Hey, Making Video Games Is Really Friggin’ Hard

Hey, Making Video Games Is Really Friggin’ Hard

This week, we learned the whole messy story of what really happened to Destiny. But how often does that sort of thing happen in the games industry? Let’s discuss.

Today on Kotaku Splitscreen, we’re joined by Amazon Game Studios’ Kim Swift, best known as the lead designer of games like Portal and Quantum Conundrum. Kirk and I talk to her about how hard it is to make video games, how stories like this seem to happen all the time, and what it’s like to be an EXTREME ATHLETE. (Kim is an extreme athlete.)

We also try to probe Kim for Amazon secrets, talk about Danganronpa and The Witcher 3, and explain why you need to be depraved if you want to be a good journalist.

Listen right here:

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  • Destiny’s messy backroom drama showed us how making video games is hard?
    Heh. First thought is: I imagine making a car is very hard too, if you shoot down the efforts of your mechanics and let the guys in accounting design the car instead.

      • Nah, I just respect writing as a profession and a craft, which is more than could be said for the leadership at Bungie who decided to scrap the story and cobble together their own.

        I mean seriously, that hubris, thinking that crafting compelling stories isn’t a ‘real job’ requiring any kind of expertise or skill and that they could do it themselves? Almost certainly the primary factor which cost them literally millions of dollars on their review score bonus.

        I’ve got no sympathy for the, “Games are hard, you guys,” excuse in this instance.
        Because, yeah: running is hard when you tie your shoelaces together, too.

        Since when has deliberately, knowingly sabotaging yourself counted as a good excuse?

        • As a creative myself, It’s sad to say i’m used to this sort of mindset. If you can’t hold it in your hand there is a massive section of the population who doesn’t believe it truly exists or isn’t worth paying for.

          People just don’t respect the nuance and skill required to make a good story. This is especially true of video games. The only mature game story i’ve actually been impressed by was The Last Of Us. Games just aren’t built to deliver good stories, and freedom is the enemy of complexity. As soon as your game opens with a character creation screen, you’re done. Your story sucks. Sorry.

          No amount of writers can create something worthwhile when they have to put a big fat question mark over their protagonist. It’s why The Witcher 3 was a success and Dragon Age was a failure. You can have awesome lore and world-building, because those things don’t require a protagonist. But a plot needs a lead, and that’s where these “choose your character” games always fall down.

          I don’t share your view though, I think games ARE damn hard. I think it must be really difficult to marry together plot and gameplay. You can’t control what’s happening and expect the story to keep up with you. The more gameplay freedom you have, the more the story has to suffer. One has to take a backseat, and usually gameplay wins because that’s the thing that keeps you coming back. Linear games are way easier for this, that’s why stories like The Last Of Us work so well; a set cast and a linear path.

          • See, here’s where I disagree.

            We have plenty of examples of literature, movies, and even games were the protagonist, the player, is simply an observer for the real story. Without investigating the motives of the protagonist and projecting a personality onto them that might conflict with the player’s opinion, you can actually still tell a damned amazing story. And even if they were going for some kind of non-involvement to break your immersion as a self-insertion avatar? They half-assed it by having the character have their own voice and emote in a handful of cutscenes anyway. Half-assed is the definition of everything that they bothered to do at all. You commit, or you don’t, this half-half crap serves neither motive. And you can still change the shape of your avatar without needing to self-insert. DA2’s Hawke was a very fine example of this actually working out. Customize the appearance, and the tone, but that voice and base personality is pretty much locked.

            But even if you went full blank-slate player-avatar protagonist, you can still have amazing stories unfold AROUND you and it would still be better. For starters, you need a narrative. You need characters. Taken King showed us that the tower-vendor-bots could actually BE characters if they were allowed to. And what you need for character development? For starters, you need to let them actually develop, but beyond that, you need to simply show them interacting – with you, with each other, with the world around them. “Greetings guardian,” does not cut it. But the new briefings we got? Closer.

            I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these very, very basic bare minimums turning up after TTK got a writing crew after they knew they were getting panned in the press and metacritic for the story is a coincidence.

            The other things missing? Conflict. Tension. A problem to be resolved. When do we ever feel like there is an actual penalty for failure? We don’t. The ghost can in-game rez us, and the Tower personnel are happy to point out that there’s dozens of guardians just like you waiting in the arena who can probably do the job better. The scant handful of moments where expositionbot voices a concern that there might be some consequences for the tower, it’s vague, ill-defined, with no real sense of stakes. And we never lose anything, either. We sacrifice nothing but our free time and precious attention. That soundtrack… go listen to it on YouTube sometime. It’s stirring, epic, emotional. It swings from wistful wanderlust to mournful reflection on how far we’ve come and how much we’ve lost… and the story doesn’t do a god damn thing to justify feeling like that because we didn’t lose a thing. We barely even had to do anything but walk on rails and shoot the next bad guy.

            The closest we ever got to some kind of conflict to resolve was the finding of the gate lord’s eye and the cut-scenes with actual characters in it were praised the way a man dying of thirst in the desert will praise a canteen full of urine. And even that challenge was buried in so much dinklebot exposition and proper nouns that it faded into white noise.

            Dinklebot… another narrative failing. Just imagine re-writing all the dinklebot monologuing into a dialogue with the guardian. Instead of having to be a one man show to an empty, unresponsive crowd, it becomes a participatory act, involving the player. Dialogue is ALWAYS better than monologue. More involving.

            I’m not a writer and I could’ve plucked a better story out of my ass in a day purey by changing monologue to dialogue, letting characters have voices, letting them interact with each other and develop/challenge/change/lose relationships. But as it stands, Destiny vanilla is so static, clinging to its precious ‘in progress’ layout that nothing is ever resolved. No impact ever made. Your role… insignificant.

            What they SHOULD have done was leave their precious faux open-world ‘dynamism’ for the end-game grind, which they ran into anyway. At least the ride would’ve felt worth it. Set up the world so that it feels like your day-to-day endgame is at least a different place to where you started. Which again, now that they have some writers, they’re starting to do.

          • I can’t think of a single game I’ve played with a silent protagonist that hasn’t been ridiculous. This includes mature narrative “successes” like Half Life and Portal. Only Nintendo games can get away with it because they fully embrace the childishness of it.

            So while I agree you can’t have half assed half measures, I think there is only one way to tell a story once you reach a certain graphical fidelity / maturity of themes; let the character talk. The biggest problem with this is that a large group of players will HATE this, because they childishly try and make their avatar a representation of themselves. This leads to dissonance when the avatar says things or has a personality that isn’t their own.

            Dragon Age Inquisition failed in its side quests and even in its character interactions. As much as the supporting cast were interesting, without an official Hawke character they were essentially monologuing as well. Listen to that dialogue again, do the follower side quests, they almost always involve someone other than Hawke, because he/she cannot be the focus of any story they have without compromising the player’s freedom. Side quests in The Witcher were so much better too because Geralt was a character with history and personality and the side quests almost always acknowledged that.

            As for the whole “something to lose” aspect you want in Destiny, I actually think that’s the worst thing they could do. The last thing I want in that game is some sort of overblown “the universe is ending and you, alone, of course, are the only possible saviour” storyline that Mass Effect had. I loved the lore and setting of Mass Effect but I hated that focus on Shepard alone, who was as dull as possible because he/she needed to be representative of all the player’s avatar options.

            I don’t want to be a saviour, I genuinely like that Destiny doesn’t try to make me the centre of its universe.

            In lots of ways I like Destiny’s barebones plot, because it let’s the lore and the setting take the stage. And it’s that discovery of the lore as I play that keeps me enthralled in this world, not Nathan Fillion’s quips – amusing at first, but grating by the 50th time. Destiny’s a game of repetition, even the shiniest stories or characters would dull quickly.

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