The Introversion Aesthetic

One thing you must remember above all things is this: Uplink doesn’t smile. It doesn’t smirk about how clever we are for acknowledging we’re playing a videogame, and it doesn’t get so involved with itself that it seems hilariously serious. Uplink is a simple Windows application that runs like any other, casually pretending to download a program that makes it possible to hack the planet. It’s got the simple but effective interface a hacker would make for himself, not the flashing whiz-banging electronic geegaws of a videogame. The only acknowledgement to fiction Uplink makes is the date at the top of its stark main screen: 2010. Even then, I unplugged my ethernet cable, just in case I really was bouncing signals off open servers while investigative hounds chased me across the electronic moors of the internet.

Introversion hacked its way into my life, and my heart, with Uplink and returned to my attention with the world-ender DEFCON (Darwinia was enjoyable, but not quite my thing). DEFCON, like Uplink, is an unsmiling game, though DEFCON is less about hacking and more about destroying the planet. Players hunch over a retro ’80s display screen depicting missile bases, fleets, submarines, airfields and cities, and hurl nuclear death at each other. DEFCON reports the body count/score with all the cool detachment a computer can muster. 1 million killed. 2.5 million killed. 10 million killed. The punch doesn’t come through the graphics or writing – no CGI cutscenes of mothers clutching children as they are immolated by fire – but through that same clinical detachment. 10 million just died a horrible, flame-drenched, screaming death, all because you forgot to put up a missile base to defend the Pacific Northwest. Thanks for playing.

The common thread in the two games is that simple but enthralling feel. Uplink doesn’t go overboard with flashing graphics and sirens when the electronic Javerts begin their pursuit. Terror comes in a beep, like the motion trackers in Aliens. I’m in. Beep. Now, where do they keep those files? Beep. Beep. Just a little more looking. As they get closer, the tracker speeds up. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Time to pull the plug and cover my tracks. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep! I’ve faced down the hordes of Hell itself, battled through games written by horror masters, but nothing made ice-cold fear wash down my spine like the frantic beeping of the tracker as my hack went awry, to the point that I reached around my computer case to make doubly sure I’d unplugged my network cable.

DEFCON also uses subtle touches to draw you into the world of annihilating humanity. The cool, detached display and simple icons wouldn’t impress the “Real is Brown” crowd, but it wouldn’t be out of place in a quiet Air Force bunker in North Dakota. The interface is simple and utilitarian, all about conveying information – as one imagines a military computer might – rather than impressing with graphical wizardry. The soundtrack is haunting ambient music, making it easy to sink into. And it’s embedded with little audio bits to enhance the mood: A child’s laughter echoes from far away, someone – perhaps the other fellow with a launch key – coughs and clears his throat. After finishing an office LAN game, one of my coworkers blurted, “God, I hope we didn’t really nuke a bunch of people.” Silly as it is, we all shuffled to the window to make sure mushroom clouds weren’t blossoming over downtown Raleigh. Yes, we checked.

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Impressed by a game capable of making hard-bitten cynics paranoid, I tracked down Chris Delay, Creative Director and lead developer at Introversion. I wanted to talk about their unique take on gaming and game design. He spends his workday “think[ing] up new game ideas and develop[ing] them into something we can sell,” which led to a discussion about DEFCON‘s development.

Look at DEFCON, and the influence from WarGames is clear, so it wasn’t too surprising to find out the movie was the initial inspiration for the game. “It was one of those films that I really loved as a child,” Chris said. “That, and Tron, which probably explains quite a lot! Uplink, our first title, was also inspired by WarGames, with the hacking elements, but it wasn’t until some months later when I was watching the film again that I realized there was another great idea for a game about thermonuclear war that, to my knowledge, had never been done before.” This game wasn’t going to be a heavy simulation, he said. “We wanted to make a game that was less heavily strategic and quite stylized, like the movie, so you’d see vector-lined Soviet subs closing in on your coastlines and things like that. As usual, we like to create a lot of atmosphere in our games, so recapturing that Cold War sense of paranoia and tension was also crucial.”

I told him my Uplink Ethernet story and asked if there was a reason they put so much effort into immersion. “Yes, absolutely, the immersive nature of games is really important. It’s what hopefully keeps you coming back to play them again and again.” He added that Introversion has no “delusions of grandeur,” no illusion that it can compete with the bigger game companies with hundreds of developers working to make games incredibly realistic. Chris says Introversion has to “try and turn our potential weaknesses into pluses, so, although we aren’t able to follow in the bigger companies’ footsteps, we can experiment with off-the-wall concepts, which they might not be able to go near, and concentrate on manipulating the gamer’s environment to make everything in-game seem more real. We put a lot of effort into elements like the soundtrack, to try and enhance the mood.”

He uses DEFCON as one of his examples, where they put in “this really melancholic string adagio which gets progressively slower and sadder as you start to lose. It’s almost imperceptible, as is the gradual fade in color saturation as the game progresses, but it gives a real sense of foreboding and impending doom!” Uplink‘s beeping was also crucial, he says, in “creating a sense of tension. As you progress in a hacking mission, the countdown beeps get faster and faster, making it very difficult not to panic in the final stages. The fact that there is no in-game save option in Uplink also heightens the suspense; you have a lot to lose if you fail the mission. Sometimes, it’s the simpler, perhaps even cruder, elements of a game design that really make the difference and fool you into thinking it’s real.”

I asked him if that was part of the Introversion aesthetic, as even across genres – be it hacker sim, RTS or global thermonuclear war – games from Introversion have a distinct style. “Perhaps it goes back to the whole question about total immersion; I think that’s quite an Introversion trait. It’s sometimes difficult to retain the courage of your convictions when everyone else is going in one direction and you decide to go in the opposite, but we really strive to create games that are totally original and unique. There’s a certain amount of obstinacy that comes with that.” Perhaps he was understating a bit, as this is the company with “We didn’t want any publishers f – cking up our game” on the public record. On a personal level, Chris says, “I’d been working in the games industry before Introversion, and all I really wanted to do was make the games that I wanted to make, not just another sequel. As far as inspiration goes, it can be quite random and unpredictable, although films and games, especially from the ’80s, are the obvious sources.”

Indeed, Introversion games frequently feel like the kind of game you’d carry over to your friend’s house on a 5.25″ inch floppy when dinosaurs ruled the earth. I asked if that feeling was intentional. “Yes, I think that’s definitely part of the Introversion aesthetic,” though he added, “I’m not sure it’s entirely intentional, but often seems to end up that way, mainly because it was a really creative and exciting period for game design, and we were growing up in the midst of it all.” As of late, he says, “We’ve lost a lot of that fearlessness in the pursuit of innovation and great ideas in recent years, perhaps because the stakes are so much higher. It’s all about making a profit nowadays, and the suits are the ones to determine what games will be profitable, not the developers, so we end up with this cookie-cutter approach to game development, with many publishers getting stuck in the design rut.”

Moving back toward the graphics question, he says, “One of the great things about creating games with a retro look and feel is that they immediately stand out against the latest photorealistic offerings – no one ever confused Darwinia for anything else. One of our proudest moments was winning an award for artistic excellence, for Darwinia, at last year’s IGF awards, despite the fact that we’ve never had an artist working on our games. It just goes to show that photorealism is not the only avenue for the developer to take.”

As a very small, very indie developer, Introversion tries “to stick to a simple design model … keeping content procedurally generated and to a minimum, working with stylized graphics and focusing on ambient elements like the soundtrack to enhance the mood and feel of a game. This is purely down to lack of resources and making the most of what we have. Troubles tend to arise when we depart from that model, as we did with Darwinia.” Darwinia was Introversion’s most ambitious game, he says. “Darwinia had a lot more content in it than Uplink or DEFCON. It was also stylistically a much more challenging project, which meant that instead of taking the predicted 18 months to complete, it actually took us three years. This left us with a real financial headache, and by the end of it all, our morale was running pretty low. DEFCON was a dream to make in comparison, because there’s virtually no content in it, it’s just a pure game that’s scenario driven.”

Delay is tight-lipped when I ask about their next game, Subversion, and opens with, “Actually, if I’d had my way originally, no one would even know the name of our next game! Not only that, but for the first time, I’ve been persuaded into sharing a lot more about the development process of this game with our fans, and we’ve set up a company blog for this purpose.” He was a bit apprehensive about posting anything, he says. “You can set up expectations when you divulge too much too early, and you’re bound to cause disappointment when you make changes and the end product is different [from] what people were expecting. Because of this, we’re not making any promises, and we won’t be talking about the features in-game, or how the final game will play. The development process has always been pretty fluid at Introversion, and we’re not even sure ourselves what we’re aiming for yet. Subversion has also really just gone into serious development, although it’s an idea that’s been floating ’round in the company archives for quite some time, as far back as 2002. It was put on hold while we were finishing off Darwinia and DEFCON, and [has] been bubbling away in the back of our minds for years, so it’s had the most thinking time of all our games, and should hopefully reflect that in the end result.” I will acknowledge being a fan of the company to the point that knowing the title made me happy. It’s about subverting. Awesome!

Talking about the future of the company led me to ask about their relationship with publishers, which can be quite contentious. “Mark [Morris]’s rather controversial remarks at the IGF awards turned a few heads … [but] at the end of the day, we have quite set views on what the role of a developer and a publisher should be. The relationship should ideally be one of collaboration, but what often happens today is that the publisher tries to run the whole show, which can be a disaster when they start trying to dabble in the creative sides of things. We don’t have a problem working with publishers to sell a game, but they won’t be involved in the creative process, and for that reason alone, we like to own our own IPs. One of the problems for indies is that the publishers aren’t really interested – that’s the bottom line – and it can be a real struggle to get yourselves noticed and taken seriously. When Darwinia released, we were big enough to self-publish in the U.K., but the U.S. market is around 10 times larger, and we just didn’t have the staff. It takes a success story like the Darwinia launch on Steam, or winning awards at the Independent Games Festival, for publishers to sit up and take notice of us.”

That freedom can make it challenging to run a company, but it also allows them to make them the games they want to make. “Subversion is my dream game,” Chris said, when I asked what he’d make if he could make anything. “At Introversion, we aren’t bound by the same resource concerns [as big game companies], because of the way we handle gameplay and content – and each game we’ve made has been our dream game at the time of it’s making.” Don’t expect Introversion to change, either, because the freedom they have, he says, was “why we started the company!”

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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