The eternal dark

Games almost always get death wrong. One moment you’re alive, and bam, the next moment you are gone. They treat it like an event, but real death is a process. It takes time to die. In fact, it takes a lifetime.

I recently played a game that gets it kind of right – The Long Dark. Its authors probably wanted to make a game about survival rather than its opposite, but they ended up with a game about the process of dying. No matter how well you play, a slow and difficult death is the only possible outcome.

Alone in the icy cold of the northern Canadian wilderness, The Long Dark is about getting through the day (and the night). Escaped from a crashed plane and dressed in a summer outfit, you find yourself exploring forests, mountains and snowy valleys.

First there’s the cold. You want warmer clothes and some shelter. Then there’s the hunger and the thirst. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to find a small cabin with a bed and a stove. You burn the cabin’s firewood to get the temperature up. Perhaps you melt some snow to drink, and cook some meat you took from the frozen deer carcass outside.

Slowly but surely your resources start to run out. You must decide how hungry you must get, or how much the temperature in the cabin must drop before you go back out in the storm. And what will you find once you head out there?

There’s a sense of melancholy in The Long Dark, because it makes the decay of life tangible. The game is a fight to delay the inevitable, to slow the process, but the end is coming. You will freeze to death, or starve, or thirst. Whatever comes first. You see your remaining life eroded by the forces of nature, by time itself.

The game presents you with no happy endings. So what do you do, when you’re out there desperately scavenging for something to eat or some wood to burn so that you’ll live a little bit longer? You take pleasure in the journey. Discovering a frozen lake surrounded by mountains and snow clad pine trees. Watching the aurora borealis dance on a starry night sky.

My first play session ended with me reaching a mountain hut and then freezing to death in my sleep. But it was a beautiful climb to get there.

Being gods

Video games reveal that just as human beings seem to have a desire to believe in god, we also carry a desire to be god. Like a jealous and furious old testament deity, we crave the power to destroy our enemies and reshape mankind according to our fickle will.

Get ready! Get psyched!

Get psyched!

We’ve finally revealed the release date – Wolfenstein: The New Order is out May 20 in the US and May 23 in Europe. I’m thrilled that you’re all going to get the chance to step into our world in just a few months! Check out the fantastic new trailer, and… Get ready! Get psyched!

The ever-growing list

There’s a special kind of madness originating from the Steam Christmas sale.

Tons of games suddenly become so cheap that it feels like sheer stupidity not to buy them. As long as one might find something interesting about a title, it will be bought. Why not? You might want to play it later, on a rainy Sunday afternoon or during a boring trip somewhere. And if there’s nothing special about the game, rest assured it’s part of some package, a collection of games so incredibly cheap it would be criminal to ignore.

Steam logoIf you are anything like me, your Steam list is cluttered by games never played, never installed and some you don’t even remember. Perhaps this seems like a luxury to the average gamer. You’ll never run out of games to play. Yeah, that sounds pretty great. To me, however, it’s stressful just to look at the list at this point.

Know this about game designers – they need to play games. They seek deeper understanding of mechanics, attempt to be on top of trends, and have a general overview of the competition. There’s always the notion of not playing enough games, of not getting enough insight into what others are making. Having a long list of games you’ve bought but never played whispers in your ear, each time you’re glancing at it, “you’re not doing enough research, buddy”.

I had a solution this Christmas. I never even looked at Steam. How will they sell me games if I put my fingers in my ears and shout “la-la-la-la-la I’m not listening”? This, surely, is a problem Valve will have figured out for Christmas 2014. They always do.

Returning to Chernarus to escape it

I hadn’t played ARMA II since having my mind blown by DayZ some months ago, but somehow buying and trying the sequel ARMA III brought me back. There’s this ARMA II mod some friends from work are playing, called Escape Chernarus. While not as revolutionary as DayZ, it shows the strengths of the game in the very best of lights, and adds an exciting and dynamic struggle for survival to it.

It all begins in a military camp. You and your friends are prisoners of war, guarded by a lone enemy soldier somewhere on the island of Chernarus. The location of the camp is random, so you don’t know where you are. You have no map, no compass. No weapons at all.

Suddenly the guard dies. Who knows from what – just quickly take whatever he’s got on him and get the hell out of the compound.

He usually carries a pistol and some kind of rifle. If you’re three players (like we have been) that means one of you will have to face the deadly opposition outside the camp walls unarmed and defenseless. But out you must, or reinforcements will make your life very very difficult and very very short.

You exit the camp, and if you’re still alive you have one simple objective: Get off the island. Escape Chernarus.

This is easier said than done. You have no means of leaving the island by yourself, so you’re going to have to find a military base and send a distress signal for allies to come and pick you up at some distant shore. But you can’t simply waltz into a base, so you’re going to have to take it by force. And one of you is unarmed, you got shit gear, you’re probably running out of ammo and you have no idea where you are.

Find a map. A compass. Better weapons. Unfortunately you’re going to have to take them from the cooling bodies of your enemies. Attack a roadblock, a village, a patrol, whatever that might hold some of the gear you so desperately need. But the island is teeming with soldiers, and they’re looking for you. Be quick. If they spot you, don’t let them live long enough to call for reinforcements. And here comes the helicopter searching for you, again.

Run. Hide. Fight. Survive. Steal a vehicle, preferably an armored one. If it’s night, see if you can get your hands on some night vision goggles.

Once the distress signal has been sent you get a coordinate on the map telling you where they’ll pick you up. However, that coordinate is probably going to be very far away, and you have an army looking for you. Do you try to get there quickly by following the roads, or do you try to stay undetected by moving through forests, fields, hills? Do you travel in the same vehicle, or do you split up to reduce risk of all dying from a single rocket, missile or grenade?

If you have the skills and the luck you might make it to that shore, and the help will come. Climb onboard. Escape Chernarus, and enjoy the moment – for I predict that most play sessions will end with you bleeding to death somewhere far away from any hope of rescue.

This mod makes the aging ARMA II engine shine. The smart AI, the wealth of weapons, gear and vehicles, the enormous and varied landscape, the weather systems and day/night cycle all come into play each play session. The dynamic nature of the mod creates a unique experience each time you play it, and it really feels like the enemy is searching for you, hunting you. Like DayZ, it makes Chernarus come alive.

It will be interesting to see how it’ll translate to ARMA III.

The Designer’s Dictionary: Cool

The Designer’s Dictionary is a new series of blog posts looking into different aspects of game design, each time focusing on one word. 

One of my many favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. It’s got good story, great characters, fearless structure and a pitch perfect Tarantino cool. Unfortunately none of his other movies seem to fuse that specific brand of coolness with interesting characters quite as well as Pulp Fiction, however entertaining they might be. His latest movies appear too self aware, like their style is padding rather than an inherent quality.

The Tarantino cool is found somewhere between characters, dialog and the violence, and cinema as a whole would be less without it. It’s amoral, but its just so good that we forgive it. We only get a slice of it once or twice every decade, so whenever it comes our way we’re just happy to get a taste.

But imagine if most of Hollywood was defined by it. What if the majority of movies were – more than anything – striving to be cool? The whiff of excitement and freshness would quickly turn into a stale and putrid stench. Tarantino, a huge film nerd, really makes movies about movies, celebrations of film genres. His movies are morally empty, defined by style over substance. A movie industry plagued by Tarantino wannabes would be a terrible thing.

Unfortunately the games industry is to a large degree just that. One of the most common words in game design discussions, brainstorming sessions, PR events and perhaps even games journalism is “cool”. 

Good writers and movie directors understand that the experiences they craft require some level of substance and cannot simply be a series of cool events. They know that their works require careful pacing between the fast and the slow, between the highs and the lows, between tension and release. That the audience must be able to not only believe in the characters but also identify with them and their struggles. They get how important it is that the plot grabs hold of the audience, allowing them to invest emotionally in the outcome.

It needs to be about something. Something people care about.

Here’s what I think. I believe “cool” is a crutch for the untalented, the lazy and the immature.

If you happen to not have what it takes to do something good, making it cool is still accepted as a substitute. The bar is still set that low, if only because there are too few trying to push it higher.

For those that do have the chops but not the will, going down that route is always an easy way out. Proper design, proper writing is very difficult indeed, so why not make it easy for yourself? Well, you should have some pride in your work and respect for the art.

For kids, cool could be enough. I guess it’s often more than enough, looking back at my own childhood. But the majority of our audience are grownups now, so we better grow up too. Sure, adults like spectacle as well – but only momentarily. To hold their attention for a longer period of time, something deeper is necessary.

Let’s stop confirming the public’s poor perception of our craft. Let’s make better games.

A night of DayZ

Very rarely do I get excited over games anymore.

When I was a kid it was a common thing. I heard about some new game and became engrossed in the game’s possibilities, fantasizing what could happen it its world. Reading about games and dreaming about the amazing experiences they might hold was something I enjoyed greatly, often more so than playing them.

But I’m old now (well…), and cynical (yeah), and I know the gears and pistons that make the monster move, and I know that its beating heart is really a steam engine. Partially because I’ve been a gamer for a long time, and partially because I’m a game designer, the man behind the curtain has become very difficult not to pay attention to.

Then DayZ comes along.

Day Z is a persistent sandbox zombie first person shooter with PvP and (don’t forget to breath) limited resources in a vast environment based on ARMA II.

For non-geeks it translates to a world where the players are the hunted, doing whatever is necessary to survive. Try not to be killed by the hordes of zombies that roam the cities, the villages and sometimes the woods. Scavenge the deserted homes for scarce resources like food, water, ammunition and perhaps bandages, or turn on your fellow players and murder them for their loot. If you get killed, that’s it – your character and everything he’s collected is gone. You start over with a lousy gun and a few cans of beans.

It’s a rare type of game. While the gears might still be visible, there is no man pulling strings behind some transparent curtain. Instead it’s a world run by rules of survival, populated by independent agents, where the story and intensity comes from how the players choose to deal with those agents (and each other) in order to survive. In other words, it’s a game that can tell great player stories, and I believe that player stories are almost always more powerful than scripted stories. Somehow they feel more real.

I’m not exaggerating that I got very excited about playing it. Before I got my hands on it I watched more YouTube videos of people playing the game than I care to admit.

Last night I played the game with a couple of friends from work. Our adventure started out brilliantly, but ended in tragedy.

There were four of us. We had finally left the coastal area to escape the mayhem of bandits slaying newcomers, and started our journey north. We were becoming desperate after resources – ammo, water, those kind of things, and identified a shop on the map. Shops usually have lots of useful stuff left behind, so we decided to head to the village that we so far only knew from the map.

We travelled rather carefully, trying to stay behind tree lines when possible, darting from bush to bush whenever we were left naked by open fields. We ran and ran until we finally found the village on a small hill. Scouting the area from a distance, we found it empty of bandits but full of zombies – but we were well armed with courage (and guns), and counting our clips we agreed we had enough ammo to take them.

The first shot was the signal, and before the first zombie hit the ground all our guns were firing unto their targets. The four of us made a line across the road leading into the village, and as the undead came running they faced a relentless wall of death.

The fields and roads and gardens became littered with bodies. Only the zombies on the other end of the village were still alive, oblivious of the carnage that had just been inflicted upon their neighbours. While the place was not yet safe, I had run out of ammo and felt I needed to find that shop, hoping to find bullets. Quite foolishly I hastened ahead of the others, and unfortunately attracted unwanted attention that my friends had to deal with.

But where was the shop? A house held a handful of rounds, but there seemed to be no shop.

Suddenly we were surrounded by a large group of zombies no one had any idea where they came from. Our guns were running hot once again, but the few clips I had found were soon gone and I had to retreat back into the house.

Was it safe there? A few seconds passed before the distorted shape of a zombie walked through the door frame. Slowly shuffling towards me, I made sure the kitchen table was between us. He advanced around the table, which opened the path to the exit. As I sprinted out of the kitchen, I met a friend in the hallway. To my great relief, he took care of the zombie.

The outside was utter chaos. People were hurt, people were running low on ammo, and all of a sudden one of my coworkers fell to the ground, unconscious. Friendly fire. We were not losing control – it had been lost minutes ago and we were now fighting a losing battle. Zombies continued to pour into the garden where we fought and bled. Having no ammunition, I tried to make myself useful by helping my downed coworker.

Slowly the number of living zombies decreased and we started to gain hope. I took the pulse of my dying coworker and realized it was still strong. Hoping that he might wake up I gave him a blood transfusion and some morphine, but he remained unconscious. Most of the zombies were now gone, and we decided to try to get the hell out of there while we had the chance. Dragging our friend with us, we slowly moved away from the houses towards an open field.

The village had been a terrible idea. We were hurt, I was still out of ammo and the fate of our incapacitated buddy seemed grim.

During the slow walk to, well, anywhere else than where our asses had been so thoroughly kicked, we had the occasional zombie attack – but we were now back in control. Except for the coma patient we hauled through the grass, that is.

But we were lost. Not knowing where to go, we kept walking. Minutes went by. Minutes became an hour, and we were still lost and our friend was not doing any better. We couldn’t just leave him there, so we started considering our options. Perhaps we could try getting him to a city. But they’re very dangerous, and even more so if you’re hauling someone with you – and we had been on a mission to leave the cities and the coast behind us. Maybe we could leave him there in the grass, only temporarily, to search for medicine.

Or perhaps we should end his misery with a shot to the head.

The last option started to sound like a good idea as time went by. The problem with a mercy killing is that DayZ has a system where you lose “humanity” when killing players, ultimately turning you into a bandit whom always suffers a risk of getting shot on sight by other players.

Then a large field opened up before us, and in the middle of the field was a destroyed helicopter. With a fully functioning minigun. We couldn’t fly the helicopter, but we considered ideas like getting hordes of zombies to follow us, only to lead them to the helicopter and slay them all with the minigun. Then, with the mindset of game designers, we asked ourselves if killing a player with the minigun instead of our own weapons would leave our humanity unaffected.

The comatose was placed in the grass in front of the helicopter, and one of the survivors climbed inside and manned the minigun. We contemplated the situation for a moment, but there was nothing more to say. It was time.

The trigger was pulled, and then it was all over. The remaining blood seeped out of the perforated body as the smoke cleared from the barrels. Perhaps 600 rounds of high caliber ammunition was overkill, but I guess the gunner wanted to be sure.

We took the most important things from the carcass of our friend, and moved towards the forest. He was dead, but we were alive.

 

Send your money to Tim Schafer!

It took me long enough, but now I’ve finally donated to Double Fine’s new adventure game through Kickstarter. Sure, the very successful crowd funding of this project will likely change things in the games industry, but what I’m the most excited by is the prospect of a new adventure game by Tim Schafer! I started my path as a PC gamer with adventure games, and the best ones usually had Tim Schafer as a designer and writer, so I’m just thrilled that he and Ron Gilbert is making a new one after all these years.

Day of the Tentacle. Grim Fandango. Wonderful and funny games, and some of my favorite gaming experiences of all time. They had so much character, so much wit.

Come on – it’s still possible to donate for a few more days, and each dollar they get is a dollar closer to the budget of Grim Fandango!

The stuff you missed

It happens all the time. Something new and cool is released, but you have no idea. Or you simply ignore the whooshing sound it makes as it passes by just slightly outside your area of interest. By definition it’s impossible to know how many cool things you miss out on, but for me there’s probably a great deal.

And sometimes that’s just great, because you can find or rediscover it on a rainy weekend day and realize that it’s pretty damn good. Having lost that new-car smell, any exaggerated expectations have left your body like that tiresome cold you no longer remember.

Last weekend was a weekend like that, rediscovering both a game and a movie. I bought Stacking from Double Fine (oh, and don’t forget to donate to their Kickstarter page), and my girlfriend brought the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Strangely enough they share a theme I didn’t realize until just now as I write this post. They’re both about dolls.

I’m a handful of hours into Stacking, and it’s been a nice experience so far. The art direction is full of charm and is perfectly married to the gameplay. It’s a puzzle game, where each puzzle is solved by the unique abilities of the matryoshka dolls you control. Yes, you play as traditional Russian wooden dolls, and just like a real matryoshka you can stack the smaller dolls in the bigger ones. You often walk around with 5-6 dolls, each encapsulated by the next.

The challenge is finding what doll can solve the problem at hand, and occasionally it requires you to be the right size. Sometimes you must be tiny, controlling only the original little doll on his quest to save his family, and sometimes you need to be huge, pushing around someone enormous like the female opera singer. And yes, the fat lady sings, and when she does her high pitched voice shatters all nearby glass. The different abilities of the dolls (and each only has one) are not always there for gameplay purposes. Quite often they’re just funny, quirky or part of revealing the doll’s character.

The biggest criticism I can give Stacking is that the presentation of the puzzles quickly becomes formulaic. The game would have gained a lot from greater variation in how the player progresses between areas and challenges.

Next to my desk I have a Star Wars matryoshka doll, bought in Moscow during my time at Funcom. Funcom’s geek culture had a certain love for stuff like that.

Lars and the Real Girl was a movie I had barely heard the name of. I had fairly low expectations as we hit play, but I was pleasantly surprised as a sweet drama unfolded. Despite a bizarre premise it never felt forced. Lars, a lonely man with a social phobia so intense he doesn’t function around women, completely loses the plot and gets a Real Doll as his girlfriend. His issues run so deep that he manages to convince himself it’s a real woman, and builds his life around their relationship. Solid writing and good acting (Ryan Gosling as Lars) makes it believable.

Lars deep commitment and very real love to the doll suggests that perhaps love is not something that happens between two people – perhaps love is always one-way streets that sometimes happen to lead to the same place. Maybe we’re just projecting love unto others, hoping that they will project back in return. Maybe every man is an island, but an island with a lighthouse. I’m sure that’s not the message the director intended, but it’s not an idea I find distressing despite its bleakness.

Oh well. Not bad for a dull weekend.