Minding the many gaps of game development with Ian Dallas, creator of Sony and Giant Sparrow's upcoming The Unfinished Swan.
The first time I met Ian Dallas was at a mutual friend's farewell party in Los Angeles, earlier this year. "Hey, are you guys talking about bird games?" he asked, having overheard a few of us chatting about the sensation of flight in Thatgamecompany's Journey. Moments later I found myself in a separate conversation, in which Dallas explained the various complications behind simulating flight in games, particularly the flight of birds. Though he couldn't talk about it at the time, this was a matter of days before the unveiling of his company's first game, The Unfinished Swan, at a Sony press event.
"The thing that fascinates me about birds is that they're the last bit of nature that's able to cohabitate with us," Dallas explains several months later, of his ongoing fascination with all things feathered. "At the same time, they're both familiar and a little terrifying. It's basically surrealism: the thing that's familiar to you, but also pretty crazy when you look at a little closer." Though he claims not to be an expert, birds have essentially become his muse, something of an allegory in his vision for developing video games. "I think that's a great thing for art to do - to really exaggerate all of these differences, but also mirror real experiences in the real world."
We're at the offices of Giant Sparrow, the company Dallas founded some three years prior. Giant Sparrow inhabits the space inside Sony's Santa Monica studio that not too long ago belonged to the aforementioned Thatgamecompany. The team also enjoys the same three-game publishing deal as TGC, which ensures Sony will have right of first refusal on Giant Sparrow's next two projects - meaning the company will quite likely be stationed here for the next six or seven years. It's a rare, incubator-like arrangement: While Sony has published a steady stream of indie-developed PSN titles (the PixelJunk titles and Sound Shapes, to name some), Giant Sparrow is now only the second independent studio to enjoy in-house first-party status.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Unfinished Swan does not involve the flight of any birds. Well, not in that sense of the term, anyway: Its bird in question has escaped a painting by the late mother of the protagonist, a young boy named Monroe, and leads Monroe on a wild goose chase through an idiosyncratic, dreamlike world. It's an experience very much about the exploration of architecture by way of paint splatter, a fairy tale about discovery and fragmentary narrative in the form of a game.
True to form, it begins with a sizeable dose of surreal abstraction: a completely white screen, with no geometry, directive, or sense of space whatsoever. Several button presses later, you eventually work out that you're able to throw balls of black paint in any direction, which splatter convincingly on the white walls and ground, thereby revealing the world around you at a pace you determine. It's a simple, intuitive mechanic, and sits at the very core of the experience; in fact, the first several minutes of the game are almost exactly what they were when Dallas concocted a short prototype in grad school (a prototype that Sony apparently liked enough to sign him to his three-game deal).
"I think [it was] the fact that you could play it, and within two seconds you could understand what the game was about," says Dallas, on what sold Sony on the project. "It was something that was novel, but also intuitive enough that you could imagine what some of the rest of the game would be like. I expect that I'll never have another idea that has those qualities - [something] that's completely unique, but you can put it on the side of a bus and people will get it."
In a life just a few years prior to the one he lives now, Ian Dallas moved to Los Angeles in hopes of chasing down his dream of becoming a writer. "I came out to do TV writing for sitcoms and animated shows," he says. "I always knew I'd eventually go into video games, but I thought in college that I would do it as a writer." As it turned out, however, there simply weren't any interesting writing jobs in games: "And that hasn't changed. The way that games are made, by the time a writer gets brought in, it's so far along that you're just there wordsmithing, but you're not really, like ... creating."
And so began Dallas' short-lived career writing for television. He started on a middling UPN sitcom called Rock Me Baby ("It's amazing how many smart people work on even the lowliest sitcom," he says of the experience), and eventually found his way into a writing gig onSpaceballs: The Animated Series. Here, he was handed an episode to write on his own, more or less, and put together a script that parodied the original Tron movie.
"I JUST LIKED BEING IN THE ROOM PITCHING JOKES."
"I handed it in," says Dallas, "and some time later got a note from Mel Brooks saying, 'Can we make it more like Grand Theft Auto?'" Though it eventually aired during the show's first (and only) season, Dallas never received a word of feedback, from Brooks or anyone else.
Along the road, he spent time writing for Comedy Central's animated series Drawn Together, as well as another sitcom called Help Me Help You, which lasted only a bit longer than he did on it. "The thing that really tipped for me was when I looked around the room and realized that I didn't want anyone's job," he recalls. "There was no one I would rather be ... and I was just a writer's assistant. I didn't even want to move up to writer - I just liked being in the room pitching jokes."
He says the common sentiment that "writing is a grind" rang true for him, and that ultimately he "didn't love it enough to compensate for that." He decided instead to go back to school, in order to pursue his original goal of making games. (The summer before grad school, he landed what would seem to have been the ideal writing gig: at Telltale Games, working on the Sam & Max episodic titles. Though he says it was "a great time," and felt like a good merger of his skills, it wasn't enough to sway him.)
It was at the University of Southern California's Interactive Media MFA program that the gears really began to churn. Dallas had done graphic design work in the past, and knew how to get around various software tools. He'd made some of his own interactive bits and bobs - a map of NYC, for instance, which plotted the shortest distance between two points without going past a Starbucks - and by this time had learned enough about graphics programming to get black paint splattering in a white world. "In grad school I was mainly interested in how you move around spaces," he says. "I did a lot of prototypes of first-person kinds of experiences, and The Unfinished Swan was one of them."
The bubble of academia allowed Dallas the proper headspace to think conceptually, and before long the idea revealed itself in the most mundane of moments. "I was walking up the stairs of my apartment," says Dallas. "I was looking at the geometry of it, and I just had this idea that it was all white, and that I was throwing paint at it. And that was it."
Dallas began work on a prototype, and after a year of iteration, entered it into the "Sense of Wonder Night" at 2009's Tokyo Game Show. His submission was accepted, and greeted with interest from multiple publishers; shortly thereafter, Dallas signed a contract with Sony and dropped out of grad school. (His time at USC was fruitful: In addition to The Unfinished Swan, it was during this period that he came up with the ideas for what he suspects will become his next two games.)
Looking back, Dallas sees some commonality between comedy writing and developing the kinds of games wants to make. "Comedy is almost invariably about surprise. You have this idea in your head about, say, the way people should act in a government bureau ... and then all the sudden it's The Ministry of Silly Walks. The games that I'm interested in also do that - they play with your expectations."
Does he lament his unfinished career as a comedy writer? Not particularly. "I really like learning, and there's no learning to be done in writing a TV show," he says. "With games, there's all kinds of stuff that I'm interested in learning, and get to learn - in terms of how you make games, and all the little things that come with it. If you've got a butterfly in a game and you wonder why their wings shimmer the way they do, that sends you off to all these Wikipedia pages and sites. I just think [developing] games is so much more about learning. You're just constantly rewarded for knowing new stuff."
In a way, Dallas thinks of games as a way to underwrite his own research. "With The Unfinished Swan, I was interested in the question of, 'How do you evoke a sense of wonder?' This [game] was me thinking about that for three years." Indeed, the relatively freeform period of ideation at USC has been followed by a much more concentrated period of execution at Giant Sparrow. "For the last two years or so, I've pretty much done nothing else in my life," he says. "It's like I just live here. And part of that is that there's a lot of work to do, but more so, it's that even if I go home, I'm still just thinking about the game ... so I might as well be here working on it."
Perhaps the most common advice for aspiring writers is to "write what you know," and Dallas appears to have taken this advice to heart in crafting The Unfinished Swan's narrative. The world you explore in the game is the work of a megalomaniacal King and his magic paintbrush, which essentially allowed Dallas to create whatever he wanted.
In his early days - what Dallas call "his Salvador Dali phase" - the King builds eccentric castles and labyrinths, which serve as the first levels of the game. His styles change over time, meaning the experience essentially charts the historical progress of the King - the work of an artist over the course of his lifetime, and the work of a mad man expanding his empire. In time, you learn that the King has a history of not finishing anything - which explains why all of the areas you explore have been abandoned by the time you reach them.
"THE KING IS ABSOLUTELY ME - IT'S PRETTY ONE-TO-ONE. HE'S THE GUY WITH A LOT OF CRAZY IDEAS, WHO DOESN'T NECESSARILY TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE FEELINGS OF OTHER PEOPLE AS HIS FIRST THOUGHT."
So just how much of Dallas is in this game? "Oh, a disturbing amount," he tells me. "The King is absolutely me - it's pretty one-to-one. He's the guy with a lot of crazy ideas, who doesn't necessarily take into account the feelings of other people as his first thought. The King is a huge asshole - he's a hyper version of me. There are some people whose first thought is, 'Is this going to inconvenience other people? Is everyone cool with this?' And they do well as social workers or whatever, places where you need this strong sense of empathy for people that are not necessarily empathetic people.
"But as a game designer, and as a human being," he says, "there's an interesting tension to me where a lot of the most interesting ideas I have are things that may have been sort of inconveniencing other people, and that I wouldn't necessarily have had if I was less of an asshole about some things." He pauses, for perhaps the first time today. "There's a balance there, between having interesting, creative work, but also not being a total asshole." Indeed, the King is a manifestation of the ability to run wild with crazy ideas, with no constraints whatsoever - and that it's not necessarily a good thing.
"THERE'S A BALANCE THERE, BETWEEN HAVING INTERESTING, CREATIVE WORK, BUT ALSO NOT BEING A TOTAL ASSHOLE."
The difference between himself and the King, Dallas says, is self-awareness. "I am not a psychopath," he says. "I will go on record saying that I am not a psychopath. The King is a bit more of a psychopath." For Dallas, though, many of the most interesting characters are - fictional and otherwise. "Don Quixote is a psychopath, but there's also a lot of Cervantes in Don Quixote. Oh, and I have a soft spot for dictators."
He brings up the example of Saparmurat Niyazov, former president of Turkmenistan, who wrote a book called Ruhnama, which essentially detailed the way he believed people should live - his personal manifesto, of sorts. The president was so pleased with his work that he made questions about the book part of his country's official driver's test, ensuring that anyone who wanted a license had to read the book. "There's something so horrible about that, but at the same time also sort of funny, and childlike, and there's an element of - you kinda wish you could do that," says Dallas. "I just think those characters are really interesting. There's this really horrible, repellent aspect to them, but also a very human side. Everyone has good intentions, outside of Disney movies."
In terms of personal heroes, Dallas points to Werner Herzog, Terry Gilliam, and Jim Henson. "All those guys, I really admire the total output of their lives," he says. Herzog, who gives semi-regular talks in Los Angeles, seems particularly inspirational: Dallas says he's "kind of religious" about seeing him speak every year. "It's just really nice to hear him talk. There's something about his voice ... you get the sense that he's just really lived a lot. And he himself, I'm sure, is a little bit of an asshole about things, but that's part of his character."
It's unclear whether Dallas puts the advice into practice, but he's learned a thing or two from Herzog: "The trick to being an asshole is to give people fair warning about it," he says. "You can't surprise people that you're an asshole about it. It's more like, 'OK this is just Herzog being difficult about this thing because he's really pathological about making sure that things are the way he wants them to be.'"
When asked about the several high-level staff departures at Thatgamecompany, which took place almost immediately after the release ofJourney, Dallas says he's taken something of a different approach to management. "From what I understand, TGC had a much more consensus-oriented process, where a lot of the decisions were arrived at by group discussion, and everyone wanted to make sure they had their input," he says.
"I DON'T NECESSARILY LOVE COLLABORATING ... SO I TRIED TO SOLVE THAT EARLY ON BY HIRING PEOPLE WITH SIMILAR DESIRES."
"We're a bit more ... we sorta operate under fiefdoms, where people kinda have the thing that they do, and it's my job to make sure everyone is going in the right direction. I don't really like being in long discussions with people. I'd rather have things be a little simpler and clearer, and even if it's less collaborative, by having people own areas of the game. I don't necessarily love collaborating ... so I tried to solve that early on by hiring people with similar desires.".
One area where this philosophy perhaps didn't quite go according to plan was in the animation department. Dallas tried to hire an animator for a long time, but never found someone he was entirely satisfied with. "That's part of why the game doesn't have a lot of animation in it," he says. "I would prefer that we had a lot more animation in the game than we ended up having." He hopes to take matters into his own hands with the next project, on which he plans do a significant amount of the animation himself.
Still, Dallas says the minimal animation - combined with the game's complete lack of combat, or even enemies - very much helped define The Unfinished Swan. "As a player, [having enemies] gives you something to think about - it makes it more gamey. We certainly had to fight to keep the game interesting without a lot of the stuff that's interesting normally in games."
He says he didn't fully appreciate how significant it was to have enemies in a game, for a number of reasons: things moving onscreen, giving the player something to focus on, advancing the game forward as tougher enemies are presented. "It's all this stuff that you get for free, that otherwise you really have to work at to find. Or, you just end up with a game like we did, where it's fairly empty feeling, and that becomes kind of the point. It kinda feels lonely because we couldn't fix it, partly, and because we liked it and it felt novel for a game. [That] became something we ended up accentuating, going with the grain on."
"IT KINDA FEELS LONELY BECAUSE WE COULDN'T FIX IT, PARTLY, AND BECAUSE WE LIKED IT."
Speaking of loneliness, Dallas says that right after college, he spent a year as a baker in a Lutheran retreat up in the mountains of eastern Washington, called Holden Village. He calls it "an amazingly cool, weird retreat center, which is a lot like The Shining in the off-season - there's not a lot of people that visit, so it's just a caretaker crew." He went to read all the books he didn't get to read in college - a tip he'd cribbed from John Milton, who he'd read devoted five years of his early life reading a significant portion of the books available in the 17th century.
Dallas insists that the in-house arrangement with Sony has been excellent, though when pressed admits that being somewhat chummy with your publisher can lead to complications. "You see them all the time, and [some] relationships are helped with a little bit of distance," Dallas says. "[It's tricky] if you need to be kind of a jerk about something - if, as a developer, you need to say no to something, or if as a publisher you need to say, 'This is the deadline.'"
He says that Sony hasn't been very harsh about deadlines, partly because Giant Sparrow is an internal team and everyone is friendly, but that there have been a few points where harsher deadlines would have helped.
Though, he notes, there was one particularly harsh deadline about a year ago when Dallas was informed that the project was in jeopardy of being cancelled. It wasn't anywhere near done, and had become three times the size of what he had initially envisioned. "It was kind of like an event horizon for them," he says. "If they killed it then, they were saving themselves substantial amounts of energy - but if it went any farther forward, they'd kind of hit the point of no return. The question was, 'Can they actually make a game?'"
Evan Shamoon, Giant Sparrow, Sony