March 29, 2008

Stop/Thief

Consistency is trouble. No one is astonished when a great team produces a great game; in fact it's taken for granted. It's that attitude which retroactively strips Harvey Smith of any involvement in the first Deus Ex and instead hangs all the sequel's problems around his neck alone. Given the number of internal, external and sometimes unidentifiable factors that magically have to go right during the whole process, it's sadly not that difficult for talented people to make mediocre games. Conversely, the "wrong" people working on a title instead lends itself to often irrational suspicion. One of the best reasons to be optimistic about Fallout 3 is that doing so firmly entrenches one's nonalignment with a faction of absolute crazy people.

I feel like video games own more than their share of missed opportunities. Sequels that never were; franchises that are inaugurated with a press release declaring the upcoming (and likely doomed) sci-fi epic "the first in a trilogy!". Too many developers too often blow the last act of the first game before they get round to not delivering on the remainder of their promise.

You can't otherwise conceive of how satisfying it is, then, to be able to say goodbye in the right way, especially when all the odds are against it. It's difficult enough to produce three quality and creatively consistent games consecutively. It's a difficult title to launch in the first place when it fundamentally rests on taking the incredibly popular FPS and removing the S. Then when the studio shuts down and the property is sold, well, that is difficult.


It's kind of a miracle that Thief 3 found its way to Warren Spector's Ion Storm Austin, the only studio that was comprised of ex-Looking Glass employees; was in the business of making Looking Glass-style games; and wasn't so caught up in the idea of making their mark on the Thief franchise that they weren't willing to hire the former design leads of the cancelled Looking Glass Thief 3, Randy Smith and Terri Brosius, as project director/lead designer and writer, respectively. Those magical, unidentifiable factors? Sometimes you can identify them.

I mean, it was natural to be concerned. No franchise is comprised of such pristine, elemental qualities that it can be whored out to any number of development teams varying in competence and not eventually contract something deadly. "It's ________:," says the nervous fan, who's not jaded enough, "as long as they ________, they can't get it wrong." They get it wrong. Thief cannot sustain itself beyond the people who make it. They are all the difference. Therefore I don't mean to marginalise the rest of the Thief: Deadly Shadows team when I stress Ion Storm Austin's choice to involve Smith and Brosius (also Laura Baldwin, Stephen Russell -- not to mention Eric Brosius, then the full-time audio director at Irrational Studios, and who Irrational let work on the next game in this series whose distinctive sound he created.) Because for an industry that largely doesn't care about names unless they're Names, this was heartwarming.

Randy Smith, after having been a designer on the first two Thief games, was promoted to project director and initially assumed lead design responsibilities on Deadly Shadows. The lead designer position eventually went to Jordan Thomas, who co-designed (with Smith) the famously unsettling Shalebridge Cradle mission and later BioShock's Fort Frolic. A pretty unbeatable combination to be sure; the Cradle is a series high point. It's also the dramatic progeny of Thief I level Return to the Cathedral, designed, again, by Randy Smith. Smith's contributions to Thief I are all of a type: the haunted cathedral, the freakish escape level following the moment the game turns itself inside out. Smith introduced slow stealth to total terror and defined better than anyone the latter's permanent place within the Thief series.

Terri Brosius's career would be considered pretty strikingly diverse if her Looking Glass colleague Seamus Blackley hadn't rendered all other video game career paths forever mundane. A designer on Thief II, the iconic voice of System Shock's SHODAN and songwriter/keyboardist in the Boston-based industrial rock band Tribe (note Greg "Guitar Hero" LoPiccolo in the middle there.) Most relevantly, a writer on Thief one through three.

Thief is not a trilogy in the typically overblown sense of the word. It's not a continuing storyline and the final part does not resurrect the villain from the first game or introduce his vengeful brother. Thief handles the trilogy with class. There are only a few narrative elements that unite the game as more than a collection of three stand-alone thrillers. The three games tell one story each about one of three ideological factions, with the most mysterious saved for last. The Pagans, the Hammerites and the Keepers were played off against one another as early as Thief I: it only makes sense to extend that recurring trinity to the plots of the three games. Similar foresight goes into the character arc of protagonist Garrett. While Garrett's story is pretty simple it nevertheless hits all its marks at all the right times. It was very deliberately conceived and executed right from the start, it's not ad-hoc "character development" like the last two Back to the Future movies.

Garrett is the only thing to give this trilogy any finality. To be fair, the value of his arc to the trilogy could have been more pronounced and for that matter each game's plot is essentially the same. Which is fine. This is not a trilogy that lives or dies solely on its writing and needs romance and grandiose denouements to breathe. Thief: Deadly Shadows is an appropriately muted exit strategy that is consistent with what Thief's always been about.

As important as the story was in giving Thief I the edge on its sequel, the series was always about the gameplay. For three games it dared to underpower the player in a medium that was getting increasingly generous with positive reinforcement and players becoming superheroes. But Thief was never oppressive, punishing or unfair; it wasn't System Shock 2 keeping the player under its thumb with broken weapons and respawning enemies. The game disadvantaged the player in ways that were perfectly reminiscent of real life. Garrett was almost always outmatched and combat would get him killed. He never had a romance subquest and whatever good he did went unrecognised. It worked because the rules were instantly familiar. Thief tapped into a basic human impulse: not stealing or self-aggrandisement, but survival. Garrett was no one really special. He wasn't a hero. He wasn't a crusader. Events in the world of Thief conspired to control him and he quite reasonably wanted no part of it. He was surrounded by excessive ideology at a time when all he cared about -- and what nobody else did -- was his own problems.

For a game about thievery, Thief is strangely life-affirming. Wouldn't it be great, it says, if you didn't have to worry about the shadows and the silence and hiding in stark terror from all these things so much more powerful than you. Without even trying, Thief taught players to appreciate the gratifying heft of a shotgun like no other game. Unlike everyone else, who can brazenly strut around in the open, talking as loudly as they like and with swords at their side, ultimately you will have to go it your own way. Life is difficult, Thief says, but you can do it. In the end it will be worth it.

That was the message and it never really wavered. That was Thief, one, two, three.

Eventually it's over. Three games in six years and all their missions, their dialogue, their problems, they all lose their clarity and coalesce into sensation and nostalgia, which tell us what was really important. Visually, we forget the graphics, more dated than a prom queen, and we remember the arresting, timelessly stylistic cutscenes and the strange curves of the architecture. We remember the experience over the mechanics. Not loading zones or A.I. exploits. We remember the self-satisfied exhilaration of the getaway and we remember those moments of pure adrenaline and of gut-wrenching horror, of lying still, lying quiet in the dark, eyes locked, never blinking, on a guard who'd kill you if he found you, who's out there looking for that small sound he heard somewhere in the shadows. The moments, transcendental, of watching this creature -- something inhuman or human once -- stumble down the halls, crying out in animal shrieks and moans, on his way past you, hidden but close enough to touch -- and you with your dagger in one hand, held slippery in clammy palms, heart stopping in your chest, no room to move, so close now, can't breathe, everything silent.

Then they're gone.

March 21, 2008

The First Part

I wonder if this blog would be more popular if I started smoking. I know for sure it won't be popular if I keep writing about Thief. But I don't care! I'll write about Thief forever!


I'm not qualified at all to offer up a critique on level design, but I think the Thief series would make for a great case study since each level should have a clear path through the architecture which the player will not actually take. I will leave that musing on the level design of a dead franchise to someone else (or more accurately, nobody) while I work in my weird story bias here solely to gratify myself. An interesting fact of the series' development is that Thief I and Thief II were built on mutually exclusive foundations: with the first, the missions were designed around the story and the opposite was true with the second. This is retroactively apparent: the story in the first is certainly more prominent and of tighter construction than that of the sequel, whose levels, in contrast, were open-ended and significantly larger.

In this dichotomous world where "story" and "gameplay" are completely separate constructs and gameplay automatically trumps story as the player's concern, Thief II is, as divined through cold rationality, the better game. Here's a shocker: I believe Thief I to be superior. I guess you can put my preference partly down to the writing, but my contention is that even Thief I's levels and missions top those of its sequel. Objectively, of course, Thief II has it all: pure concentration on stealth gameplay, bigger areas, less linearity... some of that's down to technology, but that's still a point in its favour.

What it lacks is subjectivity. I don't mean it fails to capture my subjective and arbitrary preference. I mean that, especially in comparison to its predecessor, Thief II lacks any kind of emotional quality. It's flattened out, every edge has been sanded off. Thief I is the quietest, tensest roller-coaster ever devised. It was scary, it was surprising, and it's varied: it had zombie levels which not everyone loved but which nonetheless kept players engaged. Above all else it was breathtaking to experience this kind of game for the first time ever. Thief II results from a design team refining the core experience to the point where while it's consistent, it's comparatively unremarkable and -- since Thief I proved the viability of the stealth thing as a formula -- takes zero risks. Thief II's highlights like Life of the Party, a breaking-and-entering excursion across city rooftops, are fun in abstract ways -- they're great concepts for stealth gameplay but they don't mean anything in the larger context of the game. Thief I is overflowing with freakish and unforgettable moments and it's clear at all times how your objective relates to the narrative. So, yes, it is all about writing, basically -- it imbues the missions with purpose whereas in Thief II it clings limply to a compilation of missions which are presented to the player as cool but similar ideas for a Thief game.


Thief I had a notoriously difficult development. Looking Glass was going through a major financial crisis, the team who began the game and the team who finished it were two entirely different groups of people, and the gameplay was totally broken until a couple of weeks before it shipped. Maybe I'm projecting -- who cares; I don't -- but I believe that that environment, however negative it was, translated positively to Thief I. The game ended up suffused with a nervy, fractious energy; the result of people who at the time had no reason to be secure in their jobs working on a type of game had never been attempted before. This was something entirely new and the only way to do it right was to give it everything they had, which wasn't guaranteed to mean anything. For the longest time the game wasn't working at all, but it always had the potential to be completely amazing. Thief I replicates those emotional peaks and valleys wonderfully. As they progress, the narrative and level design get weird and crazy, capturing the player's attention and investment and leading them to a conclusion that is so satisfying for the journey they've just been through.

Thief II doesn't do this, and it was the product of a development environment that was self-assured, confident in the franchise. This led to an emotionally and creatively consistent game that was altogether less engaging because it was fundamentally predictable and safe. It's an objective triumph but that's all it is.

That's it. Thanks for reading, sorry the pictures were so lame.

March 19, 2008

Protocol

If nothing else, I am completely committed to creating synergy between Hit Self-Destruct and hot, super-contemporary reporting. In that spirit, I have interrupted my GDC coverage to tell you about Thief: Deadly Shadows, the game from 2004 that I have begun playing for the first time. This is a pretty unappreciated title for some reason; I'm not sure if that's because it's assumed to be the Invisible War of the Thief series or that when people say they liked the Thief games what they really mean is they like being nostalgic for late-90s PC gaming. Either way, as a Thief fan, I am happy with it. It's a little late for endorsements, I suppose, but it would have meant something to me even a month ago.

Deadly Shadows introduces a persistent hub world into the series, as was the fashion at the time. The player moves through streets, alleyways and domiciles to the next mission, evading guards and picking civilians' pockets. It's a feature whose value arguably varies throughout the game, but I am not here to cast stones. I am here to enthuse thoughtfully.

There's one building I broke into, and as I looked around I discovered it was the home of a stonecutter who'd entered into a business deal with some lowlifes and was ripping them off. Going back downstairs, I find that the stonecutter's since entered the building, with the two thugs, who have caught on to his plan. I hide in the shadows (the deadly shadows -- although I've seen deadlier) while they intimidate him and, ultimately, kill him.

That turned out darker than I thought it would.

This situation reminded me of Knights of the Old Republic. I mean, it reminded me of about a dozen games where something similar takes place, but Knights of the Old Republic first came to mind. There's an event early in that game where the player comes across two dudes threatening a third dude and must step in. A dialogue tree follows, wherein the player can choose a positive or negative outcome; either killing the thugs or further extorting the merchants. What I find interesting about Thief is that there's no specific protocol for dealing with this. I don't have to engage it at all, of course: unlike KotOR it's playing itself out outside of my influence and if I do nothing they will kill the guy. Nonetheless, I'm compelled to intervene, but it's not as simple as walking on up and the game asking me directly whose side I want to take. The player has to solve this problem using the exact same tools as he does throughout the game, and with no prompting. I am forced to every option at my disposal: I could kill them, or knock them out. The stonecutter will try and make a break for it, so I could distract the thugs somehow and give him a head-start. I could attract the attention of the guard posted outside and somehow direct him to this scene at precisely the moment that it turns violent. What I can't do is speak. I can't tell the guard to get over here and I can't verbally intimidate the thugs. I Have No Mouth And I Must Use Water Arrow, that sort of thing. As far as conflict resolution methods go, that's a significant omission, and in that respect the game is less realistic than KotOR.

The limitations are there because I'm confined to the vocabulary of a first-person shooter. However, I believe Thief captures the sensation of witnessing a moment like this honestly and accurately. I have to ask myself first whether I'm going to intervene at all, or withdraw and let Deadly Shadows' Kitty Genovese get it. If I want to help him, then I need to figure out how, and -- as I would in real life -- assess my capabilities. I ask myself what I know how to do and if it is at all relevant here. KotOR won't let me casually intimidate or extort anyone; I could only access that ability once and it was specifically tailored to that situation. Whatever I do here, I'm drawing on a permanent capability of my character. Every trick I've ever had is at my disposal and so engaging with this situation feels natural. Real life is nothing but limitations. In the face of adversity all you have is your existing base of knowledge and skill. It would be great (or terrible, maybe) if we all had these particular systems to deal with individual problems. Not to mention, no matter what I do in the game, there's no "correct" solution, just my solution, which might not even accomplish what I'd hoped. In KotOR, I help or I don't. Whatever plan I try in Thief there are so many potential gradations of failure.

And in that respect I therefore crown Thief the more realistic of the two. What it lacks, unfortunately, is feedback. The scripted event ends after your intervention, and all the characters fall back on their standard programming. If I kill the thugs, the stonecutter will freak out because he's seen a murder. He doesn't know I've saved him because he's not the same guy he was a minute ago. I don't need a reward or a pat on the back, as KotOR would give me, but an acknowledgment that this was something deeper than a gentle manipulation of the AI. For all the autonomy sacrificed in KotOR, it kept continuity.

Essentially, my game design theorising has led me to conclude that it's a good idea for designers to play more than one game in their lives.

March 15, 2008

The Worst Ever

My exciting GDC coverage continues with the dream I had the night before getting on the plane. I dreamt, to my massive humiliation, about this:

I would never have played this following my terrible experience with Neverwinter Nights 2 if not for the significant critical praise lavished upon its story and also the fact that I had bought it already. I will be perfectly straight with you: is this expansion to a cliched mess in fact the best RPG in years and in terms of writing, second only to genre classic Planescape: Torment? The answer, my friends, is yes! Wait, what does "yes" mean again? Oh, right: no.

It is easy to be fooled. Neverwinter Nights 2 looked like this:

and was about dungeons and dragons. Mask of the Betrayer looks like this:

and is about dreaming, love and betrayal. And I think there's something about a mask in there also, I don't recall. To better make the point, the first four companions you find in Neverwinter Nights are these guys:

It is sadly easier to find fan-art and nude skins for that third character than an actual screenshot. Anyway, their Mask of the Betrayer counterparts:

Among the bullet points on the back of the box detailing Mask of the Betrayer's accomplishments over its predecessor, it seems like "creativity" ought to be on there. This is perfectly interesting stuff, and it clearly uses Torment as a template. A personal, tragic, small-scale epic with a heavy philosophical bent. That's a plus. Unfortunately, it's kind of the only one, and it doesn't last very long. Apparently when Obsidian drew on Torment as an influence the only thing they inferred was:

without realising its incompatibility with Neverwinter Nights' top priority:

It takes a superficial reading of Torment to miss that the game works not simply because of the story but because the narrative is completely consonant with the gameplay; the game subverts D&D cliches at every turn and combat is marginalised. In that respect it is exactly the opposite of Neverwinter Nights 2. Mask of the Betrayer is Neverwinter Nights 2 in a pretty dress, and soon enough the dress falls off, although not in a fun sexy way.

Through all the tedious combat and stat-managing, though, the narrative holds up well. The companions are a decent enough bunch and the premise is full of promise. Eventually, though, the gameplay becomes less and less about all that stuff and more and more about rooms full of enemies and it's a hassle to remember why you cared about any of this in the first place. Finally, the one thing the game still had going for it becomes the worst thing ever. The fascinating and thought-provoking narrative reverts to Baldur's Gate 2.

Symptoms first present after about ten hours when a female member of your party falls in love with the main character for no reason -- a love articulated in hyper-chivalrous, uncomfortably formal, vaguely medieval fantasy language, naturally -- and the two forge a magical, soulful relationship writ large across the heavens, although all they ever seem to do is call each other "my love" a lot. This is exhausting. Are we still doing this? I would like one of these games to tackle a relationship plot that was less like this:

...and more like this:

This is close:

...which was 17 years ago. There's this, I suppose:

And this:

This too, probably:

A pattern doth emerge. (My love.)

Without getting into specifics, Mask of the Betrayer ends badly. Essentially, this:

concludes like this:

There is no model of RPG ending less satisfying than -- three minutes after the unclimactic boss fight -- a heretofore unseen narrator appearing unsummoned and over sepia-toned stills describing the rest of your life and the lives of everyone you met. There's a certain gracelessness to that. It's over-selling it. Neverwinter Nights 2 began with "It was a dark and stormy night" and this ends with "And everyone lived happily ever after." Fitting, but also shit. Hence, it is "Shitting." And there is no worse way to end that rambling epilogue but with the line: "Your story, however, is far from over."


You know what, though? I bet it is.

March 12, 2008

Confidential

Ten minutes before the Game Makers Take on the Press panel began, Jeff Gerstmann took his seat in the second row of the audience. Someone called out, "Hey, it's Gerstmann!" and then a woman shrieked "We love you Gerstmann!" and the room broke out into applause. Weird industry.

March 9, 2008

All In

Four o'clock posed an appropriate problem. In one room, industry luminaries like Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux would consider whether the video game experience was relatively superficial, and if there was a way to transcend the medium beyond basic entertainment. Right next door was the Game Design Challenge, where Alexey "Tetris" Pajitnov, pitching a game that could be played by multiple species, had devised a contest wherein human players would shoot dolphins with paintball guns and the losers would be electrocuted. As I sat down to the quiet, stony faces of Levine, Molyneux and moderator Rusel DeMaria, loud cheers erupted from the adjoining room. Mistake.

Thursday: Are Games Essentially Superficial? Exploring The Positive Impact Model of Design

DeMaria opened with his experiences on the design team of a World War II strategy game, which, despite the theoretical setting, had little to distinguish between one side or the other once you got down to it. Abstracted, it was a chess board and they couldn't ensure that the pieces would mean anything to anyone. Then, for whatever reason, DeMaria added a calendar to the save/load menu, which threw proper context right in the player's face. The calendar had an optional interactive layer -- it didn't just cement the game in the history of the war but gave players a chance to learn the timeline. This was DeMaria's first experience with the "positive impact" model of game design. You could, he realised, design the type of games he had been already but imbue them with meaning and purpose. Maybe they didn't have to be educational but they could make a positive difference in the real world -- and if that's what we could be doing, why on earth aren't we doing that?

DeMaria was quick to differentiate between Serious Games and the games he had made and the panelists were continuing to make -- mainstream, commercial action games. Serious Games were fine, said DeMaria, and their intentions were the best but they often came off as didactic and, DeMaria thought, "the focus should be on fun." Everyone on the panel liked making the games they were making. They liked action, they liked conflict. They also, added Levine, all work for people who are spending a lot of money on them. None of this would change. Anyway, as the panel pointed out, if you're going to have an impact on people it might as well be a lot of people.

Chris Taylor of Supreme Commander fame explained his interest in the topic at hand as the result of personal growth. He's not running around with a toy gun anymore (maybe he is, though,) because he knows that isn't cool. Now, as he said, he actually cares, and he wants to give something back. Paradox: he still likes making war games. Therefore, in Supreme Commander and in Total Annihilation before it, there is no blood. Players don't fight people, they fight robots. "I wouldn't want someone to kill someone after playing my game," said Taylor, "I hope that kids that play my game become better kids."

Levine pointed to morality and philosophy in BioShock. This wasn't an answer, because Levine isn't interested in answers. He isn't confident he has anything to teach. Levine instead considers it his role to ask questions. Positive impact emerges from the player. Levine doesn't matter -- it's what the audience makes of the game that's important.

I appreciate his endorsement because apparently my interpretation of the panel discussion was radically different from that of the panelists. Maddeningly, this panel seemed to be about how to make the games you are already making while rationalising somehow your involvement in an industry that is widely demonised as contributing to a culture of violence, and however true that isn't, you can't get around the fact that these are some pretty violent games. I don't believe BioShock or Supreme Commander have anything to apologise for in that regard, but it's disingenuous to pretend that they have embraced the positive impact model in any sense other than the most -- ironic -- superficial. Taking the blood out of your game does not entitle you to the belief that you are making a difference.

What it does indicate is a minimal nod to social responsibility and a moral centre without endangering at all the existing game design model that has proven itself to be incredibly viable commercially. I didn't doubt the sincerity of anyone on this panel but that doesn't mean they didn't miss the point. Steve Gaynor got up for the Q&A to ask this question; could any of the panelists envision a game which went deeper into the positive impact model than a token morality system but could still -- important-- succeed commercially? DeMaria responded with "Yeah, sure, but it'd have to be a really good game," and closed the panel.

This was the Conflict Roundtable all over again. The discussion solidified around how to design a positive game through as little effort as possible, and measured social contributions by efficiency rather than quality. The roundtable disappointed because it proposed only mitigating and unsatisfying solutions, while the panel designers explained how they'd already applied their unsatisfying solutions and had apparently earned a pass.

I appreciate the difficulty of creating a mainstream game that is also a force for good. I can also appreciate -- and am currently completely happy with -- games that have zero social purpose. I do not mean to force your hand. But if you tell me you want to cross the ocean you can't dip your feet in the water and call it a day. Or you can, but don't look so satisfied. Supreme Commander doesn't make the case that killing people is wrong, instead, the lesson is that killing is fine as long as it doesn't gross anyone out. BioShock emphasizes the need to act ethically only in the simplest terms and that when the chips are down I ought to be better at shooting people than at doing the right thing. I believe in your intentions but not your results. If you want to convince anyone that this is important -- and important to you -- then you'd better go all in. It's not good enough to slap a bumper sticker on your car. It is necessary to rethink current assumptions. It is necessary to be uncomfortable. It is necessary to take a risk and be ready to fail. It is necessary to hear your publisher tell you this is a bad idea. Don't pretend that it is not. Don't treat this as a significant cultural challenge only rhetorically while you take the path of least resistance. The one way to cross the ocean is to cross it. Will it be worth it? Will it even make for a good game? Will it sell? I hope so and I don't think I am alone. Because if the answers to all of those are no, then what are we even doing?


The panel had a silver lining in the least probable source. I've always considered Peter Molyneux's reputation as a vainglorious idealist/carnival huckster fairly well deserved and certainly his contribution to this panel was overshadowed by his later sales pitch for Fable 2. And yet out of everyone on that panel he was the one person able to articulate a specific potential that he saw instead of waving vaguely at the broad and nebulous notion of "positive impact." It is Molyneux's hope that his games will make the player learn something about themselves. They will enable the player to make his own decisions and instead of judging him, simply present the consequences. The dream is to have the player will say "I didn't realise I was like that." It's smaller in scope than other aspirations but only because it's better defined. It might not change the world but it sounds like it might change your life. While the degree to which that will be the case and how far off this is from being realised is questionable, I don't see how the goal is not worthwhile. What's more, I think it is plausible. Fable didn't do it and Fable 2 will take a few steps and a few chances but probably won't do it either, but the guy's learned to fail. Molyneux's vision is the only one I can see actually happening exactly as he says it. The technology's there, which helps, but what's key is he identified a positive contribution he could make, that's not merely cosmetic, and fits within the framework of a commercial game without cheapening the idealism.

Molyneux's idea isn't going to sink his game or the industry and the same is true of Taylor and Levine. Your game can be a hit and it can say something and the latter is not always accomplished at the expense of the former. You only think it is.

March 7, 2008

The Breaks

Hit Self-Destruct has all the luck.

Writing about GDC is just as exhausting as the show itself, and instills a deeper sense of frustration and self-loathing. The GDC pass was in fact a millstone around my neck and every session I attended has been repossessed of any enjoyment I might have gained for having to dutifully type it up back home.

Then there are the breaks. On Wednesday there was a panel called Deconstructing The Best Interactive Storytelling. Each panelist presented two games and explained why they liked it. It was the most straight-forward interpretation of a panel possible, wrapped in a weak thesis: Moderator Richard Rouse III proposed something about game storytelling, when done well, being able to compete with any other medium, and this was resolved, as an afterthought, with choruses of "well," "uh," and "maybe one day."

There's a special industry term to describe blog posts that describe about panelists describing games they like, and that's "dreadful." The slides are all online, anyway; another reason why I don't have to cover this panel. But manly it's because I covered it already.

The panel's premise was exactly what I used to do on Hit Self-Destruct, right down to the lame stab at relevancy. Marc Laidlaw brought up Thief, which was the first real blog post I ever did. Ken Rolston talked about Planescape: Torment and D&D acting as a barrier to entry. Rouse liked Ico and BioShock, the latter of which I have done nothing but write about. Other games the panel didn't have time to cover included Myst and Portal.

Call it narcissism if you want but I call this my blog in an alternate universe; some crazy, wonderful dreamscape where black is white and blogs are panels. To give my competition its due credit, it was presented by professionals and people showed up to hear them talk. They definitely have the edge.

Clearly all the evidence supports the conclusion that our fates are intertwined and shall run parallel until the end of our lives. I predict by next year these guys will sport a hot new design and facetiously threaten to abandon their unpopular panel. Likewise, I gained a valuable glimpse into the type of audience interaction I can expect in Hit Self-Destruct c.a. 2009: during the Q&A, one guy enthused wildly about Steve Meretzky having picked the 1990 LucasArts game Loom and asked "Have you heard if there will be a sequel?!" It was a sad moment not bested until another guy walked up to the mic and said indignantly "I would like to know why Max Payne was not on your list!" Behold, my future. I love it.

March 3, 2008

Stop The Cycle Of Violence, I Want To Get Off

Designing Conflict Resolution without Combat was almost an extremely interesting session. A roundtable is a great forum for raising questions but a poor one for providing answers, and thus ultimately unsatisfying. There's no structure or argument, so others are left to pick up the pieces and assemble a coherent thesis. Not to mention my faith in this particular session was shaken when moderator Gordon Walton secretly whispered to someone standing nearby, "Hey, what's the name of that GameCube/DS game with the trees and the houses...?" and the other guy thought carefully and said "Oh. Ohhh. Uhh, uhh... I know the one you... uh... uh, oh, Animal Crossing." Then Walton turned back to the person who had been speaking and casually asked him to consider the example of Animal Crossing.

Something didn't click in that hour and I think it's because while the participants were all concerned with the same goal nobody was quite able to articulate what exactly it was and why it was important. Walton was interested in the idea of multiple solutions -- but not puzzles, because, as he put it, puzzles suck if you're stupid. Chris offered that the least enjoyable part of Mass Effect was the combat and that he would have preferred a version of the game based on its conversation mechanics. Michael pointed out that gaming has yet to really tackle themes like human suffering and empathy: premises which, obviously, are readily incompatible with typically empty video game violence (and that's a good thing.)

Are we tired of combat because it's a turn-off to a potentially large audience, or because the mechanics are familiar and dull, or because we are after a wholly different model of game? Too much of the discussion focused on the second, I think: on how developers could produce a typical action game while making the combat optional or removing it entirely.

The player can avoid combat through fast talking, intimidation, bribery, stealth or maybe if their character is at a certain level enemies will simply run away. I felt like these proposed solutions, particularly in this forum, treated the elimination of combat as a hypothetical exercise, like something out of the Game Design Workshop that we do because we can. Take an hour and redesign Call of Duty without fighting, that kind of thing.

Someone from Crytek made the important counterargument that the immediacy of combat seems irreplaceable; it's certainly more visceral than ten-minute conversations. He challenged the room in earnest to suggest a mechanic which could fill that void and, distressingly, no one had an answer.

The rationale for avoiding combat in, say, Thief is different than it is for Chris in Mass Effect and for me in Neverwinter Nights, where the combat is terrible and I hate it. Consequently, the apparent virtues of the non-violent approach ring hollow. In Mask of the Betrayer, a game I'm sure to talk more about eventually, I chose to spare an important and powerful NPC only because I didn't want to go through the tedium of killing her. My apparent benevolence wowed the hell out of my companions, so now the game believes I am relentlessly pious and not, more accurately, a bored coward.

Thief was correctly brought up as a game which made pure stealth gameplay as accessible and intense as any FPS, and if the player found themselves in a straight-forward combat situation it meant they had screwed up and were about to die. On the other hand, the game came out ten years ago and unfortunately didn't leave much of a legacy beyond bad stealth levels in shooters for the following six years. More to the point, the most efficient way to play Thief is to silently eliminate the patrolling guards, which you can do by knocking them unconscious or, wait for it, killing them. There's no difference between these two states other than the label the game uses. I love Thief to death but I don't consider it a non-violent game (which is not to malign it unfairly; that's only a failing in the context of this discussion.) No One Lives Forever was mentioned as a successful hybrid of stealth and action, which I agree with, but only to the extent that No One Lives Forever at its best is about sneakily killing people, and not a choice between combat and stealth. The strict stealth levels are arguably its worst and the game's primary villains are dispatched by shooting them in the head.

On Thief's harder difficulty levels, the player isn't allowed to kill anyone, though they can use their blackjack liberally and again, the effective difference is negligible. However, this still positively reinforces leaving enemies alive, which is a topic the roundtable discussion hit upon frequently. Deus Ex operates on a similar mechanic but abandons its positive/negative feedback early on, rendering the players' action in this regard meaningless. Exposing the player to truly realistic (i.e. horrific) violence was a popular (if impractical) idea in the room. My suggestion, which I didn't say for some reason, would be to rework BioWare's good-evil metrics, which currently define "good" as being a saint and "bad" as being a jerk and killing dudes and align them instead with violent and non-violent action.

It's become kind of trite to bring Planescape: Torment up as an example of anything, and also kind of sad since whatever case you're arguing, after Torment you can't give any other examples. Nonetheless, most of Torment's conflicts could be solved or had to be solved through dialogue and their resolutions were still hugely satisfying. But like Thief, it's an old game and no one picked up its lead.

Thief and Torment are the exceptions and not trailblazers pointing toward a reinvented genre. The roundtable discussion existed at a primarily superficial level and explored only the path of least resistance, where creating a "non-violent" game would require the least modification to current gameplay models. I believe that the kind of game that we want to see; that would actually solve the problems which concern us -- accessibility, desensitization, genre saturation -- is not going to look anything like a toned-down Mass Effect or World of Warcraft. We have to think deeper. There has got to be a radical restructuring where we actually think about what we want our games to say, whether action means more than fighting and if perhaps defending the inclusion of violence behind market concerns is not actually a massive cop-out. The Sims sold, Nintendogs sold, that game with the trees and the animals sold. There is a market out there. We can and should get action games to say something other than what they've been saying for twenty years. That's the kind of Game Design Workshop exercise that wouldn't be strictly perfunctory.

I am aware that this conclusion is also sort of a cop-out.

March 1, 2008

Networking

Above all else, the Game Developers' Conference is a networking event. The year presents no better opportunity for like-minded designers, programmers and artists to connect and forge useful industry connections and even friendships. The most valuable moments at any given GDC are not the keynotes or workshops but the industrious conversation over drinks at W or the stolen moments between sessions when one industry professional will proudly extend his hand to another: "Hi," they declare, "my name is ________ and I work for ________."

For some, GDC is the fabled city on the hill. I saw pilgrims lost on the road; students who had laid their hopes and dreams on five days and two thousand dollars, and prayed that was the week the stars would align; that the doors would open and the Games Industry would warmly beckon them inside. If not, they would fall back down to earth and have to find final shelter under their Psychology or English major. With the conference turning invite-only in 2009, there they would be trapped, forever on the outside looking in.

On Monday, they worked on first impressions, relying on the self-conscious, carefully calculated cocktail of outspoken scholarship, diligence and obsequiousness, which typically fails to impress anyone. On Wednesday, with nothing haven fallen into place and no contact the right contact, cracks appeared in the ingénue's determined facade, and quiet desperation by day turned to violent hysteria by night. They cursed those who had already reached the promised land, who casually strutted down the hallways, making it look so easy. On Friday, with nothing to show but the tattered ruins of ambition, on the verge of losing everything, they flailed around wildly, looking for the most famous face, finding Ken Levine and reaching out a hand, as if one breathless touch would grant all his powers; in a whisper, "I want you, I want your life." GDC calls forth the naïve and breaks their souls on its rocky shores.

There are the believers. The ones who see networking as a calling, and every business card collected as a valued conversion. They stare you down from across the conference halls, and as they advance with a phony smile, you wonder why you are the one he chose. He approaches not with the nervousness of the boy asking the pretty girl out to the dance but rather the steely professionalism of the sex predator. A successful network is nonetheless performed with so much artifice that the whole procedure threatens to fall apart if both participants aren't willing to accede to their roles in the pre-scripted pantomime. I saw first-hand people who could network like Paddy Chayefsky but these were not them. At one party (where most of those attending worked for the hosting company, thwarting many networking opportunities) there was a short girl with glasses in my peripheral vision, who drilled a hole into my face with her gaze; a single-minded glare which said "I wish to network with you." I failed to return her glance at the right moment, and because at that moment I was looking elsewhere I accidentally locked eyes with someone else and an awkward and irreversible network was engaged.

For the career-minded, the Career Pavilion offered a straight-forward alternative: simply walking up to the company booth of your choice and handing in your resume. This lacks the personal connection, however; you are reduced to just one more hopeful supplicant. Nonetheless, perhaps this path affords more dignity, although you are wandering around in what is basically a circus tent, with marketing tools parading in steampunk costumes and silent fans buzzing by the 2K booth solely to grab handfuls of BioShock pens (one of each colour.) And by the weekend, this room will be populated by anime enthusiasts posing for pictures with stormtroopers and batwomen.

Then there are the tired disciples, those that will, in time, question their faith and might seek career fulfillment elsewhere. Card exchange, once full of pleasure and purpose, is now an empty ritual. Accordingly, the Conference does its best to rekindle that flame. It launches hip initiatives like Destroy All Developers, which reimagines networking as a sexy adventure instead of a bitter charade. Players aim to collect the most business cards, competing with other attendees for prestige and t-shirts. Furthermore, the IGDA holds "group gatherings" for producers, lawyers, and the very demeaningly-labeled industry discipline, "bloggers, podders and journos." This invaluable event assembles a dozen of the field's greatest thinkers in a small corner of the show floor so that they can stand uncomfortably and not talk to one another.

Increasingly recognised as the premiere industry event, GDC boasted record attendance in 2008. Rather than extending networking avenues, however, this unfortunately introduced a new class into the social system: the peasants. They are so far down the ladder they have nothing of substance to offer any industry professional, but somehow they remain. These people are filth. Among the believers' repertoire is a risky manoeuver: the surreptitious glance down to chest level, reading the company name on the badge and evaluating its importance, followed by quickly walking away or casually flicking their eyes upward and pretending to notice the person for the first time. If this is unfeasible, the networker is forced to go in blind. When the worthlessness of their target becomes clear, their face contorts into a mask of horror as they realise they have wasted a network and, worse, given their card to street trash. This look manifests itself as a polite smile.

By the end of the week, the pilgrims, speed dating with nothing but lonely souls, will be ruined if they make this mistake. They approach not with a professional opening line, but in their wide eyes a broken plea: are you powerful? are you important? will you save me? There is no greater embarrassment than in having to explain your own insignificance, that you are the author of an impossibly trivial blog and not Gabe Newell. Their hearts break for without a savior they will be cast down into the fires of hell.

So far from the magical social ideal written in the stars, it is a sad, artificial custom of false promise and careerist desperation. There is no worse time to be nothing at all.

Sincerely,
Holden Caulfield