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Home JG OriginalsEnglish Articles Interview with Sam Barlow, creator of Her Story, Telling Lies and IMMORTALITY on Joystick

Interview with Sam Barlow, creator of Her Story, Telling Lies and IMMORTALITY on Joystick

Γράφει ο/η Ανδρέας Σταυριανουδάκης

A few days ago it was three years since my first article was published. The topic of this was the importance of independent game releases through  four examples. One of them was ‘Her Story (2015)’, a game where the player watches clips from a woman’s police testimony in order to solve a mystery. About two months later I undertook the writing of a review for ‘Telling Lies (2019)’, a game where this time we follow the video calls between four characters, infiltrating their personal conversations and moments in order to investigate the events surrounding a shocking incident.

The linchpin between the two games is their main creator, Sam Barlow. The British video game designer has been in the industry for over twenty years, having worked during his service at Climax Studios on video games such as Silent Hill: Origins(2007) and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) as well as the three-year development of Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun which was never released. Since 2014, however, he has been working as an independent video game designer and now in a few days he is releasing his third title under these circumstances, called ‘IMMORTALITY’. On the occasion of this release, we contacted him in order to grant an interview for our website without, however, our questions being limited to his latest creation. We learned a wealth of information about his unique game-making process, talked about his evolving relationship with film people, and juxtaposed physical versus digital distribution in terms of their influence on design decisions. But let’s take a closer look at these and much more.

IMMORTALITY is based on watching video clips by using a new match-cut technique. Can you explain us how does it work and how did you end up using it?

So the idea of IMMORTALITY is to have you watch the movie footage with something like the mindset of a film editor. One who is trying to make sense of, put together this stack of footage from lost movies. So if you see something interesting on the screen — a character, a prop, a piece of imagery — then you can stop and point at the thing and then the game will “teleport” you, cutting to another scene where that same image appears. So you can use it to track a character, or object through the story, making your own ‘cut’ in the process. If that sounds too complicated, we also talk about it being like Pokémon Snap where you’re riding along and then spot a cute Pokémon and try and get the perfect ‘shot’.

The grid is where players organize and collect the pieces of film they discover

During the promotion of IMMORTALITY you chose to reveal limited hints about the game. Taking into account the gameplay differentiation through the new match-cut technique, a mystery is created around the release. Do you believe that players are intrigued or afraid to play a game for which they have such undefined information?

For my games I like to assume the players are smart and don’t need things over-explained, and I think this applies to the promotion too. If you have a fun mystery then I really want to lean into the mystery of it. When I released Her Story people weren’t really expecting anything so it was easy to have people go in blind and discover things themselves. That also makes the experience much more special when people get to share things and discuss what they’re figuring out with their friends. If there are people who are reluctant to dive into something so unknown and mysterious, hopefully at some point they hear other people talking about it and that pulls them in!

A frame from IMMORTALITY reveal trailer: The posters of Marissa Marcel’s three unreleased films are on fire

Detective video games invite players to use the provided mechanics and tools but also their deductive skills in order to solve a mystery. What do you consider to be the most important contribution of your games to this particular genre?

In terms of how Detective Games work, I think I pushed a few things — but perhaps the big thing was really the idea of giving the players as much freedom as possible. Her Story was the only game like this where you could ‘figure things out’ out of the gate. Most detective games would make you follow a linear path, uncovering elements in a particular order. That’s the difference between a detective ‘themed’ adventure game and something where the deduction is really integral to the storytelling itself. It allows people to make connections, take leaps of deduction and have the story come together in their imaginations. Once people have had that experience, the more traditional detective gameplay feels much shallower!

Telling Lies: Quick search mechanic where the player double-clicks on a word and is automatically taken to the first five clips containing that word

Telling Lies seems to extend the vision of Her Story, while IMMORTALITY seems to redefine it. Whether you believe that the three games are comparable and as to which aspects?

They feel pretty different to me! It’s funny because if you are making something in a more established genre, say a First Person Shooter and you make a small change. A tweak to how reloading works, a limit to the number of guns you can carry? People see that as a big radical change. But if you are making something more experimental and different, even if you’re making things that are quite different, it’s easy to stick them all in the same bucket.

All the games are pushing this idea of ‘exploring a story’ in the way you might explore a space in a traditional 3D game. They encourage you to obsess over the story in the way you might over the map in a Metroid game. But from that, they all have a different take on the player’s POV (point of view) and the type of story that we’re exploring. That also really affects the atmosphere and the feeling of the experience. Her Story felt like being part of a conversation with the main character. Telling Lies was about the idea of surveillance, and using that as a way to pry into relationships and law enforcement and technology. Immortality is really attempting to plug into the magic of movies and look into how they are made and who makes them and think about the complexity of that.

IMMORTALITY: Read-through of the first of three movies of Marissa Marcel, Ambrosio (1968)

The final material of either Her Story or Telling Lies, consists of three-digit number of video clips, through which the player can search, in any way he wishes, the way to the truth. Can you describe to us, to the extent you wish, how you organize such a vast material, both before and after the filming process?

Ha! How long have you got? Well, I have a process that I kinda started on Her Story and have finessed as we’ve gone. It starts with a lot of research and really putting together the story in as deep and layered way as possible. A lot of spreadsheets and research folders. We do this for months, maybe a year. From there we build up an outline of the story of the game itself, make sure everything makes sense and is well connected. Then we write the script — and here’s where it gets computer-y. Based on how the navigation works (with Her Story, Telling Lies it was words; with IMMORTALITY its visuals) we set up tools that interrogate the script and figure out how things connect in all possible combinations, and highlight where there are gaps or problems. So in Her Story, for example, it might say “There are seven scenes where the word ‘marriage’ is used, but the player will only see the first five when they search.” So then you get to pick which scenes which five of the scenes are most interesting as a poetic set that reflects the idea of ‘marriage’, and tweak the words used. Or it highlights a scene which is very hard, or very easy to find. You want to balance that. With these tools we iterate and iterate — it’s very sculptural! You chip away, step back, chip away, keep going until it all looks good. The closest thing we have to a difficulty curve is being able to look at all the pieces and see that the difficulty of finding any given one is balanced so that things get a little harder later into the story, or closer to the juicer parts. With Her Story being a ‘mystery’ it was more of a steep curve, whereas Telling Lies was about jumping about the timelines to see the different moments in a relationship spark off each other, so the curve there was shallower. We test a lot with a text version of the game, something simple we can play around with. At some point we have a version that the computer is happy with, and then we can move forward with figuring out how to film it.

Her Story: In-game program “L.O.G.I.C. database” with which the player navigates through the videos. The user has typed in the search bar the word “MURDER” and directly below the first five videos where this word is mentioned are displayed

For the filming, once we get there we have done so much thinking about things, come at every piece from every angle that we’re more prepared than 99% of film shoots. We’ve already answered all of the questions that are likely to get asked! The crews we work with tend to me very engaged so with that material, they’re able to go deep themselves and ensure that questions of continuity, the various time periods, elements of wardrobe, etc. are properly tracked.

Many times in your previous two games, a useful piece of information might not be in the words of the protagonists, but in the environment, which “forces” the player to think on multiple levels. What techniques, cinematic or not, contribute to this result?

I think this comes out of the preparation we talked about. The idea is to make sure everything has been thought through, so it’s all connected. When you have everybody from set dressing, wardrobe, lighting, to the cast, when they’re all plugged into the story, you’re able to make sure that nothing is random. Some of this is baked into the script, some of it comes out of conversations with the crew and cast. There are connections there that weren’t necessarily “planned”, but just arise out of everything being as real as we can make it. What I love about the formats of my games is that because things are so free, because the camera is usually less directed, we can use techniques of mise-en-scene, art direction, etc. and rather than hit the viewer over the head with them (the camera zooms in on a photo on a dresser in a traditional movie, say) we can just let them live — knowing that some player may take the time and pick up on this one element. It allows these things to be much more organic. There is a level of redundancy that allows players to pick up the clues that resonate with them. This is special because it’s not like an old pixel-hunt adventure game where if you miss the small detail, the game comes to a halt. Instead if someone does pick up the small detail, they own it — it feels like something they came up with.

the peculiar technique used to film both sides of a video call in Telling lies, more detailed here

Now developing the third game in the interactive movie genre, you have worked with a wide range of people working in the film industry, from actors and screenwriters to more technical professions. What treatment have you had from them all these years and how has it evolved over time?

It hasn’t really changed, but consistently it’s exciting because movie people love what they do and when we come to them they see the ways in which our work is similar to what they’re used to — but also the exciting ways it is different. They relish the chance to flex different muscles in service of telling a visual story. The kinds of actors we attract love how much we ask of them — how we work is much closer to theater than traditional film, we ask them to show up and be present in character for long, long takes. The non linearity of what we do also means that there are a lot of full characters. Everyone gets much more screen time, there isn’t the same kind of structure that requires the ‘B’ and ‘C’ characters to only ever talk in service of the ‘A’ plot. So actors get to really sink their teeth into things. This is the same for everyone really, we’re always asking people to do more of what they do, avoid some of the cheats that are part of the toolkit in traditional movies. It’s exciting for them to know that at the end of the process, the player is going to obsess over and pay attention to all these details. 

From the filming of Telling Lies. From left to right: Logan Marshall-Green (actor), Sam Barlow, Kerry Bishé (actor)

During your twenty+ years old presence in gaming industry you had to develop video games under different circumstances. Which opportunities and restrictions exist in each specific occasion?

Starting out with physical media, the hardest thing was that everything was so expensive and there were a lot of gatekeepers. If you wanted to release a game, you needed the millions for the game engine. So you had to work with a big publisher. And whatever you were making, you had to convince the game stores to stock it — there was limited shelf space. The publisher had to print the discs, put them in boxes, trucks, drive them across the country to GameStop or whatever. So you were essentially pitching the regional sales manager of GameStop, and all your design decisions were influenced from there — you had to make something that they were sure was going to be worth filling up a shelf with. That meant that you really had to think about specific genres and make decisions that are sellable to the execs as being ‘commercial’.

Once digital distribution became a thing, it really expanded the opportunities. Someone like me could make something very different and unique and put it out knowing that if it could find a small but excited audience then it could take off. A lot of things at the same time helped — the rise of affordable game engines like Unity; the explosion of mobile gaming helped freshen up some assumptions about interfaces, the kinds of audiences that might want to play a game.

At some point we pushed out of the honeymoon period and so now we have new problems. It’s easier to put a game out, and there are lots of players — so the challenge now is how to get discovered! We’re living through a time where there is more ‘content’ of all kinds at our fingertips and so how do you make sure your small little thing is the one that an audience finds and gets excited about? I hope there are some advantages to the games I make here — they come with a mystery and uniqueness to them, and really the goal is that when someone is finished with IMMORTALITY, it will stick with them. If you can be not just one of the many hundreds stories people absorb in a given year, but be one of the few they remember, I think that is the real key!

IMMORTALITY will be released on Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, and Xbox Series X/S on August 30th, and all that remains is to see if it really manages to stand out from the rest of the releases of the year through our review text that will be available In a few days.

Many thanks to Natalie Watson, producer at the studio behind the development of “IMMORTALITY”, Half Mermaid, for facilitating the interview

http://halfmermaid.co/

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