February 28, 2008

Suddenly, Games Industry

Did you know that I am a game designer? In fact, I have a design credit on a title which attracted top-shelf designers from SCEE and IO Interactive, and had no less than Clint Hocking on board as a consultant. That's going on my resume. Right after "Writes obnoxiously cute and patronising intros for blog posts."

I was completely the wrong audience for the Games Design Workshop, and arguably for the conference in general. Fully aware of this, I would have likely blown it off if everyone I talked to about GDC hadn't urged me to take part. Predictably, it was great. Absolutely a GDC highlight.

Still, I'm not sure that it made me think any differently about game design. I learnt all about the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetic framework and Marc LeBlanc's Eight Kinds of Fun, both of which were immediately understandable and illuminating. But I haven't given them any further thought after seeing them on those Powerpoint slides. Maybe the workshop, which is all about visceral game experiences and high-pressure re-designs, isn't the best forum for an academic discussion on design codification. Or maybe I'm just an idiot. You never know; I might write a post about MDA and how that's reshaped my design philosophy. I'm sure I won't, though.

Frank Lantz (who I initially confused with Frank Luntz, and was terrified) taught us SissyFight 3000 (or, as they called it for no reason, SiSSYFiGHT 3000) which was based on a web game co-designed by Eric Zimmerman. It's a turn-based game where six players use a variety of attacks and prisoner's-dilemma mechanics to take down each other's hit points, and that has to do with school girls or something. Why am I telling you the rules when you could play it yourself? Who do I think I am, Frank Luntz? Actually, the "hit points" are "self-esteem points" and the attacks are things like teasing and bullying. The game reminded me strongly of Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble. Nobody I spoke to had heard of that game, giving me a gratifying infusion of indie cred.

Split into groups of six, our task was to adapt this game's mechanics and competitive dynamic to an entirely different setting. The turn-based attack/defend structure of the game lent itself most obviously to something along the lines of DEFCON, an idea which naturally everyone came up with. We finally decided on a celebrity-themed game, which unfortunately lacked the catchy title of my suggestion, Prison Bitch. (It came a close second.)

In our excited, frantic discussions, we breathlessly conceived of an amazing game wherein players represented celebrities, and used tools such as slander, lawsuits and the fabled "do lunch" card to manage their client's reputation points (hit points.) We came up with more concepts than we could handle, including a fame-infamy meter and a mechanic through which players could stage their comeback (i.e. return to the game after losing.) Eventually Clint Hocking told us to shut up and try to play the thing.

It didn't work very well and we went back to talking. Because we had a ton of features and no clue how to implement them, the level designer from IO got us to focus on the core rules of our game. We looked at our ideas for revised attack cards and, celebrity theme aside, thought about what would make for a cool game. The conversation zeroed in on the lawsuit card, which had been developed from a simple +1 damage attack to a hyper-complicated and intentionally frustrating legal maneuver whose gameplay effects were contingent on other players' moves and what alliances were in effect and so on.

I am at a loss to explain how this one card consumed our entire design. We mercifully simplified it so that the card's use would nullify the action of another player, shutting them out for that round. We called it the "lockdown" card. I hope it's clear that we entirely lost sight of what our game was supposed to be about. I pointed out that we could ditch that now non-existent celebrity theme since we had devised a pretty good game about lawyers, but no one went for it. Nonetheless, everything was working okay until we realised that with the lockdown card this was now a game about people not actually getting to play the game.

We regrouped and introduced one cool mechanic after another until we ran out of time and had to present our "celebrity" game. We were forced to admit that we had lost sight of that fun, sexy aesthetic and instead had produced an intensely rules-focused game which would have to be marketed to the hardcore SiSSYFiGHT fans.

What was the lesson of "Lockdown"? Nothing, I stubbornly refused to learn anything. But I did take something from the Design Workshop, and that was through getting to work with programmers, engineers, CEOs, producers, students, teachers, designers of military simulations for the Soviet Union (!) and finding out that they know an incredible amount about games and are not only enthusiastic about making good games, but are surprisingly talented at doing so. It was genuinely inspiring. We typically think of developers as the sole creative collective and everyone else is interference but maybe that isn't strictly the case. And I have to admit to a satisfying degree of smugness in knowing how a certain snot-nosed reporter completely held his own in those design meetings. Frankly, I killed.

Ultimately it is all about me.

February 27, 2008

Post-GDC Report: I Have Done Lines With The Following Industry Professionals

Breaking news: GDC is over.

At no point during GDC did I realise that I was at GDC. If I had ever stopped to consider where I was and who I was talking to I would have exploded. My career trajectory has been such that if I was ever to work in the games industry it would likely be on games being made by the little community centre three blocks from where I grew up. And yet for one week I was inexplicably at the heart of the industry, sitting next to designers I'd written ten blog posts about, shaking hands with people who had only ever existed to me as abstract internet entities. In that Portal post-mortem Erik Wolpaw said how players, after escaping the fire pit, felt like they broke the game. I feel like I broke my life.

GDC was like being at college if college was actually astounding and without assignments and exams; instead, a unanimous, die-hard pledge to do better. It was quite something. And amazing as it all was, it's a testament to the people I met that they were, no question, the best part. If you're wondering whether I mean you, the answer is yes. Especially you. Thanks to everyone. Without you it would have sucked.

I have a lot to write about GDC, by which I mean I have a lot of material to pad out my blog with over the next two weeks to further avoid the burden of relevancy. Nonetheless, I'm sure it will be very exciting. It will make you feel like I was there.

I didn't do lines with anyone.

February 20, 2008

Someone Got Fired

I interrupt my vow of silence to bring you this special bulletin. I am not going to talk about GDC because that would throw off my plan to chronologically recount the entire thing a week from now. I bet you can't wait.

The GDC 08 Program Guide has, on pages 20-21, a list of GDC event partners, with each name accompanied by an informative blurb.

The entry for EGM, on page 20:

EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly) is the leading multi-platform publication, boasting the biggest readership of any independent gaming magazine. Tight, smart, authoritative editorial backed by industry insider information, accessible only to the most respected reporters, has made EGM the most widely-read book on the crowded gaming newsstand. EGM's stellar reputation earns it exclusive first-looks at all the hottest new titles and hardware, and lends its editors' expertise to deliver informed game previews, reviews and original, intelligent features. egm.1up.com


Now, on page 21, the entry for Games For Windows: The Official Magazine, EGM's sister publication under the Ziff Davis banner.

GFW (Games for Windows: The Official Magazine) is the leading multi-platform publication, boasting the biggest readership of any independent gaming magazine. Tight, smart, authoritative editorial backed by industry insider information, accessible only to the most respected reporters, has made EGM the most widely-read book on the crowded gaming newsstand. EGM's stellar reputation earns it exclusive first-looks at all the hottest new titles and hardware, and lends its editors' expertise to deliver informed game previews, reviews and original, intelligent features. www.gamesforwindows.com


No shit. That's absolutely verbatim. And it's the wrong URL, by the way: that's for Games for Windows the Microsoft initiative, not the magazine.

For all my failings as a "games journalist", at least I am not the guy who did that.

February 14, 2008

One For The Road

Hey, you! I'm directly addressing my readers. The fourth wall is broken. First of all, I apologise for not posting as much this month as I probably should have. Also, the posts I did write were all largely irrelevant. Whoops. Before clicking Publish Post, I should stop and ask myself, "am I writing something that people will be interested in, like a one-console future, or independent development, or whether games are art?" The answer to that last one, by the way, is who cares, but from here on in I will be referring to my blog as art.

My point is that everything is about to change. Irrevocably so. Because I am shutting down Hit Self-Destruct next week I will be representing at the Game Developers Conference. No kidding! Who's irrelevant now, huh?

This GDC trip is going to launch Hit Self-Destruct into the stratosphere. I'm not kidding about that, either. My GDC coverage will completely blow your mind. When you read it like a week after the event, that is. You probably shouldn't expect much from the show floor itself, because I do want to take some time off from this iron maiden.

I leave you with this thought-provoking piece. I'll be back from GDC with more art!

Love,
Duncan

I think it's ridiculous that "story" and "gameplay" have persisted as separate institutions for as long as they have. I don't just mean in the minds of gamers (although I do mean that) but in the minds of designers, too. So many games lazily reinforce that separation by punctuating levels with cutscenes wherein the story is told in its entirety. We've reached a point where story, handled badly, becomes not just overbearing but perfunctory and thus is perceived to encroach on the game itself. It comes to be seen as a necessary evil that the medium picked up like a rash somewhere along the way. "If I wanted a story," gamers say, "I'd read a book." What no one seems to grasp is that games have the potential to be both a great story and a great game. A comic book can have a great script and look beautiful, and no one seems to think that either of those components is worth less than the other or that they are mutually exclusive. Good storytelling in games is not an implausibility. We should have games that a mainstream audience turns to for good writing in any medium. That should be the goal, instead of casually dismissing the notion outright.

Furthermore, the singular stigma attached to story is dumb. "If I wanted something pretty, I'd look at a painting. If I wanted to hear music, I'd listen to a symphony. If I wanted to shoot guys, I'd rob a liquor store." At the risk of blowing everyone's minds, I think most hardcore gamers are in actuality casual gamers, insofar as they want games to be essentially superficial experiences: pick up and play, put down and forget.

But I'd have to say that the worst thing about the present condition is how I've been reduced to martyrly whining. Yikes.

The Obsidian-BioWare Trilogy

Part 1: Neverwinter Nights 2 Gets A 5
Part 2: The BioWare All-Stars
Part 3:

It finally ends, unless I run out of other material. See you tomorrow, then.

All signs
point to BioWare developing the third Knights of the Old Republic. I'm a little surprised since BioWare had seemed eager to focus on their own IP with Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic-surrogate Mass Effect and... Sonic. Although I loved the first Knights of the Old Republic, I'm not particularly thrilled with this announcement, because I loved the second game too.

It was a story-focused, continuing series that switched developers (and therefore writers) and that's typically a bad sign. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Myst, which went totally off the rails after Riven. The terrible-looking, thankfully-cancelled Full Throttle 2. Even the great Curse of Monkey Island was somewhat at odds with the previous games. Maybe Deus Ex 3 will end up on this list? Obsidian handled it better than anyone. They drew a new story from the established KotOR backstory, wrote mostly their own, all-new characters and ended up with a game which drove the series forward in a very exciting way without really touching what BioWare had done.

They didn't end it, though. They positioned their game as the second part in a trilogy and established a clear direction for the third installment. Now I'm not sure if it'll ever get there.

Obsidian's put BioWare in a relatively good position -- a basic premise, a setting, and certain important characters for the third game, which still leaves a ton of room for BioWare to put their fingerprints all over it. Still, it's limiting, and BioWare would still have to conclude another writer's story. I've never seen any evidence from them that they're happy to follow someone else's lead.

My fear is that BioWare will ignore the second game almost entirely in favour of a "next-gen Knights of the Old Republic" -- basically a reboot, basically a brand new Star Wars Adventure, basically Another BioWare RPG with all the BioWare trappings. They can do this easily because Obsidian didn't give the series the momentum of "Finish the fight."

I like BioWare, and they'll make a good game. But I liked Obsidian's story more. If they change direction, whether it's because of ego, commercial reasons or whatever, it'll be a waste. It really was going somewhere good, and no one's going to ask BioWare if that's where they're going. They'll ask them how many new force powers there are.

February 12, 2008

The BioWare All-Stars

For all its faults -- and it is mostly all faults -- Neverwinter Nights 2 does something I really appreciate. What I like in this game, and in Knights of the Old Republic 2 before it -- and going back to the company's Black Isle days, in Planescape: Torment -- are the party members. I don't mean as characters. I'm referring to Obsidian's philosophy of party composition and narrative utilisation. Who knew there was such a thing?!

I swear that this is qualifiable. I'm not pulling this out of my ass. Well, not entirely.

Look at BioWare, Obsidian's occasional collaborator/close competitor. Look at Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and even as far back as Baldur's Gate. These games put together a cast of characters which are very diverse, very interesting -- and which the player will never, ever use. They'll join the party, they'll play a big part in one mission, then they'll fall back to headquarters and you won't see much of them again.

In BioWare's newer games you can only take two (or in Jade Empire, one) party members with you at a time so you have to take the best. Too bad for the Tertiary Knights of the Old Republic, then, who aren't very powerful, nor are they at all relevant to the story. The game will have two or three important characters, who appear in all the cutscenes, interact with the villains, and with whom you can fall in love. It is really Two Dudes, The Girl And The Moochers Who Wouldn't Leave The Spaceship Of The Old Republic. When you see the entire party being celebrated at the end of the game, with everyone cheering and waving, what are the Two Dudes (and the Girl) thinking? "Hey, some of us worked for this a little harder than others." Or, "who the hell is that guy?"

For all their ostensible focus on storytelling, BioWare doesn't approach this like they're telling a story. Instead, they treat it as drafting a fantasy football team or like a fighting game where it ought to be a thrill to control Darth Vader or Zelda. BioWare briefly construct an entity who hopefully piques the player's interest -- this is indeed a curious character, perhaps you would like him in your party? -- and quickly wash their hands of him. From there the player has to pick up the slack. But nine times out of ten, he's staying in the cargo hold.

Obsidian doesn't and Black Isle didn't do this, at least in the three games I've mentioned. It's not that the player is compelled to pick Obsidian's "lesser" characters for the team -- that dynamic's still the same. That's not a concern, though, because unlike BioWare, Obsidian's characters all have major plot significance throughout. Their kids stay in the picture. Obsidian can give the player a concrete narrative reason why these people are in your party and BioWare cannot. This isn't a puzzling gameplay problem, it's basic narrative technique. BioWare makes a big deal of introducing characters and then sidelines them.

The Knights of the Old Republic games are a good example since each company has made one. HK-47 is a great character but he's a textbook case: he's only necessary once, when you first meet him, and any further interaction is optional and superfluous. Yet there he is, hanging around for no good reason. The same is true of Mission, of Canderous, of Juhani, of Jolee -- practically everyone except Carth and Bastila. An early party addition is the droid T3-M4 who literally is only needed to open a door. Thanks, guy, now back to the ship. We'll call you. There is no conceivable reason to put him back into the rotation.

The sequel's different. The party members all have intrinsic relevance to the story. Even the returning T3-M4, the robot who communicates in electronic squeals, is somehow a major character. You still won't use him, of course, except when you have to, but nonetheless he's interacting with other party members and carrying out his own agenda outside your direction. Obsidian turned a door key into a convincing character with a convincing life -- and he's the one with the least personality of the bunch. And no one should be under any illusions about why HK-47, the most popular character ever in a Star Wars game, reappears in the sequel -- yet he's considerably more important in Obsidian's game; dominating an entire strand of the main plot.

I don't think this is accidental. Chris Avellone, specifically, has demonstrated a major interest in party mechanics over his career, occasionally translating into BioShock-esque metafiction. Both Torment and Knights of the Old Republic have scenes specifically addressing and explaining why your companions are forced to follow you like they do, with little autonomy or self-regard. With Neverwinter Nights 2, party members will react strongly if they feel neglected or disrespected. I think this is a conscious design choice: that Avellone and Obsidian are deliberately trying to break away from that Baldur's Gate template of three characters and a wider cast of interchangeable henchmen.

As much as it blindly emulates its predecessors, Neverwinter Nights 2 takes a long, critical look at its lineage: at all the stay-at-home adventurers who have arbitrarily chosen to see the player and his quest through, and rather than suspending its disbelief, calls it out. For that, at least, thank you.

February 7, 2008

Neverwinter Nights 2 Gets A 5

If you’re as hooked in to internet hysteria as I am (à la Samantha Morton in Minority Report, if instead of the future she saw, you know, idiocy,) you might remember this. In November 2006, Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights 2 was ushered into the world alongside a negative review written for the magazine Games for Windows but which first appeared on 1UP. It was written by Matt Peckham and it engendered a level of message board hostility that wasn’t matched until Jeff Gerstmann gave Twilight Princess an 8.8 later that month.

For that week, though, the internet coalesced around this one review, which had taken issue, perhaps disproportionately so, with typical CRPG conventions and the Dungeons & Dragons rules in particular. It wasn’t a review of Neverwinter Nights 2, they said, it was a review of D&D rules – and a bad one. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t review the game on its merits. This guy’s just not a fan of RPGs. The epicentre was a thread at the usually stable Quarter to Three, which this time Peckham had crawled all over and stabbed in its weak spot.

Peckham’s crime, rather than penning the single worst piece of video game writing ever, was to throw rocks at the wrong hornet’s nest: the hardcore RPG set – brittle, humourless and internet-savvy. The Ron Paul supporters of video games. The internet has always had a significant and ridiculous percentage in the initial review scores for games they haven’t played and this was no exception – but they’d never seemed so insulted.

The review was eventually pulled, due to complaints regarding its tone and fairness. This being the internet, though, the original text will always be around on one blog or another. I encourage you to read it over and judge for yourselves the fairness or the quality of its writing. I can’t tell you that but I can tell you that his review is completely accurate as to my experience. I don’t know Peckham but I can vouch that his review is – 100% — the honest product of playing this game.

Neverwinter Nights 2 typifies the D&D video game experience like nothing else I’ve ever played. I don’t mean that, like Baldur’s Gate 2, it perfects the formula, but rather that there is nothing else there. The charge that the text was all invective directed at CRPG convention would be a fine complaint if Peckham had written the same review for Planescape: Torment, but not for this game.

He didn’t review it on its merits, cried the people who had never touched this game. Well, please, what are they? The purpose of this game is to evoke other games, and to allow for the least obstructed simulation of D&D rules ever. A thoroughly serious appreciation for character sheets and die rolls is a minimum system requirement. It is not Neverwinter Nights 2’s prerogative to have a personality of its own. The game practically celebrates cliché.

This is patently clear from the outset. The player character is introduced to his foster father and soon his village is under attack. How can you pull this in 2006? I’m absolutely serious. It’s like opening a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Are you trying to be funny?

I’m tempted to conclude that the whole thing is an intentionally nostalgic throwback, but that’s dressing up its banality to make it appear cute. This is not a very creative game. For a genre with relatively broad auspices, Neverwinter Nights 2 always comes back to overlong exterminations of bandits and monsters. There’s one part where the player must reach a certain room, but the door is locked. It comes as no surprise that there’s a secret underground passage full of demonic creatures that the player must fight through to get to the door that’s one foot away. At the end of these catacombs are a series of statues that will administer a quiz. If you answer incorrectly: monsters. If you answer correctly: monsters. Rinse and repeat.

The combat is still straight out of Baldur’s Gate, still clunky, still hands-off, still orchestrated as to simulate D&D rules; that’s the priority, still? It has contemporary worth only as a deliberate anachronism tailored to players who angrily resent BioWare et al. for prostituting themselves to the console hordes.

I’d have no problem with the combat if it weren’t the focus. It’s something this game, operating on this very specific model, simply cannot do. The game climaxes in a long dungeon grind—fight this guy, fight him again, fight twenty copies of him—followed by an astonishingly poor post-script that erases any remaining goodwill the game had earned.

The straw-man is that this is a game for D&D fans and if you’re not among their number you will of course find the heavy mathematical bent to be tedious. But none of the above is the result of an over-reliance on D&D rules. However, it is, all together, evidence of creative exhaustion, and consequently, a fallback on tradition. This is a game for ten years ago. Here I am the put-upon hero with a special destiny solving everyone’s problems, choosing between good and evil, and as the alarm threatens to go off on my biological clock, desperately clutching onto whichever party member will have me. Do I have to do this all over again? Isn’t it time you found someone else?

BioWare took their strain of RPG in a new direction with Knights of the Old Republic: more accessible, yes, but streamlined and tightly focused on narrative with emphasis on characters and choices. With the real-time combat of Jade Empire and Mass Effect they eschewed significant facets of the traditional CRPG to varying degrees of success. Obsidian, with little time to design Knights of the Old Republic 2, followed BioWare’s lead and produced an interesting hybrid between the first game and Planescape: Torment. This left the question of where Obsidian would go next – if, along with BioWare and Bethesda, these pioneers of RPG design would make an RPG for 2006. They didn’t. I realise that not everyone enjoys “the new direction,” but Neverwinter Nights 2 is an argument for nothing. It doesn’t tell me why this structure is necessary for a good game. It is not just an anachronistic RPG; it is a weak one.

Installing this game in January 2008, the auto-patcher needed to run for over an hour. Official patches are still being compiled. This game must have shipped in a horrifying state. It’s still faulty. AI is bad. Path-finding is bad. Loading times are bad. The camera can be manipulated into a reasonable state, but it takes too much work to master (i.e. any work.) I cut Obsidian some slack for their tight deadline on Knights of the Old Republic 2, but eventually you guys will have to get it together.

In response to the Peckham review, lead designer J.E. Sawyer said something dry about what brilliant journalism it was to criticise something for being exactly what it set out to be. Really?

The aim of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake was to match shot-for-shot Hitchcock’s original. That’s what it did, and no-one liked it. It was too much like Psycho. It couldn’t breathe. Even Van Sant admitted it didn’t work. Alien vs. Predator exists to have an alien and a predator and have them fight. They do. It’s terrible. Alien is considerably better, because Alien is more than just an alien being scary. It’s not the 1900s anymore. Don’t expect anyone to be thrilled with the prosaic reportage of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.

I don’t understand why Sawyer and Obsidian are happy to set their sights that low. This isn’t just the genre that gave us Fallout and Torment, it’s some of the same people. I’m not denying Neverwinter Nights 2’s relative accomplishment. Yes, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. Does it have dungeons? Check. Does it have dragons? Check. Ten out of ten. Congratulations, you’ve adapted some D&D rulebook. Now what are you going to do? Oh. I see. As if the rules are the fun part. The design of this game reminds me of things I didn’t like about the old games and the things I did like are notable only by their absence.

I understand D&D is the license. It’s supposed to be “the point.” I understand that people like to play these for the rules, as if this is a genre of sports games forever to be built on the same principles—and I understand that these people love this game; it’s the best RPG they’ve played since Baldur’s Gate 2. That’s because of “the rules”, and Neverwinter Nights 2 for me has turned “rules” into a dirty word. It’s like not seeing the forest for the trees. The RPG has made so much progress in so many directions since Baldur’s Gate 1 that the genre by now has more to offer than acting as a calculator.

Adapting a ruleset. It’s like “adapting” Grand Theft Auto in so far as you release a game where all you do is drive cars in a large open environment. It doesn’t exactly cut it anymore. We know you can do it. We’ve played it. You’re giving us a Crazy Taxi knock-off when you could give us No More Heroes.

This is a genre that's shamed the rest of the industry with the quality of its writing, non-linearity and gameplay diversity. This genre has produced gaming milestones. Not D&D milestones, not RPG milestones. Then the rubber band snaps back to the absolute basics and it’s five guys at a card table rolling dice. Character builds and to-hit rolls and this, that and the other thing… and apparently the genre is only about this and if you miss the other stuff then you’re not a “fan.” What’s left when you remove everything but the basics? An entirely superficial and unfulfilling experience.

I’ve always seen D&D as equivalent to an engine, “lore” aside. It’s fine as a series of spreadsheets that govern the action but something needs to be built on it. Otherwise the only fascination it holds is to the hardcore. A game sold on pure mechanics and the distant memories of past successes; that’s Unreal Tournament 3. In an alternative universe we’d be riding out the internet tsunami over low UT3 scores. Who assigned the review to the guy who clearly doesn’t get multiplayer FPSs. He’s probably a Team Fortress 2 fan. There but for the grace of God.

Neverwinter Nights 2 had some good moments, ones I’ll remember. They absolutely were not when I levelled up a half-elf or enchanted a +3 longsword. That’s never been what I’ve taken from these games. What I did take were the moments when Neverwinter Nights 2 hinted at something else. From a narrative design perspective, the best-conceived party member in the game is Shandra Jerro, and the way she is utilised is not at all how party members are supposed to work. It does some very interesting things with the influence system— Obsidian’s invention, not D&D’s — especially at the end. But these moments are fleeting and merely tease at a relevant design. The game is not for people who enjoy that. It is for people who want to raid one orc-infested cave after another and you will not forget that.

I think I’m through with D&D games. It has nothing to do with the rules. It has everything to do with the games that use them being so content as to let that be all there is. Is that really it? Is that the best you can do? Find someone else.

February 4, 2008

Lili would like to be added as one of your friends!

If you ever read a Tim Schafer interview in the last four years, you're already familiar with what I'm about to point out. Nonetheless I will continue in my condescending ways as if I'm dramatically pulling back a curtain to unveil King Kong or something. Now you gasp.

Characters are unusually important in Psychonauts -- a mundane observation since almost the entire game is shaped to reflect individual psychologies. Besides that, there's still a large contingent of summer camp kids--minor characters, comparatively--who don't inform the gameplay. The player never got inside their heads and probed their memories, like they did with Sasha Nein and Coach Oleander. They never got that chance. Or did they?? A ha ha. Ladies and gentlemen, the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Schafer knew these characters had to be catered for, and early in the game's development, it helped him to define their personalities by creating their Friendster profiles. That covered their likes and dislikes but, of considerably more interest, how these characters felt about each other.

They're still online, too, transposed to MySpace. Start here and work your way through the other 19.

Here's some more observations, starting again with the mundane.

Tim Schafer clearly has no trouble being funny but he's remarkably "on" here for what amounts to a design document. I feel comfortable putting on an authoritative air and proclaiming that these comedy profiles are absolutely the best thing Friendster ever produced. And people probably got married through Friendster. Pfft, how long is that going to last.

Who knows when those profiles were written (Tim Schafer does) but they're remarkably consistent with the characters as they appeared in the game. There's no deviation. This isn't concept art. Because Psychonauts followed these profiles so closely, they're fully compatible with the game's fiction. This should be on a recommended reading list after finishing Psychonauts.

It's excellent supplementary material. Minor oddities from the game suddenly click into place: Elton's fascination with water, in the game a simple quirk that no one noticed, now sadly makes sense. You'll learn the extended saga of Phoebe and Quentin's band, and who has a crush on who.

I'm not a fan of backstory. I don't believe that you need to chart entire histories for your characters before actually writing anything. The writer does not need to know what happened on the character's 18th birthday unless the story is about her 18th birthday. That's a pointless exercise. Characters should be informed by the story that's being told rather than by a pre-production brainstorm. Fortunately, that's not what this is. Schafer didn't write their biographies. These are honest snapshots of the characters that are also completely plausible as Friendster pages, rather than a character sketch or exposition dump. Schafer has become more and more adept at writing believable characters who have lives beyond the game. He manages this with relatively little dialogue, unlike other games which try to do the same thing by engaging the player in meaningless conversations about total trivialities, written by designers who think "being brief" is an underwear preference. Schafer is maybe the only game writer who gets it. He uses words to entertain the player instead of bore the shit out of them.

Keeping all this in mind, I am moved to ask: why were these pages not in the game? Imagine if there had been a computer in the lodge where you could pull these up. That's the kind of thing that takes you from an A to an A+. Chris Todd wouldn't have blown that! Look at those profiles and try and match that wit, charm and pathos to any other game. That stuff's too good to leave as a post-mortem anecdote. It saddens me.