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Interviews - Mark Foster on Titan Souls

That day was pouring down in Manchester. I was going to meet an indie developer at Takk, a café in the Northern Quarter, the Mancunian version of hipster-land. I entered the café, which was reasonably busy. The number of Macs per square metre was high as expected. I ordered an Earl Grey tea, as any British gentleman would have done. A nice conversation with a nice lad in a nice environment was about to happen.

Today, the great Mark Foster - cofounder of Acid Nerve - on Titan Souls.


Daniel Muriel: Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how did you end working at the video game industry?

Mark Foster: Well, since I was a kid, I always wanted to make video games. I remember playing Sonic on the Mega Drive Genesis, when I was about 5, or something, and seeing the kind of worlds that someone created in a computer game, I really liked that, I wanted to do that for myself. A few years later, when I was maybe about 12 or something, I found like a program on a shelf in Game, Public Spaceship. And it said, you know, make your games and stuff, and it had like… it was a picture of a platform game, where someone is firing a ship out of a cannon on the background, and I thought “oh, that’s cool, let’s give it a go”, and I bought it and get home. It was all like Blizt and C type hybrid code, and I didn’t have a clue at any of them. I tried it a bit, and mess around with some of the examples there, and couldn’t get anything worthy, so I just put it away. For a few years later, I picked up a program called Click and Play, which is a similar kind of thing, so there is no code, it’s like you just drag and drop stuff around, and it makes it much, much simpler. And that’s when I started getting into it because I could actually make something. So I made a few games in the Click and Play games factory, and that’s where I started to learn how to logic programming. I was making again Sonic type games because I really like that when I was a kid. And then eventually, I found that CD again in a drawer, and I got it out and started looking at it. Because I had all that knowledge built up from playing with the other programs, so I thought about it more logically and then got more into it, that was my first actual programming, yeah. And then, from there I just kind of carrying on, making small games in my spare time. Then I went to uni, in Manchester, and did Games Technology there. To be honest, I didn’t really learn that much in the course. Some of it was programming modules, some of it was design, and the design was more about stories and stuff, rather than actual game design. But doing things at my own time I learned a lot about game design, and then I moved onto… I got a job as a software engineer for a company which is a software warehouse, a warehouse management software company, which is really boring [Laughter].That was coding with C, that’s where I learned the most about programming, because you actually have to do stuff with it. You sort of have to adapt to it, and I learned a lot there. Basically, as soon as I went into that job, I was kind of planning on doing the indie game thing. I knew I always wanted to make games, but I didn’t know where to get into the Triple A games company, because I wanted to do the design stuff, but my experience is with programming, so I probably ended up doing the programming role, and not really have that much design control. So I always wanted to like… just go off and do my own thing. While I was there, I worked on… I got my first Mac and I was learning objective C, so I produced iOS games. I actually launched a small iOS game, and that gave me some bit of money. I think it was like 2 dollars, something like that. Still like, occasionally, I get like 20 pounds from Apple into my account, “oh, that’s cool. It’s alright”, that was like two years ago, when I launched that. So I was working there, and I saved up money in my spare time and then eventually I just quit the job and went indie full time. I was working on a video game at the time called Chroma, which is a 2D platformer. So yeah, I quit my job, worked on that for like a year, and then we did the Titan Souls jam, and then Devolver picked that up, and put us making that game…

DM: Why did you decide to do a game like Titan Souls? What did you seek doing this game?

M: When we first made it, it was for this jam, so we made it in three days. You know the story about that, right?

DM: Yes, I know the story.

M: So the only thing we were trying to achieve was completing a game in three days, really. Because of the themes, we discovered Titan Souls. The idea of having a one hit boss mechanic game, so that was “oh, this is quite cool”. And then, when we got to expand it with Devolver, we just kind of wanted to see what else we could do with that kind of thing. The moment of the kill is like the sweet moment of the game, so we kind of build the entire thing around that one moment, we tried to push that as far as possible. And things like, when you die, you have to run back for the fight, so it’s like more… maybe more frustrating, but also more… like death has more meaning, and when you actually pull off the kill, that frustration that has built up is released and it’s even better. We tried to make those feel as good as possible. That’s kind of, the core of the game.

DM: When you were working on the game, did you explicitly think about the people that were going to play it? You said on Gamasutra said that you always knew that Titan Souls was going to be a niche game.

M: It was the kind of game that we wanted to play. I’m not sure… I definitely think that it’s not everyone’s kind of game, because it’s very difficult, to a certain point. But some players will be really good at it, and they’ll find it may be easier than a lot of people, and it’s maybe those are the kind of people we’re trying to appeal to. I rather make a game that a few people really love than everyone kind of felt was alright, you know. Making someone think “that is really, really good”, that’s a cool thing. Even if others on the other spectrum, people go “I hate it, it’s terrible”.

DM: In general, what impact do you think Titan Souls had on the people who played it, or well, the people who are playing it now, what kind of impact it’s having on them?

M: Not sure. Interesting question. I’m not sure what kind of lasting impact would be. I think the achievement of getting these kills off… it depends on the person. Maybe another game designer, maybe they couldn’t take some things away from it, because it is a… when we were making it, we kind of describe it as an arrogant game, because its design is really, really strict back in this. It’s quite a small number of mechanics and it’s just built around this one thing. We were always reluctant to expand that in any way, we wouldn’t add things like in a RPG, like stats or anything like that. So maybe if a game designer was going to play it, they would maybe learn a bit about it. Because I certainly learned while making it. If I made a more traditional game in the future, the knowledge of what we’ve done now I would just carry over. To other people, I’m not sure what kind of impact do it have.


DM: What kind of impact would you like to have on them?

M: The only impact I would like to have is that they enjoy the experience. Make people have something to have fun with. The main thing is giving people something to … basically giving them an obstacle to overcome, then overcoming it themselves, actually gives them the enjoyment. This is maybe not specifically aimed, the sense of accomplishment they get for beating something. We just set the challenge for people and if they wanted, they could try and beat it.

Enjoy your frustration

DM: In one interview at E3 you said something like, what I told you, a lot people hated it, it was because of the difficulty of the game. Is it something that you actually like about your game, a game that can make people hate you in a way?

M: I’m not sure I like being hated, but I know what you mean. I’m okay with it. I think a lot of people who say that, at the moment of thinking “I hate who ever made this”, it’s not they really hate it. They’re angry, and they just take out some frustration. But when they kill something, they’ll think “oh, I love them”. [laughter] It’s the way you think. I think I’m fine with it. It wasn’t like a goal to make people hate you, but it’s a side effect to make something that frustrates people.

DM: In another interview, at PAX East, you mentioned that this guy who was playing on a Vita while he was on a plane and he wanted to scream so badly…

M: Yeah, that was Angie from Devolver Digital. I don’t think anyone from Devolver finished the game. [laughter] They just give money and stuff and published it, and the never played through the entire thing. Yeah, Angie was on a plane, he might be flying to PAX. Because it was a Vita, he had the urge to kind of smash the thing, but it would have been a very expensive moment of rage. I actually had that as well, because we left it for a while, and I was on a plane going somewhere, and I was playing the hard mode version of the game, and I wanted to smash the computer! [laughter]. Yeah, it was a weird moment of “Man, I hate whoever made this game. Oh, wait, it’s me!” I think that’s kind of funny that people do that.

DM: Would you say this is a game that makes people want to scream at the screen? Did you decide that… did you have that on mind? It’s interesting this kind of reaction …

M: Yeah, I think it’s the kind of thing. It was never specifically in my mind, but it was kind inevitable that feeling comes across. Any game that frustrates people is obviously going to make them get mad and that is necessary to make the enjoyment. You have like the negatives and the positives to it, to make it …

DM: That’s part of the approach. In order to  make people enjoy the game, you frustrate them first.

M: That certainly doesn’t apply to all games, that’s just to these kinds of… these niche games, because some people don’t want to feel frustrated in the game. There are people that play something more relaxed, where you still get the sense of achievement for doing so, but it’s not someone punching you in the face before that. [laughter]

DM: When you designed this, did you specifically think that “there’s going to be a lot of repetition, a lot of frustration”, did you want the player to suffer?

M: A little bit. The game is designed around not having any repetition in the actual gameplay. But there’s repetition in like, you have to run back to the fight. So, it is a bit of suffering. There is like a theme … actual design reasons why we put that run back in. Death has meaning, because you have to run back, so you actually lose something in real life, like seconds of time or something before you actually get back into it. And that builds up in your mind and makes it… it is like suffering, you get more frustrated with the game. When you actually achieve the kill, and you succeeded, you don’t have to do that anymore, it’s kind of like “I’ve beaten this, screw you, game”. Of course there is a few other reasons to it as well like… we wanted to have this really quiet peaceful over world, and then when you are going to fight, it’s like a manic, like really intense. It’s quite a different juxtaposition of these two. You got moments of silence between the noise, to make the noise as loud as possible.

DM: It’s interesting that you are building up the tension there.
M: And that’s kind of the reward as well. You have a very intense battle, you get a moment of like [sigh] “ahh”, and you are just walking around and in like this environment, thinking “I don’t want to go into another room, because I can get my ass kicked again”.

DM: In Giantbomb you said that at some point, when you were watching people playing the game at some of these conventions, you said it was great to see people hit that frustration zone. What is great about seeing someone frustrated?

M: I’m guessing is that, when you see someone like that, they’re clearly invested in the game. It has roped them in, and if they’re getting frustrated, because they want to win, so seeing people like that, just means they actually … maybe they’re not enjoying it as in like, they’re having a really great time, but they’re enjoying it in a way that they are engaged with it, I guess. The best bit is when they actually pull up the kill. You’re watching someone really frustrated and then brought the kill. I’ve seen people getting really excited. One of my favourite memories of showing the game was… when we were at E3. We had a double booking at the press appointments. So there’s one guy in there, and a bunch of people outside, and they were all watching him play, and we were thinking “Oh, no, he’s having a bad time”, because these spectators are booing and cheering whenever he’s doing anything. And he killed this one titan, and he’s got up and start dancing. And he started doing an improvised rap over the music, and it was the funniest, weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, because we thought he was having a horrible time, but he was really enjoying it. So that was fun. It is always cool to watch players’ reactions in person. Especially if they do get really into it.

DM: Have you witnessed someone that, for instance, started to play, and after a few tries… “this is not for me”?

M: It didn’t actually happen. Maybe a few. It didn’t really happen as much as we would have thought. Maybe that happened more for people playing it at home, than at an expo. I think it kind of … it’s a good game to show at expo, because people then just jumps in, and they can try out a bit. Because everything is really fast paced, they can have just  like ten minutes, maybe kill a boss, and then after that “ah it’s sweet, I really like it, it’s really good”. But then at home, maybe they’d get more frustrated. If you got a crowd of people watching you and cheering you on, maybe that is more incentive to beat it, even more pressure added, which makes the kill even better.

DM: Do you think that a game like this still can be considered as something fun? This equation between frustration and enjoyment…

M: I hope it’s fun, because else why are people want to continue to play it? I mean, I’ve said a lot of its weight around the game it’s about being an achievement, but I think the actual process for achieving is still fun as well. There’s many moments like that in a fight, like you pull up a perfect dodge, or something like that, and you feel really good about it, and the adrenaline is going. And I think that whole process is fun, in general. The achievement is an extra like a sweet thing on top of it.




DM: Why do we like to play video games even if they frustrate us? Why is that something that appeals to us?

M: With that kind of game, I don’t know… it’s… it’s something to overcome, like having a challenge like that, I think is pretty due to that kind of game. There’s loads of different games, a lot of them don’t do that. A lot of old games, like Zelda on the NES, in the eighties, that was very hard, very frustrating and that was just the kind of game at the time. Megaman as well, most kind of games. Nowadays, it kind of went to a lull that, a lot of AAA companies will want you to see all the content they made. They’ve put in millions of dollars, and made all that stuff and they want you to see it all. They want you to get your money’s worth. When things like Demon Souls or Dark Souls came out, they kind of turned it all upside down, went back to kinds of roots of like “this is going to be hard, you’re going to have to pay in sweat and tears to actually get to this point”. It is hard, and it’s also that you can compare yourself against other people, like how other people do against this game. You can think “oh, I’ve beat it. These people couldn’t beat it”, you feel motivated. You can test yourself to see … if people identify as being good in games, and then they can beat these games to prove their worth, or something. I think that’s a lot of it, but also those kinds of games I just find really fun anyway, especially like Dark Souls, the way the game feels to play, and kind of the exploration. There’s actual combat mechanics in it, but there’s also a lot of other things around the game which could be very interesting for the story and things like that. You kind of have a sense of discovery when you find things in these games.

Punish and Discipline

DM: Speaking of Dark Souls, you mentioned that one of your favourite situations in a game like Dark Souls is like when you’re fighting a boss, your health bar is almost gone and you don’t have any item to recover your health, an estus flask, and the boss is also on the verge of dying, and then your heart is beating fast… is that the reason you wanted to translate that experience to your game? Making an entire game about that moment.

M: Yeah, that moment in games is really like, that’s when the adrenaline is going and you’re really tense, you want to take the last swing and kill it, but you’re so worried that you’re going to die, you maybe play more cautiously or maybe you play too aggressively and you die, and it’s all really frustrating. We took that idea with Titan Souls and basically just scratched that time of moment out for the entire fight, and I think that was one of the considerations we had when we first made the jam game. “If we did it like this, it would feel like that all time, right?”. And, it kind of did, and we just really liked it.

DM: Do you think the fact that you can almost immediately come back to fight the boss again might be diminishing that feeling? I know that you said that there is some sort of punishment as you have to walk again, even if it’s just for a few seconds. But don’t you think that this is something different from Dark Souls?

M: It’s definitely different. There’s a lot of differences between them, because of things like… the soul mechanic in Dark Souls, where you want to get back, so you can recover your souls, and also when you’re going back, you have to fight your way through a lot of enemies, or find a way to get past them quickly without getting hurt or killed, and that is a different thing. It’s like that bonfire would be maybe a minute or two as well, so much longer. In our game, it isn’t the same thing. The bonfires play a really significant role in Dark Souls. When you gone through a long area, and you got no health and you’re like “oh my god”, and you find a bonfire, that moment is like “oh my god, what a relief”. You sit down, next to the bonfire, recover, it’s really powerful. That isn’t something we have in Titan Souls, because of the way the game is structured. But I think the run back to boss, it doesn’t have the same kind of heart to it, like the bonfire in Dark Souls, but I think it is mechanically really good for the game. If you didn’t have that in it, you restart the boss straight away. There’d kind of be almost no point in dying, because you got one health, and one boss is one health, so if you… say, in like the Eye Cube fight or something like that, if you die, and then you respawn immediately, it doesn’t make a difference, because it’s not like game has helped that, because it doesn’t have any. It’s a weird thing.

DM: Still, there were people complaining about that. Why cannot I respawn in the same room?

M: Oh, yeah. That was the main thing I expected, and a lot of people hated it, but they’re not supposed to like it, really. Some people actually do, they say “oh yeah, I quite like having this kind of moment of peace, where I go, OK, let me think how to do it”. I think, the way that the mechanic works is, there’s loads of very, very intricate design decisions, that you don’t see as a player. All you think of as a player “why does it make me run back to the boss, why doesn’t it spawn me so that I can fight it again”. But if you don’t think about that stuff, you just let that kind of frustration build up. That is in particular made to make the kills feel as good as possible.

DM: You define these kinds of games as punishing games. Is that what Titan Souls is?

M: Yeah, Titan Souls is definitely a punishing game. If you make a single mistake, you’ll die, and you have to run back. That is very punishing. Things like the iron mode, where you only have one life. That is punishment. We made the game for those kinds of people, people who want to just really punish themselves.




DM: Because you said that you have to die to learn. So it has to be painful process to play Titan Souls.

M: You technically don’t have to die, if you were incredibly good. But, I’ve never seen anyone play through a game without dying yet. I’ve seen some people one shot Titans, like when they haven’t seen them, but not the whole game, that would be something [laughter]. I don’t think that I can do that now! I think whenever you die, you’ve learned something about the way that it moves and things like that, and what you did wrong. And I think, the core thing to it is that whenever you die, it’s your fault, it’s never like the boss being random, there’s no random in the game. Often the Blob boss moving in slightly random way. But most of the fights are kind of … it’s kind of like you’re controlling the boss. Your position on the screen, your action at the time, dictates what the boss is going to do. The boss will always move in a very specific pattern that is based on that, like the Eye Cube always moves around one tile at a time. It’s always following you, so there’s no random thing to it. What you need to do in a fight is move around and learn how to control the boss in certain ways. So the game is kind of about control, really.

Player agency and (dis-)empowerment

DM: Do you think that in a way you were trying to disempower the player and leaving them at the mercy of the game? Because you are telling me now it is all about controlling the situation. You’re leaving the player vulnerable, just one hit kills you. But at the same time you’re saying this is about control.

M: They are very vulnerable, you know, one hit get them killed. It is kind of like they have no real power, because they’re so fragile, when you first look at it. When you as a player become more skilled in it, you understand that you have all the power, because you control these titans and you can kill them, where they can’t really kill you, you keep coming back. In real life, you kind of get better in the game, and you get more understanding and that lets you feel like you have more power in the game.

DM: That’s interesting, because you say that you make people feel powerful once they’re able to overcome the challenge.

M: Yeah, so it’s not like the player’s stats got higher; it’s you in real life having become good at it. You actually gain some skill.

DM: It’s not your character the one that is leveling up.

M: Yeah, it’s you. Exactly. I think that’s one of the key things to the game, to make people feel they’ve actually achieved something.

DM: In a way, this game is transforming the people who are playing it, because actually it’s the player who has to become better by doing that.

M: That’s why we call it an arrogant game. That kind of design is like “no, we don’t want you to level the character, we want you to level up”. But at the same time, things like Dark Souls, I’ve played through Dark Souls without leveling the character to see if that’s possible. There’s a sub Reddit that it’s called… can’t remember, it’s like Soul Level 1, or 1bro, or something like that. You play through the qhole game without leveling up. So you got lower health, you can only have a certain amount of armor, you want to be faster all the time. I think the best weapon at level 1 is a barbed club. You level the club, and you’re still pretty powerful, really. The main thing is, because your health and vitality and endurance is lower, you can’t get hit, ever. It’s basically like Titan Souls, where you get hit, you die. I quite liked playing like that.

DM: At Gamasutra you said that the gameplay becomes about control and the game’s about understanding and manipulating the enemy. Could you tell me more about this idea of taking control of the situation? Because the game disempowers you in a way, but actually you are telling me that you have to take control of it.

M: The power that you have is that these bosses will move in a predictable way relative to you. That is the part you have control over the fight, if you as a person know how to control it. Like the Guardian with its two fists, like that moves in that way, the fist will try to get you with a certain range and rotation. If you move over to the other side, where the other fist is closer, it’ll switch hands, so if you make it move around and chase you in a certain way so you could make it switch hands when you want it to, and then you have your oppotunity to kill it. You’re controlling what it’s doing, so you can manipulate it into a position where you can kill it. The same with the Brain fight, it’s not moving randomly, it’s going at you, so you can imagine “ok, it’s going to come at me here, it would bounce of this wall in this trajectory and it would end up on a switch”. So you do that, you move out of the way, and it keeps moving and it ends up on the switch, and while it’s doing that, you’re running in front of the fire, so you can align yourself in the way you know it’s going to end up, and you shoot it through that, and then you run away from the Brain as it’s coming down at you, and you know you need to put this much distance between, because he’s always going to chase you, and then you can wind your arrow, when you know it’s going to land not on you, then you kill it. It’s just about understanding how the fight is going to work, and manipulating the boss to move in that way.

DM: So you put a lot of thinking on the design of every titan, because they’re very different.

M: Yeah, that was the hard part of making the game, because everything is so… and the way you… maybe in a more traditional kind of boss fight that you slashing and… it can be more lenient, because you have like opportunities to do damage to it, rather than opportunities to outright kill it. So that had to be really finely tuned to get that kind of thing right, and having the weak spot exposed. It should be kind of exposed all the time, but actually getting to it is really difficult. So, designing around those kind of limitations is really, really difficult to do and interesting as well.

DM: At Kill Screen, the author of the review said that Titan Souls gives you the opportunity to feel the success of the impossible shot, the hail Mary, the curved bullet, to experience it first hand, is this another reason why are so appealing for some people to play games like this?

M: Again, I think it’s achievement, like people feeling really good about actually doing something like that. Those kinds of windows are … if you actually think about the amount of time you can do it, they seem impossible. I know the numbers behind them, like, I can tell you… have you played the Yeti?

DM: Yes

M: Yes? When it lands, it rolls and lands, rolls and lands, rolls and lands. And on the first and second landing, the window to hit it, is ten frames, which is one sixth of a second. On the third landing it has forty frames, four sixths of a second, so it’s like the longer you go on, there are certain options which are slightly more lenient than the rest. But people get them on those tiny moments, they feel really good, because they’ve done something that is really kind of ridiculous, because they understood how to do it.




DM: Did you measure these things, I mean, you know the window you have to defeat this boss?

M: I just have the numbers that controls, so the way I made the game, it’s a sixty frames per second game, as a base, so the actual logic is around that fact. I’d say like, when it lands, the time accounts this single frame, so when it’s done, it doesn’t count. I have absolute control over the number of frames they’re doing it for, so that’s why I know all of those numbers. But when we’re making it more difficult, we just kind of tweak them. It was at a point of like “hmmm, ten frames is a bit too long, let’s move it down to six”, tweaking it by four is really nothing. Making that kind of really, really small change, but towards it, it was like… made a big difference.

DM: In the hard mode everything is faster…

M: There’s a few differences, where the hard mode is generally moving faster. It’s harder to actually stay alive. Those windows I was just talking about, those change, a lot of those are smaller windows to actually get the kills. Some of them actually change completely. Some of them have different things, like the plant fight gets extra tentacles and stuff like that. The Yeti fight in hard made, when I said it lands on ten frames, in hard made, when it lands, it doesn’t stop, it just keeps rolling until the fourth one, where it lands with that ten frame window. So we actually then force you to do the ten frame window kill. Hard mode is faster, at the kills, and some of the moves get changed a little bit.

Criticism

DM: There were people doing some criticism about Titan Souls, for instance, this is from Polygon, this person didn’t find the game challenging because not only did he usually know where the weak point was from the beginning, he also was able to easily recognise the patterns of the Titans. For this person, it wasn’t challenging because of that, because he could recognise the patterns very easily. Even if he lacked the ability to execute them, but once he recognised that, well, there is no mistery. What do you think about this kind of…?

M: That’s kind of not the player that we were aiming for. It’s like totally fine… is that from the Polygon article?

DM: Yes, it was the Polygon article, Arthur Gies…

M: Yeah, he just didn’t really get the game, he thought that a lot of it was down to just random chance, just taking pot shots of the game. Which isn’t… you can’t really dictate how people play a game, it isn’t how we intended it to play. That’s the reason why we kind of have the running back to the fight stuff, so you’re more careful. You’re maybe focusing at first on surviving before attacking them, whereas his tactic were kind of just go in, just randomly throw arrows at it and try to kill it, maybe. But, if people don’t enjoy that frustration, then it’s just not for them, which is fine. I still think it’s that kind of game, you either love it or hate it.

DM: There was a lot of… it was intended as some sort of demake of Shadow Colossus. But there are people that think these references are misleading because, for instance, Shadow Colossus has more exploration, there is no possibility to kill the colossus so quick, there are different weapons… What would you say to these people?

M: So is that people who do think that is misleading?

DM: Yes.

M: I agree with them. The thing is… there is kind of a thing with games called games, medium and culture to… they would describe a game based on other games. So Titan Souls was “oh, it’s Shadow Colossus meets…” – I just going to put an American accent there because everybody there was “oh it’s kind of Shadow of the Colossus” [Laughter]. Every single person! They always say Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls and Legend of Zelda. And you can understand why, and it does get people a fast kind of thing in their head, like “oh yeah, ok, it is like this”, but it’s some other things to those three games smashed together in a completely different way to Titan Souls, when they see Titan Souls, they think they’re disappointed by it. It’s an interesting thing, but like all games nowadays will be described that way. Because everything is kind of built off the shoulders of its predecessors. Most games can be compared to other games. It’s rare to get a game that’s really, really unique. The only thing that I can think of that’s been recent that was completely… that couldn’t be really compared to anything would be Papers, Please. That’s not like any other game I’ve played, it’s such a weird, strange thing that is really interesting.

DM: There’s going to be games that are going to be compared to Papers, Please.

M: Yeah, because now it’s a reference point. So I think that thing comparing to Shadows…  when we originally made it, we said like “oh, we did a demake of Shadow Colossus”,  we weren’t thinking of that as a commodity or anything like that. We were just thinking “this might be fun!” Making some of those boss fights, the actual game it doesn’t play anything like Shadow Colossus, it’s just a part of the vibe it accomplishes. It does a good job of giving you a slight idea of what it’s like pretty quickly.

DM: Because now video games have a history and sometimes is going to be inevitable that people start comparing the newer games to previous games. I think that’s part of the process. Now that video games is part of a more or less established culture.

M: I think that kind of thing did us a favour, really, in terms of game marketing towards how the game came up, because people were pretty hyped about it. You hear those things, and people think “oh my god, this game is going to be the best game ever”, they might… maybe isn’t what they were expecting, but they might still enjoy the game. That comparison, I think, drew people into the game as well, so it’s not all negative.




DM: It’s been pointed out that the game lacks narrative. Was that intended? Or maybe people just have not been able to find it.

M: That’s probably one of the weakest parts of the game. There is a narrative playing through it, but it’s kind of in the background, it’s really kind of hidden. You have to really think about what you’re seeing and what is going on, to actually try and build the picture. We kind of figured that some people would collaborate and… throw together ideas and compare notes and stuff, “oh, maybe this is going on”. But that kind of thing didn’t really happen. I don’t know if we maybe not got quite the exposure that we need for that yet. I also think that maybe we could’ve introduced the story more to people, in some way, because everything we did, was really, really, obscure and hands off, whereas if we’d given people a kind of hook, something to set them off, looking for the story rather than just assume people would try and find it. There is definitely… I wrote like a few pages about the lore about all the kind of history of the world in the game, and stuff, and that was just my own acknowledgment, that we could fit everything together, but no one’s seen that. To piece things together, for example, the boss names are all in these language of hieroglyphics, but after you complete the full game and you beat the true ending, you got to unlock all these names as well, so you can read everything. But there’s examples of storytelling like the knight fight, his name is in English straight away, because your character has prior knowledge of it, which then makes you think “oh, maybe he was a human before this”, so maybe humans brought titans here, and you can kind of scrap a story from those things. There’s also a titan that just talks to you in the game, I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

DM: Yes? No, I didn’t…

M: At one point in the game, there’s a secret kind of hidden titan that you find and it’s really passive, it doesn’t attack you, you just kill it, but it talks to you. It’s a kind of weird interesting break in the gameplay because you expect something, and it kind of subvert that expectation, something starts talking to you, “what’s going on?” And that kind of reveals a bit of story as well. What it tells you, it tells you some information, but it’s still a bit like mysterious and enigmatic.

DM: Also people said that the universe recreated is quite empty, desolated in a way…Why did you decide to carry out this kind of design of emptiness?

M: I think, maybe the world is slightly bigger than it needs to be, but it was built for these massive creatures, so it is going to be a big world compared to the character, and maybe it didn’t have the impact that we wanted to, but it was kind of like the scale of the world put into the game.

Identity and community within video game culture

DM: In a more general sense, how would you define video games? Could you give a definition of video games?

M: It’s a difficult thing, because there’s so… it’s weird that video games are like this one thing, but if you look at two random video games, they are just nothing alike. Crash Bandicoot and Call of Duty, they’re both video games, but one is about simulating killing people in a warzone, the other one is that you’re a weird cartoon spinning around. They’re completely different, but yet theyr’re the same thing because of the depth of what video games are. I guess video game would just be something that allows people to play in a virtual system. I guess that’s really, really, not very specific in any way, but because it’s such a broad spectrum of things. The video part is the digital and then the game part is pleasure/play. There is a weird discussion that’s been going on with things like the game Proteus. One of the top Steam reviews says “this is not a game” [laughter], but it still lets you wander around, play, and you’re like “I like chase a frog and I jump around”. You just kind of like mess around and have fun in it. But just because it doesn’t have these set goals that you’d have in most games, does that mean it isn’t a game? What is a game?

DM: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. These kinds of games like Proteus and others, considered as walking simulators. There are a lot of people that say “these are not games”. That’s why I ask these questions. What makes a video game to be a video game? Where is the frontier… what is the level of interactivity that you must have in a game to be considered a game?

M: I think the main thing is having some interactivity is necessary. There was one thing that I saw, like a few months ago. Basically, it was classified as a game by the author, but it was just basically a screensaver. I think leaves would fall down, and you couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t interact with it in any way. It is supposed to be a game because then you could like maybe count the leaves? I don’t know! That was the most…. Like… I’ve seen anyone try to push the argument. But I think anything that lets you play, I think that’s the key thing to it. Proteus lets you play around. It’s not got this set of goals and stuff, but it does have that fun element to it. I think that is probably the most important thing when you’re classifying games. I went to an event on Friday, called Feral Vector. Have you ever heard of that?

DM: No…

M: It’s like a small event for game designers to go to. It’s a really, really kind of interesting thing, like games culture, because it’s celebrating games as art and stuff as well, it’s like talking about the art merits in games. It’s not really about the game mechanics. Dick Hogg from… he made Hohokum,  he did the visual art and everything. He did a talk, that was called ‘The art guy”, because people would say like “oh, you’re the art guy, because you do all the art?”, but then he was like “but, isn’t the game art?” So that would mean the programmer is creating art as well, because they’re making this world, so their development is there like an art guy. But it’s this weird kind of thing where the visualised scene is the art, but like the music isn’t seen as art, but is still art. It was an interesting eye-opening kind of thing. That’s the kind of thinking I was talking about, games as art, celebrating that.




DM: Do you think there’s a video game culture in our contemporary society?

M: Yeah. Well, I think games are everywhere. Everyone plays games. Even if it’s not video games, people when they were a kid on a playground they would play some games or whatever. I think games are an important part of everyday life. People who are walking down the street and don’t step on a crack, that kind of thing, it’s like kind of a game. Games are just everywhere. I think video game culture is a… what you said ‘video game culture’, that makes me think more of people who are really into video games who like… you know, they play Counter Strike obsessively, or something like that. That kind of person online, generally seen to be more aggressive. That’s the kind of image that gets pictured in my mind, but at the same time, I think most people play video games in some way. Nowadays, when you go on your phone, you play Candy Crush or whatever, Angry Birds. Everyone has played a video game. So I think we do live in a culture that has video games everywhere.

DM: Video games are part of our culture right now. That idea that everybody can play video games and actually everybody is playing video games or at least they recognise the importance of video games in our culture.

M: I think the idea of the kind of a teenage male basement, that all thing now is kind of disappearing. Everyone can play games, anyone, and anyone does. The diversity in games like World of Warcraft, which are online, those MMO’s, you can find anyone playing that. It’s cool that it’s just like everyone plays video games now.

DM: Do you define yourself as a gamer?

M: That is a good question because… I’d say that everyone’s a gamer, in some way. Yeah, I don’t know, I guess, yeag. I play games, therefore I’m a gamer.

DM: Is it part of who you are, of your identity?

M: I’ve never really thought of it in that way, because, again, I assume that most people do. Maybe most people don’t play video games that much, but some people would… they maybe still would play games on the phone or whatever. But I would sit and play games for a few hours on my PlayStation or my computer or whatever. So, yes, I guess I would identify as a gamer like in that kind of way of gamer.

DM: And would you use that label, for instance, to be introduced as such, would you feel comfortable with that? “Well, this is Mark, he’s a gamer…”

M: Well, because of the kind of world I live in, everyone I know is a gamer, so it wouldn’t… that’s why I’ve never really thought about it, it doesn’t make sense, because everyone I know plays video games. I think I probably identify as myself, I would say I’m a game developer, it’s like this states my identity. That’s how I identify as a game developer, that’s my entire life is that. I think as a gamer… yeah I assume everyone as a gamer [laughter].

DM: I think you have open definition of video gamer because there are other people who consider that just playing some games don’t make you a gamer. They think in order to be a gamer you have to be very involved in the…

M: That has to be a specific kind of game… It’s a weird thing, because like, really, why would we need that kind of a definition? If most people do play some games, technically, that makes everyone a gamer, because they’re playing games. But then, if people are then saying “no, you need to play this kind of game”. It’s like “well, is that like a sub-genre gamer?” Why do you need to define yourself by these kinds of parameters? I don’t think it’s a healthy way of living, trying to put yourself in these weird boxes. I don’t think it’s really needed.

DM: There has been a lot of controversy about this thing called Gamergate, probably part of it it’s people saying “no, no, we are the hardcore gamers…”

M: That’s an interesting thing, because with the whole Gamergate thing, I think a lot of people who identify as gamers, specifically, who do all that kind of believe and say “I am a gamer, because I play games, maybe not everyone I know does that, I play Call of Duty, Counter Strike, MMO’s, whatever, I am a gamer”. That whole thing was like, people saying that isn’t really a thing anymore. And they were kind of offended by that, because they identify so heavily as a gamer, that was part of them, and they didn’t like the idea that someone was trying to take that away from them maybe, which is interesting. I think as time goes on, I think that would disappear a bit, because games are so mainstream now, I think everyone is a gamer.

DM: Usually identity is about… not only the things that you share with other people but also what differentiates you from the other. But now everybody is…

M: Yeah, you maybe need something else to...

DM: Speaking of which, do you think there is a community of gamers? Because if everyone can be a gamer, there is no community of gamers anymore, or is there still a sense of community of gamers?

M: Well, I don’t know there’s much of a community of just general gamers. Because I think the communities that grow around these games nowadays are more based around the actual game that they’re playing. Like, people who have Counter Strike clans, League of Legends, DotA, that kind of thing, where you’re playing with friends online. Especially with MMO’s like World of Warcraft, where people are in a guild, and hang around, doing raids and stuff, with twenty five doing a raid, and maybe with like hundred people in the guild and they all get to know each other and become friends and stuff. They identify themselves as like a raid or a PvP or whatever. “I’m a WoW player”, and then “I’m a PvP’er”, there’s a subversion of that as well. I think that’s what people would identify more with, rather than saying like “yeah, I’m a gamer” because… I don’t know of any place where you go to meet other gamers, I don’t know if that’s a thing. If there is, I would be interested in checking that out. I don’t think there’s any, except maybe for online, Reddit, or something like that, where you got like r/gaming. I don’t really… but it’s seems is too many people there to actually form any kind of community.




DM: It’s difficult to say if there is a general community of gamers but, in a way, like imagined communities, something like is there…

M: Yeah, and you feel you’re part of it…

DM: Yes, or maybe it’s just on the Internet, there’s some sort of… maybe you can interact with people with the same interests. But, yeah, it’s difficult to say if there is a general community of gamers.

M: That said, whenever I’m at PAX, I really like those events, because when I’m there, I do kind of feel like everyone else there is in the same kind of… it feels comfortable, because you all have this one major thing in common. You all like games so much that you’re at events celebrating playing games, which is kind of different like just walking around in Manchester, because maybe you look around, you don’t know that anyone else have anything in common with you. But when you are at that kind of position, you do know that. That is a cool thing to know that you have something in common with those people, and maybe that’s what it means to those people to be a gamer. Because they know if they met someone else and says “I’m a gamer”, they immediately have this thing in common.




Other interviews:
Karla Zimonja on Gone Home (Fulbright, 2013)

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Some thoughts on... Layers of Fear

This will be a new section dedicated to a series of brief comments on video games I'd like to say something about. I'm going to call it "Some thoughts on". Enjoy it. 

Today, some thoughts on Layers of Fear (Bloober Team).


Layers of fear, layers of existence

Layers of Fear (Bloober Team), available on Steam Early Access, begins quoting Oscar Wilde in The picture of Dorian Gray: 'Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter'. This statement could be interpreted as a specific conception of the notion of authorship; it is the artist, active subject, on whom relies the power of creation over what becomes the passive vessels of their actions: the canvas and the sitter. However, this is a misleading assertion, because the artist-player will be manipulated and dominated by the work-game until the former is trapped by the multiple layers of the latter: layers of narrative, fear and existence.

It is a first person game, with a peculiarity that is easily spotted when we stop: the camera sways as if we were on a ship's deck. This simile is useful to speak about Layers of Fear, because we will witness a personal and family wreckage; maybe even a social one. The fact that outside of the mansion in which the game takes place there is a storm, whose thunders' light intermittently inundate the rooms we go over, enhances the narrative about a sinking vessel that was once magnificent and able to navigate the ocean of the quotidian, the familiar and the professional with favourable wind. 

We embody an artist, a painter who has fallen on hard times. He has lost his family and is on the verge of madness. Or that is what we will be unfolding as we advance in the game. Divested of everything - his love ones, his health, his prestige, he only has his art remaining, the last shred of hope he can cling to in order to construct meaning and avoid losing his sanity completely. That is one alternative. The other one is art was what has stripped him, layer by layer, of his humanity, his judgement, his social status. And the best part is how this transformation is made in terms of gameplay.

In Layers of Fear, there are no enemies to defeat, resources to manage, characters to speak to, or even puzzles - strictly speaking - to solve. The aim is to progress from room to room, uncovering different aspects of the story in the shape of newspapers clippings, letters, diary entries, or objects. In the meantime, we interact with the environment, or that is what we are led to believe, because, as the plot progresses, we have the feeling that it is the environment the one that is tampering with us. That constantly keeps the player tense, a feeling of uneasiness that grows as times passes, with each new room; as if we also were starting to be colonised by the protagonist's psychosis. Little by little, the house absorbs the player in a series of rooms that form the layers that are being added to their experience of play, distorting their perception and ability to foresee what will be next. Some parallelisms can be established with P.T., the piece of work that Konami involuntarily turned into a legend. Although nobody can deny P.T.'s influence on Layers of Fear, I think the game stands for itself because it makes everything feel alive without us almost noticing the backstage that makes it possible. 

Every time the player 'dies' in the game, even though those deaths are part of the natural development of the game, you respawn in a room where it is possible to read on the wall the following message: 'Death is but a layer'. Reading it makes you shiver and, in my opinion, it is mostly true. After all, life and death are like our experiences, which include failures and successes, sorrows and joys; they are different layers that - superimposed and interwoven, occasionally made of strips of former layers - shape the texture of our reality. And Layers of Fear, that little video game still in development (which I look forward to seeing what else can offer), adds its own existential layer.

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EGX, Birmingham 2015: Chronicles of a Doped Video Game Culture

The path from Birmingham International train station to the NEC's halls where the 2015 edition of EGX was held, considered the biggest video game event in the UK, seemed never ending to me. I hadn't entered the halls of the event and I was already tired. This is the chronicle of my experience at EGX. As a disclaimer I have to say this is my first time at these kinds of events and I will speak from the perplex point of view of the curious sociologist. And I know, the pictures are terrible. Blame the photographer (me), the camera (mine), and the dimmed lights (that's on EGX). 

The dope
Don't get me wrong, there was nothing illegal happening at EGX. I am making reference to the stand giving away one of those energetic drinks that are suppose to fuel gamers' drive. I smiled back to the girl who offered me one of the cans; I claimed and took my dosage. It's one of the first things you come across once you step in the hall. Impossible to miss. And it's free! But that was not the only dope in the event. The people, the noise, the flashing images, the lights, the dark zones. Everything was set to drag you into a hyped state of feverish video game overdose. And it worked.


Wandering a non-place
People who attend video game events are not gamers, they're wanderers. The layout is designed to make the attendants jump from one environment-booth to another. These events force us to traverse an endless circuit of wandering, watching, queueing, playing, and repeat. Occasionally you sit somewhere, eat something, tweet, or go to the toilet. But all those things happen on the air; there is no interruption, no schedule (or it is, but the activities are standard copies or the former, even if they're different presentations or talks), no sign (internal or external) that warns you stop or take a break. Everything works in an organic systemic way, flowing like a continuous current. Like those casinos in Las Vegas, there are no changes in the general tone, the light, the music, the sounds. Video game events are an ephemeral version of one of those non-places described by Marc Augé (2009).

Indies vs. The Corporation
In general both indies and big companies work under the cultural logic of late capitalism (Jameson, 1991), but the typical Microsofts, Sonys, Ubisofts and Nintendos like to show muscle by building their own differentiated environments. They are managed as if they were night clubs: wait your turn queueing and, maybe, the guy in the entrance, the one with the list, will let you try their new piece of work for five minutes. Some are nicer than others, but the independent developers are clearly more accessible. And you can actually talk to them while you're playing their games.
Shrillness
One of the things I did was to play video games on platforms I usually don't play, i.e., PS4. If these events are exceptional, as those moments of collective effervescence described by Durkheim (1915), I was determined to do something exceptional. So I came across Everybody's gone to the rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015) and decided to give it a try. That's when I realised these events are  really infested and contaminated by sounds, lights and all kinds of stimuli. Everybody's gone to the rapture is suppose to be an immersive and introspective personal experience. If you have some lads next to you with microphones shouting at the top of their lungs in some sort of activity with loud music, video and dancing... that's not what you experience. It's not only their fault, everything is massive and excessive in all its glory. It's part of the attractiveness of the event, but creates disruptive experiences with the medium.

Over-excitement
Remember the dope I wrote about above? At some point, I don't know why, I decided to drink from the can I took. The can was full of warnings: 'tornado', 'storm', 'energy'. Also, the ingredients did not give much space for speculations: guarana, caffeine, taurine. I drank half of the can, anyway. It helped me to vibrate at the same frequency of the event: I wanted to try everything but at the same time I was put off by the flow that drags you around the circuit ceaselessly. Everything becomes a distorted, abnormal experience of what is gaming. Substitute 'religion' for 'gaming' and it's as if Durkheim was describing video game events a century ago:
However, it may be objected that even according to this hypothesis, religion remains the object of a certain delirium. What other name can we give to that state when, after a collective effervescence, men believe themselves transported into an entirely different world from the one they have before their eyes? (1915: 226)

Don't look at me now
Playing video games while surrounded by strangers who are watching your gameplay made me uneasy. It's not nice to feel all those eyes on you when you know your are not a particularly skilled player. This was excruciatingly painful when I tried games I never played before (MGSV, Assasin's Creed: Syndicate) on platforms (PS4) alien to me. It seems that all those days in the arcades are long past now. Were they judging me or it was everything in my head? I blame the dope for this paranoia.

Conclusions
All in all, visiting a video game event for the first time was funny but tiring; interesting but repetitive. These events encourage exploration of video game culture but in a strident way, which, in the end, is fabulous for sociologists, anthropologists and other knowledge scavenging creatures like me. 

Bibliography

  • Augé, Marc (2009). Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso Books.
  • Durkheim, Emile (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Jameson, Frederic (1991). Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.