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.