Stranded – A History

Stranded

Note – The following is a long form article I wrote back in 2014 about the development of the indie game ‘Stranded’. The blog the article was hosted on is no longer around, so I upload it here, and hope it finds some new readers. I would write much of it very differently if I wrote it today of course – less of myself, fewer curse words, many, many fewer references to books I’d been reading. I am however happy to republish it, if for no other reason than to restate my admiration for the game it documents, and the team who made it.  

 

Stranded – A History

 

I play games to be enthralled. Every time I sit down in front of my computer or around a friend’s tv or flip open my DS, I want to be engaged. Games ask you to play them, to move the story with your own actions. They allow you to become part of the machinery and the engine that turns it, both the ghost and the god in the machine. Some of my favourite games do this by having style. By creating a mood, a world, by having a tone that is so strong t it seeps out of the game and into your mind. Think of the pulsating hallucinatory screens of Hotline Miami, think of the brilliant blue great sea of Wind Waker and the freedom you feel sailing it, think the ruined emptiness of Metroid Prime’s Tallon IV and that dual feeling of desolation and discovery. I play in the hope of the numinous experiences that art provides. Any game that has this deserves to be played and to receive special attention.

Stranded, the first full game of lead designer Peter Moorhead, deserves this attention. You are an astronaut stuck on an alien, red world. You are the tiniest thing for miles around. There is no clear method of escape and the game gives you very little in the way of prompts or help. There is no UI, no objective tracker, no quest log. The art is just stunning, and the IDM-inspired soundtrack gives both a feeling of awe and of fear with it’s beautiful but ever so slightly off key sound.

Upon viewing one of the alien ruins, the game made me stop. A literal Brain freeze. Giant alien statues enclosing a temple with symbols marked out into the floor. The red wasteland still visible in the background and the little cosmonaut still panting away, it had me. I was not just in the game, I was reliving the sense of wonder I had as a ten year old when I first moved Samus onto the surface of Tallon IV. I was feeling again the joy of Nick Carraway’s description in The Great Gatsby of discovering America (surely numinous moment par excellence) causing man to be, “Compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood, nor desired.” It was this feeling that I want to share, that I want others to share. I was so happy to see it written about, especially in Cara Ellison’s brilliant piece on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Considering as well that Peter Moorhead recently announced he had completed development, it is a game I would very much like to review. I am, unfortunately, completely unable to.

You see dear reader, I know the mystery behind that scene. I also know what the mystery used to be before Peter thought better of it. I know why it was changed. I know the game’s ending and how long it will take to get there and how to do so. I know what the giants are, and what the writing is supposed to mean. This is because I live about twenty minutes walk (fifteen if you are late home and walk briskly) up the road from Peter Moorhead, and have the good fortune of being one of the “Dicks” to whom the game is dedicated. I can claim, with a fair sense of authority, to have seen and heard more about the game’s development than anyone other than Peter. I have watched my friend pour nine months of his life into this game. So if I am unable to review the game I will attempt to understand watching it be made, and what my friend went through in doing so.

A Day of a Life

 Peter developed Stranded mainly through the Winter months of last year. The game didn’t really get going until September. Peter has never had a great sleeping pattern, and the demands of game development skewed this even more, causing him to actually get into bed around three or four in the morning and wake up around the same amount of hours after midday. He mentioned a few times that he “missed daylight” as he went to bed and woke up as the sun rose and set.

The house was usually empty whenever he woke up. Peter would start his day by sending a weird photo of his face to our group chat and then getting washed, His parents, two exceedingly lovely and hospitable and interesting people, both work and his brother had school. Peter would make a warm breakfast/lunch combo meal – highlights include cumberland sausage and chicken korma. He would then get to work.

For Peter, this means adding to one of 5 text files of code. The shortest is a few hundred lines and the longest is well over ten thousand. To make the game do something new, Peter would have to type in precise instructions in the Ren’py coding language (Ren’py is the engine on which Peter made the game). If Peter made even one mistake in any of his code – a misplaced comma, an errant letter – part of the game breaks. Glitch alert. Squashing this bug requires he shift through the files of code to find the almost invariably tiny error, and right his wrong.

After upwards of eight hours of this, minus time for a second meal, Peter would finish up. He might round off his food intake to three meals a day by ordering takeaway. He might even relax, by say, watching a film, browsing youtube or playing more games. By the time dawn is closer than dusk, it would be time for bed again and Peter would head off to sleep. Ten to twelve hours later the waning sun would  help him wake up, and the cycle would repeated.

So there’s the stereotypical indie developer; lonely, antisocial, code obsessed, comically nocturnal. Thank God Peter defies this description. For one thing in developing Stranded Peter made many real life and online friends. For another, his days were punctuated by human interaction, even if it was only me showing up late at night to play games with him. No, Stranded was a team effort whose development started as a joke, which made Peter many friends, which gave him a feeling of freedom he had never had before. Peter worked on it in different surroundings in  three countries including a vegan bar in Glasgow and the improbably idyllic surroundings of the Datca peninsula in Turkey, and which started off it’s odd little life at a House party in Peter’s final year of secondary school

 

Not what you want

 In the quiet moments of parties people one can do any number of things; staring off into the distance, staring into phones, visiting the bathroom or causing drama. Peter would sometimes find himself having what he describes as “Holden Caulfield Moments”; points where you stop and observe the mad, slightly exaggerated teenage world around you and feel just one step removed, both “within and without” (you’ll have to forgive my repeated Fitzgerald quotations dear reader, that book has been on my mind).

Do not imagine Peter was an unwilling participant in debauchery; these parties were quite something. Held every week, often twice a week, in the empty town house of a rich and very amicable classmate they gave Peter plenty of stories to tell. A good majority of Peter’s school year would show up and many, including our subject, would sleep over. Peter attended these events with his school friends more reliably than he handed in homework. Please do not now think Peter was a high school rebel. He was more a non-participant of his final year of school. He had left education in his mind long before the school asked his year to piss off and pass their exams. Peter had been trying to make games for a few years by this stage, and was set on this course firmly without the input of teachers or careers advisers. He would spend some of his free periods coding in the common room, and his weeknights forgetting whatever homework he had been given that day. In this sense he was one step removed from his peers. They were engaging in the same debauchery too, but as a let off for the toil they were putting themselves through so they could do exams  to get nice letters on pieces on paper that tell you you have done school well enough and can go onto the next level of a nice university and do a sensible degree. Peter went to the parties to pass the year more enjoyably, while he waited to make games full time.

Stranded came out of an inebriated conversation him and a friend had as they sat and watched the party die down around them. Most of their friends were asleep or crashing. Peter had an idea, quite out of nowhere, for a dialogue-less game with a Sci-fi setting that stressed mood and tone more than heavy narrative. The idea was as abstract as that, but also as clear. He took a step aside to record the thought in a notebook, and carried on with his odd final year of school.

Peter may not have been active in school, but he was busy. Peter wanted to make games. He describes them as his lifelong obsession . His father works in IT, and would teach Peter how computers worked, and show him games to play. In his younger and more vulnerable years, Peter would play games for up to twelve hours a day. He told me he played the first level of the 2D Prince of Persia 2 over 100 times. He is still excited about this level today, when asked about it you can hear it in his voice. Good game design got under his skin. This sensitivity to quality was, I think, the sign of a burgeoning game designer. Peter made his first game at the age of ten, a text based scenario in which you could kill a goblin, although typing anything followed by “Goblin” would kill it,. In other words “Make peace with” or “Hand delicious pancakes to” would have the same effect. Games were in his head and not going anywhere. Developing them is a fait accompli, even if he fails at professional game design. He told me that he would still have to make them in his spare time. It is interesting to see game design being as strongly rooted in a creator as writing or music-making can be. Peter reminds me of what Christopher Hitchens once said about becoming a writer, that he had to become one as he couldn’t do anything else. While we are having the endless “games as art” debate, that the experience of game designers in making their creations is very similar to that of poets or artists or musicians or journalists ought to be considered. They are expressions of self in the same way (we shall be returning to this thought).

Peter’s first attempts at making full length games were not the happy or liberating experiences that one associates with art. After three years of struggling with his first and very ambitious project, Incursion, Peter had to abandon it. Three years which also included the biggest personal and academic challenges of his teenage life. His attempt to overcome this quite bitterly felt disappointment was The Sky Belongs to No One. This was an even more ambitious project, an attempt to try genuinely new things with narrative (a back-story randomly decided at the outset, that then weaves it’s way through the entire game; Peter was thinking about narrative legos a year before Ken Levine coined the awkward term). Even with a committed team and a functioning prototype, the ambition of the game had got far away from what the team could make in the the time they had available. Another blow, but not a futile one. Peter was beginning to understand ambition. If he didn’t have it, he wouldn’t have been ignoring school to make games, but that didn’t mean he could actually deliver on these interesting ideas.

Stranded was different. Peter did not intend for it to be a big project. On the contrary it was intentionally limited as an idea. Peter had a design document early on and did not stray very far from this distillation of his idea. For the first time he had a prospective game that was within the limits of what he could accomplish; a game with a chance of actually being finished. For someone as conscientious as Peter this was important. He told me he was worried about calling himself a game designer without ever having finished and released a full game. To square his aspirations with himself and avoid feeling pretentious he needed to actually make something.

More importantly, Peter felt he had an idea that was uniquely his. When I asked him what made Stranded different from other games he had worked on, Peter told me the idea wasn’t an attempt to imitate. His first games were, in his own view, rip-offs. He described the desire he had to make Incursion as wishing that he had made “Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery”. Feeling this was ultimately hollow and self deceiving as an aspiration, he began to see the failure of his previous projects as a failure to be truly self-starting. But with Stranded, that errant thought from a dying party, Peter had something he felt was his, an expression of his desire to make games untainted by plagiarism.

While Peter is being overly self critical here, Sky Belongs and Incursion were a good deal more unique than most triple A hits, it shows something important about getting going in a creative medium; you must really believe in the thing you’re making, and feel a sense of ownership. This description strays dangerously close to cliché, I know, but has the merit of being true. It was this sense of ownership, I feel, that made Stranded become as important to Peter as it did, and also helped make the final product that much more complete as an idea.

But I stray ahead of my story. Peter was going to delay his entry into university life, in order to work on his portfolio. He wanted to make three small games in the year he would have free. Despite being a quite unnecessary move, for he had already received an offer from one of the best game design courses in the UK based on the portfolio he was improving, I think it gave Peter the freedom he wanted. He wanted to be creating, not just thinking about creating. Stranded was to be one of three projects for the year. Here’s ambition trumping capacity again. Stranded was to become his year. The little project might have stuck to the limits of that design document, but Peter maintains that if he knew at the beginning how big the project would turn out to be, he wouldn’t have had the courage to keep going. So we have yet another piece of advice. You must let your ambition carry you away. If not this story would’ve stopped here.

 

Happy Accidents

 Most games, even indie games, are made by teams. This is a necessity. Developing a game is more like creating a film than it is writing a novel. It requires many different disciplines working together to be made, and this means at least a few people must be involved. This was the first resource Peter was bereft of. He was certain of what he wanted; that original design document specified the number of tracks, amount of artwork and animations and the aesthetic of both, but he couldn’t make these pieces himself. Ambitious he may be, but Peter is totally clear on his strengths and weaknesses. So he took to the internet to find what he needed.

Paul Russell, the artist who made Halo’s iconic forerunner designs, described the development of the franchise as, “A series of happy accidents”. If we add in the word “coincidences” then this phrase is as good a summation of Stranded’s development process as we are likely to get. It started with a twitter joke.

Peter is a heavy tweeter. Normally a personality quirk (I.e his new Years message – “Everyone is celebrating the strange funeral of 2013”), it is a positive career move for indie Devs. It allows Peter to broadcast his ideas and creations to anyone willing to listen. When you are as articulate and as creative as Peter, this allows the world to find out about you and your creations. Joe Edwards discovered this for himself by seeing a picture of a “Blade runner type design” that Peter had posted. Joe was an amateur musician and immediately wanted to work with Peter. “ I asked him about it. He said about working with Surasshu for audio and I joked that that was a shame as I was about to offer to do it!” . Neither Joe nor Peter feels the need to explain this impulse; the ambition and creativity are assumed first premises. Peter listened to Joe’s (he goes by Stux on the internet, that series of tubes all the kids are sliding down these days) Soundcloud and was reminded of his proto-game. Peter told him he might have a project they could work on together down the line. A few weeks later Peter sent Joe the Design Document, and after reading it Joe was in, or “sold” as he says.

Perfect and willing artists did not throw themselves at Peter the way Joe did. Peter decided to throw himself at them. He liked Glauber Kotaki’s character art (the man behind Rogue Legacy’s charming characters and enemies), so he emailed Glauber Kotaki to do character art for him. Glauber is a professional, and was being approached by an unknown amateur, but he was in the mood for a smaller project, and it resembled an idea Glauber himself had had for a game. The Design document had done Peter yet another favour, and the team of talented amateurs was joined by a willing professional.

Background art was going to be very important to Stranded; the alien landscapes are what stop Stranded being what Peter calls, “a virtual walking simulator”. Peter was happy however to take Glauber’s recommendation of his fellow Brazilian, and friend, Lucas Carvalho (professionally titled Midio). Lucas himself was attracted to the love and care for this project the team were showing for it. Even at pre-production, Lucas told me, he felt they cared. The uniqueness of the idea and the team had him hooked, and Peter had rounded off his squad.

A Twitter conversation and you’re up one English musician with a perfect feel for the aesthetic. Click send on your hopeful email and you have employed a talented character artist with an impressive CV. Take his advice and you gain an artist who gives your alien world the character that will set it apart. None of these are accidents in a true sense, if Peter hadn’t have made the effort he did, he wouldn’t have got the team he did. He was very happy to have them mind.

From Turkey to Glasgow to Brazil

Let’s stop. Enter our subject’s view. Peter has distilled his idea. He has reached out through the internet and assembled a team that will work across the Atlantic ocean. All this work, and he still has a game to make. But how do you do that bit? The game-making. Games are an ubiquitous part of our lives yet game-developing is a mysterious thing. I imagined it as some kind of silicon valley ritual, performed with lines of code over years in those open plan offices that corporations think will make their employees like each other more. For Peter, it starts in a villa in Turkey on a holiday with six friends. Your own humble servant is one of them

The Datca Peninsula of Turkey makes for a fine morning view. From our friends villa you can see out over the bay, and how the hills sweep into the Mediterranean, and the Greek islands across the water. The Hillsides are literally baked, hard to the touch and populated by dry shrubs that eat up the sun. You eat fruit readily here, a splash of moisture in food seems as natural and necessary as trips to the pool. There is something Hellenic in this view. After to the trip, it is much easier to imagine the setting of Greek myths. The islands in the bay are similar to the ones Odysseus sails past on his way to kill and feast and journey Home.

Home is the last thing on our minds. We are in an idyll. We have money- hard earned by some of us, hard-negotiated for by others – we have time, we have conversation, we have Turkey’s brilliant cuisine, and we have the type of weather that Northern Ireland never experiences. In fact, there seems to be nothing on our minds. It is hard to do anything, except sit, or walk slowly, or swim easily. A group of six keen readers, we barely finish a book between us. Our brains don’t seem to be kicking into gear. It is hard to do anything except enjoy the scenery and each other’s company.

Only Peter manages to remember about the world outside of our little span of ten days away. Every so often, he is found sitting on the sofa, typing on his netbook, headphones plugged in. He is often in swimming trunks, even more often accompanied by a glass of Gin and tonic (Peter has a surprisingly high tolerance for alcohol, which thankfully his bank balance does not share). When asked what he’s working on, he tells you he has to get some Audio tech done. Audio Tech? What new tech-nonsense is this? Whatever, lets enjoy our meal and our holiday, it will only last another few days.

The memory has lasted, and will continue to if the nostalgia of this piece is anything to go by. So too has Peter’s holiday coding. Joe had sent the first of his tracks to Peter. While waiting for Glauber and Midio to become available, Peter felt he should make the most of his time. To make the game’s soundtrack “dynamic” – build and fade in a way parallel to the game’s events – Peter convinced Ren’py he was really just making a play-list of many parts of a track that would begin to play over one another. He had to take the components of the song Joe provided, and piece it back together in the system that I just described. Turkey allowed him the peace of mind to explore the system, to make the difficult step between thinking about and actually doing a creative endeavour in an environment totally divorced from stress. I also like to think Turkey’s setting gave the game two more elements. Firstly, the Hellenic view of blasted rock, and the awe-inspiring beauty of the place seem to have fed Stranded’s aesthetic and tone. Secondly, the friendship – well perhaps this insight is best left for the end of our story.

For the rest of the summer Peter is able to enjoy the friendship the six of us cemented in Turkey. But then, cruelly and inevitably, we must go to university, and the five of us, including myself, leave Northern Ireland. Just what will he do all day while we five of us worry after him? Fear not, because Peter has a game to make, and we know how busy that will keep him.

Stranded is 5 text files, and at some point for those files to become a game, Peter has to enter thousands of lines of immaculately typed instructions into them. Part of game development is occurring when he does this to be sure, but I feel most of it happens before and after these coding sessions, as Peter works with his team to refine the vision of Stranded they now share.

Peter is hands off only after being hands on. Each member of the team loves working with him. He sits down with each member before work is done to discuss what is needed and where to draw inspiration. Lucas was impressed when Peter sent him around 40 or 50 images that had the right look and concept. They also sat down and had, “a long talk”, discussing the game and what the game should look like. This might seem arty and superfluous, to discuss mood and tone in abstract terms, but from the first drawings Lucas sends Peter, Lucas has got the aesthetic right on. Lucas feels integral to the project, and it pleased to made part of it, to have both direction and freedom.

This feeling is shared wholeheartedly by Joe. Peter let him know straight away that he wanted his “sound” to be, in Joe’s own words, “prominent in the work”. He is given the freedom to do whatever he feels is right. And it shows in the tracks he produces. They emerge naturally as you start playing each session, and soon establish the atmosphere of the scene. One of the most amazing parts of the game is how totally the feel of the game can be transformed by the change of music. Some sessions seem to be about exploring and getting lost in the pixel art and electronic melodies. Other seem foreboding, as if this planet and it’s denezins are unwelcoming or uninterested. This is achieved by little changes in the tempo, the instruments and the mood of the songs. Peter is grateful having these tracks coming in. He feels they give him something to “work around”. The music is an emotional anchor, to steal John Williams’ phrase, for both the players and the team.

Peter doesn’t give this freedom just because he is a nice guy or is easy to work with, though he is both. It is necessary for this project. Joe sums it up best when he says , “I think the game stands on its four aspects equally: the soundtrack, the sound design/sound effects, the art and the design. If you took any one of them away it just wouldn’t work!” Stranded is not a game with many gameplay features. You move across screens with very limited interactivity. To rise above a “walking simulator” it must be exceptional in every other area. Peter recognised this early on. He has a team, but sees each part of their efforts as individual as well. For instance,  he insists that Joe is able to sell the soundtrack and remix ep separately, and then to keep most of proceeds. Apparently the biggest argument Peter had with any of the team was him and Joe insisting the other take part of the proceeds. The episode of father Ted where Mrs Doyle and her Friend fight with each other to try and pay for a meal comes to mind, and isn’t far off the truth. Peter is hugely complimentary about the talent of his teammates, and thankful for their contributions.

The team, a group of strangers in three countries with a minimum of a few hundred miles between them, get along fantastically. I asked them how well they liked working together. Their responses are glowing, full of superfluities, “Working with Peter is quite awesome!”, “The whole team though are incredible”, or Glauber’s one word response, “Inspiring”. I feel a bit embarrassed reading their responses, like the feeling I once got when I accidentally stumbled upon one of my siblings’ love letters. They love working with each other, and for Peter. They are glowing in their praise for him. “He has the perfect balance of motivation and relaxation”, “So young yet so wise, humble and devoted.” “Very clear, direct and incredibly competent.” The praise on his Linkedin account is too sickly for me to post here, but it follows in the same vein. Peter has gained some admirers with his work ethic.

Peter and Lucas become good friends quickly. They visit each others animal crossing towns in the evening when done with game-making for the day, and discuss making more games in the future. Peter once took time to show me screenshots of him and lucas’s avatars going shopping and listening to KK slider perform. I remember feeling happy when he told me about this becasue my Friend had found new companions.

He comes over to Glasgow,to visit us.He brings his laptop, and his headphones. And there he is, plugged in and focusing on the task he has set himself. He especially enjoys the 78, a vegan bar and restaurant in the west end that we frequent. There he is, sitting in front of the fire on a November morning with his ubuntu cola because the 78 does not serve Coca Cola. He is with his friends at a bar that plays the Hotline Miami soundtrack, hunched over the laptop screen, moving elements of the art about (the ship exterior if memory serves) and he is happy. The same cannot be said for your humble servant. Glasgow is an amazing city, and my friends are incredibly supportive but it has been two months and Glasgow is not for me. I leave, before Peter’s own week in Glasgow is over, to go home for a week. I tell myself, and everyone else, I will come back, but I know it isn’t true. I am unhappy there and seeing my friend only reminds me of how much I miss home. Peter comes back and I arrive at his doorstep in the evening. We play videogames and drink Coca Cola, because you cannot  buy Ubuntu Cola in Northern Ireland, and I have regained something that I had lost in Glasgow.

Not that everything is rosy for Peter either. Running a team is difficult and even with such agreeable colleagues, problems arise. Towards the end of the game’s development, Peter’s original plan for the foley sounds (all of the game’s sound effects) fall apart. A few months before he wants to have the game finished, and a large part of the game is absent. Worse, due to the nature of Ren’py, Peter cant progress on the rest of the game’s development until he adds the foley sound. One email of disguised concern to his talented friend Steven (known as Surasshu for you prospective employers), and Peter had a new team member. I ask if if it is hard to incorporate someone new so late in the project. Peter answers that it would’ve been, had Steven not been as professional and capable as he was. All Peter has to do is give Steven the list of required sound effects and then a few days later he has completed and very high quality sounds. Peter is left with a new appreciation for working with professionals as a result. While they are less willing to go above and beyond what is required of them in the way that excited amateurs do routinely, they are not going to be incapacitated at the least convenient moment, which is also a matter of routine with amateurs. He is not clipping on his tie and grabbing his briefcase but Peter has a new respect for a professional ethos courtesy of Steven’s important and timely contribution to the game.

Game making is a difficult craft sometimes. Peter runs into problems with the technical aspects of game making as well. This is partly self inflicted. In choosing Ren’py as his engine, Peter chose familiarity over suitability. Ren’py is a tool for making visual novels and it is a strong and varied tool for this medium. Stranded has different needs as it is a point and click game. Ren’py is not designed to make point and click games. To make the engine do what he needs it to do, Peter has to write much of the code as a workaround, or a hack depending on the problem. This requires a pragmatic approach.  You can’t have dynamic soundtracks in Ren’py? Peter creates the complicated playlist system described above. You can cancel animations at any time in a Ren’py visual novel, and this would break Glauber’s characterful animations? Peter draws a blank UI on the screen whenever your character is moving, to prevent you from cancelling the animation. This is a lot of extra work, and adds hours onto Peter’s workload, extra stress onto his days and subsequently subtracts hours off his sleep. Perhaps because of this, Peter is quite self critical of his using the tool. He accepts it was the only engine he knew well enough to complete a project as ambitious as this, but feels it hurts the game to use it, especially with the movement.

As ever, my friend is too self-critical. True, Ren’py is a clunky tool for this task. A game is interactive where novels are descriptive. That he managed to make the game at all is hugely impressive. Cara Ellison at first couldn’t believe Peter had done it at all. He took what he knew, accepted his limitations and then  found ways around his problems. He was a designer and leader. He made a game by making a team, and vice versa. There was no special formula he followed, no grace granted to him by the muses that gave him the vision or benevolence to achieve this. It was because these men made the effort to understand the idea and each other, to communicate when they might’ve stayed silent, and stay committed when they might have doubted and waned, that they were able to make something as interesting and accomplished as Stranded.

Artists and Creators

Video games are talking about themselves. Games as art. What is an art game.  Are Games Art? What is art when you mess around with the piece of art as you consume it? How can you have an artistic medium, a storytelling medium, that fights against you as you experience it? Can you lose yourself in the game enough? Is there enough authorial control? Are these even the right questions?. In big-site blogs and internet forums and within the levels of games themselves, we are seeing an aggressive introspection. The medium has assumed adolescence, and this is our existential crisis.

Allow me to be simple minded on this issue. Games are expressions of self. They tell you stories, not invariably well, and introduce characters. They examine themes, and inspire pathos. They are even capable of deconstructing themselves as you play them. Remember those unsettling moments after you complete levels in Hotline Miami? Or the end of Spec Ops, or all of The Stanley Parable? This is art to me in the same way novels or poetry are.

The creators of games are expressing themselves too. They are artists.  But how do they express themselves, exactly? Just what the hell is artistic expression anyway? If the team are artists, aren’t they also professionals? Can you be making art if you are also doing work? In making Stranded, each member of the team was working to strict set ideas. Peter himself sees games as a “set of rules”, that the players manipulate. Peter set a strict design document, and it was to the demands of the design document that each of the team, including himself worked. This felt constricted to me, as if the team wouldn’t then be free enough to express themselves and create “art”. It felt antithetical to the idea that game makers are artists. It felt like a paradox.

Stranded is a little game of paradoxes. I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when The Stranded Team comprehensively disagreed about feeling constricted.  It is not work when it is enjoyable. For Glauber, character art still feels like a hobby. To decide to make a living out of it is, “the best choice I could ever have made.” For Joe, knowing he and Peter were in agreement on the type of sound necessary, it was freeing to be able to work on it. He describes how he went “full throttle” on the last track he had to make. The same could be said for the full game. Having outlines to work with actually allows expression to happen more easily. I was a little confused by this notion, until I stumbled across something Lucas said when I had asked him similar questions. He said he was excited to work on Stranded because there were ruins in the game. He had studied the ruined buildings in Sao Paulo, and the chance to draw some in pixel art is exciting. This professional connection gives you a way into the project, that you can begin to connect personally with. Lucas said it best, so I’ll let him talk, “ I don’t see them [artistic expression and work] as opposite pairs. At first we treat the whole thing with some distance and as we get closer and closer the artistic solutions tend to touch some personal issues and step back from the “only professional” approach we would have in the first place” .

Expressing yourself, weaving your own emotions and personal experiences into something is hard work. You must understand how to add in symbolism or meaning without it being so explicit that it is insulting to the consumer, and not be so subtle that it may as well not be there at all. Again, Lucas illustrates this better than I could in reporting. He is speaking on how he could translate his own experience of loneliness into the game;

 “ I tried to decompose the feelings I have towards being abandoned and lonely. For instance, whenever I feel lonely, I feel like I’m slowly departing from whatever I feel home is. There’s this detachment feeling I tried to achieve in Stranded’s backgrounds, for instance. When Glauber made our astronaut’s helmet visor pink, we decided the interior of the ship/main/starting scene would have some hints of the same bright magenta as well. I couldn’t think about any other color for the outdoors rather than a slightly “dustier” version of the same color, as if our main character was slowly adapting to a new “home”.

 Lucas speaks of having “freedom within the expectations” of the game’s design. So perhaps limitations, the fact that games are systems of rules and expectations you have to manage, can aid and not hinder expression.

Peter has similar feelings, but stresses that games need a magic something “more” to be other than rules. He put it to me that at it’s most basic level, Stranded is a game about moving a box around a series of rooms. This seems reductive to the layman (read; the writer of this article), but fits in peter’s definition of games; a set of rules you can manipulate. Everything you add is a new rule from your toolbox and creates the experience. In other words in adds up to a game. . This is Peter’s definition of the now ubiquitous term, “Ludology”. What then is narrative? Where does the story game inserted if the game designer is just a rule-maker? Peter used the example that ludology is the text box and narrative is the words inside it. So to Stranded, the box moving simulator, narrative only comes in when you add those always distant backdrops, the carefully designed astronaut sprite, and the changing soundtrack. Peter and I enjoyed stretching his toolbox metaphor too far, saying that narrative is “painting a face on the hammer”. We have odd senses of humour.

Peter enjoys toolboxes though. He enjoys deconstructing games as he plays them. It can make him more passionately enjoy good design; like explaining why Dark Souls 2 does more to teach the player naturally in playing, and as such is better designed than the original. Peter is very keen on the idea that we shouldn’t let genre conventions or tradition get in the way of better design. Dark Souls 2 is the perfect example here; try convincing Peter it was a poor design choice to have the game teach you how to dodge in the opening areas, and not just throw you straight into a combat system that intuitively you do not understand. You will be entering an argument you have no hope of winning. Peter’s favourite games are ones that use mechanics only as much as they need to be; where they are elegant and not overbearing. While this often means he likes simple games, like “Dys4ia” by Anna Anthropy, he also enjoys the Dark Souls of the world, complex games where the complexity adds to the experience.

This is the reason Stranded is so light on mechanics. It is purposeful. Stranded is simple, perhaps too simple. What is in the game, the minimap, the ability to walk or interact with select few elements of the game world, are all there on purpose. It is Peter’s first distillation of his philosophy of game making. No extraneous elements. Rules as elegant as they can be. Everything included is included for a purpose; to create the feelings of being lost and lonely that he wants the player to feel.

“Do you know what it is to die alone, and so far from home?”, Stranded’s website asks us. Isolation is at the heart of Stranded. It is the experience of being on one’s own, in a situation you do want to be in, in a strange place that is the narrative of Stranded, the magic something “more” that makes moving the square meaningful. The little astronaut is so small, and after all his wandering around and being awed by the beauty of the planet and it’s denizens, he is still alone, with no obvious method of escape, or perhaps more unsettlingly, of interacting with the world around him.  All the team talked about how they could relate to the theme, as Lucas described it drove many of the artistic decisions. Everyone has felt alone. In childhood and especially adolescence we have all felt or separate from those around us.

It is especially important to Peter, and connected to his experience of playing games. Those hours as a child, playing games all day long and not going out to see other kids, or play or talk to your family. Peter said he worries about how easy it is to “fall into” games. While this is not unique to our generation, kids have been losing themselves in fantasies and fictions for as long as humans have told stories, video games are especially cohesive. They have the audiovisual stimulation of films and you are allowed to play them, to be engaged with them like in sports or board games. Peter does not view his video gaming childhood as a bad experience, just an odd one. The sense of isolation was intensified during his teenage years, when despite being active, and playing comparatively few games, he was at times deeply unhappy and lonely. So much so that he had to change schools.

Loneliness and isolation have been the recurring themes of Peter’s work. In nearly all of his games there seemed to be characters stuck in situations they were uncomfortable with. Peter is not a man permanently on edge or unhappy, but this idea seems to just come out of him. It has not been overbearing in his previous game stories. “Incurion” did not make the theme explicit until the (planned) end of the game. A game about a young boy literally becoming absorbed into the world of a retro game, it dealt with escapism and the realisation of young man that he did not want to return to the real world.  “The Sky Belongs To No One” was a more grounded game, set in an apartment block, featuring a main character isolated by life and an unfortunate personal history. This protagonist was trapped not in an alternative reality or alien planet but in a life he did not want to live. These characters are unhappy, and not very hopeful.

This part of the history I did not want to write. It will, inevitably, give some the impression Peter is some kind of existential loner or “troubled” young man. He is not. He is a passionate, jokey, often obtuse, always interesting and occasionally infuriating man. He has a wide circle of friends and a very good understanding of what makes people tick. He is my friend. This is not quite the same thing as the game designer and story-teller however. That version of Peter works with the narrative and dramatic raw material that knocks around inside of him. The Isolation, the little boy falling into the computer screen as he attempts to understand how the tools fit together and the teenager trying, angrily, to find meaning in the narrative, are figures inside him   too. These games are not therapeutic or catharti; Peter is not exorcising demons. There is more of the Neil Gaiman than Nietzsche about Peter. He is just telling the stories that come to him, and the impulse to tell stories seems to have been imprinted upon by this negative experience.

Stranded was conceived and made at a time when Peter had left this feeling behind. He was no longer lonely, nor was he game obsessed even if he was obsessed with the thought of actually making games. We more or less agreed that it was only because he had moved on from this feeling that he could make the game and make it as complicated as it was. Only with distance can you analyse feelings, can you make sense of what you experienced. Loneliness is part of life, but you can and must move on. You will fit in with the test of humanity not because you want to or feel like you can, but because you must. Because somewhere at the essence of human experience is variety and this means, oddly enough, that there is room to fit in as an outcast. Those most critical of society or at odds with it also have their place. The point of this sermonising in the middle of a history of a video game will become apparent in the final part of the article, where I give my own view of Stranded’s themes in light of it’s ending, so look out for a spoiler warning.

Before that, we return to our set of rules designed according to a document to allow a player to elaborately move a box across a sequence of rooms. When I asked if this is personal to him  in any way, if game design in general is for the creator, Peter said that it had to be. Even if you make a game to order or to imitate or to impress, your personality inevitably goes into it, even if you are censoring personal elements. Whether you had photographed urban brazil or found a sequence of notes that took you back to being lonely or wanted to make a walking simulator, you will enter into it. You can attempt to be objective or professional or detached, but it will still be you doing it.

Game designers express themselves to make players feel and think about things. If this is not “art” then it includes much, if not all of what makes art valuable and enjoyable.

“Just another morning”

 The game petered out of development. After Peter had gathered all the finalised assets from the team, he worked through his to do lists. This was gradual work. Much of it involved fixing bugs within the game, which Peter has never enjoyed. While he had his friends to help him playtest, it was still a slow business. Each of the team had finished work at different times, but stayed in contact through a developer group chat, which mainly consisted of nonsense and the spamming of one emoji they found amusing, punctuated by occasional game design chat. Eventually, and without even a suggestion of ceremony, the game was done, and put up to buy on Peter’s website.

Then Peter had a life to get back. He spent most of the next few weeks listening to music and playing some games on his backlist. The development team grew slowly more disconnected as they went onto other projects. Peter himself landed an internship with a local software company, and had to adjust to a nine to five routine, a change from the working hours of sunset to sunrise that he had been keeping during the more intense periods of the game’s development.

The game’s early release was a muted affair. It was announced only on twitter by Peter and his teammates, and was available to buy on his website, followed by the softest of Humble Store launches  ( it was not even featured on the front page). This did not unsettle Peter, as he was waiting for a publisher to help him get on steam. Inkeeping with the serendipitous progression of the game, a London based publisher, Curve digital, contacted him out of the blue. One trip to London later and Peter had a new partner with a company who could launch his game properly. It all just seemed to happen. Events progressed without a sense of how extraordinary the were. A day after finding out he had a potentially lucrative publishing deal, me and Peter were still played video games on his sofa, complaining about ludonarrative or level design or the other one beating us.

We have now caught up with my writing of this article. Peter is still waiting for his (now imminent) Steam release, and to see what the general game playing public think of his effort. People have, by and large, loved “Stranded” . Buddy Acker finished his glowing review of the game by saying, “Thank you Peter”. Cara ellison compared it to the work of Stanley Kubrick. People seem to have “got it”, but this is not a uniform experience. Some have failed to see the point of this walking simulator, even if they appreciate the art or music or theme. Peter worried a lot about people not “getting it”, during development he would often wonder if he was giving too little or too much. Such a problem is unavoidable with a game like Stranded. It demands player investment, that you put time into the game and are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.You are duly rewarded for this, but not everyone will be in the right frame of mind to provide it, or will not feel they get out as much as they put in. This fact is openly accepted by Peter and it does not trouble him. He loves it when people appreciate and enjoy the game, but he has no overwhelming desire to be validated.

Regardless of how good the finished product is, or if you manage to get to a finished product at all, the game designer is still there, you see. When it comes to doing the thing you feel you must do, one doesn’t need as much support as one might suppose. When Jeanette Winterson’s protagonist runs away from home in “Oranges are not the only fruit” , she realises, “It was not judgement day, just another day.” Life just seems to go on. For Peter the sales and the reviews will not be judgements. He will hugely appreciate them if they go well, and if both go poorly it will have an impact on my friend, but not a decisive one.

Peter will continue to think of and play and criticise games. At the time of writing, he’s reading Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal and thinking about small “Proceduralist” games (whatever the hell they are) and looking forward to studying this discipline every day while living in freaking London. For Peter finishing a game turned out to be like losing your virginity; it doesn’t change you as much as you thought it would.

Thematic Completion

 So I play games to be enthralled. Yes, and I play them for all the moments in between. Metroid Prime was magical when I was 10 and has a new magic when I am 18 and playing it again on a rainy weekend. Games pass the time while your brain ticks over in the background; working through problems much as it does when sleeping.

In “Stranded” , as your little astronaut walks across the game, much of the enjoyment will occur in this background while your mind chews over the beautiful and desolate world and you feel emotions few games can draw out of you. Ones that no little game should have the right to. A break, a moment to contemplate that lasts a few seconds but while it does it goes on forever, a little like Wittgenstein was getting at. And that is why I love Stranded, I think

There are personal reasons for this. Me and Peter, in different ways and for different reasons, pressed pressed pause of our lives this year. There were 365 days worth of moments that could’ve been like the ones our peers had; experiencing new and enthralling things you didn’t find at school. Instead we had an interlude,the real life equivalent of when you press pause on the album and look out the window, when you stop moving the joystick and just take in the Tallon overworld, or the great sea, or you read the closing sections of “The Great Gatsby” more times than your English teacher requires of you.

If it wasn’t for Peter, it would’ve been a very solemn and worrying interim. Without companionship,  without someone to play videogames with and talk to and order fast food with while I waited for my girlfriend and my friends to come home and the world to make sense again,  I would’ve been really very sad. I had a true friend, always engaged, always passionate to sweeten the gap between what I was too old for and what I was not ready to do. I want to say thank you, Peter, because I really do mean it.

So this is my love letter (I use that word because it will make you uncomfortable, not because I am ignorant of it, my friend.) It is expressing my gratitude for a years worth of time and an improbably reassuring amount of friendship. I am also grateful for your little game, because I learned so much about how to make things by watching you create it and then by writing about it myself. It is also just a marvellous thing and I am glad I am friends with someone talented and committed enough to make it. I knew that in Turkey too, but you have proven it every day since then.

So, dear reader, to finish this overly long article I must tell you the other thing the “Turkey Dicks” gave Peter, in my opinion. Consider yourself spoiler warned by the way. At the end of the game you travelled across it at least 4 times, discovering in the process that you are very imminently about to die and experiencing every manner of isolation Peter and the team could conjure up. Then, having visited all the ruins, you are transformed by that Alien temple I described in the introduction, transmuted  by the planet into one of the giants. You have survived, and escaped death, but also your own isolation. For you are one of this world now and you have a new home and new family of red rocks and stone men and alien temples.

We gave him thematic completion, you see. To finish the tale of being lost and on your own you must leave that behind. You have to become part of the world. You must belong not because you thought you could, but because you can and others want you to. Friendship saves you, as I suspect it saved Peter, and myself.

Peter, it was our (the dicks’) pleasure to be there for you, and to continue to be. Your game shall always take me back to the start of our friendship, for I hope it is only the start, and for this I am so thankful. And thank you, dear reader, for sticking with me through this piece of extended prose, to find that out.

 

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