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Level with Me, Davey Wreden.

discrete binary branches

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“Level with Me” is a series of conversations about level design between modder Robert Yang and a level designer of a first person game. At the end of each interview, they collaborate on a Portal 2 level shared across all the sessions – and at the very end of the series, you’ll get to download and play this “roundtable level.” This is Part 5 of 7.

When Davey Wreden made The Stanley Parable, a Source mod about the dissonance between game narrative and free will (among other things), it quickly went viral and surprised a mod community that thought Source mods were already dead. Now, he’s currently collaborating on an extended remake / reboot of The Stanley Parable and other projects.

Robert Yang: So, how’s your life going?

Davey Wreden: Well I’ve just graduated from USC, where I had the privilege of being around people who were excited about what they were doing, with faculty and staff who really got what was going on. I don’t see that a lot. Like, my brother’s at [UC] Berkeley, and they have nothing for him.

RY: Yeah, I went to Berkeley. They do have nothing. Games aren’t really on the radar over there.

DW: But I feel like it’s such a great time to get into it. My teachers in film school would talk about the death of cinema and that wasn’t so interesting to me, but there’s still so much space for games to grow.

RY: I don’t know how I feel about game schools. USC is an anomaly with its powerhouse Interactive Media program, but you see all these diploma mills like DeVry or Westwood College, taking advantage of the fact that it’s all very cutting edge and unknown.

DW: I think the purpose of these schools is to meet people and surround yourself with ideas. USC’s game design school has 80 passionate people, but they’re the only people they interact with. Being in the film school, I think, informed my work better than going to just a game design program.

RY: I agree. Trade schools are too focused, it’s better to learn more. Are you thinking of going to grad school for games, maybe at USC?

DW: I don’t know. With the bizarre success of The Stanley Parable, so many career options have opened up for me. For now, I’m working with a guy right now, planning a small – I guess, a “collective” – but you’re not supposed to start a company based off one game, right? I’m not sure how invested I can be.

RY: You’re doing the remake with him?

DW: Yeah, and we enjoyed it so much, we decided we had to take this farther.

RY: In Source? Any details?

DW: We’re using Source, but we’re planning to license it as a Steam game. Which is tricky, because the game very intentionally uses pieces of Valve’s levels and art assets to a specific end, so we’re trying to work out legal details. We want to release it for free, or maybe “pay what you want,” a donation / micro-transaction thing maybe.

RY: Yeah, that’s how you should do it, pay a dollar for one more branch of narrative.

DW: I don’t want to get carried away with incentivizing it like a Kickstarter, but I do want to do small things, to acknowledge their support.

RY: Who did you tap for this? An established modder?

DW: His name is William Pugh. He won a Saxxy and had a bunch of cool stuff to show, and he literally sent me a bunch of mockups overnight. We started skyping and then we hit it off, we work really well together. The remake is going to have a lot of really cool ideas, it’s by far the most fun I’ve had working on a project.

RY: How are you approaching the remake? Is it a Dear Esther type of thing? I mean, what does it mean to be “faithful” – are you trying to be faithful?

DW: My very first thought was to just flat out remake it, beat for beat. But the more we chatted, the more we realized there was an internal compass – with the world, with the narrator – and we just had to extrapolate things and see where things logically go. It just feels so obvious once we think of it.

RY: Let me unpack what I meant by “faithful” – when I was working on Black Mesa Source, I built Anomalous Materials in standard Half-Life 2 dimensions (walls are 128 units tall and so on) but it felt totally wrong because I wasn’t using the weird 160 unit wall dimensions from Half-Life 1. So are you using a similar layout, is this the same world with the same architecture?

DW: We decided to keep the same core structure, the same “core mechanic,” if you want to say The Stanley Parable has one.

RY: … where there’s a structural fork and you choose one branch.

DW: Right. The main story is the same, the central thrust is the same, and all the same endings are in the game in some form. We still want to hit the same notes, but someone who played the original will see things in a new light. And for a game about games, we wouldn’t want to do what you were talking about with Black Mesa Source, because we’re actually saying that kind of construct is in your head and it’s trapping you. That’s not to say that kind of faithful remake is bad, but we don’t think of our consistency that way, as that’s just an invented standard.

RY: It reminded me of Dear Esther as the map was – no offense – sloppy from a technical point of view. Conventional wisdom in the Source mod community was that you had to have a polished product for people to play it, but here you had a hallway with stock Half-Life 2 textures and people played it anyway. So I wonder, are there going to be polished visuals in the remake?

DW: … It’ll be where it needs to be.

RY: [laughs] What does that mean?

DW: I don’t want to give it away. There are parts… okay, here’s an example: there’s a new ending in the game that takes place in an empty room – well, there’s almost nothing in the room. We want to play with how unnecessary those layers of production are. I’m not lifting myself up as some messiah of storytelling, but people definitely responded to the original game despite its lack of art assets… Though there will be moments when the narrative will demand a lot of production value. Both endings will be enjoyable in their own way.

I think the industry is far better for having explored these high-production routes, but I don’t think they’re sustainable in the long-term. I was at E3 this year, and 90% of the games shown were the exact same game. I have no inherent dislike of those games, I just don’t enjoy playing them very much. At the same time, there’s only so much of what “indie” can do today, if it’s not extrapolated to a larger scope.

RY: If we’re talking about sustainability like that, yeah, the indie “art games” aren’t sustainable at all. You can’t sell The Stanley Parable for $60 at Wal-Mart.

DW: Yes, both sides of it need each other, like yin and yang.

RY: Oh, I actually disagree. The AAA industry doesn’t need us. Hollywood is doing just fine.

DW: Really? The movie industry in the 70s needed Mike Nichols, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola radically shaking up the studio system. There were a lot of New Wave films that introduced entirely new genres that we see today as mainstream. I think the industry would’ve fallen apart without those people.

RY: Yes, art games have changed how we consume video games and how games can make meaning, but I don’t think that’s going to trickle down to commercial practice and I don’t think people care if it does.

DW: How old are indie games? Only a few years old. I don’t think we’ll know what this is for a while. If people are still making money off these big shooters – you’re right, there won’t be any need to know what it is. But I’ll be incredibly surprised if we look at the mainstream market in 10 or 20 years and don’t see the indie designers’ influence. Maybe not from “art games,” but from indie games that didn’t need to be commercially viable.

RY: How is that an alternative?

DW: It’s not an alternative. It’s just that these things influence each other in ways that we can’t begin to analyze.

RY: I agree with that, that’s a bit pointless to analyze.

DW: AAA games influenced The Stanley Parable. Those same AAA games were innovative at some point in time, even the games that I don’t like, they influence me too. My game design comes from the entire series of games I’ve played in my life. Everything is relevant.

RY: I’m more pessimistic these days, about the impact any of us are having. We live inside a bubble where we have impact.

DW: I made a game with no production value that resonated with people. I went to PAX and talked to people who were moved by my work. So in that sense, the “return” on The Stanley Parable was immeasurable. If it becomes mainstream, it won’t be as a result of me having tried to crack the mainstream. I don’t care if it gets really big or makes me any money, and I realize that’s very idealistic, but I think it changed my life.

RY: I thought the same: reactions were my reward. Then I talked to an indie dev who questioned the “personal value” angle, as if to say, “You had privilege and could afford to mod instead of work. You didn’t earn your voice.” I feel guilty. That’s what I’m facing now, that I’m not authentic.

DW: For me, personally, it does scare me how I did very little and didn’t “earn my stripes” for my weird success. I’m doing the process in reverse, where I made that game while I was in school, and now I’m serving sausages in a bratwurst shop instead of accepting a job offer from a major studio. Literally, I wake up every morning wondering, “how can I quit my job and work on this game full-time?” I’m not even making the game either – William’s doing the mapping, and William’s in school and I can’t pull him out of school even if I had the money. I feel like I’m earning my success after I’ve gotten it, and that’s very weird, but I think my work will be better for it.

RY: Now, to go back to the game: I think I was part of the contingent who were critical of some aspects of The Stanley Parable.

DW: Yes, The Stanley Parable’s critical of video games. I expect tough love.

RY: I was critical of what I thought was a focus on branching structures. I thought it was misdirected because no one defends the branching structure as something great. We’re all aware of the weaknesses of that structure already.

DW: Very few “non-gamers” play The Stanley Parable, and I wanted to say to them, “we all love games, but all games require some form of branching.” I thought the point was to show the great things that branches can do – not necessarily that The Stanley Parable did them – but it was a question. What if we used branching paths some other way? I wanted to say, we still don’t know about what it means to go left or right and what you can do with that.

RY: I thought people were already well-aware of the limitation of pre-authored, discrete, binary branches. You say something good at the end, but I wondered who[m] you were saying it to. The idea of predestination, and how you can’t escape the game? I thought we already knew that.

DW: I was just making a game that ended up being about these things. So when you ask, who is this game for, I say it’s for people who responded to it and e-mailed me, people who care about games, indie designers, studios. You mentioned we already knew those things?… Well, did we, if people are saying it had such an impact on them? Apparently not. Again, I don’t think I’m a god, and if no one responded to the game we’d be having a very different conversation – but they did respond to it. I put a question out there, and people told me the answer.

RY: Is that just rationalizing? I wonder how intention factors into these things. How did you reach someone you didn’t know you were reaching, or how did you find out something… that you… weren’t finding out… ?

DW: Yeah, I know what you’re saying, and I don’t know the answer.

RY: [laughs]

DW: It scares me that I have no idea why it was successful. I’ve come up with some answers – that it was the question of the moment? But I literally wrote the entire thing, front to back, three years ago when I was 19. So I can’t even begin to explain it.

RY: That might disappoint readers.

DW: [laughs] I don’t know. Maybe they don’t care. It’s not about me. If they appreciate it and enjoy it, then that’s their experience and my intent is irrelevant.

RY: I agree, intent is irrelevant, but I’d say that process is relevant.

DW: But my process was so bat-shit stupid. It’s like how you might look back 10 years ago and wonder how you survived when you knew nothing.

RY: I guess we won’t come to an answer here, especially since philosophers have been grappling with that question forever, “what is making?”

DW: It feels like I’m just realizing this thing that was already there.

RY: But there’s a logic underneath. Nothing is natural about this.

DW: I can’t give you an answer, and maybe that’s why I like it. It works some way. I don’t know why that is. I want to know, but I don’t. I think I just need to keep making more things so I can know more. I’m not expecting my next project to answer all the questions, but I enjoy the process of just asking a question, and I have a forum, medium, resources and collaborators to make that real. Hopefully I’ll find fulfillment out of this, and not end up as a creative with a shotgun in his mouth.

RY: Hemingway?

DW: And Cobain, and I’m sure others. I want to share this feeling with others…

RY: Your suicidal tendencies.

DW: But darn it, chatting about it is just so much fun.

RY: This reminds me of a literature class I took – the professor was the author of a book we were reading. So we’d ask her, like, “why does this character have one finger?” She’d respond, “my friend had a friend like that, and I thought it was cool.” And it was so disappointing, that process can be so inexplicable.

DW: If that’s how she writes books, that’s her individual process. She talks with friends and things come up, and it comes together, and she does something.

RY: But why? Intellectually, I agree with you, but when I was in the class I was so angry, like, “no, that’s bullshit, you need to have a reason or else it was total luck that you finished a book with any degree of success.”

DW: At certain points in my life – I wasn’t depressed, but I was struggling with answers. In the end, I decided I should just pull the “dispense food and chill out” lever instead of the “shock me and be paralyzed by thought” lever. I’m going to do what leads to being happy instead of being intellectually satisfied.

RY: But this game you made is an intellectual exercise.

DW: That’s true. I think that will have an effect on the remake: personally, I find it very very funny. People will laugh. And if I got too far away from enjoying what I’m doing, I’d be the next guy with a shotgun in his mouth.

RY: With that image in mind, let’s think about how to demonstrate your inscrutable process…

DW: Oh dear, that’s not reassuring.

RY: [demonstrates the Portal 2 map, curses Dan Pinchbeck, etc.]

DW: I want to add a narrator who tells you to go into the left room.

RY: Okay.

DW: No, I’m joking! Not that. Definitely not… What’s your role here? Are you going to combine these ideas into something cohesive, or is this the raw amalgamation of these ideas?

RY: I don’t know yet. I’m just riding the wave. I’m thinking cohesiveness might be better, because I want people to play it.

DW: A lot of this stuff seems to be about leading you to think a puzzle might be solved the same way it was in Portal but then it’s not. It defies how straightforward Portal was. So it seems like what we’re playing with here, like a floating train, might have nothing to do with solving a puzzle. Do you think this level feels like a puzzle?

RY: I think it’s an inescapable genre convention, that they’ll perceive a puzzle no matter what. I kind of want to frustrate them… but kind of not… well, okay, my intentions are secondary to whoever I’m interviewing, so what do you see for this level?

DW: To me, the puzzle is about how to navigate all these things, like the elevator that brings you back or the box dropper that drops 4 boxes. Even with the train coming through – I guess that’s us acknowledging that things don’t make sense.

RY: Yeah, I agree that the train is the ultimate embodiment. Wouldn’t the weirdest thing, after all of this, be a traditional Portal puzzle? Wouldn’t you be suspicious?

DW: Hmm. An idea that comes to mind – but I don’t know if I like it – is every time you come back, the room is different? Kind of like in Achievement Unlocked. I feel like it’s already been done, but I want some way to acknowledge the absurdity. Maybe if you came across a smaller model of this level and saw it all going on, but from a distance?

RY: Hmm.

DW: Whether you want the responsibility or not, you’re going to be the one who has to live with whether this is a random mish-mash. Someone’s going to play it and ask you why –

RY: Why I didn’t impose order?

DW: Or why you didn’t take these ideas and make them fit together. Ultimately, this is going to be a reflection on you.

RY: Oh, I’m not going to let this trainwreck be a reflection on me. I will definitely pin it on everyone.

DW: But whether or not the player thinks of you…

RY: … Yeah, it won’t matter. It’ll be their same mental construct of an “author.”

DW: So, how can we make it feel intentional, like it’s saying something — not that it has to be “meaningful.”

RY: I do agree that unless we prompt them, no one will deconstruct the levels the way we’re doing it right now. I don’t think that comes across at all. The Stanley Parable has a narrator who literally deconstructs and explains it for you – and without the narrator, it’s nothing.

DW: Yeah.

RY: So we should have a narrator?

DW: No, but maybe we should insert these conversations into the game. Like, you go through every room and then you get to this point in the level and you hear us going, “well Robert, we’re going to have to make this cohesive.”

RY: So your addition is to have… every time you loop back, the new iteration of the room appears, and you hear audio extracts from the interviews.

DW: What do you think of that? I think my biggest problem is that it’s too much like The Stanley Parable.

RY: I think that’s okay. It’ll work. Part of my intention behind this series is that we’d talk about process and design philosophy, and then the person’s contribution would manifest that philosophy.

DW: Then I think my suggestion very much fits with the self-referential work I do, but what it’s not consistent with is me pushing myself to do new things, like something I came up with, in just the first 20-30 minutes. Like, I should leave and go out drinking and suddenly come up with some other new idea.

RY: You want to consciously avoid doing that because your idea is about not.. taking the ideas in your head.

DW: If it comes too easily, I don’t want to put it in my game.

RY: Doesn’t that go against what you were saying earlier? “If it feels natural, just do it.”

DW: It’s more about me airing my brain out and doing other things, and letting the answers come to me over time. It’s natural, but not all at once.

RY: I get that. My best ideas come to me in the shower.

DW: It’s weird. I want to think about it and come back to this in a week, but I don’t think that is what this project is.

RY: How do you feel about us spoiling the level as we talk here in these interviews? It wouldn’t work either way, playing the map without any context or playing the map with everything spoiled.

DW: Maybe have instructions at the top of the article, that explain the concept and let the readers choose whether to play the map first or not.

RY: “Go left or go right.” So a disclaimer? Hmm. [NOTE: Clearly, I didn’t end up doing that.]

DW: I’m just presenting you with ideas, and ultimately you’re the author because this isn’t my work. In a moral sense, you’re going to have to claim authorship over this.

RY: My claim of authorship is to rescind my authorship.

DW: [laughs] So you’re going to send this to Rock Paper Shotgun, and say how you started to do all this but then didn’t want to deal with it, and so submitted nothing. Now “you’re an artist,” once you renounce the world, abandon your medium and exile yourself. Sorry to break it to you.

RY: That’ll be a nice way to end this interview.

DW: I think you have a very potent slice of my brain here.

RY: Potent in its poisonous qualities.

DW: And I still think this level will reflect more on you and what you chose to do.

RY: That’s like curation. I don’t want to curate. I hate curation.

DW: No! You’re curating this! You don’t get to send out an e-mail, saying, “hey guys, I want to do a write-up and stuff,” and not be a curator.

RY: There’s the idea that curation can also be transparent and let work speak for itself.

DW: I, personally, would be interested in hearing your process about this.

RY: Oh god. I can’t interview myself.

DW: Maybe not, but I still think your role as curator is inescapable.

RY: Fine, I’ll think about it in the shower. Thanks for your time.

(Transcript edited for clarity and length.)
(Looking for the Portal 2 map? Sorry, you’ll have to wait until Part 7.)

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