Bioshock Designers Kickstart Their Future With The Black Glove

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Bioshock Infinite was one of the best reviewed games of 2013. It’s sold over 6 million copies since March 2013 and won several “game of the year” awards. It was hailed by many critics as the latest proof that big budget, mass-market games could be something more than just the gaming equivalent of a Michael Bay blockbuster. And less than a year after it was released, almost all of the people that worked on it were out of a job.

Joe Fielder, a writer and producer on Bioshock Infinite, was one of the dozens of designers who lost their jobs when Irrational Games closed this past February. “I can say it was a surprise, but it wasn’t a complete surprise,” he says from his home in Boston. Fielder and a few colleagues from Irrational regrouped quickly, forming Day For Night Games a couple of months after Irrational shut down. Their first game, The Black Glove, is currently in development, and they’re seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaign set to end this Friday.

Bioshock’s DNA can be seen clearly in The Black Glove. Fielder himself calls it “Bioshock mixed with Twin Peaks.” It’s set in a 1920s theater called the Equinox, with rich red curtains that immediately recall the Black Lodge scenes from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and a trio of “artists in residence” that are successors to the vivid characters from Ken Levine’s Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. As described by Fielder, The Black Glove sounds equally indebted to Lynch’s surrealism and Levine’s interest in art, philosophy and psychology.

The influence of David Lynch, who Fielder dressed up as for Halloween this year, can be seen in the Equinox’s “dream logic world that has its own sort of rules,” Fielder says. It’s not a horror game, but Fielder hopes that it’s deeply unsettling for the player, like a Lynch film. “Games have gotten a little too dark over the last few years,” he says. “I’m a huge horror fan, but I feel like games have overused” the language of horror films.

Game designers “want so much to make the player feel something that it’s become a crutch to make the player feel bad,” he continues. “The Black Glove is an eerie, surreal sort of game, but it’s not dark or depressing. There’s not a bevy of realistic violence to it. But it’s not just weird for the sake of being weird. There’s an underlying mythology that we’re checking out over time.”

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That mythology incorporates three artists who live in the Equinox, who recall the idiosyncratic leaders of Rapture and Columbia in the Bioshock games. Fielder describes an artist who’s a mix of Dali, Kahlo and Laurie Anderson, and who’s “obsessed with dangerous mediums, working with x-ray light and fire, things that you can explore in a videogame but wouldn’t necessarily want to walk into in an art gallery.”

There’s a filmmaker who shares Werner Herzog’s “fascination with the world,” as Fielder puts it. “Herzog could see the strangest thing occur and take out the mundane aspect of it and spend half an hour pontificating on it and it would be fascinating. We want to have these characters that are fascinating to be around, that are eccentric and fun.”

As players explore the Equinox and interact with the environment using the black glove of the title, they can change the present by changing the pasts of these artists. It’s a plot point that should sound familiar to anybody who played Bioshock Infinite. “Your investigation evolves those characters,” Fielder explains, “by digging through the environments for clues and information, and revealing hidden motivations for the characters.”

This sort of control over time is appealing to Fielder as a creator because it lets the narrative of a game become as interactive as the game itself. “A lot of games that are narrative focused are more about just uncovering narrative. The player doesn’t really have a direct hand in altering the story,” Fielder says. “We wanted to look at what a branching narrative looks like when the player has a choice over nine different aspects of a character’s past.

“There’s the medium, the message and the muse, and by altering three choices within each of those, you can have radically different results on the character’s narrative, and the environment around you,” Fielder continues. “That’s a fun area to play around in as a writer and it also plays to the strength of our art team who has experience making these immersive environments like Rapture and Columbia. We have an opportunity to create essentially 81 different environments within Equinox that people can spend time in and explore and investigate.”

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One of the ways players will alter their environment is through a game within the game. Within the first-person world of The Black Glove is a game called The Maze of the Space Minotaur, an ‘80s-style arcade game that on the surface looks like Berzerk, with a stick figure navigating a maze and shooting deadly enemies. Fielder says it plays like a mix between Wizard of Wor and Bomberman. What you do in Space Minotaur impacts The Black Glove in a myriad of ways, from unleashing powerful monsters into Equinox to unlocking new environments and narrative branches.

With Space Minotaur Fielder hopes to hearken back to a simpler time for games. “There was an appeal to games from the ‘80s where everyone off the street could walk up and grasp the basics of the game and start playing,” he says. “If you hand somebody an Xbox or Playstation controller these days and they don’t play games they might look at it like a porcupine, like they don’t know what to do with all these buttons.

“There’s a certain appeal as a game designer to making a very simple game to pick up and start playing and have fun with, and then adding additional depth for people who want to explore.”

Before Bioshock Infinite Fielder worked on Boom Blox and a variety of Medal of Honor games for EA. He describes his time at Irrational as a “master’s class in game narrative taught by some of [his] favorite writers in the industry. It was fantastic.” Despite that, and despite The Black Glove’s fate hinging upon the success of its Kickstarter this week, Fielder sounds excited to have moved on to a smaller and more egalitarian project, and not just because he gets to work from home now.

“It’s been a lot more of a flat hierarchy,” he says about Day For Night’s structure. “Working at Irrational was like working for a show-runner for a TV show. In this case if one of the people working on a level or elements or art has a better idea we’ll adopt that idea instead and run with it.

“We’re really just pushing for the best ideas possible,” he continues, hinting at the struggles of working on a game with a huge team overseen by a domineering project lead. “If it’s possible within the time and the budget, we’ll definitely try to incorporate people’s ideas. It’s the best way to get the best work out of everybody involved.”

Fielder doesn’t know if the trend of smaller teams working on smaller projects is the future of the industry, but he definitely welcomes the change. “We still work hard, but even just cutting out the drive to an office is great,” he says. “I feel a lot healthier for it. I ended up with walking pneumonia during Bioshock Infinite, and now I just managed to get through a fever in a day.”

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.

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