A day or two ago I went on one of those great, all-morning voyages, starting at one blog then skipping from link to link, reading new articles and presentations I hadn't been exposed to before, downloading new games and demos to try, and just generally soaking in a flow of information that organically led from one node to the next. I started at Clint Hocking's blog, which led to Jonathan Blow's blog, which led to a great rundown of interesting indie games, the transcript of a Raph Koster talk on the spectrum of subject matter in current games, actionbutton.net which is a kind of nauseous Tim Rogers endeavor but had interesting game reviewing from other writers at least, the Realtime Art Manifesto by the team behind The Endless Forest, and more. A good day.

So, via that list above, I downloaded some indie games I hadn't tried before, including Knytt, which is a legitimately lovely, atmospheric little platformer in the vein of Metroid, but with a completely different tone. It's about a dumb little cat who gets abducted by aliens, then must explore all different parts of a surreal planet to collect missing spaceship parts and return home. I played through it in a couple of hours and it made me feel good.

But, all this made me think: Koster is right when he says that mainstream (hereafter referred to as "big") games currently draw from an extremely narrow set of influences 95% of the time (Jake and Chris and I went and saw a double feature of Total Recall and Terminator 2 the other night at the Castro, and we were noting how almost every big action game in the last 20 years has been trying to recreate the experience of these movies.) And I'm sure that Blow would champion indie games as one avenue that consistently explores new and innovative territory in game design. I've talked with friends in the industry about how we wish games could portray some interaction besides gun violence with the attention usually afforded combat, and certainly non-violent, or at least differently-violent, interaction is one trademark of indie games. I want games that do new and different things. I want games to progress, to convey a wider and more nuanced range of experiences. So even though I appreciate them in the brief time I give them, why aren't indie games what drive me?

Over my years of playing video games, I believe that I've come to a sharper and sharper understanding of what specific elements about all the games I've played most interest me. Playing a wide range of games over time is an ongoing process of exploration--exploring systems, exploring your own reactions to the overall productions--one which eventually allows you to delineate just what it is about games that makes you keep playing, keep paying attention. In my case, I can sum up what I want to do in a game this way:

I want to fully inhabit a single, human character within a believable and functional playable space, to express a complete and satisfying narrative arc by affecting change in the gameworld itself through my own meaningful decisions.

And the above, taken in sum total, I believe lies outside the scope of the indie game sphere. Not that I don't appreciate indie games at all, but in my experience their strengths lie in a number of specific areas-- expression of meaning strictly through inventive mechanics; conveying atmosphere via primitive visuals and sound; trying out new kinds of interaction that haven't been explored before, through highly abstract means-- that don't address the above. Indie games can be groundbreaking, freed from enormous financial investment and publisher demands, but they can't, as far as I've seen, provide me the fully-realized gameworld and inhabitable player character that a big game is capable of.

Which is to say that I can still enjoy indie games, but only briefly, or from afar, at least in their current state. But with the technology available today, indie games could also encompass my ideal core experience that I describe above, given the right approach. Tools are available, relatively cheaply or freely, to construct fully-realized functional worlds in true 3D, but low fidelity (outdated big game engines like the Unreal Engine 2, the Half-Life engine, old versions of Lithtech, etc. as well as open source 3D engines like Ogre.) The form of big games hasn't progressed in exceptionally significant ways since the turn of the millennium; there is nothing being done today, mechanically, that can't be accomplished with the engine technology of 2001. A small, dedicated team, with just the slightest amount of backing, could create a complete game on the scale of, say, System Shock 2, but with an indie outlook-- a setting and cast of characters that expressed an entirely different experience than what is usually encountered in a big game, an open-structure, believable world that exists unto itself, a unique set of mechanics leading to new, progressive dynamics, new forms of interaction, and so forth. By utilizing the technology of yesterday, but the forward-thinking design sense of today, indie teams could convey the "big experience" in ways that conservative, high-fidelity big games aren't allowed.

Beside an arbitrary adherence to exploring the "old-school" space, there's no reason for all indie games to remain 2D, or tile-based, or side-scrolling, or shoot-em-upping, or any other standards of that realm. And with digital distribution gone from a reality to practically the standard on PC, there's no reason for an indie team not to build something amazing that goes beyond the miniature scale of most indie games, and deliver it directly to an audience that would stand up and take notice. I want to love indie games. But I guess I want to love what they could be, not quite what they are.



Justification 5

PC / 2002 / Developer: Illusion Softworks / Publisher: Gathering of Developers

Mafia is one of those games that I played through only once, but that single playthrough left a strong impression upon me, even years after the fact. Enough time has passed that it's no longer the specifics that impress me, but a general impression of the tone of the narrative and the gameworld itself. Mafia is one of those games that successfully used every element of the presentation and mechanics to reinforce both the setting and the character arcs woven through the central narrative, to achieve a rare sense of cohesion and gravity.

At the begining of the game, the player character is an undistinguished everyman, a cab driver in the fictional city of Lost Heaven, USA, during the thick of Prohibition and the end of the Great Depression. One night, he has a run-in with a couple of local mobsters, and helps them out of a tight spot. Eventually he is adopted into the Family, and through the game rises in the organization while completing missions in service of the Don. His conscience and allegiances are tested, and he eventually finds that no one makes it out of the Family clean.

The city of Lost Heaven, obviously a stand-in for Chicago, expresses the period believably throughout-- the architecture, cars, music, costumes, and general ambiance all echo what we've seen in pre-war film and more recent period pieces. Lost Heaven isn't outsized, and it isn't a cartoon, unlike the city settings in, say, the GTA3 series. The mechanics also present Lost Heaven as a real place: if a cop is around and catches you speeding or running a red light, you will be pulled over and have to pay a fine. The cars you drive accelerate and handle like the real cars of the period: slow off the mark, without a tight turning radius, and if you beat them up too much they'll grind to a halt. Mafia succeeds in placing the player in a believable space, one that acts like it should, that supports the fiction and creates a tone unique from other games.

Similarly, the characters come across as real people, with their own motivations and outlooks on life. One of your fellow mobsters, the DeNiro type, an enforcer like yourself, demonstrates that his first priority is always loyalty to the Family; another, the Don's personal accountant, has a wife and daughter, and his allegiance to his family and to the Family cause some of the central tension of the narrative; another, the Pesci stand-in, is more in it for thrills and the pay-off, but is endearing in his own way. The Don of the family is both fatherly and somewhat aloof, portrayed as slightly detached, but a figure that the younger mobsters can look up to in that anti-heroic way. The central conflict of the story revolves around the concept of Loyalty-- loyalty to whom, under what pressures, and what that means. What happens when the natural inclination towards compassion collides with the obligations of loyalty? When one is disloyal to the Family, can they ever truly outrun their past?

Mafia is somewhat like GTA, in that there's an open city, and driving, and shooting. But the game achieves an effect much more in line with my desire for a "GTA with gravity." It places you as a living actor in a believable city, wherein your actions have consequences, and the overall thrust of the game propels the player toward a comprehensive conclusion to a satisfying narrative arc. There are certainly more mechanical constraints on the player's actions in Mafia than in GTA, but that's what gives the actions performed impact, and maintains the cohesiveness of the setting. I remember thinking at the time that Mafia was the first truly "mature" action game story I'd ever played through, and while other games have tried admirably, Mafia still stands apart. It achieved this by consistently showing restraint instead of going over the top. Every developer should be so committed to fully realizing the game space they set out to portray.




Official update: I'm moving back to San Francisco, and I'm taking my job with me.

It's been almost six months now that I've lived in Sugar Land, 2000 miles away from Rachel. Work on Perseus Mandate is wrapping up, and I need to get back home. Rachel and I have both spent enough of our lives in a long-distance relationship.

I told TimeGate I had to get back to San Francisco by September, and they said, "Why don't you do that, and keep working for us from there?" So, I move back on the 16th and immediately start working remotely for TimeGate from my apartment. I'll maintain all my responsibilities but submit my work online, and be flown on-site every once in a while to collaborate directly in the office.

I have high hopes for the setup. I think I'll be very productive at home, and that my communication online and over the phone with my cohorts back in Texas will be effective. I'll look forward to my occasional visits to the office as well-- as I mentioned to the people here, it will be much more realistic for me to have a long-distance relationship with my office than my girlfriend. That much I'm sure of.

In any case, it's been a good but difficult six months. Here's hoping that the next six are even better, and much easier to live with. San Francisco, I'm coming home.