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Game development








Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.


By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Heat Signature’s Launch, And First Player Legend

A Leftfield Solution To An XCOM Disaster

Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

Postcards From Far Cry Primal

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Kill Zone And Bladestorm

An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Natural Numbers In Game Design

Naming Drugs Honestly In Big Pharma

Writing vs Programming

Let Me Show You How To Make A Game

New Heat Signature Video: Galaxies, Suction And Wrench-Throwing

What Works And Why: Nonlinear Storytelling In Her Story

My Idea For An ‘Unconventional Weapon’ Game

From Gunpoint To Heat Signature: A Narrative Journey

The Cost Of Simplifying Conversations In Videogames

What Works And Why: Invisible Inc

Our Super Game Jam Episode Is Out

What Works And Why: Sauron’s Army

Showing Heat Signature At Fantastic Arcade And EGX

What I’m Working On And What I’ve Done

The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

Heat Signature Needs An Artist And A Composer

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

What’s Your Fault?

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

One Desperate Battle In FTL

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing On The Internet

Shopstorm, A Spelunky Story

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

E3’s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Deckard: Blade Runner, Moron

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

A Different Way To Level Up

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

Blood Money And Sex

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4: The Movie Script


The following piece is bristling with devastating spoilers, so only continue if you’ve already seen it or don’t intend to.

Opera is rubbish. Space opera is only mildly better. No-one turns out to be anyone’s father in Serenity; royalty are not involved. There isn’t even a struggle between good and evil, and it has characters instead of charicatures. That, vaguely, is why it’s better than Star Wars.

I’m sorry, I love sci-fi, I happily endure the trashy bits and the awful acting, and lightsabers are awesome; but ultimately, I like things that are actually good. I prefer to genuinely enjoy something than keep my tongue in my cheek. Specifically, it was when I was crying, laughing and biting my fist at the same time that I decided Serenity is better than everything else.

The crying bit was the only one that owed itself partially to the preceding series – no-one could watch the film and not like Wash by that point, but for Firefly fans he’s an old friend, and his loss is absolutely wrenching; all the more so for being completely unexpected (sorry, people who ignore spoiler warnings). Usually when a character dies on-screen I’m praying we’re not going to be insulted by some flimsy device to bring them back or pretend it didn’t happen – revealing it to be a cheap trick to toy with an emotional involvement it never earned in the first place. This was the first time I was hoping for one of those, however dumb – it was the first time I’ve cared more about the character than the film itself.

Probably the most audacious part of Wash’s death isn’t the permanent loss of by far the best character, it’s that you’re laughing when it happens. If the surprise death in LA Confidential is jarringly sudden, it pales in comparison to this. Wash dies mid-gag – a good gag at that – and immediately after doing something brilliant. It’s cruel, but it’s not callous or cynical writing – it’s an acknowledgement that main characters don’t automatically get fifteen seconds of extra life after fatal incidents, that they don’t always go out sacrificing themselves, that the timing isn’t predictable. Violent death is quick and horrible.

There’s barely a minute’s grace before the jokes start again. It ought to feel incongruous, but then the humour was never flippant to begin with – most of the jokes revolve around the fact that they’re all going to die almost immediately. It was always a diversionary device for the characters with the funniest lines, so it’s never more appropriate than in the wake of a tragedy. As ever, it’s Wash’s inherent reasonableness and Jayne’s nihilistically pragmatic approach to machoism that compete for the most laughs, and you have to wonder again why no other sci-fi is anything like this funny.

The tension – the fist-biting bit of my emotional cocktail – is partly down to the stepping up of the scale of the story. Firefly was always about a bunch of fugitives trying to stay off the radar and make money; Serenity is the first time their story has spilled over into something affecting the whole universe. The personal scale of Firefly’s plots was part of its charm, but Serenity proves that a plot which connects that to the truly epic can be even more seductive. And the perfect link between the two has been very carefully set up throughout the series: River. It always made it clear that she was significant in some way, finally discovering this significance – and its magnitude – brings Serenity’s universe into focus.

The Alliance isn’t cosmetically unlike Star Wars’ Empire, but the context is crucial – in Serenity, the Rebellion’s already been quashed. There’s no war, if you don’t like them you just have to stay the hell away from anything resembling quality of life. And though the Alliance is the bad guy, it’s not the only one, and in the intro to Serenity you actually get their perspective (and it’s not that much less reasonable than the outlook of a patriotic country today). When the crew’s ploy forces the Alliance to face their figurative demons literally, both Mal and his nemesis lament the loss of innocent life – an unpleasantness other sci-fi feebly avoids with clones, drones and aliens.

That nemesis is another application of the fierce intelligence with which Serenity hacks away at sci-fi convention. An empire is led by bureaucrats, not a samurai and an electric pensioner. The guy you send to capture a sensitive target is your best black ops man – neither a freelancer nor a government official. Someone who is actually employed to do this sort of thing, and ruthlessly, spectacularly efficient at it. He’s stylish, certainly – the killing of the scientist in his first scene is one of the most macabre screen assassinations in memory – but it’s an elegant application of necessary force rather than a superfluous flourish. And when it comes to killing everyone the targets have ever known, that luxury is dropped without hesitation. Like every good agent, his violence is committed in a passionate belief in the cause, and the same understanding of the necessity of secrets, under-handedness and technically illegal operations that a real spy needs. This guy reassures his victims that they’ve lead a virtuous life before he executes them. He’s not evil, not even cruel, just ruthless.

It’s also brilliantly refreshing to see an a bad guy who, when the girl sneaks up behind him during the hero-nemesis fight, turns round and kicks her really hard. Nemeses are sick of getting knocked out with vases! If you keep doing that shit, women of action films, they’re going to have to hit you quite hard!

It’s not just rare for sci-fi to be this intelligent, it’s rare for something this intelligent to be so emotional. Memento and LA Confidential, though unquestionably cleverer than Serenity and utterly gripping, never put my engagement with the excellent characters to use in making me feel things. Or at least, what they made me feel now seems vague and academic compared to the wonderful trauma of watching Serenity. It has brains, heart, and space zombies.

Graham: I couldn't/can't go to any of the test screenings! This isn't fair!

Tom Francis: If it's any consolation, the mere act of getting to this isolated cinema took 34 e-mails of organisation and some rather stressful driving and getting lost. We missed the special Joss Whedon intro, but I don't especially regret that.

Bobsy: 2/3 of the way through Firefly now. It's ultra-good, and I can see it being justly revived post-Serenity. Sci-fi's going to be an interesting bit in the next couple of years, with Firefly and Star Wars slugging it out in the ratings, and Stark Trek being very, very dead.

Tom Francis: Admirably, but rather sadly, the film doesn't go out of its way to leave the door open for a new series - it's not out of the question, but it'd be very different.

Anonymous: It was certainly the most stressful cinema-going exercise I've ever undertaken. And driving with Steve Williams I changed religion at least three times: that man takes roundabouts with a vigour.

craigp: That was me, btw.

Graham: When Fox agreed to let Whedon take the property to Universal, to be turned into a movie, the contract stipulated that no TV show could be made for ten years after the movie. It seems unlikely there'll be a TV show again.

Plus, Whedon has said he's not entirely sure he can imagine taking the characters back to the small screen anyway. He's happy with them up on the big screen, and he's fine with there being a Serenity 2 anyway, assuming the first is a success.

Really hope Wonder Woman doesn't suck though. And the proposed Spike telemovie, which he's asked Minear to start writing.

roBurky: So, um, what is it?

Jason L: RSS feed title's a bit borked... I think.

Tom Francis: What's what?

The RSS feed title is part of the cunning hidden workings of this site - those numbers slot it in where I want it in the Best Films page, which is ordered alphabetically, going by the hidden numbers put in there to subvert it to preference order.

roBurky: What is Serenity?

Tom Francis: Oh right, sorry - it's a film, following on from an aborted series called Firefly, which hasn't been aired on terristrial UK TV yet, to my knowledge. It's Buffy creator Joss Whedon's pet project, and he joins Matt Groening in the corner of Amazingly Successful Writers Who Can't Get Their Sci Fi Series On The Air. Fox scrapped Firefly after eleven episodes or something, then aired the two-part pilot they originally refused to air. The DVD set of the series is available in the UK (for a mere 26 of your Earth pounds), and has three episodes that were never aired. They're some of the best, in fact.

Jason L: But in this case they're not cunningly hidden. They're showing, and appended to the end of the title as well... The feed shows "020Serenity020". If that's intended, fine - it just looked like a computer-flubbed character code to me.

...And Firefly has a massive fan following, at least in the US, because it's just awesome - right up there with Lost, Futurama, etc. If you have even a gram of Geek in you, see the film and grab the series.

Tom Francis: It's not intended exactly, but unavoidable. The codes are hidden on the page itself, but you can't make an RSS feed understand noscript tags (my favourites).

Graham: Speaking of Lost, don't suppose any of you fine chaps have seen 2x01 yet, have you? Only I just have and it was quite good, and I recommend watching it and so on.

Jason L: I just got back from a disappointingly under-populated showing - though I do live in the sticks in Middle America, so here's hoping the BDT campaign Tycho linked is going well elsewhere.

As a geek who has seen nary a second of the show (no Fox here, P2P's down right now, and still saving up for the set), it's not impossible that I'm uniquely qualified to comment on it from an outsider's perspective. In short, great film. Every person whose opinion I trust even a little had hyped it, so I went in with very high expectations - and the movie cruised on by them with its colors streaming off the mainmast.

One remarkable thing that sort-of deservedly gets tucked away behind the masterful characterization, SFX and humor is consistency - not only is this a universe that at its best is willing to entrust its viewers with silent space battles, real danger and callous necessities, but as far as I can recall there are no stupid moments - no boneheaded motivations, no points where Hollywood's hand darts in and gives someone a push. Even among first-rate films, few manage that seamless intelligence. Well done and encore!

roBurky: Ok, I went to see it today. And it was very good.

Every time it looked like it was going to fall into some sci-fi cliche, it did something unexpected.

And the pilot's death was something much commented on as very well done.

Tim E: Saw it this evening. Was fun. I realised that I wish Whedon would get an editor. It's all a bit smug.

Defragged: Off topic, but if you want to stop the film stuff showing up in the RSS feed, you can either add the movie stuff to the blog as a "Page" rather than a "Post" in Wordpress. Or you could give all of the blog posts a different category to everything else (say, Posts) and use a URL of http://www.kfj.f2s.c... ....php?cat=# where is the category number of the posts, as shown on the categories page of Wordpress. Voila. A blog posts only RSS feed.

Defragged: That last bit didn't work it should say "Where 'hash' is the category number..."

Zeno Cosini: Serenity seemed, in places, a deliberate riposte to those recent flaccid Star Wars films. I thought it was really enjoyable, especially the first half hour. Good ensemble acting, a charismatic cast and very slick editing: such a contrast to the lugubrious pacing of Revenge of the Sith, where each scene apparently had to end with a point made, a line of awkward dialogue hanging in the air, and a character turning to gaze moodily out of a window at a weightless GCI cityscape.

Tom Francis: Tim: you're nuts. Defragged: thanks, but I think I do want every post to appear in the RSS feed, even if some of the titles look odd. Zeno: heh. Also: you have a cool name.

I'm surprised it's not getting as strong a reaction as it deserves now that it's out. Perhaps the early reviews and buzz went too far and built it up impossibly. Can you have too much word of mouth? Apparently first weekend numbers were okay but not brilliant; hopefully it'll keep selling.

Zeno Cosini: Since I'll probably never get around to watching the DVD of the series, one question - why is Wash's console surrounded by a ring of plastic dinosaurs and palm trees? Films - other good stuff that's out at the moment: Primer (twisted indie timetravel sci-fi movie with a chronology that makes Memento seem straight forward), Wolf Creek (which is just the most downright malevolent horror film I've ever seen; and that IS a recommendation), a History of Violence (which is unusually straight for Cronenburg, but does have sudden moments of vertiginous weirdness to keep you on your toes) and the new Miyazaki movie, Howl's Moving Castle, which makes no sense at all but is stunning to look at. Btw, Tom, this is Will, sorry, keep forgetting to say that, if I didn't already. I tend to post as Zeno because... well, I just do.

Tom Francis: Ahh, I was thinking "Man, that's just what Will said about Primer."

I wish I could answer that question with a clip, but ripping from a DVD is a process that still eludes me. It's not really an answer, in fact, it's just the first scene with Wash in it in the pilot shows him playing with them. It was the scene they asked people to do when auditioning for Wash, so it's what Alan Tudyk does best. They never really come up again, except one brief mention, and the pilot with that scene in it wasn't aired until after the rest of the aborted series.

Jason L: Presumably, he spends a fair bit of time on boring watches. Shrug. Lots of questions in Firefly never got answered and possibly were never intended to be, though in an entirely different way from e.g. Lost. It's one reason why the people feel so real.

Jason L: I think, ridiculously enough, that it's the posters. Obviously, I haven't done formal research or anything - but I think the posters are too classy. In the theater, people's eyes seem to just glide off them. I think they can't tell whether it's a drama or a sci-fi flick, which is appropriate but doesn't get butts in seats. It got an OK promotion campaign from Universal - could have been sooner, but OK - and it wasn't running against anyone (Flight Plan beat it!). I think it needs brasher posters.

Of course, this (trainable) guy has a different opinion.

Tom Francis: Finally saw it again. For a few glorious minutes I was literally the only person in the cinema, but then one other dude came in just before it started. Huge cinema, though.

It's bizarre that it's still this tense, emotional and surprising the second time around. I think I finally have a trio of favourite films.

Jason L: "Great minds", eh? Two days ago, I went for my second run, having seen the series in the interim, and had the same experience - though I think my audience went up to five or so. Seeing a movie you love in that kind of privacy is Really Cool and heart-twistingly disappointing at the same time. (I will tell you that that audience included a maybe-6-year-old kid who his mother said "hadn't taken his pill that morning." He quieted right down once the movie started, though. I think it may have been the screaming leap ambush nightmare blood knife rape space mutants that did the trick. God Bless Parenting.)

I wish I could justify geekily seeing it half a dozen times or whatever in theater, but I don't think I can. I just don't have that much time. While I'm watching a movie at home, I can do something else too. I don't go to the theater much, though, so this is only the second movie (after Matrix 1) that I've seen twice on the big screen. I guess that honor'll have to be enough. :(

Jason L: How's this for a crackpot theory? Maybe the film's too potent for its own good - it sticks in your mind so well that you can't see it again too often. Maybe, maybe.

Jason L: Serenity. DVD. Tomorrow, 2005-12-20.