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Reality is Bokeh: The 2011 Game Developers Conference

March 18, 2011  |  11:52am
Reality is Bokeh: The 2011 Game Developers Conference

Anyone in the business of representing something gets a chance to become familiar with this truth—it is not reality, but the impression of reality that matters most. As Éric Chahi later says during a “retro postmortem” of his game Another World, “the real medium is the player’s memory and imagination.”

In Another World, a hotshot physicist named Lester is transported to a strange and dangerous alien landscape after a freak accident at a particle accelerator. As you take over for Lester in this world you die almost immediately; trial and error is how this game teaches you to play it. Nobody is around to help you until you meet a friend- a hulking brute who doesn’t speak a single intelligible word for the whole game. When you first encounter him you see Lester’s (your) eyes open slowly, recovering from a blackout, and the nameless friend appears as a formless blob, the blurry image slowly resolving into a face. Even then it is only the barest portrait, a vast gray expanse of a head and two small black eyes. That is the only close-up you ever get.

Another World was so ahead of its time (it was released in 1991) that twenty years later, Chahi’s talk on it sounds like a postmortem on development that could have taken place just a few months ago. He describes how he wrote a polygon-based graphics engine and interpreted language to drive it, allowing him to iterate quickly on design and animation. He discusses the integration of brief cinematic elements into gameplay in order to punctuate dramatic moments. He talks about the dynamic range between the atmospheric moments and the high-tension action sequences, and how the abrupt change makes both moments all the more memorable.

There is another undercurrent to the talk: that Éric Chahi is Lester. Chahi mentions he made the main character’s hair red in order to disassociate the person in the game from the person making it, but the simple color substitution doesn’t hide the truth. He shares small pieces of reference video he shot—his hand picking up a gun, his hand opening up a soda can—so he could rotoscope himself for certain shots. Later he notes that the game feels lonely because he felt lonely working on it by himself. The screen cuts to black on a cliffhanger, and he notes that in the story of the development of the game, “That moment was a cliffhanger for me, too.” He says the main character nearly dies at the end because he was completely exhausted by the time he wrote the ending. Play Another World and, in a way, you are playing as Éric Chahi as he makes Another World.

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The talk is inspiring (“That’s it—I’ve decided I’m going to work for him,” declares one attendee afterwards) and gets me thinking about how games become imbued with the personality of the people who are making them. Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, the director of 2010’s Deadly Premonition, gives one of the other sessions I am able to attend. Despite being released in the modern day, Deadly Premonition features none of the graphics techniques that Epic has demonstrated in recent memory, or maybe even any developed in the last ten years. The game is famous for its rudimentary art, poor controls and bad game design, yet it has attracted dedicated fans and has achieved the rare status of a cult classic. People have tried explaining its appeal as being “so bad it’s good,” but the number of other bad games out there is almost uncountable and none have attained the same kind of attention that this one has. There is a unique quality particular to Deadly Premonition that hooks people into its bizarre world.

Swery’s talk isn’t about any of his studio’s technical problems (which have followed him to San Francisco- he struggles to get a simple video playing), nor is it some kind of apologia for the game’s troubled development process. It is instead primarily about creating memorable characters. It quickly becomes clear that Deadly Premonition’s creator knows precisely why his game is so appealing despite everything else that is wrong with it: the odd personal connection that the game makes with its players through its talky protagonist, Francis York Morgan.

“When York lights up a cigarette, players in their living rooms want to light up a cigarette, too,” he says. We laugh, but he is serious. He goes on to explain why Deadly Premonition has systems for sleep, food, shaving and washing York’s clothes: to create a connection with activities the player does in the real world. York does a kind of fortune-telling by peering into his morning cup of coffee and it’s so strange and out of nowhere that you feel the need to mention it to your friends; you may even try looking into your own coffee one morning to see if there’s something there.

York is also an “otaku,” Swery says, someone nerdily obsessed with certain narrow topics. One of those subjects is 80’s movies, the kind that only people of a certain generation might remember: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. There are long stretches of the game where you have to drive from place to place, and the only accompaniment is the rambling monologues that York addresses directly at you (he speaks ostensibly to a character named Zach). He remembers each film’s release dates and their respective directors. Who hasn’t met this guy in real life at one point or another? That he is also, somehow, an F.B.I. agent sent to investigate a small-town murder makes absolutely no sense. But it doesn’t have to: we like him just the same.

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