The one before the last
Dear fellow backers,
It's me again - the one from Update #14. Miss me?
Let's get something out of the way before I get properly started. This update contains practically no new information, certainly no new concrete, objective information about the game. It contains no screenshots or links to any visual material. It is just an arguably long, text article. Opinionated, personal, biased and subjective.
Still here? Ok then.
When Nikolay asked me if I'd be willing to write another Kickstarter update, I said "Why yes of course - but it needs to wait a bit until there is something meaty to show." After all, my previous update was a request for patience and a candid explanation of why and how things had strayed from the initial plan. It made no attempt to hide it, on the contrary. To our delight, it seems most people are as calloused and roughened by life as ourselves - pero sin perder la ternura jamás - and nodded in understanding and encouragement through wishes of Godspeed or golden silence. Well, maybe not most, but many, or at least some. And we decided to believe that these "at least some" were representative of "most", because that felt rewardingly encouraging. Which was something that had not been asked for, and just because of that is made even more precious.
That was not to be repeated: posting another update without some concrete evidence of progress, without showing the project gaining back momentum, would be unacceptable - unacceptable for the team, mind you. The guys at Ice-Pick Lodge have character and pride, which has shown itself in their previous output and attitude, as it does now with this project. Fine, the backers will wait it out, but they deserve more than a claim to being hard at work.
Some six weeks had gone by since the update was posted when Nikolay told me they were building release candidates. Would I be willing to play it through and write my impressions? Do monkeys eat bananas? This was on a Monday. The next couple of days were filled with increasing anticipation, like a child in the days before Christmas or her birthday. I got the build on Thursday, but for better or worse I had professional engagements that would keep me busy until Sunday afternoon, so I just installed it to see if it was working OK, loaded it... and immediately closed it before my curiosity could win the upper hand.
Mind you, that was enough to notice a few things already. I've been playing videogames for 25 years now, done amateur development for some 15 and recently some professional stuff. What big money-driven studios fail to do, for several reasons, is to produce games in which you see the love of the people who did the development ingrained in them. Even if there was such love by part of the development team - because there seldom is love by the whole team - it gets crushed by the gears of project management. You get the sterile high quality renders of high-poly models against backgrounds cluttered with 3D assets, the intro movies with the same-old mo-cap cliché action sequence where somebody gets kidnapped or killed or whatever. It's mass produced for mass consumption. The magic from the early days of Sierra, Psygnosis and Westwood is long gone.
Or is it? There it was, to be seen already in the installer and the loading screens. It was the same magical grasp I felt from World of Goo, Papo & Yo - and The Void. It made me curious just because it was something that didn't bring up expectations. I didn't know what was coming.
On Friday night, at around 22:30, I was too tired to keep working and decided to allow myself a first short playtime. Again, I had no expectations whatsoever about the game, in the sense that it should be like this or that, based on what had been revealed by Ice-Pick so far. I expected only to have that magical grasp maintaining itself as I played the game. To be drawn by and into it, to have my awareness shifted by it. Suspension and belief. 100% legal, non-chemical drugs. Ice-Pick had done it before, and did it again.
But there is nothing truly objective to be said about the game. It is a game that must - as recommended in the loading screen - quite unnecessarily, to me at least - be played in a silent and dark environment. It is written there also, once more, it is some sort of interactive meditation. You do not meditate in a loud place with glaring light, with distractions all around you. You do not multitask when you meditate, not even potentially, you turn off your cell phone. You do not meditate with your mind somewhere else, while stuffing yourself with nachos and soda. You dive into the moment and the activity. And then you have some experience which you can't really talk about, not with those who have not gone through it themselves. And then you find out that experiences vary so wildly that there is no common denominator to be shared with the people who have never meditated.
So whatever I write here about Knock-Knock is bound to be, from your point of view, wrong, misleading and biased. This goes beyond the tautologically opinionated measure my writing necessarily contains, it is intrinsic to the game. (good heavens, can you please write plain English? - why, dear, yes I can, I just did, I've been doing it all my life.) I can give you an objective description of Tetris which, even if you haven't played or seen Tetris before, will be sufficient for you to implement the game acceptably - if you know math and programming, of course. It can be formally described. All aspects of the game are mathematically well defined - that is obvious, and true for Knock-Knock as well - but more importantly, all aspects of THE PLAYER'S BEHAVIOR can be modeled as well. The same goes for the generic shooter, albeit the simulation model is orders of magnitude more complex. Proof of this is that there are bots out there on every Counterstrike server, and the good ones pass the Turing test. The problem here is Knock-Knock has, behind it, a very simple, embarrassingly simple set of rules, and describing the model would not give you the slightest insight into what does it feel like to play the game. And there is no way to model the player's behavior. At all.
I told people who had not done so to go play The Void, because it would give them some understanding of what they had subscribed to when they backed this project. So let me make my point through exemplification. WARNING: REVOLTINGLY BORING TEXT FOLLOWS, THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH KNOCK-KNOW, IT IS ABOUT THE VOID. WHEN YOU'VE HAD ENOUGH, SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH: Summary description: The Void is a game where a finite amount of a resource called "color" is available. Color comes from different sources which appear randomly in a non-random map. Color can and must be used for almost every action in the game, every interaction with the environment. These include combat with foes (color is used as weapon) or bargaining with allies (color is a gift). The objective is to collect a certain large amount of this resource and use it in one of several particular outlets that correspond to different game endings. Color is also the player's health and spell-casting energy. Basic game layout: The game has two layers: one is a real-time simulation over this map, where players can throttle simulation time to real time for convenience, the other is a first person simulation to be described later. In the former layer, time, i.e. the duration of the game, is finite and preset to a maximum of 35 "cycles" of 99 "seconds" - since you can throttle time, a "second" lasts a second if you set the ratio to 1, but it can go roughly from 0.5 to 10. The map is a fully connected graph where nodes are "chambers", where at the beginning of each cycle some "color" will appear. The player moves on this map from chamber to chamber. He can then enter these chambers, where the other layer of the game takes place. By leaving the chamber, the game returns to the this map. The map layer is referred to in the game dialogs and text as "the void" (return to the void, enter the void, in the void). Chambers are referred to as "chambers". The finite game time, as previously described, is frozen while inside chambers, i.e., players can stay there as long as they want. When they return to the void, the clock will be exactly where it was when they entered the chamber.
Now imagine I had written another few pages of this. Did you play the game? Does this fill you with anguish? Does this make you feel the urgency to rush from chamber to chamber, revisit some sister, feed them, grow your gardens? Does this teach you serenity as you contemplate the walls of mines for the faint glow of a deposit? Does this make you look nervously at the sky for those annoying color-sucking giant bats?
And yet this is the tone that an official game design document for the Void might have. Give this to the wrong people, passionless people, and you will end up with some dumb esoteric FarmVille, growing color and trading with your neighbor sisters and paying taxes to travelling brothers. And you can buy extra hearts at the in-game shop for 1000 color points or 10 dollars cash.
Computer games are just as varied as movies or books. You cannot use the same language to describe Terry Gilliam's work with that of Michael Bay, you cannot compare the acting of Daniel Day Lewis with that of Steven Segall, you don't recommend The Thin Red Line to fans of Rambo - or vice-versa. But the reality of the market is that we are pushed to see and expect computer "games" to be "fun", "engaging" and even "addictive". The idea of a game being disquieting, unnerving, painful... what do you mean by "game"??? Sorry, I can't help if the language hasn't caught up with the concept yet. But it will have to do for now.
The pitch trailer for Knock-Knock (you can see it on the Kickstarter and Greenlight pages) is perfect - it shows enough, and only enough. It makes you curious without spoiling. And most important, it is honest and true to what the game it. Completely different is the trailer for The Void on Steam's store: it is so alien to what the game is that I wish the people who put it together lived to see the recent Leviathan Warships trailer. Not everyone playing videogames is on a permanent sugar rush. Not every game is about eye-hand coordination. Watching that trailer before buying and playing The Void put me a bit off - but the reviews were so contradictory and made me so curious, I just KNEW that it was the trailer that was off. Watching the trailer after playing the game made me feel sorry for this fraction of mankind. Was the game too simple or too complicated for them?
The simplicity of Knock-Knock has nothing to do with lack of depth, and achieving this level of simplicity is a feat for few. Each piece of art in the game shows careful thought, and the sounds - man, the sounds - the Lodger's voice is something special - each sound effect, the slamming doors, the fumbling with light bulbs, the creaking boards, the thunder. The devil is in the details. The girls from Ice-Pick stressed fear a lot, but asides from a pinch here and a sting there, I didn't feel any. I felt uneasiness. I felt discomfort. But we are getting to the subjective which is not really relevant now. Each will have his experience.
And that brings us back to the game being something to be experienced. Knock-Knock may knock you off your usual axis, a privilege reserved to artistic expression. You may see things about you and others a bit differently afterwards. It may plant some small seed in you that will grow into something, which is to say you will grow with it. You will get a digital download of a small piece of human soul as commodity. Which you may or may not be compatible with, which you may or may not choose or be able to incorporate. I saw glimpses of myself and many, many people in the lodger's behaviour and remarks. And a few of them got the hair on my arms on its ends.
That is some major feat for a computer game. Nobody would think it weird if I'd been making similar remarks about Terence Malick's movies, of course. But don't take my word as anything more than opinion. All of this you will judge on your own terms soon enough. The game is coming out soon.
So now for something completely different, let me elaborate a bit on more mundane issues of Ice-Pick, Kickstarter, game development, crowd funding and what not. Another thing that jumped to my eyes when I first installed the game was that there was no publisher splash screen. Ice-Pick's creepy logo (is that a snowman?) was the first thing to come to the screen, That was telling me: "We don't have a publisher this time. This is made from scratch to wrap by us. Nobody told us how or when." And I felt a tiny bit of joy of having given a tiny bit of help for this to happen. Those 47 dollars were perhaps the best 47 dollars I've put into the 20+ projects I've backed. I've been backing Kickstarter projects since I discovered it by occasion of - tada! - Double Fine's Adventure, and I've already seen more than one project completed which I regretted backing, which misused the money its backers put in it, and therefore their trust and good will. Ice-Pick has by far outdone the average Kickstarter project, even with their 9+ month delay. And I - we - helped these guys have independence that they deserve and need.
Because their previous two titles show hideous scars from the producers' clutches. The Void is fully functional; however, one sees too many possibilities for additional content to think that the developers willingly gave up on them. They were inspired, they sure were - why didn't they keep going, what made them stop short? Cargo! is even worse, the game is definitely buggy, and the lack of polish shows all over the otherwise beautiful, inspired and engaging game world. But hey, do me a favor, and go to bitComposer's website. Take a good look at the corporate info there, and tell me if you think those people give a care about anything other than their bank accounts. These people financed the development of these games, and now they own the rights to them and keep most of the revenue they generate. Yes, that is how it works in the game development industry. If you sign up with a publisher to finance your studio, you are lucky if you get 10% of the revenue. And when you are done, you don't own your own product. It was never yours, actually.
Speaking of money, something has been bothering me and I want to voice my - and hopefully others' - feelings on it. I myself couldn't care any less about the 47 dollar tier's reward. I chose that tier because I found it cute, because it had a mystery attached to it, like the whole Blair Witch-style pitch. After playing the game, I know that giving them more money would not have helped much: if this game had been made by sheer professionals, the costs would have been in a different scale. This money was not paying their bills. For what I got from them, considering this is not a mass-market game, I think it came cheap, which is to say I was cheap. So whatever their budget was, whatever their day-jobs are that helped them make ends meet while working on this project, I'm just happy they've pulled it through, and I'm happy I could put my two cents in. I bought The Void on Steam, on one of those 75% off daily specials, meaning Ice-Pick didn't likely see a dime. So this was an opportunity to get the money where it belongs.
On a final note, in spite of my awe and joy playing the game, it is not without its flaws. But flaws are also a matter of taste and perception, which vary from one to the next. All that I have NOT written here, for the reasons that I HAVE written here, I'll tell the guys there in Moskow, that they may take heart and do as they please. You do not tell the artist what to do. You tell him what you felt. If he asks.
P.S.: If you've read this far, maybe you might like this project which was recently funded on Kickstarter, called Tangiers. Take a moment to check it out. That guy could use some extra cash, if you would be willing to bet on him. Or maybe you are not, but will find it interesting nonetheless. I put my 10 pounds down. It is the only thing I bet on in this life, creative and passionate people.