Category Archives: journalism

Simon Roth on Kickstarting Maia and why some studios have “killed the wonder” of making games

Originally published on Edge Online, September 16 2013.

A distant alien world. Tuesday. The subsurface colony has been expanding rapidly and needed more power. A large wind farm was built on the planet’s surface, which necessitated killing off much of the local vegetation. That, in turn, killed off the local herbivores, leaving the surface covered in hungry carnivores. Sadly, the colony’s limited defences were intended mainly as a deterrent so the starving alien predators eventually make their way past them and to the base proper. As we watch, they tear through the airlocks, the base depressurises and the unsuited colonists start asphyxiating in Maia’s hostile air. One after another, they slip into unconsciousness, just as the hungry aliens make their way in.

That’s the vision for Maia, indie developer’s Simon Roth’s emergent science fiction game. Pitched as Dwarf-Fortress-meets-Dungeon-Keeper-meets-Alpha-Centauri, the god game was intended to be his personal project – but getting £140,000 in Kickstarter funding meant that Roth has been able to polish his vision more than he ever expected. Though the money hasn’t been without stress. “Prior to the alpha release, it was a source of intense anxiety for me,” Roth explains. ”I had no idea what sort of reaction the game would get and had an awful lot of people waiting to download… things have been slower to develop than I’d of liked, but the end product is turning into something far more rounded and detailed than my initial plan had foreseen.”

A lot of that is to do with the number and spread of the audience. Something about the game – the beautiful concept art or the pitch or Roth’s iconoclastic but grounded descriptions – won it a singularly large, committed and international audience. “Having twelve thousand people testing and picking at the game is far less of a weight on development as I had expected and provides me with some serious QA grunt,” says Roth. “One of the interesting effects on development was receiving instant feedback from gamers who usually struggle to get their voices heard. I’ve had detailed advice and critique from colour blind users and even talked to a couple synaesthetics who reviewed the game on how it tasted.” On top of that, all the text created by Maia’s writer, Paul Dean, has been left as an open format, so that volunteers can localise the majority of the game before Roth’s professional editors clean it up.

That story is as hard science as they come, focussing on the building of a space elevator on the planet Tau Ceti E, AKA Maia, in 2113; the aim of this towering masterpiece of engineering is merely to transport goods more efficiently between the planet and space. “Really, the priority of Maia’s pioneers is nothing more glamorous than extraterrestrial infrastructure, paving the way for more and bigger projects,” says Dean. “It’s just a job. This is a reality where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, where space travel is slow and boring, where corners get cut and where tired people are sometimes negligent.” Dean’s aim is to keep the story away from high drama, deliberately underwriting it. “Too many games have too much story. They’re too concerned with writing lots of plot and then serving up lots of plot and then pointing at that plot to make sure you’ve seen it. We should be showing rather than telling.”

That ethos extends both to the game’s minimalistic tutorial and the early availability of the game’s alphas. Maia’s alpha builds have been downloadable by backers at a point most traditional developers would balk at. The current build is without any sort of GUI, requires knowledge of console commands to do anything, and works on only a fraction of backer’s machines. “It’s a strange thing for me to see games grow like this,” says Dean. “but once you have a core that people can play with, you can keep building around that to add new elements. The big question is how soon you release that core. Too early, and you give people too little to play around with.”

That’s not all that traditional mass market game developers would shy from – but then Roth has always been critical of them, presumably from his time at NaturalMotion and Frontier Developments. “I guess at a fundamental level it’s their loss of imagination. Chasing after mythical mass audiences at the behest of publishers has really killed the wonder that brought a lot of people to this medium. Stemming from this I am really frustrated at how they run their businesses and treat their staff. The concept of crunch flies in the face of a hundred years of research into workforce productivity, common sense, and frankly, quite a few laws.”

Roth himself has found no problems either working with an international part-time workforce or maintaining a gender balance in the team. “Certain triple-A developers claim that women are unrepresented in the industry. From my standpoint I haven’t seen much a differentiation between numbers of quality male and female candidates – there are more unskilled male applications, but when you whittle those away it’s far more even. I think larger studios are perhaps misreading their own PR and HR problems as a gender skills gap.”

Roth envisages the 1.0 release of the game to be finished in early 2014. Before that the team has to get the Steam candidate ready (the game was recently approved for Greenlight) and adding in that crucial alien food chain. “The game in my head in massive, yet the design is complete, and I am quick to stamp out feature creep. Not to mention, I’d love to pick up the final stretch goal from the Kickstarter and produce different planet types as free expansions next year. Whether I will ever be happy enough with it to call it ‘done’ is an interesting question…” Given that he has a fistful of other projects he wants to do – “a technoir adventure game, a primordial life simulator, and a first person survival RPG set in the Maia time line”, an anthology of Maia-inspired short stories, a ‘70s synth soundtrack album – we doubt that he’ll ever be quite finished with Maia.

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Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy | The Irish Times

Video games remain largely associated with youth and immaturity. When Frank Underwood – the evil, scheming central character of Netflix’s House of Cards – relaxes after a day’s politicking by playing the blood-splattering Call of Duty, the impression is conveyed that here is a man both juvenile and sadistic.

But according to Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos, Underwood and real-life gamers may be doing a kind of philosophy, no less, by blasting enemy forces from the comfort of their armchairs.

On the grounds that “philosophy is about everything and games are about everything”, the authors of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us advance the thesis that gaming is a forum for learning about key subjects like the nature of consciousness, logic and ethics.

Some games perform the function better than others, they say, citing Soma – a complex science fiction game based in an underwater research facility – as a stand-out example. Describing it as “a masterpiece on what it means to be human”, they say it produces “a feeling of existential dread that we’ve not experienced anything like (except perhaps after reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger while eating bad seafood)”.

The authors also put up a valiant defence of violent video games despite admitting “many of the most popular games treat . . . killing and dying as the most trivial thing in the world”.

As this week’s “Unthinkable” guest, Griliopoulos – the appointed “death” specialist of the duo – explains just why video games should be taken seriously. “Despite their problems, games are also educative,” he argues. “They can show us how to grieve, what the value of life is, how to prepare for our death and that of our friends, and when killing is a mercy.”

What does the research tell us about a link between video games and either violence or a loss of empathy?

Griliopoulos: “With regard to violence, research tells us that there’s no link and no correlation. Prof Christopher Ferguson has been researching this field for several years, because the existing research in the field was so consistently terrible and biased. He’s come up with some startling findings – like finding that school shooters in the US are actually less likely to be interested in video games than their peers.

“Honestly, these questions seem to come from a background of assuming there’s a problem, then trying to find one. It’s a familiar form of moral panic, which happened with video nasties, Dungeons & Dragons, movies, rock and roll . . . and probably back as far as the printing press.”

Your survey of existing games shows that players tend to prefer simulations where they are immortal, or can be reborn. Does this reflect a fear of death, or a low boredom threshold – in that people don’t like to have to repeat their steps?

“I’d say, it more reflects a power fantasy, mingled with expectations from their real lives. Death is a rare occurrence in life and unique in an individual’s own life – that is, we will never directly experience our own death, only the states that lead up to it. So to reduce our capabilities from the real world would upset many players.”

Many futurologists believe we will be spending more time playing virtual reality games as technology pushes humans out of the workforce. Can one gain philosophical insights or enlightenment by playing such games?

“Absolutely, if you play the right games. Like all forms of media, games draw upon and inform the human experience. Soma might be a horror game, but through its narrative about mind-transference, it raises very difficult questions about identity, what constitutes a human mind and what is of moral worth, which philosophers have been exploring in thought experiments like The Chinese Room for generations.

“Similarly, the Ultima series of video games explored the ethics of being a good person, aka virtue ethics, whilst the blockbuster game Bioshock 2 took a look at the practical ethics of maximising happiness, aka utilitarianism.”

What would you say to the view that video games are inherently anti-philosophical as they only ever deal with a representation of reality. Plato, for example, gave us the allegory of the Cave where the prisoners – representing the ignorant – spent their time staring at flickering lights divorced from the real world. He would find it hard to see any merit in “Call of Duty”, would he not?

“Plato also wanted to ban poetry, because he saw it as a representation of a representation, and hence doubly-misleading. I’m sure he’d see all forms of fiction including games, movies and books in the same way. Whilst he’s the founder of philosophy, I wouldn’t argue that his views are widespread today.

“Nor would I accept that games are inherently anti-philosophical. They’re entertainment experiences that provoke feelings and thoughts, which are the foundations of philosophical insights.

“And mainstream games are more moral than most other media, partly because of their interactivity. They tend to have strong moral codes which the player has to enact to win the game, rewarding the player for actively doing the right thing, whatever that may be.

“The US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald that games had informed his moral code, that along with history they had taught him that “seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries”. Very few games revel in the sort of nihilism that blockbuster movies and popular crime books get away with every day.”

****

Ask a sage:

Question: Can wisdom come from staring at a screen?

Plato replies: “The mind’s eye begins to see clearly when the outer eyes grow dim.”

Source: Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy

Mass Effect preview – June 2006.

I wrote this preview of Mass Effect for all the global Official Xbox magazines way back in June 2006. Features interviews with Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuck, Casey Hudson, Steve Sims, Jonathan Cooper, Mike Trottier,

Mass Effect

Introducing the massively singleplayer RPG.

  • Pub – Microsoft
  • Dev – Bioware
  • Players 1+ (TBC)
  • Xbox Live TBC
  • Release: Q1 2007

Ambition is not something that Bioware lack. The creators of Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate and Jade Empire have a long history of setting the standard for well-plotted games and then sitting back gleeful when everyone else fails to meet it. We caught up with the members of the studio in their Alberta Offices to talk over their massive new title.

First, let’s have a quick look at the back-story of the game. Mass Effect is the story of humanity’s entrance into the Galactic community – and how that entrance was almost immediately cut short. At its heart is the concept of the hegemonising swarm, entities that endlessly multiply, turning everything into replicas of themselves, intolerant of the existence of anything else except as tools or food. Much like certain brands of humanity, then.

Casey Hudson, Project Director on Mass Effect reminds of the back-story. “To join 22nd century alien civilizations, humanity’s own exploration took us to the precipice.” Humanity travelled to the edge of its space, to find this ready-formed universe just out there. We weren’t woken up by a superior alien race, monoliths weren’t planted to lure us out; no one bothered about us. Hudson again. “Humans are new in the galaxy. There’s intelligent life in the universe, in fact so much we’re in the minority.”

You play as Commander Shepard, humanity’s first galactic representative. As a member of the elite N7 organisation your role is to deal with threats to the existence of the galactic community. As Commander Shepard explores the Citadel, the core of the galactic community, he hears unwelcome rumours of previous universal civilizations that vanished, including the mythic Proteans. And that’s where the hegemonising swarm comes in.

It soon becomes apparent, from a discussion with an alien ambassador in the Citadel’s casino that the Geth, a mechanical race that lives in the void between galaxies is coming back. Every 50,000 years they’ve returned to reduce the universe down to the simpler life forms. They don’t simply convert the universe to them; they harvest it, retreat to the void and let it grow up again, before repeating. “As great as all this galactic community is” Hudson says, “we come to realize that it’s just a prop for machine races that are many millions of years older than we are and come in and make use of all this stuff we’ve built, and harvest us and recycle us, in a kind of cycle we’re unable to stop.”

The Geth aren’t simply robots either, they change and learn from each iteration of the galaxy. “Given that these machine races are very much like organic beings in that they evolve,” explains Hudson, “and given that they’re not simply metallic robots, they’re equally viable life forms and much scarier that way. Aren’t they living beings? Who is actually first?”

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So it’s 2183 and the Geth’s alarm clock has just gone off. And, you know, after 50,000 years napping in the absolute zero of the void, they’re a mite peckish. So it’s Commander Shepard’s job to stop them. That’s you, by the way. The way you’re going to do it? Well, that’s up to you as well. Though it’ll have to involve exploring space and alien worlds throughout the galaxy, to some extent.

First, off, we’d better point out that though Commander Shepard looks classically handsome, he doesn’t have to look like that. Hell, he doesn’t even have to be the same sex. Like most modern games, Mass Effect includes a full facial animation studio. This is the first place in the game the word “procedural” pops up, but it’s not the last. ” It lets us create as many heads as we want, from a set of blended start heads, with little memory.” There’s a truly remarkable range of characters you can make from the technology (even if they all look like Canadian hockey players), and tweak afterwards to get that perfect likeness or perfect monstrosity.

What’s more impressive is that, unlike Oblivion’s ultimate cop-out, you get to see your character talk. Steve Sims, audio lead, took us through the lip-synching technology. “There’s 20,000+ lines of dialogue in the game, so we needed tools to quickly get a performance out of the character. We’ve got good lip-synching, generated from the wave file and we’ve added a wrinkling system that simulates fine creases in a person’s skin as they flex different facial muscles – it really sells character’s emotions.” A couple of clicks and he can add emotion to any element of the speech, making his characters, scowl, frown, smile, fake emotions and so on. It’s these procedural techniques in animation that really speeds up the creation of game. Next is the amazing thing though. They pull up one of their aliens, one of the hunchbacked Krogans, and drop exactly the same speech, with the same emotions, onto him and all the emotions match up; it’s really, really convincing.

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Your new Commander Shepard won’t be exploring the galaxy alone though. Representatives of the other sentient races, the Krogans, Auris, Turians, Volus and so on, will join him on his quest. “We may decide to keep the ones you talk to humanoid” says Dr Greg Zeschuk, one of Bioware’s two founders “it’s fairly hard talking to a jellyfish, it’s hard to do the facial animation on them.” Bioware are in the middle of casting the voice actors for the game, but there are already some big names trying out. Whether they will appear in the game as themselves is still up in the air. “If we have the rights to their faces, we’ll use their faces.” Says Dr Ray Muzyka, Bioware’s other founder. “Otherwise we’ll just use the voice. It’s just like in cinematic animation, in Pixar’s movies and so on. The characters are really built by a combination of things, the animation, the voices, the actors, the writing, and their interactions in the scenes. It’s really a holistic experience.” Any chance of an HK-47 style character? “If a character is hated by one group of people but loved by another, that’s a kinda perfect character.” opines Hudson “We had Carth in KOTOR, who some people thought was whiny, but others thought he was just awesome.”

As Commander Shepard you are allowed to use any means at your disposal to get your way. In the strictly non-combat Citadel, weapons are supposedly out-of-bounds but Shepard is authorised to do whatever he sees fit to get results. It’s up to you how he behaves, by cajoling or by gentle persuasion or by brutish intimidation. Depending on how you behave, you’ll hear comments from your compatriots praising or criticising your actions – offend them enough and they may well leave the party. Your actions also reflect on the human race as a whole, as you’re the first representative in the galactic community, and so could affect its chances of survival.

Fans of KOTOR may find the transition to real-time combat interesting, but we don’t think anyone will quibble with it. Bioware used real-time combat in Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate (though, no, this isn’t based on the Dungeons & Dragons D20 system). If the change is too much for you, you can always pause the game and give Ghost Recon style orders to your two followers. Unless you’re using X-mods or biotics (the game’s science/psychic powers, drawn from the Mass Effect, the hidden force that allows space travel) you’ll not be able to kill most enemies in one go. Indeed, the only ones you will be the swarming enemies you’ll occasionally encounter; the normal humanoids and hoppers will take quite a few blasts and as for the eighty feet tall monstrous aliens that you’ll encounter on the planets surface, well… have a look at the K9 box-out.

As you defeat the Geth in certain areas and solve people’s problems elsewhere, you’ll unlock new plots and systems. Be careful though, as the sequence of choices you make will affect what you can do. ” You can experience the largest pieces in any order,” says Hudson “Your choices mean that stuff will be happening in places you don’t go to, so those places will be changed. Replayability & player choice go hand-in-hand.” Indeed, the game’s achievements will be split in such a way, you’ll /have/ to play the game again. As Zeschuk puts it, “the first time you play through, you’ll get a swath of them, though you’ll have to play it again, focusing a little, to get the others.”

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What of co-op or multiplayer play? Surely the good Doctors can’t be planning to include that on top of everything else? From the way the game plays in single-player, you could easily switch a pal in for one of your team members – the only problem would be getting the net code working. Ray responds, conspiratorially, “We haven’t talked aboot that at all yet, but that’s a very intriguing question.” How about downloadable content then? Dr Zeschuk, “We have a bunch of ideas for post-release stuff, running the whole gamut, satisfying the fans needs. That spacecow-tipping idea’s, um…” Dr Muzyka saves him “Cows crop up in our work every now and then. The Ultimate Destruction spell in Baldur’s Gate involved a cow dropping from the sky, like a meteor. We’re not obsessed though – we’re more into monkeys.” It’s only for the downloadable content that a hard drive will be required – will this restrict the length of the game? Hudson; “I don’t think it’s going to be shorter than Jade Empire or KOTOR. The core story, the critical path, should be about as long as KOTOR – it gives you larger area to explore. Potentially much, much longer.”

And what of the next games? Dr. Zeschuk: “There will be very satisfying beginnings and ends to each. You can play them concurrently, transferring your character, or use a new character each time.” Can you tell us the names? ” Nope,” says Hudson “we’re not giving anything away yet.” So, we’re betting number two is called either Mass Extinction or Mass Terandcommander (starring Russell Crowe as Commander Shepard). Whatever the name, on the basis of this revolutionary, exceptional, outstanding, moving and

BODY END

//box-outs//

X-mods

Welcome to the danger room.

In the E3 demo, we saw the player equip his sniper rifle and take out an unsuspecting humanoid Geth, who then burst into flames and burnt to death. Now, however, the X-mod technology has improved. X-mods are special gizmos you can add to any weapon to improve it, or alter the type of shot it fires. The fire one we saw at E3 has seen some improvements; not content with simply burning to death, your enemies in fact now burn to a crisp before collapsing into a pile of ashes. Topping that is the Fusion x-mod, which imbues the unfortunate recipient with a lurid red crackling, as they jerk like a marionette, before simply disintegrating. Finally, the Freeze X-mod does what it says; the enemy turns glacial, icicles form on their body and, bare seconds later, the rapidly expanding ice in their body shatters them.

Here be monsters. And Scots, which are even scarier.

Maybe it’s the extreme winters of Edmonton (dropping to 30 Celsius below) but Bioware’s team labs attract an unusually large number of British expats. One of these is Jonathan Cooper, the Scottish lead animator on Mass Effect, who took us through the monsters his team were creating. “The humanoids, we use motion capture on, but we have about twenty skeletons we can’t do that with but have to be at the same standard.” Jonathan tests out the creatures by binding their various animations to a 360 controller and giving them a walk around. He first shows us the Varun, a doglike creature with a darker-armoured and spined top section, and large ovoid eyes. To increase the variety of the enemies, there are also different models and skins for different breeds of each creature. “Just now they’re starting to move around. More the programmers add, they’ll become more and more alive; soon they’ll be able to die. The final thing is to get them to fight back.” Next we see the hopper, a Geth enemy. It’s humanoid but not close enough to the human skeleton to mo-cap. As it walks and runs it leans forward and it’s long feet give it a gait halfway between a flamingo and frog. It can also squat down into a low profile mode and strafe around.
The other creatures we see are just ambient creatures. There’s a space cow, with two extra forearms. “The future of cows, with two arms, so they can milk themselves. We’re thinking of a cow-tipping mini-game.” A space monkey is also in evidence. “All the best sci-fi stuff is grounded in realism, aye. You need some things that are familiar” Textured like Giger’s Alien, it moves with fluid bounds; the eyes are made of the coolest materials, roving pupils behind pearlescent domes. No pigs in space yet then… Another minigame the team is considering is Monkey Pachinko. You sit a Space Monkey at the top of a tree and kill them, and they fall with physics and stuff, with baskets at the bottom where you catch them for different points. Then there’s a gasbag, a pulsating sack with atrophied arms that just floats about, and various other disgusting and imaginative beasts. “Looked at BBC motion library for lot of the reference – it’s a fantastic online resource and free to use.”

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K9

The story of Rover and the uncharted worlds

So you’ve gone to the galactic map, you’ve started browsing the myriad star systems, the uncharted worlds as the blurb has it, and, hey, your mission to save all life in the known universe doesn’t seem so urgent any more. And, popping into a star system, that gas giant looks absolutely gorgeous. Again, they’re all procedurally generated. How about we just set down on one of its moons, the one sending out a distress beacon for example, and drop off the rover?
The rover is your all-purpose-terrain vehicle. As long as the planet’s surface is vaguely solid, your rover can pop down and drive on it. Hudson is walking us through it. “The vehicle is purely physics. In most driving games, you’re on a street and you’ve got very little sense of the physics. However, when you’re driving over rough alien terrain or trying to climb up the side of a mountain, that’s where the physics really matters, or whatever extra features your vehicle has.” You’ll be able to use the scanners on your rover to spot interesting items or locations at long distances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to get there. You’ll need to tweak your vehicle and see if you can figure out a way to get there. As you explore the alien worlds, you’ll encounter things that are eighty feet tall bursting out of the ground and can only be fought from a great distance with your giant cannon on your rover.
“We certainly haven’t planned a single path to any cool location,” says Hudson, “You may figure out a way we’d never have guessed to get there.” You can modify your vehicle so it has a ton of grip or a larger engine or heavier armour. You have one chassis, but you can change pretty much everything else about it – its handling, it’s speed or its suspension – it’s all part of making the exploration of the galaxy non-linear. You may roll hundreds of metres down into a mountain valley and find something really cool down there, which becomes your story that’s different from anyone else’s in that universe.

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//small text only box//
Elsebioware…

There are 120 people working on Mass Effect, but 300 at Bioware. So what are the rest doing? Zeschuk: “Dragon Age… and other things. You may have noticed walking through the corridors that you’ve been shuttled away from dark shadowy areas where people are doing strange things. We’ve lots of things we haven’t announced yet, so the best is yet to come.” There’s at least one MMO in development at their Pandemic studios and their Dragon Age RPG for PC, leaving about eighty people working on one other next-gen title we reckon – and they’re advertising for lots more staff all the time.

Bonus Info:
To set the game up, there’s a prologue, basically a massive hook. Hudson says “it’s an exciting atmospheric set-up where you learn everything you need to know about the gameplay and history in one hour.”

Big Annotation
//again dependent on the assets we get//

Bioware in the world? / Bioware’s Wally?

//Weaponry// X-Mods and rockers

We saw a sniper rifle, a normal energy carbine, a pistol and what appeared to be a rocket launcher, the latter taking down a wall and crushing a group of Geth beneath it. These can all be tweaked with both X-mods and biotic powers. You can also use the scenery against them, collapsing it on their heads or below their feet.

//team member// Karma, karma, Korgan.

Your team members include people from all races. Like KOTOR, you’ll be able to change them out at any point, take control of them in the firefights and inspect their load-out. You’ll also be able to have a good peek at them, in a close-up mode to explore their characteristics. A poke-’em-with-sticks mode hasn’t been confirmed.

//a piece of cover// Advanced tic-tacs.

If you don’t want to control a team member personally or leave the AI to handle itself, you can pause the game and set up individual way points for them, for more advanced moment to moment tactics. Your grenades are actually shaped like Frisbees, making for greater accuracy.

//Enemy Keep ’em Gething

The enemy Geth come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from hoppers to humanoids, but are distinguished by their darkly dull bioorganic façade. In the early game there appears to be no way to communicate with them, but this may change later…

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Interview notes follow – very rough.

//first set from the studio tour, then the studio founders, then the project lead//
Weapons Room
//didn’t get guy’s name demonstrating weapons effects//
Weapon fire. Modding. Stretch flares, lens flares. Even your opposing robots react correctly, being more fluid than you’d expect, spewing blood everywhere. Aliens spitting at you, insect-like scuttler. Go into game, can change x-mods onto same weapon, to change the whole feeling of the gun.

Fusion X-mod
Red crackling throughout the body that mixes the standing body slowly, before it suddenly disintegrates completely and vanishes.

Fire X-mod
In E3 demo – enemies nice burn straight to a crisp corpse and then collapse into ashes.

Freeze X-mod.
The enemy freezes solid, glistening white, icicles creep down his arm and he ceases to move. A moment’s pause and he explodes into a mass of ice shards, leaving only a puddle on the floor.

Can combine the X-mods with the biotics to create even more super-powered weaponry.

Armour Room
//again didn’t get these guy’s name//
Krogan heavy armour, humpbacked toad-like race with large crested heads varied from smooth red and yellow armour to spiky dark and nasty armours. Turian armours. Human armours, enormous variety to wear. Each unique with different shines, materials, patterns, sizes. Battle damage / dirt build into each armour as you play through the game. “We’ve got grime in the game right now, as you play through there’s a layer of dirt that builds up.” You can wear one suit to a certain point, until it’s no longer useful, switch, then find a mod later that makes that old armour usable again. Customise what you’re getting out of your armour. Suits are full piece, with different helmets and different weapons. Three guys doing character texturing, while the engine’s being updated. Character design passed down from the concept artists, goes through a ton of revisions before it gets to me, then we take it and build it in the 3D, pass it onto the animators; my job is just to texture and shade it, and make sure it behaves in the right way.

Monster Room
Jonathan Cooper takes us through the Monsters. “Two years and I still haven’t lost my accent.” It takes a heavy scotch accent to add a real sense of horror (and a touch of humour) to the creatures. Twenty skeletons (leading to creatures) can’t use mo-cap on, but have to be at the same standard. Test creatures by linking them up to a 360 controller and walking them about, binding different postures and animations to different keys. Varun, dog-like creature with darker-armoured top section, with spines coming off of it. Different models and skins for different breeds. Designers can drop them into the game. “Just now they’re starting to move around. More the programmers add, they’ll become more and more alive; soon they’ll be able to die. The final thing is to get them to fight back.”

The hopper is humanoid but not close enough to the human skeleton to mo-cap. (Leans forward, long feet means walks and runs halfway between a flamingo and frog – can squat down into low profile mode, strafe around. Can fight back as well. It’s a Geth.

Other animals – ambient characters. Can’t kill them unless you play the game nastily; at the moment you should just be able to walk up to them, push a button and get a rise out of them, like a noise or something.

Space Cow. A cow with two forearms and a thick tail, but no udder. “The future of cows, with two arms, so they can milk themselves. No udder, but they must have something they don’t want us to see. We’re thinking of a cow-tipping mini-game.”

Space Monkey. “All the best sci-fi stuff is grounded in realism, aye. You need some things that are familiar” Textured like Giger’s Alien, it moves with fluid bounds; the eyes are made of the coolest materials, roving pupils behind pearlescent domes. No pigs in space yet then… Monkey Pachinko. You sit one at top of a tree and kill them, and they fall with physics and stuff, with baskets at the bottom where you catch them for different points. Minigame

Gas Bag. “Still not clear on the size, just seen floating around. Quite disgusting actually, just the pulsating sack on top.” Atrophied limbs dangling from the body of the gasbag.

The humanoid races are the Terran, Auris, Turian, the humpbacked Krogan and several others.

“Looked at BBC motion library for lot of the reference – fantastic online resource, free to use.” God bless the BBC. “We’re always fighting with the humanoid guys, as they’ve been mo-capped they tend to look just like guys wearing suits. These guys can just break up the horizon; going into combat against two Geth guys and a Geth hopper is so different, it lets our designers get so much more creative. “

World Room
Aqueduct level, in your rover, driving through the level with Geth aliens on top shooting down. Expansion of world touched on in E3 demo. Amazing vanishing point.

Story level. Foundry on a lava planet. Glass tunnels to get through to get to other parts of station – reflections of your own character. Bloom lighting. This levels almost done in terms of textures and visuals. Reminds vaguely of descent. Different air outside tunnels. Ambient life outside level. Terrible wiring.

Lead Level Designer Mike Trottir. Galaxy map. Once drilled in, this is what it looks like on the planet. This part of the game’s fairly far along. Uncharted worlds randomly generated, like Elite, but then they go in and work over them – speeds up process but makes unique worlds. It’s a procedural system. Several images floating over each other give the impression of atmospheric depth – we don’t have full mathematical fractal stuff.” Sod Mandelbrot, eh?

This one also has a surface. This is a procedural surface, he says, zooming into the planet’s surface. It’s a bleak terrain, with rising dunes in the distance – this is missing the weather effects, this is just the general terrain, and so we can see quite far. You’d be in your rover. A lot of the combat is vehicular-based on this, so you’d meet larger creatures you wouldn’t necessarily only fight with the enormous cannon on your rover. These areas are vast, but there are lots of locations you can come across. There are camps, and mercenaries and other things. There are a huge variety of locations as well – including underground locations like this mining facility.

We have a library set up so you can produce an endless variety with the set – like the Neverwinter Nights editor. A lot of the same methodology went into this – a number of our designers came from that community, as well as our lead designers who worked on that project. That was key to this particular area; we were particularly impressed by the English Channel, the Chunnel. I was enthralled by the whole engineering feat. The water isn’t just more polys, which was the assumption ten years ago about photorealism. We’ve concentrated more on the shader effects, focusing everything on the graphics card.

Character Room
Character Realism
Procedural facial generation systems. “Let’s us create as many heads as we want, from a set of blended start heads, with little memory. First you randomly generate it yourself, you can then go and fiddle with it yourself. Managed to make some celebrities with it. The little tip of the nose needs tweaking.”
OXM – Can you knock teeth out so you look like Canadian hockey players?
“That’s the exact question we asked yesterday! We can take it from quite a young face to an aged face with a thin turkey neck, nose bulges, ears grow as well. Key piece of tech, so textures will change depending on how old you are. Wrinkles work for everyone. Camera angles really give it a cinematic level of gameplay.”
OXM – All look vaguely French at the moment.

Digital Actor
How we make characters emote – 20,000+ lines of dialogue in the game. Tools to quickly get a performance out of the character. Good lip-synching, generated from the wave file. Added wrinkling system, simulate fine creases in a person’s skin as they flex different facial muscles – really sells character’s emotions. Seamlessly create an emotional performance for a character – two clicks away, and he looks angry during a portion of the conversation. Fake happy added in, and really convincing, alters the shape of the mouth without affecting the lip-synching. The people doing the animation just set the emotion when, no animating needed – speeds up the creation of game. Next is the amazing thing though. They pull up one of their aliens, a Krogan, and drop exactly the same system, with the same emotions; really, really convincing. Concepts up show underlying bone structure that the skin is moving over.
Dr. Greg Zeschuk & Dr. Ray Muzyka

Mass Effect Improvements
(Mass Effect will represent the Bioware’s debut on Xbox 360. What kind of improvements can we expect from a “next-gen” Bioware title?)
G: At the core of Bioware’s games, we’re trying to make epic experiences for players, to immerse them in our worlds, to make realistic compelling characters to interact with. The 360 allows us to immerse the player more effectively. The thing the 360 allows us to do is create more credible and immersive worlds and characters to interact with and that allows us to tell better stories. That’s the core of the Bioware stories. There’s the story, there’s the character progression, there’s the explorations and the combat as well, there’s an activity chain.

Fighting system
(Please, tell us more about the fighting system.)
R: A team to develop. Consider strategic choices to make. Customise equipment. Every type of equipment is modifiable, x-mods. Can specialize into different skills, abilities, and powers. Not just how well do I press the button. Plan combat. Weapon combat, launch things, tech powers to manipulate the battlefield. You can upgrade weapons and biotic powers and deploy them in real-time. Grand adventure. Can change party members at any time. Stealth. Run away? There’s a bit of a challenge even in running away. It’s gotta be challenging.

Mass effect is KOTOR without Star Wars. Discuss.
(People are arguing that Mass Effect is “a KOTOR without Star Wars”. Do you enjoy such a definition? Did you enjoy the freedom of working without the bounds of a brand like Star Wars?)
G: It’s a lot different. Members of team are from KOTOR, but also Jade Empire. Broad sense of scale different to anything we’ve done before. The Normandy is used to fly off and explore planets. Story is so big that we’re extending it across a number of games, focus to draw player in emotionally.

Favourite Games?
R: We look with humility at the competition, we play all the games ourselves, we’re huge oblivion fans ourselves, everyone at Bioware is, we love video games. We’re always striving to make everything we release better than anything we’ve released before. It’s up to the fans to decide whether we’ve achieved that. We’re trying to fulfil their fantasies.
G: Each game has to be better. We’re always trying to innovate, trying to improve.

R: We’re voracious consumers of games. We get inspiration from any game – there are little pieces of games that are really clever. We could give you our top ten list of games, but that goes back to 1979, Wizardry I, Might & Magic, Bard’s tale, Ultima Underworld System Shock, Deus Ex, Resident Evil 4, God of War. We play all sorts of platforms too, we play Nintendo, Sony, DS, PSP, though 360’s obviously top of the list.
G: Oblivion, GR: AW. It’s exciting.
R: It’s a great time to be a gamer.
G: Rockstar Present Tables Tennis. The Pro circuit is very hard. I have a tough time.
R: It’s such a singular focused experience.
G: I can’t think of a racket sports game that’s got anywhere close to what they’ve achieved in that game. It’s hard though. I play as Liu Ping. I was thinking of switching though. The problem is most players are driven by achievements.
Achievements?
G: I think the achievements systems great, there’s a ton of stuff we’re aiming to do.
R: It’s a big game. If you want to just do the core tuff, you can; if you want to explore every nook and cranny, there’s 40 or 60 hours there and that’s just the start because we’re planning post-release content to extend the adventure.
G: The first time you play through, you’ll get a swath of them, though you’ll have to play it again, focusing a little, to get the others.

Downloadable content?
R: We’ have a bunch of ideas for post-release stuff, running the whole gamut, satisfying the fans needs.
OXM: Suggestions from inside the team were for minigames involving cow tipping and monkey-pachinko.
G: We’ve not heard those before, though we’ve done a bunch of PC content for the Neverwinter modules, we’ve had a lot of experience, though cows have made appearances.
R: Ultimate destruction in Baldur’s Gate involved a cow dropping from the sky, like a meteor.
G: though we’ve not got Blizzard’s obsession with cows. More monkeys actually. There are monkeys in Jade Empire – we worked a lot on the sound effects for those. Pirates of the Sword Coast.

3. In the paperback shelves of book stores, sci-fi has been losing ground to fantasy for years. How will Mass Effect recapture the imagination of a public that has grown sick of sci-fi?
G: Loaded question that one.
R: When we make our games we look at what the fans want to play. Anyone who picks up a Bioware game thinks “that’s good value for money.
G: The setting is a vehicle for our stories; I can get into this no matter what the setting. Also, in the videogames side, a sci-fi game like, Halo does “fairly well”. Mass Effect has a really interesting back-story and world.
R: You think about it – you have the entire galaxy top explore. The universe in a box. Get out at any planet, get in the rover explore, find cool alien artefacts. It’s something I’m excited about. The more I see of the game, the more I want to get out of it. It’s a thing that the power of the 360 allows us to do for the first time.
G: Our spaceship in the basement isn’t done yet, we’re building one in the parkade. We can’t go into detail on that one though, hence the name Bioware.

Trilogy; future appeal?
R: Only limited by the power of your imagination. It’s exciting to make a console near the start of the console’s launch. Universes are fairly hard to build. We’re trying to build something here that gets bigger with each iteration. Each successive experience just gets better and better, as your experience with the console increase. With something as powerful as 360

Multiplayer/ co-op.
R: We haven’t talked aboot that at all yet, but that’s a very intriguing question.

Actors/ actresses
G: In the middle of casting. Well known names in there. We get excited calls saying “so-and-so tried out for this!” Our focus is on great performances first; indubitably we’ll have big names along.
R: If we have the rights to their faces, we’ll use their faces. Otherwise we’ll just use the voice. It’s just like in cinematic animation, in Pixar’s movies and so on. The characters are really built by a combination of things, the animation, the voices, the actors, the writing, and their interactions in the scenes. It’s really a holistic experience.

Are you going to be in it?
G: Us? No! No-one wants to see us. Well, maybe the aliens. People are going to look and say “that reminds a little of Ray and Greg.”
R: Only in spirit.

Composer.
R: We haven’t announced the composer yet. We have a lot of respect for his work, another intriguing question. We like other composers too though, there’s a lot of great people out there.

How many workers? What are the others working on?
G: 120. Dragon Age and other things. You may have noticed walking through the corridors, you’ve been shuttle away from dark shadowy areas where people are doing strange things. We’ve lots of things we haven’t announced yet, so the best is yet to come.

What motivates you to keep doing this?
R: It’s our favourite hobby, we love video games.
G: We love doing interviews. The opportunity to do more interviews.
R: Passion, We’ve gathered a world-class group of developers, who are also great people.
They’re creative, passionate, and smart, they’re the fuel that built our games. It’s because we share that passion that we’re all here, making video games. It’s a meritocracy of ideas; press and fans;

Will the three episodes be conclusive in themselves?
G: There will be very satisfying beginnings and ends to each. You can play them concurrently, or use a new character each time.
R: We hope you’ll be able to transfer your characters.

In-house development for all three titles?
R: We’ll be developing them all ourselves, in-house.

What’s your timescale between the games?
G: That’s not something we’ really talking about right now.

Will there be episodic content?
R: Potentially. We have very ambitious plans post-release. A lot of it will be driven by what the fans want and what Microsoft feels is appropriate at the right time.

How does the game title suit the game?
G: It’s one of those titles that have grown with the game. First we thought it was a clever phrase. There’s a force in the galaxy that’s called The Mass Effect? There are story elements massive in their effect. There’s lots of plays on the words… no, Dan, Catholics aren’t exactly the plan.
R: A fourth force in the universe; in addition to time length and so on; it’s a mass effect in that it creates a population change, cultural change, it’s a mass effect in that it’s a tipping point for humanity, you’re the tip of the spear of humanity on that wider stage. You’re representing that wider mass of humanity on the galactic stage, so your actions reflect on them, save them or so on. There are many different implications. And when you play the game all of them become clear.

How weird are the aliens?
G: All kinds. There’s some that are fairly humanoid, but we have designs going off fairly far into the worlds of weirdness. We may decide to keep the ones you talk to humanoid – it’s fairly hard talking to a jellyfish, it’s hard to do the facial animation on them
R: Water doesn’t transmit sound very well either.

Will the game be based on the D20 system? (Italy)
Both: No.

Ray & Greg Ends.

Casey Hudson, Project director, mass effect.

Squad interaction
You adventure with three characters. You can choose them out of larger group. You can customize how you want to play. Cool: each join squad with different agenda. Decisions will affect how they will respond to you. Moving dialogue to comments as you’re moving about – they’ll be talking about how well the mission’s going, what you’re doing, as you’re moving from point a to point b.

HK047 style characters? Loathesome/likable.
Definitely. Didn’t know HK47 would get the response he did. That’s common amongst our games though, we typically create characters for you to choose different enough that different people will respond differently. If a character is hated by one group of people but loved by another, that’s a kinda perfect character. We had Carth in KOTOR, who some people thought was whiny, but others thought he was just awesome. There’s a different range of characters – some human, some alien – you learn about the universe with and through them.

Classes?
Three specializations; soldier- rifles, heavy weapons grenades. Tech class – we want all our classes to be as cool and exciting in combat. Tech skills allow you to lock onto an enemies weapon, jam it, make it overload, even explode. In a visceral satisfaction, you can have fun with tech. Similarly, the third class Biotics, suing the additional force in the universe that is discovered in mass effect. You can set things on fire, throw them around and just have a lot of fun.

Was biotics just Greg and Ray’s way of recouping some loss from when they set up Bioware as a medical software company?
Yeah, we’re able to benefit a lot from the medical knowledge of those two. One of the neat things about Biotics is that in real life astronomy is that there’s a force out there that’s causing things to happen on a huge scale that’s not accounted for in physics.
OXM: Those holes in physics filled by dark matter and superstrings, right?
Yeah. Like electromagnetism makes all the technology we have today work, it’d be a different class of technology that allows space technology, and humans to tap into all these things that they wouldn’t normally be able to.

Is there going to be any religious element to the game?
Humans are new in the galaxy. There’s intelligent life in the universe, in fact so much we’re in the minority. As great as all this is, we come to realize that it’s just a prop for machine races that are many millions of years older than we are and come in and make use of all this stuff we’ve built, and harvest us and recycle us, in a kind of cycle we’re unable to stop. And of course that’s the kind of thing that the player ahs to figure out. Given that these machine races are very much like organic beings, they evolve, they’re not metallic robots, equally viable life forms, much scarier that way. Aren’t they living beings? Who is actually first?
OXM: The question is, where is the right thing? Merely because they’re a hegemonising swarm who want to turn everything into them, does that make them bad people? We’ll get onto President Bush in a minute…

Animation, assets, game extras, unlocks.
OXM: Saw animation studio where controlling weird and wonderful creatures with a joypad; saw character viewer in Table Tennis; is there going to be any way of unlocking those assets, viewing them?
That’s one of the thing about creating something that’s truly next generation that people want to be able to have a tactile chance of feeling. You’ll be able to look at your squad in ways that let you get up close and really see what they’re feeling. The other way we’re doing that is the Codex. You can think of it as the future Intranet or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When you come across new things, a monster say, you have a way of learning more about them if you want to.

Enemies: Geth humanoids, hoppers.
Very large creatures fight from vehicle – as you explore alien worlds, you’ll encounter things that are eighty feet tall pouring out of the ground and can only be fought from a great distance with your giant cannon on your rover. E3 demo – Geth races, many different varieties. Lots of monsters & other creature of all different sizes. We’ll be revealing more of soon.

Rover: Pimp up your ride?
Vehicle is purely physics. In most driving games, you’re on a street and you’ve got very little sense of the physics. However, when you’re driving over rough alien terrain or trying to climb up the side of a mountain, that’s where the physics really matters, or whatever extra features your vehicle has. Because you’ve used your scanners to find where the next cool thing is, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get there. You’ll need to tweak your rover and see if you can figure out a way to get there. We certainly haven’t planned a single path to get there – you may figure out a way we’d never have guessed to get there. Modify your vehicle so it has a ton of grip. You have on chassis, but you can change pretty much else about it – handling or suspension. It’s part of making the exploration of the galaxy non-linear. You may roll hundreds of metres down into a mountain valley and find something really cool down there, which becomes your story that’s different from anyone else’s in that universe.

Procedural generation of assets
We’re making a smooth continuum from handcrafted cinematic moments to the completely procedural stuff like when you orbit a new planet it could be any of a million random ones. For the player, it all appears handcrafted but allows us to create a galaxy that would be so much smaller otherwise.

Inspiration?
In terms of cinematic feeling, sci-fi – late 70s, 80s, Alien, Wrath of Khan, Bladerunner. If you can live in a sci-fi movie, that’s the era you’d want. That’s the basis for moment-to-moment atmosphere. Interesting Q: whole class of games – Starflight, Elite, Sundog, Hardwar, RPGs but space adventures. Q – game like Starflight on two discs a whole galaxy of planets to explore, that was an amazing achievement. On a next –gen game on a 50” plasma TV, imagine that level of effort scaled up that level of fidelity. That’s what we’re addressing with the gameplay side.
If you were to merge a very richly crafted Bioware story with a galaxy, seamlessly, what would that be like?

How many enemies will you be facing at once?
There are creatures you will fight as hordes, just pouring all over the place, others very stealthy, you might only fight one, but it’ll be a very tough fight, and then the big creatures, like in the E3 trailer.

Underwater levels?
Explorable galaxy beyond the story could potentially be anything. Waterworlds, gas giants. Designers can make pretty much anything we ant happen on those worlds, that kind of exploration is possible. You might go onto a water-based world. You might go over to an abandoned ship or an asteroid.

Humour?
Part of any good story. Needs must that any grim and dark story needs an element of humour. For the level of story intensity and acting we’re able to achieve, we need a different tone. Writing and acting ahs to be more cinematic, more like screenplay writing. Baldur’s Gate was more like theatre, very small characters projecting what they ‘re feeling to a large audience. Here the digital actors can express so much themselves. But there will be humour in there.

Character balance through the three games
It’s a really exciting ides to create a character and keep playing that character through a story and then after the game has finished, and in downloadable content. We are focusing on Mass Effect in terms of having an amazing player-determined ending. That makes it very difficult in terms of branching into what the future adventure is. We won’t compromise the story in terms of what the future stuff is. We do have a long-term story because we want you to always have a reason for what you’re having this experience. You a character who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. The nature of your character is that he is on the most important mission in the galaxy If there’s someone standing in your way, you are fully authorized to take that person down to get your way. So there’s opposition not just from the enemy but also from the people around you who are also trying to help.

Titles of the subsequent games?
Nope, not giving anything away yet.

We’re building everything at once. For a long time, you don’t see anything at all, and then in the last couple of months it comes together. The trailer shows off the game exactly as it is at the moment. It’s all in-game.

You have established several game universes. Although we always welcome a new scenario for a game, some fans would like to see the return of one of those fantasy worlds. This is something that will eventually happen or you are only concerned with the creation of new IP?
Jade Empire & Mass Effect are our own IPs. The universes of these games are great places to be, because they feel like you could go beyond the scope of the game.

How did humanity break into this galactic community?
To join 22nd century alien civilisations, humanity’s own exploration took us to the precipice, the edge of our space, to find this ready-formed universe just our there – not woken up by a superior alien race, no one bothered.

Is this as big a step as KOTOR was?
For KOTOR we had a lot of first principles to deal with – a third person 3D RPG on a console. So much work goes into this. Movement animations that were never done before – a photoreal world that pivots on the spot looks so much worse. As team-sizes go up, complexity goes up exponentially. That said, the 360 is pretty straightforward; you can just put a character in a scene and try them out.
We’ve got 75 on KOTOR. 120 Mass Effect.

How will the three games tie together? Are there already indicators of the subsequent plots in these games?
Plot threads from this game drawn through all the games, so as you move on you can look back it seems more amazing in retrospect.
Look of the game is inspired by artists like Sid Mead, Architect Arthur Erikson, the sort of art that inspires you about the places you’d like to live in.

Will it use the hard drive?
Used but not required. Downloadable plan – extended

Can you keep improving?
(With each new game we’re introduced to a deeper strategic component, better graphics, a clear progress in the storytelling factor, a better construction of the characters and videos with increasing quality. The team’s maturity is obvious with each new game, from projects like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale to KOTOR and Jade Empire. How do you face the future? Do you think it’s possible to surpass yourselves and introduce new features in the RPG genre?)
I think we do. We set out to make the best game we & then release it; doesn’t mean we’re happy with it in terms of quality. In terms of the next game, we’re already been thinking about it for 6 months/year. While on KOTOR, we’re thinking of all this other stuff we’d like have done; that’s Mass Effect.

How can you be evil, where this plot seems to demand realpolitik/pragmatism from the hero?
Always feel empowered. There is evil in that you can be harsh though with reason. Humanity becomes more powerful as war escalates, and you point to how it will behave…

If this plot is so compelling, why would people go out and explore the universe?
It’s compelling to get to the next point – but when you go into a new solar system, you want to check out the interesting stuff – an emergency signal here, a beautiful place there.

How non-linear is the story?
It is a non-linearity story –you can experience the largest pieces in any order. The sequence you choose does have an effect – some worlds & plots will unlock other plots & systems. Your choices mean that stuff will be happening in places you don’t go to, so those places will be changed by your choices. Replayability & player choice go hand-in-hand. Achievements; play once gives you loads; further playthrough unlock other stuff.

Is there a tutorial?
Prologue – basically a massive hook – an exciting atmospheric set-up where you learn everything you need to know about the gameplay in one hour.

Story length
I don’t think it’s going to be shorter than Jade Empire or KOTOR. The core story, the critical path, should be about as long as KOTOR – it gives you larger area to explore. Potentially much, much longer.

Why are games getting shorter?
To achieve that fidelity, games have to get shorter. Well, most games.

ENDS

//

Faithless Priests

A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published. 

The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.

Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”

The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.

After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?

“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”

I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”

Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.

Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”

And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.

Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.

Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”

Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”

Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”

Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”

The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.

For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”

Sources:
http://clergyproject.org/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14417362
http://iheu.org/you-can-be-put-death-atheism-13-countries-around-world/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10510301/Scientology-is-a-religion-rules-Supreme-Court.html.
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=20snAQAAIAAJ&q=%22to+entre&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=atheist&f=false
Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.

Career: Balloon Animal Modelling

“When I was writing video games reviews I was aware that I was in a bit of a ghetto, effectively. And I thought: “Well, how do I get out of this?” If I met someone at a barbecue and said I reviewed computer games for a living they would look at me like I’d said: [wobbles lips with fingers] “Blibablibablibablibblibliber.” You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.” – Charlie Brooker.

When I started in games media in the early 2000s, we honestly were treated as social pariahs by everyone – but especially by the mainstream media, who were still in their ‘games kill babies’ phase. I don’t think any of my Oxford peers understood why I was doing what I was doing, and my mother endlessly asked me if I wanted to retrain as a barrister. And I think it unlikely that any of my dear friends of that generation have ever read anything I’ve written about games.

And now so much has changed. It’s a whole new world.