This is an interview I did with Dan for a website back in September 2009 shortly after the release of Korsakovia. The website has long since died and I was reminded of this interview by the release of the Dear Esther remake so I thought I should add it to ModDB.
DazJW: Could you please introduce yourself and give a short summary of Korsakovia?
Dan: I'm Dan Pinchbeck and I'm a games researcher based at the University of Portsmouth, UK. I specialise in first-person gaming, so that's looking at gameplay and the relationship between story and gameplay specifically. I'm also involved in game preservation [DazJW – The KEEP project], and I also lead thechineseroom, which is a research project that makes experimental FPS mods and releases them.
Korsakovia is our latest mod. The basic idea behind it comes from this question of what happens when you start undermining a player's normal expectations. So you remove things like anthropomorphic visualisation from agents and use really abstract sounds, to try and undermine the normal projection of things like motive and behaviour onto them. And then this extended out to having this story and environment where nothing really makes any sense, where we have distorted, re-used, half-finished environments, rather than going for a fully 'realistic', 'real' world. It's basically a horror game about madness, but a very different type of experience to Dear Esther.
DazJW: A big part of the appeal of Korsakovia for most people seems to be the story, as in Dear Esther. Where did the idea for it come from and how long did it take you to write the script for the mod?
Dan: The script got done in a couple of days. I tend to walk around with an idea festering away in my head for a bit and then just slam the whole thing out in more or less one sitting. It didn't really take that many re-writes this time - Esther took a lot longer. I first read about Korsakoff's through William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, years and years ago, and when I thought about doing this mod which was all about things being jarred and broken up and having no sense or continuity, it popped right back up and went from there really.
DazJW: What first inspired you to create experimental gameplay mods?
How much intelligent feedback do you get as a result of them?
Dan: All the feedback is intelligent, even when it's blunt or negative. I've just read a toe-curling thread over at Interlopers [DazJW – There’s a rather negative review there by Srredfire] which was like having acid thrown over me. But you have to accept that this is as valid as anything if you are going to work in the public domain. It's really important to me that these research projects we're doing - these mods - go out and are played by players who don't give a monkey’s if they are research projects or not, which means you're going to get flak and a percentage of that is going to be really valid and if you can't deal with that... don't do it in the first place.
So, there are things I wanted to try out with Korsakovia that have just fallen flat, people have hated them. And there are other things we just got wrong or did badly. The key thing is to separate those out and work out where we go from there, and you need every single bit of feedback you can to do that. At the same time, if you're a researcher and interested in what you can do with this genre, where you can break the rules or test things out, then you've got to take any feedback as being of equal value. If you put a game out there and twenty-thousand people mail you and say "It's shit" then that's data, same as if twenty-thousand people mail you and say "It's the best game ever made". Ideally, in both cases, you'd like a little more detail to the responses, but it's all good data anyway.
That all sounds a bit negative. Overall, there are frustrations and problems with Korsakovia, some of which I will look at putting right, some of which I'll chalk up to experience. But there's also a hell of lot we got really right, looking at the feedback. Players are getting the idea behind it, they are scared stupid, the audio is causing wet trousers across the community, the script is getting loads of compliments... and as an experimental game, we've pushed at some boundaries for good and bad. It's a mod that you can learn a few things about how you could do something different like we've achieved what we set out to do in those terms.
I started making mods because there are questions I want to know the answers too about FPS games that you can't answer by just looking at commercial releases. So, warts and all, Korsakovia does some stuff that you'd be pretty unlikely to find in a commercial game, unless the developers explicitly wanted to make their lives incredibly difficult and risk making no money whatsoever. That doesn't make the questions or experiments worthless though. So it was partial frustration, although FPS games have exploded sideways in terms of the types of content and gameplay you see in the last few years. Partially, it also let me play as a writer, which is part of the ongoing experiment, about reactions to very different types and styles of writing and storytelling in FPS games. I think it's there we've had most impact, as I'd say if anyone wanted to ask what kinds of stories work in a first-person game experience, or what players will be attracted to or like, typing Dear Esther or Korsakovia into Google is likely to let you know very quickly that there's a whole world of players out there hungry for different story experiences than you get in commercial titles. That's not putting down commercial titles for a second - the quality of writing in FPS games has shot up over the last few years - and also recognising that I don't know how commercial games like DE or Korsakovia would ever be (they're pretty uncompromisingly niche - and neither was ever intended to be developed to a commercial release standard, we just didn't have the budget for that) - BUT that doesn't mean to say that it a) doesn't work as a 'game' experience and b) players don't want it.
DazJW: What attracted you to the Source engine?
Dan: Used it before [DazJW – Dear Esther, Antlion Soccer], and it's relatively simple to use, plus it's got the biggest audience base in terms of FPS modding. I keep threatening to move to CryEngine as there's stuff there I really like and prefer, but Source is just really adaptable in a lot of ways. I do think our next step as a dev team is to head out of modding and into a fully bespoke, self-enclosed game which means we could move, just depends on licensing costs and basically how much money I can raise, or what deals I can cut. So if anyone out there has a spare top-notch engine they'd like to lend us, or about £150-200K, that'd be grand. Stick it in an envelope to the usual address...
DazJW: Were there any parts of developing the mod that you had difficulty with, and how long did the development process take?
Dan: Where do you want to start? Yes, one or two, or hundreds. It was a bit of a pig. First up, we had an incredibly limited budget and timescale. As it's an academic project and I'm using it to further my career, for me, its important that everyone gets paid. So there's a big cost there already, and the budget for this came out of an internal fund I managed to secure at the University, plus a little top-up later on as it wasn't going to get made otherwise. And this had to be spent within a certain period. So basically all the problems with Korsakovia come out of this shortfall - there wasn't enough time to really go through a detailed design process (yes, yes, I know, but if we didn't push on, then there would have been no mod AT ALL), and we didn't have the cash to take on another two, three people which is what the mod required - and I wasn't going to have a situation where some people involved in the central development work were being paid and others weren't. So we were short-staffed, short-timed. That was incredibly difficult.
Overall... hmmm. I think Max [DazJW – Maksim Mitrofanov, coder and student at the University of Portsmouth] worked on the code for just under a month, and Adam [DazJW – Independent developer Adam Griffiths of Dark Rock Games who also aided Dan with design, further build work done by Ankur Shah and Dan] did most of the build in about three when you count the days. It's difficult to add-up. I think the closest I can get is if we take out Jess [DazJW – Music composer Jessica Curry] and the voice actors [DazJW – Doctor Christine Grayson was voiced by Genevieve Adam and Christopher was voiced by Ben Crystal], we had the equivalent of about 6 person-months total. If that. So again, next project I want a bigger budget, and I want full-time staff for at least a year, with at least one person in every major role: code, art, design, audio, script, etc.
DazJW: Do you have any plans for updates or patches to Korsakovia?
Or even for a 'remake' like the one Robert Briscoe is creating of Dear Esther?
Dan: Yeah, it needs a patch. It needs subtitles; realistically I'm going to have to at least replace the HEV suit clipboards and a few over bits like that or I'm going to end up being killed by an irate mapper somewhere. There are a couple of signposting bits that, even with 7-8 play testers not finding a problem, are just causing spasms in people. The warehouse level is, I'm pretty sure, going to go down in modding history. Whether I'll have time to re-build that completely, I don't know. It's also tempting to re-balance the Collectors, so there are less of them but they are harder to kill... I don't know. So there'll be a basic 1.1 before the New Year which will look to take out the superficial issues that are coming back.
More in-depth ones, like tweaking the last level in terms of difficulty or rebuilding whole sections? I don't know. I still think I'm so lucky to have Rob rebuilding Esther and doing such an amazing, amazing job. Anyone wants to take on Korsakovia, I'd be delighted to let them have it... - also, as far as I'm concerned, this is all open source, public domain stuff, so I'll take whatever people want to give. New textures, objects, hell, send 'em in. The vmfs are in the zip file as well, go for it... Source files a bit big for Moddb, but they're right here if anyone wants them...
DazJW: Do think that the greater level of acceptance that gaming seems to gain with each console generation is finally reaching a point where there's a market for intelligent games, similar to the progression of cinema from a kind of looked-down-upon mindless entertainment to an art form?
Dan: Richard Bartle said in a Guardian column last year "Games are mainstream. Drown, or learn to swim". I think there's a real truth in that, but I also think that there's always been a market for intelligent games. Go right back to the first wave of FPS games and you've got Doom and Rise of the Triads and what have you, but you've also got Marathon. Couple of years later you're into System Shock, Deus Ex... they're not exactly mindless. Plus, I think we need to be careful not to see too much of a progression - it's more about the medium widening. So you don't progress from mindless to art - there's an assumption that art is *better* than games there I really resist, or at the least an assumption that they are comparable...
And, just like sometimes I want Tarkovsky and sometimes I want Chuck Norris, I don't see any necessity for 'improvement' beyond Wolfenstein, it's just nice to see alternate experiences also being available. The most exciting thing for me is the fusion of what is seen as classic traditional gameplay with really smart, deep, affective experiences, like Bioshock or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Maybe we're all just getting old (I'm ZXSpectrum-kid to N64/PSOne-adult generation), or the younger generation of players are more sophisticated than we were, or the tech can actually finally start delivering, or the medium maturing (although I really, really *hate* that phrase)... Certainly, the one good thing is it's getting increasingly difficult for popular media and the tabloids to bash games the way they used to. Sure, you've still got Manhunt, and I drove past a billboard for Wet yesterday and just cringed with embarrassment, but you look at Portal and it's damn funny and sophisticated. Mass Effect has a script as good as any sci-fi you'd see on TV or cinema.
The final thing is that the discussions and comments both Dear Esther and Korsakovia have provoked shows consistently and explicitly that gamers are very, very smart people for the most part, with a huge amount of knowledge about their medium and very interesting things to say about it. Even if we're still happy to gun down brainless zombies in their thousands and really enjoy that (I'm halfway through Resistance 2 at the moment, and it's just really fun) we can talk about it at a sophisticated level. I used to work in the arts, and from personal experience, if I want a really intelligent, thought-provoking, well-read and engaging discussion about a work of media, I'd go to gamers over arts audiences any day of the week.
A big thanks to Dan for his time and his long answers.
Some releveant links:
The thechineseroom website, including mod information and research papers by Dan.
Mods by thechineseroom at ModDB.
The Dear Esther remake is being created by Robert Briscoe.
Korsakovia and Dear Esther concept art by Ben Andrews.
Music by Jessica Curry.