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Tacoma is a marvellous piece of interactive fiction set onboard an abandoned space station. You play a mercenary on a mission to download important data from the vessel, but as the data slowly streams onto your neat futuristic hard drive you're free to wander the corridors and examine augmented reality recordings of the final days of the crew. We gave it a score of 84 in our Tacoma review,
We recently caught up with Fullbright's Steve Gaynor to discuss launch, how the core AR recordings mechanic was developed, the changing state of the indie market, and the studio's future.
PC Gamer: Obviously Gone Home was massively successful for you, critically and commercially. There was always going to be a big element of expectation on you guys because you set the bar so high. It’s a different game, similar in the sense of non-combat, exploration and all that kind of stuff, but specifically compared to Gone Home, how has Tacoma been received critically and commercially?
Steve Gaynor: Well I think it’s like you said, we only have one data point to compare it to. I think there were a lot of things about Gone Home’s launch that were kind of 'lightning in a bottle'. 2013 I think was a very different time for smaller indie games coming out that were kind of reaching into the triple-A fidelity space. Also I think that we were lucky to be responding to what I think was a real desire for more games that were less violent or more focused on story or whatever. And so yeah, Tacoma’s release I think has been a much more realistic version of what launching a game is usually like.
It hasn’t been a massive runaway explosion in the way that Gone Home was. It was a successful game and got a lot of attention but on top of that it was just the four of us making a game in our basement, so now we’re actually a company as well so the stakes are different and everything.
It’s been a very different experience between the two games, but I think that we're part of this landscape where there’s so much good stuff to play. Like, I am behind on my backlog of just stuff that's come out in 2017 and I guess I have an excuse because I was shipping a game for a lot of it, but everybody’s busy, right? I feel like I don’t know anybody who isn’t, "Oh yeah, that came out too and I still haven’t gotten around to this". I think that we’re part of a changing landscape where people play more stuff more slowly, like over time. [Tacoma's] had a really positive response from people who have gotten to play it so far, and hopefully that means it continues to do well on a different timescale than if we’d been in the landscape of three or four years ago.
Isolation is a consistent theme across both games. Why do you think you and Fullbright are so drawn to isolation? Is it a design thing or is it a personal thing? What is it about creating isolation in games which can be so powerful?
Steve Gaynor: That’s a good question. I think that making being alone engaging, or having this isolated character being a compelling experience, is one thing that games can be uniquely good at, you know? When you try to think of other media especially, like film or television or something, there isn’t a lot of media that really focuses on someone being by themselves completely. I think that’s because it’s hard to express and make compelling in a lot of media, and games are really about the player’s individual experience.
As at any small studio, but definitely with Fullbright, we need to do a lot with a little and being able to choose like “OK, our version of that is just you and the environment, and how can we explore every aspect of what you can do with that in a way that hopefully feels really full and complete and not kind of surface level but really making the most of the few elements that are there. It’s hopefully something that also plays to the strengths of, yeah a small studio to make an engaging experience without having to blow it out into a huge triple-A production.
How did the 3D AR recording system develop?
When we first started working on the game, we had the AR character recordings, but they were much more isolated and they were much smaller scale and you could do less with them. They were really much more of visual audio diaries, and we’ve seen those in a lot of games where you sort of walk in and a hologram appears and it says some stuff and you watch it and then move on, and we got that into the game.
As we started looking at it, seeing what we were doing with it, it really pushed us to make it a lot bigger and more complex and have the player be more directly involved, and led to the version of how we use them that you saw in the game, which is like—okay, this isn’t just like you come in and you click and you stand there and watch this animation and this character telling you something, you have to kind of think more broadly about the space you’re in and the scene that you’re in and what the timeline means in comparison to where all the different characters are.
That meant that we really did have to change our production approach and consider how we were building these things, because once we arrived at that idea of all the characters are moving around you in this one big scene that exists in one area of the game, we had to change how we were writing those scenes and record with that in mind, and then build the fast forward and rewind system.
But for us, I think that if we’re going to expand our scope in a game that we’re making, we think of that “do as much as you can with as few elements as possible” thing; if we’re going to invest in something by expanding it or increasing its feature set then focusing on something like Z-Recordings that give you access to moments in these characters’ lives, that’s the kind of thing that makes sense to say “Let’s build on that”. Let’s make that have as much to it as possible.
And again it’s probably not fair to compare Gone Home and Tacoma but given it was so successful and it was you guys’ breakout hit it’s inevitably going to happen. I’m a big fan of Gone Home myself, but Tacoma for me is a better game. What do you think, do you think it’s a better game or is it fair to compare the two?
Well, that’s the thing that’s been really interesting, you were talking about reception earlier and I mean Gone Home definitely in aggregate reviewed better than Tacoma. On some level I feel like it kind of doesn’t matter if Tacoma or Gone Home is a better game, depending on how you conceptualise that. So I guess what I would say is I think Tacoma is more interesting and has more going on in the mechanical gameplay space. You’re managing more things and I’m proud of the job that we were able to do of making what I think is a relatively complex way of thinking about these AR scenes pretty intuitive. We never really tutorialise it, we just kind of put the fast forward/rewind UI on screen and people just kind of get it.
I think is really good but I think the flipside of it is that Gone Home I think connected with more people on a more visceral, emotional level of personal identification. I think that it really is this big open question of what makes something a better game, you know? Is it the construction of it, or how well designed, or how well considered different elements of it are, or is it just the feeling that people walk away from the game with?
I think that Gone Home isn’t a worse game, I think maybe it’s a simpler game. I think it has much less to it in a lot of ways but maybe that’s a strength, honestly.
You mentioned the landscape that Gone Home entered into in 2013, how do you think Tacoma would have fared entering into that landscape if Gone Home wasn’t there and Tacoma was your first game?
I would think and I would hope that it would have done well. I also think that it’s a very strange place to come from to be making a follow up to something that is well known and was well received and to some degree I think has developed some amount of a cache or status around it in the intervening years, because it just means that Tacoma in a lot of ways couldn’t be judged on its own, you know?
There was no review that didn’t start with talking about Gone Home for a while, and then talking about Tacoma. It’s a sort of unknowable mental exercise to be able to be like 'I wonder if someone just totally encountered this thing blind, how their feeling would be' versus 'I remember when I played Gone Home, so let me have that be my starting point and then start thinking about this thing.'
That’s something that I think is actually more true of some players compared to journalists. There’s probably more people who are just running into Tacoma either for its first time or they’ve heard of Gone Home but not played it, or they played it but it was a while ago. It’s a very strange place to be, kind of like you were saying, to say 'what would people have thought of this if it didn’t have a precedent before it?' Well that means if it theoretically came out in a different year or under different circumstances, and that’s impossible to really judge but it’s certainly... it’s very much a factor, you know?
The term “indie” has changed quite drastically since Gone Home came out, do you think that the indie market at the moment is saturated?
Well, that’s hard to say. I think that’s there’s definitely much more in the market now, I don’t know that saturation is necessarily how I would think about it. There’s a lot more out there which means a lot more people can have their interests served by different titles. But it also means that fewer indie titles are going to be 'the thing' that literally everyone’s buying. At some point, that means that the tide shifts and more people that are trying to release games are doing poorly than well—though that’s always true!
If you look at the total number of games released on Steam or whatever, it’s gone up an enormous amount but I think also the number of good games that you might actually want to play has gone up a lot as well! I think that “market saturation” is certainly a bit extreme, but I also feel like we are at that point where for any given person who’s paying very much attention, there’s too much to play, so how do you become one of the things that people actually might believe in and put their valuable time into? The equation is, I think, way different.
You’ve commented on Robert Yang’s blog on the past on social media, and one of his blog entries praised Tacoma but also touched upon its failings and I don’t necessarily agree with this myself but one of the things he raised was the fact that Tacoma has faceless characters that identified to players with colour and voice and things like that. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, that some players find it difficult to relate to Tacoma’s cast because they’re faceless?
I’m not going to argue against anyone’s personal take on something like that, I think yeah if any given player feels like 'yeah, I couldn’t connect' for this that or the other reason, I think that’s totally valid. It’s a balancing act, right? I think there are people who are going to find Gone Home not to be engaging because it’s just 'well, nothing happens' or 'I never see this character, I only ever hear about them from others in this game.' I think in Tacoma, it’s definitely a different equation in terms of there are characters there, but they’re abstracted and simplified. I hope that our ability to project how we imagine the characters to be, our interpretation of those moments onto the characters, is more powerful than what would we could have put on screen as a team, even as a large scale, high-budget team.
I think that there is the ability that players have to hear a voice and see body language and put themselves in that space. We have those abilities to see how that would be in our own head, hopefully in a way that, like reading a book, that bridges that gap in a way that’s unique to each of us as we’re playing.
What is the future for Fullbright, what’s the next big project? I know you might not know exactly or be able to tell me, but has Tacoma’s reception altered your outlook or are you guys looking to the future once the dust has settled on Tacoma?
Yeah, I think that as a studio you always have to take it one step at a time. We definitely are not a studio where we have already started pre-production on our next thing or anything like that, we’re a single project studio. There’s a lot of post-release support that you end up doing, as far as patches and all that kind of stuff. Also when you’ve been working on a game for three years, you need to take the time afterwards to get some distance and not necessarily just dive straight back into production.
We’re working on some stuff internally and keeping people busy, but only as busy as we need to be. We’re kind of trying to take the time we need to consider what the next thing that we want to do really is as opposed to diving in. There is definitely some danger, or can be some danger, to making big decisions too quickly after you’ve done something like shipped a game that you’ve been working on for a long time.
I was reading about The Chinese Room recently, and they’re taking a step back from game development at the minute. Dan Pinchbeck spoke about Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and he said that they stumbled upon the “Walking Simulator” for want of a less hackneyed term, and he insinuated he doesn’t necessarily want to be pigeon-holed into making games like that for the rest of his life. Are you worried about being typecast as the “walking sim developers” or do you think doing a “procedurally generated roguelike” or whatever is within your scope?
I think and I hope that we will continue making things that we feel excited about and that fit what we’re good at and what we’re interested in, and I don’t know if that will mean that it’s always a first person game or—like you’re saying—a game that’s about isolation or about discovering characters in an environment or whatever. Maybe yeah, maybe not.
I think that what’s more important to us is what our team is invested in. I hope that if we make something that in and of itself is cool and exciting and that we believe in that there will be an audience for it. I don’t know how close to what we’ve done already that means we will do in the future. But I think that we do, that it is on us to surprise the audience and do stuff that, even if it feels close to or similar to or drawn from what we’ve done before, it also feels like its own new version of it.
Despite launching over four years ago, over 50 new Gone Home videos were uploaded to YouTube yesterday. That's according to distribution data site SteamSpy, who also reckons Fullbright's latest game—Tacoma, which was released just over two months ago—had just three.
Fullbright's Steve Gaynor has now described Tacoma's reception as "a very different experience" from Gone Home's 2013 launch—one which has provided he and his team with "a much more realistic version of what launching a game is really like." Gaynor tells me that the videogame landscape has since shifted considerably, and that Gone Home's runaway success met the demands of a then shifting industry: away from violent videogames into more experimental territory.
As our Andy explained in his review, Tacoma is a great game yet it's reception against its forerunner has been lacking—a fact underscored by Gone Home's 700,000+ sales, and Tacoma's ~10,000. Even considering the difference in age, this is a big gap, and while Gaynor acknowledges the evolving nature of the business, he also reckons Tacoma has been in some ways hamstrung by Fullbright's previous success.
"I think it's a very strange place to come from to be making a follow-up to something that's well known and well received," says Gaynor. "To some degree I think it's developed some amount of cache or status around it in the intervening years. This means that Tacoma in a lot of ways couldn't be judged on its own. There was no review that didn't start about Gone Home for a while before then talking about Tacoma." [in Andy's defence, Gone Home is mentioned just twice, very briefly, in his review.]
Gaynor continues, suggesting that this singular datapoint outlook makes perspective difficult. He describes a Gone Home's launch as lightning in a bottle, and that personal identification played a huge part in its appeal.
He adds: "It's an unknowable mental exercise: If someone just totally encountered this thing blind, how would they feel about it, versus, 'I remember playing Gone Home, let me have that as my starting point'. That's something that I think is more true of some players compared to journalists. There's probably more people who are running into Tacoma either for its first time, or they've heard of Gone Home but haven't played it, or they've played it or it was a while ago.
"It's a very strange place to be like: well, what would people have thought of this if it didn't have a precedent? If it theoretically came out in a different year or under different circumstances, or whatever. That's impossible to judge, but it's very much a factor which is something that's inescapable.
"I feel like it's a learning experience for us. I think that it is much harder to be one of the indie games that breaks through in a massive way now. Also, we have more overheads now and need to do more with the money that comes in so far as running a company is concerned. I would say that I would have loved for Tacoma to be make more of a massive runaway splash, but I also recognise that I'm also coming from a 2013 point of view on that. That's something that's really interesting—I think Steam both drives and responds to the game buying environment."
Our full interview with Steve Gaynor—wherein the Fullbright head honcho chats about the above in more detail, the challenges of creating Tacoma, and Gone Home's plumbing—will be live in the coming days.
Gone Home and Tacoma creator Steve Gaynor reckons more first-person games should implement Fullbright's 'Pack Back' mechanic, so as to create less clutter. Is this news? Probably not but it's Friday so I hope you'll humour me either way.
Seriously, though, what is the deal with first-person games that let you pick up and examine items, before having you discard them carelessly on the floor? Have you ever tried placing said items back where you found them, without them toppling or missing their target entirely? It's near impossible. I've lost count of the number of picture frames I've knocked off desks and books I've recklessly pulled from shelves.
Gone Home and Tacoma's 'Put Back' feature sidesteps this ordeal by returning items from whence they first came. Simple, really.
"I will say I definitely miss it in some games, where I'm like: Oh, just let me just be nice about where I'm putting this object!" says Gaynor. "The thing is, it's a really low-tech solution for us. In a game engine there are trigger volumes that are like a 3D cube in space which, when you interact with it, does different things. 'Put Back' for us is where there's a volume around the place that the object started out."
Gaynor continues: "If you're aiming at it and click, it just puts it back nicely instead of throwing it. Because it is where the thing originally was, it's where you tend to be already aiming. It's the easy default thing. It takes more effort to throw something on the floor than it does not.
"Anybody who wants to copy 'Put Back' into their game—I more than invite you to do so. I will be happy to have that feature when I play your game as a player."
I suggest to Gaynor that if you acted the way most first-person games have us behaving in real life you'd get into trouble. Imagine picking up a mouse or a cup of coffee at work and then throwing it on the floor thereafter? You'd get fired on spot.
"Right, exactly," adds Gaynor. "It's like: This guy's Put Back feature is broken. Okay, you're not going to get paid."
Okay so this definitely isn't news. But let's consider it a PSA.
Look out for our full interview with Gone Home and Tacoma creator Steve Gaynor next week, wherein I promise we explore more sensible subjects.
For those who don’t know, Humble offers a subscription service, appropriately titled ‘Humble Monthly’. For $12 / 10 a month, you get access to a stack of Steam keys each month. The collection of games are only unveiled at the end of each month (save for one early unlock), but are usually valued at around $175, which ain’t too shabby. The Humble Trove is a nice added bonus that subscribers to the service have access to, adding a batch of DRM-free titles to the set of games given out each month.
Indie games have been around forever, but in the past decade, as more and more videogames have become multimillion-dollar blockbusters, the term has come into its own. Indie has grown into a blanket term for anything that is not a shiny, billion-dollar spectacle. And while that’s reductive, indie studios do generally have more freedom (and more desire) to experiment with the medium, or else create the types of games the blockbuster market considers unthinkable.
This isn’t an attempt to create a canonical “best of” list of the greatest indie games ever made. Instead, these are the indie games the PC Gamer team cherish the most in 2017. Consider this the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word. Each member of our team voted on their top 10 games, and the results below are what happened when we mashed those lists together. With science.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Fullbright
Shaun: Video games aren’t always about mowing down aliens and nazis and trolls in fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic settings. But most of the time they are. Gone Home wasn’t the first meditative, narrative-driven game, but it arrived at a time when people were more receptive to their possibilities than ever before. Crucial to Gone Home’s success is that, rather than resting on the delivery tactics of film, Fullbright uses the more tactile nature of the videogame medium. Sure, it’s interactive in the sense that you’re wandering through a home and discovering its inhabitants’ stories, but it also asks of the player that they mull over the lives that they’re eavesdropping on. While there are plenty of “walking simulators” nowadays, Gone Home endures because the story it tells is enduringly affecting and important.
Released: 2013 | Developer: David Kanaga
Jody: I like walking simulators, and I use the term affectionately, but sometimes I find it hard to get caught up in their stories. They can feel anticlimactic. Proteus doesn't because its story is one I tell myself. It dumps me on a procedurally generated island and lets me explore, climbing hills and chasing frogs. There is another story in it though, in the sense that there's a sequence of events that you can experience, but it's a subtle one. (I'll give you a hint: it involves the standing stones.) If you want it there's a build-up and climax there, but even without that the relaxing strolls over its islands gave me all the satisfaction I needed.
Released: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope
Jody: Games are amazing at letting you experience someone else's life. To pick an extreme example, just like the wriggly controls of Snake Pass give you an insight into what it would be like to be a snake, the rubber stamps and bureaucracy of Papers, Please make you feel like a border guard under a totalitarian regime.Morality's a thing games don't often do well, but by letting you master increasingly complex regulations—Papers, Please has a great difficulty curve, which indie games sometimes struggle with—it gives you power over the hapless citizens who line up to present their documentation. It motivates you to judge them harshly because if you don't, the pay you need to support your family will be docked, but also because the detective work of uncovering fraud is shockingly fun. You discover a contradiction in someone's papers and feel great, then realize what that will mean for the human on the other side of the counter trying to get home and feel awful. Yeah, it's a game about paperwork, but it's so intense that when I was rewarded for my paper-pushing by being given the key to the gun cabinet I wanted to hand it back. I wanted to tell a video game I wasn't interested in its gun.
Austin: I still remember one of the many would-be citizens I turned away in Papers, Please—the old man who repeatedly submits ridiculously inaccurate papers. Sometimes his ID shows the wrong gender or expiration date, sometimes he even has a photo of someone else on ‘his’ passport. His errors get more and more obvious and egregious, but his cheery attitude never changes. Every time I turned him away, he’d just smile and say he’d be back, like I was a server at his favorite local restaurant. Papers, Please is a game about hard choices, but nothing in it made me feel guiltier than denying that old man so many times.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Metanet Software
Shaun: During my first ecstatic weeks spent with N++, I thought it might be the last platformer I’d ever need to play. The slippery, floaty physics are so expertly tuned, and the level design so varied (despite having upwards of 5,000) that I thought it could keep me busy forever. And while I’ve played probably dozens of different platformers since, N++ is the only one I feel compelled to regularly return to.
Even when you’re not winning, N++ just feels good, and its focus on precision and reflexes isn’t as potentially frustrating as it can be in, for example, Super Meat Boy. The whole game has a zen-like quality, from its austere minimalistic art style through to the experimental electronic soundtrack (one of the few, in a platformer, that I’ve never turned the volume down on). This is simply the best pure platformer you can get on PC, a museum-worthy distillation of the genre’s strengths.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric Publications
Chris: West of Loathing is just so wonderfully jam-packed with humor, clever writing, and charming characters that it's hard to stop playing even when you've finished the main story, solved all of the (sometimes quite devious) puzzles, and collected every hat (there are more than 50) in the game. Everywhere you turn there's some little bit of descriptive text that will make you smile, chuckle, or laugh, even the the settings menu. It's one of the only games that drove me to explore not for loot or experience, but for words.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Brace Yourself Games
Bo: Crypt of the Necrodancer is a rhythm-based roguelike—a DDR-dungeon crawler, if you will. A head-scratching combination, to be sure, but that's exactly what it is. Dance your way through pixelated depths to the beat of an awesome, rhythmically complex soundtrack. Stay on beat to slay the dungeon's dancing denizens, and don't forget to spend some time with the opera-singing shopkeeper.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Supergiant Games
Jody: There's no game I've had better luck recommending to people than Bastion. Everybody loves its narration and its music, which would be cool independently but become truly outstanding because of how they're integrated. You think you're hearing a beautiful soundtrack and then you discover the musician in the level you're exploring. You think the narrator is a guy with a deep voice telling a story and then he reacts to how you play.
Bastion is an action RPG about a ruined sky-city that rebuilds itself under your feet, nothing beyond the screen existing until you walk toward it. Instead of playing inventory Tetris you choose two weapons from a growing catalogue, and are rewarded for choosing strange pairings with narration snippets and radically altered play. And if you don't like the combat then go into the options and pick a different control scheme. I'm not normally the kind of critic to sing the praises of an options menu but you can turn Bastion into Diablo if you want. Come on, that's awesome.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow
Jody: I used to watch an English cop show called The Bill. Back when it was good they'd sometimes dedicate half an episode to an interrogation, a guest star stamping their mark on the show. That's Her Story, only instead of cops it's you, years after the recorded interview, searching through video clips by entering keywords. Her Story plays out in those videos and that search bar, but it's also played on note paper you inevitably fill with conspiracy scribbles like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I didn't bother making notes during Fez (I probably should have), but for Her Story I scrawled pages.
It spread even further after that, into an argument with friends about what really happened which I remain convinced I'm right about. Maybe I got obsessed? It's one of a handful of games I 100-percented on Steam and I don't regret it.
Wes: In tech, skeuomorphic design—making your music player in the form of a cassette tape, for example—is now quaint and frowned upon. But it's a rarely used concept in games, and Her Story uses it to great effect. I'd go so far to say that its dusty CRT computer interface is the best marriage of aesthetic and game design in anything I've ever played. It's immersive in a subtle, well-earned way that makes Her Story enrapturing from its first few moments.
Released: 2011 | Developer: Gaslamp Games
Chris: I'm not typically one for turn-based games, and roguelike RPGs often break my heart when I'm forced to start over from scratch, but Dungeons of Dredmor immediately drew me in with its style and comedy. I've never won a game, never beat or even met Lord Dredmor, never even gotten more than a few levels deep. It's still a joy to play for its writing, humor and surprisingly deep and amusing lore.
Evan: The absurdity goes so far to soften the blows of its difficulty. You can build a Vampire Communist who wields Egyptian Magic, Fungal Arts, or Emomancy to fight hordes of weird robots, carrots, genies, and whatever the hell diggles are.
Austin: I keep coming back to Dungeons of Dredmor because it’s a gamble I don’t mind losing. I’ve never beaten Dredmor either, but generating a random character and pushing the usefulness of absurd skills like Fleshsmithing, Killer Vegan and Paranormal Investigator is always a thrill, even when I die on the first or second floor. It’s a system that rewards inventiveness. You can manually select your skills, but rolling the die and making the best of random skills is far more satisfying, and like the optional but actually totally necessary permadeath, makes every round feel genuinely different.
Released: 2014 | Developer: QuickTequila
Shaun: You don’t need blood and exploding heads in a first-person shooter. Case in point: Lovely Planet, a first-person shooter where you run increasingly complex gauntlets while shooting cute pastel shapes in a floating pastel land. But how, you ask. How can a game about shooting cute pastel shapes (that don’t bleed!) be fun? Because this is basically a platformer—a more-ish precision-oriented runner combining the fluidity of a Quake speedrun with the one-more-try quick respawn loop of Super Meat Boy.
Released: 2006 | Developer: Introversion Software
Tyler: DEFCON is one of those games I could play forever. It's a simple, morbid real-time strategy game in which global nuclear war is inevitable and 'winning' means losing fewer people than everyone else. In the early stages it's about placing missile silos (which double as missile defense systems), airfields, radar stations, and fleets of submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. As the war turns hot, the only option is to manage losses and inflict your own genocide, to make paranoid alliances and break them with bombs—ignoring that the fallout will kill everyone anyway. The brutality is rendered with War Games-style vectors, turning cities to dots and people to casualty numbers, emulating the calculated viciousness of modern drone wars.
Released: 2017 | Developer: David Kanaga
James: Oikospiel is a dog opera game about dogs making an opera game. I think. Here’s the plot synopsis according to developer, composer, everything-er David Kanaga: “The Oikospielen Opera is developing an epic global-gaming festival called THE GEOSPIEL, scheduled for the year 2100. The opera's employees, organized by the Union of Animal Workers, are trying to integrate the game dev dogs of Koch Games into their group, but these loyal pups love their jobs and boss Donkey Koch too much! Will there be Unity, or will Multiplicity prevail?”
It’s as strange as it sounds, and it sounds strange—literally—too. With a soundtrack that mimics its frenzied landscapes, Oikospiel is a touching, psychedelic trip through videogame history with a meaningful message about labor.
Released: 2011 / 2013 | Developer: Galactic Cafe, William Pugh, Davey Wreden
Shaun: Are you playing the game, or is the game playing you? So much of our agency in modern games is illusory, or, more gratingly, reductive and binary. Are you going to go the nice path or the bad-arse path? The Stanley Parable is a meta-critique of gaming as a medium, but it’s also a trojan horse existential crisis (and we all love having those). When we don’t take the critical path, the one prescribed to us, what could possibly go wrong? And given the actual opportunity to do so—given the opportunity to deliberately stray from what a game (or The Stanley Parable’s narrator) is telling us to do, is there any point in playing the game at all? Hmmm. Makes you think.
Jody: First time I played The Stanley Parable I did everything I was told to. Knowing it would be meta-commentary, I rebelled by not rebelling. That’s a dumb way to experience The Stanley Parable for the first time. Don’t do that. Sabotage it, go the wrong way, hide in a closet and refuse to leave. It’s a better game if you break the rules other games have taught you rather than the first rule of The Stanley Parable, which is: don’t do what you’re told.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Frictional Games
Shaun: Survival horror too often devolves into repetitive efforts to fend off undead with unwieldy weaponry, but Soma is different. There’s no combat on this underwater research facility, and enemy encounters are few and far between. Most of the time you’re just looking at stuff, but that’s ok in the hands of studio Frictional. They manage to wring an overwhelming sense of dread and despair from a mere dark corridor, not to mention the sprawling sub-aquatic outdoor areas peppered throughout. And the ending of Soma—even if you’re usually ambivalent towards low action horror—is worth the trip alone. It may be more contemplative and less jump scare-oriented than Amnesia, but it’s all the better for it.
James: I’d even recommend those typically averse to horror give SOMA a try. Install the teasingly named “Wuss Mode” mod from the Steam Workshop to make the monsters harmless without losing much horror in the process. Sure, you won’t have to hide, but that doesn’t make their appearance and origins any less terrifying.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Drool
Shaun: Thumper is like an ugly, loathsome, despair-inducing industrial techno song come to life. And that’s a very good thing. In our recent list of you can play right now, Evan described it as “a documentary about the path you take to heaven or hell when you die” which is just about the most alluring description for a video game I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s a tough, precision-oriented rhythm game, but it’s a precision-oriented rhythm game that feels like a collaboration between Gaspar Noe and Laibach.
On the next page: the top 10.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Messhof Games
Bo: I'm a sucker for local multiplayer games, and Nidhogg is one of the best. Somewhat of a cross between fencing and tug-of-war, Nidhogg's 1v1 matches play out over the course of many brief but violent clashes, resulting in a tense back-and-forth that's every bit a battle of wits as it is one of skill. And like all good local multiplayer games, it's easy to pick up and play but has a well of strategic depth that makes it difficult to master.
The recently-released Nidhogg 2 builds on its predecessor with a new grotesque claymation art style as well as a handful of new weapon types that mix combat up just enough to make things exciting without hampering the original's simplistic greatness. The result is a fantastic fighter we keep coming back to—especially if an office bet needs to be settled.
Released: 2012 | Developer: Polytron Corp
Shaun: Fez accumulates more poignancy with age. It’s a puzzle platformer tightly stuck between two dimensions, and harried by each of them. The protagonist is tasked with investigating and hopefully fixing the scourge of a newly arrived third dimension in a happily two-dimensional world, and this could read, from a fairly one-dimensional point of view, as an indictment on progress, a kind of luddite’s journey.
But as time passes—as the world becomes more overtly hostile—Fez’s innocent take on the loss of innocence rings true. As time passes, each of us will realise that certain uncomfortable truths have always lingered just out of our sight, waiting to pounce. And others will persevere, dig deeper (whether wisely or otherwise), for conspiracies and better buried secrets (and boy does Fez have secrets). Fez is a game about the hidden regions of our world that are always there, always mysterious, usually forbidding. It’s a beautiful and serene and sad game, but also, as an aside, really fun to play too. Fez is timeless in the way it can convey a wealth of emotion and contemplation through its systems alone.
Wes: After its fairly simple introductory hours, every discovery and deduction I made in Fez felt like a hard earned victory, or the unraveling of an impossibly complex puzzle. I love the sensation of "this can't possibly be the solution" in a videogame, only to discover that my crazy hypothesis was correct. That's what Fez is all about. And I love how clearly you can feel the immense amount of thought and polish that went into it; it feels every bit the intricate, perfectly tuned puzzle someone spent half a decade slotting together, piece by piece, until everything was just so.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Infinite Fall
Shaun: Some of the most noteworthy indies from the last decade have been adventure games, but it took until 2017 for one of the highlights, Night in the Woods, to emerge. As endearing feline Mae Borowski, you’re returning to the sleepy rural town of your childhood after an unsuccessful college stint. The town is on the decline, and so too, it seems, is Mae’s future. Things haven’t quite turned out the way she (or her family) had hoped, and much of Night in the Woods is about dealing with this mild disappointment. Exploring the township of Possum Springs is a joy in itself, but it’s the way Night in the Woods weaves a universal coming of age tale around an otherwise straightforward puzzle-laden adventure game that is remarkable.
Released: 2013-ongoing | Developer: Cardboard Computer
Jody: I wanted to wait. I wanted all five episodes of Kentucky Route Zero to be complete before I climbed into it and drove off. That's how I played The Walking Dead, and rumbling through that in one week contributed to its effect. I caved in and played Kentucky Route Zero though because a poet recommended it to me, and that's not something that happens every day. It’s obvious why she thought I had to try it, unfinished as it was (and still is). Kentucky Route Zero’s writing is gorgeous, ornamental but also able to get right at the meat of a thing. It's there when someone calls an office bureaucracy "the paperclip labyrinth" or describes topology as "the science of continuous space".
Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game of the modern kind, where decisions and dialogue rather than puzzles pace your progress. It's about finding a lost highway, but it quickly buries you in a kind of American mythology where mystery roads are the least strange thing. I'd hate to spoil what you'll find, but if you get in an elevator, see a button that says "third floor (bears)" and aren't tempted to press it, then I don't even know you.
Though it feels like being in a novel, Kentucky Route Zero pays homage to games. That explanation of topology takes place in "a twisty maze of passages", a reference to the classic text game Colossal Cave Adventure. So is the fact that the first item you pick up is a lamp. Some of the earliest PC games were about manipulating words because that was all they had. Kentucky Route Zero is about manipulating words because that's a fascinating thing to do. It's hard to explain why encountering its word-hoard has such a potent effect, but I'm just a journalist. They should have sent a poet.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Eric Barone
Bo: There are few games that delight me in the way that Stardew Valley does. I grew up loving the Harvest Moon series, and Stardew takes that formula and applies it to the PC space. Stardew strips away many of Nintendo's puritanical hangups—same-sex marriage and sexual innuendo aren't taboo inclusions, for example—but maintains the charm of tilling fields, planting seeds, and growing crops. There's also a vibrant town to get to know, mines to explore, and tons and tons of fish to fish. I've spent more than 80 hours in Stardew Valley, and I'm looking forward to my next trip to the country.
James: Do you see me now, dad? You didn’t think my mayonnaise dreams would get me anywhere and look at me now.
Jody: Thank goodness I am not the only person making bank off mayonnaise. The quality eggs provided by my hens, Chickity and Nug, are the secret of my success.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Toby Fox
Wes: A friend and I played Undertale in a single sitting. It first inspires curiosity at its quirkiness, then determination to solve its challenging combat without taking the easy way out, then admiration for the delivery of its jokes and the tight meshing of themes and RPG mechanics twisted sideways. Comparisons to Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, while apt, don't do Undertale justice: it's incredibly smart in how it thinks about the way we play videogames and challenges and surprises with new ideas at every step.
It's a game I genuinely think everyone should play. You'll either appreciate the humor, or the challenge, or the freedom to play through in many different ways, or the painstaking one-off moments, or the ways creator Toby Fox bent engine Game Maker to his will, or the prospect of a "true" ending to earn. It looks simple, but there's so much under the surface.
Released: 2015 | Developer: Squad
Chris: Whether you're seriously into the science and simulation, or just looking for some fun sending adorable astronauts into space (or watching their rockets explode before they get there), Kerbal is a near-perfect physics sandbox. One of the reasons it's such a joy to play is that there's immense satisfaction in the successes, like the first time you reach orbit, or land on the Mun, or safely bring your astronauts home from a mission, but there's also pleasure to be had (as well as lessons to be learned) from your failures.
KSP is both easy and immensely challenging: rockets can be snapped together quickly, and tweaked or rebuilt in mere moments, but conquering the solar system requires precision and know-how. Its charming looks and its detailed physics simulation make it a game for just about anyone, from casual rocket tinkerers to passionate rocket scientists.
Released: 2017 | Developer: Team Cherry
Wes: The best Metroidvania in years, perhaps because developers Team Cherry didn't explicitly set out to make a game in the image of Metroid. They were making a 2D action game, sure, set in a gorgeous hand-drawn decaying bug civilization, but they were mainly concerned with , and the rest followed. "The rest," in this case, is a game that feels fantastic to play, with a character who moves exactly as you want and a weapon that hits with a fast and brutal crack. Combat and traversal stay rooted in the basics of jump, dodge, hit, never scaling too far beyond the capabilities you have from the very beginning. It always favors skill over power-ups.
Hollow Knight rarely tells you where to go or what to do, making palpable the satisfaction and wonder of discovering new parts of the world and new abilities. And it just keeps going. The world is huge, more detailed than you ever expect it to be, and suddenly you're two dozen hours deep and wondering how much you still have to find. The Super Nintendo had Super Metroid; PlayStation had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Hollow Knight may not be spoken of in the same breath, just yet, but before long I think its place in that lineage will be clear: the PC had Hollow Knight.
Released: 2016 | Developer: Red Hook Studios
Shaun: Ah, dread. It’s what you generally try to avoid in an RPG rogue-like: you want to try to mitigate dread, manage it out of existence. But dread is Darkest Dungeon’s default state. In vague terms it’s a dungeon crawler, but the dungeons aren’t miraculously swept chasms with the odd cobweb and exhumed grave—they’re dank and gross. Add to that, the need to manage your entourage’s sanity (not easy in a game that takes some small inspiration from Lovecraft) and you have an RPG that rarely offers respite. That could sound punishing, but Darkest Dungeon’s mood, and the way that you can invest your emotions in its variables, rather than just your brain and its ability to parse bigger and better numbers, makes for a gripping and bleak RPG.
Evan: I love how martial, not magical, most of the character archetypes are. Apart from the Vestal, there aren't true spellcasters—Darkest Dungeon is acted out in blood, iron, poison, bones, and crossbow bolts. That grounds the game as a whole and adds to its grittiness. The fights that play out, with the help of great 2D camera effects and sound design, feel physical and jarring as a result. It also creates good contrast with DD's monsters, a gang of blood-sucking, spore-sneezing, tentacle-having, spinal column-collecting abominations.
Released: 2008, 2013 | Developer: Mossmouth
Shaun: The first time I played Spelunky I deleted it off my hard drive within ten minutes. Then, later, at the behest of then-PC Gamer scribe Graham Smith’s , I begrudgingly reinstalled it. I can still remember what hooked me this second time: I picked up a gold mask, a rumble filled the air, and then a massive boulder collapsed through the ceiling and crushed a nearby vendor to death. I laughed, it was funny, I woke my partner up. That’s when I became addicted to Spelunky.
A lot has been written about the beauty of Spelunky’s interlocking systems, its propensity for creating stories, and its tough-but-fair difficulty. That’s all been said and written a hundred times before, and while Spelunky is still a relatively new game in the wide scheme of things, it feels like a classic. I often boot it up just to be inside of it, just to soak up its mood. It’s weird to seek the comfort of familiarity in a game that’s always throwing curveballs, but aside from the glory of its systems and stories, Spelunky is a really beautiful, heartwarming game. It also was the first to demonstrate to me, personally, that a small game that originated as freeware could contain so much: so many stories, so many events, so many countless, frankly embarrassing, hours.
Wes: Even after four years, Spelunky's spot at the top of this list is well deserved. The way its hero and items and traps and enemies and random generation interact with one another is still peerless. Just as brilliant, though, is Spelunky's daily challenge, the perfect combination of old school arcade leaderboard and infinitely replayable randomized roguelike. The daily challenge added structure and permanence to a genre that prided itself on not having any, and it works; it's become a must-have feature in any similar roguelike ever since.
See our honorable mentions on the next page.
Listing 25 of the best indie games has not been an easy task. While the list isn’t designed to be exhaustive, there were dozens of games we’d have liked to include. So without further ado, here are an additional ten that we think you should play, and which failed to scrape into the top 25.
Cave Story+ (2011): Cave Story, a beautiful pixel-art Metroidvania first released in 2004, can probably be blamed for the thousands of similarly retro-styled platformers still flooding storefronts. But this game, now available as Cave Story+, still endures as both an indie touchstone and a gorgeous game to boot.
Audiosurf (2008): Dylan Fitterer’s 2008 playable music visualizer (and its equally good 2013 sequel) take mp3s from your music collection and transform them into space rollercoasters. The song’s tempo and beat influence the track’s curves and speed, and the placement of blocks to dodge and collect as you race across it. Made us all play Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ too many times.
Mark of the Ninja (2012): This imaginative 2D stealth platformer endures because it rewards player creativity. It’s easy enough to be evasive in Mark of the Ninja, but being clever about it is much more fun. It’s a joy just to tease the foes in this game, helped by the fact that it’s a beautiful world to spend some time in.
Braid (2008): A timeless example of how a slight twist on an ancient formula—and a whole lot of heart—can create a classic. Jonathan Blow’s time manipulation system worked wonders in an otherwise basic 2D platformer, but it was the subtle yet affecting personal touches that made Braid great.
Hotline Miami (2012): Easily one of the most stylish—and brutal—pixel-art action games on PC, Hotline Miami feels like a puzzle game, in the way it forces players to “solve” each of its grizzly encounters in the most expedient way possible. The soundtrack is untouchable, too.
Stephen's Sausage Roll (2016): It’s a game called Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and it’s about cooking sausages. But for some reason you must push sausages around blocky, psychedelic puzzle chambers in order to grill them. Don’t question it. If it’s a tough puzzle game you’re after, this should be high on your list.
Don’t Starve (2013): Klei’s 2013 survival game is still one of the genre’s best, and is also one of the best things to come out of early access. A playable Edward Gorey book where you might be eaten by dogs or starve during the long winter (the name should have warned you about that possibility), but will definitely have fun either way.
Devil Daggers (2016): A one-level first-person shooter where the level is a hellish arena, and the enemies are skulls and flying snakes and other escapees from heavy metal album art. Takes the speed and circle-strafing of Quake and distills it into 10 perfect seconds, or 20 if you’re good.
Life is Strange (2015): The first episode is rough and honestly so is the last one. But for three episodes in the middle, Life is Strange is a rare and poignant evocation of what it’s like to be a teenager, uncertain and brash all at once. Then it gives you time-rewinding powers that let you undo your mistakes, the supernatural equivalent of adult foresight letting you slowly realize which of your teenage ideas are bad. (All of them.)
Gravity Bone (2008): Games about spies are rare, and so are games that borrow from movies without coming off as pale imitations. In 20 minutes, Gravity Bone makes you feel like you’re in a spy movie without ever seeming second best. Blendo Games’ follow-ups, Thirty Flights of Loving (2012) and Quadrilateral Cowboy (2016) built on Gravity Bone’s, um, bones.
This discussion was originally published in March 2017. With the release of Prey, which features prominently, we've brought it back to offer some insight into the development of Arkane's latest game.
Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Dishonored. Some of the PC's most celebrated games belong to a genre called the immersive sim, which emphasizes creating a complex world with tons of player freedom. They're some of our favorite games to talk about, and at the 2017 Game Developer's Conference we were lucky enough to do just that. We put together a roundtable of familiar faces, all of whom have had a major hand in exploring or creating immersive sims.
Our guests: Warren Spector (Otherside Entertainment), Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare (Arkane Studios), Tom Francis (Suspicious Developments) and Steve Gaynor (Fullbright).
You can listen to the hour-long audio version of this discussion here or grab it from our podcast feed. Consider putting it on while you play Deus Ex and pretend it's a brand new audio log. Or, if you want the good old fashioned text version, read on.
Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: Thanks for joining me at GDC to talk about immersive sims, which I would say is PC Gamer's favorite genre. We love 'em. As food for thought, to start with, I want to open up with the idea of talking about why immersive sims are especially important to gaming, whether it's to you personally, as somehow it affected your career or way of thinking about games, as well as the broader industry, guiding what we hope to see from games as a medium.
Warren Spector: I have a firmly-held belief that to honor a medium, and for it to grow, you have to do what it does that no other media can do. When I look at what games can do that other media can't, I instantly go right to the immersive sim. That sort of real-time you are there, nothing stands between you and belief that you're in an alternate world, that is something that I guess LARPing gets a little close to, and D&D gets pretty darn close to, but we're the first mainstream medium that can actually do that. And the immersive sim is the perfect way to do it.
Steve Gaynor: And I think it's perfectly fair—I think we should start calling them instead of immersive sims, probably digital LARPing. That sounds good to me.
Harvey Smith: Let's alienate ourselves as much as possible.
Steve: The interesting thing about this discussion is that there are a couple of us here, me and Tom, who really came to an understanding of immersive sims as fans first, and then got to actually do work in that space. For me, I think it is what you're saying, Warren. Immersive sims are incredibly powerful in that they allow you that full sense of being in another place, not just through visual fidelity or it looks like I'm here, but the systems of the game allow you to express your role within that space in a way that makes you feel like what you're doing is part of it, as well as just being near it, observing, watching.
And that can be anything from: you're a cyber secret agent and here are the things you'd be able to do, and how to express that role when you're in that place. To something that's more subtle, like Thief, where it's not so much about all these wild powers, but what could a Thief do here, what would a Thief do here, and how do we let the player put that on screen.
Tom Francis: The immersive part and the sim part are the two parts that you kind of carried over to Gone Home, right? Gone Home was not an emergent combat game, but it was immersive, and it was a sim, and you put a surprising amount of effort into making sure that you could interact with the world around you in a way that would realistically make sense, even though that wasn't core to the story.
Steve: Yeah, there's this feeling I think that immersive sims are about having this consistent ruleset of how the world works and how you work within it. So yeah, if we're making a game about exploring a house, you need to be able to open the cabinets and turn the lights off and on and kind of exist as an intentional agent within that space, even if it isn't about controlling AI to fight each other.
Ricardo Bare: I think it's interesting that Warren brought up Dungeons & Dragons. I've always thought that people who made good Dungeon Masters also often made really good level designers for immersive sims, in particular, because it's this really magical blend of representing the game rules, the RPG system, but also being responsive to the fact that the players around the table are part of the narrative and driving the narrative. Which I think is what happens in a good immersive game. The player feels like a really powerful agent, affecting things, but they're also interacting with a system of rules that are predictable and they can use to make plans.
Harvey: I think that you guys have touched upon some of my favorite things about this sub-genre. It's that sense of presence, exploring a place that doesn't just feel like a series of puzzles someone's erected for you, but rather a coherent place that you can actually explore in the real sense of the word. And part of that is the pacing. Immersive sims often go very fast, and very loud, but generally only if you trigger the right sequence of actions. Otherwise they can be very slow-paced.
One of the great pleasures of my current position is not only did we just finish Dishonored 2, the team in Lyon put years of effort into that, but I now roll into playtesting and commenting on Prey, which is the first game in a long time that I find myself, even on the weekends when I'm home, toying with the idea of driving in to play the game. In my mind I'm solving problems, considering rooms and other approaches, and that's a very good sign. I'm in love with the game that Raphael and Ricardo and the team here in Austin have made.
But what I was going to say is the pace is incredibly important to me, and the non-combat verbs. Being able to say 'how can I get into that security station? I don't have hacking. There must be another way. Let me toy around with mimicking a small object and rolling up to the window and going through the little slot that the guard asks for papers through.'
Just solving all those little problems. I look up and it's been 30 minutes, and all I've done is roll around as an object, getting into a small space that I couldn't have gotten into otherwise, noticing some narrative detail. It's the consistency of the rules and the fact that so much is not hand-crafted, but behaves according to system-wide rules that enable this player toy exploration process. The fact that it's in an emotionally evocative backdrop, where you're reading about the lives of people, seeing the traces they've left behind, the mood is powerful, and part of that is that I'm going at my own pace, often just toying around.
Warren: There are about 10 things I want to say. I know I'm the one who first brought up D&D and then Ricardo brought it up again. One of the most interesting things to me is that though that's a really apt comparison in a lot of ways, in some it's really not. Because one of the defining characteristics of the immersive sim for me is that it's about roleplaying not roll-playing. D&D had its own 'simulation' I guess. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were using the best tools they had, which were funny dice.
We have different, and frankly I think more effective, ways of simulating a world. And so there's an interesting discussion to be had about whether die-rolls and characters classes and all that stuff have a place in immersive sims. No, they don't.
But the other thing Harvey brought up, pacing. I'm working on System Shock 3 now, and I've got a team of people who haven't really worked on this kind of game before. One of the things I have to constantly remind people about is that the pacing of these games is very different. It's not run, gun, gogogogogogo. If you do that in an immersive sim and you're really good maybe you can succeed, but when I think about these games, the pacing is more... Okay, I get to a decision point. I stop, I assess. I make a plan. Then it's gogogogogo as I execute. Then it's stop, assess, make a plan. Gogogogogo. So it's this kind of staccato thing that I find really appealing. I love it. Probably because I suck at gogogogogo, but pacing is critically important in these games.
Tom: Something that's come up a lot talking to people about immersive sims lately—Dishonored 2 has kind of kicked it all off again, because all my friends are playing it, and a lot of my friends are Deus Ex fans and have the same taste as me and are loving it. The ones who don't, the common criticism I hear, and it's by no means unique to Dishonored 2, but all immersive sims support multiple playstyles. And most of the ones we're talking about support the very slow, very careful nonlethal ghosting playstyle which Dishonored even sort of marks out as... it doesn't explicitly say it's the best one, but it gives you big check boxes and says 'yep, you did that, yep, you did that' and those are the only two checkboxes, so it kind of seems like the thing you're supposed to do.
A lot of my friends who haven't clicked with these games feel obliged to play that way. Because they know they can, and it's morally better, and the game rewards it in some ways. They feel they can't play any other way. And I know some people don't enjoy playing that way, but just feel compelled to, because they feel like that's how you play these games, and if they screw up they feel like they've got to reload. Maybe there's a challenge there that we haven't solved yet in terms of persuading people to play in their own way and explore new playstyles.
Harvey: Definitely. I think that's less about immersive sims and it's actually inherent to stealth games, in my opinion. Seth Shane is a designer that worked with us on Dishonored 1 and is now lead systems designer on Prey, and funny enough, he and I were talking about that this morning. Where as soon as you have this perception that I could've done that better, I could've done that more elegantly, it does set up for a certain percentage of players, an obsession with redoing it or doing it right. And the whole point of the Dishonored games and the Deus Ex games was there's no right way to play, you can do this your own way, except Tom's right. There's an implicit narrative value judgment there.
But I think it's similar to the problem—there's a community of people who contacted me through Twitter who said 'hey, I know this is weird, but we're a group of people who like to find every coin in the Dishonored games, and we think that there are a few that have fallen through the world that can't be collected. Can you help us?' I was just like, 'Oh my god, I love you guys, but the best way I could help you is to tell you not to collect all the coins.' But they wouldn't accept that, so I did help them. You can get all the coins in Dishonored 2, by the way. But one of the coins was, like, over on a rock to the side of Addermire Institute in the grass, and we had to look for it with the level editing tools to tell them where to go.
In a way, if that's how you enjoy playing the game, and that scratches an itch for you, who am I to say don't do that? But on the other hand, that's definitely not the spirit... I would hope you'd be free to find your own path, and if you want to stand on the roof of the building and look at the bird's nest on top of Addermire with the black bone charm in it and watch the waves rolling in, that's just fine. On the other hand, if you want to go across the objectives, that's fine. If you want to try to ghost the game, that's fine.
But it is weird, how some of these games definitely set up the desire or the obsession in players to do it a certain way. From my personal perspective, I'm only saying this for me, it does feel like that would interfere with the general enjoyment of the game. I don't know. Maybe it's a flaw inherent in systems. Systems driven by computers are basically optimization machines, they're against the true spirit of the word 'play' in that sense.
Steve: I feel like the real sense of joy, when you do play an immersive sim, is the idea that when you're able to let go a little bit and say 'part of what's interesting about this is, if I do screw up and I do get made, there are ways to use my tools to recover.' Even if it's sloppy, even if it's not perfect. If you want to play the perfect ghost run, then that's the goal that you've made. But I think that part of the beauty of these systems, and games like the new Hitman game, or when you play Far Cry 2 or things that are even adjacent to a traditional immersive sim, that feeling of saying 'I'm going to use the rules of the world to scout this area. I'm going to make a plan, and I'm going to attempt it. And then if I didn't notice there was a guy around the corner and he sees me trying to be sneaky, and now I can say, okay, how can I knock him out before he alerts anyone else, or use Far Reach to get up onto that ledge and circle back around' and live within that mistake in a way that can often be much more satisfying.
Rather than saying 'Ah, he saw me, and now I'm going to know where he is for the next time.' But that said, that's sort of a higher-level request of the player than what is actually inside the rules and possibility space of the game itself.'
Warren: It's funny, people ask me all the time: 'Do people go out and play extreme playstyles?' Most of the people I hear from play a kind of balanced style. They sneak when it feels right, they fight when it feels right. So I think most people play down the middle and we're talking about the outliers. But the thing that surprised me a lot, that's relevant here: when we were working on Deus Ex I thought players were going to just pick a playstyle and stick with it. 'I like fighting, so I'm going to fight my way through the game.'
Instead, very early on, I remember watching normal humans playing the game, I mean, well, gamers, but I remember watching them play, and they'd get to right on Liberty Island, an early choice point. We tried to reveal the choice points especially early on. They'd get to a choice point and two things would happen. First, they'd put the mouse down and push the keyboard away like 'Oh my god, I have to make a real choice!?' Because games had trained people not to make choices effectively. It's just, okay, kill everything that moves, or I get seen by nothing. And we were trying to do something different.
I would see that, and then the one that frustrated the hell out of me at first, I would watch people save their game at an obvious choice point, and then try something. And then go back to their save and try something different. And go back to their save and try something different. In one sense that's one of the strengths of the game, that they could try all those things. But then they would pick the one that they liked the best. That was not at all what I thought they were going to do, and it really bugged me for awhile. But then I realized, like you guys were saying, once it's their game, it's their game. As long as they're finding fun, who am I to say how they're playing the game? That's another one of the defining characteristics of an immersive sim. You don't judge the player. You don't tell the player how to play your game. It's their game.
Ricardo: Something that we're all sort of brushing up against, a little bit, that's inherent to the immersive sim, is just the complexity, and difficulty, of onboarding players into a game like that that aren't accustomed to it already.
Harvey: Wow, did you just say onboarding?
Harvey: Oh my god. Go ahead.
Ricardo: Just teaching them, this is a game where there's more than one way to do stuff is really challenging. We've made several games already and we still struggle with how to do that. Warren, you mentioned the beginning of Deus Ex. I remember when I let my brother-in-law play the game. He plays a couple games a year, probably. And when we had the PlayStation version of Deus Ex, I remember handing him the controller, and within 20 seconds he had accidentally thrown his weapons into the water, fell off the dock, and drowned. And I thought, oh my god, we are not making games that are easy for people to get into. At all.
Warren: We are the kings of the cult classic, I know.
Ricardo: Yeah. But it's still difficult.
On the next page, our panel share stories about their favorite moments playing and designing immersive sims.
PC Gamer: I think that gets to an interesting point: all this player freedom you have in an immersive sim, it generates good stories like that. The thing that people love about these games is the stories they generate out of the game, the same way you generate a story in Civilization where you were at war with Gandhi for 200 years or something. In an immersive sim, people don't usually talk about the story that was written. They talk about the story of that time they played it and these seven systems interacted in some insane improbable way. So I want to get you guys to tell some anecdotes, either from playing or designing immersive sims, maybe your awakening moment to 'oh shit, this game or genre is amazing, and this is why.'
Harvey: That improvisation thing you're talking about is definitely one of my favorite aspects. Doug Church is probably the first person I heard talking about that. We were standing in my office one day and he was like, 'people talk about their D&D experiences or their experiences in games like these as if they actually happened to them. I did this, and then this thing fell over, and then this happened.' It's so true.
There were epiphanies like that with Adventure, the Atari 2600 game, because it was so procedural. But really, Ultima Underworld, I remember getting to the temple of the bullfrog or something, a puzzle where you can un-invert a ziggurat so that you can cross this big pit. And I hate puzzles like that. There are a couple dials on the wall. It's like, oh my god, another puzzle. But I found that if you jump—the far lip is a little higher than the lip you start on, so you can't just cast levitate and glide across. But I found that if you jump and then cast levitate at the apex of the jump, you could levitate across and land on the other side. And you feel very clever for defeating the puzzle without solving the puzzle. That is a magical moment in my life, and in my career, for sure.
I have a bunch of those anecdotes from Far Cry 2, of course. We had one recently with Dishonored 2 where the Game Informer guys were there, and we had a very controlled demo that we gave people, where there were a bunch of Overseers executing a heretic, and there was a certain way we did it, just before the guy on the firing squad pulled the trigger, we used Emily's Far Reach to yank him up to the balcony where we were. Anyway, the demo went super well, they loved the game, but they said 'hey, our heads were down, we were writing, can you run through it one more time?' So Dinga, our lead designer, Dinga Bakaba, was like 'hey, you know what, you've seen the game, you like the game, you get the game. I'm going to just leave the beaten path and improvise here and do some stuff that maybe isn't as expected.'
So he went back to the firing squad scene and used Emily's Domino power to link the heretic in front of the firing squad with the guy who was about to pull the trigger. We had no idea what was going to happen, because we literally didn't set that up. We didn't say, explicitly, in the code anywhere. We just said 'if you're Dominoed to to someone else you take the damage type that they receive.' So the guy in the firing squad pulled the trigger and killed the heretic, and he died at the same time. Everybody in the room, their heads just popped, like 'Holy shit.'
What they didn't realize at the time was we had no preparation for that. Dinga was worried even as he tried it that maybe for some reason it wouldn't work. But those improvisational moments, as Ricardo says it's hard to train the players to play games like this, but once they do, especially if they'll play a second time… If you go play System Shock or Far Cry 2 or Prey or Dishonored a second time, the intimidation of learning the systems and knowing the game space is gone, and you get back to that joy Steve Gaynor was talking about where you're playing at this point. You're improvising and experimenting and it's beautiful.
Ricardo: If I can just piggyback off of that, I know exactly the moment you're talking about, because I played through Dishonored 2 with my daughter, who's never played a game like that before. And it was so amazing to see the game through her eyes. She's never played an immersive sim, and that specific scene, I did the same thing with the Domino, and it was a magical experience to her that something like that could even happen, and that then afterwards the guards were baffled like 'someone's here, there's a murderer, search the area.' It was really cool to see someone experience that for the first time.
Harvey: That's really gratifying to hear.
Steve: Something that's interesting about immersive sims is that oftentimes, like you're talking about, players will find exploits that are a legitimate combination of systemic interactions that the designers weren't expecting. I feel like the classic example is using wall mines to climb walls in Deus Ex.
So when I was playing Dishonored 2, I really like doing the slide move, and also I'm playing totally non-lethally. And at some point I was like, can I do a non-lethal takedown on a guy while I'm sliding into him? And I just tried it out. And I found that, beautifully, you have a whole set of custom animations for doing a non-lethal takedown while sliding. When I found that, I thought, that's cool. Then I thought through how the systems work and I'm like 'wait, this is an instant non-lethal takedown on a guy, whether he's aggro or unaware,' which is the only way aside from a tranq dart that you can non-lethally take down a guy instantly no matter what state they're in. If they're aggro on you you have to deflect their blow, then take them out.
At that point I realized the only way I'm going to defeat anyone for the rest of the game is sliding into them and knocking their head into the ground.
That was about the mid-point through the campaign, and for the rest of the game my entire playstyle was about how do I set up this encounter where there's three patrollers around, maybe Domino all three of them together so I can slide-tackle into one of them, or XYZ. Setting up those challenges for yourself, saying 'oh, wait, here's this edge case of how all these systems interact, and that allows me to act like a freakin' weirdo.' But the game supports it, and there's the satisfaction and the robustness of saying 'yes, I'm doing something totally strange and comical, but the game is there for it.' It's actually a legitimate way to play even though that was probably not something QA was going through saying 'let's do an all-slide tackle run, make sure that doesn't break anything.'
Tom: It's funny how once you're immersed in these games, learning the rules and then using those rules becomes entirely what your brain is occupied with and you don't really care if it's realistic or makes sense. When you asked for anecdotes from playing immersive sims, the one that sprang to mind is one in Deus Ex where I had started to hack into a terminal that could open Gunther's cell on Liberty Island. As I hacked it I was looking through the camera that shows the view of the room I was in, I could see myself hacking the terminal, and a guard ran in. And guards aren't allowed to shoot you when you're using computers in Deus Ex.
[Warren puts his head in his hands and shakes it, moaning softly]
Tom: So I could see he's pointing his gun to my head, but can't fire, because I'm busy! I had to figure out, I was playing on Realistic where you just die in one shot from those guys at close range. I can't leave the terminal now because I'll die instantly, so I had to figure out a way, with just the tools I have now, to try to block this guy from shooting me. The turret couldn't shoot him. But I figured out if I open Gunther's door it'll nudge him a little bit around the corner so he no longer has line of site, so I can leave the computer and attack him.
Warren: I'm so proud.
Tom: And there was never a thought in my head that this was any way unrealistic or strange. I just thought, this is amazing!
Warren: I have two anecdotes. One, on Ultima VI, which is kind of where I realized that all this improvisational stuff could really be magical. It was unplanned, kind of a bug. There was one puzzle where the Avatar and his party came up on one side of a portcullis and there was a lever on the other side of the portcullis that you had to flip to raise the portcullis and keep on making progress. I watched one of our testers, a guy named Mark Schaefgen, playing in that area. And he didn't have the telekinesis spell, which was the way to get past that portcullis. I was sitting there rubbing my hands together going 'oh ho ho, he's screwed, he can't do it.'
He had a character in his party named Sherry the Mouse. You can probably see where this is going. The portcullis was 'simulated,' and here the air quotes are around simulated, simulated enough that there was a gap at the bottom that was too small for a human to get through, but not too small for Sherry. He sent Sherry the Mouse under the portcullis, over to the lever, she flipped the lever, and then the rest of the party went through. And I fell on the floor. At that moment I just said to myself, 'this is what games should do. We should start planning this, not having it happen as a bug.' That was where I realized this was really powerful.
The Deus Ex story that kills me, though. A year after we shipped, I was out in San Francisco at the Eidos offices, and our publisher-side QA lead, a guy named Charles Angel, was playing the game, demoing it for some executives. Now why Eidos executives needed a demo of a game that had shipped a year earlier that had won like 35 game of the year awards I will never understand. But they did. I'll probably never work again for having said that, but anyway.
I was watching him on Liberty Island, and there was a spot where a guard was standing on one side of a doorway, there were two or three guards on patrol on the other side of the doorway, and there were laser triggers covering the doorway. And so what he did was, he secretly was sneaking around, moving explosive barrels around and stuff. I was watching him, and I kind of knew what he was setting up. He crept back and got out the pistol, which was the weakest weapon in the game, and with one shot he took out the guard that was guarding the door, took out the laser triggers, and because he had waited for the right exact moment, took out the two guards on the other side of the door. With one shot. And I fell on the floor again. Because I'm completely certain that no human on the face of the earth had tried that before. No one on the team... Harvey, if you knew that was going to work, I'll buy you lunch next time I see you.
Harvey: No, of course, we didn't set those things up explicitly, that's just one of the pleasures, you know. Warren and I both had this experience, and we have it now with Prey and Dishonored games, going down and watching the QA testers play is just magical because they chain things together, they use powers in unexpected ways, and then often they require a little support. Because to Steve Gaynor's example, nowadays the production values have gone up so you might need animation support and things like that.
But yeah, it's amazing, and to get back to the critical side of this conversation from the love side so much, it gets back to one of the inherent problems with what we do. Which is, I've played Prey a lot and commented a lot, but I've started, instead of playing across many different builds and powers, I'm in one big contiguous playthrough now that I know the game super well. That always contextualizes your experience at the end of the project. It's magical.
There are several steps like that. The other is taking an Xbox home and playing on your own rig or whatever. The environment even changes it for you. In any case, getting back to the critical part, we have a game that if you play twice, or three times or four times, and you become a virtuoso with the systems and understanding the narrative and the world, little epiphanies are popping off in your head all the time and you're having these improvisational experiences. In Prey I'm not only doing that game mechanically but I'm doing that narratively and emotionally. I won't spoil anything but I gave an example to Ricardo yesterday related to what one of the monsters mutters, and how it connects back to a human in the world, who has a real history in the world.
Ricardo: I think we've talked about that if you want to mention it.
Warren: You're choosing your words reeeeally carefully right now, aren't you?
Harvey: The point is if you've played a lot, you get a lot out of these games, but the downside is if you haven't played, you struggle initially with the sheer complexity of it, or you're thrown right in. It almost works like a novel where to fully understand it you feel like you have to have seen the beginning, middle and end. They're very complicated economically and narratively and in terms of systems, and in order to make them sing you have to be a performer. You have to practice and learn. Whereas in other games you just drop in and look like a badass instantly, even if you're following a trail of breadcrumbs and kicking off a sequence of scripted events over and over.
On the next page, our panel talks about the challenges of designing immersive sims and their many interlocking pieces.
PC Gamer: I'd like to dig in a little bit to the process of creating and designing an immersive sim. I think most people who pay attention to videogames know that it's not a linear creative process where you build from the beginning of the story to the end. A game is usually not really playable or fun or 'complete' until very late in development. In the case of immersive sims you're potentially talking about a dozen systems, from AI to weather to hacking, or combat, all these incredibly complex things. How do you go about building these and testing them when it's not fun, or when certain things aren't online, when it's only half complete? What's the process of choosing those elements and testing how they work together?
Steve: That is a really interesting question for the guys here who have worked on the big titles. I've worked on, basically, sequels to immersive sims. I worked on Bioshock 2 and Infinite, but I didn't work on the original Bioshock, and obviously that's kind of a continuation of System Shock 2. So I'm interested to know, when you are building a game that is based on this bedrock of multiple strata of systems, do you try to block in as much of the different player abilities and AI systems as you can as early as possible, or is it an ongoing glazing of 'what if we added this, what if we added this' over a long period of time.
Ricardo: There's a lot we could say there. Some of it is what you're saying, Steve. I think we try to get a 60 percent version of as much as possible in, as quickly as possible. Because part of the fun, of course, is not just the thing existing in isolation, but when it interacts with all the other systems. People have likened it, a little bit, to making a stew. Individual elements aren't that great, together they're okay, but they kind of have to live together in the pot for awhile so that you can begin identifying, like 'this one mechanic doesn't contribute very much. This other one, though, we should double down on.'
By the end, maybe we make 25 percent more than necessary, mechanics, that end up getting stripped out, and we focus on the ones that end up being really successful in the whole mix altogether.
Steve: It feels like it's inherent to this kind of game that for it to actually be the game at all, there's this critical mass that's required. You can't work on Dishonored for six months and only have two player powers, because it's just not relevant to what it's going to end up being. But also you obviously don't just write your perfect design bible and you're like, 'here's the dozen powers and exactly what all the enemies can do' and just make it. Finding that balance must be really challenging.
Warren: Design documents are always right. [laughs] There was one point on Deus Ex where the documentation was 500 pages, but we're not going to talk about that. It was ridiculous. The final version was 270 pages that nobody read. Anyway, the interesting thing about making this kind of game is that you guys are all right, until those systems are online you don't even know what you have. Alpha is the point on a game like this where the game is complete and finishable and playable and sucks.
To make this all work—the money guys love this, while you're working on it the first two years or whatever it is, the game is not there, it's not there, it's not there, and everybody's going 'oh my god,' biting their fingernails down to the nub, because they're giving you all this money and they can't see the game yet. You have to go and say 'relax, it'll be okay, everything will come together.' And then you hope they'll give you enough time in alpha, at least this is my take on it, they give you enough time in alpha to make it right.
On Deus Ex we implemented the skill system that a couple of us came up with pretty early on. I think we actually got to alpha with that in there. And then we invited guys like Doug Church and Mark LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, and even I think Gabe Newell came down, and they played it, and they said 'wow, this skill system really sucks.' And I think it was like 24 hours later, Harvey, you had a completely redesigned skill system. Thank god! Because it wasn't at all what we thought we were going to make. Until we played it, and saw it in context with all the other systems, you're just taking your best guess.
Harvey: I wish Raphael Colantonio was on the line with us today, he's traveling to GDC. But one of the things he talks about a lot is how much iteration games like this actually require, and how flexible a studio has to be, and how you have to train the team not to think like traditional developers. You have to be willing to react very quickly. So much of this kind of game is a synergy, and the magic only happens very late. And I can tell you from experience, sometimes they don't give you the money to finish it, to get that final three months or whatever. But in almost all the best cases of these types of games, the ones we've worked on here and the ones that friends have worked on, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Bioshock, you hear these stories about how things almost came together at the end but then we got three more months or six more months and then we just started hitting it with the magic in place.
By contrast, you have developers who say 'on day one, you need a loop, and if that loop is fun, you just iterate it and your game will be fun. If your game is not fun on day one, your day will never be fun.'
Warren: I FIGHT THAT EVERY DAY!
Harvey: Like it's some sort of dogmatic blueprint approach. Well, for some games that is true if they entirely depend on one arcade game loop, then yeah, probably. But these games are something different. They're a sense of presence, they're exploration, they're player pacing, they're toying with systems, and they really rely on this gestalt.
Steve: I think there's something interesting you're saying about that last three or six months that can also be extended to things like DLC and direct sequels. I worked on Bioshock 2 which was a direct sequel to Bioshock 1, and I was the lead designer on the story DLC for Bioshock 2, and at that point as a developer you're kind of in that space of saying this has been developed to such a degree that you have the familiarity with it, you have the stable base to say 'now our job is to know this stuff well enough to do something really good and really interesting with it' that you don't find in that initial build-out. And that's kind of what you're doing in those extra three or six months. You spent all that time making the game. Now we know what it is. And we can actually use this time to express what we've learned that we might not have been able to otherwise.
Ricardo, you worked on the Dishonored 1 DLC, right?
Ricardo: Absolutely, the Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches stuff.
Steve: I think that's sort of an extension of that idea that these games are such a, the end product is greater than the sum of its parts. Having that ability as a designer to work within that established space and do things with it that I wouldn't have thought of or known how to do earlier in the process is especially relevant when you're making games of this complexity and this relation to the player's role.
Tom: There's also a huge technical benefit of being that late in the project. Particularly with these systems-driven games, you have to build the systems, and then once you've done that, making a new ability or a new item is actually almost trivial. You hook it into the systems that already exist. And the whole point of these games is those systems have to be consistent, have to be universal, so you have to get that right first, anyway. And once you've done that, making an ability that uses those systems is super easy.
I've just hit this point in Heat Signature, so I'm really excited about it. Now if I want to make a gun that hacks things when you shoot it, it's literally create a gun, add the hack damage type to it, and it's just done, it just works.
Steve: That even happens in a story game like ours that is not about these deep, dynamic, interactive systems. As a content creator, making these kinds of games the arc is really on a logarithmic scale. It's ramping and then you hit that tipping point where now, working on Tacoma, I have enough of the tools to say 'oh my god this room is so empty, it needs stuff in it,' and then you work on it for a day, and you're like 'oh, we've built enough that we can make this feel very populated and unique and like a real place very quickly' in a way you couldn't have earlier.
Or you can say 'I know how our AR character system works, I can extend this scene that we already have to do something else' because we've been building up those tools over time. Once you have the toolbox, which takes a long time to get to, and you have the familiarity with what all of those tools can actually do, that ability to quickly and very creatively extend what you already have into things that feel very unique and memorable to the player finally appears.
Ricardo: What you're citing is one of the reasons I actually love being finished with the main game and getting the chance to work on DLC. You have that baseline there that you can build on top of, and it's so easy to add things. In the Dishonored DLC it was really fun to get to experiment with Corvo's base powers to make new powers for Dowd, the main character in the DLC. Like adding the ability for when Dowd targets his Blink power, the whole game is frozen. So it's more like a tactical, thoughtful consideration where you're going to Blink. That was only possible because the main game, all that stuff was already executed and established, and we could play in that sandbox.
Warren: You do need to be thinking about player improvisation early, though. We did build those proto-missions [on Deus Ex]. That's what I called them, I can't remember if anybody else did. We built that White House mission where everything was sort of hacked together, which didn't show how the game was going to play but showed the potential of it.
I can't really talk much about System Shock 3, but I will say that we're just beginning to prototype a bunch of stuff, and if you think about giving players the ability to improv early, you can start to see the fruits of that early.
We built one thing out—I should not be talking about this—where there are a couple ways to get past a problem. But I found one that no one knew was going to work. Instead of taking five, six minutes to play through this space, I did it in 10. Ten seconds. It was pretty magical when I figured out something that no one on the team knew was going to work, even early. And we've got another system that I'm not going to talk about that we've started prototyping. And already we're starting to see people use it, family and friends testers, they're starting to do things with it that we had no idea would work. When you start seeing that, even early on, that's the magic of these games. It's what makes them different.
If everybody on the development team knows what every player is going to do, my advice to them is just go make a movie.
PC Gamer: We've got a few minutes left before we need to head off to other GDC events. Does anyone have a question they'd like to ask anyone here, before we have one closing question?
Warren: Yeah, could you guys stop working on Prey? [laughs]
Ricardo: We are about to start working on it! [laughs]
Warren: I can't wait to play it.
Steve: Yeah, I'm super excited about it. I guess there's three of us in the room that are making space station games, but you guys get to ship yours first, congrats. I assume you guys haven't announced a release date? God dammit, I hope you guys don't ship the same time as us.
Tom: Is that your question? When's your release date?
Steve: Yeah, can you announce your release date, please?
Ricardo: Oh, it's May 5.
Warren: It's on the trailer, it's in there.
Steve: Oh, that has been announced? Fine, you guys get to be first!
Harvey: Honestly, I say this with all humility because I didn't work on Prey, it's a game made by the Austin studio with Ricardo and Raph and Seth and Susan running the show, it is one of the best games I've ever played. I tweeted something recently about having finished Dishonored 2, and now looking at Prey back to back, Brian Eno had this write-up, and it really made me stop and think about me as creator vs. me as player, what I like to play, and it's really an interesting contrast. In my career I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to do this back-to-back within the same studio. We finished one game and are about to finish another game with a different team, and just to look at the two and decisions they made differently than decisions I would've made, yet I love both games. I think Dishonored 2 is the best game I've ever done and Prey is one of the best games I've ever played, but they're very different in their decisions and how they arrive at certain decisions is fascinating to me. So May 5, yeah.
PC Gamer: So I'd like to close with a question, looking beyond Prey, where immersive sims are going to be going in the next few years, the far-off future of 2020, what do we still have to improve in immersive sims? What have they not quite cracked yet? Is it AI? Is it elements of level design, maybe moving beyond the conveniently human-sized vents placed on the backs of buildings?
Tom: Never! [laughs]
PC Gamer: Where are we going next?
Warren: Non-combat AI is an area where games in general really have some work to do. In the more linear cinematic games that we're not talking about today, I think there are some pretty amazing things going on. But in terms of characters who can react to you, whether they hate you or love you or are neutral towards you, we still have a lot of work to do on that front. I would say non-combat AI is one, and accessibility is another.
We talked about that a bunch, but making this so normal humans, non-gamers, can actually get to this, so we're not just making cult classics. We're making mainstream games that show the world what games can and should be. Accessibility is a big problem for us.
Tom: Coming at this from the indie side of things, I'm excited about stuff to do with the structure and format around the actual missions that you do. In a triple-A immersive sim it's almost a story that is told from beginning to end and there's maybe some branching, but you're playing as one character throughout the whole thing. I think that problem I was talking about earlier with people feeling obliged to stick to one playstyle even when they're not enjoying it stems from that.
I'm trying a game where each character you play as is a new life. Every time you die it's permadeath, but each time you restart you're a new person. I'm suddenly finding loads of immersive sim problems just go away if you just change the structure completely. It's a completely different format of game. This is just a baby step towards it with Heat Signature, but I'm excited to see what other people do with that, as roguelikes are a big trend with indie games. I just want to see that mashed into immersive sims in as many ways as possible because I think there are some really interesting things that happen there.
The thing about playstyles, I just have a missions listing board, and I've just realized recently, I've added the ability to have missions that you have to do stealthily. You'll fail this mission if you get spotted. And so you can just work playstyles into the mission listing board, then let people pick which one they want to do, and it's just natural that they would vary if they wanted.
Steve: From the other side of indie development, something that I think is really fascinating and valuable is immersive sims as a lineage is it's a very long lineage that has kind of continued to accrete properties over time. Warren, you've been there for the entire run—
Warren: Thanks for reminding me of my age, I appreciate it. [laughs]
Steve: Well but you were working on Ultima Underworld and System Shock 1, and our approach to exploring that, as a small independent developer, is rewinding the timeline and removing factors and thinking of it in terms of, if we went back to an earlier point in what these games are and explored a branch from there, and tried to find aspects of that experience that are inherent to it, but have not been the focus in a lot of ways...
I guess what I'm saying, to your question Wes, that there's one way of looking at this as: 'Where do what immersive sims have become go next, and how do we solve more problems and add more on?' And I think there's this incredible potential to saying: 'Well, but what have they been, and what was not on the main trunk of where they've gotten to, and what else is there?'
You think of an immersive sim now and you think of things like upgradeable player powers, AIs that have emergent abilities when they interact with each other, and having an economy so you can buy equipment and all that stuff. When I was working on Minerva's Den, and it was a reference forward design wise, and then I was working on Gone Home, I replayed System Shock 1, and it was sort of a surprise to me to realize there is no skill tree. There is no economy. This is about a place, and you as a character with a role in it. It has enemies in it, different ways you can address problems, but there's so much that we think of as being part of what an immersive sim is that is really just the version of it that we've arrived at.
Being able to say 'System Shock 1 is an immersive sim because it has a sense of place and it has you being able to fulfill a role within that space,' and so a game like Gone Home is kind of an exploration of how we apply that to a mundane setting. How we apply that to a space that's more familiar to you. How do we apply that to something where finding the audio diaries is the actual game, not just a thing you do while playing the game. Continuing to explore what else is already inside immersive sims is a really exciting thing to be able to do.
Warren: In some sense, actually, System Shock is actually the purest expression of what an immersive sim can and should be. All the character stats, upgradeable this and economy that, all that stuff you were talking about, it kind of turns things into a hybrid RPG-immersive sim thing that I love, I absolutely adore that kind of game, but in a sense if you're talking about the absolute purest form of the genre, for me it's going to be System Shock.
Ricardo: I don't have anything specific to say, other than the thing that's exciting to me is to see, Steve was talking about different ways it's affected other games, and I'm really interested in the family tree, or the lineage, of immersive sims. Seeing how that bleeds into other games. There's sort of a core essence to immersive sims. But I love it when people experiment with that. I think a game that draws from immersive sims doesn't have to be first person, for instance. There are some 2D games that sort of have that same fundamental philosophy of strong sense of place, plus very expressive interconnected game mechanics, that have come from the developers being fans of immersive sims, and that's why they made the game that way.
I love seeing more expressions of that sort of development philosophy in other genres and independent games. I don't have a super recent example, but I really loved Mark of the Ninja.
PC Gamer: Great game, yeah, from Klei.
Ricardo: That's a 2D game, or sidescroller, but just the way that you play that game, it's clearly founded on similar principles. Just the open-ended nature of the game mechanics. They're super fun. Like Steve was saying, the Gone Home and Tacoma-like games, they're more stripped down than the giant triple-A action immersive sim. But they're an interesting offshoot. I look forward to seeing more things like that. Offshoots that come from that lineage.
PC Gamer: Anything from Harvey?
Harvey: Yeah, in part, I would echo what other people have said, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. And the thought that comes up over and over is purity. Right now we have a lot of stuff that we've accreted that we put in through legacy or because commercial audiences deserve a game of a certain size in order to pay a certain amount for it. Just to do one of these games, with AI for instance, with physics interaction, with the scope of the game, the development budget is pretty large. There are all these forces that pressure you to go one way or the other. You either go full-on where it's got tons of stuff in it and layers and layers and lots of different ways for the player to switch playstyles as they're going, or you go the other way and strip it all down to the bare essence and find something interesting. Whether it's the setting or a particular form of interaction, a particular tool.
One of those works better in the commercial space and one works better in the indie space. For my money, I would love to have the opportunity to just play around with, what is the minimum, here? I appreciate the hell out of games like Gone Home, of course, because it was innovative and revolutionary in terms of subject matter and the feel as you play the game, it was one of my favorite games that year. But our games are so big in terms of economy and sheer scope that I would love to make a more stripped-down game, but I wouldn't want to sacrifice that magic moment that happens when you manage to get a turret up on the roof and hack it to your alliance, and then somebody you weren't expecting comes around the corner and your turret opens up on them, but you happen to be in the line of fire. A whole sequence of crazy improv events happen that you have to react to.
Some of the stuff is not just accreted baggage. It's where the actual synergistic gameplay comes from. Where it lives. And so it's thinking about how much do you need, and which do you need, that's not just painting by numbers. You know, 'oh it's an immersive sim, let's make the first code 0451 and add a crafting system or whatever.' The future is bright for deeply interactive games with a sense of presence.
Tom: The other thing I'm excited for for the future of immersive sims: I hope we come up with a better name. [laughs]
PC Gamer: I was actually going to ask, I don't know if it's common knowledge where the term came from. Was it a Kieron Gillen-coined term, or if it predated his writing on the genre.
Warren: I think Doug Church was the one who came up with that, isn't he? He's the first person I ever heard use it.
Harvey: I don't know, I remember a conversation with Rob Fermier, I think on Twitter, where we were trying to figure out where that term had come from. I think Rob's conclusion was that he first heard it from Doug, as well.
Warren: Yeah, and we all hated it! It fell out of favor for awhile and recently it seems like it's come back. It's really odd.
PC Gamer: Has anyone come up with a description they like better?
Ricardo: I don't know if it's better, but when we're talking generally with the press or gamers we avoid the term, because it sounds very inside baseball. We say first-person games with depth, instead, and then elaborate from there. But it is a bit technical.
Harvey: I like FPS-RPG hybrid.
Ricardo: Yeah, that works too.
Warren: Genre mash-up, yeah!
PC Gamer: So maybe by 2020 we'll have decided on a new name for the immersive sim. Well, I wish we could keep doing this. I could literally do this all day, makes my job easy. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for joining me! We should do it again. Maybe we can make it an annual immersive sim roundtable.
Warren: Sounds great. I'll have something to talk about next year.
Update: The Good Bundle just got better with the addition of more than 20 games and pieces of content, including Among the Sleep and the soundtracks to Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac, and Desktop Dungeons. Steam keys from developers who have opted to provide them will also be made available, and the deadline has been extended as well, to 12 pm PT on December 1.
'Tis the season to save money. With many-a-Black Friday sales already underway, itch.io's A Good Bundle offers a stonking 151 indie games for $20 with 100 percent of proceeds being split between the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood charities.
Similar to the likes of Humble Bundle's multi-tier format, spending $2 or more nets you 89 games; $8 or more gets you a load more while saving $114; and $20 or more nabs you the entire bundle, saving $451 in the process.
It's worth noting that some games are otherwise free, and that the quality of some may not be as good as others—but for that price, not to mention the fact your money is going to exclusively to charity, this seems like a pretty good deal.
"This is A Good Bundle," reads the bundle's description. "A bunch of creators are sharing their works to combat some of the ugliness in our world."
Particular highlights for me include the aforementioned Gone Home and Proteus, Read Only Memories, The Novelist and Raik. Have a gander at the list yourself and share your own favourites in the comments below.
A Good Bundle is live on itch.io now until November 29.
Here's a nice thing to bookend a week that has not been very nice. Developer Fullbright has made its first-person snoop-'em-up Gone Home free to download on itch.io, "for people that need something about hope and love right now".
You have until the end of the weekend to grab it, and if you do so, it'll be yours to keep. You can also 'claim' it to your itch.io account, if you have one, and download the game at a later date.