Steve Ince – Interview

The man of the hour (or at least the twenty minutes we spoke for)

Steve Ince is one of the most prolific names in the videogames industry, having worked as a freelance writer and consultant game designer in a career spanning over twenty years.

Steve is renowned for his writing on the Broken Sword series, which he worked on at York-based company Revolutionary Software (originally based in Hull), and has written for a number of popular titles including The Witcher series and the So Blonde adventure titles.

You’re well known for your work as a writer in the industry. Was that where you started out?

“It’s funny because I kind of gave up the idea of writing years before joining the industry as the art side took over. I took my portfolio of work along to my first job and was asked to do a trial period an old 286 PC, which I’d not had much experience working on, and converting to Amiga graphics, too.

“I had to grapple with a lot of complex software during my early days, which was crazy but it was great fun. It taught me so much about the subtleties of animation, which I used to work on the background animation of Beneath a Steel Sky.”

Background painting in Beneath a Steel Sky: just some of the fruits of Steve's artistic labours
Background painting in Beneath a Steel Sky: just some of the fruits of Steve’s artistic labours

Storytelling has lived on through the rise and fall of a number of technologies. Do you think the writing process for games has changed because of these technologies?

“Writing is about telling stories about characters and trying to find that human connection. People have been telling stories for thousands of years, and the core way that we tell stories hasn’t changed, just how we present these stories to the player.

“We’ve had a proliferation of platforms, all of which have given players different ways of connecting to a game and changed the way we interact with players, but the fundamentals of storytelling are still more or less the same.”

Virtual reality: a step forward for interactivity in games, a step back in trying to not look like a dunce

Some of the stories told in games could also be told in a different medium. What is it that makes yourself or others writers write these stories for video games?

“Different media have different approaches to storytelling and the way that they engage with their audience. I’ve written stories for comics, games and novels, and when you come up with an idea, you know where the best fit is.

“Of course, it’s never made up of just one thing. You’ve got a mixture of character and plot ideas, location concepts, and the basic storytelling components, so it’s about deciding where all of those would be best placed.”

Steve, thank you for donating this gem of a story series to video games.
I speak for many in saying that I’m glad this ‘mixture of ideas’ was born and lived on as a video game

Recently there’s been a big rise in interactive narratives, like those of Telltale Games, where player choice is important to changing the story. How much should changing the story be left in the hands of the player compared to those of the developer?

“Sometimes you have a very specific story that you want to tell, and so you might choose to give the player some agency for making decisions during the game and creating their own path, but ultimately there’s a goal that needs to be achieved when it comes to the story.

“The real strength of video games is that we have this potential to deliver stories that nobody else is doing, because there’s there’s no one way of doing it. Everything is different, and we should allow everything to be different.”

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Telltale has made its mark telling rich stories, and providing many ‘dem feelz’ moments like this

A lot of games allow players to customise their own character, for example, but these characters might have a pre-set backstory. How do you cope as a writer when faced with challenges such as this?

“As a writer, you need to write in a way that delivers the best and adapt accordingly. More emphasis might be placed in areas where the creative team has more control, such as world-building in RPGs, which explains the shallowness of characters in these types of games.

“Of course, this can go completely the other way, where too much emphasis is placed on discovering the backstory, something which is all too common in some recent games.”

Great world, shallow characters... yup, sounds about right!
Great world, shallow characters… yup, sounds about right!

How do you want the industry to respond to these and similar challenges, and where do you want to see the writer at the end of that?

“I think that we need to see more stories that don’t require violence. The violent games might have very engaging gameplay, but there are other ways to have engaging gameplay without rehashing some of the characteristics that have come in games before, particularly in the 90s.

“It’s a difficult position when you’re not getting millions in publisher funds, but you can easily explore stories on a budget of £100,000 and get real-world emotion and acting, like games such as Her Story have done with filmed footage.”

Are writers alone enough to change this from being the 'industry norm'?
The main culprit at question – can the industry change old habits?
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Project ‘IGN Freelance’ – Take Two

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So earlier this year, I wrote a little something on my blog called ‘Project ‘IGN Freelance’, where I submitted three samples to the titan entertainment website that is IGN in the hope of becoming a budding freelancer.

To put it bluntly, my project failed, as my samples weren’t accepted. But before you form a virtual angry mob on my behalf (I can dream, can’t I?), the project now returns from the depths of January 2014, as IGN have put out another advert for the job.

Are my creative juices enough to secure me the position? Will these three samples be the key to unlocking my freelancing future? Need I be so overdramatic?

Stay tuned to find out!

Next-Gen, Maybe Next Time

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Original article at York Vision

Gaming community, I’m about to make a statement which will probably get me shunned to my bedroom early and without any supper. Considering your anger when the Playstation Network is down without explanation, I’ll have to put it bluntly: I won’t be getting next-gen. Now, put your Blades of Chaos and blue shells DOWN and be calm, go with me on this. I can assure you that it isn’t due to a distaste or lack of money. My argument for doing so is pretty simple: I’m a bit of a culture freak.

By that, I don’t mean I staple Kermit the Frogs together to make a t-shirt like Lady Gaga once did. What I mean is I feel this need to always be aware of the culture around me. I spend most of my day on Facebook and Twitter looking for trending topics in the worry that I may wake up tomorrow and miss something that has potentially just exploded onto the internet. To remain blissfully unaware is difficult.

Have you ever been asked “Have you seen this?” or “Have you heard that?”and feel that little bit dumb or ‘out of the loop’ for having not done so? It pains me when I know I haven’t seen Life of Pi or read Harry Potter past the fourth book, because I feel uncultured, even though I like to think I’m a pretty well-rounded individual. Well, it’s the same with gaming.

In the great console war, I chose my side long ago on Christmas Day. Since then, I’ve been dedicated to Sony’s innovative exclusives and mainstream titles, from the original, clunky Playstation to the high-tech prowess of the Playstation 3. I made it my mission to delve into as many different genres as I could, from shouting ‘JAAASOOON’ in crowded shopping malls in Heavy Rain to pummeling thugs and battling throat cancer in inFamous.

Yet, all it took was a “You’ve never played Mega Man?” to make me realise that this exclusivity was excluding myself away from the excess of culture that exists across consoles. Certainly, you can’t play every game that’s ever been created, nor would you want to. However, you can only remain so versatile within such a restricted domain.

One of my friends is a self-confessed Nintendo fanboy (admittedly, not something many people confess), who would constantly inform me of the latest game that “was much better than your AAA rubbish”. Usually, I would roll my eyes at him; now, I’m willing to invest in a part of culture that just hasn’t existed in my life at all. Whether that be Nintendo or the simple ‘indie’ developer (I’m developing a slight obsession for the newly released Octodad: Dadliest Catch), there’s still a vast amount of content that is yet to be explored.

So why the need to move onto next-gen? On a developer’s point of view, it’s ‘moving with the times’ as technology advances, products need creating and, let’s face it, the wages aren’t going to pay themselves. For the consumer, are you really unsatisfied with your current console and need to move on? Has the absence of touch-pad controls and speech recognition made you break down crying in the middle of GAME? I didn’t think so.

That’s why, my nerdy brethren, I’ll be saying no to next-gen for the next couple of years. As part-time IGN anchor Ron Burgundy famously put: ‘Try to think of these consoles as women. Totally different, beautiful women that you can play with”. Without sounding like a player, I think I’ll spend time with some other women before I take my current relationship to the next level. God forbid my girlfriend reads this article!

Texts From a Friend

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The majority of the time, texts from a friend usually consist of “How are you?”, “Are you on your way?” and “Wow, what a gay Facebook status”. Yet, there’s that one rare moment when a simple text turns into a conversation filled with specs of goldust just itching to be written down before somebody copyrights what you’ve just discovered… Exhibit A:

“Ross you didn’t invent ‘got milk?’.” “Yes I did, I DID… I should’ve written it down…”

Well, I recently had one of those moments, excluding the ‘got milk’ copyright part! As I’m sure some of you are aware, Irrational Games, the developer behind the critical and commercial phenomenon ‘Bioshock Infinite’ have recently ceased to exist due to a “change of focus”. After publicly grieving on Facebook that there won’t be any more games released in the Bioshock series, I received a text, from my friend Ben,which flourished into a brilliant snippet of critical conversation/banter:

Ben: 2k has thousands of employees. For Mr Levine to want to make something different does not require to out 100 developers out of a job. The game series will just be made by others. Anyway Bioshock 1/2 were not the same as infinite. Also many  developers can work on a franchise and it still be okay. Look at CoD. Also these 100 developers have a chance (not a brilliant on though) to work at another 2k developer and probs still make BioShock games. Even though it probs mean that they have to uproot themselves to another country/state/etc. The story here is not he future of BioShock.

Me: Yeah of course, I beared in mind naughty dog when you said that – one team made Uncharted, one made The Last of Us, apparently similar games, if one of the teams went bust I guess the other team would, to a degree, be able to replicate it 🙂

Ben: Is replication what you want? What about innovation?

*small toilet break*

Me: Recognition more than replication, I guess, I want to recognise what I’m playing, but yes, push the boundaries too 🙂

Ben: Recognition can come from the name on the box. Far cry 3 blood dragon is not like far cry 3 however the box tells you the link

Me You can recognise the title, not necessarily the brand! I don’t see Operation Raccoon City as a Resident Evil game (per se) despite holding the brand name 🙂 We’d make a good critical duo!

Ben: Where do a brand and title desperate? That may be a good question to ask?

And the duo idea is so good I’ll take 50% of the moonah

Me: Right down the middle… 70/30, like I said 😉

Aside from the fact that this is a tad boring and I use emoticons far more than I do full stops, you see my point! Don’t just let those wonderful texts get lost into cyberspace – show the world that you, sir/madame, have something pretty darn inspiring to say. I expect to see you overtaking the Queen for her Christmas speech any day now 😉

Gaming Nostalgia – My Top Ten

Original article at MyIGN

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ERH MA GHERD, GEHMS! We’ve owned them, we’ve played them, we’ve traded them in to buy even more games. It’s a wonderfully viscous circle of life that we gaming geeks have endured for years. Yet, through that time, we’ve loved and lost games that always hold a place somewhere in our hearts and possibly that neglected PS2 memory card under your sofa. Sometimes I just sit back and think about my gaming favourites, how they’ve become a part of the past, my past. Ready yourselves for some nostalgia, kids, here are my top ten games of my time:

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age

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Infamously, there haven’t been many reputable licensed series throughout my childhood. After being heavily disappointed by the Mr Bean video game, and a multitude of PS1 Disney-Pixar titles, I sought comfort in the warm embrace of EA and their efforts with The Lord of the Rings gaming franchise. I give Warner Bros some credit for their experimentation, but EA were incredibly faithful and innovative with it. My personal highlight was The Third Age, a turn-based LOTRPokemon hybrid that pits you in a compelling RPG adventure in the footsteps of the fellowship. Great locales, characters and enemies from the three movies; heck, the game had you fighting Nazguls as your first enemy – much tougher than a cuddly Pikachu!

2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

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Fast-forward yourself into the year 40,000, and your Rangers of Gondor have laser rifles and your Orcs have jetpacks. Welcome to the future: it’s a lot bloodier than you anticipated! The Warhammer universe is quite an insane one, filled with a variety of armies and races just hell-bent on shooting each other senseless. It makes for a an incredibly dysfunctional ride when we convert that into RTS gameplay. Couple that with a long story, great RPG elements and more violence than a Leeds United football match and you have one of the best PC games of my lifetime.

3. Crash Twinsanity

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Who the heck is Crash Bandicoot? Once a popular Sony mascot, the cuddly bandicoot has gone rogue since 2008, with recent rumours that Sony wants to taste the wumpa fruit again some time in the future. In secondary school, pretty much everyone I knew had experienced Crash Bandicoot in some form or another, whether it be through mediocre impressions of N. Gin or bonding over the fact that Wrath of Cortex was their only Crash game. For me, Crash Twinsanity brought together everything that I ever loved about Crash. It had a charming sense of humour, both written and slaptstick (see above picture), colourful characters and locations, new and old, as well as some of the most brilliant concept art I’ve ever seen! After completing it four times, it’s still a personal favourite.

4. Simpsons Hit and Run

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Cortex may be my favourite, yellow-skinned villain, but the Simpsons have to be my favourite, yellow-skinned domestic family (I actually Googled ‘yellow-skinned domestic family’, it seems no others exist!). The theme of my room when I was younger constituted entirely of The Simpsons memorabilia. Simpsons bedsheets, dolls of the Simpsons, Simspsons comics in the corner of my room: I think I’ve made the folks at Fox a lot of money! Hit and Run was always a bonding point among myself and other The Simpsons fans, even more than the show. Mixing Grand Theft Auto with Springfield made for a hilariously-addictive way to spend my time, and the only time I’ll ever experience driving a rocket car.

5. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

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I raise both hands in the air when I say that I haven’t played any of the Far Cry games. Sure, I played about thirty minutes of Far Cry 3 at my mate’s house, but it never reeled me in much. When I heard that Michael Biehn was voicing a commando cyborg who rose from the ashes of Vietnam War II to fight a cyber army and blood dragons, I ran straight for my debit card yelling ‘SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY’. The game exists independent of the Far Cry franchise and mimics the likes of the original Robocop: filled with satire, robotics and more weapons than a Texan gun shop!

6. The Matrix – Path of Neo

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Admit it, we’ve all asked that one friend of ours to pretend to shoot us so that we can attempt to doge that make-believe bullet like a complete badassThe Matrix is understandably one of the coolest cult films of my time and Path of Neo gave me an excuse to take the red pill and kick some ass. The lobby scene? Yeah you can do that. The fight with 13235232143 Agent Smiths? Oh, absolutely. Making your way through a Chateau maze fighting giant fire ants? Don’t ask!

7. Bioshock Infinite

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Arguably one of the coolest gaming titles of the past ever, enter the Bioshock series. As a PS3 player, I found it incredibly difficult to ignore this series, despite trying my best for a few years. ‘No thank you, my life is as weird and political as it is with Fallout in it!’. The series grew across current gen and I had to give in: oh was it worth it. With gratuitous violence, a tough-skinned concept and execution and one of the most mind-numbing endings I’ve ever played (I had to ring my girlfriend after I’d played it and basically cry down the phone attempting to explain it), it really is one of the best adventures you can ever experience. Also, it has Troy Baker, because what doesn’t have Troy Baker these days?

8. Battlefront 2

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It’s a simple fact: people love Jedi, there’s an entire religion based on it! Mention ‘Battlefront’ to anyone and they won’t talk about the first game, they’ll boast about that badass light-saber throw they did as Darth Maul and how they tried to mimic the ‘cable trick’ as Luke Skywalker on the Hoth map. LucasArts made a vast amount of brilliant Star Wars titles in gaming, but Battlefront 2 really shone as a game that was fun to play on your own, but absolutely necessary with your friends. Mos Eisley, you won’t just be remembered for your funky tunes and bar fights, but for your ‘Hero Assault’ matches, too.

9. Wario Land 3

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When the world was in awe over a selfless, friendly Italian plumber who risked his life to save princesses, I was busy sat in the back of our family car on holidays guiding an overweight, reckless mustachioed man to his next destination. Oh, and playing Wario Land 3, that was also a nice pastime! Originally an antagonist to Mario, the garlic-ridden Wario got his own franchise that soon grabbed my intention. Taking the Indiana Jones treasure-hunter stance, Wario had to find a variety of treasures to help him escape a music box, as well as make a bit of cash for himself. It had zombies, donuts, giant worms and a variety of wacky stuff that made me blissfully unaware that I was very travel-sick: I’ll always be thankful.

10. Mario Strikers Charged Football

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And finally, numero ten, Mario Strikers Charged Football. This was a game where I could still engage with Wario and his brutish antics, whilst still being able to admit to two things: ‘Why yes, I have played a Mario game’ and ‘No, sorry I’ve never played FIFA, does this count at all?’, I loathed football and played it, I had friends who loved football and played it – it certainly was for everyone. The campaign made me feel like a semi-professional footballer, whilst the multiplayer made me realise that I should pack in that ambition if it ever grew to become real. Great fun and one of the best games on the Wii, if only I still played on my Wii!

Booty Calls! Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

(Original article at ‘York Vision’)

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Warning. Review written by penniless first year who hasn’t bought the game. I’ve conducted my research and know this series very well, so keep yer epithets to yerself, yer port swillin’, sneaky gaggin’ reptile!

With a moderate opening title in the series, Assassin’s Creed has gone on to become Ubisoft’s biggest success story (that’s right, even bigger than that old Rayman game you played the hell out of). Gamers can immerse themselves into a world filled with a rich narrative, beautiful scenery to jump around in and killing. Lots of killing. Yet, with the recent announcement to make the series an annual release, as well as a certain degree of backlash to A.C. III compared with previous titles, is there a worry that fans may drop ship? Not at all – in fact, stay on that ship and shoot the hell out of some other ones.

This time around, players take control of cocky protagonist Edward Kenway, grandfather to that of Connor Kenyway, the previous lead role. The two of them live completely different lives. Whilst Connor spent his time getting high on herbal tea and stabbing redcoats in the name of Washington, Edward spends his raiding enemy ships for loot and sleeping with many a Caribbean courtesan (he’s unemployed, give the guy a break, eh?). He’s refreshing in his approach, feeling like a pick ‘n’ mix of previous lead assassins. A good man at heart, but completely reckless, players see how his character begins to grow as his epic adventures intertwine with the life of the Creed.

His playpen ain’t so shabby either. Set in the Caribbean, 1715, Edward encapsulates himself in the Golden Age of Piracy, a violent yet exciting time in world history. From Renaissance Italy to Damascus, players have taken part in an epic adventure of ‘Around the World in 80+ Hours Gameplay’ since the year 2007. Ubisoft have been known for visiting locales to create the best representation possible – that’s completely evident here. The vast oceans, the dense jungles, the metropolitan cities. I’m in my own pixelated world here, but it couldn’t feel more realised, even topping A.C. III’s impressive feats.

Now, I have to pick bits with this, as I feel the story may be the weakest part of the game. Sure, those concerned with the history and characters of this time period will be pleased. However, you don’t find yourself particularly interested in the main game, proving to be more of an effort in completing these missions as opposed to side quests. However, the ‘present day’ events concerned with Desmond  take a great turn, focusing more on Abstergo’s side of events. Their office has a Microsoft feel about it… interpret how you will.

All I could think of when I watched Jack Sparrow clashing swords on screen was ‘Why does Johnny Depp get all the fun?’ Now, you finally get a piece of the action. With a mix of land and sea exploration and combat, gameplay doesn’t go stale. From running across rooftops and the merciless fighting we remember, to striding across the oceans in the Jackdaw, diving into undiscovered caverns for treasure and wrestling the bajeezus out of sharks. Your crew even sings sea shanties for an authentic feel… sadly not the ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ theme tune.

Pirates, in one way or another, have steadily become a popular part of mainstream culture. Except video games. Everywhere except video games. Well, me mateys, I’m going to put a cannonball in that statement right now. This latest addition to ‘Assassin’s Creed’ doesn’t just revitalise this bloated series – it reconceptualises the pirate in gaming. So, is it a pirate’s life for you?