The Conversation is a retelling of my meeting with Dan Stubbs, who is developing the probably-too-ambitious-for-its-own-good game, The Hit. In part one, we discussed the squandered promise of the GTA open world model.
As Belinda Carlisle belted out Heaven Is A Place On Earth from the coffee shop speakers, our conversation veered towards Bioshock Infinite.
“My favourite moment of Bioshock Infinite was a moment that wasn’t a cutscene, wasn’t a scripted moment,” said Stubbs.
“It was the menu?”
He laughed. “It was a nice menu! No, near the start of the game there was a bit where I could go off the path a little and I found my way into somebody else’s house. It was fairly obvious that I was supposed to go that way but it was like I’m not going that way because there’s something else I can do. So, yeah, I snuck in and I could hide around the corner and listen to a conversation between a husband and wife. And that was nice, just this feeling of being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, knowing that I could truly decide whether I could walk in there and kill them, because I kind of assumed that was the only option, that I could either walk in there and kill them – or run away. I couldn’t introduce myself and say ‘Hi, I’m a stranger in your town and I’ve just broken into your house. Apologies for that, but, nice to meet you!’”
Now it was my turn to laugh, but as per usual for Infinite, a scripted sequence turned to murder: “Eventually, I kill the guy, I intend to let the woman live because she doesn’t look like she’s going to kill me but she ended up on fire or something and burning to death horribly. I searched the place and found three gold coins or something and then… I kind of realised who I was. I just murdered a husband and wife who had done nothing to me, I’d broken into their home, killed them both, mercilessly for a handful of gold coins and I was just the worst person. And that was the best moment of the game for me. Just this. The fact that it ended in this situation where I actually felt a bit bad about killing these characters that the game was perfectly happy for me to kill.”
I remembered this, but didn’t feel the same way, as Infinite had already persuaded me at that point that characters were mannequins who had three distinct states: script-reading, shooting, or lying down dead. I did offer that perhaps this scene was more a social commentary about The Castle Doctrine that Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine, but there were few precious moments in Infinite that could offer this sort of personal resonance.
“The truth is,” I said, “every AAA project starts off with the grand ambitions but eventually they can’t make them work. I was reading an article which I really like about the so-called Dead End problem. When you put some nice ideas together they just don’t seem to work and eventually you say, okay, we’ll have to shut that down and you end up with a normal shooter. In the worst case scenario, it knifes the project and it’s gone because there’s not enough time to fix it.”
Stubbs agreed. “Completely. I think part of the problem is the process that we have this right-brain development process where everybody has their role, where you have the artists in this room, you have the coders, you have the writer. And Bioshock is the perfect example. Ken Levine, the name on the box so to speak, is a writer. So the writing is kind of divorced from the game which is divorced from the art assets. They all have something to do with each other but they are all these separate little things that have been assembled by different people. And it feels like that. It feels like a collection of different things.”
“Let me dive in here with ludonarrative dissonance,” I said, unfortunately before I later coined the wittier phrase ‘vaulting the grave’. “The straightforward example of mechanics divorced from story is the psychopathic killer, but cutscenes dress him up as a very caring guy. The problem is it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Do you think we’re waiting for a reckoning, that people are going to get fed up of it? Or it’s just going to be ‘yeah it probably doesn’t make it a great game but it’s not going to affect sales’?”
“I mean, these are great games,” Stubbs said. “Uncharted is a great series, it’s great fun. We don’t know there’s anything better because we haven’t got the latest thing yet. The reason we’re making psychopath simulators is because we use the same verb – to shoot – in every game. What you’re shooting is targets that pop up. To be honest, in Call of Duty they may as well just be yellow and white discs that you’re shooting at with bullseyes painted on them. It doesn’t make any difference whatsoever apart from the fact they shoot back. The opening of Bioshock Infinite where you’re at the carnival with these animatronic things is just so self-aware of what they’re making. They’re making a carnival ride but I don’t think they want to make a carnival ride?”
I concur, having spent many uncomfortable hours with Infinite. “It felt so funfair, you know, roller coaster ride. The rails you go around on sound like a roller coaster and it’s just… when I talked about Infinite at the start of the year, I made this point that even the bloody buildings pop up like set pieces.”
“Which is desperately unfortunate because there’s so much potential there. The whole thing about class war and racism… you have the potential to explore that in gameplay. You have the potential to be the oppressor… and then to flip that, so you can see that you were actually being racist yourself, in just accepting that these are the bad guys you are supposed to kill and then you can turn that on it’s head.”
For Stubbs, it kept coming back to cutscenes.“Haze, one of the early PS3 games, tried to do that, have this framing device where you’re the oppressor and everybody is gung-ho, sort of ‘HOORAH let’s kill the bad guys’ and then you find out later that the bad guys are actually the good guys and you were on the wrong side to start off with. But it was so heavy-handed and did it all in the cutscenes.”
“Deus Ex was the wake-up call for me,” I said. “That was the first time for me it felt that games had become a little bit more self-aware about what they were doing. And I just love the fact that after a few missions you suddenly realise, wait, I’m actually on the wrong side. And I thought I was going to turn this around, going to fix the organisation. But no no – you’re leaving! And then you don’t know what’s going to happen after that because games didn’t do that. They usually set you up as authority and whatever you’re fighting for is just. It was like the comics of the 1960s, no matter what the superheroes do, they’re right. I think it’s difficult to pull that off now because we’ve seen it so many times, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it better, I guess.”
The conversation spun out into the sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War, which Stubbs hadn’t played. It follows the Deus Ex conspiracy structure so closely, the endings of the sequel feel more cynical and unrewarding than its landmark predecessor.
That’s when Stubbs broaches Spec Ops. “Spec Ops does something that I think is very, very special, it gives you a choice. At certain points of the game, it kind of goes ‘right, you should do A right now, but there is a possibility of doing B’. And it doesn’t tell you that you can actually do C and D as well. It creates the possibility space where a whole bunch of things can happen and says ‘this is the right thing to do right now’ and you’ve got to go ‘is that the right thing to do right now or is B the right thing to do?’ Or you can kind of look at it and kinda go hang on, I can do this as well. There’s actually a way out of this where I can do the right thing according to my own personal moral compass rather than choice A or B which is painted as right and wrong. And I think a major problem with games at the moment, especially AAA games, is that we always have the right thing to do. And it’s not just a problem with AAA games but it’s a problem with culture at large.”
I hadn’t played Spec Ops: The Line at the time but, I can confirm, it was this conversation with Stubbs which led me to playing it soon afterwards. It turned out that I wouldn’t agree with him completely, but would be impressed with what the development team at Yager had attempted.
I agreed that plenty of indie games have the same “right or wrong” problem and Stubbs continued: “It’s not just videogames, this is an old, old thing. We have this idea of a hero who is always masculine. I mean, look at Christian culture: the hero is a man. Women were just not a part of that. He had his twelve disciples… who were all men. And we have this idea of men being the doers, the active force, and women being the passive force. And looking at this from different angles… it could almost be a designed system. In a way it’s completely unfair because men get to do stuff and women don’t.”
On cue, Billy Joel began singing his heart out about a girl. She shouldn’t change to try to please him. “I don’t want clever conversation,” he sang. “I never want to work that hard.”
Stubbs continued, “I think the whole male hero female victim/trophy/whatever has to be talked about. There is something massively wrong going on and it’s not just with videogames, it’s with society as a whole. If you consider this as being a designed system we’ve engineered, it was probably the best possible system for a culture 2000 years ago. But right now we have the internet. We have a world of information at our fingertips. So there’s no real reason, plus we don’t need to go hunt our own food on the Savannah or whatever, it’s a very different world now and the old archetypes are breaking down for a reason. Because they’re not the best system any more. We are moving slowly towards a system where everybody is equal, where everybody can have access to everything, where everyone can be the actor, the doer and the thinker.”
It was time for me to hurl a cat into the pigeons. “From the point of the stories, if you make the roles equal, have they just become ciphers for the protagonist? I mean, is there any difference between a man or a woman? I haven’t really got a great question here but it’s along the lines of… it’s a great goal to make men and women equal in terms of either can do a role. But that doesn’t mean they’re not different and of course—”
Stubbs interrupts: “Of course, men and women different! People are different! You and I are different! We are not clones of each other. And the fact we’re both male has nothing to do with it, we are different people. I could be having a same conversation with a woman and I would say the same thing – we are different people. We have different experiences. We have different genetics.”
I wasn’t giving up yet. I wanted to put aside the goal of role models and ask whether just providing equality lip service – making a new avatar with a different voice – would capture any gender difference at all. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, you take, say, Tomb Raider, and you cast it with Duncan Croft: does the game change? Or you take something like Uncharted and make it Jane Drake, do these games actually change?”
“Well, with Uncharted and Tomb Raider, they’ve pretty much got the same gameplay mechanics in both games, so obviously those don’t really change. But we have so many conventions of what the white male hero does in a country full of brown-coloured people. Yes, you can point out that I’m cringing at this point on the recording if you want.”
“We have these very dominant cultural ideas,” said Stubbs, “like you have the threat of rape in the Lara Croft story but you don’t have that in Uncharted because it’s accepted you can do those things with female characters but you can’t do those things with male characters. And yet it would probably freak a lot of gamers out if you had a buggery scene in Uncharted 4 or whatever.”
I pointed out that Far Cry 3 had gone down that route, although admitted I had not played it.
Stubbs said he’d started playing it, but found the linearity in places off-putting. “So I haven’t really played that one through enough to comment but, yeah, it’s massively interesting. We’re dealing with a point in history where it’s all changing. Where the dominant paradigm that men are the doers and women are the people who have things done to them – the whole idea is changing. And I think part of it is going to come with videogames.”