So it came to pass that last week I found myself in San Francisco, having dinner with EA’s top man on the The Sims 3, Rod Humble. You know, as you do. During dinner, accompanied by the head of Sims PR, Addison Ames, we chatted about all sorts, including the forthcoming Sims 3, and the Sims games overall. You can look forward to reading about that in the very near future. But today why not enjoy our rambling conversation about one of RPS’ favourite pastimes, indie games? We discuss lots of the games that have delighted us on RPS in recent times, while also covering essential subjects like whether rabbit is a sensible food choice, how games can peculiarly effect your life, and Rod’s interpretation of the ending of Portal. Pull up a chair, grab a plate. This all begins when Rod was making our heads swell by being kind about RPS.
Rod Humble: One of the reasons I love you guys so much is I know I’m going to get stuff that hasn’t been fed to you. I wouldn’t have found You Have To Burn The Rope myself.
[I quickly explain the game to Addison.]
Addison Ames: You have to burn the rope!
[He gets it.]
John Walker: It frustrates me that people compare it to Portal. It’s the anti-Portal. It’s the anti-irony-in-gaming. The most irony-free game ever. The twist is: there is no twist.
RH: It was perfect. It’s got full platforming controls, if you hit a key you can use your weapon, but your weapon can’t effect anything. It’s wonderful that it was put in. Here is the best bit of an entire game that we’re giving you. We’re giving you the one percent, the peak moment of the game, there you go. And I loved that. It’s just a masterpiece. It’s taking it to a great level. It wasn’t an ironic feeling – I genuinely felt I’d finished a game, and I was like, this is great! I’ve finished a game and I’m being rewarded!
AA: Like instant gratification? Just a few seconds?
RH: About thirty seconds. And then the credits song goes on for about a minute. It reminded me of a game a few years ago called Pax Galaxia, which was a little casual game. What it did was took all the good bits of “4X games” and summarised it. I remember playing that game and thinking: this is what I get out of MMOs, and someone had summarised it.
[Our food arrives.]
RH: Can I steal some of your fries? I don’t know how to do this elegantly. So, your omnibus. Here’s what I loved about it. I’d seen the Spore creature in the bus, and I don’t know how I bumped into it, but I saw where the bus was from. It’s some tornado game. From the cover. Tornado Chasers or something. To find that image was perfect. I loved that.
JW: Alec is discovering a whole new skill.
RH: Is this the rabbit? A whole strip of it.
AA: Be brave John. Try some.
RH: It’s actually good eating.
AA: I’m not sure John likes it.
JW: No, it’s fine. It’s not that… distinct.
[I change the subject from feeling guilty about eating childhood pets.]
JW: Did you play The Hangover?
RH: Yes, I did!
JW: What did you think?
RH: It gave me a headache! I loved it.
JW: It got really angry comments when we posted about it. People didn’t like it one bit. Kind of like when we posted your Stars over Half Moon Bay. Do you think people have a problem with art games?
RH: I’m friends with Jason Rohrer who did Passage. I love that guy. I think a lot of people have this nightmare scenario that there are this bunch of artistes in berets exchanging art theories. Well, that’s true. That’s exactly what me and Jason are like. We are exchanging art theories. He lives on $10,000 a year, in a carbon neutral house, with his wife and his kid. He’s really admirable. He’s doing it for the art. My favourite game of his was Cultivation. It’s a socialism game about running a commune – it’s the sort of game where you boot it up, and the first thing that happens is the NPC players come along and try to help you. Somebody needs to go back and look at Cultivation.
JW: How about Tale of Tales? They did The Path, and The Graveyard. Did you look at The Graveyard?
JW: What did you think?
RH: Those guys and I… we’re on the opposite theoretical spectrum. There’s a degree of tension there. I think the art of games comes from the rules and the interaction. I don’t want to summarise their opinions for them, but their art is the look, the feel, the aesthetics, and that you shouldn’t have any rules. Interactivity wants to be free. My answer to that is: that’s gibberish. In all of your games you have rules and interactions, you have a known key that when you push forward the old woman moves forward, or you don’t. That’s your opportunity to make a statement – you can choose not to do it. But just using first-person shooter controls… you may have an aesthetic, but you’re not digging down into what interactivity can be. That said, it’s a broad church. I think what they do is very interesting, but theoretically I think I stand on the opposite side of the field from their manifesto. I am the opposite of that.
JW: It’s interesting, because I find that playing The Graveyard and Stars over Half Moon Bay, both created a moment. I spent a strange and peculiar moment in this graveyard, my only reason for being there to die. That lack of motivation, a lack of a clear goal or ending, it creates this pause, this bubble of time. And the same playing your game, rescuing those stars, then joining them – there was a moment, captured.
RH: Almost all games as art, or whatever you want to call it, they’re generally short-form. They tend to be those moments. I’m sure that ninety percent of people looking at Stars over Half Moon Bay, or the Graveyard, will be like, “Yeah, it’s the same kind of stuff.” I’m sure that [Tale of Tales’] Michaël Samyn would agree with me that we’re entrenched at opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m sure it’s amusing to anyone who’s thinking, ‘Whatever! It’s all artsy fartsy.” But yes, both have this emotional moment.
JW: Exactly, it’s emotional.
RH: And it’s an unusual emotion you’re not used to in a game. That’s one thing I liked about The Graveyard. I’m not used to the feeling it created.
JW: Do you think your personal projects have ever influenced your professional development?
RH: A lot of it I don’t release. Because either it’s not good enough, or it’s career-limiting. I did one… it actually became a hit at Sony Online. I did a text strategy game called Retail Poison. It was a parody of the games business that would just get me fired. I can’t release that because I’d be out of a job. Most of them, I don’t think they’re good enough. In terms of informing stuff at work – sometimes I think I can get a lot out of my system at home. And when I get to work I can say, ‘Okay, here’s what I learned.’ I’d say the biggest benefit that EA gets out of it is I get to go through development processes a lot more than other studio heads. I get to make at least one game by myself every year. As it happens I usually make three or four and I release one, and that’s a pretty good thing to have. I don’t have any frustrations, I don’t think, ‘Oh I wish I could make this type of game.’ I can just do it. I think that helps. I love coming into work and being able to do a big budget, family friendly game, that’s going to make millions of people happy – that’s great. But I need both. I couldn’t do that without being able to go home and say, ‘I’m going to make something millions of people hate, and maybe six will like.’
JW: I’ve just realised – you could link the stars together in Animal Crossing on the DS.
RH: Yeah – I loved that game, but I never did that. Oh, and talking of stars, there’s those Japanese games where you have to find the star in a series of images.
JW: Yes, Yoshio Ishii.
RH: Is it Cursor*10 he did?
RH: Amazing guy. And he did the cats one as well. I’d love to find out who that guy is.
JW: We want to too. We want him to contact us.
[The topic turns toward those games that make us act weird in real life.]
JW: I remember the first time I played The Sims, after a long session, I had to get lunch and go out to a meeting. And I found myself managing myself like a Sim. It was taking over my brain.
RH: I know what you mean. It’s funny how games affect your perception of reality. I was playing Doom… I played way too much Doom. Actually, I now have to use a mouse with my left hand because my right wrist is gone from playing Doom so much. I remember walking around the office and turning on the spot in corridors like a Doom guy would.
JW: Did all the 3D objects maintain their perspective?
RH: It was so bad. It was wrong.
JW: I find GTA has a similar effect. I become blasé about killing, which really unsettles me. I can’t carry on playing them.
RH: May I say kudos to you for stopping playing any form of entertainment for ethical reasons! The one game that affected me, and it didn’t stop me playing it but it gave me a whole new respect for the game, was Defending The Reich. It’s a hardcore wargames simulator of the RAF bombing campaign over Germany, and you can play either side. It’s by HPS Simulations, and I posted before that it’s my game of the year. It’s a real bummer that it hasn’t had more press. What’s really admirable about it is it takes an absolutely loaded subject matter: mass bombing of civilians, or defending the Nazi war machine. It’s not like there’s much of a good outcome there. And it handles it in a way that isn’t bombastic, doesn’t give you an out, and is just really well done. So whichever side I play, it’s bad. When I play the RAF, I feel constantly guilty – the result is acres flattened. I think of schools and… wow. The imagery is black and white photographs of bombing raids and bombers. It’s very thought provoking.
JW: It sounds like each game should be alternated with reading Slaughterhouse 5.
RH: I don’t think the authors intended it. I think they just wanted to make a war game. It comes across as a very well balanced piece of entertainment.
AA: So who is the Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky of gaming? Who would be the long-form artist?
RH: Oh I don’t think there are any yet. I don’t think there’s enough interest yet. Not that I know of yet. Some of the interactive fiction you could say goes on a long time, but a sustained game narrative – I don’t think so. Some of that is cost-based. But it took thousands of years for other art forms to reach that point. It’s going to take a while.
JW: Interestingly with prose and poetry, etc, the means in which it’s published has stayed the same. But gaming seems to be constantly destroying any chance of progress – in ten years time goodness knows what games are going to look like, or how we’re going to interact with them. So does it have a chance of reaching that level of maturity, when it’s constantly reinventing itself?
RH: I don’t know, is the short answer. I still think… well, people still play Pong.
[The cheque arrives, the bill is paid, and it’s nearly time to go, when Rod remembers something.]
RH: Oh, by the way, I have a version of the Portal ending. Everyone’s got their own interpretation – I think mine’s the best. We’re just going to go with it. At the end when GLaDOS is saying, “Although you won, I’m going to be here a long time after you,” my interpretation of that is, the game is actually addressing the player. Which is saying, “You know what, as a game this thing is going to be archived, and in a hundred years from now people are still going to be able to play this game. And you’re going to be dead. So who’s the winner now?!
JW: I think you should write an ending for The Sims 3 as well. I don’t know how it happens, but there’s something you can do.
RH: Yeah, I love that. Closure, we’re done. You’ve won!
JW: You have to have a certain family, a certain size, certain people, a certain job, and then…
RH: Credits roll.
JW: And a song.
RH: That’s it.