Apart from GameCamp a few months ago, this was the first time that I’d been to a proper industry event. A place to meet, greet, eat and drink with people that, hopefully, I’ll be spending intermittent time with over the course of the next decade. Fuck, man, when you put it like that, it all seems a bit more real, doesn’t it?
And I guess that’s the lesson I’m taking away from the Conference. I’m not playing around, not really, not any more. These people are in a business, and I’m moulding myself into a cog that’ll work within the machine of that business. I’m an unproved part of a vital piece of the machine that churns out more money every year than any other entertainment industry.
So I met a bunch of developers, and I met a bunch of journalists. One of my tenets that I’ve followed since starting was that, to be successful and get work, I have to be in the minds of the people handing out the work. I want people to think of me when they think they need something done, and getting my name out there is half the battle.
I think I’ve done that, to whatever degree, just by being around this week. I’ve asked (what I hoped were) interesting questions of interesting people, chatted with anyone that’d put up with me, and I did all of this without scaring too many people with my size. Let’s just say I’m not easily forgotten.
The business cards were a moderate success. Sitting next to Kieron only to find out he’s never had a business card is both encouraging and worrying; in that, he’s obscenely successful in the field, and he did it without handing out business cards. So I’m taking a step further towards professionalism. But then I don’t think it’s professionalism that Kieron made his name on. And by ‘I don’t think’ I mean ‘I know’.
Of course, flinging about business cards and buying drinks was hardly the main focus of the event, and there were a hell of a lot of interesting talks, not least the ‘How to Use the Games Press’ panel, whose audience must’ve been at least 80% journalists. But what do you expect when there’s so much self love going around? We’re bound to turn up just for a bit of ego stroking.
The other major thing I took away from this was the Games Devs are people. It sounds trite, cliché and above all else, obvious, but there’s something about hearing them talk and watching them that flips presumptions on their heads.
When I play a game, I’m not sitting there thinking about what was going on in years of its creation. I don’t think about the people who made it, and in that sense, I’m sure Brecht would be proud of me. But at the same time, when things go wrong, you do throw out this sort of half-formed, completely unfocused blame around, and in my mind it’s this amorphous mass of developer that get the brunt of it.
However, seeing specific people from specific parts of development talk about what they do, how they approach things, and the attitudes they try to bring to games has, at the very least, made me think about how to come from the other direction a little more. I’m an ardent believer that games are collaboration, and it’s one of the main reasons that they work so brilliantly. All games are Sleep is Death, essentially, and because of that the developer is important in a way that a film director is not. Or at least, the player is far more important than a reader or a viewer.
So we collaborate, and through that, it becomes this sort of completely separate but shared experience. Developers push out their game, and then you push yourself onto, and usually into, it, bringing with you all your accumulated experience and creativity, and through that you can make your mark, however superficial.
I attended a talk on User Created Avatars that had one of the art leads on APB and someone holding a similar position for Fable 3. Two wildly different games, but they were both talking about providing players with the ability to imprint themselves on the game in any way they want to, and have the game react to them. They’re like the straight man setting the funny up for the joke; it’s a spring board to launch yourself off of.
At the same time, though, they were talking about influencing the player and limiting them in certain ways to encourage, for want of a better phrase, focused creativity. To take APB as an example, (and however much I attacked that game in my review, it’s creation tools are phenomenal), they have a very specific and strong aesthetic in the game, and the creation tools are tailored to encourage people to create within that aesthetic. Jack mentioned how they chose the initial swatches in the creator weren’t the standard primary and secondary colours, but instead colours taken from the gangs and groups already established within the game. There was the ability to use the full spectrum, but most would just use those easily accessible choices, and as such they’d fit into the world.
When you present players with such tools, they’re going to start breaking stuff. Or at least, trying to. Collaberation doesn’t necessarily mean cooperation, after all, and while it’s a minor thing, hearing that your butler in Fable 3 is going to comment on the fact you’re dressed as a prostitute while running your kingdom almost comes across like an amused eye roll from the developers, allowing you to know that they knew you’d do this, but more importantly, they anticipated why you’d do it.
And such anticipation leads into the manipulation that is perhaps some of the most exciting stuff that was talked about over the two days. I attended a Film as Philosophy module in my last year at University, and some of the most interesting discussions were about how films often manipulate the audience, and how many of the greatest allow you to realise you’re being manipulated and shrug it off, analysing exactly how you’re being influenced and tricked.
Games have a scope for this. They have a much larger scope for it than any medium before. During a talk by Georg Backer from Lionhead, he started talking about the Banshee from Fable 2, and how it would use the choices you’d made in the game to attempt to pull at your guilt and start to self-reflect. In terms of manipulation, this is a sledge-hammer approach, but it works well as an example. Draw the player in, more and more, and you can influence them in any way you like.
My drinking partners for the conference heard me talk about this far too much, but God of War 3 is one of the most brilliantly manipulative games I’ve ever played. Despite everyone deploring QTEs, the degree of intelligence that Santa Monica Studios wields them with is stunning. To paraphrase Georg, drama is established by breaking rules, whether they be narrative or mechanical, and when you go against the grain and use established mechanics on themselves, you can do some brilliantly effective stuff.
Blood Lust is a term used a lot, and games have spent a lot of time trying to convey this nebulous experience. Some games attempt to evoke it mechanically, by making your character have sudden bursts of power and speed, perhaps, while simultaneously dropping their defence, The idea is that blood lust is a moment of reckless abandon where you throw yourself into the fight with no care for yourself.
Some just paint the screen red and hope that’s enough, but none have come close to what God of War 3 managed. Throughout the trilogy you’ve been building towards the climactic battle with Zeus, king of the Gods, and in your final fight with him, of course it shifts into a QTE to finally finish him off.
Whatever problem you have with taking the player out of it so much, you can’t deny that it’s an effective way of providing a suitably gratuitous end to the series. After a series of beautifully choreographed blows and dodges, Kratos finally gets Zeus down on the ground, and you, from Kratos’ first person, start to put fist to face. Press Circle. Punch. Press Circle. Punch. Press Circle. Punch.
It goes on for a while. It goes on for more of a while. It’s the violent equivalent of taking a joke beyond the laughs, into the absurd, and back out again, except it’s playing with player control in such a way that they’re fooled and tricked. The screen is entirely red, painted in the blood spurts of the King of Olympus, and the only feedback you get is the dull thwack of your knuckles doing irreparable damage.
It took me a minute, maybe two, to realise that pressing circle wasn’t a requirement to advance. Hesitantly, almost reluctantly, I removed my thumb from the abused button, and a few moments later the screen began to clear, and you’re just left with an eyeful of your handywork.
You see, I think the reason blood lust in games hasn’t worked is because it’s not about the reckless abandon. It’s about what you do during that abandon, and the sudden, brutally sober realisation of what you did once the moment has passed. It’s why God of War makes it work. It’s because they used your own hankering for advancement through violence to draw you into the moment. Your vision clears, and you see who you were moments before.
And that’s manipulation. It’s narrative, it’s mechanical, it’s audible, it’s everything that’s great about games, and every single piece of the experience is shaped to deliver this most powerful of moments. I think developers are starting to realise quite how powerful a tool they have at their fingertips, and if they can truly harness that power in such a way to completely fuck with our heads, then we’re starting to go in the right direction.