a game as “masochistic” you gotta know what makes a game difficult.

Sometimes you find a game difficult because of the content of the game. Sometimes there are just a load of spikey spikes. Think VVVVVV. Often there is one, sickeningly precise method of avoiding the obstacle in question. But sometimes in games, the spikey spikes are intentionally impassable. Either way you’re like a baby with a pack of brand new, razor sharp colouring pencils. Sure, they’re stationary. And, yeah, they’re colourful all right. But if you leap at them too enthusiastically they’ll mess your life up. Ouch. Hurt baby imagery. Get used to it.

That’s only sometimes. Othertimes you find a game difficult because you are still getting to grips with the control scheme or the user interface. Think Dwarf Fortress. In which case the art materials aren’t so immediately dangerous. They’re just a hundred times harder to use. The pencils are now an advanced graphics tablet with a MacBook and all the appropriate software. But you’re still a baby. And everyone knows babies can’t use advanced graphics tablets.

Both VVVVVV and Dwarf Fortress are difficult. For entirely different reasons. In the article mentioned above I explored the reasons someone might call these games not just difficult, but masochistic. Any sensible person would have interviewed Terry Cavanagh, the creator of VVVVVV. I didn’t. He was pretty busy. I quoted Adam Saltsman. Creator of a one-button game that even you in your pencil-punctured, Mac-illiterate, metaphorical baby form could play.

Justification stations!

The reason I included parts of a conversation with Adam Saltsman was because Saltsman had the above to say about axes of difficulty. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. And his point cleaves  any clean definition of masochistic in two.

Observe Graph Uno.

Oh no. Graphs.

The horizontal axis stands for the Ease of Access. Stay with me here. Graphs are dull, I know. But they aren’t half as dull as trying to think all of this up in your brainmind. So stay with me.

Like I says, the horizontal line stands for Ease of Access – how easy it is for the average player to get used to the controls, the menus, all the input methods. In general, the user interface. An old Infocom adventure game might be further left on this scale than, say, a point-and-click adventure game. Since in Infocom games there are more commands to discover and memorise. In point-and-clicks, you just go buck-mad with mouse-power, clicking all around you until it’s the only thing you ever hear. In your dreams you see your mother tutting. But all you hear is that neutral plastic, that Logitech tick. Anyway, point-and-click is more to the right than command-driven. Argue ergonomics if you like, weirdoes. One is undeniably easier to access than the other.

The vertical axis stands for Ease of Play – in other words, how easy or hard the gameplay features are to the average player. Like the Ease of Access line, this is subject to the natural ability and/or the previously acquired knowledge or skill of the player. I say “and/or” because this isn’t the place for a nature/nurture argument. It isn’t. It isn’t. Isaiditfuckingisntsopleasegoaway.

An example: the section of VVVVVV that begins at “Doing Things The Hard Way” reportedly used to have less spikey spikes when it was in Beta. It now has a few more spikey spikes. Statistically, you are now more likely to die when trying to complete this section than you perhaps would have been if you had played in Beta. So the Beta of Six-Vees-No-Spaces would be higher on the Ease of Play axis than the final release.

Similarly the Dark World of Super Meat Boy is lower on the axis than the World That Is Not The Dark World, because it is harder. This all appears to work fine when discussing games within themselves. But the Ease of Play axis starts to rumble disapprovingly when you use it to compare games to other games, startled as it is by the terrible, beautiful beast they call SUBJECTIVITY. Is Super Meat Boy harder than VVVVVV? My twisting, bilious inside-gut says yes. Your flabbadocious beer-belly says no. Whatever whatever.

Man. Fuck graphs.

Observe Graph Uno again. For surely now you comprehend. This is why Dwarf Fortress is masochistic. It is the only one of the games discussed that falls into the lower left corner of the graph. Hard and hard. Or, if you prefer, ‘ard an ‘ard. This is because it is mind-crushingly complex. And because inherent inaccessibility actually has an effect on the ease of the gameplay features. If you can’t figure out how to dig a hole, controls-wise, how are you meant to dig a lot of holes, gameplay-wise? Difficulty of access has a gravity. Such a singular concept! And nobody bothered to tell me before. When Adam Saltsman first explained it to me, it was one of those bewildering moments of clarity. Like I’d just noticed the RAF Spitfire that had been following me for the past four days. Periodically hiding behind trees and tittering to itself.

As Dwarf Fortress’ interface becomes easier for the player to use, the gameplay features become easier to implement. Through practice and – let’s face it – a YouTubian education, we can defeat inaccessibility’s gravity. We can achieve escape velocity.

Duh, I suppose. This much is obvious. Practice = less hard. But does Dwarf Fortress become less masochistic? Maybe. But only if we use Graph Uno as a diagram for both difficulty and masochism. And only if you agree with what my previous article says – that masochism is not a static thing but is defined at the moment of an enjoyed failure. I.2.da.E. – a game is only masochistic at the moment a player fails (and likes it).

I’m serious. They offend me.

This maso-moment is at the central point of the graph. Where the big, red wobbly line represents the players experience of Dwarf Fortress. As they learn the UI it becomes easier to play on both axes. And when it smacks the centre – a transcendence. Difficulty and Enjoyment fuse and cocoon. We think, simultaneously, “this is frustrating me!” and “this is entertaining me!” This is the feeling of spiritual ambivalence required for a game to be called masochistic. Because masochism is a completely paradoxical term. The meat of pain and the pastry of pleasure rolled into one healthy and unhealthy snack. An oxymoronic sausage roll of lovehate. So bad. But so good.

All that is one reason why I would describe Dwarfy Hideout as masochistic. Here is another: it cannot be completed in any traditional sense. Adam Saltsman is again to blame for this destructive thought-germ. (“I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can’t even beat Canabalt.”) The keeper of dwarves is destined to fail. As is the Canabaltic runner.

I choose you, Graph Dos!

Dwarves like graphs. But only for the axes.

Here the Ease of Access line remains the same. But the vertical axis is now tracking Ease of Completion. Where the bottom of the line is Impossible and the top of the line is Super-duper-fluffy-bunny-easy. Mark you the positions of Canabalt and Robot Unicorn Attack. Compare them with Super Meat Boy and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. And looky here. Dwarf Fortress remains huddled away in his corner.

Actually. You know what? Graph Dos is functionally flawed. The top and bottom do not represent approximate opposites. The opposite of Impossible would be Automatic (something that happens bizarrely often in modern offerings, for cinematic purposes or accessibility’s sake).  Hear ye, hear ye. We, the writers, do solemnly declare Graph Dos negligent. Graph Dos II will take his place in office. The predecessor will hereby be hanged until dead. All observe Graph Dos II and do the law well unto him.

Hail to the King, maybe.

This bad boy now has the vertical axis in the form of a question – ‘Can the game be “completed”?’ Which simplifies the issue somewhat. Pledge allegiance to whatever diagram you want. It doesn’t matter to me. But note well: where is thon Dwarf Fortress? Still burying into the extreme bottom-left. Hunkering down for a harsh winter and scaring away every other title that scurries near. The bottom-left is the masochist’s domain. It is where the Harmers live. Should you go there, be wary.

Weeeeeeeee! Dwarves! They obstruct everything. Defying every convention except the one that holds the ground to be a Good Thing. They are my collective nemesis. And it is mainly because Dwarf Fortress, while being decidedly masochistic, defies one of the central attributes of masochistic games – that they have simple narratives. Super Meat Boy is your basic save-the-princess story. You Probably Won’t Make It doesn’t have a story at all. Even that monarch of masochism I Wanna Be The Guy has a very basic story (there’s this kid, called The Kid. He just wants to be The Guy).

Hard platformers tend to shy away from complicated narrative. Is this because constant death can break the flow of story-telling? If the reverse can be a problem – constant story-telling breaking the flow of gameplay – then it seems possible for difficult patches of play to screw with the progression or timing of a story. Even if it only disrupts the player’s memory or attention to specific details in the plot.

In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time you spend the game alongside Farah (finally, a princess developed past the point of being a weepy chick in a pink dress). Although initially being at odds, the Prince and Farah grow fonder of each other as you progress. Then comes a point in the game where they become separated and you have to find Farah by navigating some darkened doorways, arranged in a circle. You go in one doorway only to come out another, right back where you began. It’s like watching a Benny Hill sketch with only one person. And with the TV on Mute.

To start, you have no idea which doorways to go through and in what order to do so. But it’s clear that there is some combination of entrance and exit that’ll lead you somewhere. Eventually, through a spark of thought or the resigned acknowledgment of Internet’s superior intelligence, you discover that standing in front of certain doorways trigger a subtle watery sound effect. Go through the doorways that “trickle” and you will reach a room of baths, where Farah is waiting for you.

Then Prince and Princess wordlessly have sex.

You always know these two likeable rich-kids are sexually attracted. But the pacing leading up to the, er, climactic event is jarred by the confusion of the preceding puzzle. Unless Ubisoft were trying to make some kind of ‘nice guy’ point about how many hoops you have to jump through to fuck somebody, the unforeseen difficulty of this segment can make the story wobble.

Super-hard games avoid this pitfall by either having no story at all or by giving their player’s character a single, uncomplicated goal. Even Canabalt has a goal (even if it is just a bottomless pit with an overhanging banner that reads “better than last time.”)

Masochistic games are full of contradictions. For all the difficulty ingrained in the environment of masochistic games, the motivations for their characters are among the simplest in gaming.

Chris Breault of Post-Hype has a great essay about narrative and difficulty, focusing on VVVVVV. But he is talking about extended narrative, outside of the story created by the game’s author. He’s talking about narrative that is a part of gameplay itself. Note that this is not the kind of narrative we’re talking about.

Still, you might argue that VVVVVV is a strong balance between story and difficult gameplay. Yet the narrative of All-The-Vs is not complex. Captain Viridian’s shipmates are lost and he must find them.

This is not to say that simple storylines are bad ones. VVVVVV’s story is involved and emotionally engaging to the point where its simplicity is part of the charm. Vermillion’s pining for Violet and the mutual concern for shipmates as demonstrated by the pixelly smiles and frowns of the characters might be simple touches, but they are far more effective at provoking empathy than, say, the Abramsesque tripe that occurs in the complex narrative of Assassin’s Creed. Regardless, VVVVVV’s story remains uncomplicated.

Canabalt – only “masochistic” by the judgement of the imposing, absolutist bastard that is Graph Dos II – has an equally simple narrative: you run away from something. Or perhaps you run to something. Who knows? Nevertheless, you run. You run because shit is going down. And some abstractly dangerous, possibly invasive force, is launching that shit down. Or perhaps you run for other reasons. Perhaps you are simply a devotee of that great thinker Forrest Gump, in which case you run because You. Just. Felt. Like. Running!

So it might be a fair expectation that “masochistic game = simple story.” Ah. Ahh. But in Dwarf Fortress, the narrative is complex. It twists and fizzles as your dwarves go on errant quests to contaminated water sources, or slowly go insane at the prospect of working without the right materials. It’s like an underground Eastenders. Except it is interesting.

However, this is more akin to that type of narrative which is wedded to gameplay. Not the kind over which the author has full(er) control.

For the sake of big, rowdy argument, let’s say this doesn’t matter. The assumption that “masochistic game = simple story” then asplodes in our face because of the Ascii demon that is Dwarf Fortress – that abusive digital husband of a hundred journo love-hate marriages. It will therefore be necessary to amend our statement, if we consider Lovely Fortress/Dwarf Cuntpain to be a masochistic game (and I do).

Therefore, the amended statement should look like this: “masochistic platformer = simple story.”

There is no reason why this ‘rule’ could not be challenged. There is probably a game out there I don’t know about which already disobeys. In any case it is troubled by the initial problems of definition (What is “masochistic” to you? What is a “complex” narrative to you?) However, there does appear to be a trend, at least within the current indie market, for difficult platformers to intentionally limit the complexity of their tale.

That said, let us be fair. For masochists, a complicated story is frankly unnecessary. They don’t need elaborate neo-noir characters of grey, dubious loyalty. They don’t need convoluted moral maze drug-dealing sub-plots. They don’t need to walk in the garden of forking paths or navigate swirling, entwined social relationships. The only thing a masochist needs is a goal.

And lots of spikey spikes in front of it.

*

[Addendum: Apology in order. Actually did speak to Terry Cavanagh eventually. Words said. Interview follows… ]

*

In summary: I think VVVVVV is a masochist game. This interests me. What do you think about that kind of genre?

My opinions on that subject are not going to gel very well with what you’re writing about because I love V and I’m proud as hell of making it but I think my focus as a designer has changed a lot since I made it and I’m not interested in the same things anymore. I’m not so interested in challenge anymore, I guess, as a way to make game design interesting. I think it’s been done to death. I dunno. I’m more interested in the other ways that you can make [a game interesting.]

Is that a reaction to how VVVVVV was received or praised?

I feel like if I was to go back and make, say, another challenging platformer I think that I would just be retreading ground that’s very well-worn at this point. And there are people that do it better to be honest. I’m exploring other avenues right now.

Do you feel VVVVVV was a “masochistic game”?

When I was making it, I didn’t think of it that way at all. In fact, it took like two or three months of development before I even realised that it was hard. It’s kind of weird to say it but when I was making V I was more interested in the kind of permutations of the challenges that you could create for the player to explore. I was more interested in the composition of each scene. Getting from one area to the next should be interesting and very often that meant it was hard. But it’s only one way to make a room be interesting – to make it hard, to make the player sit back and look at it, see how they’re going to approach it.

And in other rooms there is something else to be interested in. There’s a big space outside the ship where it’s just exploring.

Yeah, that came very late in development actually but it was always part of the plan. And by the time it was implemented I was kind of worried that it clashed with what I’d done in other places. But I think it works very well as a contrast.

Would you say there’s a comparison to games like SMB, which are designed to be hard? But you say VVVVVV wasn’t designed with that in mind?

No, it sort of… near the end of development I did make some hard challenges just to be hard. But it was more about exploring the possibilities of what I could do with a small set of verbs. It wasn’t about making challenges that were frustrating or were in any way meant to even challenge the player, I guess. That wasn’t what I was thinking about. That’s not how I was thinking about it.

A lot of people would say it’s a hard game but the frequent checkpoints keep it forgiving.

Yeah, it’s very important to approach it that way. If you’re going to ask the player to do a challenge hundreds of times then it’s really awful to ask them repeat anything y’know… My idea behind the layout of V is that there should be checkpoints after every screen challenge, so you should never have to do anything you’ve already beaten. That’s done.

This is why in say Sonic 4 there’s a rising water challenge with no checkpoints followed by a difficult boss whereas in VVVVVV there’s a rising spikes challenge with lots of checkpoints.

I think there’s like thirty checkpoints in that level [laughs].

A subject that comes up when you talk about masochism in games is accessibility. VVVVVV is very accessible – basically three buttons. Do you think that an inaccessible game (Dwarf Fortress for instance) could be described as a masochistic game?

I’d have to think about that. It’s a good point. But you also need to separate accessibility from complexity, I guess. I can’t really say much about Dwarf Fortress just because I’ve never gotten into it. But there are other games which are similar in ways, like Space Chem. Space Chem is incredibly complex but very accessible and I guess that would introduce a third axis into that equation.

Do you reckon Space Chem is a masochistic game in that way?

I think we’d have to define the difference between just being difficult and being masochistic. Masochism would kind of imply that you somehow get off on making the player go through explicitly difficult challenges, right?

Well, that could be a sadist’s game, from the point of view of a developer.

Oh, of course! [laughs nervously]

A lot of people had that experience with VVVVVV, of getting frustrated but going back to it time and time again for some compelling reason.

It definitely introduces a difference to Space Chem, which doesn’t ask you to redo the same challenge until you get it right. It more just keeps telling you to work out the solution.

I have a message to pass on. It’s rude, so I apologise. It’s quite sweary but it is a sentiment that comes up quite often when I discuss VVVVVV with anyone.

Is it something about how awful it is?

No, it’s not that. It’s more about the difficulty of it. It reads: “If you get the chance, see if you can slam a door on Terry fucking Cavanagh’s fingers. Tell him I told you to do it and that I said “Piss fuck fuck fucking Veni Vidi Vici fuck piss.” Do you have a response?

Your friend needs to remember that that part of the game is optional and he’s doing it to himself. Nobody needs that trinket! [Laughs] I’m actually surprised at how much I point this out but the collectibles in that game are actually called “Shiny Trinkets” – I mean, how unsubtle can you get! There’s a menu option that allows you to unlock every single challenge in the game and it’s intentional. The idea is you challenge yourself, if you want to, y’know? Nobody has to do Veni Vidi Vici. It’s a ridiculous challenge, it’s muscle memory. I’m shocked at the amount of people who jump right into it to get Shiny Trinkets.

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From Here to Eternity

[Journalism tutor once said never mix hobby journalism with personal politics. Disobeyed. Wrote hybrid bastard child. Deliberated posting for hours. Lots of politics. Quite fictional. Very long. Made cup of tea. Cup of tea said go for it. Must obey tea. Article follows…]

*

So, a Human, a Salarian and a Turian walk into a bar, right. The Human says to the bar lady, “I’ll have three shots of Whiskey please.” The Turian walks up and says “I’ll have three shots of Sambuca, please.” They’re both necking their drinks when the Salarian steps forward. Without warning he slams his own face hard against the bar. He falls over, he’s pissing blood, he can’t stand, totally concussed or whatever. Everyone stops and looks puzzled.

“Why’d you do that?” asks the Human.

“Ah,” replies the Salarian. “Your directive. Came here to get ‘smashed’, correct? Estimated effects of alcohol on body, calculated potential disruption in co-ordination skills, concluded that the most obvious course of action was to throw my head into this counter. Disorientation much more efficiently achieved this way.”

Get it? The Salarian is so consequentialist and utilitarian. It’s not the means that matter – it’s the end! Ha ha. Ha.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s the joke. Yeah, well. One for the philosophers in the audience, I guess. Whatever.

*

They say that when you dream about somebody, it means they went to sleep thinking about you. It was late on a Friday night in Munich when the Prime Minister dreamt of me.

“You know,” I said, as he stepped off the shuttle into the busy spaceport of Nos Astra, capital of Ilium, “this is going to be a weird one.”

“Oh, how interesting!” enthused David Cameron. “Where are we?”

Ilium is an Asari planet. It exists solely in the Mass Effect universe (and David Cameron’s mind, for some reason). Big skyscrapers house bigger corporations. Crime doesn’t really exist because nearly everything is legal. Hovercars careen through lanes of air. No double yellow lines, no zebra crossings and no lollipop ladies sporting friendly smiles. Huge cities moan under the weight of 85 million stock brokers.

It has very lax corporate goods laws, which is useful for politicians and businessmen. And it has a 25 hour day, which is useful for more politicians and more businessmen. But I don’t have 25 hours with David Cameron. If he was anything like Margaret Thatcher (and many suspect that he is) I may only have four. You can understand why I didn’t spend more time explaining the average temperature of the planet (63 °C) or the history of the Asari’s 7th Expansion Wave (fucked if I know). I took the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the lapels and dragged him straight to the bar. Straight to Eternity.

I see your point.

Eternity is a small place. For a pub so close to a landing port, it doesn’t have many patrons. The bar is zero deep. Exactly how I like it. Not too sure how Davey likes his bars. Understaffed, probably. He gives me a look that says “why here?” I respond with a look that says “honey mead.” Except it’s a look reserved for the Asari Matriarch serving the drinks, not for Davey.

“We’re here for several reasons,” I say. “One: that bachelor party with the stripper at table three. Two: the pair of friends having a drink other side of the partition. Don’t look. It’s rude. Three: this bar lady, right here.”

She slams down the honey mead. I smile and take a sip. Davey isn’t drinking. He has work tomorrow.

He looks around at the bachelor party, then he looks around for the press.

“Dreams are not orderly, Davey. We start with number three. No cameras, either. But you can do your meet ordinary people bit without them.”

The bar lady tells us about her parents as she wipes down the surfaces. Mother was an Asari, father was a Krogan. They fought on opposite sides during the Krogan rebellions. Her mother knew all along, but the Krogan father only found out a hundred years after his daughter was born. He went apeshit.

“They called me and said they were going to have it out,” she says. “Made me promise to love whichever one survived. Turns out that was easy, since neither of ‘em did.”

“Oh, that’s dreadful,” says Davey. “In the UK, our party had proposed tax incentives for married couples, to avoid such unpleasant situations. Unfortunately, they didn’t go through in the end. Luckily we have a benefits reform in the pipeline. We hope to see more couples like this stay together, and if they do they will be entitled to an extra £34 a week in benefits.”

The Asari Matriarch looks at the Human, a mix of amusement and scepticism in her eyes. I think she’s looking at his chin. No. No, she can’t be. David Cameron hasn’t got one.

“Do you really think it wise to encourage abusive relationships by offering them cash to stay together?” I ask.

“If the relationship is truly abysmal,” he says, “£34 is not going to be enough to convince the innocent party to stay with an abusive partner. Assuming there is an innocent party.”

“And if the relationship is loveless? Not necessarily abusive. But silently resentful? A poor family might be convinced to stay together. To the detriment of a child, possibly.”

“Every marriage, every relationship, goes through problems. Who hasn’t resented their spouse at some stage?”

“Oh, yes?”

“No! I mean –”

“It’s a dream Davey. You can’t control your mouth. It’s your brain talking. Say what you mean. You won’t be able to help it. I’m taking notes by the way.”

“I mean – the point is this: we do not try hard enough. Marriage and partnership is about sticking it out. We give up too easily.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps some of us don’t give up soon enough? We are liable to destroy ourselves. Male and female. Krogan and Asari. At eachother’s throats, til death do us part.”

“This is a complete reversal of the truth.”

“Perhaps.”

The Matriarch rolls her eyes at both of us, like she’s heard it all before. For a second it seems she knows something we don’t. The kind of look born of caution and resignation. Like we are straying into gender politics, and that it’s a pointless sewer from which nobody can emerge without smelling like someone else’s shit.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go to the stripper.”

“Yes, quite.”

On our way over I tell the Prime Minister the joke about the Human, the Turian and the Salarian. He likes it. I mean, I think he likes it. It could just be politeness. You can never tell with jokes like that.

The three patrons – a Human, a Turian and a Salarian – sit around an Asari stripper, writhing soundlessly atop their table in a navy blue number. The Human and Salarian sit forward, occasionally gesturing their hands in conversation. The Turian sits stiff, hands on his knees. Do Turians have knees? Oh. Yep. Yep, they do. They’re just ‘not supposed to bend that way.’

All the while the Asari wriggles. Viridian neon light bounces off every bleached, clinical surface. Even dirty bars are clean in 2185. This is where we are headed. This is futuresleeze.

“You said bachelor parties were for very close friends,” says the Salarian. “We’re just co-workers.”

“We’ve been co-workers for five years,” says the Human. “Aren’t Salarian years like dog years?”

“Now, that’s offensive.”

Offensive. The word puts Davey’s back up for a millisecond.

So this is were this is going, he thinks. Of course. What with my big gig in Munich tomorrow and my speech on multiculturalism all prepared. Of course.

“It’s called a belly button. Humans and Asari have them,” says the Human. “And you’re going to be doing shots out of it later tonight.”

“That can’t be sanitary,” says the Turian.

“Not the point, man!”

Why wouldn’t I be worrying about this? It is an issue which must be addressed. All this must be unconscious deliberation. I am checking myself.

“I don’t understand how Asari can find humans attractive. They look just like Salarians,” argues the Salarian.

“What? They’re exactly like Humans!” says the Human.

“Look at that head fringe!” scowls the Turian, with the head fringe.

Multiculturalism has failed. I won’t say those words exactly. However, I feel the forcefulness of the message should remain intact. Multiculturalism has failed. That’s how the Staggers will put it. That’s how the rest of them will put it.

“I don’t understand. Humans celebrate wedding contracts by tempting infidelity. That makes no sense.”

“Don’t embarrass me in front of the stripper.”

“What do Turians do? Do they do this too?”

“I’m just here for the drinks.”

This place is a case in point. Look at this disunity between that fellow with the eyes and this young man with the teeth. Separate voices all throwing up opposing identities. It is not good enough. Not good for a liberal society. We need a new liberalism…

“Salarians don’t have have weddings. My family simply negotiated a reproduction contract.”

“It’s the closest thing you get.”

“A MUSCULAR LIBERALISM.”

Everybody turns to look at Davey, whose outburst has attracted the attention of the entire bar. Except the stripper of course, who continues to cycle through the motions – a seedy, looping program, undisturbed by David Cameron.

I make no apologies.

“You see,” the Prime Minister starts, “there is a division of identity here. It can be very discouraging and even dangerous, since it leaves some young people vulnerable to extremists.

“What I’m about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all.

“In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.

“But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.

“We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

Hey, this is good practice. Nice work, REM sleep.

“So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

“The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage – the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don’t want to is a case in point.

The men at the table might be listening but they do not respond. The Salarian blinks, purely for biological reasons.

“This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.”

“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.

“It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”

No response. The stripper gyrates, ignored by all.

“They won’t answer you,” I say, guiding Davey away from the table. “But let me. There’s a pretty country-sized contradiction in your speech. To be a liberal country, we must enforce liberalism? That is like God saying ‘I give you free will to do whatever you like – but you mustn’t do this, this and this.’ I don’t mean to compare you to God, of course. It’s just that, right now, it seems to me you are equally ethereal, equally fictional and equally stupid.”

“Yes, it is a contradiction,” he says. “I make no apologies. Liberal society is built on certain principles. To be a part of that society, you should believe in these principles. We should ask more questions of extremists. If they do not conform to a liberal democracy, then they should expect no help from it.

“So let’s properly judge these people,” he goes on.

“Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.”

“Wait, Davey. Don’t think I didn’t notice that slight of hand.”

“What?”

“‘Do they encourage integration or separatism?’ is a very vague question, subject to very vague answers. In what respects must someone integrate?”

“In the above respects. In democratic respects. In libertarian respects.”

“In cultural respects?”

“Now you are the one being vague. Yes, in some cultural respects. Language being an obvious example.”

“And if an immigrant doesn’t want to learn your language, you would encourage them. Why not leave them alone? That would be the liberal thing to do.”

“But not the muscularly liberal thing to do. You are failing to listen.”

“Never mind all that,” I say, by means of soliciting a ceasefire. Or a distraction. “Go stand by that pair of friends. The Quarian and the Turian over there. Listen in. What? I don’t know. Just pretend you’re looking at the horizon or something, that’s what I always do. That’s right, the girl with the mask.”

The Prime Minister is an obedient man. He rises unquestioningly. Maybe he’s just tired. Should probably get some sleep. Oh, wait.

He steps up to eavesdrop on the conversation.

“This is why you shouldn’t date Humans,” says the Turian male, gesturing calmly.

“So then, I had to explain about cross-species fluid contact,” she says. “Completely killed the mood.”

“Not to mention that you’re a Quarian. How could he be so insensitive?”

The Turian is incredulous. Then he starts dropping his hints.

“You deserve somebody who respects you. Someone who’d treat you right… If you’re hurting for things to do, we could catch a vid after work.”

Oh ho. She’s not keen. Hee hee.

“If worst comes to worst I did get the nerve stimulation program built into my suit. Oh, yeah. Standard equipment for any responsible adult. Here, let me fire it up. Uh, excuse me, Human. Private con-ver-say-shee-on!”

They call it ‘the MP shuffle.’ An awkward, strafing motion made by half-smiling men in suits with unpredictable hand gestures. One moment pointing at something dull and asking a question, the next stroking non-existent stubble and trying to look interested yet common. All the while their lower body has – completely independently – made several lengthy steps escapeward. Face and legs stretched apart in 180 degree contradistinction. Like the girl in the Exorcist, guest-starring in an episode of Looney Toons.

It is thought provoking. I have genuinely provoked thoughts.

“Man, you scurried back here very quickly, my right honourable friend,” I say, as Davey reaches for a drink from the dispenser. He looks flushed. “I guess that’s just flight instinct kicking in.

“Don’t worry, that wasn’t to teach any lesson against government policy. I just wanted to make you feel uncomfortable. I guess, if anything, it might deter you from excessive state surveillance.”

I was never too keen on that anyway.

He hasn’t forgotten the thread of our discussion. Oh, you wily party leader, you.

“The truth is,” he continues, “that instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone. It’s that identity – that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion.”

“No Davey. You are talking bollocks.”

I had sworn. But he didn’t look taken aback. Which made me look rather taken aback. I carried on anyway.

“The best way to make someone identify with their country,” I continued, “is to make their country work for them. Give them more reasons to be grateful. You’re asking people to change to fit their country, when the country should change to fit its people.

“Furthermore, you’re asking people to be proud of a hunk of rock and a set of colours on a cloth. To me there is nothing more despicable than encouraging patriotism at a time of genuine internal social unrest. There are people out shouting ‘Tory wankers’ on the streets. They’re shouting ‘shame on you’ and ‘solidarity’ and all the rest.

“And can you blame them? Most of them are young people. People you will have charged extortionate amounts of money just to go to university in their home country. Meanwhile the big dogs get off lightly. You’re discouraging patriotism in policy and encouraging it in stupid fucking speeches aimed to distract people from real problems.”

“Terrorism is a real problem,” he answers. “The point is this: the ideology of extremism is the problem. This ideology crosses continents – we are all in this together. At stake are not just lives, it’s our way of life.”

“How many people do you know have been blown up by terrorists?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a sad number no doubt. But not as big as the number of people to be affected in some way by public spending cuts. Not as big a number as the millions of unemployed – two and a half million people out of work.”

“Those people are without jobs,” he says. “Victims of terrorism are without lives, without limbs. Those are things you cannot get back with an interview.”

“Okay, okay. I see your point.”

Oh no. Oh, good heavens. What’s happening. Slowly a rusty, primal cog in my brain clicks slightly to the right. I agree with Dave. This is not his dream anymore. It’s my nightmare.

Outside Eternity information brokers buy and sell with no regard for people’s everyday troubles. Stock market jockeys make money buying up cheap shares from businesses on Horizon, a human colony decimated by a Collector attack. Somewhere beyond the transport depot Salarian workers are getting slaughtered by an ambitious corporate Asari called Nassana.

And here I am. I chill out in Eternity. I agree with Dave.

This is something the world of Mass Effect 2 is not lacking. Someone can be both an enormous dick and an intelligent person, with beliefs of their own – opinions you have to respect. You can ‘see their point’, even if you don’t agree.

“I agree,” I start, “I agree that liberal democracy must be defended from people who would take advantage of it – in some cases. If extremists were teaching in prisons I would want that to stop. But if they were preaching outside universities, that is different. Prisoners have nowhere to go. Their access to alternative, moderating opinions are limited. But students have an entire campus to engage in discourse. Trust in the influence of others as a natural countermeasure to extremist politics. In prison, liberty is curtailed. In law-abiding life, liberty is expounded.

“So yeah, knobhead. I agree with you. I agree that liberal democracy must be defended. But I don’t trust you to choose when or at what cost. You would prioritise the process of ‘integration’ and ignore the everyday elements of millions of people’s lives, which you deem mundane –”

“And you,” he says, “by placing less emphasis on the threat of terrorism, and ignoring separatism, would ignore the lives and limbs of the few, which you deem expendable.”

Somewhere in the bar can be heard the sound of a Salarian slamming his head against a counter. An Asari matriarch rolls her eyes. We are getting nowhere.

We sit in silence for a while. If he had a Blackberry I’m sure he’d be checking it.

Twilight spreads over Nos Astra. The thrusters of hovercars and ships glow steadily, drifting to ground level at random. Like orderly embers caught in the straight, horizontal slipstream of an aeroplane full of chain smokers – all huddled round the emergency exit, tossing their butts out one after another. The distant glowing specks drift along and, eventually, they fall.

In 25 hours someone else might dream of the same place.

Hopefully with better company.

“Look, I’m not asking for much here. I understand that capitalism works. But I also understand that it can run amok. Ilium works. But it isn’t exactly a liberal democracy.”

“I don’t accept that,” he says. “That is a complete exaggeration. You mean to imply that we are siding with big business instead of ordinary young people, when that is simply not true.

A voice on Eternity’s sound system interrupts us. An advertisement crackling out over all the clink and shine, a reminder of the unreality of it all, a break in immersion:

“I’m Commander Shepard. And this is my favourite bar on Ilium.”

I smile because it’s familiar. But also because that ad doesn’t belong here. That realisation is stirring. You think too hard about it, you’re liable to lose your place. Before, Davey’s dream and my nightmare had propped eachother up, a weird stable amalgamation of unconscious minds. But now the world began to disintegrate. This was all Commander Shepard’s fault.

“What a hussy.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. Listen, we can argue left and right until the blue sun comes up, Davey. But what British politics needs is balance. Right now it leans too much toward the privileged and the aged. Balance. Balance should be restored.”

For a moment a glow appeared in David Cameron’s eyes – an ember of understanding. Then he looked around him, as if seeing the spaceport for the first time. He smiled and nodded like he could finally, triumphantly, see my point.

Then he chuckled and said: “Balance must be restored to the force.” And I realised he didn’t see anything at all.

As the Prime Minister got back onto his private shuttle, he turned to wave at the photographers, before remembering there weren’t any. He took off and I hoped against the dissolving, waking world that he’d think hard about at least some of the things we talked about. But dreams are like promises. Brittle things, easily forgotten.

Bye, Davey.

[You can hear the above character dialogues from Mass Effect 2 in Eternity on Ilium. But not the ones with Mr Cameron or me in them, obviously. And here you can read Davey C’s speech at the Munich security conference, February 2011]

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