A Conversation with Tim Keenan Part Two: Partial Information

Note: Further context in the form of Part One can be found here. Alternatively, the whole unabridged interview may be enjoyed aurally here.

Part Two: Partial Information

Tom Towers (TT): ‘Possibly the most ear bleedingly awesome—as you described it—game of those three [Duskers, Chess the Gathering, The Last Shadow]; certainly the one that has been thus far most developed on your videos is Duskers; and I’m gonna start off by describing a little bit [of] my first impression of—this was probably alpha gameplay?’

Tim Keenan (TK): ‘Uh, yeah, is this—was this—the cubes and the spotlight?’

TT: ‘Correct.’

TK: ‘Yeah. I’m sorry, uh, not to correct or anything like that, that was definitely a prototype and where we’re at now I would probably call pre-alpha. I kinda hate being a stickler about this, but ever since Prison Architect came out I feel like I can’t call anything alpha anymore. It’s like—I played that game and I’m like: this is a game, I am playing and having fun, and it has art in it, and they’re calling it an alpha?—I was like: their definition of alpha and mine are clearly different, so now everything is a prototype and pre-alpha because I’m just embarrassed [laughs].’

TT: ‘I stand corrected, but my impressions of it were—and bearing in mind I deliberately avoided watching any of the videos of Duskers so that I could go in completely blind—my reaction to the atmosphere: the style of the game immediately brought to mind something like Aliens, and a big focus on using lighting and darkness and the feeling of being blind to what’s going on in the world—on the spaceships, and this feeling of exploration but a great sense of dread and fear of what’s on the other side of the doors that you’re opening and closing and all that sort of thing; and given the extreme simplicity and prototypical nature of it, I was pretty shocked that when you then eventually posted the pitch video, my initial reaction was apparently pretty much bang on.’

TK: ‘Right, yeah and that’s really exciting to hear that. I remember sitting down with a friend and showing him the early version of it, and he played it, and even though it was just cubes and a spotlight, he definitely was tense [laughs], like he was done with it, and he definitely was like: “That made me feel tense”, and that’s really cool.’

‘So, that’s kinda one of the beautiful things about the game ’cause so much of it has changed over the last six months or so, but the core of it that has stayed the same is that feeling of being alone in the dark and is that feeling of partial information like you’re saying—and this probably didn’t come across back then—but the notion that was to come hopefully is that there’s this crappy tech that you’re dealing with that can only tell you certain things—it’s the motion sensor that’s going off but it doesn’t tell you where the thing is; what it looks like; or anything like that, it’s just like: “Hey guess what! Somewhere in this room something’s moving that’s probably, maybe, a bad thing!”, so I’m kind of in love with that—I’ve always been in love with partial information and deducing things from that, and drawing conclusions from that.’

TT: ‘It certainly seems to be an idea somewhat evolved from A Virus Named Tom in the sense that in A Virus Named Tom—in the latter levels at least—you weren’t just trying to solve the puzzle: at the same time, you were also having to avoid enemies and fight the time limit so that rather than it just being a simple, linear sort of puzzle solving experience, the fact that you had all those elements thrown in there—though not doing [it] in the same way as Duskers—created the same sense of confusion and lack of information because you’re having to think while doing a million other things at the same time.’

TK: ‘Yeah, and that actually kind of motivates the real time element of Duskers because the game is actually somewhat slow and plodding—it’s one of those games where you’re going through slowly; you’re going through the spaceship—so a lot of people said like: “Oh I love X-Com, why don’t you make this turn based?” right? And I felt like the real time nature of it, even though there rarely are times in the game where you need any dexterity because, you know, if there’s an alien in the room with you you’re probably dead.’

‘But it adds to this sense of time because I will allow some aliens to chew on a door, and you’ve got a minute—you’ve got a full minute to figure out what you’re gonna do; but your drones don’t move super fast, and you might not have been expecting it—so that’s a tense minute, so it’s kind of like: the real time nature of it, I felt like if I took that away; I would take away the suspense, and this kind of survival horror that lends the game so much atmosphere, and so while I love turn based games, I felt that I needed to keep that real time element in it, and so it’s interesting that you talk about A Virus Named Tom in that way because, yeah, I guess, you know those are correlations.’

‘It’s funny, every now and then I kind of geek out about it; I try and draw some kind of string between my different game ideas, and like, what is the common theme in this, right? Um, so, that’s—that’s kind of one of ‘em.

‘Sorry if you can hear my daughter in the background she is, uh, I’m in like—I’m in true indie style at my kitchen—at my kitchen table, and it is, uh; apparently we’re making some cookies.’

TT: ‘No problem at all, and I must defer to her as she’s a lot better at A Virus Named Tom than me!’

TK: ‘[laughs] You have done a lot of homework, sir, you, uh; you’re pulling out, like, old creative wri—old short story stuff, and the daughter [in] my video playing A Virus Named Tom, well played.’

TT: ‘Indeed, and you [were] talking about that you never real—if you end up being attacked by an alien, you’re pretty much dead and one of the things that was perhaps the most worrying about the prototype was how the controls would work when you do end up in a situation like that because it’s using text commands to control everything, right?’

TK: ‘Right.’

TT: ‘And when you did then get into a situation where you stuffed up, you were then pretty much screwed even if you had some of the weapons that you could find on the dead robots that you were salvaging—I couldn’t work out how to shoot full stop, so that didn’t help [laughs]—but with that in mind, if you are gonna be continuing on making it entirely text command based, will combat still be a part of the game?’

TK: ‘So, this is really interesting because back in the day the game had tower defence elements, right? And with the tower defence elements there was a lot of combat, right? and the idea was: Is that you didn’t want the aliens to get back to your ship, right?’

TT: ‘Yep. Or even within where you were guarding a power supply, right?’

Hailey Keenan (HK): ‘Daddy! We’re making cookie!’

TK: ‘Yeah—you’re making cookies!’

HK: I’m making cookie.

TK: ‘Yeah.’

HK: ‘We’re making cookie.’

TK: ‘I’m not getting one? alright. I’m sorry.’

TT: ‘No problem.’

TK: ‘What were you saying?’

TT: ‘[Laughs] I was saying, um, yeah, the tower defence: go ahead.’

TK: ‘…Actually—I’m gonna—is it alright if I move rooms?’

TT: ‘Yep, that’s fine.’

HK: ‘Want some, daddy?’

TK: ‘No, I’m okay.’

HK: ‘Okay.’

TK: ‘Sorry about that it’s just…that time of night! I’ve locked myself in the bedroom.’

TT: ‘I’m just sorry you’re not getting a cookie.’

TK: ‘Yeah, I know! See what I sacrifice for you?’

TT: ‘Okay, so tower defence?’

TK: ‘Oh, right, so the game was a tower defence game and it wasn’t working out well, so basically I had, um, problems—I’m sorry.’

We are interrupted again, this time by a pesky developer on Skype!

And now with passion!

TK: ‘Okay, so; here I go [laughs].’

TT: ‘Good luck!’

TK: ‘The game had tower defence elements, and that required—that was obviously combat, right? and you wanted to make sure that the aliens didn’t get back into your ship and eat the crunchy, meaty you, that was the actual person; and your drones were more expendable. And it wasn’t working—it felt to me like the strategy was always the same: it was like you wanted to put the most distance between the—the longest path between them and your ship, and you’d always put your drones at the pinch points, and I was trying to come up with, you know, the sniper drone and the spread drone, and all this different stuff; and it just—it just wasn’t working, and Alex Austin, he suddenly said to me; he was like: “Well, what if there wasn’t combat in the game?”.’

‘And, again, this was something that gave me pause, ’cause I was like: “What if there wasn’t combat in the game? What exactly is, then, the driving force, right? I already had elements which were like exploring and kind of a little bit of subversion, but I didn’t have a ton of it—and all of a sudden I scrapped the tower defence thing completely, and all of a sudden I added in the idea of a motion sensor that you could drop—and then all of a sudden it became about avoiding the enemy instead of confronting the enemy, and the whole game, of course, changed at that; and I loved it ten times more because now all of a sudden it was Alien, it was that these things inside are badass and I am weak and they will kill me, and that’s how the game kind of works right now; if you just open up doors, you know, you’re gonna die.’

‘Then what happened was: Is that I removed all the weapons from the game; but then I decided that your upgrades because of this whole crappy tech thing, they were gonna break, right? Um, so when they broke all of a sudden you would have to switch out your weapons, so I was able to add weapons back in; ’cause my fear was: let’s say I have a Gatling gun that takes out a certain enemy; I didn’t want people to just be able to be like: “Oh, I always want the Gatling gun, and when I get the Gatling gun I just roll through things”; and of course you could balance it and say, “Okay, that only works on enemy type A”, but I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t like a strategy that everyone just relied on, so when all of a sudden I made it that your upgrades broke; you have this purely adaptive strategy.’

‘No matter what, at the end of the day, you couldn’t rely on anything, and if you started the game with one strategy; you were not gonna be using that strategy, like, 40 minutes in, right? it was just—“too bad”, and then I could add weapons back in, and overpowered things back in, because the Gatling gun doesn’t necessarily work on all the enemies really well, but it would be cool to suddenly pick it up, and this whole time you’ve been creeping around worrying about things and looking at motion sensors and freaking out, and then all of a sudden you get to open the door and just blast the hell out of ‘em, right? knowing full well that that thing is probably gonna break eventually, but it would just feel really cool to change completely the way that you’re playing the game; so it’s kind of interesting that it was kind of like: remove; and then add back in, right? but in a completely different circumstance.’

TT: ‘Excellent. That’s reassuring.’

This time it’s the gremlin’s turn.

TT: ‘With the upgrade system, I was wondering: will it affect things like the searchlights that the drones have, and also the radar so you know where enemies are and the like?’

TK: ‘That’s something we’re trying to figure out right now; we still haven’t—we’re still exploring a lot: right now all the upgrades that we have are very distinctive. The idea is it’s like a hand of Magic where you’re getting the deck shuffled all the time and you’re getting a different hand, and each upgrade hopefully will be strong and unique enough that by combining it with other upgrades they create completely different strategies; that’s like the hope anyway, and so milder things we haven’t really been playing with.’

‘But one thing that we have thought of (and by milder I mean like: Okay, now we’re gonna have a variation like this one’s gonna be brighter, you’re gonna be able to see more; or, you know, the things that I think you’re talking about) is that we could upgrade particular things and have those hold over instead of being upgrades there are more intrinsic things to the drones—permanence, if you will—where you can upgrade the drone’s speed or its durability or something like that and that also gives you this X-Com-like investment with your squad where you start to imbue these drones with personalities which is kind of the hope.’

‘And kind of—I won’t get into it right now—but there’s this whole isolation thing about, like, I kind of want to make you crazy where there’s no one else around you and you feel that these drones are like Wilson in Castaway where you’re imbuing them with personality, but to that being said, we already do have two different motion sensors; we have one that you drop on the ground, and one that detects all the rooms around you; and just that simple distinction makes them completely different because one of them is really good in the beginning because you’d automatically know every room around you, but it goes away as soon as you move.’

‘At the beginning you have to go into a room, drop a sensor, go out of the room, close the door, open another door and see if somethin’ wanders in; so it’s really slow in the beginning—but at the end of a ship, you’ve got sensors in every room and they’re permanent so you know exactly where the aliens are moving and how. So even small differences like that can make a big difference, and if it’s something like a motion sensor which is very important in the game, then, yeah, we would definitely explore it, and people have definitely talked about the cone of vision and like playing with that and making it sense different things.’

TT: ‘Yep. Excellent. And have you figured out how the degradation is likely to work—is it; does it just automatically degrade as you use it, or is it number of uses?’

TK: ‘This is a debated topic; at first my initial assessment was: Is that, oh, it’s gonna be based on number of uses, but then I thought about playing games back in the day, and I remembered holding on to this awesome weapon, right? like, I’d get this laser or whatever; and I’d hold onto it for forever ’cause I was like: I know I’m gonna face a boss eventually, and I’m gonna need it then, right? And that’s cool to a degree, but what happened was: Is that I never really played with those weapons as much, right? And, if I died then I’d be super pissed, ’cause I’d be like, oh! I never even got to use it, and the way that it works right now it’s a bit like real life: I mean, yes, as you use mechanical things they do tend to break down or have wear and tear, but I find with like a lot of tech [laughs], it’s just the ghost in the machine, right? like all of a sudden—it’s just like, oh! Skype’s not working right now, um, it’s not because—’

TT: ‘—As we know all too well!’

TK: ‘Yeah! it’s not ’cause I’ve been using it for the last like five hours; it’s just ’cause that’s just what it’s doing, so that’s how it’s gonna be; like, right now it’s just things just break, so you can’t save things or conserve them or anything like that—it’s kind of like use it or lose it, which I kind of enjoy sometimes; like: I pick up an upgrade, and I’m like: you know what, I’m just gonna start using it because eventually it’s going to break, so I might as well get my uses out of it, right?’

TT: ‘And that also ties into the confusion and isolation because you can’t hoard the stuff for when a rainy day comes along; so it ties into you not knowing when something big is gonna happen.’

TK: ‘Yeah, it definitely takes an element of control out of the game, right? It’s like a lot of times that’s where that is a sense of comfort, right? I control these things, and I am making these long term plans, and the game doesn’t really accommodate for that; there might be meta-game type stuff where you drag things back to your ship, and maybe that can more globally affect things, but yeah; for the most part it’s: You’re living in the now, and you’re just trying to survive another day.’

TT: ‘Excellent, and [I’ve] got one more question for you before I let you say anything I might’ve missed, and that is: One of the things I really enjoyed in the version I played was that a very effective way to be successful was not just to avoid the aliens on the ship, but to herd them into certain areas and trap them there; is that sort of thing gonna be a large part of latter versions? and not just herding them around; but: will you be getting stuff like certain traps that you might be able to lay in an area, and that sort of thing?’

TK: ‘Oh absolutely! I love that stuff. Like, there’s…I guess if I had to pick a common thread in a lot of my games, it’s sort of indirection; and I love that—it’s a lot like in A Virus Named Tom, you don’t have a missile that you fire at the enemy; you have to lay down this glitch that they run into, and then you have to time it so the other guy runs into him when he’s stuck; and then they blow up.’

‘So, I love the idea—and this really resonates with me from Alien when he’s crawling through the pipes with the blow torch; with the flamethrower, and they’re sealing off the doors behind them and what they’re doing is they’re eliminating possibilities; and they’re trying to herd this thing, and obviously that didn’t work out so well [laughs], but the idea that: “Hey, you know what, I can’t—I can’t push these guys, but what if I’m intelligent?— I’m weak, but I’m intelligent—and I can power the ship, and I can open up a door; and if they’re curious and they wander through that door, I can then close that door; and by doing that, I can kind of start to manipulate them.” Merely by being able to open/close doors, and then, you know, of course we have lures that attract them more strongly, and things to make your life a little bit easier.’

‘That’s when I feel like a ninja—when I have that, you know, MacGyver Moment where I’m like: Alright, here’s what I’m gonna do; I’m gonna lay this mine in this room, I’m gonna leave that room, and I’m gonna place a lure in the next room, and I’m gonna open up the door and they’re gonna come, and they’re gonna eat the lure, and then they’re gonna wander into this room, and they’re gonna blow up, and it’s like: I have this hodgepodge of things, and I’m like: how in the world am I gonna get through this, right? And then I come up with this plan, and like probably fifty percent of the time it totally doesn’t work because I forget to close a door and they come and they eat my drones and I’m just like: [groans in frustration], it’s like this brilliant plan laid to waste, but when it does [work], man, it’s just like: I did that—those are the moments I want, right?’

‘I want the player to experience that; for them to come up with this creative stuff and to do it in a way that wasn’t, like: Oh I ran in with a shotgun and I blew its head off, it was, you know, it was Mouse Trap; it was like this Rube Goldberg machine where I crafted this plan, and it all came together, and I’m a genius.’

TT: ‘That’s great to hear. I did in fact have actually one final question that was in regards to the story of Duskers because even in the version I played, [it] had a little bit of an introduction (a text thing) and based on A Virus Named Tom and all that you’ve said about the atmosphere it seems like the story—even if it’s done in [a] minimalist sort of way—might be a large part of Duskers?’

TK: ‘Yeah, I think that’s part of just who I am. Like, I think that whenever I’m making a game—and I’m trying to get better at it; I’m trying not to infuse too much of a story into Chess the Gathering or something like that—but I am a storyteller and I love stories, and so it’s always been a big part of it, and I feel that with Duskers, again, the game—the mechanics of the game I’ve been really focusing on because without that it’s pointless, but because there’s such a strong atmosphere in the game and because it’s so visceral, I feel that adding that ambience—a part of that context is story—is really important; so, I didn’t want to shove it down people’s throats, I didn’t want to have it like: “You are John Jacobson and you have returned”, you know what I mean? I wanted it—’

TT: ‘—John Jacobson: Space Marine.’

TK: ‘Yes! I didn’t want it to be like: This is who you are and this is what you’re doing, and so the way that I felt like I could do that is by telling other people’s stories. So, there’re two stories in the game that I’m trying to tell—we’ll see if it holds up—one of ’em is the story of the universe because what the hell happened? Everybody’s dead; why am I going through all these derelict spaceships? What happened to them? and by downloading the ship logs, you’ll piece that together hopefully—hopefully that’ll be kind of environmental storytelling like what was able to be done with Gone Home or Bioshock or whatnot. And then the second story—’cause I feel that while the story of the universe is interesting, you know, we’re very drawn to personal stories—would be of this one other survivor.

‘It’s not gonna be your story, because your story you’re writing, but it’s gonna be of another survivor that’s overwriting these logs, and you’re finding them, and he’s another person out there like you, and he’s decided that he’s gonna try to communicate with you, but it’s a very one way street because he’s just leaving these logs that he’s overwritten, and he’s off somewhere else, and you’re kinda following in his wake, and so it’s a way of me not only connecting you with humanity, but showing by contrast how isolated you are; like, it’s very difficult for me to say: Oh you’re alone in this room and it’s really scary ’cause you’re used to playing games where you’re kind of alone, but attention isn’t as drawn to it, so I’m hoping that by telling this story, all of a sudden it’s going to be like, this is the only person that I get to talk to; and the fact that he’s only talking to me one way, and everything else in the game—’

TT: ‘And you can’t reply.’

TK: ‘—I can’t reply, and everything else in the game, like, I hit forward, and the drone goes forward, you know, there’s no other interaction other than the aliens that are trying to chew my face off; and so I’m hoping that that brings, ironically, a greater sense of isolation and a greater sense of claustrophobia by contrast. It’s one of those things where, you know, instead of aiming for, oh, fear and tension and stuff like that—which I am aiming at—it’s like I’m trying to push through to a second level with that; and it’s ambitious, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to accomplish that—’cause I haven’t played around with it enough—but that’s my current thinking.’

TT: ‘That reminds me a lot in concept of The Swapper—the way The Swapper told its story which is certainly very conducive to the emotions you’re trying to play, I would say.’

TK: ‘Yeah, and I think they did an amazing job with that, and just the atmosphere and the environment and just the whole vibe, and they’re not telling you everything at first and you’re getting pieces, and it really draws you in; and that’s the thing I think that gave it a similar feel; this kind of survival horror—this tension—and I would love to accomplish what they’ve accomplished.’

TT: ‘And is there anything else you would like to say about Duskers that I might have missed?’

TK: ‘Um, no [well, maybe just a little]. I think the main thing about Duskers that’s exciting to me is that it’s a game that I made…I jokingly refer to it as a design adolescence; it’s a game that I made when I was just kind of kicking over trashcans, and I was just like (you know what, there’s a producer in my head and he’s always like: “No, that’s a bad idea”, ’cause I have to make money with these games; I can’t just—they’re not all art for me, I’m trying to make a living, and I’m trying to, you know, make more games; but I shut that producer up and I threw him in the closet and I just let my director do what he wanted to do): I threw a command line interface into it, you know, I removed that combat when Alex suggested it, you know, it doesn’t have traditional RTS-style controls, and you’re manually controlling these drones and I’m trying to make a game about isolation and claustrophobia and stuff like that.’

‘And the thing that’s the most exciting to me is when people get excited by it, and it just kind of—it really resonates with me that, like, if you just kind of push in the direction that you feel you want to go in and that’s the best for the game; don’t worry about the audience, you know, they’ll find you—’cause that was what I was really worried about with this game, I kept doing my own stuff and I loved it, but then I was like: am I painting myself into this corner? and recently it just seems like—’cause I’m trying to get the game made so I’m looking for funding and stuff like that—and just recently it seems like there’s been a lot of love for it, and that just—it’s almost redeeming to me about indie gaming; it’s like: you can kind of do things your own way and still feel like you can make a viable product.’

TT: ‘Still be successful.’

TK: ‘Yeah, that’s the hope anyway [laughs], who knows if it’s true; but yeah, it’s inspiring when you look at these games like The Swapper—these games that are just really out there, like Starseed Pilgrim or whatnot—and you see them being successful; and it just really inspires you to just make what you want to make.’

Part Three: Black and White, a discussion on The Last Shadow and Chess the Gathering; coming soon.