Wednesday, 7 September 2011


My son starts his new school today!
(Um, meant to post this a couple of weeks back. Sorry.)

Even as I type, I can imagine him in his stiff and heavy uniform, chatting with other frightened kids in a dinner hall heavy with the sounds of clashing cutlery and chair legs scuffing varnished floorboards and a thousand boys discussing their summer hols, and with the smells of whatever has replaced the boiled cabbage and suet puddings of yesteryear.

He read through his rule book last night and had some questions for me.
Most of the rules are obvious, he said: Don't smoke and don't drink alcohol and don't gamble at school or on the way to or from school. We discussed briefly whether Top Trumps qualified as gambling.
Several rules concerned him however. It says we're not allowed into the school buildings during lunch break. So how am I going to get my lunch? And am I going to have to sit outside to eat it? And what if I need the toilet. (Yes, toileting is surely one of the top concerns for schoolkids. If it was a Top Trumps card, it would have an Anxiety score of ten.)
I allayed his fears by explaining that it was the same at my school, and the rules simply prohibit students from hanging around the classrooms and the like during breaks. Dining halls and toilets are fair game.
He also has games today and hasn't moulded his gum shield and wasn't sure which of his shin guards he needed. Multiple shin guards! I jest not!

Coincidentally, I'm reading Stephen Fry's (if I was gay, I certainly would! Heck, give me a couple of glasses of wine and I'd give it serious consideration) Moab is my Washpot, the first installment of his autobiography. Like my son, he's just started big school, and is surveying this foreign landscape. Looking back, Stephen bears no ill-will towards the masters who caned him; rather, he recalls the injustices, especially those acted upon him by other schoolkids.
Certainly something I've noticed in my son over the years, as he grapples with the concept of the fallibility of adults and the often uninformed judgements of teachers.

Lord help us all if we dare to breach the topic of rules whilst in creative company. Whenever someone would mention the word over on the writers' forums, I would pull a lemon-sucking face and recoil from my monitor. We prefer the concept of guidelines, or techniques, or methods, or tools, or anything that doesn't stand over you with a birch.

Thing is, 'creative rules' are nothing more than starting points. A writer who has mastered POV and plotting and all those dry techniques still has a very long way to go before she can craft an unforgettable tale. Or, to put it another way, if you bought me a tool set for Christmas, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to knock up a uniquely handsome, weatherproof gazebo. Oh no.
Creativity is about understanding how stuff works, and then setting sail on a long and lonely journey, where you make a million informed decisions, ruthlessly, um, paddling out brilliant mixed metaphors and splicing mainbraces with toasted emotions.
If a dead rat measured the creative process, and you started at the tip of its tail, you wouldn't even touch its arse with your tools.

When you get how stuff works and what it is doing, well that's when you can reinvent.
The learner artisan doesn't get this. I've known writers who will witness a professional author breaking POV and then exclaiming But you told me not to break POV! And amateur artists producing bland and hackneyed abstracts, confidently referring the viewer to Picasso's success. Just as the barber I visited as an art student was unable to distinguish between his infant daughter's painting of flowers and Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
Picasso didn't jump straight into cubism. Aged thirteen, he was admitted to the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. And he did this.
And, aged about seventeen, he did this.

And with that, he climbed into his boat, waved goodbye to his friends and his family, and set sail for terra nova.

Monday, 5 September 2011

High on a Hill

Crikey, standards are really going up. The new Enigmatis looks pretty darned polished.
But let me ask you this: Does it have a goat chocolatier? Eh?

You know how the saying goes: If you can't beat 'em, you're not very good at beating.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Insecurity of Reinvention

Been a taxing week - one of those weeks where you question your work a tad too deeply. (We're in the land between paradox and non sequitur people!)

I'm currently assembling the hints system and it's about as mind-spangling as things get. It's nice to take a break for a couple of days to tidy my thoughts.

I've briefly allowed myself a tour of the recent reviews of M3 - just enough to perk me up a little, and not so much as to perpetuate a dependency on public adoration. :o)
And boy, I'm blown away. The scores keep going up and up, all across the board, raised on the shoulders of so many kind and encouraging comments.
As that comforting glow soaks into my soul, a panic eel spasms in my gut. All those high expectations! Can I really lead my team to an even greater victory? I've changed my approach to design and game narrative so much, and everything is once more uncertain. I mean, this game is, thus far, an unfiltered nozzle into my head, and that's a scary premise.

What do the greats do?
On the one hand, you have the MCF team who reinvent with breathtaking courage from game to game; on the other, you have the unfalteringly successful ERS team(s) who pump out 'cookie cutter' games with unnerving regularity.
The upshot is pretty straightforward: each new MCF game garners a host of negative reviews from those who dislike the new systems, techniques, and mechanics. The ERS games seem only to receive negative reviews concerning the lack of originality. ('More of the same' is a recurring review.)
And, in both cases, these games hurtle to the top of the charts and make heaps of money.
I'm quite sure my bosses would prefer that I adopted the ERS approach. But I simply can't do that. To deny myself the opportunities to improve and experiment and to push boundaries is to deny myself of everything that is necessary for my creative survival.

My new hints system is, to the best of my knowledge, radically different to all others in the iHOG genre.
I've replaced the insipid omniscient hints (Collect the bacon slicer from the mortuary) with a character.
So now the hints are imbued with personality, and we move a little closer to turning a 'penalty' into a 'reward'. Furthermore, we increase immersion every time we shun omniscience in favour of important, narrative-driven characters.
I've also broken the hints into smaller increments. When coupled with the interactive in-game map, this method overcomes all the issues we experienced with the previous system.

One unforeseen by-product of all this is that the hints have rather ballooned.
Now that the hint can 'see' where the player is, 'he' needs to respond appropriately in order to sustain believability:

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is not in town.
HINT PERSON: Let's head into town and have a look around.

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is not standing outside mortuary.
HINT PERSON: There's a mortuary on Gallows Corner. Let's have a looksee.

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is outside mortuary.
HINT PERSON: I don't like the look of this place at all. Let's go in!

PLAYER does not have bacon slicer. PLAYER is not in mortuary.
HINT PERSON: Hey Edwina! I'm sure I saw a bacon slicer in the mortuary.

PLAYER does not have bacon slicer. PLAYER is in mortuary.
HINT PERSON: Ooh look! A bacon slicer! We can use that to create an origami pig!

(N.B. The hints are organised into linear bundles of loops. At the final 'idiot' stage of a loop, I've chosen to lead the player not just to the current choke, but also to the next.)
It's a teeny bit painful to compose a full ms of hints, knowing that any one player might only require a small clawful of lines from that almighty document.

The other problem - and this was not unexpected - is wrestling parallel game-play into a linear hint system. I faced this in M3, but in M4 the player might have three or four tasks open at once, and our intelligent, self-aware hint must intuitively assuage the player's current concern, whilst shepherding her to the next point in a linear system.

And I think these are possibly the moments when we most question our judgement - those moments when we are entrenched in something that is difficult and untested.
In my head, it's a brilliant system and everyone loves it!
But we're fast approaching the time when nigh on a year's worth of ideas and decisions will crawl from my head and into the outside world with all its glorious reality.
Man, if it stayed in my head it would be the best game of all time - the best, very lonely game of all time.

Should end on a high. Let's pick a review...

Absolutely beautiful game. The story was so touching, and the music was gorgeous. I even loved the side story that opens up once you finish the main game. It takes a lot to impress me, or keep me wanting to play, and this one definitely grabbed me completely.
[Jamie Machia of New York.]

And finish up with an actroid. Utopia or dystopia? (Ah, let's face it: they're all gonna end up as sex toys.)