Eurostylin': An American Game Designer in Europe
Ernest W. Adams
2000 Game Developers' Conference
This is an approximate transcript of my lecture at the Game Developers' Conference on March 12, 2000 in San Jose, California. When it was given, another American game designer for Bullfrog Productions, Chuck Clanton, joined me to present some of his observations on British and American humor. His material is not included in this transcript.
Good morning. My name is Ernest Adams, and this is Eurostylin': An American Game Designer in Europe.
Before I get started, a couple of disclaimers: what I'm about to say is entirely my own opinion, and not the opinion of Bullfrog Productions Ltd. Also I want to warn you that a slide containing full frontal nudity will be shown, so if that gives anyone problems, make your escape now.
Finally and most importantly, I warn you that this lecture isn't going to be exactly as described in the program. If you came in here expecting some sort of detailed how-to session on localization, you're not going to get one, and I wanted to tell you that now while there's still time to find another lecture.
By way of explanation, let me tell you how this lecture came about. I actually submitted two other speaking proposals for this year's conference. But then I learned that I was going to be transferred to Britain to be a full-time game designer at Bullfrog. "Oh, great," I thought. "I'll go over there and I'll learn all kinds of fascinating things about European games, and I can come back and tell the folks at the GDC all about it." So, almost as an afterthought, I put in one more speaking proposal, which was this one, and this was what the advisory board selected.
Unfortunately, when I got to Britain I found that I was incredibly busy starting up a new project and learning how to live in a new country, and I simply didn't have the time to buy and play all the European games and compare them to American games. What I'm going to give you instead is a disconnected series of reflections on European and American culture, and how I think they might affect game design.
I write a monthly column on game design for the Gamasutra webzine, and it generates a fair amount of E-mail, including E-mail from overseas, and some of it's pretty entertaining. This is actually one of my favorites:
... I think the average American must be DUMB AS A ROCK!!! You guys decided to stop teaching evolution in your schools in Kansas City, and now you want to put the Ten Commandments in the classrooms??!! My God, it's like going back to the DARK AGES!!! The rest of the world stopped relying on the Ten Commandments to form their culture when the RENAISSANCE came, FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO!!!
– <name withheld>, Brazil
[Laughter and applause.] I hasten to add that the capitalization and punctuation is all in the original. That's one of those letters that requires either a ten-page answer or none... guess which one the guy got.
Anyway, I save all the mail, and when I realized that I wasn't going to have time to buy and play a lot of games, I sent out a survey to some of the European professionals who had written to me. As I present my reflections on European and American culture, I'll illustrate them with quotes from some of the letters I got back. I've made minor corrections to the spelling and grammar where necessary, but I'm impressed that all these people could write to me in English – I certainly couldn't write to them in French, Swedish, etc.
Innovation versus Execution
The key question I asked was a simple one: "What do you think makes European games different from American ones? Consider anything and everything." First I'll talk about a couple of items that came up several times in the responses. Interestingly enough, the general consensus of opinion among my correspondents was that Americans make more technically proficient games, but Europeans make more innovative ones. Here's a sample quote:
While a European developer cares about story and dialog, Americans care about frame rate, Direct 3D compatibility, 3D sound, fast networking, great visual effects and trash metal hardcore music... Europe has a tendency to create "innovative games, badly presented."
– Mickaël Pointier, Eden Studios, France
Most people agreed that for sheer quality of presentation, American games are the best in the world. We have the biggest budgets, we have the best equipment, and we definitely have the most powerful marketing and advertising organizations. The Europeans think our special effects and explosions are really cool. However, they generally felt that we tend to stick to well-established genres, that we don't take risks, and that our storytelling is namby-pamby and limited by pressure from the religious right. More than one person told me that he thought European games were made with more "heart" and more "love" – that Americans make games that we know will sell, regardless of whether we actually like the game.
I think they're probably right about this, and for reasons that we all already know: big budgets mean that publishers are more conservative and less willing to take risks. The European business, being smaller and younger, still has the kind of creative freedom that we had five or ten years ago.
War and History
Memorial Day in the United States: you can picture the scene. The President lays a wreath at Arlington, some war heroes give speeches, there are a few parades, and everybody fires up the barbecue. That's not the way it is in Europe – at least in Britain. To start with, their Remembrance Day is on November 11th (what we call Veteran's Day, although most of us don't even get it as a holiday). November 11th is the day World War I ended, and they don't move it around for the convenience of people who want to have a three-day weekend.
On Remembrance Day, people wear poppies in their lapels, a reminder of the poppies that grew wild between the trenches in Flanders during the First World War. But it isn't just a few politicians or old soldiers who wear them. It's everyone: all ages, all social classes, all professions. Even the news readers on TV wear them. In America, Dan Rather would never wear some kind of a symbol while he was broadcasting, but in Britain, all the TV personalities do – newsreaders, talk show hosts, everyone. And not just for a day. Nor even for a week. For most of the month of November, people wear these poppies in remembrance of their war dead.
If you travel around the United States, you'll see a few war memorials here and there, but not very many. Of course there are the big ones in Washington, but you have to go there to see them. Otherwise, there aren't many to see.
In Britain, war memorials are everywhere. Every town, every village, will have one. In the town square, in civic buildings, and of course in churches. If they don't have a stone plaque, they have a beautifully-calligraphed book on display, with page after page after page, filled with the names of the dead. And in addition to the public memorials there are the private ones. Businesses and even railroad stations will have a memorial listing the names of their employees who were killed.
When you go over to the Continent it becomes even more poignant – the memorials start listing the names of civilians: hostages, shot by the occupying forces in reprisal for the activities of the Resistance.
The wounds of war are deep and painful, especially in a place where the war has actually taken place. America hasn't had a war on its mainland since 1865, the Civil War, and yet even so, the wounds of that war are still with us. The Confederate flag still flies over the South Carolina statehouse. My wife's grandmother was born around the turn of the century – she was far too young to remember the Civil War. But she heard about it from her parents and grandparents. Like a good many other southern ladies, she kept a dagger in the house as the defense of last resort for protecting herself from being raped by Yankee soldiers... and this was in the 1960's, a hundred years after the war was supposedly over.
Europe experienced two horrendous wars on its soil in the 20th century, and various smaller ones as well. The scars are still there. There are still people alive today who are suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of living through the Blitz. The Second World War was not that long ago. Only fifteen years before I was born, Auschwitz and Dachau were up and running. Fifteen years. That's less time than I've been a professional software developer.
What does all this mean for game design? Well, one of the consistent complaints I got was that Americans are ignorant about history and geography.
Geographical areas, different types of cultures and different ages are swept together in a cascade that I as a European find inconsistent and immature. Americans... tend to mix Vikings with Romans and to make it more spicy they throw in a few Mongols and a pink dragon for the fantasy touch.
– Michael Stenmark, Hidden Dinosaur, Sweden
Europeans are of course steeped in history; they're surrounded by it all the time; they learn it thoroughly and they take it seriously. As for geography, they have so many countries packed into so small a space that they can't help but learn it.
This is what I got, independently, from two different guys in Ireland:
Do your homework if you're going to tackle Irish history.
– Shane Whelan, Ireland
If you haven't done your homework it might turn out really nasty.
– David Stafford, Ireland
I think I know a veiled threat when I hear one... [Laughter.]
Now, is the average European teenager filled with angst by two world wars? Of course not. But that teenager does know his history. If you screw it up, he's going to know. And of course, we don't only sell to teenagers any more.
This is a legitimate concern. If somebody in Europe make a game that mixed up the Korean War with the Vietnam War, or got the locations of Utah and Colorado backwards, we would certainly think that they were incompetent. If we want to sell in Europe we need to get right those details that matter to the Europeans.
Class and Accent
Now I'm going to talk about some observations about European culture generally. And I'm going to start with newspapers. In US, newspapers are divided by geographical region. We have hundreds of newspapers, but only three national ones: the Wall St. Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, if you can call that a newspaper. The New York Times likes to pretend it's a national newspaper, but let's face it, nobody in Duluth wants to pay to read reviews of restaurants in New York City.
American newspapers take editorial stances, but they're not very significant. In recent years newspapers haven't played a major role in advancing a particular political agenda. For one thing, they're in such fierce competition both with one another and with other media that they can't afford to alienate too many readers, so they tend to have a moderate, centrist position. And in addition we have a strong tradition of objective journalism.
British newspapers are divided differently. Most major newspapers are national newspapers, not local. The Guardian for example, used to be the Manchester Guardian. What sets them apart is their political stance. The Guardian is liberal, the Telegraph is conservative, and the Times used to be ultraconservative until Rupert Murdoch took it over. He remade it to be more accessible; now it's just a little to the right of center.
But the other way that newspapers are divided up is by social class. Newspapers in Britain aim to appeal to a specific class of people. The Times is the highbrow, intellectual paper. It's famous for printing letters to the editor from pedants correcting obscure details. The Sun, at the opposite end of the scale, is written in language a ten-year-old could read. It prints a lot of sports and celebrity news, and its editorial position is nationalistic to the point of xenophobia. It is specifically aimed at the under-educated and underpaid.
American newspapers could not get away with this; it would be seen as divisive and un-American. We have to try and pretend that there are no social classes in America. American newspapers want to create the impression that they speak to everyone and for everyone.
Britain is famous for being class-conscious, and although it's not as true as it once was, it's still strongly present, even in odd ways. When the British comedian Stephen Fry was 17 years old, he went on a spending spree with someone else's credit card. He was a middle class kid, the son of an engineer, and as a child he went to a boarding school. He was eventually caught and did some jail time. While he was in jail, the other inmates told him it wasn't right for him to be there, that someone like him should not have been sent to jail. He protested that since he had done the crime, he ought to do the time, it was only fair, but they just shook their heads and said, no, we belong in jail, but not you, it's not right.
In Britain, another significant marker of class is accent. Britain has a delightful array of accents, probably more than there are in the United States, but each one carries with it implications about the class of the speaker. We're not that familiar with this in the US. We have a variety of accents in the US, but a lot of them aren't connected with a class, just a geographic region.
The one game that seems to have made an effort to use American accents meaningfully is Starcraft. Starcraft is very interesting, because uniquely among games, they have borrowed southern cultural motifs. Unfortunately, they did succumb to temptation and resort to the "dumb hick" stereotype from time to time, but they're clearly aware that there's more than one kind of southerner. General Duke really sounds like an elderly general – stalwart and gruff, a little tired; but definitely not a redneck. And Arcturus Mengsk has the accent of a southern aristocrat, which is completely appropriate for his role. Jim Raynor is more western than southern – as befits a man whose title once was Marshal – but he, too, fits nicely into the mix. My hat's off to Blizzard for exploiting this untapped vein of American culture in a way that goes beyond the Gomer Pyle stereotype.
But if accents carry a small amount of meaning in America, they carry much more in Britain. There's a very funny British TV show called Dinnerladies, about a group of women who work in a factory cafeteria. It's set in Manchester, which is in the north of England, and the north is the butt of a lot of jokes the way the south is in America. I once said to one of my co-workers at Bullfrog, "I've been listening to your accent, and I can tell that you're from the north, because you sound like the people on Dinnerladies." And she was mildly offended. I was just listening to the sound, but I think she felt I was making an insulting remark about her social class.
I'm just starting to learn the rules about England, but God help me when it comes to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and so on. I have no clue. My reason for bringing all this up is to issue this warning: When you're hiring voice talent to localize your game, it's not enough just to find someone who speaks the foreign language. You have to find someone who can act the role. If the person you get has an accent inappropriate for the role, you could be sending absolutely the wrong message and you would never know. Get a native to help you hire your foreign voice talent, and make sure that they have a clear understanding of the role they're supposed to play.
One of the things that does hack me off is the ubiquitous American accent/character... As European developers we are always told that we must make our characters as American as possible, because "Americans don't like or understand British/Welsh/Scots/European accents." I don't know if this is true, but it is strongly emphasised by US publishers.
– Kim Blake, Particle Systems, UK
Finally, one last point about accents: don't use Americans in medieval games. The American accent is by definition a post-Renaissance accent. It did not exist until the 18th century at the earliest. The American accent is completely out of place in a medieval setting, which is only one of many reasons why Kevin Costner made a lousy Robin Hood. Don't do it. Hire native British speakers – and no phonies either! I don't know who was responsible for that appalling so-called Scotsman in Age of Empires II, but I hope he's ashamed of himself.
It might become a major problem [for a US developer] if it doesn't target Europe in the first steps of the design. Due to the linguistic differences, localization can be a huge headache, not only translation, but cultural adaptation.
– Fabrice Cambounet, Ubisoft, France
There's another language translation issue that's quite significant, and can bite you if you don't understand it, and that is the question of pronouns. Modern American English only has one second-person pronoun, the word "you." It's used for both individuals and groups, except in the American south, where "y'all" is used for groups. But in French, and many other European languages, they actually has two forms of the word "you." In French tu is singular and is used for speaking to one person, and vous is plural and is used for speaking to groups.
If that were the only issue, translating from English to French would be fairly simple. However, there's another rule which overrides the one about singular and plural, and complicates matters considerably. Vous is not only used for groups; it's also used whenever you want to be polite or formal, either to an individual or a group. You use it with strangers, co-workers, superiors, or anybody you don't know very well. Tu on the other hand, the singular "you," is used with children, pets, family members, and close friends. It's called the familiar, as opposed to the formal, form. If someone invites you to use the familiar, they're doing you something of an honor; they're offering you an intimacy that other people aren't allowed.
In German it's even more complicated, because there are additional forms, with significant social overtones. For a man to ask a woman to use the familiar with him could be extremely insulting, because unless they know each other very well, it's tantamount to an indecent proposition. And among men there's actually a little drinking ritual you can go through, called the "brother-making drink." Once you've drunk the drink together, you've made the other man your brother, and you can each use the familiar pronoun.
Of course, as English-speakers we have no clue about all this stuff. When we're writing dialog, we just put "you." This is another thing you need to get right when you're doing translation. When you hand over your script to the translators, it's not enough just to give them the raw text to translate. They need to understand the social relationships among the speakers, so they can represent them correctly. You really need to sit down with your translators and discuss the characters in your game carefully with them. Incidentally, if you don't speak the language, you yourself shouldn't try to decide when to use the familiar or the formal. You'll probably get it wrong, with unintentionally hilarious consequences. Explain the relationships to the translators, and let them decide.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. The word "you" is just one tiny part of the huge and complex translation problem. Don't just sent off a script to a translation service and plug whatever you get back into your game; you have to work closely with your translators.
Nudity and Sex
American guys are shocked by a nude breast, but will cover a whole screen with bloody explosions. A French game will try to avoid human killing, but will eventually display "crude" dialogs or scenes... that are often removed by a publisher who hopes to make the game sell well in the USA.
– Mickaël Pointier, Eden Studios, France
Traveling around Europe, I've noticed that – although it varies from country to country – the culture generally is a lot racier than what I was used to in America. Initially I assumed that the reason for all the nudity was a lack of feminist consciousness-raising on the subject of exploitation of women in Europe. I assumed that Europe is fundamentally more sexist than America.
Later I realized that it's more complicated than that. I think Europe is more sexist than America in a lot of ways, but that's not the whole story. Nearly 300 years after the Puritans arrived, America continues to maintain a Puritan ethic with respect to its entertainment. We apply the virgin/whore dichotomy to our entertainment: it's either "racy" or it's clean as a whistle. We have little conception of nudity and sex as normal parts of life – in entertainment, it's either "hey, hey!" or it's just absent.
There's also a strong economic factor. Because showing one breast is a watershed for turning a money-losing PG movie into a moneymaking R movie, the movie industry include breasts gratuitously... and it's completely obvious that it's gratuitous. It seems to me that Europeans don't include nudity so much for the "leer" value. I've noticed that you see a lot more nudity on TV in Britain – a lot more. But it's not presented as "hey, look at the naked chick." They tend to include it wherever it's appropriate and in context for the story. After all, in the normal course of events, everyone is naked at least twice a day. Nicole Kidman said that when she appeared, very briefly, naked on stage in a play called "The Blue Room" in London, it was hardly even mentioned, but when it ran in New York, people never talked about anything else.
In addition I think the Europeans use nudity and sexuality much more for its humor value, and that takes some of the sense of exploitation out of it. Here's an example. This was a billboard in a railroad station in Britain. I don't think you'd see this in an American railroad station; I think there would be loud protests.
The bottom line, as it were, is that there's a meaningful distinction to be made between context-appropriate nudity and sexuality versus gratuitous titillation. American entertainment products tend not to make that distinction. Things are either "dirty" or they aren't.
If you want to use nudity or sexual themes in games in Europe, you're going to get in less trouble with the Powers that Be than you are in America – they don't have a large population of activist Puritans whose only joy in life comes from suppressing anything that suggests that people genuinely enjoy sleeping together. On the other hand, the Duke Nuke'Em look-at-the-naked-chick mentality isn't going to do as much for you over there than it is here. Gratuitous nudity doesn't sell products as well there because they can see plenty of non-gratuitous nudity as it is.
While we're on the subject of sex, let's talk about the French. I'd like to try and clear up some misconceptions about France. If there are any French people here, I want to make it clear that I don't mean to offend you, but I also have to warn you that you may learn some things that you might not like.
The French are the subject of a certain amount of derisive humor in the United States; they're often characterized as rude, rather weird, and inhospitable. For example, on the old Saturday Night Live TV show, when the Coneheads wanted to explain away their bizarre behavior, they told everyone that they were from France. Some of this is a carryover from British attitudes. The British are still really sore about the drubbing they took in 1066, [laughter] when their country was conquered, their government overthrown, their laws replaced, even their language all changed around. Although they've beaten France on numerous battlefields since from Agincourt to Waterloo, the British have never been able to conquer France outright. So there's a long-running mutual antipathy there.
The perception of rudeness, however, is really only partially accurate, and it derives specifically from Paris. Every summer, hordes of English-speaking tourists descend on Paris, none of whom make any effort to speak French, and it's not surprising the French can be a bit testy about it. Given the choice, I'd rather be an American trying to get along in Paris than a Frenchman trying to get along in New York.
The other reason that the French seem weird is because they appear to be obsessed with preserving their own culture. There's a French organization that's responsible for preserving the French language, and they've been given the power to actually fine newspapers for using English. Whenever anything like this happens, of course, it makes big headlines in the English-speaking world as an example of French hostility and rejection of American culture.
I've been trading E-mail with a French colleague, Pascal Luban from Darkworks, about all this, and I've learned some interesting things. France is extremely centralized, in government, in education, in the arts, and so on. In France, if you're not in Paris, you're in the sticks. This means that their intellectual elite is very insular, and all this stuff about the preservation of French culture and the rejection of American culture actually comes from a small group, the Paris-centered academic elite.
No matter what the French self-proclaimed intellectual elite says about "crude" American culture, the vast majority of people accept it and love it. It is the same with games. Big hits in the US are also very popular over here.
– Pascal Luban, Darkworks Studio, France
Let me give you some information about the French film industry. The film business in France is heavily subsidized by the French government: tens of millions of dollars in tax money go into making French films every year. In addition, they are guaranteed that 40% of all films broadcast on TV will be French-made films. However, last year in France, 63% of the box-office take went to American-made films. Now, some of that is undoubtedly due to the effectiveness of American marketing, and the number of films that America turns out. Still, if the French didn't like them, they wouldn't go. The French government can force the taxpayers to pay to make French films, but they can't force them go see them.
Think about what that really means. Can you imagine how we would feel if two-thirds of every dollar spent going to the movies in America was paid to see French films? That would be a huge impact on our culture, and so conversely America is obviously having a huge impact on their culture. If you want proof that the average Frenchman doesn't have a problem with American entertainment, there it is. Now of course, if you ask a French person "Which do you prefer, French things or American things?" they have their pride; they're going to say French things. But the numbers tell a different story.
The reason I bring all this up is that I'm afraid some American developers may be reluctant to translate their games into French because of this stereotype. My message to you is: go for it. You may want to make some concessions to French culture and sensibilities, but this supposed xenophobia about American culture is really confined to a small coterie of hand-wringing isolationists in Paris.
And, of course, French is not only spoken in France. I get a fair amount of E-mail from around the world in response to my monthly Gamasutra column, and a surprising amount of the E-mail from Canada comes from Quebec. Quebec is the most populous province in Canada, but I really think that may be where most of the gamers are, too.
You remember how the Disney version of The Little Mermaid ended? She married the prince, she didn't have to lose her voice, happy ending, lots of singing, etc. etc. But that's not how Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story.
When an American fantasist tries to make something fascinating out of what is for us ever-present history it either comes off as being false or sanitised... We prefer our fantasy harder, darker, with more weight, less feelgood. We are a lot more "serious" in a lot of ways.
– Gavin Davenport, Infogrames, UK
I don't have time to tell you the whole thing, but I'll mention some key points.
The little mermaid did love the prince, but she also had a hidden agenda. She had been told that if she married a human she would gain an immortal soul and go to heaven when she died, instead of just dissolving into sea-foam.
In order to make the potion that would turn the little mermaid's tail into legs, the witch had to use some of her own blood. In exchange, she demanded the little mermaid's voice, which she obtained by the brutal expedient of cutting out her tongue. Unfortunately, the little mermaid's new feet did not work very well, and walking on them caused great pain, like walking across razor blades. She bore this with fortitude for the sake of the prince's love. But because she couldn't speak to him, he never realized how much she loved him, and so he married someone else.
When that happened, her chance to gain an immortal soul by marrying him was gone for ever, and she was doomed to die at dawn the next day. But to save her, her sisters sold their hair to the witch and obtained a magic knife. They told the little mermaid that if she stabbed the prince to death while he slept with his new bride, his blood could be used to reunite her legs back into a tail, and she could at least go back to being a mermaid, and not have to die the next day.
She couldn't bring herself to do it, however, so at dawn she threw herself overboard from the prince's boat, and died, and her body turned into sea foam. The end.
It's a little bit different story, isn't it?
Hans Christian Andersen actually tacked on a gratuitous deus ex machina to give the story a happier ending and a moral about the benefits of being a good child, but I won't bother you with it. Suffice it to say that she never married the prince and she really did die, although she did get her immortal soul after all.
The statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen harbor is not a tribute to joy and life and love conquering all. It's a sad image of a girl trapped between two worlds and belonging to neither. One might even say trapped by her own ambition, because Hans Christian Andersen's story is a morality play about the price of seeking to rise above one's station.
This is absolutely counter to the American ethos. America is the land of opportunity, and the message from day one is that you can be anything you want to be here... with, of course, the implied converse that if you're poor, you must be some kind of a lazy, good-for-nothing loser. But in any case, we don't have any time for depressing messages about the price to be paid for success.
The tale of the little mermaid is a tale of blood and pain, loss and death. I think the difference between the Disney version and Hans Christian Andersen's version nicely sums up the difference between the European and the American soul.
Europe is an ancient place where stone reminders of a brutal and bloody past still dot the landscape. America is a teenager among nations, full of optimism, hope, promise, and potential... but also frequently naive and even juvenile at times. Our fascination with guns and the death penalty strikes me as fundamentally adolescent. Europe is an adult... still vigorous, but with her enthusiasm tempered by time and memories of sorrow. She is not as energetic as America, but she is, perhaps, wiser and more reflective.
Happy Endings/Sad Endings?
That said, however, I'm not actually sure that sad endings work in computer games. This may be one of the fundamental limitations of the computer game as a storytelling medium. A game is a contest, a competition. It has has obstacles, rules, and a victory condition. The obstacles prevent you from achieving the victory condition immediately; the rules provide a framework in which you can work to overcome the obstacles, and the victory condition is the overall goal of play.
A lot of games are broken up into missions or levels, and your reward for winning a particular level is to be shown another episode in a linear story. When you win a level or a mission, you get a bit more story, and the reward for winning all the levels is the conclusion of the story. The problem is that, upon obtaining the victory condition, our natural tendency is to feel pleasure, even exultation. We have exercised our wits, or our thumbs, to overcome the obstacles and achieve victory. That's a happy time. So, to feel sadness, or pathos, or depression, or even anger, is to some extent to spoil the experience.
I'll give you an example. Years ago, Infocom sold a text adventure called Infidel. The object of Infidel was to explore an ancient Egyptian pyramid and find buried treasure. But at the end of the game, when you had finally made it to the innermost chamber, the roof collapsed on you and you were killed. There was nothing you could do about this, and it was a real letdown. When that happened, I was angry. I had done what the game had asked of me; I had achieved all the possible points, and the game had punished me anyway.
When Infocom was asked about this, Infidel's designer, Mike Berlyn, said that this was just his little bit of archaeological moralizing – it's wrong to be a greedy treasure-hunter. But damn it, I paid cash money for a game that (I felt) promised me the fantasy, the pleasures and joys and challenges of being a treasure-hunter. I didn't struggle all the way through the game just to hear somebody's finger-wagging sermon against pothunting. I wanted a big screen that says "You win, and you get rich and you live happily ever after."
When you win the Super Bowl, the commissioner of the NFL does not take away your allowance and lecture you about the evils of violent contact sports. No, he gives you a ring and a trophy and a big wad of cash.
Most stories of light entertainment – stories without any really complex emotional content – end up in one of three ways. They can have a happy ending, a sad ending, or an unresolved issue that tells you there's a sequel coming. The first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, was like this. It had a happy ending – the Death Star got blown up and everybody got medals – and an unresolved issue: Darth Vader got away. Starcraft, interestingly enough, managed to combine all three. The heroic Tassadar sacrificed his life to destroy the Overmind – happy and sad in the same event – but the Queen of Blades was still out there somewhere, leaving room for a sequel.
In short, I don't know that it's psychologically possible to create a good computer game with a purely sad ending. The outcome of a game is by definition success. And success, particularly in light entertainment, is incompatible with pathos. This is another way in which games are not stories. Stories don't build up the reader's sense of pride and accomplishment, and therefore they don't create an expectation of reward. Games do.
It might be possible to create some kind of an interactive experience which is not a game so that you can have a sad ending, but in that case I think it needs to abandon the traditional game elements of obstacles and achievements. I think the non-game interactive experience is a research problem that's well worthy of exploration, but it's unlikely to happen inside the industry. My guess is that if it is studied it will be done in academic labs and among the interactive fiction hobbyists.
I've strayed rather a long way from the question of designing for the European market, but I think the point is germane. Europeans have a legitimate desire for darker themes and more elements of sorrow, loss, and pain. I agree with them that these are elements missing from most computer games. But I don't think that's the way a game can end.
This, however, is the way a lecture can end.
We are creative people. We need a constant influx of fresh new ideas. As things stand now, we rip each other off much too much, creating store shelves full of very similar games. If we really want to reach that fabled mass market, that's not going to cut the mustard any more.
Now for years, I've been haranguing you people to get a library card. The public library is the game designer's best friend – and incidentally, it's still more comprehensive and more trustworthy than the World Wide Web.
But I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that a game designer's second best friend is a plane ticket. Plane tickets are a lot more expensive than library cards, but they offer something that library cards can't: direct, personal experience of real things.
Have you ever been at the beach at sunset? It's lonely; the last people are leaving, it's starting to get chilly, and the wind is whipping stinging sand against your ankles. A few gulls are crying out over the water. The ocean roars on... and the entire sky blazes with scarlet light.
But try to take a picture of it and you get nothing. A disappointing little piece of colored paper. It is at best "pretty." You cannot capture the essence of the experience. You have to be there.
You can read about Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China all you like. You can look at lots of pictures, and they will enable you to create a pale, mechanical imitation of the real thing. But until you go, and experience the place in its context – experience the people in their context – you will not understand with your heart. You can imagine, you can dream (and dreams are good), but you will not know the truth.
Get out of the office. Leave the computer behind. Buy a plane ticket and go.
Here endeth the lesson.