AVC at GDC '09, Day Four: Wake Me When Your Game Does Six Dimensions
More Game Developers Conference
The most fun of GDC has been the accidental encounters with some of the medium's most interesting creators. My favorite chance meeting of the week came today in the PlayStation Blog Lounge when fellow AV Club writer Scott Jones spotted PixelJunk Eden creator Dylan Cuthbert nearby. Jones immediately grabbed the nearest Sony PR rep and got me a quick interview. So with 15 seconds to prepare and a tight time window, I dove in as best I could. Perhaps some other time I can ask Cuthbert the dozens of questions that popped into my head after our chat was over.
Cuthbert's resume includes all of the PixelJunk games—Racers, Monsters, and Eden. In an earlier stage of his career, he worked on the original Star Fox and on Star Fox 2, the sequel that was finished but never released by Nintendo.
The nomination of PixelJunk Eden in three categories of this week's IGF awards caused a controversy among independent developers at GDC, some of whom didn't think a prominent outfit like Cuthbert's Q-Games deserved or needed the IGF's recognition.
An expansion to Eden, entitled Eden Encore, is set for release on the PlayStation Network in April.
The A.V. Club: What is Eden Encore?
Dylan Cuthbert: We decided to go and use the knowledge gained by the original game and make five totally new gardens for the game. They have lots of new ideas in them, and we got to invent a few new gimmicks. It's come together really nicely.
AVC: On Tuesday, there was a flap over Eden's inclusion in the Independent Games Festival Awards.
AVC: The general takeaway was that some people in the community don't consider you "indie" anymore. Is that important to you?
DC: It's important to us because the whole point of PixelJunk is to be independent. I was disappointed to hear—especially because we couldn't be there. We couldn't be there to answer that kind of criticism. I thought it was a bit mean-spirited, really. If we're all trying to be independent, then I don't think it should be an exclusive club in that way. There are other small companies submitting their games to IGF. A couple of them won awards. I really don't see why they have suddenly become nasty, apart from the fact that the game's on PSN. But we had to release it on some platform. A lot of the other entries in the IGF are selling their games over the net on Direct2Drive, or whatever the system may be. It's the same thing; it's just that Sony's name is a bit more associated with PSN.
AVC: Phil Fish brought up in his rant that you had been contracted out for the PlayStation 3's interface—
DC: Yes. Separately, though.
AVC: How do you feel about this notion of—let's call it "disqualifications" from the indie scene?
DC: It would be very disappointing for a lot of developers if they could no longer be considered independent just because they do some other work. You get your work where you can find it.
AVC: Is there an indie aesthetic that can exist separately from the business considerations, or are they necessarily intertwined?
DC: The most important things about being an independent are that your company or group of people is self-controlling and that you're self-funded. And then there's also the spirit of the thing. The thing I really like about PSN—and [Xbox Live Arcade] as well, I suppose—is that they let on people like me who were originally very much indie. Back in the day, I made games [for corporate publishers], but there was really no avenue then to get games directly to the people. I like the fact that I can do this now with my own time and money and make games that aren't controlled by anybody else.
AVC: At a LittleBigPlanet talk yesterday, the creators of that game talked a number of times about how impressed they were that Sony left them alone and trusted them to execute their vision. With independent game creators gaining more prominence, are we going to see publishers take the LittleBigPlanet approach more often—a sort of auteur model?
DC: Only in very special cases. When it comes down to it, the person paying the money wants to be listened to. It's only in very rare cases like [LittleBigPlanet developer] Media Molecule, where there's a strong set of personalities running the company, and they set out the goals at the start—where they're saying to Sony, "Give us the money, but let us make the game." They were very lucky to be in that position.
Speaking of Scott Jones, he moderated a panel today, "But What I Really Want to Do is Make Games," featuring five ex-game journalists who have made the jump to the development side. The former writers all agreed that they would never jump back—Jason Bergman of 2K Games said that he gets to sit and chat one-on-one with Sid Meier about the Civilization creator's new ideas, and he has no intention of giving that experience up.
Granted, he is an AVC-er and a friend, but allow me the liberty of saying this panel kicked ass. Hundreds of people were waiting in line to get in, and scores of those were cruelly turned away by heartless GDC staff squawking about fire codes. The place was packed.
But I suspected an ulterior motive on Jones' part, so I scored a world-exclusive interview with him that veered into a referendum on Gears of War creator Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinski—or, more accurately, the Carolinas.
The A.V. Club: Was this panel your thinly veiled way of saying you want to move into game development?
Scott Jones: We're always curious about what our next act is. How can you play games and love games and see the scroll of people that speeds by at the end of a game and not think, "There's got to be something fun in that list that I can do"? There is a big divide between where we are, as journalists, and where the creators are. The panelists made the transition sound easy. But no, I would really struggle with it. Because I would worry that I couldn't go back to writing after that. And would I just wind up at some company making NBA Live 2009? It could happen. You go into the film business, you think you're going to work on, uh...
AVC: The Godfather.
SJ: Yeah. The Godfather 6. But all of a sudden, you're working on some Kevin Smith movie. [Laughs.] Look, writers have weird egos that, you know, seem impenetrable and massive at one second, and the next second, they're weak and tiny. I think that some guys have moments where they feel like, "Yeah, I can make your game! Why can't I? I can be CliffyB. Who is he? Fuck him!"
AVC: Great, now you'll never get a job with CliffyB. Cross him off the list.
SJ: I'm going to go on record saying I don't want a job with CliffyB. You want to go work in the Carolinas with CliffyB?
SJ: I can't imagine a worse fate. It would be like a Siberian prison camp.
That's all from San Francisco. I'll type up my Petri Purho interview and post it tomorrow night, and that'll wrap up our GDC coverage. Now let's follow Chris into dimensions untold.
If you remember just one quote from this afternoon's Experimental Gameplay Session, let it be this one: "Let's push this block into the fourth dimension."
This two-hour event, now in its eighth year, is a regular highlight of the conference. And organizer Jonathan Blow cited this year's crop as one of the best he's had: he culled over 60 submissions down to 10 presentations, and each of them was an elegant, fascinating, and brain-squeezing experiment.
We started with Ian Dallas' The Unfinished Swan, a first-person painting game. You start with an all-white, indistinct world, and you spray paint on it to reveal what's in front of you—walls, boxes, trees, or messages on the wall (like "I MISS YOU"). The gameplay video's fantastic.
Dallas explained that the spray-on-the-walls mechanic was really fun—to a point. As he put it, "People had a great time. For about two minutes." That led to step two: what could he do that was fun in this game? The solution was a of chase, where the player spots the tracks of a swan and takes off in hot pursuit. Dallas was inspired by kid's books, particularly Alice in Wonderland: "A girl falls down a rabbit hole and for some reason decides to pursue the rabbit." He considered this as a thin story for a novel but a great story for a game, where you don't need a whole lot of motivation. We want to chase the swan because we know it's gonna look cool.
Steve Swink, the next presenter, had also been working on a "spray some paint to reveal a background game." But after discovering Dallas' game he switched to Shadow Physics, a game whose main character is a shadow on the wall. This leads to endless neato mechanics. If the character stands too near the ceiling, he bends upwards along the surface. Move the light up or down and you grow taller or shorter; move the shadow of an object and the object moves too. This was another game that's hard to put in words but instantly makes sense when you see it in action. If only I could find a video.
During that first talk, Dallas joked about how he tried to avoid making yet another puzzle game to demonstrate his new mechanic. Most of the session's games were puzzlers, for a pretty obvious reason: it's an effective way to teach the player how the mechanic works and how best to use it. But I'll need a few rounds with the next game up, Miegakure. Miegakure takes place in the fourth dimension. And I'm not talking about "time": it's set in a spatially four-dimensional world. Designer Marc ten Bosch has created a game that takes Super Paper Mario one step farther: instead of just switching from the 2D to 3D to get yourself around an obstacle, you have to think about four spatial dimensions, and switch through those to reach your goals.
And it works. I don't really get how. I can't think in four spatial dimensions. But Bosch has a prototype that floips into 4D, and he says he could probably code it to five or six dimensions too, if he wanted. Oh, and there's a shadow mechanic too: if a 3D object projects a 2D shadow, a 4D object would project a 3D shadow, so ... okay, I'm lost. But just wait 'til the demo! Wow.
Now, you may have thought that time was the fourth dimension. That's not true in Miegakure, but it is true for Achron, presented by Chris Hazard and Mike Resnick. Achron's a real-time strategy game where you build bases, deploy units and wage war against your opponent. The twist? You can also send units back in time, to send your mature, powerful army marching back to the start of the game, where they can eradicate your enemies before they even have a chance to get started. Of course, your opponent can do the same thing to you. But you're both limited by how much chrono energy you have, and—well, it was complicated. Really complicated. All the rules of time travel apply: if you send yourself back in time, but the earlier you dies, the later you dies too, and everything you've done is undone, and the photo in Back to the Future starts fading, and ... well, I never liked RTS's anyway.
Here's a scenario they outlined from their own play experience, and I'll try to get this down correctly:
- Player A builds a base somewhere.
- Player B attacks it.
- Player A sends some units back in time to forestall Player B's attack.
- Player B grabs a thermonuclear weapon from the future and bombs the Christ out of everybody.
- Player A gets really clever now. He goes all the way back to step one, and decides not even to build that base, or station those troops. Now, when Player B's nuke lands? It only takes out out Player B's own troops! Gotcha! And player B is out of chrono energy, so he just has to sit back and lose.
"We've been working on this for 10 years," they announced. Well, they probably knew back then that it would get them into the Experimental Gameplay Session. And that all the RTS nerds in the crowd would go mental.
The only game that truly lost me was Where Is My Heart, which uses a "comic panel"-style design to fragment the screen, and there are little guys jumping around, and I didn't really get it. I don't know, you can give it a shot. For now, let's switch from elegant systems for bending time and space, and instead take a gander at the story games.
Chris Hecker's Spy Party is a game of deduction between two players. The scene: a cocktail party for spies, where one of the attendees is a live human being trying to complete a mission, and everyone else is an AI-driven decoy. Player number one plays the spy; player number two is a sniper, waiting from a balcony across the street and deciding who to pick off. The sniper's challenge is to figure out which spy is controlled by a human, and which are just AIs. It's harder—way harder—than you might think. In fact, when a handful of attendees got the chance to identify the target (using laser pointers), they guessed wrong and shot a civilian, which ends the game and hands the victory to the spy.
I linked to Daniel Benmergui and his game Storyteller yesterday, and it still looked fascinating when Benmergui walked us through some of the permutations. But he also showed off I Wish I Were The Moon, The Trials, and new game Today I Die. That game allows you to exchange a few words in a simple poem and change the course of the character's life: a woman who starts out tied to a rock and sinking into the ocean is suddenly freed, ready to fight sea creatures, and happy enough to swim back to shore and pick up the pieces of her probably shattered life. I mean, I'm guessing there's a rich story behind all of this. I just saw a little woman tied to a rock.
So I've just been recapping the newest and craziest games from the session. But we also saw games that have already shipped and in some cases, already been reviewed here at the AV Club. Flower is a darling right now, but Jenova Chen and Nick Clark's talk about the game used rough early prototypes to demonstrate how they arrived at the final concept. In the early passes, you control a wind that blows petals around the field; in another, you're steering a seed to a new part of the field, where it can plant a new flower with its own seed. Different challenges presented themselves in the prototype, from a race against a clock to patches of infertile soil that can end your game. The final result? GDC '09's second hippest indie, just below World of Goo.
I've seen the excellent Closure before, a puzzle platformer that uses darkness as a mechanic: you're trapped in almost total darkness, and anything that's shrouded in darkness is not actually real. Again, this is better played than described. But according to creator Tyler Glaiel, he's only released the demo, and he's planning to expand it further before a proper release.
Derek Yu closed the talk with a presentation on roguelike games, which are games based on Rogue, a 1980 ASCII-based dungeon crawl with some particular rules: The dungeon's redrawn from scratch every time you start a new game. And you'll be starting new games a lot, because death is always final and leads to the loss of all your gear and experience. Yu demonstrated a few rogue-likes developed by other people, including Dwarf Fortress; Real Lives 2007 (a game that casts you as any random person on earth and then shows you, based on real statistics, what you have to look forward to); and weirdly, a rogue-like about the Wu Tang Clan, titled The Sewer Goblet.
Yu showed us his game Spelunky. This title has been reviewed right here at the AV Club, and it's incredibly popular—and frustrating. A group of guys I spoke with on the way here agreed it was their favorite and least favorite game. It's available for free online, so make up your own mind.
Yu gave a good talk, but the nicest part came at the end. He told us that he likes the idea of "permanent death" in rogue-likes: one false move, and all your hard work is gone. At the same time, death gives you the chance to start over in a newly-made dungeon and a fresh new character. One of Yu's slogans is, "Death is fun." But at the same time, permanent death strongly appeals to him—because it gives death meaning.
In the fourth dimension.
So that's me—my fourth and final post from the Game Developer Conference. We have one more day tomorrow, and if anything great happens I'll mention it in the comments. Thanks to you all for sticking it out and adding your comments. [Ditto. The comments have been great. —John] I wish I could've answered more of them. And also covered more talks by Margaret Robertson. And also hooked you all up with some free beer. Maybe next year?