"Games are a prism with which to see reality" - An interview with David Adler
Christopher David Sellner Adler is one of DADIU's most successful graduates. In his project for the Danish games incubator, 1916 - Der unbekannte Krieg and A Mother's Inferno, he has taken the role of Game Director and, with his team of fellow DADIU students, has succeeded in creating fresh, memorable and unsettling game experiences. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1985 to immigrant parents, his family is firmly rooted in cinematography: His German-born father was a cinematographer of both fiction and documentary, while his mother, who is of US origin, primarily teaches production design. Currently David is attending the Danish film school, but for now, his focus is firmly on games.
I had a lot of questions for David, and he took the time to answer at length. Here's the full interview.
VGT: You have always taken the role of 'game director' in your collaborative DADIU work. what are, for you, the positive (and negative) aspects of this position?
David: Before I took the first steps towards becoming a director I spent a long time weighing the pros and cons. It was not a decision I took lightly. The role consumes most of my time and the projects that I work on are ceaselessly tossing around in my mind.
Directing, to me, is an extension of the personal creative process. There is a big difference between loving to play games and loving to create them. I get my kicks from the response from the players; knowing that they are now taking part in a world which I have helped to create. To me the “interactiveness” of games is not just about our interaction with technology, but also – and perhaps more importantly – the interaction between people. I want games to be thought-provoking; they should stimulate discussions! The player doesn’t necessarily know what he or she wants beforehand; it’s the director’s job to tell them.
"I want to create experiences for curious minds and believe that games are an ideal medium to explore subjects that go beyond language."
Curiosity is often what sparks my mind to create a game concept. I always set up a project so that I have to learn a lot to finish it well. I knew next to nothing about the First World War before I began the process of developing 1916, but by personally delving into the history I hopefully brought the player with me. Directing a game is really about trying to understand the world and the emotions connected to it.
I want to create experiences for curious minds and believe that games are an ideal medium to explore subjects that go beyond language. I hope to make games that a lot of people play because it is only when the game is being played that is has any meaning. That said I think that the player must keep an open mind for new and different experiences.
I feel that the role as game director is very misunderstood. The notion that the game designer should also be the director is commonplace in the industry. It has been a battle at the onset of each project to assert myself and prove that following one vision is vital if you want to create an interesting game. I hope I’ve achieved this in my games, but convincing the industry as a whole will be a gradual process.
Also, you have the burden of all the team members’ expectations. The game is a success because the team worked together and it is a failure because the director didn’t do his job well enough. It’s a big responsibility and a lot of hard work. But I find great meaning in seeing the machinery of a team of highly creative people working together for on common vision.
The last few years have seen the rise of relatively short, experimental indie games like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Datura or Thirty Flights of Loving, some being very successful commercially. Do you think that this trend will continue? What are the advantages of the short form for you? Will the coming commercial 1916 be a 'long' David Adler game, and how does working on a longer game change your approach to design?
Yes, the short form is here to stay. We need a format that allows the creator more freedom and room to experiment – actually it is necessary to cultivate ways of keeping any art form evolving. As soon as the creators of games stop innovating, the art will die.
"The short form of games is here to stay."
Making a longer game requires a very different approach. The dynamics of keeping the player hooked are just much more complex. Keeping the game varied, always new and unpredictable is while being consistent with the overall vision is much more challenging. With 1916 it has really been a challenge to get out of the trenches and on to the battlefield. But once we finally get there it will blow up!
We had a lot of fun making the concept and taking the visions to the next level. The broken psyche of one lonely soldier provides a lot of inspiration for expanding the game. The original concept lends itself quite well to being extended; there are still many aspects of fear, isolation and war that are left to be explored.
It is important to remember not to compromise on originality. Just because there are huge amounts of money at stake, the artistic integrity should not be put aside to acquiesce to the player. 1916 has caught the attention of players because of the team's underlying dedication to both originality and artistic integrity, and I fully intend to make sure that this is also apparent in the longer version.
There is always a risk that big-money productions will be so concerned on getting a return on the investment that they lose sight of what made the original concept work. Of course game testing is important but not to the extent that you bow to all of the comments of the testers. Game testing is about seeing if your game communicates well with the player. What the game is communicating is still up to the development team.
How is the macbody remake of 1916 coming along? What will be the greatest difference/improvement compared to the DADIU version?
The greatest expansion on 1916 will be the game design. I like to keep it simple but I feel that it is too limited. We are working at bringing the mechanic, intention and feel closer together.
I am still in school so unfortunately I can’t work on the further development of 1916 full time, but I’m working on the project on the side and am fully dedicate to making it a great game.
The remake will follow the philosophy of the original. The soldier's mind is clouded by fear and fear is what the player must overcome to fight on. The main and only objective is to find safety! You must find your friends and a way home.
I really think that there is a lot more for me to explore in this game and I am really looking forward to immersing myself in the project. The arena that is the First World War is for some reason something I keep coming back to. It is known as the event that caused the world to lose its innocence.
I hope you're not tired of seeing your work compared with LIMBO, but there are common elements: the atmospheric yet simple graphics, the sense of horror and mystery, the open end. What are the greatest differences between your work and Playdead's?
I think it is a great honor that we are compared to LIMBO; it has really opened doors for indie in Denmark and for that I am grateful.
Making games on a low budget is its own beast. I think a lot of the similarity comes from dealing with some of the same restraints, like budget, small target audience, a need to be heard through the roaring crowd that is the Internet.
1916 differs most drastically from LIMBO in the intensity and rush of the game. LIMBO went for something much more reflective and meditative, something that is hard to achieve in 6 weeks. LIMBO has a sense of refinement well polished edges where as in the case of 1916 we went for the dirty and trashy look of 3D. I wanted the game to look as if it had been programmed in the era in which it was set. If they had had 3D graphics during the First World War - this is what it would have looked like.
Both 1916 and Inferno have a very nightmarish, unreal atmosphere, while being, in their own way, quite 'cinematic'. What were your influences?
Most of the darkness in the game comes from my dilemma with the game media. I was sick and tired of games being about collecting coins and reaching levels. For me it was clear that a game could have integrity and depth. I chose to go in a dark direction because I needed to bring out some of the anguish of game development. I felt trapped under constraints of the game conventions.
"I chose to go in a dark direction because I needed to bring out some of the anguish of game development."
A lot the work came about from thinking of role as an eclectic collector. I was bringing together theme, styles and contents from all sorts of places and combining them to tell my own story. A lot like a remix.
Art should always reflect life. Most of the inspiration originates from observations and experiences from my own life. For example, A Mothers Inferno was derived from a memory I have from childhood passing from one train cart to next on an old German train my family travelled on every summer. This noisy and intense experience was the consistent emotion I wanted to carry through the game.
Denmark has a proud tradition of supporting a high quality film industry, and DADIU, as I interpret it, tries to continue the tradition for games. is this strategy working? How has DADIU helped you? Do you think that Denmark's ranks of exceptional moviemakers like Lars van Trier or Nicolas Winding Refn will be joined by Danish 'auteur' game-makers?
DADIU has helped me by throwing me to the lions. I was put in front of a team and told to deliver a game within six week. I think this approach had been really effective; I have learned a lot from DADIU. I learned how to work well – and just as importantly how not to work.
But the people, from whom I’ve learned the most, were those on my team. Working with passionate developers under such intense conditions showed me that creating games can be an art form.
The game industry seems to be is fighting against the concept of a director. And as long as they are doing this their games will be uniform and shallow.
The director is the only function that can be taken out of the team and still end up with a finished game – but you will have empty content, a million different voices trying to tell you one story, one experience, and one universe.
I hope that the game industry will warm up to the concept of director. To some extent DADIU is contributing to this development. I definitely see a lot of potential for Danish game-makers to become very successful players in the industry.
Inferno is exceptional in regard to its psychological subject, the 'Five Stages of Grief', and in the way the meaning is hidden or open to interpretation - which might coincidentally be a feature of all meaningful art. Did players get the meaning? Are you satisfied with the way players reacted?
You can never cram subtext down the player’s throat. You have to let each player experience a game in his or her own way. The depth and consideration should be in the game and only reveal itself to the player when he or she comes looking for it. The debates online and at showings have all focused on this layering of meaning so I’m sure the players took from the game what they wanted. If you try to control your player too much the game will feel forced and uncreative for the player. What we did was to build a mythical framework around the game and use that to govern the metaphors and allegories.
The thought seemed very grounded when we were working on it. A mother loses her child on the train, and for a mother that must be hell. I think most players fully recognize the core meaning of the Inferno and appreciate that it is unlike most other games.
Do you think of your games as successes in terms of being as you planned and imagined? do you see a final ambition your work aspires to?
I am by no means done with making games. The games never turn out exactly the way I imagine them, and they shouldn’t. When I have worked on the game concept for a while the game starts having a voice and will of its own. It begins to have things it wants and needs from the whole team.
I have seen game directors hold on to their vision so tightly that neither the game nor the team have room to breathe. Game developing is a constant dialogue between the developer and the code. It is in the contact and engagement with the medium that the game starts to take it shape. Art without a medium is a book without words, the same way the game experience lies in its contact with the player.
My ambition in any project is to create great, thought-provoking and intriguing experiences that show respect for the medium and the player.
Fear, trauma and unreliable perception/hallucinations are at the heart of both Inferno and 1916 - perfect for the immersive qualities of games, but very rarely used with consequence in mainstream games. Do you think games as an art form are finally now able to overcome the 'fun paradigm', i.e. the need to be fun?
Yes, the first steps have been taken by independent games and now its time for it to break through the ‘fun’ barrier.
Fun is not worth shit. It’s talked about as if it is the be all and end all of games, but it is not. Intrigue is. All you have to do is to provoke the player to go one step further. Always just one step further.
"Fun is not worth shit. It's talked about as if it is the be all and end all of games, but it is not. Intrigue is."
Curiosity, fear, seduction, hope are all ways to get a player to take the next step into your world. Fun is just the tip of the iceberg. If people only want to escape from reality for an hour, they shouldn’t play my game. I have heard heroin does it better then games anyway.
We need games that don’t take us away from our life but rather help us come into direct contact with it. For this we must understand reality as the metaphor. Games are a prism with which to see reality.
The loneliness of a soldier reflects back on your own loneliness. Having sympathy with the loss of a mother opens you for the thought that grief is a strong dominating, albeit passing emotion that is more fueled by your own battle with emotion than the fact that one day we all will die.
If I make a game that doesn’t provoke the player to ask questions, then I have just stolen time from their life. Those are hours they could be spending with others, watching the sunset or reading a book for their kids.
The new and original will always come from the underground. Those are the game developers with nothing to loose and the most passion. We will always have to look to the indie games to see how games are evolving.
IOI, the biggest Danish developer, has taken creative risks with the Kane & Lynch-series, which aimed for cinematic, not necessarily 'fun' experiences. Do you think both your work and theirs are comparable in that regard?
The problem that Kane & Lynch has, is not being extreme enough. It’s trying to compete on the toughest of all game markets (the shooter) and not being its own. I think that perhaps IOI got cold feet during production and just wanted to play it safe. And that makes the game not really anything. They just made too many compromises.Cinematic is not virtue. Games can learn a lot from cinema but at the end of the day, a game is not a film. In film there is a long tradition for renewal and innovation and games could learn from that. Good films have a way of treating subject matter with respect and dignity. The attitude in the games industry is just to exploit the themes to get the player to collect coins or something
I like the original intention from IOI as it also points to the fact that major publishers are opening up for new ideas. Not seeing games for what they are, but what they could be. Its important that we keep challenging the players and expanding the concept of what a game is.
I hope I never make the perfect game because that day I will quit.