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Is not a man entitled to the sweat of his own brow? Yada yada yada...

The title of this is probably giving you the impression this is going to be about Bioshock. Sorry, it’s not. I’m sure there have been many blogs going into great detail comparing the work of Ayn Rand, and Andrew Ryan. I don’t intend to follow suit (Ed: Hahahaha, I totally do talk about Bioshock. HA). No, no, no, I was simply going to use John Galt’s (and his gamey counterpart’s) propensity for the verbose to prepare you for what will be a lumbering behemoth of a post. Probably. I’ve not planned it at all.

At least it won’t be three hours long. I hope. (Ed: It may as well be)


I’ve been working on a project for my own (half-imaginary at the moment) indie studio that is run by me, and my girlfriend. I say “run” in that she’s 1. Art director on said project (because she’s got a fine art degree), and 2. She’s in charge of printing signs for the door. I’m in charge of pompous theorizing, and deciphering the engines I’m working with.

So this game then…

Well I’m not telling you what it’s about. Because I don’t know. It’s because I don’t know that I finally thought of something worth blogging about. You see, I get the impression (from writing in other mediums) that when you’re beginning a project, it’s fairly common to start with a genre and a setting. What you do with either of those afterwards is up to you, but you more or less start with an archtype in your head that you either want to play straight or subvert in some way. This isn’t how I’ve started with this. Being a complete amateur I think it might be helpful for me to review how I’ve got to where I am.

I started with design principles. I’ve basically listened to a lot of developers talk about their games, mainly indies, and I’ve thought about their philosophies, and decided which bits I like, don’t like, and have tweaked to fit what my vision of a good game is. I should mention quickly that I’m a “games are art” person. I’m on that side of the fence. And I’ll not bore you with a long winded reason, I’ll sum it up thus:

A game is unlike other media due to its interactive mechanics. If, by interacting with those mechanics – in the context of the games’ narrative, and the actions you perform, you engender a wider appreciation of the narrative and experience an emotional response, then you are appreciating the art in the game design.

That was very difficult to write in two sentences. For example, indie-darling Braid has a hidden narrative that may as well be kept in a seperate room from its ludological elements – except for a few visual metaphors (something I don’t really believe in), but nonetheless the time reversal mechanic (which would only work in games, as a visceral action by the participant) – with only a slight smattering of the narrative playing on the person’s mind, can cause you to contemplate time and its implications at a much wider level than the narrative explicitly encourages. What the game hits you over the head with via its core mechanic, is that while you can rewind time for everyone else, no matter what you do, you will always know what really happened. Which takes our romaticized notions of time travel, and makes us realise that it is a curse, not a blessing, because we are always alone, trapped by our actions. Katamari Damarcy had something of an enviromental message about the amount of clutter, and wasteful stuff that we all have in our lives, and to really ram the message home you literally roll a massive ball out of everything. It’s only by rolling the ball, and doing it yourself, and watching the ball get bigger, do you really contemplate how full of rubbish the world is.

Braid: I would suggest that if you ever met me to not mention this game. Otherwise I'll talk about nautical flags, and the Manhattan Project for about an hour.

I could pontificate all day about Braid and Katamari, and I would have done had not the rest of the world already done it. The point is a game is craft if all it’s doing is serving as a cipher for a plot, and nothing you do in the game reflects it’s key themes at all (besides the plot requirements for the character), but the game is art when how you play is a key element in its narrative output*.

Bloody hell, this game then…

So I have in my mind that a game’s mechanics are really what the art experience is all about. I know I want to make a game that is a bit “arty”, but I don’t want to go over to the extreme of Jason Rohrer, or Rod Humble. Why not? Well I sort of imagine there is a sliding scale of “obliqueness” with Jason Rohrer being about a 7/10, and Humble being a full on 10/10 (when he’s not working on The Sims). Stars Over Half Moon Bay is a game that makes no sense to you on your first ten play-throughs, I contend. I have a feeling that games off the deep end of the arty spectrum get thought, and talked, about more than they are played. These are generally short games (when you pitch them against AAA titles) so it makes sense. But my own passion toward the humble adventure game has made me want to do something in that genre, but then recraft it in a way that fits my design principles. So already in my mind I have a genre, but one I want to subvert. Why?

Stars Over Half Moon Bay: A beautifully peaceful experience once you understand it. Which I didn't for a while.

Adventure games, the old point and click, are at once basic and underdevloped in their mechanics. That’s no damming indictment of the genre from my view. There are classic games in it, I love it, but they were mostly developed in the early 90s. The last great one in my mind will always be Grim Fandango and that was 1998. Since Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer doesn’t even make games in the genre anymore because he knows there’s nothing left for him there at the moment, and he’s managed to make games which blend adventure elements with other play styles that still retain his unmistakable personality. It works for him, so he doesn’t need to explore that one avenue further. The adventure game has always been good at giving you a robust story. In the past it has always been the story that conveyed any of the themes of the work and, besides designing the interface and puzzles, the game mechanics took a back seat.

Tim Schafer, whom of course we all know is famous for being in the band "Big Breakfast".

Considering as a budding indie that I’m on a budget, and that there are already game engines that are free to download, with community mods that can bend their rules a bit, the adventure genre seems like a place to start my experiment. With this in mind, I went about listing my key themes for the game (not neccesarily the story directly) to convey. Again, I’m not telling you what my game is about. Nah nah nah nah nah.

Narrative and *cough* Ludology…

Yes. I’ve become so much of a nerd that I’m aware of the word Ludology. It comes from the Latin for game ludus. It refers to the discipline that studies “game and play activites” a quick google search threw up when I thought I better define the term more officially than my rambles. My point is that at the moment, in video games, these are two almost seperate things. It’s my major criticism with Braid that the two hardly interact (there’s having an oblique message to your game, and then there’s closing it away in text boxes hidden in books), and in games with a strong narrative influence they sometimes contradict each other.

Bioshock: Andrew Ryan, putting on his minature green.

Bioshock (for everything it does right, nonetheless) is an example of how these contradict. You could argue that the key narrative theme in it is control (or at least one is), and it is with this that it occurs in two counts: Firstly, your character is revealed (about halfway in) to be little more than a brainwashed slave, who has no choice in his actions. Control is literally taken away from you – the player – at a key moment in the plot (the killing of Andrew Ryan). It’s very affecting to have lost this control, yes. But by doing so it cheapens the message of the game up to that point and thereafter: in that you are forced along a linear parth but don’t realise you’re being controlled. It was expertly playing with the fact that because you’re playing a game you as a player assume there are “the rules”. The moment it takes control off you it takes you out of the experience, breaking the immersion (probably my ‘worst offence’ in terms of game design). Then it’s almost like they had an argument about this, because moments later the game forces you once again to “follow the rules”, even beyond the point your character is deprogrammed. Though, a counter-arguement for this could be that, it could signifies that things are always out of your control. I would be quicker to accept that, if it weren’t for the second example: the Little Sisters. The option to harvest or save them, to be exact. If you save them you receive bonuses from Tenenbaum, and a smallish amount of ADAM.  If you harvest them, a lot of ADAM and no bonuses. There is no real consequence to your actions as the game punishes you for neither, really. The ending of the game is dictated, but that is all. What it serves to do, however, is provide a jarring choice mechanism – So you’ve killed hundreds of dehumanized maniacs, you are more or less inhuman as a result. But now here’s a moral choice about whether or not it’s right to kill? What? I’ve been killing creepy things all morning! And it either provides a complete reversal on the theme of control (for some reason giving you some in a world that is bereft of it), or it breaks the immersion by making a distinction between when you are the player, Jack – who has no control over himself – or the director – who decides what the choice of Jack is for him. Either way it’s flawed.

Bioshock: You have killed countless other mentally ill people, but this one's life is meant to be worth more?

Annnnnnyway…  Game game game game??

My point is narrative and ludology should be married to eachother. One thing shouldn’t exist in the core ludology without it affecting the themes of the narrative and visual/audio  design, and vice versa. And this is the the primary Tenet of my design philosophy at the moment. So I’d made a list of my several narrative themes, and then (with a mindset of building an adventure game) marry each one of these with a game mechanic that reflected that plot element, which would in turn make the player more immersed in that feeling. And it’s only now that I’m onto deciding a setting for my game, and genre for its story.

The one rule regarding the setting I’ve imposed on myself is that it has to be a full game set in one persistent location (I don’t know how many screens yet), in realtime (with no pause fuction either), or a a series of chapters set in potentially different locations in real time (but with the same amount of content as the full game split up) and the chapters perhaps occuring on different key dates in the storyline to each other. Why why why?

The Last Express

The Last Express: It's the last Orient Express before the outbreak of WW1. Intrigue, etc.

I will not lie. The real-time mechanic from Smoking Car’s 1997 release has been a big influence on the ludology, as it happened to fit in perfectly with my narrative themes. This, and its perfect application in a confined space, is more or less the only thing I’m taking a cue from (I’m in two minds about the art style, and while I like the full motion rotoscoping, and I understand why they couldn’t do that all the time, the jarring change between those beautiful fluid moments back to the key frames makes me a like I’ve woken up, but then suddenly slipped back into a dream).

*cough cough cough* Have any of you seen Defying Gravity or Moon? *cough cough cough*

Defying Gravity: Mind bending stuff in space occurs. But with a shagging too.

Moon: Best film I've seen in a long time. Well, since Fantastic Mr Fox.

I wouldn’t normally approach Sci-fi, as I never have in the past, despite being a fan. I always feel like far too many games seem to be sci-fi, but I’m contemplating a hard-sci-fi setting where the story really is more about the characters, than any space-zombie-marine-invasion stuff. I have nothing against that sort of thing, but on a budget such as mine, why would I even attempt something like that? And there’s already enough out there. Besides, I think it’d be churlish to try an inhabit the same genre as the glorious System Shock 2.

However, the other month this game was going to be about a dog who had friend who thought the sky was falling in, so we’re in the very early stages. Oddly, before I even heard of The Last Express, it was going to feature trains heavily – to the point that I figured out how to do parralax scrolling in Adventure Game Studio to implement it. It can’t be a waste of time if you’re learning can it?

Stuart The Dog: He was to be the main character of a game before I reconsidered my design.

Stuart The Dog: He was the be the lead character in a game I've since put on the shelf.

Perhaps, to paraphrase John Galt: “Your game is only the product of your sacrifices”.

Mike Dunbar

*And that’s not to discredit the art teams, sound engineers, and countless others involved in game design, because they do outstanding jobs. When you think about it, AI is something only really present in games, and if done well it can more or less take centre stage in the experience. Creatures, that thing I mentioned a couple of posts ago is a great example of that.

P.S. So this hasn’t really been about my experience of The Last Express so far, but all I would say at the moment is “I’m enjoying it” and that “I should check tv tropes to see if Robert Cath is a “Badass Bookworm”. Oh, and mention the genius touch that your character, Cath, can understand 4 languages, so when they are spoken in the game there are subtitles (as cut scenes only occur at times where you are present), and the languages in the game he doesn’t understand (Persian and Serbo-croatian) are not subtitled. Nice touch. Nice.


“Hey, Niko. It’s your cousin, Roman. Do you want to go bowling?”

“Hi, Roman. No, I am too busy to go bowling right now, another time.”

“Okay Niko. Let’s meet up soon though.”

The exchange above is something I believe anyone who has ever played for than four hours of Grand Theft Auto 4 will be familar with. It’s the call on your mobile phone that asks you if you’d like to step out of the game’s main world for a while, and indulge in a minigame. It’s also your reply that you’d rather not. Most games don’t actively seek you out to have you play a minigame, some (like parts of GTA4) require you to at least try them out to progress however, while some merely include them to add flavour. Of course some titles are just collections of minigames, as anyone who has a Wii would attest to, but I would like to keep the focus on those games where the minigame is just the small part of the package. I would like to examine what the inclusion of minigames does to enchance the player’s experience of a game, and the reasons why they’re included.


Firstly I should mark out what I believe constitues as a minigame, for claritys sake. Quite simply it is a small game that is accessed in another game, usually while you are playing in game time. They are generally much simpler than the games they inhabit, and are commonly puzzle games or short games of skill (such as shooting galleries, or fast paced arcade-style games). Now I’d like to go through what I think are the most common reasons developers have included them in their titles in the past, and currently:

1. When there simply aren’t enough keys in the world (Or we don’t want you to see that yet).

Not always a full “game” as such, but commonly enough – mainly with games that require you to explore an open world – you’re going to come across doors, chests, lockers and the like that cannot be opened with brute force. They don’t even have keys a lot of the time. Enter: The Lockpicking Game. Otherwise known as The Hacking Game in other cases.

Oblivion had a particularly frustrating one, as the ease in which you could do it depended on your secruity level. It makes sense in the game world but when you think about it, since the locks never get harder to open (in my experience), this minigame starts hard and progressively gets easier – which flies in the face of game convention in one sense. What it’s really doing is keeping the world interesting, and giving the player a reason to return somewhere. It’s making content hard to access at first, and revealing it later when the player has levelled up, or rewarding their skill playing the lockpicking sim. Bethesda struck again when they did the same thing on Fallout 3. This time it was more explicit, you had your probability of opening the lock shown to you, and certain locks could not be attempted until you’d increased your skill. Fallout 3 also included a hacking minigame in which you saw a computer terminal, and were given a page full of garbled nonsense in which words that contained similar arrangements of letters could be clicked on. To “hack” the computer you had to click on the right word before you ran out of attempts (in which failure could be easily bypassed if abandoned the “hack” before using your final attempt).

Oblvion and Fallout 3's lockpicking both relied on amassing lockpicks, adding inventory management to the equation.

Fallout 3 hacking: Impossible to lose if you kept quitting before you ran out of attempts.

Bioshock also used a hacking minigame to open locks, but I think for slightly different reasons.

2. Let’s take a moment here (Or help us help you).

2K Boston/2K Australia (Now back to being Irrational Games – Hooray!) had a hacking minigame in Bioshock as we’re all probably aware. It was used to hack the security cameras so they wouldn’t see you, to hack the flying security bots, and static turrets so they’d fight on your side, and to open safes and locks. Now, potentially for technical reasons, the game world paused and let you have your moment to attempt the hack. The hack itself had a time pressure mechanic as you were given the set of pipes, with water slowly flowing from one side, and you had to complete the pipe and connect it to the right end before the water escaped the pipe. In itself it may have been a representation of the rush you’d be experiencing attempting to hack these items under threat (I don’t believe the locks and flying robots had water sloshing around inside them). However, they weren’t always particularly challenging, and you could attempt a hack in the middle of a big firefight, and if done well could completely change the course of the encounter. It’s for this reason that I think it classifies as a minigame that is meant to give the player a break, and provide a temporary ingame reward. Often minigames will bleed into other categories (after all these are arbitrary categories I have marked out) but the reason I didn’t include it in the first one is that Bioshock isn’t really an open world game in the truest sense. The whole game’s narrative is about being told what to do, for one, but mainly because once you’ve progressed past a level there isn’t always the ability to back track, nor any explicit reward for doing so (sure you can pick up ammo, but since it’s lying around everywhere like confetti after a wedding why would you?).

Bioshock: Would you kindly refrain from hitting me until I've played this old sinclair game!?

3. No pressure, moneybags, just line your pockets why don’t you? (Or- isn’t it funny how the in game worlds are all capitalist?)

This is probably the most common minigame type, and the first thing I thought of after I scratched my head playing GTA4’s bunch. It’s fairly simple, you’re in an RPG/Action-adventure game. Final Fantasy VII, Fable 2, KOTOR, whatever. You’re wandering around the place and you walk into a Themepark/Tavern/Cantina/whatever, and some bloke wearing a silly hat tells you that if you spend five gold coins playing his game you can win a shedload back. So you do. Why is it here? A little of the second type above, to give you a hand. But mainly to give you a bit of variety in how you earn money (developers only make so many quests, so to prevent people flying through the game these can act as speed bumps – a way to get resources without burning up content), as an alternative/or compliment to a jobs system, but mainly to give their world’s a little flavour, local colour.

Of course most of the minigames offer you a fairly pedestrian gold reward for playing adequately. What they do to keep you playing, sometimes, is offer you the chance to win big, and get a legendary weapon, or some valuable item that can only be obtained by playing. Final Fantasy VII’s minigames could get you money for playing them, and as an added incentive a reward in that if you concentrated your efforts at the Golden Saucer’s Battle Zone you could get Omnislash, Cloud’s limit break. This is partly how this kind of content justifies its existence, and also how it is plain and clearly the speedbump.

Fable 2: The lower image depicts, cheekily, the point that you can max out a characters wealth way beyond what they'll ever need.

Of course every minigame has to be introduced to the player. The developer spent money and time making it, and they want you to see it. So you’re bound to encounter these whether or not you want to take part. One of my favourite commentaries on the minigame as a neccessary evil came in Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge. It was only subtle, and I wonder if it was intended as such, but there was a Wheel of Fortune game which you needed to win to progress. Aside from the prize you needed, there were several other prizes on offer and you could stay and win them all. None of them, however, ended up being of any use (including the gold, which Monkey Island has always made a point of declaring it a easy mechanic to exploit for gameplay by lazy developers). Then again, this is from the series that brought us the best minigame of all: Insult Swordfighting.

There was no reason to include this image except that I absolutely love Monkey Island(tm).

4. The Minigame as cash-in material (Or how I learned to stop worrying, and love my phone).

Final Fantasy snowboarding for your phone? Need I say more? Need I say more?

Then there’s Grand Theft Auto 4…

"Ah Niko! Just one more frame, cousin come on!"

There is no real in game reward for playing GTA4’s games as such. Your performance in games can give the player Xbox 360 achievements, and to attain 100% completion their required (Ed. Thanks Ian), but that does not benefit the in game world at all. No, merely the act of taking time out of Niko Bellic’s day to go an pick up his cousin, or gangland cronies, dive them to the Bowling Alley/Pool Hall/Bar/Resturant/Comedy Show/Cabaret, endure their company, and then drive them back again… that is what you are being rewarded for. For choosing the activity wisely, or just taking them where they want to go. This builds up Nikos relationships with the characters and in return they offer him services, such as free cab travel, the ability to reduce his wanted level when he’s in a tight spot. Sounds good? Debateable.

Grand Theft Auto 4’s desire to integrate life-sim elements into its core gameplay as a way of providing exposition is at once a brave decision, and a natural progression from the things they were doing in San Andreas. For an adventureous game, with a long story quest, and a huge open world,  having your characters converse in a moving car with no need for a cutscene every 5 minutes (there are already many cutscenes in GTA4, and they’re of a great quality, and well written I feel) as a means of introducing game concepts and plot points then it seems like a wise and frugal decision. As a fun game mechanic? Not so much. The reason why? “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Here’s the situation: You’re driving around Liberty City, you’re somewhere in Algonquin, the city’s equivalent to Manhattan. It’s beautiful. You’re surrounded by awe-inspiring sky-skrapers, you have the radio on and you’re listening to Phillip Glass, or the satirical talk-stations.  You’re pelting around at tremendous speed on a dirt bike looking for a stunt jump to attempt. Or you’re having a walk around Central Park listening to people’s conversations, and admiring the scenery. Then your phone goes off. It’s Roman. He wants to go bowling. He’s on the other side of town. You have an in-game hour to get to him. The question everyone is asking, “Why is he calling me now?”

Is it to make the world feel alive? To give the player a keener sense of time progression (which despite day and night cycles it doesn’t feel as though time progresses as there is no change in the world day to day)? Perhaps R* weren’t confident about the world they’d created and didn’t want you in it too long unsupervised (which is hard to imagine as there are games that have come out since that claim to be open world that fall very short of this high watermark)? Or is it to try and make you care about the characters? I feel it’s the first and last of these, from a narrative perspective. And I’ll say that from a ludological perspective there is a larger metagame in progress that I will get into, but for those (like me) uninterested in what it’s offering, I will say three things in its defence:

1) You can cancel plans with no cost to your relationship. Though you’re still being forced to partake in this bit of pre-fab throwaway story. You can also put your phone on a Sleep Mode, but this prevents you tackling the main story quest as well.

2) The activites vary in the level of interaction required. Should you want to increase the relationship score, you can go eating, and it’s basically a drive to and from the venue. Or a taxi journey which you can skip should you be very lazy.

3) The game itself demonstrates the ability to refuse invitiations and shows there is little consequence during the course of story missions, by refusing for you.

Really, what is occuring with GTA4’s minigames, and more prominently with Fable 2’s pubgames is this metagame I mentioned.

5. The Mingame as Metagame (Or it’s not just you, it’s everyone)

Fable 2 and GTA4 both have online mulitplayer game modes. Both, however, are fairly limited and it’s abundantly clear to anyone who has played either that these are first and foremost single player games. Single player games in a climate of gaming globalization. Nothing is single player anymore. Not even your Xbox360 dashboard. If you don’t have Xbox360 Live it doesn’t matter, it’s still there on the dashboard telling you what you’re missing. And when you do have it, it’s telling you who is online, it’s inviting you to rifle through their games collection and look at their achievements. Through playing all your games you’re playing Microsoft’s (and Sony’s with PSN Trophies) metagame absolute. But aside from that each of these titles keeps stats of how you’re playing. And others can see them. There are leaderboards for every GTA4 minigame (in a system called the Rockstar Social Club), and street race, and everything else it seems. Fable 2’s minigames were released before the full game so that players could amass a fortune, take it to their game when they got it, and the ingame world reacted accordingly to your wealth and how you got it. The idea of the games communicating with eachother – building your own profile as a gamer online, and that your GTA4 minigames are contributing to a worldwide leaderboard – that is the minigame as metagame, and it’s Rockstar’s best hope of justifying their existence to those who don’t care for the game’s narrative, or find them that appealing.

In the end all forms of minigame fill a service of some kind, and I think that like all elements of gaming, you just need to excercise moderation, and avoid letting them become a crutch to lean on when content is wearing thin. GTA4’s games are harmless enough, it’s being harangued into playing them by the supporting cast that creates resentment.

And… Metagaming (A few short words)

Metagame as impetus:

The concept that a metagame can be the explination that justifes a game isn’t singular to GTA4’s minigames. Noby Noby Boy (a beautifully bizarre and wonderous creation from Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy, another game with metagame elements) almost relies on it’s metagame elements to bring reason to the chaos of his creation. In a game where you basically muck around, eat things, and stretch your character for no narrative reason, and if you removed the entertaining chaos of your actions and focused on the mechanics makes it a game of snake you can’t lose (not thrilling, exactly), then people would be justifed asking themselves why they would continue playing this once you’ve grasped the concept and had a bit of fun. The answer, wonderously, was that upon its release players had the unique chance to achieve a common goal as a whole collective. Every single player’s high score in terms of how long they managed to make Boy (the character) stretch was recorded, and then added up across all of the PS Network, and when that distance was equal to the distance from Earth to The Moon, The Moon became a level that was unlocked to everyone after a mere 4 days after release on Feburary 23rd last year. Mars was unlocked on May 23rd. It was a wonderful stunt, but better than that, an idication of what could come in terms of getting the entire gaming community to contribute to how a game functions.

Boy is on your windmill, messin with your flour.

Metagame as consequence:

The closest thing we have known over the decade up to now have been MMOs. Specifically the way economies work in MMOs. Much like in real life they’re monitored, and the balance of supply and demand (which is controlled by the dev team, really – but in response to the way the game is being played – I hope). But they have shortcomings. It would be unfair on new players to have a finite supply of resources, so they don’t. What happens then is that players end up accumulating massive amounts of tat. When you try selling it on, it’s practically worthless, or if it is a higher class item, it has a value that isn’t representative of the fact they’re in infinite supply but tricky to get a hold of. Besides that, it’s being controlled and monitored by the dev team.

The future?

Currently, however, we’re seeing a way in which the metagame is an element of the overall gameplay, but not the focus of development (as in Noby Noby Boy) or running in the background to the point that it barely affects our experience with the game (in MMOs – does the cost of a pelt going up by 2 gold really matter in the grand scheme of things?). Demons Souls for PS3 has one of the most interesting metagames that exactly describes the marriage of gamer interaction changing the world for everyone, and the changes informing the player’s experience in a tangible way. Demons Souls allows you to leave messages on the ground for other people to find as you play, alerting you of traps and whathaveyou. That in itself is great, but then there is the ghostly apparitions of other player’s deaths that you witness, leaving clues as to how not to deal with an enemy/situation. And finally there is the ability to have random people with whom you don’t interact with personally (so the game is in charge of your experience with them, essentially) to fight with you when you cannot succeed alone, so the game shifts around your experience. This is probably the best example of a game getting the metagame right, in proportion to the core mechanics. It is more or less afterthought in GTA4, and games like Dragon Quest 9, and Animal Crossing suffer from having great ideas but ones that won’t (in my eyes) be too succesful in the west because the Nintendo DS/DSI isn’t as ubiquitous a platform over here.

To wrap it up, I think it will only be a matter of time before elements of metagame such as those in Demons Souls start appearing in more games over the coming years, potentially as a way to fill that “demand for a mulitplayer function” that titles seem to have thrust upon them.

Mike Dunbar

EDIT: A couple of weeks have passed and Irrational Games have announced Five Cut Features from their games. It mentions the hacking minigame from Bioshock, and that initially the pipe system was meant to represent an “ADAM addicted mutant” whose loyalty you effectively bought buy giving it ADAM. Still not exactly representative, then.

A relaxing thing of beauty:

I know I said that this wasn’t just a retro game blog, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about retro games…

Besides, this isn’t so much a game as it was (as Wikipedia has helpfully phrased it) an “Artifical Life Program”. I’m talking about this:

Creatures: Released November 1996 for PC by Creature Labs

This is one of the first games I played on a PC (at least a one in my house). I’m not going to argue about what classifies a “game” here, I’ll save that for another time. One of the main reasons why I’m hesitant to dismiss it for what it looks like (it looks like neopets or something, which is selling it short) is because it was designed by a most interesting man. His name is Stephen Grand OBE. And the following is the abstract to a paper he penned with Dave Cliff published in 1998 entitled Creatures: Entertainment Software Agents with Artifical Life:

We present a technical description of Creatures, a commercial home-entertainment software package. Creatures provides a simulated environment in which exist a number of synthetic agents that a user can interact with in real-time. The agents (known as ’’creatures‘‘) are intended as sophisticated ’’virtual pets‘‘. The internal architecture of the creatures is strongly inspired by animal biology. Each creature has a neural network responsible for sensory-motor coordination and behavior selection, and an ’’artificial biochemistry‘‘ that models a simple energy metabolism along with a ’’hormonal‘‘ system that interacts with the neural network to model diffuse modulation of neuronal activity and staged ontogenetic development. A biologically inspired learning mechanism allows the neural network to adapt during the lifetime of a creature. Learning includes the ability to acquire a simple verb–object language.

Additionally, both the network architecture and details of the biochemistry for a creature are specified by a variable-length ’’genetic‘‘ encoding, allowing for evolutionary adaptation through sexual reproduction. Creatures, available on Windows95 platforms since late 1996, offers users an opportunity to engage with Artificial Life technologies. In addition to describing technical details, this paper concludes with a discussion of the scientific implications of the system.


That’s long form for “This isn’t a Tamagochi”. Notice how he refers to it as Artifical Life, not intelligence. It sounds like something Peter Molyneux would say about the dog in Fable 2, but with this I think the meaning is much deeper. Stephen Grand OBE (I’m always going to put the letters on, it’s amazing) is a Computer Scientist from Cambridge. After he finished Creatures (and its sequels) he moved, I believe, to Louisiana to set up a company renting low cost ANDROIDS for marketing (Grandroids it’s called, and I urge you to look HERE)!! His pride and joy, however, is the mechanical ORANGUTAN, Lucy. That’s an oranguatan with the simulated mind of a BABY. And it looks terrifying.  I’ll step back a bit, and summarise the core mechanics of Creatures.

The game is set on a disc shaped planet called Albia. That has been abandoned by an intelligent race that lived there. They seem to have left behind a lot of stuff, including a lab with some computers in, and an incubator containing 6 eggs. The game is presented in a 2D painterly style, and quite remarkably, the design for the one (scrolling) environment was drawn directly from a huge real life model that Stephen Grand OBE made!

It was drawn up by Mark Rafter and created by Complete Fabrications, a team of local model-makers who were used to making models for museums. It cost around £15,000 to make.

It was drawn up by Mark Rafter and created by Complete Fabrications, a team of local model-makers who were used to making models for museums. It cost around £15,000 to make.

The player chose an egg and hatched it in the incubator, controlling the game with a point and click/drag interface. Once it hatched you had this:

Big Eyed Thing

That one reminds me of Dakota Fanning. Anyway,  this thing came out as a baby crawling on all fours. And that was it. Nothing telling you what you had to do (it ran in a window on Windows 95, so you could go to help and read topics there, and there was an optional tutorial video which explained the interface), and no set “goal” as such. The implication is to not let this chap die. Directly above the birthing area there is a computer. As you can freely scroll around and click on what you want you can glean by the combination of sound, and the display that it is a computer for teaching the “norns” (that’s what they’re called) verbs. It has “go” and “use” and all that on there. You can type in commands yourself, and your hand of god will say it. Whether or not it is always understood or listened to is another matter. So once you managed to tease it to the lift that takes it to the computer (like real babies picking up a ball or something shiny and waving it in their face tends to do the trick) and you’ve sat it down long enough to learn some basic commands (with a combination of as much carrot or stick treatment as you like) you can try exploring.

Picture in picture incubator cam! Ten years before Springwatch.

He's on a BBC Computer I think...

This was just one of many multi-tabbed windows in which you could monitor your norn. The complexity behind this world was astonishing.

The one thing your norn (and eventually norns) had to worry about (besides disease – which you could medicate, food – which you could provide, alcoholism – which… well you could try telling them off) was this:

This friendly Chap

As you can see by his smiling face he wasn’t much harm… or was he. He’s the grendel. His major sin in life is that he’s different to the norns biologically. If they hang around him too much they may catch diseases. His temprament is also questionable, and he’s been known to attack the odd norn. What a sod. But I always overlooked this. I kept them seperate, but this game never teaches you to be malevolent toward this happy go lucky scamp, and I applaud it for that. I ended up taking him to the computer one day and teaching him English. I also taught him a few swear words because I thought it was “in character”. I looked up the name of their language on the Creatures Wiki – it’s called “Bibble”.

Scattered around you small (but also open world, I should say) environment were many herbs, foods, and so on, and they all had an effect on your norn when they (inevitably) ate some for a laugh (it’s like being a real parent I imagine, the dread you feel when you hear the swallow sound effect and wonder what they’ve ingested now). And the numerous line graphs and charts you could look up to monitor your norn’s vitals made it a very complex game to play indeed. Then they’d breed. And that was amazing, because they’d look different, they’d be combinations of the different kinds. As a kid it astounded me.

Colin Farrel and Drew Barrymore

As a life simulator I’ve not seen anything remotely as complex as this as either part of a game, or the basis of one itself (The Sims may be well and good, but norns learned, and developed behavioural patterns over the course of their lives – as opposed to a Sim wandering around switching every electrical appliance on, and then wetting itself). The world was small, but immensely charming, and beatifully drawn (based off that beautiful – if a bit extravagant model). And to its credit the game provided some emotional experiences, especially should you see a norn turn to face you with a sad look on its face because of something you had done or said; or when you notice them reach old age and eventually die. No other life sim has ever made me consider life and death so poignantly, and it was because it was done so elegantly and without drama. For a Computer Scientist who referred to his creations as “Synthetic agents” he was suprisngly good at pulling the old heart strings and thinking about it last night this game got so much right, and was ahead of the curve on so many levels I feel a bit ashamed of my countrymen for this not being one the best remembered British games of the 1990s.

Mike Dunbar

Creatures went on to spawn two sequels, and have a healthy online existence due to a large modding community. It’s review scores at time of release were very high, earning 94% from PC Zone, 80% from PC Gamer. However, the Playstation version which was released some years later recieved generally unfavourable reviews, presumably as it lacked the windows interface which make the PC version so accessible. Luckily, Good Old Games are selling Creatures: The Albian Years (a compilation of the first two games and all their expansion packs) for a tenner, and it runs on XP. You’ve no reason not to get it.

The Retroactive Gamer Blog! Yay!

I don’t know how you’ve found this page and are reading it, but thank you for getting this far. The Retroactive Gamer isn’t just a retro game blog, though of course we love to talk about them. The name’s meant to be a pun sort of deal. Like we play retro games, and new games so we’re retro-active, right? Yeah, well it was that or some kind of Zelda pun.

Anyway I want to sort of flesh out a mission statement of sorts here that justifies this blog’s existence.

Things you can expect:

The contributors of this blog and myself are writing articles here for two reasons. We love games, being the main one. The other reason is that we all have an opinion on video games as an industry, their cultural significance, their standing as an art form, and the progress being made in a fledgling artform with regards to every element of their being. That might sound a bit grandiose. There’ll probably be lolcats dressed up like Link or something too.

With this in mind, the articles here aren’t going to be game previews or reviews of upcoming titles. We’re not the mainstream press, we’re just fans. It’d be idiotic to do what some blogs do, and attempt to write reviews with demos. If we do write an article about a game, it’ll be out, you might have it too, and all we know will be all you can find in a magazine or another site. We’re not trying to usurp the mainline press. The advantage we do have, however, is that we don’t have the burden of trying to run a business. We can afford to spend the time getting down to the nitty gritty about just one particular idea and run with it because we’re not chasing exclusives or meeting deadlines.

My intention is to run as a commentary and companion to games and gaming culture, and that includes the gaming press.

So expect a melange of articles on topics such as retro games, game developement, indie gaming, essays, retrospectives, and our take on current news items and the latest games that are on the shelves. Join in the discourse with the comments fuction, because this is a conversation.

The Big Whoop Podcast! Yay!

Now from time to time we’re going to make a podcast! It’ll be fun, they normally are. Expect chat, music, discourse, fun, chat. Mainly chat. You get it for free if you know the reference. And if you don’t.

And yes, you can haz cheeseburger.

– Mike