Alaska and Tacoma
It’s been a while since I posted anything on my blog, mainly because I haven’t had any time to do anything for most of 2017. That includes working on Alaska, which is still nearly finished but I don’t plan to restart active development on it until 2018, when I’m hoping to have more free time.
SPOILER WARNING: There are potential plot spoilers for Tacoma in this post!
This post however is about Tacoma. Gone Home is the game that inspired me to try and make Alaska and I find it interesting that there are so many parallels between where I wanted to take the genre next and where Fulbright did. Both decided adding humans into the mix was the next step, both expanded the space a little and chose a space station as the logical setting for that. When I started working on Alaska, I didn’t anticipate I’d be playing Fulbright’s next game before it was finished. I’ve always been over ambitious about things that don’t seem to matter to other people and the the two prime areas in Alaska I worked most on was the lighting system (because I’m a programmer) and the dynamic characters.
The dynamic characters were an attempt to inject meaning into the first person adventure genre. A more living world would lend your actions greater consequences – destroying a bridge only matters if someone wants to cross it. Brilliantly, Fulbright opted for another mechanism and it’s genius, a boring alternative route to success. Fulbright have twice now resisted giving the player any way to impact the world and they’ve gotten away with it because they’ve done it expertly. Since the inception of branching narratives the entire industry has been obsessed with the idea that it existed to engender replayability, like you’re trying to squeeze multiple games into one and that success is when the player plays them all. This thinking can be seen most prominently in the critical acclaim for nier automata (a game I loved) and it’s complete disrespect for the players time by requiring you to play through the same game 3 times before delivering any narrative conclusion. I’ve always asserted that branching narratives derive most of their value from communicating to the player that their decision mattered because a different choice would’ve had different outcomes. I feel it’s ok to explore the potential outcomes, to explore causality, but it’s also important to recognise that the desire to fully explore the system and to fully realise the system is a futile one. It doesn’t map well onto real world systems, it’s a power fantasy. Fulbright have implemented the core value of a branching narrative without incurring the burden of the massive development overhead by offering the player one other branch. One that is so intensely uninteresting that no player would ever opt to take it except as a feat of extra ludic endurance. They even deliberately refused to add an achievement for it because they wanted it to be clear – there is no game here. This option exists, soley, to make the decision to explore the station yours. It doesn’t matter how dire the consequences of not doing something it always matters to us that we had the choice. It’s why we live in permissive, punishing societies as opposed to preventative ones i.e. you won’t be dragged, kicking and screaming to your work but you will lose your house if you do.
Dr Manhattan, not Shodan
The plot of Tacoma reveals, in my opinion, an exceptional grasp of the themes of corporate culture, the information revolution and artificial intelligence’s role in both. Most discussions of artificial intelligence focus on the threat in terms of it being a separate sentient animalistic predator who opts, in one way or another to operate without humans, the idea that it won’t want us around. The real threat of artificial intelligence is actually in how we use it and how it uses us and Tacoma tries to get to the heart of the idea. We already live in a world controlled by artificial intelligence. We have been for quite some time. It doesn’t direct us or take direction from us by taking on a human ego and having a verbal dialogue. It does it by selling stock in sock manufacturers and investing in cotton buds. It controls us by giving us the best congestion free route to Disney land. The AI in Tacoma is a projected version of this idea, it gives CEOs a choice between doing something immoral and suffering certain negative consequences. Disobeying Google maps would be working against our own interests, just as the CEO dismissing the AI’s projections would be. It is my impression that the players own non choice of sitting and waiting for hours for the transfers to complete are deliberate mirrors of this idea, gameplay reinforcing the core theme. The threat of AI in Tacoma, just as in real life is that we will self select ourselves out of existence because it makes sense to have AI’s do more and us do less, we need less of us so WE choose to reduce the population, through primarily natural processes but also atrocities like the one in Tacoma.
An idea central to the game is that the AI’s continue to serve but by serving us they annihilate us. Natural selection, the passage of time and the march of entropy are fundamentally linked, they are 3 facets of causality. Just as atoms formed molecules, proteins started replicating, replicating proteins formed more complex cells, cells formed organisms and organisms developed sentience, sentient organisms will come together to form a more complex thing, we are no more capable of discerning it or its motivations as a cell is of understanding us. Tacoma brings these grand projections – ideas about the nature of humanity, where we are going, transhumanism and brings them right down to earth (although not literally). It focuses in on the details of the lives, the importance of things that happen in the lives of a small group of diverse people.
Diversity is always better
Diversity is another one of the key themes of Tacoma. I’ve heard many people say that diverse representations make more interesting experiences, I’ve always thought that would be the case and it’s something I am trying to do in Alaska also. I feel that the complete lack of diversity in modern Hollywood is a key reason for why it is so utterly stagnant. One of the most defining films of my childhood was Alien, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley was critical in developing my understanding of women. Every film had multiple black characters and there were more than 3 black actors playing those black characters. I feel Hollywood has started to make progress on these issues again and it’s refreshing.
Computer games haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the potential for diverse characters. One reason for this has been a technical limitation. Skeletal animation systems like similar shaped skins. If the skin is very different, an animator needs to be careful not to animate in a way that the bigger ones clip, or the thinner ones seem like their limbs are floating, it’s hard and it’s only recently been possible to have a feasible system to counter this problem, either by dynamically modifying the skeleton and animations to fit the skin better or hand craft a skeleton & it’s animations for a wide enough body of representation. Recently a few games have went to great effort to make sure the people in the world are named, individuals with their own personalities and faces, I think it’s an exciting evolution in games and expectations that will hopefully do away with the stormtrooper syndrome that infests most games, every character with a convenient, identical face covering.
Fullbright again, played to their strengths when diversifying their cast, they didn’t have the resources to create fully realised unique looking characters, instead the wove AR into the fiction of the game, they built it from the ground up to allow them to plausibly have the characters’ physical representation fit within the budget of a small studio by have AR simulacra represent the characters. They could then focus in on the areas of diversity they wanted to emphasis, body shape and personality. The characters in Tacoma are different from each other, the different body shapes make it easier to distinguish them, even without faces (although the colour coding admittedly does most of the work). The different personality types let you get to know them.
When watching dialogue I often try and predict what characters are going to say, I feel it’s telling when I guess correctly to analyse whether it was because the character is an archetype I have prior understanding of or if it is because I have come to understand the individual. In my estimation none of the characters are archetypes, they don’t create conflict for each other, except in plausible small ways. Generally they are all working together towards a common end, deviations in their idioms create interesting, plausible dynamics but in general the game shows that lots of very different people can get along swimmingly. I felt there were a few moments when the game was signalling some grand conflict like when Andrew was hesitant to go into cryo or when Sareh didn’t tell Natali about her medical condition or when it was clear something was going on with ODIN and Natali. The game deliberately made nothing of these issues however, they were blips on the road. It had something more important to say, although it did have a satisfying conclusion It didn’t feel to me that that was the point of the game, it was the journey. Just like your so called mission to collect ODIN by watching a progress bar wasn’t really the point.