How difficult is it to convey a message about war in a video game, without being too patronizing, boring or obscure? I guess the best way to avoid these problems is to communicate the message seamlessly in visuals and gameplay, rather than with long cutscenes with moralizing dialogue?
DL: I've always thought that interactivity should be the medium with which games communicate their message -- it's the one factor that makes games unique, so we should use it to give players experiences they can only have with a game. If you're communicating your message purely through narrative, then it could just as easily be communicated in a film. So yes, we've always intended to communicate the core message of the game through interactive sequences rather than with narrative; the narrative elaborates on that message rather than delivering it.
Could you give me precise examples of messages that were difficult to convey with gameplay or visuals? How did you finally manage to convey them?
DL: The most difficult aspect of the game to get right was the sanitization of the game world when the player is using [fictional combat drug] Nectar, which we wanted to appear normal to a cursory glance but then to have small hints that it wasn't quite what it seemed.
The problem was that many of the aspects of it that we thought were incredibly overt are still easily accepted by gamers as being technical or artistic limitations. So when we first showed the game at E3 '06, we were pointing at elements like the fading bodies and going "Hm, isn't that strange?" to which most people were like "No"!
We've spent a lot of time carefully balancing all the elements of the different "realities" the player sees in the game, but we're finding new things all the time, as well as a whole lot of things we simply haven't had time to do. I remember one early suggestion was that all the Promise Hand forces should look more stereotypically "evil" when the player's using Nectar, while the Mantel Soldiers should look more like shining knights; an interesting idea but one we simply didn't have the resources to experiment with!
Ragnar Tornquist, designer of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, thinks that it's really important that a game should say something. He thinks that it's important to find the theme of the game and to build a lot of things around it. It's true that very few video games have a theme. And I think Haze really has a theme. How do you feel about that? How difficult is it to design a very coherent game, where gameplay, scenario, message are tightly linked?
DL: I think it's vital to have a clear
theme and message in mind when developing a game, because it's the uniting
factor that binds every simple element of it together. I often find
that when faced with a particularly difficult design issue, returning
to your theme and message usually provides the answer.
That all said, game design isn't a
very precise art and I'd be lying if I said that every element of
Second Sight or Haze was there from the very start of development.
But I think that one of the strongest philosophies we have at FRD is
that it's never too late for a good idea; it might involve working a
bit harder to get a feature in late in the day, but if it makes the
game better, it's worth doing. You'll always think "Why didn't
we think of that at the start!?", but better to have the idea late
in development than after the game's been released!
Sight is an obvious tribute to the
Metal Gear Solid series and Hideo Kojima: the stealth gameplay,
the closets, and the behavior of the enemies…
Kojima was one of the first game designers to criticize the violence
of video games, or the links between games and real warfare (in
Metal Gear Solid 2, video games and simulations are even described
as a way to manipulate the hero's and the player's minds). What do you
think of that? How did Kojima influence you?
DL: The thing I admire most about Kojima's work is his desire to stretch the boundaries of the sort of subject matter and messages that games can deal with whilst simultaneously having the humour to acknowledge the limitations and idiosyncrasies of games as a medium. It's easy to get wrapped up in delivering your message and forget that the player is there to have fun, and I think Kojima's blend of message and humour shows a great understanding of that fact. I'd like to think Second Sight and Haze share a little of this sentiment too.
In Haze, do you want to mix real and fictional events like Kojima does?
DL: From a point of view of referencing real life events, Haze is a lot less explicit than Kojima's work; there's definitely a political message in Haze but it's not the focus of the game.
Second Sight has a rather open gameplay. How difficult is it to tune and to test a game such as this one?
DL: Oh, Second Sight was a complete nightmare to test and balance.