Tale of Tales is making a new first-person game called Sunset, and it’s one of the first projects I can announce I’m consulting on along with my colleague Ste Curran. You may have heard that last year we sowed the first seeds of Agency, our consultancy project, which we formally announced this year.
For the past year or so Agency’s been quietly working with all kinds of game developers, to provide perspective, assist in communication and offer design criticism. We’ve built a really strong process of assessment and written reporting that scales to meet the needs of individual projects and teams — the best way I can describe it is we’ve found a way to help close the gap between the game the developer says they want to make and what’s actually being made.
There is always this gap. Throughout my career in games criticism and journalism, I’ve interviewed countless game makers about their works in progress, how they want their games to work and what they want the experience of the player to be. The reason games don’t always achieve those goals is never because the designers are “bad” or don’t know what they were doing — it’s usually because they didn’t have an educated outside eye to ratify secret doubts, help the team communicate, or notice the places the game wasn’t connecting with the player until it was too late to change things.
Of course everyone does playtesting and Q&A, and other firms do “mock reviews” or market analysis, but our reporting process is designed to provide close critique that keeps everyone on the same page, and offers tools that can be used to manage goals and priorities, help developers find the best way to express themselves, and improve games within existing practical scope. We think it’s incredibly valuable for this perspective to come not from inside the team, nor from the publisher nor the marketers, but from folks without a dog in the fight, so to speak — practiced critics (me!) and developers (Ste!) who just love games, care about the people who make it, and have experience with communicating to a wide variety of audiences.
We’re thrilled because we’ve had great results with our clients so far and our process works — another relationship I’m allowed to mention is that we did an assessment of Mike Bithell’s Volume early on, which he told us was crucial to answering some questions he had about his own design and clarifying its strengths.
In the case of Sunset: I’ve covered Tale of Tales’ work for years and have always loved it. In many ways the pair have been ahead of their time for ages, in terms of doing games that are about bigger things than “what the player does”. Even if that unconventional focus has limited their audience at times, their beautiful work is such an important part of the history of independent game-making.
By supporting them now via Agency, we have a chance to ensure they’re using a design vocabulary that can finally help them attain their goal of reaching a bigger audience with an impactful, focused narrative-driven thriller of a game. Tale of Tales are too cool to ever be “mainstream”, but I think that’s what makes them so appealing — I’m excited they’ll be contributing in such a big way to the important and growing canon of narrative-driven exploration games I love, like Gone Home or Dear Esther.
This genre, if it is a genre, will be stronger for having them working in it, and we’re glad to have the opportunity to help them by sharing what we know about what makes games like these work for these kinds of players.
Every time we meet with Tale of Tales about Sunset I become even more excited about the game. The concept is incredibly unique, a place and a circumstance I want to sink all of my teeth into, and I love the idea of a relationship-focused political thriller where I play as a Black woman. It’s set in a 70′s-style “high tech” bachelor pad — they found the floor plan in an old Playboy — and the aesthetics of the game are just amazing so far.
Obviously this is not an “unbiased journalistic opinion,” but personally my games criticism has never been about that to begin with — I always write very personally about the things I want from games and love in games, and in a lot of ways this work is just another way for me to be doing that. Most of my consulting projects will probably be confidential, but you can trust that if ever I’m talking to you or writing for you about something I’ve worked on — which probably won’t happen outside of situations like these on my personal site — you’ll have full transparency from me about my involvement.
The way I see it is that there are so, so many video games out there that I’ll always have plenty to write about outside of my consulting work. And Agency is starting small and growing slowly and carefully thanks to independent clients, thus conflicts of interest are very avoidable.
Ste and I are so proud to get to work with Tale of Tales on it as it unfolds, and we feel very invested. Even though we’re working only in an advisory capacity, they’ve made us feel like a part of the team. We’ll do our best to contribute to the experience in a way people will love. If you are also interested in helping bring this special project to life for two of my favorite creators, you can consider backing Sunset on Kickstarter. But check out the page in any case — I want everyone to watch as this amazing game gets underway.
As for Agency, we currently have a PDF brochure available, designed for us by the excellent Mike Bithell, who wanted to support us following our brief contribution to Volume. We’re now doing the slow work of building our web resource so that people can see actual examples from our reporting process, recommendations from our clients, and learn more about what we do — we realize it’s a bit hard to explain, and it can sometimes be hard to tell game developers why they need educated outside analysis.
In the meanwhile, if you make games and you’re interested in learning more about what working with Agency would be like, do ping us at firstname.lastname@example.org.