Phoning HomeIon Lands
It is time for a new showcase interview. This time we sat together with Wolfgang Walk and talked about the game Phoning Home, an ION LANDS project.
In Phoning Home, you play a little robot named ION, who has to survive on an alien planet after crash landing with his ship. The game was released in February 2017 and is available on Steam.
Articy: Could you please introduce yourself and ION LANDS in a few words?
ION LANDS: I (Wolfgang Walk, editor’s note) have been a game writer and producer since 1991. After being employed by Blue Byte and Massive Development between 1995 and 2005 I became a freelancer, doing contractual work for everybody who loves to cooperate with me.
This is what Marko Dieckmann, who is the guy behind ION LANDS, did in October 2015. That’s how the cooperation started.
Articy: First of all, everybody who writes about Phoning Home writes its character brings Wall-E to mind. Does that bug you because the motivation in Wall-E is completely different or was it even intentionally? What inspired you to do Phoning Home?
ION LANDS: What bugs me is the intellectual laziness, because 60 seconds into the game it becomes clear that there is no similarity whatsoever, besides the goggles of ION. Even the rest of ION‘s body is already completely different to Wall-E. After 25 + years in the industry I still don’t want to get used to this level of shallowness.
As for the inspiration: Music was a big inspiration for the game. And everybody who takes an interested look at the game and knows a bit about popular music of the last 80 years will soon find out. Other inspirations came from Neil Gaiman, especially his character “Delirium” from the Sandman-series; every weird talk I ever listened to in bars; and, yes, the more humorous parts of Dostojewski-novels. I used this to let ANI, ION‘s sidekick, constantly change her talk between deep, funny and totally nuts.
But the biggest inspiration was that I eventually had a chance to prove myself that I had a working method to create a meaningful story in an open world game. Marko gave me a lot of freedom – and that was extremely helpful and inspirational.
Articy: ION – the main character in Phoning Home – is a little robot. Why did ION LANDS made this decision? Is there any difference, storytelling-wise, having a mechanical creature then an organic one as protagonist? What are the Pros & Cons and which options arise with this decision – or maybe disappear, from a storytelling perspective?
ION LANDS: Marko always wanted to tell the story of a self-aware robot. I took this premise and made it a story about what it means to be alive. But it’s not the old question of the meaning of life, it’s rather the much newer question what it is that DEFINES life – and how to deal with it, when life encounters you in places and lifeforms where you do not expect it. And of course this premise is very different, whether the both of us are discussing the topic – or it’s two robots.
Articy: Within a survival-game the environment also has an important role. Under what aspects did ION LANDS develop the environment for Phoning Home? And how is the environment interwoven with the story?
ION LANDS: I guess that changed a lot during the development process, until we found out what kind of place it really was that ION was stranded on. From the start I knew the place had to be seen and treated as kind of a character. In a game where the environment plays such a crucial role you need to know exactly what kind of place you’re in, how it functions. You need to know the laws of physics and the ethical rules – and both need to find an echo in the gameplay.
We put a lot of effort into developing this character called “environment”. The place we’re in is very special. I don’t want to spoil too much, but some of the level mechanics would have been very different, if this place was just Earth or some regular planet. There is not a single region in the game where we didn’t have to discuss long and hard how the place is stepping forward, becomes an actor, how it reacts to the characters and the player actions.
That was a difficult task sometimes, but the effort paid off a lot. I heard from a lot of players that they really connected with the place and understood it the way we wanted it to have: an environmental survival game, where the environment itself becomes the antagonist.
Articy: Phoning Home was made with Unity as the game-engine. Regarding the environment – had Unity everything aboard to develop your vision of the environment or was it hard to achieve the final look?
ION LANDS: Obviously this is something Marko could answer way more competent, but from what I heard during development, and deducing from the speed in which he could implement changes, I’d guess it wasn’t an especially difficult task. Then again: Marko is an excellent coder, so what comes easy for him might create some headaches for others!
Articy: In the development of the project, what was, from your perspective, the most complex and defiant challenge you faced so far? Was it something you expected or did it come as a total surprise?
ION LANDS: I expected the work on the story to be complex, but it was even much more so than I expected in my worst nightmares. The game world is huge, you can walk into a lot of directions. As the narrative designer you want to let the player do what they want, while at the same time trying to prevent every unwanted sequence of events to happen. And you think hard about it, you do everything you can to prevent breaking the story – but people out there are doing really crazy stuff, and there’s just no way to prevent them from destroying the flow of events if they just ignore about everything the game tells them to do – which is their absolute right. That’s why we are playing games.
Thus, when Phoning Home was released, it already contained a huge articy:draft-script that was way bigger than 10 Megabytes and had many thousand nodes. But I still, after release, had to return and implement even more safety measures. This was made harder by the fact that we had very little money for in-depth testing before release. Our budget was tiny.
Articy: How were you able to “tame” this challenge to not postpone milestones / deadlines?
ION LANDS: In the end it was working long hours. Very long hours. But for most of the time it was a surprisingly relaxed development. So I really cannot complain. And we met all of our milestones.
Articy: A little bit unusual for a survival-game – focusing only on a Single-Player-Mode. Was this an initial decision, or did you have to go through a number of design iterations until realising: that’s the way to go in this case? Why?
ION LANDS: Phoning Home was a single-player game from the start. We never even thought about a multi-player mode. We wanted to tell a great story – and that’s what single-player games definitely do better than multi-player games.
Articy: Normally, you don’t find a really rich story in survival-games. Was it a difficult process to develop a story for this genre or does it maybe even develop naturally? Especially with the regard, that there is a danger that such a story might be perceived as “artificial/superimposed”.
ION LANDS: This “danger” is rather a danger of sloppy narrative design or an under-developed conscious for the necessary process than one of the survival-genre per se. The right process is the one I have described above: you need to understand the reasons why you are in a dangerous place. A survival game is always about the place you’re in: Why is this place dangerous? What are its rules? What are its ethics? Every place has inherent ethics, especially since we can define places in the high level of detail we can today. A place rewards certain behaviours – and punishes others. And it has reasons to do so. A lot of narrative designers just tell a story fitting the genre. They never even get the chance to find out the rules and ethics of the game’s place.
Something a narrative designer MUST do: I played the game as it developed from day 1. This gave me the chance to really understand the place – and even to help shaping it. The story falls in place afterwards. Even some changes to the game mechanics can be a logical consequence. You will know what I mean if you reach the ice-scenario of Phoning Home. It’s really not that difficult then anymore. You still need your narrative craftsmanship, but the story belongs to the place then and you just have to follow its traces, experience it – and then tell it the best you can.
Articy: For the writing of the story you guys use articy:draft. What was the main reason for choosing it? How did the relevant processes / workflow look before using articy?
ION LANDS: We used articy:draft pretty much from the start. There wasn’t really another tool we considered. articy:draft allows for multi-path storytelling like few other tools, and everything is visual. That doesn’t mean we didn’t run into some limitations. We worked with version 2 (version 3 only came out a few weeks after the release of Phoning Home), and version 2 didn’t have local variables, which would have made a lot of things easier for the internal logic of the story. We found a workaround, but as workarounds go, they have their limits. We also ran in quite some additional work caused by articy:draft not really supporting localization processes. I understand you guys are working on it, and that will be a very welcome addition for smaller indie teams like us. We just didn’t have the capacity to create the respective export/import functions ourselves. In the end it took a lot of time to create a safe process that allows for foreign versioning in a reasonable amount of time. articy:draft has ca. 25,000 words, and I can only sense it would be a nearly impossible challenge to do this with even more word-heavy genres like RPGs.
Having said that, I don’t not regret the decision for articy:draft, since I never ran into another tool that would have been able to support such a story-writing process in such a visual and controllable way. You have very good control over what you’re doing, and you can see any change you made after a very short import process. That helped a lot!
Articy: And finally, in general, what do you think about the actual status of storytelling in games? Did storytelling saw a positive growth? Is the quality right and what developments do you expect in the future regarding this field or work?
ION LANDS: We are a young art form, and things are still developing fast. We had some kind of arrested development for some years after 2005, but during the last 3-4 years we have seen some games doing new and exciting stuff in storytelling: This War of Mine, Papers, please!, and others. We’re not there by a lot of miles, but I am optimistic like I have not been in decades: At some point all the complaints about bad storytelling in games will be a thing of the past, since we will have learned how to approach the games in their respective uniqueness, gameplay and genre.
But we have to keep in mind that storytelling in games is probably the most complex of all narrative art forms. And so the audience should bear with us. We will eventually get there. And I hope that articy:draft is picking up on these developments to support us as development processes change (and it’s really very often the process that decides over a game story’s quality). A tool cannot be better than the process it supports. But it is vital that it is supporting the processes that lead to the best possible results. Different game genres need different design processes. For articy:draft it is important to stay at the helm of the development and support these processes as they develop. The less narrative designers fight with their tools, the more they can fight for a great storytelling.