Sam Barlow, the studio head of Half Mermaid, has proven time and time again that he can weave a fantastic tale. You could be forgiven for thinking he was hit by lightning and had his brain efficiently rewired for developing full-motion computer games that hypnotise players after the back-to-back successes of Her Story Informing Lies and now Immortality.
Nope! In fact, the opposite did not occur. Recently, in a chat on Game Developer Talks (a webinar series co-hosted by Game Developer and our colleagues at sister or brother company GDC), Barlow went out of his way to explain the seeds of his creative process and how they blossomed into one of his most central ideas about video game style: the idea that “seeing” can be as effective a verb for video game style as “leaping,” “shooting,” “running,” or “purchasing.”
So, what does that imply? Well, if you want to understand the concept of “seeing” in games, you don’t need to play The Witness; instead, you should look for a small Infocom game called A Mind Forever Voyaging, as this is where you’ll find the first pointers to Barlow’s stylistic ideas.
Barlow is motivated by video games where gamers “witness” occasions
Throughout the course of A Mind Forever Voyaging, players take on the role of an expert system tasked with simulating the long-term effects of a piece of legislation referred to as “the Plan for Renewed National Purpose.” Instead of being bombarded with stats, players can explore a fictional South Dakota town named Rockville, interact with its residents, and see how the Plan changes life in the United States over the course of fifty years.
Sam Barlow’s go-to PC game is this one, created by legendary Infocom designer Steve Meretzky. Whenever asked what his favourite video game was, he delighted in telling tales of the blank looks on recruiters’ faces when he began describing a text adventure from the 1980s rather than BioShock or any other recent story smash.
To what end does Barlow play this particular game? For one thing, it’s an opinionated video game. Meretzky wrote it after Reagan was elected president. We are still feeling the repercussions of Ronnie’s political programme, which the Plan for Renewed National Purpose is meant to lampoon.
Barlow, a game designer working in the era of Trump and Brexit, hopes to create games with a similarly uncompromising point of view. He was especially taken with the mechanic by which players learn of the Plan’s results.
He elaborated, saying, “It’s the idea that the core gameplay is basically seeing things.” The ability to record events is “one of the few kind of difficult verbs you have.”
“[The player character] decides to start taping things you haven’t been told to taping. Since then, how many games have focused on exploration, observation, or simulation? Not quite like… firing, slamming, scaling, or jumping. The idea that you’re actually exploring this planet and paying attention to the gameplay has certainly stayed with me.
After having some fun with the idea while working on Quiet Hill: Shattered Memories, Barlow says it has become a central obsession in his writing. All of his highly acclaimed FMV games have players exploring video content in search of the most crucial clues to an overarching narrative.
The team behind Immortality thoroughly deserved all the praise it received at the end of 2022, as they demonstrated a high level of expertise in telling the kind of engaging meta-story that is rare in the video game industry. Full-motion video game designers aren’t the only ones who can learn from what Barlow is saying. When you take a step back and look at the video game genre as a whole, the idea of “seeing” pops up everywhere.
Mechanics about “experiencing” can be found in all sizes and shapes
The intriguing thing about Barlow’s style lesson is that it encourages game developers to think more carefully about how players interact with the cam in any computer game. There is strength in treating the viewpoint as a space to be viewed rather than merely played in, whether it be first-person, third-person, isometric, or fixed on a two-dimensional aeroplane.
The idea of “gamer perspective” in corporate video games is generally reduced to very elementary concepts. Is the player aware of the next step? How does the player determine what is required here? Can they anticipate danger and attack successfully? Experts in the field of video camera design and development have literally pulled out their hair over these devices. Because even the most talented gamers will aim the camera just where they should be looking, yet they’ll still miss what’s in front of their eyes.Add to favorites