While we’re initiating the editing phase of the fiction, we would like to share with you the role of our Science & Ecology Advisor for The Seed, Joe Barron. As we’ve said before, we categorize The Seed as ‘hard sci-fi’ with a strong basic formula of believable and realistic design.
We have many good back and fourths with him about crucial aspects of the balance of nature, the chemistry, biodiversity etc and we've thoroughly incorporated his remarks throughout the game. He's been our main go-to guy for every aspect that needed a more meticulous sciency set of eyes to check and make sure it's grounded in good old reality.
The best way to present his role to you we thought it would be in the form of an interview, so here we go. The interview was conducted by our programmer Damjan Cvetkov-Dimitrov.
1. Do you know of any other games that have an ecological advisor or give this much attention to such an aspect of the lore?
Joe - This is definitely my first official position like this. I saw the open call to writers and got excited. I couldn’t write a story to save my life, but I saw an opportunity to use my knowledge of science and ecology to help with this project.
A bit about myself though. I am a junior at Cornell University studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I currently manage my own lab here studying quantitative population dynamics of salamanders, which is a fancy way of saying “How many salamanders do I have and what happens to them?”
During the summers I work for the United States Geological Survey as a field technician, helping to survey National Parks for amphibians and diseases that affect them. I would by no means claim to be an expert on all things ecology and science, but my experience in the field and my ability to read a scientific paper without falling asleep comes in handy.
2. Without going into details and spoilers, what do you personally think of the world of the Seed?
Joe - Without a doubt – the seed is one of the grittiest settings I have ever seen. With every other post apocalyptic game out there, there’s some aspect of hope. Some goal that you have a chance of completing.
You rarely doubt that humanity will overcome the apocalypse and begin anew. In The Seed, it's hard even to think how humanity will begin again when your character is eating canned dog food just to stay alive. In this game you don’t feel like there’s a war for survival, the war has already happened, and you’re just unfortunate enough to be left behind.
3. How do fictional worlds, be it written fiction, videogames or movies, usually cover this aspect? Is there enough attention given to the hard science behind their worlds?
Joe - Unfortunately not very often. I mostly see nowadays that many games simply focus on making “cool” and “badass” creatures and locations, without giving much of a thought on the underlying ecology or biology of it all. Really these places just often serve as “eye candy” or just some new thing to shoot at. I’m not saying that’s inherently a bad thing, it plays into the type of game you’re making of course.
Especially in open world games though, it all just feels sterile to me when they do that, they don’t seem like living worlds, just collections of set pieces. In a game like The Seed, which is all about struggling to survive in a strange world, you must give more thought into making a world that makes sense.
When you do that, it opens up so many ways for the player to not only use skills like combat or stealth, but knowledge of the world and crafty science to survive another day. I’ve had the pleasure of playing a few games like that and it’s so much fun, and makes for some wild stories. I really hope what the writers are making will be able to capture that feeling.
4. How much of an impact do you think games have to promote correct science to the wider public?
Joe - This is a great question, I think we’re coming to a point now where video games are starting to influence people as much as a great book or movie. I really feel that the strength of video games is that you, the player, are making the actions, and that really has an impact on shaping people’s interests. It’s the difference between reading about plants in a book and growing one yourself, the latter will have a much bigger impact on you. Survival mechanics and crafting are great ways where you can put in some simple, concrete science and make a player learn some skills. I’ve mentioned before how important science should be to a setting, but adding it to the mechanics could really have an impact.
The bottom line is that video games can impact us because we are making the actions, we are influencing the plot and the world around us. I feel video games could totally use that strength to foster creative thinking, and show players the value of skills besides fighting people.
5. Have you ever played a videogame where you were surprised to the level of detail and attention they gave in terms of ecological coherency? If yes, which games were they?
Joe - Whenever I play a rogue-like or a similar ACII based game, (Dwarf Fortress is an example) I’m always blown away at the amount of sheer detail they all have. In some cases even the most mundane animal has an AI pattern and interacts with other animals, which leaves me absolutely awestruck! Of course, those games can quickly get overwhelming, I don’t think I’ve ever had a Dwarf Fortress last more than a few immigrant waves… So the challenge is bringing that level of detail to more accessible genre, without making the genre less accessible. I think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had a bit of that, with dogs or other mutants getting caught in anomalies and the like. These simple random events really made the zone feel more alive.
6. Is there any way to make videogames pay more attention to the internal scientific consistency of their worlds? Any ideas?
Joe - I think it would have to come down to the very first steps, like the initial design document. I love reading Pen and Paper settings because they usually have very interesting ecologies! They always are sure to establish where the creatures are found, what they forage, and any special attributes that set them apart. In addition, really good settings will go in depth to each region, and lay out their ecosystems and weather patterns. All that in addition to the local culture. I’m happy to say I saw much attention to detail in the seeds design!
I guess that’s where I came in too. It's important to consider how everything works in the desolate version of earth in The Seed, because everything has changed. The designers and I had to consider everything from the soil, the weather, and even the air quality. The amount of detail we go into with this world helps us truly imagine and experience what survival in this world is like. I think it really sets this game apart from others.
7. To any world builders out there, creating hard science fiction, what would be your first advice? Where do they usually make the most mistakes?
Joe - There’s two things to always keep in the back of your mind when making a world with a realistic ecology. One, everything exists for a reason: natural selection is a very powerful tool for shaping the world the way it is. In a way, making a good ecology is like making a good character in fiction. In the way you would ask yourself: Why is this character doing this? What are his motivations?
You should be asking yourself: Why does this plant/animal have this? What is it used for? This plays into my other point too: nothing exists by itself in nature. One might say ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms in nature. When you’re making a world, nothing should be in a vacuum. You should ask yourself how this plant/animal affects the world around it, how it shapes the world, and especially how it affects people!
Thinking this way not only makes worlds feel so much more dynamic and realistic, it greatly enhances the quality of the setting. So much of culture is born around the places people occupy, and a well thought out ecology will help give way to a well thought out culture. It’s a bottom-up sort of quality control.
8. What are your favourite published videogames in any category?
Joe - Oh man I could drone on here, but I’ll keep myself under control. I would say my all-time favorites are Fallout: New Vegas and the Mount and Blade series. In general, I absolutely adore old RPGs such as Arcanum and survival games such as NEO Scavenger and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (of course!).
9. We still see a lot of casual mistakes and improbabilities inserted in regards to living organisms and the balance in the worlds they inhabit in video games and movies. Since it's very safe to say you are heavily familiar with the topic at hand, when you see this in a fictitious world, does it ruin your entire experience?
Joe - It's all dependent on the type of game and story telling. Of course I do not expect a linear shooter game to have a fantastically deep ecology, but good storytellers are able to give me just “a taste” to be infinitely curious about the world around me, but not too much that I can start poking holes in things. The Metro series and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series are great at tickling that curiosity.
The more open world the game is, the more these inconsistencies bother me. They just feel dead, and not in the fun “The Seed” way either. I imagine board meetings where designers are making a forest. It would be “Well, Forests need trees, big predators, and I guess bushes to harvest.” The trees provide the background, the predators the enemy, and the bushes the resource the player wants. What a sterile world! Do forests only have wolves and blueberry bushes? According to almost all of the survival games I’ve played – yes that’s correct.
This is a formula that’s so easy to fix its inexcusable. All one must do is take a step back and see how things connect, and why animals and plants exist the way they do.
10. Thank you Joe for this interview and we are honoured that you took the time to answer in such a detailed and deliberate way.
PS - we would love to hear your thoughts after reading this interview!
Misery Development Ltd.