Better Than Life

So, I fucked up. As is my wont. Regular readers will know that fucking up is something that I feel I have a special knack for – though I’m also aware that I probably fuck up just as much as the rest of the population, but just *feel* it more – or even just that I think I do.

Anyway, it was a super-minor fuck-up, simply leaving something on the bus – but it dropped me into that temporary fuck-up fugue state. You know the one where you just feel like being quiet and sleepy and reading poetry and drinking cocoa and listening to the rain on a tin roof?

Except this time, I had all that and I wanted to play Shadowrun Returns.

Shadowrun Returns

Now Shadowrun Returns, for those not in the know, is an old-style roleplaying video game, converted from an old-style roleplaying game. It’s a perfect simulacrum of Planescape / Baldur’s Gate / Fallout. It just ticks all the boxes that my sad brain wants – an escape route from a stupid world, to one where I have control over my decisions, where I can load after fuck-ups so that they never happened, and where I can decide the sort of character I want to be and how I develop rather than putting up with the outgrowths of damned determinism.

Except that in the game, there’s Better Than Life. It’s a life simulation that’s literally better than life, like In Philip K Dick stories like We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (aka Total Recall). And because it’s better than life, no-one wants to give it up – it’s horribly psychologically addictive, partially because it allows slum-dwellers of the future to escape their grim reality, partially for the reasons that all computer games are addictive, because they’ve dopamine-stimulator factories par excellence.

So in the game I was looking to for solace from my depression at the real world there’s a game that gives solace from the real world. And has exactly the same negative side effects.

Because that’s the thing. Going into Shadowrun doesn’t fix my fuck-up. It doesn’t solve my problems. It doesn’t make them go away when I get out of the game. It just puts them off, and gives your brain a chance to relax – but not to understand, learn, or change.

When Shadowrun was first created, as a tabletop roleplaying game, computer game addiction was a cyberpunk trope, like mobile phones and international computer networks, that sounded cool but probably would never happen, like the predictions of 50s sci-fi writers mostly didn’t happen.

Yet nowadays, with cybercafe deaths and Candy Crush as superb signs of the current state of addiction, BTL seems almost parochial as an SFF prediction, too normal for comment. What, yes, we might get to the point where evil game developers are manipulating people to spend all their time and money in games? That’s happened. And that, to me, is slightly terrifying.

Interview: Cardboard Computer on Kentucky Route Zero

This is an interview with Kentucky Route Zero creators Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott & Tamas Kemenczy) that I conducted for T3 Magazine for their September 2013 issue, number 219, which is out now.

This is an interview with Kentucky Route Zero creators Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott & Tamas Kemenczy) that I conducted for T3 Magazine for their September 2013 issue, number 219, which is out now. The full issue, including the piece with images and video, can be got here.


Your choice of a character-led, Lynchian narrative, seems mature and pensive compared to much of the output of the adult games industry. Why can KRZ do this and other popular games can’t?

Thanks! We actually think that there has been and continues to be a lot of very sophisticated and thoughtful work done in videogames. Much of this is happening in the context of interactive fiction: recently the Twine game engine, which doesn’t demand any formal training in programming or 3D modeling, etc., has been bringing in a lot of new voices that aren’t so tied to the sort of “space marine” or “world war 2 hero” tropes and are instead exploring real and complex issues like sexuality, poverty, interpersonal relationships, and so on. Slightly older work like Adam Cadre’s “Photopia” from 1998, a text adventure that blends fantasy and the mundane in a really touching way, has been a major influence on the writing and narrative approach of Kentucky Route Zero. There’s also a lot of very challenging and exciting stuff happening in game mods. The Dutch artists JODI made a series of experimental Wolfenstein 3D mods in the late ’90s, called “SOD,” which are visually and formally these sort of modernist black-and-white abstractions. More recently, Robert Yang made a Half-Life 2 mod called “Radiator 1-2, Handle with Care,” about divorce counseling for a gay couple.


What is your background? Why do you want to make games like KRZ? How did you afford to make it?

We’re coming from a background making artware / video art, and experimental music. A lot of what we were doing (having collaborated for several years before working on videogames together) was live audio/video performance work using custom-made software and hardware. So this process of making something that has real-time graphics and sound and is interactive was already familiar to us. One thing that’s really new about it for us is the size of the audience — as it happens, videogames are a much more popular medium than weirdo experimental performance art! But also we were really drawn to the storytelling component of videogames: the opportunity to construct interesting characters and explore storytelling techniques from fiction, theatre, and film. We worked full-time “day jobs” during the development of KRZ, until a short while after the release of Act I. We also ran a Kickstarter campaign near the beginning of development, to help us pay for some start-up fees like the license for the game engine we use. Kickstarter was a great experience for us; a lot of the support we have now comes from early backers there who helped spread the word about our game and gave us encouragement and feedback during the development process, tirelessly alpha tested, etc.


Is there a continuity in design between your earlier pieces, like Ruins or A House in California, and KRZ?

“Ruins” was approached pretty explicitly as a sketch for some of the dialog design of KRZ. It stands on its own as a story, but the writing and narrative design there came from some ideas we wanted to try in KRZ but had never worked with before. It was a really instructive process: some of the experiments we kept, like the always-moving-forward conversations instead of typical adventure/RPG conversations that take a hub-and-spoke shape.


Episodic gaming (aside from Telltale’s titles) has been on the outskirts of mainstream for so long – do you think you are the heralds of a new dawn, or do you think that it’s going to remain an oddity? How have you changed the model to make it work for KRZ?

We’re not hesitant to admit that we’ve looked very closely at Telltale for guidance on how to approach an episodic release! They’ve done a lot of experimentation and hard work to figure it out, to great effect. We are big fans of their “The Walking Dead,” for example. We’re in a pretty different position from them in a lot of ways, though, as a much smaller studio without the kind of established track record or experience that Telltale has. Our decision to make the game episodic was originally not inspired by Telltale so much as something like Mojang’s Minecraft or Introversion’s Prison Architect. These games have been able to release early alpha builds and build a supportive audience early on while using player feedback to refine what they’re doing, because they’re very systems-oriented games that lean heavily on replayability. Our game is more narrative-driven, and wouldn’t really hold up for someone, for example, replaying the same conversation over and over as we tuned it. So we thought this episodic model could be a kind of “release early, release often” approach that would fit a narrative game like KRZ, allowing us to build up an audience and feel our way through the process instead of working in secrecy for a few more years and then suddenly dropping the complete game. Since we’d envisioned the game in a five-act structure since pretty early on, the decision to release those five acts independently was a pretty natural one.


Jake, you’ve worked as a programmer for some big companies, like Chillingo and Killscreen – are your games and artware a reaction to your career?

Both of us actually had day jobs as programmers for several years, working with companies like Chillingo, Pitchfork, Kill Screen, etc. We’re fortunate that programming has been a vocation for us as well as an avocation, so it’s something we’re always kind of keeping sharp on. It’s such a different set of concerns with game development, though, especially since our primary concern is storytelling. Often the best solution to a problem is actually the least technically challenging!

Thank you!