All posts

Games

Game development

Stories

Happiness

Personal

Music

TV

Film

TOM FRANCIS
REGRETS THIS ALREADY

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.

Theme

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

What Works And Why: Prey’s Intro

The start of Prey is one of very few narrative-based game intros that really worked for me. And it comes not that long after one in the same genre that especially didn’t: Mankind Divided. So I thought it might be interesting to replay both and compare what works and what doesn’t. Not to pick on Mankind Divided – I loved the game after the stumbling start – but just because you can be more specific with praise if you have something to contrast it against.

I talked through my thoughts on both intros as I replayed them in the videos here, and I’ll summarise and add some conclusions through the magic of text. Obviously both parts of this post spoil the intros to these games.

Prey
  • No intro cut-scene, you’re in control right away.
  • Starting in your apartment gives you a safe place to play around, and a few hints at who you are in this world.
  • If you’re intrigued, there are e-mails to read for more background, but the game is not held up for this exposition if you don’t want it.
  • The mysteries are big, and central to you:
  • Who am I in this world?
  • What is my brother’s work and what’s my part in it?
  • What are these tests for, and why is everyone so surprised when I do the obvious solution?
  • For each, you get enough info to speculate but not enough to clear it up, and they’re all intriguing to me.
  • The tests are framed as a thing you must do before you can go to space and Talos 1, treating that as an exciting reward. Going to space is exciting, I relate to this motivation. And it makes it cooler to be there, especially as it comes sooner than you’re led to believe.
  • Waking up as if the day is repeating raises further intriguing questions about your place in this world – especially when you realise it isn’t.
  • Breaking the glass is a great visual reveal: your first dramatic action is also the game’s most dramatic revelation so far.
  • Behind the scenes, all the notes, e-mails and environmental storytelling are interesting because they’re about you or people directly related to you, and feed into your many pressing questions about what’s going on.
  • I didn’t get to it in the video, but later when you emerge into the lobby, that’s a big, beautiful, visual reveal of a big piece of information – or a satisfying confirmation of what you’ve already twigged through your own investigations.

Sorry the mic gets drowned out in parts.

Mankind Divided
  • Non-interactive intro cut scene.
  • Starts with a news report about a terrorist incident, layered over footage of unknown men attacking other unknown men. Same incident? Seemingly not. Same men? Maybe. What’s this incident? Don’t know yet. Trying to tell two stories at once, and both are just ‘terrorists do bad things’ so far.
  • Long, talky briefing, all tell and no show. We’re going after an arms dealer. He’s selling to some faction. One team is gonna do one thing, I’m gonna… block? An entrance? To keep the Jinn out? Aren’t the Jinn already there? Isn’t that who the deal is with?
  • Also interact with some gizmo in some way that’ll save? Our undercover agent? Why, how, which one was he again?
  • Long, unusually difficult stretch of gameplay with no further explanation. What I do in the level seems unrelated to what the briefing said: I’m not stopping the Jinn getting in, I’m moving through a level beating them up.
  • Peter Serafinowicz and I keep calling each other up to be assholes to each other. I don’t like either of us.
  • Get to the deal. Bad guys are there but other bad guys kill them. I must unplug a helicopter!
  • I don’t know who the gold mask guys are but it doesn’t seem interesting or important. Some bad guys killed some other bad guys over some weapons. The new ones are mysterious, but to be honest I knew next to nothing about the folks they just killed either. They’re both just violent people who want weapons, that’s all the plot that’s been communicated after about 30 minutes of talking and fighting.
  • Long credits sequence of disjointed news reports and symbolic imagery.
  • Long conspirator chat that doesn’t clarify anything.
  • Game suddenly goes back into intro mode, with a long non-interactive talky sequence arriving in Prague. The game’s biggest twist so far – I’m a double agent! – is never really mentioned, only indirectly implied by the nature of this conversation about Interpol logistics.
  • Another inciting incident! An explosion! It doesn’t reveal or relate to anything else so far.
  • In the third of three intros, you wake up in your apartment. Some of the augs you didn’t choose are disabled now but some aren’t and you can’t see which ones because that screen is broken – until you go and do a mission that’s hard and annoying without knowing what your augs are.
Lessons:
Start from a place that needs no explaining

MD needs you to understand all the factions and political context of an arms deal, and a double-agent within one of them, to make sense of what you’re being asked to do and why you should care. You can’t really show that, so they just have to talk to you about it for 7 full minutes before you can start playing. The result is I didn’t really follow it and I don’t really care.

When you wake up in your apartment in Prey, all that really needs saying is that you’re going to work for your brother on a space station. The other stuff you don’t know is fun to figure out.

Unanswered questions are not automatically mysteries

Unanswered question: who are the gold mask guys who kill the other terrorists?
Mystery: why am I waking up as if my day is repeating?

The difference is that this mystery is:

  • Consequential: it matters a lot what the answer is.
  • Personal: the answer will affect my character specifically.
  • Hard to answer: there’s no obvious answer that isn’t interesting in itself.

With the gold mask guys, it’s not clear why it’s important who they are, they have no relation to my character yet, and a very likely answer is very boring: they’re just another group of terrorists who want weapons. If they at least didn’t take the weapons, that’d be something to pique some interest – a vendetta? A hit? But still, faction-kills-faction is always gonna struggle to rank on those three points.

Pick a reveal you can show

MD’s intro does have a cool piece of information to reveal, but it comes more than half an hour in, delivered through dialogue, and only implied. You’re a double-agent! Whoa! That makes both you and Interpol more interesting. But I learned that from a loading screen tip, after a long conversation that conveys it so indirectly I didn’t grasp it at all.

Could MD have done their reveal visually? Maybe. If your first mission had been to retrieve some vital drive, you could have a scene like:

MILLER (VO): When you get to Prague bring it straight to my office, Jensen, we can’t take any risks.
JENSEN: Understood.
We see him put the drive in a brown paper bag and leave the train. As soon as he steps onto the platform, he drops it in the trash. He passes a woman sitting at a cafe, touches her table as he squeezes past, and without looking at her:
JENSEN: Package is in, you’ve got 20 minutes.
We stay on Jensen as he blends into the crowd, but can see her get up as she leaves the frame.

There’d still be some Tell before and after the Show, but the reveal itself is a big, dirty betrayal we see with our own eyes.

Prey’s big reveal is that your reality is an artifice and you’re the subject of a test. That’s an easy one to show visually, and they do it with style: you unwittingly shatter the false world’s thin facade with a wrench blow.

More ,

Ben: Great analysis.

During the lab sequence in the Prey intro, you were looking around for tells that Morgan is in a simulation. There is a subtle clue that the environment you're in is fake, but it's placed earlier on.

On the first day, when you take your second trip in a 'lift', down from the roof to the lab, there are dirty marks on the floor in exactly the same places on the 'roof' level and the 'lab' level. [For anyone who hasn't played the game, it's later revealed that the lift is fake, and the roof and the lab levels are in fact the same room, reconfigured with moving walls. You can also drop an object on the 'roof' level and it'll still be there in the lab].

Grant: Thanks to the start of this video, I've just now noticed that during the static flickers while staring into the mirror (gender selection screen), Morgans' eyes go neuromod-red.

Sunshine: "Peter Serafinowicz and I keep calling each other up to be assholes to each other. I don’t like either of us."

Is this Deus Ex or Spaced?

Aegeus: Adam being a double agent seemed clear enough - he and the girl are clearly tracking the Illuminati and trying to figure out what the mission in Dubai was really about - but it still takes far too long to get to the point. (Besides, are you really a double agent if nobody on the task force is supposed to know they're working for the Illuminati? Or are you just a single agent who knows too much?)

The Dubai segment mainly exists to tutorialize gameplay, so I feel like they could have saved a lot of time by folding it into Prague. Bomb goes off, gold mask dudes show up and start terrorizing people, and they give you a gameplay segment to learn how to sneak up on dudes and stab them with arm-swords. Probably takes less than ten minutes from start to gameplay. And it gives you a mystery with more personal stakes to start: They attacked your city, where you live. And they're probably related to the there's an obvious motive suggested, which again has personal stakes for Adam.