The Elegant Dodge

Say you’re a videogame designer of some minor renown who’s had the good fortune to write for your favourite gaming magazine, in which you rhapsodise about games as a unique art form and how the industry should be bolder and less degenerate. Further, you upped the ante in your most recent column by describing the unrealised promise of the iPhone, the platform on which appears your first ever designed-by-your-team-from-the-ground-up game, whose ship date seems always to be the following month, but by press time actually is out of your hands and into those of the heartlessly unbiased public. So, how did you do? Is Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor the game that will change interactive art forever? Um, nope. Not Spider, you don’t suppose. Then how does it stack up against your passionately stated ideals?

Spider, I’d say, does well in terms of ‘technical’ game design – interface, tuning, feedback and so forth. You play a spider that jumps around, and the controls are intuitive. We say it’s the first entry in the ‘action drawing’ subgenre of platformer. You draw webs to trap bugs, which offers aspects of both creative and puzzle play. Casual players are drawn in by the immediacy, and depth is provided for advanced players with achievements, leaderboards and so forth. It’s compulsive, hard to put down. Emergent behaviours are occasionally sighted. So, academically, most of the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Of course, these are the dogmas that in my writing I’ve said we should question. With scores, goals and failure, this is a traditional game that pushes you forward and judges your actions, not a sandbox of choice and consequence.

Does the possibility space underlying Spider’s design capture an honest expression of what it must be like to be a spider? The masterful feats of engineering, the lurking patience, the alien agility? Nope. Our main character doesn’t go so far as to sport mirror shades and a catchphrase, but many of the qualities we associate with ‘spiderness’ have been sped up, enlarged and simplified to favour short attention spans and frequent rewards in a way very much at odds with the focused, meticulous work of a real spider. We worked hard to provide a spider’s perspective, however. Furniture towers over you, you delve into forgotten spaces between floorboards, and you start to see every vase, chandelier and hidden clue only in terms of its potential for anchoring your webs.

What about the story? Is it interactive, unfolding differently for every player? Nope, it’s completely baked and static. Does it deal in emotional, resonant topics? Sort of. We thought briefly that the story could be the spider’s. Perhaps he was a former person struggling to break the curse that transformed him. But what we liked about the gameplay was that the player becomes preoccupied by things real spiders are preoccupied by, and we didn’t want to dilute that just to help the player see their human selves in the story. One of our test levels had a shot glass and liquor bottle on a lonely table, which generated more response than we anticipated. Who was drinking here all alone? What were they depressed about? This grew into a decision that the story shouldn’t be the spider’s but the environment’s, whose history would be revealed through set dressing, the technique expertly employed by games like BioShock. In our case an abandoned house was the setting that was a natural fit for both the spider fantasy and a more domestic story about broken hearts, sibling rivalry and buried secrets.

It seems misguided for a spider game’s story to be about the lives of humans, and it’s unfortunate for the story of any game not to be interactive, but our ambition was to make these contradictions work together. This is a dead story, one you cannot change but only discover through exploration. Often in games, stepping into your character’s shoes leaves you wishing you had the interface for countless actions you’d take in real life. As a spider, your lack of interest and ability to affect the story is natural, and you fill the role your character would in real life: you leave the house covered in cobwebs. The story often flirts with this separation between the concerns of your character versus those you yourself would have if you were present, and we stuck to our guns when portraying that irony.

I make it sound good, but it’s obviously a total dodge, similar to a space station conveniently populated only by audio logs and corpses. Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its frontiers. Why not? There are many ways to make a game worthwhile, and it’s clear that achieving interactive stories is a daunting task and the path forward will be littered with bold but failed experiments. We talk about the big studios being risk averse, but the little start-ups have to keep an eye on that, too, if they want to survive to take the next step forward. 

Randy Smith is the co-owner and game designer of Tiger Style, whose first game, Spider, is available now on the App Store [direct link].