Behind the Code

This article originally appeared in Volume XX, Issue XI of the University Observer

Double Fine-5

Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight documentary is an essential microcosmic peek into the realities and wonders of game development argues Niall Gosker

Double Fine Productions have been around for over a decade now. Their first act was one of long development cycles and constantly looming financial doom. Psychonauts was a terrific platformer but it sold poorly and Brutal Legend didn’t fare well enough to warrant its publisher EA funding the proposed sequel.

Nine years after their founding and after having only released two projects, both of which failed to recoup enough of their investment, the studio found itself in something of a dire predicament.

Luckily in that time digital distribution models, which allowed for smaller scale projects with the potential to reach a very large audience, became more than a viable development method. 2010’s Costume Quest was a game changer and saw Double Fine abandon their previous design ethos in favour of these more bite sized but as equally engaging titles.

This change has paid off handsomely for the San Francisco based developers, who have finally found a development model that fits.

If you aren’t familiar with any of their work first hand, there’s a good chance you heard of their important Kickstarter campaign that launched back in 2012. It saw Tim Schafer, the creator of several adventure game classics in the 90s such as Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, return to the genre he had helped to define with the aptly titled Double Fine Adventure.

Along with this was the promise and prospect of a documentary which would, according to Schafer, be a record of its success or failure. This honest look at the development process would be handled by 2 Player Productions, a film making crew already known for their great work documenting parts of Minecraft’s creation.

It was so well received that they decided to turn their cameras to Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight project next. The results made for one of the most intimate, compelling, and informative looks at the realities of taking an idea from paper to pixel.

The impetus behind Amnesia Fortnight, a companywide game jam, came out of the extended development time of Brutal Legend. Its purpose was to allow the team to step away from a project they had been working on for years and to undergo a creative refresh, a break without taking a break.

Double Fine-4 Mnmonic

                            Mnemonic

It proved to be an invaluable endeavour as it not only offered staff who had never led a team before the experience of doing so without the risk, but the tangible results would arguably go on to save the studio from crumbling in the wake of Brutal Legend’s commercial disappointment.

Costume Quest was the first project to emerge from Amnesia Fortnight that would go on to become a fully-fledged game as opposed to a mere prototype. This would be the first of many such prototypes developed over the course of Amnesia Fortnight that would eventually be fleshed out.

Double Fine then threw open the gates of Amnesia Fortnight to the public, allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted to for the privilege to both play the finished prototypes and see how the process occurred, with 2 Player Productions behind the cameras once again.

In other mediums such as film, there’s a greater degree of light shed on the creative process. There have been numerous works that attempt to drawn back the curtain, something which has only become more prevalent since DVD extras became standard. Game development seems to be much more shrouded in mystery.

The problem with video games in this sense then is the added layer of abstraction. Practically anyone can wrap their head around an actor standing on a soundstage reading lines while being filmed. The notion however, that lines upon lines of unintelligible code can produce a game is likely a step too far for most to consider.

This is a little misleading and speaks to a larger image problem the medium has had from day one; video games are so much more than lines of code, with artists, composers, animators all having to come together to make something worthwhile.

It’s this problem of balancing accessibility that 2 Player Productions and Double Fine have managed to overcome, in what is a major milestone in the documentation of game development. The emphasis is less on the mechanics of their disciplines and more on the individuals themselves, personalities front and centre.

It’s a good thing the team is so immediately likable then, their enthusiasm overwhelmingly infectious. This isn’t just a doorway into how games get made but also the lives of those making them.

As a result, it’s easy to feel involved and to root the team. Artist Derek Brand’s difficulty in leading a team for the first time lends him a certain underdog struggle status that’s impossible not to get behind.

Meanwhile, guest developer Pendleton Ward, creator of surreal cartoon Adventure Time is there not simply to lend star power to the whole affair but rather is genuinely passionate about both gaming and his own project.

Ward acts as an excellent audience surrogate, his educational journey in game creation mirroring that of the viewer’s, as he learns about the realities of a process where imagination and feasibility often brush up against each other.

The most well-known piece of game development documenting is 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie. It’s an excellent piece of filmmaking in its own right but a very different beast, focusing on the bigger picture over a longer span of time, while 2 Player Productions are drilling down into the daily but certainly not the mundane.

These are two massively differing approaches but together they form what are surely two essential pieces of the game documentary canon thus far. Hopefully in the future, the artistic merit of the development process will continue to be demystified in similarly illuminating documentation work.

The documentary can be watched in its entirety for free on Double Fine’s YouTube page

 

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One comment

  1. I had not thought about the dearth of game development documentaries before reading this. I hope more documentaries are made so the non-gaming public can learn more about games. Then more people might want to start playing games, or they might have a new found respect for the art behind them, or they might go on to develop their own projects. Exciting possibilities indeed.

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