Sunday, August 29, 2010

A New Chapter

This is an uncharacteristic post but it's time I updated with some personal news I wanted to share. Normally I'm opposed to using this space for personal information -- I can barely find the words to talk about my life to my closest friends -- but in this case it's directly related to the larger topic of this blog.

Two days after my previous post, my son Isaac was born. Then after I took two weeks for paternity leave, I returned to work and resigned from my job. This coming week after my last day with my employer, I'm going to get in a van with four other guys with whom I'll be working from now on, and make the 14-or-so-hour drive to Seattle for PAX Prime. There I'll be giving a talk titled "Memoirs of a Triple Agent" about my experiences having worked in gaming media, development, and publishing, and lessons for contending with each of these factions. I'll also be announcing my new venture, which will allow me to get much more hands-on with design and writing for games (among many other responsibilities), in addition to having a somewhat more flexible schedule to accomodate the changes in my family life.

I'm giving up a lot, something I try not to think about too much. I was treated very well at my job and was given a lot of responsibility and latitude to do things my own way, and for that I'm deeply grateful. I wish all the best to the development team I've been working with as well as to the publishing team that took me in and supported me. But this new thing, this is something I have to do and this may be the only chance I'll ever get to do it. Life's too short to let any such chances slip away. I only hope my colleagues will forgive me for what must have seemed like a sudden change of heart.

I started my professional career working independently. I co-published a gaming fanzine out of high school. I started doing freelance work for gaming magazines. I cofounded a gaming web site. And then I joined GameSpot, what was then one of the largest independent gaming publications around. There I stayed for 10 years and through two corporate acquisitions; what started as a disruptive force in gaming media had become an entrenched part of the establishment by the end of my stint. Following that, I joined Electronic Arts as a producer because I needed to get on with realizing my dreams of making games, and then last year I joined 2K Games as a producer on the publishing side -- both of these are large but very different companies that can achieve whatever they focus on. And now things are coming full circle, as I'll at last be leaving the corporate world behind for the trials and tribulations of independent game development. I have no delusions about this change. But I welcome the challenge and I relish the work itself. While I'll no longer be working on the sorts of multimillion dollar projects I often write about here, independent games have a purity of vision (and increasingly a high quality of execution) that's incredibly alluring to me. So in this new capacity, I expect to be able to apply what I know and what I think in a pure way that's manifested in original games designed for people who love games as I do.

All I want is to pour everything I've got into making a game people can love. It will be something I want to look back on and say, this truly was a part of me -- it's not just something I sank a bunch of time and effort into out of principle. And if it's a game I could one day play with my son or daughter, so much the better.

I have no plans to make a habit of hijacking this space for self-promotion like this, but as you can see, the last month's held a slew of changes that I wanted to share (especially since they've preoccupied me from coming up with anything more relevant to write about right now). In the spirit of getting it all out of the way in one swoop, I'd also like to mention I'll be giving another talk in October at GDC Online in Austin, titled "I Don't Want to Know: Delivering Exposition in Games". Unlike my PAX talk, this one will be close in spirit to the type of subjects I've been writing about here. I haven't done any speaking functions in some time but am really looking forward to getting back out there and sharing everything I think I know about my favorite subjects.

I'll need a lot of luck where I'm going so if you have any to share I'd be much obliged.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Infernal Logic

Limbo is the arresting puzzle-platformer released in July for Xbox Live Arcade, and I wanted to talk a bit about this fascinating game through the lens of narrative design. So if you haven't played and finished it already, I highly recommend you do so before reading -- or even instead of reading. After all, beautifully crafted and artful games like this don't come around very often, though I'm not writing about Limbo here just because it's great.

In some respects, there's not much to say about Limbo's use of narrative. The game doesn't have a single spoken word in it and barely has any written words in it either. I believe "Hotel" is literally the only word that appears as part of the game itself (discounting menu text and credits). Like the rest of the narrative, I think this word ultimately is a red herring, something that probably inspires a lot of speculation about its meaning when players run into it, yet there's really not much there -- it's art for art's sake. Which is fine. This is how Limbo works.

Limbo has no real story as such. But you go through the game consciously or subconsciously looking for one, expecting one, because Limbo does such an excellent job of creating atmosphere and giving exposition, using methods that are as minimal as they are effective. Thus you expect the opening exposition to be expanded on, because of how our brains parse things shaped like stories. The game has one of the most intensely concentrated and compelling openings I've played in some years. It makes you think there's a story, and fills your head with dozens of interesting questions: who am I? where am I? why am I here? what am I looking for? who else is here besides me? am I even alive? The game's presentation is so strong that you in turn play through with the confidence that the authors of the game, and the game itself, must hold the answers. These types of questions are enough to keep you going through some extremely challenging puzzles that you'd sooner give up on if not for the game's narrative drive.

If you've finished the game, then you've unlocked all the stages in the Chapters menu. If Limbo were a typical puzzle game, that Chapters menu would have structured the experience. You would have selected puzzles from that screen, finished them or maybe not, then dropped back to that screen to pick the next one. As a result, the game would have been a pale shadow of itself. One of the things that makes Limbo so special among puzzle games and among platformers is that it offers a completely seamless, contiguous experience -- it's like one long level. You become completely immersed in it due to the flawlessly executed art style, audio ambience, and physics simulation, all delivered without interruption. At the same time, little story vignettes imply a greater meaning to the events that take place, a meaning you continue to search for until the game is over. The game breaks your immersion only when it gets too hard, which happened to me a couple of times early on then a couple of more times towards the end. But not so often that I wasn't fascinated to keep playing, to see where the whole thing was going.

It ends up going who-knows-where. The theme of the game gives it an "out" from a narrative perspective, in that a game about the place between life and death doesn't need to make sense (and probably shouldn't), and it doesn't need to provide clear answers (and probably shouldn't). Even still, Limbo's narrative felt incomplete to me in a way that wasn't entirely satisfying. I loved the starkness of the ending, the smash cut to the credits. I didn't love that things that seemed so intriguing in the game never came back into play. It struck me that the most interesting scenes were front-loaded. The game was at its most interesting when other living beings were afoot. Shadows of savage humanoids lurking in the darkness. Strange tortured souls hanging in the background. Flies swarming rotten chunks of meat. A man-made spider contraption. These sinister images are the game's most memorable. Later when it takes a shift to giant clockwork machinery and sketchy film noir neon signs, I realized that what was pushing me forward was my search for continuity, to see those dark shapes from the forest in the beginning come back and reassert themselves. And of course I wanted to see what happened at the end. It's a puzzle game and I was trying to piece together the biggest puzzle it had put in front of me. But it's the one puzzle that can't be solved. In the end, the game ends close to where it started, in the forest where the game is at its strongest. Limbo is a game about what it feels like to take a wrong turn.

I had this feeling that there's no continuity to the game in part because there was no good way to create continuity among the puzzles the design team chose to include and polish to perfection, probably from among many hundreds or thousands that they cut during the iteration process. I found myself wondering what content was left on the cutting room floor.

In the description paragraph you can read before you download the game, you're told that it's about a boy trying to find his sister. This is a surprisingly specific detail for a game that revels in unanswered questions. In Shadow of the Colossus, the ambiguity around the protagonist's relationship to the girl he seems to be trying to save works in the game's favor, to build intrigue. You're left to wonder about their relationship and what would drive the protagonist to do what he's doing for her sake. Even if it's love it takes a special love and a special woman to motivate a young man to hunt giant monsters for a woman's sake. In Limbo, you see an apparition of what looks like a girl on a couple of occasions before you finally encounter her right at the end. It's easy enough to interpret the plot of the game as something similar to Shadow of the Colossus from these scenes, yet being told precisely what the protagonist's relationship is to the girl he appears to be searching for feels unnecessary to a game that gives nothing else away. I wonder if the creators of the game had much of a part in writing that description.

I don't think most people went into Limbo expecting much of a story, and neither did I. But having a story isn't the only way to build narrative depth into a game, as Limbo demonstrates. The game may have no meaning, but man, does it ever make you search for one. At least that's how it worked on me, and I like it when games leave me with a lingering feeling, especially if they're going to be short. Did you take something different away from it than I did?