Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Video Game Documentaries

A few weeks ago, Jorge and I discussed Indie Game: The Movie. As I said on the podcast, I admired the effort behind the film, but didn't enjoy the end product. The movie does a great job illustrating how hard the various developers worked on their projects, but that's not really a surprise: "the tortured artist" is an old archetype. My biggest problem was the relatively shallow treatment of the medium itself. We are introduced to the characters, we see their intense (yet vague) struggles, and we see their victories, but we never see the details. Their stories don't really explain the specific challenges inherent in making games, nor does the movie do much to teach the audience about the design process. I thought I'd share a couple supplementary pieces for those that share my feelings and my interest in documenting the actual process of making a game.

Giant Bomb's multipart feature, "Building the Bastion," provides an extended look at Supergiant Games' creation process. Through a combination of documentary footage, interviews, and game demos, the feature demonstrates how the game evolved throughout development. For example: Bastion originally was going to include RTS elements, the way that items and terrain drop into the world takes on a new meaning. The series also shows everything from the team's work space to the internal tools used to shape the final product.

The team is small and nimble, which makes it easy to implement changes and arrive at decisions. However, it also means that all the work falls on a very small number of people, which makes for some long nights and frustrating situations when things get rough. In addition to actual design work, the team has to face more practical challenges like conforming to Microsoft certification standards and trying to soundproof their house in order to record dialogue.

While nowhere near as dramatic as Indie Game: The Movie, "Building the Bastion" does an excellent job of illustrating the highs and lows of independent development. Without relying on cloying music or overly dramatic camera angles, the series shows us the team's successes and failures. We see things that never made it into the game and we see the maturation of core features. We also get a sense of where the team is coming from: what games they enjoy and how their skills complement one another helps put faces behind the finished product. Check out one of the earlier episodes. It's well worth your time.

 The second resource I'd like to highlight is JP LeBreton's recent BioShock playthrough on Idle Thumbs' Twitch TV channel (thanks for reminding me, Avery!). JP worked on both BioShock games and, while even less traditional than "Building the Bastion," these videos offer uncommon insight into a very high profile game. Of course, BioShock is pretty much the opposite of an independent game, but JP's commentary still does a great job of describing how the final version came into being. Specific examples of how levels were designed or how technical realities affected the end result are far more informative than simple statements about how stressful development is. I hope this type of guided playthrough inspires more developers to do the same:

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And now I'll open the floor up to you: what are some of your favorite substantive game documentaries? I hear the "The Final Hours of..." articles by Geoff Keighley are good. Are there others out there that go beyond surface-level observations to differentiate video games from other artistic projects?

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