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Dark Futures Part 3: Jordan Thomas

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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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