December 2012


As promised, here’s a bit of story behind the game The Last Symphony, why we made it and what we came across. My goal is to let you in the creative process, but hopefully without spoiling the game or being pretentious about what the game really achieves. What the game means is mostly up to you, really.

The conceit of the The Last Symphony is that everything is hidden in plain sight: the objects, the stories, the people, the music. The challenge is to reveal what is hidden, and figure out what that may be. In the process, we invite players to do things that they’re not so used to doing, such as paying attention to the text, listening, and coming up with their own stories.

My lovely colleagues at the lab put together this fine video that explains the research and the game. This blogpost extends what is in here.

As I say in the video, the focus of the project was environmental storytelling. I had developed this concept, indexical storytelling, which refers to design techniques to construct stories in the environment by leaving traces or indications, and I wanted to put it to the test. You can read my paper on the concept, or watch one of the industry presentations that I have given on the topic online if you need more detail.

A hidden object game seemed to be the way to go. It was perfect for my purposes: related to adventure games, the genre I know best, it was not a particular technical challenge, and a scope was feasible in the length of the summer program (8 weeks!). Plus hidden object games are all about environment: you’re scouring the screen, finding items in the jumble. Hidden object games seemed to be in need of some environmental storytelling techniques, so that the story also happened in the screens that the player spends the most time at, not only the cutscenes. Although some of hidden object games are certainly trying hard to give relevance to the objects you seek, and are leaving behind the photoshop-the-hell-of-it technique, there was certainly room for improvement. Hello, research!

I was lucky to get a fantastic team to work on the game, most of whom had not really played any hidden object games, but who also saw the potential for improvement after playing as many demos as they could. Since it was a game that was heavy on visual assets, I got the largest artist team of the program, plus the game designer is also an illustrator, and even the producer also had experience in animation. (Please note the wonderful team that made the game at the bottom of the page. They’re going to be big in the near future.)

The first step was common to all my previous games: paper prototyping. As with adventure games, the catch was that we had to have a story of the world which would shape the environment, and from that we wanted to have a set of mechanics that related to finding objects on a screen. Story and prototype had to go together.

With all the visual focus,it was ironic that that during brainstorming and prototyping, everyone’s favourite story was reconstructing the life of a music composer. This opened up the way to use music as another layer to tell the story, which I personally was very excited about (I love film soundtracks, and never miss the chance of using the music as a narrative element as well), and so was our audio designer. He has written his own blog post about the role of the music of the game, so go read it too.

In implementing the game, the main challenge was that every object on the screen had to be there for a reason. A lot of the weight of indexical storytelling fell on the illustrators, who had to negotiate constantly where things would go and why. Every object is part of a story, like a puzzle piece, it had to come from somewhere, and it had been left where it was for a narrative reason. (Well, at times there were technical reasons, like you don’t want to put small objects at the back of the room, because then players have to find a pixel). At times it is surprising to realize that, in order to improve games, you only have to think about what you’re doing, rather than going through the motions of what’s been done before. It takes a tad more time, but in the long run it does not become a problem for production, although it scheduling has to accomodate for it. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: innovation comes from putting a bit of thinking of where things come from.

What was still missing was how to make the objects meaningful. The events of the stories in the game have left a trace in the space, but how can the players also leave a trace? The first step was figuring out who the player was in the game: a museum curator seemed like a natural role, which would justify why one would go and look for objects in a house and take them away (detectives and thieves are trite at this point). Curators also have to construct a narrative based on objects. Based on that, we came up with a set of mechanics where, after finding the objects, the player had to select them based on which items may relate to each other and generate a narrative.

We still had one piece missing: how does the player know what the objects mean? How do we cover that gap? The cheap and fast solution was to attach texts to the objects themselves. That information could not be presented as the player found the objects, or making them into hotspots–this was a hidden object game, not an adventure game (I’d done that already). But what was the narrative premise for that? Our player character could give us some information on the objects, but we needed to reveal more. And that’s where our lovely Ruth Carmine appeared.

One of my demands for the game was that the protagonist of the game had to be female. There’s a dearth of female protagonists in games (although they are more common in hidden object games), and I was kinda embarrassed that only one of my three previous games featured a female protagonist. Our usher to the world, and the person who holds the key to the stories behind each object, is a lovely English old lady, endearing and absent-minded, who has more to her than just sipping her tea at 5 o’clock. We used Margaret Rutherford as a model to make our lady come to life.

The end result is a game where the player has not only to find objects but also figure out the story. Given our time constraints, the mechanics that give you feedback on how related the objects are not very complicated or have much depth. On the other hand, we hope we turned a bug into a feature: rather than us telling the story to the player straight out, the player must fill the gaps and come up with their own. It’s not the first time that I’ve encouraged this in games: Rosemary and Symon both thrive on leaving gaps. The difference is that we have turned those gaps into an essential part of gameplay, the goal of the game is to build the story through the objects.

While we were playtesting the game, asking people to tell us their version of the story was our part of the fun. At times people had outlandish versions that confirmed, yet once more, that players don’t read or pay attention to anything narrative. Others had very interesting takes. Others were right on, even when we had provided very little information. Players appropriated the objects and the story and made it theirs. A lot of players still want to know if they had got it right, see if they had guessed what the story is, and the end of the game probably does not give you enough information. We’re so used to winning and losing, to doing things a certain way, that most players cannot stand the uncertainty of what had actually happened. Although this game is not a David Lynch movie, it’s been a treat to see how people try to make sense of it.

In my previous blogpost I talked about how I struggled with whether to talk about the process or not. And what made me decide to write is was really the desire to hear more player stories. So if you made it this far, could you please play the game and tell me what the story is?

Here’s my dilemma: I want to talk about the game that we worked on last summer, and tell all about the thinking that went on it. On the other hand, I’m also reluctant to explain what the game is about, since I consider making games an art, and I do not feel like imposing my own reading to the audience. It’s an old problem, which I’ve already talked about in public several times. An additional factor is that there have already been quite a few run-of-the-mill games, which shall go unnamed, getting attention and shining because of the way they have been presented, based on their topic, their supposed results, or the people involved. This annoys me because my games also deal with some of those topics and are based on sophisticated design concepts, but I don’t want to beat people over the head with it. My problem partly has to do with me being the kind of subversive person who likes to drop messages between the lines, and always keep an ace up my sleeve. Plus I don’t feel comfortable peddling myself and my work.

My favourite part of my job is seeing how people make sense of my games and enjoy them, and I don’t want to spoil the fun either for my players or myself. Some takes understand the specific thinking that went in the game; if I’m lucky, others will provide insight on the game that I had not even thought about. Other times, people can’t make heads or tails of it, but that’s also fun.

The predicament also results from being a theorist-practitioner. As a theorist, my job is to help make sense of my field of study (digital media), and generate new insights through my work. In the same way that I learn a lot from analyzing other people’s games, talking about my process should be a way of disseminating what I have learned through making games. As a practitioner, I still feel a bit uncomfortable privileging my take on the work; plus most of the games are really the result of team work, and I would become the spokesperson of what the games are about. Additionally, I need to hear what players think of the game without me explaining anything, because learning how people play and interpret it is also part of my research.

This quandary has got in the way of me writing about The Last Symphony, a hidden object game where there’s much more than meets the eye (and the ear!). Since I’ve found myself in a Hamletian trap of inaction, I’ve decided to break this vicious circle and talk a bit about the game. After all, I’ve already been talking about it in various venues, although not in much extent. It also helps that one of the team members, sound designer and music composer Richard Gould, has also started writing about the process of making the game too. So it’t not only me; I hope the rest of the wonderful development team also chimes in.There are different ways in which I can talk about the process: as a cinephile, I love reading about the process of making film, watching “making of” documentaries, and listening to film commentaries, because it provides context on the work itself. One can also talk about the craft itself, without going into an exegesis of one’s own work. So perhaps the key is providing that kind of insight on the process, without spoiling the fun (and always read my explanations after playing the game).

Revisiting this interview with John Ford, I realized I couldn’t really shut up or be flippant about my work. It also takes someone as grumpy as John Ford to implicitly telling know-it-all Peter Bodganovich to sod off. I’m no good at facetiousness either. The scholar in me loves talking about the thinking that goes into making a game, and the maker in me also enjoys talking about the process of creating a game.

So here’s the deal: I’ll talk about The Last Symphony, the basis of the research, the general concept, and some of the things we learned from making it in my next blog post. But first you have to go and play the game, and tell me what you think (I actually need that for my research). And then, one day, I’ll explain what the concept of the game is about, just like other people who care more about their image than their players or being an actual artist.