Like a Super Hero

I’m not qualified to write a eulogy for Ryan Davis, but I wish I were.

I’m not at all qualified to write anything meaningful about Ryan Davis, since I only met him a couple of times, and I was never even a regular listener to the Giant Bombcast. But I’m still trying to figure out why the news of his passing has me feeling like the wind was knocked out of me. It feels like the joy has been sucked out of an entire industry.

On Twitter, Sean Vanaman said:


and that’s a fantastic way to put it. The longest I ever talked to him was when a few of us from Telltale went down to the Giant Bomb offices in Sausalito to demo the first episode of Sam & Max season 3. That was at the end (for me) of a production cycle that had left me questioning whether I even wanted to work in video games anymore. A couple of hours later, I left thinking how lucky I was to get to work in games, and how I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

There are fewer things more artificial than a “press demo” for a game. But I almost instantly felt like I’d just gone to a friend’s house to sit on the couch and shoot the shit while playing a video game. And while I was ready with my standard lines about what I wanted the game to be “about,” Ryan just seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

One of the highest compliments I can give someone is to say that he “gets it,” and Ryan just seemed to get it. All the moments in the game that made me laugh — a great vocal delivery, or one of Dennis & Nick’s visual gags — got a laugh from Ryan at exactly the right time. Every time I’ve heard a comedian talk about the rush they get when a set connects with the audience and “kills?” That must be what that demo felt like.

I can’t think of a less pretentious way to say it, but it felt like the genuine communication everyone’s trying to achieve when they write or make anything that means more to them than a paycheck. It was the feeling of talking to someone who knows exactly what you’re trying to say, and more importantly, why you’re saying it. He just seemed to get that spark of interactivity that makes it worthwhile to dig through all the crap and nonsense that surrounds video games, to get at those moments of joy underneath.

Or maybe I was just reading too much into it. It was only a couple of hours, after all, in what I’m sure was a long line of Quick Looks and demos and cross-promotions. But after reading other people’s remembrances — Justin McElroy’s on Polygon is particularly moving — it becomes clear that a ton of people had a similar experience. Even briefly hanging out with Ryan left you with a little bit of his joy and enthusiasm.

I wish I’d been able to hang out with him again. I never made much of a point to, because it always seemed like he was one of the constants of video games (at least in the Bay Area), and he’d always be around. I would say that I’m jealous of the people who did get to, but if I’m feeling this affected by his absence, I can’t imagine what they must be going through. All I can do is offer my sincere condolences to his family, friends, and co-workers, and a reminder of how much of an impact you can have on someone else without even realizing it.

Towards Our Digital Future

The “Xbox 180,” SimCity, and how someone who absolutely abhors software piracy can still think DRM sucks.

I’d thought that Microsoft’s reversal of its policies on used games and online checks for the Xbox One would be universally regarded as a good thing. As it turns out, there are quite a few people who are upset that it’s a step backwards, and others that think it’s unfair to video game developers because GameStop.

I just got into it on Twitter, taking a hard-line of course they had to reverse such an idiotic policy position. And since we all know that Twitter is the best possible place to make a nuanced, reasonable argument, I thought I’d add to it on here.

What set me off was this tweet from Cliff Bleszinski:


My first problem with that: *developers* don’t see any more money from a new copy than from a used one. Unless of course he’s talking about the few who own their own development studios, or the people who are as good at self-promotion as Cliffy B.

To be clear, that’s not an insult. I’m old enough to recognize that self-promotion is a talent just like anything else, and there’s nothing inherently noble about waiting around passively for people to notice what you can do. It does mean, however, that it’s more than a little disingenuous to protest this in terms of Helping Out the Little Guy. The money in question is going to go either to publishers or to a parasitic bottom-feeder like GameStop. So it’s either the corporation trying to get a lock-down on every stage of the process from development tools to hardware sales to licensing fees, or the corporation that pays kids a ridiculously paltry amount for used games before turning around and selling them again at an obscene mark-up.

Missing from all that are the players themselves. And players overwhelmingly hated Microsoft’s announced DRM policies for the Xbox One. In his write-up on Ars Technica, Kyle Orland says that Microsoft’s plan failed “the mom test.” That’s something that publishers, developers, and people immersed in video games just keep doing: making decisions that are so far afield that they have no connection with basic common sense. And requiring players to have an online connection for a single-player, offline game with media they’re holding in their hands, is simply idiotic. It’s inconveniencing players for the sake of defending publishers’ profit, and that’s always a bad idea.

Previously, I would’ve said (and actually have said) that requiring an internet connection is no big deal. Most people are connected to the internet, and even with the lousy broadband speeds in the US, and monthly download caps, the amount of data required for a DRM check is minimal. Consoles aren’t portable, so it’s not as if you’re going to be wanting to play an Xbox game while commuting or on a plane. It sucks for people in the military, or people who live where fast internet connections simply aren’t available, but those are “fringe cases.”

That’s what I would’ve said. What changed my mind? SimCity.

That was easily my most anticipated game of 2013. I told myself — and others — that the online requirement wasn’t a dealbreaker. “It sucks that I won’t be able to play it on a plane, since plane flights are when I most want to play SimCity, but so what. It’s a simple authentication check, so even dial-up connections won’t be hard hit. What could go wrong?!” What went wrong, of course, was the game’s disastrous launch. But I worry that execs will walk away from that thinking that the answer is simply to get more servers and to do more stress-testing when launching a game. The problems with SimCity go much deeper than that, though: the online requirement negatively affected every single aspect of the game and completely soured me on it.

People at Maxis — very, very smart people, whom I’ve met, and who I respect immensely — have insisted that the online requirement wasn’t for DRM, but was an integral part of the multi-player design direction of the game. So I have to take that on face value, and that’s actually worse than if it were just intrusive, publisher-mandated DRM. Because it suggests that the studio either didn’t know or didn’t care how people actually play the game and what they actually wanted, and they were free to impose whatever restrictions on players that the studio wanted.

It wasn’t simply server issues; I was one of the relatively lucky people who had no problems with the servers after the first couple of days. But even when connected, I was constantly running into limitations. A set number of regions, with pre-generated terrain that I couldn’t alter. Artificially tiny city sizes, with the justification that they have to be small to run well on other people’s machines, no matter how well they’d run on my own. My cities were saved on the server in a limited number of slots without the opportunity for saving local copies to “branch,” even though I had absolutely no interest in playing with anyone else.

My final breaking point: I changed the name of one of the pre-made city areas, and the name came back to me as a string of asterisks. Was it a server glitch? Or did it think that I’d typed in a dirty word, and censored it before it showed up in public city lists? I didn’t know, and I still don’t. But it occurred to me how absolutely absurd it was that I should even have to wonder. A single player game, and I wasn’t free to change its name, something that’s been inherent in computer games since we 12-year-olds entered “AssWipe” for a character’s name and giggled every time it came on screen. At every step of the way, SimCity reminded me that this game does not belong to you. And this had been a game series that was always about creation and giving the player absolute control.

When I’ve complained about software piracy, it’s because there’s an inherent contract between publishers/developers and players that pirates violate. They can try to rationalize it and justify it as much as they want, but the basic fact is that they’re taking advantage of people’s work without giving anything back. But when developers or publishers put their needs before the players’ — whether it’s through intrusive DRM, or online-only requirements, or getting incensed about used or rented games — then they’re not holding up their end of the contract, either.

There’s absolutely no excuse for piracy. Period. But treating physical media as property, and not simply a license, has a clear and obvious precedent. If the game industry genuinely is harmed so much by used games and rentals, I think the first question people should be asking is why their business model is so fragile that it’s so threatened by players doing what simply makes sense. I’m clearly no fan of GameStop and will be gleeful when they’re finally driven out of business. But the way to defeat them isn’t to impose restrictions that inconvenience players. The way to defeat them is to obviate them.

Steam’s been successful on the PC, even though it requires an online connection and a pretty fast broadband connection, because it’s more player-focused than Valve-focused. Frequent sales, promotion of obscure titles, lots of community tools to warrant the online requirement, cloud storage of saved games, and having a game library available from any machine you own. Microsoft’s original announcement about the Xbox One had only the requirements and none of the convenience. Again: when you have players who are holding a disc full of all the content of your game, and you’re still requiring them to go on line to play it, you’re not giving them any advantages, and you’re failing the most basic test of common sense. Any business that puts its own profits above the customer’s convenience deserves to go out of business, “inherent contract” or no.

For the record, even after Microsoft’s reversal, I’ve got zero interest in the Xbox One OR the PS4. SimCity was the last game I bought on physical media, and I sincerely hope it’ll be the last game I’ve bought on physical media. Everything I play is through the iOS App Store or Steam now, and publishers’ idiocy over DRM and insistence on absurdly large updates or online requirements mean that there’s absolutely no advantage to dragging my ass to a store to pick up a game on DVD. Not to mention that games on Steam are almost always cheaper than they are for consoles. It’s time publishers stop blaming GameStop and Gamefly and Redbox and stop punishing their customers, and ask themselves what’s wrong with their model. I’m highly skeptical that any customers are saying, “I really want to keep paying $60 for games, pay an additional monthly fee for multiplayer, and use my video game console as a pass-through UI overlay box for a cable or satellite account I have to pay an additional fee for!”

The future is going to be on mobile devices and multi-purpose boxes using the App Store model. Valve can see that, which is why they’re so eager to get Steam running on TVs. Apple’s already got a strong presence in games, without even caring about games; it’s almost scary to think what could happen if they started putting effort into it. Even without the physical media, they still give more a feeling of “owning” a library of games than my bookcase full of games on DVD. Once they’ve finally “won” the living room, and broadband is ubiquitous, the entire question of online checks will be completely irrelevant.

It’ll be better for players, and not simply because of digital distribution, but because of companies that prove you can be successful by actually providing value to players instead of just to shareholders.

Shadows of the Empire

What I learned from a job at LucasArts fifteen years ago.


Last week Disney finally put the pillow over LucasArts’s face and held firmly but impassively as the heart monitor flatlined and the gold guy gave one final twitch. This is undeniably bad news for all the people still working at the Presidio, and I sincerely hope they find new work quickly. But for everyone else, it should be along the same lines as any other video game studio closing.

Should be, but to hear the internet tell it, the news is “tragic” and spells the death of their most formative years. The closure of LucasArts caused a huge uptick in the number of online hagiographies, but strangely made no significant difference in the number of LucasArts games sold.

Okay, that’s an easy, cheap shot. Why can’t I just leave everyone to their eulogizing? Why not let people get sentimental about an environment that hasn’t existed for over a decade, if in fact it ever existed? I already said my piece on Facebook, a few times: it sucks that so many people are out of a job — especially since everybody involved in 1313 seemed to be proud of what they were making — but this is hardly unexpected, and it’s been a long time coming. Management has let in-house development falter while the standout games have been third-party licenses. And getting angry at Disney for “killing” LucasArts is like watching someone with a beautiful, pristine sports car let it slowly, slowly coast head-first over a cliff, and then getting mad at the insurance company for totaling it.

Still, it seems like it should be a big deal. That job and that company were life-changing for me in just about every way possible. It meant leaving my family and friends to move 3000 miles away to a state where I knew almost no one apart from my co-workers. For years, everyone I knew was either directly or indirectly through LucasArts. Every job I’ve had since then, except for one, was a result of knowing people at LEC. (And even at that one job, we spent most of the interview talking about the problems of LucasArts). I’ve worked for two studios that were formed mainly from ex-Lucas employees. The most rewarding work of my career to date was the “spiritual successor” to one of LucasArts’s classic games. I can’t say I’ve really missed LEC, since I feel like I’ve never entirely gotten out from under its shadow.

Ultimately, I think that’s why — at the risk of sounding selfish, callous, and flippant to all the people who lost their jobs — I can’t get all that upset about the closure of the studio. As far as I’m concerned, it served its purpose, and that’s nothing to be sad about. It completely changed my perception of crunch time and the creative process; and it had a huge influence on the development of games as a medium, an influence that’s not only still alive, but thriving.

What It Takes to Make Something Great

On Facebook, there’ve been a lot of ex-Lucas employees posting their memories of the company. Several of them have ended by saying that it was the best job they’d ever had, which just made me feel guilty for my good fortune, because I’ve had a whole string of jobs that were much better.

And then there’s this eulogy for LucasArts written by one of the employees directly affected by the closure. I don’t want to sound dismissive of it, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m mocking it, since it was well-done and heartfelt. More importantly, it was about the people there, and it’s always been the people, not the licenses, that made the company. It’s just that looking at the pictures, I realized that there’s been so much turn-over through the years that I recognized only one of the dozens of people still working there. But reading the text — with the description of extended crunch time, missed once-in-a-lifetime family obligations, having to put family on hold for the sake of work, and having to suffer through the consequences of poor decisions by management — I thought: that’s the LucasArts I remember.

What’s most frustrating about these accounts is the underlying sense that crunch time is inevitable. That it’s all part of the sacrifices required to make something outstanding. That attitude is endemic to almost every game development studio, but it was particularly heavy at LEC. And it’s nonsense. If you’re working crunch time, that means simply that someone has fucked up. It could be the producer who made the schedule. It could be the executive who insisted on a totally unrealistic deadline. It could be the designer or lead whose direction was ambiguous and resulted in a huge re-working. It could be the co-worker who made a mistake and left it for you to clean up. And if it’s none of those people, then it’s you. Either for not making good estimates, or for not managing your time well.

Whatever the case, it’s an error, a mistake, something to be fixed. Just because it always happens doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. If a studio doesn’t treat it as a mistake to be learned from, then they’re going to just write it into their schedules, and it’s never going to change. And if a company is still making the same mistakes in 2013 that they were making in 1999, then they deserve to go out of business. Even if they did make Day of the Tentacle.

A Family Company

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Before this post is interpreted as a curmudgeonly “Good riddance, LucasArts!” we should all be clear on one thing: I was, and remain, a hopeless, stuttering fan of the “good old days” of the company. I’ve said it before, but The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that made me switch majors in college; it showed me that video games could be a viable medium for storytelling, and not just a diversion. I went on to buy every LucasArts game sight unseen. Almost immediately after I finished Full Throttle, I decided that was enough, and I had to send in a resume “cold.” I was ecstatic when I got an interview. They took me to Skywalker Ranch and casually showed me the display case holding C-3P0’s arm and the Holy Grail. They told me I was interviewing for a job on a sequel to Monkey Island and my stomach flipped and I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. The “test” for the job was getting to play around with SCUMM for a few hours, using characters from Full Throttle against backdrops from Hit the Road. When I left, I said that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be happy just having toured the studio and meeting the people, and I meant every word of it. And a few weeks later, when I found out I’d gotten the job, I just lost it. I kind of collapsed on the couch in my apartment and just cried for like ten minutes straight. (Something I’d repeat several times over the next few years, but for very different reasons).

As far as I was concerned, I was Charlie Bucket in the Wonkavator.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about that; a ton of people were there because they were fans of Star Wars or Tucker: The Man and His Dream. As the years went on, there were more of us who weren’t just fans of Lucasfilm, but of the games division in particular. Which is fortunate; few people ever get to work at a place they love so much. The problem is when it gets corrupted to the point where being a super-fan isn’t just creepy and excessive, but expected.

And LucasArts definitely took advantage of it. Sometimes it was explicit — at a review I had a manager acknowledge that the company paid less than the industry standard, but they believed that one of the benefits of working at LucasArts was getting to work at LucasArts. A lot of the time, it wasn’t — you don’t need to keep cracking the whip and shouting “you’re lucky we let you work here” when you’ve got people who already believe it. I don’t even think it was entirely malicious; I’m sure a lot of people really believed that that kind of devotion is required to make great games.

Whatever the reason, it got to be pervasive and destructive. It meant getting burnt out from working nights and weekends, constantly having to manage people’s defensiveness and insecurity, and an environment where even asking for scheduled vacation time had this layer of guilt slathered on top of it. You weren’t just letting down the team, you were letting down the family.

The standout for me was when my boss was in the middle of berating me for something or other (a general bad attitude, if I remember correctly) and said, “You are not to question me.” That surprised me for two reasons: first, because I didn’t think people actually ever said that. I’d always put it in the same category as “I’m getting too old for this shit” and “He’s a loose cannon, but he’s the best there is;” Things People Only Say In Movies.

The other reason it surprised me was because until that point, it’d never even occurred to me to question him. Question some of his decisions, sure. Question the direction my career was going and whether I wanted to keep doing that, definitely. But I never once doubted that the game was going to brilliant, that all the hours and all the stress was going to be worth it, and that the lousy time I was having was just the kind of sacrifice you had to make if you wanted to make something great. If ever my life called for a “glass shattering” sound effect, it was then.

So what? Everybody’s had a boss they didn’t agree with, and everybody’s had to work on a mismanaged project at one time or another. But my moment of clarity came from realizing that it’s not so simple as we tend to think of it: callous execs taking advantage of people just trying to make an honest living. We’re all culpable to one degree or another. If I’ve learned anything about con artists from movies and TV, it’s that the trap you set for someone else is never as reliable as the trap they set for themselves. And best of all is the trap that they demand you let them walk into. A lot of times, we wear overtime as a badge of honor — adversity keeps the team together, working long hours shows how passionate and committed we are — instead of acknowledging it as unnecessary, and a sign that something’s gone wrong.

Years later I went on to work at Electronic Arts for Maxis on SimCity 4. It was another sequel to one of my favorite games at one of my favorite studios. I’m still as proud of that game as anything else I’ve worked on. And I wasn’t keeping track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent more hours on just the first eight or nine months there than I did the entire time I was at LucasArts. I later went on to the infamous “EA Spouse” project (I still say “the infamous EA Spouse project” is a better title than what the game actually shipped with), and that experience was every bit as awful as a class action suit would imply.

Still, I would’ve signed on for a dozen more of those before I would’ve gone back to LEC. The difference was that nobody at EA had any illusions that it was anything other than a bunch of competent adults working together in a mutually beneficial business arrangement. It was the first time in my adult life I was able to get out of debt — it’s amazing how much better people work when they’re not constantly worried about money. It required a ton of hours, but a technical director was frequently checking in, looking specifically for signs of burn-out and enforcing time off if we shoed any. It was all so gloriously impersonal.

It helped not being subjected to enforced whimsy, and it was nice not having to hear constantly how much better things used to be at Kerner. Best of all, though, was I didn’t have to hear the voice in my head telling me how lucky I was to be working there. Pride in the game and respect for the team just came naturally.

So I guess I have LucasArts to “thank” for that particular epiphany. Objecting to crunch time isn’t objecting to work; it’s objecting to unnecessary work. And there’s nothing callous or Machiavellian about looking into the cost versus benefit of everything you do. The people who are benefitting monetarily from your work almost certainly aren’t you (unless you’ve got a better arrangement than I’ve ever seen in video game development), and they’re almost never around on nights and weekends. It’s not money, so always ask yourself honestly what it is that you’re getting out of your own work. If you’re putting the effort in because you genuinely think it’ll make the game better, then go for it. But if it’s out of some sense of obligation, or an attempt to demonstrate how passionate you are about your job, then you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. (It never is).

Happily Ever After, or, Why Won’t You Just Die Already?

Clearly I’m still holding onto a lot of psychic residue from that company. It’s not entirely my fault, though; for a company so fixated on storytelling, LucasArts has failed to stick to a good narrative. It started out good enough: a billionaire filmmaker gathering the best talent he could find, Charlie’s Angels-style, and putting them to work at a secluded ranch north of San Francisco, where they’d go on to redefine an entire medium. Not long after that, though, it just degrades into a predictable story of the brash young creatives vs. a bunch of commerce-oriented “suits” milking the hell out of a bunch of licenses.

As for my part: instead of stepping into the Wonkavator and then flying over the Marin headlands followed by a graceful fade to black, the story I’d set up for myself in college has just dragged on and on. In terms of dramatic structure, it’s been a disaster. Story lines that go nowhere. All the cathartic scenes where I finally get to tell off the People Who’ve Done Me Wrong have never happened, and at this point, the whole reason for those scenes is long forgotten. Big character reveals that happen way, way too late in the story.

And there’s been absolutely no closure on the whole LucasArts chapter. I’d thought there’d be some satisfaction from leaving the company, but it just kind of petered out. I went to work with a bunch of other LEC refugees. Good job, but not a clean break.

Over the years, tons of people left the company to go on to other studios, or start their own. At one point, it sounded like the entire company had been laid off. But it’d always come back in some form or another, and everyone would insist that this time would be different, and this time it was going to go back to like it was in the old days.

For me, I thought the company as I knew it was dead as soon as they stopped publishing The Adventurer. It was the SCUMM games that made me a fan of the games, but The Adventurer that made me a fan of LucasArts. Of course, it was my first exposure to Sam & Max. And reading the previews and interviews and game reviews made it seem as if the company had a soul that existed entirely separate from Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Over time, though, it became more and more just a merchandise catalog and an extension of the marketing arm, until it was wiped out completely. I can’t even remember when exactly they stopped making them — it might’ve even been when I was still working there. Whatever the case, it was something that you couldn’t exactly mourn, but its absence made everything else feel hollow.

As I said, the most rewarding work I’ve had in my entire career has been at another studio formed by ex-LucasArts employees, working with the characters that had made it seem as if LEC had a soul. Even as we tried — and succeeded — to do something new, there was always the very vocal contingent that just wanted to hold a bunch of games from 20 years ago over our heads. (I can remember being asked to be on some panel at PAX one year, and when asked about fan fiction, I said that pretty much my entire career had been based on sequels and licenses, so I was essentially a professional fan fiction writer. It got a laugh from the audience, but still convinced me that a change was in order).

Most recently, there was what felt like another last-gasp attempt to revitalize the “good old” LucasArts by releasing special editions of the first two Monkey Island games. And I was surprised to discover that I just didn’t enjoy them that much anymore. At some point in there, I’d changed without realizing it. And even if they somehow brought the old company back to life entirely, it’s not what I’d want.

I think that’s why many of the eulogies and reminiscences have seemed misguided to me: pointing at Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, or even The Curse of Monkey Island, isn’t an homage, it’s a straitjacket. It says that all that creativity was in the past, and the best we could hope for would be to duplicate it, in the same narrow parameters established back in 1990. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather fail doing something original than be successful at just duplicating someone else’s work. That’s why I respect Double Fine’s resistance to sequels and remakes.

And it’s another big part of why I can’t be upset about the closure of LucasArts. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to want all of that stuff to remain in the past. Even if the studio had stayed open after the sale of Lucasfilm, if you haven’t seen your Day of the Tentacle sequel by 2013, it’s probably time to let go. And I’m highly skeptical that the sequel would be what players really want. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong).

Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: The Legacy of Kyle Katarn

Finally, speaking of stories: every story needs a good villain, so why not Disney? It lets LucasArts — the company privately owned by a billionaire — be the plucky underdogs once again. Instead of comically shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot for ten years, they’re instead recast as the last keepers of the flame of originality, snuffed out by an unfeeling corporate giant.

Even though LucasArts has had the most of its success as a licensor over the past few years. (It’s unfortunate that some of the employees take that as an insult or a reflection on their own efforts, when it’s not; we can’t be aware of their efforts internally if we haven’t been allowed to see it). And Disney’s much better at managing licensing deals with external studios than handing in-house development. Now, the licenses can ideally go to studios who really want to work with Star Wars (and possibly one day Indiana Jones), instead of to in-house developers who are obligated to crank out another iteration of the Death Star trench run or the Hoth battle.

So people have been lamenting the death of LucasArts, and I’m asking what died, exactly? Apart from a good team, which will undoubtedly find work elsewhere, there’s a brand and years of terrible management. The big licenses obviously aren’t going anywhere; they were worth four and a half billion dollars.

One of LucasArts’s best games was Dark Forces, and it was a game that only LEC could make. And not for the obvious reason, because LEC had a lock on the Star Wars license. The company could’ve made a straight DOOM clone, slapped a Star Wars skin on it, and it would’ve sold like crazy. Instead, they treated it like a game being published by the interactive arm of a movie company: lots of emphasis on story, cinematics, and cinematic presentation in the level design.

Obviously, RPGs had an emphasis on story, and a lot of them were evolving out of their niche audience by incorporating elements of FPS games. But Dark Forces gave it a wide audience, and it asserted the idea that story is important. I know that until then, I always separated video games into two distinct categories: the adventure games that had interesting stories and characters, and games like DOOM that were rock-stupid but fun. Dark Forces was the first attempt I’d ever seen to accomplish both. I say that without it and Jedi Knight, there wouldn’t have been Half-Life. And without that, the entire state of video game storytelling would be vastly different, if it even existed at all in anything other than niche audiences.

So now we have Portal and Portal 2, two games that recreate the feeling of playing the old adventure games better than any game in recent memory — including the remakes of the old adventures. And I’ve been playing BioShock Infinite, which is a character-driven story set in a cinematic world with wide vistas and plenty of levels devoted entirely to exposition. And I’m looking at all the eulogies of LucasArts and asking, who died? Whether you love it, hate it, or remain in denial about it, the potential of video games as a storytelling medium has been well established.

And for the people lamenting that the end of LucasArts means it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see anyone revisit the smaller, original titles: never forget that a big part of what made those games great was their originality.

As far as I’m concerned: I think LucasArts gave us a reminder that talented people are more important than any license. And a lesson about the different ways that passion and commitment can be twisted, not just by employers but by ourselves. And a legacy of storytelling in games with so much potential that we haven’t even begun to explore all the possibilities. I say that the man who got everything he ever wanted didn’t necessarily live happily ever after; he just had to keep coming up with new stuff to want.

Set Tube-jawed Baffle to 6!

Spaceteam is genius in iOS app form. ASTEROID! (everybody shake)

SpaceteamscreenshotSpeaking of great video games, Spaceteam is the kind of genius concept you usually only see accompanied by Seamans or maracas-shaking monkeys.

The premise is that you and the rest of your Space Team, each equipped with an iOS device with a control panel, have to guide your spaceship through dangerous territory. Instructions come through on your device (e.g. “Set Kinetic Flow to Maximum!”; you can follow the Spaceteam Autopilot on Twitter for more periodic nonsense). The instructions are (usually) intended for the other players’ control panels. That results in a lot of yelling back and forth. If you can complete the instructions, you advance to the next sector. Mess up, and your ship runs into asteroids, wormholes, magnetic distortions, and lots of other mayhem.

I’ve never played Space Alert, but from what I understand, Spaceteam would be somewhat similar, if you removed everything from Space Alert that was orderly or made sense.

It’s a purely social game — while it doesn’t exactly encourage people to look up from their cell phones, it at least gets us back to the old days where friends would scream random nonsense at each other. It’s also exactly the kind of thing that makes independent game development a good idea.

Spaceteam is free on the App Store, but you can (and should) buy “Upgrades” to support the development. As the latest update notes say, “You can now Frog Blast the Vent Core.”

GOTY II: The Legacy of Kain

The unforgettable video games of 2012 that I totally forgot to mention

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In my previous post, not only did I confuse Commando with Predator, but I completely forgot to mention a couple outstanding games from 2012.

Thirty Flights of Loving

Blendo is dependably brilliant, but even by that high standard, 30 Flights of Loving is remarkable. It’s ostensibly a sequel (I guess? Prequel maybe?) to Gravity Bone, but in character design and game engine only. The game itself is completely nuts: an experiment in cinematic, non-linear storytelling in a medium that does pretty much everything it can to discourage non-linear storytelling.

The game is constantly lurching forwards and backwards in time, going from flashback to flashback within a flashback; dropping you into situations with no context, leaving you to figure it what’s going on; and editing out stretches of action while you’re taking part in them. It’s all stuff we take for granted in movies, but would seem to be impossible in a medium where you control a character in first person and in real time.

Does it work? I’m still not sure. I still can’t quite piece together what the narrative is, so if clarity’s your thing, you might be disappointed. Did I enjoy it? Definitely. It’s overloaded with style and imagination, and it perfectly demonstrates the power of suggestion.

Whenever I hear the complaint that adventure games aren’t really games, my response has always been that of course they are; the object of the game is to finish the story. It feels as if 30 Flights of Loving takes this one step further: the object of the game is to figure out the story. You see suggestions of story elements — a band of rebels, a betrayal, a wedding reception, a frantic escape — and have to piece them together. Each is a billion times more provocative than a more traditional presentation would give them. By dropping you into a story with no context, and by filling the game with brilliant world-building details (Blendo’s the best at made-up place names), everything is more real and more memorable than a simple linear action story.

Maybe the highest compliment I can give 30 Flights of Loving is that it made me feel lazy. I’ve been speculating about how narratives work in a medium where the player’s in complete control over the pacing, how unreliable narrators could work in games, and how to borrow aspects of cinematic storytelling without losing the essence of what makes a game. And then Brendon Chung just came along and did it all, and took the experiment even farther than I would’ve thought was possible.

FTL

I contributed to the Kickstarter for Faster Than Light because it seemed to have an aggressively old-school mentality: you’re in control of everything, and more significantly, the game doesn’t care if you live or die. Making a roguelike in a non-fantasy setting that lets you blow up enemy spaceships is such a no-brainer that everybody should buy it and play it.

I still haven’t finished a game; in fact I think the farthest I’ve gotten is about a third of the way through. There’s two reasons for that: one, I keep underestimating how devastating a fire in a major system area can be, and two, I convinced myself that “normal” difficulty was the way to go. That’s actually the cruelest trick of the game designers: actually, “easy” is normal and “normal” is really unforgiving. It took me a few games to swallow my pride and choose the “easy” setting, but doing that made the game a lot more enjoyable for me. Not getting annihilated in sector two helps a lot.

Karateka

I played the original only once, so it’s not nostalgia that’s making me like the new remake of Karateka. It’s that they took a straightforward game and made all the right decisions with the update. There’s the clever teaser video by Adam Lisagor. There’s the great character design. The soundtrack that’s a lot more polished than you’d expect from a game of this scope. The forethought to make it available on every platform, and to make sure that it plays as well on iOS as it does on Xbox. And there’s the simplicity of the controls: it’s essentially a rhythm game, where your accuracy at blocking attacks determines how many hits you can get in.

My favorite aspect of it, though, is how it perfectly integrates difficulty with the storyline. You get three “lives” in the form of three different characters all trying to save the princess. If you mess up on your first go-round, then you can still finish the game… but the ending won’t be quite as satisfying, because you failed to reunite the princess with her True Love. (For the record, the only time I finished was with The Brute, and even that was after a couple of failed attempts). It’s ingenious.

On top of everything else, the game is exactly as big as it needs to be. There’s no sign of bloat, absolutely nothing that’s extraneous. Characters are established with nothing more than character design and animation, and you get a complete story of a daring assault on a castle to rescue a princess from an evil warlord. (And his asshole hawk).

You Don’t Know Jack

I love You Don’t Know Jack, but ever since its original glory (the Movies edition is possibly the best written video game ever made), they’ve never quite nailed the distribution. There was diminishing returns on the original sets; the randomization of the questions was unpredictable, but also meant that you’d get repeats of some of the questions before you’d seen all of the content. By the time The Ride was released, I’d pretty much lost interest. Later on, with the dedicated website and daily games, it got to be kind of a chore to keep up with them: you’d have to dedicate a good 20 minutes or so each day to go through a game. And the recent console release fixed a lot of the problems with repetition that the originals had, but still felt somewhat static. If you had a party to play with, it could be fun; otherwise, I didn’t have much compelling me to finish all the episodes.

The current Facebook incarnation nails it. It turns out that five questions is the perfect length, there’s a good variety of question types, the achievements kept me engaged longer than I ever was with the website version, and the asynchronous competition against Facebook friends makes it perfect to play against people you can never get into the same room. Even better, they’ve released iOS versions that integrate with Facebook, so you don’t even have to open a web browser to play.

If there were any lingering doubt that 2012 was a tremendous year for video games, I only have six words to offer as proof: Elephant, Mustard, Teddy Roosevelt, or Dracula.

GOTY

Best video games of the year according to someone who didn’t play a lot of video games this year.

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Congratulations again to the Walking Dead team at Telltale for sweeping the VGAs this year. To be honest, the VGAs have never been that relevant to me, but that’s really what makes the announcement of “Studio of the Year” so remarkable. The VGAs are all about the mainstream, and while The Walking Dead comic is astoundingly popular, the type of game that The Walking Dead committed to certainly isn’t. (Speaking of which, it’s kind of remarkable that the Walking Dead comic is so popular, seeing as how it’s so relentlessly bleak). It’s been great to see that commitment to smaller, episodic, story-centric games finally paying off.

Of course, it would’ve been even better to see it pay off while I was still at the company, but I’ll be gracious for once and just be happy to see my friends becoming successful. Suck it, Morrissey.

The other thing that was remarkable about the VGAs was that not one of the nominees for Game of the Year was a bad, lazy, or uninspired game. Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 were the obvious front-runners, as big franchises with huge marketing budgets behind them, but by all accounts — I haven’t played either yet — they were thoughtful, well-produced, and had stories more sophisticated than “Space Marines” or “the invasion of Normandy.” Dishonored (I haven’t played it yet, either) had beautiful art direction, and Journey was a masterpiece.

Even more surprising, my own favorite game of the year was more “mainstream” and traditional than any of the games nominated for the VGAs. With so many good-to-outstanding video games being made, it’s getting harder to be a smug hipster, complaining about the 7-10 review scale and lamenting that the popular trash overshadows the misunderstood gems of indie genius.

I’ve played almost none of the “major” games released this year, the kind that’ll dominate conversations and other Game Of The Year lists. But here are the best games I played in 2012, in no particular order except for the last.

Journey

I already wrote about why I liked Journey, but I’d mostly forgotten about it, until I saw it being played again a few weeks ago. With the music, the art direction, the natural-feeling controls, and the simple but profound theme, it would’ve been a standout game even if it were just a sequel to Flower.

But the inclusion of anonymous multiplayer is what makes it amazing. I’ve seen that final ascent up the mountain about five times now, three times on my own and twice watching someone else play it. Each time played out slightly differently, but it changed the meaning of the game significantly. As somebody who always considered multiplayer to be a completely separable and smaller component of video games, it took Journey (and video of Johann Sebastian Joust) to remind me that the social aspect of games has enormous potential that’s still just barely been explored.

The Unfinished Swan

I’d been interested in The Unfinished Swan ever since video of the first tech demo started circulating. I’d expected the entire game to be exactly that demo — using splatters of paint to reveal detail in a stark white environment — and I still think that that would’ve been perfectly novel and interesting. But instead, the game quickly expands on that idea with variation after variation, each focused on exploring environments in indirect and unexpected ways. It’s almost perfectly paced, throwing a new mechanic at you just as you feel you’ve mastered the previous one, so that nothing feels as if it’s gotten tiresome.

Plus, they actually got Terry Gilliam to do a voice!

The Room

The Room is a game for iOS in which you have to unlock a sequence of puzzle boxes. I’d seen the listing for it and some of the buzz around it, but just dismissed it as another of those pretty but vapid “hidden object” games that have overwhelmed the mobile market almost as much as tower defense games. It also reminded me of The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, and I’ve always hated games that just present puzzles as puzzles for their own sake. Add that to my lack of patience for real-world puzzle boxes or other physical puzzles, and it seemed clear that I was absolutely not in the target demographic for this game.

My friend Matt convinced me to try it out, though, and I’m glad, because I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I was completely engrossed for the two or three days it took me to solve everything, long past the point where I’d expected to lose interest. The key differences, I think, are the tactile interactions with all of the devices, and the way the puzzles build on each other both conceptually and physically.

It’s perfectly suited to an OS designed for touch screens, since you’re not simply tapping objects in the world. You’re grabbing them, spinning them, pushing sliders, turning cranks, and even shaking the thing as you would if you were holding the real-world equivalent. The only point that I had a problem with was when it required you to tilt the device for a certain puzzle to work — the tilt sensors seemed like a good idea when mobile games were first becoming a thing, but the reality is that I spent as much time playing the game lying down as I was sitting upright. Toilets and busses are just two of the many places we play mobile games.

And after spending a few years getting tired of puzzles in general, it was refreshing to see a set that was so well-designed. Most remarkable was that none of the puzzles required any outside knowledge; from start to finish, it was just a case of observation and deduction. Even the vaguely Lovecraftian story was somewhat interesting, so I’m very much looking forward to more games in the series.

Bastion

Technically I haven’t gotten far enough into the game to be putting it on any lists. But the music is fantastic, the narrator is a great idea, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played so far. Assuming that the game doesn’t suddenly become racist or misogynist, or feature quick time events, it’s safe to assume that I’m going to like the rest.

Torchlight 2

It’s not just everything I wanted from a sequel to Torchlight, it’s also everything I wanted from a sequel to Diablo 2. The art direction, the scope and amount of content, and just the way the combat feels are all pretty much dead-on for what this type of game should be. The first Torchlight felt like a well-made Diablo clone that would tide us over until the next “real” release in the series; with Torchlight 2 I think they’ve taken over the title of Best Action RPG.

Mark of the Ninja

And this is the game I wanted Shank to be, and everything I wanted the Metal Gear games to be like. Klei’s outstanding character design and animation, combined with a stealth mechanic that removes all ambiguity (and does it with style) and makes stealth games actually fun again.

My biggest complaint is that the game rewards nonlethal, non-confrontational ninjas, while at the same time making the ninja kill animations impossibly bad ass. It’s like giving a kid a huge birthday cake and telling him he’ll get all of his presents only if he doesn’t eat it.

The Walking Dead

I’ve already written a ton about The Walking Dead, both here and in various message board arguments, so I don’t have too much to add. It really is the best work that Telltale’s done (although Sam & Max will always be my favorite). And knowing a little bit about how these episodic games are made, I’m most impressed by the fact that Walking Dead feels like a single, cohesive work. In a way, it reminds me more of the old LucasArts games than any other of the Telltale series — not by emulating the games directly, but by feeling as if it was made not by a licensor rounding out a brand, but by a group of people who had a story they wanted to tell and a type of game they wanted to make.

After five episodes, I’m less confident than I was earlier that it’s an entirely new type of game, or more accurately, that the type of game I wanted it to be is the type of game that would be as successful. Towards the end of the series, it felt as if experiential choices were being de-emphasized in favor of visible ones. I was reading people in a forum recounting one of the episodes, and it was only there that I found out it was possible for a major character to die in a battle, as a result of a choice you’d made earlier. (And possibly as a result of how “well” you did a particular Quick Time Event).

I definitely have no problem with your actions resulting in the death of a character; the potential for that is baked into the entire premise of the game. Where I have a problem with it is when it takes a story event that significant and makes it optional. What the most vocal complainers have called “railroading,” I say is essential to making the story a dialogue between creator and player, and not just a game that echoes your choices back to you. (Like the game literally does in the final episode). If whether a character lives or dies is as insignificant as whether Clementine’s wearing a sundress or a hoodie, then why do I care about that character at all?

I don’t know whether a game reliant entirely on experiential choices would be possible, much less whether it would be successful. Shadow of the Colossus and BioShock both had an element of “how does what you’re doing make you feel?” but neither relied entirely on that. I’d like to see more experimentation with it, though, before concluding that the visible choices are the only ones that players care about.

Whatever the case, I don’t want to underestimate the puzzle design, system design, art direction, cinematics, or vocal performances of the game, because they all came together in The Walking Dead in a way that was unprecedented — I always knew that we were making better cut-scenes than anybody else in video games, but never had a game popular enough for people to recognize that. But overall, it’s the emphasis on writing and storytelling that made the series. As somebody who’s spent an entire career hoping for storytelling to be at the forefront of a popular game again, the success of The Walking Dead has been fantastic to see.

The Sims 3 Supernatural

I’m begrudgingly including this, just for accuracy’s sake. Because I don’t like that I like The Sims 3 so much; I still think that Sims 2 was a lot more clever and got at the heart of what I think the game should be.

But the fact is that I downloaded the new expansion pack, and the game once again took hold over me to a bizarre and not entirely healthy degree. I don’t play The Sims that often, but when I do, it’s less “play session” and more “bender.” I go into an hours-long fugue state in which I’m more concerned about the food and bladder needs of tiny computer people than I am for my own. On the rare occasions I do venture out of the apartment, I spend the whole time looking for buildings I can try to recreate inside the game.

It doesn’t take any real perception to realize that the appeal is having tiny people whose lives I can control, when I’m feeling like I can’t quite control my own. What isn’t as easily explainable is why that’s more fun when I can make my surrogate Sim a werewolf who starts dating a vampire.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown is pretty buggy, kind of corny, predictable in some places, infuriating in others. I had the game hit an unrecoverable lock-up on my first play through. A problem with Steam saves wiped out my second play through. My third reached the final battle and cut-scene, followed by an ending screen telling me that I’d lost the game. (I went into the final battle right as the last nation was going to pull funding, so the simulation ticked over in the game-time clock while I was still in the process of defeating the aliens and saving the planet once and for all).

Still, it’s by far my favorite game of the year. I’ve loved X-COM ever since I first played through the original, but was never able to come even close to finishing a game. Firaxis made a version that captured everything I loved about the original — the suspense of going into a building or rounding a corner knowing that an unstoppable enemy was waiting inside, the feeling of building a soldier through the ranks only to see them die unceremoniously in battle, the balance of tactical combat with higher-level strategy — but delivered it in a form that actually wanted me to be able to finish. I’ve known about Chryssalids and Cyberdiscs for years, but Enemy Unknown is the first time I actually got to see them.

And although the “story” is overwhelmingly generic, the character design fairly uninspired, and the final battle tedious and anti-climactic in its attempt at storytelling, there’s enough holding it all together to feel like a sci-fi B-movie with some genuinely clever moments. Seeing your control room cheer after you shoot down your first alien ship is fantastic. So is watching your crew chatting in the bar in base, or working out in the exercise room, or watching the alien you’ve kept in storage. The autopsy scenes, complete with bits of gore splatting against the camera lens, are somehow the perfect reward for defeating a new type of alien. And little touches — like seeing the Skyranger touch down in front of a gas station with realistic near-future gas prices — abound. It even makes up for when you’re sent on a mission to China and land at a country and western bar with English signage.

There’ve been plenty of attempts over the years to recreate X-COM, but they all failed either by being too slavish a recreation, or by under-emphasizing some element of what made the original so engrossing. Firaxis made pretty much all of the right choices, going through each component of the original game and trying to recreate the feel instead of duplicating it exactly. There’s little surprise or sense of discovery through experimentation, but there’s also little time wasted figuring out exactly the right balance of scientists to engineers, or which branches of the tech tree are worth exploring. The strategy layer is much simpler and more limited, but with more sense that your decisions are having significant effects and aren’t just arbitrary shots in the dark. You’re not as free to equip your characters or time out their actions, but you’re also not counting up Time Units or accidentally leaving weapons behind in the battlefield. And you can’t get shot and killed while stepping off of the Skyranger, but there’s still the overwhelming sense that your squaddies are extremely vulnerable and completely outnumbered and outgunned.

While battles in the original game felt like a tactical combat simulation (and an extremely unfair one at that), the battles in Enemy Unknown feel like the highlights reel of an 80s sci-fi action movie. The maps are smaller, but that means that there’s just enough tension at the beginning of a level before the action starts. There are fewer enemies per map, but that means that encounters have a cinematic rhythm to them — a few skirmishes against lower-level bad guys, punctuated with tension as you fan out to find the next wave of enemies, culminating against a showdown against the most powerful aliens. That aesthetic, going for the feel of Commando or Aliens, carries through just about every aspect of the game. And it never, ever stops being entertaining when a soldier is standing right next to an open door, but instead smashes through the window and jumps through.

I can’t get all that excited about the first batch of downloadable content, but I’m hoping more general-purpose DLC is scheduled for later. Really, though, the game doesn’t need a ton of expansion. I’m due at least one more play through (hopefully after the most egregious bugs are patched up), and a dozen or so hours of More Of The Same would be fine by me.

Greenlight

Complaints about the $100 fee for submissions to Steam Greenlight show a fundamental misunderstanding of what Steam is.

I started writing about this a few days ago, when it was still somewhat relevant. Then other priorities intervened. Even though everybody’s already said their piece, I’ve still got opinions, dammit. And somebody has to speak out in defense of those of us who have a hundred dollars.

Here’s the context: In an attempt to open up the process of submitting games to be sold on Steam, Valve devoted a section of the “Community” section of Steam to a system called Greenlight. The idea was to use crowd-sourcing to bring games to Valve’s attention — any Steam user could submit a game, and if enough other users expressed interest in the concept by giving it an up-vote, Valve would consider it for distribution.

What happened next was what happens to anything that’s made free on the internet: a bunch of people came in and ruined everything. In response, Valve instituted a $100 fee for submitting games to Greenlight. It was intended to stop parody submissions or vague malformed projects that haven’t made it past the concept stage, in an effort to reduce noise in the system. The money is strictly a filter and an indication of commitment; the money is donated to the Child’s Play charity and not used for profit, or even to fund the Greenlight site itself.

This should in no way have been a controversial decision. But of course, since the internet can turn anything and anyone into a controversy, it created a storm of discussions and editorials complaining about the decision, borne either out of ignorance or downright belligerence.

It’s perfectly understandable that people could misunderstand or misinterpret Valve’s intentions with Greenlight. It’s grouped under the “Community” section of Steam, which instantly connotes “indie game development.” It’s built off their Steam Workshop tech, which is something designed to help content creators release their stuff to a wider audience. The concept sounds a lot like crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, designed to help developers get the money or resources they need to develop a concept to completion. And in general, Valve has a history of being indie friendly, seeking out promising independent games to feature on Steam, and of course seeking out independent and student game developers to acquire and incorporate their concepts into its own games.

But where the reaction turned from understandable mistakes into outright offensiveness is when people took their misinterpretation of Greenlight, wrapped it in college-sophomore-level revolutionary speak about the evils of corporate America, and used it as an opportunity to call everyone who disagreed with them an elitist. They took a perfectly good bit of common sense, and they twisted it to sound downright Republican.

No Taxation Without Gamification

Ben Kuchera wrote an editorial for the Penny Arcade Report called “The $100 Fee for Steam Greenlight Submissions is Exclusionary, and Wrong”. He acknowledges that he initially didn’t see any problem with the fee, but changed his mind once people made convincing arguments about the democratization of software development. As far as I can tell, what actually happened is that a bunch of loudmouths on Twitter kept shouting him down, calling him “classist”.

Kuchera writes:

When you have a monetary structure that is meaningless to one group of people, exclusionary to another, and not necessary to the continued existence of platform, you don’t have a level playing field. What you have is the indie gaming equivalent to voter ID laws.

I suspect that Kuchera actually meant to write “poll tax” instead of “voter ID laws,” but regardless, it’s a specious argument. There’s no fee for opening a Steam account and voting on Greenlight submissions; if you want to keep the political analogy going, the submission fee would be the equivalent of a fee for running for office. And still, the only thing they have in common is this: a candidate who can’t generate $100 worth of interest in his campaign is going to lose.

Also, I know very few independent developers for whom $100 is “meaningless.” That’s why it works as a filter. Someone who can justify spending $100 on advertising for his product isn’t going to be driving around laughing hysterically as he tosses benjamins out the window. It’s an investment.

And as for its being “not necessary to the continued existence of the platform,” Valve’s claim is that it is exactly that. The system was getting so overloaded with noise that it wasn’t useful.

In a guest post on the Nitrobeard.com site, developer Andi McClure fails to see the connection between her [I can see no indication of McClure’s gender anywhere, so I’m using “her” as gender-neutral] spouse’s brick-and-mortar business and her own game development “hobby,” makes a patently bullshit dismissal of the Child’s Play charity on account of a grudge against the Penny Arcade guys, and tells a ridiculous story of some other game developers who had to sit and sadly watch her eat a $7 cheeseburger because they were too poor to buy their own.

It’s not ridiculous in the sense that I don’t believe it, and I’m not mocking the poor. What I’m mocking is the ridiculous idea that this has anything whatsoever to do with Greenlight. Apparently it’s understood that the restaurant is not obligated to give away its food for free. And McClure found it more appropriate to have her friends sit sadly and watch her eat — I’m hoping she paused after every bite to say, “Oh man, you guys, I am so going to blog about this when I get home” — instead of saying, “Hey, why I don’t I pick up the tab this time?” But it is beyond the pale that Valve isn’t give these developers free advertising.

And in a separate blog post titled The One Hundred Dollar Question, developer Jonas Kyratzes says he was made “very, very angry” by the discussion and what it says about the state of independent game development — and the global economy — in general.

To some people, $100 is not a lot of money. […] To others, it’s a month’s wages. Do we have absolutely no understanding of the fact that the internet is a global phenomenon and so is indie game development? […] Hell, have you read the statistics on poverty in the United States? Do you think these people want to be poor? Do you think they deserve to be poor?

Maybe that’s the heart of the argument. People have so internalized the ideological myths of capitalism that they believe the poor deserve to be poor. […] Platitude followed upon platitude in the debate, in a way that sadly resembled every other similar debate about poverty and class. If you’re unemployed, why don’t you get a job? If your audience isn’t big enough, why don’t you get a bigger audience? If you don’t like being a janitor, why don’t you become a lawyer? Hilariously, some touted the possibility of loans as a solution – the history of capitalism repeating itself as farce.

Hang on there, chief. I’ve bought quite a few games from Steam, and it’s asked for a credit card number each time. It’s pretty clear that there’s a whole lotta capitalism goin’ on.

Maybe that’s the heart of the argument: people have gotten so wrapped up in this idea of advocating games as an essential medium of expression that they’ve forgotten how stores work.

Making Games Is Not The Same As Selling Them

Kuchera writes: “As the space between the classes expands in the United States, it’s important to allow the working poor a larger voice, not a smaller one.” Game developers already have a voice. It’s called the internet. The working poor don’t need a voice; they need a paying audience.

Democratize the game development process: of course. It’d be stupid to argue that only wealthy people deserve to make games, or that there should be a minimum bar to entry. That’s why a few loudmouths are trying to turn that into the argument, because it’s so easy to refute. Just yell “elitist” enough times, and you’ve turned bullshit into an impassioned editorial.

It’s also a pointless argument, since it’s never been easier or cheaper to make a game. There are plenty of free development tools, SDKs, modeling tools, documentation, and even free content.

But it’s nonsense to say that being entitled to make a game equates to an entitlement to sell that game. That’s not how business works. And make no mistake: the people complaining about not being able to get their games onto Steam aren’t complaining about being shut out of making games; they’re complaining about not being able to profit from their games.

Kuchera writes: “If the fee were lowered to $10, the effect of weeding out the trolls would continue, and the [number] of people that could participate in the process would be exponentially widened. It’s still a long shot, and you still have to muster community support and have a good game.” I’m not even going to get into the number of cheeseburgers you’d be snatching out of game developers’ mouths with this callous scheme. To anyone who says that 10 bucks would be as effective a deterrent to trolls, parody submissions, and just plain incomplete submissions, try this experiment: Choose just about any random word or phrase x, and type “fuckyeahx.com” into your web browser. Domain name registration isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but it’s not cheap.

A hundred bucks is as much a psychological number as much as anything else. It’s an indication of commitment. I know I balk at paying the $100 for the iOS developer program every year, but I can justify it as an investment.

And if you can’t justify, raise, borrow, Kickstart, or otherwise scrounge up $100 worth of commitment to a game, you shouldn’t be trying to sell it on the leading storefront for downloadable video games for the PC (and Mac). Seriously, what exactly is the thought process here? Why should Steam be interested in selling a game that hasn’t demonstrated it’s worth a hundred bucks? How does a developer expect to live off sales of a game that can’t earn a hundred bucks?

Valve isn’t a hostile audience. Not only are they big on independent game development, they’re big on making money from selling your game. If you want to see a hostile audience, look at the temperamental, over-critical, and notoriously prone to an exaggerated sense of entitlement people who buy games. They’re the ones you’re going to be asking for money. And there have to be enough people to say they’d be interested in paying for a game, and then enough people to actually pay for the game. A hundred dollars would be insignificant compared to that.

Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that the difference between poverty and being able to make a living off of sales of a game is simple: volume, volume, volume.

Kuchera writes: “Those of us with gaming contacts and a history in the industry may laugh off the $100 fee, but we’re also operating with a position of privilege.” I hate to break it to you guys, but everyone making video games is operating from a position of privilege. Unless anyone wants to argue for the concept of subsistence game development.

And Here’s Where I Get Really Annoyed

In case it sounds like I’m saying get a job, you fucking hippie, let me make one thing absolutely clear: that’s exactly what I’m saying.

All the people shouting “classism” are trying to make it sound as if anyone willing to invest $100 into a game development business are part of the 1%. And Kuchera’s nonsensical account of “nerdy guys born with a silver Apple ][ in their mouth” makes it sound as if it’s nothing but fortune and privilege. That’s not just dense, it’s insulting.

I came about as close to stumbling backwards into game development as is possible: I sent a cold application to my favorite game company and got hired to work on a sequel to my favorite game. And now, I’m fortunate enough to have a job that supports me and gives me time to work on my own projects (or more accurately, write overly long blog posts while my own projects are stalled). And still, anyone who suggests that I’m just speaking from privilege or luck will be told to go screw himself. It took 15 years of working in games before I was in a position to become an (ostensible) independent game developer. That’s a decade and a half of working on other people’s games.

The most talented independent game developer I know still — to the best of my knowledge — has a day job. In a just universe, he’d be splitting his days between swimming in a Scrooge McDuck-sized money vault and developing more of his own cool ideas. The suggestion that it’s some kind of onerous burden to raise money to invest in a money-making business is patently offensive.

What’s heartbreaking about this is that Valve will likely respond to this nonsense as if it’s a valid complaint. Even if they weren’t one of the only large companies in game development that could realistically be described as being genuinely interested in making things better for developers and players. They’ve already announced that they’re working on the system and responding to feedback. What won’t change is a game retailer suddenly making all of its decisions based on altruism. And what won’t change is that there still won’t be a damn thing wrong with that.

Maybe the folks demanding that we remember the plight of the less fortunate will get what they’re asking for, and Valve will stop asking people who want to make a profit from video games to donate to a charity first.

All The President’s Bad Dudes

My opinions about the “enthusiast press,” the relationship between game journalist and game developers, and a muddled blog post based on a faulty premise.

BaddudesYesterday in Penny Arcade’s news post, Tycho delivered a pretty outstanding smack down to a misguided op-ed piece on Kotaku. That article was “Gaming’s Biggest Problem Is That Nobody Wants to Talk” by Jason Schreier.

There’s plenty wrong with that op-ed, and it’d be pointless to try and go over every objectionable aspect of it.

But I’ll try anyway. First is that the justification Schreier uses vacillates between camaraderie and antagonism like a join me or die! villain at the end of an action movie. Here, it’s Information wants to be free! The people have a right to know! Publishers, tear down this wall of secrecy! There, it’s Hey, it’s all good! We just all want to get excited about your game! The truth is neither: he just wants to get the Hot Scoops.

Schreier starts right off the bat mentioning Kotaku’s exclusive leak of info for Modern Warfare 3. Was this a shocking expose of information that The People needed to know? Hardly. So then it must’ve been simply a case of drumming up excitement for a much-anticipated title. But if that’s the case, then why make such a big deal about making it exclusive, releasing it before the publisher was ready, and making sure that Kotaku was first on the scene? The answer, obviously, is ad revenue. It’s frankly offensive to see someone trying to pass this off as some kind of public service.

Then there’s the recurring theme of the op-ed: I want PR divisions to do my job for me, even more than they already do. Here’s a choice quote that was already pulled out for us to ponder:

Square Enix wouldn’t even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.

So is the size of the team working on a game relevant, or even interesting to anyone other than the HR and accounting departments of Square Enix? Again, I’m skeptical. But assuming that it was: why didn’t Schreier just go in and count the credits?

Professional Trust or Corporate Lapdog?

Of course, “someone wrote something kind of dumb on Kotaku” is hardly news. The only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is because the op-ed, while dismissible, does reflect this image of games journalism that’s pervasive among writers, readers, and developers.

Tycho’s response nails the most salient point: getting information from game developers and publishers requires having a relationship of trust that comes from mutual benefit. Games journalists rely on publishers to get review copies and information about upcoming releases. Publishers rely on games journalists to get word out about their game. There needn’t be anything antagonistic about that as long as both sides are professional.

But Schreier starts his own op-ed with examples of how his site’s violated that trust. He dismisses the severity of the Modern Warfare leak by saying that the game sold well regardless, as if that not only makes it okay, it’s something that the publishers should be happy about. That just shows a tremendous lack of respect for the team that spent months (if not longer) developing a PR campaign for the game. With rare exceptions, the people running PR departments aren’t stupid. And even when they are, they know the value of controlling what information is released and when. Kotaku obviously knows the value of it, too, or else they wouldn’t be slapping EXCLUSIVE on their articles and going to great lengths to be the first to release it.

Publishers and developers know what happens when screenshots get released. A single pre-release image from a game can spawn huge message board or comment threads full of people making wild assumptions based on the smallest detail of a UI element. Once that starts, it becomes gospel, and anything that the publisher says in response will be summarily dismissed. Word of mouth can kill interest in a game even before it’s released, or on the flip side, have people extrapolating wild ideas and then being disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to that. (Take the XCOM first person shooter as just one example).

He goes on to mention the leak of Valve’s proprietary source code with another dismissal of “no harm, no foul!” I don’t know what’s worse: if he’s actually that ignorant of the economics of game development and how much money went into developing that code, or if he’s disingenuous enough to try and convince readers that it doesn’t matter.

All of it leads to the same conclusion: he’s got no respect for the time, effort, and money that publishers put into developing and promoting their games. If his site is showing the publishers and developers so little respect, why should they show any more than the barest amount of respect to him as a representative of the site?

Of course, when you describe the relationship between developers and journalists in those terms, the response is invariably the same: You’re saying that games journalists should become corporate lapdogs for the games industry, reporting only what the publishers tell them to and when, abandoning any pretense of journalism and just becoming extensions of publishers’ marketing departments!

And that sucks, because even if you don’t take it to that extreme, the idea is still so prevalent that it makes the relationship between developers, journalists, and readers needlessly antagonistic.

Enthusiast Press or Investigative Journalists?

The problem is not recognizing the difference between the “enthusiast press” — games journalists and tech/gadget journalists are the two areas I’m most familiar with — and the traditional press. There is a difference.

And right there, I bet I’ve already alienated several of my acquaintances who work as games journalists. Because there’s this pervasive idea that if there’s a difference, that necessarily means that one’s better than the other. I must be saying that games writers aren’t “real” journalists.

That’s absurd. If anything, professional games writing (and general tech writing) is a superset of traditional journalism, at least in breadth if not depth. Obviously, you’ve got to be familiar with the subject, no matter what you’re writing about. But especially with games, you’ve got to be entertaining in addition to just being informative. You’ve got to be insightful and not simply objective.

Unless you work somewhere that has rigidly divided departments, you’ve got to be able to handle previews of upcoming releases as well as reviews of existing ones, and you’ve got to understand how they’re different in tone. You might be writing something based on nothing more than a press release and your knowledge of the industry. You might be writing an op-ed or a feature, and even that is further divided into writing about the social/economic side of games, or writing about the creative and technical side.

And, of course, at some point you’re going to be doing investigative journalism. Writing about working conditions in the industry, discrimination in hiring, discrimination in subject matter, the financial health of companies, studio closures, hirings, firings, and the state of games journalism itself.

That investigative journalism is part of the job. And it is, quite simply, different from the other types of writing that the enthusiast press is going to be doing. I think a lot of readers and writers believe that making such a distinction harms objectivity. It doesn’t. It simply requires developers and writers to be professional enough to recognize the differences.

And it requires readers to maintain enough of a tie to reality so as not to be crying foul at every imagined lapse of journalistic integrity, the moment a writer doesn’t demonstrate exactly enough skepticism over a press release or isn’t quite critical enough of a quote.

Keeping Them Honest

The traditional press has a responsibility to keep the public informed on the issues that affect them. Obviously, it’d be a shitty journalist who just repeated without question anything and everything a politician or corporate representative said to them. A traditional reporter has to be always on the lookout for a hidden agenda.

Here’s a super-secret exclusive bombshell, reported first-hand by a 16-year games industry insider: game companies want you to give them money. There’s no hidden agenda. With few exceptions (reports of Bobby Kotick’s secret kitten-blood-powered doomsday device funded by profits from the Call of Duty series are strictly hearsay) they are blatantly obvious in their motivations: they would like it very much if you would get excited about this game and then pay them for it, and in the case of MMOs, keep paying them for it every month indefinitely.

Mis-representing financial reports? Layoffs? Manipulating review aggregators or online comments? Unfair hiring practices? That’s news; that’s the kind of thing that the public “needs” to know. The plot of an upcoming first-person shooter? No.

And one of the many things that Schreier’s op-ed fails to appreciate: that’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get from a company’s PR department anyway. See the above bit about wanting people to give them money. Trying to take a Woodward & Bernstein “the people have a right to know” approach to them is just lazy. If you’re doing investigative journalism, the first step is to try investigating. Ask the PR department for a response, obviously. But don’t just leave it there and complain that you’re blocked by a wall of impenetrable silence.

You’re never going to get everything you need for an investigative piece simply by talking to PR. So for everything else: why insist on such a suspicious, antagonistic relationship? You’re working towards a common end. You want information about a game, they want people to have enough information about the game to want to buy it. You don’t have to be skeptical that they’re trying to sell you something, because everyone is fully aware that they’re trying to sell you something.

Even more than that, they’re selling you something that you’re already interested in. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be putting up with the unfairly low income that games journalists are stuck with.

Hardball

There are lots of things that games publishers and developers don’t want you to know about. Some of it is because it affects their bottom line or their shareholders. Some of it is because they’re simply not ready to show it yet. A professional is going to be able to tell the difference between the two. An unprofessional or unethical writer is going to treat it all the same.

And really, games writers should just know this from experience. They’ve played review copies of games, so they’ve seen first hand how often games can be an absolutely unplayable mess right up until the last couple weeks of polishing. They’ve seen how many hits a site can get for having exclusive info about a game, so they know how and why embargoes work to keep things fair among review sites. (And how much it sucks when a publisher gives one site an exclusive at the expense of others). These sites know the importance of timing and exclusives, so why act like it’s simply arbitrary when publishers put so much value on their own timing and their own withholding of information?

There’s this insistence that if a journalist has a mutually respectful, non-antagonistic relationship with a publisher, then that compromises the journalist’s objectivity or integrity. That unless you’re always playing hardball with publishers, then that means you’re in their pocket. Nonsense.

As I mentioned, I’ve got a friendly relationship with several games writers (or at least, I did before I wrote this). Most of them have written stuff that’s been critical of my work, or of the companies that I’ve worked for. It’s not just that that’s okay; I wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s professionalism. My job was to make games, their job was to report on the games. The thing that we all have in common is the thing that makes this “enthusiast” press: we all love games.

Of course you’re always going to find some developer getting butt-hurt when a critical review bruises his ego, or a publisher threatening to pull review copies from sites that don’t meet the meteoritic average for a game, or a journalist writing an amateurish attack piece on a game or a developer, or thousands and thousands of readers crying “bias!” whenever they read a review that isn’t 100% glowing of a game they love. But those should be considered the exception. We shouldn’t just assume that that’s how things are supposed to work.

(For the record, I have done a pretty good job over the years of alienating certain gaming sites. But in my mind, at least, it was never the result of negative coverage. It was the result of lazy or unprofessional coverage: going to a press event and talking about nothing but the booze; accusing the studio of cutting corners or being lazy; accusing the writing of being racist or xenophobic; and comments to the effect of “the writers/animators/whoever should be fired,” which is irresponsible for a message board, much less a paid review).

If you’ve got a political writer who seems unnaturally chummy with a politician, you have a right to be suspicious. But when you’re talking about game development — not the industry side of things, but the games themselves — it’s just plain counter-productive to insist on suspicion instead of professionalism and mutual respect. It’s a shame a piece like Schreier’s insists that we’re all on the same side, but then goes on to make it clear that we’re only on the same side as long as it ensures link-baiting exclusives and scandal pieces for the site.

Because I think we are all on the same side. If it’s not clear by now, I love hearing myself talk, and I especially love hearing myself talk about games. I like being able to pick them apart and see what works and doesn’t work. I like writing about the thought process that went into certain decisions. I like being able to write about stuff I’ve worked on and speculate on how it could be better. I like being opinionated about them, and calling out what sucks and what’s awesome. I like being able to go on message boards and get into it with equally opinionated, long-winded players.

So far, obscurity and long-windedness have kept me relatively safe. It’d be even better to rely on simple trust. To know that even if you’re not one of the “unfirable” people that Tycho talks about, you can still be open and transparent without the fear that you’re going to get quoted out of context in a post somewhere, or that someone’s going to take something that you’ve said and try to turn it into news — or worse, a scandal — instead of just asking you directly to clarify. I’ll stick with obscurity, thanks.

So basically what I’m saying is that everybody needs to chill the fuck out. Unless you’re working for a company that cares more about profits than about games, or you’re working for a site that cares more about page views and ad revenue from exclusives than about games, then we’re all united in our love of something that’s ultimately inconsequential.

The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Tristram

Look! I sure do have a lot to say about that Diablo 3 game over there!

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I am clearly — and unashamedly, and maybe even a little smugly — not in the target audience for the Diablo series. I’m not interested in min/maxing; in fact, it’s the pandering to players who are obsessive over infinitesimal differences in damage-per-second that turned me off of World of Warcraft. I don’t care about Hardcore characters or Nightmare/Inferno difficulties; for me, I’ve “won” a game when I get to the end of its main storyline, and additional play-throughs with different characters are optional, not mandatory.

Still, I consider myself a longtime fan of the series. The original Diablo was actually my first exposure to computer RPGs; I can still remember having to ask my officemate what “HP” stood for. It was that game — or more precisely, the almost universally-ignored Hellfire expansion — that gave me my first “transcendent” gaming moment that wasn’t in an adventure game: when I took my beloved Monk character, removed his fighting staff, and saw his combat strength double because of his unarmed bonuses. When Diablo 2 came out, I finished it with every character class and again with the Assassin in the expansion.

The reason I mention all of that is to show that I’m not just wandering into a long-running series and complaining that it’s not something it was never intended to be.

Because the story in Diablo 3 just makes me frustrated and sad, and it kills any interest I have in going further. And when I say that, the first response has to be

It’s Not About The Story, Stupid

That seems like a perfectly fair response. It’s a Diablo game. You don’t play it to learn about yourself, or to explore characters pushed to the edge of a world gone mad, or to gain lasting insight into the human condition. You play it to click stuff until it dies and then pick up all the treasure that pops out.

But if story’s not necessary for a Diablo game, why is Diablo 3 so insistent about giving us so much of it? Each character class gets its own introductory cut-scene. Each new objective gets a new dialogue exchange setting it up and concluding it. Support characters have their own back stories they can’t resist telling you about. Ghosts leave journals lying around to narrate more of the back story. There are two characters narrating the characteristics and an additional back story for each type of monster you find.

It’s actually made me appreciate how economical the storytelling is in the first two games and their expansions. Everybody who’s played the game knows who The Butcher is, and he didn’t need an elaborate cut-scene, just a few bits of text and a brief boss fight. Deckard Cain is one of the most memorable characters in video games, and it’s not because of dialogue trees and an introduction to his plucky niece. All it took was a few lines of dialogue, a Sean Connery impression, and plenty of repetition.

Diablo 3 seems to have taken a step back. The production values have improved — Blizzard cut-scenes where the humans actually look like humans and not the alien from the end of the Star Trek credits — but everything seems to ignore the last decade of development in video game storytelling.

Journals and found recordings abound. Unwelcome cut-scenes. A character with amnesia. All the locations from Diablo 2 are revisited. A bad guy actually said “You will suffer as I have suffered” and elicited a heavy sigh from me. When the first chapter ended, and I heard that a sword had been split into three pieces, and I’d need to find them and reassemble them to save the world, I could feel a tiny part of my soul leaking away.

There’s an overwhelming vibe of this is unnecessary. Best example: because Diablo demands procedural level generation and monster placement, and a 2012 multi-million dollar release of a top-selling franchise demands full voice-acting, you get situations where a pack of mini-bosses will spawn and your follower has to comment on it. Considering the number of monster types possible, and the number of followers possible, it’d be impractical to record specific exchanges for every single combination.

Fair enough. But instead of leaving them out, the developers recorded generic versions. “Look at those monsters over there! I can’t wait to fight those!” “Those creatures there look very powerful!” “It’s going to be a difficult battle to defeat those monsters there!” I’ve written for a few games now, and I’ve written lots and lots of generic catch-all lines; I get where they’re coming from. But when I’m clicking & killing it just all blends together into a melange of why?

Stay a While And Listen

So if the story’s not adding anything, and it’s gotten bloated enough to detract from the experience, then why not leave it out entirely?

Actually, it’s for the same reason you’d be inclined to leave it out as unnecessary: because Diablo isn’t a game about story. It’s essentially a really pretty random number generator. Playing the game is only tangentially related to anything like skill, so getting excited over a rare item drop is a lot like obsessively clicking to advance a list of random integers and getting excited when you see a 7.

There’s got to be context, or the whole thing falls apart. The game is just barely hanging onto relevance as it is; if it weren’t giving you constant reinforcement that you’re actually destroying the minions of darkness and collecting weapons forged in the core of the world and enchanted with the magic of the ancients, you’d realize that you’re using your mouse to click on randomly generated hit areas.

Diablo basically created its own genre, so there’ve been plenty of people trying to figure out how it works and what makes it appealing, talking about intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards and slot machines and the nature of “fun.” Nobody’s going to say that people are playing Diablo 3 to get caught up on the senses-shattering story.

But so much of the game already depends on encouraging suspension of disbelief enough to turn the slimmest of game mechanics into a hugely engrossing game. If the storytelling helps that suspension of disbelief, it’s no longer optional; it’s essential.

Plus I can’t really get into the new skill system or the crafting.

Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff

Telltale’s The Walking Dead series is some of the best work the studio’s ever done, and it’s actually right on the verge of establishing an entirely new genre of video game. Spoilers on the first two episodes.

WalkingDeadBabysitter
Last week I went on a caffeine bender and finally played the first two episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. It’s some of the strongest work ever to come from the studio — as good as they can possibly do without involving space gorillas — and probably the first to feel like an integrated and fully-realized work. Every single game that I’ve played from the studio has had some outstanding work behind it, but this might be the first series that feels as if all that outstanding work is working together, without compromises.

I’d been wondering how appropriate it’d be for me to write anything about the series, since I kind of worked on it. I consulted for a couple of months on the season set-up, characters, and overall season arc, and I wrote a first draft of the episode two script. But then, the episode and the series as a whole have changed significantly from when I left them, so at this point, I’m basically a mostly-detached observer. And as for whether it’s appropriate or not, I’ve never been that big on tact, anyway.

More than that, though, the series hits so much of the stuff that I’ve written about in theory on here, and it actually puts that stuff into practice. I can’t help trying to pick it apart and see where and how it works or doesn’t. It’s reaffirmed a lot of my earlier opinions, and it’s made me completely reconsider others.

(And it should go without saying, but: all of this is purely my own thoughts and shouldn’t be taken as being based on any kind of “insider” knowledge, much less representative of the company, or what the guys are actually trying to do with the game. I’m writing about them solely as games that a lot of my friends worked on, and I just happen to have been spoiled for what goes down in the first couple of episodes).

The Episodic Model

To be honest, I’ve never been a big proponent of the episodic model for video games. There are definitely some advantages — players really are more engaged in the story and characters; and it really is gratifying to have something you spent months working on last for months, instead of being played in a weekend and quickly forgotten.

But there are enough disadvantages to make the whole prospect seem like breaking even at best. Most obvious is the necessary reduction in scope: the difference between planning for a feature film vs. a television series, or a novel vs. issues of a comic book. It’s not even about budget; it’s the problem of cramming sometimes epic ideas into bursts of content that are actually producible by human beings.

Of course, we’re surrounded by outstanding television series, so it’s obviously not impossible to tell epic stories in an episodic format. The real question is how to do it in a video game. That’s made me wonder if it’s not the episodic model that doesn’t quite fit in games; it’s the sitcom model that doesn’t fit in games.

I’m most interested in comedy stories, and it’s tough to try to manipulate a deliberately silly plot into a format that emphasizes plot twists and reveals. Portal 2 did it well, but the end result still felt more like a series of set-ups and punchlines instead of genuinely resonant surprises. I’d say we managed to do it reasonably well in Sam & Max, too, and I’d even say that we pulled off a couple instances of the best that episodic comedy can do: a joke that’s set up in one episode and doesn’t deliver the punch-line until several episodes later. Still, after three seasons, we’d already pretty much exhausted what you can do with convoluted plot twists, and it was getting pretty formulaic.

I can think of only one comedy series that’s been successful at going for the long arc, with episodes that build on each other — Arrested Development. It’s a lot more common for comedy series to keep everything as stable as possible: smaller, self-contained stories that reset to a default state at the end of each episode. Audiences don’t watch sitcoms to get caught up in what the characters are doing, but to check in on what they’re saying. That’s inherently passive, and video game audiences have very little patience for that.

After playing two episodes of The Walking Dead, though, I’m really anticipating the next one. I’m not just waiting for another burst of content; I’m waiting to see how the story will be affected by what I’ve already done, and to see what I’ll get to do in the next part of the story. And even though I have a rough idea of how the finale will play out, I still have no idea how the finale will play out. A huge part of the appeal of the comic is the constant reinforcement of the idea that no one is safe, that anything can happen. It’s the same for the game: there’s absolutely no guarantee that the finale will take the usual episode 5 structure of revealing the villain and tying up all the loose ends.

Spending Some Time Apart

One other thing that’s made clear by the first two episodes of The Walking Dead is the significance of the difference between episodic content and “feature length” content. From the start, Telltale’s understood that episodic development is its own thing. Dave Grossman has said in interviews that you can’t just take a full story and split it into chunks; each segment has to work as a self-contained story and have the requisite unresolved plot points to draw the audience into the next segment.

But I was never quite able to appreciate that there’s even more to it: there’s a unique rhythm to episodic storytelling, and mastering that can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. And more than any of the Telltale series I’ve played (or worked on), The Walking Dead suggests that rhythm, the sense that there’s more going on in the world and with the characters than what we see on screen.

Part of that is from the source material. Because the tone of The Walking Dead comic is essentially a post-apocalyptic soap opera, the characters all exist in this indeterminate state between completely prosaic and over-the-top melodramatic. That’s not a criticism; it’s essential for a story that’s not about the zombie apocalypse, but about what happens afterwards. In the 80 or so issues that I’ve read, action heroes like Michonne and even Tyrese are rare, and they don’t last long before they’re either killed off or made more human.

And if you think about it, the reason is obvious: spending an hour and a half with Indiana Jones or James Bond is exhilarating. Spending months or even years with them would not only be exhausting, it’d break any sense of realism. The characters in the Walking Dead games feel more real on the screen than they do “on the page,” and a lot of that is because of the time you don’t spend with them. Your mind fills in the blanks.

The time gap between episodes 1 and 2 was necessary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was simply aligning the time frame of the games with that of the comics. This is a story that has to be set firmly in the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, not during it. And I’m now convinced that introducing a new character during the break was a good idea, if only to establish that the characters were actually doing stuff during that time, and didn’t just exist in suspended animation since you finished the last episode.

Silence As An Option

Speaking of the value of what you don’t see, I think one of the most successful design decisions of The Walking Dead games was to insist on timed dialogues and events, and “silent” dialog choices. It’s the idea that what you leave unsaid is as significant as what you do say.

I’d initially thought that the inclusion of “…” as a dialogue choice was at best a stylistic flourish. It’d add a sense of variety to exchanges. Maybe, along with the dialogue time-out, it’d liven up the monotonous and repetitive pace typical of adventure game dialogue trees. I’m happy to say that I was completely underestimating it; it actually changes the entire dynamic of the game.

In most traditional adventure games, the player spends 90% of the time in an idle state. Stuck on a segment of a puzzle, thinking of the right solution; or waiting in a dialogue tree to make the next choice and get the next short burst of content. I’d thought that that was baked into the genre. There was no real way to fix it; the best you could hope for was to alleviate it, by adding more steps to a puzzle or varying the pace of dialogue exchanges.

The majority of The Walking Dead episodes do away with the idle state — the world is moving on, with or without you. It’s strongest in the dialogues; you feel as if you’re in an active conversation, not just exhausting choices in a dialogue tree. When a timed event starts, you’re compelled to think quickly; you’re not just locked into an artificial situation where the story’s reached a climax but the game is just waiting indefinitely for your input.

And when the game reverts back to traditional adventure game sequences, it’s jarring. The story, and especially the direction, are strong enough that you can easily suspend disbelief, but there’s still a sense that the pacing has hit a wall, and you’ve switched modes from active engagement to passive, stumble-on-the-right-choice puzzle-solving. On the farm in episode two, it works well enough because the pacing of the story is supposed to have slowed down enough for you to feel “safe.” At the motel in episode one, it’s more frustrating. They wisely changed up the presentation from the usual walking around and picking up objects, to one of hustling between hiding spots surrounded by immediate threats, but it’s a lot tougher to shake the feeling that the story’s slammed to a halt. The game, and the zombies, are just waiting for me to find the right answer.

I’d seen a review describe The Walking Dead as the beginning of “Adventure Games 3.0,” and I don’t think it’s that much of an exaggeration. The episodes are relatively short — I finished each in under 2 hours, without knowing any of the final puzzle solutions — but none of it felt like filler. It’s been years since I’ve played an adventure game that delivered on that sense of constant discovery and exploration.

Quick-Time Events

Speaking of rhythm and pacing: Quick-Time Events. I still hate them.

I understand why they’re there, and The Walking Dead does handle them about as well as any game possibly can. It changes up the pacing. It gives a sense of immediacy and time pressure to a story event. It’s only used in scenes of physical action, and it gives the player a direct physical action to perform. And it avoids the pitfall that a lot of people joked about when they first heard that an adventure game company was making a Walking Dead game, that it’d be nothing but choosing the verb “SHOOT ZOMBIE” over and over again.

Still, it’s a completely meaningless abstraction — mash A then X to fend off zombie? — that invariably ends up feeling like a crutch. I’d welcome any change to either make it at least a little more cerebral, or to at least better match the action on the controller (or keyboard) to the action on screen.

For instance: have the four controller buttons map to four weak points on the target’s body, so it’s not just “press A” but “press the target’s weak spot based on the current animation.”

Or even simpler: take the example of the hacking tool in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Using it on the Xbox 360 was an almost brain-dead mini game of twirling the two thumbsticks until you felt the controller vibrate the right way. But I don’t think it was supposed to be sophisticated; it was most likely put into the game for the same reason QT events were: to change up the pace, and to give a direct, tactile interface between the player and the action. What made it work, though, was that it wasn’t just a meaningless, artificial abstraction. Whether Batman would actually carry a 360 controller around with him is beside the point; what mattered is that the actions you were taking as a player corresponded exactly to what your character was doing on the screen.

Feedback and Stats

Speaking of things I hate: I would’ve thought that I’d absolutely hate the decision to alert the player with an on-screen notification whenever he makes a choice that alters the story, and I’d hate the inclusion of a post-episode stats screen showing how many other players made the same decisions as you did.

But I didn’t. I thought both worked well, and it never once occurred to me to turn them off.

If you’d asked me, before I played the games, what I thought about having the text “CLEMENTINE WILL REMEMBER THAT” in the middle of a dialogue exchange, I would’ve said that it was the worst, least subtle idea imaginable. In practice, though, it works. It doesn’t break my engagement in the story; if anything, it increases it. It’s a constant reminder that the things I’m saying might have repercussions down the line, even if they’re not immediately visible. Essentially, it’s taking the place of a dramatic dun-dun-dunnnnn music stinger, and ends up being even more subtle because it’s happening on a “separate channel.” It’s speaking to the part of my brain that’s still aware that I’m playing a game.

The end-game stats might end up being just a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that’s already paid off. They’re shown after the story’s ended, so they don’t break the engagement there, and instead start off the post-game speculating. I still wouldn’t assign too much significance to them, since assigning numbers to player motivations is never an accurate science, the decisions are often more binary than they’re presented in the game, and players will still assume “video game logic” is in effect instead of treating situations in the game as they would in real life. But it’s already obvious from reading the message boards that the stats spark between-episode water cooler conversations, exactly as they were intended to do.

Death

Death in The Walking Dead games feels more like a stylistic necessity than a genuine gameplay mechanic. It’d just be silly to make a game with this much death in it and have it be impossible for your character to die. But the death of the player character hasn’t been meaningful in any game, ever since they stopped taking quarters.

The bigger aspect of the SCUMM model that’s still very much intact is that you can’t completely ruin the game for yourself; every problem has a solution, and you can’t get yourself into a situation where the story can’t be finished. The biggest difference here: first, while you can’t make a decision that breaks the game, you most definitely can make a decision that makes you feel terrible. In fact, there are several points where you have to.

The “YOU HAVE DIED” screen isn’t a real deterrent in any meaningful way; if you do something that gets you chomped, you can just reload and try again. But knowing that you can take an action that pisses off a character you wanted to befriend, or even kills a character that you wanted to save, is a much stronger reminder to be careful and think about the consequences of what you’re doing.

And the final few sections have significant spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead game, so I’m putting them after a spoiler warning. Continue reading “Choosy Zombies Choose Jeff”