Robin Vilain
videogame designer
author of commotions
créateur de jeu
Blog
Blog
Blog

All the space left

There’s been countless talks and takes about the supposed lies and the aggrandising marketing (a baffling concept!) behind No Man’s Sky’s reception, but very few, as far as I can tell, about the game itself. I’m more interested in thinking about what made the game become what it is, as opposed to what shaped the perception of it into players’ minds before and after the release. Indeed, No Man’s Sky is very explicit when it asks of you to traverse an infinite universe, but, in a less obvious way, you’re also expected to navigate a fascinating set of contradicting decisions and goals. It shares the characteristic with most games out there that venture onto unexplored design planets, but what sets it apart is the scale of its experimentation. It deviates from norms in so many ways that to pick one as a single dominant influence on its nature would be reductive; I’m left to mentally wander among the question it raises, as if the experience extended to headspace after the screen turns black. How to make the limitless feel graspable? How to align the expectations of millions with a personal vision? How to make a marketable game blockbuster out of an un-game-like nature? Faced with that network of highways headed in opposite directions, the team at Hello Games opted to scribble down their own uncertain path, slaloming between hard choices – leaving me unsure of what they were going for.Read more…

Quick Thought Emission

I’ve been working on several long articles for some time and I was a bit frustrated that in the meantime, my blog saw no activity. Luckily, the opportunity to talk about something presented itself a few days ago, when Brendan Keogh mentioned QTEs in a tweet. I replied half-jokingly that maybe it was time for us to reconsider the accepted truth that ‘QTEs are bad’ – and a small discussion emerged, which somewhat surprised me! But it also prompted me to think more seriously about what I meant, and to elaborate on that initial suggestion.

Quick Time Events, in the past, – I was about to write ‘traditionally’ and, indeed, it isn’t unlike a tradition at this point – have been mocked, ridiculed, for a whole lot of reasons. The most obvious one is that they’re perceived as ‘lazy’; when the character is about to perform a spectacular action, instead of developing the systems to read and interpret a series of inputs from the player, developers just assigned the whole thing to a single button press. Another criticism is that they lessen player agency (you rarely have any choice but to agree to the prompt to continue playing, and have no say in the result) and offer cheap, unfought-for, instantaneous gratification (which, if you’ve read anything about gamification, you’ll know makes for ‘lower enjoyment in the long run’). They’re also just plain stressful sometimes.

The question I ask myself now is: are those things actually inherently bad?

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Striking down the colossus

I’ve recently finished Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I hadn’t when they were initially released; you might be thinking, ‘this was a huge oversight!’ and indeed, you’d be right. So I finally made time for them and played through their HD versions, on PS3. And now I’d like to talk about one very specific aspect of SotC that I found particularly interesting.

First of all though, let me just say: man, this game aged poorly. I mean, I assume it did, since this is the first time I’ve played it; but considering the love it got and the nostalgia it continues to induce, the logical conclusion for me is that I’m missing some context. That it was such a technological feat for its time must be a big part of it, and I can’t possibly feel what one must have felt when witnessing those very big structural beings come to life back in 2005. (It’s interesting to ponder the importance of technology in the emotional impact that cultural items can have, but this is a discussion for another time.) Today, the colossi certainly retain their majesty, but their existence, their motion, never left me dumbfounded or incredulous. Running and jumping atop gigantic beasts has become kinda commonplace in games.

Now you must be thinking, ‘this guy is incredibly jaded’ and, well, no (maybe); the thing is, Shadow of the Colossus frustrated me in many ways, and I want to talk about them, but it’s hard to criticise something that you know is beautiful, that you respect, even though like I said I did find the experience miserable at times. And I also don’t want to sound like I’m negating the love that so many people have for it. I feel a bit like I’m thrusting a sword that I have no right to yield into the heart of a magnificent creature.

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On Sunset

Tale of Tales just published a blog post about the disappointing sales of their latest title, Sunset; you can read it here. I would never claim to have the knowledge and insight required to know why this happened the way it did, but I do have some guesses which I’d like to share – if only to have them discussed and refuted by people more competent than me.

In the post, ToT say one of their ambitions with Sunset was to reach out to a wider audience than they had been addressing previously; they explain one way they chose to do that was by conforming to the ‘gaming rules’ that more mainstream works abide by. They list a “carefully constructed context of conventional controls, three-act story and well defined activities” as examples of choices that would supposedly make Sunset more palatable to gamers. This was, I think, misguided, in the sense that those are abstract and invisible things related to mechanics and structure; theme and visuals will always do a better job at seducing, especially when the people you’re trying to seduce have been swimming in shallowness for years. Look at the reddit comments about the aforementioned post: the amount of people suggesting Viscera Cleanup Detail as superior alternative to Sunset is eye-opening. “It has blood all over the floor, so obviously it’s better.”

And as ToT outline right after talking about the concessions they made, working on Sunset still was enjoyable, because the theme meant something to them; and sadly “whatever [they] enjoy is never, ever, what the gaming masses enjoy”. I don’t actually think it was possible for Tale of Tales to make a game that would capture the hearts (and wallets) of a large enough portion of gamers. Knowing that, the question they might have been better off pursuing is, ‘how to make something that people who already like our games will like even more?’ (Or at least, how to make it financially viable?)

But then, there’s still the matter of reaching out. People who enjoy ToT’s games form a very tiny niche within the huge landscape game ‘enthusiasts’ (anyone who might regularly visit a gaming-related website, for instance); which in itself is a niche within the general audience of players. Tale of Tales’ fans are people who appreciate their radicalism, within a field that generally loathes any kind of deviation from the norm. ‘Reaching out’, then, would mean somehow breaching through the layer of pre-emptive antipathy, instead of trying to cater to it. Of course, if you’re trying to talk to those who aren’t familiar at all with how games are played, you then face a whole lot of other issues and technical challenges.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be too harsh – there are probably lots of people who have fair reasons not to be appealed by a game like Sunset. I mean, people like different things, and I don’t want to sound like I’m saying ‘if you don’t like the game, you’re wrong and you should die’. The videogame industry is what it is, and of course it’s going to attract people whose sensibilities differ from Auriea’s and Michaël’s. On an individual level, that’s okay. But still, if we’re at a stage where ToT can’t exist, then there definitely is something wrong somewhere, and we should all – regardless of sensibilities – do everything we can to fix it.

Until the wider change happens, what you can do is help Tale of Tales by buying their games and supporting Auriea and Michaël on Patreon.

Hunter’s pistol

I finished Bloodborne two days ago, and very much liked it. It’s an interesting game in many ways, some of which I’ve been wanting to write about since I started playing. I’ll eventually talk about the story – I’ll let you know when I start venturing into spoiler territory, in case you haven’t finished it yet. Before that, though, I’d like to have a look at the game’s most advertised new feature, its main differentiator when compared to its predecessors: the gun mechanic.

When you start the game, you’re given two and half tools for killing: one fairly large cold weapon that has two equally murderous forms (you can usually trade swiftness for reach and/or brutality) and a firearm. When it was revealed that this shooty, noisy device would go into the protagonist’s left hand instead of the expected shield, many players were surprised, worried even; I know I was. The safety provided by holding down the left trigger to hide behind your shield in Dark Souls (the previous game from Bloodborne’s developers) allowed for a slower, more measured play style, and that was exactly what I loved about it. Bloodborne, on the other hand, seemed to be all about constant side-stepping and frantic shooting – twitchy, nerve-racking, focused on precise timing, and indeed without a moment to rest. There is a shield you can equip in Bloodborne, but its in-game description reads like a design note from director Hidetaka Miyazaki, directly addressed to the player: “Hunters do not normally employ shields, ineffectual against the strength of the beasts as they tend to be. Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity.

What’s interesting about this note is how it almost explicitly reveals why guns have replaced shields in Bloodborne. The developers felt there was a problem with Dark Souls that they needed to fix – passivity – and the firearms were their solution. Let’s fictionally go back in time and pretend we’re attending the early design meetings for Bloodborne… it probably went something like this. The starting point was the removal of the shields; that much is obvious. However, shields did come with a mechanic that didn’t encourage passivity at all: parrying. To parry in Dark Souls, you opt not to keep your shield up, and instead try to raise it right when an attack is about to hit your character; it’s risky (half a second too late and the attack does hit) but if done successfully, it staggers the enemy, leaving them vulnerable to a powerful riposte. That’s the kind of gameplay mechanic that requires so much focus and concentration that you can usually feel it affecting your whole forearms, as they tense up waiting for the exact right moment to press that button. It’s anything but passive. How, then, do you keep it without the shields? What kind of combat-oriented tool could complement a main weapon and allow instantaneous parrying, but not passive protection?

The answer’s definitely not ‘guns’. Daggers, maybe, or some sort of steel gauntlet… but not guns. That doesn’t matter, though; let’s call this mysterious parrying device the Tool X for now.

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Freeplay 15

TO: Nathan Chad Georgia Fraser Peter Matthew Goldie Tim Alexander AJ Hugo Claire Danielle Ben Ian Mat Kevin Alex Mat Brendan Mandy Stuart Michèle Anthony Chris Maize Kevin Darshana Nico Tom Katelyn Aaron Ben Alex Jesper Josh Amani Sam Christian Thomas Evelyn Jess Luke Brendan Chris Harry Benjamin Dan Louie Dominica Hong Terry Trent Izzy Max Jamie Barnaby Sophie Zane Nina Ryan Greg Michael David Harrison Susan Andrew Monica and everyone whose name I have forgotten (sorry!) or whom I haven’t had the chance to talk to

SUBJECT: Freeplay 2015

MESSAGE: How can I put this in a way that doesn’t sound too dramatic or hyperbolic? I don’t think I’ve ever, ever felt so welcome in a community. In my entire life. Immediately after I landed in Melbourne last Wednesday, things got crazy (as my fantastic hosts can attest) and they never truly went back to normal. The festival’s been awesome, and lots of people far more important than I have already expressed far more eloquently the immense respect for the organisers one is bound to feel; but beyond the talks, the workshops, the fete… what really made this special for me was the sense of suddenly being surrounded by such great people. It takes a lot for me feel like I belong somewhere, to overcome the ever-present social uneasiness; I would never have guessed that after just one week, that anxiety would be no more than a faint murmur, essentially forgotten. That’s not my doing. It’s thanks to everyone who went out of their way to extend a hand, to introduce me to friends, to take a bit of time to chat and get to know each other… You have no idea how much it means. I hope Freeplay continues to thrive, and that in the following years I get to meet more of the kind and talented people who have contributed to its conviviality, which I can’t help but think is at the very heart of the event. I know I will do everything I can to become part of it, so that maybe, in the future, I can also show disoriented foreigners around.

Welcome!

Hi! Welcome to my… website. blog. thing. Not sure what to call it yet.

My aim with it is to have a place that acts as a hub of sorts for everything related to me. So I’ll be blogging here, in this section, and you’ll also see my professional information on the other side; and there are also my latest twitter posts in the widgets on the right (unless you’re on mobile) and maybe stuff from other platforms will also invade in the future. I won’t open any comment section, so that’s another way in which it’ll interact with the rest of the web: I’ll find some other service to host the conversation around my posts, if there is any.

Regarding the actual contents of the blog, I’ll try to keep the posts relatively short – you might see a long ‘essay’ once in a while, but mostly I want to be able to publish quick, semi-random thoughts that deserve a bit more elaboration than tweets can afford. I will also try to post my impressions on various cultural items I come across, when they warrant it. I suspect it will all stay mostly in text form, but who knows.

It’s still very much a work in progress. Some things might not work optimally, others might outright break; please send me a tweet or an email if anything of that sort happens. (Here is where I would usually paste a link to those things, but hopefully the website will do its job.)

Anyway. Looking forwards to actual posts. I hope you are too! ^_^

Work
Work

Hi! My name’s Robin. I’m super passionate about videogames.

I think they can be meaningful on many levels – from the authors' ideas to the players' interpretations, from the intimate harmony of mechanics echoing each other to the booming contribution to greater social or cultural contexts.

I love games that are deep, inspiring, yet still engaging enough for the players to seek out and even analyse these meanings. When the overarching purpose shines through, you know you’re playing something unique and beautiful.

This is what I aspire to create: experiences that make players stop and think. Below is some of my past work, in which I've tried to put this into practice.

Logo JMC

After moving to Melbourne, I started teaching game design and development at JMC Academy. The position involved mentoring students through the development of their final project: pre-production, planning and management, development; and of course, teaching them how to approach design critically and meaningfully, rather than conventionally or arbitrarily.

Teaching was an opportunity for me to articulate and expand on my design aesthetics, and to introduce students to kinds of games and interactive works that they’d not heard of before. Seeing their horizons broaden was truly rewarding and led them to experiment with new ideas, while still maintaining a sense of ownership and uniqueness. I learnt from them as well, as a group of people with different outlooks on games and different goals; and while I taught them new concepts, I also encouraged them to cherish their own perspectives, to cultivate their own individuality, and to imbue their projects with it.

In 2015 and early 2016, I worked on a variety of playful live events: murder parties, pop-up escape games, historical investigative mysteries… I also designed and/or consulted on small-scale videogames and board games. During this time, I focused on how to better introduce play concepts to different audiences, and analysed reactions on more experimental projects. As part of my push to broaden my skill set, I designed and developed several websites (including this one).

This exploration of new fields and desire to step out of my comfort zone led me to move to Melbourne in April, where I was welcomed by the local game dev scene. I continued progress on personal projects and started working at Mind Games, a board game store, which provided yet another opportunity to get a better understanding of the kinds of audiences interested in games – from experts to newcomers.

Logo Innovation

Innovation: Age of Crafting is a mobile game that was recently released on Windows Phone, and will soon be out on Android and iOS. Tiles representing scientific and cultural landmarks of humanity’s evolution through the ages are arranged on a grid; the player must slide them to combine them, discovering more advanced technologies.

I worked on the game as a freelancer; when I arrived on the project, only the basic concept had been determined. I fleshed it out and expanded it, then designed the game’s rule variants and all of 125+ levels they’re used in, aiming for a constantly renewed experience and a welcoming learning curve.

Logo The Crew

In 2013, I worked as a mission designer on The Crew, at Ivory Tower. I collaborated with the environment artists to find beautiful locations within the game world, then defined mission rules that were adequate for the player’s level. I tried to subvert the existing mechanics, to suggest emergent narratives; I took advantage of the game’s features, such as off-road driving, but was careful not to be confined to them either.

I also worked on the exposition of the game’s structure, which had never been seen before. The tutorials and informative screens had to effectively teach the player how to navigate the many systems, without being an obstacle to free-form play. Predicting the player’s progression and timing the delivery of explanations accordingly was crucial.

Logo Rainbow Six

My post-grad internship was at Ubisoft’s Editorial, which oversees the development of the company’s games and ensures a high level of quality, providing advice and feedback to the dev teams – I was assigned to Rainbow Six. I studied the portrayal of crowd panic and tactical squad interventions in films and games, and derived key points and guidelines. I also played each build and offered suggestions on how to make the experience more cohesive and intense.

While I focused primarily on Rainbow Six, I also intervened on other projects, among which Far Cry 3 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I helped balance the multiplayer modes of both games; on FC3, I also played the whole game several times to give feedback from an external point of view, and specifically whether the introductory sections properly explained every aspect of the game.

Logo Flux

FluX is my final school project; it’s a 2-player digital board game, played on Microsoft’s PixelSense touch table. Each player owns a base that releases ink; by placing wooden pawns on the screen, they create currents and obstacles. The aim is to lead the ink towards neutral bases scattered on the board to convert them into new ink sources, and then to capture the opponent’s main base.

My contribution was quite broad: I elaborated of the main concept, designed board layouts, programmed a vector field and fluid mechanics to handle ink propagation, and implemented the pawn identification system – using PixelSense’s virtual reality API within Unity 3D. This project started out as an art installation motivated by a question: how to make human-human interactions through a digital medium feel natural, transparent and even physical?