I don't want to give the impression that this blog is all about analysing classic Metroidvania maps and players' routes through them – it's mainly supposed to be about tropes in exploration gameplay and how they can be used artistically – but it's just that these are so damn fun to do and I haven't written anything in a while. Before I've written mostly about Super Metroid, so it seems fair to do a quick dive into the second half of the subgenre's name.
I tend to come off as a bit critical of Symphony of the Night. While Super Metroid's design seems near-flawless even today, Castlevania has a tendency to treat its players unfairly and leave them lost in deep dungeons, pit them against enemies far beyond their own power level, or leave them without clues in an ever-increasing problem domain. I'll go through some of these flaws in this analysis, but first I must acknowledge that the overall aesthetic of Castlevania is quite different from Metroid's. The planets you explore in Metroid are always hostile, but never menacing. Castlevania's less thoughtful design does capture the feeling of being trapped in a living, breathing labyrinth filled with unthinkable treasures and beasts from every mythology; that atmosphere can certainly be amplified by a sense of being lost and not knowing the way forward. Symphony of the Night is much less methodolical in its progression than Super Metroid, which is often frustrating but also kind of fitting.
Time to get started. For such a large game I was surprised to count the number of locks and keys in Symphony of the Night. There are a total of seven upgrades required to make it through the game, and only four to get the bad ending. One of the main reasons for this is that the game lets you play through a 1-2 hour linear corridor before offering the first key. Here is the area accessible directly from the start of the game:
So we start off with a strictly linear trek through half of the castle's major areas (Entrance, Alchemy Lab, Marble Gallery, Outer Wall and Long Library), with very few sidetracks and secrets – the biggest two being simple loopbacks leading to earlier points on the path. In terms of easing players' mental mapping, there's absolutely a case for leading the player on a long path before branching out. In fact science has proven that humans have an easier time learning cities' layouts if they have first memorized a clear linear path through it, and that's likely one of the reasons why Symphony of the Night has such a memorable castle layout. It can be a bit awkward to wait so long for the actual exploration gameplay (”Where should I use this new ability?”) to kick in though, and we shall soon see that it builds a dangerously large problem domain.
Above: The straight path from the beginning to the first key: The Jewel of Open
It's a slow Sunday afternoon, and you've just booted up an old Castlevania to walk around the halls of a completed save file to see if there might still be some secret you missed back in the 90's. But why is Dracula's castle comprised of so many dead ends with absolutely nothing in them, so many huge rooms with no contents whatsoever? You don't remember it this way. Wasn't this a game where every room was carefully designed and mattered?
Well, perhaps it was once. But so many of that world's most important landmarks were simply consumed over the course of gameplay; bosses were defeated, secret pickups and crucial upgrades alike were taken from their resting places and all that remains is the empty chambers they used to occupy. Today I wanted to talk about monuments; how they help commemorate important events and ease navigation, and what can happen if you subvert the trope.
TROPE: MONUMENT. Whenever something disappears from the game world forever (a powerup, a boss, an obstacle or door), a mark of some kind is left at that spot to serve as a reminder to keep the room from becoming an empty, confusing space.
Landmarks are one of the core concepts in human navigation, and I will cover how we use those in greater depth in a future post. Long story short; a space is much easier to make a mental map of when there are distinct spots of greater salience than its surroundings, hotspots on which to hang the rest of the map (traditionally squares or churches when learning to navigate towns and cities). The most effective landmarks don't only have a distinctive look, but become even harder to shake from memory by carrying a specific function (such as a well, a marketplace – or a save point!).
Essentially, some of the strongest potential landmarks are places where things happen. This was understood early on in the Metroid series.
In the original Metroid, upgrade discoveries are the most important type of turning points the narrative has to offer. In a stroke of genius, each of these upgrades that allow you to access new areas is presented by a Chozo statue which will remain in the room forever as an eternal reminder of the event, becoming planet Zebes' most important landmarks. This was crucial in a game with no map feature and a lot of rooms that look more or less identical – all in all a pretty cumbersome space to wrap your mind around – at least when you stumble upon an old Chozo statue, you're more likely than not to have memories flooding back to you from the powerful moment of the upgrade acquisition, which in turn gives you a much stronger idea of what other rooms you can expect to find in your immediate surroundings. You start to think of areas in terms of ”where I got the morph ball” or ”the area with the long beam”. The Chozo statues are a great way to capitalize on the strongest emotional moments in Metroid and turn them into landmarks for navigation.
The monument tradition has mostly been kept by the Metroid series since then, and when the map system debuted in Super Metroid the designers also took care to make notes on the map of where even smaller pickups had been collected, making it much easier for returning explorers to tell the difference between a room that's mysteriously empty (and probably hiding something), and a room that has just been emptied by the player. Meanwhile other series have generally been less interested in this trope, often letting important moments float away without leaving any mark on the map or environment, leading both to potential spatial confusion and missed opportunities to create both landmarks and powerful, nostalgic spaces.
Of course, there is also a case for this as an artistic choice, when designed carefully. Designing exploration gameplay is always a balancing act where navigation needs to be manageable but not too easy either. If your game world is exceptionally small for example, or otherwise already very easy to navigate, monuments may be a needless hand-holding, and letting players find their own way around unguided may lead them to a stronger, more personal experience.
And even in more complex environments, sometimes omitting a monument can be a powerful piece of show-don't-tell. In a game that generally takes care to leave monuments, how would the player feel if the strongest emotional payoff in the game, say, a central character death, would take place and then not leave any monument whatsoever? Would that not supplement the feeling of emptiness? More importantly – if we as designers are confident that we have created something unforgettable, wouldn't that be just the time to trust the player to keep that place in their hearts forever without help? Sometimes, the lack of a landmark can be the strongest landmark of all.
Of course, you could go further than Final Fantasy 7. What if this event had happened in a room without a giant seashell tombstone bathing in celestial light – just another forest glade, one of many, leaving it to the players' dedication to defy the confusing map design in their effort to always remember where it went down? While at odds with Final Fantasy's in-your-face aesthetic, I for one might only have recalled it even more strongly.
Anywhere I turn, I see exploration. Spatiality and navigation are some of the core languages my brain seems to want to speak to me. Getting lost in the woods or in a new city is one of my favorite pastimes. I never use a GPS unless I have someone impatiently waiting for me, and I am averse even to asking for directions. Why rob myself of this most exquisite challenge of everyday life? I love shortcuts, and adore coming out on the other side and slowly realising that I'm in a familiar place – just from an unfamiliar viewpoint. I think in places; the four seasons have always been neatly portioned counter-clockwise around the house where I grew up and every meaningful thought I've had carries with it the metadata of where it was conceived. Likewise, the games I have fallen in love with nearly always allow me to travel through enticing worlds, eager to unlock their secrets and make them my home, over and over asking myself that most pertinent of questions:
Where should I go now?
The other thing I can't seem to shake is meaning. I need anything I create to carry a tangible message that makes a difference to people's lives, to the point where most of my games and plays are really just about that, about the anxiousness to do good and make a difference.
From now on, this blog is about the fusion of these two passions. In my recent game design, quasi-academic research and general thinking I keep stumbling onto tropes and techniques that games and interactive worlds can use to convey messages, emotions and information using what I will call the language of exploration. How can a place be used as a metaphor for a person? How can a place be charged with memories of backstory events, and how can the player in turn best be encouraged to charge places with their own memories? Can the sweeping emotions of exploration and discovery be used to complement a linear story – or a non-linear one? In short; how do we speak using not words, but places?
Film has long since developed a powerful language of cuts and composition, scenes and sequences. Games have several language already developing, but this particular one I feel we're all speaking on a toddler level. My hope is that this series can help designers of adventure games, Metroidvanias, sandboxes and pure notgame exploration experiences and get us all thinking about this largely unexplored yet deeply archetypal artistic language.
I will touch on the science of mental mapping and how spaces can be made navigable (but still challenging!) for the human brain, dwell a bit on my own mistakes in trying to design a compelling world in Residue, explore various models of progression (linear and non-linear) through space, present tools for evoking loneliness, awe, familiarity, resolve, fear and all kinds of spatially driven emotions and dissect exploration tropes from dead ends to fetch quests, and how they can serve or hinder a thoughtful game design.
Click the "exploration" tag on this blog to see all other posts, including my old Super Metroid analysis - an absolute master class in explorative level design. And I went ahead and did a first trope post to serve as an example of what I'll be trying to achieve here. It's called Mementos
This year's GDC Europe in Cologne was an unusually thought-provoking experience for me. Like last year, I am tempted to write an general exposé of my most interesting sessions and meetings, and I will - but that will have to wait. There is something I need to get off my chest first, something that's been on my to-do list for a long time, but has now ascended to the very top.
When I applied to the game design program at the University of Skövde three years ago, I did so because I felt I needed to be a part of bringing up the software entertainment medium. Every game I'd played thus far had failed me on some level, they were imperfect, juvenile pieces of work, sometimes stumbling over a moment of beauty but for some reason always drenching it in meaningless combat and superficial challenges. The medium I grew up with was still in its teens, and I knew I had what it took to bring it to another level.
More than anything, school taught me that I didn't.
School taught me that no one did. Games are as they are not because developers are sloppy, but because they need to be this way for gamers to understand them. Most of my previous ideas, I realized, required too much cooperation from the player to work, or were too difficult to market as they required the player to know very little about the game beforehand. A happy player was one who received constant positive feedback, always faced challenges at the optimal level of difficulty to achieve flow, and never -ever- experienced any frustration, confusion or boredom. Within those constraints, how could it be possible for games to evolve?
It's taken me some time to tear myself away from those ideas. A huge step for me was to leave Skövde for my final thesis and move back to Gothenburg, where I started to show up at biweekly indie beer sessions with the likes of Erik Svedäng and Niklas Åkerblad. These oftentimes rabid artistic minds finally reminded me of my original aspirations, and I found myself in an environment where the idea of making games for higher purposes than making money, wasn't at all frowned upon. But what purposes? The indie beer mondays encouraged me to do some strange and experimental things with They Breathe, but no one could say I was doing much to advance the medium. I had lost sight of how it may be possible.
I think I may have found it at the GDC.
You may have heard of NotGames. Fueled by the anger of The Path developer Tale of Tales' Michaël Samyn, this movement/community/genre/medium/entity is trying to find other ways of advancing the entertainment medium of software, than just games. Artists exploring how we can use computers and possibly the existing tradition of videogames to make new kinds of art that lie beyond the chemical, by now almost cynical concept of fun, beyond challenge, beyond flow and usability, have found their tribe here. I was deeply moved by the exhibition that Tale of Tales co-curated close to the GDC in Cologne, the interactive experiences I had there and the artistic minds from which they sprung. It's still crude, still rife with mistakes and generally poor design, but maybe that is what it takes to move forward. I can understand if some of us need to let go of fun for a while, before we can find it again around the corner. If we still want it then.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Michaël and Aureia of Tale of Tales, as well as Jeroen D Stout, the creator of definitely notgame Dinner Date, and I feel I'm a better designer for it. But there is still something within me putting up a resistance. I'm a gamer almost since birth. I love games, and I love pop culture. I believe that artists need to meet the audience half-way to get their attention and love, and that it's only from that position we can be truly beneficial. I generally do not believe in art for art's sake. NotGames are still not it.
It, is Amnesia.
I'm guessing a lot of you have played it by now. To be honest, I haven't. What I've taken away from this game so far is only the post-mortem held by designer Thomas Grip at the GDC Indie Summit. But that is already more than I've been able to collect from most games I've played.
No one told me, so I never really realized how radical Amnesia was. By doing away with combat, punishment for failure and, essentially, the whole concept of challenge, the beloved horror game finds itself deeply associated with the NotGames movement. But what sets Amnesia apart from any notgame I've played is that they've arrived at this conclusion for entirely pragmatic reasons. They moved outside games not because it's interesting or new, but because it was the best way to achieve the emotion they were looking for.
Listening to Thomas' speech, the horror game problem unraveled before me. All the hours I'd spent dreaming of a game that was as unsettling as the early Silent Hills, but not as frustrating, broken and generally poorly designed as games - only to see the horror genre disappear for a decade when people thinking those same thoughts acted on it and brought us Resident Evil 4, Dead Space, Alan Wake, even Silent Hill 3. Game designs too good, too dependable, to user-friendly to be scary. If horror games can't be good games, then they shouldn't be games. At any other time that thought would have terrified me, just like I refuse to believe that games and stories are inherently incompatible. But Amnesia also seems to show us how it can be done. As it happens, I'm working on a horror game right now, and I will do my best to carry on the legacy of my countrymen and delve deeper into this unknown territory. I too will make a game in which the player is tasked with immersing him- or herself in the experience, rather than with beating the system.
I will never really be a part of the notgames movement. I know that already. I am and have always been comfortable with being the product of many masters, and could never let myself be eaten by some doctrine other than my own. I also disagree with them on very many fundamental issues, but I still think it is of paramount importance that these voices are heard. For me, this is probably going to be my next big influence. For a time.
If you're like me, I'll see you on their forums.
Next time, some general GDC gossip.
The Parts and I have recently started to experiment with a new game concept, and it involves a first person perspective. At first we simply figured that it would bring the player closer and help immersion, as well as spare us some animation work. But then I got to thinking. Among the Parts we pride ourselves on our stories, and we wanted to bring a strong narrative to this production too, although it will be a pretty small thing. I strongly feel that the perspective changes how this story must be told.
My thesis at the moment is this: a first-person perspective severely harms empathy.
It ought to be obvious, really. First person asks you to imagine that you are there, and it's pretty damn good at it. Even when supposedly playing a character like The Darkness' Jackie Estacado, it's so easy to forget that the game is about him when you see everything as if with your own eyes. This is great for roleplaying and immersion.
But empathy is a completely different mode of imagination. By empathizing with other people or fictional characters, we imagine what they must be feeling, and grow closer to them emotionally in so doing. But first-person makes you forget that there is a character to empathize with. So what happens then?
To me, it means that first-person is an impediment to any story trying to be character-centric - or at least revolving around the player character. Imagine the story of the first Silent Hill, in which widowed father Harry Mason is looking for his daughter in the deranged titular town, and much of the horror in this horror game is dependent on the empathy we feel for Harry. Could this type of story work in first person? I don't think so. I think I would forget about the character, forget that I'm supposed to have a daughter, and slip back into being me. I don't have a daughter. I've never met this Cheryl, don't feel anything about her. All I can do is understand that Harry does, and empathize with that.
We can see the failed attempts in games like Mirror's Edge and BioShock. ME is difficult to target because its narrative is so broken on so many levels, but every attempt to insinuate relationships between her and other characters, especially her sister with all the sacrifices Faith makes for her, fall exceptionally flat. This is me, I'm here in this game world. I know because it's first person. And the game is trying to tell me what feelings I have for other characters in it? At least Valve know how to create realtionships between NPC:s and the player, instead of telling you that there is a relationship between NPC:s and the character you're supposedly playing. Maybe BioShock is a better example, where the game's famous twist reveals that the main character (you) actually have a history, and actually did things for a hidden reason. So you have been keeping secrets from yourself? I for one felt insulted as a player at both these occasions, as they invalidated my own feelings.
I sometimes see the first person perspective of games compared to the first person perspective of literature, and how the difference between perspectives in that medium doesn't make that much of a difference. But I find myself completely unable to see the connection, apart from both mediums using the same phrasing.
In literature, a first person perspective gives you supreme access to a character's inner thoughts and feelings - everything in the story is filtered through the mind of the narrator. In an FPS, we get a direct link to the characters senses, but not the mind. The mind of the character is more absent here than in almost any other form of storytelling, it's easy to forget there is one at all. If anything, I would say that a first person perspective gives rise to a second person narrative - a rarity in other media, but an oft-missed reality in games. You are walking through the corridor, a flimsy metal grating between your feet and endless darkness. You decide to go bust your sister out of jail, because you care about her that much. And there really is a place for that kind of narrative in games. But if that's not what you want to do, you probably have everything to gain on sticking to third-person. Or at least that's what I'm thinking right now.
As usual, I'm not saying this or that shouldn't ever be practiced, it's always more important to suit the game you're trying to make than to adhere to best practices. Still, can anyone think of character-centric first-person narratives that actually work?
If I ever get the opportunity to speak to a fresh class of game dev students, facing those same three years of studies which I have just seen the end of, there is one thing above all else that I will tell them. And that is this:
Find what you need.
The game design training that I have been put through, shaped in truth more by me, my co-students and the internet than by any forces of academia, have focused perhaps too much on doing things the right way. Nothing shows it like the thesis presentations we've been doing this final week. Like true scholars, we have sought the truth of how games should be made and why they work their magic. And that's all very interesting, and I do believe it will work wonders for the medium in the long run. But as creators, we need something more than the recipes.
I believe that it is the the duty of every creator to find his or her own method. Duty sounds tough, but unless you do things the way that most appeals to you as a human being, I'm not sure you'll ever be doing your best. Let me explain.
There is a creator in everyone - but not everyone has found the way to keep doing it day after day. Writers, painters, composers, dancers, chefs, architects, game, industry or fashion designers. What we do is harder than people think. We are tasked with creating from nothing, diving into our own souls and try to bring something – anything - back up. Every day. At first I was worried that anyone could do what I do, but that was before I realized – not that many people want to once they've tried.
I pry the answer from all my teachers and every creator I admire; how do they do it? And yet the answer is never my answer. Get up and write a full page of anything the first thing you do after waking up, they say. Sleep less, they say, four hours is enough if you want it to be. Keep a journal, some say; get a dictaphone, say others. Never wait, says Jordan Mechner. Don't follow advice, say Notch and Brandon Boyer. And I'm finally getting the feeling that it's all excuses. They can't convey their method, because it's theirs.
Once again, I am inspired by actors, because they get paid to be in touch with their humanity at every moment – in the words of Swedish actress Marika Lagercrantz, they get paid to be alive. Marika had other words to share when I had the pleasure to speak with her a few weeks back. She said that deep down, everyone knows what makes them feel comfortable. The comedian Gösta Ekman apparently cannot act without first spending half an hour rabidly telling jokes. Others resort to decadence; drugs, wine, late nights and prostitutes. The late Per Oscarsson always had to take a moment for himself before he could stand before the camera. He would stray behind the scenes or into a corner and stare into the air, and then he would come back and work his creative genius. We may never know what went through his head during those critical moments, but we can know it was something he needed.
Find what you need.
People are not machines, so don't treat yourself like one – especially if you want to be a creator. Challenge yourself, but don't force yourself to anything you know you can't do well. It's okay to do things your way, even if no one else is. There is a way for you too, and if you're on this path, now is the time to find it. It can be anything, because it's you. Ironically, I suspect that the way of the artists at The Working Parts is to treat themselves like machines.
My way? Still looking, I'm afraid. I'm picking up bits and pieces. I wish I had started earlier, but it's never too late. Soon enough, I will amass the creative power to make that thing that no one else could make.
There it is.
It took another period of sickness for me to wrap up the analysis, which now covers points of interest in the entire progression of Super Metroid,
from Ridley to, well, Ridley. Happy reading!Maybe now I can move on to writing other things!
I've been itching to create some type of walkthrough of Super Metroid
's progression and level design for a year now. Every time I pick up this game and do a playthrough, I am struck with new insights. I find new tricks that the designers use to make me play exactly the way they want, and I'm slowly getting closer to why the game gripped me so when I first played it back in 2000. The genius of Super Metroid
exists on so many layers, I do not believe I will ever exhaust it completely. But since many of us game designers played this while we were young, I fear many of the game's subtleties have escaped us. This is my attempt at a remedy for this.
This is probably the one game that influences me most as a designer. In how it tells a story through miniscule means, absolutely, but more importantly in how it places emphasis on the environment and the player's growing familiarity with the tunnels of planet Zebes. This flourishing relationship between a world and its player is to me stronger and more realistic than most character relationships in both games and other forms of storytelling, simply because it is so much easier to believe in a digital environment than it is to believe in a digital character. There's essentially no uncanny valley to speak of, no complicated behaviour which cannot fully be imitated. A place is a place, and so far I'm seeing much more potential in environment development than in character development in game stories. What I feel for Brinstar and the way I attach memories of the things that happened there to the walls and floors themselves, is the same way I feel for the neighborhood I grew up in. And when I come back there after having moved away, and realize there is a road I've never gone down before and I frankly can't patch together a mental map of where it leads, then I feel like I'm standing in front of a yellow door with a newly aquired Power Bomb upgrade.
I also believe that Metroid
is a powerful metaphor for life which trains us in appreciating the abilities we have and finding the places where we can use them to get even better.
The first half of my analysis can be found here
! Please enjoy, and the rest will come later.
My course in creative writing started this tuesday. I haven't written much yet though - writing this, these eighteen words, is the most creative I've done so far. I will. But there is a problem
, one that has been illuminated time and time again during this summer. An ancient flaw that I think I'm finally getting ready to stand up to. It is a problem worth sharing. Or rather, it's a problem that can only be solved through sharing it.
My teacher in creative writing, the (assumingly) wonderful Pamela Jaskoviak, opened the course with the wise notion that humans are incapable of (or at least really bad at) being creative and self-critical at the same time. The process therefore demands that we first write mindlessly without judgement, without trying to be clever or even good. And then we edit, rewrite, master the chaos we have created, make it tight, make it tidy. I have learned this approach several times from several teachers, but it took my experience from this summer to realize the following without a shadow of a doubt: I am destructively self-critical
at all times, incapable of (or at least really bad at) shutting that devil on my shoulder out of the creative process. Or any other process, for that matter. Whenever I get an excuse, I put myself in Performance Mode and worry what people will think of me.
Rewind a few months. For my birthday last spring, my parents offered me the summer course of my choice at Fridhem folk high school
in Svalöv, Skåne. I soon found myself choosing between a course in creative leadership and an oddly tantalizing yet clearly unnecessary beginner's acting course. Having promised to make this summer a vacation, I found myself deciding in favor of apparent meaninglessness.
August came, and I stepped of the bus in a small town in a flat land. I suspected that the course would teach me little in the field of actual acting technique – I'd already learned most of that in high school and on my own projects. But I was looking for something easy, something that wouldn't put me in Performance Mode. For some reason I have always enjoyed myself on the stage, at least if I have a script to follow.
So it's day one. A group of strangers is sitting in a circle, and my self-presentation is looping over and over in my head. My name is Hugo Bille, I'm 23 years old and a student of game design in Skövde, but I'm originally from just outside Gothenburg. I've worked on theater projects before, but mostly as a writer and it's been a while since I was last on stage, so please go easy on me.Our teacher, the distinguished Morgan Andersson, looked at us one by one and said:
”We won't be doing presentations today. It will just tempt us into trying to categorize each other. In this room we will instead face each other as the fantastic human beings we are, free of prejudice.” I was amazed. In part because he was right and prevented me from scaring people away with my nerdy background, and in part because from that moment I was out of Performance Mode. I stayed that way for more or less the whole week. During our course it was forbidden to even try to entertain our classmates. We were given minimal time to plan, and instead instructed to act on our beautiful instincs. If it didn't come, it didn't, and we were acting solely for our own sake. In most of our exercises we didn't even realize we were acting until afterwards. I won't say that I was 100% obedient in this, but one thing I couldn't shake. A good actor – and, I now believe, a good practitioner of any art – is too busy focusing outwards, to focus inwards. We don't have the time to imagine what the audience might be thinking when we're trying all we can to make this fictional bouncer let us into the club to conquer the love of our lives. There is a time for self-criticism, but it is not on stage, just like it is not during conception. When you let it in, you lose your direction. So that's what I'm going to try to do – focus outwards. I just need to figure out what that means in the games industry. Because as long as I hesitate, I will falter. My promise to Lili helps me along; we said that we are both too good at what we do to keep questioning ourselves. And our game will be amazing, whenever we get around to doing it. But promises and compliments are not enough, I need to focus outwards so hard that I don't have time to hesitate. I write this in part out of fear that people around me will start to doubt my ability or commitment to the art if my blog stagnates and goes without news for too long. The same goes for creating the site in the first place. But I also do it to get used to other people's opinions of me, and learn to handle them casually. To make something transparent, unpolished and yet public; see if I can create something valuable simply because it is unedited, because it is raw. I'm not there yet. I don't even know where to go. But I think I will do it. If not else, I think the creative writing will force me. Also, writing this has kept my mind off overplanning my meeting with the local game company incubator about Residue, to which I'm off - now.
I have just returned from volunteering at the Game Developers Conference in Cologne, where I've had the pleasure of listening to some of the European game industry's true big shots share their thoughts on their craft. The least I can do is spread the word, right?
Being a volunteer, I often found my shifts clashing with interesting sessions, but on a whole I was really lucky, and I got to see most of the ones I was anticipating.
First up, David Cage, who amusingly named his session "How Far Are You Prepared To Go To Develop An Original Project". Cage has always inspired me more with his words than with his games, and his post-mortem of Heavy Rain proved very insightful. As usual he started off proclaiming that the games of today are aimed almost exclusively at children and teenagers, doomed to repeat the same game rules that drove them 30 years ago, and topped it off with his classic (if a bit dated) comparison between game stories and porn stories, and how the audience just wants to skip to "the action".
Heavy Rain, of course, was an attempt to change this. Not only was it to be a game about parenthood and other more mature relationships, Quantic Dream were throwing challenges out the window. Being an oldschool achievement-oriented gamer, I never saw what I now consider to be one of Heavy Rain's greatest strengths until Cage pointed it out - it's okay to lose. They'd had playtesters who failed pretty much every QTE in the first hours of the game and still thought they had played the game perfectly, because the story always went on in a logical fashion!
Unfortunately, Mr Cage could share no insight regarding the secrets of his writing. Heavy Rain took a year to write, but Cage can't seem to remember or be able to convey how it had happened. So all we got in regard to that was the perfectly reasonable principle of introducing characters as archetypes to allow instant recognition without those long first acts that don't fit in a player's attention span - and then gradually add layers of complexity.
In order to avoid having to make Heavy Rain 2, Quantic Dream's management (coincidentally headed by David Cage), decided to market a second brand alongside the game - the brand of David Cage. It had been a tiring process which Cage assured us he had not particularly enjoyed, keeping these two hype machines going at the same time - but it is difficult to deny that it works. An interesting strategy.
Cage ended his session with a series of tounge-in-cheek ESRB ratings for public statues in Florence, declaring that reality was clearly ADULTS ONLY.
In contrast to Cage, who attested to doing everything in his power to avoid game repetition by means of contextual controls, questioning the versatility of a story where the main character could only perform 8-12 actions, Warren Spector went on-stage with a breakdown of the assets which made the game medium unique - and among them was repetition. Apparently we work in the only medium which is immune to the Robert McKee's law of diminishing returns, which can keep the same challenge coming over and over again and changing it just enough to keep it fresh and novel.
Like Cage, Spector kept his talk focused on the differences between the game medium and its predecessors/competitors (one of my favorite subjects, I might add). His tagline was "What Videogames Can Learn From Other Media... What We Can't... And What We Shouldn't".
Spector has spent a lot of time working alongside bigshot movie directors and writers, trying to get them to understand the fundamental differences between our mediums, but it is perhaps impossible for an artist too well trained to understand the basics of something so different, yet so alike. Warren Spector, not giving up that easily, gave us a delightful definition of creativity: creativity is mastering two fields of knowledge and then applying one to the other.
And so we launched into the realm of ancient media. Hitchcock's The Rope showed us the madness of filming a motion picture in one take - a technique that lies at the very nature of games. Whereas movies make us think like in a dream, skipping back and forth through time and space - videogames can and should show us the whole deal. It grants us a closeness to the character of which artists of other media can only dream.
Similarly, Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake showed how the then-disastrous idea of shooting an entire movie from first-person perspective would dominate completely the videogames of the 00's. Because in this medium character identification is not always necessary - not if we already are the character.
Making brief dropdowns into comics, pen and paper role-playing games and radio, Spector finally arrived at his current favorite medium other than games - oral storytelling. Like a story told around the campfire, a game story shapes itself around the listener, and allows her to change the story depending on her reactions. Warren Spector thinks that every storyteller in the games industry should read up on this most ancient of arts, as it is in many regards the exact same thing.
Wrapping up the theme of games and movies, Remedy art director Saku Lehtinen delivered a full-fledged post-mortem of the script-driven production that was Alan Wake. Not possessing the natural charisma of the prior speakers, he more than made up for it with quiet enthusiasm. Describing every detail of Remedy's peculiar modus operandi would make this a very long post, but I walked away knowing that there is at least one studio in the Nordic which takes its storytelling extremely seriously, and where every person on the team is commited to the themes and metaphors of the tale. I have yet to play Alan Wake, but i am looking forward to seeing how their method lets the story seep into areas of game design where we are not used to seeing it.
Also, Lehtinen confessed that Remedy, being Finnish, obviously have a sauna.
This post is already too long, so the talks from Another World designer Eric Chahi and Guerilla CEO Hermen Hulst will have to wait for another time... Hope you get something out of it!