Note: This post deals with my game Creatures Such as We. As such, it will contain spoilers.
The concept behind Creatures took awhile to take a solid shape, but the basic premise had been stuck in my mind for a long time.I kept dwelling on the Chinese Room philosophical problem and its application to video game characters: should game characters be considered independent entities, or just extensions of the people that made them? The more I mused, the more I gravitated towards a story where the characters and designers were interconnected.
And that felt like a cool idea, but then I couldn't think of a good setting. I was originally kicking around something like a gaming convention, but that felt incredibly unexciting. Once the idea popped into my head of a tourist destination (and then where else but the moon?) everything felt right, and I started storyboarding immediately after that.
The first thing I wanted to do was some research to figure out what it would be like to live on the moon. I bought the book Packing for Mars, but it focused less on the question of "What sorts of precautions would future expeditions to Mars need to take?" and more on the question of "What strange and ridiculous things are happening with space travel right now?" so it didn't quite work for my purposes. It was still a really interesting read, and I did get one cool detail from it (Earth vertigo), but I mostly ended up trawling through NASA websites trying to find answers to questions like, "What do you sleep on?" or "How do you deal with moon dust?" or "What do you eat?" to help fill out details on what it might be like to live on the moon. For me, practical details are not only important to getting the background feel just right, but also to influencing the story direction.
Once I had felt satisfied about the "real-world" setting, I turned my attention to the in-game game. It had a lot of needs: an interesting indie-kind of story, with an attractive companion relationship, lethal conflict, and themes of sacrifice, but with obvious aspirations towards AAA style. And, of course, the "bad" ending needed to feel simultaneously unfairly frustrating and beautifully satisfying, depending on your frame of reference.
I had originally thought about doing some sort of renaissance-themed romance game, but it never felt interesting to me, and my brain never even vaguely formed a story around that. At some point, the idea of zombies and ghosts popped up, and, once again, that just immediately felt right. I was a little worried about switching to something so creepy, but I decided I'd rather write about something I was excited about, than of trying to force something that wasn't speaking to me. Interestingly, this meant that Diana's personality had to change from dreamy fantasy-lover to more of a Lovecraftian author. It made for a fun change, where I really got to poke at some darker themes.
I think I was most excited about finally having the opportunity to make an actively inclusive game. I spent a lot of time working towards better representation, and I think I settled on some good design choices. It's an approach that I've documented more on another post.
As far as the philosophical conversations themselves, each conversation was designed to discuss different aspect of video game growth and design, and it felt pretty cathartic to really bounce and stretch those issues into these multifaceted conversations, and to thread them in with the in-game game. I'm really hopeful that those dialogues will spark even more organic conversations among players: I know it's led to some with my testers.
The game had plenty of outside influences and inspirations. I've documented a list of inspirations below, but beware that those inspirations are often focused on the endings of video games, so there are end-game spoilers ahead. Read the list at your own risk!
(Note: I haven't actually played Mass Effect so I don't think it's correct to call it a major influence, but I just recently got the trilogy and started my first character!)
Ways of Seeing: A great book and tv program about art and art's meaning, especially around the notion of whom that meaning belongs to, and how the meaning of art is affected by its surroundings. It was written about film and television, but it feels very adaptable to video games and player control, and I often imagined myself having a conversation with John Berger on many of the in-game topics.
Save the Date: A cute, short game that does a great job wrestling with what counts as the "real" ending to a game.
L.A. Noire: I liked a lot of the things that this game did, but I hated the ending. It made little sense for my character, was completely scripted, and was obviously supposed to be "deep and edgy" instead of engaging and enjoyable. Ugh, I get disappointed just thinking about it.
Urban Runner: A pretty terrible FMV game, with a weird ending where it literally asks you if you want the just-shot femme fatale to live or die. Amusing, because the video of her being dead doesn't actually change based on your choice, only the voice-over does.
The Mikado: (Racial stereotypes, yellowface casting), as just one example argument against author fiat.
Skyrim Boob Physics Mod(s): As just one example argument against player fiat.
The Never Ending... Ending (Portal 2 Ending spoilers) Link. This artistic composition was a moving examination of a game's post-ending implications.
Hatoful Boyfriend: A really amazing game with layered nuances beyond the pigeon-dating surface.
Moon Dance (the song): as sung by Michael Bublé. I actually made a Michael Bublé Pandora station specifically to listen to while writing this game. I do not know why Bublé was especially inspiring for Creatures, but it was.