Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

On Halloween, my morbid thoughts turn to my old pal Stubbs.  For someone who keeps such a low profile, he’s surprisingly popular; the Escapist recently ranked his debut the #1 Underrated Zombie Game. (Of course, the Escapist has shown him some love before.)  Stubbs acquired a certain cult cachet over the last decade — not from any marketing or exploitation, pure word-of-mouth from fans.  Because there wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes press for the game (barring an interview I did with Rue Morgue magazine, and a post-mortem at Gamasutra), there are a lot of people who know about Stubbs but don’t know anything about how he came to be.  I thought it might be worthwhile to write about the genesis of Stubbs from the POV of someone who actually had something to do with it.

So check this out this fancy time machine that will take us all ten years into the past:

Notebook closed

Okay, I lied.  It’s not a time machine, it’s an old notebook.  A crappy notebook at that.  But it was in the right place at the right time.  That place was the desk in my apartment, and the time was 2003.  Wideload was a brand-new company, and we were trying to figure out what our first game would be.

At the time, Wideload consisted of Alexander Seropian, Mark Bernal, and me.  We expanded quickly, but in those early days it was just the three of us, tossing our goofy ideas back and forth.  We had all worked together at Bungie for years, so we shared certain standards — and none of our ideas were measuring up.  We wrote a bunch of one-page pitch docs and tried to sell our ideas to each other via conference call.  Every pitch elicited a tepid “…eh, what else ya got?”  It was starting to get to me.  No one actually said, “Make with the clever, Writer Boy” but I felt a keen pressure to deliver something that would at least get us moving.

So one Saturday morning I hung up the phone after yet another unsatisfactory pitch conference and started pacing around my apartment.  Our continued inability to find an idea that excited all three of us was getting on my nerves.  We knew we wanted an action game, and we wanted it to be funny, but as soon as we stepped beyond those descriptors we seemed to go astray.  I stopped trying to move beyond them.

What is action?” I said. “What is funny action?”  At moments like these I was glad no one lived adjacent to my apartment.  I began rattling off disparate images and descriptions of comic action, and any nosy neighbors would have thought I was reading an incantation from the Necronomicon designed to call forth an army of chthonic beasts for an apocalyptic pie fight.  “Panic in the streets…man against wife, father against son…explosions…people flying through the air as a direct result of explosions…the dead rising from their graves to consume the living…”

Hey, wait a minute, I thought.

It was also around this point that I decided to take a shower.  Partly because I have had great ideas in the shower (often when I wasn’t even looking for them) and partly because I needed one. Two birds, one stone.

Within thirty seconds of hopping into the shower I had hopped back out.  Not because I am super-efficient at showering but because the idea had bloomed in my brain like a mushroom cloud, and I knew I had to capture something of that first blinding flash or risk losing it all.

I sprinted from the bathroom to my office, where that diminutive notebook sat atop a stack of much larger notebooks.  I flipped it open to the first page, grabbed a pen, and scribbled a single sentence.

Notebook open

Temporarily satisfied, I returned to the shower, my mind still alight with the idea.  You have to remember that in 2003, the world was not filled to bursting with zombie games.  Stubbs was a bit ahead of the curve.

When I’d finished the shower and gotten dressed, I went back to my desk and opened up my laptop to write a one-sheet titled The As-Yet-Untitled Zombie Game.  I thought I’d found a golden ticket, but problems cropped up almost immediately.  Why wouldn’t the cops just blow this zombie away with an AK-47?  A zombie could take a beating, but he couldn’t fight back unless he had that kind of firepower himself — but giving guns to the zombie took away everything that was cool about being a zombie in the first place.

What if this zombie fights with his body? I thought. That’s his whole thing.  He’s got the stamina of the undead, and the ability to zombify others by biting them or infecting them in other ways, but he never picks up a gun himself. He makes other people pick up the guns for him.

How would he do that?  After a moment’s thought it came to me: his hand.  He would rip his hand off and send it scuttling into places he could not go himself.  The hand would scurry over walls, under gates, and onto the heads of the unassuming mortals.  Once the zombie’s hand clamped onto someone’s head,  that person would do the zombie’s bidding — opening locked doors, silencing alarms, or just opening fire on their human compatriots.  It would give the game some strategic and stealth elements, and make a nice change of pace from eating brains.

And what about those cops with their AK-47s?  The simplest solution was to set the story at a time when small-town police departments didn’t have that kind of firepower.  So I set the game during the Eisenhower administration.  (The idea of making it an EPCOT-esque City of the Future came later.)

Because I didn’t have a name for the game yet, I figured I should at least name the protagonist.  What to call a zombie who tears off his own limbs, leaving him standing there with nothing but…stubs?  Sometimes the low-hanging fruit is the tastiest.  It rolled off the tongue, as they say.

There were a few ideas in the one-sheet that never made it into the game — like the level set in a football stadium, or Sylvester the lunatic postmaster. (Based on Sylvestre Matuschka and originally envisioned as the primary antagonist of the game, elements of his personality survived in the mad militiaman Otis Monday.)  And as Wideload started to grow and development began in earnest, many other people contributed great ideas and hard work to make Stubbs the best brain-eating revenant he could be.  I summed up the initial pitch thusly: “Essentially you have an undead anti-hero causing chaos in suburbia while the town nutjob takes up arms against him.  By game’s end, everything should be going to hell in entertaining ways.”  Stubbs wasn’t perfect, but we came pretty close to the mark. And it all started with one sentence scrawled in a tiny notebook.

You might be wondering about the other note on that page: “Poet: Arther Clagh.”  I should have written “Arthur Clough” — but as I do know the correct spelling of “Arthur” I suspect the name was mangled in whatever book or web page I copied it from.  One of his poems is “The Latest Decalogue” and contains the couplet:

False witness, not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.

Poor blighted Edward Stubblefield is still dear to my heart, and it’s nice to know other people still care too.  Perhaps some of those people will find their way to this snapshot of his birth.  One of these days I’ll write more about Stubbs — maybe about some of the impossible level ideas we had, or the characters/scenes/barbershop quartet songs left on the cutting room floor.  Tonight I just wanted to remember that first moment of creation.  It was important for me. 

Transparency is Overrated

Seventeen years in the game industry could turn anyone into a jaded, bitter, cynical bastard.  Imagine how much worse things get if you started out that way.

I suppose I should preface this by noting that I haven’t spoken on Bungie’s behalf in an official capacity for almost ten years (gulp!) so all of this is my own opinion and you should feel free to write it off as the bloviating claptrap it probably is.

When I see articles in the video game press complaining that Bungie’s reveal of their upcoming title Destiny was frustratingly light on details, I wonder why they care. If I had a quarter for every time the game press mangled quotes, described nonexistent product features, and confused internet speculation with fact-checked confirmation, I could melt all those quarters down and put in a new driveway made of solid copper.  People who write about games (not all of them, but more than enough) are light on details quite regularly. And that’s for the games they care about, the ones they write about themselves instead of just cutting-and-pasting from a press release.  Now Bungie throws a party and the game press can’t fill in all the blanks in their Mad Libs Game Journalism booklet right away, and you’d think some of them had been slapped.

Maybe they were — but not in the way they think.

In 1999, Bungie did a little teaser for Halo called The Cortana Letters.  I don’t remember, but I’d be shocked to see even one example of the mainstream gaming press who took notice of it at the time.  It wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was for people who had played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy and might be interested to know that, after a few years of working on the Myth games, Bungie would be returning to stories about massive ships in outer space with helpful AIs guiding you around.  Bungie thought people who enjoyed their previous work in that vein might be interested.

Much of the stuff in The Cortana Letters ended up being not especially germane to the story of Halo as people experienced it in the final game.  That didn’t matter because the ultimate job of The Cortana Letters was not to carve important story elements in stone, but to reach out to Bungie fans and get them excited.  These were people who’d demonstrated they could root out any obscure reference and conjure up pages of thoughtful discussion about the subtlest of nuances.  The Cortana Letters were a message from Bungie to their fans, saying: We know you guys are smart, and we hope you’ll dig this new thing we’re making.

It wasn’t a purely cynical marketing exercise, and it damn sure wasn’t an ARG.  It was, in a sense, a mischievous bit of slap-and-tickle with the fans who had the sensibility to savor that sort of thing.

You like that, don’t you?

Sure you do, if you can appreciate the invitation to let your own imagination and emotions become part of the experience.

For years now, even before Destiny was a rumor, people have been calling for more transparency and less hype from Bungie.  If a few pieces of concept art and a YouTube video are “hype,” it’s only because Bungie’s process has made less feel like more.  They do not deluge the press or their fans in an antiseptic wash of tedious data.  Anyone can do that.  Bungie wants your entry into this world to be an experience unto itself. 

It’s the difference between the restaurant where you relax in a well-appointed dining room, talking with friends, basking in the ambiance and the aromas drifting in from the kitchen before anyone even arrives to take your order… and the lingering stink of melting plastic in your kitchen after you spend three minutes microwaving a frozen TV dinner and eating it over the sink.

It’s the difference between the jiggle-and-tease burlesque show and the pixelated GIF of porn stars fucking.

It’s showbiz.  It’s part of the experience.  This is the entertainment software industry and we are, whether or not we look the part, entertainers.  The men and women of Bungie follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, who had the unmitigated audacity to introduce Psycho with a trailer that featured nothing but empty environments and lots of him talking.  No clips from the actual film, no major plot revelations…and that lady in the shower wasn’t even Janet Leigh!  (It was Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister in the film.)  What a rip-off!  What a waste of his fans’ time!

What a surprise that it’s remembered fondly, decades later, as one of the greatest movie trailers ever.  It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he was doing.

People demanding all the details right now for a game with a projected 10-year life cycle are like people showing up at a concert and shouting for “Freebird” while the opening act is still setting up their gear.

When Chris Butcher, a man not given to hyperbole or delusions of grandeur, talks about what games in the future will be like, I pay attention.  When Jason Jones crawls out of his techno-Gollum cave to address the press at all, I pay attention.  How much hard data I come away with is almost immaterial.  What I know is that they are handing out invitations to the dance.  This time, they’re even handing them out to the press.  Not just the hardcore fanatics who went nuts over the Cortana letters nearly 15 years ago.

So the official reveal left you wanting more?

You’re waiting for your dinner in that fancy restaurant and you’re still hungry?

The striptease at the burlesque theater is over and you’re still horny?

The press event is over and you’re still looking for information about Destiny, even though all you got for your initial efforts was a flirtatious slap?

Sounds like someone knows what they’re doing.

And if all this “hype” is too much for you, you can always tune it out and do something else.  The freezer aisle in the grocery store is full of TV dinners.  This, right now, is not for you.  There will be other things for you later.

This is for the people who like to dance.