Monthly Archives: March 2016

Notes from GDC

I could have titled this post "Survived GDC!" Maybe even "Surviving GDC," since I've worked up some tips about the experience. But before I get there...

GDC was great. Had a blast! Involving no literal explosions! So a big win all around.

I got to see a whole lot of people. If I start listing names it'll get boring and I'll forget some anyway. So I'll just note that I met Alexis Kennedy (of FailBetter Games) and Jeff Vogel (of Spiderweb Software). Among lots of others. And of course even more people that I know from the IF world or the game conference circuit and was happy to see again.

Excellent talks:

  • Narrative Innovation Showcase (lightning showcase by many designers, assembled by Clara Fern├índez-Vara and Matthew Weise).
  • Meg Jayanth on NPCs in 80 Days. (Here's a related talk she gave at Practice last year -- Vimeo.)
  • Alexis Kennedy on narrative in Sunless Sea, and also boozing it up on stage.
  • Sam Barlow on Her Story.
  • Adam and Rebekah Saltsman talking about how they decide what games to develop at their indie studio.
  • Jane Ng on the art design and implementation of Firewatch.
  • The development of the Hitman and Tomb Raider franchises into Hitman Go and Tomb Raider Go.
  • Tetsuya Mizuguchi looking back on 15 years of Rez.
  • I didn't even attend any of the Friday talks, such as the extremely interesting open-source release of Inkle's game engine.

I am not going to do per-talk writeups, but you can read Emily's posts (Mon, Tue/Wed, Thu/Fri). Also Aaron Reed's post.

Continue reading Notes from GDC.
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Firewatch: afterthoughts

I finished Firewatch last night, only a bit later than everybody else on the planet. (Catching up!) (I am not in fact catching up at all.) I see that Jmac has already posted about it, and I don't have a whole essay's worth of thoughts. So this will be a bit of a response post.

My immediate thoughts upon finishing the game:

Firewatch was a nice little story game that worked well for me. I enjoyed walking around in the slightly-stylized wilderness. The park was big enough for me to explore over a few days, but not so big that I got tired of crossing it (in a given chapter) or inhabiting it (over the whole game).

The designers had a great sense of how to vary the feel of the environment. Different "biomes" had different color, texture, and audio palettes. Time-of-day changed the environment, which is old hat; but FW had the additional axes of season (beginning of summer to the end) and the slowly-encroaching wildfire.

Yes, I had a sense of compression -- it was a pocket world made up of micro-worlds. But that's appropriate, really. I didn't want to spend a real-life week hiking back and forth. Similarly I appreciated the magical map locator. Yes, orienteering would have been more realistic without it, but I would have gotten fed up with that aspect of the game quickly.

The biggest strength of the game, obviously, is the voice acting. The biggest weakness (for me) was the midgame tease of the "you are a psycho" trope. I spent a fair part of the game thinking "Oh, they're going to do that damn ending" and disengaging from the story thereby. In fact they didn't do that damn ending -- spoilers, you are not a psycho -- so I got back into it towards the end. But it was a misfire of the story construction.

I also felt somewhat harassed by the radio-response UI, which was notably terrible on MacOS. Momentum scrolling made it difficult to stop on a given choice, especially with a short time limit, especially if the frame rate was down (as it often was on my middle-aged iMac). I feel like one particular misclick changed the whole ending of the game -- that is, not my character's ending, but the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion that occurs at the end. So that was annoying.

As for the overall narrative structure... FW doesn't push any particular boundaries; it grabs some familiar structures and makes a good job of them. E.g., the interpretation-of-what-happened discussion at the end. Or the way it reflects dialog choices into the game world later on. Or the game's introduction, which is not just CYOA-style IF, it's practically a Twine clone. (For example, it adopts the convention of highlighting the last few words on a page as a "next page" link, rather than having an explicit "click to continue" button. This isn't something inherent to Twine, but it's evolved in Twine story-game culture.)

That's all I've got. Glad I played it. Glad it was the size it was.

Now, onto Jmac's post, which I see is also about pacing...

Well, I didn't have the same problems. The transition to the focus on the two lost campers was kind of rocky, yes. But the game offered it up and I went with it. I'm generally complacent when the author gives me a push. (That's why I'm terrible at reading mysteries. I'll follow any misdirection without complaint.)

I did feel that the game did a poor job of linking together the two backstory-stories: the protagonist's sick wife and the lost campers. It's not that either of them disappeared from the game; but when one came up, the other faded away, and vice versa. So there was a disconnection there, but it wasn't between me and the scenery.

No, I did not find the cabin. Yes, I adopted the turtle. Then I forgot about the turtle until the last day. That could have been kept more on-surface. The turtle was fine, don't worry.

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My fast hike through Firewatch

I suspect that I did not play Firewatch at the pace it expected. In retrospect, I approached the game as a dual role-playing exercise, in unwitting partnership with the actor Rich Sommer, who so memorably provides the voice of player-character Henry. While I did love participating this unusual sort of time-displaced acausal improv, I may not have kept to the trail the game had marked for me, to my own detriment.

An earthy dude in every respect, Henry spends the whole game in radio contact with an off-screen colleague, and makes his opinions, desires, and emotional state all entirely transparent. Which is not to say blunt — Sommer portrays him with subtlety and sincerity. Henry is just not a man who hides his mood. And that mood is often I have to go do this thing, now.

I always took this, willingly, as a cue to hustle. While the game always tempts you to explore the woods freely using Henry’s (entirely diagetic) map and compass, doing anything other than making a beeline to his next goal would have felt like the letting the backside of the pantomime horse drag his feet while the front surged ahead. Despite my suspicion that the game would have allowed me to put Henry’s concerns on hold as long as I’d have liked to instead have him investigate odd spots on the map, the thought of it just didn’t feel right. Onward!

In so doing, though, it seems that Henry and I hiked right past a lot of interesting stuff, there in the game’s recreation of the Wyoming wilderness. Shortly after I finished the game, a friend asked whether I’d found the elk, a detail that a lot of players had apparently overlooked. No, I hadn’t found the elk. Today I learned that there’s a turtle of some interest elsewhere within the game, and a cabin. I did not find any of these things. I do not mind that I didn’t! I seldom obsess over “one-hundred percenting” games; I play until I feel done, and the ending Firewatch handed me felt like enough.

However, the fact that I did jog past all these sights made me reconsider how the presentation of the game’s story seemed unusually out of sync with my experiencing and processing of it.

Early on, we see some unsettling things, and we hear reports that people we’ve met earlier are missing. Presently, the main character becomes convinced that strange and terrible events are afoot, and that he or others might be in imminent danger. Shortly into the mid-game, these concerns become interleaved with a “B-story” regarding a boy and his dad who used to camp often the woods, long prior to the player-character’s arrival.

If I sound uncertain about these latter characters, it’s because I started learning about them while my focus as a player remained entirely on the tension of the “A-story”, all the scary stuff and unnerving encounters. I wanted to follow those, and see what happened next! The game, on the other hand, wants the player’s focus on the first thread to cleanly dissolve into the second, just in time for the reveals near the end of the story.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way for me. My Henry, in his hurried pace, started putting two and two together far sooner than I did, and began to speak his conclusions out loud while I was still jumping at shadows and thinking “Wait… who are these guys again?” The given denouement made sense, I suppose, but I still felt like I’d missed some important cues, despite my earlier efforts to closely wear the role.

Interactive narrative is hard, and interactive narrative that leaves pacing in the player’s hands — tying it to an explorable map, in this case — presents its own unique challenges. While text-based interactive fiction sits on decades of examples, beautiful, accessible, visually immersive “walking simulators” like Firewatch have only begun to figure it out for themselves. I very much look forward to more work like it.

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