My name is Joe Russ and I am the creator and currently developer of a game called Jenny LeClue. I am full-time working on it this year but I do a lot of other things. I'm writing a live-action film, I'm working on an idea for another game, and I'm also a freelance motion designer. So I do commercial client work, but I'm trying to limit the amount we do this year because we raised enough money with the Kickstarter that I can buy the time to just work on the game and it's a dream project so I'm trying to actually do that, knowing that opportunity may never come again. So I want to make sure I'm enjoying the ride and embracing that. I just feel lucky to have the chance to not have to worry about bills for a bit, so I'm trying to not overwhelm myself by doing both things, if that makes sense.
It does. I've also been freelance for a while, so I get it. Why do you think small developers often don't talk about what else they do? You said before that "nobody cares." But I feel like that's something everyone on Twitter are wondering: Are you actually doing this full-time? How are you supporting yourself?
That's one of my favorite questions is, logistically, how do people do these things.
Why do you think people might not care, though?
I just have interests in a lot of different things and I don't know how interesting my life is, though, so I'm just saying if anyone would care about hearing about all that stuff and all my ridiculous ideas. That's one thing I know we're not necessarily focused on right now with this, but that's a big thing I'm actually really interested in as a creator and a freelancer: When you see people do these things, just the actual logistics of how they got these opportunities or what historical events lead to the ability to try to do this thing.
Which makes sense if we're talking games in AAA context, but if someone takes three years to make an indie game and whatever it becomes, were you living in your parents basement? Did someone leave you money? Are you a pizza-delivery person and you just never sleep? There's something really fascinating to me about the logistics of creators who are going their own way, the indie-style, DIY. How are they enabling that lifestyle and what kind of sacrifices are they making? Or is it just privilege and they just don't talk about it.
It's the same thing with music. People are always wondering how they support themselves while playing in bands.
There's also that funny thing where in music, if you were an indie band, people would call you a sellout if you got a legit record deal with a big company. It would be this shameful thing. A lot of your fanbase would turn against you or judge you. Even though it was the first time that a band might actually make a living. It's funny to me that videogames are this weird opposite where I almost never hear about if an indie developer releases their game and they're like, "We made a million!," everyone is super-stoked and it's great. No one is ever like, "You guys are a bunch of hack sellouts because you couldn't make a cool art piece and let people enjoy that. You had to cash in on it."
What's something you don't understand about how the game industry works?
[Laughs.] I would say there's a lot of stuff I don't understand, but I think this goes into more actual game production, but I still have a hard time where it's such a quantitative product and I just have a hard time having to justify their economy as having to have a lot of length as far as time investment. Whereas there are so many other art forms where it doesn't seem critical that length equals quality. The game industry as a whole and consumers, there's just this thing of [it] being a back-of-the-box feature, "Over 120 hours of gameplay." You don't sell novels on the length of the novel. You don't say, "This new novel is 10,000 pages so it must be 10 times better than the 1,000-page we last released." A short story can be five pages and be really powerful.
As I get older, it's one of those things that drives me away from playing more games, is this trying to upsell me as if I were a 14-year-old with all the time in the world but maybe less money. A really long experience instead of a really interesting experience.
I also don't know what sort of access you have as a journalist, but I'm curious with what you know or don't know, what is the thing you don't get about the industry?
There's a lot. [Laughs.] For me, I'm curious about some of the more boring logistical stuff in terms of, like, how do publishers find games. If you're in charge of a game, how do you pitch your game to a publisher? Do you have to go through a CAA-type agency? How do you get on the radar for those people? Is there only a select group who can do that?
Some publishers did reach out to us after our Kickstarter because they felt like the genre of the game fits with the kinds of games that they publish. So I know there's some of that, but it's not EA reaching out to you to say, "Hey, we're gonna give you 30 million dollars to do this thing." But I don't know how it works.
What design conventions in games do you feel are tired?
I definitely would say the length thing is one of them, but a big one I've been thinking about is the fail/victory state or loop that happens in games, especially bigger games. Where -- you would have an interesting environmental thing where you're moving through a beautiful jungle scene, and then you have spend 20 minutes behind a rock shooting at someone. One person would kill you, and then you'd have start that whole thing over again and spend another 10 minutes shooting these people, hiding behind a rock. It’s really frustrating for me.
Maybe I'm just not good enough at those games and the whole point is to feel rewarded for overcoming the challenge, but for me it's frustrating because that kind of game feels like it's actually about this really exciting flow: Everything is kind of seamlessly happening and very visceral and you never have to stop and reflect on it because it's this action, excitement, blockbuster train-ride thing. But every time you have one of those scenes and you have to start over, I get more and more depressed that I gotta go through this cycle that wasn't interesting to me the first time. And I felt like they were just making it to artificially extend the game.
That's just a standard thing out of platformers, you fall off the cliff and you have to start from the last save point. Weirdly that feels outdated to me at this point. It feels like there's more interesting stuff that people could be doing, especially when they have those huge budgets. Maybe if someone shoots you, instead of restarting that scene, I want to see a cover shooter where your character dies and they go to the funeral and then you're playing as his son he didn't know he had and he takes over for him. Or if it's something less dramatic than that, you could do the James Bond thing where you're on a chase scene on top of a train. Okay. The train is going to this city, and you're trying to stop this bad guy but maybe you don't do it in time and you get knocked off the train. But instead of starting the sequence on top of the train, you roll down an embankment into a river next to a train, and that river also flows into the town. You end up coming into the town anyway and you get to the next part of the story regardless. It feels like there's no wrong choice and there's no punishment for that experience and it doesn't break.
Especially in these bigger games [it's important], where for me it's about this smooth flow and this continuous escalation of excitement and maximalism. It feels weird to break that and do the same repetitive task again. I start to think about it and it's this' lizard-brain kneejerk -- I don't mean it in a negative way -- but like a caveman response of fight or flight. If I have to think about it, it's not intellectually engaging hiding behind a rock and shooting at people, and the more times I have to think about it, the more I'm just not excited. It makes me cautious that the next place I get to that looks like a clearing with rocks to behind it, I'm like, "Man, I have to invest 15 minutes of mindless stuff." As I get older, that becomes more and more frustrating and limiting. I think Walking Dead is an example where there's at least some more interesting stuff where you win or lose in this moment.
I think the word is "nuance," which is really lacking in the vocabulary of bigger games. Or can be. And what I'm flashing on is a sequence in Uncharted 3 where you're running on rooftops and if you don't jump to the right one, you die and have to start over.
I actually remember that exact part. I know what you're talking about. I think the first time my instinct, also, was to jump to the "wrong" roof, and it was like, "Well, can you guys either make a more dynamic level design or have visual indicators so you know exactly where to go, or you should free that up a little." I understand technical and time and budget limitations and why they can't, but then it's like, why make it feel like you even have that freedom?
And they're the kind of studio they're calling the AAA darling that can't go wrong. It seems like they should be trying to do something with that, to innovate.
Do you think there's a mental disconnect where it looks so realistic, but when you're jerked out of it, it's a big turnoff?
There can be. I don't think of Uncharted as being a naturalistic thing. I think of it as a really shiny cartoon.
Well, but the new ones looks so much more real. But again it's the visuals being touted. Still, it's funny the bragging points are, "Look, we don't have any loading screens!" But it's not, "Look, we don't have any game-over screens!"
And that's a thing you can trace back to Mario. I'm not saying it's a bad thing to happen, but as these games have gotten more complicated and narrative-focused, I hope we are reaching a point where we can stop talking about the technical stuff and just get over: "It's seamless loading and we have a zillion polys and we're using this new displacement!" Instead of talking about, "Well, yeah, but is it interesting or emotionally compelling? Did you figure it not to have this restart cost every time I die?" That actually totally takes me out of your hundred million-dollar game because you didn't think about the one part that happens over and over again and about the diminishing returns. The second time I have to do it, I don't want to play this game anymore.
In our email thread about this, I made the comparison to Dragon's Lair, and how in many respects Uncharted is no different. Only, instead of it being a quicktime event, you don't see the arrows anymore.
Yeah. Dragon's Lair is just really, really blunt about it.
How are you designing games or planning to to get around this type of thing?
That's where I really appreciate a lot of indie games where there's not even a conversation about a victory state or a fail state or beating a level or any kind of that criteria. I think in the game I'm working -- I mean, it's not an action game so it's maybe not a consideration but there's no point where you can die and you have to start over. If you're gonna die, it's probably going to be the end of your story.
But we're looking at that same idea. In your real life, if you lose your job, you don't get to go back three days and relive that week and try again to not get fired. You just go onto the next thing. In a story-focused game, if that thing happens, if you're trying to solve a crime and you fail in some way and it's a killer and maybe they get away, well, how does that affect the other parts of the story going forward? Instead of like, "Oh, no, you just need to repeat that chapter and you have to catch the killer because you just messed up."
I think for us it can happen in big or little ways. Sometimes you have an A or B option, which is still very simple of, "Save this person or save that person." And you can't save both. Neither one is right or wrong and neither one stops the story, but it changes the way it evolves from there.
What did you think of Heavy Rain's handling of this sort of thing?
I only played part of it because the story made me quit the game. [Laughs.] So I don't remember having much choice. I remember playing through scenes that felt like a B-movie and I was just kinda playing through, waiting to get to the next part.
How far did you get?
I got to the point where you switch from the dad to being a detective and going to some kind of crime scene? I played it when it came out, and I had all these hopes because it sounded so cool and when I played it -- this is the problem when you have a story-heavy game, and it felt like if it was a movie it was just a poorly written movie ripe with cliche. Maybe it gets better, but I couldn't keep playing to find out because I was laughing at the clown sequence in the mall where you're trying to find your daughter.
You lose your son Jason, yeah.
I just remember it was very awkward. It felt like I was watching an episode of Goosebumps. It felt like it was taking itself seriously, but it was really cheesy. This was serious stuff I would love to take seriously and be engaged in, but all I can do is laugh because it's frustratingly executed in its storytelling.
Why do you think games are actually capable of that sort of thing or should be? We're already dry humping the uncanny valley. We're there. So the next thing for games to do, apparently, is to be taken seriously and make people cry --
I think with all other forms, you want that variety. You want to have that stuff that might move you and you want to have some stuff to just blow off some steam.
Is the unspoken thing for games fans, then, that the best movies are the ones that are the most serious and the most damaging to watch?
I can only really speak for myself. I like dark things, so I can respond to those. But for me I like that games is like these other mediums if we can recognize it and continue to expand on it. It's a really open format and I think in some ways it's a lot more open than other formats that have been around much longer, and the potential for the kind of experience you can have is massive. You can have a game that's about a hero's journey and you can have a game that's just about someone communicating a single second of their life and the feeling it had. Or they can make you think about becoming aware of a political, economic issue and that becoming visceral versus reading a headline that doesn't mean anything to you. I feel like I'm more interested in a game that's taking itself more seriously. But I think my problem is that the games that are taking themselves seriously aren't necessarily substantial. I think Halo or Destiny is taken seriously, but it doesn't seem like it should be. It's a fun romp with your friends to shoot guns in space.
I'm just assuming it's because there's so much money behind the marketing that there's any kind of conversation. But I guess they did a music video with Paul McCartney as a hologram. It was for Destiny, I think. And it's clearly just a plug for them, but it doesn't even make sense. I don't think it's supposed to be funny but it's so weird that it's funny. I think they took that seriously, and that's a concern.
My concern with the AAA part of the industry is they're talking about all these hyper-realistic details they can put into the main character’s gun holster, which you can only see if you push the camera super-close which only happens when you're doing it in the modeling software. They're really into this super-finite detail. But going back, you guys aren't addressing having no load screens or no repeated screens where you have to keep doing this meaningless task that was supposed to be exciting and visceral, and is not if you do it more than two times. But you guys are going crazy about the hyper-realistic macro leather stitching on his gun holster, which no one will ever see, except you guys?
Well, they liked it.
If my whole job was to do materials or modeling or whatever for that, I'm gonna get into that, because that's the thing I'm doing. But from the bigger perspective, it's like, how much of their budget is going into something that no one will ever see but them? Whether it's an action game or a game that's trying to make you feel something or make you cry, whatever we're talking about.
I mean, the games industry has such a fixation with the movies industry that I don't think it realizes it's already pretty much just like it: Most big budget things are pretty boring. But I'm trying to remember what the last big-budget sorta weird or sorta different game even was. Was it Heavy Rain?
I guess for big games that was different, but even then -- Yeah, I don't know. That's why [in our emails] I was like, "Where is the David Lynch in games?" If we're gonna talk about the influence of movies, it's so clear that games with a budget are inspired by the blockbuster Hollywood movies and the action movies and all that. But David Lynch has made movies that cost $70 million. These are not small movies. And they're weird, and they have these dream states and he has these really personal and audience-alienating and non-empowering choices and doing things that make you confused and uncomfortable. It's like, yeah, where is the game with $10 million that is even trying that? We see some indie games with no money trying that, but you don't see something where they can afford to advertise it so people will know about it and play it because of that. You don't really see that much.
I haven't played it, but I did see there was a horror game by a Japanese director. Everyone was saying it was kind of crazy and said it was invoking some Lynchian tones. Do you know what game I'm talking about?
No, at first I thought you were talking about PT.
Well, I loved PT, and I would like to see more in that world. It was like the best game that's not supposed to be a game that happened last year.
In terms of Lynch, the things you were saying were very opposite to the way big games are typically thought of. You never start an RPG with maximum health, all the powerups and over the course of it, you lose them. I guess Swords and Sworcery is one, and it's an example of how you all you need to do is make one simple, opposite choice and then suddenly it becomes very different. But I don't feel that was super-talked about with Swords and Sworcery. I think it was more, "Hey, it was kind of like Zelda and had a neat soundtrack."
And that's definitely a big thing that I'm interested in because weirdly I think the more alienating a story is, the more fascinating it can be. The more it makes me curious about it. That's another thing that makes bigger games so boring, because you kind of feel like it looks like what you see is what you get, and the more you deal with it, the more it's like, yeah, it's exactly what it looks like. There's no surprise to that thing, even if there is surprises in it, it's within such a narrow range and it is very, very empowering. But this is where I would make my argument again that it's actually confusing because you empower me this action game but then I have to repeat this one sequence three times so it actually takes that away from me. But not in a meaningful way. It just makes me want not want to play the game again. It doesn't make me think about my life or have any kind of reflective qualities to it. It doesn't make the game feel more rewarding for me when I finish it. For me it ties into that confusion of the fail state and the sense of empowerment.
What do you think it will take for games to be a more writerly friendly format? I think that's what we're talking about with some of this: Games aren't very well written, or the people helping helm them usually aren't accomplished writers.
In bigger games I am seeing they are bringing on writers just to write the cinematics and stuff for games who seem fairly legit. I think we're talking about ideation on the conceptual level, right? You can have a skilled writer who writes great dialog for a huge action-adventure game, but the big-picture ideas behind the game are pretty safe, so it's really just about making sure there's polish to a scene or conversation and if there's room to fit in a joke. Or if they want to make it feel gritty or darker. But those are just little nuances versus taking a step back at looking at how we evolve this thing from every other action game besides just technically.