Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Film Mad Nun Bell

I'm organazizing my plot notes for M5 and the M4 CE materials (although there's no guarantee of the CE award but we have to be prepared), and compiling a style guide and 'mood and reference' library for my art elves.
I won't give too much away, but we're off to the Alps and there will be snow and ghosts and lots more tears. The mood is also darkening; be prepared for some sinister experiments.

I had a vague recollection of some film I watched years ago - the kind of thing that would nestle snugly into the style guide, like a tapeworm in a kidney. All I could remember was a mad nun ringing a bell high in the mountains.
Name that film!

Here's the denouement.

*** Spoiler alert ***
If you've not seen this film and don't want the climax ruined, either don't watch the vid, or stop it around 4 mins 30 secs.

What an absolutely staggering feat: the nunnery was filmed entirely on set, and at a time when Technicolor was still in its experimental stages.
The sunrise over the mountains - the calm before the storm! Little Joseph tugging Sister Clodagh's sleeve (NVC), failing at first to rouse her from her troubled contemplation. (Little Joseph can even tell the time without consulting his Auntie's watch.) He hands her a drink (a gift), and delivers a little pre-denouement charm and humour. Then into Sister Ruth's pov. She's one crazy nun! Check out the XCU - the red raw skin about her eyes, the sweat, the wet hair. Sister Clodagh heads to the chapel to pray for help. Great dual colour palette! She means business - she rolls up her sleeves. The strain takes its toll and she all but collapses into prayer. Back into pov as we sneak up on her through the door. Are we crazy Ruth again? Clodagh is drenched with sweat. A creaky floorboard - Clodagh looks up; Ruth hurries away. There's a showdown coming! Behind you! Too late - she's gone. Into pov again, watching down over Clodagh as she refreshes herself from blood-red water. It is time! An amazing, languid shot of Clodagh walking along the rain-wet edge of the precipice - any protective walls have been lost; the wind dances in her habit. She steadies herself as she walks alongside the crumbling wall, looking about her. Then, straight from the fires of Hell, Ruth scurries back down the steps. At the bell, on the edge of the world, Clodagh grips the rope and rings... mad eye Ruth flings the door open, her wild hair writhing like Medusan snakes. Clodagh is weak - drained - as she prays for absolution. Too late? Ruth stalks her prey, slows, tenses...


Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Common Denominator

What happens if you break stuff?

Take the latest installment of the Shiver series: Vanishing Hitchhiker.
The emotional topography is single-minded; the environments are hackneyed to the max; the HO scenes are dark, the items miniscule, and the hints flawed; the journal and the strategy guide are last minute affairs devoid of class; deus ex machina rules the world, felling yet another tree with another bolt of lightning - only, this time, you won't need to put out the fire and chop up the trunk because the bloody thing simply vanishes; puzzles/mini games are virtually non-existent, and where they are existent they really shouldn't be - the gameplay is a string of lacklustre inventory item tasks, laying down planks of wood to make a staircase and dusting a piano with a wetted rag. Man, on paper it looks like a disaster. And, to me, the trial hour (in which I completed half the game), played like a caravan of dessicated hinnies. (Um, somehow you can get 'dry and tedious' from that. A hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey. I didn't know that. It was on Eggheads. [Actually, it might have been some other quiz thing that played in the background].)
(Think that full stop is right. Yes, I'm sure of it. Hmm... I was.)

Intermission: M3 is about to go into retail in the States. The marketing bods were unhappy with the word 'severed', and also wanted to return the word 'manor', so look out for Margrave Manor 3: The Curse of the Blacksmith's Heart. Sigh.

So, as you can imagine by my distaste, Vanishing Hitchhiker has gone down a storm with the public.
Huh? What happened? Hey? But... deus ex machina I cry! Deus ex machina!!!
I kinda know how all those YA authors felt when JK Rowling sauntered onto the pitch and urinated over their years of hard work and study and then went on to tear the publishing world asunder.

As ever, I'm actually cool and pragmatic. (Man, I'm really surprising myself these days!)
Firstly, there's no single way to make a good iHOG.
Some achieve success by using lots of puzzles/mini games. Some have very few, or none.
Some have loads of HO scenes, and some very few. Some HO scenes are hard, and some are easy.
Some recline in the 'horror' salon, others in the 'fantasy' lounge.
Just compare Phantasmat with Vanishing Hitchhiker. Some of their scenes are almost identical (bar Phantasmat's bolder colour aesthetic)! They both endeavour to achieve the same results in the same genre through similar narrative tactics, but they share little in common when it comes to gameplay.

What Vanishing Hitchhiker does do well is it creates a strong, immersive atmosphere. Sure, it's a desaturated cliché from start to finish - a shameless hybrid of Shutter Island and Silent Hill, with a Hitchcockian sensibility running through it - and, yes, that is Mozart's Requiem crackling on the record player - but for all its technical faults, it achieves the key functions.
Hook player > create immersive atmosphere > keep player busy doing stuff > keep developing > end with resolution or cliffhanger.
Same with Jo Rowling: she might wave a dismissive hand at people far more learned than her, but she does achieve those key things, and she achieves them with great panache.

So back to my question...
You can break loads of stuff, provided that you hook the player and keep her actively entertained in an immersive world.
So why learn stuff then?
Because, if you're good, you can use that stuff to wield total control over those key functions - indeed, over the entire experience.

Please forgive me, but I do have one recent review to share with you. It's embarrassing, I know, but it does illustrate my points very well.
And I really do have to shake this peculiar sense of disbelief: I have to stop thinking that every super review is some kind of put up job.
(Also, as noted in the review, I've been thinking lately about how I've never created an evil antagonist. They might seem evil at first, but they're always pitiful, abused, misunderstood creatures. How odd.)

And before I get back to making characters speak, may I ask you, my delicious maggoteers, to press that voting button on the right there? You don't have to. It'll just make me feel a bit better about everything. Hugs and kisses.

* * *

User review on gamezebo, posted by Jaxxy, March 27th.

As an MCF and Hidden Expedition fan... this game blew me away. I cried, too... twice, to be exact. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another game that moved me this well.

Oh, the puzzles are so original--and plentiful! I'm no slouch, but I really had to think. This was a *dense* game, and still quite long enough.

The game is most definitely immersive, as well--and it does this without much gore (only somewhat insinuated and v. rare)--no AAH! startlings!--no genuinely evil horrible criminals--nothing seems too based on the "creep factor" (nothing big, anyway--I mean, nothing NEEDS it, to impress upon you).

The story is very intricate and unexpected, the length is perfectly lengthy (no filler--not for a second), and the characters? are just SO lovable. *Real*.

And sorry, Gamezebo, but I would never call the bonus content "thin"--while there are no wallpapers or video thingies, there is a great, also-immersive follow-up story adventure. A complete story in itself, and also heartwarming/heartbreaking (it was responsible for the second time I cried during the course of this game!).
--I'd trade all the "I'll-never-use-'em" wallpapers & soundtracks in the world for the above. In a game, for bonus content--especially if I'm like "NO DIS ROX'S PLZ GIMME MOAR"--I find I want... MOAR GAIM. =D

Very dreamy--I will not forget this title (as, sadly, I normally do for current HOGs). Way to think outside the box! And I'm sure Helen Lawson will enjoy a great boost from her song being the theme of this game--as she deserves, as the song is also very special.

Tons of puzzles, strong Adventure bent, challenging hidden-object scenes...
NO cliff-hangers, whether you finish at the game's finish *or* after the bonus content...
DO at least try this memorable work--it is a breath of fresh air for both the imagination and the noggin.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

White Rabbits

The Butcher Bunny

Hurrah! Today I finished (bar a few minor holes still to plug) the M4 design doc!

One of the great challenges of designing a multi-hour game is creating the illusion of freewill whilst surreptitiously leading the player around the map.
It's quite a tricky skill to master. White rabbits.
It becomes exponentially more tricky when you're attempting to maximize the sense of freedom by choking events in parallel. It's akin to weaving multiple sub-plots in and out of a narrative; but this narrative is interactive. Man, games would be so much easier to design if they didn't involve players!

To encourage the sense of freedom (using parallelism), I've devised a system of soft and hard chokes. A hard choke constitutes something that the player must accomplish before being allowed to progress. Key in keyhole, if you will. A soft choke constitutes something that the player can unlock immediately, thereby opening up a new set of stuff, or can leave 'til later - at a point where the soft choke hardens.

Using these techniques, it's possible to progress through the narrative in many different ways, using the soft chokes to govern sub-plots and the hard chokes to control the narrative's spine. Whilst I relinquish some control over pace, it's only the pacing of the major developments. The player needs regular developments for sure, but is largely unconcerned with the scale of each development. Furthermore, I still get to regulate the maximum space between two major developments by controlling the amount of available soft chokes in any area.
I'll be honest with you though: the amount of actual control I have over the pacing of an interactive medium ain't great anyhoo: one woman's brief caprice is another woman's Fermat theorum.
Also, by permitting variations in the order in which certain events are triggered, I expose the emotional topography to a degree of peril! I test the topography's integrity by imagining the worst abuse a player can inflict with her gifted freedom.

This isn't a major headache until you consider that the player needs to be led around the world. Where do I lead her, and how? And how much?

I refuse to use screwdrivers, spanners, crowbars and the like! You can't make me!
They do the job of leading alright: player finds panel attached to wall with screws; player mooches and finds screwdriver; player returns to panel and uses screwdriver to unscrew screws, thereby releasing panel.
Once we understand how a mechanic works, we can dress it in the most enticing bespoke garments.
(Today I choked a giant three-eyed doll named Madeleine with a stripy sock. Just as key leads to keyhole, stripy sock leads to giant three-eyed doll with one stripy sock and one bare foot. And best of all, I reused the sock: it was used earlier to clean blackbird poopings from an affable metal head.)

In M3, I invited the player into a cottage, and subsequently detained her within the cottage walls (knowing that she would be so intent on exploring the cottage that she would be very unlikely to ever discover that she couldn't actually leave because, if she tried, Cassandra would insist that she help out in the kitchen). Player discovers piano. Piano is interactive. Eddie makes piano remark. Piano is branded upon player's mind.
With the interactive piano established, I could then open up anything I wanted, safe in the knowledge that I could coerce the player back to the cottage on a whim by rewarding her with sheet music.
Same applies to the gramophone: hand a gramophone record to the player and she'll make her way back to the gramophone in the guests' bedroom. (There's an interesting discussion here which we can save for later: if she had just discovered a new area, would she take the record and immediately hurry back to the cottage, or would she fully explore the new area first before returning? Clear danger here is that, if she is presented with an expansive new area and she chooses to explore it, she might utterly forget that she has collected a gramophone record - in which case, the white rabbit becomes a ghost.)

The Ecstasy of Cecelia

So obvious connections between two points in the map allow us to lead between the two.
Another way, and again, this mechanic is dressed in the same hand-me-down costume from game to game, is to make a character appear and then scuttle away in the direction of x.

In Maestro: Music of Death, a woman hangs around the town square until player clicks on her, then she hurries off down the street. In the latest Puppet Show, a mechanical creature kidnaps a young girl and bounds away into the caves; it stops to rest every couple of screens, waiting for the player to catch up, and then springs away again. In Flux Family Secrets: The Rabbit Hole, the player is invited to follow a... well, say no more.

By constantly leading the player, we ensure that the forward momentum is sustained.
Without leading the player, we run the risk of stalling as our player ambles through inactive rooms or pokes at yet-to-be-triggered events.
(I'll have to exhume my sandwich idea. Essentially, it works on the notion of creating maximum propulsion by placing the protagonist between a hunter and an enticing goal, often wrapped in a countdown. I used Wolf Brother as an example, if memory serves.)
Our producer was keen to introduce as many inactive items as early as possible. She reasoned that people like to see stuff that they can't activate yet. I think this reasoning is flawed, and that a balance must be struck between creating anticipation, and actually developing stuff. I trialled the latest Puppet Show and was a tad dismayed when my 'to do' list started getting out of hand.

Too much choice induces panic. Place a player into a room with thirty open doors and any sense of freewill you present is utterly negated by confusion and insecurity.
To counter this, simply send a white rabbit through one of the doors and the player has something to latch on to. However, the designer has to be prepared for the player to choose any of the other twenty-nine doors!
So, the amount of leading required is dictated by the amount of choices the player has at her disposal.
Lord of Mirrors sidestepped the problem almost entirely. Player is placed in room and required to solve all puzzles in room; player enters next room and previous room is discarded. Navigation was entirely linear. Any leading was reserved for simple connections between scene items.


I simply don't have that kind of luxury. Relatively speaking, our budget allows for a small map, less than half the size of something like an MCF game. (I do occasionally slide a sketch to Ben and we wink at each other and make a new scene on the sly. If it's really good - and they always are - and if I can get creative with the schedules - and I always can - there are never any complaints :o)
This means I have two options. I can go linear and squeeze the player from one end of the map through to the other, holding her in each location until she has solved an amount of puzzles; or I can shepherd the player around the map, constantly introducing beautiful new scenes, and then reuse these scenes by developing them, changing their function with altered context or abilities, keeping them fresh and exciting and surprising for many hours.

Righty, it's the weekend. I should do proper things like what other people do. If it's pleasant tomorrow I might weed the garden and sit out with a cup of Earl Grey and the Penguin History of the Second World War. It's spring 1940 and the Battle of Britain is about to kick off...

The Butcher Bunny, the Ecstasy of Cecelia, and YHWH are the astonishing accomplishments of Mark Ryden.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Inka Essenhigh's Green Goddess II.

Another problem with reviews is in gauging their veracity.
Of course, I'd love to take the recent influx of best game I've ever played comments at face value, but they really don't tally with my own perspective on where I languish in the casual games hall of fame. I'd say at best they allow me to believe I have some promise.
Indeed, I recall an invitation to bolster a certain young woman's Amazon review score several years ago. (If you're reading this Sunny, I'm sure you required no extra bolstering! And how the devil are you?)
Well, who knows.
Oh, did I mention that we made number one?

Righty, let's leave all that stuff behind, because it really can't be the least bit interesting for anyone, and get back to our fervent questioning. Here's a good 'un:
What the heck now?

Well, my bosses have a suggestion:
Do the same again.

Between you and me my maggoty companions, I have no intention of doing that.
Moreover, the very nature of what I attempted to do with M3 inherently dictates an unhealthy dollop of de- and reconstruction. A good deal of the game's success was down to its original features (or fresh approach), and to reproduce those self-same original features is to erode its integrity.

Consider, also, that, with scant few exceptions, an
y number one iHOG generates practically the same amount of revenue as any other - there's little by way of floating voters amongst fans of our genre.

So I ask again, without sarcasm or ego:
What next?
Any game I design from this moment forth which fails to solicit rave reviews or top the charts has now become a failure - or a come down, if you like less melodrama on your cornflakes. :o)
The pressure is horrendous, and I've had a spell of staring at my design doc quailing at imagined reactions to every word I type. Hey, I'm okay now: by accepting that I just have to trust my judgements and that these are the same judgements as before, I've reconciled the fears (but never the doubts); and that's fine.

There's still a gallon of mechanics and techniques for me to enjoy experimenting with. And I've ratcheted the drama up an octave. How on earth is Ms. Casual-Gamer going to respond to an NPC suicide? How will my total integration of tra
ditionally omniscient hints and goals into the virtual world be received? And how many minds will be blown when, two years from now, the full deviousness and complexity of my master plan is revealed? Watch this space. (My predictions are: she'll be cool; nobody will really notice; between three and fifteen.)
(N.B. I was reading about an early iHOG, released a fistful of years back, which flourished in the Big Fish charts, but was subsequently removed because somebody spotted an inference to a rape. The game was eradicated left right and centre, and the writer won an award. I kinda get the point of awards now, I think - they sweeten the bitter P45 :o)
(N.B. N.B. comes from the Italian Nota Bene, which means 'note well'. I didn't know that. It was on Eggheads.)

Time for an embroidered mollusc anatomy.

Truth is, I have no answers. I'll keep pushing
my art team out of elasticated comfort zones, whilst always expecting much more from myself. And we'll go home and eat and sleep. (Not together. Don't want to start any rumours.) I'll sweat my way through more surveys and reviews and deal with whatever happens.
And with that kind of resolution squirreled away, I can get back to the fun stuff!

So... Eddie and Tom... happily ever after or tears?

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Phew! and Phew again!
Well, one of the biggies has reviewed. Here's the full, undoctored transcript (which, to my knowledge, was unbribed) from Gamezebo:

* * *

Curse of the Severed Heart is everything a great HOG should be, but the bonus content is a little thin.

Updated Mar 9, 2011, 7:11pm

Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart takes you on a journey into the supernatural as you search for answers regarding your childhood and the fate of your parents. Starting with a gripping narrative that expertly combines photographic characters with painted backgrounds and cleverly-designed puzzles with hidden object gameplay, Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart is fine example of what a good hidden object title should be.

As young Edwina Margrave, you return to the village where years ago your scholarly parents searched for a relic called the Severed Heart. Settling into the cottage of the area's sole remaining resident, the otherworldly Miss Thorn, you soon realize both the picturesque village and your mysterious host are hiding something. The first clue that something's amiss is that wherever you go, you encounter ghostly animals: spirits of former cats, geese and sheep that call out to you to free them by helping them remember their names.

Divination is done with a special deck of Dream cards in an entertainingly unique mini-game. A number of cards are laid out that contain half-symbols in all four of each card's corners. A series of symbols are shown at the top of the screen and the idea is to recreate these symbols by lining up the half-symbols found on the cards. It's a simple concept that's more challenging than you might think. The artwork in these sequences is charming and it's genuinely satisfying winning the mini-game and receiving praise and thanks from the pathetic little ghost beasts.

This little mini-game alone makes Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart different from your run-of-the-mill hidden object titles, but it's not the only unique thing the game has going for it. Another is the thoughtful, clever design of its many mechanical puzzles. Not only does every hidden object scene serve to solve an intricate puzzle; many of the individual puzzles are linked to one another to form an intriguing larger puzzle. You'll be blown away by the complexity of it all and by the game's beautiful environment art. You'll also enjoy the dialog sequences which are fully voice acted and though photographic, work well within the 2D painted environments. Further, you're bound to get the ethereal soundtrack—especially the haunting vocals of the game's main theme—totally stuck in your head.

The one downside of the game is that for a Collector's Edition, Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart is light on extras. Many Collector's Editions these days offer concept art, music and mini-games as well as bonus chapters but Margrave merely offers a strategy guide and one unlockable bonus chapter called The Blacksmith's Revenge. This bonus chapter, taking place two years after the events of the main story, is meant to serve as something of an epilogue but makes a strange conceptual leap that will likely leave some gamers scratching their heads. Even so, it offers a new narrative as well as some new locations, art and puzzles and is good for another hour or so of interesting gameplay.

Margrave: Curse of the Severed Heart is one of those rare hidden object adventures that completely sucks you in, keeps you riveted throughout and when it's over, you're sorry to leave. Its photographic characters and fully voice-acted dialog make for enthralling drama, while its captivating environments and elaborate puzzles make you eager to explore and get to the bottom of things. Additionally, its beautifully phantasmic art direction and unique Dream card mini-game, not to mention its unearthly musical score make it an expertly-crafted adventure.

Regardless of your enthusiasm for hidden object titles, this is one game no mystery lover should miss - although given the title's thin bonus content you might be better off waiting for the Standard Edition.

* * *

Apologies to all who expected more from the bonus material. Truth is, I believe that Big Fish are going to have to review their CE policies, especially as it looks as though the top ten is going to be swamped by the things! We noticed a weird psychological occurrence in the forums whereby any CE which included concept art and music as extras suffered from complaints of We don't want concept art and music! We want more gameplay! Such complaints seemed immutable and entirely unrelated to the length of the bonus gameplay, as though the dev should have devoted their complete allotment of CE time on the bonus gameplay alone.

But a splendid review nonetheless!

I've reached the conclusion that it's not a great idea to read reviews. I'm sure this notion has been championed by many!

Why's that solv? Surely you should be looking for those recurring themes and learn lessons?

Well sure, but public reviews are unregulated and, as such, sprawling. There really is nothing to learn from the bad reviews (that's to say, I've not found anything), not least because they contradict the good reviews (and even each other).

Solvy solvy solvy! That's a cop out!

Not really. We know that a percentage of people will not be pleased, and that percentage, measured in controlled surveys, is marginal enough to warrant the CE status. A minority percentage would douse me in petrol and skip around my blazing body. Let's take that as read right from the off - even before the first idea is typed upon virtual paper.

However, there is value in looking through that majority percentage to see if I achieved any of my ambitions (beyond designing a 'popular' game).

To be honest, this kind of self assessment feels horribly like ego rubbing, and I'm very much against that. So I'll do it quickly and run away with my eyes closed, and flagellate under my duvet.

Emotions in an iHOG? Oh yes! Read of 'teary' players and 'moved' players; read of 'hilarious' responses; read of 'best moment ever!'

Unique? Immersive? Sure thang!

Um, that was all I really wanted to achieve. Oh, that said, I wouldn't mind the number one accolade too. (Currently we're at number two, stuck behind the much better Dark Parables game. Bummer.)

Hey, if I'm going to flagellate, I might as well make it worthwhile. Check out the five star Game Mile review, and the five pipe Hidden Puzzles review.

In the next post, I'll share the downside of plaudits, otherwise known as the difficult second album, and we can leave all this sugary stuff behind us and return to our old friend pain.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


My son, the shadowlock boy!

So there we have it. A year's worth of work and love excreted into five or so hours of gameplay, all to be forgotten days later when the next big thing burrows from obscurity.
I'm very tired, but have a few things to say before I scavange for food.

First, a massive thanks to the lovely maggoteers who have posted kind words on the BF forums. We're truly grateful.
Also, a big 'Howdy' to our lovely spanking new followers!

At the time of typing, we're still in the 'tomorrow's game today' pupal stage, and tomorrow, when we're 'yesterday's tomorrow's game today' imago, the dam will burst and those comments will flood from one terrifying eye of the public and into the other.

So far, and I don't expect this to change, the reviews have mirrored the beta tests almost identically which is, I guess, no surprise.
As ever, though, a few hurricanes have bowed to the might of the Fatalist quantum butterfly.

I'm especially pleased that the game was released on peglegann's bidet! Happy bidet Ann!

We've all been a bit nervy watching an unprecedented amount of CE's hogging (pun intended) the charts, jostling for that number one spot. Furthermore, we've been watching the public ire growing relative to the proportional share of CE's. It's been brewing in other forums, and has reached a new peak in our forums! It feels like teenagers congregating outside your house, drinking Strongbow and smoking heroin and pimping their rides, or whatever. Go away! :o)

So, over the last half a year, as regulars will know, we've been surveying and testing and refining. We reached the point where bugs were almost non-existent, puzzles were well distributed and balanced, story was coherent and enticing, graphics polished and music burnished.
The only recurring negative in the feedback was the voice-overs. (Well something has to be last when picking players for your team!) There's a certain tolerance for dissent in the CE selection process, naturally, and every component fell well within their allotted tolerances. And we really didn't mind shipping in the knowledge that a few people would be perturbed by the English pronunciation of the word 'inventory'. But check out those forum posts! Man! I wasn't expecting it to dominate!
Elldee put it well (and most politely):
I think it speaks volumes for the quality of this game that the major flaw seems to be the pronunciation of one word--a new release just a few days ago was full of grammar and spelling snafus, but didn't warrant the same attention.

We were also prepared for the references to the previous two Margraves - in particular, the second was widely lambasted as dull. As such, I've had the unenviable task of dealing with stigma and her pack of slavering preconceptions. For those who bore unpleasant memories, and yet played the demo, I'm quite sure that they recognized a new team and professionalism behind the Severed Heart! (I'd love to think of myself as a game-y Theo Paphitis. But that would be wrong on many counts.)

Ooh, someone changed the last line of my blurb! I'm glad, because it's better now! I think I was right about the chain of adjectives at the end - they did jar. That's a jolly good lesson learned!

Ooh, and I'll stick the vid at the top of this post. Look what they did! They gave away the ending in the opening shot! And they used up every drop of beast animation in the entire game!

Ah, also, and we don't know if this is coincidence, but Ben was awarded the honour of the Daily Deviation today! (It really is an honour!)

Righty, I need lots of cigarettes.
I'll be back soon...
In the meantime, watch the public dance with my soul.