Apr 082011

I’ve found myself relaying to students recently, a story of my experience at GDC this last year. I wound up at the Scandinavian Indie Games Party watching and playing the 2008 Vertical Slice of the Xbox 360 Game Limbo. It was actually one of my primary reasons for going to this gathering. I was interested in learning more about the tools and production practices that resulted in Limbo. What I got instead was a really valuable and heartening experience of someone else’s work-in-progress. [I also had the chance to reset the game several times as it sort of hangs after you beat the game. Leave it to the anthropologist to observe Arnt reset it once and then step in to fill the role so others can continue to play.]

Its hard to convey to someone how much one can treasure those creative/intellectual endeavors that one undertakes. Books, essays, games, movies, music, etc can each fall into these categories. When we set them in front of others, we place those stories on display in a very vulnerable way. Its made even worse by the fact that we often only see the faults in these artefacts. As a player moves through a level, all we can see is the hiccups and jumps and jerks and flaws in the system. I find it almost humiliating and yet it is a necessary part of the creative process. We learn and improve based on those resulting critiques and conversations.

[As an aside, perhaps this is my deepest critique of the double-blind peer-review process. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to read a fellow person’s work with them sitting there (or nearby) after which you can have a conversation about the work. Much more meaningful and connected that what most peer-review looks like now.]

What I had an opportunity to do was to see a game, which despite some linger critiques, I quite enjoyed playing. Limbo’s aesthetic and production quality are stunning. I’ve been deeply curious about its development, their production, tools, and numerous aspects surrounding the game. What I was able to do, was to see the flaws in something that were otherwise invisible. The 2008 vertical slice of Limbo made possible the game released in 2010.

Now recently, I came upon a video of Jonathan Blow talking about the Xbox 360 Game Braid. The discussion and dissection of his design process is excellent, but it’s the first few minutes of the talk that got me. It’s his first playable version of his game, created in “7-8” days and how it encapsulated the design of what became Braid. He showed Braid to several of his close friends and we’re not sure what happened after that point, except for this line:

“The Only Difference Between that and the Shipped Game is Three Years of Development” – Jonathan Blow

But this is precisely it right? It speaks directly to the “90-10” rule. The idea that the “last 10%” is really 90%. While the numbers might not be quite that skewed, the idea is. It’s also what makes Chris Hecker’s plea all the more heartfelt I think.

One really needs a commitment and time to bring a game to where it should be or ought to be to “explore fully” a particular mechanic. But you also need to finish it. So I ♥ the vertical slice, precisely because it’s not “the game,” it’s a moment in time where a developer has really found the game and now has some arduous task ahead of them trying to really coax that game out of the hitchy-glitchy thing that was the vertical slice. But one really does develop a commitment to that.

I ♥ vertical slices.

But also know when to break up with your vertical slice. 😉