PJ VOGT: And then how do you know when you’ve got a story that works? Like, a story that’s compelling enough to sustain, you know, twenty, thirty, forty hours of game play?
TIM SCHAFER: Well, like, when I was researching Day of the Dead, and I hit on this one important part of the folklore is about, um, after you die you just, your soul makes a four year journey across the land of the dead, and that just sounded like a quest to me, that sounded like a quest for an adventure game. And starting to put together, you know, who was the protagonist, and then who was the antagonist, and that tension between them really creates some, you know most of the things you’re going to use in your plot. So, I was really into film noir at the time, and watching old film noir like, The Big Sleep, and things like Chinatown, and looking at the plot of Chinatown and how the plot took control of the water of Southern California, and that scam was going on, and just having a great villain who has a great scheme afoot that your noir hero just accidently stumbles into and then gets pulled into this darker, shadowy world. You know a lot of things that seem really creative are really just you sitting down and just answering a series of questions, like okay, ‘How am I going to provide some opposition to this main character? What is the bad guy up to?’ That’s always a question that I’m writing to myself in my notebook. ‘What is the bad guy up to?’ And at first it was gonna be—I’m just gonna do a real-estate scam just like Chinatown, so I had the bad guy, you know, selling off plots of land in some evil way and then I realized, no one probably wants to buy a plot of land, and in the Land of the Dead they’re trying to get through it—so it’s got to be a travel agent. Okay so Manny Calavera will be a travel agent cause that’s what people want to do, they want to get out of the Land of the Dead. So he’s gonna set up a travel package for them, and how is the bad guy using that to his advantage. Then—then it just writes itself after that, so easy.
At a TIFF Nexus event there was a great panel on how the upcoming Neuromancer film and game are being developed in sync with one another. The panelist cover the business and creative side of adopting a book to other mediums as well as the difficulties in developing both at the same time.
Jonathan Blow is the main dude behind the really nifty video game Braid and he’s been making a new game called Witness. Both of these games explore storytelling in new and interesting ways that push the medium of video games to the edge. It’s really neat to see how an independent developer can really push the boundaries and be quite successful commercially.
Edge magazine interviewed him recently and in the interview he talks about everything from storytelling to industry issues to his thoughts on Minecraft.
Here are some snippets I found to be particularly interesting.
Here he talks about puzzles and linearity, I enjoy his take on fake puzzles because I think we all get frustrated by them.
Is The Witness playable from start to finish yet?
Yeah, but I recently broke the ending again! I moved a building and didn’t really hook the design back up again. But you can play it from start to finish in about ten hours or more. Especially if you want to be a completionist, because you don’t have to get everything to finish. It’s a choice. As soon as you get any five of seven [challenges], you can get access to the end. It lets me keep the puzzles really hard sometimes because I don’t expect players to solve them all. In many modern linear games it’s as if puzzles have been beaten out of them. They’re still there, but they’re fake puzzles. It gets to be almost a stupid time-wasting activity a lot of the time. To me a puzzle is something you might never figure out, but a lot of modern game design just isn’t conducive to that. If you come to a puzzle in a linear game that you can’t get, then you can’t play the rest of the game you just paid for.
On the business side the most inspirational thing he says is in regards to funding and profit (of all things).
You’re self-publishing The Witness – what do you need for it to break even?
We have a two million dollar budget, but to make that money back this game doesn’t have to sell as many as Braid did. So it’s not super risky. I don’t think there’s much competition with a game like this. But I think there’s a lot of people who want to play a game like this. Even if it’s ten per cent of gamers, to an indie developer that’s huge. As a small developer you have certain freedoms. Embracing the possibility of not selling any games and not making any money allows you to do things that bigger developers would never be allowed to do. Even if a publisher said they would fund such a game as this, after a while they would stop you. Try and justify The Witness to a publisher who doesn’t really play games!