Tag Archives: jonathan wine

The Dollar Taketh Away

I have a confession to make. Some of you may already know this about me, others are probably going to be shocked beyond all reason. It’s something I don’t like to bring out about myself unless I’m in my closest circles, and even then it’s shameful and I have no real excuse for it. However, for you today, internet, I bare my darkest secret.

I am… a Sonic the Hedgehog fan.

… did you hear that? That’s the sound of hundreds of Facebook and Twitter followers unfollowing the Wyvern social media pages simultaneously. It’s the sound of Nerissa and the rest of the team refusing to work with me anymore, of my friends cancelling all the plans we’ve made for next weekend, my parents saying I’m dead to them, my wife leaving me, and if we had kids it’s the sound of them being taken away… all at the same time.

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Why Daddy… WHY?!

Alright, so I’m obviously exaggerating a little bit, but honestly sometimes that’s how it feels being a fan of the Blue Blur in this day and age. And not without reason. He hasn’t exactly had a… stellar catalogue the past decade or so. In fact, some of his ventures have been flat out embarrassing. At this point, saying that Sonic is your favorite game character is like saying you want Nickelback played at your funeral, or that 2016 was by-far the best year ever. It’s almost a joke in-and-of itself because of how laughably awful most of SEGA and Sonic Team’s decisions have been.

But my relationship with Sonic is much deeper than games, and because of that, more recently than most Sonic fans I had my heart broken… hard. This isn’t going to be one of our “educational” or “opinion” blog posts. This is going to be more of a story, with a very not-so-happy ending.  So basically it’s one of the original stories Disney bases their movies on. It’s the Little Mermaid without the happily ever after, or the singing, or the… joy. This is the true version, where Ariel turns into seafoam (oh yeah, look it up).

The very first video game I ever played was Sonic the Hedgehog for SEGA Genesis. To this day, the ringtone on my Mom’s phone for when I call her is the Green Hill Zone theme. I did not know the story, I couldn’t get past the third level without help, but I LOVED that game. Soon after, my parents got me my very first video game system: the SEGA Game Gear.

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It’s like a DS, kids, only you need overalls to fit it in your pocket.

Before long, I had a BILLION Sonic games for this sucker. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic Spinball, Tails Adventure, Sonic Chaos, Sonic Blast, on and on and on. I ate the little guy up everywhere I could. When my Mom’s work got a computer I could hang out on after school, you best believe it had everything from Sonic R to Sonic and Knuckles on it. Same when I snagged a Gamecube. I was hooked. And then I discovered something so beautiful and so wonderful, that it truly changed my life forever.

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*wipes away nostalgic tear*

It’s February, 2000. I just had my 9th birthday, spent almost all my money from relatives on… who knows what, and had a few dollars left. So I go into Books-A-Million with my Mom, and my eye is eventually drawn to a shelf by a familiar sight. A very, very familiar sight. A blue hedgehog, wearing red shoes. With the probably $3 of birthday money I had left, I bought my first copy of the Sonic the Hedgehog comic series by Archie. I got home, started reading… and had absolutely NO clue what was going on. Who are all these new characters? Why are there no rings and loops? WHY IS KNUCKLES GREEN?!?!

And yet… I was mesmerized. Because suddenly the characters that I had known as merely pixels on a screen had voices, personalities… purpose. For the next few years I bought all the back-issues I could, and to this day I’m only missing MAYBE a handful of issues here and there. Before long I owned well over 300+ issues/specials/mini-series, all of Knuckles short-lived but fantastic solo series, and I was of course still buying the new issues that came out once a month.

Let me give you a quick synopsis for the Sonic comics. First and foremost, they’re the longest running comic series of all time based on a video game character. The first one came out in 1992. They haven’t missed an issue. That in and of itself is impressive.

But the story, oh the story. The comics themselves never really followed the games, at least not directly. Their main inspiration was actually the Saturday Morning cartoon show. In a nutshell, it starts with a mad scientist (whose name is ROBOTNIK, not EGGMAN *shudders*) who creates a device that can replace lost limbs for soldiers with completely new biomechanical prosthetics. See, the humans have been at war with the other dominant species on this planet, what are called the Mobians, the hyper evolved versions of earth’s animals. They’re the cute little fuzzballs like Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, etc., or more accurately, their parents/grandparents. Now eventually,  humans and Mobians did learn to coexist, but the story starts with the humans trying to eradicate the Mobians so they alone can be the dominant species on the planet. Oh yeah, they start this “kid’s” story out with attempted genocide.

Anyway, Robotnik realizes that his device can actually “roboticize” people who HAVEN’T lost limbs, turning in-tact blood and bone into pure circuitry and metal. So he starts committing the war crime of enslaving and experimenting on his own people in secret, to the point where he’s eventually banished from human society. Well, who should pick him up but the Mobians, who in the games have all but a few been turned into robots… you see where this is going.

Long story short, the Mobians win the war, but Robotnik betrays them and enslaves the Mobian race completely, leaving only a handful of young kids all under the age of ten completely parentless. This handful swears to free their people, donning the title “the Freedom Fighters”, and one of them, a lightning fast hedgehog, begins to lead the charge.

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Our protagonist’s mother, being forcibly assaulted, bodily harmed, and brain-washed. Rated E for Everyone.

Seem a little dark? That’s because it is. The comic world, though yes, ridiculous and extremely “comic-bookey” held so much more meat and narrative complexity than the games. Characters died, parents had to sacrifice their lives for their children. Whole story arcs dealt with racism and classism, or challenging established traditions for the sake of progress. There were twenty year relationships between characters that went from flirting, to dating, to engaged, to married, to talking about kids of their own. Many characters suffered PTSD from years of fighting. The Sonic comics were the most well-written, enjoyable fictional stories I have ever had the pleasure of losing myself in.

Yes, I said “were.” I’ll get to that soon.

But see, this is why I never understood the Sonic hatred. Over the years as I threw myself into the comic world, I lost interest in the games. They weren’t even the same universe, there was no continuity between them, and as I got older I just realized there were some things that weren’t ever going to happen. Among them was a Zoids revival, the fact that Hermione wasn’t going to end up with Harry, and the Sonic games regaining their pride.

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Never happened. NEVER. HAPPENED.

I lived in a bubble. I lived in a bubble where Sonic wasn’t a joke of how something cool went down such a dark road. In my world, Sonic was a warrior, who was engaged to the girl (WHO IS NOT A HUMAN) he had been with for almost two decades, who had watched his family and friends fight for survival since he was a child. My Sonic was mature, and had never even heard the word “were-hog” before.

But everything changed September 2013.

In the comics, something called the “Genesis Wave” (look at those puns, good job Archie) occurred. Sonic and friends went through some sort of time-space event, and they ended up in a totally new world. New characters, new memories, a lot of “Guys what happened?!” moments. You know, typical, comic book fare.

I was in my Junior year of undergrad at the time, so I didn’t pick up the issues at monthly intervals, but more in chunks. So when I got to this point my first thought was “Oh sweet! I can’t wait to see how they resolve this.” And then I went on with my Junior and most of Senior year.

A few months later, I picked up a HUGE chunk of issues, getting myself caught up, and expecting for everything to fix itself, at least to a point, as it always had the past two decades. Sure some characters would die, maybe parts of this reality would bleed into the actual one but, whatever. The Sonic comics are known to shake things up now and again, surely this was no different.

But oh, dear readers. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. Because that new reality was the ONLY reality they seemed to know. Characters who had been engaged now were “just friends”. Some character’s parents were completely different, even having different names. Other characters, dozens of them, were completely missing. Whole races and cultures had totally vanished. And as opposed to fighting oppression or dealing with domestic terrorism or all these huge, socially relevant issues I’d been used to… they were collecting rings.

RINGS, PEOPLE. RINGS.

I went to the only thing that everyone knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is the most reliable and unyieldingly truthful source of information: the internet. And what I found, I can safely say caused the most pain I have ever felt from a piece of fiction.

The Sonic the Hedgehog comics had been a part of a lawsuit. And Sonic, and thus the fans, had lost.

In a nutshell, one of the writers who had been with the comic in the first 15 years or so had left awhile back. Though details are fuzzy, supposedly he had recently come back onto the scene to lay claim to a lot of the original characters he created, who at this point were not only comic mainstays but absolutely INTEGRAL to the ongoing narrative. If any character he helped write appeared, he wanted a royalty. He also wanted total control over the fate/narrative of all characters he was originally involved with. Other sources say Archie and SEGA had a tantrum and just all of a sudden didn’t want to use any of his stuff. Whatever the case, a huge court battle ensued. And the results, I found, were not good. At all.

Every character he had created was no longer allowed to be used. In fact, it was decided it would be best if they were just flat out wiped from existence. SEGA also got involved with the ruling, and decided the comics that had for so long DOMINATED them in terms of quality needed to be taken down a peg. Well, a lot of pegs. Because part of the new “ruling” was also that the comics would focus on the storylines of the games. Oh and also main characters could never have romantic relationships anymore, Sonic himself could never show extreme emotion, and my personal favorite, “Sonic can’t lose.” He can face hardship, or go through tough times… but he can’t lose.

Saying I was upset by finding all this out is like saying having a passenger jet land on you might create a “boo-boo”. I was devastated. The “Genesis Wave” wasn’t a story arc. It was a reset button. It was a total erasure of 20 years of story. Two decades of characters, of triumphs, of hardships… gone. Evaporated. It was 15 years of my life as a die-hard fan taken away from me.

The comics are still going on, but not for me. I can’t even look at them, it’s actually too painful. Because those comics weren’t just my favorite series, they weren’t just what saved a character that was otherwise almost hopelessly lost for me. They’re what inspired me to start writing. If people ask me why I wanted to tell stories, what REALLY got me into the idea of creating worlds and characters, I need only to point toward the Freedom Fighters, on the planet Mobius, and their 20+ year struggle to hell and back to reclaim their home and families back from a mad scientist. Their journeys, the love they had for each other, what made them… well, them.

But because of money and greed, that’s all gone. It’s wiped away. It’s not something I’ll be able to share with my kids like I always wanted to. It’s not something I can get people into by telling them to go to the store and pick up the current issue. It’s gone. Yes, some of the characters still exist, but even they aren’t the same. They don’t even remember all the adventures they had. Everything is different. Everything is… lesser, now. And it’s not coming back.

So why did I share all this with you? Why did I use one of our Wyvern Wednesday’s to talk about a fictional world’s fate, when we as a company have no real connection to it? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s because I just wanted to vent. Maybe it’s because now that I’m writing more for Wyvern, this has been fresh on my mind recently. Or, maybe it’s because, in the end, I realize that the lesson is it’s out of my control. I realized the day my stories were gone they were never mine to begin with. They were a copyright, they were a property. It didn’t matter how loyal I was, how much that world inspired me. It was never mine. It was Archie’s, and SEGA’s, and a disgruntled former employee’s.

But you know what? I refuse to believe that. That world is mine. Those characters I’ve grown up with have always been mine. Properties of that world and universe may have a trademark on them, but the joy, the adventure, and the emotions those two decades of stories brought me… those will always be with me. And I think that’s the true lesson. The dollar gives, and the dollar takes… but stories themselves, are timeless. So I may not have the concrete, official ending to that world that I wanted, but you can bet your life I know how it ended in my head. I know who ended up with who. I know families were reunited… I know the Freedom Fighters won.

Why? Because Sonic made a writer out of me. And no court is taking that away.

Last Minute Plot Twist/Epilogue:

I’m so happy I get to write this part, guys.

In the post-blog writing depression that came after I finished this piece, I was perusing the internet to see if ANYTHING had been done to give fans of the old timeline closure. A Reddit forum put me onto the blog of the current Sonic writer, Ian Flynn, who has an ongoing (slow-moving, but ongoing) mission to chronicle for fans how he was going to end the run before Archie made him reset the timeline. There won’t be pictures, there probably won’t even be dialogue, but this guy in his free time is laying out the stories fans will never get to see officially. One day, I will get my closure.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to write the Vatican to see about making this man a saint.

Jonathan Wine, Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive.

 

The images in this post are not the property of or made in association with Wyvern. We do not claim ownership over any of these characters or photographs. 

Of Flowers and Flamethrowers

Headshot. Killing spree. Execution. If you were to hear these words on the local news, it would make your stomach turn at how awful and disgusting of a place the world can be. But throw those same three words into the context of a video game, and the tone changes entirely. Now you hear epic music, your guys and gals are cheering you on, and there’s a lot of holding down the Right Trigger button or pressing X to get that last glorious decapitation that will end a boss fight. If the video game police were a thing, let’s be real, we’d all be in jail for life, because the body count we’ve wracked up over the years would be enough to populate whole planets.

To say that video games aren’t inherently violent is a lie. There’s no getting around it, it’s a bald-faced, one hundred percent, Pinocchio-nose-growing lie. It’s a fantasy that 10 and under kids tell their mom so they can get that one game their older sibling plays. It’s as untrue as when Christopher Lambert told people in the old Mortal Kombat movie that “Mortal Kombat is not about death, it’s about life.”

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LOL, okay Raiden.

Now, contrary to how I’m starting this post, I’m not turning this into a “Video Games Cause Violence!” tirade. That statement has been proven wrong time and time again, and only has ANY credence to it when someone already has mental issues and needs serious help. I have shot, slashed, poisoned, crushed, and fatality-ed with the best of them, and I am a perfectly civil, well-balanced human being (in proofreading this for me, my wife got to this part and muttered “sometimes”. Thanks babe).

That statement, however, leads into the topic of my post. Over the years I have played, and still play, SO many violent games. I have killed SO many more bad guys than I could ever hope to count. I, like most gamers, am so desensitized to combat in games that my years of playing have conditioned me to the fact that if I am in a virtual world, and someone/something is moving toward me, I automatically assume it is my solemn duty to go total Rambo on it.

In the past year however, I discovered something about games that I had long, long forgotten. I had just finished Ninja Gaiden 3 (Razor’s Edge, not the terrible vanilla release fans don’t speak of), and was looking through my “to-do list library” for my next game. In case you don’t know the Ninja Gaiden series, let me sum it up for you: you’re a ninja, and you kill stuff a lot.

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The only game I’ve ever played where you can still finish someone off after you decapitate them.

It’s a superb, adrenaline-fueled, controller-smashing carnage fest that never let’s up until the credits roll. The bonkers ultraviolence is so in your face that even by the time I, a seasoned gaming grim reaper, was done… even I knew I needed a break.

As I was looking for something to get the sound of sword clashes and recently dismembered ninjas screaming for vengeance out of my head (oh yes, they come after you Monty Python’s Black Knight style), my eyes landed on something I had bought as a present for my wife: Super Mario Galaxy. Now, to give you some context, I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid and young teen. My parents were understandably leery of violence in games when I was young because the art and its ramifications were still fairly new, so I got used to playing games for a long time that were more “kid-friendly”. Sonic, Mario, Link, Samus, etc., are all old buddies of mine, but as I got older and was allowed to play more, they slowly got pushed further and further back, because now I could try all those shiny M rated titles that I’d heard legends of over the years. Fast-forward a bit and my Nintendo console is collecting dust except when me and my best friends need to settle an argument.

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And we all know there’s only one true way to settle an argument.

But some ancient, little voice of childhood nostalgia won me over that day. I found some new AA batteries to put in my Wii Mote, booted up the console, went through all the expected software updates, and started playing Galaxy.

You guys, it was so much fun.

It was SO much fun. And not just because Galaxy is a fantastic game (it is), or because it was the polar opposite of Ninja Gaiden (it really is), but because it reminded me of something that I had not felt in a video game in a long… long time: pure, unfiltered, unending wonder.

You remember that first time you crested the hill and saw Rapture in Bioshock? Or the very first time you synchronized a viewpoint then performed a Leap of Faith in Assassin’s Creed? Your first parkour run in Mirror’s Edge? That feeling of absolute innocence with the giraffes in the Last of Us? That’s what I was feeling playing Mario, only the whole time. Pure wonder and excitement. What would the next level entail? Would I be soaring through the stars, or swimming through the oceans, or riding an oversized toy train? Here I was, playing a game designed for kids, and physically smiling more than any other game has made me for a long, long time.

Now, this might seem like the end of this blog post, but it’s not. Because what I really want to talk about is a double-edged sword. We just got done with edge one: no matter how much you love being a badass and mowing down swarms of enemies, that does not mean you should forego the games that you used to play as a kid. To be honest, they are probably better designed, and more fun, than 90% of the stuff in your current play log.

The other edge, however, is a message to myself, as a designer, and to all the other game designers who read this: as tempting as it is, combat and violence do not have to be factors in all the games we make. In fact… it can make a game so much more meaningful when they’re excluded entirely. And if there is one glowing example of that statement, it’s this:
Flower

Within the past decade, I have beaten over 100 games. That’s not including mobile, multiplayer, or web-based games. Some of those games have individually taken over 75 hours to beat, and many have included multi-hour-long DLC that expands upon the story and game experience further. And yet the game pictured above, Flower, by Thatgamecompany, has touched me more than any of those 100+ could ever hope to. If Super Mario Galaxy rekindled that spark of wonder in me… Flower did the equivalent of lighting a bonfire for it.

The game takes, MAYBE, 2+ hours to complete. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well, this is Jonathan, so the story must be incredible.” Here’s the story summary: there really isn’t one.

I know. I KNOW. If you’ve read any of my previous stuff you’re probably worried I’ve been kidnapped and am writing that last statement as a call for help. But I’m completely serious: the most memorable game I’ve played… pretty much ever, didn’t have a single drop of actual narrative to it. And yet, the lessons you’re supposed to take from the game are so crystal clear it’s unbelievable: nature is beautiful, and wonder doesn’t need context.

Okay Jonathan, you’re saying, maybe there’s no concrete narrative, but maybe there’s an implied narrative like what Nerissa so eloquently discussed in our last post? Perhaps the character you play as is rife with symbolism and a sense of humanism that we can all relate to at an emotional level.

Nope, you play as the wind. Not the Spirit of the Wind, not the mystical demi-god of wind AuGUSTus (see what I did there?). You play, as the plain old, go-outside-and-your-hat-gets-blown-off wind.

What’s the point of the game? You go through various natural settings, picking up flower petals in your breeze. Each flower petal enhances the music a little bit, and by the end of the level a soothing orchestral score is accompanying you as hundreds of tiny little flower petals trail behind you, twisting and turning over fields and forests.

There’s no fighting, there’s no bosses. There’s you, nature, and an orchestra. It’s so intimate, and so peaceful, that you’ll all but forget you’re playing a video game… because you just shouldn’t get this much tranquility from a video game… should you?

And that is the beauty of Flower. Because it goes against every video game normative out there. It replaces high definition buildings with grass blowing in a field. It replaces the demon-slaying awesomeness of the heavy metal guitars in Doom with a piano and some subtle instruments. And it doesn’t need a rich narrative to convey its lesson that no matter how complex your combo system is, sometimes the greatest amounts of joy can be given by the simplest things.

Flower is only available on the PS3 or PS4. If you haven’t played it, I can’t suggest enough that you do. If you don’t have those consoles, one of your friends will. Spot them $10 and ask them to download it for you. You will not regret it.

As designers, and as players, it’s easy to fall into the trap of repetition. That’s actually the topic that Nerissa will be covering in her next post. It’s so easy for us to get used to that familiar sense of: play tutorial, go forth, shoot everything. We do it without thinking. And you know what, those kind of games are totally fine. I’m just as excited for the next Shadow of Mordor or Far Cry game as you are. I’m a gamer, bullets and mayhem are my bread-and-butter.

But… don’t let yourself believe that is the only thing that games have to offer. It’s not. You’ve heard me say before that games can put you into a world, and I almost always mean that in the context of a story, but if a game like Flower can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes… just the world is enough. We say that games let us experience things we could never experience in real life, like slaying a dragon or saving the world. But they can also let you see wonders. They can let you explore new places. They can let you fly.

… and I don’t care who you are. You could be a seasoned Call of Duty pro or a League champion, we’ve all wanted to fly. And games can give us that. Whether we’re in a fighter jet… or simply a flower petal, caught in a gust of wind.

Jonathan Wine, Founder and Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive, LLC.

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

All My (Virtual) Children

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it upwards of a thousand times: the secret narrative weapon of video games is the ability to put the player into the story. They’re seeing, hearing, and living the adventure before them, in a way that no other medium can match.

Since the first time a sentient piece of fungus told players their monarchal love interest was, in fact, in a different fortified structure, game developers have used in-game character relationships as boosts to keep players going. Sometimes you’re saving a loved one, avenging a loved one, redeeming a loved one from the sins that she unknowingly committed because you were actually the one who sinned and thus made her an accessory (Dante’s Inferno is a weird, weird game…), so on and so forth. Almost always, that “loved one” is a significant other. Not every time, mind you, and we’ll get to that, but that’s definitely the most common convention.

The thing about this particular type of connection is that the suspension of disbelief can only go so far. The majority of the players out there aren’t trying to save/avenge/redeem/whatever their digital objects of affection because they are emotionally in love with these characters. The players are doing it because they know their character is; and players want their protagonist to get their own happily ever after.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we can’t be emotionally invested or attached to a fictional character or their relationships. Quite the contrary. I jumped through so many hoops in Dragon Age: Origins for my Warden to end up happily ever after with Morrigan that it was ridiculous… but that’s just it. I did it for my WARDEN, not me. If it was actually me in that world, I don’t think Morrigan and I would have lasted too long. She doesn’t exactly have the personality that would win Mom and Dad over.

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“What are you talking about, I am smiling.”

But because of the narrative that I chose to pursue with my character, it was a perfect match. All of BioWare’s games demand that same level of commitment when you’re trying to pursue a successful, and lasting, romantic attachment to a character… but in the end, it’s the romantic attachment of one character to another character. You’re setting up your happily ever after for your Warden, or your Inquisitor, or Shepard…not yourself. That’s how it should be. If you’re actually, deeply in love with a video game character, and you’re not the main character of the movie Her, please seek help.

Side note: In editing this blog post, Nerissa and I realized we have referenced a BioWare game in pretty much every other post we’ve written. We are not just a BioWare fan club, we promise. That being said. BioWare, if you guys are reading this and you’d like to pay us to be a BioWare fan club, we are 100% down. Anyway, back on track.

The thing is, most game developers that aren’t BioWare, or even CD Projekt Red in the latest Witcher titles, have realized they’re never going to truly rope in a player beyond a certain emotional point without a ton of extra work. So as opposed to trying to craft a rich, meaningfully romantic narrative around the characters, many developers often default to a tried and true, albeit extremely lazy and overdone, trope:

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“I’m emotionally complex.”

It’s sex. If the image above didn’t convey that clearly enough, I’m talking about sex.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place in games for sex and sex appeal. I’ll even admit using that picture of Ivy from Soul Calibur is a little below-the-belt considering she’s just a side character in a fighting game series, not even a romantic interest like we’ve been discussing… but come on, can you blame me for using that picture to make this point? Looking at that, you really have to wonder who’s the better fighter: Ivy, or the poor strap that’s hanging on for dear life.

The trait of our industry I’m cheekily poking fun at is the particularly bad habit of using sex as nothing more than (usually very objectifying) eye candy, or in the case of romantic interests: an incredibly lazy way of getting you interested in the characters ending up together. Unlike the comparatively few games out there that work to make you like the characters themselves, far too many are just hoping they can entice you with the potential prospect of some flashed skin or awkwardly animated character models playing poke the polygons.

And when it comes to romantic relationships, that’s about as far as players can get with games. You either care about the relationship for the sake of the characters, or you have some very lustful expectations for their immediate future. But what about non-romantic relationships. What about something like… oh, I don’t know, parenthood? Can a game make you feel some genuine emotions typically involved with that? I will argue that yes, it can.

I am not a father. I plan to be, and that’s a journey I’m sure my wife and I will be taking in the next few years or so, but I am not a dad yet. But I’ll be darned if there aren’t a few games I’ve played, particularly two, that very smartly tapped into the emotional part of my brain that has that already in me.

SPOILER WARNING: Just to warn you, I am going to spoil the living DAYLIGHTS out of the Last of Us and the BioShock series. So if you haven’t played these masterpieces, would you kindly exit out of this window, proceed to your nearest console or PC, and get to work. If you have played these games, I just made you chuckle.

Within the first half hour, The Last of Us makes it very clear we are not in for a happy ride. You get front row seats to the apocalypse, see a ton of civilians meet their very scary demise, and what was that last one… oh yeah.

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I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING.

The death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, is probably the most gut-wrenchingly painful video game intro I’ve ever played. If you have a heart, you will cry. If you don’t have a heart, well that’s a pretty big medical red flag, and you should seek help.

The scene sets the tone for the rest of the game, and in particular, the emotional state Joel is in for a good part of it. He’s devastated, he’s hardened, and couldn’t care less about the fate of the world. But a little bit later into the game, he’s charged with taking care of a young teen named Ellie, and the relationship they form is one of the most meaningful and realistic in video game history. Joel comes to terms with Sarah’s death, and the father in him finds new life in taking care of Ellie.

The two girls couldn’t be any different. In the short time we have with Sarah, she seems sweet. She’s innocent, kind, and sentimental. Ellie, on the other hand, swears like a sailor, is short-tempered, and will stab anyone who wants to harm her right in the heart. But in the time we spend with her, we see that Ellie does have a softer side. She’s vulnerable, and she does need someone to be there for her, and that person ends up being Joel.

The great thing is, because of the way Naughty Dog constructs it, you don’t just want to protect Ellie because Joel does… you just want to protect her. Period. See, Naughty Dog gets you invested in Ellie through Joel, but unlike the romantic relationships we talked about earlier, the buck doesn’t stop with that. She might be leaning on Joel for support (and vice versa), but she’s leaning on you, the player too. You care about this girl, and that’s the genius. You care. Not you as Joel – you. After the hell she has been through, and the hell you have been put through AS Joel with Sarah’s death, when this girl puts her faith in you, by the end of the game you are willing to, almost literally, go to war to ensure that she comes out okay. Joel is still the representation of you in the game, yes, but you aren’t just doing what you do for Joel. You’re doing it for Ellie, because Ellie deserves it. The devotion Joel develops for Ellie as the story progresses is funneled so smoothly to us that we barely even notice it, but by the end of the game you cannot help but feel an obligation to take care of her… no matter the cost.

joel

Let’s be honest, none of us even tried to see if we could spare this dude.

And by the end of the game, after an ending I can only describe as “overwhelmingly thought-provoking” without getting completely off topic, I realized what Naughty Dog had done. They had tapped into my emotions by making me feel very, very real feelings for a fictional character. They tapped into an emotion all of us should have: wanting to protect an innocent life. In particular an innocent life that is looking to us for protection. In this case, our kid. It didn’t matter if Ellie was “real” or not, because of the way the narrative was constructed. When we were playing that game, our priority was protecting her. It was to help her keep going. And that’s awesome.

ellie

And then RIGHT when we had finally stopped crying, they released THIS.

 

Ellie tapped into the parental side of me that I imagine I’ll experience mostly in the first two decades or so of my children’s lives: he need to protect them, to shelter them, from the dangers and darkness in the world. What BioShock did though… what they tapped into was the side of parenting that I think is probably the scariest part of all: not being able to protect your children, because it’s time they faced the world on their own.

The whole BioShock franchise has so many themes and metaphors for parents and parenting, it could give the Andy Griffith Show a run for its money. In the first game, you play as a protagonist who has been unknowingly brainwashed since birth to go on a rampaging Terminator-esque killing spree to take out none other than, surprise, your own father.

bioshock

Who’s da good murder baby? WHO’S DA GOOD WITTLE MURDER BABY?

 

BioShock 2, though a lot of people give it flack, has a phenomenal final act that deals with, amongst other things, a young child who wants nothing more than to feel loved by a parental figure… and then also proceeds to go on a vengeful spree of destruction. But this time we’re totally cool with it and it’s justified – we’re not just along for the ride because we’re brainwashed. It’s complicated.

Finally though, the real kicker for this franchise is Infinite. And particularly, in my opinion, the gem of all video game companion characters: Elizabeth Comstock.

elizabeth

So. Many. Emotions.

 

Now, I told you I was going to have spoilers here, so I’m going to spill this right out the gate: Elizabeth is your protagonist, Booker’s, daughter, but neither you nor he know it until the very end of the game. See, Booker had gambling debts, and like any upstanding citizen, to pay them off he sold his infant daughter to some scientists who came knocking on his door saying they’d make all his problems go away if they could have the girl. Turns out, these particular scientists were from a parallel universe, where Booker is actually regarded as a Prophet and is looking for a successor, so who better than his own flesh and blood… sort of. Anyway, Booker decides that selling children really isn’t the most morally pure option, and tries to save his daughter, but doesn’t succeed. The beginning of the game is decades later, when Booker has been so eaten apart with guilt he’s repressed this event entirely. However, when he and Elizabeth’s paths cross again, he’s almost immediately drawn to care for her and protect her. And, like with Joel, we feel the exact same emotions. But here’s the kicker with Elizabeth… we can’t. At least not for long. Elizabeth is a grown woman, and no matter how hard we try to keep the bubbly innocence she has when we first meet her intact, a world of despair and death very quickly takes its toll on her. Gone is the sweet girl who was excited to see the sights of the world. Gone is the girl who laughed as she danced with complete strangers on a pier. Very quickly, a world of violence and corruption turns Elizabeth into a hardened, stone-faced woman who loses faith in the world she used to dream about living in… and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch unfold.

I won’t completely destroy the ending of Infinite, or the absolute must-play conclusion of Elizabeth’s story in the Burial at Sea DLC’s, but I’ll give away enough to make my point. No matter what we do to try to make Elizabeth okay again, no matter what we do to protect her, to take care of her, to try and let her live a happy, care-free life… it doesn’t work. The ending of Elizabeth’s tale left me completely speechless, and numb inside. Because, like with Ellie, I wanted to protect this daughter figure. I knew it was my job to watch out for her, but in the end, I couldn’t. And it was devastating.

As I said with Last of Us, though, that’s the genius. Anyone who plans to be a parent knows it won’t always (or… you know ever) be easy. At the end of the day, there’s going to be a time when they’re driving off to college, and we’re waving from the front door. The same door we waited for their bus, the same door where we watched them head out for their first date, and the same door we can only hope and pray we’ll be able to greet them at for many decades to come. Watching Elizabeth’s choices beyond my control was extremely tough, but also incredibly real. Because like a real kid, at some point… you have to let them go. You have to let them make a choice, and you did your best to ensure they’ll make the right ones, and be okay. Sometimes they will… and sometimes they won’t.

Video games are a way to throw someone into a story. To make them experience it firsthand. We all know they aren’t real, we all know that when we turn off the TV the characters don’t know it, but stories have a way of getting in your head. Fictional characters can touch us so much because we relate to what they’re enduring, even if it’s just a metaphor for things that have happened or will happen to us, or our loved ones. If there are any kinds of stories I want us at Wyvern to be known for in the years to come, it’s ones that can grip you like these can. Ones that use fiction to speak to your heart. Ones make you recall emotions that you have felt, or will feel, in your real life. So hug your loved ones tighter, and watch out for them… be they Ellie, Elizabeth, or the much, much more important figures in your life that they represent.

Jonathan Wine, Creative Director, Wyvern Interactive 2017

 

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

Why I Do This

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Jonathan Wine, during his time studying at George Mason University.

You know the feeling you get when a song is stuck in your head? You could be driving your car, sitting at work, brushing your teeth, anything… and out of nowhere that beat comes into your mind, and you find yourself singing the chorus, and maybe the one full verse you actually know? Everyone goes through that. Maybe it’s the newest catchy thing on the radio, a Disney song, or something you just heard off a new Pandora recommendation.

Imagine now though that instead of a beat… what your mind constantly calls up is a world. An entire world, brimming with scenery, cultures, and history, and instead of lyrics you get a cast of characters with their own trials, victories, personalities and everything else that goes into defining the word “being.” These don’t pop into your brain from JUST hearing something though; maybe they come from seeing a screenshot of a far-away place. Maybe they come from a sentence, or a tone, or the most powerful instigator of all: an experience. If you’re imagining that…Welcome to what every moment is like inside my head.

I’ve always been a storyteller, though I didn’t always know it. For a while I thought I was going to be a comic book illustrator, but I quickly realized I cared much more about Batman’s motivations, his intricacies, and how he was going to take down the next villain than the style of his suit or the pose he was striking overlooking Gotham on some rooftop. Once I locked into this, I figured out even faster I had to tell stories through games. Not because I’m a big gamer (I really wasn’t until college), but because the game can totally get the “tune” out of my head: I can make every corner of that entire world, I can bring those characters to life in all their glory… I can put you IN the story.

I don’t want to get the tune out because it bothers me either; quite the contrary. It’s A, because I REALLY want to experience them myself. If you can find me someone who doesn’t get excited by seeing their work in front of them, I’ll show you someone who needs to find a new career. And B, most importantly, because I know I can touch people with them. I know I can inspire them. More on that later.

The title of this post though, is “Why I Do This.” And that’s the reason. Because I want to enhance people’s lives through stories. But the title also means something else. “Why do I keep doing something that’s going to take so much back-tracking and be this insanely frustrating and difficult?” (You can see why I went with the former title.) The answer to that one is thanks to two individuals, my “two” best friends. You’ll understand later why that has quotation marks around it.

I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, and starting that Fall semester I knew I would be living on campus at George Mason University, a Junior in their Computer Game Design program. I was beyond excited, but I was also nervous. I love my parents dearly, and I knew that leaving them would be tough (my dad has a medical condition that makes mobility difficult, and I had been trying to help my family any way I could), and my brain was racing to figure out more and more ways to guilt me, scare me, and convince me going was a bad idea. My parents were excited for me to go…But as the calendar days got crossed off, I got more and more apprehensive. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if they REALLY needed me at home when something went down? What if I had picked the wrong career this whole time and everyone had 400 page scripts in their heads, and I was just being pretentious thinking I had the right to follow up on it?

It took my best friend, dragging me outside by practically my ear, to set me straight.

I love this dude, and he and I have been best friends since we were 7. So by the time we had gotten around to college age, we were at that point where we didn’t only know just what to say, we knew exactly how it had to be said. After a very long, emotional conversation filled with analogies, sarcasm, tears and laughs, he looked me dead in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder, and said with an unwavering confidence: “Jonathan, we’ve been best friends for almost two decades. I know you… J-Man, you were born to do this. Now go do it. Go tell those stories.” I inhaled, nodded, and was unpacking in my dorm before I knew it.

The next two+ years of getting the degree went by like a flash. I met people who are now some of my dearest friends, I got engaged to my high school sweetheart (now wife, might I add), I found an absolutely amazing team, and of course founded Wyvern officially. It was great…and very overwhelming. 

I would be lying if I said some days I hadn’t almost lost track of why I was there. The passion never died, and the stories were always still in my head, but some days those got buried by homework, projects, exams, wedding plans, and realizations that I hadn’t eaten in 10 hours. Life always manages to find a way to fill itself up with stress and anxiety, and mine was no exception. By senior year, I was a wreck, and sometimes the only way to cool my brain off on a school night was to play (not make) a game. But ironically, the thing that rejuvenated everything again, the thing that pushed me back into the most passionate mindset I know how to have… was just that. A video game.

I am not afraid to tear up if something touches me. I’m very comfortable with that part of myself. I will let loose a few floodgates at movies, shows, books, games, great pieces of music…you name it. So in my last semester, when my roommate saw me biting my lip at a particularly “bromantic” scene in a game, he probably just thought I was being me. But it went so, so much deeper than that.

Just to give warning: very mild spoilers ahead for Mass Effect 3.

In the very final act of ME3, you get a respite before the final battle. Like any game, this

Garris Vakarian

Garrus Vakarian, Mass Effect 3 (Copyright Bioware 2016, Wyvern does not claim any ownership of this character or the games it is affiliated with)

 

point is made to let you make any tweaks on your character, make any final upgrades, save your game, etc. But because Bioware is amazing, it is also one long, beautifully crafted goodbye. Commander Shepherd, your character, has the opportunity to have a last few personal, intimate moments with every member of the Normandy crew that has become such a tight-knit family. It’s a really peaceful, wonderful set of interactions… one of which I was totally unprepared for. One of the most organic aspects of the Mass Effect series is how every person that plays it always has a different favorite character, different favorite moment, etc. But for me, my boy was always Garrus Vakarian. He was funny, he was willing to get in my face… and he always reminded me of… someone. I guess he just had one of “those” personalities. As for a favorite moment, the one I’m about to list hit me harder than any other art medium ever has. It defined EVERYTHING that a game should be for me, and most importantly, helped me remember what made me…me.

Again, without getting too spoiler heavy, the conversation with my Turian buddy started off sarcastic and quippy…until it didn’t. Out of nowhere, Garrus throws out a line akin to “I don’t know if human heaven and Turian heaven are the same place, but if it is, meet me at the bar.”

Thanks Garrus, here come the misty eyes.

But he wasn’t done, oh no. He had one final gut-punch waiting for me. Garrus looked at my character, smiled, and said: “Oh and Shepherd, forgive the insubordination, but this old friend has an order for you… Go out there. And give them hell. You were born to do this.”

I was too stunned to cry. Then I wasn’t. I lost it. I sat in my dorm, and the conversation two years ago came at me like a flood. I had to put down my controller and just sit for a while to take it all in. “You were born to do this.”

That familiarity I had always felt with this video game character. This 3D character model with some programming and voicing acting attached to it… it wasn’t just my best friend in the game. It had been my best friend. I re-analyzed every character I had really felt like I had grown close to in my time in the Mass Effect universe, and started connecting dots. Tali reminded me a ton of my little sister. Wrex reminded me of my roommate. The list goes on and on…

Why do I do this? Why did I choose the career path that has been proven to be one of the most stressful, and one of the hardest to break in to? Why did I choose to go the route of an indie/start-up, when I know that makes everything way down the road even harder and scarier? It’s because of those stories, those worlds, those characters, and those moments in my head. It’s because that blast of emotion I felt when a weird bird alien spoke to me.

I want to reach out and touch people. I want to pump them up. I want to be able to motivate them to pursue their dreams, I want them to get the tunes out of their head…whatever they are. Because stories can do that; they can make you keep going. They can make you ace your senior project. They can make you graduate with every top honor the university has to offer. They can make you force yourself to balance your social life, work life, and dreams all at once. I want to tell stories because I can’t think of a better to touch the lives of a million people, some without them even realizing it.

And perhaps simplest of all…because two people, whom I respect very much, told me I was born to. And that’s good enough for me.

-Jonathan Wine, Founder and Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive, LLC

Team Interview: Studio Head & Producer Jonathan Wine

IMG_20140704_205655 (1)Jonathan Wine has a charisma about him and a zeal for life that is palpable, whether he is cracking jokes with friends or leading a design meeting. Tall, charming, and confident, Wine has a sense of control about him and spiky hair like that of his favorite character – Sonic the Hedgehog. Wine is now the founder and head of the studio he’s talked about for years, and though he is a game designer by trade, Wine is a storyteller at heart, and is extremely passionate about creating characters a player can relate to. When asked what his dream job would be, he laughs, and quips, “I’m here, aren’t I?” And he is. Wyvern Interactive is just beginning, but Wine and his team are taking no prisoners as they enter the industry. Wine’s senior project for George Mason University is West, an action-adventure game set in L. Frank Baum’s Oz that will make you question everything you thought to be true about his characters. Creating a character begins, for Wine, with one question: what drives the character? The main character for West, Eledora, is driven by revenge; so Wine made her a brutal, efficient fighter. “She was raised as a warrior, so she understands honor, but her anger blinds her,” he explains. “From that, there’s much more we can develop.” His process involves delving into the character’s psyche, determining his or her mental state and the reasons behind his/her actions. This then leads to examining the character’s past. “Character development is like planting a tree,” Wine muses. “Take a seed, let it grow a little bit, and watch where it goes.”

WYVERN: Do you have a plan when you create, or do you run with your muse?
JW: It’s a little of both actually. I’ll typically have an idea of what direction, or destination I want the story and characters to go, but no sure-fire way of getting from A to point B. That’s when it gets fun though, because I can just let my mind wander and allow the characters to get there naturally.

WYVERN: What, or who, influences your work?
JW: I have so many influences. Stories and characters from books, movies, shows, other games, plays… I was raised around stories. My dad would be in the living room watching westerns and Henry V, and my mom would be watching Die Hard and Alien in the sitting room. I had a great blend growing up, and I can’t really say anything I’ve done was inspired by just one type of thing.

WYVERN: Do you listen to music while you create? If so, what kind?
JW: Constantly, it’s part a critical part of my process. As for what kind, it depends what I’m writing. If need to write a scene with emotion, usually something with violins, soft vocals, and piano. But if I need something that gets people amped, or needs to convey attitude, that’s when the volume is set to max and the guitars and synths come out.

WYVERN: Is there anything you find particularly challenging about your work?
JW: There’s always a bit of a stress when it comes to writing characters that people will relate to. I try to make these characters as real, relatable, and endearing (when it fits) as possible, but it’s always interesting to me when I get my team or my friends to analyze those characters. They [my friends or team] may get close to them for a completely different reason than I expected, or may be turned off because of something I didn’t think about. Writing a character that will be loved overall is a huge challenge… but it’s also really fun. And it’s so rewarding when all of the pieces finally fall into place.

WYVERN: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to create than others?
JW: I tend to put everything I’ve got into character deaths, and I’m super hard on myself about them. There’s such a fine line between a death that touches you and a death that… well, is so cheesy it just makes you laugh. If I’m not at least tearing up when I kill off one of my characters, I’ll scrap the whole scene and write it again.

WYVERN: Clearly you’re a bit of a perfectionist. How do you feel when you complete a project?
JW: Really nervous, and I’ll check it five or six times to make sure it’s actually finished. Then after that, I’ll feel guilty, because I’m not working on it anymore. My brain has to be totally reassured that it’s acceptable to relax.

WYVERN: Do you let a project stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it, or work straight through?
JW: I will absolutely let stuff sit sometimes. If something is going like a well-oiled, very fast-paced machine, then I think that the best thing to do is take a step back and come back to the project clear-headed. It’s better for you, better for the team, and it’s definitely better for the finished product.

WYVERN: Do you have any strange artistic habits (like standing on your head or writing in the shower)?
JW: I tend to have conversations either with, or as, my characters. Out loud. That’s provided some interesting moments for people walking by.

WYVERN: Do you drink coffee while you’re creating something? Why?
JW: Only when I absolutely have to [laughs]. I’ll have a cup for leisure now and then, but to keep me awake or to keep me going… only when I really, really need it. I’m not a fan of depending on caffeine.

WYVERN: What is your favorite movie and why?
JW: While they’re by no means the best movies I’ve ever seen, I adore the Fast and Furious movies. Not because of the cars, not because of the action, but because the main core of characters is such a close family. That resonates with me so much. You can see the love that each character, each actor, has for another. It’s inspiring.

WYVERN: What advice would you give to your younger self?
JW: Be more appreciative, especially to your parents. All high-schoolers are going to be brats to an extent, but I really wish I could go back and punch younger me sometimes. I have such a wonderful relationship with my parents, and I wish I made it easier for them as a kid.

WYVERN: Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
JW: Barring all of the serious answers like faith, family and friends that inspire me every day, I’d say my biggest inspiration Sonic the Hedgehog. My very first video game was Sonic the Hedgehog, and he pushed me off the deep end into the world of video games. He was such a punk but he was so, so cool. And I loved that. When I was a little older, I got into the Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog series and all its spin-offs. I still read them, too. There was always something about the Sonic world that just meshed with me. I was so invested in every character and I felt like I knew each one personally. Before I knew it, I was thinking to myself “you know, I want to create a world like this. I want to create a world people will invest in as much as I do this one.” And now we’re here.

WYVERN: Who are your real-life heroes?
JW: My parents. Absolutely, if not for any other reason than because they put up with me as a teenager [laughs]. More seriously, they taught me so much about hard work, trial and error, sticking to your guns… I owe everything to them.

WYVERN: Moving away from family: name another entity – or entities – that you feel supports you.
JW: My fiancé, my close friends, of course my team, my professors. While there are always going to be the people that say you can’t do something, I’ve learned its best to just chuck them out of your mind. Focus, hone in, on the people that support you instead.

WYVERN: What couldn’t you do without?
JW: My loved ones. My family, my friends, my team… I feed off the people around me. They inspire me. They push me to do better.