Interview: Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, Valve

To the tune of: Jonathan Coulton – Re: Your Brains

This is an interview I did for IGN with the lead Valve writers (apart from Laidlaw), but was cut short. IGN has generously allowed me to put the full Q&A up here.

I’m going to focus on storytelling and dialogue if that’s okay, which means I guess Erik will be answering more of the questions.

Erik: Chet’s a writer too you know!
Chet: Better duck, as that phone’s going to be heading towards your head.

Erik Wolpaw.

The primitive murals have developed a lot from the graffiti of the first game, and they’re an important element of the story-telling.
Erik: You go from Portal to Portal 2, the fidelity of the art direction now has the whole of Valve working on it. The idea is that it’s the same character drawing on the walls from Portal 1, we had an opportunity to make a more fuller developed version of his art style; this outsider art, primitive, one of the inspirations.

Is it really 99999 years since the last portal?
Erik: It’s not a literal number there, it’s kinda rolled over; whatever number it had there as it’s maximum it wasn’t there. It’s the same character. Again the scrawling on the walls so maybe they were made two months after Portal. The one thing from the triptych; we keep arguing about this, can it be a triptych if there’s six panels?
Chet: isn’t it tripe-tych?

Isn’t is sextych with six panels?
Erik: Sextech sounds bad. Septic doesn’t sound good either. The idea was that those retell the events of Portal; one idea there is that the ratman, we’ve never called him that in-game, observed what you did in Portal 1; he was at least alive at the time Portal 1 happened. You can do a little bit of storytelling there, and makes the environments more visually interesting; we had an artist who we kind of devoted to coming up with the Ratman’s style, Andrea, who was also the hand model for Left 4 Dead. We cut the finger from that off on her non-drawing hand.

You’ve also introduced a non-antagonistic character. Was Richard Ayoade your first choice for Wheatley? How does it feel to settle for Stephen Merchant?
Erik: Ha, they were both parallel choices.

I have to admit I was listening in to your previous Q&A (with Craig Pearson from PC Gamer).
Chet: Oh, so you have diet tips now as well?
Erik: Craig cut out crisps and chocolate and started jogging.

And that made his beard grow?
Erik: That adds weight.
Chet: Jogging and cutting out food doesn’t lose weight.

You’ve also got these displays that in the first game were highly informative and told you about what was coming up in the next level, but in this have become more surreal like the Animal King:
Erik: Oh, those! The idea being Aperture’s this absurd funhouse of science and they’ve planned that someday something’s going to blow up but for whatever reason they want people to keep testing so we’ll have messages to help you test even though there’s nobody around to deal with it.
Chet; One of the characters in Portal 2 is Aperture Science itself. There is a lot you’re going to learn about Aperture Science, you’ll see a lot of the behind the scenes stuff, that’s just a hint of what you’ll be exposed to; the idea of a science company that’s gone mad with science, where they put that first in front of everything else.

Of course what you wrote on the portal 1 website and the creator of the company’s initial forays into, what was it?
Erik… shower curtains. That may or may not reappear in the game.

You have five writers on Portal 2; who’s the one you’d get rid of?
Erik: Oh, Laidlaw, in a second. (Mark Laidlaw, lead writer on Half-Life and Half-Life 2).
Chet: Laidlaw, no doubt.
Erik: Unless you need an email sent.
Chet: He’s good at sending email.
Erik: But otherwise, out.
Chet: Mark and Ted maybe. Though they’re both working on DOTA too now, which is a pretty thankless task so god bless ’em.
Erik: 100 characters that all need 10,000 lines of dialogue. “I’m a bloodseeker, I’m seeking blood”. No, it’s pretty easy.
Chet: Laidlaw, clear out your desk now.
Erik: I’m a headcleaver, I’m going to cleave your head.
Chet: You know we kind of all move around on stuff.
Erik: To answer your question, Laidlaw. You wouldn’t even have to ask the writers, you ask anyone, ask the fans: Laidlaw.

Erik Again

And if it came down to just the two of you? The other three having been removed?
Erik: That’s tougher, we’ve known each other for a long time.
Chet: Let’s be clear; Jay’s going to die of natural causes. Jay, our third writer, this is a wake-up call. He smokes, he’s overweight and he’s going to drop dead very soon.
Erik: (laughs) He’s currently using his wife’s handicapped parking bay to park closer!
Chet: His wife’s got a busted hip and he’s like “Great! This is less walking for Jay now.”
Erik: It would be great if you could publish an article about how Jay should clean up his act. He quit smoking (for 15 minutes) ten times during the making of Portal 2 and sometimes making games is stressful…


That’s not really quitting, is it?
Chet: No, he’d quit! He’d say I’m done.
Erik: He was taking medicine. Every single sort of patch. He’d try to deny it when he started back on; but you know when someone’s smoking, they can’t hide it.
Chett: He’s so bad aobut the smoking, we’re in a meeting, we’re kinda just writing some lines, kinda jamming, and we’re like “where’s Jay”? He can’t wait, just leaves in the middle. We want him around; I wish it was Laidlaw who was overweight and smoking.
Chet: We could introduce them to Mark; ‘Mark, you tried these yet?”
Erik: I want you to please write in the article; Jay, Stop. Eat better. Get some exercise and stop smoking.
Chet: Actually, if one of the three things he changed, it’d probably be enough\
Erik: We’re concerned about him. Mark, give or take, but Jay we want.

Personality constructs; Wheatley is killed off quite quickly; GladOS is already dead; Chell is brain damaged. You obviously hate everybody, but who do you hate most? Women, Ais, the British… or someone else?
Erik: Laidlaw.
Chet: A British woman would be the ultimate enemy.
Erik: You haven’t played the whole game yet. They’ve all got their flaws and bad things happen to them. It’s an open question; “is the character you play brain-damaged?” Pretty clearly you’re solving some puzzles; Wheatley’s kind of obsessed with it, but then you have woken from a long sleep, so you might be briefly disorientated.
Chet: there’s a whole bunch of more characters coming down the way as well.

And are they all another bunch of stereotypes you want to kill?
Chet: (laughs) yeah, yeah. I mean Merchant isn’t necessarily a stereotype because he is truly British rather than “Oi, Guv!” We did at least cast a real British person as opposed to Team Fortress where we were like “Can you do an Australian accent? Eh… close enough! Let’s record these lines.”

Log interviewing Chet & Erik

Looking at GladOs’ speech; in the first one she was kind of authoritarian and dictatorial; not nastily-intentioned, she just didn’t care. In this one, she’s using the language of negotation and diplomacy to cloak absolute viciousness and murderous intent.
Erik: Well, you did kill her at the end of Portal; GladOS goes from this impersonal institutional voice in Portal 1, to at the end, she’s become much more human and she’s negotiating with you, but also hostile at points, and much more human-sounding. We didn’t want to just do the same arc again, as we figured no-one was gonna buy that.

You’re lucky in that you’ve worked on games that work on every level; story, looks, mechanics, sounds…
Erik; I haven’t worked on a game yet that I don’t like, but there are people who work for other companies who make games that they’re not necessarily proud of but they still need to go talk about it. I’m very lucky to have worked at Double Fine and then here.

Yeah, Psychonauts had one tiny flaw, the platforming, but beyond that it was perfect.
Chet: Ah, yes; Meat Circus.

(Chet is pulled away to film him dancing with Lady Gaga or Log or someone.  He returns later, looking traumatised.)

How you use the music to tell the story; falling water, sound effects, chirping monkeys, and so forth.

Erik: Mike Morasky is the sound director; Dave Pfeizer from the sound team from Dead Space. They’re a lot denser, more layered than they were in Portal. This is because we’ve got 9 people working on it, the entire team and the full force of Valve. It’s a full-scale valve production. Mike has done this procedural music stuff, so that some of the puzzle elements each create tones, and as you’re moving them around they generate tones in relation to each other. It’s subtle; you start noticing it, these things are all making sound and as you move them around they create all these different tones. Then he does all the music as well; he comes from a film scoring background; so that’s the traditional “we’re placing music to heighten the emotion, to help you feel what’s going on”. What’s interesting is there are scenes where we write them, where we know what’s going to happen, these are pivotal moments later in the game, you play test them and they’re kinda working and people don’t entirely explain what’s going on. Next thing is you layer in the animation, and it starts to become more comprhensible to people, and then the music comes in and (Clicks fingers) things really click. Y’ know, people can understand it on an intellectual level .The difference mace by Mike when he underscores the rhythm and different emotional beats of this scene with the proper music, no-one doesn’t understand it. It helped people who’d played it a hundred times, but also helped first-time players, so that they understand it first time. It’s not rocket science, people do it in movies all the time, but it just has this effect to help people understand. They’re not cut-scenes hese are sort of linear, but you do have some sort of agency in the scene, but there’s key transition points where the music will change.


So not like LucasArts iMuse them?
Erik: We’ve shown these excursion funnels, which are these kind of slow-moving tractor beams and you can redirect them. When you’re in it, there’s very soothing calming music that’s very different from the music outside – but when you jump out, he does something procedurally that smoothly transitions into whatever the music is outside. I still go in, load up a level, and jump in and out of the excursion funnels, because it’s entertaining from a sound perspectiv.e

The birds, our HR director went on vacation to Peru and recorded the birds for Dave, so those are authentic Peruvian birds. Those birds technically shouldn’t be where Apeture science is – maybe that’s one of the horrors of the Combine, they’ve introduced non-indigenous birdlife.

The Demo Suite

The difference between the single-player and multi-player scripting, has to move the humour away from dialogue and towards slapstick; is that fair?
Erik:Yes, it’s a lot more physical; something we learned from L4D. We couldn’t be heavy-handed, we need to shut up more. GladOS needs to get in and out, and there’s a skeletal motivation and jokes, but really you’re talking to your partner. IT’s a game about constant communication and we didn’t want to get in the way of that. It’s like “hey, we’re going to do some comedy now so shut up, stop having a fun time!” Even though we knew that from L4D, we still wrote a bunch of gags for co-op that we eventually cut. It was good material, but we were thinking still in the single-player space; co-op people are a different mind-set, they want to talk about what they just did and screw around.

Comedy in that non-verbal in that situation, it’s universalisable and it doesn’t need translating.
Erik: Yeah; you’re competing with the two of us having an experience and integrating that into the conversation; that’s the real story in co-op, the other thing is for motivation.

Does the co-op story tie into the main story?
Erik: Yes

Is that something you’re able to talk about?
Erik: No; we can say that the co-op story happens after the singleplayer story. Having said that, you don’t need to necessarily need to play them in that order. But you know that apeture science isn’t going to get blown off the face of the earth by the end of Portal 2.

There’s an amazing density of information in there; music, design, murals. So much writing!
Erik: Jay and I, Chet was working on other stuff, but came in later. Because of Valve’s editing process, we throw out a lot of stuff, so the story kind of evolves as the gameplay evolves. Apart from, occasionally having to take a break for a couple of days to write a Team Fortress update or comic or something, we were pretty much dedicated to Portal.

Doing one project for period of time might feel stale
Erik:We do other stuff. Writing comes in a little bit late. We do another big pass when the game really starts coming together; there’s a sense in the beginning that it’s all still very loose, we’re not going to ship this, but then time’s ticking down and well this is the real stuff, and this better be good. The pressure comes at the end in the non-experimental phase.

Is there anyone in overall charge of the story; design or story led
Erik: It’s back and forth, we don’t have a strict wall between design and writing. We’re all together in the same room, designers and writers. The entire team looks at it, we propose a story structure that seems to fit, and make changes as we go along. At the point of individual lines, we’re not running that by the whole team, other than the fact we might wire it up and get some feedback.

You’ve thrown a lot of stuff away.
Erik: Especially, with GladOs dialogue. With Merchant, we had four four hour sessions and we temp-recorded some of that stuff, and threw it away. We have 16 hours of merchant reading lines, and obviously there isn’t 16 hours of him reading lines in the game. You pause at certain points, and he’ll rattle on a certain points. The jump he’ll keep going, or in the container. GladOs, Ellen MaClaine, is local, though she’s not a fulltime employee. If we want to try something during the production we can get her in once a week. Wheatley could be who he was; GladOS, she needs to be there through the game, start somewhere and end somewhere, so we would try stuff and see what works – lots of back and forth on that.

The other buddy-bots – personality spheres – do you pick the actor after you’ve picked the character?
Erik: Without giving away what’s a personality and what’s not, there are other characters you meet and they had their own challenges with different actors. Sometimes, we wrote the character and had a voice in our head but wasn’t as clear cut as Merchant, so we hire a voice actor, not Billy Wise, but a Billy Wise sort of person who does a lot of voices, and we go in the studio and try a bunch of different stuff, and see what we like. There was another character in the game, who we did have a voice in mind, sort of Stephen Merchant, and can we get this guy, and we did, which was awesome.

Can’t wait to find out.
Yeah, you’ll find out soon. It’s strange, movies don’t do this; you know everything as soon as possible.

The radios; the update that introduced that was to show off Portal 2. Classical music and jazz.
That was a neat thing for pretty hardcore people. There is a little bit of that in the game, not as much as in the update. It broke the fiction, it was a meta thing to announce Portal 2, it was something we layered on. We might want to update that in Portal 1 and take it back out. You can’t make that the central component of the game as everyone’s just going to give up. It’s a nice Easter Egg. There are several layers of Easter Eggs in Portal, spoilers we can’t talk about, that people will talk about.

I don’t see enough of myself; I enjoyed seeing Chell going through the portals, which was the coolest moment at the start of the first game.
That’s why we kept in in for Portal 2. It’s tough in a first person game when you really see the action, somersaulting through portals or whatever. You get a lot of that in co-op. One of the reasons the co-op bots are so highly animated is that you get to linger on your partner. We didn’t have Chell in the co-op because a) she’s in the single-player game and b) there’s the threat of death and in co-op we need this mechanic where you can die and be reborn again and again. If we didn’t explain it, it would be a bit grisly with Chell coming back to life again and again, and undermine the single-player. Teh bots just made sense for co-op, as you can just rebuild or replace them.

Mirrors in the game; not included. Why is that? Too confusing design-wise (mirrors and portals?)
We actually had something which I can’t fully describe as it’s a spoiler, but it did go to third person at one point, mainly for effect; universally the playtesters didn’t get it and felt dirty. We tried putting it on screens, so you saw yourself, but it was just jarring. You will have more opportunities to observe yourself. We actually had a mirror in the container where you wake up, the hotel room, as Chell, but there were various technical reasons we couldn’t keep it in. That container ride is weird, a physics experiment; you’re in a blank place on the map that has the geometry that’s all projected on the geometry that’s being destructed. There’s a commentary note, when you get to play the game with the guy who set that up, Gray Horsefield, WETA, KK and LOTR; it’s all smoke and mirrors that ironically didn’t allow for actual mirrors.

Portal 2 is out in, what April? Shit, go to a proper site for that kinda shizzle.

The Working Wounded

Bad Poetry, from when Maria and I split up. Please don’t read this.

To the tune of: Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun

Gogol #3

Shards and splinters at the centre of the black
Rotating, clashing, pulling
I look down, aghast
And draw my lapel across,
daintily, hoping it doesn’t show.

Even so;
it gnaws and itches;
grinds nerves and memories
together beneath my shirt’s pun like
matched ends of a broken bone.

I walk on.
It doesn’t show.

RPS: Mnemotechnics and Ultima Underworld II

This is a piece I’ve written for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I’ve reposted the whole thing below because a) my hits aren’t going to hurt them and b) it’s very personal to me. If you want more information about the game, go read it on RPS – the commenters really know their stuff about Ultima.

To The Tune of: Leon Rosselson – Palaces of Gold

This is a piece I’ve written for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I’ve reposted the whole thing below because a) my hits aren’t going to hurt them and b) it’s very personal to me. If you want more information about the game, go read it on RPS – the commenters really know their stuff about Ultima.

Let me start in the middle; I own a palace.

My palace is strange. I mean, it’s really strange. I’ve owned it since 1990, which is over twenty years now. Bits of it are in disrepair, tattered, cobwebbed fragments of texture and space, but much of it’s intact and strangely ageless. The way in, for me, is a tiny room in the North-West corner. This room is a comfortable home-from-home, built like a sauna with wood on the floor and walls, a roaring fire, a stacked bookshelf, some food and beer on the table. There’s a secret door behind the bookshelf. Behind that door are some small runes on a table, some drinks, another secret door, and my most precious memories. They’re the only ones I’m not going to tell you about.

You knew this from the beginning but my keep is no physical palace. It’s a Memory Palace, a mental construct used before computers or even printing. Mine is based on the first floor of Lord British’s castle from Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, a game that was the peak of the Western RPG before Morrowind. In UUII, you play the Avatar, a hero trapped in a castle whilst an enemy invades his world, and who must explore the maze of the basements to find the way out. Consider this, then, a retrospective about the sadly-defunct Ultima series, a discussion of an archaic psychological technique used by mystics since the dawn of time but curiously in abeyance during the modern era, and a pyx about the potential for the things we call games to become more than the structural limitations of engine design.

Turn left out of my room, and you’re in Iolo’s chamber. He’s an old crossbow-wielding comrade, a mentor figure to the Avatar who’s stayed in Britannia since Ultima 1 and hence has aged much more rapidly than your friend. He was crudely depicted in the early games but he’s grown up as the series has gone on, until he’s key to the plot of Ultima 7 and 9. He reminds me of older friends and archery, oddly enough, but I don’t have that many memories that fit that, save for really good tutors- smelly Mr Hurst, who taught Latin and Greek, or Dr Walker, who gave us all snuff and sherry while he tried to teach us about Kant.

Memory Palaces are imaginary devices used to retain and structure memories. They’re also known as the Method of Loci. Essentially, they’re a way of using man’s over-developed spatial awareness and memory for locations as an aide memoire – you find a location that you know intimately, and lock to it important memories. It’s a bit like the tricks those chaps who memorise long strings of numbers do, but developed for the long-term retention of ideas as opposed to the short-term. However, I, in my youth, completely misappropriated it – you’re meant to use it for important facts, chunks of text and maths, and so on – using it for memories isn’t normal. I did it because I thought it sounded amazing, because I couldn’t sleep at nights and because my non-visual memory was awful. I used UUII because I knew it better than any real world location.

Down the corridor is a t-junction, with a door opposite. Inside is the warrior Dupre, another old companion, along with enough crates of beer to fill a brewery. This isn’t suspicious forethought on Dupre’s part, just a reflection of his alcoholism – he was first encountered in Ultima III in a pub where he could only say “drink up!” and throughout the series he was trekking over the increasingly-large Britannia “testing beer” for Brommer’s Britannia, a guide book a bit like a fantasy Les Routiers. Hence this room is a reflection for me of every time I’ve been pissed – and as a Brit, this room is chockablock with memories. I remember a few sneaky cans of beer on my last day of school, dancing home when Man Utd came back to win the European Cup, finding a friend passed out in the corridor and helping them home, praying to the ivory throne on so many occasions they’ve blended into one, passing out in my gown and mortarboard on a posh lawn two hours after my final exam, and many other occasions. Drinking, drinking, drinking.

The art of memory is the science of mnemotechnics. The method of loci isn’t the only traditional method for preserving memories, just the only one my ten-year old self had heard of. There isn’t any hard evidence as to where it was first used, though ancient Egyptians and Pythagoreans are the usual suspects. Francis Yates, 1960s occult and neoplatonist writer extraordinaire, wrote that “the most common account of the creation of the art of memory centers around the story of Simonides of Ceos, a famous Greek poet, who was invited to chant a lyric poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. While praising his host, Simonides also mentioned the twin gods Castor and Pollux. When the recital was complete, the nobleman selfishly told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed upon payment for the panegyric, and that he would have to get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned. A short time later, Simonides was told that two men were waiting for him outside. He left to meet the visitors but could find no one. Then, while he was outside the banquet hall, it collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were so disfigured that they could not be identified for proper burial. But, Simonides was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them for burial. This experience suggested to Simonides the principles which were to become central to the later development of the art he reputedly invented.” This sounds like utter nonsense, but it’s a good story, and was reason enough for Middle Ages monks to use Simonides’ model.

The Library
I first found out about Memory Palaces from Umberto Eco, and his books are amongst the many I keep in Nystul’s library, way over on the other side of the Great Hall. Nystul is one of the two Beardy Men in Castle British, the other being the doomed sage Nelson. Nystul is also a powerful wizard and the spitting image of Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose, the origin of the Memory Palace idea in the first place. My memory is hazy here, so this place is oddly murky and badly imagined – there are bits of the parallel worlds you visit later in the game intermingled here, Killorn Keep and the haunting Scintilius Academy. All favourite books are here – Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Borges’ Labyrinths, etc.

Where did the Underworld games come from? Older readers, and those who’ve been messing around with DOSbox, will remind there was a profusion of 2D first-person dungeon-crawlers, like the classic Wizardry, back around when most of us were being born. Amongst these was the precursor to the Ultima series ‘Akalabeth: World of Doom’ (1979), made by the teenage Richard Garriott for the Apple II (and parodied in one of the levels of UUII). Though monochrome and line-based, Akalabeth featured the basics of most RPGS, Eastern and Western – underground first-person dungeons and a top-down map. If we’re to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers theory, Garriott had a full 10 years of developing first-person roleplaying games, giving him a tremendous advantage in knowing what worked, what was easy and what was currently impossible when it came to making the Underworld games. That kept the Ultima series at the front of the pack until everyone else caught up – sadly, Garriot’s recent track-record indicates he wasn’t able to convert that head-start into a long-term advantage.

Love and Hate
Turn right past Dupre’s boozatorium, and you find the guest quarters – featuring Patterson, the Mayor, who (SPOILER) is a repeated traitor, loyal to the avatar’s worst enemy. Here I used to remember conmen or slimy people, like a short kid called Daniel who conned me out of my entire stack of World Cup 90 Panini swaps when I was 9 and who’s probably a lawyer now. In my head, his room is the equivalent of the Great Book of Grudges. Around the corner is Feridwyn – an innocent orphanage keeper who you can repeatedly accuse of being a traitor, and whose room houses my regrets – which I’m not going into.

Julia The Tinker and Lady Tory are also round the corner; two clever and passionate women living next to each other. Julia has been a tinker for over 200 years, though she doesn’t seem sure it’s the right job for her and she seems to have had a facelift since Ultima VI. She’s something of a love interest for the avatar so this room is where I keep all memories of, ahem, you know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Kieron on you here and turn this into a tell-all of every relationship and this room is a mess of first-kisses and other icky stuff, so let’s move on quick.

The Ultima games weren’t intended to be just first-person RPGs though. The Akalabeth dual-level style had continued throughout the Ultimas but whilst developing Ultima 6 (1988) it was decided to drop their nascent 3D dungeon-crawling engine from production, as at that stage they could only do physics in 2D (or isometric 3D), and spin it off into its own series. At this stage the Ultima series divides into two, with Ultima 7, 7 1/2: Serpent Isle and 8: Pagan sticking with the isometric viewpoint that had come from the map levels, and the Underworld games plumbing the dungeons’ 3D depths, before reunifying for the awful unplayable mish-mash that was Ultima 9.

Where did the Underworlds lead to? Underworld I: The (apocalyptic, tough) Stygian Abyss was released in 1992, two years before Doom, two months before Wolfenstein 3D’s release, and managed true 3D with real-world physics four years before Duke Nukem 3D tried to make a frankly rubbish spiral staircase seem cutting edge. Of course, System Shock was built with the same engine, to take advantage of the sudden success of the FPS genre that had been. Only Underworld-tribute Arx Fatalis and Oblivion since have managed to get near Underworld’s achievement – and Arx was crippled by bugs whilst Oblivion was undermined by Bethesda’s decision to make the plot secondary to the world. That said, the obvious heirs are the Bioshock games, taking both the rich scripting, exciting action, and RPG elements.

The Rest
Lord British’s rooms are unusual in that they’re on their own floor and feature a treasure chest you have to cheat to break into; I associate them with both comfort and authority, like lying down in a mid-Winter blizzard on a mountaintop in Flims or when I was sent to the Rabbi’s office for blasphemy. The great hall with its (for the time) amazing stained glass windows, represents ceremonies, funerals and weddings. The dining hall was always packed so represented gigs and festivals. The servants quarters has no association for me and the secret passages riddling the outside of the castle are plain empty.

I stopped adding substantially to my memory palace maybe ten years ago. It’s not that there’s not lots of room to expand; Underworld II was subtitled “Labyrinth of Worlds” and featured eight other heart-breakingly strange and well-designed worlds that you had to visit, where I could have crammed in memories; no, it was just that I didn’t find myself with the time to retreat there for several years, ironically generating memories that I didn’t store and now have mostly lost.

In fact, this is where UU2 trumps even Planescape: Torment a little – you never feel forced to explore these worlds, you’re desperate to visit them because of the well-written descriptions and they’re all essential to the plot, not like the somewhat odd wandering at the end of Planescape. There’s Killorn Keep, a floating parallel to your world which the Guardian conquered years before; the desolation of the Scintillus Wizard Academy, where your hunt for survivors presages System Shock; the frozen city that has one hallucinating survivor, who you later meet in a dream world; the bizarre programmable alien world of Talorz with its floating organic robot donut things; and the sad, sad Tomb of the defeated hero Praecor Loth.

The Ruins
How does a palace fall? Normally either by siege without or betrayal within; mine fell by both storm and strife, but the starting factor was… distraction. In times of peace and happiness, I left off the palace and didn’t visit. Many of the important memories remained, but others vanished, details faded, significance forgotten and the rotten hearts falling out of the stories. Despite this rot , it lasted until recently, and I could bring up the rooms at will.

The final dissolution, however, was heartbreak. A traumatising end to a beautiful relationship, meant for a time that all attempts at recollection bounced back off the lost object of my affection. Previously, I’d slotted ex-girlfriends in amongst the doomed empath Lady Tory and the avatar’s old friend Julia – but these new memories didn’t need storage, they were strong and intrusive by themselves. It’s hard to maintain a memory palace at the best of times; much harder when every memory triggers an involuntary painful recollection of a lost love, overriding, eroding and breaking hard-made associations. I am rebuilding it, slowly, but it’s no longer a working palace; rather it’s an artefact, a memory of the memories I once held dear.

Before its untimely demise at the hands of EA, Ultima had a fair claim to be the world’s number 1 RPG series. Yet, after the disaster of Ultima 9 and the defection of the key members of both the Origin and the Looking Glass teams, EA seems to have decided that the Ultima franchise can be allowed to die when the still-profitable Ultima Online finally karks it. Likewise, before personal computers, the method of loci was the premier amidst many memory techniques mankind used to fix precious ideas in our heads, trumping books for ease of access and permanence of storage. Both Ultima and The Method are now, effectively dead. The key reason both of these memes failed to propagate was a lack of care on the parts of their curators, combined with duplication of function. Mmenotechnics has been made obsolete by other sources of instant, on-demand information, specifically the internet and always-on mobile phones. No-one needs specialist knowledge any more, just a knowledge of the best methods for searching for your particular information. Even basic memory needs have weakened – how many of us know all our families phone numbers any more? If/when the internet falls over (and it will) we’re all going to be screwed. Meanwhile, EverQuest, World of Warcraft and Oblivion have undermined the need for Ultima.

If you want to play Ultima Underworld II, you can download it here. You’ll need Dosbox to run it.The excellent music is also available on Abandonia Frequency.

When I say ‘Ultima Underworld II made me who I am today’ I mean, it really did. I’ve not really talked about the game itself here, but it is a classic of pared-down storytelling and delightful secrets, just inaccessible due to its crude interface and graphics, which once upon a time were revolutionary. It shaped who I am and it let me retain it in the face of a catastrophically bad memory. That’s not something I’m ever going to forget.


Interview: Chris Rippy, Robot Entertainment

To the tune of: Kraftwerk – The Robots

Here’s the transcript of an interview for Rock, Paper, Shotgun I did with Chris Rippy, Producer, Robot Entertainment (formely Ensemble, creators of Age of Empires) about their new game Orcs Must Die; the original preview is here:


Why a tower defence game, not another RTS?
Good question. In the history of our older company, we’ve wanted to do a bunch of different things, but it hasn’t come out in the past. There were a bunch of us playing horde mode and defence games, and we prototyped this out of merging those. From there, we started talking about the art, the rest of the studio got excited, and here we are today.

The art style is orcs & goblins, World of Warcrafty, with a Gamebryo lightness and brightness. Did you think your genre was new, so you went for something safe, to appeal to a more mainstream demographic?
It’s more that we had our heads in a dungeon space, in sense of location; we talked fantasy stuff for a time but we just thought it was funny to kill orcs. They give us the opportunity to do a lot of things with them. Classical fantasy gives us a grounding; people know what how these creatures behave; they know that a little runner goes really quickly through the world, and you should respond accordingly. We can make them funny, slice them up and that makes us happy.

It seems like a very traditional tower defense but from a third person; however, there’s no levelling up; are there more toys to play with?
There are actually a lot of different ways that we’re planning on upgrading or changing the way you play. We have a system that comes on about halfway through that lets you customise how you want to play the game. If I’m enjoying the strategy side more than the action side, I can say let’s put these bonuses towards these traps – or if I’m an action guy, let’s be more melee. There’s an entire tech tree and, not to overstate, but it really does give you a chance to make the game how you want it, because there are people who want to get in there hand-to-hand and there are people who want to stand up on a balcony and watch the mousetrap work. It’s exciting, but one of the bigger challenges has been balancing that out.

Lego Logo

We reward you for making more complicated combos. The combination of the traps, the way the enemies respond to you, and the physics introduced into the world by the flip trap, and the way you’re down in the action. You can imagine later levels that have more than one rift, more than one door, with units that can bypass the traps. Imagine if something was in the air.

You’re a musician; how come you’re outsourcing the music?

I’m a musician for fun. In the past, my brothers did music for us, and this time we’ve run into some great guys who’ve done the music for the game – Gleek, Matt Piersal’s company – working on Age of Empires online and a ton of games. You can tell when you listen to it that it’s not very period piece – heavy metal that riffs when you do a headshot.

You obviously don’t think the tower defence genre is saturated then.
We’ve had a lot of people who’ve played through the game and never made the tower defence link. We won’t be talking about that as much as we’re talking about the game as a whole, and the choices that you make when you want to mix it up.

Why is it singleplayer? Why no level editor?
We wanted it to be tight, first. We’re a really small team; there are a couple of guys who’ve been working on this for a short time. Our approach on that and every aspect of the game, if we can’t do it really, really well, let’s not do it at all. When people look at this, they’ll see a lot of depth and polish, especially for a downloadable game. It’s small, tight, rich game.

The thing is with this kind of game, you can put it out and take back the feedback, and change things depending on what the community like. This is a complete experience.

Ensemble – how will the community respond to something non-militaristic and fun?
They’ll be surprised at first, but they’ll really dig it once they get into the game. The Age of Empires fan likes a level of strategy and depth that this game provides awesomely.

Do you feel happy trading complexity for speed, and getting lots of titles out there?
Yeah, today I do. Today I definitely feel that. Looking at Halo Wars, that was a four or five year project, a hundred something people, and now even our company’s not that big, and we’re a subset of that company. It feels really good to wake up one morning and you’re talking design and hey you’re ready to roll. We’ve got you guys in town and it feels like we only started with this last week; it’s a really, really good feeling.

I’m told you’re prototyping two more projects for when this ships. Can you talk about them?
All the games are on different schedules and all of them are “hey we’ve tried this and we’ve tried that” so we’re very focussed right now on finishing up Age and OMD. But man, it’s cool to be in the studio when that stuff is going on; it’s such an exciting place to work right now. The passion from the team working on the game is so high, it just raises the bar.