April 10, 2010
Very carefully, he outlines the idea for her. As a visual aid for the story, he pries a damp napkin from underneath a plastic cup of scotch and coke and unfolds it over his tray table. As he talks, he illustrates the premise of the game to the best of his ability. Using a ballpoint pen on an alcohol-soaked tissue, the results turn out about as lame as he had expected.
In breaking down the concept of the game, he begins with the absolute basics, like the idea that there is a person sitting in front of their television or computer monitor with an input device in their hands. He has no idea what she knows. So far, though, his decision to actively condescend to her looks like the right choice: she appears to receive all of this information with interest.
When he gets into specifics, he starts telling her about how the players of his game have the option of either playing it by themselves or in a cooperative mode with a second person. Most other games, he says, stressing the word “other”, when faced with that sort of situation, will add that two-player functionality as an afterthought. It’s exactly the same as the single-player game, obviously designed as an experience to be had by one person, alone, but there’s now an extra man clumsily present in the mix. He emphasises again just how imaginative his team wants to be with this. The conventional two-player solution, he says, is too transparently video game-y. That belongs to an arcade cabinet from the eighties. He thinks realism is important. He thinks immersion is important. He steals a glance at her to make sure that she is listening to this.
What they’re doing is recognising that two separate people will be sharing the same experience. They’re going to have the game periodically send private messages to each individual player, telling them a secret about what the other person is doing.
He asks her to imagine that the two of them are playing this game, and that he has an opportunity to take down an enemy who has the drop on her. In the chair, he slides his arm back, forming the shape of a pistol with his hand, and bumps his elbow hard on the armrest they share. What happens then, he says, is that for whatever reason, he doesn’t take the shot: he lets her get hit, and the game informs her of his treachery. Or the game tells her that he’s been hoarding ammunition instead of sharing with her. The game is going to inform the other player about all of your moment-to-moment moral lapses and errors in judgment. When you’re told about how the other player neglected an opportunity to help you, you become less inclined to help them, and, indeed, when you choose not to, that gets reported as well.
Players can’t kill or outright betray one another, however, and they have no choice but to collaborate with one another since the enemies are too powerful to be defeated by anything less than their combined efforts. The idea is simply to challenge the camaraderie that naturally develops between the two players through cooperation and survival. He intends to subvert that relationship, and in so doing, hopefully create an experience far more memorable than the alternative.
At that moment, her hand is locked under her chin, her index finger extending diagonally over her lips.
He leans back, abandons the napkin sketch and tells her what the real problem is. Despite the fact that each player is being warned not to trust the other, in the end, nothing happens. The reason for that is because both the single- and two-player versions of the game tell the same story, and his team has to adhere to the ending in the single-player game. That’s already been written, and of course it makes no mention of a companion who you may or may not trust. Either the narrative device peters out completely (best case scenario) or it makes no sense at all (worst). In the situation he’s found himself in, he can’t change the game’s substantial conclusion. The ending as it stands has nothing to do with psychological intrigue. It’s about blowing up a silo. What he can do in the two-player game, at most, is add a couple lines of dialogue or something equally cheap and innocuous. The two players can say something to one another at the end. How, he wonders aloud, given those restrictions, can he pay off the escalating conflict between the two players? It should lead somewhere, or there’s no reason to do it all. Where in this established framework is the satisfying conclusion to this new dynamic?
She keeps her head down in what appears to be deep thought, and it’s the first opportunity he’s really had to stare intently at Katherine Peyton without seeming a creep about it. She’s sitting next to the window, where the glare of the afternoon sky backlights her face. It lends her a kind of celestial authority that draws him in, his heart catching in his chest a little bit. He scans her face, quietly looking at her brown eyes flicking back and forth across his napkin diagram. He zeroes in on her lips, cracked and progressively dehydrating from the airplane air. He thinks about whether it would be polite to offer her some Chapstick or something, but not wanting to step on her inevitable answer, he says nothing, and waits.
Scott Stephens feels the same surge of inspiration looking at Katherine Peyton as he did when he sat in his London office’s conference room six weeks ago; the least likely place, he had come to recognise, for any kind of inspiration to occur. There were two kinds of problems in game development, he had decided by then, his tenth month in the profession. The first were the entirely inevitable, small-scale errors that would emerge naturally throughout the process, like technical bugs and balancing issues. These tended to be fixed fairly easily, contingent on there being sufficient time and resources available. These were the problems that he had to solve, or at least obscure and hope nobody would notice. It took about ninety percent of his effort as a game designer to bring a game to the point where it was simply functional, and the remaining ten percent he got to spend on implementing his actual ideas. In that ten percent was where he found the other kinds of problems: those that he brought upon himself in an attempt to make his game worthwhile.
He loves new ideas, he loves overcoming challenges, he loves throwing around suggestions that will improve his game, and if he didn’t love all those things, he thinks, what then would be the point of him being in game design at all? It’s difficult to make great ideas work. There’s no question in his mind that it’s difficult. He believes adamantly, however, that there is always a way to solve anything. If you think that an idea can’t work it is because you are not smart enough to figure out how it can. This is how you distinguish dreamers from creators. And you’re not going to be remembered for anything that you dreamt about. This wasn’t meant to be insulting. Most people are not geniuses, and do their best within their own limitations. Everyone has a brilliant idea in his or her life, but the number of those brilliant ideas that are actually put into practice are few and far between, because the majority of us lack the capacity to think of how to realise them.
Six weeks ago, Scott sits with his hands folded together in his lap in boredom-induced paralysis as his boss explains to the room what the lead design brain trust has decided today. To date, their company’s second video game has evolved from being a shooter with a strong multiplayer component to an entirely online experience with a persistent world and character progression, to a base retail game supplemented by episodic expansions to be steadily streamed online, which was then scaled down to a single-player game with aggressive plans for extra downloadable content. Every phase of this design metamorphosis left behind in the current product some element specific to each of those incarnations, laying down what Scott had named the trail of failure. The only part of the game that had remained at all consistent – other than a total lack of vision – was that it was about a lone government agent infiltrating a secret factory, because clearly that was just gold from day one.
At that meeting, Scott’s boss had an exciting new change in direction to present. Scott’s boss was the same man sitting next to him right now, on the opposite side to Katherine Peyton, having dozed off and occasionally threatening to plunge into Scott’s crotch. His boss had announced that they would be implementing a new gameplay mode for co-operative play, which Scott was thrilled by in the most sarcastic possible sense of the word. His immediate assessment of the co-op was that it was merely the latest gameplay trend that his company invariably pursued in the hope of finally hitting upon that one magic selling point that would endear their middle of the road shooter to the rest of the world. Sometimes these meetings were like a parody of themselves.
The thing about co-op, Scott thinks, sitting back at his desk, the disappointment swilling around in his head, is that if they were going to do it, then it shouldn’t be the obvious situation where it was a second player hanging out in the exact same game that they’d already made, without any story or design acknowledgment of that second presence. Maybe they weren’t making this game to be remembered, he admits to himself. Regardless, he thinks, it should be reasonably self-evident that if you were trying to design a great co-op experience, you should have in your head the idea that it was going to be shared by two people. It was more difficult in their case, he knows, because, through no fault of his own, they were coming late to this. They’d already built so much of the game and couldn’t now afford to spend another year making another version of it in which there were two secret agents to whom everyone in the game world responded to realistically. The only way this was going to be believable was if the story was about player one and his invisible sidekick who, during major plot events, nobody really notices.
Although, Scott reasons with himself, there’s nothing inherently wrong with limitations. The Rolling Stones, thirty years after evading tax collectors and recording in the basement of a castle, earned themselves a position where they can do anything in the world that they want, and they’ve become total garbage.
Maybe it isn’t the worst thing in the world. You’re telling a story that focuses on one hero, and nobody notices the player standing beside him. How do you explain that as anything other than a reality of cost-effective game design? Nobody sees player two. What does that make player two? He’s a ghost. Well, he thinks, that’s stupid. Wait, he thinks later, no it’s not.
Okay, so maybe player two, as part of the fictional conceit of this game, is actually a ghost. That’s why nobody says anything to him. Or – this could be even better –he is a hallucination. Scott just saw Shutter Island. That doesn’t work, he realises, because this ghost-slash-hallucination is nonetheless able to shoot people and kill them. A ghost doesn’t do that.
That’s it, though – a ghost doesn’t do that. The second player doesn’t do that. The second player can’t shoot at all, and he has different abilities that the first player lacks, thereby – Scott shoots a fist into the air – thereby emphasising the need for co-op play. Player one shoots a guy while player two opens a door or something using a ghost power. Whatever a ghost power is. There’s no such thing as a ghost power. He checks Wikipedia. There’s no such thing as a ghost power. But whether a ghost or a hallucination, the second player needs to have some unique mechanic – the only issue being that there aren’t currently any situations in this game that can be resolved in any way other than shooting things.
Scott never had a phrase to describe his creative process. He had been asked this – to describe his creative process – in his job interview. He’d always been comfortable with the notion of creativity being random and chaotic, and never thought that he needed to ascribe reason to it. Times like that were the worst: when for once it really, truly mattered what he had to say and in that moment his mind went completely blank. He had begun to speak, paused, veered in and away from the honest answer and finally settled on his impression of what a successful candidate for a game design position would say: something about systems and logic, to which his interviewers nodded.
His creative process hit a wall, however, with the question of what a ghost could do in their video game. The way he chose to deal with this was to read gaming forums and straighten out paper clips, both of which failed to produce the flash of genius for which he was holding out. He forced himself to return to the ghost idea, failing to progress with it each time, and it only added to his mounting frustration that his breakthrough concept had since become a token of his artistic impotence.
Today, Scott’s boss slouches in liquor-induced repose. It’s a grotesque display that threatens to detonate Scott’s cachet with Katherine Peyton. Six weeks ago, he sits in his office, sober, hearing out Scott’s ghost concept. The concept is still unfinished, although Scott thinks that its benefits should be obvious nonetheless. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a game that has a generic co-op option. Scott knows this. To him, though, it’s emblematic of a game that has mediocrity stamped all over it. What’s important to him is the way he feels whenever he sees a poster for a new romantic comedy with Gerard Butler in it. That can’t be his video game. He can’t have his name on that.
If it means taking sole responsibility for figuring it out – which is what his boss proposes, because he’s not convinced of the virtues of Scott’s idea and isn’t going to invest the team’s collective time in it – then, fine, Scott thinks, because what isn’t worth shipping a better game? He ignores this directive immediately when he leaves his boss’ office and asks the other designers to imagine that the second player is a ghost, and start thinking of practical things that they can do differently. Scott values collaboration. At least, at moments like this one, he does.
In the weeks that followed, Scott spends his days struggling around in the hole he’s dug himself, and his nights watching episodes of 30 Rock on DVD. He thinks about how much more gratifying it would be to write episodes of that show than work in game design, where you spent at least two years on your life on a single idea. His colleagues point out to him that if the second player can’t shoot anybody, who’s ever going to choose to be the second player? Scott’s retort is to say wait until you see what a ghost can do. Probably something amazing.
Scott’s day-to-day is eventually drowned out by all of his American friends on Twitter going on and on about how much they’re looking forward to the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and what panels they’re going to be speaking at and so on. Scott thought that the whole purpose of Twitter having a 140-character limit was eventually you start talking about other things. Nonetheless, he starts to wonder if that isn’t the answer. GDC is idealism central. If there’s anything that’s going to get him excited about making video games again, it’ll be the best and the brightest minds in the industry temporarily all taking up residence in the same city block. That’s how he justifies the trip – an eleven-hour flight and eight days away from work – to himself. He pitches it to his boss slightly differently, framing it as an opportunity to learn from the experiences famous international designers have had in implementing co-op play. His boss goes for this, eventually. The rest of the staff aren’t going to GDC, and Scott assumes that there’ll be some jealously at his own sudden exemption. But he’s not going by himself, or with Emily Blunt, he has to go with his boss, who nobody in the office respects creatively and all wish would just die but also continue to bankroll the studio from his personal finances.
Katherine Peyton, Scott learns an hour into the flight home, is a professional singer. She was in San Francisco to visit her family, and is returning to London where she studies at some music school whose name Scott forgets in his rush of excitement at finding out that he’s sitting next to a singer, a profession that he is obviously aware exists, but has never encountered personally. He’d feel the same way if he were sitting next to an air traffic controller, but, like, a hot one.
There has to be more to singing for a living than opening your mouth and vocalising, Scott thinks, but probably not a whole lot more. Imagine an entire life focused around a singular talent that depends in large part whether or not you were genetically gifted with a pleasant voice. When her voice goes, so, presumably, does her career, but that’s all she needs to ever be concerned about. Taking care of her voice. She is completely self-contained, her own instrument. Without a computer, Scott isn’t worth anything.
Scott tells her that he’s a writer, a lie he commits to immediately before even thinking about his answer. He retreats slightly, admitting that, in truth, he used to be a writer, a journalist covering the video game industry, for two years before he recently made the switch to game design. He doesn’t know why he continues to emphasise the writer part so hard. He left that job for a reason, after all, there being a professional ceiling on writing about games for hobbyist magazines and websites. He’d reached a point where his only options for career advancement as a game journalist were to move to other places with worse reputations, at which point he declared it self-evident that it’d be far more interesting and lucrative to switch from critique to creation.
He might have mentioned it because he assumes she’ll find the idea of him being a writer more interesting and relatable than being a game designer. At least as a writer, even a writer about video games, he gets to exercise lyrical flourishes and metaphors and all these devices whose value and sophistication is immediately understandable, as opposed to, well, whatever goes along with being a “designer.” He explains what his old job was in an effort to compare himself favourably to whatever writer a woman his age would probably be into. Who is that, even? The guy who wrote Girl with a Dragon Tattoo? Bridget Jones? Not a real person.
The Game Developers Conference is everything Scott remembered it to be: big conference rooms, big ideas, and a tote bag full of a big lot of shit that he throws out immediately. He sees a lot of faces that he recognises, and deliberately sidles away from his boss as he reintroduces himself to friends he hasn’t seen for a year. At the end of his first night, he goes out with some of his American colleagues to a bar, and, six hours later, stumbles back to his hotel room and collapses over his bed in the prayer position. Maybe, he thinks, the darkened room spinning around him, an altered mental state is what he needs to solve this. Some of the greatest artists in the world were drunk or stoned when they produced their best works, like the guy who wrote the song about his car.
The next day, Scott eats lunch with a bunch of people who talk a lot about Portal 2, Valve’s sequel to the most ingratiating hit game in modern memory. The conversation is spurred by Valve’s recent marketing campaign that announced the game’s existence: an elaborate mix of surreptitious game updates, images encoded in audio files and getting gamers to dial up ancient BBS systems. Valve might as well exist in another dimension, Scott thinks, given its seemingly limitless wealth and autonomy. It wasn’t so long ago that they’d only made one game in their lives, kind of a hit, but nothing that would hint at their eventual level of success: something like a ten percent stake in the entire gaming industry. Scott hears stories about Valve hiring neuroscientists and comic book artists and armies of playtesters to refine their games to their purest possible state, and he wonders if Valve has a booth at GDC and whether it’s hiring.
The notable thing about Portal, Scott thinks, sitting by himself on the third floor of the Moscone Centre and browsing his Twitter account on his iPhone, is how well they used the unreliable narrator, a well-established literary device that was rarely, but always memorably, deployed in video games. The path that Valve took should have seemed so obvious in an industry where management overspends on outsourced pre-rendered cutscenes to tell a story. All Valve needed in Portal was a voiceover. It was a continuous, real-time soliloquy that made for a better narrative than almost any other game in existence: low budget, high quality.
Right now, Scott has a situation where one player is a real dude and the other is a ghost. Or a hallucination. Not final yet. What would be really cool, though, he thinks, is that if you started to work in an unreliable narrator, and the game was trying to convince each individual player that they were the only one that actually existed inside this fictional universe, and that the other was a ghost, or a hallucination. That’s fucking gold. The player is constantly being reminded that the world around them is not necessarily real.
The only problem, he realises, is that they’ve already programmed and designed the game to react exclusively to whoever happens to be player one. Player two is never going to believe that player one is a ghost if everyone in the world is talking to player one. What’s the solution to that? First-person cutscenes. There you go. Whenever there’s a cutscene, the character talks to the camera instead of player one’s avatar. That way, each player believes that they are being addressed, while remaining doubtful of their companion’s in-game existence. There you go. Fucking A.
The only issue with that, Scott realises, is why would you ever think that the other player is a ghost if he’s killing real enemy troops? It wouldn’t make sense. Nonetheless, the idea that the game is getting you to distrust your partner seems interesting, Scott thinks, and there has to be a way to make that work. What if – yes – what if – and forget the whole ghost idea –each player is a secret agent infiltrating this military base, and instead of the game telling you that the other is a ghost, it’s telling you that the other is a traitor. Forget this ghost shit. The two players are equal, but they can’t trust one another. You are being told that your friend is a traitor. How do you define a traitor in pure gameplay terms? Nobody is necessarily going to start this co-op game thinking that they’re going to betray their friend. Maybe this is where the unreliable narrator comes in, since the only way anyone will actually lose trust in their friend is if they put all their faith in this computer voice. Say that player two picks up a super-powered assault rifle from the corpse of a slain enemy, and the game sends a message to player one telling him that player two did this, even though player two already has a better arsenal. Player one, if convinced, thinks that player two’s series of actions depict a pattern of pure self-interest or intentional sabotage.
Scott doesn’t even listen to the three GDC lectures that occupy the rest of his day. He already feels so fucking good about himself. He’s solved a design problem. He’s making a co-op game about spies-slash-players who don’t trust each other. Talk all you want about emergent play and intentionality. Three rows back in the lecture hall, Scott’s already a genius.
He arrives at the hotel that night only slightly drunk, and that small act of restraint makes him feel even better about himself. Settling into his single bed, across from his boss who appears to have passed out long ago, he scans his email on his iPhone. There’s a message from one of his colleagues back in London, sent about nine hours ago. It explains to Scott that they’ve figured out what extra powers a ghost player can have in contrast to a “real” player, and started to program those extra powers in the game itself. The ghost – the second player – can move through walls and mark targets for the other player to see, silhouettes lit up in red that player one can figure out how to take them down before he busts down the door. Scott reads this email and his heart sinks. These players are spies now. Neither of them are ghosts anymore. They’re both real dudes. Why can one of them move through walls?
If asked, Scott would define “chaos theory” as such an intrinsically indefinable term that it’s not worth his time to explain it in detail. Chaos theory, according to Scott, is not a consistent process. It’s the picture of inconsistency. Chaos theory is random flashes of brilliance. When you dream about game design, most of those ideas seem perfect, but nonsensical bullshit when you wake up. The other days, you have dreams that, when you wake up, don’t seem so facile. They seem practical. A kind of providence.
Scott’s colleagues, back at the London studio, could explain just what, mathematically, chaos theory actually is. They’d start drawing a diagram on a whiteboard, and it’s at that moment that they’d lose Scott’s attention. He’d wish that he were back in journalism, if that was still a viable industry.
The only issue with Scott’s spy concept is that the plot has already been designed to respond to one character. The game still follows the same path as it ever did. The player locates the bad guy and blows up the base. The villain delivers a monologue. Fine, but there’s no second hero in this scenario. The mounting distrust between player one and player two never actually amounts to anything. And the critical path that already exists isn’t variable. It’s been made. So how much money would it take to alter the co-op mode to have the story react to individual players’ decisions? There isn’t even enough money, he knows, to fully implement his (already pared down) “duelling spies” mechanic. What they can do is tell player two that they can’t trust player one, and vice versa. Verbatim. Will they even take the game seriously when it says that?
Scott is drunk again. He wonders if this will solve his problem. Is there some part of his brain that he can’t access when he’s sober? Is he too scared, too lacking in confidence to blurt out, other than in a fit of chemically enhanced creativity, the solution that will fix their game?
The next night, he’s not drunk, but he falls asleep with his earphones in. He listens intently to the music, hoping for the dull parts of his brain to synchronise with the chord progressions; waiting for his thought processes to start moving in accordance with an already-established creative rhythm. He keeps his eyes closed for a long time and thinks about what he will eventually need to admit to his boss.
Boarding the return flight, Scott knows that he’ll be sitting next to his boss: that fat, slobby frame that dozes off after one drink of anything. The girl sitting on Scott’s right is a surprise, however. From the way she’s put herself together – dirty blond curls, the brown leather jacket, eyes that dart around him and a wide-mouthed smile – he needs no convincing that there’s something unusual about her. In a life typically bereft of any kind of sophistication and glamour, she ranks as astounding. This, Scott thinks, is what he was looking for this whole time.
What else could he even try? He’s tried working this situation through. His boss is an idiot. He can’t talk about it with him. The suggestions that his colleagues send through only make things more complicated. What he has in his mind is a situation that is ninety percent the way to completion.
He believes in serendipity. He looks at her when he sits down, fastens his seatbelt, and smiles and nods politely. He can’t imagine that she was made a presence in his life simply to sit next to him on an airplane trip. She has to be something more than that.
This, he sees now, is how the story will go. Scott Stephens stands at his own talk at the Games Developers Conference next year, and he’s asked how he came up with such an amazing idea for a video game. Well, he will say, it’s funny. We can’t always work out these ideas by ourselves. You can’t even imagine the process through which an idea will come together in the end. In this case, it’s because of a girl that you’ve never heard of.
Scott explains the problem to Katherine Peyton at length, and once he's done, he waits on her answer. And he waits. There are things about her that he hadn’t yet noticed, now that he looks closely. In her silence, he has time to wonder if he’s not misread the situation, and whether instead she represents something new altogether.