I'm somewhat glad this interview with Chris Cornell of Paper Dino, creators of multiple choice romance/fatality adventure Save The Date, is happening remotely. Frankly, if we were doing it over drinks or lunch, I'd fear for my life. If you've yet to play Save The Date a) you should, because it's funny, thoughtful and surprising, and free and b) the preceding sentence will make a lot more sense if you do.
Save The Date's nominated for the Nuovo award at this year's Independent Games Festival. Here, I talk to Cornell about burgers, breaking the fourth wall, player habits and the IGF.
RPS: Burgers, Thai or Tacos?
Chris Cornell: Depends on the day. At the moment? Thai. Hands down. Yellow Chicken Curry all the way.
RPS: Obviously we have also had the Stanley Parable this year too, but why do you think there are so few self-aware/fourth wall-breaking videogames? Did it feel like any kind of risk to do that yourself?
Chris Cornell: I think that there is a huge risk! First there's the obvious risk that people will think you're just trying to be too clever for your own good, and ignore the game because they're annoyed at the method itself.
But second, there's a risk with breaking the 4th wall in the first place. Any time you do that, you are basically breaking the player's immersion in the game, and (pretty much by definition) calling attention to the fact that what they're experiencing IS a game. This is the exact opposite of what most games are trying to do. They want you to FORGET you're playing a game, and suspend your disbelief. The last thing you usually want to do as a designer is deliberately break the player's immersion.
I think that the reason that both Stanley Parable and I can get away with it, is that the "game" is not the same as the application on your computer. (I mean, arguably it never is, but it's even less so for titles like ours.) For both of our experiences, the actual application, the executable file, is more like sports equipment - part of the game, but not the entirety of it. The real "game" is the player, sitting at a computer, interacting with the executable file. So when we "break the fourth wall", we're not actually breaking out of the bounds of the narrative. (the way we would if this was theater and we started talking directly to the audience, for example) Because at that point, the player is an actor in the game.
This is a weird distinction, but I think it's a vital one - the game executable is drawing attention to the idea "hey, I'm just a program on your computer", but it's never actually breaking your suspension of disbelief for the game as a whole. It's actually doing the opposite - drawing your attention to the fact that the game is "bigger" than you had thought, and includes you in it!
Anyway, yeah. That's risky. For one thing, it hasn't been done much, so there are not a lot of examples to draw from, for what works and what doesn't. And for another, it really places a lot of trust on the player to "get it". This isn't the sort of thing that you can ease the player along with through tutorials and help screens, any more than you could write a tutorial to make sure players get a joke. You basically have to just set it all up, and hope really hard that it all works out and creates the desired response, when it is played months or years later, by someone you've never met.
RPS: The game shifts regularly between comedy and tragedy and introspection, but how did you ultimately want people to feel while/after playing it?
Chris Cornell: Hah. That's a big question. I think I'd settle for them leaving the game feeling different from how they felt when they sat down.
RPS: Would you be tempted to revisit similar territory again - do you have more to say about choice and consequence?
Chris Cornell: Probably not in the foreseeable future, but who knows?
Save the Date had a misleading development schedule. On one hand, it took only a month or two to "write". As in, I only spent about 1-2 months actively sitting at a computer typing code into a window. But on the other hand, it arguably took much longer, because I filled it up with all the weird self-referential game ideas that have slowly been accumulating in my head for years.
I couldn't sit down and write another "Save the Date" right now, for the simple reason that I no longer have years and years of unused "weird ideas I should totally use if I ever write a game about time travel" bouncing around in my brain.
That said though, it's hard to say anything for certain. Save the Date was definitely buttressed by a pile of built-up ideas. But it was also built on sudden inspiration of how it could all fit together into something I hoped would feel meaningful. So who knows. It's hard to predict when some random thing will spark an idea like that. Maybe I'll get some OTHER random burst of inspiration, for some OTHER way to write a game about choice and consequence, that I have enough idea-material to pull off.
But I wouldn't hold my breath.
RPS: Have you been able to get any sense of which of the (earlier, at least) options players are most likely to pick, and why?
Chris Cornell: Somewhat! I did a lot of playtesting early, and I've watched a lot of people play the game. So while this is not even remotely scientific, here are some random observed "facts":People seem slightly more likely to "finish" one restaurant first. There definitely are people who try a different restaurant after each game over, but they're in the minority.
Claiming to be a wizard and "playing a video game" are by far the most popular excuses given to Felicia. (Being a telepath is probably the least common one.)
On the whole, all of the players I watched seemed to be generally honest. They didn't like to pick outright lies, even after it was clear that there was no lasting consequence for doing so.
Thai is probably the least popular restaurant.
RPS: How do you feel about the IGF, and being nominated at it?
Chris Cornell: Honestly? A bit overwhelmed. This is going to sound kind of sappy, but as someone who deep-down, really loves games as a medium, writing something worthy of an IGF nomination is kind of "long-term life-goal" level stuff for me. So I'm still kind of half-waiting to see if someone yells "Just kidding!" or something, because it still doesn't feel entirely real quite yet.
As for the show itself - I think the IGF gets a bit of flack sometimes, because people often disagree about it's purpose, and what it "should" be used for. (Should it be like a scholarship, elevating unknown games out of obscurity? Should it be an award given to highlight the best indie games of the year, even if they're from large, well-known indie studios? Something else entirely?) But overall, I see it as a definite force for good, and I have nothing but respect for the people who have managed to grow it from a niche award, to one of the highest profile shows of the year. It's an amazing group of people, and I feel kind of privileged sometimes, to get to share a community with them.
Save The Date is out now, and free. It's nominated for the Nuovo Award at this year's IGF.