Posts in the Game Development category

Games and Storytelling: Tropes

This article was originally written a couple of months ago for the Surreal Game Design blog, which is currently deceased. I'm publishing it here instead.

I know what you're thinking. Let me guess. I can see it on the tip of your tongue. What the hell is a trope? Is this British lunatic making up words again?

A trope is a kind of story-telling shorthand. Camera cuts are tropes. Camera dissolves are tropes. The good guy in a Western riding off into the sunset at the Khaaaaaaaaan!!!!! end of the movie is a trope. The nerdy guy getting the girl by the end of the teen movie? That's a trope too.

They're like memes, but instead of being Just infectious ideas, they're specifically memes that relate to how a story is told. The only other meme with a given name I've ever come across is the ear worm.

The really cool thing about tropes (other than the information they convey) is that unlike most industry short-hand, they actually have cool names. I mean, where else are you going to come across a camera move called "The Khan"? (Although it should really be spelled The Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!)[1]

Of course, video games have their own particular brands of tropes specific to them. After all, once you have a new story-telling medium, it suddenly accrues tropes like barnacles. The one everyone has heard of is "Crate Expectations", and it's now a sport to rank games on the amount of time you have to play until you hit the first crate in the game.

Why do we like tropes?

Well, for a start, once they become embedded in the media, you don't have to think about them any more. You don't think about hitting the Start button to pause your game... and nowadays, all kinds of things can be expected to live in the start menu - like your current list of objectives. That's a trope too.

Oh wow... what's that... oh... it's another crate. Not only are they a useful user interface tool, but they push the medium along. Look at an old movie from the 60s. (Sorry, film students... I'm going to pick on Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey now as specific examples). They're shit. Well, okay, maybe that's a bit strong. They're not shit. They exemplify the inherent beauty in the medium, and they were stellar works for their time... but the medium has moved on. They're now boring as all hell, and no matter how emphatically anyone whispers "Rosebud"[2] into a boom mike, and no matter how many candles of lighting you throw at it to make it have the largest depth of field ever imaginable (even if the actors get all squinty), I'm still going to only get 15 minutes into the movie at the end of the day before I get bored and turn it off. As for 2001, let's face it, you're only going to watch it for the end these days, and there's only so many times you can watch that without getting so completely mindblowingly high that you start trying to sync it up to Dark Side Of The Moon.


The medium has moved on. We learned the short-hand. And once you know the short-hand, you don't need the long version any more. Everything these days is fast paced Jerry Bruckheimer cuts[3] and always starts in media res. In fact, some media relies on tropes for its effectiveness. Spoof films like Airplane, for example. Horror movies pretty much require them - you just don't get that "Don't go in there!" feeling unless you've seen how it goes down when they walk through that door a million times before.

This kind of thing doesn't usually happen when I drink tequila. Although the hangover feels like that. Where things get interesting is when a new trope hits and spreads like wildfire. The rage flashes in The Suffering were a horror videogame trope that hadn't appeared before in the medium (although they'd been used in other places in film before). Possibly the most well known new camera trope in a long time has to be the Bullet Time sequences in The Matrix movies (which then quickly jumped the divide and started showing up in video games as well - heck, Stranglehold even called it Tequila Time). Michael Gondry had previously tried to get the ball rolling with a number of music videos along the same lines, and then The Gap commercials writ it in stone, but it took The Matrix for it to become a trope. And now it shows up everywhere - even in animation where frankly, it's not even that flashy because... well.. it's animation, and you can do anything you like in animation, just by drawing whatever you want to see.

So what's the brand new trope I care about right now?

That'd be something I just saw in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. And I'll talk about it in my next (hopefully much shorter) post.

(Crate photo stolen from

[1] Which brings me right back to the earworms... but I digress.
[2] Spoiler Warning: It's the sled. The sled is called Rosebud.
[3] Jerry Bruckheimer cuts are cuts which last no longer than 5 seconds. Watch any Bruckheimer movie, and you'll see that none of his cuts last longer than this. It's what makes them chock-full of actiony stuff.


Projection (... or what do you do if you can't sleep 'cos all you dream of is Tetris)

How can you tell when you have an absolutely fantastic brand new game mechanic which is going to take the world by storm?

Surprisingly, it's really easy. If it's fundamentally that different, enjoyable, and - dare I say it? - addictive, you're going to dream about it.

(And yes, I know, addictive is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to games... it has bad connotations... but heck, if you're going to play a game a lot and keep coming back for more, it'd better damn well be at least somewhat addictive. If you don't prefer the entirely way too honest approach, please pretend that I said fun instead).

Seriously. I've known people who after playing Tetris nearly nonstop for a week started dreaming about it. All they saw in their minds eyes as they got the necessary RDA of beauty sleep was falling colored blocks. Most of them asked for their money back, claiming that they'd had better dreams after watching horror movies.

It's not limited to dreams though. In my own personal experience, I've played Crackdown and found myself staring off the deck at work thinking "Yeah, I could jump that!". Of course, a saner head prevailed, and also, of course, I wouldn't have been able to. I'd have been in traction, probably taking all my meals through a straw. But for some reason, the game had attached itself to my brain in such a fundamental way that I had entertained the notion for a tiny moment of time. Okay, for a week or two. Yes, I'll admit it, I was looking at most of the buildings around me as I walked into work figuring out how to scale them. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a powerful game mechanic.

Katamari Damacy? After I played that for the first time, I found myself wandering around idly wondering if I could roll things up. All kinds of things. Usually huge things like cars and buses.

Midnight Club II? Well, let's just say that if I was driving the car I am now back then, I'd probably have enough speeding tickets to roast a nice steak*.

Viva Piñata has never had quite this effect on me. Halo 3? Nope, sorry, it didn't do that. (Mind you, neither did the first two, and Half Life - as much as I love that game... as much as my old producer at Sierra told the AP who gave me a copy in my first month there "not to give the programmers crack when we're trying to ship a product" didn't cause as much as a peep).

Portal though... Portal is a different matter. Portal had that effect. I spent a good while dreaming about how I could create holes in things that led to other holes, allowing me to travel through those holes, in an altogether wholly weird dreaming experience.

So what does this have to do with projection?

OK, imagine that you're holding a screwdriver. Put the screwdriver into a screw head. Feel yourself turn the screw. The weird thing is, as you're slotting the screwdriver home, you can feel the tip of the screwdriver touching the screw as if you had little touch sensitive nerves right on the end of the screwdriver.

This is a wonderful human ability. It allows us to do all kinds of things from driving to using a mouse. (If you're wondering what I mean by that, slam your cursor to the top of the screen right now. Note the word slam; because when it stops there, it feels like it hit something. Of course it didn't - and your mouse kept on moving... but that's what it felt like). If you will, it allows us to push our senses outside of our body, and manipulate our environment with tools as if the tools themselves were part of us. And it's cool.

I've got a theory that new gameplay experiences actually trigger a whole new projection learning experience in the brain. It's like you've never experienced this way of interacting with something before, and you need to digest it. If it's compelling enough, and fun enough, you'll need to process it harder. And if it's something just a little out of the ordinary, you'll end up dreaming about it.

Maybe that's what great gameplay is all about... pushing the boundaries of our experience outside of these fragile little shells and into a whole new vista.

I just wish that it was easier to reverse engineer. The problem with this kind of massively compelling gameplay mechanic experience is that while it'd be awesome for every game to have the power to make you spend your nights dreaming about it, it's really hard to come up with those kinds of mechanics. It's easy to spot them - but hard to create them.

But heck, I really know them when I see them. And apparently, my dreams know them too.

* First take your steak, marinade it, add salt and pepper. Then take a charcoal grill. Use the speeding tickets to light the grill.

This post was originally written for the Surreal Software Game Design Blog.


Set Piece: Lessons Learned from BioShock

This post was originally written for the Surreal Game Design blog back in December. I'm publishing it here.

One of the great things about BioShock (other than that it's a lovely first person horror game with more than a couple of very cute homages to other great games in the genre... and yes, I'm going to be quite annoyingly company pimpingly obvious here and say The Suffering, but also Half Life) is the way it grabs you and takes you on a fantastic guided tour through the environment they've created.

They did a great job with this. I'm not just talking about the bathysphere journey at the beginning of the game - although to be honest, it's probably the most overt way in which they do this, and it certainly sets the tone for the adventure you're about to go on.

The cool thing is how they do it in other areas of the game.

Take, for example, that big room near the Kashmir Restaurant right at the beginning of the game. The one that you need to get into an elevator and go up. (There are several broken elevators nearby). The elevator is small, and there's only one direction you can look. And because of that, you end up with an impressive crane shot which beautifully displays all of the effort they put into the art of that room.

They do this in other places too. Anywhere there's a large art set piece, they make damn sure that you get to enjoy it - either by making sure that the only route you can take is one that will expose you to it. Stairwells, elevators, corridors... all of them serve to make sure that you get to see the wonderful art deco architecture of it all.

It's a great trick, and one that works very organically. You hardly know they're doing it - certainly, you might not notice it unless you've spent a lot of time studying film. They employ similar devices in their horror moments, with great use of light and shadow to highlight and amplify the moments.

The environment isn't just a theme that gets tacked onto the game, nor is it a way to funnel random monsters at the player. The environment itself is an integral part of the experience - and it's treated as such.

And because of that, it's lovely, unique, and probably a huge part of why BioShock gets such great reviews.

Full Disclosure: I've not finished Bioshock yet. I'm near the end though. But heck, I know what I like. I finally finished Bioshock (since the Surreal Game Design blog went down). Meh. I was unimpressed by the ending. It could have done with some kind of coda to wrap things up.
Even More Disclosure: The most obvious homage to The Suffering is the "body in the locker" trick. And the most obvious one to Half Life is the fact that you're told to go grab a crowbar or something for a weapon.
Too Much Disclosure: Half of the guys here actually jumped up and down when BioShock came out, and we all gathered around the monitor of the Retail XBOX Dev Kit we were playing it on... and the verdict was unanimous. Not only did we all love it, but for a while there, we were all feeling incredibly nostalgic and suddenly wanted to make another horror game. Touché, 2K Games, touché!


Surreal Game Design Blog - Gone :(

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control1, the Surreal Game Design blog had to be shut down.

Which sucks, but there you go.

I'll be dribbling out the articles I had stacked up over the next few weeks. I'll be aiming at one a week.

1Lawyers, eh?


Mission Accomplished!

Yay! I just completed one of several goals I set myself when I first went to work at Surreal.

I'm now part of the background crowd "walla" for the game we're working on. It's not exactly getting my Sean Connery impersonation into a game in any form, or doing any of my european accents, but still, it counts!

So what have I achieved so far on my list?

  • I've worked in Tech, Tools and Gameplay. I wanted to get exposure in all areas so that (heaven forfend) when I eventually set up my own company, I know how people do it these days, from direct personal experience.
  • Shipped a game on a modern architecture (the old 8 bit systems don't count for much these days) - namely, The Suffering: Ties That Bind.
  • Wrote some dialogue for our currently unannounced game (it's a couple of lines here and there in the older story pieces - most people don't even know that I did it - and that includes people working here).
  • Got my voice in a game. (Yeah, I know, as background, but still, it means a lot to me).
  • Have code shipped in some major titles - and some that haven't shipped yet. (My code is, to date, in Stranglehold, TNA Wrestling, Wheelman, our unannounced game [obviously], possibly the next Mortal Kombat game, and possibly Blitz 2008... and one of the systems I architected is used across Midway to handle crash reporting and post-mortem debugging).
  • Worked on all the major current platforms (except the Wii and the DS, unfortunately).

Not much left to do... time to come up with a new list :)