Thursday, 26 May 2011

Uplifting

While we're rabbiting about characters, I'd love to share this with you.
Some filmmaker chap set up home in a lift for several weeks. Here's what happened.
You're going to feel very unusual emotions by the end...

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Motives

Tony Hancock: It's a self portrait!
Mrs Crevatte: Who of?

That's M5 plotted!
I've taken this opportunity to play with a properly dark antag.
But what makes a properly dark antag?

One of the first things a writer learns about the art of creating characters is that they need a motive. Or a motivation.
Subtle distinction between the two words - certainly nothing that's going to bother us here. But if you're interested in what people reckon, you can start here. I might even flit between the two just for the sheer mischievous thrill! Ha!

So let's take a gander at The Last King of Scotland which was on t'other night.
We have a young doctor, the ink on his diploma still wet. And we have Idi Amin.
The doctor is introduced to us as a carefree spirit (hedonist), defiant against his parents' regime. He recklessly spins a globe to decide where he will abscond to, and picks Uganda. Within virtual seconds, he's sleeping with a woman he met on the bus, and shortly after meeting a lovely missionary doctor, he's trying to have his end away with said missionary's wife.
He, and we, are then introduced to Idi Amin, the ink still wet on his presidential diploma. What a wonderful fellow! He's big and cheery like an inflatable teddy bear, and he's so kind and friendly and charming, and all the people adore him!

And gradually we watch the character arcs imploding and reversing.
What's fascinating is that we initially see the doctor as a self-serving git: he sleeps with women for his own pleasure and doesn't care who gets hurt; and we see Amin as the saviour of his people, slaughtering only those who would threaten his leadership and, hence, his beloved country. In these instances, the motivations are far more powerful in defining (our perception of) character than the actions. The murders are (apparently) justified; the marriage wrecking is not. We approve of people making sacrifices for other people; we disapprove of people hurting others for their own gain.
Before the film ends, we bear witness to Bob McKee's assertion that character is defined by choices made under pressure. (Certainly worth bearing in mind here.)

Perhaps the epitome of this peculiar dichotomy is the character of William Foster (Falling Down, played by Michael Douglas). We cheer as Foster defends himself against gangsters or threatens the storekeeper who charges exorbitant fees for a soda or, eventually, murders an army surplus storekeeper who harbours extreme right wing views. When he's finally cornered by Robert Duvall's cop, he is stunned:

Sergeant Prendergast: Let's meet a couple of police officers. They are all good guys.
Foster: I'm the bad guy?
Sergeant Prendergast: Yeah.
Foster: How did that happen?

Wonderful, breathtaking dialogue!

Another magic moment from The Rebel. It'll make sense soon...

So the reasons why a character behaves in any given way is key to our judgement on their placement on the good-bad scale.
If memory serves, the daleks were elevated to a new degree of evil a couple of seasons back when they revealed that they killed for fun. It's simple, clich├ęd, and effective.

I gave my M5 antag a super motive which I've been longing to fiddle with for ages. I confront the question: How far will a father go to save his daughter's life? (You'll perhaps be interested to note that I set this up in the very first scene in M3. Ooh, you'll never spot it! ;o)
Naturally, I introduce the father as the good guy - as a victim of prejudice - by having villagers pelting him with stones. He shuffles away, his head bowed, a tear meandering down his cheek. Ed meets him and he's charming and kind and softly-spoken.
Now you can run this through all manner of ethics philosophies: deontology - or adherence to rules - to include Divine Command theory and Kant's ideas on duty; consequentialism - the end justifies the means; utilitarianism - loosely reduced to 'the greater good'; and so forth.

In order to save his daughter, my antag was required to hold another character hostage for many years. Even now we can still debate the virtue of his actions. But to be certain - to elevate this chap's motives beyond any rational doubt - I had him shackle his hostage in an unnecessarily hostile environment and fashioned a neck shackle to resemble a dog's collar, and, to top this off, placed a dog bowl at her feet. In short, he went beyond the functionality and humiliated his hostage. The act of degrading her through extremely simple and powerfully iconic devices transcends our sympathetic/empathetic bond.

And just for good measure, (and I'm still undecided about this) the hostage is clothed in a red dress which, if I can pull off the connotation, will suggest that she was dressed by antag; which, in turn, suggests that he stripped her; which, in turn, can suggest very horrible ideas. (I particularly like this concept because the red would work brilliantly in the environment. I'll reveal more anon.) I even foreshadow this event with a mirrored affordance.
An affordance is an action verb - it's what we allow our players to do. If I give her a hammer, she is afforded the action verb 'hammer'. So if I introduce a dressing up mini-game/inventory item quest, my player is afforded the action verb 'clothe'. This'll be lurking under her skin when she absorbs the subverted horror of such an affordance!

Tony Hancock again. Keep going... it'll all become clear.

In other news:
Ben has started blogging! He's down there on the 'talented chums' roster. I'll have some more of his astounding concepts for you soon.
Still interviewing potential artists. I have to confess that I've been so disappointed; dozens upon dozens of applicants rejected, half a dozen interviewed, and only one artist who comes anywhere close to the required standard. I actually enjoy the process though: it's just great fun chatting with talented and passionate folks! I feel terrible for the poor chap who almost passed out after he saw fit to criticize with unreserved ignorance the functionality of one of my zoom windows in the interview, to which I calmly responded with a five minute detailed explanation of why my idea was ten billion times better than his. Yes, you're quite right, I am. Sorry. I. HATE. EGO. But rest assured, I took him outside for some air and we sat in the sun and had a lovely informal chat. Divested of his brash arrogant exterior, I had revealed a very likeable and insecure fellow and he went away with a smile on his face.
As you might know, we give potential candidates a brief to do at home - simply take our pre-rendered mermaid statue and overpaint it to age and weather it. Our favourite response so far was from the fellow who accompanied his work with a super-confident email. We read the email as the image was downloading. He explained how he disliked the piece we had asked him to overpaint, and had made it much better. The image opened. We rolled about in fits of laughter! A hideous monstrosity which reminded me of Tony Hancock's Aphrodite at the Water Hole (The Rebel)!
And he had taken the liberty of adding a caption to his work:
I've made the boobs bigger. Everybody loves boobies!

Monday, 9 May 2011

Helen Lawson

Very excited! Helen Lawson has just agreed to compose a bespoke song for M4!
I've provided her with some context - some brief thoughts on mood and a bit about the game - but I've been careful not to impinge upon her creativity!
Lots of red tape to, um, tape-ify, and I'll keep y'all posted.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Juggling

We're looking for a 2D artist.
Man, it's hard work.
Each day, I sit with the company director and Ben (recently promoted to senior artist :o) to sort the good from the bad, and the good subsequently receive a brief.
The brief is to take a pre-designed zoom window and work it up to a polished asset.
Along with the brief, we also provide a couple of examples of finished zoom windows.
I have also written out a few prerequisites, simply explaining the zoom's function in the game. And there's a good deal of mood, style, and context notes included for good measure.
Essentially, there are a handful of things that must be in place, or the game is broken; beyond that, there is unbridled freedom within a certain set of boundaries.

Bearing in mind that this brief is only going out to artists who have already demonstrated in their portfolio that they have exceptional art skills, the brief is designed to test the artist's ability to work within the confines of a brief.

So far, every submission has destroyed the functionality and/or requirements clearly outlined in the brief.

It really does seem to scupper a lot of people - this idea that every creative project requires some set of boundaries, even if those boundaries are simply labelled 'no boundaries' - precisely the kind of brief that Gilbert and George might impose upon any given project.

So I've finished the first pass of the cut-scene and cinematic script, and now I'm working in a few small nuggets of backstory into the design doc. This is the stuff that will give meaning to the climax. It perhaps doesn't seem like a big job. Here's the view of my two monitors.

I also have four note/sketch books open on my desk.
(Apologies for the heavy use of redaction, but there's some key stuff there which gives too much of the bigger picture away.)

This is all the stuff I am cross-referencing to ensure that:
1) Nothing in the game breaks.
2) Maximum impact is achieved.
3) Believability is sustained.
And all this just to place a handful of lines of text into the game.

This shouldn't be unfamiliar to any creative maggoteers out there. How much research goes into a single paragraph of narrative? How much thought goes into the placement of any scene or the intonation of any line of dialogue or the stance of any character or the shape of a flower or breed of a cat?
(Ben and I were discussing the flowers he would use in the picnic garden; these flowers form the backdrop to a particularly poignant frame in a certain cut-scene. Their shape and colour will influence the emotional impact of the scene, and they will work with the focal character's skin tone and demeanour. Check out Pretty Woman for a splendid example of backdrop flowers. If memory serves, it's a scene in which Vivian and Kit are discussing Vivian's new life.)

Anal?
In the top left of that image, you might recognise a page from Jonny's book which opened the CE act to M3.
Originally, the number in the bottom right-hand corner was an even one.
That's wrong, and I had it changed.
This might seem a drop in the ocean - but then consider that I'm now placing the preceding pages into M4.
Or, consider the date on the newspaper cuttings in M3.
In these cuttings, the deaths of Ed's parents are documented.
Ed's parents died in the winter. And from that one seed, a forest germinates. In the M3 flashback cut-scene, little Ed and her parents are dressed for cold weather. We hear rain and wind outside. And so forth. A tiny detail can have enormous significance.
I asked for the date to be changed to accommodate the winter deaths.
The month was changed to December, but the rest of the date was left unchanged, resulting in an impossible day.
Again, this might seem insignificant, until you see the bigger picture: now that I'm returning to that night, I have to choose between building on that unstable foundation, or pretending it never happened and correcting the date from this point onwards.

As much as possible, I document everything so that each member of the team can see the bigger picture and avoid these kind of errors. However, as Jesse Schell observes, nobody reads design documents. And, to be fair, half the time I struggle to find any given sketch or note. In reality, I am only performing damage limitation and am resigned to triple-checking everything along the way. The entire picture only exists in my head, and a small universe of dots have yet to be connected.

As promised, here's Ben's concept for one of two 'extra' scenes I requested. Functionally, I needed to place a whole bunch of stuff beyond a certain choke point, and I only had two scenes beyond that choke point and it quickly dawned on me that they were going to become cluttered. With this new scene, I was able to spread the items and clues out better. It also serves as a more pleasing transitional point between two scenes, and allowed me to use wardian cases which I was suddenly very fond of and introduce a little of the Victorian flavour earlier than anticipated, to more quickly transport the player from the derelict, overgrown town to a hidden technology humming below the surface.


And while we're juggling, I'd like to make a quick plea to everyone who has requested to be my facebook friend. I suspect most of the requests have come from people taking my name from the credits in M3 and then cross-referencing that entry with my location, but I also suspect that some requests have come through here. I am more than happy to add you, but please tell me who you are and how you know me. Also, understand that my facebook page is incredibly dull, just like me.
I've done my share of facebook stalking, making 'friends' with writers and designers and artists who I respect, but I always introduce myself in the friend request.
So if you have a request outstanding, pop me quick message on facebook and we can become life-long chums. :o)

Oh, and if you're interested in applying for the artist position, head over to gameindustry.biz, and good luck!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Wrath of a Damaged Huge



Oh Lord help us all... here we go again!
Yep, some time over Easters, Big Fish's exclusivity period expired and M3 threw open some kinda metaphorical door, blinking in the brilliant sunlight, and has taken to promenading along virgin processing units to tickle the fancies of a fresh audience and stroke the thighs of new reviewers. And, if you'll kindly allow me to share one... last... review... (huff puff), I'll thank you all later in the week with a new piece of M4 concept art hot off Miracle Ben's digital canvas.

* * *

Jayisgames.com

Her parents spent their time searching for an artifact called the Severed Heart. Now, Edwina Margrave is driving through the dark woods to a remote village where her mother and father were last seen. Probably not the brightest idea she's ever had, but Ed knows a thing or two about the supernatural realm. The hidden adventure Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart opens up with our heroine arriving at a dimly-lit cottage in the woods. She is seeking answers, but naturally she'll find many more questions as things begin to unravel in a most peculiar way. Ghostly animals haunting the realm of the living, anyone?

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart begins predictably enough, but as soon as you get a taste of the gameplay, you'll realize how deliciously perfect the game really is. Just like most casual hidden object games, the mouse and your cursor will guide you through just about everything, changing shape to point you to areas you can explore further, items you can pick up, or directions in which you can travel. In addition, Margrave features a neat twofold inventory system that includes key items as well as keepsakes, small objects you find or sketches that Edwina takes down of things that could be important later on.

No hidden object game would be complete without hidden object scenes, and while Margrave doesn't focus on them very heavily, you'll find more than your fair share of laundry lists to complete. Items are extremely well-hidden in this game, blending in with the background so you have to stare at every other pixel to find many of them. The hint button becomes your best friend very quickly!

Analysis: Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart is all about the story and setting, and it paints such a wonderful picture with both that the gameplay comes in second. In fact, sometimes the actual "game" parts of Margrave seem like an intrusion, as all you really want to do is explore the surroundings, make sketches about unusual symbols or items you've seen, and discover new things about the occult world just beneath the surface. Margrave has depth, layers of intrigue piled on top of each other. It's like watching an episode of Lost, sans polar bears.

Another high point in the Margrave experience is the Dream Card mini-game. Each time Edwina encounters animal spirits, she uses these cards to divine the animals' former names. To use them, you must place four cards on the screen so that the shapes on the sides form the figures shown at the top of the screen. It's a unique sort of diversion that's different from the usual mini-game fare. And it's steeped in tarot artwork and mythology, so naturally you'll feel a bit like a psychic yourself each time you name a spirit.

With fantastic locations to explore, a great storyline to follow, and an interface design that never gets in your way, Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart is the kind of hidden object game everyone wants to play. If you were to line everything up that makes a good hidden object game, tag it and rank it in order of importance, Margrave would mirror that list almost perfectly. It really is designed that well, almost as if the people who made it actually play casual games themselves!

* * *

Okay, I'm only sharing the good reviews! :o)
Let's counter that right now. I think g@mrgrl's review is absolutely spot on. S/he incisively plucks out the strengths, weaknesses, and genuinely gets the spirit. This review is pretty similar to the 'as objective as possible' conclusion that my own mind drew, with the jejeune caveat 'man, if only I had a bigger budget!'
(Actually, just noticed that this is a 'g@mrgrl recommends' review. I honestly didn't notice, or get that from the review. Sheesh. It's at moments like this that you wonder who lives in the eleventh dimension...)




Here's something else to muse upon...
Imagine being interviewed as a character. And imagine that the questions asked breach the real world. Imagine the myriad problems that plop from the problem tree.

Edwina Margrave was interviewed by Harry Balls. Here are the first few questions:

1. Your name, Edwina Margrave is quite unique. Did your classmates make fun of your name when you went to school?

2. What was your nickname growing up?

3. How did the first two hidden object adventures prepare you for this challenge?

4. In general how do hearts get severed?

5. Do you really believe in curses or are they just tools game developers use to create a story?

Have a think.
The full interview is here.


And finally, here's what happens when translations go wrong! I'm not linking to the site because it offers a free download. (For 'free' read 'it'll infect every artificial organ in your pc'.)

Clear in the British country side, Edwina Margrave has went back to the bungalow just where the woman's mother and father passed away, wanting to speak having the an individual human being that may well highlight the catastrophe - the unstable landlady, Miss Thorn in Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart. However her shocking revelations aren't just what Edwina anticipated! Enlist the facilitate of the mood international and evade the wrath of a damaged huge as you browse Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart a coronary heart-breaking up Hidden Object Games Puzzle Excursion game - Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart!