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Schafer demonstrates unique Kinect adventure game prototype
Schafer demonstrates unique Kinect adventure game prototype
March 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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Double Fine's Tim Schafer, a veteran beloved for his brand of humor nearly as much as for classic titles like Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts and many more, presented a never before-seen working prototype to lecture attendees at New York University's game center last night.

"We do start a lot more games at Double Fine than we actually put out," Schafer says at the Gamasutra-attended event. "You have to fight for these opportunities to do R&D, because they cost money." In order to keep idea genesis fresh and frequent, the studio's well-documented Amnesia Fortnights split the studio into four groups, each of which has to make a game within two weeks.

But a year ago, a publisher came to Double Fine with an idea for a type of game they were interested in trying out, and thus a new prototype idea was sown that had nothing to do with Amnesia Fortnights.

"Around the time after Heavy Rain came out, a lot of people were very excited about interactive narrative and branching storyline," Schafer said. "Because we do a lot of story-based games at Double Fine, a 'large entity' came to our office and asked, 'have you guys ever thought about doing something like that?"

"I never thought of doing a game like Heavy Rain, because it just looks really hard... characters can die and then you have to make all these expensive cutscenes that no one's going to see unless you play the game 50 times or watch the cutscenes on YouTube like I did."

But he was still interested in the idea of branching storylines and interactive narrative, and wondered whether there was a way to incorporate Heavy Rain-like ideas into a new style of adventure game, incorporating new tech like Kinect.

In Heavy Rain, players can jump around among different characters, focusing on following the characters they're most interested in or pursuing different branches in accordance with their play style. For this prototype, one of the team's programmers suggested casting the player as a "cursed artifact of some kind... on a ship, and you were just screwing with everyone on the ship."

Schafer immediately liked the idea: "It made me think of an old idea that we used to talk about in the really early days of LucasArts," he says.

The old days of adventure games forced designers to simplify the interface even at the risk of "dumbing down" verbs. Back then, Schafer and longtime colleague Ron Gilbert wondered what adventure gaming would be like if, instead of verbs, players could use emotions on their environment in different combinations and in different strengths.

Back then it sounded "too crazy", but Schafer thought Double Fine had a new opportunity in this publisher-requested prototype to revisit the idea in combination with the Kinect technology, which the studio had begun to use extensively at the time for games like Happy Action Theater and Once Upon a Monster.

In the game's premise, the cursed artifact would be able to control the emotions of other characters toward objects in their environment - a ship at sea. Kinect players use one hand to create love, and their other hand to create hate. The more a player hovers a sentiment over a person or object in the environment, the more another character in the environment likes that person or object.

The prototype Schafer showed (as video recorded by Joystiq) was crude - he called the polygonal characters "pizza box guys", but the audience was still delighted to see the idea in practice as Schafer showed various interactions two men in jail could have (with a shiv involved) depending on how love and hate were used on each of them in practice.

A later prototype added a romantic storyline - melodramatic to comedic effect -- and in addition to the emotions of love and hate, it added courage and fear, trust and distrust. Finding the hand-waving of the first prototype to be somewhat disappointing, Schafer thought about other options.

"What if you could act in front of the screen, and the game would pick up on the emotion based on... your body? We decided to go for that method." Within the context of the storyline, the sentient artifact, in the form of a dagger, has recently emerged from the deep sea after having been discovered by an adventurer.

In a narrated cutscene that made the audience laugh, the adventurer - a rich man named Thurston who wants to disrupt his love's wedding aboard the ship -- infiltrates the vessel, artifact in hand, and Schafer demonstrated how players can select a target and then affect how the man feels about that target.

For example, when asked to choose between two wetsuits to use as a disguise, the player can elect to like one and hate the other. Players shake their fist to demonstrate "hate," and place hand over heart to demonstrate "love", and thereby influence the adventurer's feelings. Ongoing funny voice-over offered an amusing inner monologue whereby Thurston expressed emotions consistent with the player's choices.

When other characters interact with Thurston, he has the ability to pass the artifact onto them. "The idea is that this would be played many, many times, so you can see all the different endings," Schafer said - the prototype had five, and the outcomes would be different depending on how the players interacted with the artifact and with the other characters on the ship. And each time the player starts again, there may be some new elements added.

"I really liked writing for it, because writing a main character on the game... it's really hard, because you really want people to like the main character and 'likable' is hard to write," he says. 'But it was still really daunting to make all the endings... so we thought 'oh man, I hope we don't have to make this game.'"

Fortunately for the team, anxious about the challenging scope, the project also seemed a little too ambitious for the publisher, which didn't feel the emotion mechanic was sustainable and ultimately ended up changing its mind at the last minute.

One of the challenges of the adventure game genre is the player's relationship to the main character, which can vary from game to game. Schafer theorized that the player generally is cast as the character's "intuition" - the player makes the character feel he or she should take an action, and the character, through narration or dialog ultimately justifies it on its own.

What the cursed artifact Kinect prototype did accomplish - in addition to making all the characters more interesting for Schafer to write - was creating a fascinating and defined role for the player as a catalyst in the adventuring environment.


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Comments


Santino Giacalone
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@Maciej Bacal

I think the whole idea around this prototype's use with the Kinect revolves around the players emotion's which shall drive the story. Sure, button mashing and throwing your controller against the TV could be signals for those motion controllers the player is angry but the potential for using Facial Expressions and Body Language should prove to be quite interactive.

Joe McGinn
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But the prototype does not show even an early version of what you describe. They are using Kinect as a mouse.

Roger Tober
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Those games end up like tinker toys where you connect different story segments together to get different results. They're all really takes on the "choose your own adventure" books of old. The problem is that the author is simply writing many short stories in the place of a novel and giving the player/reader the choice on which story to pursue. It's fine if you like short stories, but only detracts from the depth and character development of a longer story. Stories are really an either/or type of thing, where if you use one, you have to accept that you are relinquishing control to an author. I think eventually people will get sick of writing every possibility so people can push buttons and watch it, pretending they are somehow creating something.There is a difference in this, and things happening that should effect the game. For instance, if you lost a person, the game should continue without them. If you lost a battle, the game should continue taking that loss into account, but most things have to happen on a simulation, rather than story level.

Brian Buchner
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@Maciej Bacal This is the first foray into using this control style for this sort of interaction. Of course a D-pad is more intuitive, but give this technology time. If it's going to go anywhere in the future, some first shots need to be taken now, even if they're cludgy.

Joe McGinn
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It's not that the steps are kludgy, but not there at all. Using Kinect as a mouse pointer is not even a prototype of inputting emotions through body language or facial expressions. It's a positively molynesque level of vaporware.


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