Divide by Zero

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 2 October 2008

An Interview with Games Developer Andy Blazdell

You make games with central characters that seem defiantly anti-heroic; is this to make them more realistic, or to increase levels of empathy for a wider variety of people/players?

We tend to take a more mature attitude to storytelling in games than most other developers. You have to make the main character interesting, not just a faceless figure upon which the player must superimpose their own personality. The mistake that everybody makes when writing interactive narrative is that the player wants to be his/herself in the given situation. This is not the case. Games are a form of escapism, and in a make-believe world no-one would want to be themselves.

But we take this one step further by giving the player's character unique traits that the player cannot necessarily control - the player can tell the character what to do, but has no idea how the character will do it. The overall effect is that the player acts as a "friend" to the character, advising and caring for them. And let's face it, the most interesting friends are those who aren't perfect.

It helps make the characters more believable if we give them quirks and foibles, but it would be wrong to say that we are trying to connect with a wider range of people - it doesn't work that way. If we featured a main character who was in a wheelchair, we would be doing it because we wanted to explore that subject, not to attract wheelchair-bound customers.

Games with narrative are like films. You have to approach the writing in the same way, and try to connect with the player on a number of levels. There's the playing of the game itself, but there's also the wonder of discovering locations, plots and characters you've never seen before, and for that you have to treat the experience like a film.

In the Residents' "Freak Show", the player has to handle one of the characters, "Hermen", in specific ways to get any information out of him, or about him (otherwise he hides or runs away).

Do you think games can elicit this curiosity in people to find out more about characters of different kinds who they otherwise might not enquire into, also characters who definitely DO NOT conform to the standard mould: 25 years old, the male, athletic, blue-eyed uberhero?

If people are playing computer games they are doing it because they are curious, they want to explore. If you put something into a game the player will almost definitely try out whatever they can with it, that's why they're playing the game. If they weren't curious, they'd be watching a video or other passive entertainment.

Divide By Zero

How do you think the areas of games, cinema and Virtual Reality are going to change over the next few years? Much has been said about the gigantic size of the games industry in comparison to the film industry as proof of a yearning for interactivity, participation and control. How do your games and their narratives function as compared to cinema or other more linear narratives?

Games will get prettier and play worse until the big companies get their act together and follow the lead of independent companies like us. The problem is that developing games looks easy to the film moguls, and they think that pouring money into Multimedia products that use film industry technology will make better games. It doesn't, it makes eye candy that's still not as good as video quality visuals. When they realise how much money they are wasting they'll come to the people who know how to write playable games, and then the industries will merge seam­lessly, producing beautiful, playable games that mean something.

Cinema will continue exactly the way it has been for the past few years, the gormless successes carrying the loss-making quality films.

Virtual Reality will be banned in its current form (those headsets with the two LCD screens cello-taped to your eyes) by the USA for health reasons (they give you headaches and make you cross-eyed), and will be forgotten about until someone can make it work (without projecting an image directly on the retina, because nobody in their right mind would point a laser beam into their eye for fun). I don't see the size of the games industry as proof of a yearning for interactivity. Most people are lazy - compare the number of people who watch sport on TV to the number who regularly play it. Total interactivity in story narratives is a bad idea. Scriptwriters are there because they know how to make a good story. If you let the general public have a go at rewriting the ending they are unlikely to get as good a result. The masses want to think they're in control -that's why they vote at elections, but wouldn't want to go into politics. Interactivity is not a new concept - the power of reasoned choice is what makes us sentient beings. There is place for games alongside film and books. It won't replace or be replaced by anything else. It's here to stay.

Could you give me a description of the elusive quality or essence "game-play"? Do you think such a thing exists, even perhaps in games that for their central characters or graphics you might otherwise have no interest?

Gameplay is easy to describe. It's very hard to put into practice. What makes a game playable is an invisible interface (like driving, you shouldn't have to concentrate on changing gears to get where you want to go) and a driving force (the "one more go" or "what's around the next corner?" factor). Good visuals or sound effects aren't required for great gameplay to be achieved.

Do you see games becoming a more social activity? The multi-user method pushed into areas and games where previously a lone player controlled the action and story? Along the lines of MUDS, or even 6 car driving games.

With the advent of network games like Doom, games have suddenly become social activities. This is a good thing, providing it runs in parallel to one-player games, otherwise we run the risk of relying on human input, rather than using artificial intelligence, which will ultimately degrade the quality of future releases. Again, it's like the cinema, where there are films which are best to see as a group (normally the shallowest Hollywood blockbusters), and also those that touch people on a personal, individual level, which you can sit and watch by yourself and enjoy just as much. As for the psychologists who say computer games are inhibiting social skills, they seem to forget that fifty years ago they said the same thing about books...

Your games attempt to aim at those not usually catered for in games, the elderly, women, the disabled, have your expectations of what women enjoy in games been defied by how they reacted when playing them? Could you tell me something about the changes that have developed in the kinds of female characters you have incorporated into your games?

Our expectations of the reactions of women playing our games have been proved correct every time. The reason for this is that we write stories first, games second, and the plots and characters we develop are entertaining and interesting to most people. We don't aim at a particular market, especially gender-specific, so we haven't had to tailor our future develop­ments to past reactions. However, we are unusual amongst games developers for having this outlook. We are certainly unique in trying to push back the boundaries of what is acceptable in games with commercial products. We are the first commercial developer to refer to homosexuality in a game, and have pioneered truly gender-specific ways of playing the same game.

Although fiercely contrary to the stereotypical central characters employed in most games, even the more fantasy like, you have chosen to set your forthcoming game in the future, is this science-fiction aspect of games something that you think does offer interesting narrative possibilities?

Strangely enough, contemporary settings for computer games don't seem to work as well as fantasy or science fiction. It's generally because escapism is easier to establish the further you go from real life. When we do science fiction, such as in our latest project, 'The Orion Conspiracy', we take issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia and transplant them into a futuristic scenario, on the pretext that human nature will still be as bad as it is today, as opposed to the squeaky-clean Star Trek vision of humans working in harmony as if several thousand years of hate and war hadn't happened.

It is an easy way out to plump for science fiction for game narrative, because if you don't like the way your story is progressing, you can just write in a new piece of technology to get you out of it. Our next project is set in an accurately-portrayed historical era, and presents a whole new set of problems for the narrative. But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for good story­telling, and when it's combined with good gameplay, graphics and sound, you've got an unbeatable product.