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Still No Content For Old Men
“I don’t have time to play games” is an obvious lie I sometimes find myself thinking before correcting myself.
Everybody has time, but nobody spends their most scarce resource the same way. Most of us choose how we’re going to spend our time, even if many of our choices feel like defaults we are programmed never to escape from. When was the last time you decided to turn the temperature on your shower to anything other than comfortably numb?
I choose to spend what little leisure time I have reading fiction books by respected authors. This amounts to about 15 minutes a day, and more on the weekends. Oh sure, I read tons of non-fiction, but that’s not leisure.
I don’t spend nearly as much of my leisure time playing games — either because I don’t consider playing games to be a leisure activity (just as for many A&R execs for whom it’s almost impossible to disengage their critical faculties when listening to music), or when I’m watching my kids play games, or playing with them. In the former case, that’s a cross I must bear for being a professional in the industry for several decades. In the latter, games simply become a medium through which my family gets together, as has been the case throughout the history of humanity, especially in less digital times.
Why do I choose to spend my limited leisure tine reading books by authors whose reputation precedes them? Risk. The older one gets, the fewer risks one is likely to take. This is why insurance company actuary tables are so reliable — they’d soon go out of business otherwise. So I read Le Carré because although he won’t change my life, neither will he disappoint. My time is bound (until I fall asleep) and his writing is uniformly good, and sometimes spellbinding, taking me back to a London, a Britain, a Europe that I thought was lost and wrapping me up in the redolence of a simpler era when we took in the world more deeply, because there was much less to be distracted and deluded by.
The same is not true for most video games. Whatever the format I choose, there is a high risk that I will be frustrated, bored or angry, and I will resent having my limited time disrespected. If you lose a fortune when you’re young, you still have time and its compounding effects on your side. If you lose a fortune when you’re my age, who knows if you’ll make it to the grave in anything other than abject poverty. So we play safe.
Let’s not mistake playing safe with a desire to compress the dynamic range of an experience. That way lies modern dance music, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. Pacing in video games is a laudable attempt to introduce dynamic range, but the process of video game pacing is like the process of a weight training programme, except that you’re often left either to your own devices in a gym whose equipment you don’t recognise, or with a barbell twice your weight over your chest, with no spotter, and no muscles, and eventually, no face. That’s not dynamic range.
Dynamic range is more like that moment when you’re watching a movie and you’re invested in the characters and then one of the characters going through their journey delivers a line, the strings soar and without warning, you are welling up and there’s nothing you can do about it. A minute ago you were absorbed. Now you are invested and much to your surprise, heartbroken. Video games do this at a very simplistic level and for a limited group of people. There is a growing group of people, those with more time than money, who have families and can’t hog the telly playing Modern Warfare all night trying to recreate their youth and realising that they just don’t have it. Sooner or later, you grow out of punk concerts, you tire of leaving covered in phlegm and alcohol, you see through much of the faux-nihilism and you just want Debussy. Yes, I still listen to punk. No, I no longer go to the concerts. They’re not bad. I’ve just been there, done that. Mass market games are not the issue. The relentless tyranny of time is the issue.
It’s really hard to make games that suit my generation. You need to have tasted broadly of life to get through to me. I will for sure appreciate your graphical virtuosity and your technical prowess, but it’s sterile unless you take me on a journey without wasting my time. It’s really, really hard.
I can safely say that Floor 13: Deep State, a game made by my friend David Eastman (and which I’ve produced in the movie industry meaning of the term) fits the bill. Here are some of the elements that mark it out as fitting for an old fart:
It can be played in short sessions
It does not require a tutorial
The interface is absurdly simple (the only thing you can do is select options from a menu)
The world it creates is rich, evolving, chaotic, immersive, gritty and thought-provoking, while remaining responsive
I can make as many, or as few decisions as I like.
More decisions are not always better!
Better decisions don’t always work out!
Success requires thought, and multiple playthroughs, each one slightly different, each one having the same principles
It looks gorgeous, but that’s not the point
There is an extraordinary amount of nuance, layer upon layer
It sounds evocative, but that’s not the point
The writing is great and has style, character and humour
The consequences of your decisions take time to develop, but they do develop, and learning how your actions filter through to the world around you is the core of what makes this game special
Books are easier to make than games like Floor 13: Deep State. Books require that you have control over a single discipline: writing. If I want to make a game on my own, then I’m going to suffer from discipline dilution. It’s harder to make a game than a book. It’s harder to make a game than a movie. It’s much, much harder to make a game than a song.
If I have little knowledge of music (in my case, I have more than a little, but please play along for now), I can get myself a Digital Audio Workstation application and with all of its modern facilities, I can record a basic “song” on my first day. It might not be chart topping, but to get to the same point in video games is going to take a lot, lot longer, and the results will fool nobody.
Anyone can be a YouTuber. Sure, most won’t be Stanley Kubrick, but average writing and average cinematography (I use the term loosely) won’t stop you becoming known, and although the result might not be art, it will be entertainment, and some people will appreciate the entertainment value. Like it or not, any creative field that has a component from art, entertainment, technology, games, toys or sport will be competing for the same attention that video games do.
If I wanted to release a song, today, I could. That I know how to get by on bass, guitar, wind instruments, keyboard and so on is by the by. I could open up my DAW now and start composing and something that sounded like music could be shared with the world in a few hours, and it might be great.
Authors don’t have to worry about production values. Actors no longer have to sing, or dance, or fight. A songwriter doesn’t have to know how to play an instrument in order to top the charts.
A video game developer has to be skilled across multiple disciplines, or work with a team. Discipline dilution is the result of inadequate tools. Sorry Unity, you’re great for me, but your competition is Logic and Final Cut. The path from idea to execution is still intolerably long, and the risk for solo developers too great.
What is left of my time in video games will be devoted to solving this problem. This is my life’s work.