Dark Futures Part 3: Jordan Thomas

By Kieron Gillen on July 5th, 2010 at 1:05 pm.

Jordan Thomas first came to our attention with Thief: Deadly Shadows where he co-designed the Cradle with Randy Smith. Next he was on Bioshock, with his fingerprints over all Fort Frolic. Then, he stepped up to Creative Director at 2k Marin with Bioshock 2. He’s highly verbal, scarily optimistic and wants to talk to you about the Immersive Sim as an Anti-genre, the death of seriousness and the growth of snark, Thomas Moore Utopian fiction and what Ion Storm Austin were considering doing with Deus Ex 3…

RPS: From the start… it’s been ten years from Deus Ex. How do you feel about that simple fact?

Jordan Thomas: I’m disappointed not to have a long, prehensile nano-beard. By now, I would have expected the law of accelerating returns to furnish us all with assorted sentient cyberparts.

RPS: Our cyberpunk totally lied to us.

Jordan Thomas: Beyond that, I think of the Immersive Sim as more of an anti-genre – but that the spirit of it is alive in several games. And the people who cleaved tightly to it, philosophically, are producing something in which you can trace at least the junk-DNA back to the old Origin and Looking Glass legacies. But elsewhere, you can also see that the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree – in the sense that we’ve got some games which seem to carry that magic more fully.

RPS: Warren framed the idea when Looking Glass closed up that it could be a good thing, in terms of these talented people with these ideas spreading out and influencing people all over the place. That was an agreeably optimistic take. Would you agree with it?

Jordan Thomas: I think that honestly, whether or not it’s a tragic soul-crushing bringing down of the house, or whether it’s a natural seed-pod like drift across the terrain … strong groups of creators do tend to disperse and form new groups. It’s just something that occurs. People either want to strike out on their own, or they have the pressures of family – or opportunities elsewhere – and end up forming something similar with a new vision.

I think you would have seen a significant dispersal regardless of the fact the place closed down… but I can still remember feeling at the time that it was a bitter blow struck against the kind of shift we were all hoping to see in gaming.

RPS: You said an interesting phrase earlier: Anti-genre. Care to elaborate?

Jordan Thomas: You have to understand that these guys were reacting, in part, to the assertion that a gamer could only handle one channel of interactivity – that a game should be toy-like, in that it should do one thing particularly well … and not try to be too big for its britches.

Putting aside the mixed metaphor of toys and britches, I think what they were looking for is a game that was trying to be a kind of subset of reality, augmented by whatever fictional tropes which would get to the experience they were targeting. Deus Ex originally began as a game that was far too real-world to allow their reality-bending ideas to take root – so they migrated to a near-future setting in order to keep you surrounded by real word affordances.

And it allowed you to build your own hypothesis about what you might be able to achieve – in that, enough of what you saw onscreen was familiar enough for it to be possible. But it also let you extend reality in ways which empowered you – to allow you have the tools to let you scramble the giant robot … for which you have no precedent.

By “anti-genre” – and Warren talked about this somewhat – they were reacting very strongly to the idea that the game should only be of one stripe. They took on more than a modern project would be allowed to, at least with their resources, in trying to bring all possible channels of interaction to a reasonable degree of fidelity. Some of them stayed pretty abstract. Some of them were fully fledged.

But they didn’t ever want to deny you adventure play, role-play, action-play. All of these things were part of the vision of being a secret agent in this grim, dystopian future.

RPS: Do you think that holds true today? As in, a reaction to what was before?

Jordan Thomas: I think we’re playing semantic leapfrog, in the sense of “genre is dead – long live genre!”. The minute you come up with a genre-buster – which is what I think they were terming it at the time – somebody comes up with a new title for that exact kind of game. And what we’ve seen on the development hilarity side since is, “it’s kind of like Deus Ex”. In that it becomes entirely recursive. Self-referential. Because you still need those short-cuts – a model people can test success against.

RPS: I got into trouble in the mid-00s in one of my wankier moments. I tongue-in-cheekly coined the phrase “post-genre”. As in, the 1980s were basically pre-genre as the genres vaguely started to solidify. Then the 1990s were the apex of genre as these strict things, in terms of what commercially dominated. And the 00s were about them relaxing, and the world being dominated by stuff like GTA which was post-genre. The “Genre-buster” is basically, in some ways, as a precursor of the 00s. It never actually because the dominant form – but it certainly foreshadowed a lot of change. Would you agree? And that was a very wanky question.

Jordan Thomas: I would give it an 8 on the wank-o-metre. Fortunately, I have much wank in me. I might be taking the question in a slightly different direction though. I actually think of Deus Ex as the last of Classical Modernism in video games.

In a lot of ways, the things which were allowed to be ‘cool’ – and were ratified by the shape of the era – were still earnest. The previous decade had pushed towards post-modernism in other media – so DX was on this knife-edge, where you could still do a game about big silly cyberarms and full-on ape a genre from a different medium… and you weren’t attacked with the same level of mockery as you’d get now.

The shift since has become incredibly self-conscious. More and more, the young developers I see coming up are repelled by earnestness. I think they’d like to see a more smirking tone to justify the thing, and give it its day in court. In many ways, Deus Ex takes itself very seriously – and the blend which it embodied has certainly gone underground since then.

Coming back to the type of game, pulling away from theme and fiction and moving more to mechanics as you were asking, yes, I think you absolutely have seen a movement towards minimal HUD, blended action / character-growth, even in genres where people would have previously argued that growth was too nerdy or too complex.

It’s been rolled on in layers, because several of the people who grew up with consoles are now catching up to where the PC market was in terms of complexity-appetite. Language-like, they’ve learned the basic forms, the basic grammar and are now hungry for the nuance, the honorifics and the slang that the PC market had before it sort of fell apart in 2000.

RPS: I remember when Morrowind arrived in the Xbox. It seemed to be viewed with a little suspicion by a lot of the console journalists of my acquaintance… and then went on to do very well. A hardcore PC RPG on the Xbox. It kind of felt like a moment.

Jordan Thomas: I wonder to what extent the fact that a straight-up RPG had a little bit of a shield. As in, I wonder how much the presence of the hardcore, stat-driven Japanese RPG gave Morrowind a little bit of a buffer against the forced return to innocence that other genres were suffering from.

When PC developers tried to adapt a complex action game to the consoles sometimes we, I think, tripped up. It was interesting to see that people responded to Morrowind so strongly. It had a unique art direction which didn’t look like anything else, and appeared to be a combination of something entirely new and targeted towards the 30+ audience who were starting to buy Xboxes. Remember that’s when the median age of the console owner was climbing, and people were realising how many adults were buying them instead of kids.

RPS: The trend I tend to identify across the 00s for the Immersive Sim was entryism. As in, PC developers trying to take a complicated PC action game and try and present it in a way which it’ll get a larger audience due to the increasing of costs. Would you agree?

Jordan Thomas: A game of anything resembling Deus Ex’s ambition – translated to the fidelity requirements of a modern triple-A console game – would take a significantly larger team, and therefore would need to make a a much larger sell-through splash to justify not just any future games of that kind – but also the survival of the studio in question.

That said, the world did go and get nerdier in the mean time. Things which were once alienating on one axis or the other, are now considered at least the base-line for what people will accept as pop-culture. You look at the Vampire phenomenon – these things are part of the zeitgeist now. Arguably even a little passe.

So it’s possible that we wouldn’t have suffered so much from being nerdy on the conspiracy vector and also on the cyberpunk vector. But I do think there is a lot more commercial pressure when you’re coming up with a brand new IP than there was particularly in the early 90s and late 80s – which were the heyday of Origin and Looking Glass, at least to a degree.

RPS: BioShock. Now there’s a game which you would have never presumed its theme would find a mass audience. Randian philosophy adventures. That’s what the kids want!

Jordan Thomas: That’s a good segue, as I know that you’re going to ask how that we – meaning, the people who still care about these classic cars of games – can ensure their survival.

BioShock is kind of a structured argument for layering – a tiered approach. You can blast through it as an aesthetically novel violent romp… and you don’t have to listen to word 1. You can be playing it in a language you don’t speak, and I think you’ll still find something to appreciate about it because it’s a creative shooter. People do respond to ludic depth regardless of their level of engagement with theme.

But it also has the front-story “gotcha!. Go on and pretend to be bad-ass, and we’ll tell you at some point you aren’t as bad-ass as you thought. Aren’t we clever? It was there all along.” Which is the kind of thing you’d get in a film narrative. And then it’s got this deep socio-political critique of extremism in its back-story – which is only there if you’re willing to mine it out. I think BioShock – viewed from different angles – is an entirely different animal, therefore survives. It may be a Platypus, but the Platypus still lives on.

RPS: I suddenly recall an editor I had back in the day. He played through DX shooting everyone in the face with a shotgun. Another writer I knew played Thief by butchering everyone. There was always the room for expression, wasn’t there?

Jordan Thomas: There’s an instinct – among some of the champions of the genre we’re talking about – to sort of belittle that play style. To look down on it, as simple minded. But the support for a valid path …of any kind… is one of the things which make those games so hard to build. And I think in the case of BioShock at the very least – and DX to an extent, though they didn’t polish their shooter mechanics to the same degree, the support for the run-and-gun, or the most straightforward approach was bone-deep. It was critical to not only the title’s success, but its versatility. That you could own your path.

RPS: Now, the more I think about it, the more my hackles are rising at that particular hardcore take on the games. As in, only the extreme expression counts. But really, it was always about your expression.

Jordan Thomas: To be honest, when I think of Deus Ex, I think of that same argument as expanded to theme – and more accurately, meaning. When I went out to Ion Storm in the first place, I didn’t really understand how critical it was that the meaning of the game was phrased as a question.

And I think authorship begins at least with this desire to guide an audience through a particular path so they come out the other side saying “That was impressive art! You’re a genius!”. I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with the Deus Ex designers, and time and again I struggled with the degree of agency they wanted to afford the player, which didn’t come naturally to me as a more narratively-minded fellow. Finally, I kind of got it.

There was an abortive Deus Ex 3 design after Thief: Deadly Shadows,where I was attempting to embrace that in full – a combination of something like Crackdown with Far-Cry 2′s emergent narrative engine.

Since then, with BioShock 2 and beyond, I’ve been thinking about the notion that between me – this gardener, who created this place for a player to wander and ‘pick’ their own meaning as they go… and the player, who will bring their own subjective bias to the table…there’s an emergent meaning which is – honestly – owned by the player.

That, I think, was the God from the Machine. That’s what Deus Ex was for me – teaching me that authorial control only takes you so far, and if you really want to reach someone, allow them to rip something from the garden … and take it with them, more personal than anything you could have said specifically. That was the lesson the game and its designers taught me, and it’s still one I kind of grapple with.

You get the other side, who say “Just take me on an interesting ride and I’ll be perfectly happy”, and I feel like that may indeed be a commercial strategy – but I don’t know if it’s expanding the medium. I think we do participatory meaning so much better. That’s what I’m kind of excited about these days.

RPS: A overblown metaphor comes to mind. Genesis. Designer creates Garden. Tells the player – do whatever you want to do. Oh: Don’t eat the apple. That’s a very immersive sim approach to narrative.

Jordan Thomas: I was thinking about this when we were talking about doing a written version – because I had gone way off into the wank-o-sphere [Jordan was doing an E-mail interview which came to an abrupt end when his computer went swimming - Ed].

What I was thinking was that whether you were a bomb-throwing anarchist, or suffrage-denying authoritarian, or a high-powered churchman… or a cultist, on some level, your argument is utopian. And I’ve gotten excited by the idea that games are the new and the optimal means of utopian and dystopian thought… that you can explore a set of ideas more powerfully in games specifically because they allow for that subjective editing! They allow for that personalisation.

I think that in the last 25 years there’s been a strong push towards ‘personal spirituality’ – that on some level organised religion simply isn’t agile enough for them. Not making an argument on that either way – but it’s a phenomena which I’ve witnessed. And I feel that games might be currently at the dawn of a new wave of Thomas-Moore-style utopian argumentation.

And where Deus Ex was kind of about Utopianism on a soiled canvas – what do you do when your parents fuck up this badly? – BioShock was more an indictment against extremism in all of its forms. It used someone’s perfect world to show how badly it fails when you introduce other people to the soup. That is the high I’m currently riding – and the one in which I think games can transcend all their progenitors.

RPS: Which leads smoothly to the final question – where now? How do you see the next ten years?

Jordan Thomas: I don’t want to overtly echo some of the other things you’ve heard, but I’m excited by the introduction of subtlety. As an industry, to embrace subtlety – and find the fun in stories without space-elves and cyber-dragons. To maybe have someone tackle Warren’s favourite ‘City-Block’ design which he brought out a number of times – just a series of buildings, and there’s maybe one bullet in the whole village … and how and why it gets used is what makes the gunshot interesting at all. The journey and the social ‘verbs’ distinguish it.

Outside of that, I’m also interested to see how multiplayer affects our idea of the sandbox. That games, on some level, are about giving you a kind of interactive chemistry set – “go to it.” If you blow it up, it’s your fault.

Which is fantastic, because they certainly appeal to people who like explosions – but they also have strong resonance for people who like to make themselves feel smart. What happens when you’ve got a buddy in on the mix? What happens when you’ve got physics-tools along the line like something like Garry’s Mod? What meaning – consensual, and participatory – might you craft with a friend who’s helping you understand right from wrong in one of these utopian or dystopian stories?

You can’t help but speculate … and tingle a bit.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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54 Comments »

  1. CMaster says:

    That was a very “wanky” interview.
    Interesting thopugh.
    I too, often think that the time has come where somebody could make the “single block” game design really, really work, in a way that in DX’s time wasn’t really practical.

  2. tome says:

    Definitely one of the smartest interviews on the nature of games I’ve come across. A very refreshing read, (and an easy one, too, thanks to Mr. Thomas’ commendable email-prose).

  3. Birky says:

    Fantastic interview – and definately one I’ll want to come back to and read again in a week or so.

    Nothing better than hearing from someone who thinks and cares about what they create as much as Mr. Thomas does

  4. Rob says:

    Wow, what a great interview, both interesting and insightful.

  5. Ben Abraham says:

    I don’t think Thomas was being “wanky” at all, he’s thinking about games in a very, very interesting way.

    • CMaster says:

      “Wanky” in the sense of very, very heavily analysing/studying things, pehaps to the point of overanalysing.
      Hence all the talk about the nature of genre, the nature of the cultural “zeitgeist” etc.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I wouldn’t worry about “wanky” too much. We were both self-deprecating our excesses. As in, if you’re going so far out, you need to show an awareness how some people will take it.

      KG

    • jeremypeel says:

      Yeah, I could hear where you would have been laughing in a couple of places, you knowingly wanky game theorists you.

      Being knowing is often mistaken for being a dick, when in fact it’s a tool for expressing how ridiculous discussing something might sound even whilst doing it. Some things just deserve to be talked about, no matter how easy a target it makes you.

    • Nallen says:

      When I imagine KG interviewing KG, this is the result.

      If you carry that thought on to its conclusion you end up with Rimmer World ;)

  6. Cooper says:

    I’m glad he mentioned that “city block” design.

    I’m currently replaying Deus Ex, and that’s what’s been the most striking for me.

    Many of the levels are built as self-contained puzles in-the-round. Thinking back to that mini-level before you arrive in Hong Kong and MJ12 grab the black copter.

    It’s been designed first and foremost as a working space, tiny, self-contained, everything in the design of the space (including the vents) has a coherent purpose, the puzzles are layered into it. Thief had this to an extent too.

    For all the references to Bioshock in this piece, that’s one thing it missed – The world of Bioshock was never really convincing as a working space (In the same way the Rickenbacker never really felt much like a convincing spaceship). It read much more as an FPS space.

    • Lacero says:

      Totally. We need a followup series called “On Architecture in Immersive Sims”

    • dspair says:

      I can’t agree more. Level design in an immersive sim is something that really deserves discussion and coverage. There is nothing more difficult and rewarding at the same time that trying to create a decent mission in Thief or Deus Ex, because you have to take care of everything, ftrom a little barrel in a rorner to a torch, because all these things and objects affect both gameplay and immersion. I call it a design on a micro level, but maybe someone has already come up with the more appropriate term.

      Compared to this, creating maps for Unreal Tournament is just making a well-balanced gameplay space (15% of work), and then spending weeks of adding polish and meshes (85% of work) that have zero impact on gameplay and immersion (becuase Unreal Tournament is not an immersive game at all). It’s boring as hell.

  7. Frosty says:

    I enjoyed most of this interview but if I’m honest I didn’t understand a shit load of what was said at points.

    Oh well. I’m just a bit wanky and stupid.

  8. golden_worm says:

    If your being wanky, I guess it means your creative juices are flowing.

  9. Biggles says:

    Excellent and well timed interview! Just trying to get to grips with story writing for games and this whole concept of a compelling question is a great way to focus and create something intriguing…

  10. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    Please, sir, I want some more.

  11. TeeJay says:

    I’m sure a lot of intelligent and interesting things are being said, but I couldn’t really understand what Jordan and Kieron were talking about 50% of the time.

  12. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    That was fantastic.

    Also, it (and Kieron’s piece) led to me rushing off and buying Deadly Shadows on Steam.

  13. Zapatero says:

    When some of the questions are longer than the answers, you know you are in serious wank territory.

    Genial ribbing aside (I hope my spell-checker doesn’t change that to “genital rubbing”), a great interview. I’ve actually not played DX1 or BioShock to any meaningful degree, but as an EVE player I feel I’ve been playing a “post genre” game for years. One might say even post-game?

    • Josh W says:

      I wouldn’t. :P

      Eve does emphasise some of the stuff he talked about there though with toolbox + people. As far as I know it isn’t so strong on emergent effects though, apart from those that arise from human actions: I wonder what the game would be like if you could cause damage accidentally more easily as a result of side effects of your actions, rather than it being the result of someone’s intentional sociopathy!

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      None of the questions are longer than its answer!

      KG

  14. DeepSleeper says:

    I came out of this wanting to see a game that’s a cross between Crackdown and Far Cry 2.

    I’m not sure what that says. But I want it.

    • Mungrul says:

      See, the thing is, while the repetition in Far Cry 2 dragged it down into the mud, I consider it one of the best examples of what games can do with stories to have come along in recent years.
      The interaction between characters (particularly the distressing death of buddies while “on-mission”), and the way the story unfolded greatly affected me, particularly the “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” ending. Although that may have something to do with me having read Heart of Darkness shortly before playing it.

      What I don’t understand is how such a mature, thoughtful story and examination of mercenaries and third world conflict got tied up in such a repetitive game. I suspect it got copy-pasted to death, with far too much filler material between the excellent set pieces. Indeed, I felt the game could have done with being at least a third shorter.

      But moments from the game will stick with me for the rest of may gaming life, such as the doomed shoot-out in the bar, and subsequent meeting with the Jackal.

      Here’s hoping they can take such criticisms on board for Far Cry 3.

    • Tim Ward says:

      [quote]What I don’t understand is how such a mature, thoughtful story and examination of mercenaries and third world conflict got tied up in such a repetitive game.[/quote]

      Two words: time, money.

    • Josh W says:

      That’s a good point actually, you have to be doing something while the story brews, and I wonder how much they played through the game, or whether they just set up the systems played them for an hour or so, and assumed it would have longevity?

      Weirdly I completely forgot that game existed, I wonder whether it was weakened by not having enough strange moments; it seemed very coherent, and I wonder whether more one-time quirks and expansions of possibilities would have made it seem more magical and memorable…

    • Tim Ward says:

      Or, they knew perfectly well the game suffered badly from repetitiveness but didn’t have the time or budget to solve the problem. The structure is there, the detail is not.

  15. Xercies says:

    Hmm i got that what you were saying was supposed to be intelligent and interesting. But i didn’t understand a word of it really.

  16. Richard Beer says:

    The Cradle was one of my most intense gaming experiences of all time, so Jordan Thomas gets a free pass in my book, but really… there are ways to clearly communicate your ideas, and there are ways to use cliches, metaphors, allegory and jargon to elaborate and deepen your ideas whilst making them considerably more opaque. This interview crossed that line a number of times!

    But that aside, it really is very interesting to read the thoughts of someone who clearly has a more philosophical approach to game design (sorry, someone who clearly considers the ludic zeitgeist when polishing the mechanics of agency), so more interviews like this, please. Only maybe less wanky with smaller words?

    • Bassism says:

      Personally, I didn’t find it overly wanky (wanky, yes, but not across the line.) The big words are used properly and intelligently, which is what big words exist for. When you’re thinking in terms of big words, you can’t just substitute them with smaller ones.

    • Richard Beer says:

      Big words are all very well but, despite my over-simplistic reduction, the size of the words doesn’t really matter. What writing is for, at its core, is the communication of ideas from one person to another.

      We could argue all day about the fine use of language as an art form, but if I’d given this interview I’d pause for thought at the number of people in this comment thread saying “Uh… what?”. Is Jordan Thomas’s purpose to spread his ideas or use language as art? Both have their place, but there are times when communication trumps loquaciousness.

    • Zapatero says:

      “loquaciousness”?

      There’s no need for that kind of language.

    • KeenanW says:

      I found the interview to be a perfect complement of direct-talk and art-talk; the ideas that warrant further examination get out there, and it’s a beautifully written piece. Direct information isn’t as appreciative as artistic writing. Overall, a wonderful and insightful article that I will read again and again.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      Direct language has its place, however often more expressive language is necessary precisely because it has a greater ability to convey nuances of meaning.

      Furthermore when you work in a medium such as games where the only way to truly understand something is to play it, it can be very difficult to accurately describe the sensation you want. It’s the whole concept of “dancing about architecture”; writing about games is as messy and awkward because you are trying to express the concepts of one form in an entirely different one. You see something very similar with writing about music.

  17. Bassism says:

    Very, very erudite interview.
    Makes a lot of the right points in the right places.

    Although I see only a tenuous link between DX and Bioshock at best, if so many people are linking them and feel that Bioshock is along the same path, I can certainly accept that it’s perhaps a buffer on the way to the real thing. Bioshock was rather different than, say, Gears of War, so it may just be conditioning the industry back towards acceptance of games like DX.

    Most particularly I enjoy Jordan’s thoughts on the potential for games to explore utopian/dystopian thought. I hadn’t thought of it before, but the interactivity and player responsibility in these games really does open new possibilities. I think he’s right in believing that in ten years, games in this mould might be able to finally meet the written word or film.

  18. Eight Rooks says:

    (Can’t be bothered to try logging in any more. Curse WordPress as a useless abomination, yea, unto the nth generation.)

    Good interview. Maybe a little too wanky – uh, self-indulgent in places, but still good. He – more than any other figure in the industry – is responsible for making me eat crow and love it; I couldn’t see the point of Bioshock 2, but while I accept it couldn’t exist without the original I still think it’s the better game in pretty much every respect.

    Although while I don’t mind wanky, and generally feel games don’t take themselves seriously enough, I still cringe at the whole ‘expanding the medium’ thing. The idea that nothing constructive can possibly be done with linearity and the tools afforded other creative mediums so hey, why bother, is ridiculous, lazy, self-defeating nonsense of the highest order. Molyneux or Spector have never made anything with the emotive power of Shadow of the Colossus or ICO. Hocking’s freeform narrative generator for Far Cry 2 produced nothing of consequence. Give me games which convince me you understand the possibilities afforded by the current technology and I’ll feel happy about you moving on to something new.

    • Richard Beer says:

      I found Far Cry 2 to be one of the most viscerally pleasing games I’ve played in a long time, but not because of the story or anything to do with my character. Sometimes I would look back over my shoulder as I was climbing a leafy gully and see the savannah shimmering in the sunset behind me and just pause to take it in. I could almost smell the heat of Africa with my eyes, and it made me yearn to go back there some time soon.

      Video game immersion isn’t just about character design and narrative, it’s about creating a believable and evocative environment. Let’s not forget that amid all this talk of game theory.

    • vanarbulax says:

      I think its similar to graphics, show me that you can create something new within the achievable limitations of technology at the time.

      Grim Fandango still looks great because they took what they could render (big, chunky blocks) an adapted it perfectly to the Day of the Dead look creating an unique style in the process. ICO pioneered and used bloom lighting beautifully since it was something new, fit within limitations of the technology and again was integrated into the core of the setting. Compare this with the awful use of bloom lighting by other games just because they can.

      Limitations fuel creativity and novelty.

      So in a similar way I want games to acknowledge the limit of technology but find an area we can explore and push and shape around that one idea. Prove you can generate something new and novel, then refine it, then you can move on. Sure you can push new fancy technology, and we should be grateful for this rapid advancement we have, but we also need a few people to sit down and play with what we have. Otherwise we end up with this entertaining and varied but sometimes empty “post-genre” (to ape the term) games based on mashing together old play with new tech. I think this is why the “one block” is so appealing, take the vast open world possibilities and technology of games such as oblivion and concentrate it, force the game to become interesting and creative in a limited setting, push new content and ideas not the engine.

    • John says:

      Eight Rooks: Actually I think ICO and Colossus probably have more in common with games like Deus Ex and BioShock than you might have allowed. I don’t think ‘expanding the medium’ has much to do with linear storytelling. BioShock had a very linear story. That’s fine. But something all these games did well was allow players to generate meaning from the gameplay, although in different ways.

      Deus Ex allowed you to play it in different ways, BioShock allowed you to be creative, and both told their stories through exploring their environments instead of through cutscenes. ICO and Colossus are different games, clearly, but the hand-holding mechanic is ICO is probably the most extraordinary part of the game in my opinion. That tactile link to Yorda communicated so much meaning, not through a cutscene or a text dump, but through the gameplay. Colossus, similarly, urged you to think about your actions even while you’re climbing on top of a magnificent creature and killing it. What these games have in common is the way they play to the strengths of the medium, instead of trying to be an interactive movie or something.

  19. Misnomer says:

    I think it is a shame that he is obsessed with open world now. I feel like his championing of narrative was what interested me most in his work. Unfortunately I can never see the critical acclaim for narrative in Far Cry 2 because I am like him in my inability to fully engage with D&D open world narratives.

    I still plug into games and hope they tell me a story rather than giving me a pile of Legos. There is fun to the Legos, but…if I make a spaceship with them it will not come out as Arthur C. Clarke (for better or for worse). When you make a narrative built on what a person brings to it, you are also limited to what that person is bringing. Game writers should not abandon the idea of showing you a world you had never considered and twisting it in a way you would not have choosen. Post-modern art is lazy in the sense that by claiming to be open, it is really just abandoning the resposibility and risk of meaning.

    I have heard so many creative minds say exactly the thing Thomas did in the 3rd to last question. I guess that is part of Zeitgeist now. There is a time when we have to admit that the people who made the art we love, never intended to make it the way we love it. If they had been able to achieve their visions we would have hated it. Their limitations were alligned in a lucky enough way to stop the bad parts from taking over (See Episodes 4-6 of Star Wars compared to 1-3).

    • Richard Beer says:

      This is a really good point and worth a big discussion in its own right. Giving people the tools to write their own story is all very well, but some people are crappy authors. Sometimes we WANT to be told a beautiful story by an inspirational story-teller and just feel like a part of it because we’re a character within it.

      George Lucas is a difficult example to quote. You’re absolutely right that IV-VI were good because of the limitations placed on him by the people on his team. The absolutely disaster of I-III are testament to what would have happened if they hadn’t been there.

      I’d argue that George Lucas isn’t an artist though. He’s certainly not a film director. He’s an ideas man who began to believe his own hype a little bit too much, and who created the prequels to appeal to the wrong people. He’s a creative guy, but he needs channelling by people who understand the medium better than he does.

      There’s a place for open-world creativity, and there’s a place for finely honed, ruthless story-telling. I don’t think one is inherently better than the other in any medium.

  20. vanarbulax says:

    This interview is great, just the sort of future predictions I want to hear about games. Completely agree that games have the potential to be the new utopian argument form, just I still think its a while before we can get the actual minute to minute gameplay and the overaching message to line up (case in point Red Dead’s complete dismissal of what it makes the player do versus the moralising it annoyingly puts forward).

    Also growth of subtely wah-hay! Once we start nailing and exploring the basic interactions with virtual worlds we can start messing with them, start being subtle, stop blindly telling the player everything and add doubt. I guess that’s what makes The Void so appealing despite it’s often tedious or broken gameplay. I think both subtely and communicating an interesting message both rely on more refined technology really, since a gun is the most intuitive control scheme and has comparatively small amount of outcomes than say social interaction or braving the wildreness to establishing a frontier settlement.

    Also I know this place is unbelievably reverent to Deus Ex, and I’m judging a ten year-old game from a current perspective, and it did amazing things for its time… buuutttt I hope the dystopian like Deus Ex isn’t what gaming runs with. It’s the worst type of badly acted, aloof, hyper-paranoid, unrealistic gritty-ism, suprise authority is bad, near-future techno babble that I have seen. I desperately want something ambiguous in my games and not in the “trust only yourself, your employers are actually evil” sense.

    Also wankiness is great, it’s only bad if never faced with putting something into practice to challange your view (e.g commenters such as myself who should now get some sleep).

    • Lacero says:

      I don’t think Deus Ex is quite that simplistic, the authority of Helios and the option of allowing the Illuminati to keep control at the end were both presented as realistic options. Much more so than the Dark Age option.

      I thought the ambiguity of the “right” choice was actually presented quite well at certain points of Deus Ex, although it was The Witcher. The Witcher almost belongs in this genre rather than the RPG genere really, it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the articles.

  21. JohnnyMaverik says:

    That was the best interview I’ve ever read. If wanky is wrong then I don’t want to be right, absolutely brilliant, take a bow.

    • Paul B says:

      Maybe not the best interview I’ve ever read, but it was very, very good and made me think a bit. And the wanky bits were at least well sign-posted, so why complain about them (not aimed at you, JohnnyMaverik)?

    • JohnnyMaverik says:

      IDK, this is the first time I’ve ever visited this site and I’ve honestly never read anything this deep and meaningful (bare in mind I’m not trying to say this was a spiritual awakening for me… god no) in an interview concerning games, the mediums history and potential etc… before. I’ve read a few semi’s but this is full on intellectual analysis, but not the stuck up straight faced kind either. It’s just refreshing I suppose, I’m used to the top ten tits in gaming articles and graphics > gameplay > story, type opinions.

  22. TeeJay says:

    What exactly is an “Immersive Sim” and which games does the term cover apart from System Shock, Deus Ex and Thief?

  23. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    @JohnnyMaverik: If you liked the interview, stick around. RPS is chock-full of this kind of goodness, I promise.

  24. nabeel says:

    Great interview.

  25. Gritz says:

    I can’t, for the life of me, bring myself to associate Bioshock or its sequel with the types of “Immersive Sim” game styles of Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief, Underworld, et al.

    They truly were “anti-genre”, whereas Bioshock sits squarely in the middle of the most established genre in gaming. Pretending that Bioshock is an evolution and not a devolution of that kind of design is dishonest.

    • D says:

      What I understood to be the point, was that Bioshock was released on consoles too and that it was a success. I’m not a huge fan of it either, but it did allow for interesting experimentation. So what I understood is that the success of Bioshock indicates a desire to return to the complexities of the earlier games.

  26. Justin Keverne says:

    The need for subjectivity and subtly are possibly the two most important things to take away from this entire interview series.

    Stepping away from the mechanical aspects for a moment one of the most memorable elements of Deus Ex for me was the idea that both the NSF and UNATCO have valid points of view. Even Anna Navarre, as overtly jingoistic as she may appear believed she was doing what she did for good reasons, whether you agree with them or not. For me this was a huge change from the very clear cut definitions of good and evil seen in most games, and I feel part of what justified both elements of the “Immersive Sim” moniker.

    Subjectivity and subtly are much more common in reality than in fiction, genre fiction especially, therefore its presence made the world of Deus Ex feel much more plausible. There were few absolute villains; even Bob Page could fully justify his actions.

  27. MrMelons says:

    (Sorry in advance it is almost 3am so this may sound more like a rant than a discussion.)

    Am I the only one that truly feels that games have become less immersive over the years? I seriously feel that our own technology has in some ways crippled our game development in that it costs too much to be experimental. It feels like every game has to be a success and therefore game creators are becoming more timid at the prospect of creating something different. I can honestly say that the most exciting revolution I have had in gaming since Morrowind’s(I had never played any other elder scrolls game so this was my first taste of this kind of game.) open world open story do whatever you want type game play came with the creation of Portal. It was unlike anything I had ever played before and even though it was short it left me hopeful for games in the future. Portal also made me wonder why other companies can’t do what Portal did in that I mean make a short game that isn’t going to kill you financially and try out some of these radical new ideas you have.
    I guess I am also getting tired of all these new games that are being hailed as immersive and amazing game play. Take Red Dead Redemption for instance, I love the scene, the idea is just amazing but it feels like GTA3 in the wild west. That may be a bit harsh as you can buy clothes and “property” in RDR and you can’t in GTA3 but what I am saying is that they gave you new scenery to look at but gave you an older game. What I don’t understand is that people can’t see that. I mean whats immersive about it, i can kill badguys…forever but I never see any change come from it. Attacks don’t happen less frequently, I can’t become the sheriff of the town after pretty much cleaning up every piece of trouble that comes its way. I feel like a stranger in RDR that isn’t allowed to live in the world, there is nothing that roots you down to the game, nothing to really take pride in and say, yeah I did that, or that happened because of my influence. Also, it seems that by giving characters a good or evil ending has become the base standard for “immersive gaming”. More than half the time in these good or evil games you play the exact same game with the exact same things happening to you 95% of the time where the other 5% is just when you do something bad…which is usually a very small act, oh and the ending cut scene. Bioshock 2 and 1 I just youtubed the extra ending because I didn’t want to play the whole game to see the 5% that would change in it, its just not really worth it and that sucks. Way back in the day when that whole different endings idea was new it was totally worth it because it hadn’t been done but now we know how it works and I at least expect more, maybe I am greedy I don’t know. I want to make choices in a game and really see those choices effect the game as I am going through it not just the last 2mins before they roll the credits, which are longer than the ending i worked hours to see.
    God I could go on forever about how disappointed I am in the gaming industry as a whole. I feel that like the movie industry the new theme for the gaming industry is to rehash the old and praise it as new but have less content than its predecessor. I am sure a lot of you may think I just hold my standards too high, but honestly the standards were set high by them with games like DeusX, System Shock 2, Elder Scrolls, Half-Life, Max Payne(bullet time) and we are still getting DOOM content games with better graphics and told that they are just amazing.
    I suppose I worked out some of my frustration tonight so I will bid you all a good night. Please if you reply to this I would prefer you don’t just call me an idiot. However do feel free to point out my flaws or whatever else you see as askew, I am always happy to see the other side of the coin. Night All!

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