Dash me! Almost forgot

In addition to the work-related malarkies I describe in the post below, I also did a few minutes on the stage at Interesting North a couple of weeks back, educating the locals about a minor genre of publishing I’ve been studying for a while: Works of Fiction with Stupid Titles or Covers Incorporating the National Socialist Government of Germany 1933-1945, which you can now watch on the internet video, thus:

James Wallis from Interesting North on Vimeo.

That time of year again?

Right, some updates:

Hyperlife, the first game from my new company Hypergame Ltd, is funded and in development. We’ve got a Facebook page for the company here. If you sign up to it, that pretty much puts you on the list of people we will invite to playtest the alpha. Hint hint.

Twelve thousand prototype copies of Flick Racer, my finalist in Cadbury Spots vs Stripes Pocket Game competition, have gone out with Matter Box in the last few days, and people are voting on whether they want it or Eggomatic to clinch the crown and become the official game of the event. They’ve done a lovely job on the production—the car-counters are made from recycled car tyres.

Meanwhile Magnum Opus Press has published its last Dragon Warriors book, In From The Cold, and will be officially surrendering the licence to a new publisher on 1st April next year. It’s been an interesting couple of years and I’m very proud of what we’ve done for the game and the products we’ve released for it, but I’m saddened that the prophecies I made about the future of the RPG industry when I left it in 2003 have, despite what friends told me, broadly come true and it’s not a place there there’s much money or fun to be had any more.

I did also push out a little why-not project, a PDF of a pamphlet from the late seventeenth century called The Flying Serpent, or Strange News Out of Essex, describing the appearance of a flying serpent near the village of Saffron Walden in 1669, and the reactions of the locals to it. Various friends have accused me of making this up, but I assure you it’s the real deal. I wish I had created it; it’s a lovely little thing and the writing is a delight. Nobody’s buying it but hey ho.

In a more upbeat and Christmassy vein I worked on the Board Game Remix Kit for my office-mates Hide & Seek. It’s a lovely collection of variant rules and mashups for the type of board games your relatives have lying around the house, and means you will never have to play off-the-peg Cluedo ever again. It’s been released as a book, a deck of outsize cards (gorgeously produced) and an iPhone app, and you should buy all of them.

And plugs for a couple of interesting projects. One of the games that was prototyped at the BoardGameCamp Gamehack event was a thing called Festive Fingers, basically Twister for your fingers, played on a small board. It was a neat idea but lacked something indefinable and lost out in the face of some terrifyingly strong competition. Lead designer Michael has now worked out what was wrong with the original design: it didn’t have an iPad in it. So he’s put that right, renamed it Fingerknots, and it’s on sale in the App Store right now. Check it out.

If you work in the industrial side of the games industry you’ll know the name Nicholas Lovell. The man behind Gamesbrief, he’s one of the big gurus of the scene: what he doesn’t know about gameflow, microtransactions and all the rest isn’t worth knowing. What you don’t know is that he’s an old-school gamer, and he’s just had a GURPS supplement published as a PDF, available right now at e23. And it’s about pirates. How can you possibly not be interested in that?

And finally I’m aware that this blog has been hacked again, in what is probably a modified form of the PHP hack I experienced last year. It’s affecting search-engine hits and some RSS readers. Apologies if this includes you. No idea how they’re getting in, and no time to fix it right now. I’ll get to it, in time.

Stories that I am working on a new RPG are not being denied, but does it sound to you like I have any free time for that kind of thing?

Mine, Yours and Everyone’s We Know

I’ve been thinking about Minecraft. A lot of people have been thinking about Minecraft, but in my case it’s not about how to make powered minecarts go where they ought or the best way to funnel lava. I’ve been thinking about why we play it.

Straight away I have to acknowledge Margaret Robertson’s brilliant Minecraft presentation at Playful, where she set the game against the encroaching hordes of gamification. No transcript has yet made it onto the web, but when it does take her manifesto as a jumping-off point. Now imagine you land with a splash in this essay that I posted here a couple of years ago, about comfort zones in games, places in games and virtual worlds where for whatever reason we like hanging about. Rockstar understands comfort zones and so does Blizzard: there are places in their spaces where it’s just nice to spend time. The Sega of the early 90s understood it too—a very different time for the games industry, where games weren’t meant to be about making your own fun, and yet some of them still managed it.

So here’s my question, in the form of the world’s second dullest solo adventure:

1. Do you play Minecraft? If yes, proceed to 2. If no, sit the rest of this one out.

2. Do you find the world a pleasant place to just chill out and enjoy the environment? If yes, goto 3. If not, join the refuseniks from (1).

3. Was the original 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog game an important part of your development as a gamer?

The first two levels of Sonic the Hedgehog are the Green Hill Zone and the Marble Zone. Green Hill Zone is an area of verdant, rolling hills dotted with trees. Everything is in bold colours. Waterfalls are visible, at first in the distance, and later up close. Clouds scroll across the blue sky. Beneath the grass, areas of brown earth are visible, sometimes with strange pits and indents. If you destroy the robots, animals are released—pigs and birds. Towards the end you begin to venture into natural caves.

Marble Zone starts off above-ground, in an area that looks a lot like the Green Hill Zone, but quickly moves into underground tunnels made of large square blocks. Sometimes narrow passages open into much wider caverns. There is lava here, and it will kill you unless you use blocks to protect yourself.

You see where I’m going with this.

I am not saying that Minecraft is either a homage or a ripoff of Sonic the Hedgehog. That would be ridiculous. Likewise I’m not claiming there’s any overlap in gameplay. But you can’t argue that it shares a lot of the same imagery, appearing in the same order, and this is going to create an unconscious resonance in the mind of someone who back in the day played a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog. The net effect is that it feels like a familiar environment. I found the world of Minecraft welcoming, almost as if I’d been there before. There was a sense that this was a space I’d already explored, procedural generation or no procedural generation. That, of course, makes the first time that night falls doubly terrifying.

What Minecraft does, intentionally or not, is to invoke a nostalgia for one of the great touchstones of video-gaming history. Many bad movies and sketch shows get a laugh by overtly referencing other movies and shows—oh hey, it’s she’s dressed like the sexy chick from that thing but she’s fat! hilarious!—but Minecraft is much more subtle. It’s a comfort space because it’s a space you feel that on some level you’ve explored before. And therefore you have a reason for being here, other than the punch-trees-make-pickaxe-find-coal-make-torch-build-shelter-before-night scramble that everyone becomes accustomed to. It doesn’t work if you never played Sonic back in the day but be honest, are you prepared to admit that you didn’t?

And you thought the big blocks and pixellated items were a design thing, huh?

OMGameHacks

Apologies to anyone also reading the GameCamp blog, as you’ll get this twice.

As you’ve probably gathered from my incessant pimping of the event, I am one of the people behind Gamecamp, and specifically BoardGameCamp which is happening in Richmond on 9th October. In particular I am running the GameHack stream, where teams have six hours to concept, design, build and playtest a complete new game, based on a brief we give them at the start of the day. Competitive game design. It’s a thing.

Today we can announce that Cadbury will be sponsoring GameHack, and is also providing the main prize. And as prizes go it’s incredible. I mean on the level of OMG WOW JAW ON FLOOR BRAGGING RIGHTS FOR A YEAR. It’s not your weight in chocolate, that would be cool but this is several orders of magnitude beyond cool.

I can’t tell you what it is because it’s tied closely to the brief we’ll be giving the teams on the day, but really this is an extraordinary thing. And of course it involves chocolate, but not in a way you’d imagine.

If you’re going to be at BoardGameCamp and have any interest at all in designing tabletop games then I urge you to register a team for GameHack by emailing me at the BGC address (james@gamecamp.org.uk). If you don’t have a ticket for BGC then you should fight for one. There’s a waiting list here and your name should be on it.

GameCamp presents BoardGameCamp

Mark your diaries: Saturday 9th October is BoardGameCamp, part of the London Games Festival, brought to you by the same people who were behind GameCamp back in April, in the same place. We’ll be playing games old and new, hosting discussion sessions and seminars on all types of tabletop games, and even running a competition for teams to concept, design, build and playtest a game in six hours… with some truly awesome prizes.

More to follow, but the first tranche of tickets will go on sale on Friday (£10 including lunch). Last time we accidentally put them all online at once and they still sold out in half an hour, so don’t hang around.

Every thing is a play thing

I’ve been enjoying the summer movie blockbusters, more or less, and have been struck by a couple that veer off in a decidedly metaphysical direction. And you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few scenes of one film in particular, which may rewrite or redefine the entire narrative you’ve just seen.

I’m talking, of course, about Toy Story 3.

The Toy Story trilogy is being hailed as one of the great film series of all time, on a par with the Godfather series or the original Star Wars movies. Both of those were weakest in their third acts, while Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece. But it’s also the one that pulls together a number of strings that have run through the three films, and threatens—right at its very end—to drag the whole edifice to the ground. And it’s all done with one line of dialogue, that almost everybody else seems to have missed.

Here we go, and beware massive spoilers on the starboard bow. We’re at the end of the film, the very end of the story. Andy is introducing the toys to Bonnie.

Andy: [opens box, and takes out Jessie] This is Jessie, the roughest, toughest cowgirl in the whole west. She loves critters, but none more than her best pal, Bullseye!

[pulls out Bullseye, and makes a whinnying sound]

Andy: Yee-haw!

How does he know their names?

These are two toys that were in Andy’s room when he returned from camp at the end of Toy Story 2, unmarked and without packaging. He has no way of knowing what they’re called—the product names they were originally marketed under. But he does.

Oh, you say, he could have asked. His mom could have remembered. He could have gone on the internet—in fact Toy Story 3 includes a knowing reference to it—

Hamm the Piggy Bank: C’mon. Let’s go see how much we’re going for on eBay.

—but if Andy had checked the net, he’d have discovered that Jessie, Bullseye and Woody himself are very rare, very collectible, very valuable toys. That was the central plot-driver of Toy Story 2, and the theme of sentimental value versus financial value that underpins a lot of that film. In fact it’s fair to say that if anyone in the Toy Story world had been able to identify Jessie and Bulleye, they’d have known that these were no ordinary toys.

Yet Toy Story 3 opens with the toys about to be either thrown away, donated to charity or consigned to the attic. Nobody in Andy’s family has the slightest idea that these three toys have any value at all. They have no clue what the toys are, and they don’t care. Oh, perhaps there was an old book about ‘Woody’s Round-Up’ somewhere in Andy’s house? But in Toy Story 2 Woody has no idea of his past, of the TV show about him, of the existence of a single other artefact about the Round-Up Gang. If such a thing had existed to show Andy what Jessie’s and Bullseye’s names are, Woody would have known about it too. Andy’s mum? Too young.

There is only one other way for Andy to have learned Jessie and Bullseye’s names: for Woody to have told him. We see Woody write a note for Andy to find towards the end of Toy Story 3. This violates all kinds of unspoken rules about what toys can and can’t do; but then so does speaking to Sid in the original Toy Story. Nevertheless, it’s an enormous taboo. Would Woody really have taken such a drastic step just to point out a couple of names? Surely not.

There are only one conclusion we can draw. Andy cannot plausibly have discovered these names, and so this scene cannot have happened. It is an imagining. A figment. A dream.

That’s a pretty big thing to have to swallow in the brightly coloured child-friendly universe of the Toy Story films, but becomes a lot easier in the light of one other crucial point. Woody is the central character in the films. He is our viewpoint, our north star. We navigate the films by him, and see the world and its moral dilemmas through his eyes. And he is badly broken. He has persistent amnesia.

Who’s Woody’s owner? Andy. The energy behind all three films is Woody’s desire to get back to Andy, to do the best for Andy, to be Andy’s toy. That’s his whole identity: he is Andy’s toy. This is what makes the opening scenes of Toy Story 3 so heart-wrenching, as he finally comes to understand that the 17-year-old Andy, about to leave for college, has outgrown him and the other toys.

But Woody is at least fifty years old. ‘Woody’s Round-Up’, the TV series that spawned him, we know from Toy Story 2 ran from 1941–42 and 1946–57. If Andy was six in 1995, the year of the first movie, and had owned Woody from birth, that’s still a minimum of 32 years unaccounted for. What was Woody doing in that time? Where was he? Who did he belong to? Why doesn’t he remember? Why isn’t he troubled that he can’t?

Other toys remember. In Toy Story 2 we get Jessie’s memories of her previous owner Emily—Jessie is the same age as Woody—and in 3 we hear Chuckles’ tragic story of being loved and lost by Daisy. Having a new owner doesn’t erase the memory of the previous one: in Toy Story 3 Jessie can still remember Emily, though she is now Andy’s. But Woody doesn’t remember more than thirty years of his past.

It’s not as if this is hidden away. Toy Story 3 has a whole subplot about how easy it is for toys to have their pasts and memories erased. Admittedly it involves Buzz Lightyear, not Woody, but it says to us: how fickle are toys’ minds, how simply they can be changed. And it asks the unspoken question: if Buzz’s mind can be reset so easily, without him remembering anything about what happened, who else is missing a chunk of their lives? Buzz forgets he was ever Spanish, but still responds to Spanish dance music. What forgotten history is Woody responding to? Even in the first film he’s not the Woody of ‘Woody’s Round-Up’, he’s harder, less naïve, more prone to harsh emotions like jealousy. What—who—shaped him that way?

So Woody’s mind is damaged, his history missing. Once again Pixar throws us a hint: his TV series was missing its last episode; just as his life is missing its first. Both stories are incomplete. So can we believe this convenient happy ending that Pixar serves up, or are there indications that this may be as much of a dream as the ending of Inception

(—yes it’s a dream, of course it’s a dream, but it’s Cobb’s dream so the top will fall. The clues are there.)

I don’t know. I have no grand theory, no explanation. Given that Toy Story 3 is part of the Pixar universe, with subtle cross-over elements to their other films in the background, then there may be hints elsewhere, a treasure-hunt through Ratatouille, Up and Monsters Inc. I have an unpolished idea that everything we see after the pit sequence is not real, or that Woody is either playing or daydreaming—we know toys do both—and therefore has escaped, like Cobb and Sam Lowry before him, into an internal world where he cannot be restrained. Maybe.

And there’s something going on with Woody’s repeated exclamation that “There’s a snake in my boot!” There can’t be; Woody’s boots don’t come off. But there is a recurring motif on Woody’s boot—Andy’s handwritten name. Come on. You’re telling me that’s not deliberate, that Andy’s not the snake?

So here’s the real theme of the Toy Story trilogy: who was Woody’s true owner?

…okay, enough. That was fun but let’s step away from the continuity. I’ve got two serious points.

Firstly, the Toy Story films are three fantastic movies. However they are not a great trilogy. With the exception of a glorious deus-ex-machina at the end of TS3 that’s prefigured in the first movie, there’s very little that links the three together in terms of plot or development or themes. The Godfather this ain’t.

The Toy Story trilogy has plot holes thirty years wide, which nobody notices—partly because Pixar has done an excellent job of drawing attention away from them, and partly because it’s a cartoon for kids and we have been taught not to look for narrative sophistication or consistency in things that we are told are for children. What else is traditionally seen as a children’s medium? Games. Exactly. Does story in game suck? Yes, it still does. Gosh, I wonder why.

The second point: Inception is designed as a movie that is left for the audience to untangle on its own, over a nice glass of wine after it’s left the cinema. Christopher Nolan deliberately cheats us of an easy conclusion by cutting the final shot instead of letting the camera run: he makes us do the work. (Compare and contrast to the final shot of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which doesn’t cut away but has similar whoah-shit implications.) The film demands that we discuss and play with its elements to understand what we’ve just seen. And with the growth of trans-media narrative forms, where it’s up to the viewer to track down the different pieces of the story across different mediums and knit them together for themselves—and if you thought that trying to watch something like Heroes or Defying Gravity with the BBC’s bizarre PVR-defeating scheduling was hard then oh man—this is going to become a lot more common.

The thing is, when you lay out a story like a jigsaw and expect someone else to put it together, you’re making it easy for them to spot the holes in it. Even without that, audiences are becoming more media-literate and more playful, more willing to explore and interact with narratives. Ten years ago they’d have accepted a film as a flat piece of passive storytelling: now they want to play with it. You can blame merchandising, blame tie-in video games, blame fanfic, blame cosplay—and then you’re an idiot, because you shouldn’t be blaming these things, you should be embracing them. These people love what you’ve created so much that they want to be involved with it.

For ages (since 1994, actually) I’ve been trying to explain to people the difference between passive and interactive narrative. And if you encourage people to interact with narratives, they’re not going to stop with the bits of your story you’re happy for them to tweak. Fans have been doing it since the 60s. But today geek culture is mainstream. Comicon gets reported on the evening news. We’re all fans now.

If you’re in the business of telling stories, you have to accept that what you do, no matter how hard you try to lock it down and control it, what you produce is now an interactive medium.

And if that scares you, I’ve got an answer. You may not like it.

It’s the name of this blog.

I will now shut up about the Cadbury Pocketgame competition for two months at least.

475 votes. Flick Racer and Eggathon go through to the final round. One of them will get £1000; and the other will get £3000 and be distributed to many thousands of people in the run-up to the Olympics. So no pressure.

Counting down

Right. If you haven’t voted in the Cadbury Pocketgame stakes yet, you have five hours till the polls close. Head to http://www.pocketgamecompetition.co.uk/ and vote for Flick Racer please… and while you’re there spare a thought for the fine Choc-a-Block, languishing in third place and deserving of your love. Yes, you can vote for more than one game. Please do.

Pocket Games redux

Various people have commented that my entry on the Pocketgame competition website is unreadable. They are quite right, it is unreadable. Here’s the poster-image in all its glory (click on it to embiggen), followed by a link to the competition website so you can vote for me. If they’ve fixed the site-registration issues, which I’m told they have.

You can find the competition at http://www.pocketgamecompetition.co.uk/call_for_submissions/10460

Pocket Games

I need your help. One of my designs has been shortlisted in a competition run by Cadburys the confectionary giant for what they call a ‘pocket game’. The first prize is £3000 ($4500) and more interestingly, thousands of copies of the winning game being given away to the public. The next round of voting is a public vote, and I need yours.

My entry is called ‘Flick Racer’ and it’s about flicking car-counters around a chalk-drawn track. It’s Subbuteo meets Scalextric, or (if you know your games) Carrom meets Formula De, or Carabande with a complete rules overhaul, made small enough to fit in an Altoids tin.

‘Flick Racer’ was submitted under the pseudonym ‘Martin Adams/Hypergame’, because there are eleven judges for the first round of the competition and five of them know me. But now the shortlist has been announced and it’s a public vote there’s no more need for anonymity. There is, however, an enormous need for your vote.

The voting site is here. You will have to register to vote, or log in using Facebook Connect.

Many thanks.