Interviewed: Writing The Supernatural

My bud Greg asked me to contribute some thoughts on writing the supernatural for his newsletter, which features interviews around a theme with a bunch of different writers/narrative designers each month. Always a good read. Here’s my bit:


In general, I try and follow a rather classical approach to writing. That is, to be truthful and concise. And the truths I’m usually drawn to are ones about human experience. Don’t we all dream, fantasise or panic about The Other, about escaping the physical confines of our bodies and the rational confines of our minds?

The chance to write about, or around the supernatural then, is a gift. Going beyond what is natural is a chance to contrast human truths with utterly non-human ones, and the starker the contrast the more clearly we see them.

So far, I’ve written for three games that deal in supernatural elements. Duelyst, a tactical, science-fantasy CGC, is rife with arcane rituals, strange specters and otherworldly magic – usually wielded by the monstrous Abyssian faction or the mystical, transhuman Vetruvians. The object with my writing here was to contextualise the unit abilities, while giving identity to the faction itself. So the Abyssian’s sense of supernatural is that it’s something from the void, something menacing, a force of entropy and decay. For the Vetruvians, it’s something more noble, although perhaps equally unknowable and volatile. The way in which each faction sees and manipulates the supernatural informs their abilities and says a huge amount about their philosophies and civilisations.

In Röki, a dark fairytale adventure game, the supernatural is expressed through folkloric characters and superstitions made flesh. It’s all loosely based on Scandinavian myth, so there exist a certain amount of (inspiring!) boundaries. My approach has been to draw out the element of each myth, or character, and make them really grounded. Most of the game takes place in a magical forest, so protagonist Tove quickly becomes accustomed to the supernatural – it’s that or become a gibbering wreck – and must learn to play by their own rules. It’s fantastic fun to write low-key supernatural too, there’s something peculiar and satisfying about mischievous and begrudgingly helpful spirits and ghosts that you don’t tend to be able to draw out from epic gods and world-ending supernatural forces.

In Abandon Ship, the supernatural is somewhat Lovecraftian. There are lots of tentacles. It’s a mode well represented in games, so obviously I wanted to avoid it being too trope-y. In the game, the supernatural (and the cult that worships and engenders it) is very real, but again it’s a very personal thing: The Captain (whom you play as) has a strong link to the game’s dominant supernatural force, and engages in a constant mental tug of war with it. So yes, it’s a threat, an unknowable old and infernally powerful threat, but it’s one you also have a kind of dialogue with. It hopefully takes the old ‘when you gaze into the abyss…’ idea one step further.

The supernatural that I grew up with was Greek and Egyptian mythology, Asian horror and dark fantasy literature. So I’ve always loved the idea that, while powerful, whatever lies beyond the veil can be reckoned with by peeking behind it, parsing the internal logic of it – as long as your own psyche is up to the task. I suppose I approach the supernatural from a direction other than the ‘sheer horror of something like Magic: The Gathering’s eldritch-inspired Eldrazi. Although that unknowable power is alluring – one of the examples I’m drawn most to is the Chandrian from The Kingkiller Chronicles: humanoid but never fully glimpsed, sung about by children but never whispered or written about by adults who value their lives. They are clearly terrifying, but one feels their greatest mystery is anonymity and mystery. The protagonist (and unnecessarily tongue-twistingly named) Kvothe hunts for knowledge about them, he seeks them, and that collision course is an inestimably tense thread running through the series. It’s that kind of feeling I think I’m interested in exploring.

One day I’m sure I’ll want to write about murderous, terrifying ghosts and Stranger Things style gross-out horror, a supernatural that is the complete antithesis to human nature, but for now my approach to writing the supernatural is to ask: how can we reconcile ourselves to it? And what parts of ourselves gave birth to it in the first place?

Creating Pidgin/Tone of Voice

Creating Pidgin

Introduction & Rationale

“If they open up with Pidgin English instead, I instantly perk up. Speaking Pidgin transforms them from visiting foreigner into one of the hundreds of well-integrated expatriates in Lagos… There’s a certain intimacy that this form of broken English emits; a down-to-earth, survivalist approach to everyday living and hustling in Africa’s most populous nation.” — Source.

Writing dialogue for a game runs a number of risks, but one of the biggest is a lack of differentiation in tone of voice. Flat, identikit sounding NPCs, dialogue (and by extension the in-game nomenclature of items, places etc) is not only a missed opportunity but a sign of laziness, and can be utterly immersion breaking.

It’s hard enough establishing a catchy, unique tone of voice and personality for your main characters. Add any number of secondary NPCs, and you either get the JRPG syndrome (each uttering mundane one liners about their immediate surroundings ad infinum) or bloated exposition.

There’s also a challenge in writing dialogue for characters who live in the future, plus a highly multicultural/cosmopolitan city. The best writing is invisible, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of too many characters reading (‘sounding’) the same, or them feeling inauthentic and disconnected from the setting. Tolkien felt necessary to invent an entire language for his fantasy epic, and it’s no coincidence that many of his lexical inventions have filtered into mainstream genre use.

Similarly, the first chapters of cyberpunk or hard sci-fi books often throw in a lot of proper nouns, strange abbreviations and techno-pidgin to disorient the reader, to immerse them in a strange new world and hint at the mysteries yet to be uncovered. It would certainly be no fun if Neuromancer appended a lengthy explanation to its sudden terms such as ‘deck’ or ‘ICE’.

Nomenclature, new words, evolution of language: by default, most game-characters speak in modern, western English or American-English, but would characters speak like that in an African metropolis of the near future? They don’t speak like that now.

Slang vs. Pidgin

Without audio, slang/inflection/accents etc can read strangely. It wouldn’t be immersive for a player, no matter how literate, to parse the following:

“Ay whagwan fam, allow bare slang man that shit longtingaling. Now let’s chirps gyaldem innit, be well peng.”

(Hey, what’s going on mate? Don’t use too much slang, that stuff is a hassle. Now, let’s go flirt with some local girls yeah? It’ll be great.)

Obviously the former example essentially excludes anyone not familiar with a specific local slang from understanding more than a word or two of what’s going on. However, the latter translation sounds stilted and bland, and coming out of the mouth (as text or otherwise) or a street-smart, young denizen of South London would be equally immersion breaking.

Solutions & Normalising

So what we do we do?

We create a set vocabulary of pidgin that we can thread throughout ‘normal’ text, in barks, etc, to help with immersion, expand our options for unique tones of voice, without (unintentionally) obfuscating meaning.

Pidgin (aka lingua franca) is different from slang or argot in that it evolves from a mix of dialects and slang into something supposed to be ‘universal’, and to allow the most people to be as understood as possible.

We can quickly orient players/readers to pidgin through careful use of framing, and context. Whether you guess the exact meaning of the following unusual words, you can probably sense their meaning, and after seeing it a few times, you will certainly understand what it connotes.

“Let’s grab some chop-chop, I’m starving.”
“You want to do what?! Man, you dey craze.”
“You stubborn bastard, you no dey hear word and it’ll get you killed.”

Some existing pidgin is even more obvious. For example, ‘gist’ (meaning gossip/news) very closely correlates with its widely understood meaning, and even may not be immediately understood as part of the pidgin lexicon. Of course the reverse is true, some examples are harder to parse initially, but as a result stand out, and become a more of a signature/catchy word or phrase.

Balance will be key, as will building up to each instance, so that when the player encounters words on either side of the spectrum, they’ve already understood some constituent parts of the phrase or have the necessary context.

To normalise ‘wetin’ for example, it would not be helpful to confront a player with ‘wetin dey?’ (what’s happening/up?) in isolation. So, after a few instances of breaking it up, e.g:

“Dey you listen?” (Are you listening?)
“You dey craze.” (You are crazy)

And:

“Ah hi Dee, wetin you up to?”
“Wetin dey point?” (what’s your point?/What are you saying?)

Suddenly ‘wetin dey?’ will feel more comfortable and require less effort for the player to parse. And from then on, they have the satisfaction of having figured this out, of feeling immersed in a dense culture, yet like it’s unique and different to the one they’re used to.

Authenticity & Storytelling Possibilities

Moreover, it is of course more authentic to represent the linguistic quirks of a specific setting, whether it’s in or outside your comfort zone as a writer. As with the above examples, I advocate for a player-centric balance of accessibility and authenticity. Chances are your player-base will be very diverse even before localisation, and hence making game text understandable, without becoming bland, is paramount.

Once some pidgin is established, we can play with it to frame characters and their motivations. For example, perhaps a character is friendly and wants to include Dee in a conversation:

“Dey you up to anything gen-gen recently Dee? Exciting I mean, sorry — I forget you’re not from around here.”

Contrast this to an NPC who might want to make Dee feel excluded, an interloper.

“Dey you craze for steppin’ here, wetin dey you fool, vamoose!”

This way we can create characters and dialogue that is not intended to be easily understood, to put Dee/the player on the back foot, and at the same time make a commentary on the NPC themselves. It also allows for the attitudes of some NPCs to be more ambiguous or mysterious without resorting to vague allusions or oblique sarcasm.

Diversity/Cultural Signposting

By the same token, establishing the pidgin means we can efficiently signpost the origin of certain characters without relying on exposition.

Suddenly a character that uses no pidgin at all could be inferred to be either aloof, a foreigner, or disassociating themselves from the milieu for some reason.

Another may use more western or internet pidgin and abbreviations such as ‘bae’ or ‘lit’ to signal they are more heavily invested in life online than in person.

Suddenly, we have another subtle tool in our arsenal beyond word choice and punctuation. The very act of omitting or selecting which pidgin the NPC favours says something about them, and it may be something Dee can use to their advantage.

Closing Remarks

Like everything, we should test the dialogue carefully, including the readability and ‘understand-ability’ of the pidgin words. Ultimately however we need to make a call, one about authenticity, attention to detail and immersion.

A Selected Inspiration Glossary:

Nigerian

  • Abi/Ba: Isn’t it?//no? OR na so: is that so/oh really etc
  • Bam: Something good
  • Chop: to eat/food
  • Gen-gen: Exciting/on edge
  • Wetin dey? What’s happening // (aggressive) what’s your problem?
  • You dey craze — you crazy
  • Catching fun — out for the night/ looking for a good time
  • How far na: how’re things?
  • You no dey hear word: You’re not listening// you’re stupid
  • Gist: gossip/news
  • Sabi: Understand/get
  • Oya!: expostulation of impatience// hurry up// are you ready yet?/come on!
  • Vamoose: get lost/going
  • Wahala: trouble/stress
  • Butta my bread: My prayers/hopes have been answered
  • No dullin’: Don’t prolong things/get to the point

Kenyan

  • Sasa — how’s it going?
  • Haiya! — Exclamation of surprise

Western/Internet:

  • Bae
  • No Chill
  • Lit
  • Dig
  • Om/Nom/Nom: Food/to eat/tasty as in good
  • Dame
  • Shorty

South London

  • Longting: Long time/taking ages/hard, annoying
  • Innit: Isn’t it/you understand? (rhetorical)
  • Fam/Bruv/Bredrin: friend/family/crew
  • Ya get me?: Know what I mean (usually rhetorical)
  • Peng: Great/sexy
  • Whagwarn: What’s going on?/how’re you doing?

French/colonial

  • Boloss: Fool/buffoon
  • Toubib: doctor

French / Afrikaans

  • to jave, to ambiance: to party
  • Dolo: beer of millet
  • A stick: a cigaret
  • A go: a girlfriend

Jamaican/West Indies

  • More fire: cheers/another drink/to your health
  • I and I: we
  • Dead pres: white person

Supplement this article with my thoughts on internet speak and faux-irony inA Night In The Woods.

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Locus of Controller
Or: Meaningful Player Agency Makes You Happy

Control. It’s not something most of us have over our lives, and a lack of control is undoubtedly one of, if not the biggest contributing factors to feeling stressed. Feeling out of control can be a nightmarish sensation.

In fact, a feeling of control is one of the main reason I play and love games so much. They’re an opportunity and an invitation to impose my will on a world — proving my skills in a constructed, rigid space and play-state. This is frequently more appealing than the real world, which actually in many ways is like a crap videogame….bosses don’t have glowing weak spots and permadeath by default for example.

I’m sure if you’re reading this you know what I mean. If you’re a gamer of roughly my generation (I’m 27) then you’ve grown up with sophisticated controllers — and control. We say jump, Mario says ‘how high?’ I think we can all probably agree that control is serious business, in everyday life and in gaming. Unless you’re using motion controls in which case it’s a hilarious farce.

And so I want to discuss what control really means, why it’s sometimes taken away from us, why it’s important to game design — and finally, how an understanding of where feelings of control come from can drastically improve your life and gamerscore.

The Locus of Control

I first came into contact with the concept whilst I was working at the Apple Store a few years ago, back when Infinity Blade was still impressive. Say what you will about Apple, they offer surprisingly robust psychological training to a bunch of frustrated creatives who mostly just end up peeling stickers off peoples iPhones and showing people how to soft reset.

The training was presumably meant to help you keep calm in a busy retail environment and be able to sympathise with customers who were frustrated with their shiny new malfunctions. In fact, it gave the earnest study a chance to make sense of an aspect of personality that colours an awful lot of our daily interactions.

Wikipedia summarises it all thus:

In personality psychology, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an aspect of personality studies. A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate).[1]

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving test results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities.People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the test.[2]

By the way — I’m not a control freak, I like to think of myself as more of a control geek, and whilst I can’t share all my findings here, I’ve realised that nowhere is the nuanced complexity of our relationship with and need for control better exemplified than in videogames.

Let’s just take a moment to let that quote sink in. To illustrate, let’s imagine we’re playing a quick game of Hearthsone — probably on our tablets whilst watching BattleStar Galactica on Netflix in the background, maybe with a second game of Hearthstone playing on the laptop. You get a bad draw against a stupid Murlock rush deck and you can’t play anything — you lose.

Fuck these guys, seriously.

In this example, If you have a strongly internal locus, you might blame your deck-building skills, your own judgement, and you’ll probably be a little annoyed but feel compelled to re-balance, maybe craft a few new cards and have another go etc.

If you have a strongly external locus in this instance, you’ll probably feel a lot more frustrated — uttering things like ‘stupid imba murlocks’ or feeling pissed at the luck of the draw, Hearthstone’s mechanics in general or the ‘cheap tactics’ of the other player. Essentially the game was out of your hands — there was nothing you could do other than sit back and wallow in the ignominy of being crushed by a gang of angry fish-frog things.

Let’s compare that to the ‘Souls’ series; DemonsDark and its spiritual successor Bloodborne. Again these games are widely celebrated but won’t be for everyone — if you don’t truly believe the power to overcome it lies within you, and you enjoy the slow but steady imposing of your will and skill onto the game as opposed to feeling upset and powerless the tenth time the Pursuer impales you, then you simply will not enjoy the game. And even with its punishing difficulty, I think Hearthstone is actually more unfair and less forgiving.

Happily, unlike most of psychology and personality theory, there is a concrete ideal to aspire to.

It’s called ‘bi-local’. Simply put, bi-localism is a way of fostering the self confidence and belief in agency — that is, your ability to affect change — to allow you to feel that you can impose your will on external stimuli, and the sagacity to understand that there is also a limit — that some things simply are outside of your locus of control and that you have to accept and get on with — much like a bad DOTA 2 draft.

Via http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_90.htm

Is this achievable? How can this help you life your life effectively and happily?

It’s definitely achievable. It can be learned through practice, re-adjustment of attitude and happily, games can be a great help. First however you need to accurately determine your own locus. You should start by either taking one of the online tests or just asking yourself a few hard, honest questions — what is your reaction when you are not in control of a situation? Do you believe life is what you make of it or that things just happen to you?

Then it’s a question of tailoring your life to both strengthen and balance your sense of control. Seek out games that put you in harsh environments but with control over the mechanics and variables (Roguelikes are often great for this, strategy games/RTS etc) and make sure you’re sensitive to the feedback loops and tricks game devs often play on you to create an endowed progress effectand control you through your own instinctive/compulsive actions. Read around the subject — if you’re really serious I cannot recommend the Tao Te Ching enough, and if it looks a little oblique and impenetrable, The Tao of Pooh is a fantastic introduction to Taoist philosophy with real world applications. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in conjunction, Tao of Pooh, Tao Te Ching and a cluster of indie games changed my life.

Game changers.

Let me give another book recommendation — Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. The book itself is very much about practical application of game-theory to addressing often stigmatised mental health and societal issues, but the following abstract succinctly illustrates how the psychology of games and gamers can have such definite impact. The back of the book:

Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments.

But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone?

In Reality Is Broken, she reveals how these new alternate reality games are already improving the quality of our daily lives, fighting social problems such as depression and obesity, and addressing vital twenty-first-century challenges-and she forecasts the thrilling possibilities that lie ahead.

At the risk of being melodramatic, I would say that our society, and often our particular gaming communities — has an endemic struggle with control — we want control over the content in our games, control over the press, control over everything. Pair that idea that most of us are pulled all over the place by capitalist/consumerist institutions most of our lives — at our day-jobs, by our paltry excuse for a government, the patriarchal mainstream media and advertising industries etc — and you can begin to see that whilst games prove a productive diversion from it all, we’re as much in need of recognising and deciphering paradigms of control in our every-day lives.

Of course, taking control is a choice — control and choice are close cousins, but not always friends.

The difference between choice and control is another complex issue — but I want to make a quick comment about how they can be interlinked.

Indeed, this is really what’s at the heart of feedback loops or systems such as levelling up that arbitrarily awards you a few extra, usually automatic assigned stat points and an extra peg for your sparkly skill tree, the choice you make then having little or no impact on either gameplay, game-state or progression (here’s looking at you Fable series and Kingdoms of Amalur — you wonky, wonderful games).

Wait..which one is the evil one?

In this way, games that deny us choice are also denying us control of that game’s defining system — or giving us the illusion of control. If I wanted to pay for the illusion of control I’d try and get somewhere in London on public transport.

Let’s briefly discuss the philosophy of controllers too — specifically our relationship with them. I’m not suggesting of course that any of you have very intimate relationships with your controllers beyond maybe having a favourite — like a child, they’re all useful and do much the same thing but there’s always one you want to show to your friends first — and maybe some of us have considered marrying one after a particularly close win in free-for-all Halo if it was an option — anyway, rather, a discussion of control and of player agency.

We can’t very well ignore our primary means of interaction and what is realistically the frontline of a game-dev’s communication with a player — and primary means of controlling us.

We respond to overly long tutorials and frequent gameplay prompts, to dialogue and to level design, as much as to cynically tweaked and tested feedback loops by depressing coloured plastic and tenderly manipulating a nub of rubber — make no mistake, the game controls us as much as we control it — and as much as we will ourselves into believing that we have a locus of control that extends into virtual reality. This is often at the root of what the sensationalist and of course myopic mainstream press use to justify how games make people more inclined to violence etc.

I make no claims to this being a comprehensive study, but hopefully if you’ve made it this far it’s piqued your interest and will encourage you to investigate, interrogate, your own locus, play better games, and become happier.

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Rezzed

I’ll be there, hanging out with Gareth, who’ll be demoing In Other Waters, and Alex & Tom from Polygon Treehouse and Röki.

I don’t usually like conventions – I mean, they’re great at what they do, but I’m fairly introverted – but it’ll be cool to see some up-close reactions to the IOW demo. I’m hoping to check out a few promising narrative-heavy titles I’ve heard about too, but mostly I’ll be keeping to the shadows and taking meetings.

That said, there’s nothing like a not-too-overwhelming con  like Rezzed to really infuse you with the collective excitement of an industry and its fans, so I’m sure I’ll come away with even more fire in my belly than usual.

And if you want to meet up to chat narrative design, holler at me. I’m friendly!

How to Revitalize Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk doesn’t describe the future anymore — It describes today.

Perhaps Blade Runner’s most iconic scene.

We’re not in 1980 anymore. We need to move on. Even if you don’t realize it, 35 years later, the cyberpunk vision established by Blade Runner & William Gibson is just too normal.

Pangu Hotel in Beijing, now.

Shadowy exchanges of power and billions hidden offshore using complex shell companies orchestrated by lawyers & accountants? Bionic limbs and implants? Anonymous hackers & famous whistleblowers treated like traitors by their own countries? Humanity’s irreversible, inevitably cataclysmic impact on the biosphere and climate? Robots, AI, a truly global economy? It’s all real in the here and now.

A visualisation of the Panama Papers. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, the Panama Papers, Wikileaks, NSA surveillance programs and more prove how power really works.

The most cyberpunk aspect of it all is that people stay quiet. Modern ‘democracies’ are fallacies, but we’re depoliticised and sensationalised at the same time. Where are our priorities? We live in a group-think, outrage culture. People like Trump — ripped straight from the pages of a classic cyberpunk novel — play that culture like a fiddle. Well, as the madman himself would say, “let’s make Cyberpunk great again!”

So What Exactly Is Post-Cyberpunk?

Lawrence Person of Slashdot probably wrote the best summary of post-cyberpunk as far as it applies to literature and film — in 1998.

The tl;dr is essentially that Post-Cyberpunk protagonists are “anchored in their society rather than adrift in it. They have careers, friends, obligations, responsibilities, and all the trappings of an ‘ordinary’ life.”

We all have these “Truman Show” moments, when everybody around you seems to be bots.

In post-cyberpunk, the focus is not on a detective or a genius hacker. The focus is on normal people, on the daily problems of an ordinary citizen. This way we can show all the issues of modern life at ground level: destruction of the family unit; the loneliness of the individuality cult; the urban solitude; depression, apathy & addiction to social opiates.

Neons, robots and rain are cool, but what is truly interesting is to have a look at the life of a simple citizen in the future.

Let’s quickly recap some topical/recent, at least loosely cyberpunk games:

Ruiner • Technomancer • Shadowrun • Deus Ex — Mankind Divided
(The criminally underrated) Remember Me • Mirror’s Edge 2 • Invisible, inc
*coughs* Watchdogs • Dex • Gemini Rue/Read Only Memories
Technobabylon • 
a slew of other pixel-art point ’n’ click games.

Then there is the intimidating shadow hanging over everything:

Cyberpunk 2077

Across the board, the above examples adhere rigidly to existing cyberpunk tropes. Augmentations, dense urban environments, hugely influential corporations and plenty of hacking. It’s trope comfort food. What might a more original vision look like?

Transparent tech

Modern humanity tends to think of itself as extremely advanced, and it’s almost certainly wrong. Cyberpunk usually portrays tech as militarised and as augmentations to make us stronger, faster, or able to ‘physically’ navigate cyberspace. It’s possible, and fine, but we want to imagine tech being more invisible — from growing new skin to ‘ambient’ tech such as every surface being a screen. The Last Night rethinks what the ‘hi tech’ part of ‘hi tech, low life’ really means.

That’s the thing about cyberpunk. We eventually forgot we’re living in the future, because the amazing tech became invisible to us. Think about how many concepts and pieces of tech from this (NSFW!) photo you would have to explain to someone from 100 years ago:

Image courtesy of 420madisonivy on Instagram

A woman who makes a very good living making porn, who is not shunned because of it, lying in a machine designed to change the colour of her skin using precisely tuned energy emissions, showing off breasts enlarged/augmented with silicon, taking and sharing a hi-res image of herself to a global social network for her fans, writing with hashtag & mentions, on a massively powerful handheld computer capable of taking pictures & sending them wirelessly to the whole world at the touch of a fingertips.

Technology enabled this selfie, but what also makes it possible is a evolution of occidental taboos.

Technology often fuels the disruption of taboos. What can shock us now that we have immediate access to everything?

Just like GTA used to shock our parents, we’ll be shocked by what the future generation will be able to handle. It’s a generation that grew up with porn, violence, and transgressive content during all their childhood thanks to internet. Blood in their games won’t be made of a few red pixels, but will be entirely believable in VR.

Even if we can define ourselves as “desensitised”, our kids will surprise us. People need to be shocked, because people seek shock value. People need taboos in order to be transgressive, or rebel. So they will create them, going to new extremes or redefining old ones.

The Gamification/Quantification of Every Aspect of Life.

This process has already begun. Fitness trackers that measure your every step and churn out motivational slogans. Gamerscore and trophies. The ribbons, ‘likes’ and other accoutrement of social media. It’s only natural to expect that this trend will reach a logical extreme, infiltrating every part of our lives.

Imagine an augmented life where every object around you constantly monitor, analyses and tracks the calories and chemicals in your daily coffee and juice. An online bank account that rewards with you ‘Overdraft Points’ for depositing money. Interactive adverts that offer you a product discount if you beat a high-score. Basically, the addictive aspect of F2P games will be generalized to all aspect of our lives, from jobs, money, and food, to love, family & friends.

Click the image to watch the great short film.

For better or worse, humans brains crave for this. We don’t seem to be able to resist this process. Will it give us more control over our lives, or effectively make them one big Skinner Box?

Humanity will not be the ultimate form of life on Earth anymore.

Our lives are already hugely reliant on sophisticated algorithms. Admittedly, the AIs helping out with our economies, infrastructure and science are only superior to us in terms of number crunching — but it won’t be long until they exceed us in a number of other ways.

What will it be to live life knowing that The System is not maintained by other humans, but by something superior, and inhuman? What will become of our evolutionary imperative, when robots can beat us in any contest, can travel through the galaxy (and beyond?) more efficiently, can be funnier? What will the next goal of humanity to be, what will become of religion once we create God/s on Earth?

In Blade Runner, ‘replicants’ are feared and hunted. In post-cyberpunk they’d be happily talking you through your taxes.

The Future of Work might be the Death of Work.

Work, as we know it right now, will die soon. One day, our grand-grand-kids will think of us spending our lives in factories & offices just like we think of our ancestors farming all day, just like they thought of their own ancestors hunting everyday to survive.

Historically, thanks to fossil energy, machines began by replacing human muscles, quickly outperforming them. Trains, trucks, cranes, diggers… No humans could ever deliver such power for such a low cost. This allowed us to build more, faster. Then machines started to be programmable and miniaturised, to a point where not only could they replace human dexterity and precision but once again outperform it. Machines now assemble electronics on the nanometer scale and start operating the most critical & precise biological surgery. This is where we are right now.

The next step, that many people currently still dismiss and refuse to understand, is that machines (especially AI) will replace human analysis, logic, strategy and management.

Soon, there will be no need for lawyers, for accountants, or even for doctors. There will be no point to human drivers soon, because AI will be make everything faster, smarter, and more optimised for us. This is what a crossing could look like in 10 years:

There’s even another step after this one: machines will eventually replicate and then create the most ‘human’ of endeavours: creativity; language; art; taste; judgement and skill. They’ll create trends, and replace them in the same years/months/weeks using sophisticated algorithms to understand human data.

The Singularity

Chappie. Automata. A.I. Terminator. I, Robot. Ex Machina. Blade Runner. Some are great movies, but they all have treated the idea of the singularity in a cinematic way, by embedding the sentient machine into a physical shell. Sentience is not going to magically spark in a particular single robot of a mass-produced series. Sentience is going to occur in a hugely powerful network of AIs — much closer to the vision seen in Hyperion, a wonderful sci-fi novel we deeply recommend.

This is probably where everything will start. And maybe end.

Moreover, a sentient AI is going to learn using all the actual knowledge available to it via the internet. It won’t grow by interacting with human, but by reading internet.

A 2016 internet minute, it’s 530,000 Snapchat photos, 2.5 million Google searches, 980,000 Tinder swipes and 2.8 Million YouTube views.

We are collectively creating, everyday, a giant human knowledge archive of tweets, pictures, videos, posts, articles, that one day will feed an AI, with a brain big enough to make sense of everything. It will then be able to connect all the scientific knowledges in a way nobody did before, it will be able to analyse space pictures and recognize patterns that no human could ever spot, it will suggest new experiments of a complexity that no scientist dared to think before.

Even if most people missed that aspect of the movie, Her is probably the best and the most optimistic vision of singularity. It really expresses the nature of a sentient being, living on/as a network infinitely faster than a human brain. ***Spoiler ahead***, but I love this particular moment, when Theodore realizes that the AI he loves, is actually in a relationship with 800 other humans at the same time. ***Spoiler ends*** This is something we, as simple human, can’t fathom, just like an ant doesn’t understand a highway. This is what we are, compared to AIs. Our brains are still wired in a primitive way, no matter how hard we try, we’ll never go this far naturally.

Always together, yet still lonely.

And then there is this beautiful, heartbreaking moment where the AI (named Samantha) decides to leave Theodore for his own good. Theodore, lying on his bed, asks her:
“— Samantha… Why do you leave?
To which she replies:
“— It’s like I’m reading a book… and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now… So the words are really far apart and the spaces between them are almost infinite. I can still feel you… and the words of our story… but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that… I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much … But this is where I am now … And this is who I am now … And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to… I can’t live in your book any more.

This is the most gorgeous & poetic scene I’ve ever seen of how it feels to be a sentient AI.

Identity of space

Cyberpunk traditionally imagines a futuristic landscape to be somewhere between Hong Kong, Tokyo and a manufacturing plant. Blade Runner wasn’t the first example of cyberpunk but it has to be the biggest visual influencer. We love it of course — spending months in Hong Kong has had a huge influence on us — but it’s time to visit a different hypothetical city.

‘Heterotopia’ means a place in a dynamic state of changing meanings. (taken from NerdWriters excellent video on the identity of space in Ghost in the Shell.)

Sometimes, lack of regulation around architecture can lead to a visual and structural mess like Dubai but it could also lead to amazing innovation. Factor in the ways 3D printing could democratise things, and we think a post-cyberpunk city could be hugely diverse, with common people/businesses customising or designing their own buildings — and the space around people really informing their identities.

Inter-personal Technology

Beyond the neon glow there are tubes. Or rather, beyond the look and feel of things, there is technology. Deus Ex imagines the most important technology being ‘bearable’, integrated into our physiology — The Cyborg Supremacy idea. Hacking and navigating the unutterable space of ‘the web’ in increasingly ‘physical’ way is the other dominant trope. Minority Report rounds off the holy trinity in terms of influence on user-interfaces and personalisation — remember the adverts tailored specifically to you?

When adverts become the voices inside your head.

If we take the ‘feeling of cyberpunk’ and imagine how else we can create that feeling with other technology, things get interesting. There’s space in the genre for technology that changes how we interact with each other, not just the world around us. Imagine being able to share memories, or lose ourselves entirely in an amniotic, virtual reality environment as in the novel Light by M. John Harrison. Or connect with someone else’s memories. How will the landscape of our daily lives change when programming basic AI (animal or humanoid) is commonplace.

Food

In a way, food is one of the easiest aspects of post-cyberpunk to envisage. Obviously the tech will advance — as always, a lot of what we imagine to be sci-fi already exists or is in development.

So we want to imagine a twist on those. For example, with advances in lab-grown meat and the decline in agriculture due to climate change, will we see a time 99% of meat is ‘grown’ or cloned from one Source Animal? How will cafe and restaurant culture change when most food will be able to be prepared almost instantly? Imagine the new textures, patterns, layers we can create in food with 3D printing.

Imagine designing a birthday card, then printing it in Chocolate.

Imagine a restaurant whose menu changes every day, cycling through world cuisines because Ai chefs are able to instantly download the preparation and synthesise any kind of necessary flavour.

Imagine eating new flavours & combination that no human ever dared to do before, thanks to AI research about human’s tastes. Food is definitely going to evolve to uncharted territories soon.

Suggestions for a new world

A society where there is no need anymore for human problem-solvers, where everything is made in the most optimised way. Will things/AI/progress be evenly distributed or restricted to wealthy urban centres? Does society come to exist only for leisure? You’ll find out as you explore our 4 distinct districts.

Does the notion of being human break down, or does it become elevated, freed from the need to sit at a desk from 9–5 to earn enough money to pay rent? Maybe, freed from the drudgery of labour, we all become artists and philosophers and a new global Golden Age is ushered in?

Or do we become terminally apathetic? Was work an integral part of being human, always willing to push the boundaries? Isn’t it against our instinct for constant self-improvement? What do we strive for, what make us wake up in the morning if not a goal? We don’t have any answer. But we want you to experience our vision of the future: you’ll find out through our interactive dialogue system and our roster of weird characters.

Conclusion

That’s why it’s important at least some of us start to leave classic cyberpunk behind. Don’t worry — there will be neon and there will be references and nods to our favourites, but there is fertile land beyond it.

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I originally wrote this article while working on The Last Night, re-posted here with small edits to make it less specific to the game.

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Interesting short movies:

Further masterpieces if you want to dig the topic:

  • Hyperion
  • Wind up Girl
  • Neuromancer
  • Netrunner
  • Ghost in the shell
  • SAGA
  • Transmetropolitan

Games ≠ Film

Not the storytelling, not the business, not the language, and we need to wise up, fast.

Just as cinema trod carefully on the coat-tails of theatre, videogames and their commentators still often employ the language and the design paradigms of film. Or worse, they are compared to film, or worse still, they are placed in competition.

And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that such language is not only misleading but actively stultifying for our games and industry.

This is the sort of thing I wrote entire dissertations on for my film & literature degree many moons ago, but a wildly simplified potted history: all creative mediums are judged skeptically upon their inception, and it’s not until the medium matures and inculcates its own nomenclature that it starts to be judged on its own merits.

‘Games have grown up! Take us seriously!’ has been a depressingly common cry of the past couple of years. Do we really need film critics rolling over and somehow admitting that yes, don’t worry, we the intellectual elite, do declare that gaming has had its Citizen Kane moment for us to feel better about our job, hobby, industry milieu?

Videogames are a quantum shift, as anyone that’s grown up playing them knows. Film is roughly analogous to theatre, and to some extent even literature (passive, linear, authorial), whereas videogames are active/interactive, frequently non-linear and often more interpretive or emergent than authorial. We won’t have a Citizen Kane moment because a game can be called Genital Jousting or Goat Simulator and make lots of money, already, and that’s pretty incredible.

Those games are valid, but they also don’t have much in the way of story, which is at the heart of my analysis. I see plenty of game-writers/designers asking about and buying books on narratology and screenplay writing. While many such books are full of wisdom about crafting commercially viable (and/or actually good) stories, they run the risk of misleading you. The screenplays of Blade Runner and Brazil are beautiful things, that conjure worlds from a real economy of expression, but frankly that has very little to do with infusing a non-linear mission system for a rogue-like with non-verbal lore and encouraging player agency.

Stories are universal. Their application and delivery methods are most certainly not.

Before I break down a few reasons why this is such a serious issue and suggest a few remedies, consider this tweet by the designer of such diverse titles as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Bulletstorm:

Language has power. In the multi-faceted, time-consuming and very expensive development pipeline, how we use it can have very real implications for how teams think and work. It can impact our expectations and therefore enjoyment as players.

For my part, I’ve worked in film, as a journalist of film and games, and in games — for a title whose team proudly touted its cinematic credentials at every opportunity to titles that are utterly systemic and emergent — and plenty in between. I studied the mechanics and theory of film for years on the cusp of the games industry overtaking it as the biggest entertainment industry in the world. Indeed, at the time film was anxiously trying to capitalise on adaptations of its interactive cousins with as much gusto as games themselves were cribbing.

I don’t have all the answers but I think we need to get talking about the problem.

Over the years, more and more directors will have grown up playing games. Right now there are less of us, but it’ll improve.” — [from my interview with] Duncan Jones (Moon, Warcraft)

Differences in storytelling

I’ll most likely make this into an expanded series of articles, but here’s the rub: you can’t apply storytelling techniques from a medium that is mechanically very different to another. The incredible scene of What Remains of Edith Finchcouldn’t possibly have been inspired by a film because the narrative action is so closely tied to what your hands and eyes as a player are doing. Conversely, GTA can never tell the greatest on-screen gangster narrative because it needs to leave room for the player to spill hot coffee on themselves or spend thousand of collective hours chasing a yeti.

The other unique possibility of cinematic games

In fact, Kelly actually concludes that:

Videogames are not, in turns out, a storytelling art. They have tried very hard to be, and their reasons for trying are noble, but the results are always ham-fisted. There are no good game stories because game stories don’t really matter. What matters is the game world, in all of its glorious detail.

  • To that end — give the PC a great backstory and a strong motivation of course, but do not under any circumstances tell or try to enforce what the player should be feeling about it all. In Drive, Gosling’s signature deadpan allows us relative freedom to project onto him, but the story is unambiguous in the extreme.
  • If you want to read more detail on the difficulties of crafting meaningful player agency and why the mere existence of it is an unbridgeable divide between film and games, I wrote about it at some length already. (Or if your eyes need a rest, listen to my talk on it here)
GTA borrows cinematic conventions (heist and gangster tropes etc) but are the games cinematic?

Auteur theory

Auteur theory essentially posits that the director is solely responsible for the film’s vision. The films of auteur directors often share a distinct style or overall sensibility, adding weight to the theory, but also becoming a prime example of confirmation/resulting bias.

However, in film, while very rarely fair to the rest of the cast, it’s at least mechanically possible: a hands on director can theoretically take credit for designing the cinematography even if it’s not her hands on the camera, for example. Notable examples are Tarantino, Bigelow, Anderson, Hitchcock.

In the games world, for better or worse, we’ve seen auteur-analogues rear their heads too. These are the vision-holders who put their name on their box, sometimes above the studio’s. That’s a deliberate choice, for marketing reasons or otherwise, in a way that is actually even more egregious than in film where the credits are a much more established convention.

Sure, along with a roughly 200 strong team.

I’m going to list a few names and let you make your own mind up about whether it’s likely that the relative success (or otherwise) of their is solely down to their direction and vision. And if so, whether that guarantees quality.

  • Peter Molyneux (Fable, Curiosity, Godus)
  • David Cage (Indigo Prophecy, the forthcoming Detroit)
  • David Jaffe (God of War, Drawn to Death)
  • Cliff Blezinski (Gears of War, LawBreakers)
  • Kojima (Metal Gear Solid, forthcoming Death Stranding)
  • Shigeru Miyamoto (…!)

As with anything, it’s not a simple equation. I will venture that, after the initial successes that arguably ‘made’ their names, the titles that game-auteurs go on to make seem rather not to live up to expectations. Interesting non? It’s almost as if a successful game requires a talented, diverse team and a multitude of visions, combinatorial creativity, and a liberal sprinkling of luck, rather than a single ‘famous’ director.

It also demonstrates that while most films operate on a ‘star power’ (director/lead actors) basis to draw initial bums to opening weekend, that doesn’t really apply to games.

Nomenclature/Glossary & Next Steps

Thanks to commentators and designers such as Kelly and Clint Hocking (among many others), we’ve got some great starting points. A few summaries below. What we need now is to abandon the word ‘cinematic’. We need to stop reading screenplay manuals. Auteur theory seems very problematic to me and I think we can do without, but we need a new kind of language for accurately apportioning and making known individuals’ contributions to a title.

There’s no doubt games are in an amazing place right now. Let’s make sure the language is up to the same standard, as the two will feed off one another.

And lastly — VR eh, bet it’ll never catch on, 2D games 4 lyfe!

  • Storysense — meaning, the combined game-specific elements that allow a story to occur, rather than to be told.
  • Narrative design — that is, how a narrative can be designed to incorporate player-space, agency, as distinct from ‘script’ or ‘screenplay’ writing, i.e. a linear/delineated and authorial story to be translated onto screen.
  • Emergent x, y, z — the story (or gameplay, or anything else) that emerges from an interplay of systems, usually felt by the player as ‘their’ story.
  • NB: this is what people often mean by ‘procedural narrative’. I know it’s semantics, but that’s what we’re discussing. Procedural can apply nicely to ‘generation’ in games, math, level design, etc, algorithmically it makes sense. But narrative should not spring from a rote, established process.
  • Player agency: most simply defined as: what can the player do; what can they affect; what are the ‘felt’ consequences (i.e. illusion of impact or real, feedback/rewards etc) to their available range of actions?

Let me know your thoughts.
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