After Microsoft suddenly shut the doors on Lionhead and cancelled Fable Legends at the end of April, the world of gaming has been at a loss. Not only was this a completely unexpected obliteration of a game which had been premiered at two E3's and was allegedly one week away from launch, it was also the end of a studio that had nurtured talent for twenty years and been behind one of the most loved franchises in game history.
Now, close to two months after that calamity happened, great coverage has emerged detailing how lofty goals, combined with a constantly shifting focus and an ever-expanding list of demands from higher-up led to Lionhead's downfall. It seems like gamers, an exponentially expanding percentage of the global population, have become truly interested in the creative process behind their favourite titles.
Exploring this has been the aim of Davey Wreden and William Pugh, two game developers who recently exploded into the mainstream with the release of The Stanley Parable, a game so wildly successful it plunged Wreden into emotional depths usually reserved for Hollywood starlets who one day wake up to realize they're famous. Even though the duo split up after the release of The Stanley Parable, their subsequent projects haven't strayed from the subject matter of exploring the backstage of their own industry.
While The Stanley Parable experiments with narrative and the absurdities of player choice, highlighting the difficulties of crafting a coherent experience and creating the illusion of freedom at the same time, the two games that followed shone a light on the human side of the game industry.
Wreden's The Beginner's Guide, another highly-acclaimed title, explored the various ways specific restrictions placed on the FPS genre can be used to tell a story. It dealt with artistic frustration, sensitivity to criticism and the the personal toll game designers pay due to not being considered a "legitimate artistic medium". It truly took walking simulators to a new level and was extremely touching, a few people considered the story of Coda, the introverted game designer, to be non-fiction and called Wreden out for plagiarizing someone else's work.
In the meantime Pugh went on to found CrowsCrowsCrows, an indie game studio whose first game, the ridiculously titled "Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist" came out just as 2015 was ending.
There is a free, 20 minute-long release on itch.io and trust me, if you enjoy thoughtful and introspective art, and/or the narration of Simon Amstell, check it out before reading on.
The plot, that of a player helping the struggling director guide someone else through his game, is jam-packed with commentary about the hard work that goes into creating even the most banal titles out there. With resignation letters, notes-to-self seeping with frustration and picket signs scattered around the levels, the game tells of how underpaid staff working in constant crunch mode has unfortunately become the norm in game design. Although the game is intended to be funny, it contains a dire warning about the health risks, both mental and physical, that plague the video games industry.
A secondary story, revealed through cassette tapes lying around the game world, tells of a designer unsuccessfully trying to pitch his ideas to those who might fund their creation. Seemingly driven to the edge of insanity after so much rejection, he shares a trait all artists working in a young medium have – the almost illogical belief in the success of their own art. This subplot speaks volumes about how much blood, sweat and years the designers of even the most successful games have had to go through before their art saw the light of day.
As video games get more and more recognised as a legitimate part of culture, educating consumers about the creation process behind these products becomes vital. Fostering compassion for game developers, gauging expectations we have as a community from those building the campfires we gather around, this initial offering from CrowsCrowsCrows is truly great and sets the bar high for their future projects.
Here's to hoping for more games so meta they leave you with a pressing need to sit on a park bench for hours thoughtfully staring into the distance.