In part one of our coverage, I focussed on the games of AdventureX, but once again there was an impressive array of speakers comprising a broad range of talents and experience. Though there weren’t enough hours in the day to see and hear everything I’d have liked, here are my personal highlights among this year’s presentations.
Dave Gilbert – Engineering Empathy: Getting the Player to Care
Technobabylon was originally an episodic freeware series by James Dearden before being picked up, polished, and published commercially by Dave Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games last year. Those who had played the original episodes would find various changes had been made in the final version. One of these was the deletion of the opening scene of the second episode. In this segment, one of the main protagonists, Dr Regis of the police department, has gone to visit a tree he planted in memory of his wife. Here he found a young woman intending to commit suicide, and the opening actions of the game were saving this woman’s life. For Dave, this scene fell flat for one simple reason. Meeting both of these characters for the first time, players had no emotional investment in either. Dave described this sort of scene as “having your dinner”. He coined this term based on a scene from the television series Breaking Bad. The scene in question involved three of the main characters simply having a surprisingly tense dinner together. On its own the scene appears mundane with run-of-the-mill dialogue. But with the sequence appearing in the show’s fifth season, viewers were well aware of the relationships involved, and understood why this ordinary event was so difficult for all.
Dave expressed his belief that such scenes can have a powerful effect, but only if placed correctly. Too early and the lack of investment robs it of power. Too late and it feels like you are padding out the story to add artificial value through extended play time. In the case of Technobabylon, Dave felt the scene clearly fell into the former category, and the entire sequence was replaced. In its place was a scene where Dr Regis was introduced on the job, with he and his partner Dr Lao attending a call-out. This not only served to introduce the characters, but also allowed the inclusion of background material for the setting and part of a sub-plot. Of course, the situation is different when, like Breaking Bad on television, you have previous episodes behind you. When writing Blackwell Epiphany, Dave felt comfortable assuming that the audience had played the earlier games in the series. As a result, an investment in the lead characters could be taken for granted, allowing more emotional scenes early on.
Concept art from upcoming Wadjet Eye fantasy game
To finish his talk, Dave spoke about a new game that is in the early stages of development, set in a world of magic. In this there will be five available characters, with the player choosing two to use. As this option will result in a range of combinations, Dave has been engaged in small writing exercises of dialogue between each pair. For one pair he showed an early draft of dialogue in which the two characters sniped at one another over one of them tapping his staff. But he felt that this snarkiness did not provide any real characterisation and cast doubt on them working as partners. The second draft had the tapping being an unconscious act that the other character points out. Whilst not a huge shift, the revised dialogue makes them feel more like colleagues, and allows introduction of the concept that magic can subtly affect its users without them knowing.
To keep track of Dave’s existing games and future projects, check out the Wadjet Eye Games website.
Steve Ince – Emotions and Character in Games
Having work in the industry for over 20 years, Steve Ince is a man with a lot of experience. His first role included animating background sprites for Revolution Software’s Beneath a Steel Sky. If you remember the steam blowing out of a pipe near the start, that was one of his. His first writing job was for the British company’s later spy thriller In Cold Blood. He is still proud to have been part of that game, and feels it has a depth to it which he tried to bring to his subsequent projects. Steve believes good narrative can add depth to a game, but not all games need narrative in the same way. If you are playing Pac-Man, you don’t need to know his life story. Even in more story-based games, the narrative needs will be very different. In contrasting two very different styles, Steve picked out Dishonored and Thomas was Alone. The first was from an established genre, whilst the latter was unlike anything that had come before.
For the player to really get into the story, an emotional investment is usually necessary. Steve expressed the opinion that well-rounded characters are the main way to unlock player emotions. If you create realistic characters that the player cares about, they will be more invested in their fates. However, there are other ways of arousing emotions, and those may differ depending on your audience. In a children’s game Steve is currently developing, bright colours and cheery cartoon characters may prove enough. For the more mature gamer, unexpected events may trigger an emotional response. One such event was the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. Many players were surprised and upset by her sudden demise, but also found it jarring in a universe where resurrection during fights was commonplace.
For characters to come alive, they must be more than just statistics and abilities. Characters must be people to be believable, even if they are not even human. Sometimes this means having a story that goes beyond the game. Citing Brian McDonald’s writing guide Invisible Ink, Steve advocated writing more background to a character than is actually shown within the story itself. The super spy will need stealth and assassination skills, but they might also like fishing and grow hydrangeas. With games, where the player influences the story through interaction, things sometimes have to be done differently from more passive media like film. Get the characters right and writing dialogue for them becomes easier, as you start to know how the character thinks. If your game is to have voice acting, then it also needs to sound right spoken aloud as well. The voice work will have to carry most of the emotion, as even current technology limits the visual cues available. To a certain extent this will be outside the control of any writer. Good actors and voice directors, as well as a good recording studio, will make a huge difference to how dialogue comes across.
To finish off, Steve recommended trying out the relatively new semi-interactive video Try Life, which lets you give limited direction to a live-action story. If you also want to follow the man himself, you should check out Steve’s own website.
The Slaughter and One-Man Development
The Slaughter has been displayed at AdventureX before. In a talk he gave this year, solo developer Alex Francois gave some background to the ongoing project, and the trials of being a one-man studio.
The Slaughter's Alex Francois
The game’s story involves a Victorian era detective, down on his luck and falling into alcoholism. A lucrative case falls into his lap, but he may find he has bitten off more than he can chew. Production has advanced and improved considerably since the early version I saw a few years ago. Whilst still done in early ‘90s-style pixel art, the graphics are much more detailed than before, with full dynamic lighting effects as well. I also got to see one of the lead character’s alcohol-induced dream sequences, which had a misty, surreal quality to it. The highlight for me was the shove-ha’penny minigame that had been added. In this traditional pub game, players take turns sliding pennies across a board, the object being to get them to stop between marked lines. The use of physics was impressively realistic, and winning the game was immensely satisfying. A vital inventory item is the reward for success, though I was reassured that repeated failure will provide an alternate way of acquiring it if necessary.
Whilst enjoying the freedom being his own boss allows, Alex talked about the struggles sometimes to motivate himself. In this his Kickstarter backers have proven a help, pestering him for updates on the project when he might otherwise fail to move things along on his own. At the same time he has also realised that, while he originally felt it to be a form of goofing off, research is actually work. He no longer feels guilty about taking time to search out accurate details, and this has certainly paid dividends. The Victorian feel of the game would be a lot poorer if he had not done the research he has on the period. The freedom to put whatever he wants to into the game has also proved a two-edged sword. On the one hand it has allowed Alex to make a game that includes the things he most enjoys. At the same time, having to do all the art and programming for each new idea means that any addition increases the development time. The original plan was to release the game in its entirety, but switching to an episodic format soon seemed the obvious choice. The final number of episodes is still not firmly fixed, but is likely to be three.
The first episode of The Slaughter is projected to be out early this year. To follow its ongoing progress, check out the developer’s blog.Continued on the next page...