blogprofilesqrThis time we introduce Borut Pfeifer who already has a career in the gaming industry and is a specialist in AI design. Now he set up to create his own independent game that while may not be an adventure game in the strictest sense, nevertheless is definitely within our scope of interests. Firstly, the main heroes have an enticing quest to accomplish. Secondly, it relies a lot on character interactions that represent real life people interactions. Finally, the game goes directly for what almost every game designer seems to yearn for and is scared of trying at the same time –

– presenting a socially meaningful topic.

And this is actually THE major goal Borut Pfeifer has set himself to achieve in his independent games. His first production of this kind – The Unconcerned (working title) – is set in Tehran, Iran, during the post-election riots that took place this summer. You play a father and mother looking for their lost daughter, amidst crowds of protesters and police.

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Could you introduce yourself and other people who help you with the creation of The Unconcerned?

I’ve been working in the industry for about 9 years. I always wanted to make games, but after I graduated from Georgia Tech in ’98, there weren’t many developers there in Atlanta. After a brief stint doing online casino games, I started a company called White Knuckle Games with a couple guys I had worked with there. After a couple years of trying to get off the ground, I eventually went to work on Scarface at Radical, then went to Sony Online to work on a PS3 launch title (Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom).

Once that shipped, I went to work at EALA, and after having a few projects cut, I decided it was finally time to go it on my own again. After my first start-up experience, I came to the realization that I wanted to make games that had something deeper to say about the world around us, but it took a while to get both the skills and confidence to do so. About two and a half years ago I started blogging at The Plush Apocalypse, about meaningful games and ways to make them, including exploring emergent narrative.

There are a couple folks currently helping me out. Amanda Williams, who worked on the environment art in Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor for the iPhone, has been doing some concept and game art. Dan Boutros, who worked on the iPhone puzzle game Trixel, has been helping me out as a sounding board for the puzzle design, and hopefully he’ll be able to continue helping me out with level design as the game moves forward. It has been difficult to find collaborators, not just because the topic is very political, but everyone’s got other constraints on their time as well.

Could you tell us what led you to choose the game’s topic and concept? What kind of research goes into doing it right?

The protests in Iran had started as I was preparing to leave EA. I was trying to think of small concepts that either dealt with serious real-world issues, or experimented with narrative. I knew it was too ambitious to try both at the same time while I was starting out.

What was going on, and is still going on, in Iran, was just really affecting and really moving. Watching people suffer so, being disenfranchised from their own government, along with the uninformed response here, made me think a game could help inform and shed light on the situation there. While it’s a very different place and culture, I found I empathized a lot with the protesters, and although it’s certainly daunting to try to represent a culture I’m not part of, I would hate to you could never make a game that involved broadening your own experience. You could never have games set in historical periods! The old adage for writers, “write what you know” could perhaps be better put as “find what you know in what you’re writing.”

I wanted the core story of the game to be more universal, and more concrete, than the politics, to help encourage that sort of empathy in players, so it’s focused on a couple who have lost their daughter in the protests. By setting that kind of story in such a tumultuous moment, the politics and social issues become more of a backdrop, but that helps to get people engaged enough that they stay to get the more complex messages. Often serious games focus solely on conveying their message, but I think it’s more effective to communicate it this way.

What kind of research? A lot – living in modern Iran, the Islamic revolution of 1979, Sufi poetry, ancient Persian history, you name it. Starting out, I had what would probably be an average American’s understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and politics, maybe a little more but not much. So it was difficult at first just to find trustworthy or valuable resources – I came across a lot of books on Amazon on various topics I wanted to research, but with a limited budget obviously I needed to pick the most helpful sources to be well informed. That was challenging but so far it’s worked out ok. For insight into modern Iranian culture, there’s a number of good books by Iranian-American journalists, like The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd – having a foot in both worlds tends to make writers like that very good at translating cultural customs and providing analogies to help convey a sense of Iranian culture. There’s also an amazing amount of material on the internet and Youtube, it just takes a lot of time to sort through it all.

Thankfully, by putting my project up on Kickstarter, I’ve also had offers by Iranian-American citizens to help me find interview subjects, people that have been in Iran recently. While reading about modern Iran or Persian history might give me broad impressions, it often leaves me with more nuanced cultural questions, or just questions I need to find out for story purposes (like what time school lets out for children age 10-13). The interviews have been a great help for that – unfortunately all the interviewees want to remain anonymous (because they want to travel back to Iran and don’t want any difficulty from the government because of any association with the project), so I can’t thank them by name.

Concept for The Unconcerned

Concept for The Unconcerned

How would you describe the game’s genre and gameplay?

So far the best description I’ve come up with is that it’s a character-based puzzle game.

The gameplay is more puzzle driven than adventure, using the two main characters strategically to get past obstacles. There may be some timing elements that veer towards platform-y gameplay, but not enough to actually call it a platformer. It’s definitely story-driven (hence the character-based part), and the goals of the puzzles will tend to relate back to that (like getting past crowds to talk to a particular individual, or seeing recurring characters in different puzzle levels)

How deeply will the game explore the characters’ social roles and the way those roles create obstacles the characters face?

That’s a key element of the theme of the game, and the main challenge at this point in the prototyping process. I’m trying to push that depth as much as possible, but I have to sacrifice it in places to make sure the mechanics are understandable.

By focusing mechanics on how different NPC types (like police and protesters or bystanders of either gender) respond to you, inevitably I’m going to run the risk of stereotyping any particular group. Since the game’s main theme deals with trying to overcome exactly those kinds of group biases, I’m hoping that those mechanics dovetail with the theme nicely, if the group character rules act as surface mechanics/challenges that later on have to be overcome using individual character interaction rules. Combined with story sub-plots that focus characters of different social backgrounds, I’m hoping that will get at the depth I want (that has yet to be seen of course).

It’s also difficult to convey group biases through simple physical actions. Those social roles are obviously complex and nuanced, and I don’t know that I can do more than suggest them instead of actually capturing them entirely in the mechanics. For example, having one type of female NPC take a step or two more out of the way to avoid the father than the mother – if it’s subtle but still aesthetically clear, hopefully a player would be able to pick up on the connotation, or it will at least add to the overall atmosphere of the gameplay.

Realism seems to be a major challenge to have in a game in general. Is there any conflict between ensuring that the game will do justice to the real events and keeping it a functional gaming experience?

Some people think making a game mechanic out of any real event trivializes that event, just because of the age old connotation of a “game” being something kids play for pure enjoyment. I disagree – I think what trivializes real world events turned into gameplay is when the rewards and other feedback are immoral, or even just amoral. I think it’s pretty straightforward to avoid that problem, if you want to – it’s just the few examples of more mainstream games that have attempted to do this (like Six Days in Fallujah), haven’t always approached it with that sensitivity and awareness.

There’s only a conflict in the sense that the themes of the game (and trying to keep the mechanics from trivializing them) will limit the mechanics you can use – as long as there’s still enough left to make a game, you’re probably ok. You also have to accept that some of your audience won’t pick up on all of it – maybe they engage with the core gameplay mechanics, but they don’t get all the symbolism or metaphors. Having a game work on multiple layers like that is crucial to both entertaining and informing at the same time.

the-unconcerned

What are your thoughts on the quality of storytelling in the current generation of games? What titles stand out in that aspect the most?

I wish games would be more experimental in their storytelling, I feel like there’s a lot of techniques we could be pursuing but often are not. I’d like to see more non-linear stories, using techniques from game AI to suggest possible paths to the player, and/or having character arcs emerge from player actions. Far Cry 2 did a little of this, and there’s some IF that tries to do this as well (like Blue Lacuna or Emily Short’s work), and of course, Façade. While a game like Uncharted 2 can get its linear story to be just about as decent as a major action movie’s, there still so much emotional impact that games can have through their non-linearity that’s yet to explored.

To be fair, it’s difficult, and it’s not something I’m really trying with my game either. There may be some optional story objectives (like coming across an outbreak of violence that you can try to pacify or not), and possibly a few different endings, but that’s not too crazy. I hope to do something more experimental with narrative after this.

What does being indie mean to you? Especially in comparison to your non-indie experiences in the industry.

It’s a pretty contentious topic isn’t it? These days I usually refer myself as freelance game developer to avoid that precise problem. There are definitely some in the indie game community that would see anyone who has an industry background as being “less indie”. To me, if you’re making the games you want to make, games that express your personal vision as a designer (which typically means not taking money from publishers to achieve that, and the corresponding reliance on creative production techniques to reduce costs), that’s indie. Experience in the mainstream game industry can be a great help to do that, as long as you remain creatively nimble and avoid getting bogged down in approaches that won’t work for an indie game developer.

There’s a certain cool and rebellious aspect to saying you’re indie which is appealing to the ego, but I don’t really like that it’s argued about so vociferously. It just smacks of scenesterism and hipsterism, trying to one up each other by being “indie-er,” and criticizing others not based on their work, but because they’re not cool enough. I appreciate game makers that successfully pursue their own creative vision, regardless of who pays them. Because in an ideal world they would be paid, and paid well – I wouldn’t want any of my social status to require that artists I love make less money for their work!

Thanks for the interview, Borut. And best luck with getting the game finished.

Note: The project has a Kickstarter page if you’d like to help getting it funded.