Choice is Changing

[intro]You walk onto the forecourt of a dark and desolate gas station, your dog at your side. The old-timey old-timer sitting by the pumps asks you the dog’s name and you hover over answering, “His name is Homer.” but then think better of it and reply, “Her name is Blue.”[/intro] 

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]entucky Route Zero is a small kickstarter-funded project to be released in several acts, and it remains to be seen how your choices affect the story, but while it may seem like a quirky-if-traditional interactive work of fiction, like The Walking Dead, the scope of the choices reveals something quite different.

When I played KRZ, I came to a choice about whether to take a glowing die with me, or leave it on a table for somebody to find. I agonized over this choice, but quickly realized it wasn’t because I wanted to affect the future; it was an ethical choice without clear ramifications. The dilemma was real, personal and internal. Sure, it was a little non-dramatic, it may not have had the bombast of the dilemma posed in harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock, or the amusing clarity of the dialogue options in Knights of The Old Republic (“1. Don’t worry, I’ll save you! 2. I’ll go and get help; you’re going to be OK! 3. My word, you’re ugly. Bye.”), but it was a choice with a very different flavor. Why would you think twice about choosing the name and gender of your dog? It’s a mechanically pointless choice, but it offers a surprising screen for emotional projection.

Bioshock-Infinite-interview-3

…this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful…

It would seem apparent that the best way to design a choice system is to post a clear signpost at each crossroads so that the player doesn’t feel cheated. In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal explores the thesis that games provide what life often lacks; clear and constant feedback. The reason people engage in games, what essentially amounts to “optional work”, is that the work takes place in a framework of feedback recognizing the why and when of work that’s both good and bad, something missing from most jobs and life decisions.

This otherwise brilliant insight starts to fall apart when we look at games as works of art intended to reflect life. The decisions we make in Kentucky Route Zero are difficult because they reflect the difficulty of living in a world where we choose what to do and say without a clear idea of what’s going to happen. The character you play in KRZ ends up being more of you than would have seemed possible because he is a cipher. The choices you make while playing him come from the gut or random chance, without strategy. His problems may not be yours, but by deciding who he is, you can explore what you would do if you were him, not just in his shoes.

In a recent interview with Polygon, Drew Holmes, writer of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, went into the problem of giving moral, emotional choices a strategic quality.

[cite]”Looking back at Bioshock 1‘s choice system, it’s something that’s really powerful the first time, not really powerful the second time and by the 10th time you’re not really trying to decide whether to harvest or save the little sisters,” said Holmes. “You’re not thinking about it on a philosophical or moral level at that time because it just becomes ‘I want the more special juice to make me do the thing.’ It numbs people over time.”[/cite]

Referring to a demo of Bioshock Infinite, Emily Gera who authored the piece retells a decision you can make on whether to hurl a baseball at an interracial couple. There’s no clear consequence in the narrative of the game but the personal consequences are clear: be a decent person, or see what it feels like to be an absolute dickhead. You could be the hero, antihero or shades of grey in-between.

As a movement, this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful, a true maturation of a process that started with choose-your-own-adventure books and interactive fiction.  Narrative videogames have struggled with the creative restraints imposed by their predecessors since they began with text adventures, MUDs and point-and-click adventures. The challenge seems to be balancing emotional attachment with a feeling of agency; for emotional attachment you need to provide the player with some kind of personality to latch on to, but giving them total agency makes it very easy for the player to break the spell.

Strategy games like Command & Conquer or Civilization seemed to be the shining light for agency, even Minecraft could be said to be a perfect example of an emergent narrative, but the lack of character means it’s more like Lego or chess than a novel. You can develop an emotional narrative, but it has very little to do with the author of the game. Sure, games like Alpha Centauri come along that give you a rich backstory and clearly defined characters, but that effect is diminished on each playthrough until it’s just wallpaper, like Holmes’ example above from Bioshock. The other end of the spectrum is a character like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series, a voiceless cipher in a strong linear story. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel some affinity for him after playing a Half-Life game, he’s a bundle of characteristics and traits you inhabit and grow to love like a great hat, but for all of the emotional attachment you develop for him and his world, the story is static, which is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t do much to further the cause of the interactive narrative.

We don’t know yet what Bioshock Infinite or the rest of Kentucky Route Zero will do for decision-making in games, and whether this trend is going to deepen, but it’s an exciting time to be a gamer looking to play through stories.

The Castle Doctrine

[intro] A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to make it into the limited (to 100 people) pre-alpha test of The Castle Doctrine, the new game by Jason Rohrer. If you don’t know Rohrer, he’s the mind behind Passage and Sleep is Death, two of my favourite art games, and Chain World, one of the most impressive examples of conceptual game design I’ve ever seen.

The Castle Doctrine is a turn-based MMO about burglary and home invasions. Bear with me, here. [/intro]

First Impressions

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] started off with my family and a vault in an empty house, with a princely $2,000 to spend on home improvements. With some playing around, I realised that I could place walls, wiring and various security appliances around the house. There were some teething problems, since there aren’t really any instructions, but it seemed clear to me that I would want to make my place as difficult to burgle as possible. I put the vault in the middle of the house and built a doorless room around it. Dusted off my hands and grinned smugly. That should be that. Like to see them cut through that one.

All that hard work done and I decide to go see what other people have tried, so I hit “Done” and get a strange screen:

Prove That Your House Is Fair

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“Prove that your house is fair:”…eh, how? Then I realised what was going on. This was a simulation and I had to show that the challenge I set up was winnable. I had to rob my own house. I couldn’t, of course, my house was extremely, prejudicially unfair. That was the whole point. I was also unable to skip or escape out of the screen. Hitting ESC just brought up the pause menu (more on that later). I realised that the Suicide button was the only way out and hit it.

[box style=”note”]UPDATE Jason Rohrer has pointed out that in a situation like mine above, you can actually just walk out the front door and go back to editing the house without being penalised.[/box]

I arrived back into the Build Your House screen, but I was back to square one; I had $2,000, and nothing in my house except my presumably loving family and a vault. This was going to be tougher than I’d thought.

After a LOT more tinkering, I figured I had a pretty good trap set up, an elaborate series of circuits would trigger in sequence, seeming to trap the burglar in a corridor tantalisingly close to the vault, but then with some careful backtracking, they could get past the electrified floors and grab the loot. I hit Done and began my dummy run. I accidentally got electrocuted and died, losing all of my work. What a fucking dummy.

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When you hit ESC you bring up the pause menu – anything you type into that goes to the server, which Rorher can read through, a brilliant idea for feedback. I made several notes about how annoyed I was that a simple accident could kill me in a simulation of robbing my own house. It didn’t seem to make sense, so I went back to the game and tried setting up something similar again.

I tested it and accidentally died. Again. Fucking again. I made some more notes. I set up the house again. I died in my own Home Alone-like palace of pain. Right, that’s it, I thought. I’m going to bed.

I hit ESC to get to the menu so I could quit, but the image of the defenceless family and vault with $2,000 in it, in a big empty house somehow resonated with me. I didn’t want to leave them defenceless. I wanted to come back to something, anything at all.

Right, just one more pass, I said, just one more quick little setup and then I can rest easier knowing that someone else will pay the ultimate price for daring to cross my threshold. Having created my funhouse at least fifteen times by that stage I had gotten pretty good at it, and I was proud of my handiwork. Instead of quitting, I thought I’d have a look at what else was going on. I mean, it’s an MMO, right?

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Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 01.38.52
Rob Lowe – great in Parks & Rec

Hmmmm. Three people died, huh? Well, I couldn’t resist. I double-clicked and got the now-familiar screen I got when playing the burglar, only this time of course the place looked totally different, since it was built by someone else. What’ve I got to lose, right?

[rev_slider invasion]

Turns out this asshole had pitbulls. Two of them. So I died. And lost everything. All of the work I had done. FFS. I started again. I had no choice at this point. I robbed two houses successfully, armed with drugged meat and a gun. I got a serious nest-egg going! I was killed. I started over. A couple of times.

[divider]

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Wifey, the two kids and your life's savings.

It’s a very interesting game; full of good ideas, both conceptual and mechanical. I like the art style. I don’t know how finished it is, whether the gang of pre-alpha testers I’m a member of is expected to help make the game more fun or just more stable. As it stands, I think that not being able to tweak the design of your house without risking death is a big mistake (more on that in a future post). I know it got its hooks into me, but I was genuinely annoyed by it – it kept slowing me down, regulating my speed and fun.

I like that all of the players are anonymous, it makes it something of a hybrid, both MMO and single-player. You don’t chat with anybody or fight them in real time, you just assault one another’s homes. The only realtime element is the “Leaderboard” – the list of unattended houses.

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[headsubline subline=”The Castle Doctrine has some lovely little touches…”]>The Little Things[/headsubline]

  • Your family always faces towards you – I think it creates a sense of responsibility.
  • The method of ensuring every house is solvable by making you solve it before you leave is very elegant.
  • When you drug the dogs, you still have to go around them, or you’ll wake them up, so you have to be careful where you drop them.
  • Dogs and cats trigger pressure plates, so they can be incorporated into a trap system.
  • Your wife carries half of the money in the house, so as a burglar, you have to option to kill her or let her go.
  • When a family member has been killed, the remaining members don’t run when an intruder enters. It feels like they have nothing left to run for.
  • Chihuahuas are provided as stand-ins for pitbulls.
  • Houses can be rigged so they can only be broken into once. IF you’re clever.
  • Players are given randomised, anonymous names.
  • No chat system.
  • You can search for people who robbed you by name to find and burgle their houses.

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The Festivals Thing

[rev_slider bbbfests]

[divider]

[intro]What are film festivals for, anyway?[/intro]

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ve been a filmmaker for around ten years. I was always aware of film festivals growing up, but it wasn’t until I became a professional that I really got my head around their nature and significance.

If you’re familiar with the business end of festivals, don’t worry, I’ll keep my explanations brief.

On my current project I’ve been lucky enough to receive quite a bit of traction – the laurels in the slider are all for Barry’s Bespoke Bakery (as of February 2013). It’ll be nine strong by the end of this month, and getting so involved with the work whilst feeling on top of it, I found myself examining my relationship with festivals over the years and thought I’d share a little.

When I was making my first film I had no idea what I was doing, and was so focused on getting the thing done and trying to figure all of that out, that I didn’t really think about what came next. When the day did come and I’d finished it, I realised that I hadn’t looked at film festivals and didn’t really know what sales and distribution were. That stuff had seemed so far away at the start I had forgotten all about them.

That changed when I began working at a production company in 2007 and submission to and attendance at film festivals became part of my duties, which is how I started to learn about their value. Up until that time the only film festival I’d been to was the JDIFF, a fine festival and a lot of fun, but it’s aimed primarily at an audience, rather than filmmakers.

I still remember my first submission. It was right against the deadline for a major Irish festival. I gave myself about an hour to get it done and ended up panicking, typing up a few things and printing out a form with a DVD, throwing it in the post. I never heard anything back, unsurprisingly. It wasn’t until I attended my first festival only a few months later that I realised that I’d never really been to the kind of festival that I, an aspiring filmmaker, could enter. It suddenly seemed so silly that I’d blindly stabbed at trying to gain entry to a world I had no experience of.

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Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Michael Bates as Barry adjusting a cake

It helps to think of it as less like a festival, and more like a conference.

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Michael D. Higgins at JDIFF

[divider]

[headsubline subline=”The business end of planning for film festivals as a filmmaker”]What needs to be done, when, and why.[/headsubline]

[tabs align=”center”]

[tab title=”Pre-Prodction”]

[one-half][dropcap]S[/dropcap]ure, festivals don’t seem important now. You’re “too busy” trying to rent goats for half price and figure out how to make the dude’s head explode in the second act, but this is the only time you’ll have the TIME to think about them. This is where you need to make decisions that’ll impact your applying to festivals down the road. One of the few luxuries you have at the start is time, so you should spend that time preparing.[/one-half]

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  • Booking a great stills photographer. Good images will matter.
  • Making a list of all the stuff you need to send to festivals so they can evaluate and screen your film, those NTSC DVD transfers and DCPs don’t make or pay for themselves.
  • Researching any niches your film may qualify for.
  • Making a list of festivals with submission dates you should be aiming for.

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[/tab]

[tab title=”Production”]

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[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ice. The real work. The real heavy-lifting. If you are into macho things, this might be a manly time for you, a time for yelling at people in the rain, for laughing at would-be muggers before you counter their knife with a 4KG camera to the head. If you are more genteel, this could be a time for meaningful reflection. Long walks. Conversations about subtext and meaning. Either way, this is where the magic happens, and as far as festivals are concerned, it’s important the magic happens on time.

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If you aren’t under any other restrictions, festivals can act as a useful deadline. Sometimes you need to push back post-production because you’re sticking to your guns creatively, and that’s ok, but I like to make an informed decision and know what festival opportunities it will cost me. If you take the time in pre-production to work out which viable festivals will be closing their submissions around the time of delivery (completion), you won’t have to add to the stress of triage that usually goes with a last-minute schedule change.

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[/tab]

[tab title=”Post-Production”]

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hether you’re lounging on couches in a full-bore post-production facility, or sleeping on your own couch so your homeless digital genius friend can experience a bed in exchange for posting your film, you will need to prepare for the technical and logistical aspects of submitting and delivering to film festivals. If you have been funded, the good news is that a lot of this you’ll be doing anyway for delivery to your financier. To whit, you’ll need to generate:

  • PAL DVD
  • NTSC DVD
  • 1080p or 720p h.264 [abbr title=”Quicktime”]QT[/abbr]

Those are what you will need to submit to a festival, but what’s the point in submitting if you won’t be able to screen if selected? To screen, you’ll need some or all of the following:

  • DCP
  • 35mm Print
  • 1080p ProRes [abbr title=”Quicktime”]QT[/abbr]
  • 1080p h.264 [abbr title=”Quicktime”]QT[/abbr]
  • Beta SP
  • DigiBeta
  • HDCam

[/one-half]

Then there’s the paperwork. This is not to be underestimated or ignored. You will have to do this at some point if you’re serious about putting your film out there and it’s better to get it out of the way at the start. It’s the whole “doing your homework on the Friday” business all over again. It sucks.

  • Timecoded dialogue list
  • Official synopsis
  • Official logline
  • Full credits
  • Director’s Bio
  • Producer’s Bio
  • Writer’s Bio
  • Biographies for the cast
  • Images from production
  • A poster
  • An [abbr title=”Electronic Press Kit – usually a PDF going behind the scenes”]EPK[/abbr]
  • Tech Specs
  • Director’s Statement
  • Billing Block Credits

 

 

[/tab]

[tab title=”Festival Time”]

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ime for a cocktail, you’re done. Kinda. If you’ve laid the groundwork, you’re kinda set, you just send your film off the festivals with the standard materials you’ve put together, and hopefully getting into a few. The ideal scenario is that your film’ll catch fire (not literally) and start getting (literally) invited to other festivals. This is great because it’s cheaper, it feels nice and it improves your prospects of getting distribution hugely.

[/tab]

[/tabs]

[divider]

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That first working trip I took to a festival was to the Galway Film Fleadh in 2007, and I learned an awful lot about why so many filmmakers attend. It helps to think of it as less like a festival, and more like a conference, like an insurance brokers’ conference, or a medical professionals’ conference. They’re far more similar than they may sound.[/one-half]

[one-half last]You’re there because everyone else is there, there’s free booze to be had, new interesting work to see and talk about, and at some festivals, there are deals to be done. Galway, Cannes, Toronto and many other festivals around the world feature markets – for buying and selling films for distribution, and some form of matchmaking – setting up creatives with money and logistics people.[/one-half]

Sunset at Galway Film Fleadh

I could write a lot about attending festivals, but it’s an area I don’t consider myself an expert in, for all of my hours logged. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about what it’s like getting your film in.

Preparation

[one-half]
Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 01.40.03[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he process of thinking about which festivals you’re going to go for should start while you’re in pre-production. Once your film is finished many months later, hopefully on time, you put together your package. Just about every festival asks for exactly the same things, so you collate them all into a .zip file which you host on a website or, more often, the Public folder in your Dropbox account. If you’re curious about what’s involved, take a look at our one for Barry’s Bespoke Bakery.[/one-half]

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Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 01.40.03You put this together once and keep it in one spot so that you don’t have far to look when you’re filling out an application for a festival. The next thing you do is go to withoutabox.com, sign up and enter in ALL of that information. Withoutabox is a platform used by most American and many European film festivals. You just enter all of the relevant details once, and then when you want to enter a festival, you login, select the project, pay the fee and you’re done – it’s great! That does bring me, however, to the next point.[/one-half]

Dosh

[one-half][dropcap]T[/dropcap]he fees for film festivals tend to stack up quite quickly. It’s a little cheaper these days since you don’t have to post off quite as much stuff as you used to, more and more festivals are accepting password-protected Vimeo links and Withoutabox online screeners, but almost all festivals charge to submit your film, and there are still plenty of fests around that require a printed submission form and DVD screener.[/one-half]

[one-half last]Some of the bigger festivals are free, or very cheap, but it’s the mid-tier festivals that will have you spending a lot of money. For our current project, on three festivals, we spent €50, £40 and $50. Three or four of those a month along with some smaller ones and it quickly adds up – especially when it’s a total gamble! Those aren’t fees to get your film shown, they’re fees to get your film in with a chance of being shown. Filmmaking, like most media, is very speculative, and this process is no different.[/one-half]

Bummer

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he sad reality of course is that, no matter how good your film is, you’re not going to please everybody all of the time, and so you have to make peace with the fact that you will get rejected from time to time. Sometimes those rejections make sense. Sometimes they don’t. The rejections that make sense are the ones where all of the films that do get selected are so brilliant, you have to take it on the chin. The rejections that don’t make sense are the ones where you see who gets selected and cannot figure out what they failed to see in your film, or what they found in the films they did select, but even then you have to let it go as a subjective decision, a matter of taste. These things just happen.

The practical reason for pushing so hard is that most festivals have a twelve-month window for selecting films in competition, meaning that if your film screened more than twelve months before their festival is going to start, you’re probably not going to qualify for selection at all. This gives you a finite amount of time to make an impression. You will still see films doing the rounds after that window has passed; there are flexible festivals, and a lot of fests will have an “Out-Of-Competition” programme for films which they like, but because of their internal rules, cannot consider for a jury or audience prize.

Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Beautiful Cake

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[one-half last]There are a few reasons one strives for prizes. First of all, it feels good for the hard work you put into your film to be recognised as significant and having value. Secondly, many festivals offer money or otherwise valuable prizes, and thirdly, you get to change your laurels from this:

Barry's-Bespoke-Bakery---Laurels---OS

into this:

Barry's-Bespoke-Bakery---Laurels---BF
Which will add a certain something to your posters, artwork, website etc. In a competitive business about relationships, improving your first impression is a valuable endeavour. You also become an “award-winning filmmaker”. Looks good on any CV.[/one-half]

 

W00t!

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Barry's Bespoke Bakery - Beautiful Pastries

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[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ongratulations! You got your film into a festival! Once all of the champagne corks have been swept up, you get to work. If it’s a big festival overseas you can apply to Culture Ireland for a travel grant to cover some of your travel expenses. If you’re not going to be attending, you’ll still need to be aware of a few dates:

A possible press embargo

We were embargoed for the BFI London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for a few weeks, though it’s not terribly common.

The deadline for your images and copy

They’ll be going to press with their programme a month or so before the festival so they can have a proper launch with a band and bubbly and all the rest, and your images and copy are going to have to be in it! That’s usually the first thing a festival will start shouting for once you’ve been accepted, and it’s a serious pain in the ass for them if you’re late with it.

When they want the print

There’ll be someone on the staff called the Print Traffic Co-Ordinator, or sometimes just the Print Co-Ordinator. Their job is to ship in all of the screening copies and ship them all back, or on to other festivals. As you can imagine, it’s a very stressful job that only really suits very meticulous people. They can be understandably inflexible, but in my experience can also be great allies if treated with the proper respect.

When the screening is

The festival will publicise the event and a couple of headline events, but they probably won’t publicise your film past putting it in the catalogue, so having the date as far in advance as possible is a great help as it allows you to start advertising your screening everywhere you possibly can.

When they can give your print back

If you’re on a roll, you’ll want them to send that print on to another festival, if not, you’ll just want them to send it home, but it’s important not to lose sight of this date. It very rarely happens, but sometimes the print manager isn’t as meticulous as you’d expect, and the print just…hangs around at the festival until someone remembers and gets it shipped back.

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The Sweet Smell of Success

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]uccess changes everything. If you get a couple of notable wins, your film “catches”. Instead of you pushing it, the market changes its attitude to you and begins to pull. You get invitations to festivals, offers to fly you over, and even screening fees, where THEY pay YOU to show the film. Like a fine balancing act, the judgement, restraint, patience and persistence that you try to show in pushing the film to festivals, suddenly needs to gracefully switch directions. You can’t accept every offer, you can’t fly to every festival (though you can have a lot of fun trying), you still need to stick to a strategy. You’ll find that you don’t have enough DCPs or HDCAM tapes to go around, that you can’t sift through the correspondence from people who have seen your film or just heard about it fast enough to tell the shysters and charlatans from the genuine attempts to communicate.

Wrap it up

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’d like to write a lot more about it – if there’s anything you’d like me to expand on, please sound off on the comments or shoot me a mail – ben@ben.ie