Giant Sparrow's Ian Dallas on the challenges of development and his desire to see more games with deeper meaning.
What Remains of Edith Finch is certainly not the first walking simulator-style game to come from the indie community, but Giant Sparrow’s take on mystery and the theme of death certainly places the title in unique territory. Finch has been nominated for and won numerous awards, including a BAFTA earlier this year.
Creative Director Ian Dallas is not like other designers. If you listen to his talks at events or chat with him about the craft of game development, it’s evident that he thinks differently. Perhaps it’s because he once wrote for satirical paper The Onion, or that he actually wanted to be a philosophy professor when he was in college.
“I realized that even though I loved philosophy, the job of being a philosophy professor, writing papers, and teaching students and all that, it was like ... it's so ossified, you're just kind of dealing with things that happened long ago, and analyzing the corpse of this body of work,” Dallas told me.
“I worked on this college humor magazine when I was in school, and I really just loved being around all of these crazy, passionate people, and it's really oddly similar to the experience of being a game developer. Even though at the time we were making a humor magazine together, [it’s similar to] the process of making a video game. It's a number of late nights, and eating food together, and sharing thoughts, and watching this thing evolve, and it feels like it's never going to happen, and then it does.”
Dallas always had a passion for writing and at one point considered writing for games, but then he realized that in games writers often “get called in too late in the day to make much of a contribution… And so then I taught myself how to program, and made a bunch of prototypes, and went to school at USC to study game design.
“Then I made this prototype that became The Unfinished Swan, and the rest is sort of happening now.”
As Giant Sparrow’s first game, The Unfinished Swan was a learning lesson, and for Dallas it helped him fine tune not only game design, but team management.
The way that we will arrive at those solutions is by failing, and just by trying it a bunch, but that's okay, that's not a failure in a grand scheme. That is what success looks like, is a lot of these times of darkness and confusion
“I think we came out of Unfinished Swan feeling like things had gone fairly well. I don't think it was a catastrophe, but I would say the biggest change in terms of how we developed Edith Finch, or the most visible change to me, was the way I kind of approached management, I guess,” he said. “On Unfinished Swan, I went in thinking, 'Oh, this is my one shot to express what I want to say about the world, and make these creative products, this experience,' and I wanted to give that same creative freedom to everybody else on the team. It was really important to me that everybody had a lot of creative control on what they're working on. And I realized kind of late that a lot of people don't actually want that. Those were the things that were motivating to me.
“There was a programmer on the team who really just wanted to make wonderful tools that everybody else on the team would enjoy, and he enjoyed helping other people. So taking a step back and just realizing, like, 'Oh, everybody working on this game actually has different motivations and drivers,' and even different departments. Designers would tend to focus on one thing, where artists would want to make things look, you know, it's a little bit of a cliché, but they care more about making things look pretty.”
Ultimately, Dallas realized that “we can all work together to make something great, but we don't all have to want exactly the same things. As long as we're kind of broadly aligned, and we agree on where we're trying to get to.”
A new management style certainly helped on Edith Finch, but the narrative-heavy game, which presented players with a series of mini-games to convey how each Finch family member met their demise, gave the studio a new set of challenges to overcome. At times, it felt like Giant Sparrow was struggling, but that’s okay, Dallas noted. Having persevered on Unfinished Swan, Giant Sparrow felt a little less anxiety the second go around.
“The Unfinished Swan was really torturous, I think, where we spent a lot of time feeling like, 'Oh, we're failing, and we don't know what's going on, and this is never getting any better.' But, having gone through it once before, we were okay spending a lot longer on Edith Finch being confused, and just saying like, 'You know, we don't really know the solution to this, but we don't have to know that by 5:00 PM Friday this week’,” Dallas explained.
“We have more time, and the way that we will arrive at those solutions is by failing, and just by trying it a bunch, but that's okay, that's not a failure in a grand scheme. That is what success looks like, is a lot of these times of darkness and confusion, and it's not that that's not still frustrating, but it's not as dispiriting I think as it was.
“And certainly on Edith Finch, we were dealing with a lot more uncertainty than Unfinished Swan, where with Edith Finch we had all these different prototypes, each with their own problems… Edith Finch kind of ratcheted the unknown elements up a notch.”
One of the biggest problems for Giant Sparrow was figuring out an ending for Edith Finch. The studio struggled with it for about a year, until Dallas had some very productive conversations with fellow indies Dino Patti (Limbo, Inside) and Jenova Chen (Journey) who gave him some ideas. Developers can’t always get peer review of their work, so what’s the lesson?
I've always been really interested in death. For me it's been this kind of enduring mystery, that everybody knows they are going to die, but acts as if it's happening all around them, but not to me
“I think, to some extent, it's that you may not have enough material to solve your problem today, that it's okay to not burn yourself out,” Dallas remarked. “I think I probably should have taken some time away from working on the ending, and just said even though it feels like the game needs to have an ending, it does not have an ending, that's the highest priority task, I just got to keep working on it, but that's one of those things that because it's so integrated with all of the rest of the game, and the rest of the game is still kind of figuring itself out, it would have been more effective for me to get a handle on other problems…
“It's like a doctor diagnosing, you know, 'Oh you're coughing up blood.' It may not be your mouth that's a problem where the blood is coming out. We should investigate other parts of the body, where the problem might actually be originating. I think I was just too focused on the leaf level issue there. Because it felt like our hair was on fire. 'Oh my god we don't have an ending, what are we going to do?'
“But that was actually just a symptom of this other problem of a lot of the things in the game weren't quite gelling, but once those had been worked out, then we had this play test, and other people could solve the problem, and I do feel like having more of those friends and family, people that are really close to you, that are going to take the time to really sit with what you're trying to do and understand your goals, can provide answers that are staring you in the face, but you just are too close to it to see.”
Finch is one of a handful of games in recent years that strongly incorporates the theme of death. It’s a theme that unifies all of humanity and yet games, unlike other entertainment media, have only begun to explore how people handle death and what it means. The philosopher in Dallas clearly comes through in Finch, and perhaps he was inspired by having been witness to another man's death on a mountain in Bali.
“I've always been really interested in death. For me it's been this kind of enduring mystery, that everybody knows they are going to die, but acts as if it's happening all around them, but not to me,” he said. “And we just put it out of our minds, but it's something that's always really fascinated me, and I think is a really useful reminder of how magical everyday moments are, that there's a time limit on it, and I think that same rule applies in narrative as well.
“A play is a lot more interesting if it's an hour and a half long, versus if you were sitting there for five hours watching this family discussion, or whatever is going on. The constraints on it are a part of what makes it exciting to us, and it felt like that same operation kind of happened in miniature of each of these stories [with the Finch family], because you knew that the stories were going to be over shortly. That added a little bit of drama to it.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dallas deliberately wanted to make something atypical. Games, he said, “tend to be very high octane,” and that’s especially true at the triple-A level, but indies have an opportunity to offer something on a deeper level.
“For us to make a game that's about a child on a swing set, you can do that, it's fine, but people come in wanting or expecting this heightened level of craziness, and death was a way for us to kind of balance those things. It's still something that is very humane, and relatable and familiar to your life, but it also has this kind of uncertainty, and drama, and excitement that people want from game experiences,” he added.
As a game designer, Dallas understands that he’s making entertainment, but on a personal level game development is almost academic. It allows him to dive headfirst into a subject.
“I can say that my approach to making this game, and I think all future and past games too, is I view them as like a research project, essentially,” he said. “If I take something that I am really interested in exploring and understanding... In this case, it was the sublime, these moments where you're kind of overwhelmed by the majesty of the universe, but also feel very tiny and fragile, and I wanted to understand that better. And it's kind of an impossible request, to understand something like the sublime… But it still was, I think, a rewarding, and certainly an interesting process, to dig into that, and as a designer, to create experiences that explored aspects of that, I think, helped me to understand a little bit better about what is operating there, and as a human, what these things feel like.”
There’s nothing wrong with games that are a distraction and provide lots of eye candy, but Dallas sees the artform as something more meaningful.
“People have a half hour before they are going to go to bed, and they just want something to take their mind off of whatever they're doing, and I just want to do something else. I want to do things that have a little bit of teeth to them, and at the same time, something that feels very distinctive, but that also ideally is resonant with people's own lives, where it doesn't feel like this is happening in outer space,” he said.
“There is this human element that is able to transcend the idiosyncrasies of this one unique moment in Washington state, in this family, and become something that people can see in their own lives, which, you know, is a classic best case scenario in art, that you find something that is like, 'Wow, I never thought I would get into something that weird, but actually I can see my own life there.'”
Finch, along with games like Gorogoa (Jason Roberts) and Florence (Ken Wong), have become representative of the Annapurna Interactive brand. The arthouse label clearly sees value in publishing deeper games, and while there’s risk involved, it’s worked out quite well, earning Annapurna a very good reputation in the process.
“It is a little bit discouraging that there is only one place that seems to be doing that worldwide,” noted Dallas. “I wish there were more beacons of light, of people taking a chance on this, especially because, so far at least with Annapurna, this has not been a loss leader. All these games have generally found an audience, and they're not safe bets by any means, and I'm sure that there will be other future Annapurna games that do not perform as well, but yeah it's really encouraging that not only have the games been really interesting experiences, but they've also been able to find an audience.”
Out of all the devs that Annapurna has worked with, it’s been an especially comfortable relationship for Giant Sparrow.
“For me it's eerily similar to my experience working with Sony Santa Monica, because most of the people that I interact with daily at Annapurna all used to be at Sony Santa Monica,” Dallas explained. “As they were kind of shutting down their indie development process, all those people moved over to Annapurna. It was great at Sony Santa Monica, and it is great at Annapurna to be given the creative freedom to explore these ideas, and to feel like we're not going behind the publisher's back, where we actual have pretty similar goals, of trying to make an experience that is doing something unusual, and creating feelings that go beyond traditional empowerment fantasies or revenge scenarios that games have explored pretty thoroughly.”
The Iliad is about war, it's about the same thing that a lot of video games are about, but it takes a perspective of ... it's a very empathetic stance. And I feel like a lot of games just don't really get to that level yet.
Dallas would be the first to tell you that he’s not looking to single out any developers, but he does wish more would tackle serious subject matter. Empathy is at the top of his list, considering the state of society today.
“When I look out at our culture in general, the thing that feels to me the most toxic, and that creates so many other problems is an inability for people to take the time to really listen to what other people are trying to say,” he commented. “[There is] so much needless animosity that gets generated at times, I think, where it kind of stems from this pervasive lack of empathy… I wish that there were games that could model that behavior, and I don't really know what that looks like. I mean Edith Finch is certainly our attempt at making a game where empathy is encouraged.
“Looking at something like The Iliad, it's incredible how sympathetic both sides of that conflict are. Homer was able to write something where he's talking about how Hector's wife is preparing a bath for him, but he's never coming back. You just feel so sad for this woman who's preparing a bath for a husband who she's never going to see alive again, and I wish that games had that. The Iliad is about war, it's about the same thing that a lot of video games are about, but it takes a perspective of ... it's a very empathetic stance. And I feel like a lot of games just don't really get to that level yet.”
Giant Sparrow has not revealed its next game just yet, but Dallas has hinted at it many times, and the studio’s official blog does mention that it’ll be a title exploring the locomotion of birds. Dallas has been going to school to learn 3D animation, and has immersed himself in Disney and Miyazaki movies to become a better animator. Once again, it feels like his approach to the next game will be half research and half philosophy.
“I know that it's going to be something about when I see birds moving, you know it's this wondrous, but very mundane experience. It's kind of similar to death itself, right?” he said. “I know that it exists, I'm familiar with it, but yet looking at it closely, there's a mystery there that is really compelling to me, and similar to the way I see games as research projects, this next game is like a chance for me to learn to be a better animator, and to walk around the world and appreciate the way that this man's hips are a little jostled, or this woman's legs, or knees, are bent in. All these things that I am much more aware of now that I actually have to move bones around in Maya to animate them.”
Humanity’s relationship with flying and with nature goes back to our very origins. It’s a rich canvas for Dallas to explore.
“There are thousands of years of human culture around our relationship with animals; it's an idea that I've been thinking about for a long, long time,” he said. “That's what I love about game development, that it gives me a chance to, with a narrow focus, to explore these things that kind of suggest this wider, more interesting world that we're all enmeshed in.”