Thursday, January 9, 2014

invertedFall - Why

invertedFall - Why

Over the last six months, as the game design quietly emerged around invertedFall, we were often asked "What's the story?" "Why did you choose to have a female main character?" "Why is she in a wheelchair?"

Our team, in deference to my wishes around the writing, unilaterally always responded with "Go ask Lester."  Unwilling or unable to answer their inquiries into why we were making that game.  In some cases, many cases, they did know, although their understanding of the specifics was more nebulous.  I never explained the exact moment of my insight.  Although perhaps, upon reflection, I would have told them had they asked.

Instead they trusted my vision of the moment, and perhaps trusted that all would become clear.

Over the last week, the reasons became clear to the team, just as the game finally began to take shape in art, and style, and form and flow, the story emerged.  And I began to put pen to paper finally for the true reasonings that had long been bouncing around in my mind.

I opted for a long time to play the reasons close to my chest.  I did not want to share too much, because I believe there is a certain artistic beauty to the first moment.  I mean that about everything too, although film and television, books, are sometimes less so.  I believe the moment when things are unveiled to you, when you arrive and understand the artist's work can be the greatest sense of communicative satisfaction, comprehension and wonder that exists between an artist and their audience.

Truly the spoiler, the reveal, and the clumsy reviewer are the greatest tragedies to artists in our modern world.

How many beautiful, wondrous moments have been wrecked by a clumsy word, or mis-cut trailer?  By a conversation where too much was revealed, instead of discovered?

So up until last week, my answer has unilaterally been evasive.  "Why not?" "Because it deserves to be explored." "Because it is important to me right now." "Because I am curious."

And those answers were enough.

They had to be.  I was unwilling to give any more beyond that to anyone outside the team.

I feel like I could not trust other designers, that the careful path I tried to lay out before us all would not be walked over.

On friday night, during our panel, I finally shared the burden of knowing from my shoulders and let the last breath of life escape myself and into the creation of our piece of art.  I don't know if everyone saw it that way, but that's what it felt like to me.  The game is the most comprehensive vision of what we set out to do assuredly, but tempered with an empathy for our experience making it, shapes the lens through which the piece of art is analyzed.

So why.

Why make a game, about a girl in a wheelchair, who swings around with ropes, and has a little raven who periodically sits on her shoulder.

When we began making the game pitches early on in Jason's class, for production he challenged us to think entirely mechanically about games.  To divest ourselves of art, and style, and mood or the myriad of other techniques we often utilize to fancy up our games.  Remove theme, remove music and color and style.  Instead focus on a mechanic.  What makes shooting fun.  Or jumping.  Or leaping or dancing.  What makes flying around fun, or driving, what are the mechanics of games.  What is fun?

We experimented, we struggled, as I expect most game designers do.  It's sort of impossible to not think in thematic terms, to delve into ideas of 'werewolves!' and 'orcs vs elves!' or 'flying a spaceship!'  How do you think about reducing games to mechanical terms.  It's pretty damn complicated actually.  Simplicity is the hardest thing to find it seems.

We had three weeks of pitches, constantly rejecting, throwing ideas out, talking in circles.  Scope was too big, there's no way we can make that, no one likes racing games, who wants to play competitive golf, underwater water was just brutal.  Finally we started to hack away at our own perceptions about what games were, and began distilling it into the core of what we were after.

When that happened, Mike (one of our programmers) and I had two ideas that we threw together.  I imagined making a physics game, specifically around pushing and pulling.  I imagined a game where you could connect to things and use them to manipulate your environment, connect around and grab objects.  Mike envisioned a game where there would be entire worlds hidden inside mundane objects.  He thought about a fantastical world on the other side of a mirror.  That there might be a parallel world on the other side of his mirror, of every mirror just as varied and fantastic and amazing.

We began with combining our ideas, we iterated, prototyped, threw a bunch of ideas down and began cutting away.

In those early days, we had no idea what we were making yet, the why hadn't materialized.  Mike did his physics coding, I scrawled ideas and designed levels, iterated and threw things back out again.  We picked up other designers and Adam who would become the Lead Programmer.  Still ideas manifested and were thrown out again.  We moved in a direction of pulling, we imagined our player had two ropes to move around the world.  Connecting to points and swinging.  We were inspired by Spider Man, by Bionic Commando, even studying the 2d swinging in Metroid or Oswald which came before us.

I always meant to get back to pushing.  But pulling seemed like a challenge in and of itself.

But we were constantly designing, iterating and testing and not having the right direction.  It was difficult and we weren't sure where to move in.

Our game lacked a sort of heart to it.  It was a physical thing comprised of code and ideas, a tree and climbing up a tree, walking around and seeing this minute thing made manifestly larger.  But it had no emotion, there was no sense of wonderment or fantastic that Mike envisioned, I felt there were no emotions, it was just a mechanic without meaning.

We wouldn't have that inspiration, that real spark for another two weeks.

It wasn't until I was headed home from an afternoon of class, standing waiting for the train that I saw what I needed to see.

Let me paint this moment for you, the picture of this time.

It's a friday evening, almost six o'clock at Commercial station.  If you've never been during rush hour, Commercial is wild with pushing and pulling people.  I was standing at the upper platform waiting for my train.  Coming down the skybridge was a young girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, rolling along in her wheelchair.  She made her own way, no one pushing her along.  Behind her, was this press of people, in typical Canadian fashion, too polite to push their way past this handicapped girl.  I mean, it was quite clear that it wasn't just an injury, but that she was very much used to the use of her wheelchair.  She moved at an almost agonized pace, with a sort of methodicism that left me transfixed.

When you pass through the skybridge corridor and out onto the real platform, it opens up a little bit.  As this girl made her way through the threshold, this crowd of beleaguered transit riders finally pushed past her.  I watched then, as this...tide of humanity pushed on, spread around her and hurried on.  This sea of people, on their way home, to dinner, a movie, to kids or daycares, to the game or friends' places.  They passed her by without a thought, only sidelong glances and corner of the eye moments.

She sat in the midst of this slow moving bubble that was being passed by without a thought.

I could see all of these people, these too-polite men and women, busy with their realities who gave her nary a second though except for the trivial inconvenience she had been on their time, just pass her on by.

And it was then, that I was struck with a sense of injustice.  Sharp and chilling, immediate.

She could have been anyone, literally anyone.  She could have been an avid reader, a daughter, a sister, a gamer like me, an artist, maybe she played an instrument, or liked music, what languages did she speak, what things had she seen?

What stories did she have to tell?

But before all that, for possibly the rest of her life, she would be judged first by disability.  In every interaction, people would see first the wheelchair, the disability.  She would be defined by it first.  And it struck me how impossibly unfair that was.

What about her possibilities?  What stories did she have to tell?  What worlds did she imagine behind her eyes, was she the princess or the soldier of her own stories?  Did she challenge worlds, was she a rock star, did elements bend to her fingers or people to their knees?  What amazing, crazy, wonderful, fantastical worlds existed behind her eyes?

What amazing, crazy, wonderful, fantastical worlds exist behind all our eyes?

These were the things to be challenged with, these were the inspirations.

I dove headlong into research in movement, in the human condition and the impact of disability.

I wrote stories and stayed up until the sun rose on more than a few nights, crafting and rejecting, writing and imagining.  I sat with children who had a wide variety of disabilities and played games, with them, and watched them play.  I saw them interact, and enjoy...and live.

The confines of a wheelchair, and the social perceptions of a girl began to color our game both mechanically and thematically.  When you remove strafing from a third person game, the control deficiency is felt immediately, perceptibly.  You challenge the ideas of what you can see and how well.  When we locked cameras to specific angles, when we defined speeds and motion capabilities.

When I wrote Pyonea, she went through several amazing iterations.  She began as a conceptual understanding of an abstract idea, that gradually became a kind of living, breathing character.

When Elena delivered to me the lines of Pyonea's story.  When Rachel and her team carefully crafted the cinematic of the story.  I knew that we had in many ways begun to capture, to craft not only the hardship of living confined to a wheelchair, but also the life of it.

I don't think we made a game about disability.  Certainly disability is in it.

But I like to think we made a game about living.

What's why we made invertedFall, because that girl's story, because everyone's stories deserve to be told.