Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Making of REDUCTION: The Alien Swarm Campaign

Breaking My Silence

For the past four years, I've been silent. For two reasons:

First, I started up Core Talent Games Ltd, with some compatriots. CTG attempted to put in action many of the ideas that emerged here in the Grassroots Gamemaster blog. But I knew, when I started, I had to stop this GRGM activism stuff (or this complaining, depending on your perspective) and become a doer. So I shut up and worked on CTG, as CEO.

Secondly, during Core Talent, I made Reduction: an addon campaign for the Valve game Alien Swarm.

The preview campaign for Reduction is now finished (to beta stage at least). Here's a trailer:

I did Reduction because I wanted to. But as I did it, it sort of dawned on me that I needed to do it as well.

So here's my story of The Making Of Reduction...

Where Is The Game Designer's Voice?

I feel that the game industry has lost its way.

It has, in particular, been seduced by that whole Faustian game-design-is-psychological-manipulation trend. It has been seduced by big business a lot - where the whole objective is to addict addict addict. Addict.

Not that I think addictive games are wrong, but I want them to earn my "addiction" - I want to feel like I am alive when I'm playing them. Alive. Engaged. Not staring vacantly, like a ghost, for hours into a PC before returning to the misery of daily life. Not taking off two minutes, as one rides the bus, to waste time until the next stop... No. I didn't want games to waste time. I wanted them to be like real experiences. Vivid experiences.

When you encounter a great work, it doesn't waste time. It gives you time. It straightens your soul, and permits you to walk more clearly through delaying or dangerous ground. You find in it clarity, bestowed then on you, allowing you to skip ahead - to teleport through all the dead shit. This is how it gives you time. It removes burden.

Now what do we have? Corporate-driven game development. That's basically it. Corporate-driven. But even stranger - when you've done what I've done - now, institutionally-driven games. That's right: I've been involved in or around games financed by major government bodies. Games to train people to deal with pandemic management and with mass casualty situations (US federal), to promote the mining industry (Canadian federal and provincial there). Stuff like that. It's such a strange place to wind up in: making games in conjunction with bureaucrats or near-bureaucrats.

(I mean, there are good intentions in those games - teaching; saving lives. But those people don't understand games. And they don't trust the creative process: it's too... free-spirited. It doesn't fill out reports in triplicate, and adhere to doctrine or top-down command. It is... dead. I soon realized, the only way we could teach them the power of games was to do something beyond their control, then show it to them nearly finished. THEN they would get it. But how to fund such a process?...)


On the one hand, with games as a service - often using these strange metrics pored over by the "PhDs" looking for behaviour analysis - you have this bizarre situation: a kind of silence. We have these pseudoscience analysts hooking up the measures to the audience - like electrodes to their brain - to get the metrics that somebody decided were important (ignoring that that is a creative decision); to gather the data pushed out the other end. Listening. Listening so intently to the audience. Does it have a heartbeat here? Is there a brainwave there?


No. The "doctor" is now listening too too closely to the "patient". Because if he, gasp, stepped back - stood back and looked at the larger picture - he'd see that his patient - that the audience; the player - was blue. Was dying.

He would see that the patient has been waiting. Waiting. For the game designer to say something.


Think of how Valve self-declares it is now in the games-as-a-service business; and that now the authors of its games are going to be (surprise!) the audience itself! The gamers. And now, it just wants to know: Audience, tell us: What game do you want us to make?

In the comments following, immediately:

"Half Life 3! Duh."

"What happened to Half Life 3?"

"Did they just abandon that?"

...Repeated over and over and over again.

The audience is waiting for you to speak, but you are lost trying to psychoanalyze them with statistics.

The audience is listening for our voice. But mostly it is silent.

Silent... Listening for the audience to tell us what our voice should say. Should be.

But they don't know what our voice should be. They, the audience, have no voice. Not from that deeper deeper reach. That is why they are the audience. They listen.

They don't tell us what story, what game, what experience they want, and then wait until we parrot it back to them.

No. They say, "Show me something new! Something I've never seen or heard, never imagined. Ever! Give me an experience that rings so true it makes the hairs raise up the back of my neck! Put a new thought or a new feeling in front of me, so hot to the touch it feels like a burning cinder in my flesh!"

Imagine that.

Do you know, in the past, artists were executed for their work? That's how seriously the Listeners can believe in the Authors.

(Have you ever heard of a government  wanting to execute a game designer? No. Why not? Don't worry about them... They have nothing to say.)

(Well... With the exception of the anti-violence crowd.)

When the Authors have fallen silent, the Listeners are mystified.

We wind up in perfect feedback loop of silence. Deathly.

Deathly because, to the audience, our Leadership - our Authorship - is the oxygen that they need. But we aren't speaking; we're just listening.

And so they are suffocating. Waiting for our oxygen.

The Audience is waiting for us to breathe our voice into them. So we can resuscitate their souls.

But we won't. We have surrendered our voice to the suits.

So I just decided to do a game. A game campaign actually. A project that was a very personal project for me. Through which I could entertain, could challenge, could speak.

That was how Reduction began.