Thursday, 3 November 2011


Edwina will even have animated hair this time!

Following on from our previous topic, I noticed today that Melissa from Passionfruit Games posted on the Big Fish forums. Her question sacrificed upon the altar of the vox populi was simply: Do you watch cut scenes?
Naturally, I've emailed her inviting discussion, fantasizing about witty and incisive exchanges of ideas over a flagon of gluhwein and, naturally, I'm expecting no response and a black mark shaped like a Ferengi ear adhered to my name. But hey... he who dares!

I'm uncertain how I feel about devs approaching the public in this fashion. In theory, it seems like it might be a good idea. However, I do think that devs should knuckle down and figure stuff out for themselves; after all, the public have no idea what they want. (The epitome of this is the interchangeable use of the words 'story' and 'plot' to encompass everything and anything.) Moreover, a cursory glance over the responses reveals absolutely nothing that any respectable dev wouldn't already be familiar with.

Our first cut scene (actually I'm going to revert to hyphenating that) - our first cut-scene is going in. Exciting times. Sal has done a smashing job overpainting (and I'm going to make overpainting into a word) the photos we took a month or so back, bar a few expressions that need a tad more definition. Capturing expressions is one of the hardest jobs an artist can tackle. The slightest slip in observation can devastate an expression which, in turn, can subvert the purpose of a cut-scene. (If you have five minutes spare, do go and participate in Professor Ekman's latest smile recognition test. For the curious/competitive among you, I scored fifteen.)

We're devoting a lot more energy to our cut-scenes this time round. The vfx are going to blow you away. Yes they are. And Ben's townscape is a miracle of beauty and convolution. I've been poring over my storyboards endlessly, contemplating the same questions over and over: How can I emotionally engage the player right from the get-go without resorting to melodrama?
And whilst I have absolute confidence, misguided or otherwise, that the denouement is going to shatter even the most obsidian of hearts, I wonder how close we can get to that kind of emotional connection in the intro. Is it possible to conceive of, say, a movie that has the viewer so immediately involved and emotionally attached that she is weeping within the first five minutes?
Well, we're giving it our best shot, using a blend of the story-independent techniques of wonder, peril, and character relationships.

My slightly facetious answer to Melissa's question would be: Are they worth watching?

Which leads us to another question that's congesting my neurons with far too much attention-seeking tomfoolery: Is it worth it?
What's the cost of this kind of endeavour?
I had the unbearably difficult task of letting my good friend 3D Raul go a couple of months back. My response to that arduous day was the blog post Rules.
When everyone ups their game and starts believing that we truly can create something super special, it becomes painfully apparent when someone has no, or little, capacity for improvement, and I was unable to find any way at all to save my friend, and believe me I tried.
As such, we're now over two months behind schedule and I've been using every bit of cunning available to me to massage the schedules into something viable.
Interviews over; on Tuesday we welcome 3D André.
(Interview anecdote: I had another of those 'I'm a writer!' types. He asked if we all write the story together. Despite being afflicted with the urge to reply 'Yes; and my deceased grandmother does all the coding!' I was very humble and polite. You would have been proud of me my dear maggoteers!)
Here's what I want André to know...

There's a saying amongst actors, but I've also heard it in other creative disciplines. It goes: Directors don't know what they want; they just know what they don't want.
I guess it's meant to be disparaging(?)
However, if you need to, give it a moment's thought.
I have no idea how this project is going to turn out. How can I? It's like playing a game of Guess the Celebrity by looking at their atoms. It's like dear Margaret Bingley - the author and consultant I visited many years ago - confiding in me that, even after all her successes, she still fears every manuscript she types - fears that it will be a major dud. It's like the cast of Star Wars who, when offered the choice between a percentage of royalties or a flat fee, took the flat fee (if urban legend is to be believed).
And, if you've ever written a full length ms, you'll know perfectly well yourself how organic the process is - how it is far more than the sum of its plot devices and characters. You have to observe - to watch where the project is going - to guide it, but not to stifle it - and to quickly identify those magic moments that fall from the preternatural aether and to nurture them and suckle them and clothe them in bottle green velvet and brass buckles.
(E.M. Forster reckoned that the writer who's fully in control of her characters hasn't even started to do the work.)

I empathise with my team. On Monday I might say one thing, and then change my mind on Tuesday. As the emperor of damage limitation, I try to impress upon my team the importance of testing the waters - of consulting me iteratively and concepting alternatives; and of the importance of research and consideration before that digital pen is even sniffed.
I'm also unapologetic about mind-changing. I've provided every microscopic detail of an invisible five plus hour game and I've made everything as, um, transparent as possible. But all of this cannot be anything more than a first pass: I am nothing more than a lowly human being attempting to pluck three hundred minutes of stuff from a magic land and capturing it and recording it and ordering it and moulding it into hyperreality.
I've learned that the easiest way to spot a professional is by asking them to revise something. The pro's understand; the amateurs are offended. The supreme ease with which Ben and I develop and refine our art is testament to that.

Ben and I performing thorough damage limitation.

And so it is that I face the prospect of derision and vitriol every day.
Today we received the first round of test dialogue from our luscious voice artistes. Some of the characters have been interpreted perfectly! In particular, Julie-Anne's take on Madeleine, the prophetic doll, is genuinely frightening. (Madeleine utters one line in the entire game. I gave J-A no direction other than: as scary as you can.) And Nigel, who may or may not be her hubby, has nailed most of the Seer heads. (Cargan is a scream!)
But Ula and Rudo are way short of what we want, and I have to find a way of attaining my vision without causing offence. Alternatively, I can sacrifice my vision. Which brings us back to my question: Is it worth it?
How many people get hurt along the way?
The answer: If they are all talented and foster a professional attitude and have the gift of ego suppression, none.

Can't recall whether I made Keelin laugh or cry. Perhaps Professor Ekman has a test?

But that's a perfect world. And, just like our Cyclopean town, that world drifts in and out of reality, and when it is with us the rewards far outweigh the hardships.