Hello, everyone! Yours truly has a press pass to the very first TriBeCa Games Festival! I will be live-blogging the sessions this morning, so refresh the page if you want a play-by-play. There are two stages running today, staggered in half-hour increments. I’m currently seated in Stage 1 for the 0930–1015 conversation with Ian Dallas (What Remains of Edith Finch) and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring), moderated by Kevin Nguyen of GQ.
People are trickling in as the tech crew finishes setting up the stage. It’s an intimate setting with seating for about 100. Four empty director’s chairs await the speakers and moderator. Lite indie music fills the hall. This is definitely not bat country.
The lite indie has switched to some kind of weird lite jazz, and I can’t tell if its a vocalist or a tenor sax. The program hasn’t started yet. Seats are half full.
Here we go!
Ian Dallas (Giant Sparrow) is introduced, followed by the Edith Finch trailer.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are introduced. The Endless is their new film, but does not yet have a trailer.
Nguyen: Does trailer culture (sneak peeks) ruin games?
Dallas: They can, but trailers are hard to make to communicate the spirit of the game. Sometimes trailers reveal too much. The game is about the unknown and reveals things over time. Players come in with a basic knowledge. Players and game writers are writing about the game but also cautioning against reading their pieces lest things get spoiled. Other people will watch gameplay live online and then go and play themselves.
Nguyen: How do you make a game about family?
Dallas: I read a lot and watched a lot of movies about families. Read 100 Years of Solitude to get a great feel for generational, family stories. One of the biggest challenges in the game is to remember all of the names of all of the people you have already experienced. For the game, we’re telling the story of 13 individuals. Names are written on all the objects in order to facilitate play, which does not reflect reality of people’s things in their rooms. Royal Tanenbaums does something similar with how to effectively deal with large families in one story.
Nguyen: How did you design the rooms for the family members?
Dallas: We redesigned completely all of the rooms at least three times. We made the rooms feel like accretions, a history to these spaces. There actually was because of the layers of previous game development. Things carried through from each design iteration. Significant density to each room. Stories threaded into each other through the stuff in each room. Everything in the room ultimately had their own purposes because of the intertwining the stories.
Dallas: We have a 90-yo woman living in this house. How do we communicate this? We integrated a chair-assist. Pay attention to the detail of the carvings by the lower post, which are from other family members.
Nguyen: These rooms tell stories and create new mythologies without overexplaining things. How is that done?
Spring Team: We write and then give pages to readers and then ask them what they thought happened and what will happen. We over-shoot and then edit. The audience responds to cuts of the film.
Dallas: We write backwards. We made each of the stories from experiential standpoints, and used the material (e.g., swingset) in order to birth the story of a character. We are at a point in games where a game isn’t just about challenge and shooting things. Players are coming to a game ready to experience it. A lot of what people take away from Edith French what they bring to it.
Nguyen: What’s the biggest surprise you’ve found in telling these stories?
Dallas: How little we really need to tell people. Players don’t need all this stuff. People are really smart and media literate, and developers have to continually strip stuff out of the game. People fill in the middle themselves if you give them a beginning and an end. How do we engage the players throughout? Nothing is in a vaccum in a story. Everything relies on what you’ve written before.
Nguyen: What have filmmakers learned from video games to help with filmmaking? And vice versa?
Dallas: There are a lot of surrealist movies (Bunuel and Gilliam) that help. I watch films for the tonal qualities.
Spring Team: There is a film structure, but unconventional video games help break this mode. New film being cast will feel like a movie, but is really just a series of boss battles. Realizing that you’re still having fun outside of a conventional structure is important. Short film exists: Tony Hawk Pro-Skater v. Mortal Kombat.
First Session Ends. 15-minute break.
We’re about half-full for this session and are waiting for the speakers and moderators. Stay tuned! There’s a competing VR session at 11, which I will move to after this one concludes.
Here we go. All-woman panel 🙂
VR trailer plays featuring Rainbow Crow trailer for Baobab Studios. Based on a Leni Lenape story.
Robin has B-roll trailer for her new game, Luna, featuring animated birds in a quiet forest in something extraordinarily peaceful.
Stark: How did you get started with VR?
Robin: I started developing on Sims and then went to grad school and became the first female game-jammer, making games with a group to release for free online. Saw a 4K VR demo at Valve and was blown away.
Fan: Saw VR demo for the first time when at Zynga. Fan quit and started her VR animation studio.
Stark: What works in VR and what do you need to leave behind:
Heinicke: How do we touch the world in VR? Game ported to touch platform to try new interactions. In Journey I guided your eye with the camera. In VR the player IS the camera. Getting people to see, feel, and believe in VR is so much more work.
Fan: Animation is perfect for control freaks. (Fan worked on Madagascar). Make the VR-player believe that they are controlling the action even when they’re not. VR is neither game nor film. It’s its own medium. In VR has the empathy of films and motivation of games, plus how you are in real life. VR borrows from social psychology and also magicians. Characters in VR can mimic player motion to create a feeling of empathy. We should be breaking things and mashing them together as VR is still in an experimental phase.
Heinicke: VR is about experiencing what’s around you (see Sleep No More). Games are catching up to Brecht and experimental theater. We are so used to being in control. In Luna VR builds a world and creates a new narrative within that world based on player choices [she said this much better than I can capture here for the blog].
Stark: How important is realism in creating VR experiences?
Heinecke: Explode everything and start over. Make everything weird so people can experience someone’s imagination full-throttle. Blockbuster console games really excluded these kinds of imaginative games. VR allows makers to reach a wider audience with new experiences.
Fan: Art style — it’s harder to make things look less realistic. Photorealism is easier. People want to experience things they cannot experience in real life. Rainbow Crow uses a soft-shader to encourage exploration and touching of things in the world. Issue of mobile devices v high-end headset.
Stark: How do you test out the narratives and experiment with players?
Fan: Was at Zynga for 6 years running Farmville. Creatives v Suits in-house battles. The concept of being humbled by the numbers as a creative person. Creatives test things and then beta them in order to see what the audience likes, and that helps improve gameplay and game development. Invasion development was driven by over 2,000 testers’ data for a VR game, which vastly improved the game.
Heinicke: Playing Luna at PAX led to a lot of positive and creative feedback from women and girls. Completely engaged with the VR experience for the first time. Physical interaction with VR: power grip v precision grip. The former is stressful on the body. Game dev and playtesting about the physicality of movement in VR v actual space. You’re an actor in VR.
Stark: What kind of experiences are not in VR that you want to see?
Fan: Social experiences. Try The Life of Us. VR trends to the solitary, but loses the energy of experiencing media with others. More story-driven experiences either with or without interactivity. Take traditional stories and have them in VR. VR is another medium with a new toolkit to tell a story.
Heinecke: More games about sex and love and romance and lust and passion and the ways well all crave affection and attention. Focus on human contact. In Luna none of the characters are gendered. I want my next game to be a romance. Why do people come together and break apart. Hardly seen in games. We should be approaching these interactive experiences. What does it mean to be embodied in a space? When we see people, we simulate them via snap-judgements on looks.
Fan: Invasion was her first VR game that made the player a character (in this case a fluffy bunny). Players felt the presence for other characters and developed a real sense of care. In Asteroids players can help other characters on a spaceship, and the relationships change based on player actions. Branching emotions. In Rainbow Crow players are a force that controls the entire Earth, and the other characters do not know this.
Stark: What should other makers experience in order to make their own VR projects?
Fan: Learning from how directors of film tell their stories through image, specifically where to put the camera, and eyelines. Also, real-life experience. Cognitive psychology for how humans interact with each other. Haptics.
Heinecke: Being physical and doing more things like dance, painting, paper-folding. The idea of having tactile experiences while making something in VR. Try it in the real world first and then play with the idea of physicality in VR. Also, what are the ethics of VR for players and makers? What kind of images are you putting into people’s minds? Games leave mental residue. Read Lady of Mazes.
Stark: What are you working on? Have worked on?
Fan: Invasion is a VR game coming to theater screens. Asteroids coming out soon (feat. Ethan Hawke’s voice). Rainbow Crow prologue is demoing here (starring John Legend). Also make headsets for women and people with bangs.
Heinecke: Woorld in the Tango app store (written by Katamari Damacy writer). Luna coming out later in 2017. Premiers at E3 for PC and PC VR.
11:20 end. Off to Lawnmore Man panel.
Moved to the next stage with the panel:
25th anniversary of Lawnmower Man + The Past, Present, and Future of VR with director Brett Leonard, Jessica Brillhat (Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google). Leonard is in the middle chair, with his computer animator on-screen. Alex Goldman (Reply All) is moderating.
Jessica Brillhart comes to the stage.
Moderators: Did early VR and stories such as Lawnmower Man affect your VR work?
Brillhart: No. Was approached by Google engineers working on 360 visualization who wanted to know if she could use this in her Google films. VR reminded her of games in the crafting of them. Played Myst. Understood how game design could fill in the gaps in her filmmaking.
Leonard: We have to create a kind of ritual or structure around how we enter into VR. We are in the “demo ghetto” with players waiting to put on the sweaty headset. We need to create a medium with some majesty to it with profound structure and theatricality. VR tells a story without the language of the frame. Discovering narrative without guiding people by way of the cinematic frame. Gameplay v linear cinematic narrative.
Goldman: How do you guide the VR user into the experience?
Brillhart: “Hello babies, welcome to Earth.” Editing first. How to edit in VR? The answer is you really can’t. The maker must be outside of the world instead of being constricted by the frame. Make the story from above to figure out placement, movement, and story. VR needs its own Pong, something simple that does something really well as a baseline. VR allows people to “see out.”
Leonard: “I’ve become unstuck in time” (Vonnegut). VR let’s people create a multi-temporal experience. The idea of transformation and a godlike control over time. Uncouple and recouple with time is a central theme for mass-market VR experiences. Read Media Extensions of Man (1964).
Brillhart: VR can go against the medium.
Goldman: Vonnegut sees time like a landscape or mountain range.
Leonard: That’s possible in VR. VR is finding a home in medical applications. Use VR for data visualization. The world of data is actually a story. Humans can interface with things that they could not before. Data is now at a non-human scale. How to visualize such a massive amount of information in VR. VR is not story-TELLING. VR is story-worlding, which empowers people creatively within.
Goldman: Limitations are making people creative.
Leonard: VR is going to be dangerous. It’s a very powerful thing. For creators should push this for creative empowerment and social engagement. Otherwise its isolationist.
Brillhart: The world doesn’t work the way we want it to work. Game addiction gives people a world that plays by the rules.
Goldman: I play games because of the goals.
Brillhart: The Witness pissed me off so much.
Leonard: Every human is a creative entity, but often don’t have the ability to achieve mastery of something. VR allows for this with groups of people. Art and creation is addictive. Have modes in a narrative that allow the player to make things that contribute to the story.
Brillhart: Validation has been the biggest emotion felt by people who play games. Players can own the experience in the games that they play. We play to have the game give us validation. Makers enable players to achieve things within their games.
Leonard: What is going to be created by the group mind? This is coming into a virtual environment. VR is the most multidisciplinary medium ever created. VR is a reflecion of our own perception of reality. We create our reality through our observation.
Brillhart: Take something very simple and have players form a relationship with that thing. How to we get to the next world?
Leonard: As a filmmaker now doing VR, forgetting the frame is hard.
Brillhart: We use frames to make people to feel in a certain way.
Leonard: Filmmaking is manipulation. Players are not the audience anymore.
Taking a quick break before: Retro Active with Jonathan Morin (Watchdogs 2) Moderated by Matt Thompson (The Atlantic).
Watchdogs 2 trailer plays.
Morin comes to the stage.
Thompson: Watchdogs explores the role of personal technology in everyday life.
Morin: 2008 the first Watchdogs began development when the first iPhone was coming out, and social media. Let’s make a game that uses online as a metaphor.
Thompson: How did the rapid development of technology effect the game development?
Morin: Major effect. How do we interact with our cities? Make an urban life open world game. Made Watchdogs approachable via the everyday and then injecting the darker side, too, namely hackers/hacking. Game had an immediate relevance.
Thompson: Themes of the games and gameplay changes from city to city.
Morin: Chicago was about surveillance and crime surveillance. Switching to the Bay Area everything changed. Different tone and vibe.
Morin: The city is a story forged by its inhabitants. Bay Area has a lot of different pieces to represent the Bay Area.
Thompson: [Explains about all of the tech that surrounds him in his home when he plays.] Whose side is the game actually on?
Morin: We don’t have a stand on technology through the game. Change scares the hell out of people. YouTube makes anyone able to be a public person. The only thing that can help us is to ask the right questions so that people can think. Watchdogs asks those questions.
Thompson: Every character has a name and a biography, income, profession, as seen through the phone that is portal to the world. That decision changes the flavor of the game and poses moral questions of what technology plays in our lives. Knowing who the characters are changes how we think about them. [Morin notes that the bios, etc., are randomly generated.]
Morin: We were asking what kind of a home would this character live in? The random characters would use algorithms to work in new and different and unexpected ways. This combos would be reported by players as bugs. We’ve been making games with guns for so many years, but what I’m interested in is what the player chooses to do with that gun (or not use it at all). It makes people think about things as they play. You have a gun. Do you choose to use it?
Thompson: I found a melee weapon and decided for myself that this is a non-lethal weapon. The game has a lot of socio-cultural and socio-economic stories and tensions. The game introduces a set of questions. How does the game pair NPCs with data?
Morin: There is a light control to present that reality. Leaving out a heavier control makes the game less stereotypical. The data tells the story when people are found in surprising places. You don’t have to force information at players. Makes the game more memorable. A believable city is a lot more random. Life is not always logical.
Thompson: Watchdogs 2 includes a lot more diversity than the first game. How did you think about that for development?
Morin: I’m not black, so how do we do this in a respectful way. They vetted their scripts and worked with an African-American writer and group to make everything believable and real. Started to receive positive mail and feedback from players and parents that the characters and situations were relatable.
Thompson: Stepping away from narrative into gameplay. The player in the second game has a lot more agency. Players can solve a lot of the challenges in multiple ways. How do you design that freedom?
Morin: It’s a very different task. We’re getting better at it. Players want to interact with things and do things in their own way. Players can be either extremely violent or not violent at all. Most people are interested in great challenges. Tackle agency v narrative which sometimes does not go together naturally.
Thompson: What did the second game fix from the first game.
Morin: Better interaction in the second game. Better knowledge of the NPCs and giving more player agency and NPC agency within the second game’s environment. Making sure that the tone of the game is a bit more light at the world level. It makes players want to stay in that world/city.
Thompson: I was a tourist at Alcatraz in Watchdogs 2, although have never been there in real life. How did you think about constructing the interactions within the game? How can players hack the city, traffic lights, cameras. What was the central gameplay mechanic?
Morin: Hackers are just problem-solvers. Problem-solving motivates player action. The core idea from a design standpoint is to give a player a thing and see what they do with it. People start exploring this system just as hackers do with computer systems and networks. One system can lead to many different ideas. Hackers question our social rules and our new technology.
Thompson: What did the hackers have to say about the hacking puzzles?
Morin: No problem with making the metaphor. We were careful on the interface side. Worked with hackers regarding the scripts, and about how they interact with the city. Hacker-only references in the game, and portrayed in a respectful way. Hackers hate the “magic interface” and they hate “rapid-typing” as shown in films and TV. If you have no hacking consultant, you have nothing.
Thompson: What’s next with Watchdogs?
Morin: Hard to tell at the moment. Ubisoft is into making worlds first. Morin is interested in narratives and friction in the open world. How do players make their own stories? Continue exploring the impact of technology on people and society.
That’s all, folks! My press pass was only for the morning, BUT the afternoon sessions will be live-streamed here on Twitch.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming