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March 2012

Seeking the light


You’ll be on your way up! 
You’ll be seeing great sights! 
You’ll join the high fliers 
Who soar to high heights. 
–Dr. Seuss

The best games are travelogues. Returning home, we regale our friends with tales of the things we did and places we saw. We battled five rows of eleven aliens for thirty minutes on one quarter! We joined the IRIS network. We commanded the Normandy. We fought. We puzzled. We explored. We ascended.

Was there ever a game more aptly named than Journey? Two years ago at IndieCade, I heard thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke share the studio’s aspirations for its new game: “A sense of wonder about the unknown. A sense of awe about an environment. Somewhere you feel very small.”

Journey delivers on those aspirations, but other creators (Fumito Ueda, in particular) have charted similar territory. What makes Journey special? 

Journey goes to a transcendent place. It trusts the player to mine meaning from a set of experiences facilitated, but not determined by the game. Journey revels in purposeful ambiguity, but the game is far from a blank slate. It would be wrong to suggest, as Ian Bogost does in his must-read analysis of Journey, that Jenova Chen and company have built an arid, see-what-you-will space. Bogost puts it this way:

On the one hand…Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table. On the other hand, the careful player may find the result as barren as it is receptive… [Journey’s story] could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or sloughing off madness. It could mean anything at all.

While I certainly agree that Journey refuses to communicate a facile moral lesson or adhere to a pat narrative structure - this game is not an interactive retelling of the “Hero’s Journey” - the game does embrace and communicate values that align with philosophical and ethical systems. Perhaps Bogost is right when he contends "surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game.”

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. We find that after years of struggle we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. –John Steinbeck

Thematic ambiguity invites interpretation, but when I play Journey, I see specificity. From where I sit, Journey is the most vivid and succinct expression of dharma and its underlying philosophy of liberation that I’ve encountered in popular culture. More specifically, Journey elegantly conveys sapta bodhyanga, or the Seven Factors of Enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy:

  • Mindfulness
  • Investigation
  • Energy
  • Joy or rapture
  • Relaxation or tranquility
  • Concentration
  • Equanimity (the ability to face life’s challenges with a tranquil and dispassionate mind)

These align with, and are expressed within, Journey’s seven main chapters (I’m purposely omitting the opening “tutorial-ish” chapter). I don’t mean to suggest these alignments are hard-wired, and multiple factors function simultaneously in certain chapters. But my experience playing Journey maps the sapta bodhyanga this way:

  • The Bridge - Relaxation/Tranquility 
  • The Desert - Mindfulness 
  • The Descent - Energy 
  • The Tunnels - Investigation 
  • The Temple - Concentration 
  • The Mountain - Equanimity 
  • The Summit - Joy/Rapture

Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend. –Grantland Rice

Journey is about ascending. Journey is about seeking Enlightenment. At nearly every turn, the game establishes a beacon-like light, visible in the distance, glowing atop a mountain or seeping through a crevice. The player spends nearly every moment of Journey trying to reach that light.

Each trial tests one's resolve, but Herculean effort or force don’t work here. In this game you proceed mostly by letting go; sliding, gliding, floating, drifting - your movements reflect the values of this world. You will not be spared saṃsāra (suffering, decay, death), but you will also experience transcendent joy. Both are equally valuable, each adding meaning to the other. Both must be embraced.

Throughout the journey, we’re reminded of the interdependence of all things. The wind, the sand, the rocks, the water, the snow. Each hinders and facilitates. The environment itself is your awe-inspiring collaborator and your soul-crushing enemy. Working together with another player empowers both and can bring joyful communion, but in the end you make this journey alone.

The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. –David Bowie

Games fire our imaginations in ways we’ve yet to fully understand, but gifted designers see a palette of colorful experiences richer than the ones we know. With Journey, Jenova Chen and his collaborators have given us a magic carpet ride that resonates deep in the consciousness of players willing to let go and take that ride.

In my next post, I’ll leave spiritual philosophy behind to consider Chen’s design philosophy, the architecture of FLOW, and “optimal experience.” As always, your comments are most welcome.

A week long Journey


"I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” –Joan Didion

It’s no fun being predictable. Writers savor the chance to stake out an unoccupied point of view, set up camp there, and launch word-flares into the air for all to see. It’s fun to bring people with you to a place they’ve never seen.

Journey makes that nearly impossible for me. I’m supposed to like Journey, and I do, just as you’d expect. I admire the game for predictable reasons. It’s artsy and beautiful and evocative. It has vision. It reaches up. To no one’s surprise, Journey is my cup of tea.

I loved Journey’s precursor, Flower, too and wrote evangelized about it. I interviewed Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago on my podcast, and I covered Chen’s presentation on his design philosophy two years ago at IndieCade. Now here I am waving my arms about Journey and urging all my friends to play it. I’m about as predicable as Bowser in a castle with a princess.

Lots have people have written glowingly about Journey; others, not so much. What’s left to say? Can I offer anything new?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll take a shot at writing about Journey (several shots this week, actually) because I have no choice. I’m compelled to write about Journey because I’m compelled to think hard about my experience playing it, and those activities have become inseparable to me, mainly because of this blog.

A few years ago I posted as often as I could to build an audience and, as they say, keep the blog monster fed. These days I primarily write when a game (or a designer, or an idea) occupies my mind so forcefully that I must write my way out of that place. A game like Journey disables me from considering any other experience until I clear my mental deck by figuring out how to fathom and articulate what just happened to me. It's like I need to get a game off me. Does that make sense?

I must write about Journey for a different reason too. I feel a powerful debt to the game and its creators. I can’t help it. I find this sensation of gratitude overwhelming. Have you ever watched an extraordinary performer exit the stage and felt an overwhelming need to say thank you? Have you ever just wanted to touch that artist, even for a second?

Do we compromise our critical credentials when we surrender so thoroughly to a game? Perhaps, but I say dispassion may not always serve best. Why should we not express humane sentiments when a game designed by humans (who devoted years of their lives to building it) genuinely evokes them? Maybe on rare occasions it’s good to bridge our critical distance when that distance separates us from our marrow of our experience.

So, this week, I’ll offer a post a short series of essays devoted to Journey. If I can manage to string together a few pertinent thoughts about the game, maybe I can more fully discern why I responded so powerfully to it. Maybe those reflections will shed light or connect me to others who may see more or see differently. Maybe I can produce something analytical that also functions like gratitude. I guess we’ll see. I'm hope you'll let me know.

As always, your thoughts are most welcome, including naysayers. For what it’s worth, most of my students shake their heads in dismay when I talk about Journey. They’ve seen or tried the game and just don’t see the point. I’m not prepared to dismiss them. Maybe I’m writing about Journey this week for them too. It seems we never reach the end of making the case.

The Brain Game


“I’m hungry for knowledge about the human mind." -Rich Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer, Naughty Dog

If you listen to game developers talk about their business, common themes emerge. Now that the dust has settled on GDC, I’ve been thinking about what I heard people say last week in San Francisco.

Last year everyone was buzzing about social games, the Zynga juggernaut, and Minecraft. This year, no particular issue dominated - though Minecraft still gets mentioned a lot - but I detected a prevalent thread winding its way through a variety of sessions and casual conversations: your brain. Or perhaps more accurately: your brain on games.

Designers have always been interested in why we play games and what keeps us attached to them. Salen and Zimmerman’s “Rules of Play” analyzes systems, interactivity, and “meaningful play,” among other design principles. Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens” (which predates electronic games by nearly 25 years) discusses play as a fundamental human function. Check out my booklist on the left for more titles devoted to game design.

Better games through Psychology
But lately developers have sharpened their focus on how and why we play, turning to human psychology and brain response mechanisms to better understand what happens to us when we play games. Rich Lemarchand set the tone at GDC with his talk, “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way.” Lemarchand (notably, a Philosophy and Physics major at Oxford) believes we overvalue “immersion” and “engagement” when what we really want is to grab the player’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game.

Psychology teaches us that no single method can work effectively because attention occurs in different forms. It can happen reflexively (e.g. a loud sound or flash of light), or when something new or different appears. It can also occur when we’re prompted to make a decision, or when the environment itself provokes us to move or think with subtle cues (e.g. thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey). Lemarchand believes a savvy combination of aesthetics, character stories and narratives, and gameplay systems must be weaved together to function cooperatively and touch each of these attention generators. Leigh Alexander wrote a helpful summary of Lemarchand’s talk for Gamasutra.

Jason VandenBerghe (Creative Director at Ubisoft) continued the theme in his talk “The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games.” VandenBerghe presented the OCEAN framework of personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism - as useful models for matching players with styles of game design. While he acknowledges we can’t always make one-to-one connections between psychology and game design, his own research suggests a link between, for example, Conscientious personality types and players who enjoy games that emphasize Challenge.

The Unconscious Mind
In his micro-talk on Thursday, David Sirlin (Sirlin Games) discussed the power of the unconscious mind, especially in quick-reflex fighting games. He quoted Capcom’s Seth Killian’s observation, “I can learn more about someone from watching ten seconds of them playing Street Fighter than ten hours of them watching an RPG.” Sirlin believes we underestimate the versatility of the unconscious mind. When we think deliberately, we can handle only a few variables at once. “But when there are twelve variables, we do better with unconscious thought,” he noted. The top players in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter rely almost completely such mental processes. Sirlin believes game designers should do more to exploit this potential.

Dave Mark (Intrinsic Algorithm) and Brian Schwab (Blizzard) delivered a talk called “Less A More I: Using Psychology in Game AI,” and called for developers to reject sterile, robotic NPCs. They urged programmers and designers to consider the psychological biases players bring to their experiences and encouraged them to imbue these characters “with simple affects to exploit these expectations,” rendering more believable NPCs.

In a separate talk on player motivation, Scott Rigby from virtual environment think tank Immersyve presented research suggesting the importance of understanding players’ “specific psychological needs and understand the various categories of motivation,” such as autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell picked up on the same three terms in her talk, citing studies that show players connect more with games that leverage these psychological factors.

The Emotional Puppeteer
Finally, the brain was the surprise focus of a famous, and decidedly NON-data-driven veteran of the games industry, composer Marty O’Donnell, best known for his work on the Halo trilogy.

O’Donnell believes the composer is the “Emotional Puppeteer” in games, and Bungie colleague Brandi House has been working with him to unlock how certain types of music provoke specific reactions in players. Through research conducted on Bungie employees, House was able to convince a skeptical O’Donnell that player-focused testing can map how music triggers specific emotional responses.

“Each piece of music has a unique emotional ’fingerprint,’” she observed. Harnessing this information can enable developers to more effectively trigger the responses they hope to provoke in players. “People are complicated,” O’Donnell noted. “Finding a common way of talking about emotions is not easy. We want to give composers some insight into people’s emotions, and we want this to be accurate.”

Quantifying emotional responses to music may strike some (e.g. this writer) as cold-hearted folly, but O’Donnell and House were plugging into a theme that received a lot of attention at this year’s GDC. Something tells me this data-munching genie won’t be put back into his bottle anytime soon.

Hitting the game design wall


Recently we've heard game designers, critics, and educators proclaim the limitless potential of games to do all sorts of wonderful things. They can make us smarter. They can teach our kids. They can help us better understand social and geopolitical issues.

Margaret Robertson (development director at Hide&Seek) has her doubts. This is worth noting because in previous GDC appearances Robertson has spoken forcefully, encouraging designers to summon their best selves and build games that challenge us to think harder, deeper, and more broadly. She consistently delivers among the most penetrating talks at GDC, and this year was no exception.

A funny thing happened to Robertson on her way to making the very kind of game she had always hoped to make. She failed. In her own blunt assessment, "I've been talking about the potential of games to deal with things of weight, important things. I thought this [project] was a great idea. It wasn't."

So, why did she fail, and what does this failure say about games and their capacity for addressing "things of weight?" This was the subject of Robertson's talk: "The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming." She promised "the bleakest GDC session ever," and she may have delivered it.

Robertson and her team at Hide&Seek were tasked with building a game to function as an online companion piece to "Dreams of a Life," a documentary about a woman named Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and lay unnoticed there for three years, her television still on.

"We were trying to make something real into a real game, a game about death," Robertson noted. "Games have a lot of death in them. We ought to be very good at it... This wasn't really a project about death, but about 'a death,' which is a much harder thing."

It was a challenging assignment from the beginning, and Robertson identified several factors that made the project especially difficult:

  • Aesthetics - The game was meant to accompany a serious documentary. "Is it going to feel right?" she wondered. How can a game help illuminate a sad and deeply disturbing true story? It was difficult, Robertson observed, to identify an aesthetic approach that didn't trivialize Joyce's story.

  • Timing - Robertson and her team needed to work in tandem with the film as it was being made, syncing with its production and release schedules. They had limited access to the creative team making the documentary, which was a passion project made by a small production company with no time to produce a film and collaborate with game designers.

  • Joyce - The documentary deals with the woman at the center of the story. "For us to present our own version of that story seemed unnecessary and substantially impertinent," Robertson noted. "Although you want to start there, it becomes a very difficult place to be." Producer Film4 initially suggested creating an explorable version of Joyce's flat, which Robertson considered "incredibly macabre" and inappropriate. Although Joyce was the starting point for the documentary, "we realized she couldn't be for us."

  • Budget - The projected game was never intended to be a AAA title, so Robertson and team had to work within serious budget constraints.

  • Compliance - Joyce's story touches on issues of suicide, domestic violence, and people who go missing. "We tried to be sensitive to these things, and these are very sobering issues," Robertson noted. But there were legal issues too. "When you deal with real people and raise questions of negligence," issues of libel may arise. "We were navigating in a very complicated space."

  • Not being an asshole - Joyce's story made Robertson consider how we make - or often fail to make - connections with people. If the game was to explore such connections by "digitally scraping sources" (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to explore how people connect, how often they connect, etc. "you soon realize you're starting to interfere with people's private lives," Robertson observed. This may "take you places you may have no right to go." Sometimes people disconnect or go off alone simply because they want to. The game couldn't comfortably exist in this domain.

  • Mission - Joyce was found by accident. "This terrible thing that happened, we just don't understand it." There was no 'mission' or discernible system to ascribe to Joyce's story. There was no 'goal objective.' Making a game to "save Joyce" or "get to her in time" "felt totally and thematically wrong" to Robertson. Such a game would be everything the film wasn't about.

Dreams of a Life poster

"At this point we began to get scared," Robertson noted. "If we don't use Joyce's narrative, and if we don't have a mission structure, what do we have?"

Robertson began thinking about systems and how she might identify something concrete upon which to build a game. "How can we boil this down to elements we can deal with that form structures?" The problem, which reflects the dominant theme of the film, is that Joyce's story is a lesson "that all sorts of systems failed. There was no system here, and that's the real story of Joyce's demise."

Studying the events that led to Joyce's death , says Robertson, reveals "imperceptible, longitudinal, tiny details" that add up to Joyce's story. When you try to apply a playable system to this, you impose a reductive structure to something that resists it. "You diminish it in insulting ways," says Robertson.

"A game about Joyce that can't be about Joyce" provoked Robertson to consider other options. She explored the possibility of putting the player in the position of navigating a series of rooms, solving puzzles to reunite people, reconcile differences, or make connections among important things. For example, the player could make a series of choices that cumulatively locate her on a matrix of Physical-Digital / Crowded-Alone, suggesting how our decisions and behaviors socialize or isolate us in the world.

Unfortunately, this design approach "failed to produce an experience that revealed anything worth digging to find." The moment a player senses his progress is being gated or monitored, he begins to second-guess the game. "You become self-conscious, and your choices don't really say anything true about you," observed Robertson. Role-playing games exploit this playfully, but such a system seemed ill-suited to illuminating Joyce's story or situation. More often than not, "players won't tell you what they think. In a game they tell you what they think you want them to think."

In the end, Robertson decided she couldn't make a game about the Joyce Vincent story. "So we made a thing that isn't a game. And it worked!" The interactive website "prompts responses to questions on society, friendship, love and loneliness...played against the backdrop of beautiful and haunting time-lapse imagery."

"We were able to photographically represent what we wanted to show and say. It is an interactive experience, but it isn't a game," said Robertson. "I really wanted to find a resolution, but couldn't. Maybe it's impossible to make a game with so many constraints."

Finally, Robertson asks "So what does all this prove?" She posits three "things that might be true":

  1. I might just be rubbish at this.
  2. It might be really hard.
  3. It might be a contradiction in terms.

"The minute you bolt game structures onto things that are real and important, there is a tension created," Robertson noted. Minimizing, trivializing, oversimplifying, being insulting - all these negative outcomes must be addressed.

Robertson's original view that "games can go anywhere! Games are unstoppable!!" have gradually evolved. "Now I have a more subtle conception of games." Games can't necessariy go everywhere, but Robertson doesn't believe that should frustrate us. When we begin to bump into the boundaries of what games can do, it may help us "better define what games are actually good at."

More importantly, it may also encourage us to find other solutions and to talk with each other about how we can work together to expand the reach of games. Her own failure may turn out to be the impetus for another designer's big idea.

GDC for dilettantes


I'm not a a game designer, but every year I eagerly look forward to the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I learn more in one hour-long GDC session than in a month of reading theory books or playing games. If you want to understand the inspiration, ingenuity, and complex collaborative process behind the games you enjoy, GDC is the place to be. That's why I'm in San Francisco this week.

The organizers of this year's event have scaled back on keynote addresses from industry luminaries - talks I've found generally disappointing over the years - and focused the conference's lectures and roundtables on the three major thematic threads that typically characterize GDC sessions: 1) How We Did It. 2) Big Ideas. 3) Where Do We Go From Here?

I try to arrange my GDC schedule to include a healthy sampling from each category. If you're a game design dilettante like me - a studious outsider to the game industry, eager to learn about its many facets - GDC is chock-full of sessions to piqué your interest. Here are the ones that caught my eye this year. I can't attend them all, but I intend to give it my best shot.

How We Did It

Journey vs. Monaco: Music is Storytelling
SPEAKER/S: Austin Wintory (independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Composer Austin Wintory compares the two radically different scores he completed in 2011: thatgamecompany's Journey and Pocket Watch Games' Monaco. Despite being different games with different goals and very different scores, the underlying philosophy for creating a musically meaningful experience was identical. This talk explores how large scale and small scale structures were made in order to try and create narrative arcs and how reconciling adaptivity with musicality was handled. It will also explore the production process for each score, including a look at unused music and the evolutionary process the scores underwent. The lead designer for each game (Jenova Chen and Andy Schatz) will join Austin for the audience Q&A.

Reimagining a Classic: The Design Challenges of Deus Ex: Human Revolution
SPEAKER/S: Francois Lapikas (Eidos Montreal / Square-Enix) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 134, North Hall

This lecture will offer an intimate look at what it meant to bring back to life a beloved franchise, from a design standpoint. Through examples taken from DX:HR’s production, we’ll discuss the challenges we faced, the decisions we made and why the game ultimately turned out the way it did. Macro decisions as well as low-level mechanics will be discussed.

Batman: Arkham City - Journey from the Asylum to the City
SPEAKER/S: David Hego (Rocksteady Studios) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:05- 4:30 Room 130, North Hall 

This session highlights the journey taken by the Rocksteady art team to create the Arkhamverse, started with Batman: Arkham Asylum and matured in Batman: Arkham City. From the concept stage to the production development, Art Director David Hego presents the key pillars in the visual narration of Batman: Arkham City, from the process of injecting Batman's DNA in every square meter of the game world, to the hyper realist take of the stylised rogue gallery. We will look at the different art influence, how to keep the player excited by the visuals by fighting normalisation and the lessons learned during the development of Batman: Arkham City.

Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way
Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:10 Room 134, North Hall

We use the words "immersive" and "engaging" all the time when we're discussing the things that are most important about great videogame experiences and yet, how well do we really understand the concepts that these words point to? Richard Lemarchand, lead game designer at Naughty Dog, will use this session to try and dispel some of the confusion about how videogames keep us fascinated, by introducing the psychological concept of attention to our ongoing conversation about play and games.

Attention! The process of selectively concentrating on one perception or thought, while ignoring other things has been one of the most widely discussed concepts in the one hundred and fifty year history of modern psychology, but it is rarely, if ever, mentioned on stage at GDC. What is attention? How does it work? What is its relationship with the overlapping phenomena of entrancement, compulsion and depth in games, and how can we use our awareness of our players' attention to make our games better? By using practical examples from his involvement in the playtesting of the Uncharted games, Richard will describe how you can use metrics data and other methods to get a handle on the elusive subjects of your players' attention, without breaking the bank on elaborate equipment.

Creating a Sequel to a Game That Doesn't Need One
SPEAKER/S: Chet Faliszek (Valve) and Erik Wolpaw (Valve) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl 

Erik and Chet will discuss how Valve created Portal 2, the sequel to the beloved game nobody thought needed a sequel. The talk covers the entire process from inception to the completion and reception of the game.

Landing On Mars: Our Rocky Path to Inventing New Gameplay
SPEAKER/S: Randy Smith (Tiger Style) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl 

Tiger Style, the indie studio behind this year's Waking Mars and the 2009 IGF Best Mobile Game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, is committed to creating innovative gameplay and meaningful artistic content with every project. Despite a strong background in design savvy titles such as Thief, Deus Ex, and Splinter Cell, the team learned that innovation is never easy or predictable. Numerous prototypes, several major revisions and a series of crucial revelations were survived before the concepts "action gardening" and "ecosystem gameplay" evolved from catch phrases into new interactive experiences the team was proud of. Join creative director Randy Smith through a tour of their well-documented experiments, mistakes, theories and victories to get a glimpse into what this award-winning studio has learned about the problem of inventing new gameplay.

Classic Game Postmortem: Fallout
SPEAKER/S: Timothy Cain (Obsidian Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:00-11:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

It's changed developers' hands several times, switched perspectives, and jumped from turn-based to real-time gameplay, but the Fallout series' survival and consistently high quality games are a testament to the original's strengths. The first Fallout offered players a post-apocalyptic open world filled with distinctive characters, moral dilemmas, and quests that could be solved in multiple, oftentimes unconventional ways. Timothy Cain, who was the producer, lead programmer, and one of the primary designers for the beloved game, will deliver a talk on how he helped create a franchise that set a new standard for open-world RPGs and still resonates with players.

Build That Wall: Creating the Audio for Bastion
SPEAKER/S: Darren Korb (Supergiant Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 11:30-12:30 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

You don't need a high-end recording studio and hordes of sound engineers to produce AAA quality audio for your game. How did a one-man audio team create the critically acclaimed music and sound for Supergiant Games' Bastion on a shoestring budget? By recording in his closet...that's how! Supergiant Games' Audio Director and Composer, Darren Korb, will walk you through his development process; from creating Bastion's eclectic "acoustic frontier trip-hop" soundtrack and haunting vocal melodies, to its innovative reactive narration and sound effects. Learn how to create high-production-value audio on an "Indie" budget, all by yourself, through the creative use of simple techniques!

Creating Atmosphere in Games
SPEAKER/S: Greg Kasavin (Supergiant Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 134, North Hall

Atmosphere in games is the hidden layer between the artwork, audio, narrative, and level design, and can elevate the experience above and beyond the moment-to-moment pleasures of the gameplay. What is it exactly, where does it come from, and how can it be implemented and used to good effect? And what do you give up by having it (or not having it)? This talk will answer these questions and more through the story of how our seven-person studio went about creating an atmospheric game on a modest budget in the action RPG, Bastion. In doing so, we will explore a methodical approach to creating atmosphere in games, stemming from a strong sense of tone and theme in a work, the goal of which is to provide a more seamless, meaningful, and internally consistent experience for players.

The Art of Noise: Incorporating Aleatoric Techniques in Your Scores
SPEAKER/S: Garry Schyman (Garry Schyman Productions) and Jason Graves (Jason Graves Music, Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Aleatoric writing (sometimes referred to as extended techniques) has been widely used by avant-garde composers over the past half century, but only recently been incorporated in scores for video games. Two composers in particular, Garry Schyman (Bioshock) and Jason Graves (Dead Space), have incorporated these techniques into their work, receiving much attention for their unique and award-winning scores.? This lecture will demystify this style through classical literature, modern film scores and the panelist's own video game scores, illustrating the real-world value of these techniques through written conductor's scores and accompanying audio examples.

Contrastive Juxtaposition: Contrast and Context in BioWare Story and Cinematics
SPEAKER/S: Jonathan Perry (BioWare) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:00- 5:00 Room 2016, West Hall, 2nd Fl

Creating emotionally engaging stories and cinematics requires the narrative, visual, audio and gameplay elements to work together to support the game's central themes. Using contrast and context as tools can help teams develop stronger story themes, create content that supports those themes and deliver the story in a meaningful way that doesn't rely on lengthy exposition. This session will examine how BioWare has used contrast and context in Mass Effect and Dragon Age and how these techniques can be implemented across departments to enhance the narrative and cinematic experience.

The Art of Uncharted 3
SPEAKER/S: Robh Ruppel (Naughty Dog) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 12:05-12:30 Room 132, North Hall

What goes into concepting a game at Naughty Dog? Join art director Robh Ruppel as he walks you through the conceptualizing of the latest installment of the Uncharted series. Color scripts, character sketches and environmental designs are all covered with never seen before art and sketches. This is an in depth look into the art behind Uncharted you won't be able to see anywhere else but at GDC.

Big Ideas

Interesting Decisions
SPEAKER/S: Sid Meier (Firaxis Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Long, long ago at a GDC far, far away, I introduced the idea that a useful way of looking at gameplay is as "a series of interesting decisions". This comment has since taken on a life and identity of its own and appears irregularly in theoretical discussions of game play and game design. While I have referred to it on occasion in game design talks, I've never really drilled any deeper into this idea. I propose to examine what types/categories of decisions are inherently interesting. How to we recognize or add these types of decisions, how do we maximize their interest, how does pacing affect decisions. What types of information and feedback are essential to fully immerse the player. Using examples from widely known games we'll examine how interesting decisions can improve your game designs in a way applicable to a wide variety of game types.

The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming
SPEAKER/S: Margaret Robertson (Hide&Seek) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 135, North Hall

GDC is the place we come to get excited about the potential of games. But what are the hard limits to how far games can go? In what might be the hardest game design challenge ever, UK studio Hide&Seek was asked to make the game of a documentary about the discovery of a corpse in a busy London block of flats: a woman had lain dead for three years without being found, without ever having been reported missing. She was 37-years-old.

How does someone fall through the cracks, despite having family, friends and neighbors? And how do you make a game about a real woman's death without producing something crass, simplistic or libelous? This is the story of how we tried and failed, and of the fundamental contradiction that we discovered at the heart of gamification. Note: It won't be as grim as it sounds.

The Emotional Puppeteer: Uncovering the Musical Strings that Tie Our Hearts to Games
SPEAKER/S: Marty O'Donnell (Bungie) and Brandi House (Bungie) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 2:00- 3:00 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Music provokes powerful emotions like anticipation, excitement, serenity, terror and hope from the players of our games. That means composers may be the most clever puppeteers in the carnival. Even great composers can benefit from a clearer understanding of how these strings are attached or, in some cases, freakishly broken. In this talk we'll illuminate powerful insights uncovered through user research about how people really feel in response to music in games. We will describe the methods we used and share the data we gathered using a variety of audio and video examples. Finally, you will be able to ask tough questions like "Does music make people feel heroic?" Why yes, it certainly does.

Cinematic Game Design IV: Character & Empathy
SPEAKER/S: Richard Rouse III (Paranoid Productions) and Marty Stoltz (Big Huge Games/38 Studios) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:30- 4:30 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl

More than any other medium, games have the potential to let players "walk a mile" in someone else's life. But for players to be truly immersed and see through someone else's eyes, players must empathize with the player character. Films have a similar challenge and over the last hundred years have developed numerous cinematic techniques that help define characters and make audiences empathize with even the most un-likable personalities.

In the latest installment of the popular Cinematic Game Design GDC lecture series, we focus on the issue of defining character and strengthening audience/player empathy for that character. A series of film clips that demonstrate specific cinematic devices for manipulating audience empathy will be shown, with each technique analyzed and assessed to see how it could be applied to a game. Clips from games that have used variations on these techniques will also be shown and discussed. As with previous installments, the talk is not just about cut-scenes, but how these cinematic techniques can be applied to gameplay itself.

Forgotten Tales Remembered: The Games that Inspired Leading Innovators.
SPEAKER/S: John Romero (Loot Drop)Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games)Jon-Paul Dyson (The Strong)Sid Meier (Firaxis Games) and Will Wright (StupidFunClub) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 11:30-12:30 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Every great art needs to learn from its past. Video games are no different. In this session, masters of the craft discuss key games that particularly influenced them and explain what aspects of these games are still worth learning from today. In the process, the speakers will differentiate between those characteristics of games that are time-bound or technology-dependent and those fundamental game-design choices that promote good play in any era. By revisiting classic games—and exploring what made them so good—today's game designers can learn from the past in order to sharpen their skills for the present.

Do (Say) The Right Thing: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design
SPEAKER/S: Joshua Sawyer (Obsidian Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl 

This talk addresses what continues be a major issue for developers: how to structure branching conversations in ways that feature compelling gameplay, accomplish narrative goals, and support player agency. Despite making increasingly successful games, RPG developers have not fundamentally changed their approach to structuring conversations in over a decade. With RPGs becoming more "mainstream" in the eyes of publishers and the public, now is the perfect time to do so. By examining ten years of conversation tree evolution from the original Fallout to New Vegas - and many other RPGs along the way - this retrospective will analyze what has changed for the better, what's taken a turn for the worse, and what designers and writers need to do about it.

GDC Microtalks 2012: One Hour, Ten Voices, Countless Ideas
SPEAKER/S: Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games)Dan Pinchbeck (thechineseroom)Heather Kelley (.)Mary Flanagan (Tiltfactor, Dartmouth College)Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog)Dave Sirlin (.)Erin Robinson (.)Brandon Sheffield (.)Amy Hennig (Naughty Dog) and Alice Taylor (.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:00- 5:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

The GDC Microtalks are back with another hour of short talks loaded with big ideas, presented by a host of your favorite game industry speakers! The Microtalk concept is simple: each of the session's ten speakers gets 20 slides, each of which will be displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing. That gives each speaker exactly five minutes and 20 seconds to speak about subjects that they might not otherwise get to address on-stage at GDC.

Join Amy Hennig, Alice Taylor, Brandon Sheffield, Cliff Bleszinski, Dan Pinchbeck, David Sirlin, Erin Robinson, Heather Kelley and Mary Flanagan, along with curator and host Richard Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog, as the speakers consider this year's theme, "Playing for Time". Don't miss this thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring session that never hesitates to shine a light on the many futures of game design!

Minimal vs Elaborate, Simple vs Complex and the Space Between
SPEAKER/S: Andy Nealen (Rutgers University / Hemisphere Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 4:00- 5:00 Room 3009, West Hall, 3rd Fl

What is complexity and how is it measured? How does one add or remove complexity? How does complexity influence accessibility?

Starting with an analysis of Chess, Go, and Drop7, the "perceived complexity" of a game is introduced. This concept is rooted in a combination of measurable systemic complexity, the variety of player choices, as well as the audiovisual feedback. By reducing the perceived complexity we can make systemically complex games more accessible to a wider audience.

Using a variety of digital and non-digital games, a few different ways in which game designers can influence perceived complexity are suggested. This allows the exploration of the space between "minimal" and "elaborate" without compromising on the underlying complexity of the game system. Ideally, this will encourage designers to create complex, interesting systems that players from all walks of life can inhabit, explore, understand, and enjoy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Virtual Actors and Emotion in Games
SPEAKER/S: David Cage (Quantic Dream) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 2:00- 3:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl

The creator of Heavy Rain talks about virtual actors, performance capture and art direction. Based on a tech demo presented to the public for the first time, he will develop how real time technologies can be used to create emotion and why he believes storytellers should be in control.

The Future of Japanese Games
SPEAKER/S: Keiji Inafune (Comcept Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 132, North Hall 

With Western developers dominating the market and the Japanese game industry facing an unprecedented crisis, Mr. Inafune will cut right to the important questions surrounding the future of this unpredictable industry. Together with seminar participants, he will consider current trends and prevailing ideas in game development, while also looking back to what we might learn from the past. This seminar is a must for anyone involved in game development or those with an interest in the broader entertainment industry.

Art History for Game Devs: In Praise of Abstraction
SPEAKER/S: John Sharp (Georgia Institute of Technology) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 5:30- 6:30 Room 135, North Hall

Abstraction-- the process of generalizing a phenomenon in order to gain new perspectives and understanding-- has been a vital tool for creating experiences in nearly all art forms. Games themselves are of course abstract systems, but as a medium, we do not take full advantage of all the ways other arts use abstraction to approach their art forms and to expand their expressive potential. John Sharp will look at the ways painters, animators, poets, comic artists, decorative artists and dancers use abstraction to expand, deepen and give new shape to their artforms.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
SPEAKER/S: Nicholas Clark (thatgamecompany)Rami Ismail (Vlambeer)Mathias Nordvall (Linkoping University)Robin Arnott (WRAUGHK)Alex Kerfoot (RPM Collective)Anna Anthropy (Auntie Pixelante)Mars Jokela (Self Aware Games)Kurt Bieg (Simple Machine)Bennett Foddy ( Sear (WallFour)Nicolo Tedeschi (Santa Ragione)Ramsey Nasser (Pizza Party)Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany)Daniel Benmergui (Independent)Steve Swink (Enemy Airship)Jenova Chen (thatgamecompany)Douglas Wilson (Die Gute Fabrik) and Pietro Righi Riva (Santa Ragione) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 2:30- 4:30 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

The Experimental Gameplay Session is back for its 10-year anniversary at GDC! In this fast-paced, game-packed session we will showcase a selection of surprising and intriguing prototypes made by innovation-minded game developers from all over the world. By demonstrating games that defying conventions and traditions in search for of new genres and ideas, this session aims to ignite the imagination of all game makers. Many games debuted at this session have enjoyed critical and commercial success- including Katamari Damacy, flOw, Braid, Portal, World of Goo and Today I Die. Come see what's happening on in the world of Experimental Gameplay and be inspired!

Uncharted: Golden Abyss


I consider myself one of the biggest Uncharted fans on the planet. More than any other series, these globe-trekking adventure games embrace the convergence of film and video games that many of us enjoy. While we may quibble about the aesthetic purity of games that rely on the language of another medium to convey meaning, I say there’s plenty of room in the interactive space for cinematic storytelling, cutscenes, and mo-capped performances - especially when they’re delivered with the attention to detail that’s become the hallmark of a Naughty Dog production.

Given Uncharted’s popularity and high critical regard, it’s no surprise that Sony made sure a new Uncharted game, Golden Abyss, accompanied the launch of its new Vita handheld system. Sony chose its in-house Bend Studio (best known for the Syphon Filter series) to develop the game, and Bend produced a game that looks, sounds, and plays very much like its console brethren.

“I think it would have been impossible for us to achieve that sort of Uncharted look and feel without their [Naughty Dog’s] help. They gave us their complete library to access for Uncharted 1 and 2, including all the mo-cap that they had done… That library of Drake animation represents six, seven years’ worth of work, thousands and thousands of animations, and there’s no way a studio of our size could have done it at that level of quality by ourselves.” –John Garvin, Golden Abyss writer and director

Relying on Naughty Dog assets may have helped Bend produce a game that looks and feels like an Uncharted game, but one pivotal element failed to make the leap from console to handheld: smart, character-focused writing. Amy Hennig, who penned all the previous Uncharted games, is missing from the credits of this game, and her absence is sorely felt.

In place of the warmth and sharp-witted repartee we’ve grown accustomed to between Sully and Drake - the best-written and best-developed duo in the history of narrative games - Golden Abyss introduces a fast-talking Joe Pesci clone named Dante, and the banter between him and Drake treads the tiresome “¿Qué es más macho” buddy banter worn thin by dozens of other games and films. Here’s a sampling:

Drake: (Referring to Dante’s sea turtle shoes) Those are fancy. They sell men’s shoes where you got those?

Drake: So now you’re a rock climber. This I gotta see.
Dante: Just don’t stare at my ass, and try to keep up.

Dante: (referring to a statue Drake is rubbing with charcoal) Don’t rub too hard. They’re gonna get excited.
Drake: Whooh. Jealous?

Dante: (climbing) Feel how worn these handholds are? What do you think? Three thousand years old? Four?
Drake: They feel like the ones at Mesa Verda. Remember? You were so scared. I thought you were gonna cry.
Dante: That was different. It was dark, it was twice as high, and I had a bag of pottery shards strapped to my back.
Drake: I saw tears.

This kind of misogyny-tinged dialogue may help fill the gaps between action set-pieces, but it does nothing to illuminate character the way Hennig’s dialogue so often does. When Sully finally arrives on the scene later in the game, he serves his purpose advancing the plot, but his dialogue with Drake lacks the familiar sharpness of Hennig’s pen.

More damaging than Dante, however, is the meager impact of Drake’s new love interest, Marisa Chase. She initially appears to be the kind of savvy, self-sufficient woman the Uncharted games have always featured, but Chase is no Chloe or Elena. Her sole function in the first half of the game is to be rescued repeatedly by Drake or wait for him as he climbs his way out of one problem after another.

When she finally reveals to Drake her long-withheld backstory, it feels more like a plot pivot than a character sharing a secret. Later in the game, Chase’s “will she or won’t she” dilemma about using violence adds a bit of drama to story, but she has had so little to do and makes so slight an impact on Drake by that point, the resonance of her decision is greatly diminished.

Hennig’s women push Drake, forcing him to consider his actions and his reasons for taking them. They complicate his life in dramatically useful ways, and their uneasy relationship with each other adds complexity to the story that’s sadly lacking in Golden Abyss. Chloe and Elena are women fully integrated into the Uncharted narrative and its protagonist’s life. Chase appears to be fashioned after them, but she functions more like a plot device than a developed character. She’s the granddaughter of a man whom the game is more interested in than her.

It would be easy to dismiss Uncharted: Golden Abyss as a glorified tech demo for the PS Vita. It’s certainly true that the touchscreen and gryo-sensor control options feels less intuitive (and often more irritating) than their simple button-press alternatives. Unlike Mario 64 or Wii Sports, which cleverly exploited hardware advancement as integrated game design, nearly all the Vita-specific additions to Golden Abyss feel tacked on.

But the Vita is a flashy new piece of kit, and Sony can hardly be blamed for developing a game that shows players all the cool new stuff it can do. I grow weary of swiping my finger across the screen when prompted, but most of the time I can play the game the way I want to play it.

What I can’t do is care enough about this Uncharted’s characters and story to make all the shooting, platforming, and hidden object hunting feel worthwhile. In the end, this game ironically proves Naughty Dog’s central thesis to be correct. Nathan Drake’s monkey-like climbing (except over objects he mysteriously can’t climb…like boxes), hordes of massacred victims, and uncanny ability to discover complex mechanical contraptions built by primitive civilizations - none of it makes any sense, really.

But it’s all so much fun wrapped inside a well-spun yarn with snappy dialogue, exotic locales, and sharply drawn characters we’ve come to know and love. Sadly, Golden Abyss is an Uncharted game delivered in a plain vanilla wrapper.