The closed loop

"Humanity, loss, race, friendship, acceptance - heavy topics for any medium, and especially difficult for videogames. After finishing Minerva's Den, these are the things I'm contemplating regardless."
-from Arthur Gies' review on IGN.com

So, a couple of weeks ago, Minerva's Den, the story-based DLC for BioShock 2, was made available on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This gives me some stuff to talk about.

Firstly, the response has been quite positive, for which I am very grateful. We're up there near the top of the highest rated add-ons on Xbox Live, and last I checked we had 200+ reviews on PSN with an average user rating of 4.96 stars out of 5. Can't really ask for more than that.

It's encouraging because, as DLC, we were a small team without a ton of resources. I'm insanely proud of what our team accomplished, and I think our success was based on having scoped the project appropriately for the amount of time and personnel we had. The story in particular was designed to be told as economically as possible from the ground up, and yet we seem to have connected with people despite a lack of flash.

The ending seems to garner the most attention on this front, even though the reveal is two stillframes on a monitor screen and a couple of voice clips, and the denouement which many people have called very emotional is nothing but some empty rooms and an audio diary, followed by a narrated 4-frame slideshow.

The key, I think, is in trying to tell a personal story-- something that followed the arc of an individual's life, and illustrated his getting through a particular trauma. The specifics are very sci-fi, but the core themes of loss and longing are intended to be universal. I think that on some basic human level it's very easy to put oneself in Porter's shoes, and so the impact of his plight comes across intuitively.

Race is one issue in the DLC that, while touched on very lightly in the actual content, has been brought up frequently in the reviews and other responses I've seen online as a central component of the experience. The guide character is a black man: Charles Milton Porter, a groundbreaking computer scientist. His race is only mentioned once, in the audio diary "How to Get Ahead," and otherwise goes unaddressed. I think it's the kind of thing where the issue of race hangs over the experience implicitly, and that one single point of acknowledgment carries with it much broader implications that were already in the player's mind. I found the response on this point interesting, anyway, largely because I never thought of that diary as being a big deal when I wrote it, so it made me take pause and try to analyze just why it's struck a chord.

As a side note, I've been monitoring responses to the DLC by searching for keywords on Twitter and Facebook, and it's been interesting for me to see the relatively high representation of female players posting their thoughts on Minerva's Den. Rachel suggests that this might be attributable in part to female users having a greater tendency to post on social networking sites in general. Nonetheless, it's nice to see a relatively high volume of responses from players who don't precisely fit the typical FPS-playing demographic. One likes to think that they've made something that can be relevant to people who aren't exactly like themselves.

In any case, I want to take this opportunity once again to thank the immensely talented team that poured so much hard work into making Minerva's Den a reality, and to thank everyone that's taken the time to play it. This is the first project that I've led, and as writer and lead designer, it's kind of my baby; it means so much to me to know that people are enjoying the experience of playing through the thing. I should also thank Zak McClendon, Jordan Thomas, and the rest of the management at 2K Marin for giving me and my team this great opportunity. Check out the Secrets of Minerva's Den on the Cult of Rapture to see who else worked full-time making great content for the DLC (as well as finding out about some obscure Easter eggs and in-jokes.)

Finally, you might have (though almost certainly haven't) noticed a slight change to the blog: the daruma in the header image, one-eyed for so many years, has finally earned his second pupil. Okay, so it's a crappy clonebrush job in the header image, but his real-life counterpart, which I've had since college, also has depth perception now.

In a lot of ways, this kind of closes the loop on this blog: Fullbright began in 2006 as a progress journal for the very first amateur FPS levels I made, right out of college; it was aspirational, meant to keep me honest and encourage me to keep working toward my dream. In the interim I banged the drum about games being smaller, shorter, more digestible experiences; telling more personal stories at an individual scale; of maintaining a focus on fidelity and immersion despite a more modest overall scope and team size. And now I've managed to lead Minerva's Den, a product which arguably upholds all of the above values.

DLC benefits from the stable base of a AAA game to build on top of, and the strong support framework of a full-size AAA studio to keep the production running smoothly, while allowing a small sub-team to follow its own creativity, making a new experience within the possibility space of the main game's premise. I feel highly privileged to have been involved in an enterprise like this in the capacity I was able, and I feel that by and large the results speak for themselves.

And that's just it. Maybe this entire blog has been one very long, indirect way of expressing a desire to make work that can speak for itself, finally rendering this little internet soapbox obsolete. Maybe that time has come.

Thank you all so much for reading this blog and contributing to my thinking on video games and game design. You've all made me more able to do the kind of work I've always wanted to do. For that I will be forever grateful.

Thanks for playing.



Matthew said...

Congratulations, Steve. The voice of your blog will be missed, but there's surely an interesting road ahead.

Chris Remo said...

Hooray for youuuuu!

I can't wait to actually play your DLC. And well done on having maintained an excellent blog.

Vimes said...

I haven't played this DLC or Bioshock 2, but what you describe is what I've be looking for during the past few years in the DLC and episodic formats and in 'normal' games even.

The fact that it appealed to FPS players is great, but what sounds more important to me is that your team managed to 'forge' a pure FPS experience which completely integrate a story nugget and character centric narrative.
Even more so that in Bioshock, it seems.
That's pretty badass when you see how other titles in the genre wrestle to get something that remains compelling against the violence of the gameplay .

Anyway, good job to all of you 9! And on a side note, I can testify that all gameplay programmer wish for this kind of team size!

Anonymous said...

Minerva's Den, as a pure consumer (as I don't have any experience in game design or anything of the like)...was a 10 out of 10. 'Twas neat to see the 'Christopher di Remo' audio diary, all the ADAM jars with the names of the team who worked on the game and McClendon Robotics (Yes, I'm a big Bioshock nerd). The addition of CM Porter and his race was a great point that fit into the time period/universe of Rapture and brought depth into the game (from a storytelling point), intentional or not.

I hope that this is not the last adventure in Rapture, as it is a great universe, but it seems that it will be. If it is so, then I commend you and everyone who worked on Minerva's Den by sending off Rapture with a last great story.

Congrats "hot scoops", and personally, I hope you keep the blog rolling. AND, I look forward to playing my next Steve Gaynor game.

concerned reader said...

Congrats on everything, but don't close the loop! I enjoy your blog too much :P

Anonymous said...

Echoing Concerned Reader! Steve, your blog has been one of my favorite things to read over the last year or so. I can't tell you how much the Immersion series in particular fascinated me. You're a brilliant designer and person, and it would mean a lot to me personally if you kept posting! However, if you don't... thanks for the memories. :]

Gareth said...

No podcasts featuring "Hot Scoops" and no more blog?! I'll miss ya Steve. I never realised what that was in the header until now, but it is a beautiful sentiment. I could do with getting one for myself.

Congrats on Minerva's Den.