Monday, 1 November 2010

Coming Soon...

News and updates and amusing observations to come very shortly! (And, most importantly, a typically maggotonian analysis of lessons learned!)
I haven't abandoned you and still love every one of you!

We're currently in the second round of survey tests.
A few comments are trickling through into forums. You can get live, horses' mouths updates on Big Fish and Wendy's blog.
In my next post, we'll take an honest, no-holds-barred look at the public and I'll be certain to share with you the good and the bad alike! There will be an amount of wincing and buttock clenching involved. You have been warned.

And please keep hold of my hand, and accept my apologies if it becomes a tad sweaty. :oO

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Psychology of the Interior

Still waiting for the results of the survey to come through...

Within hours of sending the survey build out into the world, it found its way onto every imaginable free download site. Open up your google bar and type in Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart; then take your pick from six pages plus of torrents and blogs and so forth!
(Apparently, the game is: the third game in a ruler about an ominous heritage of family Margrejv.)

So, half the team are finishing off Severed Heart, and half have started on M4 (currently titled The Blacksmith's Daughter).
We've been having fascinating discussions about a curious phenomenon which I've blogged often about.
Watching the usability test videos, it's amazing to see the majority of players diving straight into the cottage - scurrying from the moonlit countryside, from the dark forest, and into the comfort of the cottage with its log fires and antique furnishings.
There's a security inside the cottage.
Similarly, four of the five testers did not once leave, or even attempt to leave, the cottage during their session.

I happened upon a fascinating essay written by Agnieszka Mlicka which I thoroughly recommend to you all, for its ramifications are pertinent to anyone who wishes to create a space.

For M4, I've created a derelict town - a town abandoned centuries ago, left to the designs of nature. In many scenes, an interior has become an exterior, with roofless towers and collapsed walls; in others, an exterior has the feel of an interior, with canopies of trees masking the sky and the evening sunlight.
So, I wondered, is there an intrisic set of components that might define a safe haven?
Would a player/reader feel as comfortable sat outside in a walled picnic garden as they would lounging on a sofa in a fire-lit parlour?
What's the difference between a prison cell and a home?

Agnieszka picks out the concepts of purpose and meaning, privacy and public identity, spaces for daydreaming (borrowed from Bachelard's The Poetics of Space), power and control, grids and curves, simplicity and complexity, light and dark, and all manner of other notions.

Another noteworthy find was Sally Augustin's article: Positive Design - Mimicking Nature.
Sally writes:

Humans feel comfortable in slightly darker spaces with slightly lower ceilings that look out over places with slightly higher ceilings that are more brightly lit …

Natural spaces entice us to move forward by conveying a sense of mystery about what’s ahead. In interior environments, a curving hallway motivates us to move on, as long as the environment generally feels safe. In an environment where people do not feel secure, that same curved hallway can seem ominous.

Time allowing, I'll return to some of these thoughts shortly.

In the meantime, I'll stick one of lovely Ben's concepts up for you to enjoy and consider. And do be sure to read through Agnieszka's essay! ;o)

Saturday, 4 September 2010


It seems like a lifetime ago when I visited a literary consultant and sat with her in her study as she scrutinized my first ms. She didn't much care for it, and rightly so.
I remember, after she had dismembered me, she was kind enough to offer me comfort. She explained that, no matter how many books she has written and sold, she is always fearful that her new project will be poorly received; she is never quite sure if she is doing it right. Experience offers little consolation.

I'll confess to you, my dear, considerate maggoteers, that I'm terrified.
As I type, the latest build of our game is trickling through the internet and into the homes of two thousand testers. They will score our game, and the results will dictate the amount of exposure and promotion we will get, and whether we will be awarded the Collector's Edition or not, all of which essentially amounts to a potential difference of many thousands upon thousands of dollars. That's proper money that comes out of someone else's pocket; that's real money gambled on my crazy ideas and convictions. Lord help us all!

Last week, the results of the usability tests came through.
Six women were invited to the Big Fish offices to play twenty minutes of Margrave 3. Their every move was recorded: the videos show the player's eye view of the screen, and a webcam captures live footage of the player herself, which is inset in a little window in the top right of the screen. (She doesn't see this - it's added later.)

User number five didn't stay for more than a couple of minutes. When she saw that she was being invited to solve the mystery of the protag's parents' deaths, she decided not to play on because she had recently lost her own father.
It's unbelievably stressful sitting through twenty minutes of a real person playing through one's game, and equally stressful sitting passively through the following ten minute interview. Doing this five times in a row is punishing.
as a tool, it's ingenious! I could see unequivocally where people were struggling; where people were laughing or scratching their head; where they were engaged or otherwise.

Imagine such a tool at your disposal! I
t's a direct line into your reader's soul! You cannot argue with it, or reason with it, or offer it any amount of justification. It does not listen to quotes taken from Robert McKee's Story or admire any amount of awards or plaudits in your collection. (Yeah, I started to think of Terminator too then! A peculiar, and perhaps not entirely inaccurate analogy!)
As consumers, none of those women could c
are one jot about me or my feelings. They wanted an enjoyable experience and if they didn't get one they would pull no punches. They're the people who will ultimately be spending their hard-earned money on a product which promises to entertain them and offer them a fulfilling experience.

Well, my sweet maggoteers - breathe
easy with me, for the results were good. A few minor issues here and there, all of which have since been addressed... but a result that I cannot be unhappy with.

So if I cannot be unhappy, I must be happy then!
Well actually I've discovered that the sense of relief is far more powerful than anything else.
When two of the users explained, before the interviewer had even sat down, that they wanted to carry on playing, and that they would buy the game, I didn't think to myself Well done Solvey! Oh no, I was simply relieved.

And now it starts over again, with two thousand people playing for an hour or so.
And then, a week or two after that, the entire five acts go out.
And then, after a month of fine tuning and
bug fixing, the game is released to hundreds of thousands of people.
And then they will pour into the forums and make their opinions known to the universe.
And then it starts over with Margrave 4.
I'm just beginning to wonder if this knot in my stomach is to become a permanent fixture, and if I will never again sleep soundly.
It's easy to talk the talk eh? ;o)
On paper, I've done the best I can with all that study and hard work - in theory, everything should be great!
If only the world worked like that.

Do be sure to stay tuned for the next thrilling installment!
Will Solv set the casual gaming world alight? Will he truly make a difference and set a new precedent, changing the way iHOGs are created? Will he curl up in the brumal shadow of mediocrity? Or will he crash and burn?
Take my hand and we'll find out together.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Dressing Up

I've been mulling over many ways to present the idea of dressing up.
This is the best solution I have found.

I was pleased to hear Big Fish founder Paul Thelan referring to the interactive novel in a recent interview.
So close!
There isn't enough time or scope in a casual game to create a narrative anything like the narrative of a novel. The idea of breaking an iHOG into 'chapters' is a purely functional device. None of these 'chapters' present scene questions or turn, and more often than not, they develop nothing beyond the opening of a door. They bear none of the characteristics of a chapter. However, it is beneficial to parcel the game into chunks, primarily for purposes of locating one's place chronologically in the game. (Handy for dev and player alike.)

My thoughts are very different now to those I harboured five months ago.
Back then, I figured, largely through misleading feedback and preconceptions, that the story of a casual game is tolerated, rather than treasured; that the act of solving puzzles and exploring beautiful environments took precedence over any story device.
Let's have a look at how plot can give meaning.

The standard HO scene goes like this:
Player studies a scene, looking for listed items.
Player finds all the items and then receives a reward.

That's a fun endeavour for sure.
But I've devoted a good deal of time to giving HO scenes meaning, and this can be done by integrating the scene and the act of searching and finding into the plot.

*Margrave IV spoiler alert*

In the final scene of Margrave IV, Eddie comes face-to-face with the boatyard Seer. (A Seer is a metal face; the face is connected to a soul which is housed elsewhere; the face is essentially the physical interface, allowing Eddie to chat with the souls - the personalities - of the dead. They have telekinetic powers.)
This final Seer is the huge, rusted face of a deceased girl named Ula. Ula is the final choke: she will open the gates to freedom once x, y, and z are accomplished.
Ula is lonely. She wants to play a game... of 'hunt the thimble'. She takes Eddie's thimble and hides it.
Now, when the player enters the HO scene, they are astonished to find the entire scene filled with thimbles!
The mechanic is unchanged; however, it is now imbued with meaning.
The boatyard HO scene is set amongst the wreckage of dozens of boats. This allows me to instantly underpin the emotional topography visually with threat. Then comes the sudden humour of the hidden thimble scene. And then I turn the scene, revealing Ula's true character, not simply through narrative/dialogue, but through the next series of plot-dependent games/puzzles.

*Spoiler ends*

It's this plot-gifted meaning that is so rare in casual games.
Furthermore, given that the look and feel of the entire world is ruled by the needs of the plot, every puzzle and mini-game has an inspiration, and that inspiration is not simply an aesthetic one, but is something far deeper - it is something with meaning - something functional, with crafted resonance.

The puzzles and mini-games of your standard casual game exist in their naked form.
I recently saw a door that was choked by a sudoku puzzle which had been placed onto the door. Solve sudoku, open door. Some attempt had been made to integrate the puzzle aesthetically. But that sure as ballyhoo ain't at the core of the player's emotions.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Shower Power

As I showered this morning, it occurred to me how covertly and effortlessly we can plant an image into somebody's mind.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


I have a discussion topic for you.
I had a peculiar bi-polar evening in which I watched The Darling Buds of May, followed by the Korean classic, Old Boy.
The former was relentlessly optimistic and upbeat and joyous; the latter was relentlessly pessimistic and downbeat and miserable.
Both were enjoyable in their own ways, and both struck me as having narrow frequency emotional topographies.
For a long time now I've been thinking that a varied emotional topography is the way forwards! If nothing else, it creates variety and allows for the formulation of more complex stimulae through juxtapositions, contrasts, and parallels.
Darling Buds is a curious phenomenon to me. I haven't watched the show for a long time and my memories of the later episodes are dim, so please correct me if I'm wrong, but the first two episodes bear very little by way of conflict or tension and release. Characters meander through life with those common burdens weighing heavy on their shoulders, and then they enter the Larkin family sphere of compassion, and their burdens are lifted. Total 100% feelgood. Lots of sensory stimulae; lots of love and happiness; lots of how life should be.
If they were my creations, I'd instinctively be thinking of ways to harm them, always knowing that I'd make amends eventually and that the tension would lead to an enormous release and everyone would cry and everything would be alright again - better than alright.
But the very idea seems sacriligious: anything more than an upset apple cart would taint the world - not the Larkins' world, but the world which we inhabit where Mariette adores us and we watch the setting sun with Ma and Pa, sipping cider and finding inner peace through a nightingale's lament. A scurrilous rogue, a greedy businessman, prejudice and bigotry and fear... all are quickly converted, or are even more quickly dispatched with barely a dent on sixty minutes of unconditional love.
I could watch it over and over. It exists, I guess, as a place to relinquish one's troubles and, as such, feels no obligation to line its toes against those battlelines which we've studied for so long.

Conversely, I wouldn't really want to watch Old Boy again. Well, I might, but only to watch the protag eating a live octopus again (I guess Psychic Paul is no longer en vogue now the World Cup has dissipated); and perhaps the brilliantly authentic fight scene. It seems that you can dump lots and lots of happiness upon a soul and it never tires; but you can't do the same with any emotion on the wrong side of alright. Or, perhaps I could argue that release can happily exist independantly of tension, but tension can't happily exist independantly of release. Perhaps we're all tense in the first place.

So I put it to you: Is emotional variety an ideal, an idea, or an impediment?

Update: Watched episode three last night. Struck me that Darling Buds is a super example of emotions before plot. (A purist's approach if you like.)
Because the first two episodes proposed little complication beyond the need to find a new field for the gymkhana, any time that would typically be spent on set-ups, foreshadowing, and the like was, instead, devoted to deeper immersion and more happiness.
Conversely, episode three presented a number of problems - Charlie hounded by his former boss; Pop's attempt to buy a crumbling country pile thwarted by Lord Thingy - and while the base note theme pervaded, it was diluted by plot devices and I wasn't so completely smitten.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

I Know What You Did Next Summer

Many years ago, when I was training to be a gameshow host (yes, I really did), my instructor explained the golden rule of signing off. Essentially, you keep it short and sweet and then you go... and you never return to the microphone for any reason.
You don't need me to explain the thinking behind this: suffice to say that, when a job is done, it's prudent to move on.
Take the lovely classicist Professor Mary Beard: she was on Question Time a week or so back, and I was surprised when her answer to a question began with the observation that, if you read one paper, you'll be told one thing, and if you read another paper, (and you already know where this is going right?) then you'll be told another thing. Her answer was already pushing beyond saturation point. However, she continued with her answer, offering an example to illustrate her point. I didn't think it needed illustrating: I had understood and agreed with her point, and I was squirming on the sofa, hoping she would finish quickly, but she didn't, and her point stretched and stretched without any surprises.
Conversely, I recently discovered the album The Light by composer, poet, and philosopher Dave Hesketh, working under the name UtopiaXO. As I sat and listened, I became aware that the music was constantly evolving. So many similar ambient soundscapes are built from looped samples, and the brain discovers them and, in fairness, can find a safe haven within their repetitions. However, Dave moves from a short piano melody into a subtle guitar melody, then a girl's voice enters and fades, and so on.
I was constantly surprised.
I was constantly in a state of wonder, simultaneously absorbed in the sounds whilst anticipating the next development.

Last night I played the demo of The Dream Chronicles: The Book of Air.
(You're already thinking this is gonna be another rant eh? You got me!)
Here's a puzzle for you:
What you have to do is click on the clock on the right hand wall to see that it is set to six o'clock; and then a hint suggests that you should set those other nine million clocks to six o'clock too.
Shove it up your clockwork exhaust! The puzzle is already solved: each clock needs to be set to six o'clock!
Where's the fun in setting all those clocks? There's no surprise. It's a mundane, mechanical chore. I was half way through setting the clocks when the skip meter had filled, and so I chose to take the skip penalty rather than remain in a fungal necropolis of masochicm.

But take heart! There's also a stones puzzle!
In this puzzle, you get to click on stones to fill another meter.
No timer; no technique; no intellectual or emotional stimulation; no development. Just clickety-clickety-click.And yet more stories relayed in epistolary fashion (why must I read pages and pages of pointless journal entries and old letters?), facing backwards, lacking anything approaching charisma, devoid of any form of topography beyond that green line on a heartbeat monitor wired to a corpse.

Super! Feeling better already. Kisses.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Little Bang

What a beautiful morning! Only, I'm not allowed to go into my garden because a girl blackbird keeps having a go at me because her chicks have hatched in my bush. Sheesh. So I've trimmed all my bushes but one.
Her aside, one of the first things I noticed when moving to Cambridgeshire was how tame the birds are. I have a bird bath which I keep replenished with water, and most days I scatter breadcrumbs about it, and the birds will happily feast just feet away from where I'm sitting. It's one of those lovely observations that I've logged away in case I ever have a character relocate. Which, if I think about it, happens in pretty much everything I've written.

And so to Doctor Who.
I'll confess that I was deeply disappointed with lead writer Mr. Moffat.
And here's why:
He forgot the kids.
From my pov, there were a few stand out episodes. I shed a couple of tears when the Doctor hung out with Vincent Van Gogh. The Rory auton concept used my favourite of emotive plot devices: the Jekyll and Hyde device! And the wonderfully romantic device of Rory loyally sacrificing everything to protect his loved one for thousands of years was topper.
But I can't see how any of this means much to a kid. Indeed, my son would often complain: 'Where's the monster?'
Because that's what I remember from my childhood: I remember amazing reveals where a person would take off their face and I'd recoil at their true ophidian identity; or those fat puckered suckers like columns of buttons on the Zygons' wet flesh. I remember giant maggots and the hooded monster Master with his eyeballs and their tributaries of blood vessels popping from his face.What I have no memories of at all are the more adult emotive interfaces of romance and duty and all those things that now have great meaning in my life.
I guess the die was cast from that opening episode in which Amy scurried about in her police woman strippergram outfit. (Well, yes, I have a vague recollection of Leela shadowing Tom's Doctor in an animal hide bikini, but I'm quite sure she didn't carry a pair of handcuffs with her.)
The BBC received many complaints. How is this suitable for my child/ren?
(Curiously, the BBC also received many complaints about the rejigged theme music.)

I guess the problem is that the diverse desires of a dual audience must be quite hard to marry. It's something that The Simpsons has nailed over the years: I watch it with my son and we both enjoy it; sometimes our responses are unified; other times they're disparate - notably, any pathotic strike drifts over my son's head - but there's something in there for us both, and we'll wet our pants as one whenever Moleman falls off his bicycle.
So Mr. Moffat: do continue with your brilliantly refined emotional topographies! But please remember the scary monsters ... lots of evil, angry monsters erupting with weeping pustules and bloodied stumps. At the heart of your demographic is that double entity: the boy sat on the sofa with his father. And if they have nothing worth sharing in their post mortem, then you've missed a trick: you've neglected to electrify that magical link between two generations.

Oh, and one last observation: You're gonna need a 'what's going on?' companion even dumber than Rory if you want us to understand what the heck was going on in that denouement.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Interactive Play (TM)

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the classic iHOG - or puzzle-adventure if you will, depending on how au fait you might care to be with fashions - should be labelled 'interactive play'. (TM :o)

On quizzing peeps about their experiences playing the hidden object portions of an 'interactive play' TM, it quickly struck me that the players were, even with no timer, attempting to complete the HO scene as quickly as possible - perhaps to the point that it was regarded as a distraction.
I ran this observation by our BF contact and she concurred: Players hurry through the HO scene in order to return to the meat of the game.
Curious, thought I. Why, then, would we want to include HO scenes?
From a dev pov, one answer is straightforward enough: HO scenes can be fashioned in 2-3 man days, and typically equate to around ten minutes of gameplay, if played twice (which is de rigeuer). Ergo, bang for bucks.

Not a lot of meaningful change to be found here.

Now this demographic aesthetic doesn't translate so easily to the other components - to the puzzles and mini-games, or to the inventory item quests (use crowbar on planks, etc.).
I get the strong sense that our players enjoy participating in the story. A HO scene is a means to an end: it develops nothing within the narrative. However, if you solve a puzzle to unlock a door, or if you do, indeed, remove the planks from a boarded window, then the narrative progresses.
Perhaps I might even venture to suggest that the appeal of the 'interactive play' TM is that the player progresses through a story, just as a reader does, but the player doesn't (shouldn't!) have to read pages of text AND the player feels as though they are influencing the outcome.

This is, in its own right, a peculiar concept. Many definitions of a 'game' include the pivotal argument that a game 'has a variable outcome'. The outcome of a novel, of a play, of an iHOG, is fixed, and any assertion that the player can influence the outcome is an illusion. This furthers my reclassification of iHOG to interactive play. TM.

But consider the potential ramifications of making that glass thing do stuff!

Where this leads me - and my time spent sifting through the players' forums appears to confirm this - is that, rather than being tacked on, the story is the very foundation of the iHOG.
Haven't the time and/or inclination to read and turn the pages of a book? Don't fancy pootling down to the playhouse? Watching a movie too passive an act? Let the interactive play provide you with a story, and guide you through with pretty pictures and whimsical diversions, and the sense of control over your environment... all from the comfort of your own swivel chair!

*Above images from PuppetShow: Souls of the Innocent, downloadable here. (It's pretty darned accomplished.)

Haven't posted about dressing up as promised... will rectify shortly. In the meantime, enjoy designing your own wedding dress!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dressing Down

I've been playing a good few Big Fish iHOG games lately - checking out the competition and all that - and two things have struck me: the strength and consistency of the parallels between puzzle-adventure games and plays (much more so than novels); and the overwhelming lack of discipline afforded the narrative in all its facets. It seems that an author is, quite rightly, expected to demonstrate a proficiency in plotting, characterisation, pacing and development, controlled exposition and foreshadowing, and so forth; however, if you add pictures and puzzles into the mix, then none of these writerly skills are held in high regard.
For example, take the fundamental (as in, my son was taught this at school) premise of creating immersion through sensory stimulae. When Edwina Margrave enters her world, she is guided through a series of olfactory stimulae: from the comfort of the roaring log fire and the chicken feast, and the gutted fish hanged from the beams, and the apple blossoms... through to the sweet shop, and the lavender and bouquet-garni... through to the mushrooms and toadstools and the decaying appendages and stagnant water. I'm hard-pressed to find anything resembling this in similar games, suggesting to me that either our competitors don't think that the evocation of smell memories adds to immersion, or that they don't care for the idea of immersion, or that they're simply unaware of its benefits.

The staple interview with a game writer goes something like this:
Interviewer: What are the pros and cons of writing for games as opposed to, say, writing a novel?
Author: Narrative/story in games is rarely taken seriously.

You can read Rhianna Pratchett's interview here: it's all but identical to any number of interviews I've read.
I have little desire to add to the debate other than to suggest that, if the writer is any good, then they will be the best person in the studio (by a loooong way) to govern the emotional stimulae of the game; a good writer understands what moves people, and knows how to accomplish this; ergo, any game dev team should have a good writer right there at the top of the ladder, with their blood-stained finger on the button.

Next post - Dressing Up - to follow...

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Hey Big Spender

I've just finished researching trends within the casual game buying audience, having scoured through hundreds of comments over on the Big Fish forums. The idea was to provide myself with handy reference lists to accompany the design of future projects.
These trends are extremely consistent - perhaps more so than I would have anticipated.
Thought it worth sharing my conclusions.


These are the attributes that players see particularly fit to praise/value.

1) Good length (3-4 hrs seems acceptable average). (Value for money!)
2) Puzzles not too hard and not too easy. (This seems impossible to balance without upsetting one half of the audience or the other. The greater of the two sins appears to be creating puzzles that are too easy, but it’s a close call either way. However, people are forgiving provided they feel they have value for money elsewhere! Quantity over quality?)
3) Immersive plot that ‘feels like it’s going somewhere’. (Plot which develops. When gamers talk of a game’s theme, they are typically referring to a single mood directed by the plot/story. Some like themes that make them laugh; others like the dark and brooding themes. There’s scant evidence to support the idea that a casual game can evoke more than a single emotion...)
4) Replay value. (Value for money!)
5) Originality.
6) Some backtracking: that is to say that a degree of freedom to explore is important; however, too much backtracking is annoying.
7) Clear goals.
8) Graphics. Not quite in the same league as music – good graphics tend to receive more praise than good music - however, like music, graphics are expected to be inoffensive by default. Beyond that, subjectivity reigns supreme.
9) Novelties. These typically include voice-overs and animations.
10) Customisation. This includes personalised cursors, and options for toggling/customising sparklies, timers, hint meters, and/or skip buttons.

It is long enough to make you happy with your money well spent, graphics are good, story line is even good enough to read along with, the items to be found are not too difficult, puzzles to figure out what to do next don't leave you scratching your head.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.


These essentially boil down to frustration and boredom.

1) Glitchy code. This is a clear winner.
2) Repetitive music; overly loud music (esp. when drowning out voice-overs irrespective of adjustments in menu). Disappointingly, music is tolerated rather than treasured: its primary attribute must be that it does not annoy.
3) Puzzles that insult intelligence; hand-holding; overt use of sparklies. (Whilst target audience enjoys reliving their childhood, they now need a more adult context for what were previously immature emotions. In part, this is why we see so many scary dolls.)
4) Repetition, esp. repetitive, mechanical tasks; anything that induces boredom.
5) Penalties. Hint meter must refill quickly.
6) ‘Squinters’: very small hidden objects, or camouflaged objects, especially dark objects hidden in dark locations. (A good proportion of target demographic has poor eyesight!)
7) Time limits/restrictions.
8) No ability to backtrack; being confined to a single location; being evicted from a location.
9) Restrictions on length of user name.
10) Childish humour; sexy babes; male mentality.

I read the reviews and downloaded the demo. I was very disappointed. The story seemed OK but the graphics were poor.
The hidden objects were very easy to find and all the puzzles I tried were very simple.
Things may improve later in the game but I will not buy it.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

Just plain boring. Each chapter takes place in only one location and is very short. The puzzes or verrrry easy! I think I wasted my money.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.


Here, people seem exceptionally more picky about getting value for money: they need serious incentives to fork out $20 for the CE when the SE is only $6 or $7.

1) Extra locations and puzzles are expected to make up the bulk of the CE material. (Players look for an extra 1-2 hours of bonus game play.)
2) Strategy guide must be integrated (accessible in-game).
3) HOG items should differ from CE.
4) Wallpapers and screensavers are discarded.
5) Reception to concepts tends to be pretty evenly split.

The concept artwork, built-in strategy guide, screensaver, and wallpapers would not tempt me to get the CE... but the extra hours of game play would.
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.

And I'm glad to note that it says (and hopefully there will be) "hours of bonus play"; if that's the case it will truly be worth the hefty extra charge!
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.


Overall an enjoyable game for me. The graphics weren't bad, nor was the music. There is a penalty for multiple clicking, but the hint button refreshing relatively quickly. Not sure about the replayability since the hidden objects were the same for me in the CE and the regular version. The storyline is a little odd, but there isn't really anything scary in it.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

I didn't find it to be a challenging game but that doesn't matter ~ it is a really satisfying game to play.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

The game does have a strength and that is the story. The story is intriguing and I found myself looking forward to knowing what happens next.
The Heritage.

I am limited in game buying so, here is my criteria:
1. Am I so into the game that I have to keep playing immediately after the hour is up?
2. Is the game re-playable? If yes, how likely am I to play it more than once? If no, will it keep me entertained for at least 3 hours of play?
3. How likely will it be available on another site, where there is unlimited play without buying the game?
The Heritage.

I normally do not like FROGS, but this one I do. Graphics are good and not to dark. There are no penalties for over clicking, which I seem to do when there are so many items I need to find. Hints recover in a nice time frame. Also appreciate that there appears to be no time to complete each level.
The Heritage.

Music wasn't distracting or irritating although I usually turn it off anyway.
Plenty of moving about - I like having to revisit areas to complete tasks. The H.O screens were clear and I only referred to the lists for the last couple of items in each.
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Foundation Reversals

Ah, I'm sorry. A concept for Margrave IV.

I've fallen into a creative petri dish of late. Alongside the two games I'm currently working on, I've begun work on a play, almost completed the edit to act I of TCPP, and have been arting, musicalling, and poetising too.
I think I've now developed something of a formula for plotting - or, at least, for getting the ball rolling. Essentially, I have a beginning and an end, work in a number of end-of-act reversals (each of which must be as thrilling and as change-creating as possible), build character arcs around the emotional topography, and then edit to the quick. My plots have become a string of good then bad then good then bad then good, etc. states for the protag. Natch, the emotions are wide-ranging, and the words 'good' and 'bad' in this context are little more than rules of thumb; but this is proving to be a super method for erecting the tent poles with minimum fuss and with maximum stability.

The above pic - a character concept for Margrave IV - was designed around another of those strong, visceral emotive blows of which I'm so enamoured. There's something about bared teeth, and there's something about staring eyes...
Oh, and you can't go wrong with a good 'concealed identity' reversal!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bottling Emotion

As the guys scatter the last few crumbs of love upon Margrave III, I busy myself paving the way for Margrave IV. We have map; we have intro and four acts (and corresponding reversals); we have the core of a design document and a style guide; and we will soon have the emotional topography guide. You know, I've never seen one of these in my decade of game developing; and yet it seems to me a fundamental guide... provided that you consider a game as an experience.
With this guide, the chaps are able to make informed choices, and know where to stipple in sinister shadows, or where the apple blossom falls; they can decide between melodies beaten breakneck from a xylophone, or a barren soundscape of groaning wind; the chimney stacks are garnished with fat pots, stuffed with birds' nests, or they are crooked and tall and wouldn't seem out of place in a death camp.
Because it all adds up - all these details pull up on their scooters to dance to the same tune.

By the same token, I made the decision to tailor puzzles to the specifications of the mood. So, rather than wondering whether to place, say, a 'match the pairs' puzzle or a 'figure out the equation' puzzle - rather than flitting about brain nodes like an electro-chemical butterfly - I began to select 'catch those wacky boggle-eyed critters' for lighter moods, and 'find the stabby, slimy, gnarled objects in this scene of dolls nailed through the face to broken mirrors' for... ahem... darker moods.

Really, we don't do much more than that. Our plots... our stories... our puzzles and riddles... are the bones upon which we drape emotional flesh. If the reader, or the player, feels nothing, then we fail.

So wouldn't it be quite something to be able to capture and bottle all manner of emotions!
Every now and then, I stumble upon something which makes me feel a certain way... which invokes in me a visceral reaction. I have to catalogue all these stimulae, and I kinda see them as bottled emotions. However, they're probably not distilled at that point, and it can be a hardy challenge attempting to filter the essence from each bottle. I know the contents of bottle A make me feel angry, but why?
Some recent visceral hits: A google image search which filled my monitor with people pointing at me (resulting emotion: paranoia); a stream of fire lanterns passing over my garden in the dark and rain (resulting emotion: child-like wonder; maybe a bit of pathos in there too); the music of Grouper (resulting emotion: hmm... very complicated... like I'm peacefully dying on a mossy bed in a still forest).

If I may, I'd like to share a handful of dream cards with you. The mechanics behind the cards are simple and scalable, and were tested and tuned using bits of paper. Think of this as a plot if you will: once it's stable and charged with interest, it's time to paper with emotions. And that's when to pull out those stoppers and sip!

Monday, 19 April 2010


Remind me to bring in a hat tomorrow so that I can take it off to all the directors out there.
Yesterday was photoshoot day. By the end of the day I could hardly walk for exhaustion and stiffness.

What a marvellous moment though! Picture me smoking a cigarette outside the studio, a very sweaty copy of the script in my trembling paw; and one-by-one our actors and actresses and make-up girl and dogs arrive, and soon the studio is bustling with people greeting one another and pouring coffees, waiting to receive instructions, and all the while my script becomes sweatier still so that it is in danger of becoming illegible.
Well, heck, you don't need to picture it:

Everyone was amazing (thank you thank you thank you), and I learned a great deal from the experience: theory is great, but it does little more than place its hand on your shoulder occasionally when you're faced with the real thing. So here are my biggest lessons:

1) Don't say 'Look worried'.
It makes people laugh and they don't look worried.
Instead, I learned to search for the essence of an emotion and convey the physical gestures: scrunch up your face; grit your teeth as hard as you can; raise your shoulders and make them as tense as possible.
One actress observed: 'There's an awful lot of cheek touching going on.'
Indeed there was! It was a veritable Non Verbal Communication convention! I seem to recall that Hitchcock said: Never use dialogue when the pictures can do the work. (Something like that.)
I had already written a good deal of stage directions into the script, with characters twirling their hair and the like; but I wasn't really prepared for the quantity of directions that I ended up invoking.

2) Closed set.
Next time around, I intend to run a closed set. I think our actors and 'tresses were understandably nervous posing before an audience, and the slightest noise or remark could rapidly ignite a chain reaction of nerves-into-laughter.

3) Lights are asses.
Well, not really; it's just they can take an age to arrange to create any given effect.
I decided to shoot all the 'exterior: night' shots first, before moving to interiors. It messed my schedule somewhat, but I'm quite sure it ultimately saved us a lot of time.
Oh, and whilst those coloured gels are designed to cope with the fearsome heat of the stage lamps, gaffer tape isn't and melts.

4) Delegate.
I near-killed myself hopping around, posing people and moving lights and step ladders and boiling kettles and angling fans and checking the shots and so forth. And people are always keen to help out. Next time there'll be a lighting guy.

I love the process! I love seeing thoughts becoming reality!
Here's what it's all about!

Sunday, 4 April 2010


Aw, poor Stacie. I really fancied her for reaching the Masterchef final with Doctor Tim.
But look what she did!

But Solv, what's wrong with a smiley face? It's fun! I bet the judges found it hilarious and/or endearing!
Ho hum...

Had the misguided girl had presented such a plate of food at a children's/Mad Hatter's tea party, it might indeed have been well-received. But cooking at Masterchef level demands a degree of sophistication, and her plate was branded 'ludicrous'.

The one reason above all others that I so adore Hemingway is that he routinely elicits unusual emotional responses from me; he touches me in unique, curious, thought-provoking ways. Oh, I can happily read a bit of pulp fiction, or watch a mindless horror flick, and they can deliver a burst of what's good for you. But they are, all said and done, anonymous, recycled caprices.

I can get jiggy with a bit of disposable pop, and I can greatly admire a five-year-old's artistic take on a landscape; but the range and depth of emotional response does not compare to anything that might pour from the soul of Mozart or Kandinsky. Without casting any aspersions on their validity or honesty, the former are easily mimicked, effortlessly formulated; however, the latter are rare and unique and cannot be precisely reproduced by mere mortals.

Apparently, Stacie's nosh passed the taste test! But her plating was deemed indicative of an inappropriate aesthetic - or poor judgement - and her apron was laid to rest.

(Lay or laid? Compare to or with? The Easter grammar revisal starts here and here! Heaven knows my wits are dull enough already! Let's have a smiley! :o)

Chop Chop

Lorena Bobbitt enjoys her community service.

What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out...

Editing is on my mind, partly because I have my ms to fashion, partly because I feel an immense responsibility to create maximum emotional impact from minimum, barest-bones dialogue for our game, and partly because of another superb discussion I recently had with young Esy.

When I decided to complete my ms last year, I remember sitting down with a coffee and reading through what I had, which was about one third of my proposed total.
I vividly remember the thrill of revisiting those emotionally-charged scenes! And I remember skimming through pages of words in order to get to that next magical moment.
As I lit a cigarette at the front door, a thought began to grow in my mind:
What if my ms were composed entirely and solely from those cool bits?

Sure enough, other bits of my mind threw up their hands in horror:
Well, that'll break the plot! And it'll leave me with a fraction of what I already have! And I'll lose all those interesting plot threads! And I'll not have the foreshadowing where it needs to be!
And so forth.

I'm very much enjoying Trauma on Virgin at the moment. (That's to say, the programme is called Trauma and it is shown on the Virgin channel: the programme is not called Trauma on Virgin.)
It's a wonderful experiment in extreme editing!

Can't remember her name, but she's my favourite!

A typical scene might look like this:


It is evening service and the restaurant is packed. HARRY, a handsome Harvard student, sits at a candlelit table opposite MARTA, a Swedish exchange student.

HARRY leaves his seat and kneels before MARTA.


Marta... Will you marry me?

MARTA'S eyes well with tears.
A light aircraft ploughs into the building.

As you can perhaps imagine, the show has been lambasted for its weak character development. However, the Halloween episode belly-flopped because the no-nonsense approach, which has become the very appeal of the show, was adjusted to allow for more insight into our MCs' inner selves. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this (although it was done very badly); however, it destroyed the precedent. I enjoy Trauma because it doesn't make me wait more than a couple of minutes before rolling a truck filled with acid down a busy high street. Trauma is Trauma; Hemingway is Hemingway; and no amount of 'go online to learn about and vote for your favourite characters' is gonna change that.

Take Roland Emmerich's 2012. Holy crap. What a dull movie - The Day After Tomorrow with the good bits cut out.
My son and I yawned our way through the first twenty minutes or so of set-up and exposition; then we whooped and cheered for a bit as the earthquakes and volcanoes did their apocalyptic shimmies; then we propped our eyelids with matchsticks to endure the remaining x hours.
And do you know what: if that opening wad of non-dynamic stuff had been removed and we had gone straight in with the first earthquake... well, I guarantee my son and I would have had more respect for the movie. Sure, we wouldn't have immediately known about those solar flares and mutated particles that were destabilising the earth's crust; and we wouldn't have known who these people were or how they were related to each other...

So back to Trauma. The paramedics arrive on scene to sort the pieces of bodies from the pieces of light aircraft; the new guy passes out; the old hand saves some lives; the wise woman says something poignant; and then we're off to the next tour bus-load of victims. Or, as I regularly testify, plot is concerned with the ordering of information. (And that hook is winking at you, nodding at that blank bit of page at the beginning of your scene!)

Having finished my cigarette at the front door, I sat with my ms, staring at it for a bit, as though it were a very naughty ms, but deep down it would take a bullet for me. First, the exposition and the repeated threads went. Then I determined that, actually, I did not need to begin with that set-up and characterisation. Moreover, when I sifted through the scenes looking for places to cleverly insert this stuff, it occurred to me that the requisite information was actually percolating through the scenes anyhoo - we were gleaning all the necessary stuff as a side-effect of the cool scenes; the narrative was showing and not telling; characters were being revealed through meaningful choices made under pressure, etc.

I've often advocated the 'write to the end' approach. (That is: plot, research, plot, write to the end, rewrite and edit.) Here's why:

Imagine you've opened a box of chocolates and there's a rather juicy peach surprise in there, and a couple of crappy toffees (there'll always be a box of cast-off toffees for every guest in our house!).
You eat the peach surprise.

But imagine that you open a mahoosive box of chocolates and there's a mega double-whipped triple-sodomised peach hurrah! hurrah! caramelised Messiah in there. That manky peach surprise doesn't really measure up any more.

For sure, editing is a skill I'm still learning, and, for sure, there are plenty of essential techniques at the writer's disposal. But how does one determine what is important and what isn't? How is it that a gloopy dollop of stream-of-consciousness works brilliantly in one novel and not in the next? How can Waugh write pages of breath-taking exposition, and Hemingway drench an entire scene in the complex notes of a sausage, and Kafka plump his dialogue tags with more parenthetical remarks than a bloated blue whale in a sea of krill-flavoured parenthetical remarks, and the Trauma writers ( lists ten of them!) cut to the bone?

By simultaneously editing a lit-fic ms and a puzzle-adventure script, I'm acutely aware that the needs of each prospective audience bears an important clue, and therein is a good place to start.

Monday, 15 March 2010


Ah, a beautiful forest!
I can have a wonderful time in here, chopping down those trees and fashioning them into paper birds and leafy diadems and wooden dresses! Hurrah!
Chop, chisel, weave, pulp, fasten, saw, hammer.
Gosh, that was fun!
Oh, but look now! My forest has all gone. Cripes, there's nothing to do here now; it's no fun any more. :o(

So our player moseys around the first act locations, solving puzzles and poking her nose into dusty alcoves and she's having a ball. Then she unlocks the end-of-act chokepoint and pootles around some new environments...
But when she comes back to those first few locations, there's nothing left for her there any more.
So what the game designer has cleverly done is to insert a well into that opening act, and that well can only be utilised once our player has collected the well transmogrifier gun from a later act (which she fires upon the well, metamorphosing it into a time-travel capsule, or somesuch)!

One of the greatest lessons I've learned as a writer is that things must constantly change. Or develop, if you will. Nothing stays the same. And for as long as our reader senses that things are moving inexorably towards the climax of a lifetime, she'll continue to read.
Not only is this true of games too, but it also affords us an opportunity to redefine those deforested areas (which often persist as floppy and redundant appendices) through developments in narrative, context, and/or functionality.

Here's an imaginary first act.
It's an explorable area containing three puzzles, each of which needs to be solved before the chokepoint opens into the second act.
It would be simple enough to lock the chokepoint the instant our player progresses to the second act area, and to never revisit the first act locations again; but this ain't good when you're working with a small team and small budget: I need to get bang for my bucks, which means reusing assets where possible.
It would also be simple enough to leave those first act locations as they were; but then they're no fun at all!

The riddle we can guess, we speedily despise - not anything is stale so long as Yesterday's surprise.
[Emily Dickinson: The Riddle we can Guess.]
So into act one go those act two puzzles!
And I'm sure you can see how this would build up over four or more acts!
(I have no idea at the moment what proportion of puzzles in the first act should be approachable in act one, act two, act three, and act four: I'm presuming that the majority should be doable in the first act itself. Gonna be trial and error for now. I'm also experimenting with the proportion of previous acts that can be revisited.)
But we can go further than this!
We can use the narrative to change the context of that opening act and, with a few graphical adjustments and a new soundtrack, the opening act is transformed!
Perhaps act one is set in a tranquil forest, and then, in act two, our player enters a laboratory and unwittingly releases a mutagenic virus, and then, on returning to the act one forest, our player discovers that the trees now have columns of beady eyes and limbs burgeoning with teeth, and that once mellifluous soundscape of warbling birds and buzzing bees has become one of splintering, straining limbs and buzzing flies.
And best of all, the narrative is/can be changed with minimum dialogue! Wahay!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Intoxicating Breadcrumbs

PROFESSOR FARNSWORTH: Good news everyone!
FRY: That sounds like bad news.

I'm very pleased to announce that we've been able to lasso the incredible Helen Lawson who has provided us with a theme song: This Town. Furthermore, we've pressganged the phenomenal Julie Ann Dean who is working wondrous wonders with the voice-overs, bringing our characters to life.
It's quite something to type a few lines of dialogue and then to hear them voiced by a pro just hours later. I am frequently assaulted by the urge to write tongue-twisters.

Anyone for pix?

My good friend and incomparable art talent Mister Ben Andrews created this concept (yes, concept!) for the country lane scene. Once I have organised the gaming and narrative requirements for any given scene, Ben and I knock out pencil sketches (often over a beer in The Fountain which nestles in the shade of Ely cathedral and has lovely little alcoves within which we can secrete ourselves and our pencils, and it has a log fire and the logs are laced with incense); Ben then hits his tablet, working in colour themes and tightening perspectives, after which we perform a quick review, make minor adjustments, and then start over on the next scene.

The idea of 'showing' is now, I hope, permanently and irreproachably fused into my neural network. In this scene we see an archway in the foreground wall, a broken bridge in the midground, and a light in a tower beyond. Our publishers are keen to see, what they refer to as, the 'string', which is a visual foreshadowing device, designed to create anticipation - intoxicating breadcrumbs if you will. How can I reach that tower? Why is the bridge dismantled? What's through that arch? Certainly, this is no big shake for us writerly folks.
This is a super discipline, telling a story through pictures and sounds, and occasionally dialogue, and I'll be coming back to all this very soon; but now I'm hungry and I have tuna sandwiches and a spicy peperami in my lunchbox.